Sexual Desire (book)
Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation, published as Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic in the United States, is a 1986 book about the philosophy of sex by the philosopher Roger Scruton, in which the author discusses sexual desire and erotic love, arguing against the idea that the former expresses the animal part of human nature while the latter is an expression of its rational side. The book was first published in the United Kingdom by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and in the United States by Free Press.
|Subjects||Philosophy of love|
Philosophy of sex
|Publisher||Weidenfeld and Nicolson|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|Pages||438 (first edition)|
Scruton draws upon both analytic philosophy and phenomenology, a philosophical movement founded by Edmund Husserl. Borrowing the term from phenomenology, he argues that sexual desire is characterised by "intentionality", the quality "of pointing to, and delineating, an object of thought". He makes the case that common experiences related to sex, such as obscenity, modesty and shame, falling in love, and jealousy, involve intentionality. He defends traditional sexual morality, but rather than basing his arguments on religion, he writes from a secular perspective, following an approach suggested by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. He upholds the traditional condemnation of lust (which he defines as sexual desire "from which the goal of erotic love has been excluded") and perversion (which he defines as "a diverting of the sexual impulse from its interpersonal goal"). In his view, sexual perversion involves failure to recognise "the personal existence of the other", and this justifies its moral condemnation. He argues that homosexuality is a perversion, as is a form of masturbation. He argues that science cannot provide substitute for the concepts which order everyday experience and that it may potentially harm people's understanding of human sexual desire. He criticises Sigmund Freud, arguing that psychoanalytic theory unacceptably depends on metaphor and that its scientific status is questionable. He also criticises feminism and the work of the biologist Alfred Kinsey, describing it as reductive and as involving misrepresentation of sexual arousal and desire.
The book received positive reactions from some reviewers and unfavourable reactions from others. It has been called a classic work, and has been praised for providing insightful or appealing accounts of topics such as jealousy, sado-masochism, sexual arousal, love and sexual desire, for its criticism of Freud, and for its originality. A noted example of a work by a philosopher who argues that sex is morally acceptable only if it involves love and intimacy, it has been considered one of the most important works in the philosophy of sex and has influenced subsequent discussions of sexual ethics. However, many of Scruton's conclusions were controversial. Sexual Desire has been criticised for Scruton's claim that sexual desire essentially aims at an individual person, his defense of conservative moral views, his arguments against feminism, his treatment of sexual behaviours such as homosexuality and masturbation and theories such as psychoanalysis and sociobiology, his use of the concept of intentionality, his interpretation of the British political tradition, and his understanding of science. Some reviewers wrote that the book contains errors of fact, would be difficult for people who are not philosophers to read, and presented arguments that were unlikely to convince readers not already in agreement with Scruton.
Scruton discusses sexual desire and erotic love, and the views that philosophers have held of these topics. He argues against Plato's view that sexual desire expresses the animal part of human nature while erotic love is an expression of its rational side, and tries to provide a philosophical basis for sexual morality and to defend traditional moral views on a secular basis. He draws upon both analytic philosophy and phenomenology, despite some disagreements with its founder Edmund Husserl, and discusses the distinction between categories that involve "functional significance" and those that involve "explanatory power", respectively "functional and natural kinds." He argues that science aims to discover natural kinds, since only they make it possible to explain the world; in contrast, many concepts used in everyday life are not explanatory, or at least not primarily explanatory, but rather "divide the world in accordance with out interests" and "mark out possibilities of action." He adopts the term "intentionality" from phenomenology, using it to refer to the quality, contained in human consciousness, "of pointing to, and delineating, an object of thought." He also makes use of the term, often used by phenomenologists, "Lebenswelt", or "Lifeworld", which refers to the world described with the "concepts that designate the intentional objects of human experience."
According to Scruton, science cannot provide substitutes for "the concepts which order and direct our everyday experience" and may potentially harm our understanding of human sexual desire. Scruton argues that philosophy and religion must help to sustain everyday concepts, such as that of the human person, when science threatens to undermine them. He attempts to "restore the concept of sexual desire to its rightful place" in the description of the lifeworld and show "why a science of sex can neither displace that concept nor illuminate the human phenomenon that it describes." Scruton is influenced by Immanuel Kant and his "distinction between person and thing", although he rejects Kant's theory of the "transcendental self", which "ascribes to persons a metaphysical core ... lying beyond nature and eternally free from its constraints." Scruton maintains that sexual experience is informed by some of the concepts which define the lifeworld, including "the concepts of innocence and guilt, normality and perversion, sacred and profane." He identifies the "three basic phenomena of human sexual feeling" as arousal, desire, and love and its important expressions as "glances, caresses and the act of love itself." In his view, sexual desire is a "social artefact" that must be built properly so that it can be fulfilled by "those who experience its normal forms", and that the "problem of sexual desire" is therefore ultimately "a political problem". He follows the example of Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics by moving "from the facts of human nature to the morality which they imply."
Arousal is defined by Scruton as the state of mind in which "the body of one person awakens to the presence or thought of another." He maintains that sensations only qualify as sexual pleasure when they are "an integral part of sexual arousal." According to Scruton, it is arousal that transforms pleasurable sensations into sexual pleasure, which is characterised by intentionality. Scruton criticises views about sexual arousal expressed by authors such as Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and the biologist Alfred Kinsey. He refers to the Kinsey Reports as "exercises in reduction" because of their representation of sexual arousal as a bodily state, common to humans and non-human animals, which "so irritates those subject to it that they can find relief only in the sexual act" and whose "root phenomena" are "the erection of the penis or the softening of the vagina". He maintains that Freud's theory of the erotogenic zones paradoxically presents "the localised pleasures of the sexual act as the aim or object of desire", which in his view ignores both "the drama of sexual feeling" and "the fact of the other who is desired."
Scruton illustrates his view of the dependence of sexual pleasure and sexual arousal on the intentional object of experience with reference to the Bible's account of Jacob and Leah, and its retelling by the novelist Thomas Mann in Joseph and His Brothers (1933–1943), noting that Jacob did not "discover attractions in Leah that he had previously overlooked" and that "his pleasure in her was really pleasure in Rachel, whom he wrongly thought to be the recipient of his embraces". He credits the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre with providing, in Being and Nothingness (1943), "perhaps the most acute philosophical analysis of desire", citing Sartre's metaphorical suggestion that the caress "incarnates" the other. He also refers to the philosopher Thomas Nagel's discussion of desire in Mortal Questions (1979), though unlike Nagel he holds that the intentionality exemplified by meaning is only sometimes, rather than always, found in glances of desire. He argues that obscenity "involves the attempt to divorce the sexual act from its interpersonal intentionality", or the directedness of sexual arousal. According to Scruton, the face has a key role in desire because it is "the primary expression of consciousness, and to see in the face the object of sexual arousal is to find the focus which all attraction requires".
