Jason Stotts is a philosopher and psychotherapist who has long been interested in the intersection of philosophy and psychology that is sexuality. He received his Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from Brandman University in 2015 and his Bachelor of Arts in both Philosophy and Economics from Denison University in 2006. In terms of his philosophic work, Jason is primarily interested in sexuality and ethics, but is also very interested in philosophy of emotion, philosophy of psychology, and epistemology. In terms of philosophers, he is primarily interested in Ayn Rand and Aristotle, but also enjoys ancient philosophy more generally. Jason is a member of the Society for the Philosophy of Love and Sex (SPLS) of the American Philosophical Association. In terms of his psychological work, Jason specializes in sex education, sex therapy, relationship therapy, and general psychotherapy. His work is primarily grounded in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), but he is also very interested in Philosophic Therapy (the good life, virtue, the role of other people, etc.) and Existential Therapy (meaning in life, death, etc.). The Atlas Society Senior Editor Marilyn Moore recently interviewed him about his book Eros and Ethos: A New Theory of Sexual Ethics.
MM: Culturally we are in a period in which there is a lack of trust, particularly between men and women, in regards to sex. Some people might read the title of your book, Eros and Ethos: A New Theory of Sexual Ethics, and say that sexual ethics is an oxymoron. We seem to understand why the trust is gone, but we don’t seem to know how to repair it. Does your book offer insight?
JS: That’s an interesting question. Yes and no. My book doesn’t directly address the question of trust between the sexes around sexuality (at least this volume doesn’t). It does, however, address the much deeper question of whether sex and sexuality are compatible with a good human life. Indeed, it argues that, for most of us, sex and sexuality will be necessary for happiness. Of course, by “happiness” I don’t mean a simple feeling such as pleasure or even a more robust sentiment such as joy. Rather, I mean a rich and flourishing human life. I ground sexual ethics in the eudaimonistic approach that grows out of the tradition of Aristotle and includes Ayn Rand.
My book is an analysis of the deeper nature of sexuality and an exploration of how it fits into a good life. To start that, Chapter 1 opens with a discussion of the nature of happiness, since if we don’t understand what a good human life looks like, we’ll be unable to understand how sex might fit into it. In Chapter 2, we turn our attention to emotions and sentiments to lay the foundation to understand the deeper nature of sexuality, including how things like love and sexual attraction work. In Chapter 3, we turn our attention to love directly and explore its nature and such questions as whether everyone is capable of love. In Chapter 4, we look at the nature of relationships in particular and what a good relationship looks like. In Chapter 5, we explore sexual attraction and fantasy and see how each of these work and their importance to sex and sexuality. In Chapter 6, we explore the idea of sexual identity and whether our historic conceptions of this are helpful or harmful and how to better think about these issues. Finally, in Chapter 7, we bring all of this together and see how sex fits into a good life. We also explore the unique nature of sexual pleasure, the nature of sexual arousal, and possible ends of sex. Through all this, we set up a radically different kind of sexual ethics than has existed before: one that recognizes the importance of sex for most people and helps them to integrate it into their lives to help them to live better.
So, to get back to your original question, I think that part of what has caused this break in trust, insofar as I understand the question, is false ideas in sexual ethics. There are even some extremely bad ideas, such as Andrea Dworkin’s position that all sex (between men and women) is rape because women have been conditioned by the patriarchy to accept their oppressors. Lesser, although still, bad ideas might include the idea that a man showing any sexual interest in a woman (or vice versa) is necessarily harassment.
If people were to take the approach to sexuality that I advocate in Eros and Ethos, I think that it would help to repair the lost trust. I don’t want to give everything in the book away, but let me make a couple of points. First, my book shows us how to understand our emotions and how we can work to integrate them to our conscious ends, such that we will not feel discordant emotions or desires and also so that our emotions will motivate us to live well. Second, my book shows us how to understand the nature of sexual attraction and its connection to our emotional processes (thus allowing us to align our sexual desires with reason). Third, my book shows us how to foster healthy relationships that help to increase the happiness of both partners, instead of creating a constant state of opposition between the partners. Broadly, having a rational sexual ethic will go a long way to repair the trust between men and women and that is something that Eros and Ethos offers.
MM: You discuss several old paradigms of love, which if adhered to by an individual, do more harm than good. What are those paradigms, and why don’t they work anymore?
