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Sexual Objectification and The Moment When Marriage Becomes "Incest"
Rick Garlikov

By "incest" in this paper, I am referring only to mutually consenting, adult incest, not child molestation or statutory rape by a relative, which are wrong for reasons other than incest and are wrong even when incest is not involved, though perhaps compounded when the perpetrator is someone who should be protecting the innocent child over and above simply not exploiting, violating, or harming him or her.

Most people think that incest is sex with a close blood relative, and that it is repugnant and wrong because of that. Notice first, that it is not wrong because it is psychologically repugnant; those are separate things.  There is lots of sex we find repugnant, or would if we thought about it, but which we don't believe is wrong; think, for example, of sex between people at least one of whom you find unattractive, as in almost any couple you might see at the mall on a Sunday afternoon, or imagine your parents having sex with each other. (Okay, now try to unsee that if you are unfortunately a visualizer.) Nevertheless we seem to think that incest is morally reprehensible and wrong, not just simply psychologically repugnant. I think there is generally a reason for that which is separate from the reason of genetic problems from inbreeding, since we consider incest wrong even when there is no possibility of pregnancy or when any children of such a  union are healthy and normal.

Second, incest is actually sex between relatives who cannot legally marry in a given society, which does not include all close relatives and which differs in different societies or at different times within a society, sometimes including sex between people who are not related biologically at all other than by "affinity" (explained later).  In England, for example, in the 18th century, it was legal for half-siblings to marry, and thus sex between them was not incest.  One of history's greatest philosophers and writers was the child of such a  union, David Hume.  His grandfather (he only had one) had married and had a son, and then his wife died young.  He remarried and had a daughter.  The son and daughter later married and had David. 

For another example, in some cultures, a distinction is made that we do not make in America, the distinction between cross cousins and parallel cousins.  Your parallel cousin is the child of either of your parent's same-sex sibling; your cross cousin is the child of either of your parent's opposite sex sibling, meaning that if your cousin is the child of your mother's sister or your father's brother, it is your parallel cousin, but if it is the child of your father's sister or your mother's brother, it is your cross cousin.  In cultures that make that distinction, often cross cousins may marry but parallel cousins may not. In America, generally, perhaps even in all states, marriage between any cousins is not permitted and sex between cousins then would be incest.

But generally second cousins may marry.  I myself have some female "double" second cousins (our grandfathers were two brothers who fell in love with and married two women who were sisters), so we are second cousins through our grandmothers, and we are second cousins through our grandfathers also. Genetically we are more like first cousins than second cousins, so although legally we could have married had we been so inclined, genetically it would have been a bad idea.  Legally it would not have been incest, but it would have been too close inbreeding genetically if we were to have children.

However, it should be pretty clear that neither the psychological repugnance nor any moral repugnance of incest is because of blood relationship.  If you found out as an adult that you were adopted, and not biologically related to either parent or to any sibling, your first thought would not likely be "Oh, good, now I can date" them.  Oppositely, if like Oedipus, you didn't know the person you were married to was in any way related to you, sex with him or her would not be repugnant as long as you were ignorant of the biological relationship, and the marriage relationship itself was happy.  In Sophocles' story of Oedipus, he and his wife Jocasta are happily married, and have raised four children.  But the moment they find out that they are also mother and son, she hangs herself and he blinds himself upon finding her dead. (The moral disgust and guilt is not diminished by the knowledge that came out she and her first husband tried to have him killed as a baby so that the prophecy at his birth that he would kill his father and then marry her could not possibly come true. Oedipus, who had a hot temper, did not take that news well.) My guess is that at least some people would not have reacted so violently to just the news they were related (apart from the intended infanticide part) and would instead have thought "Oh, incest is not bad at all; in fact, pretty good."  In teaching the Theban plays trilogy of Sophocles, of which the story of Oedipus is the first (Oedipus the King), I ask students to imagine that they won a nationwide contest to have a date with their favorite single celebrity.  The night of the date arrives and the anticipation is almost too intense to bear. One's friends are excited and envious, and can't wait to hear how the date goes.  You are putting the finishing touches on getting dressed when your mother comes into your room and says she needs to tell you something really important.  She is very nervous and wringing her hands.  You protest that your date will be here shortly in his a limo to pick you up.  Your mother says that is what she needs to talk with you about.  She and your father have never told you this before, but before they got married they had a baby they knew they were too young and too poor to raise.  They gave it up for adoption. The baby grew up to be the celebrity you are going out with tonight.  My question to the class is "Would you still go out on the date?"  Many students wouldn't; some would.  But they all find the question fascinating and perplexing because they could see the force of the problem and the confusion it engendered.  One high school girl in a class I was teaching as a guest because they had been assigned the Theban plays for summer reading and the teacher that gave the assignment moved away before the school year started, and the teacher they had was not familiar with the works, said "Well, I would still keep the date, but I wouldn't do anything on it." I motioned toward the teacher, the principle, and the school system's director of curriculum and instruction who were all watching this classroom, so the student would remember they were there, and asked jokingly "Oh, were you planning to do something otherwise?"  And the girl laughed and said "Oh no, of course not!" cracking up her classmates.

