Interview with Tom Digby


Tom Digby‘s bio: I grew up in Arkansas, steeped in fundamentalist, conservative values, like sexism, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and classism. I was gradually liberated from all that through the study of philosophy at William Jewell College, a relatively progressive Baptist school in Missouri. After a stint in law school, I went to Northwestern University to study phenomenology, but had to drop out because of the Vietnam War. After several years during which I worked as a professor, entrepreneur, and nonprofit administrator, I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder for a PhD, which led to an assortment of academic appointments, all with heavy teaching loads. I’ve managed to get two books published, most recently Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance (Columbia University Press, 2015). I published an anthology called Men Doing Feminism with Routledge in 1998. I’ve given numerous multimedia presentations on feminism, masculinity, love, and militarism, both as public events on various campuses and at conferences. Information about those public lectures and the books are available at my webpage.

Q: What are your main interests in SPSL?

TD: I’m mainly interested in how masculinity and misogyny (and the intersections of the two) corrupt love, sex, and life in general. But over the many years I’ve been a part of SPSL, I’ve been thoroughly engaged by the work that many SPSL members have done on a range of other topics.

Q: How did you get interested in the philosophy of sex and love?

TD: It’s hard for me to imagine any human being not being engaged by these subjects! But in my particular case, there was a confluence of life circumstances that sparked a special interest in the philosophy of sex and love.

One of my dissertation advisors at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the late Phyllis Kenevan, introduced me to feminist theory in 1982. The impact was powerful and immediate. It changed my life as a philosopher and as a person, forever. It also happened to occur when I had been stunned by the breakup of a long marriage. From the first few paragraphs I read of a paper Phyllis had just written, it was clear that feminist theory could help me see mistakes I had made, and to understand how they had undermined a deeply loving and long-lasting relationship. Feminist theory also facilitated a warm friendship with my former wife that has continued in the decades since.

From the point of my introduction to feminist theory forward, I was never able to disentangle philosophy from gender, nor love and sex from feminist theory. I had also learned, in a quite compelling manner, what a profound difference philosophy in general, and feminist philosophy in particular, can make in a person’s life. In my own case, they have profoundly enhanced my relationships in the contexts of friendship, teaching, work, and love.

My interest in philosophy of love and sex eventually lead to teaching courses on the subject in the 1990s. Then I started giving talks on the subject on other campuses and at conferences. Those talks eventually morphed into my Love and War book.

Q: What project are you working on now?

TD: I’m working on multiple projects. First is to try to introduce the ideas in my recent book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance, to the widest possible audience, in order to maximize its impact in people’s lives, and in society.  I just think that any progress related to either gender or militarism requires an understanding of the interrelations of gender and militarism that I describe and explain in the book. Toward the end of enhancing the impact of the book’s insights, I’ve been giving some extremely well-received public multimedia lectures. I’m also planning a YouTube series. Oh, and I finally have a website:!

For several years, I’ve been working on another book project, consisting of a phenomenology of racism, rooted in my own experience growing up in (and being culturally programmed by) a white supremacist culture in Arkansas. That project will also incorporate some of the ideas about militarism that are discussed in my Love and War book.

Another project was going to be a chapter for Love and War titled “Post-Militaristic Philosophy,” but in the end it just didn’t seem to fit well. It started out as an invited talk for a FEAST panel on teaching, and then became a workshop for the faculty of Wabash College on “Post-Militaristic Pedagogy.” In the Acknowledgments section of Love and War, I say this: “Under the influence of Janice Moulton’s articles on adversariality in philosophy, I have striven to use description and explanation, rather than argument, in hopes of making this book an example of non-adversarial philosophy, or as I call it, postmilitaristic philosophy.” Obviously, much of the great work in philosophy, and in feminist philosophy specifically, has relied on argument. However, nonadversarial approaches to philosophy do offer some important philosophical and pedagogical advantages, which I’ll describe when I turn my notes for the FEAST talk and Wabash workshop into an article, or maybe something longer.

Finally, like so many other people, the shock of the election has re-energized my interest in political activism. I participated in the Women’s March (Hartford), have become involved with a local Indivisible group (Action Together Connecticut), and I’ve been doing phone calls. This is just a start, of course.

Q: Is your work related to events in the news? Do you see your ideas as having practical implications?

TD: Oh definitely! I have followed the news closely all of my life, and I think probably everything I’ve ever published was related to current events, even if that was not always explicit. Maybe that’s why I am so attracted to pragmatism: when I write, lecture, and teach, my main motivation is to make a difference in people’s lives. I cannot imagine doing philosophy any other way! Throughout the Love and War book, I make frequent use of items from the news and popular culture, and the last two chapters address how war and gender are changing in interconnected ways. That would be an example of how I think of philosophy can be a way to navigate a rapidly changing culture – isn’t that one of the reasons Socrates was so important in his time?