JS: I deal with the old paradigms of love in the beginning of Chapter 3. I started with them because these ideas are quite common nowadays and can influence us in subtle ways, so it made sense to identify and dispel them before moving on to a discussion of love untainted by the past. I think that there are 5 major paradigms of love that are still impacting many people today: 1) Platonic, or Sexless, Love, 2) Soul Mates, 3) Desperate Longing, 4) Causeless Love, and 5) Physicalism. Let us briefly explore them in turn.
The paradigm of Platonic, or Sexless, Love, is the idea that sex is base because it is linked to the body (which is particular) instead of to the soul (which is more universal). Strangely, this paradigm is deeply influenced by metaphysics and epistemology. Plato, as your readers may know, attempted to solve the problem of universals (concepts) by use of universal “forms” (eidos) in which particular things “participate,” and this, he believed, is how we understand that two things that might look different might both be “cups” if they both participate in the form of cups (that they look different is due to the particularizing nature of matter and being mere poor reflections of the form of cup). Plato thought that these forms resided in a separate and higher realm (the realm of the forms) and that if we kept our souls pure, we could go back to this higher realm when we died (this is the origin of the idea of “heaven” that the Christians hold and which their Jewish predecessors did not). Since the body is a particular thing and the soul a universal thing, as far as we can prevent letting our soul be polluted by the body and its desires, we should do so, and this is why Plato believed that sex was bad. Now, there are a lot of problems with this view, not the least of which is that it rests on a very sketchy metaphysics and epistemology. If someone were to show a simpler and more powerful way to understand conceptualization (as I believe that Ayn Rand did), then the whole thing would fall apart. To the extent that people believe that sex is lowly and base, they are accepting some part of Plato’s ideas (including dualism), and this will harm their lives in the long run.
The paradigm of Soul Mates is again from Plato. He has a human-origin myth in the Symposium (189d-194e), in which he describes proto-humans (two heads, four arms, four legs, two sets of genitals, etc.) and their hubris in attacking the Olympian gods. Zeus, in a fury, split these proto-humans in two as punishment and so we spend our days looking for our literal “other half” to recreate our alleged original form. Of course, many people today have never heard this myth and instead believe in some god which they think made one perfect person for them in all the world (such as Eve was made for Adam by the hand of god himself). The problem, besides that these myths are false, is that people who are looking for soul mates will give up great relationships if there are any problems because a “perfect” relationship with their soulmate would be effortless. These people are unable or unwilling to put work into their relationships, and so they often are deeply unsatisfied in their relationships and go through many relationships before settling for someone with whom they’re not completely satisfied. Being in a relationship is a skill, and if we refuse to put the work into it, then we’re destined for relationship conflict.
The third paradigm is Desperate Longing, and while there are many examples of it, I think the best is provided by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this play, a 13-year-old girl falls in love with a 16-year-old boy “at first sight.” They marry in secret, make some really bad choices, and then die. This myth comes down to us as the idea that love should be desperate and that nothing should ever be allowed to come in the way of it. You can see it in countless romantic comedies and other works of fiction today. Yet, why should we want love to feel desperate? Of course, often the very early stages of love feel a little desperate until the relationship deepens and grows stronger, but why should we want to index all of love to its most immature form? Love should deepen and become more stable as it matures, making it less desperate, but this does not mean that it becomes less intimate or less wonderful. Mature love is much deeper and richer than desperate, immature love. Many people who set desperate longing as their paradigm of love introduce artificial conflict into their relationships, or frequently change relationships, so that they can feel the desperateness of love. But it should be clear that this is not going to help us live good lives.
The fourth paradigm is Causeless Love. This has many adherents but is best epitomized by Erich Fromm in his book The Art of Loving, where he says: “To be loved because of one's merit, because one deserves it, always leaves doubt […]—there is always a fear that love could disappear.” Objectivists may think of the scene between Jim Taggart and his wife Cheryl, where she finally comes to understand Jim:
"Jim, what is it that you want to be loved for?"[…]
"To be loved for!" he said, his voice grating with mockery and righteousness. "So you think that love is a matter of mathematics, of exchange, of weighing and measuring, like a pound of butter on a grocery counter? I don't want to be loved for anything. I want to be loved for myself-not for anything I do or have or say or think. For myself-not for my body or mind or words or works or actions.”
"But then…what is yourself?” (Atlas Shrugged, p. 809)
This understanding she gains causes her to make a momentous choice. Even so, many people believe in this idea that if love has causes, then it is something cheap and tawdry and that real love must be causeless if it is to count. The problem with this desire for unearned love is that this is not how love works; love is a response to values, and so taking this tack will always fall flat.
