What is Sex? with Audrey Pollnow
Hi, Audrey and Agnes.
So this is a very special episode of our podcast because, well, it's really
our second episode with a guest but it's our first episode with a guest who
appears visually. So, Audrey Pollnow wrote this really interesting review,
book review of Amia Srinivasan's book, The Right to Sex. It was kind of like I
see it as like book review plus, because there was a lot more to it. There was
a lot... There was just a lot of your own thinking in it. And in particular, I
feel like the complaint about her book that you land on is one that I had as
well, which is just, what is sex? I want a book about the right to sex to
start with like a definition of sex. And it's sort of surprisingly– that
question is somehow surprisingly elusive. And I thought we could just start
with actually I have that question for your piece, too. So like you, you do
address this question, right? So here's like, the definition that I came to
from reading your piece, and then I thought you could correct me. I thought
your... here's what I came up with. A essentially reciprocal physical
interaction that could produce kids. OK, correct that or add to it.
Yeah, that seems... OK, I think there's like two things that I would add to
that. One of which is that it's an erotic interaction. So it's – there are
other kinds of interactions that are reciprocal that aren't necessarily
erotic. The other thing is that, what I mean by could produce kids is, the
sense of "could" there doesn't have to do really with probable probabilities.
So I really actually just mean that you're doing, like the act that
characteristically does produce, that characteristically sometimes does
produce kids. Whether or not kids could actually be generated, like if you've
had a hysterectomy, and you're like engaged in coitus, I would still call that
having sex, even though you are not – there's like a 0% chance that you will
conceive a child, that's sort of that.
Good, right? So... But there might be certain forms of making of where you
won't perceive, when you won't – when you know you won't conceive that you
might differentiate between, say, like contraception, or having hysterectomy,
or all those cases similar for you?
Yeah. So... so I would say that the act is altered when you have done
something with the goal of altering the act, which sounds like a weird, maybe
a weird distinction. But we do have that distinction in other areas of life.
So like, for instance, if I offer to do you a favor, but I only offer to do it
under the circumstances that I'm able to, like you have a– or maybe I'm going
to do... You have a piano concert, and you're like, "Oh, can you come to my
piano concert?" And I'm like, "Well, I'd love to come if I'm free. But like,
you know, I'm a really busy person, like my schedule is almost always booked."
So when I say, "I can come if I'm free." I'm like, I'm offering something that
like may or may not happen. But if I say, "Oh, I can come if I'm free." And
then I go find out what time your piano concert is. And then I go and like,
schedule something then with the goal of avoiding your piano concert. There's
obviously something like either disingenuous about my initial commitment to
you, or I'm like, failing to follow through with what I said I would do, which
was to come if I'm, you know, or come if I'm able to or something like that.
So I think that the difference between having a hysterectomy because like, say
you have uterine cancer, and having a hysterectomy because you're like, "I
don't want to have kids." Or, you know, "I don't want these..." I'm like, "I
don't want to have kids. I mean, I don't want these, you know, these sex acts
that I'm having, that I'm engaging in to result in kids." That that's in some
way, analogous to the thing where your sex is saying that, "Oh, well, you
know, I'll have a kid if I'm free." And then like, I'm– but I'm going to make
sure that I'm not, I'm not. And saying, "I'm going to come if I'm free." I'm
like, "You know, I'm not free because I don't have uterus anymore." So those
So, if we could make a comparison to other things we might try to describe or
define, like a job or a meal, or sleep, for each of these things we could
perhaps come up with a similar description of its best or ideal or even
hopefully typical use. But then we would allow or accept a wide range of other
Whereas in this case, I think you are wanting to argue against that. So could
you elaborate on why, not only is this a description of an ideal use of sex,
but something where you would want to bound or limit other uses?
Right. Yeah. So, I think the reason that sex deserves to be bounded. So I
think there's actually potentially a lot of different ways that would be sort
of like logically coherent that you could bound how you want to do sex. So any
version that you come up with is just a proposal and you're saying, "Well, I
just want to offer my proposal as sort of like, one coherent way of doing it."
And I think a requirement that any coherent account of sex should meet is that
it should... it should like correspond with the other beliefs that we have
about sex. And specifically, I'm interested in pretty widely held intuitions
we have about the importance of consent in sex. So, I'm just going to say
what, like, I'm going to just give three examples of like, ways that are, we
value sexual consent in special ways that are like pretty weird, and that I
think most, most accounts of sex that I've met, don't like really grapple with
how weird that was. And I know some people who just say, "No, these intuitions
that you and most people have about consent, and how important it is in sexual
sphere are mistaken." So that's one way you can respond to that. But I guess
I'll just give like three examples of what I mean about sex being like, sexual
consent being weirdly important. So one is that our, and when I say our, I'm
just going to mean my book, like probably also most people, I know, this view
of the importance of sexual consent. So, in our view, sexual consent can't
really be explained by the other principles that we have about consent or
bodily consent in general. So one example I think I gave it in the article
would be, there are times when I can do something to somebody's body that I
know they don't want to be done. And I can do it for the sake of, maybe
they're good, but also like the good of other people. So, if there's a fire on
a subway, and I'm in the subway, and there's like a guy in front of me and a
bunch of people ahead of them. And that guy, like I know, his like religion is
all about, don't ever touch me, like I would rather die than be touched. I can
still like shove him and try to shove the other people off the subway to try
to get away from the fire. That seems like kind of unproblematic to me. Like,
as an example and we have like an exception of where I can use somebody's body
in a way that is like sort of serving the good of that person, but also kind
of the good of a group even in a way that they might not like. But if we're–
if I'm in a situation where like, another person being, like sexually
objectified in some way could help the group, I don't really think that I can
like nonconsensually subject them to that. So like, I don't think if I want –
if I'm in a group of people and we want help, and nobody's helping us, but one
of the people is really attractive. And I'm like, "Here, take off your
clothes." And they're like, "No, please, I don't want to take off my clothes
to attract attention to our group." I can't sort of like say, well, you know,
for the greater good and like strip them down and sort of offer them up as a
sexual sacrifice. That's a – I would view that as a violation sort of related
specifically sexual nature of it. So, yeah, and I don't think we have – I
don't think we can really explain that without saying, OK, well, sex... like
sex is clearly in some way an ethically special category.
