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I have been thinking about sexual fetishes, in terms of their ethical status. Are they moral or immoral? Why or why not? Clearly, what gives pleasure without infringing on anyone's rights is morally acceptable. But is there something wrong with the sense of life of those who like strange sexual fetishes? Are they evading reality in trying to distort the standard sexual practice? "Bukake," a group sexual activity involving self-stimulation in a social context, has recently come to my attention [via my unfortunately often immoral cohabitant at college]. My opinion is that this kind of vile abuse of the sexual facility constitutes depravity, but I am not sure. Please help me with this strange topic.

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Im not sure what you mean by "the standard of sexual practice." Anyhow, I dont find anything morally wrong with weird, even extremely weird sexual fetishes between consenting adults who share the same values and who are rational. Let's take a very bizzare scenario. Suppose two adults, let's even say they're objectivists, have a foot fetish - a REALLY weird one - in that say the female gets sexual pleasure from the man using his foot instead of you know what. Obviously I think this is extremely strange and I have no idea what gives rise to a desire of this kind. BUT - I would never go so far as to say that this is an act of depravity. The woman is just, well - odd. What could be morally depraved about this act between rational consenting adults?

As to your example of the group practice called "bukake," - it sounds like some sort of group orgy? Well, Im not sure what to say about this. But I am not so sure it constitutes depravity either. Why exactly do you call it vile abuse? Suppose all the rational and consenting adults involved are curious about it and want to try it (knowing full well the possible consequences and what it takes to make it work). Is there something inherently wrong with this desire? Again, I would call it weird and odd, but I dont think - in the proper context - it is necessarily depraved.

AC

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I have been thinking about sexual fetishes, in terms of their ethical status. Are they moral or immoral? Why or why not? [...] My opinion is that this kind of vile abuse of the sexual facility constitutes depravity, but I am not sure. Please help me with this strange topic.

There are certainly some sexual acts that are disgusting and depraved - ones that show inherent contempt for oneself, one's partner, and sex itself. But I would be very careful on this point because I think the real danger, the one that destroys people's enjoyment of sex, is unearned guilt that comes from having desires they think are wrong or dirty. That is a tragedy.

Instead of specifying which acts are good and which are not, it is more productive, in my view, simply to say: "Ask yourself what appeals to you about this act. Consider yourself innocent until proven guilty - unless you spot an obviously immoral motive, put it on your list of things to try, and go enjoy your life."

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Clearly, what gives pleasure without infringing on anyone's rights is morally acceptable.

Someone correct me if I'm wrong. The morality involved is whether or not the activity is destructive to your values. For instance, a person with a sexual fetish that involves cutting themselves or burning themselves. Or to a greater extreme, auto erotica asphyxia. If the fetish puts your health or life at risk, I don't see how it could be moral.

VES

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Someone correct me if I'm wrong.  The morality involved is whether or not the activity is destructive to your values.  For instance, a person with a sexual fetish that involves cutting themselves or burning themselves.  Or to a greater extreme, auto erotica asphyxia.  If the fetish puts your health or life at risk, I don't see how it could be moral.

VES

So.. any extremesport is immoral by you logic?

If someone finds pleasure in risky thrillseeking, I will not condemn them. Most people live safe lives, and need the thrills to get the rush of adrenaline to feel alive. I see nothing wrong with that.

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So.. any extremesport is immoral by you logic?

If someone finds pleasure in risky thrillseeking, I will not condemn them. Most people live safe lives, and need the thrills to get the rush of adrenaline to feel alive. I see nothing wrong with that.

I don't see that as a comparable analogy. The value sought in an extreme sport is active defiance of injury or death. Conquering them, not seeking them out. Yes, accidentally injury or death may occur, but that is not part of the goal sought.

The value sought in some fetishes is directly related to the intentional injury caused to "enhance" the sexual experience. Causing pain or injury to the body, or intentionally depriving the brain of oxygen up to the last moment in order to "heighten" climax. That is the difference.

Using ecstacy and playing Russian Roulette enhance the life experience or make people "feel alive", but I think both actions can easily be deemed immoral. Or perhaps the value risked (substantially) in those experiences is greater than the value gained.

I will grant that I could have been clearer about the health / life risk concept.