Q: Why is the philosophy of sex and love particularly important and/or difficult to do well, in your view?

It has been my experience (and I’ve heard the same from many others) that it’s difficult to write or teach about sexuality without feeling constrained by the puritanism that pervades U.S. culture. I can give you a not so usual example: when I emailed the manuscript of Love and War to Columbia University Press as an attachment, it did not go through. After several days of detective work, I discovered that all the chapters could be emailed individually, except for chapter 3. That happens to be the chapter in which I discuss gonzo porn, with some quite graphic language. Apparently the email system had some kind of “moral filter” that objected to some of the descriptions of gonzo porn that I quoted from Gail Dines’ book, Pornland. (I was eventually able to get the entire manuscript submitted by emailing a dropbox link.)

Over the years, I’ve heard many other philosophers who work on sex and love talk about the puritanical constraints we experience regarding what can be discussed in class, and how explicitly it can be discussed. This factor limits the meaningfulness our philosophical work can have in the lives of our students. I have the impression that these constraints are even more problematic now than they were 25 years ago.

A bigger and broader challenge in writing about love is that even many professional philosophers have difficulty breaking free of what I call cultural programming (which is a crucial concept throughout Love and War). Philosophy offers some tools that can help us break free of our cultural programming, but we have to find them in what can be a rather cluttered methodological toolbox, as well as learn to use them for this specific liberatory purpose. I have found phenomenology and pragmatism to be especially useful tools, but the best tools – and strategies – have come specifically from feminist theory. I personally find it difficult to imagine how anyone can write usefully about love without relying on the insights and methodologies of feminist philosophy!

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?

TD: I’m not teaching at the moment, having formally “retired” in 2015, although I do hope for teaching opportunities in the future. Two of the great things about teaching philosophy of love are (1) it is a topic that virtually all students find immediately engaging (which is not the case for all areas of philosophy, sadly); (2) it provides opportunities to exploit that starting point of student engagement to discuss so many other themes, topics, and areas of philosophy. E.g., selfhood, truth, free will, morality, and sociocultural criticism can all be addressed in the context of a philosophy of love course.

Q: Is your work interdisciplinary? If yes, what are other methodologies and disciplines you make use of, and how are they useful to you?

TD: I’ve been fortunate that my academic positions have never required me to stay within the disciplinary confines of philosophy. And certainly my Love and War book is not confined therein, either. I am especially fond of using diverse examples from anthropology to contextualize my teaching and writing about Western culture. For example, Manhood in the Making, by anthropologist David Gilmore, offers a wide array of examples of how masculinity is constructed in diverse societies around the globe, and students love it. In some ways, it is more pedagogically and philosophically useful than what some philosophers have written about masculinity. When students read this book, it becomes very difficult for them to generalize about men and masculinity, while simultaneously they can identify patterns that prevail specifically in culturally militaristic societies.

Complementary to the Gilmore book is Beyond War, by anthropologist Douglas Fry. He discusses many societies that are not, to use my term, war-reliant, quite effectively debunking the idea that humans are naturally prone to engage in war.

Together, those two books powerfully convey the contingency of gender and human violence, and of the intersections of those two things.

Q: Is it important to do “public philosophy” for philosophy of sex and love? If yes, what are some ways to facilitate that?

TD: Philosophy of sex and love are perfect areas for doing public philosophy, and engaging in that project is incredibly important to me.

I have to say that I view my  Love and War book as a contribution to public philosophy, in the sense that it was written for a general audience, and with the goal of having some measure of sociopolitical impact. From the time it was published, I have tried to use Facebook as a way to share some of the insights of Love and War, and to apply them to current events and the broader culture. It’s hard to know how successful that effort has been, but it has contributed to a lot of “friend requests,” and happily many of those are from non-academics. I’m still getting the hang of Twitter, so if anyone wants to mentor me, that would be welcome!

I should note that a number of younger philosophers are leading the way in public philosophy, and I greatly admire them. This blog is a great example – a big thanks to Helga and Patricia! Another great example is the Feminist Philosophers blog. I hope to do better soon at following in the footsteps of these younger philosophers.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I’d like to briefly clarify some points about my Love and War book.

First, Love and War was written for a general audience. I discuss the work of numerous other feminist writers in the book, but I did not intend the book to be a summation of important feminist work on militarism and gender. Hence, there are many important writings on that subject that I greatly value, but that did not fit into this particular project.

