A state that made analogous interventions in the sexual preference and practices of its citizens – that encouraged us to ‘share’ sex equally – would probably be thought grossly authoritarian. (The utopian socialist Charles Fourier proposed a guaranteed ‘sexual minimum’, akin to a guaranteed basic income, for every man and woman, regardless of age or infirmity; only with sexual deprivation eliminated, Fourier thought, could romantic relationships be truly free. This social service would be provided by an ‘amorous nobility’ who, Fourier said, ‘know how to subordinate love to the dictates of honour’.) Of course, it matters just what those interventions would look like: disability activists, for example, have long called for more inclusive sex education in schools, and many would welcome regulation that ensured diversity in advertising and the media. But to think that such measures would be enough to alter our sexual desires, to free them entirely from the grooves of discrimination, is naive.-- Amia Srinivasan@London Rewiew of Books [HT: Dailynous & Catarina Dutilh Noveas]
It says something how normalized coupling is that the near-universal state ban on polygamy, which, if not in intent than in effect, entails that sex is shared relatively equally is not recognized as 'grossly authoritarian' anymore. I don't mean to suggest in the previous sentence that marriage regulation is solely about sex-sharing (yes, it's about property, procreation, patriarchy, desire formation, etc.). I also do not mean to defend polygamy; from the perspective of preventing violence and violent revolutions, it's probably a good thing that the odds of becoming entirely sexless are reduced in such a structural fashion (without impoisng partners on each other). It is worth keeping this in mind, now that consent has become the all important norm, and more arguments are developed in favor of poly-amorousness; it's a predictable side-effect of poly arrangements that one generates higher odds for a group of structurally sexless.
I teach a sequence that includes Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, Bacon's New Atlantis, Le Guin's The Dispossessed (or The Left Hand of Darkness), because they all put the regulation of sexual partners and the formation of sexual desire as a central issue at the heart of political philosophy. (Thanks to Srinivasan I will consider including Fourrier in the series!) And I have always struggled to find a liberal text to insert into the sequence. In her fascinating piece, Srinivasan suggests that liberalism looks away from the formation of our desires--treating them as givens of the autonomous agents whose choices that need to be respected. Here's the passage I have in mind:
It would be too easy, though, to say that sex positivity represents the co-option of feminism by liberalism. Generations of feminists and gay and lesbian activists have fought hard to free sex from shame, stigma, coercion, abuse and unwanted pain. It has been essential to this project to stress that there are limits to what can be understood about sex from the outside, that sexual acts can have private meanings that cannot be grasped from a public perspective, that there are times when we must take it on trust that a particular instance of sex is OK, even when we can’t imagine how it could be. Thus feminism finds itself not only questioning the liberal distinction between the public and the private, but also insisting on it.
Yet it would be disingenuous to make nothing of the convergence, however unintentional, between sex positivity and liberalism in their shared reluctance to interrogate the formation of our desires.'*
It's worth reflecting a bit on this reluctance. For there is no such reluctance in, say, Mandeville, Hume and Smith (as I show in my book). I think the key inflection point -- while mistrusting such a Foucault inspired focus on ruptures -- is the central paragraph of Mill's On Liberty (edited slightly for length):
To a certain extent it is admitted, that our understanding should be our own: but there is not the same willingness to admit that our desires and impulses should be our own likewise; or that to possess impulses of our own, and of any strength, is anything but a peril and a snare. Yet desires and impulses are as much a part of a perfect human being, as beliefs and restraints: and strong impulses are only perilous when not properly balanced; when one set of aims and inclinations is developed into strength, while others, which ought to coexist with them, remain weak and inactive. It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak. There is no natural connection between strong impulses and a weak conscience. The natural connection is the other way. To say that one person’s desires and feelings are stronger and more various than those of another, is merely to say that he has more of the raw material of human nature, and is therefore capable, perhaps of more evil, but certainly of more good. Strong impulses are but another name for energy. Energy may be turned to bad uses; but more good may always be made of an energetic nature, than of an indolent and impassive one. Those who have most natural feeling, are always those whose cultivated feelings may be made the strongest. The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control. It is through the cultivation of these, that society both does its duty and protects its interests: not by rejecting the stuff of which heroes are made, because it knows not how to make them. A person whose desires and impulses are his own — are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture — is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character. If, in addition to being his own, his impulses are strong, and are under the government of a strong will, he has an energetic character. Whoever thinks that individuality of desires and impulses should not be encouraged to unfold itself, must maintain that society has no need of strong natures — is not the better for containing many persons who have much character — and that a high general average of energy is not desirable (emphasis added.
Mill's underlying argument is that in order to combat the regressive tendencies of conformist public opinion (which is focused on fashionable novelty but not advance), we need to make space for exceptional [Mill embraces the cult of 'genius' wholeheartedly in context] characters whose individual "experiments of living" will advance the whole society (where the less adventurous will imitate the successful experiments). Rather than scorning aristocratic eccentricity, we need to nurture it. It is not an accidental/opportunistic argument because Mill's argument combines his concern for individual happiness, public good, and the progress of civilization.
The argument itself appeals to a distinction between natural and cultivated feelings (which,as I show in my book, is also central to Adam Smith's arguments).+ Mill is clear that the formation of desire, is a duty that accrues to society. In context he is not very clear on what this entails in practice. (He does discuss it more with Taylor in The Subjection of Women.) Mill clearly wants to encourage a diversity of (what we may call) authentic desires because these will be the material for experiments of living that will advance society in ways that will surprise.
Interestingly, an authentic desire, for Mill, is itself a cultivated feeling which is shaped by one's culture. So, within Mill's framework the health of a culture is clearly a political matter with regard to desire formation. However, Mill clearly thinks that the risks of socially oppressive conformism of his own democratizing and industrializing age are so great that he has nothing to say about, perhaps no eye for, other risks when the formation of desire is left to the play of market forces and our racialized (etc.), discriminatory 'taste.'
I should close. When we are told -- by the self-help industry, and well meaning therapists -- to own our feelings and desires we can hear in these the echoes of Mill's liberal plan for the creation of genius. Srinavasan is, in fact, more Mill-ian than that, because she reminds us that "Desire can take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go, or towards someone we never thought we would lust after."
Srinivasan wants to ground our "hope" in (such) desire that "can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself." The point here is not to suggest Srinivasan is more liberal (in Mill's sense) than she realized. Rather to make the more substantive point that her own analysis and Mill's suggest that in our time, there is an urgent public interest to invent or find room for (perhaps playful) institutions and practices that allow desires to be cultivated in ways that do not reinforce subordination and violence.
*Of course, the point of the passage is about the domestication (sorry bad pun) even contradiction at the heart of contemporary pro-sex feminism.
+Ryan Hanley's book on Adam Smith and the Character Virtue develops the issue at greater length and originality; but my own book focuses more on the role of emotions and desires.