So if consent is especially important for sex, the obvious thing that would
suggest is like make sure that all the other uses of sex have consent. But you
want to go farther than that so somehow you're using the extra strength of
consent in sex to draw a bunch of conclusions that would prevent what other
people would think of as consensual sex.
Yeah, definitely. So I think having sexual consent is like a free standing
property of sex, is just really weird. Like, OK, we have some activities,
where like, we have tennis, we have like, handshakes, we have chatting, we
have all these different activities. And then we have this one activity, sex,
which then the only way it's ethically different is that consent is like super
extra important. That seems like – that seems weird to me, especially given
that sex also has some other characteristic things. It's like, oh, well,
that's like the erotic activity. It's sort of that's like the focal erotic
activity, not the only erotic activity. That's like the reproductive activity.
And it seems very weird to have, like consents, extra special importance in
the sphere of sex being totally unrelated to anything else about sex.
So then your stories, you have a simpler story that's easier to understand
about why sex has extra strength of consent. And that theory happens to imply
some other things about when it should or shouldn't happen.
Yeah, well, I guess when you are talking about the... I mean, I think everyone
holds their own views for a variety of reasons. So like, I have, you know,
everyone's views have a history. But I think one reason to destabilize a kind
of a view that doesn't take account of that... So sorry, I guess I should say,
I think I'd be very interested in learning about other views about sex to try
to relate the importance of consent to the erotic and like, reproductive or
any other salient aspects of it. And Agnes, I know you mentioned you were,
like, looking at Roger Scruton's book about sex. So I was wondering if he was
going to have some sort of like, really clever way of doing this.
I think there is an element of the Scruton book that I wanted to bring up with
you. But actually, could I just follow up on this consent thing? Because it
seems to me that there's on the one hand the datum that people certainly say
that consent is very important for sex, and they put this emphasis on consent.
But in some way, your way of thinking suggests that this is somehow a
misplaced emphasis. Like, we might say, there's something especially important
about sex. And one way we get a grip on that as by saying you have to consent.
But it's actually not clear that we've gotten a good grip on it by saying
that. And actually, it's not clear to me that this is unique to sex so I think
that conversation shares this property with sex, which is that consent is not
a good model. It's like, in some sense, you've consented to have this
conversation with us, right?
But you haven't consented, like to every speech act that I might say to you,
right? So what do I have to do, oh, well, while I'm talking to you, I have to
sort of think about like, what am I allowed to say to you?
And I could pass boundaries and I could say things I'm not supposed to say to
you, and then you could get upset and I'm trying not to do that. Right? And so
conversation has a kind of reciprocal structure and consent would be a
ridiculous way to do that because I would be like, do you consent to my saying
the following sentence to you? And then I'd have to say the sentence. And you
didn't have a chance to consent, right? I think that's a really deep fact
about conversation that it looks like this. So it actually seems to me like,
it seems to be sex is more like conversation and less like a lot of other
things where we might ask someone's permission.
And so the fact or the datum that we have to account for in our theory is not
that consent is especially important for sex. But sex is somehow especially
important, or especially sacred, or violating someone's will, when it comes to
sex is really significant, even more significant than conversation. So even
though it has the same structure, the same problematic structure, the stakes
are somehow higher. And then the question would be why? But I do think
actually, it's just, I think, in a way you and Amia, and I, share the view
that there's just been an overemphasis on consent, and that emphasis on
consent is part of the kind of liberal modeling of sex on just another thing
that you choose to.
Yeah, I guess I'm not... in some sense, I think there's an overemphasis on
consent in the sense that it's like the only concept we have. And so we have
to, like, put everything into it. And this is something I was talking with
somebody else. They were saying, like, someone was complaining, maybe it was
Oliver Traldi, he was complaining that there's something weird about saying
like, the main problem with your boss trying to have sex with you is that –
sorry, not the main problem, the only problem with your boss trying to have
sex with you is that consent is compromised. Which seems right to me. That's
not the only problem. But I actually do think in a lot of these problems... I
guess I do think consent is extremely important. And so, like most times when
people say there's a problem with consent here, I think they're right even if
the problem isn't necessarily mostly with the other person.
So, isn't just the fact that it's very important enough to explain why consent
is important? I mean, if you want– you’re looking for a single fact to use to
explain other facts. Just saying this is really important is enough to explain
why you would have to go through extra motions to sort of temporarily take it
away from somebody or to take control over with something that they initially
you know, had control over because it was always like, like somebody's life is
would be a similar thing, right? Life is really important. And so therefore,
you have to be really careful when you try to take someone's life. And
similarly, you'd want really careful clear consent, perhaps that wouldn't even
be enough to take someone's life.
So my intuition is that the whole idea that consent is really important
actually is a little bit connected to a background assumption that people are
randomly having sex with lots of other people who they don't know. And so I
have to check, is it OK if I'm– if it's like my spouse? And like, suppose we
have sex every night, and you know, it's, "Wait, do you consent?" Right? It
seems like less of an issue. So I do think the idea that the stakes are
potentially really high and something could go really wrong seems much more of
an applicable thought for having like lots of promiscuous sex than it is for
having the kind of sex that you're thinking about. So that's why I'm also
feeling like that emphasis on consent feels like it makes less sense in that
Yeah, no, I think that's definitely– well, there's definitely a practical way
in which that's true. So, like, if I'm at a club, and I'm tipsy, and another
stranger is tipsy and we go back and have sex together somewhere. There's like
a real possibility that like one of us isn't perceiving how tipsy the other
person is, one of us feels like they're going along with something they don't
want to do or something like that. Whereas with a partner, or a spouse or
something like that, if you have sex every night, and then one night, you
happen to be tipsy, and you also have sex. It's not clear that like, you
haven't done something that's morally dangerous in the same way.
Because the context is such that it's pretty likely, I mean, again, you can
come up with counter examples, right? You got in a huge fight right before and
you said, "I'm never going to have sex with you again." And then they got you
drunk and had sex with you. OK, that compromise– consent could be compromised
there. Or, one person was secretly planning to never have sex with the other
person and they got drunk and did. But in general, it's like a morally...
consent is like less likely to be an issue unless you know it's an issue in
like a context of like an intimate partner context versus a stranger context.