On the TV series House one episode involved the discovery that a married couple were half-siblings whose father had been married to the boy's mother but who had a secret lifelong affair with the girl's mother.  The girl was Hispanic and the father had forbidden the boy to date her, they thought because he was a bigot, but it was because he didn't want to make known his love affair with her mother. The girl did not know he was her father, and he was now dead.  DNA tests for medical reasons ended up showing they were half-brother and sister.  The boy wanted to stay married and at least one doctor agreed with him because it did not seem psychologically like incest to either of them; but the girl was horrified and wanted an annulment. The boy's reaction seemed to me to be the normal one because not having a sibling background, one would not think of one's spouse as a sibling, even if medical tests or other evidence said you were.  You might intellectually understand you were siblings, but not feel like siblings; and so your sex would not feel like incest or feel wrong or abhorrent. Some of the double cousins I mentioned before lived in another section of the country, and I rarely saw them or heard from them while growing up. They didn't resemble my family members. When they got older, one of them attended a college two hundred miles from mine that I suggested when she asked about my college after being disappointed in hers as not being academically challenging enough after her freshman year. I thought my university was overly stressful and that this other major university had a better blend of academics and enjoyment.  It turned out that by then, she was very pretty, as well as very nice, and intelligent, and my fleeting idea of thinking about her as someone to possibly date did not seem repugnant to me at all because I hardly knew her (and because I had just broken up with someone, and because I was 20 and a romantic who had little sexual experience and who did not really associate love with sex -- and I still think that sex, though important in its own right in love, is not the primary basis for romantic love), although I am sure that if I had even mentioned the idea to her parents or my parents (or maybe even to her) they would have been appalled, because my mother had grown up as a close cousin with their father before he moved far away. However, the double second cousin genetic issue prohibited any serious consideration of dating her, so I never pursued the idea and certainly never mentioned it, not to her or anyone.  It is also easily possible that in a mobile culture, two second cousins from different sections of the country might fall in love at somewhere like college, without even knowing they were second cousins -- if they were related through their grandmothers who had different married names, and if they didn't know their grandmothers' maiden names, or if those names were common ones.  Since one's grandmother's maiden name doesn't tend to come up in casual conversation, and some people don't even know what it was, and since people don't tend to try to figure out if they are related, they might find out only after falling in love and introducing each other to parents who inquired about their family. It probably would be disconcerting and chilling to hear your girlfriend's or boyfriend's mother say "Hey, wait a minute; your mother is my cousin."

Some cultures count as incest, relationships which are based on "affinity," which is about being related to someone through the marriage of a relative of theirs to a relative of yours, though the two of you are not blood related.  Hence, step siblings or in some cases, even adopted siblings, cannot marry, even though that would not be biological or consanguineous incest.  Similarly with regard to marrying an aunt or uncle who married your parent's sibling and is not blood related to you. Or, to marrying a step-parent. I don't know what the law is about that in the United States or whether it is the same in all states or not. But normally there would be a psychological repugnance and perhaps also a moral repugnance about the idea of marrying a parent or sibling if you found out you were adopted and that it might be legal.  Since that repugnance is not based on consanguinity, it would have to be based on something else, and the "something else" is what I want  to consider here, particularly in regard to the concept of sexual objectification, the idea of which I want to turn to shortly. 

However, I need to mention first that in the case of parent and step-child or aunt/uncle and nephew/niece there is normally the second psychological barrier or taboo of the age differences, and I don't want to get into that, because it is a separate kind of psychological taboo, and because age doesn't necessarily have to be that much of a factor, if for example the parents were young teens when they had their child, or if that married-in aunt or uncle is the same age or younger than the niece or nephew -- as when a family has a "late" child after they have a grandchild, so that the grandchild is older than, or roughly the same age as, his/her aunt or uncle who marries someone their own age.  In the aunt/uncle case, age doesn't need to be a factor then at all, and in the parent case, age may not be that much of a factor if, say, the attraction were to occur between a 20 year old and a 36 year old or a 25 and 40 year old. Presumably Oedipus was not that much younger than his mother if they were able to have four children together.  She had to have been young enough for that when she married him.

According to Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, in an article, "The Ways of Lust", The NY Times, November 29, 2013 (
"Many contemporary feminists agree that sexual desire, particularly when elicited by pornographic images, can lead to “objectification.” The objectifier (typically a man) thinks of the target of his desire (typically a woman) as a mere thing, lacking autonomy, individuality and subjective experience.