Second, as I said when interviewed by Myisha Cherry in The UnMute Podcast, Episode 17, “Although biological considerations are not altogether irrelevant to masculinity, prioritizing them often camouflages cultural factors. So in my Love and War book I try to bring those cultural elements out into the open, to expose them, so that there is more freedom around them.” I explain in the book why the assumption that biological factors are generally determinative of men’s violence is (1) ill-founded, and (2) reflective of cultural programming in militaristic societies, to which philosophers and other scholars are not immune. For anyone interested in a more thorough debunking of myths about science and gender, I recommend Cordelia Fine’s new book, Testosterone Rex, as well as her earlier work, including Delusions of Gender.

Third, throughout the process of writing Love and War I was mindful of various forms of resistance to feminism. That was the case when I offered what I call a “minimal” definition: “feminism is a preference that girls and women not be subjected (by society or individuals) to disadvantage just because they are girls or women.” I go on to explain several advantages of this definition, including that “it throws into relief the misogyny that is integral to opposition to feminism as I have described it: an antifeminist would be someone who rejects the preference that girls and women not be subjected to disadvantage solely on the basis of their being girls or women, thereby either endorsing such disadvantage or lacking concern about it, either of which allows an antipathy toward girls and women to come into full view.” My understanding of feminism is pragmatic, rather than normative, which has the advantages explained in the book, one of which appears in the just-quoted passage.

Obviously, many philosophers embrace a normative approach to social phenomena, but I’m part of a long and strong tradition that finds such an approach problematic. A thorough discussion of that would not fit here. However, if my book had not already gone to print, I would add a word to that definition of feminism, so that it would read “a committed preference….” That might have made it even clearer than it is already that I am by no means talking about feminism as a “mere” preference.  Anyone who knows me well knows that my commitment to feminism is profound, as well as pervasive in every aspect of my life. Indeed, I would say that my commitment to feminism defines me both professionally and personally.

Interview with Scott Anderson

andersonScott Anderson’s Bio: I was born in 1964 in Chesterton, Indiana, raised there, and attended Indiana University majoring in Economics and Mathematics. I spent two years in the Peace Corps (Nepal) before going to graduate school in philosophy, about which I knew nearly nothing. (I know more now.) After a remarkably long time in graduate school at the University of Chicago (well, remarkable anywhere else), I took a one-year position at SUNY-Albany, and am now associate professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. (See also my personal webpage).

Q: What are your main interests in SPSL?

SA: I’ll simply list a number of topics I have published on, and a couple I expect to publish on, as a way of locating myself in this field. I have published papers on prostitution and sexual autonomy, aggressive dating/seduction practices, whether sexual promises are binding, the definition of privacy, the definition of rape, and sexual objectification. I have written but not yet published on sexual harassment, and on the prospects for egalitarianism in the choosing of romantic partners (a topic I am working on with Patricia Marino).

Q: Is your work related to events in the news? Do you see your ideas as having practical implications?

SA: As you can judge from the topics I’ve published on, my work concerns things that are often in the news and practically significant—unfortunately so, in most cases. Of course it is depressing that gender-based oppression is still so entrenched, but there is some reason for optimism, I think, in that it is becoming harder and harder for ordinary people to look away from, feign ignorance of, or be indifferent to the victims of such harms. Ultimately, I think that will drive real behavior change, because the expected, tacit support for such forms of intolerable behavior is slowly but surely being eroded, at least in the places I’m familiar with.

Q: Why is the philosophy of sex and love particularly important and/or difficult to do well, in your view?

SA: Philosophy of any sort is difficult to do well, so the philosophy of sex/love is no different in that respect. However, I think sex and love as philosophical topics have been hobbled (in mainstream analytic philosophy, anyway) by the fact that they involve parts of the body and parts of human life that mainstream analytic philosophy disdains or finds alien, irrational, or too political. And of course women have been treated particularly dismissively (or worse) by most of the canonical authors and texts, leaving a gaping hole in their canvassing of human life. So people who want to work in this area have comparatively fewer and less widely acknowledged foundations on which to build and to warrant recognition for doing something serious and worthwhile. That has long been an obstacle and disincentive to doing work in this area, though of course many have gone ahead and done good work nonetheless. My sense is that this is changing, if only because the pressure to take up novel areas of investigation is now making under-explored areas of philosophy more tempting to younger scholars, and because the impact of previous theoretical work in this area is becoming easier to recognize. A number of areas of feminist philosophy in particular can lay claim to successes that have become part of mainstream culture and thinking, and these successes do, I think, tend to encourage more interest.