So I think that's true.
So we can agree that there's a higher danger here, right? We could say that
there's a bigger, worst thing that could go wrong in many of these contexts.
So that's a distinctive feature. And then that would also suggest why you
might care more about consent and some of the other things we care about.
Right. Or likely a worst thing that could go wrong.
Right. But then there are many things we let people do that are dangerous.
Even though, you know, they are like, climb Everest or something where there's
a 1% chance of dying. So we might wonder, is the danger enough to want to sort
of set the conservative boundaries of just like, never, never risk the danger?
Or, is there something else that sets the line there that says never risk this
danger for some other reasons? Not the danger, I guess it's something else.
Yes. Well, it seems like, you know, like, let's bracket the question of like
the social question of how we approach it. But just like, OK, how should I,
you know, how should I approach it in my own life or something like that? It
seems like for a lot of things we do we try to make – we try to make models
that explain and give reasons why the intuitions that we have that are strong
would be upheld. And so that's partially what I'm trying to do with sort of an
account of sex that includes an explanation of why consent is important. But
maybe another area where you might think about this is like drug use. So you
might think, OK, well, there are some cases of drug use that I'm like, clearly
OK with. Like, I'm depressed, I take antidepressants, and I would like, this
is an example, you know, that might – and then I go from feeling unable to do
things to being like, I can do stuff. Or you might have, I have an anxiety
problem, I take anti-anxiety medicine, I'm OK with this. And then you... but
you might also have the situation where you're like, OK... or even more
extreme drugs, like, "OK, I'm taking, you know, MDMA to deal with like PTSD or
something like that. I'm recalibrating myself." But you also might have
situations where you're like, "OK, I'm taking MDMA, because like, I just like
to go, you know, have intense feelings." Or, "I just like to get high to
escape from my life." And some people would approach these questions and say,
"OK, well, that kind of fun has a place, but it's like a limited place." Like,
you want to make sure that your drug use isn't interfering with the other
things you value. But another way you might approach it is like, "Well, I
think..." and this is something I think, like, "I think that my use of drugs
should be oriented towards like reality." So you know, and I don't necessarily
have an opinion about people using drugs in religious contexts, like maybe
they're, maybe they're doing that as part of a pursuit of reality, they're
pursuing religious reality, or what they perceive is that. But it seems like
we often use frameworks like this, like, "Oh, OK, you know, my drinking has
become problematic because it's about escaping things." But that isn't like...
Yeah, so that's not... I guess what I mean is like we make a cost benefit
analysis about whether something is harmful. But often, we use some kind of,
like, more general ethical framework of like, "Am I doing this thing for the
By doing it in a healthy way or something like that.
Yeah. Or like, does this accord with reality? Not... So I guess, I mean, I
think there's a difference between being like, "I'm going to get like,
blackout drunk, but I'm only going to do it once a month." And like, well, I
don't think, you know, "I'm going to try to not get blackout drunk, because,
like, I don't like... it seems wrong to put myself in a context where like,
I'm doing things that I'm not remembering." Right? Because you might think
that the first thing is about health and the second thing is about like,
that's just a state that like I as a rational being.
Oh, yeah, I meant health of your soul, not your body. But yes, I see your
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry, yeah, yeah, yeah.
If you had written an essay about the conservative position on drugs, then you
might have similarly said, well, the function– the ideal or best function of
drugs is to help you deal with reality, and this escape from reality function
is less ideal or less approved. And then your stance might just be the
conservative position is don't do it. Don't escape with drugs. And full stop,
just draw the line there, right? That would be an analogous to saying the
ideal thing with sex is to have this reciprocal thing related to procreation.
And so you should do that, but just don't do the other kind.
Right. I take it that's just what Audrey is saying. She is...
Right. We're trying to summarize it. So I guess the question I want to ask is
now like, what's the place of that sort of a stance in a world of people with
diverse perspectives about drugs or sex or purposes? That is, is this a
conversation among people who share the sense that you should only never
escape reality? Or under the people who only think sex should be about
reproduction? Or is there – what's the appeal to other people who feel
inclined to sometimes escape reality, or sometimes just achieve pleasure? But
what's the stance toward them? And are they just not part of the conversation?
Or, because that's what people talk about, say sex in larger social worlds
where we're often trying to find norms and principles we can share among a
wide enough group of people that then agree on some of these rules or
Yeah, so I think... OK, so I think there's sort of two answers to the
question. Or maybe I think, I'm not sure. I think I'm perceiving two different
questions. One is about like, given what I believe, how do I think society
should respond to this? And one is just about like, who do I want to talk to?
So to the second question, who I want to talk to? I think...
I'm more hearing the second question.
Yeah, that's more of what I intended.
OK, I think the main appeal of this argument actually just has to do with
like, people who are interested in an intellectually satisfying account of why
they care about some of the things with respect to sex that they do care
about. So like... and like, and specifically the question of consent, like, if
you really think sex is sort of like... it almost seems like superstitious to
me to think that consent is so important in sex. And it actually is that
important. But without having that importance be related to sort of like, a
more specific understanding of what sex is. So that's like, I think my main
So, the argument I might give, I can summarize before, is the reason why
consent is important is because this is an important thing that can go really
Why is it so important?
Well, so that – we may not know that but like, is that the full explanation
for why consent is important, there's something else about sex that explains
why consent is important other than the fact that it's important and it's
something can go really wrong.
Yeah. And I don't think the fact that something can go really wrong really can
explain the... and by something going wrong, I assume you mean the bad
Like someone being like, psychologically traumatized, or physically hurt, or
Yeah, all these things that would go wrong with sex. So, one reason to say
that that's not the... one reason to think that that's not the main problem is
that nonconsensual sex is still like, really bad even if, like, you know– you
can, like know that none of those things are going to happen. So you have
someone who's unconscious. And you know that they can't get pregnant, say it's
a man. And you know you don't have any STDs and you know that no one will see
you and you want to like sexually gratify your body against their body in some
way, while they're unconscious. And you're like, you're a doctor or something,
you know, they won't wake up, I don't know. You can make the examples weird as
you want. But like, you know, if you think it would be like, absolutely wrong
to like, I don't know, handle their genitals or something like that in that
situation, that's not really about harm, like they're not going to have
psychological harm. They're not going to experience physical harm. But if you
think it is in itself a form of harm...
