Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Seduction, advertising and provocative dress

Thesis: It is wrong to intentionally attempt to sexually excite another person without the other's consent.

I will argue for the Thesis in a moment. But at the moment, I want to clarify a few things and give some consequences. I take it to be a consequence of the Thesis that the following three actions are wrong:

  1. Including sexually suggestive imagery in advertising in non-pornographic media in order that the viewer might be sexually excited and thus inclined to favor the product.
  2. Dressing in a provocative way in public in order to sexually excite others.
  3. Seducing another by trying to cause another to become sexually excited, when the other does not consent to being caused to become sexually excited, whether the means be a romantic dinner, ethanol, unfermented grape juice, a movie, a touch, a word, etc.
Both to clarify the Thesis and to explain why these follow from it, note first that consent is not the same as enjoyment or wishing. Thus, that a reader of a magazine might enjoy being sexually excited at a model in an ad does not entail that the reader consents to that excitement. One way to see this is to consider the following case. Yakov is a Jewish man who smells some delicious sweet and sour pork while walking by a Chinese restaurant. He wishes God had permitted him to eat sweet and sour pork. He then remembers that in Talmudic law, it is permissible to violate kashrut to save your life (except in times of religious persecution). The food smells so good that he desires that the cook should come out, point a gun at his head, and tell him to eat some sweet and sour pork. He would enjoy this, moreover. (Let's suppose he's a very brave man much given to pleasures of the palate, so the sight of a gun pointed at his head would not spoil the delicious taste.) However, the fact that he wishes the cook to do this, and that he would enjoy it, does not contradict the fact that he has not consented to having a gun placed to his head. One can desire something and know that one would enjoy it when it would come, but nonetheless not consent to it.[note 1]

Thus, even if it were true that the readers of a magazine would enjoy the sexual excitement, it would not follow that they consent to it. I do restrict claim (1) to the case of non-pornographic magazines, because the reader of a pornographic magazine can be presumed to give consent to being sexually excited by the contents. (This might be partly definitional of a pornographic magazine. I am not saying that there is nothing wrong with pornography, just that its wrongness does not follow from the Thesis.) Likewise, that someone comes to enjoy being seduced, and even comes to consent to its continuation, does not entail that the initial attempt to sexually excite was consented to. At the same time, consent can be implicit in a context, so this is not going to cover all cases of seduction (e.g., it will not cover seduction in the context of a relationship where such seduction is implicitly consented to and where the implicit consent is not withdrawn—again, I do not want to say that all consensual seduction is acceptable, but only that it does not violate the Thesis).

Observe, also, that expectation is not the same as consent. A person might expect that a popular non-pornographic magazine contains some provocative imagery, or that a date will try to seduce one, but expectation is not the same as consent. It should be no defense in a theft case that a man knew that a neighborhood was rife with muggers when he went out for a walk and hence he consensually handed over his wallet, so it wasn't theft.[note 2]

In any case, even if most readers of some non-pornographic magazine or most bystanders consented to being sexually excited, there would surely be some who did not, and if the intention was to excite all readers or all bystanders of the appropriate sex and sexual orientation, then some would be excited non-consensually, and a violation of the Thesis would occur.

What is kind of interesting about this argument is that many arguments against the sexual objectification of women have involved the harm to women from such objectification (see, e.g., Dworkin). While I think such arguments are basically sound, they miss out on a dimension of the question, which is that in many not overtly pornographic contexts the male viewers are not consenting to sexual excitation, and hence are being wronged.

I am assuming here that sexual excitement is a state of the person that includes some emotional and some physiological components, and that these physiological components involve, at least in part, the physiological state of the person's sexual systems.

Why should we believe the Thesis? I think it follows from the same considerations as make sexual assault be wrong. Sexual assault can range from full-scale violent rape to a sexual pat on the behind. What is common in all of these cases is that the contact is sexual in nature and not consented to. (Whether the contact is desired, wished for or enjoyed ought to be irrelevant to the question whether a sexual assault occurred, though obviously the more undesired the contact, the worse the crime.) It seems plausible to suppose that any sexual manipulation of parts of the physiological sexual systems of a person is wrong.[note 3] Nor should it matter much whether the manipulation is done directly by means of the assailant's body, or by the intermediate use of some tool. Even if the manipulation is done by means of the victim's own self without the victim's consent, this is surely sexual assault (think of the case of hypnotizing an unconsenting subject[note 4]).

