Ann J. Cahill is professor of philosophy at Elon University. She is the author of Rethinking Rape (2001) and Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics (2011). She was also the co-editor, with Kathryn J. Norlock and Byron Stoyles, of a special issue of the Journal of Social Philosophy dedicated to the theme of miscarriage and fetal death.
Q: What are your main interests in SPSL?
AC: I’ve written extensively on sexual violence, but I’m also interested in questions of sexual attraction and orientation. In all of my research, I’m interested in how various forms of systemic inequality (racism, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism, ageism, cis-normativity) are implicated, often intersectionally, in common assumptions about what sexuality is, what characterizes ethical sexual interactions, and what sexuality can mean to contemporary human beings. Most centrally, perhaps, I’m interested in how we understand ourselves as sexual subjects enmeshed in systems marked by oppressive power dynamics.
Q: How did you get interested in the philosophy of sex and love?
AC: My research interests have always unfolded at the intersection of feminist theory and philosophy of the body, and my first book was on rape, so I was interested in questions of sexual politics and ethics from the very start of my career.
Q: What project are you working on now?
AC: I’m at the earliest stages of a new project that will explore the social, political, and ethical aspects of the phenomenon of voice. Here, I’m not interested in voice as metaphor, which is mostly how the term crops up in feminist theory (such as in Carol Gilligan’s famously titled work “In a Different Voice”). I’m interested instead in voice as a bodily and material phenomenon, one that is situated and emerges in the context of various forms of systemic inequalities. I’m more interested here in sound rather than speech, although I do want to question the relation between the two, and wonder whether (as some scholars have claimed) speech is the destiny of voice. In terms of the philosophy of sex and love, this new project will raise questions for me about the sonorous aspects of sexual attraction, and how they are influenced and shaped by systemic inequalities.
Q: Is your work related to events in the news? Do you see your ideas as having practical implications?
AC: My work on sexual violence and sexual ethics more generally is all too easy to connect to contemporary politics. For at least the last decade, whenever I’ve explained to someone my research on sexual violence, they have responded, usually with astonishment, by saying “Wow, that is so relevant to what’s going right now with the church/the military/academia/the election!” Sexual harassment and violence have had a constant presence in the media for at least ten years, and yet it seems that they’re still received with surprise and shock. I’m not shocked, but I remain outraged, and I hope my work can help my students and anyone who reads it to understand this persistent social phenomenon better. More practically, I’m lucky enough to be at an institution that considers feminist scholars to have expertise rather than bias, so I’ve been able to work with my university’s policies and practices about sexual harassment and violence to make them as progressive as possible. I’ve also done some research on blanket mandatory reporter policies that many US colleges and universities have adopted in response to pressure regarding Title IX compliance; I argue in that research that policies that require all faculty and staff to serve as mandatory reporters are not in fact required by law and are damaging to survivors. I try to give that talk at as many colleges and universities as possible, so that other faculty can be empowered to influence their institution’s policies.
Obviously, the recent results of the US presidential election highlight the political threats to the rights of female-identified persons and members of the LGBTQIA community, as well as multiple other, intersecting groups. Some of those political threats are directly aimed at the sexual lives of US citizens — for example, we now have a president-elect who favors conversion therapy for queer folk, and it’s reasonable to believe that one reason the soon to be governing political party is willing to work with avowed white supremacists is because of a shared desire to undermine reproductive rights. And we should not forget that a driving force behind those white supremacists is the fear of the browning of the country, a phenomenon that is occurring not only through immigration, but through the development of affective ties that are sometimes associated with sexual reproduction. Philosophers of sex and love need to step up at this crucial time to articulate the importance of sexual subjectivity, autonomy, and diversity in the polis, and to push back against the forces of normalization that impose discrimination, violence, and marginalization on so many human beings.
Q: What are some of your favorite books, movies, or other works of art that relate to issues in philosophy of sex and love?
AC: I’m going to choose some that aren’t quite as well read as some of the obvious ones, in the hopes of boosting their signal! I think Rosalyn DiProse’s Corporeal Generosity is wonderful, and holds some really important possibilities for a positive feminist philosophy (and ethics) of sexual interactions. William Wilkerson’s The Ambiguity of Sexual Desire is both philosophically rich and brave, as it takes on the culturally dominant assumption that sexual orientation is innate or hard-wired (that we are “born this way”). In terms of art, I’m currently obsessed with the work of my sister-in-law Nancy Baker Cahill, whose “Surd” series is inspired by the work of Susan Brison and others. I know she’s related to me, so this might be seen as rank nepotism, but the double tension in her drawings (both within the fibrous, body-like, muscle-like elements and the between those elements and the even, perfect dots that overlay them) seems to articulate so much about contemporary experiences of embodiment. I just love them.
Q: Why is the philosophy of sex and love particularly important and/or difficult to do well, in your view?
AC: It’s important because for many human beings, it’s a hugely important part of their lives, of how they relate (or don’t relate) to other human beings, and of how they relate (or don’t relate) to themselves. That’s one reason why it bothers me when some forms of philosophy of sex and love try to take all of the life out of it. Reducing questions of sex and love to cognitive or logical tensions ignores the fact that we live these questions in our own bodies, every day. And of course the fact that sex and love are lived experiences explains precisely why it’s difficult to address them well philosophically: to do so, we really have to grapple with bodily differences, the many intersections between materiality, politics, and culture, and our own deep investments in our beliefs about our selves, our bodies, and our culture. There are many, many minefields, and I’m sure I’ve set more than a few off in my work! But it seems just too important a set of questions not to explore as courageously and carefully as we can.