So, how does the theory that sex is fundamentally about reciprocal procreation
explain that fact?
Well, if their unconscious it's definitely not reciprocal. That like that, I
mean, that's like a sufficient reason, like a sufficient explanation for why
I mean, but that's this ideal use, right? So we need an explanation for why
things deviating from the ideal use are especially horrible to be avoided.
Right. So I guess what I'm doing is I'm saying there's a lot of ways you could
try to put the importance of consent. One is you can posit it by itself,
right? You can, like in the void, consent, super important, mysteriously
important, sort of a mystical property of sex. It's the consentee thing.
Another thing is you can say, well, consent is this sort of like – or sorry,
sex is this very special human activity. And it's special because it is the
way that people can like erotically reciprocally give themselves to one
another. In this way, that's like, sort of reproductively oriented. You know,
asterisk, what I said earlier about what I mean by reproductively oriented.
That's not sufficient to draw that conclusion, right? You'll have to add
something more about what goes wrong when you don't follow that ideal path for
Yeah, well, I guess what I mean is, there's not really a difference in terms
of uh... so sorry. Positing the importance of consent in a vacuum is just like
a premise that's unproven, right? We can't prove that consent is really
important. It's just an intuition that like, most people in our society share.
The thing I'm positing is also just a premise. This is like my premise. This
is what sex is. And this is like, the only right way to intentionally use our
sexual faculties. That's also totally unprovable, right? So I'm just positing
it. This is the only kind of good sex. Obviously...
So you need a concept of doing it the wrong way is so bad that we therefore
need consent to make sure something about that, right? That that's the
connection you'd be trying to make. You have the – sex is about X, and these
nonconsent sex doesn't have X. And therefore, we shouldn't have nonconsent
sex. But then we need the connection between why this X, you know, makes it go
so wrong if you don't have X. That would be the key thing. Why is sex– so
think of a screwdriver, right? You're supposed to only unscrew the screw
screws. And if you try to pry something out with a screwdriver that your shop
teacher will say "No, no, we've got this other thing for prying."
And so the argument for it, Yeah, but if I use the screwdriver here, I won't
go that wrong. Maybe I'll dull the screwdriver a little bit but it's still go
fine, right? So you need a story for why there's some kind of tools if you use
them the wrong way, like things can go really wrong. And that you need a story
like that here, it seems to me.
Right. So I guess... I think both claims are equally in need of a story,
right? Like the claim, sex is the thing where consent matters, you can ask the
question like, "Well, OK, focally consent matters, but like, what if you have
a context where you can have nonconsensual sex and nobody will be harmed? Why
is that a problem?" And the answer is, because the– it's like, by definition,
the only kind of good sex is consensual sex. In fact, the only kind of OK sex
is consensual sex. And so, the way I – the premise I've given instead is the
only kind of OK sex is this reciprocal, you know, reproductively oriented
coitus. And it has the same problem, right? It's like it doesn't – by positing
that I haven't proved that the other kind of sex is not OK. I'm just claiming
that it is, in the same way that people who value consent are claiming that
nonconsensual sex is not OK. And in both cases, it's sort of like, equally
mysterious. But I think, I just think the advantage of my account is that it
sort of relates – it relates to things together like, obviously, my account
rules out nonconsensual sex. Because it can't be, I mean, it can't be
reciprocal, if it's not consensual. But it also... yeah, it relates it to like
some other characteristics that most people sort of would identify as being,
at least often if not always, true. You know, sort of related to sex in some
Can I ask about... So, my inclination, like, in effect, you're starting with
this data about consent, right? But then in a way, you have this story where
really what's important isn't consent, but it's this particular model. So I
would have classified sex as being somehow in the territory of the sacred,
where, like what– I'm at least attracted to Gerard's understanding of the
sacred as forces that become stronger when we try to master them. They're
somehow and the, you know, the desire for revenge is like an example of that.
So, the ways in which our psychologies connect up with both, with violence and
with sexual desire, they're just very mysterious. And there's just this thing
where like, the more you try to like, shut it down, or whatever, that can
actually make it grow stronger. That's a weird, weird fact about only certain
things in our lives. That's a place I would start in thinking about sex.
That sex is sacred in that way. And part of what bothers me about the consent
model is it seems to not at all acknowledge the sacredness of sex in that
sense. I think there may be much more to the sacredness of sex than that. But
that's, I wonder what you think about that.
Yeah, yeah, I'm just going to think about it. I mean, that certainly does seem
characteristic of Eros that it has this kind of, you can't dominate it, it
dominates you quality.
And I think sacredness is also like a very hopeful concept for sex, which I
think everybody actually – and everybody who believes in consent in this weird
specific way, believe sex is sacred somehow.
Right. That's where I would have pointed to from the idea of consent, is that
really, the thing they're getting at is the sacredness, and we should just
throw the consent part away.
Yeah. I don't know that we should throw the consent part.
Right. Right. That's a place where we might disagree.
Yeah. OK. So, Agnes, you don't want to throw, or you want to throw away the
consent part. But I assume you have the same intuitions as a lot of other
people do about the not OK-ness of various kinds of nonconsensual sex.
Right. So nonconsensual sex is going to be profane or whatever opposite word
A violation of the sacred.
A violation of the sacred.
But consent is not a sufficient, it doesn't get you over to sacred and that's
why – so there's just this – there's this overlap that has confused people
into thinking that the issue is consent.
Yeah, that makes sense. And do you think that the sacredness of sex means
that... are there other ethical implications?
I, myself am very confused about this. So I think I share many of the
intuitions about what is, you know, what goes wrong in many of the – both the
non-consent and then the kind of para-consensual cases where it's like the
boss and the employee and there's a bit of like coercion. So it seems to me
that like one important concept that doesn't come out in your treatment of
recipro– reciprocity is close to this concept of not quite as arousal, sexual
arousal. So that's the thing Scruton talks about, and I'm like, "Yeah, anyone
who talks about sex should talk about sexuality." That's a super interesting
and significant fact about sex, where sexual arousal seems quite different
And it seems direct, for instance, directed at an individual in a way that
hunger is more generically directed at food. Right? And so like, one question
I had for you with sexual, like with sexual reciprocity is actually it seems
to me that quite possible that you could get sex that was reciprocal. That is
both people wanted to have sex. I mean, there's a question what reciprocity
means, right, but at least in some sense, fulfill the reciprocity condition,
but not the arousal condition, at least on one person's end.