"This idea has some laboratory support. Studies have found that viewing people’s bodies, as opposed to their faces, makes us judge those people as less intelligent, less ambitious, less competent and less likable. One neuroimaging experiment found that, for men, viewing pictures of sexualized women induced lowered activity in brain regions associated with thinking about other people’s minds."
There are some additional defining traits of objectification given by (feminist) philosophers as well, but I would like to offer a different perspective about this, since I don't think that the sexual objectification of someone necessarily involves thinking of them as an unfeeling, inanimate object. I also think that the real, or more general, problem is depersonalization, or what I prefer to call "impersonalization" -- treating someone or thinking of them impersonally -- rather than objectification, which is a specific form of impersonalization.  I will explain that later.

But first, I suspect that if we saw a photo of someone in a baseball uniform, particularly in an action sports shot taken during a game, I doubt we would have elevated or normal activity in the brain region associated with thinking about other people's minds.  Why would be thinking about their mind in looking at a photo like that? That doesn't mean we think of them as less intelligent. It just means we are not thinking about their intelligence at all; there would be no reason to; one is thinking only about the action or about baseball in looking at the photo.  Similarly with a photo displaying or emphasizing sexuality. There is no reason to think about the person's intelligence, but that doesn't mean you think they have none. Normally you would not be thinking about it one way or the other, unless they are shown having sex with a monkey or dog or some really repulsive looking person, in which case you would likely question their judgment and intelligence.

Now probably if we look at someone showing off a great body, we might think of them as being less intelligent, because we know they didn't get that body or maintain it by spending hours reading Tolstoy.  It typically takes work to be physically fit and attractive; and although not necessarily, that work can often take time, energy, or desire away from more intellectual pursuits.  Plus, many athletes and models we see interviewed in the media are not exactly Mensa members or candidates for a Nobel Prize. There are intelligent, articulate models and athletes, but they are not typically what we see in the media, and that is not the normal association we would have with seeing a photo of them or someone that looks like them.  That does not mean we view them as mere things, lacking autonomy, individuality, or subjective experience.  It just means we are not thinking about their being intellectual or thinking people when we see a picture of them that emphasizes their physique, athleticism, or sexuality.

Whereas when shown a picture of someone's face, we typically are looking at their eyes and expressions that tend to appear to display thoughts, mental intensity, and feelings.  And there is nothing else to distract us from that, as there would be in a photo from further away that includes their body.  I don't need neuroimaging to know that if I look at a sports photo or an erotic photo, I am not considering the person's intelligence, though I am also not considering him or her to be unintelligent.  I am simply not thinking about their IQ or their feelings at all.  And I don't need neuroimaging to know that when I look at someone's "ripped" (i.e., extremely muscular, toned) body that I am stereotypically thinking "this person spends way too much time or has way too much vanity, in order to be able to look like that".  Similarly if we see anyone with great physical talent or skill doing something that is not particularly mental, such as diving, gymnastics, or hitting golf balls, we don't tend to think of them as spending much time (or having much time to spend) in the pursuit of mental activities, even though perhaps they are.  Sex is different in that regard; if we see a photo or video of someone being sexual, it is not like we think of them as having to spend a lot of time or effort practicing.  Some people, however, who think that public displays of nudity or sex, or even sexuality, are shameful, will think that anyone in a photo they see doing that will be seriously lacking in intelligence and/or self-respect. So someone might consider anyone who displays their bodies sexually as not being very bright. But for people who don't consider nudity or sex (in some sort of public display or recording, especially one meant to be private) or erotic art as shameful, the nudity or sex itself in a still photo is not going to give the viewer any thoughts about the person's intelligence one way or the other, any more than the viewer would have an opinion about what kind of driver the subject is or whether s/he has a driver's license or what state issued it.  All this is predicated, of course, on there not being some other evidence in the photo of their being a bad driver or being stupid, such as getting naked into a car with leather seats that has been sitting out in the grueling sun all day in scorching temperatures, or their driving the wrong way on a one-way street or trying to turn left from a far right lane or running a red light, driving nude in a convertible.

When we see someone both brilliant and beautiful, or very athletic and very bright, typically they are considered exceptional or they are fictional characters in a movie.  It is not that looks and brains don't go together but that they typically don't, and so when we see someone very attractive or athletic, our thoughts don't tend to be "gee, how smart!" And further, we do sometimes tend to think that they can't or don't spend all the time to develop those looks or talents and also have time to cultivate their minds.  Moreover, we tend to know that working out for hours tends to make one too tired or to mood-elevated (or hyper) to study, though some people possibly have the energy or focus to be able to do both.  So, no, we don't tend to associate really good bodies with high IQ's and probably tend to think they are not likely smart or knowledgeable.  But that is not because we have objectified them in the sense of being "a mere thing, lacking autonomy, individuality and subjective experience."  And, by the way, women can objectify men sexually, and even know they are doing it, as much as men can objectify women. I used to photograph a female high school dance team for a poster they did that they wanted to look glamorous and sexy within the bounds of appropriate sexiness for high school girls.  Some of them saw some photos I had taken of the state's junior male body-building champion and were marveling at his muscles and physique.  I asked them if they would like me to give them their names and contact information so they could meet him or go out with him.  They all immediately and emphatically said no, they didn't really have any interest in meeting or going out with him.  They just liked looking at him.

