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The Nature of Sexual DesireReview - The Nature of Sexual Desire
by James Giles
University Press of America, 2008
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
Aug 25th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 35)

Unlike psychology, where sexual desire has long had a central place, philosophy has paid it much less attention. Thus, James Giles' The Nature of Sexual Desire is a welcome and needed addition to the relatively scant philosophical literature on the subject.  The broader and multidisciplinary field of sexology has suggested two divergent lines regarding the basis of our sexual desire. On the one hand are the biological essentialists, such as sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, who maintain that the origin of our sexual desires lies in our genes and is directed to reproduction. According to this view, human sexual desire is universal, and while there may be changes over time and place regarding what particular things give rise to particular preferences or behaviors, sexual desire itself exists independently of time and culture. Social constructionists deny these claims and insist instead that human sexual desire is entirely the product of what we make of it. In its most radical form, social constructionists maintain not only that such things as societal perceptions of homosexuality, monogamy, and fetishes are constructed, but also that sexual desire itself is radically amorphous and open to any inscription, independently of any physiological function.

Giles rejects both of these accounts opting instead for a phenomenological approach that seeks to explain "sexual desire [as] ... an existential need that has its roots in specific experiential features of the human condition" (180). The particular features of human existence that make us special are, as Kant put it, that we belong to both a phenomenal, material world where determinism is true, and a noumenal one where we have the capacity to choose for ourselves. This "disequilibrium," as Giles calls it, is our self awareness that we are not only biological organisms. Yet, since we still have needs that are an  "inherent and universal feature of the human condition," (181) they are not the product of social construction. They are, rather, "existential needs."

More particularly, Giles maintains that "[s]exual desire is a need based ... on ... an awareness ... of having a gender, which implies a sense of incompleteness that calls out to be fulfilled by the gender of another person."  Reason acts upon this "self awareness (together with the awareness of others)" to make "me see this as a problem that needs to be resolved, and imagination enables me to picture or fantasize ways -- namely, baring and caressing of the desired gender -- of trying to solve it." Sexual desire, then, "is the need to deal with this problem" (181-182).

An essential part of sexual desire, according to Giles, is that it involves a component of mutuality; i.e., "the desire for mutual baring and caressing between oneself and at least one other person (real, fantasized, or symbolized) (93; his emphasis). This opening of oneself to others is actually a display of our vulnerability, and is a signal to them, as it were, that we want to be cared for; indeed, that we need to be cared for (see, e.g., 87).  As such, sexual desire has much in common with romantic love, which Giles addresses in the penultimate chapter of his book. The difference between the two resides in the level of mutuality. In romantic love, not only do I have a certain desire "toward the other person concerning our mutual vulnerability and care," ... I also "desire that the other person have similar desires toward me, that is that I have desires concerning the other person's desires" (174). Giles maintains that in sexual desire, "the schema is not so complex. For although I have certain desires directed toward a mutual baring and caressing of the other person's body, I need not also desire that the other person has desires for a mutual baring and caressing directed toward me" (174).

Giles' thesis is reminiscent of a number of earlier accounts of sexual desire and romantic love -- for example, of Thomas Nagel's claims in his influential 1969 article, "Sexual Perversion," which argued that the difference between perverse and non-perverse sexual desire lay in whether the desire was mutual, or of Aristophanes' account of romantic love in Plato's Symposium, that love is a search for wholeness or completeness that can be attained only by finding our 'other half'. Yet, it is an original, intriguing and, I suspect, fecund account. Moreover, Giles does a masterful job of weaving together material from psychological, biological, and religious sources as well as philosophical ones. The following remarks ought to be taken, then, not as criticisms per se but rather as a dialogical response to some fascinating material and ideas.  

Giles reaches his conclusions through a phenomenological methodology, which, he claims, allows us to uncover "the nature of reality by an examination of ideas or how things present themselves to us. By turning to this presentation --- "to the things themselves," as Husserl puts it -- we free ourselves from anticipatory ideas and other prejudices that obscure our perception of reality" (7).  Many object that this is an impossible task since we cannot free ourselves from the context of our lives. As a result, though phenomenological inquiry presents itself as neutral, it is actually, critics claim, susceptible to the personal biases of the investigator. As such, the approach can lead us not to some sort of objective reality but to a reality as it 'presents itself' to a particular individual.  Giles is not alone in having to deal with this issue. Despite claims to objectivity, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists have been notoriously sympathetic to a right wing political agenda, while social constructionists have, alternatively, promoted a left wing agenda about sex.

That others have the same problem doesn't resolve the issue, however, and so Giles needs to demonstrate that his account is not simply the result of personal bias. And, on the face of it at least, Giles' account seems best to fit heterosexual and 'typical' sexual desire as opposed to homosexual or paraphilic, atypical ones. This stems from his claim that sexual desire starts with awareness of our gender, and indeed of "an awareness of the incompleteness of my gender. That is, my gender presents itself as only half of an interlocking twoness" (123). It is easy to see how this description fits male-female interactions well: my incompleteness as a male is overcome by sexual intercourse with a female. But how is a female completed by another female or a male by a male, not to mention more complicated cases like bisexuality and intersexuality? To his credit, Giles attempts to answer these questions in Chapter 4 where he explores the notion of gender in detail. To be very brief, Giles maintains that for homosexuals the difference between you and your sexual partner is a felt or perceived shortage of your own gender. "The homosexual is someone who intensely admires the attributes of same-gender persons. The homosexual does this because he feels himself to be lacking in these attributes" (128). In this way, then, hetero- and homosexual desire is the same experientially, Giles maintains, because it is based of a felt shortage that can only be completed in another.

Consider voyeurism as just one example of the paraphilias, which Giles examines in Ch. 3. He admits that the voyeur appears only to be interested in watching another expose him or herself and that the object of the voyeur's gaze isn't even aware of being viewed, let alone doing so for the voyeur's pleasure. And yet, he argues, because the voyeur typically masturbates while or shortly after spying, he "is nevertheless baring and caressing himself [and in so doing] ... he is both bestowing and receiving caresses" (87). Moreover, the "part of the sexual interaction that is lacking in the voyeur's activity -- that is, mutual baring and caressing -- can then be fantasized to take place" (88). Surely Giles is right in saying that this can or that it could happen in this manner: whether all cases of voyeurism, or masturbation for that matter, must occur in this manner is doubtful, however, and Giles owes us an argument why his account covers paraphilic desire in general. 

Though one might now always agree with him, Giles covers a wealth of material and presents detailed, articulate arguments in support of his views. The Nature of Sexual Desire is well worth the read.


© 2009 Robert Scott Stewart


Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Cape Breton University, Sydney, NS, Canada


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