According to Scruton, sexual desire does not originate in sexual arousal or have sexual arousal as its aim. He believes that while sexual arousal may seem to support the idea that desire is "a 'biological' fact, rooted in the life which we share with animals", it does not do so, because it is an interpersonal response founded in an epistemic intentionality and can be experienced only by people. He argues that though non-human animals experience sexual urges, they do not experience sexual desire. He attempts to defend this conclusion against potential criticism by clarifying the ideas of the animal and the person. In his view, the concept of the person is not a qualification of the concept of the animal, but a distinct concept with a differing purpose. Scruton outlines the history of the term "person", noting that in the theatre a persona, originally a mask, came to stand for a theatrical character. Persona was then used in a more general sense, to refer to any representation of a human being, and in Roman law came to denote the "collection of rights and liabilities which the law courts could adjudicate, on behalf of the subject who appeared before them." Though he rejects the idea that the concept of legal personality can be used to distinguish what separates humans from non-human animals, he considers it relevant to understanding the concept of the person.
Scruton believes that desire is characterised by intentionality. He argues that "desire expresses itself through patterns of deliberate activity" but can nevertheless be understood as an expression of human mental states only if "we recognise the central importance of the involuntary aspect of human behaviour", giving blushing, laughter, and the erection of the penis as examples. He sees the focus of desire as embodiment, which entails finding a unity between the body and the personal identity of the desired person. He criticises what he considers a common picture of the aim of sexual desire, according to which it begins in sexual arousal and has as its objective "pleasurable stimulus" and orgasm. He considers Kinsey and his co-authors the "most-simple minded" proponents of this view, writing that they unacceptably see orgasm as the aim of desire and "the presence of the other person as its occasion." He follows Sartre and Thomas Nagel in holding that the "attempt to assimilate sexual desire to appetite misses the interpersonal component of human sexual responses." He argues that ordinary language shows that the object of sexual desire is the "person himself", and that despite the possibility of mistakes of identity, it is part of the directed character of desire that its object is a particular person.
In Scruton's view, "true sexual desire" has as its aim union with a "particular person, with a particular perspective upon my actions." According to him, a person who feels "randiness" and desires sex with a particular category of person but with no specific person within that category is "desiring to desire" and exchanges "the desire to desire for desire" when he encounters a person within the relevant category. Scruton argues that common experiences related to sex, such as obscenity, modesty and shame, the meanings associated with the sexual organs, prostitution, falling in love, jealousy, Don Juanism, and sado-masochism, involve intentionality. His discussion of love is partially informed by Stendhal's views.
Discussing the "metaphysical idea of individuality", Scruton considers six features of interpersonal attitudes, corresponding to six distinctions: those between the universal and the particular; between the reason-based, the reason-free, and the reason-involving; between the attentive and the non-attentive; between the purposeful and the purposeless; between the transferable and the non-transferable; and between the mediate and the immediate. He describes these distinctions to make sense of "the highly complex claim that some of our attitudes are directed towards individuals as individuals, and others towards individuals only as members of some class." He criticises Kant's ideas about love, desire, and morality, and the views of the philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Scruton writes that Spinoza created an impersonal metaphysics in which "the 'self' and all its mysteries" vanish, and argues that Leibniz, by trying to understand the world based on an idea of individual existence that has the self as its model, made it impossible to recognise the "objective order into which individuals may enter as component parts." He advocates an understanding of individuality between these extremes. He suggests that the aim of sexual desire can be described metaphorically as the wish to "unite you with your body" or to "summon your perspective into your flesh, so that it becomes identical with your flesh". He explains that this means establishing a metaphysical "sense of an identity" between a person's "unity of consciousness" and the "animal unity" of their body.
Scruton questions the scientific basis of sociobiology and criticises what he sees as its moral implications. He considers sociobiology the "most radical of all attempts at a science of sexual conduct" because of its attempt to explain social phenomena in evolutionary terms by showing how they relate to the survival of the species. However, he is critical of sociobiological explanations of the behavior of both non-human animals and humans, arguing that the former risk anthropomorphism and that the latter dubiously extend explanations of the behavior of non-human animals to that of humans. He criticises the biologist E. O. Wilson for using anthropomorphic language, and for suggesting that sociobiology supports a liberalised sexual morality. However, he maintains that the criticisms directed against sociobiology do not show that it should be rejected entirely, but only that it has drawn premature conclusions. He accepts that sociobiological explanations of phenomena such as monogamy may possibly be correct, albeit in his view they remain insensitive to important distinctions and cannot lead to full understanding of human behaviour because in human life phenomena that must be understood in terms of reasons rather than causes are common. He argues that the prime mistake of sociobiology is to hold that because humans as a species have a social disposition, "human societies will owe their ruling characteristics to genetic implantation." He suggests that sociobiology is incapable of taking intentional understanding into account in its theory of social behavior.
Discussing psychoanalysis, Scruton suggests that Freud had the same fundamental objective, that of creating "a theory of human nature and human sexuality that might eventually be given a biological basis", as that of sociobiology. He writes that Freud's presentation of his theories is "widely admitted to be fluctuating, unsystematic and riddled with metaphor", and that later psychoanalysts such as Melanie Klein and Wilhelm Reich, both of whom he considers to be among the "most influential of the post-Freudian psychoanalytic writers on sex", are vulnerable to criticisms similar to those that can be made against Freud. He maintains that Freud was "neither an accurate observer nor a plausible theorist" of sex, and that recognizing this is important for anyone concerned to rescue sexual morality. According to Scruton, Freud's account of sexuality is based on a metaphorical model of the human mind, the scientific value of which depends on "whether it can be transformed into a literal, and explanatory, theory of the mind." Scruton criticises Freud for failing to provide a convincing theory that would explain the mind in neurophysiological terms and identify the mental forces, barriers and spaces he postulated in terms accessible to empirical investigation. He argues that Freud's model of the mind functions as a myth rather than a scientific theory, and that it is doubtful that it could expressed in literal terms and retain any explanatory power because it is only as myth that it explains the mind in terms of intentional understanding, something it would be unable to do as a scientific theory.