There are some physical skills and talents we do associate with intelligence or mental abilities, at least of some sort -- dancers and figure skaters able to remember long 'routines' and time them perfectly, visual artists and craftsman who create intricate designs, contractors with the strength and the knowledge to do construction properly, football players or other athletes who spend hours watching game films and devising strategies they can execute, etc. There is a recognizable mental component to some physical activities and skills, and we do think of people who are good at those activities to be smart or sensitive in at least those ways.  A still photograph is not likely to trigger our appreciation of the intelligence involved in these activities, but watching them work or perform or seeing a movie of them doing so, likely would.

And oppositely, if we see a photo of someone with a very out of shape body, we tend to think of them as not likely  very smart or conscientious because they have obviously "let themselves go."  But even if they have a normal body, we are not typically thinking about their brains or mental and emotional characteristics when we see it in a photograph, unless we already know they are smart or sensitive or kind, or unless the photo shows them in something like a happy or dangerous situation, such as hugging a cuddly animal or being pursued by a ferocious, not so cuddly, one.  Then we do tend to think of their feelings, or project on to them our own imagined or remembered ones in such a situation.

But generally, no, just looking at someone's body, particularly if it is a photo that shows them off or just focuses on their physical features, doesn't tend to make us think they are smart or deep, even if it doesn't tend to make us think they are likely dumb or shallow.  And if the photo doesn't show anything normally related to feelings, it will not make us think of their feelings, though it won't also make us think they don't have any.  Absence of thinking about someone's feelings is not evidence of thinking about them as absent of ever having feelings.

Now what is involved with sexual objectification or depersonalization?

It seems to me that what makes incest, even incest based on affinity rather than consanguinity, abhorrent is that we know the person and their most dissatisfying, annoying, disenchanting traits or characteristics too well, or that we know their weaknesses and flaws or fragility too well to be able not to focus on them for purposes of sexual gratification or desire.  In other words, they seem all too human to us in ways that are biologically and/or psychological fragile or that evince undesirable traits that prevent or kill any kind of sexual desire.  The fragility aspect is why nudity in a hospital is not sexy also, and it is why many men who are normally thrilled to see an unrelated woman's breasts are discomfited or repulsed by even an attractive woman whom they don't know nursing a baby in front of them.  While sex is a biological function, it, for many people, is also a psychological one that has to transcend the merely biological, particular the biological that is also associated with fragility and vulnerability to harm.  You morally and normally psychologically don't want to be (and shouldn't be) having sex just for your own pleasure with someone whom it would harm or not benefit, someone who is ill or injured or in a fragile or vulnerable condition or state of mind.  That would be to use or exploit them, and is unfair to them because you get all the benefits while they get all the burdens.  And sexual arousal or desire also has to transcend bothersome psychological traits or latent animosities, frustrations, and disappointments.  It is difficult to be aroused by someone whom one finds unpleasant or dreadfully pitiful (as opposed to someone for whom on just feels sorry). It even has to transcend disagreeable physical traits such as weight, age, wrinkles, stretch marks, moles, blemishes of assorted types, and sometimes even minor illnesses or other biological conditions (such as pregnancy or menstrual bleeding) that don't dampen one's partner's libido even though their  runny nose or bronchial or dry hacking cough is not particularly appealing and even though they seem fragile during pregnancy or weak or hurt during menstruation.

That kind of transcendence is not usually possible for a relative one has grown up with, fought with, seen at their worst moment, or whose diapers one has changed or had changed by, or who has been a too frequent source of frustration, irritation, vexation, or disappointment through a lifetime of daily interactions, with common frictions great or small.  And even if one likes one's relative, one has seen them in fragile times or knows their normal human, emotional states too well to be able to focus on pleasing them or being pleased by them sexually.  It is like trying to have sex with someone when you are plagued by some problem at work or when you know they are.  Being attentive to something unpleasant or unappealing is not typically conducive to sexual arousal or fulfillment, and it justifiably seems wrong to ignore the overall emotional well-being of another person just to "use" or exploit them for your own sexual pleasure.

When it is right to transcend normal human frailties or minor problems, psychologically there has to be a certain distance temporarily from those things. That is in part what romance and seduction (or at least intentionally good or very weak lighting or total darkness) attempt to do, and are good things when desired by the other person, but bad things when they are not desired by them and one is merely trying to manipulate the other person into ignoring reality to take advantage of them.  When it is right to transcend ordinary flaws and frailties, that is a good sense of depersonalization of the partners with each other, not a bad sense.  It is not total disregard for the person's general emotions or needs, but a temporary ignoring of the ordinary problems, distractions, vexations, or merely unappealing qualities of life only for the purpose of bestowing and receiving mutual pleasure for the particular time when each is interested or at least willing to become interested.