In OPAR, there is the following passage:

To respect sex means to approach it objectively.  The guiding principle should be: select a partner whom you love on the basis of values you can identify and defend; then do whatever you wish together in bed, provided that it is mutually desired and that your pleasures are reality-oriented.  This excludes indiscriminate sexual indulgence and any form of destructiveness or faking - such as, among other examples, the chaser's promoscuity, the rapist's coercion, the adulterer's pretense of fidelity, and the sadist's pretense that his power to cause suffering is a mark of efficacy.

I point to the term "destructiveness". Sex is supposed to be an exhalting uplifting experience, a good, healthy experience in celebration of being alive. The act of mutilating the body or depriving the brain of oxygen is a decidely unheathly action which demeans the act of sex. It is for the reason that the aforementioned fetishes would be immoral.

VES

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Someone correct me if I'm wrong.  The morality involved is whether or not the activity is destructive to your values.  For instance, a person with a sexual fetish that involves cutting themselves or burning themselves.  Or to a greater extreme, auto erotica asphyxia.  If the fetish puts your health or life at risk, I don't see how it could be moral.

VES

I agree with this. I would say that "injurious" sex could be labelled immoral but not harmless fetishes that at most can be considered bizarre. By injurious I would say that which either draws blood or risks injury or death; ie "erotic asphyxiation" or severe S&M.

As for "Bukkake" or foot fetishes, I wouldn't even go so far as to call them bizarre. Some people are turned on by feet, what's wrong with that. Hell, there are few things prettier on this earth than a gorgous woman in a sexy pair of high heels. As for the "semen on the face" phenomon so prevalent in today's porn; again why should that be considered bizarre?

I find that too often Objectivist's tend to have almost puritanical views towards sex.

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I find that too often Objectivist's tend to have almost puritanical views towards sex.

More precisely: Too often SOME PEOPLE tend to have almost puritanical views towards sex.

Objectivists are people too, and therefore SOME Objectivists ...

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Betsy, since that derivation does not strictly follow the laws of logic, the term "therefore" does not belong. (<light-hearted>Or, if what you did is okay, then so is this: some people are not Objectivists; Objectivists are people; therefore some Objectivists are not Objectivists; ergo, A is not always A.</light-hearted>) But you already knew that.

You're right about the point you were trying to make, though. The nature and value of sex is a question for philosophy. Fascination with certain parts of the body over others and enjoyment of certain bedroom techniques over others is not. (Granted, philosophy's answer to the first question applies to the second; or: rape, self-asphyxiation, etc. are immoral.)

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I find that too often Objectivist's tend to have almost puritanical views towards sex.

I find that too many people on this forum have taken their views on sex right out of the libertarian textbook. "What's wrong with...?" "...consenting adults..." "...no rights violated..."

Imagine extending the same logic to nutrition. What would you think of a guy who eats excrement and drinks urine? Would you react by saying, "I wouldn't even go as far as to call it bizarre. Some people like the taste of s**t, what's wrong with that" ?

"If it feels good, do it" is not the standard to use if you are to live qua man.

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I find that too many people on this forum have taken their views on sex right out of the libertarian textbook. "What's wrong with...?" "...consenting adults..." "...no rights violated..."

Imagine extending the same logic to nutrition. What would you think of a guy who eats excrement and drinks urine? Would you react by saying, "I wouldn't even go as far as to call it bizarre. Some people like the taste of s**t, what's wrong with that" ?

"If it feels good, do it" is not the standard to use if you are to live qua man.

Not so fast.

Your post was a giant ad hominem. "Anyone who defends such and such sexual practices is a libertarian." Get real.

Look, I'm probably more of an "orthodox" Objectivist than anyone, and I don't agree that kinky sex is the equivalent of eating shit or drinking piss. Sex is not just physical; it is deeply emotional and psychological. Your approach to sex reminds me of a materialist's approach to consciousness; ie just a collection of atoms going through mechanical processes. There are many valid reasons for people to engage in erotic, "kinky", off-the-wall (non-injurious) sex. Personaly, I find a person with a healthy sexual imagination far more interesting than a person whose sexual views are indistinguishable from a medieval monk.