Q: How did you get interested in the philosophy of sex and love?

SA: I’ll be somewhat expansive on this question, since I don’t know when or if I’ll be asked this again. My philosophical interests in general might be described as reflecting a desire to reverse-engineer human systems, to try to understand how they work, and to describe the role that our ideas and thinking play in creating and changing those systems. That’s all very abstract, but I hope this thought will become clearer in due course. My interest in the philosophy of sex and gender has been overdetermined, I suppose, by my interest in “human systems,” by my graduate school teachers, and by the way my personal history and experiences have intersected with the time period in which I live.

My mother was no feminist, by theory or training or temperament, but she was not exactly typical for her era, in that she was a small-business owner and manager (along with my father), who jointly worked for and eventually inherited the nursery business her father and grandfather started. During the time her father/my grandfather was involved in the business, my father, who married into the business, drew a paycheck, but my mother worked for her father for no pay (mostly), because that was expected of her, as his daughter and as a wife and mother—that is, not a full-time employee. This was in spite of the fact that she was the main salesperson, landscape designer, and office manager (it wasn’t a big business). (I’m sure my grandmother, who was similarly situated, never drew a paycheck either.) I’m not sure when she came to the realization that this was not a fair situation; I remember her complaining of it during the period her father (an irascible bully) was finally forced by ill health to loosen his grip on the business, but perhaps she had been resentful of the situation long before. I know that she equally or more concerned that she might lose the value of her contributions to the business if her widowed father had chosen to remarry, and thus prevented the business from coming to her by inheritance at his death. (This did not happen, but it was not an unreasonable fear.)

All of this now seems to me incredibly unjust and harmful, but growing up, much of this was little discussed and/or seemed unexceptional, and I think her working for free may have seemed tolerable to her as well, at least until later in her life when the precariousness of her situation became more apparent; at least it was not something I ever heard her complain of before she took over the business. Both my parents went to college (which was rare among their peers), and worked equally hard in their business and as parents, they yet followed otherwise fairly stereotypical gender roles at home. (My mother attempted to inculcate these in me and my brother as well, but with only middling success, at least in my case.) My mother was by turns both very happy and very unhappy with the way her life went, as it was significantly constrained by aspects of feminine gender roles, some of which suited and some of which grated on her. It took much longer than I would wish for me to see how challenging things had been for her, in part, I think, because both my parents were fantastic parents, and supported my brother and me in our wildly impractical aspirations, career paths, and life choices. So I was largely oblivious to the considerable friction of her situation until its effects on her became much more apparent than they were when I was growing up.

I grew up in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, a time when the sexual revolution of the 60s and the achievements of its women’s movement were starting to become institutionalized and set into law, though the process was halting and incomplete (which it remains today). The start of my graduate school career in 1991 coincided with the hearings on Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which were something of a watershed moment for a kind of public consciousness about feminism and sex equality. I did not at the time know much about sexual harassment as a legal or cultural issue, but it did strike me around that time that the concept was not one I had grown up with, though I certainly had seen and knew of plenty of the kind of behavior it identifies. Upon later reflection and reading, I came to see this concept as a paradigmatic example of the way theorists could add something powerful and important to our understanding of our world, by identifying and throwing light on a practice and at the same time making it possible to criticize and revise it. As I learned more about feminism as an intellectual movement and practice, I became much more fully aware of the way heteronormative gender practices and roles had shaped my own background and understanding of the world, and how inequality was built into this system in ways that I was only just becoming aware of.

My development in graduate school at the University of Chicago was largely due to two amazing thinkers—Candace Vogler and Martha Nussbaum—I had the privilege of studying under. Both taught versions of courses in feminism and philosophy, though with very different emphases. Both also had real commitments to feminist philosophical practices, bore scars from things feminism opposes, and saw feminist philosophical practices as part of doing big-picture philosophy right. So their willingness to guide me in this area was a gift that even I, a guy who remains a bit slow on the uptake, was not dim-witted enough to turn down. I also credit Catharine MacKinnon’s work and the privilege of sitting in on her seminar on sexual harassment for much of my own growth as a thinker on these issues.

And I suppose that like many philosophers, my own personal quirks and insecurities play a role in my interest in certain topics in philosophy. As a straight, white, economically stable, able-bodied cis-male and ordinarily decent person, I am able to compare myself to many other such people with respect to how we have fared within heteronormative practices in finding love, sex, romance, affirmation, companionship and the like. And I think it is fair to say that by comparison to a lot of them, I have been pretty ineffective, notwithstanding the fact that I have been together for about 7 years now with a lovable, sympatico woman. So I have a personal interest in what differentiates the romantically and relationally successful people (whether that success is in a single long-term relationship or in a wealth of shorter-terms pairings) from people like myself for whom that has been a much harder good to come by. I have just barely begun to think systematically about this, but this sore spot has been a continual prod to my thinking in this area.