That is not only a characteristic of sexual desire, but sometimes even of love.  On one episode of All in the Family, Edith was afraid that Archie has become enamored of a much younger pretty waitress because Edith is not as pretty, young, or vibrant as she used to be.  Archie's response was one of the most beautiful in television history, something to the effect of "Edith, the good Lord takes care of that by making sure that as we get older our eyes can no longer see the things that don't really matter" and he let her know he loved her still.  But he is essentially talking about transcending or not focusing on, and ignoring, what might be considered unappealing traits for love.

Of course, some people can more easily disregard all these sexually distracting or unappealing factors than others.  Sometimes that is simply due to insensitivity, and those people do objectify their partners in a bad way, by being insensitive to the person's non-sexual traits and characteristics under all circumstances rather than by normally being sensitive to them but transcending them when the partner wants to have sex, and concentrating only or primarily on those things which are desirable and appealing in the partner -- which I see as a good form of "objectification" or "impersonalization."  Or often two people can find escape from their unhappy situations, rather than having those situations get in the way of and make sexual feelings impossible.  But the notion of "escape" still signifies being able to ignore some elements of a reality, as when one suspends disbelief to be able to enjoy and get engrossed in exciting fiction. Not everyone can momentarily psychologically and emotionally escape from or transcend unhappy external circumstances.  And even those who sometimes can, cannot always do so.

But if a marriage lasts long enough and is of the sort that the proportion of desirable to undesirable character traits in one's spouse diminishes or seems to you to diminish, or the desirable traits (seem to you to) evaporate, and/or if one person just loses all interest in sex for whatever reason and will not participate in it, then a marriage vow of fidelity till death does them part becomes a potential life sentence of involuntary celibacy, absent murder.  But murder is frowned on and has its own rule prohibiting it.  So if your partner becomes undesirable to you or finds you sexually undesirable and doesn't want to have sex much or at all with you, then you are basically in the position with him or her of a relative with whom the idea of sex is too abhorrent to transcend, and basically the thought of sex would have, for at least one of you, the prohibiting psychological characteristics that incest does.  That would be the moment, expressed colorfully for effect, when marriage turns to incest, meaning only that sex in it with one's mate is as undesirable as sex with a relative is and for the same kinds of reasons -- the human traits are too transparent and in focus to be transcended or ignored.

There is another form of objectification of a sexual partner that is also bad.  It is sexual desire for someone despite their not having any particularly desirable characteristics other than the possibility of having sex with them.  If for all you care, they could be a goat or a rubber doll or a sex toy, or simply any other person willing to have sex with you, that is not very flattering or appealing to them.  It means there is nothing personal about sex with them for you.  With incest the psychological repugnance is based on there being too many negative features, but in other relationships it can be equally problematic in the opposite direction -- that nothing counts against the desire for sex, whether there are unappealing human characteristics that are ignored all the time or too easily at any given time or whether there are simply no appealing characteristics in the first place.  In either case the lament would be reasonable: "All you ever think or care about is sex and your own pleasure.  You don't care about me at all." 

[I realize there are subcultures today, some supposedly widespread, as among high school and college students, where sex is supposedly far less discriminate than it used to be.  I don't know whether that means it is totally indiscriminate and everyone is willing to have sex with everyone else or not, or whether people will find it dissatisfying and become more discriminating as they get older. It may mean that people are more open to having sex with someone they like or find attractive without needing very many other compatible characteristics, at least not at first, but that they are still discriminating at least on the basis of requiring some attraction. Much of this essay though is predicated on people not being totally indiscriminate.  Insofar as they are, those parts of the paper will not apply to them or be true of them.]

In such cases, the problem is that sex is impersonal; and depersonalization of that sort (or I prefer the term "impersonalization") is actually different from objectification. Objectification is a specific or an extreme form of depersonalization or "impersonalization" -- meaning to treat or think of someone impersonally.   Objectifying someone does depersonalize them, but there are ways to impersonalize someone (consider or treat them impersonally) without going so far as to objectify them or think of them as an inanimate object or "as a mere thing, lacking autonomy, individuality and subjective experience."  Depersonalization is the actual problem that women (or men) are rightfully concerned about, whether it goes as far as objectification of them or not.  One's mate doesn't have to think of you as an inanimate object or "as a mere thing, lacking autonomy, individuality and subjective experience" in order to have sex be distressingly impersonal.  It can be too impersonal either because one's partner does not care whether the sex is good for you or not, or because your partner would have sex with anyone, regardless of their good or bad traits, and that includes you, so that your personal good qualities and absence of bad ones are not what is attracting them to you sexually.