Your response was exactly the type I hade in mind when I made my post. If it feels good, is good, hurts no-one, and furthers my and my partner's sense of passion then I'll be damned if I'll accept guilt for it.

Look, you're probably a nice person. But with an attitude on sex like yours you would have made a great medieval inquisitor.

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First...lets define what a Fetish IS.

b : an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion : PREPOSSESSION c : an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression
from www.refdesk.com

I believe that to be in a healthy and productive sexual relationship, you must be an introspective person. A lot of people have desires that they are afraid or unwilling to analyze...which is part of the reason they are "fetishes" instead of an expression of will. People are controlled by the psychological need instead of controlling or being able to channel that need.

I think that if you really take pleasure from rough sex, that you need to analyze and know WHY you like that form of sexual pleasure to the exclusion of everything else.

If you have rational reasons for what you are doing and understand WHAT you are doing, why you are doing it, the repercussions (if any), and don't debase yourself to do it....then I don't see what the problem could be.

Sex is clear manifestation of a person's sense of life. Compare the scenes of

Dominique/Roark, Leo/Kira, and Dagny/anyone then compare it to the scene with James Taggart and Lilian Rearden.

If busting out the knives and cutting yourself/other people turns you on...that says a lot about who you are and what you respond to (pain, violence, inflicting harm on others, etc).

If you like to tie your partners arms to the bed post with a silk scarf and get "naughty" with them while they are helpless....that might seem "unconventional" to the more puritanical, but that can also be analyzed and categorized on an objective level.

Who is doing the categorization, though...and what would be the purpose of such categorization on a societal level?

I think sex is a very very very private and personal act. I'm not talking (nor would I be) about my own sexual experiences and I don't expect others to spill the beans (nor would I want them to do so).

Sex has to be evaluated on a personal level and a partner-partner level and that is the bottom line.

Sex should be kept IN the bedroom and not put forth for public judgment. If you choose to waive this right (such as porn stars) then you open yourself up to public criticism.

I guess I find this to be a moot point. I found this to be perfectly explained in the "Happiness" chapter of OPAR as well as in Nathaniel Branden's essay in The Virtue of Selfishness.

As long as you have a basic guide, the intricacies of specific fetishes (like bukake, foot fetishes) don't really need to be delved in to unless you are considering them and are worried about the ramifications.

If you can't figure out the pros and cons of a sex act, you probably shouldn't be doing it anyways.

As I said earlier and will re-emphasize:Sex has to be evaluated on a personal level and a partner-partner level and that is the bottom line.

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I can't believe everyone's taking this thread so seriously! I thought it was a joke. Who cares if people want to engage in this kind of stuff? It's not "libertarian" to say people can do whatever they want as long as they don't hurt one another, in the privacy of their own bedrooms. No one has made any sort of rational argument to show that any nonviolent sexual practice is immoral. Weird, yes - bukake gives me the creeps - but I don't see how it's evil if it makes people happy, and there's no way to prove that it is. Sex and nutrition are different, because nutrition is a matter of physical health. Eating feces will kill you. Licking someone's feet will not.

Sex is too complex to try to place into convenient moral categories. We don't yet understand enough about the biopsychological mechanisms that cause people to like certain things. Any attempt to morally judge nonviolent sexual practices amounts to what Rand called "psychologizing."

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I strongly disagree with Skywalker's post. Every action one takes (or fails to take) has potential consequences to his life, and is thus on some level subject to moral judgment. That is, every action is in some way analogous to nutrition. After all, we're concerned with more than just physical health, since a human being is an integration of mind and body.

That said, what's really at issue here is the level of moral optionality within sexual practices. Obviously there is optionality regarding what one eats, but that does not mean that it is moral to eat absolutely anything and one's eating habits are exempt from judgment because it is "private" or "nonviolent." That is purely libertarian nonsense. I think what people are reacting to here is the tendency of many Objectivists to limit the legitimate range of optionality within sex. But that doesn't mean, "Well, as long as they're consenting adults, anything goes!" Well, it does (or should) mean that legally, but not morally.

Edited by AshRyan
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I think "fetishes" is an non-concept, as it includes the chosen, but unusual, sexual practices (which can be moral or immoral), and the unchosen, abnormal sexual tendencies that one cannot change at will (which are immoral only on certain cases, and only if acted upon).