Q: Do you work in other areas of philosophy as well? How does your work in philosophy of sex and love relate to your work in other areas?

SA: Beginning with my dissertation, the main focus of my writing has been coercion, trying to understand both the practical tool that people and states use to constrain or alter the behavior of others, as well as our concept coercion, which figures in various theories, laws, and claims. Theorists and laws appeal to a concept of coercion when they want to criticize it, regulate it, excuse people for responding to it, and so forth. I find extremely interesting the role that coercion (the tool) plays in organizing society, but also am interested in its limits and preconditions that determine what it can and cannot achieve. For a number of reasons, I think it would be useful to have a widely shared, univocal concept to track uses of coercion for purposes of ethics, political theory, and action theory. So the main thread of my writing has been to develop such a conceptual elaboration of coercion. Understanding how coercion works, what distinguishes it from other interactions, and how we should regulate its use ought to play a foundational role in political theory and ethics, so I hope to be contributing to our ability to do this kind of theorizing well.

On my account, coercion depends on the existence of power differentials between agents (or, more generally, between kinds of agents). Such power differentials are not necessarily or always problematic (for instance, there are reasons to want the government to have more power than other entities in a society). But many power differentials are quite problematic, such as the hierarchies associated with male gender dominance, heteronormativity, and racism. So I have found the field of issues in sex and gender to be a good source of inspiration and application for my work on coercion, and my work on coercion has helped me to better understand (I think) some of the power dynamics that have historically organized relations between men and women, among other things. There hasn’t been as much uptake of my work on coercion as I would have hoped for—yet—but I think it might be useful to a lot of scholars working in these fields, so maybe someday this work will find a broader audience. So may I end by saying a special hello, and thank you, to any readers who have persisted this far, and also to Helga and Patricia for the opportunity to talk about my work.

Interview with Ann Cahill

img_2236-copyAnn 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.

Interview with Cressida Heyes


Cressida Heyes is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Alberta, Canada. She is the author of a number of books and articles—most notably for philosophy of love and sex, Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies (Oxford University Press, 2007), and “Dead to the World: Rape, Unconsciousness, and Social Media” (Signs 41:2, 2016). Copies of most of her articles and more information can be found at:

Q: What project are you working on now?

CH: Right now I am trying to finish a long-overdue book tentatively called Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience in its Absence, which is an eclectic bunch of essays about things that happen to us that somehow, and for different reasons, elude the designation “experience.” Given all the ways we rely on experience as a political category, this matters. The title comes from my mishearing of the phrase “an aesthetics of existence,” which Foucault used to describe a way of living life as art, and the centrality to that endeavour of a certain critical ethos, including in one’s relation to oneself. I worked a bit with that idea in my last book, Self-Transformations, and it had all started to seem a bit exhausting! I wondered what it would mean to refuse—whether self-consciously or tacitly—the kind of working on oneself and anxious agency that an aesthetics of existence demands. So: “anaesthetics of existence”—theorizing those parts of everyday life that involve checking out, or being absent to oneself, or being unable to encounter one’s own experience in ways we might rely on for politics.

I’ve published one chapter from the book, in Signs (January 2016), as “Dead to the World: Rape, Unconsciousness, and Social Media.” I argue that there is a distinctive phenomenological harm attaching to being raped while unconscious—an offence that, I’m afraid, people often think of as less serious than other contexts of sexual violence (partly because unconscious victims aren’t fully aware of what’s happening, but also because the typical cases involve consensual consumption of alcohol in situations where the perpetrator is known to the victim). I gave a version of that paper at a panel organized by SPSL at the Pacific APA in Vancouver and got terrific feedback—for which thank you Helga and Patricia!

Q: Is your work related to events in the news? Do you see your ideas as having practical implications?

CH: My work has always been very closely connected to practical political life and I believe very strongly in public philosophy. “Dead to the World” is a great example of that; it discusses the media representation of publicized cases of sexual violence including Steubenville, Audrie Pott in California, Rehteah Parsons in Nova Scotia, including analysis of why they are well-publicized when there are many other cases involving racialized, poor women that don’t garner the same media attention. I also tried to think through a phenomenology of information-sharing through communications technology—why having pictures of your unconscious, naked body circulated via your “friends’” cell-phones is particularly damaging to your intersubjective existence. These are pressing questions that a lot of popular commentary tends to fumble because there isn’t really any rich political-philosophical language for talking about this stuff.