Scruton argues that Freud's model of the id, ego and super-ego is anthropomorphic and may also be incoherent. He provides an account and critique of the model, noting that it construes the ego as an agent that keeps unwelcome thoughts out of conscious awareness and in the unconscious. According to Scruton, the model suggests that mental states move from the unconscious into conscious awareness unless the ego acts to prevent this. He argues that since the contents of the unconscious are not observed by the ego, they are not part of it, and its consciousness and its mentality must be identical unless it is also divided into a conscious and unconscious section, opening the prospect of an infinite regress. He maintains that if it is possible to conclude that the mental states of the ego as all necessarily conscious, then it should be possible to reach the same conclusion about the mental states of the human person as a whole. In his view a truly scientific account of the mind would therefore eliminate metaphor entirely and make no reference to the unconscious mind. He further argues that even if it were possible to resolve the philosophical problems of Freudian theory it would still provide neither a correct description nor an explanation of sexual phenomena. However, he is unconvinced by the argument, put forward by the philosophers Karl Popper and Ernest Nagel, that Freudian theory implies no testable observation and therefore does not have genuine predictive power, maintaining that it has both "theoretical terms" and "empirical content." He points to the example of Freud's theory of repression, arguing that despite being tied to metaphor it has "strong empirical content" and implies testable consequences. In his view, psychoanalysis is not genuinely scientific because the transition from its theoretical terms to the empirical consequences they entail involves "ineliminable metaphor."
In his view, the two crucial parts of Freud's theory of the development of adult sexuality from its origins in infantile sexuality are the libido and the erotogenic zone. He argues that both are incoherent and present "a caricature of sexual desire": the libido is supposed to be conceived as both an instinct seeking the release of accumulated sexual tension and "a passion" based on a person's understanding of himself and his relations with others, and involves an incorrect comparison between the sexual drive and hunger. He argues that writers such as Reich, in The Function of the Orgasm (1942), and Norman O. Brown, in Life Against Death (1959), have illegitimately drawn moral conclusions from the theory of the libido. He argues that the theory of the libido and the theory of the erotogenic zone both require the zones to inconsistently be locations of both sexual pleasure and sexual arousal, which involves interpersonal intentionality. He argues that Freud's definitions of the erotogenic zones are tautologous. He criticises Freud for lending his authority to the idea "that human sexuality belongs in the depths of our organic nature" and that the human sexual impulse is amoral and "outside the sphere of personal feeling and relation" and held in check by shame. He argues against Freud that, "Sexual desire is not impeded by morality, but created by it."
Scruton believes that traditional accounts of sexuality have failed to explain the place of sexual desire in love, friendship, and esteem. Following the views of Socrates, as reported in Plato's dialogue Symposium (4th century BC), he argues that it is problematic to hold that sexual desire either is part of love or that it is not part of love, since the former view suggests that erotic love cannot be a form of friendship and the latter suggests that love is never erotic. He refers to this dilemma as "Plato's question". He criticises Plato's ideas about love, such as his belief that desire, as a physical urge, has no place in love, and argues that erotic love is both a form of desire and a form of love. In Scruton's view, "Plato's question" derives its force from the fact that, "Love implicates the whole being of the lover, and desires the whole being of the beloved", and Platonism involves a "misdescription of desire" that makes it impossible to understand how desire can be an expression or a form of love. He attempts to clarify the distinction between love and friendship by providing an account of the intentional structure of the latter, and discusses different kinds of friendship, concluding that "the friendship of esteem" can become love and in so doing acquire its distinguishing features, but that the development of esteem into love is not inevitable and that love may also have other origins. He maintains that erotic love has a normal course that involves the lover and the beloved developing their selves through responses to each other's desires and perceptions. He also discusses the European tradition of courtly love, and criticises the idea that romantic love did not exist before the 12th century, arguing that evidence from Japanese, Persian, and classical literature shows otherwise.
Sex and genderEdit
Scruton discusses the concept of gender, and the distinction between gender and sex. He maintains that sex is "material base" of the "intentional superstructure" of gender. According to Scruton, gender incorporates, "not only the distinct observable forms of man and woman, but also the differences in life and behaviour which cause us selectively to respond to them." Scruton criticises other understandings of gender, including those of feminists, writing that they have wrongly argued that "distinctions of gender are entirely arbitrary, and may be either abolished or constructed in any way, depending on the social conventions, prejudices and ideological purpose of the person who makes them." He argues that feminist views often depend on untenable assumptions resembling those of Kant. He refers to such views as "Kantian feminism", giving Simone de Beauvoir's ideas in The Second Sex (1949) as an example. He argues that "Kantian feminism" wrongly maintains that "personality is distinct from its bodily form" and thereby ignores the fact that people are identical with their bodies, and fails to recognise that distinctions of gender are "artificial" only in the same sense that the human person is "artificial", and suggests that sociobiology supports the claim that men and women have "distinct psychological dispositions" deriving from the different roles of men and women in sexual reproduction.
Scruton defends and explicates the concept of sexual perversion, and the related idea of normality. He criticises Freud's view that sexual acts of a kind that do not normally lead to procreation should be considered perverted. He also criticises G. E. M. Anscombe's view that perversion is "to be explained in terms of the animal process of biological reproduction", noting that few other philosophers have found her argument satisfactory. According to Scruton, perversion involves deviations from "the unity of animal and interpersonal relation" that normally characterises sexual desire and detaches the sexual urge from its interpersonal intentionality. Scruton sees its "major structural feature" as the "failure to recognise, in and through desire, the personal existence of the other", which in turn is "an affront, both to him and oneself." He argues that this justifies its moral condemnation.
Building on these ideas, Scruton evaluates bestiality, necrophilia, paedophilia, sado-masochism, homosexuality, incest, fetishism and masturbation, to determine whether they can be considered perverted. He concludes that bestiality, necrophilia and paedophilia are perversions. However, he argues that sado-masochism is "relatively normal", while maintaining that it also has a perverted form. He compares sadism to slavery, invoking the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's account of the conflict between master and slave in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), summarising Hegel as maintaining that the "final end of every rational being is the building of the self", which involves recognising other people as ends in themselves. According to Scruton, Hegel maintains that all human relations involve both an element of conflict, based on desire to "compel the other to give what is required", and a compulsion toward agreement and "the mutual recognition that only what is given can be genuinely received." Scruton argues that sado-masochism likewise involves an "intrinsic paradox", whereby the sadist "wishes to possess the other, but also to be recognised by the other as a person and accepted accordingly." In the normal form of sado-masochism, the pain inflicted is "incorporated into the love-play of the partners" and the sadomasochistic impulse is "incorporated into an interpersonal relation", while in the perverted form, the consent of the other is irrelevant and he is reduced "a state of servitude in which his existence as a free being is systematically negated." According to Scruton, masochism also has both perverted and non-perverted forms; he cites an example in which a girl's masochism formed part of "a sincere erotic giving of herself to another."
