Laurie Shrage is Professor of Philosophy at Florida International University in Miami. Her books include Abortion and Social Responsibility (Oxford 2003), Moral Dilemmas of Feminism (Routledge 1994), an edited collection You’ve Changed: Sex Reassignment and Personal Identity (Oxford 2009), and the co-authored textbook Philosophizing About Sex (Broadview 2015). She served as co-editor of Hypatia from 1998-2003.
Q. How did you get interested in the philosophy of sex and love?
LS: As a grad student in Philosophy, I was mostly interested in the Philosophy of Language, and wrote my dissertation in this area. But I have always been very interested in politics, and was active in various feminist and anti-war political groups. While in grad school, I was contacted by some feminists activists I knew who asked if I was interested in organizing a meeting between reproductive right activists and prostitutes’ rights activists. COYOTE, a group based in San Francisco, had contacted our local NOW chapter, and they were interested in meeting with local feminists to discuss the overlapping aims of feminist and sex worker activists. The NOW folks could not find anyone willing to meet with the COYOTE representatives, and so I agreed to help set up this meeting. These efforts led to Margo St. James, founder of COYOTE, coming to San Diego to talk about how the movements for abortion rights and sex worker rights were linked. I organized and advertised this event, but unfortunately very few local feminists showed up.
In the late 1970s, few feminists were interested in the prostitutes’ rights movement, and some were overly skeptical about the feminist credentials of its leaders. However, because St. James was well known within the Libertarian Party, she drew a large crowd. St. James’s talk convinced me that sex worker rights activists were raising important feminist issues, and the demands of this movement deserved a wider hearing among feminist activists. After I finished graduate school, I wrote “Should Feminists Oppose Prostitution?” which was my first attempt to evaluate the social and political agenda of the prostitutes’ rights movement, as it existed in 1980s. Writing this paper, and the responses I got, made me realize that I could combine my interests in feminism with my work in Philosophy, which changed the course of my career. Also, refocusing my research on feminist topics allowed me to connect with feminist scholars across the academy, which I found more intellectually dynamic and supportive than the male dominated spaces of academic Philosophy, in part because Philosophy was so hostile to feminist scholarship.
Not surprisingly, researching the legal status and social implications of prostitution drew me to the broader study of the philosophy of sex and love. When I was hired at Cal Poly Pomona, I was asked to teach a course in this area. I have been teaching courses on the philosophy of love and sex since 1987.
Q. What project are you working on now?
LS: I’ve been researching and writing about the connection between mass incarceration and the spike in HIV/AIDS rates among African Americans. Understanding this relationship is important, of course, for devising better policies for addressing this epidemic. But studying existing explanations for the spread of HIV/AIDS provides fertile ground for exploring how cultural and social biases shape scientific theorizing. In the U.S., responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis have been hampered by erroneous and invidious assumptions about gay men, sex workers, and black Americans.
Q. Is your work related to events in the news? Do you see your ideas as having practical implications?
LS: My research has practical implications for our legal policies in regard to purchasing and selling sex, and strategies for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. I¹ve contributed pieces to the NYT “The Stone” series on marriage laws, compulsory fatherhood, HIV disclosure laws, and decriminalizing prostitution, which are based on my professional work.
Q. Do you teach courses related to philosophy of sex and love? What kinds of topics do you include? What are some of the positive things or challenges you find teaching these subjects?
LS: I co-authored a textbook with Scott Stewart called Philosophizing About Sex, in part because I was not satisfied with existing texts. I¹m now using our book, and so I refer you to its table of contents to see what I teach.
Q. Is it important to do “public philosophy” for philosophy of sex and love? If yes, what are some ways to facilitate that?
LS: I started doing “public philosophy” when I began attending conferences organized by sex workers, and listening to their critiques of feminist scholarship. I learned a great deal from these public forums, and I think this has benefitted my work. When we share our work with larger audiences, and try to make sense of the responses we get, we are less likely to operate in an intellectual bubble.
Q. Do you have any advice for young scholars interested in this area?
There’s so much great work being done today by philosophers about love and sex that this may be a good time to start a journal. I would encourage any mid-career philosopher who likes editing work to think about taking on such a project.