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A philosophical view on sexual ethics

Aziz Ansari accused of sexual misconduct by photographer

Like many, I was appalled by President Donald Trump's hot mic comments regarding the access to women's bodies that his celebrity status enabled. I remain moved by the scores of women and men who've taken to #MeToo and its social media presence to both reject sexual violence and empower themselves by recovering their voices and telling their stories. I am particularly now captivated by comedian Aziz Ansari's reported failure to understand verbal and non-verbal cues pertaining to a woman's disinterest in sexual congress during a date. The Ansari story is particularly disturbing because it raises some uncomfortable questions about the nature and terms of sexual ethics in casual "hook-up" culture and about the consequences of blurred lines in sexual consent.

Philosophically, I wonder what it is at the primordial level that opens the door to the predatory sexual behaviors, jokes and pervasive sexualization that saturates our culture and interactions, in both the public or private spheres. And personally, while men by no means corner the market on sexual misconduct and abuse, I feel convicted to consider what our role should be in constructing a new way forward in modeling healthy sexual ethics.

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Simply stated, our ways of relating as sexual, embodied beings, need a lot of work.

The writer behind the bad date hit job on actor Aziz Ansari just went catty on a cable news anchor who criticized the subject of her report.

Martin Buber's classic 1923 book, "I and Thou," outlines an ontology of human relationships that is instructive for sexual ethics given the pornographic/pornotropic landscape of 21st century hook-up culture. There are two modes of relating, according to Buber: the I-it and the I-thou.

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Relationships grounded in an I-it paradigm feature a subject/object framing. These relationships, ultimately, aren't relationships at all, in an authentic, real sense. Rendering others as "its" short circuits and dismantles the fullness of their human identities — they become things — less than whole selves. The "I-it," I believe Buber would argue, is operative in hook-up culture. If we render a person less than human — less than whole — as an object at our disposal and suited solely for our momentary gratification and use, it becomes all the more acceptable to treat them as disposable playthings subject to our own whims and desires. This is the same death-dealing mechanism of relating (and not relating) that has been responsible for genocidal warfare, slavery and sex trafficking.

What we should aim for, rather, are I-thou relationships — subject/subject relationships in which we see persons as persons — not as objects. I-thou relationships are grounded in mutualized reception and (re)cognition of humanity and personhood. This reciprocal, shared sense of human connection far eclipses the truncated vision of others that we may impose out of our own desires and pursuit of gratification. Good sex, and good sexual ethics, therefore, are reciprocal and relational — prioritizing personality over physicality. I-thou relationships thus preserve both our humanity and the humanity of those we encounter, interpersonally or otherwise. Such a view flies in direct opposition to hook-up culture, in which bodies are framed as a means to sexual ends.

In saying these things, I do not mean to engage in far-fetched utopianism. Rather, I simply seek, as Langston Hughes once said, to "sit and dream" and envision another way of conceiving human personality in light of sexual identity. Buber's insights can provide a snapshot of a world in which men and women are free to be their whole selves without fear of being dehumanized sexually, or subjected to the restrictive gazes of others.The essence of a person cannot be reduced to their capacity to provide sexual pleasure. This manner of gross objectification denies authentic relationships and violates the erotic energy housed within all of us. What I have attempted to say above reflects one way to configure and consider an affirmation of erotic connection in relation to others. If, as Audre Lorde reminds us, the source of the erotic within each of us is positive and can be used for creative and wholesome purposes, perhaps our conception of the relational element of sexuality should be fused with a sensitivity to the need for erotic creativity, embracing both the fullness of human self and the humanity of others in a liberating process of creation rather than destruction.

Darrius D. Hills (darrius.hills@morgan.edu) is an assistant professor of religious studies at Morgan State University.

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