Whether these be in principle possible. And it could be that the two people
are married, and they at least could have children in your sense of could or
whatever. And like, my question was, like, where does that fall for you? Is
that totally fine sex-wise, or like, is arousal an independent part condition?
Yeah, so I think like arousal plays... So like, arousal seems like a very
important piece of reciprocity, both in that like in focal good sex, like both
people are aroused. And they're also like, they're aroused by the other
person, but they're also aroused by the other person's arousal. And that
there's – that that's sort of like, you know, that's sort of like going back
and forth and like playing on it. Yeah, that's kind of like a mediating force.
And I think it's wrong to have sex that doesn't involve seeking arousal. But I
also think that arousal is probably something like actually being able to get
pregnant or conceive a child, where like, when you know that the capacity is
limited in some way, it can still be OK to have sex, but you should still be
kind of like trying your best. So I guess I'm thinking of cases where like,
for instance, someone is taking antidepressants. And so they find it very hard
to get aroused, but they still like value as part of their relationship with
their spouse or something, like having sex with them. Both because like,
they're like, "Oh this, you know, my sex– my spouse would appreciate this."
But also just like, that's – that's like, an important way of connecting. But
it's like, maybe the sex is going to be kind of compromised at the level of
like, experienced by this. I think it's still OK for people in that situation
to have sex. And just...
Hold on, I want to ask a point about that.
Yeah, and just to know that there are – but like, you know, just like do your
best. Like try to, you know, try to see what's arousable about your partner
and like, try to arouse them. And like, if it's kind of like, you know, not so
good, it's just like that might still be good enough.
So this is the way to coming back to Robin's question. Because we now have the
idea that there's like an ideal case of sex, right, whereby people are like
fully aroused. And then there's cases that fall away from the ideal. There are
imperfect cases of sex, right? And I feel like Robin's question was, well, you
seem pretty accepting of those imperfections. What about these other
imperfections where two people who maybe are not married, you know, or maybe
they they're not going to satisfy the reproductive condition, but they're
going to try to make it as much like the kind of cases that are ideal as
possible. Why are only some ways of falling away – like, once the only thing
that anchors the ideal is the intuition of consent, right?
It doesn't – it's not always clear to me how you're going to distinguish
various falling away from the ideal, some of which you want to be very
accepting towards and others of which you want to say, draw the line.
Yeah. OK, so, sorry. To be clear, first, I don't think... my account isn't
fundamentally rooted in the importance of consent. The importance of consent
is sort of what I'm using as an end for people who do find... my point is just
like consent seems like a weirder superstition to hold than superstition that
I hold. If you want to call sort of an un...
An undefended promise.
Like, a superstition, which...
Yeah, so, that's like the main point that I would make about consent. And also
that the intuitions about consent are generally true and that my account
actually also makes sense of those in a way that I think is more parsimonious.
But to the question of various forms of falling away, there are a lot of
ethical categories where we would have some forms of falling away that we'd be
OK with and others that we wouldn't. So if you're like a person who thinks
lying is always wrong, or a person who thinks that... yes, so say, you're a
person who believes lying is always wrong. There are instances when you say
something that turns out to not be true or you don't necessarily have an
obligation to go back and correct it or something. Like I say something that I
thought was true and it turn out I'm mistaken. I don't necessarily need to
like track you down and tell you like, "Oh, I was mistaken." That might be a
good thing to do, but like not, not morally necessary. But I, like, you know,
I can intentionally tell you something that I believe to be false. And both of
those are the ways of falling away from saying the truth, right? Like saying,
like, accidentally versus intentionally saying something that's false. But
like, we can distinguish them because it's like – and like the person who's
saying something that's false intentionally, they might be describing what
they're doing is like saying the truth to the best of my ability, which isn't
really an accurate description of what they're doing, because they're, to the
best of their ability is constrained by like, by things that they're unwilling
to do, but they could – that they are actually like, literally capable of
doing, right? So like my dentist says, like, "Oh, did you floss your teeth?"
And I would say, "Yup, every day." And I didn't, and it's just that I really
don't want my dentist to yell at me. And like, if I view myself as being
incapable of making my dentist angry, then it's true that I'm telling the
truth to the best of my ability, but like, I'm just not. So yeah, it seems
like we can do the same thing with sex, where we can say like, OK, like,
I'm... like, let's see, I want to be having sex with... OK. Like, here would
be an example. Like, say, I don't want to get pregnant. Like, I know that I'm
at a time in my life where like I'm very likely to have get pregnant if I have
sex. And so I'm like, OK, I'm going to do some sort of, like other sexual act
that's like not going to get me pregnant. But I'm going to, like, try to do it
in a way that's as close to like, pregnancy is possible. So I'm going to like,
try to like interpersonally make it feel like we're having intercourse. And
like, it's going to be a different sex act, but like, sort of ape it as close
as possible. But like, you're not really aping at as close as possible,
because you literally – like in that situation, I literally could be having
intercourse. I'm just choosing not to, because I'm like, well, I don't, I
don't want that... I've chosen not to accept the consequences of that. And so
that's... so yeah, I think that that would be like the main distinction for me
between acts that would be like not... like me having a non intercourse form
of sex, because I wanted to have intercourse but didn't want to get pregnant,
would be a way of falling short, in a way that like, say, initiating
intercourse and then being interrupted, so you don't complete it. But like
maybe that maybe the act look the same, right? So maybe in the first case, I'm
like, "Oh, like, I want to have an orgasm." And so like, I asked my, I asked
my husband to have like oral sex with me or something. And the second case,
I'm like, planning to have – like, my husband and I are planning to have sex.