The last paradigm is that of Physicalism, or the idea that love is no more than the squirting of glands and the function of neurotransmitters, that our conscious experiences, including of love, are simply illusions. It is unlikely any of your readers hold this view, but it is sadly all too common. The problem, obviously, is that Physicalism has to deny our experiences and consciousness itself in order to be coherent: it reduces the world of living things to the mechanistic world of rocks and wind. We should question any theory which asks us to explain away the world and our experiences. This paradigm, if we were to accept it, would make it impossible for us to find love, as we would not understand what love is nor how to cultivate it.
Broadly, if we want to experience deep and lasting love, then we must do more than simply avoid these pitfalls (although this will help quite a bit). We need to more deeply understand the nature of love and relationships if we want to successfully integrate love into our lives. If your readers are interested in this question, Chapter 3 of my book explains the nature of love, some of its essential features, and how we can cultivate it in our own lives.
I do want to point out, though, that your initial question asks why these paradigms do not work anymore. I do not think that they ever did.
MM: You also take issue with traditional views of sex––resistance, which aims to hold sexual pleasure in check; abstinence, which depends on a mind-body disconnect; and hedonism, which primarily stresses the pleasure of sex. Instead you argue for sex as an integral part of a relationship, without which a romantic love relationship is incomplete and unsatisfactory. Tell me more.
JS: Yes, that’s right. In the Introduction, I develop the idea that, historically, sexual ethics has fallen into one of three camps, which you just named, and then explain each and why we should reject them (the whole text of the Introduction is available for free here for those interested in reading it). I wanted to do something different and demonstrate how sex could be part of happiness. For most of us, sex is more than merely compatible with a good human life, it is necessary for it. This takes a little explaining.
There are fundamentally three different kinds of values. The first is “universal values,” which are the necessary conditions for happiness and are universal to all people because they are based in, and necessitated by, our shared human nature (e.g., reason, purpose). The second is “constitutional values,” which are necessary for a particular person’s happiness based on their unique constitution (e.g., having children, sex). The third is “personal values,” which a person chooses to help to give happiness its richness, but whose role in happiness is not necessary (i.e.,what we choose for our leisure activities).
Sex is not a universal value. There are some people who can lead rich and happy lives without sex. This isn’t the case with universal values like reason, as no person could live a good human life without reason. However, sex is necessary for happiness for most of us because we have a certain constitution for which sex is deeply important. It’s helpful here to draw a parallel to the constitutional value of having children. Many people find that they are of such a constitution that they would not be able to achieve happiness without having children. Yet, others are of a constitution that does not require this, and they can be perfectly happy without having children.
I say all that to lay the foundation to say this: for those of us who are of a constitution such that sex is a constitutional value, we need to incorporate sex into our lives in the rights ways if we are to be happy. It is one of the overall projects of my book to fully explain this and how to go about it, so we won’t be able to cover everything here, but let me make a couple of brief points.
For those of us whose constitutions are such that sex is necessary for happiness, certain kinds of love and relationships are also going to be necessary (this is likely true even for those people to whom sex isn’t necessary). I mean specifically erotic love and the erotic relationship, which the book covers in Chapters 3 and 4, respectively. Sex is a necessary and important part of this relationship. This is for more than just the fact that sex is fun and pleasurable (although it is). This relationship satisfies a real human need for deep intimacy in a way that I don’t think any other relationship can satisfy. This is not to say that we might not have deep intimacy with a dear friend, but that the depth of intimacy in even the best friendship cannot rival the depth of intimacy of a good lover. This is because while we value a friend for their own sake and wish them well, with a lover we co-internalize each other’s values and their values become our own. We thus wish them well for their own sake, but also for our sake: their successes are deeply pleasant to us and their failures deeply bitter.
This difference is due not just to how we value a lover versus a friend, but the role in our identities that they play. Humans are social animals, and other people play a role in our identities. Certain social relationships dominate our identities at certain times in our lives, such as when we are children and we are largely defined by our relationships with our parents and siblings. As we grow up, we develop our own identities, but we never stop having certain social connections be important parts of our identities, such as our connections to our spouses, children, friends, parents, etc. Now, a lover is a much larger part of our identities than even a close friend, because the intimacy is deeper. This depth is partly a function of the large amount of time we spend with a lover, but, more importantly, of the deep intimacy that sex brings. When we have sex with our lover, and I’m speaking here specifically of love in a good and established erotic relationship, not a one-night stand, we are deeply vulnerable and open with our lover and have a high degree of intimacy: we even let our lover see parts of ourselves that we don’t usually let others see and sometimes even enter into our very bodies. This depth of intimacy is not achievable by even the best of friends. So, while of course we feel good when our friends succeed and bad when they suffer, we do not identify with them to the same degree that we would with a lover, and we do not share this deep intimacy with them. The erotic relationship is uniquely capable of fulfilling our need for this deep intimacy in a way that no other relationship can quite satisfy. And we can see this in real life in the person who has friends and family around, but still has a need for a lover.