Generally I suspect, one wants to be desired by others for one's good, compatible qualities and not to have one's other lesser but irrelevant qualities impinge upon that.  But one also, I think, wants their mate to recognize that some conditions should inhibit sexual desire and that the mate should be attentive to those and not be blithely or blindly pursuing sex when they occur.  Being desired for the wrong reasons or in spite of reasons that should legitimately take the focus off sex is to be treated impersonally.  Attention to the wrong traits and conditions, and inattention to the right ones, can each be impersonal.  One of the many wrong things about sexual harassment is that perpetrators of it seem to be less discriminate than they should be and at the same time oblivious to signals (often quite clear ones) that sex or any kind of romantic relationship with them is unwanted.

Unfortunately there are borderline cases where it is difficult to tell whether it is desired, or would be welcome, and appropriate, or unwelcome and inappropriate to ask someone else out or to flirt at all or make any kind of comment or joke involving sexual innuendo.  And there are cases where the object of one's interest has no way of telling whether one is at least somewhat discriminate and sincerely attracted based on characteristics deeper than appearance and proximity or not, if that is important to him or her.  Since human "mating rituals" often involve more subtlety than can be readily determined before someone makes an advance that is more clear and definitive, and since people often give mixed signals, particularly when there are no clear conventions as to what counts as signals of interest as there are or were in some cultures, it can be difficult to determine before it is too late whether the other person will consider the action to be a sign of sincere interest, legitimate "fishing" or exploration of mutual interest, or sexual harassment, and whether they will be understanding or not about one's genuine and sincere interest in them or one's fishing, if they are simply not interested in you, or whether they will humiliate you or cause even worse trouble. It is also sometimes difficult to know whether circumstances might change in a way that would find a previously unwelcome advance or invitation to be acceptable. The line between valuable persistent pursuit and unjustified harassment is not always clear, though on the other hand some people are more obtuse than they should be.

Now if two people are both in a state of impersonal arousal and don't care that the other is (such as at closing time), sex between them might be acceptable at the moment (though not so much the next morning).  But normally people prefer to be liked for having traits more meaningful and personal than just that they are the right gender and happen to be in the vicinity at a given moment. Some even prefer or require that the love be so specifically based on their particular qualities that it be psychologically exclusive and monogamous by being undesirable to their partner to be sexually attracted to anyone else, not just to have sex foresworn out of obligation, but for it not to be even remotely tempting. While such psychological monogamy is possible (and actual) for many people, for many others it is not.  Demanding, requiring, or expecting it, might be unfair or unreasonable. People cannot always be immune to "lusting in their heart", at least lightly, for someone else who also has many compelling characteristics.  While one can expect one's mate not to be indiscriminate, particularly not totally indiscriminate, it is too much to ask that they be so particular that you and your specific combined characteristics alone can be desirable to them.  It is reasonable to expect them not to act on their feelings of attraction to anyone else, but not reasonable to expect them not to ever have them.  Expectations, in other words, of moral monogamy may be generally reasonable, but not of psychological monogamy. 

That being said, some people only are attracted ever to their mate, and that includes after their mate's death or their being dumped by the mate. There are some people who have love and attraction only ever for one person, ever, and while one might hope to find someone who feels that way about you and about whom you feel that way, it is not something one can require or perhaps even reasonably expect. While being in love with more than one person simultaneously is considered wrong and disloyal, serial love, particularly after the death of a mate is considered to be a blessing.  When Michael Douglas, playing the eponymous role of Andrew Shepherd in The American President said he had loved two women in his life, one of which he lost to cancer, that was most poignant.  But it is not considered so nice when one's spouse is still alive and one is trying to justify having an affair. There is even an old joke that brings home the point that serial love is okay when simultaneous love is not.  A dying woman tells her husband she hopes he will find someone else to love who will make him happy after she is gone.  She says he even has her blessing to live in this house with the woman and to keep the same bed.  She only has one request -- that he not let his next wife use her golf clubs, that he had given her as a present and that she used to love to play golf with, and always thought of him while doing so.  He tells her not to worry, because his next wife is left-handed.

But sometimes or for some people, it is not desirable to have a mate who is attracted only exclusively to you, because it can make you feel loved only because they can't find, or haven't found, someone else to love, not because they find you best.  So in a way, being liked exclusively can, oddly enough, feel impersonal, and be unflattering and undesirable, as well.  It would be like having your brother or sister want to hang out only with you.  While that might be flattering at first, not so much after a while, not because they are annoying but because you want them to have a life and interests beyond just being totally absorbed in you, no matter how cool you might actually be or think you are.  You don't want to be loved just by default.

