Sex Is (Not) For England
Essays Society Love

Sex Is (Not) For England

Mary Townsend

You, child, you want to know what is sex for? Sex is for England, said Queen Victoria, apocryphally. One closes one’s eyes, &c., and thinks of politics. Or: “You got to be open to the possibility,” my high school theology teacher would say with a gleeful leer, as she explained for the fifteen-hundredth time the Roman Catholic Church’s position on birth control (that’s a no-can-do). Sex, on these grounds, is either partly or completely for babies—for making them that is; the benefits to churches and states manifesting in generations and generations.

The comedy inherent in the argument that reduces sex to an instrumental good is obvious enough. Sex is not chosen for other things primarily, primarily it is chosen pretty obviously for itself. The violent enjoyment of the one doing the reducing seems but a poor substitute for the pleasures involved in the thing itself. The lingering strangeness of this argument, that sex primarily achieves some larger civic goal, is the oddly strong temptation to try to make it with a straight face. Likewise the reverse, that sex is good, actually quite good, at times too good for its own sake, is an idea that does not often need serious defending. In hopes of taming his lust with state-sanctioned marriage, Augustine sent his lover back to Africa, weeping tears of blood, while she, as she departed, swore off sex forever. Yet at the time of this event, Augustine himself still managed only a “make me good, but not yet.”

So why, other than pathological sublimation of desire, would Victoria et alia be making their case that sex is for England and for humanity at large, via the purported delights of civic-oriented heterosexual love? Does this kind of rationalizing about sex really have the benefits for the state that it claims, or does it tempt the reasoner down darker paths?

Consider the case of Socrates, sometime Athenian and father of two. Socrates is known for his extravagant praise of erotic love, eros, in some of Plato’s books; the story of how erotic love draws you up to knowledge of the divine in the Symposium has proved one of the world’s most relatable ideas.

But in his most famous conversation, the Republic, Socrates seems firmly, even cynically against love and all its absurdities. You call the guy with the tiny nose “cute,” he complains, and the guy with the gigantic nose “aquiline.” Love, erotic love, distorts our ability to tell if something is reasonable, and worse, whether it’s even good-looking. There appears to be no love lost between love and rationality, and Socrates helps reify their opposition, despite playing both sides.

The structure of the Republic is built around various attempts to describe an ideal city; for Socrates, this involves continually renewing a long-standing discussion of how best to educate whatever children are on hand. But as the evening’s conversation wears on, and several reasonably manageable ideal cities are abandoned, what comes to take their place sounds less like a Greek pastoral ideal and more like science fiction. At something like two o’clock in the morning, Socrates finds himself waxing cynical about love because his thoughts have moved on to babies and how they are made in the first place. Arguing that love ought to be instrumental, it seems, is easier if you can think of it disdainfully.

In Socrates’s late-night imagination, sex ought to benefit neither church nor common good but philosophy students. To an audience that politely remarks that his ideas seem somewhat incredible, Socrates involves himself in the ever-expanding details of an extremely complex plan for maintaining a property-less cadre of philosophers-in-training as the ruling class. In a scenario that makes Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers seem pedestrian by comparison, he advocates for a secret lottery run by the innermost student circle of these philosophy students that would arrange for sex (amidst the philosophy students) to take place between whoever was best at philosophy and hoplite warfare. His aim is not so much the polished fake-humanism sort of eugenics as it is the horse breeding variety; the offspring of rapes and side-lusts are automatically disqualified, only infants who were absolutely planned count. You also get to receive kisses from both sexes after successful battle exploits. Socrates’s audience thinks he is being pretty funny; Socrates describes the kind of laughter he anticipates for his house-rules-only gambling den will resound like an overwhelming ocean wave. Yet only this, he remarks, will save the state.