Scruton suggests that homosexuality can be considered a perversion, arguing that it differs from heterosexuality in a way that helps to explain that traditional judgment. He suggests that the "intentional content" of homosexual desire may differ from that of heterosexual desire in a way that justifies the conclusion that the former has "a distinct moral character" and potentially "diverges from the norm of interpersonal relations in the direction of obscenity." He argues that heterosexuality, unlike homosexuality, involves dealing with the different and complementary nature of the opposite sex, and that such "opening of the self to the mystery of another gender" is a feature of sexual maturity. He believes that male and female homosexuality differ from each other significantly because of differences between the sexual dispositions of the two sexes: men are interested in immediate sexual excitement and prone to promiscuity, while women are interested in lasting partnerships and find sexual excitement "inseparable from the feeling of dependence". He considers male, though not female, homosexuals prone to sexual promiscuity, and argues that this, combined with "the natural predatoriness of the male", constitutes the danger inherent in male homosexuality. Though basing his conclusions about homosexuality partly on Greek art and literature, he dismisses the classicist Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality (1978) as "trivialising". He suggests that it may be proper to regard homosexuality as obscene because, "In the heterosexual act, it might be said, I move out from my body towards the other, whose flesh is unknown to me; while in the homosexual act I remain locked within my body narcissistically contemplating in the other an excitement that is the mirror of my own."
Though Scruton concludes that incest is not necessarily a perversion, he maintains it is nevertheless immoral. He argues that fetishism is a perversion, though a "harmless and amusing" one. He maintains that there are two forms of masturbation, one in which the practice "relieves a period of sexual isolation, and is guided by a fantasy of copulation" and the other in which it "replaces the human encounter", and that only the second can be considered perverted, since it diverts the sexual impulse away from interpersonal union.
Morality and politicsEdit
Combining his theory of sexual desire with a "plausible account of moral reasoning", Scruton tries to establish an "intuitively persuasive sexual morality." He relates morality to practical reason, describing it as a "constraint upon reasons for action" and which is "a normal consequence of the possession of a first-person perspective." He criticises Kant's attempt to base morality on the categorical imperative, considering it a failure even though it is "the most beautiful and thorough of all the theories which try to find the basis of morality in the first-person perspective". He proposes an alternative view inspired by Aristotle, which seeks to base "first-person practical reason outside the immediate situation of the agent", believing that only this approach can help to establish "a secular morality of sexual conduct" because unlike other secular approaches it "gives cogency to prohibitions and privations". He argues that the capacity for erotic love is a virtue, and that sexual virtue involves avoiding habits that impede the "development of the sexual impulse towards love" and acquiring dispositions that encourage that development. He considers preventing jealousy an essential moral task. He argues that because virtuous desire is "an artefact, made possible by a process of moral education which we do not, in truth, understand in its complexity" much of "traditional sexual morality" must be upheld. For Scruton, this includes the traditional condemnation of lust and perversion, the former of which he defines as sexual desire "from which the goal of erotic love has been excluded", and latter of which he defines as "a diverting of the sexual impulse from its interpersonal goal". He defends sexual fidelity and marriage, criticises promiscuity, and maintains that sexual morality inevitably has a political aspect. He criticises the philosophers Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault, writing that in The History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault mistakenly assumes that there could be societies in which a "problematisation" of the sexual did not occur. He argues against Foucault that, "No history of thought could show the 'problematisation' of sexual experience to be peculiar to certain specific social formations: it is characteristic of personal experience generally, and therefore of every genuine social order."
Sexual Desire was first published in the United Kingdom in 1986 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Subsequent British editions include those published by Phoenix Books in 1994 and Continuum in 1996. In the United States, the book was published as Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic by Free Press in 1986.
Mainstream media, 1986–2008Edit
Sexual Desire received positive reviews from the historian Piers Paul Read in The Spectator, C. D. Keyes in Library Journal, the anthropologist Richard Shweder in The New York Times, and the journalist Joseph Sobran in National Review, mixed reviews from John Ryle in the London Review of Books, the philosopher Galen Strawson in The Times Literary Supplement, and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in The New York Review of Books, and negative reviews from the critic Roz Kaveney in the New Statesman, Shirley Robin Letwin in The American Spectator, the philosopher Richard Rorty in The New Republic, and John Weightman in Encounter. The book was also reviewed by the sociologist Michael Kimmel in Psychology Today, and discussed by the political commentator Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic, the critic Terry Teachout in Commentary, and the Christian cleric Richard John Neuhaus in National Review.
Read described the book as an ambitious and erudite work. He compared it to The Second Sex, but found its conclusions sounder. He credited Scruton with providing unprejudiced discussions of topics such as homosexuality and bestiality, finding this important since his conclusions went against views currently accepted in western society. However, he argued that Scruton relied too much on philosophy and was overly dismissive of anthropology and psychology. He agreed with Scruton's criticism of Freud, but criticised him for neglecting the psychiatrist Carl Jung. He believed that Scruton neglected theology, questioned his claim to reach moral conclusions independently of religion, and criticised him for underestimating the importance of children in the fulfillment of love based on trust and companionship and for failing to clarify the relationship between flourishing and sexual virtue. He noted that parts of the book would be incomprehensible to many readers, but suggested that the details of Scruton's writing were more valuable than his "general argument".
Keyes considered the book "radical in its methods and conservative in many of its conclusions". He credited Scruton with "drawing from a wide range of historical and contemporary texts", but concluded that the book would be of interest mainly to scholars and specialists in the field of the philosophy of sex. Shweder, who characterised Scruton's views as "illiberal, antifeminist, anti-Freudian, antiliberationist, antilibertarian, and anti-free market", described the book as "a stunning achievement", "brave", and "deliberately provocative". However, he noted that Scruton was not a sexologist, and wrote that his work was "not sexy", "excessively illiberal", and likely to be misinterpreted. He also considered Scruton's case that homosexuality is a perversion to be contrived. Sobran described Scruton's argument as "learned and subtle in the extreme", and admitted that he did not fully understand it. However, though not considering himself competent to offer a final evaluation of Sexual Desire, he wrote that it "abounds in fine observations and fascinating insights", that "its dozens of stimulating passages will reward any reader's effort, whether or not he accepts the argument as a whole", and that the book was highly original.