Sex does more for us than merely meet our need for deep intimacy: it also becomes a moral impetus for us in a good relationship. This is partly because sex drives us to be our best possible selves for our partners. It is also because sex allows us to experience our very unity of self, but your readers will need to check out Chapter 6 for how that works.
MM: In your chapter on sexual identity, you suggest that individuals psychologically and in practice often stray from societal sex roles. Does this mean that human sexuality is like choosing ice cream––you might have a preference but will occasionally try something else? How does this work in a committed and loving romantic relationship?
JS: That’s a good question. First, I should briefly define what I mean by the “societal sex roles” (SSR), that you mentioned. In Chapter 6, I attack the idea of “gender” as being a package-deal that combines things like physical sex and the way others perceive us. I also note that the idea of gender connotes something innate about us and obscures that what it really means is a particular society’s roles around sex, or their “societal sex roles.” For these reasons, I reject the idea of gender in favor of the idea of the SSR. Now, it is true that individuals often fail to perfectly conform to their particular society’s SSRs and this is perhaps inevitable when the SSRs are somewhat normative (i.e., they are what a man or woman should be). However, this doesn’t necessarily say anything about the way we have sex.
Human sexuality is fairly complex, and I think it’s silly to reduce it to a question of sexual organs as people who attempt to do when they try to reduce the idea of “sexual identity” down to a question of “sexual orientation.” In fact, I think that most of us do, or minimally should, care about more than the genitals of our potential sexual partners: we care about what kind of person they are, whether they like the same sorts of sexual things (such as BDSM), whether we find the person as a whole sexually attractive, etc. While it is true that our sexual identity does partly arise out of our sexual orientation, it also includes many other things, such as our particular erotic framework (which includes, among other things, our past sexual experiences and how we conceptualized them), particular sexual types we hold, our kinks and sexual proclivities, etc. (see Chapter 6 for more information about this). To concretize this: the woman who is very submissive and prefers men will care for more than whether her partner has a penis, she will want a man who knows about power exchange and who understands what she wants. For these reasons, I think it’s best to abandon the idea of sexual orientation as exhausting sexual identity.
I also think it’s best to abandon the idea of rigid categories of sexual orientation. I explain my reasons at length in Chapter 6, but let me briefly say that the research into sexual orientation is much more nuanced than the tripartite categorization systems (straight/bi/gay) would lead us to believe. For example, Lisa Diamond has done some excellent research into what she calls “sexual fluidity” in women and shows how women who have always identified as straight and preferred men often still have same-sex experiences. There is also plenty of research into the idea of “contextual homosexuality,” as we see when straight men have sex with other straight men in boarding schools, the military, and prison, and then often never do so again after leaving that context. Indeed, many people don’t fit into the rigid categories of “straight/bi/gay” and would be better served by using a more nuanced scale such as the Kinsey Scale, which goes from 0–6, where “0” is someone who only has attractions to the opposite sex, a “3” is someone who is equally attracted to both sexes, and a “6” is someone who is only attracted to the same sex.
Personally, I think of sexual orientation as a disposition, in much the same way that character is. Having a good character doesn’t mean that you will always act virtuously; it means that you will be disposed to do so, but that you can still act otherwise. The honest person is honest without necessarily being reflective about his actions because he has cultivated habits of action to always be honest. This does not mean that he cannot lie and may not do so from time to time. I think that sexual orientation is much like this: by the time we are adults, we have a pretty firm idea of whether we prefer people of the same sex or of the opposite sex and we tend to act according to this, unless something influences us to choose otherwise. Of course, there is a major biological component to this, but our biology simply disposes us to one sex or the other to varying degrees (depending on the individual in question). However, we are still influenced by the people around us, our culture (including our cultural ideas through art), and by our early experiences and how we conceptualize them. Even with the weight of all of this, we can still choose otherwise, and people do sometimes make this choice.
So, to take a step back, even though sexual orientation is an important part of our sexual identity, it does not exhaust our sexual identity and if we attempt to reduce our sexual identities to no more than our orientations, then we will lose most of the richness and variety of our sexual identities. Moreover, holding onto very rigid conceptions of sexual orientation is also not helpful when the reality of human sexual orientation is more complex than the tripartite categorization system can capture.