But he belabors the joke. Socrates goes on to describe what scholars call the “marriage number,” a complicated mathematical puzzle resulting in a number which, if births can just be managed in accordance with its ordering by the students, their beautiful and perfectly just regime will stand. If they do not manage it, the philosophy students will get distracted by land, houses, and cash, and the justice things—that is, everything—will fall completely apart. In short, what Socrates is detailing is an algorithm for making babies, and while it is fairly easy to argue that his methods are bad, you might be tempted to argue that at least his intentions are good. His goal after all is nothing less than the end to all injustice. But: can good intentions really matter when it comes to eugenics? The human stakes are high, and the precedents are grim.

The intentions of nineteenth and twentieth century eugenicists are perfectly clear: to “purify” the entirety of the human race by sterilizing humans of the races they absurdly claimed were imperfect. These intentions are not good, but are built in bad faith upon a false premise. The same goes for the scientific racism behind IQ tests, the point being to create an ersatz algorithm to “prove” that people at a disadvantage came by it naturally and so deserve their disadvantage. These intentions are, to put it mildly, despicable; they seek to maintain the hegemony of the mediocrity of the ruling class in the name of meritocracy.

But in the case of Socrates, the thought-experiment becomes more difficult. Socrates isn’t trying to turn out mediocre philosophers, but the real thing. His plan falls apart the moment someone is promoted to rulership based on birth alone, or when anyone is promoted based on some quality, such as good looks or wealth, that is irrelevant to a perfect grasp of what justice is, itself. Only a real philosopher king is actually a philosopher king. Merely good-looking people will be asked to leave. The really fantastic element in Socrates’s experiment is that instead of people with bad or malicious judgement in charge of his algorithm, he posits people who really know what’s good, and in order to catch the joke, you have to follow him on this point. The specificity of his experiment helps us clarify the following question: what precisely is morally and politically wrong with eugenics: Is it the intentions, the mistakes, or the thing itself?

You might argue, for instance, that eugenics is wrong because you fear that trust in the judgement of any particular individual as opposed to the majority is always misplaced. Socrates points out that this is always the democrat’s fear. You can think of this as a “Who decides!?” argument. No one can be trusted to make such decisions, the argument goes, since someone else would have to decide on a decider, thus forming an infinite loop of untrustworthiness, all the way down. But Socrates’s test-case forces us to ask: If we could really magically have knowledge of, say, what was a good gene and what was bad, would eugenics be wrong then? I strongly suspect that it would still be wrong. I also suspect that this is why Socrates’s desperate appeal to his marriage number is such high comedy. But it’s actually rather difficult to say exactly why perfect eugenics is so bad; and unfortunately it might be a bit too much to ask that our apprehension or misapprehension of justice come down to the fineness of our appreciation of Socratic humor.

The strangely perennial appeal of positive eugenics continues to suggest that quite a lot of people are missing the joke. In February of this year, Richard Dawkins tweeted that aside from dismissing eugenics on moral and political grounds, it would be quite another thing to “conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice;” surmising that “it” obviously would. Work . . . for whom, one wonders. Utilitarian arguments that claim that the benefit of one group will outweigh in future times the harm to another inevitably obscure the political reality of the immediate relation between the haves and have-nots; it substitutes a facile abstraction of benefit of the “whole” for the painstaking work of practical judgment to bring concrete balance of goods in media res to all. Disallowing some humans from having babies now in some inevitably vague appeal to the future of the species as a whole is immediately unjust to the group left behind, or to the single individual who, like Britney Spears, wishes for more children but is legally prevented from doing so. At least Socrates is honest that the cui bono benefit in terms of planned, future natural ability, not to mention the ability to have children at all, is soundly to the rulers of the ruling class.

But outside of the sphere of Dawkins’s political naïvete, the specter of negative eugenics, which involves the sterilization of those deemed “mentally unfit,” physically disabled, or not of the politically dominant race, has never entirely gone out of style either. Through the 1970s, Australia and Canada legally sterilized members of their indigenous population. While Canada has continued to specifically sterilize indigenous people, Australia's policy is broader and based on the grounds of so-called intellectual deficiency.[1] India recently scaled back a massive state-sponsored sterilization incentives program but pressure to meet quotas or maintain high rates of sterilization remains.[2] California sterilized 150 Latina and Black women from 2006 to 2010.[3] Without knowledge of this context, that ICE would be giving hysterectomies to immigrant detainees in Georgia without their consent would seem like Dadaist farce instead of pointed villainy.[4] Furthermore, the way the temptation toward eugenics plays out on the broadest scale of political economy is also a problem.