Some of these tendencies are immoral if you actually practice them. As I understand it, most professionals today view Pedophilia as an unchosen disease, that can only be treated with suppressing drugs. But there is a difference between having abnormal sexual reactions and practicing them in a case where it is clearly immoral.

Homosexuality is a case of an abnormal sexual tendency that is perfectly moral to practice (assuming this is not a "lifestyle" choice, but a real, fixed, sexual tendency).

I guess if someone is turned on, for some reason, by blue suede shoes... he can practice it without hurting anyone, including himself. But... some "fetishes" are not that benign.

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AshRyan, can you give me an example of a non-physically harmful sexual act that would be immoral, and the reason why? I am referring to something that is outside what you call the "legitimate range of optionality."

A couple additional comments - first, I didn't say there's no sexual act that can be psychologically harmful. I said to attempt to deem certain acts mentally harmful (and thus immoral) amounts to psychologizing, because there is not yet an objective standard for doing so. If you can present a satisfactory one to me, I will change my position. But my opinion is that it is a task for the science of biopsychology, not philosophy. One would have to fully understand why certain things make certain people sexually excited, and be certain that one has complete volitional control over these things. This understanding requires scientific proof.

Second, in a tangentially related topic, I didn't say that not every action has an effect on one's life. What I meant to say was - many actions have a NEGLIGIBLE effect. Combing one's hair, for example, cannot be compared to nutrition - its effect on one's being is not worth noting. It is an overstatement to say EVERY action has a significant enough effect on one's well-being to be comparable to proper or improper nutrition.

In this context, I see the difference in effect on one's well-being between standard missionary sex, and menage a trois, or a foot fetish, as negligable. Homosexual sex is a broader topic with more issues to consider, but if one looks at the thread concerning it on this site, one will see not a single argument proving it is immoral or psychologically damaging. If you can offer one, I would like to hear it.

As for the nutrition issue - Is it immoral to eat a poor diet? What if someone loves hamburgers and french fries? He could make the conscious decision that, because he derives so much pleasure from eating them, he would rather continue eating them and risk heart disease, because his life would be significantly less pleasurable without them. This constitues choosing his own values, and setting his own terms for life. Is it irrational? Perhaps it is immoral to eat carelessly, without regard for one's health, but if one chooses to enjoy a shorter life by eating tasty junk food, rather than living a long life of despised tofu and veggies, that is a rational decision, is it not?

Sorry for the long post, AshRyan, but I've respected your opinion on other threads and would fully understand your disagreement with me here.

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AshRyan, can you give me an example of a non-physically harmful sexual act that would be immoral, and the reason why?

I am not speaking for Ash -- I am confident he can speak for himself if he so wishes -- but I would say that any sex act for which the purpose was to degrade and humiliate, rather than elevate and celebrate, would be immoral. Sex is an acknowledgement and response to values, and the particular values which are being served are open to moral judgment.

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But that doesn't mean, "Well, as long as they're consenting adults, anything goes!"  Well, it does (or should) mean that legally, but not morally.

BINGO! The mistake the "libertarian textbook" folks make is that they fail to distinguish between the rightful and the moral. All that is unrightful is immoral, but not all that is rightful is moral.

You can rightfully do anything you want to as long as you don't violate the rights of another individual. But you can morally do only that which benefits your life the most. If, at any one time, you can choose among a thousand things to do, but 200 of them go against somebody's rights, then you have 800 legal options. But that doesn't mean you have 800 moral options; you have only one moral option: that which is the best for your life.

If you have a choice between any two things and you knowingly choose the worse of them, you are being immoral.

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I am not speaking for Ash -- I am confident he can speak for himself if he so wishes -- but I would say that any sex act for which the purpose was to degrade and humiliate, rather than elevate and celebrate, would be immoral.  Sex is an acknowledgement and response to values, and the particular values which are being served are open to moral judgment.

Thank you, Stephen, and that is a good summary of what I had in mind.

I will, however, add a few brief remarks in response to Skywalker's last post.