Thus, to finally answer your question, I think that our sexual identities are much more fixed than our preferences for ice cream, but I do think that it’s certainly true that people regularly try new things and have new experiences and that this is good for them, so that they can really learn about themselves and their desires.
MM: You make the case that good sex isn’t something that just happens between people. Rather, a rewarding sexual relationship is a conscious, creative process. How does that work?
JS: Well, humans are born tabula rasa, which means that we are not born with any innate ideas (we do have some innate reflexes such as an infant’s suckling reflex or grasping reflex). Because of this, we are not born knowing how to have good relationships or even how to have sex (if you doubt this, you should hear some of the stories we hear in sex therapy). We must learn these things. We often start our education on these topics by modeling our parents’ behaviors for how to interact with a partner. We also see messages about sex and sexuality in the culture at large, in art such as books and movies, and from messages from our friends. Some of this information is correct, some incorrect, and some of it taken so far out of context as to be meaningless. For example, due to Freud’s influence, it was often thought that women should be able to orgasm from vaginal penetration alone with no clitoral stimulation, but studies show that just under 1 in 5 women (18%) can do this (while other studies suggest that these women who can apparently do this are still receiving indirect clitoral stimulation from the clitoral crura, and so perhaps no women an actually do this).
If we want to be successful with relationships and sex, we must be purposeful about this and seek knowledge about it. We cannot rely on innate knowledge about sex and relationships, since we don’t have any, and we certainly cannot trust every message we may stumble across in our lives. The idea that we should seek knowledge about sex is often decried by some, even self-described Objectivists, as “base,” “physicalistic,” or “dirty.” Their idea is that we should magically “just know,” and if a person doesn’t know, then there’s something wrong with them. This is nonsense. We are not born with innate ideas and our instincts around sexuality are limited, to say the least. If we wanted to learn how to play basketball, to take another physical activity humans do together, we wouldn’t jump right into a game; we would learn to dribble, walk while dribbling, pass, shoot, set picks, etc. The culmination of these things would be basketball at its most basic, and then we would practice playing basketball until we got better. Part of sex is a skill no different than basketball, and it doesn’t destroy the intimacy or “specialness” of sex for us to work to better our physical skills at it. Of course, if you merely treat sex as a physical activity disconnected from our spiritual side (the part of us that thinks, feels, and has experiences), then this is obviously bad. But it’s simply wrong to think that treating sex as a skill will necessary diminish it. In fact, it usually improves it for everyone involved. The philosopher Robert Solomon said that “One might complain that looking so closely at love spoils the magic, but love is a pretty cheap trick if mere looking will spoil it.” I think the same can be said about sex.
A full sexual relationship takes even more skill than simply being good at the act of sex, although sex is an important part of it for most of us. In Chapter 7 of Eros and Ethos, I list some of these skills related to sexuality more broadly in Chapter 7, such as cultivating dispositions for intimacy, developing our sexual curiosity and willingness to explore, taking a laissez faire attitude with respect to others’ (non-harmful) sexuality, and working to develop our ability to feel pleasure in our partner’s pleasure. Relationships, however, take more than sex and sexuality to work. While the skills of relationships are important, they fall outside the scope of my book. However, I recommend the works of John and Julie Gottman on relationships. Still, it’s important to realize that even after you have all the basic skills down, your relationship with your partner will always be uniquely yours and something that the two (or more) of you create together. And isn’t that a wonderful thing—that you can create a relationship that’s special just for you?
Ultimately, if we want to have good sexual relationships and good sex, we must be conscious and purposeful about these things. And we should be, if we want to live well.
MM: Are you planning to continue your work on sexual ethics?
JS: I am! Right now, I’m planning a second and third volume for Eros and Ethos. The second volume will explore sex from a more practical perspective, including such issues as fetishism, kink, perversion, promiscuity, masturbation, non-monogamy, and prostitution. The third volume will address interesting philosophical questions that grew out of the first two volumes, but which didn’t fit in either. Some of those issue include surreality, intuitionism, “notions,” and beauty.
After Eros and Ethos is done, I’m not sure where I’ll turn my attention. I’ve long been interested in sexuality, so I may do more work in that field. However, I'm also very interested in philosophy of psychology and philosophy of emotions (both show up in Eros and Ethos in different places), and I may want to explore those. It’s hard to say, mostly because I suspect that it’ll be another 10 years before I’m done with Eros and Ethos, and it’s hard to say where my interests will lie at that point.
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