China, in the aftermath of its 1980 one-child policy, aborted or sent off for adoption a large number of female babies, resulting in an uncomfortable and unsustainable gender imbalance among its population; Italy and South Korea have hardly any babies at all.[5] And while bad actors always seem to be the ones sounding birthrate alarms, it’s still helpful to look for structural problems beyond simple malicious intent.[6] Lyta Gold argued recently that to insist that the baby population continue to increase above replacement is unnecessary, since infinite expansion is a poor model for economic or environmental growth in general, and this is a fair point.[7] It’s harder to argue, however, that her optimism that resources will be shared more equally amongst fewer humans is justified, since revolution is hard to imagine without the sort of massive groundswell that comes from a critical mass of people in need, particularly from people fighting not just for themselves but for hungry children. If I had to choose the likeliest small-earth scenario, I’d bet on a sort of gene-tinkering competition in search of the smallest advantage in a less plastic economy and a broken earth.

But aside from all the manifold dystopias that can arise from human ill will and malcontent, a larger point begins to emerge from these examples. Whenever a group, ruling or otherwise, sets out to decide which instances of sex-having ought to be for making babies, they always seem to be so very bad at it. Indeed, arguing simply that all heterosexual sex ought to be for making babies, no restriction on body parts of anyone allowed, might appear ever so slightly the lesser of two evils. As Socrates points out, it’s hard to argue that the ruling class always sets the rules that advantage themselves, since they often are simply in ignorance of what is best for them, even apart from the distortions of sexism, racism, and ableism. But as bad as such distortions are, and as foolish as such ignorance turns out to be, I think we have to conclude that the problem lies deeper than a simple misuse of rationality. The problem is rather with rationality itself, what its boundaries are, and our tendency to view it as something radically other than eros—other than, well, sex. To examine the root of this opposition, it’s helpful to reconsider what Socrates has to say on erotic love when he’s feeling slightly less cynical. A few years after the Republic, while dressed up for someone else’s celebration party, he allows himself less one-sided thoughts.

The logic of desire, as Socrates observes, is the logic of lack; we sense what we don’t have, through a glass darkly. We fall in love with one, two, everyone, in an ongoing attempt to grasp hold of what is more than ourselves. If we get it right, Socrates relates, we might even get a sight of the beauty itself that is whole and complete; only by following eros up the ladder of love, past bodies to souls to good laws to knowledge, can we finally have a vision of beauty that sits past the cynicism of our Jesuitical defenses of the pettiness of our ordinary loves. Eros has a reason that reason knows not. Socrates’s source for this, the Arcadian priestess Diotima, seems to imply that erotic love understands what reason wants to achieve better than reason could on its own. Even lust might have a moral intelligence, on occasion.

But the problem with such praise of eros is that it can’t easily be mapped back onto politics; and it might be worse than no help at all. The eros Diotima describes is omni-directional; it’s not limited, even or especially in the natural world, to some halcyon, imaginary, universally-heterosexual order, a distinctly unsexy kind of cosmology, one that belies at the very least the millenia of cheerfully asexual ferns. The desperation behind the strenuousness of the argument that sex is for babies alone displays how badly we’d prefer to give a false limit to the terrifying limitlessness of desire. The irreconcilable tension between eros and politics is also part of why non-heterosexual sex is so annoying to nation-states—not only can it not get any human object out of it, the mere fact of its existence shows the awkwardness inherent in trying to take sex as a whole for anything. Apocryphal Victoria was unable to imagine the reality of lesbian affairs at all.

Diotima, by contrast, was not particularly interested in babies; she had a strong preference for the intellectual offspring of the meeting of minds. And yet Socrates did not follow all of her advice. In fact, Socrates never even made up his mind: in his heart he remained divided as to whether erotic love is good or bad, arguing for planned sex during one’s childbearing years as an instrumental good for the polis, desiring to have sex with men but instead having sex with Xanthippe, and producing children of his own that he ignored in favor of the children of other men. Socrates’s example suggests we should watch the hell out, even for our best intentions.