Ryle wrote that while the book would not be easy for non-philosophers to read it was often enjoyable. He compared Scruton's views to Foucault's, writing that Scruton and Foucault would agree that human sexuality is unique and were both disinterested in the biological basis of sexual desire. He praised Scruton's discussions of jealousy and sado-masochism, and credited Scruton with effectively criticising sociobiology and Kinsey by demonstrating that desire "involves a distinctively human concept of selfhood." He believed that Scruton's use of theological language suggested that he was covertly expressing religious views. However, while he found Scruton's view that the aim of sexual desire is to "unite you with your body" attractive, he questioned its accuracy. He argued that Scruton ignored the diversity of homosexual experience. He faulted Scruton for dismissing Dover's Greek Homosexuality, writing that he did so without relevant credentials. He also observed that despite Scruton's discussion of topics such as Japanese court literature, the literary and philosophical references of the book were limited mainly to classical and modern European culture, and that the work was undermined by Scruton's limited use of ethnographic evidence.
Strawson described the book as ambitious, interesting, and serious, and predicted that those interested in philosophizing about sex would find it impossible to ignore. However, he also believed that it was florid in style, that its level of originality was questionable, that it presented an incomplete attempt at philosophical analysis, and that most non-philosophers, and even some philosophers, would find it unreadable. He criticised Scruton for using terms such as "rational" and "moral" in a vague fashion and for "intellectual irresponsibility". He wrote that Scruton made misleading or incorrect statements and drew conclusions about human nature in general from his own distinctive experience. He criticised Scruton's views about jealousy, embarrassment and friendship, sexual arousal, homosexuality, women's experience, feminism, psychoanalysis, and obscenity, and argued that his outline of a "general moral theory" took no account of possible objections from anthropologists and historians and that Scruton presented idealised accounts of sexual desire and love. However, he expressed a more favorable view of Scruton's discussions of other topics, including nakedness, orgasm, narcissism, sociobiology, gender identity, perversion, and Platonic love. He agreed with Scruton that Plato's view that desire has no place in love should be rejected, and welcomed Scruton's defense of the claim that erotic love is a genuine possibility.
Nussbaum described the book as uneven in quality and argued that Scruton's work revealed his "distaste for the flesh", disgust for "the sexuality of animals", and lack of sense of fun. She was convinced by Scruton's case for the intentionality of sexual desire and credited Scruton with using it to make "effective criticisms of reductionist pseudosciences of sex that have severed desire from its personal and subjective aspects." However, she wrote that Scruton unconvincingly moved from the claim that sexual desire is intentional to the proposition that it "treats its object as irreducibly unique and particular, attending to and cherishing all of its perceptible properties" and that "desire’s aim is to establish union with that ineffable spirit, through contact with its embodied traces." She found Scruton's view that love is "love of the other person’s entire self" appealing but unconvincing. She found Scruton's discussions of bestiality and necrophilia disappointing, but his discussion of sado-masochism interesting. She was unconvinced by Scruton's condemnation of homosexuality and what she saw as his rejection of "female equality", arguing that, like his support for state religion and marriage, it did not follow in any obvious way from his philosophical reflections on sexual desire. She criticised Scruton for inconsistently trying to use sociobiology to criticise feminism, despite his own criticisms of it.
In a letter responding to Nussbaum's review, Scruton accused her of misrepresenting his views about sexual desire, love, and feminism. In response, Nussbaum wrote that Sexual Desire suffered from "vagueness and haste about crucial distinctions, lack of clarity about argumentative structure, and the substitution of truculent rhetoric for careful inquiry." She also defended her interpretations and criticisms of Scruton's book, describing his philosophical arguments as interesting but his views as open to various objections.
Kaveney described the book as "foggy and pompous" and as containing "misstatements of fact and misinterpretations of texts". In her view, "the only thing which redeems it is Scruton's tendency to shoot himself, and his cause, in the foot." She accused Scruton of being driven by spite toward "lives he does not understand and wishes to remould." Letwin found Scruton's discussions of personhood and intentionality obscure. She rejected his view that the unity of an aesthetic object is imposed by the observer. She compared Scruton's conception of erotic love to Stendhal's, finding its only novel feature to be Scruton's refusal to accept that sexuality and morality cannot be reconciled. Though agreeing with Scruton's call for "sexual integrity", she criticised him for failing to support it convincingly and for moving from "saying that the illusion of a person is the object of sexual desire to the conclusion that this illusion ought to be what we seek". She further argued that, despite his claims, Scruton was "violating traditional morality" rather than defending it. She also found his view of marriage inconsistent, and believed that he failed to take sufficient interest in religion and that his conclusions about politics were misleading. She questioned his claim to be a conservative, arguing that his beliefs conflicted with the English moral and political tradition, that he misinterpreted Aristotle, and that conservatives should reject his work.
Rorty considered the book less "interesting as it might have been" because of Scruton's refusal "to take the competition seriously", writing that Scruton discussed Freud alongside Kinsey and sociobiology and dismissed him in a condescending fashion. He also criticised Scruton's treatment of Foucault and feminism. He argued that Scruton was misled by his belief that as a philosopher he had "the methodological high ground", questioned whether it was possible to use philosophy to determine the nature of sexual desire, and suggested that Scruton's account of desire was overly technical and that his book was too long. He also questioned whether Scruton's analysis of sexual desire helped him to make a moral argument about it, and argued that Scruton was wrong to believe that ever since Plato sexual desire had wrongly been assigned to the "animal side of human nature." Though considering some of Scruton's observations about sex "brilliant", he criticised Scruton's treatment of masturbation and homosexuality. He concluded that, "The later chapters of the book partly make up for the almost unreadable, and specifically philosophical, earlier chapters. But Scruton has written better books, and doubtless will again."
Weightman wrote that while he was initially "captivated" by Scruton's work, he came to find it disappointing. He believed that Scruton wrote insightfully about subjects such as "the importance of the face in human sex, the psychology of fashion, and the symbolism of the Incarnation", and rightly skeptical of Freudian views. Nevertheless, he found Sexual Desire as a whole confused and unsatisfactory. He believed that Scruton, despite his avoidance of religious commitment, made dogmatic and quasi-religious claims about the nature of personal identity. He also questioned the accuracy of Scruton's ideas about sexual desire, writing that Scruton defined "desire as he thinks it should ideally be, not as it very commonly is", and presented "very personal quirks with a rhetorical vigour that gives them a false air of universal truth." He described Scruton's discussion of the morality of homosexuality as "unexpectedly tentative" and unhelpful and his discussion of the politics of sex as "astonishingly simplistic and moralising".
