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Alan Soble's Pornography, Sex and Feminism

reviewed by Rachel Browne

Pornography, Sex and Feminism
By Alan Soble
Prometheus Books

Although this book was published in 2002, I have just discovered it and am driven to write a review because this is funniest philosophy book I've ever read. It has been suggested that a philosopher is not likely to respond well to the remark that a philosophy book they have written is funny, but it is difficult to believe that this could be true of this author.

Alan Soble is Professor of philosophy at the University of New Orleans and has published widely on sex and love. Not all his writing is as amusing as this book: It has a tone of sarcasm, an attitude of cynicism and a necessary crudity which can make you laugh out loud.

Although this is a pro-pornography book, and shows a vast acquaintance with pornography available on the internet, a great deal of argument is directed against feminist and conservative positions on pornography and sex.

While arguing for the innocuousness of pornography Soble describes the human body as both 'beautiful and disgusting' (p.51) although he seems to hold the personal opinion that it is rather more disgusting than beautiful. That Soble holds the view that humans are more disgusting than beautiful becomes clear towards the end of the book when he claims that if it is the case that long-term monogamous relationships seldom last it is because humans are revolting. This is a startling claim since it is simply not the case that everyone shares Soble's view on human beings. It is a view which is difficult to adopt, but that is not to say that it might not be true. If it is the reification of the human being as that which is far superior to other animals, worthy of respect, in possession of dignity and having the right to freedom from harm becomes suspect.

The feminist and conservative view of sex, which is under attack is that, in sexual relations, respect for the other should be shown and we should not treat people as sexual objects. The sexual act is expected to include mutual consideration and shared decision-making otherwise it is degrading and akin to pornography (in the eyes of some feminists) which treats the body as something to be 'used' for sexual purposes. This view of sex which Soble finds compatible with Kantian ethics is accused of being 'metaphysical' and ignoring the reality that, 'Most people in the real world are dirty, fat, ugly, dumb, ignorant, selfish, thoughtless, unreliable, shifty, unrespectable mackerel' (p.54). 'Shitting', claims Soble, 'makes us realize that we are mere animals' (p.113). Yet, stripped of our illusions 'sharing excrement' could be 'infinitely intimate'. This is an even more startling claim and it is difficult to believe that anyone would find this other than totally revolting. I would say that we need a measure of dignity, psychological rather than metaphysical, in order not to engage in such intimacy.

While Soble might go too far in his portrayal of the human as merely an animal, his arguments against what he calls 'vanilla' sex are extremely persuasive. 'What', he asks 'does yearning desire know of showing consideration, except as a means of fulfilling itself? What does the orgasmic peak know of mutual respect?' (p.65). Not only does does Soble's view of sexual relations reflect more truth than the 'vanilla' idea that sex should involve mutual respect, Soble is amazingly able to sound both reasonable and unreasonable at the same time on this: 'I hope I'd be the last person to encourage unrelentless selfishness in bed, and I don't deny that it is inconsiderate although not a mortal sin to interrupt your mate's orgasm with a tickle or derisive laughter' (p.65). While not a mortal sin, I'd think it would go against sexual etiquette.

Soble saves his own derision for feminists, such as Martha Nussbaum, who argues that objectification of women in pornography is not to treat them as autonomous beings. Making women into objects for sexual enjoyment is something she finds morally unacceptable. But Nussbaum, Soble argues 'is big on women, just because they are women, giving them credit where no credit is due' (p.166). In a discussion on a picture of the tennis player Nicollette Sheridan who appeared in Playboy showing her knickers Soble rejects the idea that Sheridan degrades herself and claims that any pleasure or appreciation by a man for this picture can be seen as 'flattery'. It seems true to me that a man wouldn't be ignoring Sheridan's autonomy, free will or subjectivity in that she chose to appear in Playboy in this particular pose and that it is not the man who degrades her. If there IS degradation going on here she has degraded herself. It isn't clear what is degrading. But I think the feminist view of pornography actually denies women worthiness of respect if they choose to appear in pornography by claiming that pornography is morally wrong.

There is much to agree with and much to disagree with in this stimulating, thought provoking and controversial book.

Being a woman myself, and never having looked at pornography, I would tend to agree with the claim that there is a 'gap between male and female sexuality' if it is truly the case that, 'Men, perverts one and all, have found their home on the internet' looking at pornography sites (p.24). But the claim sounds extremely implausible. It is possible that my husband and brother are perverts who look at pornography but I find it extremely doubtful and have certainly come across no evidence to suggest that they are. If my husband DOES look at pornography, I wouldn't think he was 'perverted' and, in any case, if ALL men are perverts it is difficult to find any meaning to perversion.

Further, the claim that, 'Male or men's sexuality is more variable, taking delight not only in heterosexual coitus but in the whole range of sexual possibilities' seems exceptionally naive especially coming from someone who has been thinking about and writing on philosophy of sex for ten years and unexpected given the tone of cynicism and sarcasm which runs through this book.

Apart from the tone of this book some of arguments are funny in themselves. Given the view that a human is no better than an animal, Soble says 'I find the claim dubious, that sex between a human and a different sort of animal is per se objectionable' (p.69). You cannot but laugh at the following: 'Bestiality, as far as I can tell, need not be abusive, violating, or dehumanizing to the human participant... in the minds of its critics, the human really does become nothing but a deranged animal, or descends to that vulgar level. But if humans are already and only animals, no 'descent' to that level is possible... this reason for objecting to bestiality disappears, leaving only animal liberation reasons for not screwing around with dogs.' However, that we cannot be sure that an animal has consented to penetration — a requirement some feminists demand if sex is to be moral — does suggest that bestiality is equivalent to rape.

Most people think that we DO differ from animals, not for reasons of metaphysical dignity, but because of our rational capacity and linguistic ability. But we don't know how far this distinguishes us from animals. In fact, looked at in terms of consciousness, man can even be found to have a similarity to birds. Research on birds has found that they are able to follow simple rules, store information/form concepts, maintain and manipulate mental representations and become confused when their expectations are not met.[1] Soble doesn't put forward any views on sex with birds because he concentrates on the fact that man is animal. And I'm not sure what he would say.

There must be a middle road between Soble and the feminists he disagrees with. Soble doesn't point out that Kantian feminists are mis-using the concept of dignity. In my view, we have quite a large amount of ordinary psychological dignity: There are things that most of us rule out as things we just won't do, such as rape and defecating with someone else. But we don't have to judge them as morally wrong and get on a high horse with feminists and conservatives. The vast majority of people simply recognise that some acts are only performed by psychologically extraordinary people. We don't have to adopt a metaphysical stance of unconditional respect for the subjectivity of the other or demand equality in sexual relations in order to treat others reasonably.

Most people don't hold to an ethical 'theory' and Kantian ethics is only objectionable within the field of philosophy. That academic feminists attacked by Soble have adopted the Kantian idea of respect suggests that they are both over-educated, and unrealistic and misguided in bringing a concept into sexual relations that is inappropriate.

This is currently my favourite book, and it is strange that one other book that I have been greatly attached to is Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.


1. Evolution of the neural basis of consciousness: a bird-mammal comparison by Ann B Butler, Paul R Manger, B I B Lindahl and Peter Arnhem in BioEssays 27:923-936

© Rachel Browne 2005