While I know some people who think they would never look at another person, I can usually find some movie or TV character or actor/actress who seems perfect for an appealing character portrayal, that they are attracted to, but just don't count.  So it is always funny after, say some woman for example, says she would never even think about sex or even romance with another man, to ask "What about Cary Grant or Clark Gable or Johnny Depp or Robert Redford?"  Often the woman will light up and say something like "Oh, well, Johnny Depp [or whichever one she likes], sure; but I am never going to meet him, and he probably isn't like he seems anyway." Now whether a real life Cary, Johnny, Clark, or Robert might actually attract them or not, or whether they only have a fantasy attraction for a fictional character, I don't know.  It is certainly possible to have a fantasy attraction one would never really want to act on with the person and one can know that about oneself, so my little test may not really prove psychological non-monogamy. But I think it shows that their mate's personal qualities are not the only ones they could have been attracted to or that their mate is not the only one they could have been attracted to, had they met another person with the actual endearing traits of a person portrayed in a movie first. Plus, it is really difficult to believe that if there is only one person anyone could possibly love, of the billions of people currently on the planet (not to mention those who have ever lived or ever will live), that one would ever meet them, particularly in one's high school homeroom or history class or introduced by chance by a friend. The idea of fate encounters by people destined to be together only with each other is certainly romantic, but likely fiction, at least until after the fact of their falling in love, and then probably for reasons or causes that don't really depend on fate.  It is more likely that people are more likely inclined to monogamy once they have someone to love or think they can, rather than because they can only love someone with a very particular combination of qualities that can be found only in one person on the planet ever.

But even fictional portrayals of romance or sexuality are subject to the distinctions above about impersonalization.  A movie or novel about a relationship where the reader or audience finds it difficult to see what the attraction could possibly be between the protagonists is not going to be as good or compelling as one where the attraction seems understandable.  One of the reasons that opera can get away with precipitous love in the first meeting between the stars is that if neither is physically unattractive or awkward on stage they can at least beautifully sing very beautiful music to each other, which, of course, is compelling to an audience that is moved to attend opera in the first place. Bad singing, poor acting, or physically unattractive or inappropriate aged performers can all ruin the effect, but absent those personal flaws, the singing and the music can carry the relationship, or at least show the audience its initial attraction. Characters in plays, films, and novels have to work harder to win over the audience and seem to be worthy objects of affection or attraction to each other.  They have to display personal characteristics that either make them appealing vicariously to the audience or that at least show the audience what would be appealing to the other character even if not appealing to the reader or viewer.  And the stories and in stage or movie productions, the settings, lighting, etc. have to enhance, or at least not detract from, the appeal or attractiveness of the characters.  Good movies do that well; bad ones either do not do it at all or do it so poorly that the characters cannot possibly appear desirable. 

The distinction even applies to the difference between pornography and erotic art or between good pornography and bad pornography. Erotic art tries to make sex be both appealing and in some way aesthetically beautiful whether it is or is intended to also be arousing or not; pornography is concerned only with arousing the viewer and it is not concerned with beauty of the art form, even if it is concerned with the sexual beauty of the performers.  However, in each, it is important for any but the least discriminating audience that flaws be masked and that more appealing traits, whether of personality or physical appearance be apparent or enhanced.  Different viewers will be interested in different personality characteristics, actions, and scenarios, but low quality production values that make the venues for sex unappealing, bad or harsh lighting, particularly that shows skin blemishes and flaws, and terrible acting, writing, or scenarios, can ruin porn with even the most otherwise well-built and initially desirable seeming cast.

Feminists claim that pornography objectifies women and makes them simply sex objects for men, whether the male actors in the performances or the men in the audience.  And while that is true of much porn, it is not true of all of it, and it doesn't have to be necessarily true of any of it.  Pornography, which I take it is a depiction of sex meant solely to sexually arouse an audience does not have to be directed only to arousing men or to objectifying women.  Some bad porn objectifies men just as much as it does women, and makes them merely the mechanical means of women's physical pursuits.  But good pornography is, or can be, as much about the emotional and physical satisfaction of the woman as the man, and it uses aesthetics, good story telling techniques, interesting personality characteristics, and psychological elements as much as, or even more than, physical appearance or mechanical technique or acrobatic, contorted, and contrived positions whether comfortable or not, to make it be sexually arousing to the audience.  That is different from erotic art which is meant to be aesthetically pleasing art about sexuality whether it is sexually stimulating, arousing or not.  Often it is about beauty or beautiful moments (perhaps emotionally intimate ones), rather than moments meant to stimulate desire.

The idea of good pornography is to focus an at least somewhat discriminating audience on the best most sexually arousing characteristics that can be portrayed, so that the viewers take a personal interest in the sexuality of the characters and become (more) sexually aroused.  Bad pornography doesn't do that or even try to do that, and instead is just trying to appeal to a totally indiscriminate audience that just wants to see sex, no matter how flawed the performers or the sets or lighting.  It is totally impersonal, whether objectifying or not.  The same elements that make sex good or bad in real life, when portrayed in a movie can also make that movie be erotic or arousing or not. For anyone at all discriminating about sexuality, attention to personal details that are inhibiting of sexual arousal will inhibit it in real life and in art, particularly movies. And lack of personal qualities that make someone sexually interesting in real life will also not make them attractive in films.  The only difference is that in real life there are physical and emotional consequences to having sex with someone, that might make doing so problematic.  Whereas in watching pornography or erotic art, if the actors are actually enjoying themselves and not under duress to perform, there are no personal repercussions, and one can suspend disbelief, as with attending to any fiction, and enjoy whatever sexual qualities the person has without having to require more qualities to love.  Sex in porn, though one-dimensional, can still have a richness in that dimension that can make reading or viewing it quite good, but that would still make sex in real life, though very desirable, nevertheless empty or consequentially problematic and wrong.  