Sullivan wrote that the book, like Scruton's previous work, expressed its author's wish to make conservatism "a sexy research topic" and "reclaim lost intellectual ground by staging terror strikes into the heart of the enemy camp and then retreating." He credited Scruton with showing how "involuntary actions, such as a blush, a glance, or an erection, can be the most powerful signs of an acutely voluntary desire" and explaining "sexual hunger as an urge to enter conversation, rather than to assuage appetite, and of orgasm as an interruption of congress rather than its end". He complimented Scruton for his "defense of pain in sex", his analysis of shame and "the relationship of love to esteem" and "the uncontractual nature of marriage", noting that they were insights that might not be expected from a conventional political conservative. However, he criticised Scruton's treatment of homosexuality, describing his arguments about it as contrived. He also criticised Scruton's lack of sympathy for Freud and failure to appreciate that "Victorian virtues" could "destroy the sexual virtue of countless people". He believed that the credibility of Scruton's arguments about sexual morality was undermined by his refusal to base them on "religious revelation or natural law". He questioned the merits of Scruton's use of phenomenology, and suggested that Scruton was guilty of the "cynical use of philosophy to support a particular political structure."
Teachout praised the book as "a serious discussion of conservative sexual ideology". Neuhaus described the book as "remarkable", but noted that Scruton's project of making a secular case for traditional sexual ethics was not easy.
Mainstream media, 2009–presentEdit
Nussbaum credited Scruton with popularising a view of sexual attraction according to which, "Really valuable sexual passion ... requires qualitative differences between the parties". She criticised Scruton for applying his thesis inconsistently, writing that he applied it to sexual orientation but not to romances between people of different ages or backgrounds. Nussbaum wrote that it was unclear how his argument about similarity could be assessed.
Scientific and academic journalsEdit
Sexual Desire received positive reviews from the political scientist Mark Lilla in The Public Interest, the philosopher Norman P. Barry in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, and the philosopher Anthony O'Hear in Mind, a mixed review from the political theorist Carole Pateman in Ethics, and negative reviews from David A. J. Richards in Constitutional Commentary, Herbert McArthur in Metaphilosophy, and Edward Johnson in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. It was also discussed by Michael-Roy Kingham in The Sociological Review, J. Martin Stafford in the Journal of Applied Philosophy and Studies in Philosophy and Education, Alan Singer in SubStance, and the philosopher Alan Soble in the Journal of Sex Research.
Lilla credited Scruton with being the first author to provide a detailed examination of sexual morality written from a secular conservative viewpoint, with making effective criticisms of "liberal morality" and its psychological basis, and with making sense of the widespread revulsion for phenomena such as prostitution, pornography, and incest. He described Sexual Desire as "a permanent contribution to conservative thought". However, he considered the work difficult and open to possible misunderstanding. He considered Scruton's approach to moral issues more interesting than his conclusions, which he found largely unsurprising. He suggested that Scruton's work was sufficiently different from philosophy as usually practiced that it could be considered instead a work of "moral psychology", and that Scruton's use of phenomenology to discuss sexual experience was both simpler and more compelling than Husserl's work. He endorsed Scruton's view that sexual desire is both "intentional and interpersonal" and that it arises "within the mores and institutions also constructed through human intention", and praised Scruton discussions of "the smile and the caress, shame and jealousy" and the moral relevance of gender, but criticised his treatment of homosexuality. He complimented Scruton for his criticism of Freud, writing that his discussion of metapsychology accomplished more than that of the philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, although he noted that Scruton's failed to consider "Freud's own moral project, and how it might compare with Scruton's." He also believed that, because Scruton rejected Freud's metapsychology, Scruton created a mistaken impression "that we bear moral blame for our sexual incapacities as well as our chosen perversions." He faulted Scruton's proposals for moral education, suggesting that underlying them "there lurks an ineradicable Freudianism that still fears being overwhelmed by wild, untamed desire."
Barry described the book as "profound and penetrating" and "intellectually exciting and beautifully written". He considered it comparable to Alfred Schütz's The Phenomenology of the Social World. He praised Scruton's discussions of sexual desire and sexual arousal, considering Scruton correct to stress that orgasm is not the purpose of sexual desire and to stress "the role of the face in sexual desire", believing that Scruton helped to show that arousal is not only a biological response to another person but has "cognitive significance". He also credited Scruton with showing that the "ideal of embodiment" finds its "truest expression in erotic love" and providing a beautiful description of "the agony of sexual jealousy". However, he expressed dissatisfaction with Scruton's discussion of the politics of sex and skepticism about whether Scruton had succeeded in refuting libertarian views of sexual morality, suggesting that Scruton's Aristotelian view of sexual morality could be compared to that of Ayn Rand. He criticised Scruton for attempting to "view the metaphysically sanitised conception of sexual desire from a specific political perspective." He agreed with Scruton that "the cultivation of an appropriate sexual morality is an essential part of the process of self-realisation" and that this requires a public set of rules, but disputed Scruton's "Hegelian assertion that such a desirable public morality cannot be sustained by the spontaneous development of social institutions", believing that Scruton arbitrarily rejected "the idea that the moral integrity of marriage can be sustained by contract alone." Against Scruton, Barry argued that the state "has destroyed that morality which Scruton is so anxious to preserve" by prescribing a standard form of the marriage contract.
O'Hear credited Scruton with usefully illustrating his thesis that human sexual relations in general, and sexual arousal and desire in particular, are characterised by intentionality with reference to Mann's novel Joseph and His Brothers (1933–1943), and with using the thesis to make "highly effective criticisms of both Freud and of Kinsey." He described Scruton's argument that one of the roots of feminist thought is the "Kantian approach to the human person as something essentially disembodied" as interesting. Pateman wrote that there is much to be learned from Scruton's account of sexual desire, including his discussions of arousal, the object of desire, the meaning of the sexual organs, normality, and sexual phenomena such as sado-masochism and jealousy, but that his book was nevertheless "deeply flawed." Though she found Scruton's account of desire appealing, she did not consider it a description "of the structure of our existing sexual lives." She criticised Scruton for his failure to present evidence about "actual relations between women and men", for presenting a model of the self that remained abstracted from the body, for discussing Freud without mentioning that "an explanation of how masculinity and femininity are constructed is central to Freud's work", for ignoring the perpsective of women, for his treatment of prostitution, and for including numerous untranslated quotations. She found Scruton's comments about women full of "conventional banalities" and sometimes "silly", and argued that it was possible to accept much of Scruton's account of desire without accepting his conservative moral and political conclusions, which she described as "patriarchal". She also suggested that Sexual Desire "could profitably have been much shorter."
