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October 28, 2019

Professors Debate the Philosophy of Sex at Night Owls Lecture

Philosophy professor Agnes Callard opened the latest edition of the popular Night Owls lecture series by asking, “What is sex, and why are we interested in having it?” College and graduate students filled University Church last Thursday night for the event, titled “Let’s Get Philosophical about Sex,” which featured a conversation between Callard and Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University.

Night Owls is a fixture on campus. The series was profiled in the Chicago Tribune this past May. The profile explored the novelty of late-night academic lectures that draw standing room–only crowds, and quoted Callard: “I wanted Night Owls to feel like what you thought philosophy is, before you found yourself in a class and actually had to do it. I wanted philosophy to speak to an outside world, and take steps to lead people to it.”

The discussion began with both professors attempting to define sex, balancing biological imperatives with ideas of desire and social significance. Kukla said her eight-year-old son encountered sex while watching the HBO series True Blood, and told her that sex is “when two people who like each other want to play with each other’s bodies to have fun.”

The conversation turned to how Western society generally tends to view sexuality through a free-market economic model—framing sex as a commodity that sets up the possibility of obligation.

Callard and Kukla analyzed how the commodified construction of sexuality contributes to rape culture and suggested alternative approaches to sex that could avoid becoming transactional. Kukla suggested that the BDSM community, where consent and exit conditions like safe words are established beforehand, could serve as a new paradigm of open sexual discourse, allowing partners to be free to experiment sexually within established parameters.

“There’s just a lot less bad sex in explicit kink communities,” Kukla said, going on to explain how precautions like safe words allow participants to explore riskier sexual scenarios, such as those that involve playing with power dynamics. “There’s no relationship so otherwise revolting that it can’t be made into fun sex-play,” she said.

Much of the evening was spent trying to determine what makes sex “good” or “bad,” a question that inevitably led to a debate over what people who engage in sex want out of a sexual experience. Kukla touched on the distinction between public and private bodies, and how using what Americans euphemistically refer to as “private parts” is a key component of what makes sexual intimacy enjoyable.

“What gets us sexually excited and gives us sexual pleasure is doing something with our bodies that feels transgressive,” she said.

As the clock ticked toward midnight, audience questions ranged from the abstractly philosophical—what about a sexual encounter requires the suspension of practical reason?—to more grounded concerns on how to determine compatibility in a sexual partner. “The best indicator of sexual compatibility is conversation,” Callard said.

The final question of the night, posed near midnight, asked the professors to consider whether philosophy was better than sex. After deliberating, both Callard and Kukla concluded that it was a difficult, if not impossible, comparison to make.

“There’s some really bad philosophy, and there’s some really good sex,” Kukla said.

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