Thursday, April 06, 2023

Sexiness and Love Island

guest post by Nick Riggle

Sexiness can seem straightforward. Everyone knows what it’s like to want and respond to it—in oneself, in others—and I’d venture that most people do indeed want it one way or another. But the ease of feeling might flow in the other direction. Rod Stewart reminds us that sexiness more than flirts with objectification: If you want my body and you think I’m sexy… The desire for sexiness seems to include the desire for bodies as such, and so its aesthetic value seems to flirt too directly with ethical disvalue. It is difficult to know how to feel: aesthetically attracted, ethically repulsed.


One response to the sexiness problem is what I call the Prince Strategy. In his song “Sexy M.F.” Prince solves the problem by transforming sexiness from sexual to mental attractiveness.

We need to talk about things, tell me what cha do
Tell me whatcha eat, I might cook for you
See it really don't matter 'cause it's all about me and you
Ain't no one else around
I'm movin' with the blindfold, gagged and bound
I don't mind, see this ain't about sex
It's all about love being in charge of this life and the next
Why all the cosmic talk?
I just want you smarter than I'll ever be
When we take that walk

You seem perplexed I haven't taken you yet
Can't you see I'm harder than a man can get
I got wet dreams comin' out of my ears
I get hard if the wind blows your cologne near me
But I can take it, 'cause I want the whole nine
This ain't about the body, it's about the mind

Prince emphasizes that true sexiness is ‘about the mind’. This conceptual engineering gives him the best of both worlds. As he sings later in the song, “I'm happy to change my state of mind for this behind.”

[Midjourney rendition of Prince cooking eggs for a sexy woman]

As many philosophers have pointed out, sexiness is bound up with patriarchy and its attendant restrictions on women’s autonomy. The Prince Strategy tries to sidestep the connections between sexiness, women’s bodies, and patriarchy by replacing sexual, bodily attractiveness with mental attractiveness. This is an appealing strategy, for under patriarchy it is not enough to agree with Martha Nussbaum’s point that objectification means many things (7 by her count) and it is not always ethically wrong. Under patriarchy it often is, and that’s one reason why the Prince Strategy can seem attractive in this extremely nonideal world.

The problem with the Prince Strategy is not that minds cannot be sexy—obviously they can, says this philosopher—it’s that it seems to deny that bodies can also be sexy. Having watched more than a few seasons of Love Island UK I can report: obviously they can. Should we simply ignore that fact? I should clarify that watching Love Island UK is not my only evidence.


Sheila Lintott and Sherri Irvin develop another response by intervening in the patriarchal culture of sexiness that encourages women to embrace a notion of sexiness that conforms to the male gaze. On their view, we should retain the link between sexiness and sexual desire but revise the concept of sexiness to construct one that is respectful of all persons: “To find a person sexy in this sense is to see their body as infused with an expression of self and animated by their own sexual identity. … Respecting sexiness involves seeing others not (only) as sex objects but necessarily as sexual subjects: human beings who are in charge of their sexual agency.” (p. 305)

Call this the Embodiment strategy: sexiness is the attractiveness of a person’s embodied sexuality. A sexy person expresses their sexuality in their look, demeanor, composure. To find someone sexy is to be attracted to their embodied sexuality.


Now consider: the Love Island Phenomenon. If you’ve watched as much Love Island UK as I have, then you have witnessed the following phenomenon many times over: You meet someone and find them very sexy. But over time you come know more about them: their personality, their values and goals (or lack thereof), their interests and style. And, like magic, their sexiness disappears.

Nothing need change about how they embody their sexuality, so what could explain the change in sexiness? And while the Embodiment strategy seems unable to capture the change, the Prince strategy can’t capture the initial attraction, for initially we know almost nothing about their minds and quite a lot about their bodies.

It seems that Love Island UK spells trouble for all.[1]

One response that Lintott and Irvin might offer is to say that the Love Island Phenomenon is best described not as a change in sexiness but as a change in attractiveness. What changes is not the person’s sexiness but your being attracted to it. Their sexiness is neutralized by your awareness of their unattractive traits. But this response makes me wonder why, if sexiness is embodied sexuality, information about the person’s non-sexual character should change how I feel about their sexiness.