Richards considered Scruton's attempt to defend traditional sexual morality open to question and believed it had only limited connection to Scruton's philosophy of the erotic. He found the book dogmatic and wrote that Scruton's account of erotic experience and human sexuality added little to that of Thomas Nagel. He criticised the idea that "integrity of sexual experience requires the interpersonal intentionality" emphasised by Scruton. He also criticised Scruton for defining perversion in a way that made it include anything Scruton considered morally unacceptable, such as masturbation. He believed that Scruton misunderstood the work of Freud and Kinsey, falsely attributing to them a "depersonalization of sexual experience", presented an oversimplified view of the British political tradition, offered arguments that were unlikely to convince those not already in agreement with him, and presented "a highly personal profession of faith in traditional heterosexuality." He faulted Scruton's criticism of feminism, as well as Scruton's discussion of homosexuality, writing that it ignored the role of differences between individuals in sexual attraction and love and that Scruton's emphasis on the sex organs was suggestive of biological determinism.
McArthur criticised Scruton's understanding of science, describing it as "rather limiting". He suggested that Scruton had a conception of science that was "based on the crudest of physical models" and was unable to "comprehend the great complexities of biological systems." He considered it inconsistent of Scruton to criticise Freud for using metaphor while doing so himself, and also criticised Scruton for stereotyping men as having a tendency to sexual promiscuity and women as finding sexual excitement "inseparable from the feeling of dependence" and for ignoring "centuries of crime and injustice based on sex". He charged Scruton with distorting Wilson's views by quoting him out of context. He believed that Scruton's "exaggerated" view of responsibility created philosophical difficulties for his understanding of sexual desire. He questioned whether the concept of intentionality was useful for "a practical morality of sexual desire", and argued that if all significant human acts, whether voluntary or involuntary, were evidence of intentionality, then the concept itself became "empty" and was not necessarily more useful than an emphasis on "will-power". He argued that Scruton had not achieved an advance over traditional philosophical views, such as those of Plato and Aristotle. He concluded that because Scruton condemned the scientific study of human sexuality and failed to address fundamental questions about traditional sexual morality, Sexual Desire was "more rhetoric than philosophy." He predicted that it would "encourage the right and enrage the left", but that it would "change no minds."
Johnson considered Scruton's efforts at "baiting liberals", and his "theme of the devaluation of claims to first-person epistemic authority", familiar from his earlier work. He wrote that Scruton's view that perversion is a form of depersonalization required constant readjustment. He argued that it was hard to specify exactly what recognizing someone as a person requires, and that Scruton's reinterpretation of Kantian ideas was of little help. He believed that Scruton's account of perversion was most convincing in the cases of bestiality, necrophilia, and paedophilia, but described Scruton's distinction between normal and perverted forms of sado-masochism as surprising. He considered Scruton's account of sexual relations between the sexes interesting but debatable, suggesting that what Scruton saw as normal might be part of a "patriarchal heritage". He criticised Scruton's arguments about gender. He also suggested that Scruton's concern with "clarity of feeling and scrutability of desire" were primary motives behind many of his arguments. He dismissed Scruton's arguments about homosexuality. He found Scruton's descriptions of "male and female desire" to be based on stereotypes, and criticised Scruton's treatment of feminism, as well as his accounts of sexual arousal and desire. He questioned the usefulness of Scruton's view that "the metaphysical self is a transcendental illusion, albeit one we cannot do without" for understanding desire, as well whether Scruton's account of desire supported Scruton's moral and political views, and the overall coherence of Scruton's philosophical views, which combined Aristotelian with Kantian ideas. He also criticised Scruton's discussions of masturbation, sexual fantasy, and fetishism, and suggested that Scruton was prudish.
Kingham compared Sexual Desire to the sociologist Jeffrey Weeks's Sexuality and Its Discontents (1985), writing that while Scruton's conclusions differed from those of Weeks, his book addressed the same range of issues and was similar in structure and content. He also compared Scruton's work to that of the critic F. R. Leavis. Stafford, writing in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, criticised Sexual Desire, arguing that Scruton's proposal that moral education guide students toward a state in which sexuality is integrated within a life of personal affection and responsibility is inconsistent with his views on homosexuality. According to Stafford, Scruton was invited by the Journal of Applied Philosophy to respond, but declined to do so. Writing in Studies in Philosophy and Education, Stafford again criticised Scruton, arguing that Scruton's view that children should be encouraged to feel revulsion for homosexuality is inconsistent with the ideas expressed in Sexual Desire. He noted that the question of why homosexuality exists could potentially be answered through a sociobiological explanation of the kind that Scruton might accept. Stafford endorsed Scruton's view that a proper sexual relationship involves interpersonal intentionality, and argued that Scruton's admission that this is possible in homosexual and as well as heterosexual relationships should have led him to oppose discrimination against homosexuals. Singer credited Scruton with succinctly discussing the problems involved in thinking about sexual activity and with showing that sexual desire involves complexity of thought. Soble described the book as "erudite and philosophically elegant", and noted that despite a "social climate already highly sensitive to issues surrounding sexual orientation", Scruton was "not afraid to doubt the normality, morality, and social effects of homosexuality." He observed that Scruton's contrast between sex and love was a "standard" part of traditionalism.
Evaluations in books, 1986–1997Edit
Robert Brown observed in Analyzing Love (1987) that while some of his conclusions about topics such as moral theory, love and sex were similar to Scruton's, he reached them by "independent routes that, if pursued further, would diverge toward disparate outcomes." He considered the points raised in Sexual Desire "important, interesting, and also highly contentious". The philosopher Michael Ruse argued in Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry (1988) that Scruton's critique of Freud is weak and unconvincing. He considered Scruton's view that genuine science does not involve metaphor outdated, as philosophers and historians have shown that metaphor is common in science, in fields as diverse as physics and sociology. He also wrote that Scruton's criticism of sociobiology suggests that he falsely understands rationality as a "beyond-biology phenomenon". The classicist David M. Halperin argued in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990) that Scruton's textual practice of retaining the masculine pronoun for both the subject and object of desire helped illustrate the philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray's concept of hom(m)osexualité. Scruton, writing in "Sexual morality and the liberal consensus", an essay included in The Philosopher on Dover Beach (1990), drew on his arguments in Sexual Desire in the course of seeking to justify revulsion for homosexuality.