There's like foreplay, I have an orgasm. And then like, the doorbell rings,
and we have to leave. Like those two acts both look the same but I would think
that the first one would fall short in the sense that like, we were sort of
like intentionally not... we really intentionally not having intercourse. And
with, in the second one, we were trying to have intercourse, but it just kind
of like fell apart because someone visited or whatever. And the first, yeah,
that the first would be like, morally deficient in a way that the second one
would just be like, sort of like, too bad, or, you know, whatever deficient in
So I'd like to explore the relationship between consent and reciprocity a bit
more. So if I think of reciprocity as this physical process, social
psychological process by which two people become in-sync and build off of each
other, and develop the synchronized arousal and act because of that direct
interaction, and, you know, in a context or pregnancy might result or at least
sort of context. That scenario seems to me like, it's reportedly and in many
fantasies quite consistent with a relatively low consent context. That is, all
of that can happen, and reportedly does happen in situations of less consent.
Say, a slave, even... or right? So supposedly, all of that stuff happens
without consent. So are we going to change the definition of reciprocality so
that we make sure that those cases are excluded? Or, are we going to embrace
that this essential concept may on average happen to go better with consent,
but that it doesn't actually directly require consent to be achieved?
OK. So, you're saying, like in the slave case, that that act looks like it
might look reciprocal, because...
Right, it has a similar psychological arousal, physical buildup of interest,
the body is synchronized together. They go through the all the motions, and
people feel the same sort of way, they might feel, pretty similar.
But consent is less involved.
Yeah. I guess it seems like probably reciprocity is also compromised in that
situation. Because in the same way that, like most people who care about
consent, they don't just mean consent, "Oh, it just means you agreed to it at
that time or something." They mean something more like, "Well, you... You like
freely agreed to it." So, I think reciprocity... So sorry, is your point that
maybe the slave enjoys it sometimes? And so...
Not just enjoy, but like off...
And it's like, sometimes the slave has good sex, is what you're saying.
In all the usual ways.
Well, but it doesn't meet her criteria because the other criterion is, like,
going to be inside of a committed relationship and also geared towards having
children. So presumably, the first one is not there with the slave?
Well, they could still be committed.
Through a marriage or whatever.
Right. I mean, in some sense, a slave is more committed than anyone else. They
really can’t get out of it.
No, no, I think I want to say that it's like deficient at the level of
reciprocity – that that kind of sex is deficient at the level of reciprocity.
Because reciprocity isn't just teamwork. And part of the importance of it is
that it's like...
So it seems like here you're trying to import concepts of consent into the
definition of reciprocity.
No, no, sorry. This is very central to reciprocity that it isn't – it's
neither teamwork nor is it just you want this thing that I have and I want
this thing that you have, and we can kind of trade. Right? It's like, the two
people have to be showing up to it, kind of like all the way through. And that
I mean in the slave case, they would both be there all the way through.
Yeah, they will physically be there.
They're all pros– probably emotionally there all the way through. They're both
socially all the way through. I mean, just one of them doesn't have options
the other one has.
Yeah. Yeah, I'm not sure – I mean, I guess I don't really know what the
psychological experience of being a slave and having sex with somebody is
like. But it doesn't...
I mean, the question is, like, where in your concept of reciprocity does this
– are we going to make these distinctions? What is it about reciprocity that's
sensitive to these consent-related sex?
Well, like for something to be reciprocal, it necessarily needs to be free
Well, isn't that the concept of consent? I mean, aren't you bringing in
consent through the concept of free. If you're going to define reciprocity in
terms of consent, then of course, that's going to explain the relationship by
definition, but it's not very insightful.
Yeah. No, I think consent is just a precondition to reciprocity, if that makes
sense. Like... or...
OK, but then that's the full explanation for why your theory predicts consent,
Because consent is built into your definition of your concept. But then it's
not really explaining anything in the world. It's just... it's just...
Well, except that like – except that like reciprocity, like reciprocity and
eros are both like really – are both like pretty characteristic of sex in most
people's experience in a way that just like consent mattering on its own in a
vacuum, I guess it is part of people's experience. But...
But your concept of reciprocity you're invoking is one that you, by
definition, include consent in it. And so if you excluded consent from your
concept of reciprocity, you just went to a more basic process, then you would
no longer have this connection with consent.
Yeah. OK, so I'm trying to understand your objection exactly. So, is your
thought something like this? Agnes pointed out earlier that reciprocity is a
really important part of conversation. But we could have conversations that
are free or less free, right? Like, someone could pay you to be part of a
conversation, you might just do it for money, somebody could, like coerce you
to talk to them, like they're pointing a gun at you and they're like, "Answer
my questions. OK, like, what was your childhood like? or whatever." And you're
like, you're talking to them, but it's not free. And it's like recip– the
conversation is like reciprocal in some sense, right?
Right. In the sort of functional building off of each other, understanding
each other, or meeting each other's sort of way.
Responding to other person. Yeah, good. Let's see.
Can I introduce a distinction that might help here or am I interrupting
No, no, I'm just thinking we should...
OK. So, I think that there is – we might distinguish a kind of ethical facet
of reciprocity, which is something like a shared agreement from a
psychological facet, which is closer to the arousal thing I was talking about.
And I think what we're sort of doing is exploring that it seems like we can
pull this concept of reciprocity apart. And you kind of want it to include
both the kind of the volitional aspect, the ethical aspect, which is like
you're choosing and you're choosing in the light of the other person choosing
the same thing, right? And you might want to say, of the slave, but they can't
make such a choice. And so the volitional aspect is gone. But you also want to
include the psychological aspect, which is the building off of each other. And
it's not actually clear how those two things are one concept.
You can use one word to refer to both, but it seems like you can pull them
apart and then we can ask, "Which one are you going with?"
Right. So your thought is like, maybe what I'm just talking about is sort of
like, consent plus some kind of like dialectical, like, sexual interpersonal
play or something like that.
Chemistry, they call it.
Well, chemistry wouldn't be enough because the action has to be actual.
Right, but chemical process by which the chemicals are reacting to each other
and building off of each other.
Yeah, but I don't just mean a chemical process. OK. So I think part of the
issue is that it seems like both things need to be present at every level of
the process. So, if you're like – if someone is like you have to participate
in this conversation, or you have to have sex with this person. And then you
go and you're like, "Well, I'll just do the best I can, all things considered"
or something. It seems like reciprocity has been damaged at the level of like,
of entry. But you could also imagine a situation where two people are like
farther along, right? They've like flirted with each other, they've danced
with each other, they're like in bed together. And maybe like reciprocity has
been fine up until then. But then there is some sort of like breakdown, either
at the level of like response or at the level of will. And that seems like the
thing that's happening between two people as they're getting to have sex, like
going through the process of getting to the point where they're having sex.