...I didn't say that not every action has an effect on one's life. What I meant to say was - many actions have a NEGLIGIBLE effect. Combing one's hair, for example, cannot be compared to nutrition - its effect on one's being is not worth noting. It is an overstatement to say EVERY action has a significant enough effect on one's well-being to be comparable to proper or improper nutrition.
The difference is only one of degree. Even seemingly minor issues, like combing one's hair, can have serious long-term consequences on one's life and happiness. If one doesn't make much effort to look well-groomed, it betrays a lack of a sense of self-dignity, which could lead to fewer opportunities in employment, romance, etc. In other words, minor values can have significant effects on major ones in the long-term. (I recommend Tara Smith's book, Viable Values, for a fuller discussion of this point.)

And anyway, I would strongly object to putting one's sex life on the level of combing one's hair.

I said to attempt to deem certain acts mentally harmful (and thus immoral) amounts to psychologizing, because there is not yet an objective standard for doing so. If you can present a satisfactory one to me, I will change my position. But my opinion is that it is a task for the science of biopsychology, not philosophy. One would have to fully understand why certain things make certain people sexually excited, and be certain that one has complete volitional control over these things. This understanding requires scientific proof.

I agree that it is for the most part the task of psychology, rather than philosophy, to evaluate particular sex acts. But philosophy provides us with the standard of evaluation, and can certainly tell us at least that it is a volitional issue. I do not need to be an expert in biology to be certain of that.

I think that this is for the most part a non-issue, because while I do agree with you to a certain extent that evaluating other peoples' sex lives would be psychologizing (particularly in border-line cases), it really doesn't come up that much because most people tend to keep that information to themselves. But on rare occasions when you are aware of the sexual practices of someone you know, there are some cases in which the purpose is obviously to degrade and humiliate. And that would tell you something relevant about their character.

As an aside (although it may be taken as relevantly analogous to the main topic):

...if one chooses to enjoy a shorter life by eating tasty junk food, rather than living a long life of despised tofu and veggies, that is a rational decision, is it not?

I think this is a false alternative. Our range of choices there is simply much richer than that: we can certainly use moderation in making these kinds of decision, and besides, it's not the case that no healthy foods are enjoyable. There's much more I could say about this, but I think I'll leave it at that.

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Am I wrong in thinking that the "level" of immorality is subject to scale or value? For instance, eating junk food may be immoral on a very small scale as it is generally unhealthy, while flaying myself open with a razor during an act of sexual pleasure is much more immoral? Shouldn't there be a sense of proportion attached to these concepts?

VES

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Am I wrong in thinking that the "level" of immorality is subject to scale or value?  For instance, eating junk food may be immoral on a very small scale as it is generally unhealthy, while flaying myself open with a razor during an act of sexual pleasure is much more immoral?  Shouldn't there be a sense of proportion attached to these concepts?

VES

I think it's important to keep in mind the context. Eating one candy bar and flaying yourself open have different effects on your life. A candy bar provides a certain amount of nourishment, while tasting good at the same time. And, uh, flaying yourself open physically wounds you, placing your life at risk to infection or other problems.

Now, if you stuffed yourself with candy bar after candy bar, that would cause you serious problems too, due to overdose of sugar.

The "level of immorality" is subject to reality. Is what you are doing harmful to your life? If so, how harmful?

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There is no sense of proportion that I can see. There is only reality. Is what you are doing truly harmful to your life?

I know that wasn't the best example, but you get no argument from be about context. That I understand fully.

However, I don't see proportion at odds with reality either. And one also has to define the term "truly harmful".

Is it "truly harmful" to burn oneself with a cigarette during sex? A lighter? A branding iron? A blowtorch? Or aren't there degrees of destructiveness involved in each of those pursuits? (none of which it would appear that Rand would accept as moral)

I point again back to Rand's quote, which I rather think offered a reasonable guideline. She uses the phrase "any form of destructiveness or faking". She doesn't specifically say that it is immoral, but I think it's a logical interpretation to think that since she excludes that from her idea of injurious sex being "reality-oriented".

To take this out of the realm of sex, consider the act of smoking

cigarettes. The context doesn't have to change with the quantity smoked, but the level of destructiveness will. 1 cig a day? 5 cigs a day? etc. etc. At some point you will reach a level where it is truly harmful to you, but if you smoked even more, it would be even more truly harmful to you. Thus, degrees of harm and degrees of immorality.

VES

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