Cases of intentionally sexually exciting someone are cases of intentionally manipulating the physiological sexual systems of the other. Hence if they are non-consensual, they are wrong for the same reasons that sexual assaults not involving physical contact are wrong. Hence the Thesis is true.

Interestingly, then, sexual assaults against men are not as rare as people think—I suspect a lot of ordinary magazines contain them.


andrew cullison said...

Your analogy between sexual assault via contact and stimulating sexual excitement via imagery sounds comparable to tickling someone without their consent to make them laugh (vs.) telling a joke to make them laugh.

I suspect that tickling someone without their consent to make them laugh is wrong, but making someone laugh (by doing something silly) without their consent is not wrong.

who was it who said...

I think you are right about advertising and men, but it also seems to be a consequence of your thesis that it is wrong for one to begin to flirt with another, whereas surely that is alright so long as one stops if the other indicates clearly enough that one should (and presumably one should have reasonable grounds for believing that the other could so indicate). Flirting is surely alright (without it all our marriages would have to be arranged), but it is all about trying to interest another sexually, which must surely involve trying to sexually excite them to some slight degree (rather than anything more abstract).

Alexander R Pruss said...


On flirting, I don't know. There may be a difference between indicating one's interest and trying to get the other interested in one, on the one hand, and trying to get the other sexually excited. Appreciation of physical beauty is not, for instance, the same as sexual excitation.

Mr. Cullison:

Sexual assault does not need to involve physical contact, I think. Non-consensual hypnosis can, I suspect, constitute sexual assault. And flashing, while perhaps not a sexual assault in a given jurisdiction, is a closely related crime.

Let's suppose for the sake of argument that the tickling is not physically unpleasant (otherwise the analogy between tickling and making laugh breaks down). Then there is a disanalogy between the tickling case and the sexual case. The disanalogy is that in a tickling assault, where the tickling is not physically unpleasant, there is really nothing wrong beyond the mere fact of non-consensual physical contact. But in the case of a sexual assault, there is something wrong beyond the mere fact of non-consensual physical contact--namely the fact of non-consensual sexual interaction. This is reflected by the fact that, surely, the sentence for a non-consensual sexual pat of a stranger on the behind will be significantly greater than the sentence for a non-consensual non-sexual pat of a stranger on the shoulder, even though in both cases the physical contact is basically the same. So what seems to be essential to sexual assault as such is not the physical contact, but the sexual interaction.

We do have a double standard, and rightly so, in the following sense: sexual content magnifies an offense.

Chris said...

Prof. Pruss --

Interesting post. I think more needs to be said about the moral asymmetry between non-consensual sexual contact and other kinds or non-consensual contact. Then we can make the move to non-consensual sexual excitement. One way to make a distinction is some kind of *harm* principle. I.e, that non-consenual sexual contact is more harmful than other kinds of non-consensual contact. This could be grounded in psychological facts. Wertheimer grounds it in evolutionary psychology, which I find dubious. Are there other non-theistic grounds to justify this asymmetry? I can't recall the other lines of argument for this.

Another thought is that your argument is similar to arguments against hate speech. Being subjected to (non-consensual) hate-speech (ethnic slurs, etc.) is wrongful because of some kind of harm principle. No contact needed.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think the difference can be grounded in psychological facts, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, people's psychology differs. Rape would still be wrong even if someone had a psychological makeup such that rape did not cause psychological harm. Secondly, rape is wrong even when the victim never finds out, as when the victim is raped by a medical practitioner while in a coma. And note that in this case, the sexual nature of the crime is what gives it gravity. It would rightly be a crime for a doctor to sexually touch someone who was in a coma, but would barely be a crime if at all if the doctor non-sexually stroked the person's head, even though in both cases the amount of contact could be the same, with no physical or psychological damage. (There could be psychological damage if the crime were found out. But it is no less a crime when not found out.)

Instead, I would prefer to ground the higher standard for sexual cases in the fact that intercourse is the consummation of a form of love, and other sexual activities are related to intercourse in relevant ways (e.g., maybe arousal has intercourse as a telos), and where love is at stake, the standards are higher, since the duty to love is the root of morality. The particular form of love in this case--eros--is one for which freedom is particularly important, and non-consensual acts are a particularly bad perversion of the consummation of this love.

Michael said...

I appreciate the post. I think you've hit on a strangely overlooked aspect of sexual ethics.

Andrew Cullison said...