I was also a co-investigator on a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant that focused on the experiences of queer women patients with primary health-care providers. I think philosophers should get involved in this kind of empirical work more often: I learned a lot about doing interviews and parsing what people say about their experience, and was able to take some of the fairly abstract thinking I’d done in queer phenomenology and in epistemology (on knowing-how versus knowing-that) to make sense of the transcript material. It’s a difficult intellectual juggling act to hold both qualitative results and theoretical frameworks closely in the work, but I had great collaborators and we produced a couple of articles outside my usual comfort zone.

My next project is called “Sleep Is the New Sex” and I have decided to really commit from the beginning to popularizing it. I’m going to try and podcast some of the work and also write a genuinely accessible book. I think sometimes philosophers despise these efforts to talk to people who aren’t other philosophers. It’s part of the same thinking that says that philosophy of sex (or feminist philosophy, or philosophy of race…) is “not real Philosophy”—creating a cabal of insiders who can have very superior conversations, and who think everyone outside the cabal is a little bit dumb. There are enough of us working from the inside now that this might change, but the enthusiasm of philosophers for talking to each other in technical language (and to hell with anyone who doesn’t get it) manifests, I think, a real disdain for intellectual (and even human) pluralism. It’s also a defensive move that is going to damage Philosophy greatly in the long run. In my more cynical moments I think that Philosophy’s insularity and conservatism has given it currency: even if English departments have given themselves over to the lunatic fringe of Cultural Studies, the thinking runs, at least Philosophy still teaches a canon of DWM. But we see such a neoliberalization of the academy, and a steady dropping-off of humanities majors across the disciplines, that any subject that doesn’t engage students is going to get its funding cut in short order, for purely instrumental reasons. Teaching philosophy as if it’s an insiders’ club just isn’t going to keep it alive.

Q: Why is the philosophy of sex and love particularly important and/or difficult to do well, in your view?

CH: Philosophy of gender and sexuality (which is my wheelhouse) is perennially popular and interesting and relevant, so you’d think more departments would want a really funky course (or professor!) or two that connects to real-life issues and has a politics behind it. “Philosophy of sex and love” as a category itself has a little bit of history to overcome in that regard: it’s been a while since I saw anyone teaching “is homosexuality morally wrong?” or “can sex outside marriage be justified?” as questions in ethics, but when I first started working in queer theory in the 1990s that was big part of what philosophers were doing. These were questions divorced from their social contexts and treated through analytic argument—of course in ways that encouraged a reproving kind of dialogue and turned off a lot of students (especially the queer ones). Now there is much more exciting and interdisciplinary scholarship on gender and sexuality that is also philosophically rich: shout-outs here to Talia Bettcher, Ann Cahill, Gayle Salamon, Johanna Oksala, Ladelle McWhorter… I shouldn’t have started that list because I’ll miss someone!

Q: Do you have any advice for young scholars interested in this area?

CH: I recently returned from the Trans* Studies conference in Arizona (“An International Transdisciplinary Conference On Gender, Embodiment, and Sexuality”). It was a very exciting event, packed with graduate students and young scholars wanting to work in queer studies in one way or another. But I really noticed that there was a terrible dearth of senior people—especially professors tenured at research universities that offer things like PhD programs, postdocs, or even occasionally decent jobs. Most of the networking that was going on was lateral—young scholars talking to each other. Many of the presentations were very creative and politically important, but also often a bit untutored. I could really feel the lack of mentoring for the next generation of scholars working on the topics that are near to my heart. I’d encourage young scholars who want to do work on gender and sexuality in the discipline of philosophy to reach out to senior scholars like me. We are still rare as hen’s teeth, and so might not always be able to offer lots of time or input, but who doesn’t want to be asked for their advice?! I have especially enjoyed corresponding with and getting to know graduate students and postdocs who’ve read my work and want to engage it.

Interview with Laurie Shrage

img_0740Laurie 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.

What’s New in Philosophy of Sex and Love: Autumn 2016 edition

Welcome to What’s New in Philosophy of Sex and Love! These are things from the past year or so that our members and friends are writing, and in some cases reading. We’re going to host this series now here at Erotes; last year’s installment was at our main site.

Samantha Brennan, “Is Marriage Bad for Children? Rethinking the Connection between Having Children, Romantic Love, and Marriage,” with Bill Cameron, in Beyond Marriage, edited by Elizabeth Brake, Oxford University Press.

Samantha Brennan, review of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal.