Sex can’t be for babies; most of the time they simply don’t turn up, even if a good time is had; and sometimes one is simply left with the expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Nor can babies always come from sex. Some come from generous friends or strangers, via adoption, IVF, surrogacy, or as in the still popular Big Chill option where a kindly friend makes up for a lack of sperm, womb, what have you. Some babies are stolen, some are paid for; some languish on the shelves because they are not white. In all this, it is still overwhelmingly tempting to think that fair monetary exchange, a reasonable choice of attributes, or even just planning far enough ahead, has to be better for the babies in question. Yet one wonders if one could ever pay enough, plan enough. One might ask what it feels like to be the child of an overly-scripted transaction; as seen in the documentary Somewhere Between, female adoptees from China can tell you that it doesn’t always feel so good.[8] So why do we still place more faith in cold rationality than in the messy lineages of desire?

Recently, in Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against the Family, Sophie Lewis argues that surrogacy, the practice of paying a host mother to gestate the fertilized egg of two someone-else’s, ought to be the imaginative and not wholly impractical model that allows us a way to think ourselves out of this mess.[9] Like Socrates, she finds the biological family inadequate for justice, but also like Socrates, she constructs a scenario where the choice of family and offspring will be just that—a choice, and so dependent on the reason of an individual human being. Even in utopia, the sour apple of our rationality remains.

Between the inadequacies of sex and rationality, we find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place. If we could resolve the difficulties of eros by insisting that sex is for England, the human story of lust and its environs would have an obviously just solution, which, unfortunately, it does not. But while we romanticize sex on the private, individual level, and even believe we’ve expanded the very old story of its unmanageable loves, we still keep putting our better faith in the justice algorithm. We believe that some choice algorithm and better rationality—expressed as mathematics, scientific research, utilitarianism, utopianism, what have you—could save us. Idealized to this point, eugenics doesn’t sound so bad, until we remember to examine all of its previous human results. What if eugenics is simply another word for the rationalization of eros? In Socrates’s utopia, he is careful to stress that any offspring who look promising from the remaining classes of people where eugenics is not practiced, should be promoted, the sooner the better. It’s clear enough he had no faith in the marriage number’s ability to conclude on the right kind of sex, and what sex could be for. Philosophy, no less than justice, remains impossible without unchosen desire.

  1. “Indigenous women come forward with accounts of forced sterilization, says lawyer,” by Avery Zingel in CBC and ​​”Victims of Violence: The Forced Sterilisation of Women and Girls with Disabilities in Australia,” by Laura Elliott in Laws. ↩︎

  2. “Looking Back At The History Of Forced Sterilisation In India And Why It Concerns Us Even Today Looking Back At The History Of Forced Sterilisation In India And Why It Concerns Us Even Today,” by Zoon in Feminism in India and “The legacy of India’s quest to sterilise millions of men,” by Hannah Harris Green in Quartz India. ↩︎

  3. “Eugenics Today: Where Eugenic Sterlisation Continues Now,” by Robert A. Wilson in Aeon. ↩︎

  4. “ICE is accused of sterilizing detainees. That echoes the U.S.’s long history of forced,” by Steven Moore in The Washington Post. ↩︎

  5. “How China’s One-Child Policy Led To Forced Abortions, 30 Million Bachelors,” from Fresh Air on NPR. ↩︎

  6. “There Is No “Birth Rate Crisis,” by Lyta Gold in Current Affairs. ↩︎

  7. Ibid. ↩︎

  8. “Identities and Lives Rooted in Two Worlds,” by Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times. ↩︎

  9. “Choose Your Own Family,” by Nora Caplan-Bricker in The New Republic. ↩︎

Featured image: Plato's Symposium painting (1869) by Anselm Feuerbach via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Townsend is a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, Queens, New York. She is the author of The Woman Question in Plato's Republic, published in 2017. Her work can be found at ChezAristote. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.