I see your point now. This has more teeth than I originally thought.

So is this the argument.

1. Non-consensual sexual assault is wrong because it intentionally manipulates the sexual system without consent.

2. If (1), then any intentional manipulation of the sexual system without consent is wrong.

3. Therefore, any intentional manipulation of the sexual system without consent is wrong.

4. Sexually suggestive advertisements (etc...) intentionally manipulates the sexual system without consent.

5. So, Sexually suggestive advertisements (etc...) intentionally manipulate the sexual system. (from 3 and 4)

Pretty interesting argument.

Andrew Cullison said...

Oh...I may have thought of a better analogy.

Imagine Dr. Black goes in and starts changing my beliefs by hacking into my brain and manipulating the neurons. (He can do this via contact or remote control).

It seems that this is wrong, and the reason that it's wrong isn't just that he's coming into contact with me without my consent - he's actually manipulating my cognitive system without my consent.

One might say that this is parallel to the explanation offered above for why sexual assault is wrong.

But now imagine that Dr. Black simply starts presenting me with arguments without my consent against a belief of mine that are so compelling I can't help but believe. Here we seem to have a case of intentionally manipulating my cognitive system without my consent.

I suspect the strategy here would be to say that part of the explanation for why the first case of manipulation is wrong isn't just that it's a case of manipulation - the manner of manipulation seems relevant.

Someone might say that similarly in the case of sexual assault - it isn't simply the manipulation without consent - it's also the manner of manipulation.

I hope that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is wrong for magazines to have images that sexually excite another person without the person's consent. But I don't think that it is wrong because the person is 'unknowingly' sexually aroused. What is so bad about being sexually aroused unknowingly if it occurs at an appropriate time and does not have any bad results? I don't think anyone would object to this instance of pleasure. I think the wrong parts about the situation of the magazine reader are the circumstances and the consequences in which he experiences sexual excitement.

Alexander R Pruss said...


First of all, some people would mind, for instance people who do not want to be excited by anybody but a spouse, say.

But in any case, sexual assault is wrong even if the victim does not mind, and even if it has no further consequences for anybody, and even in the perhaps hypothetical case where the victim wants to be assaulted (or perhaps not so hypothetical: statutory rape cases are like that).

Mr. Cullison,

That's a nice example. So there are going to be cases like the one you give where the manner of manipulation is crucial.

Notice, though, an interesting feature of the argumentative persuasion case, which is disanalogous from the sexual case. When the person is persuaded intellectually, she comes to agree with the persuader, and consents precisely at the moment at which she comes to have the belief she is persuaded of. (The consent is of a somewhat different sort than in the sexual case, so the analogy is not perfect.) She may not consent to the attempt at persuasion, but she does consent to the end-result if the end-result is achieved (I take it that if I believe p on rational grounds, I do so freely and consensually). Not necessarily so in the case of deliberate induction of sexual excitement: for the person may be sexually excited but not consent to the excitement.

Anonymous said...

doesn't the person consent to the possibility of sexual excitement at the moment that he buys a magazine? when someone buys a particular magazine, he is aware that there could be adds that sexually excite him. that is just part of the magazine. so, at the moment you buy a particular magazine, it seems that you are consenting to all the experiences that you may derive from that magazine.

Andrew Cullison said...


I thought there might be something about the nature of belief that would enable a response like the one you give.

There does seem to be a sense in which when someone changes their belief (because of an argument) they agree

I'm not sure how persuasive this will be, but suppose we add to the example that the belief in question is something that the person really, really likes having (perhaps for practical reasons). Suppose the belief is that God exists, and the person comes to be persuaded through an argument.

I can imagine them saying "Why did you present that argument? I would have rather kept my belief in God. I was happy until you came along"

The main idea is to try and construct a case where the person would be really unhappy to lack the belief. They may in some sense agree when presented with an argument, but it may be a kind of intellectual duress.

I'll have to think more about this and see if I can construct a plausible case. Thoughts about the God one?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr. Cullison,

That's a nice point that worried me a bit. One might make something of the difference between assent and consent--one might, perhaps, be assenting to a proposition while not consenting to assent. Still, that's kind of weird, and I am not sure it would count as real "assent" in that case. (Just as when someone signs what looks like a contract non-consentingly, it's not really a contract, but a worthless piece of paper with words on it.)