Luke Brunning, “The Distinctiveness of Polyamory,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 2016.

Shannon Dea, Beyond the Binary: Thinking About Sex and Gender (Peterborough: Broadview, 2016).

Katherine L. Goldey, Amanda R. Posh, Sarah N. Bell, and Sari M. van Anders, “Defining Pleasure: A Focus Group Study of Solitary and Partnered Sexual Pleasure in Queer and Heterosexual Women,” (forthcoming, Archives of Sexual Behavior).

Lena Gunnarsson, “The Dominant and Its Constitutive Other: Feminist Theorizations of Love, Power and Gendered Selves,” Journal of Critical Realism, 15 (2016), 1-20.

Cressida J. Heyes, “Dead to the World: Rape, Unconsciousness, and Social Media,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41:2, January 2016, 361-383. An open access preprint and a teaching worksheet with suggested questions and activities can be found here.

Sarah LaChance Adams, Christopher Davidson, and Caroline Lundquist eds., New Philosophies of Sex and Love: Thinking Through Desire (forthcoming, Rowman Littlefield International, 2016).

Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, “Knowing Our Own Hearts: Self-Reporting and the Science of Love,” forthcoming in Philosophical Issues.

Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, ‘Addicted’? To ‘Love’? Commentary on ‘Addicted to Love: What is Love Addiction and When Should It be Treated?’, by Brian Earp, Olga Wudarczyk, Bennett Foddy, and Julian Savulescu. Forthcoming in Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology.

Katarina Majerhold, Love, Its Origin and Modifications Through Time, Založba Obzorja Maribor, (forthcoming autumn) 2016.

Katarina Majerhold: Čustveni izzivi (učbenik za osnovne in srednje šole; Emotional Challenges: textbook for primary and secondary schools), Rokuss-Klett (forthcoming autumn) 2016.

Laurie Shrage, “Decoupling Marriage and Parenting,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 2016.

Laurie Shrage, “African Americans, HIV, and Mass Incarceration,” invited commentary, The Lancet 2016.

Laurie Shrage, “Sex Reassignment,” Encyclopedia of Theory in Psychology (Sage Publications, 2015).

Laurie Shrage, “Why Are So Many Black Women Dying of AIDS?” Op-ed, New York Times, 2015.

Laurie Shrage, “When Prostitution is Nobody’s Business,” in “The Stone,” New York Times 2015.

Alan Soble, “Love and Value, Yet Again,” in John Davenport and Anthony Rudd, eds., Love, Reason, and Will: Kierkegaard after Frankfurt (Bloomsbury Press, 2015), pp. 25–46.

Alan Soble, “The Love Call of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Per Contra, No. 37 (Fall, 2015); .

Alan Soble, “Morality,” in Patricia Whelehan and Anne Bolin, eds., The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality (Malden, Mass. & Oxford, Eng.: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), volume 2, pp. 1–5.

Shay Welch, Existential Eroticism: A Feminist Approach to Understanding Women’s Oppression-Perpetuating Choices (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

Interview with Loren Cannon

Headshot 2016Loren Cannon teaches at Humboldt State University.  His teaching interests include Ethics, Environmental Ethics, the Philosophy of Sex and Love, Social Theory, and his newly developed course in Trans Theory.  He has published and presented on the topics of Marriage, Trans Theory, and Collective Responsibility.

Q:  What are your main interests in SPSL?

LC: I have a number of interests that fall under this broad umbrella.  Firstly, I have devoted quite a bit of time researching and thinking about the concept of gender.  I believe that gender, or at least many of the dominant assumptions of it, is a behind the scenes player both in our relationships and our theorizing about those relationships. On my view, many traditional assumptions about gender (the nature of masculinity and femininity or the presumed legitimacy of a binary sex/gender system), are problematic, and can give rise to limited views regarding notions such as romantic love, sex, marriage, and even social justice more broadly concerned.

Secondly, I have a keen interest in the concept of friendship, which is often included under the category of PSL (Philosophy of Sex and Love). I believe the dominant culture leans toward a prioritization of romantic relationships and yet it is friendships that can sometimes be just as significant and sometimes even longer lasting. Especially for those whom often face rejection (or worse) by their birth families, (thinking of LGBTQ folks here), chosen families are pulled together for mutual support. These friend groups can fill the gap left in the wake of birth-family disconnect and nurture a sense of acceptance and belonging that is vitally important. Additionally, in the present age of social media and online connection, there are many interesting questions about how the notion of friendship may be changing and the value of those changes. For instance, what is the nature of Facebook friendships, and if they are friendships at all does this imply there are duties and responsibilities that need to be fulfilled?