Accoring to Evangelia (Lina) Papdaki in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011,
"[Kant] characteristically writes in the Lectures on Ethics that ‘sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry. … as soon as a person becomes an Object of appetite for another, all motives of moral relationship cease to function, because as an Object of appetite for another a person becomes a thing and can be treated and used as such by every one’ (Kant Lectures on Ethics, 163). "
I believe that as quoted the statements in this passage are false.  They would be true if and only if the desire for the person is one of lust alone, in which case when the lust is sated the person is no longer desired unless and until the lust or sexual appetite returns, because there is nothing else for which they are wanted, at least temporarily, by the one casting them aside.  Such might be the case for use of a prostitute hired only for physical release (and not emotional intimacy or to talk with) or for a person one is only using for sexual conquest and physical sexual release, and nothing else. So even if the "love" is only sexual and only lust, and is merely an appetite, the person is at most cast aside temporarily, not permanently, because appetites are not permanently sated. Otherwise, while it is true that after sex is sated for one loved more broadly than for just sex, the sexual interest in the person is temporarily cast aside as a lemon sucked dry, but the person is not cast aside; the person is still desired but is desired for things other than sex, until the appetite reappears and they are desired once again also for sex.  While sex is an appetite, it is not therefore bad as part of a larger good relationship which is abundant in various other healthy elements.  The fact that sexual desire may be sated after sex does not mean the loved one has been sucked dry of all else good that the relationship mutually holds for both of them. 

Nothing about considering someone else sexually means you are totally objectifying or dehumanizing them to the extent that they deserve no moral consideration about how you treat them.  Some people might do that, but that doesn't make it any more right than murder one for financial gain because someone thinks of the victim merely as an obstacle to inheritance or an insurance benefit. Or consider a work of art, which is certainly an object.  That doesn't mean one can do anything one wants to with it, even if you own it.  It would not be right for a rich person to buy the Mona Lisa and then paint over it or burn it. One cannot morally just treat objects any way one wants, particularly valuable objects.  Being the "object" or subject of sexual desire does not necessarily reduce one to a mere object that has no value nor moral dimension.

Moreover, although sexual love alone is one-dimensional and intermittent, that one dimension can itself be richer or poorer, depending on what aspects of the participants' character are important for it.  Insofar as the sex is impersonal, that single dimension is thereby impoverished, but if the sexual desire is personal in ways that involve many potentially sexually desirable aspects of the person (wit, flirtatiousness, energy, enthusiasm, sensitivity, expressiveness, desire to please, obvious delight in the pleasure of touch, and all the other kinds of things that can contribute to making someone sexually desirable) and rightfully ignores those that should be ignored, that one dimension can be rich and vibrant.  And as long as the partners treat each other fairly and rightly and no bad consequences occur or undue risks of them taken, and the sex is mutually consensual, and otherwise morally right in the way any act should be morally right, I don't see one-dimensionality as being necessarily demeaning or wrongfully objectifying anyone.  In real life, there are potentially harmful emotional and physical consequences of sex that make the one-dimensional aspect of sex risky and potentially dangerous, so even great, rich sex can be wrong if things go badly or if the risk is too great, or if it is wrong for some other reason, such as cheating on a partner who does not deserve to be cheated. 

But enjoying pornography is simply the vicarious enjoyment of other people's sex, so there is no risk for you in that enjoyment, and as long as nothing goes wrong or is wrong with the sex of the people whom you are watching or reading or hearing about -- and if they are enjoying it and enjoying recording it or telling about it -- there is nothing you are doing wrong by enjoying it, as long as you are not enjoying it when you should be doing something else or being with someone else, and as long as you don't get wrong ideas from it about how to sexually behave toward, or treat loved ones or real potential lovers you meet.  Insofar as bad porn is impersonal and impoverished, or even just bad sex technique-wise, one should not try to emulate it with anyone.  But there is nothing wrong with, in a proper moment and setting, enjoying pornography that people enjoy voluntarily making with no bad consequences to them, any more than there is anything wrong with having good sex with a multi-dimensionally loved partner, with whom one is temporarily shutting out the personal characteristics that might impinge on the desire. One might even create one's own pornography or erotic art with a partner, and if the sex one is filming or describing is not wrong in the first place, I don't see how reading or viewing it is any more wrong than recalling it excitedly in one's memory.  And, as with food appetites, there is nothing wrong with having one-dimensional snacks, such as a cup of yogurt or just a banana or a glass of chocolate milk on some reasonable occasions, as long as one is otherwise not harmed by them and is also having a nutritious, balanced diet.
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