Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy

August 28, 2008

In this short book, translated from the French by Catherine Porter, Anne Dufourmantelle, who co-wrote Of Hospitality with Jacques Derrida, explores the relations between sex and philosophy. This wide-ranging, provocative book is partly philosophical, partly a literary evocation of the pleasures and difficulties of sex and of thinking. Along the way, she refers to topics ranging from genetic engineering to the letters of Nietzsche and Lou Salome.

Dufourmantelle's thesis is that philosophers have been silent about sex. They have tried to distance themselves from emotions and from the distractions of the body. Yet it is as bodies that we think and write, and if philosophical works affect us they affect us in our bodies. Moreover, she argues, there are fundamental similarities between philosophy and sex.

Both are obsessive pursuits, she argues. Philosophical ideas, like sexual enjoyment, exceed our control and can only come to us unbidden. Both offer the illusion that we can escape time and mortality into the timelessness of thought or the ecstatic moment of the sexual encounter. In sex we try to overcome our separateness and to connect with someone else. Likewise, philosophy tries to grasp a hidden world order in which everything is connected. Most importantly, in sex, one encounters another body, another world outside one's own, and this unseats and transforms. Likewise, philosophy begins in wonder: astonishment at our plurality and at the vital flow of life in which sex also immerses us.

Dufourmantelle holds that sex and philosophy are subversive: they "embolden people to act against oppression" and "to love and to be free". Because they are subversive, philosophy and sex are "hated". This is a surprising claim. Far from hating sex, capitalism uses it to sell everything. Yet, she argues, this masks a rejection of sex in the true sense, for, when bodies are treated as objects for consumption, no genuine encounter takes place. Such encounters would affect us emotionally. Ultimately, for Dufourmantelle, "Sex is nothing but love": true sex is eros, erotic love.

How do philosophy and sex incite us to freedom? Philosophy encourages us to avoid platitudes and question received opinion. Sex is a place of "danger for anyone who seeks to subject others". This claim, too, is surprising. For some feminists, male-dominated heterosexual intercourse and the sex industry are among the main institutions enforcing women's subjection to men. But Dufourmantelle argues that although one can force, violate or kill another's body, one cannot make somebody else want sex - hence sex, like thought, remains free and inviolable. I think she is wrong about this. Rape or sexual assault can crush a person's sense of self and is a violation of the person as a desiring, sexual being.

Dufourmantelle's unduly optimistic view of sex reflects her failure to engage with feminist and gay/lesbian/queer work on sex and sexuality. Nor does she engage with contemporary Anglo-American work in philosophy of sex. By focusing on the traditional canon of (male) philosophers, she makes her thesis that philosophy has been silent about sex something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. She draws suggestive comparisons between sex and philosophy but could profitably have engaged with a wider range of recent thinking about sex.

Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy

By Anne Dufourmantelle. University of Illinois Press. 144pp, £37.99 and £10.99. ISBN 9780252032639 and 074882. Published 1 January 2008

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