Like, it seems to involve like both of those things all the way through.
So let me give an abstract rendition of what might be the logical critique
here. So you say we observe A about sex. A is puzzling, standing by itself,
it's weird. Well, I need the theory of A. You say, "I've got C. Note that C
implies A, so C is plausible, and C implies A, so therefore, C is a better
explanation than A." And then I know, well, C really is defined to be A plus
B. And so obviously, A inside of C, A plus B implies A so the fact that C
implies A is fully explained by the fact that you included A inside of C. The
other B part isn't really necessary. So it's not really offering an
explanation. It's just an additional claim.
OK, so I think... all right. I don't know if this analogy is going to be at
all useful. But I think in the same way, that the two people's interest in one
another is going back and forth in a sort of like, it's not like a terminating
thing, right? So it's not like, OK, A, like, sorry, I'll use different
letters. With people N and M, I don't know, M is interested in N and is
interested in M. M, is interested in the fact that N is interested in M, and–
but so forth. But there's not like a terminating thing, where it's like, "Oh
well, you know, I'm aroused by your body, and I'm aroused by your arousal on
me, but I'm not aroused by your arousal and my arousal and whatever, wherever
it goes in that."
All levels of recursion.
Yeah. And so I think that, so there's something incomplete about saying that
the sort of interest between the two people is just the sum of one person's
interest in other and the other person's interest in them, because the
interests are interacting in some way, right? And so this is, I guess, what I
would think about this, on the one hand, this interactive process of just like
arousal, or sexual response, or sort of dialectical sexual response. But also,
the more like freedom or consent or whatever you want to call it component,
because they need to be working together, all the way through, if that makes
sense. So it's not I don't think it's...
I mean like, again, a slave and a slave owner, they can have all these
interactions, but somehow you define – or is there like a physical thing we
could watch in the interaction that would be the failure of this thing? Or is
this just a logical assumption declaration that, by definition, it can't
possibly be reciprocal, if it isn't free?
Yes, I think... I don't think it can be reciprocal if it's not free.
But we see something and that would show us that the reciprocality had failed
in some more direct interaction way, or is it just a logical declaration?
However, it looks it's still can't by definition of free.
Yeah. No, I think it's just a logical declaration. But I just want to push
back against the idea that the kind of reciprocity is like consensual plus,
you know, the arousal is interacting in a certain way. Because... I'm trying
to think about how I can put this. Because like, the reason... like I don't
think the two things can be separated. Like, I think that two people need to
be showing up to one another freely and responding to one another freely all
the way through. And so whether the unfreedom comes at the comment – sorry, at
the sort of the context of like, "Well, you have to have sex with me it's your
job." Or, if it's happening at the level of like, "Oh, I realize this person
will be offended if I don't – like they have asked me to do something in a
sexual context. And I've realized they're going to be hurt if I don't. And I
feel like I actually really don't want to do this thing, but I have to do it
otherwise they will be upset." Like, that's also a point at which reciprocity
can be harmed, even if the person chooses, like, even if they do have the
freedom to do the – to not do the thing that would cause the person to not
feel hurt. That that's sort of like a way in which reciprocity can be broken.
So we don't have time to go into it, I don't think that much, but I actually
took issue with the book you reviewed and yourself in this expansive concept
of consent, wherein you sort of have to know the entire structure and the
history of society to decide if any one thing is a consent, because it can't
be consent, if it's in a, you know, wrong society or something. That seems to
make it even harder to look at an interaction to decide if it's free or
consent, because you know, by that account, you can't just look at the local
interaction, and decide you have to look at the whole history and society,
it's all in, in order to judge that, which seems to me intractable.
Yeah, I think it's definitely intractable.
But which case, it's not, you can't apply the concept, right?
No, no, I just mean, I just mean that like... I think that concepts can still
be useful, even if there are edge cases where they're, where they're messy.
And I think like power asymmetries really is an example of this. Like the
example Srinavasan gave, which I talked about, which I was thinking probably
you wouldn't like, is like the college student who, you know, starts having
sex and then stops, and she says, "Oh, you know, I'm high, this doesn't feel
right. I don't want to keep doing it." And the guy said, "OK, you know, just
give me give me a minute or two to change your mind." And he's kissing her or
something. And then she re-initiates the sex act, and later says, "Well, that
wasn't it consensual, because I was actually pressured by this norm, about how
girls need to start – finish what they start." Like, I mean, I definitely...
But I don't think being pressured by norm counts as injustice per se. I mean,
we're all pressured by norms all the time. There's a lot of complicated norms
that push in a lot of strange directions.
I mean I take a part of what Audrey is trying to explain is why many people,
me included, think in this particular case, it's worse to be pressured by the
norm. But I actually wonder how your view avoids this, like, what if a couple
is married? And the same thing happens inside of marriage...
Right. They have an idea of a good spouse does this.
Exactly, right? And so it seems to me that if the thought is, "Look, sex is so
risky that you want to make sure you have it in a context where you avoid this
danger." I don't think marriage and even marriage gear to procreation is
insured against it. And I actually wondered why universal celibacy wasn't your
Yeah. So I think – I don't think marriage like destroys these problems. It
just mitigates against some of them. And the reason universal celibacy isn't
my recommendation is that I just, I think there actually are still real goods
associated with sex, including the ones that have to do with you know, this
expression of like, reciprocal erotic love and having children is good thing.
And, but – that's like... yeah, so I'm actually pretty sympathetic to
universal celibacy as a recommendation. Basically...
Mm-hmm. I could feel that.
Yeah. So I think that – I think the sex negative feminists have a lot going
for them. And yeah, so I think if you... Yeah, so to justify sex, you need to
have a really good reason to be having it.
So, if I just pick up on that, so it's like, suppose we were to discover that
like that married people and especially as they get married for longer and
longer, their sex just becomes less and less exciting. And there's less and
less reciprocity just suppose this were just an empirical discovery, right?
Right. They're just phoning it in. Yeah.
