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:
- 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.
- Dressing in a provocative way in public in order to sexually excite others.
- 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.
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in the context of a relationship where such seduction is implicitly consented to and where the implicit consent is not withdrawn—again, I do not want to say that all consensual seduction is acceptable, but only that it does not violate the Thesis).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.