Norman O. Brown wrote in Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (1991) that Scruton was correct to identify Spinoza as his philosophical antagonist. He cited Scruton's ideas as an example of the way in which the "popular mythology" of individual love depends on the idea of "the individual self, soul, or person as a substantial reality". The social theorist Jonathan Dollimore interpreted Scruton as basing his sexual ethic on the Hegelian proposition that the "final end of every rational being is the building of the self" in Sexual Dissidence (1991). He wrote that Scruton sees homosexuality as a perversion and argued that Scruton's philosophy of sex is open to many objections. He argued that by "privileging sexual difference", Scruton is engaging in "the modern intensification of sexuality which in other ways he might regard as contributing to a legitimation of the perversions he repudiates." He found Scruton's writing jargon-ridden, believing that its Hegelian framework bestows "a spurious profundity on a normative sexual politics" that is "timid, conservative, and deeply ignorant." He also suggested that, notwithstanding Scruton's attack on psychoanalysis, his defense of sexual difference is indebted to psychoanalytic theory.
Raymond A. Belliotti cited Sexual Desire as a notable example of a work by a philosopher who argues that sex is morally permissible only if it involves love and intimacy in the anthology A Companion to Ethics (1991). He compared the work to Vincent Punzo's Reflective Naturalism (1969). The economist Richard Posner, in Sex and Reason (1992), compared Sexual Desire to Anscombe's defense of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae vitae (1968). He noted that they both sought to free Christian sexual morality from inessential details such as "making sexual pleasure problematic even in marriage". He argued that Scruton does not provide any adequate reason for viewing homosexuality as immoral, although he granted that Scruton might be correct that, "the fact that a male homosexual's preferred sex partner is another man reduces the psychological distance between the partners to the point of making the relationship narcissistic, almost masturbatory." He compared Scruton's views about the narcissistic character of homosexuality to those of Freud. Dover observed in Marginal Comment (1994) that he was unconcerned by Scruton's dismissal of Greek Homosexuality, explaining that despite agreeing with part of Scruton's analysis of sexual emotion, his work has a different focus. The philosopher Christopher Janaway identified Sexual Desire as one of several works in which Scruton challenges the conventional boundaries of analytic philosophy in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995).
Nussbaum credited Scruton with providing an interesting argument against gay rights in the anthology The Liberation Debate: Rights at Issue (1996). She noted that Scruton's argument was "expressed with a tentativeness and a lack of venom rare in these matters." However, she criticised it on several grounds, writing that Scruton used the unclear notion of "gender" rather than the clearer notion of biological sex, and suggesting that if one accepts Scruton's view that having sex with a person of the same gender is superficial in comparison to having sex with a person of the opposite gender because of one's greater familiarity with one's own gender, then "any relationship in which a barrier of experiential difference is crossed" should have superior moral value. Nussbaum maintained in the third edition of the anthology The Philosophy of Sex (1997) that Scruton's work advances the understanding of sexual objectification and provides "the most interesting philosophical attempt as yet to work through the moral issues involved in our treatment of persons as sex partners." Soble, in the same work, criticised Scruton's treatment of masturbation and described his judgment that all masturbation is "obscene" as "silly".
Evaluations in books, 1998–presentEdit
The philosopher James Giles argued in The Nature of Sexual Desire (2003) that Scruton is mistaken to think that sexual desire essentially aims at an individual person, since it can be desire simply for sexual activity. Scruton stated in his memoir Gentle Regrets (2005) that the philosopher A. J. Ayer dismissed Sexual Desire as "silly". Describing Ayer's comment as part of a pattern of negative responses to his work, he replied that he considers Sexual Desire cogent and an answer to Foucault's "mendacious" The History of Sexuality (1976). Stafford argued in the second volume of Sex from Plato to Paglia (2005) that Scruton's essay "Sexual morality and the liberal consensus" (1989), in which Scruton argued that children should be encouraged to feel revulsion for homosexuality, was an attempt by Scruton to prevent his admission that homosexual desire is spontaneous and not necessarily perverted from being seen as supporting the positive treatment of homosexuality by moral educators. Christopher Hamilton called Sexual Desire "the most interesting and insightful philosophical account of sexual desire" produced within analytic philosophy in the fifth edition of The Philosophy of Sex (2008).
The philosopher Mark Dooley called Sexual Desire "magisterial" in Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach (2009). He observed that Scruton's objective is to show that sexual desire fundamentally enriches a person's experience of the sacred. Dooley stated in his introduction to The Roger Scruton Reader (2011) that Sexual Desire is often considered Scruton's "magnum opus". Anne Barnhill described Sexual Desire as, "One of the most interesting philosophical accounts of sexual ethics" but also "one of the most frustratingly anti-feminist" in the anthology Out from the Shadows: Analytical Feminist Contributions to Traditional Philosophy (2012). She adopted Scruton work on sexual ethics as a model despite disagreeing with most of Scruton's conclusions about gender. Michael Plaxton described Sexual Desire as important in Implied Consent and Sexual Assault (2015), though he noted that Scruton's conclusions about topics such as homosexuality and the role of women in society are controversial. He drew on Scruton's work in his own discussion of sexual ethics despite not accepting some of Scruton's views.
Scruton, interviewed by Dooley in Conversations with Roger Scruton (2016), attributed his interest in writing Sexual Desire to having lived through the sexual revolution and experiencing a need to explain why the view of sex that he observed at the time was "naïve and destructive." He commented that he considered the book far too long and that if he were writing it again, he would "write it at half the length." He suggested that the book's essential ideas were summarised in a single chapter of his work Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (2003). He noted that the book "upset many advocates of sexual liberation, who saw it as a kind of assault", adding that he had not expected that it would change people's views. Dooley suggested the book represents the first time Scruton made use of concepts, such as intentionality, the lifeworld, the transcendental, and the sacred, that later became central to his philosophical work, though Scruton noted that his interest in intentionality predated the book. Scruton observed in the anthology The Religious Philosophy of Roger Scruton (2017) that his views on the philosophy of sex had become gradually clearer to him after the publication of Sexual Desire, and that he had moved "away from the abstract theory of intentionality towards more concrete representations of our interpersonal being."
Scruton, in an interview with the journalist Mick Hume published in Spiked in 2015, commented that it had become more dangerous to express the views about homosexuality that he put forward in Sexual Desire. According to Lily Pickard, writing in The Independent, officers at the University of Bristol Students' Union sought to No Platform Scruton in 2016 for comments he "made over same-sex marriage" in Sexual Desire and "Sexual morality and the liberal consensus".
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