Q:  What project are you working on now?

LC: I find myself thinking quite a bit about the relationship between the Supreme Court decision of 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage,  what this means for the  Institution of marriage itself, and the dominant culture’s relationship to those in the LGBTQ population. Since this decision of just last year, we’ve seen an unprecedented number of anti-LGBTQ bills proposed and/or passed in several municipalities as well as an increased level of both visibility and violence against trans persons. I have written on the legalization of same sex marriage and am in favor of the right for all to participate in this social institution, but, am also sympathetic to those that argue that this political freedom does not address the gravest of injustices against the most vulnerable of LGBTQ individuals.

Also, the nature of gender (as a composite, not an atomic notion), is never far from my mind. Distortions of this concept have been used in an attempt to justify certain oppressive practices toward transgender and gender non-conforming persons. On my view, theoretical engagement is a tool that can be used to understand our world, our subjective place within that world, and provide the basis for conversation among those with similar and dissimilar experiences and theoretical leanings. Theory, whether in or outside academia, should never be used as a weapon – but instead should be used as an invitation to contribute to ongoing conversations of significant importance.

Q: Is your work related to events in the news? Do you see your ideas as having practical implications?

LC: Yes, of course. There are few things that are as hotly contested as many of the issues related to sex, love, gender, relationship. As mentioned, how one understands the nature of gender will have ramifications on policies that affect education, social policy and health care. As we have recently seen, considering the nature of marriage (as a right independent of one’s gender) has had ramifications on who can become married and also who can access the privileges thereof. Lastly, the notions of friendship and family (whether chosen or inherited) are vital to nurturing a flourishing life. I suppose many of the topics that hold my interest, in the end, involve human flourishing and justice.

Q: Why is the philosophy of sex and love particularly important and/or difficult to do well, in your view?

LC: I believe that the philosophy of sex and love is particularly difficult to do well because the topics of sex or sexuality, love, friendship, relationships, gender, play a role in everyone’s life. It is because they are so common that it is easy to think that there is no deep philosophical investigation to engage in. We see these kinds of topics on TV, movies, as part of political scandals, and in topics on top-forty radio stations. The ubiquity of these representations can, I think, make it seem that these issues are superficial or completely subjective. Instead, I believe that many of the topics in PSL of great significance to many people’s lives and deserve thoughtful philosophical attention.

Q: Do you work in other areas of philosophy as well? How does your work in philosophy of sex and love relate to your work in other areas?

LC: I work in other areas of philosophy, (environmental ethics, applied ethics, social theory) and I do think that there are many points of intersection between these sub-fields.  Normative ethics and PSL overlap whenever we discuss the appropriateness (in appropriateness) of a given action, practice, or policy, whether it be state-sanctioned marriage of a certain type, monogamy, prostitution, adultery, the use of pornography, or the value of different kinds of relationships. Interestingly, with regard to the concept of love, there are important ties to some topics in environmental ethics. For instance, in PSL we might discuss the concept of love and how romantic love may differ from how one may love a best friend. Similarly, in environmental ethics theorists discuss the nature of the love of the land and the non-human entities that reside within it.  What is the nature of such a love, often called “bio-philia”?  On an even more relatable level, can land, a special tree, or a pet be said to be a friend in the same way that one may have human friends?  What is the nature and potential depth of human and non-human relationship?

Many years ago, while teaching outdoor education in mid-state New York, we had a saying at the camp I worked at that “There is more life on the edge.” This had several meanings. First, it was a nod toward those lifestyles which could be described as one is “living on the edge.” Meaning, roughly, that one takes chances, challenges themselves, lives with gusto. Indeed, life itself may seem much more vibrant when climbing up a rock face than when entering data from one’s office cubicle. (Since that time I have reflected on the classism and ableism that can accompany the valuing of this kind of edgy-life, but believe the idea can be used in a way that minimizes these problems.) Secondly, the phrase has an ecological meaning in that there is a greater diversity of life on the edges of different ecosystems.  There is more life on the edge between a land and an aquatic ecosystem, or even the temporal edge in which day turns to night. In a similar way, I believe that there is rich philosophical work to be done on the edges of subjects, as in the edge between PSL and environmental ethics, or the edge between the philosophy of sex and love and political theory, or even the edge that PSL shares with epistemology.

Q:  Do you have any advice for young scholars interested in this area?

LC: Just to follow your own interests and practice being excellent in whatever area of philosophy that peaks your curiosity. On my own view, we are living in a time in which social and political changes require us to think deeply about many of the foundational and relational parts of our lives and many of these fall in the realm of the philosophy of sex and love.