Another disanalogy between the Dr. Black and the sexual cases is in some cases what Dr. Black does is permissible without the subject's consent. E.g., if the subject insanely believes everybody but himself is a demon and should be killed, it might well be permissible to hack into his brain and try to remove that belief, even without her consent. See my next post.

Andrew Cullison said...

That's certainly a difference between the two cases.

The first premise in the argument above could be strengthened to say...

(1*) 1. Non-consensual sexual assault is ALWAYS wrong because it intentionally manipulates the sexual system without consent.

It would be hard to block premise (1*) with the analogy to belief...

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Pruss,

I enjoyed your post.

Let us say you are right, and intentionally causing sexual excitement in someone without their consent is impermissible. If this is true, then it should carry over to the case of marriage as well: when one is married to someone, then presumably ones spouse has the same right not to have things done to them without their consent as does someone to whom one is not married.

So it seems to follow that, for example, a wife who attempts to sexually exicte her husband by dressing provocatively etc., when this is without his consent, is doing something wrong. However, this strikes me as very counterintuitive, to say the least.

There are two ways of blocking the counterintuitive conclusion: one is to say that the wife has a reasonable expectation of consent from the husband; and the other is to say that when one marries, one thereby gives consent to sexual relations.

However, neither of these strategies is very convincing: in the first case, the wife may well be attempting to seduce her husband purely because he generally doesn't consent to have sex with her, and there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her wanting to do so. In the second case, it is surely not true that a married person has consented to have sex with their spouse *all the time*, merely by virtue of being married: this woule mean that there can be no sich thing as as someone raping their spouse, and there obviously can be such a thing.

At any rate, it seems to me that the case of someone intentionally sexually exciting their spouse wihtout their spouse's consent is a prima facie difficulty for your account. The way to get around it is presumably to point out special features of the marital situation that ar in play. However, right now I can't see very clearly what those special features might be.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I do think that there is an at least implicit understanding that a marriage is a sexual relationship, and reasonable sexual interaction--and that isn't just sex--is consented to.

Dan said...


It seems your third application of your principle -- "a romantic dinner, ethanol, unfermented grape juice, a movie, a touch, a word, etc." -- seems to apply equally well within marriage as without. Surely there are attempted seductions within a marriage, where one partner tries to put the other partner "in the mood," where there may not be initial consent. And surely this is not wrong. (There would have to be consent eventually, of course -- but there can be that in the case of dating, and the consent might be itself caused by the arousal.)

Does this cause problems for your principle, or perhaps just your application? Could the marriage context itself be a kind of implicit consent to sexual arousal? This can't be right -- consider the contexts of St. Paul's recommended periods of fasting and abstinence. It would seem wrong to induce your partner to arousal in that context. But perhaps it wouldn't be wrong on the level of sexual assault, just a failure to respect a certain religious observance.

Dan said...

Oops...just read the post by Anonymous two above mine, and realized that I just repeated what he or she said. Sorry.

I think it is hard to say what sort of implicit consent is involved in marriage. It isn't an implicit consent to sex simpliciter. Perhaps it is this: there is an implicit consent in marriage to non-forcible attempts at sexual arousal.

Even this implicit consent will have to be defeasible, however, as in the case of a period of fasting and abstinence, or in various particular situations where one partner has made clear the desire to abstain (assuming that desire is for good reasons).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I have no problem with the idea that the implicit consent in marriage is defeasible. I do think marriage includes a commitment to sexual availability, and this may include a commitment to be willing to be seduced, barring circumstances where this is inappropriate.

Besides, a married person after a while can often recognize where a spouse's actions are heading, and assuming good marital communication, one can assume that a lack of objection is consent. This isn't true in general in human relationships--there are situations where a failure to object is not consent--but I think tends to be true in healthy mutual relationships between adults. And in cases where there is no healthy mutual communication, so that consent cannot be presumed in the absence of contrary information, then something does go wrong.

And I think it is plausible that in cases where consent is withdrawn, the attempt at excitation may annoy and be inappropriate. (Remember, too, that marital rape is a form of rape.)

I should say that what I said about marriage here applies to a certain degree in non-marital relationships. Thus, the argument becomes less and less applicable as a relationship grows.

(This should not be construed as an endorsement of deliberate sexual excitation in non-marital relationships. I am just saying here that this argument does not apply in those cases. I actually think it is wrong to deliberately sexually excite a person (oneself or another) except in the context of a relationship where sex is appropriate, and the only such relationship is marriage. But that is entirely a different line of thought, I think.)