Here is another proposal, call it Prince’s Synthesizer: Maybe the sexy truth lies in a synthesis of the Prince and Embodiment strategies: sexiness is more than embodied sexuality—it is embodied mind, where the features of mind that matter are any features we might find hot. Humans are extremely creative in finding hotness. Some of these features can shine as and through embodied sexuality: the embodiment of confidence, quirkiness, sexual poise, self-possession, boldness, and so on. But others shine in other ways: a person’s sexy intelligence, sincerity, drive, resilience, grit, creativity, worldliness, or…the way they eat falafel, or curl their lip, or smell a certain way.

Prince’s Synthesizer makes better sense of the idea that when (or at least often when) we find someone sexy, we are attracted to their style, or the way they embody their personal ideals—the way their dreams and aspirations manifest in their ways of living. Sexual aspiration generates style as much as intellectual or athletic aspiration. Eros wends its way through each. We might catch a glimpse of a person’s style in getting a sense of their sexuality, but that is only part of a bigger stylistic picture, which, when it comes into full view, along with the minds that bodies embody, might reveal something…not hot. Love Island UK Season 9 now streaming!


[1] Big thanks to the students in my Fall 2022 Aesthetics and Ethics class for a great discussion about this.


chinaphil said...

I don't think this post takes seriously enough the fact that we are always working with partial information. It asks how it can be that our judgments of sexiness change - but that's easy: it's because what we know changes. The point is that when we don't know much about someone, that doesn't mean we don't know if they're sexy or not. Sexiness is a judgment that we make instantly, irrespective of whether or not we have enough information to make it reliably. So we make a judgment of sexiness based on incomplete data, often very early on; and then that judgment changes as our information base grows.
I find this to be a really common failing in lots of philosophical (and other) discussion: the failure to realise that "incorrect" judgments/decisions/actions may just be the normal result of working under incomplete information.
Another possible criticism is that sexiness is still treated here as a property that inheres in a person. It might be equally productive to think of it as an interaction between two people under certain conditions. For example, feelings of sexiness are more likely to happen when you're drunk; when you're in an amorous mood; when someone chooses to present themselves to you as sexy; in low lighting. Sexiness is less likely to be generated in professional or sporting contexts, or by a person who is indifferent to your presence. Within these circumstances, there will then be a range of different interpersonal reactions to the different qualities people reveal, and judgments of sexiness emerge as a function of all of these different factors.

Howie said...

First, men can be objectified too.
Second, Martin Buber introduced the idea of I-Thou; his idea is that we can relate to some other as a Thou while also treating them as an It- they are as separable as Aristotelian matter and form; second, lusting after someone's body is a way of uttering Thou to them- to follow Whitman, it is a way of celebrating the other- we celebrate the body because it is hers or his.
I get it- women are fed up with the male gaze and if we are to be helpmates, it's got to come to na halt- this is as much a historical process as an ethical one

Arnold said...

The evolution of senses has played an important role in the evolution of consciousness, life, and the cosmos. Sensory perception allows organisms to gather information about their environment, which is crucial for survival and reproduction. As organisms evolved more sophisticated sensory systems, they became better equipped to navigate their environment and respond to changing conditions. This allowed for the development of more complex behaviors and cognitive abilities, eventually leading to the emergence of consciousness.

The evolution of life on Earth, in turn, has had a profound impact on the evolution of the cosmos. Life has played a significant role in shaping the composition of the Earth's atmosphere and the surface environment, ultimately contributing to the emergence of conditions that are favorable for life to thrive. The emergence of consciousness in humans and other animals has also led to the development of culture, language, and technology, which have had far-reaching impacts on the environment and the course of human history.

So, while the evolution of senses is just one aspect of the complex interplay between life and the cosmos, it has played a critical role in shaping the trajectory of evolution and the emergence of consciousness.

From my conversation with a Quora sage bot about this subject...thanks