They're just falling it in, there's less reciprocity, but they're kind of OK
with having the sex to preserve closest in the relationship where one person
wants it more than the other, the other one goes along with it. The other one
might even have like, slight fears that if they didn't go along with it,
things would go worse, or they might, you know. And could that maybe tilt the
balance, like, and now it's like, "OK, maybe it looks like some kinds of
extramarital sex." And I don't mean affairs, I just mean outside of
...sex are going to like, overall, give you a better risk package, right, than
the sex one where you have these other risks. And especially at over time, the
sex risks, the risk of the stuff I'm talking about sex goes up, right? So
yeah, I just wonder what you think about that.
Yeah. So, yeah, I guess what I think about that is that like, I think the
dangers you described are definitely like real, and people should be careful.
Like they should be like morally careful about them. But I guess I don't
really see like a great comprehensive justification for the other kind of sex.
That's why you're drawn in the celibacy direction.
Exactly, yes. Celibacy or like, you know if you have to.
And so is there a default here that if not strongly justified, you should just
skip it? Because there's substantial harms possible?
Yeah, I think so.
Yeah, I did – I mean, for me, that's one of the problems for me with that is
just that that contradicts the idea of sacredness. The whole point of the
sacred is, the more we try to resist it, the more it overpowers us, if that's
what it is. So the idea of like, "Hey, this is sacred, but just abstain." It's
like, "Wait, didn't you hear me? I said it was sacred." That's the sort of
thing where that kind of response doesn't work.
So I mean, that's presupposing you agree with me about that idea about its
being sacred. But that's why it– for me that, yeah, like I can imagine
abstention as a solution to a lot of different kinds of problems, but not ones
that concern the sacred.
Even without invoking the sacred. It's just a common presumption with a many
people that you can't just stop people from having sex. They're going to do it
one way or another. And you can run best channel their inclinations in one
direction or another, but...
But unless you see it as sacred, you might think, yeah, but there are ways
around that or something, or just, you know, from a resolve or with like, if
you see in a certain way, then that route is any blocked in principle.
Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, I'm not sure I have an answer. But Agnes, I do
have a question for you, which is, if you think like the Spartan model of
marriage is really good, because...
What is this Spartan model?
Well, I think the men all lived in like, it was basically like, they would
have sex with their wives but it was considered kind of like embarrassing. And
I think the men lived in like a big barracks together, and the women would
like have their own tents. So like, the men would like sneak off, and like
have sex with their wives. So they would still like keep. But like, I sort of
wonder, like, maybe this is a solution to the question of like, both the
sacredness and what you were talking about, like the danger in marriage of
reciprocity falling away. That like, you kind of like, you sanction the sex
but you make it like a little bit shameful, and therefore, like, exciting or
something. And so people are like, you know, they're like, sneaking off
basically. Yeah, I don't know, do you think this would solve like, your
concern about sacredness?
I think there's really something to that. I'm not, I'm not sure it would –
there's... the problem with sacredness is you can't produce systemic
solutions. Because it evades the solution, right? But I do think, so something
that Scruton gets right I think is that shame is really deeply rooted with sex
and the... Another thing that goes along with the consent obsession as I would
call it, is the idea that we should just get rid of sexual shame. There's
nothing to be ashamed of or something, where I'm like, "No, no, there's tons
to be ashamed of. That's the right feeling about sex." And I see why that
would draw you in the sex negative direction. It doesn't draw me in that
direction because of the sacredness point. But at least the people who are sex
negative get the shame thing, which is that's getting something important, I
think. So, but I think what that seems to be an attempt to do is like, let's
reintroduce the shame somewhere so as to keep the dynamic sexual, rather than
somehow – there's something too healthy or something about the, you know,
let's just have like, you know, we'll all have contraception and prevention
from STDs, and we can all have sex and enjoy it, and it's kind of like we're
all eating meals together or something. And there's like a insufficient – it's
been... that doesn't look like sex to me. It looks like we've turned it into
something. We sanitize it to the point where nobody will even want it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Can I– like, I know we're going to, we're a little over our time but there's
something from the very beginning I wanted to get back to. Your definition,
OK? So I proposed reciprocal physical interaction that could produce kids, you
said it has to be erotic. And my immediate thought, but I wasn't able to
follow up with them, I was like, wait a minute, that just means sexual. So can
you tell me what you mean by erotic if you don't mean sexual?
Yeah. I don't think I'm going to give a good answer. So I can try, but it will
be kind of bumbling I think. I mean, I mostly mean sexual, but I guess what I
mean is... OK, I think what I mean, though, is that the reciprocity is
characterized not just by... OK, you can imagine someone, two people who are
really into improv and are not interested in one another sexually, having sex
as part of an improv game that they're playing, right? It's like, OK, what if
like, I take off this garment? OK. And like they're not, neither is like
sexually – neither is... neither person desires the other, what they're doing
is reciprocal because they're responding to and saying yes, as you do in
improv, to the other person's proposal. Right? But they're doing it as part of
a game that actually is sort of only... it's like physically sexual, but you
could have sex in a way that was reciprocal but that wasn't erotic if it
wasn't characterized by like reciprocal desire. Yeah.
Right. I mean, it was just occurring to me that actually – well, part of your
definition is it has to be able to produce kids, right? So the improv one
wouldn't meet it. But...
No, I mean, if you actually had sex, you could actually like go through with
Go through with it. OK, OK. I get it. I get it. Right. And...
but I just thought it up.
But it could just be... right, OK, now, I'm undersanding. Right, I mean,
without that, you could even have, you know, a reciprocal interaction,
physical interaction that involves like implantation of sperm or whatever,
right? But then it is not sex at all. And that would then meet the sex, unless
we put in something like...
I know, I guess, by the, you know, I really do mean coitus. I don't mean, you
know, I don't mean you're inseminating a person's...
Right, right. But that's what I mean and so there needs to be – and so, you
thought is, OK, so in addition to ruling out those cases, we're going to rule
out the improv case. I feel like though, that there, some of the work that's
being done by erotic really should be done by recip– that is, there's a lot
that hangs on what is this reciprocality. And I take it that it's not like,
reciprocality plus erotic, it's somehow and intrinsically erotic
And so, I feel like my next step for what I would want to hear from you is
just like breaking down that concept of reciprocality and bringing out like
the arousal component, the volitional component, and the – like, in what way
is it essentially sexual or erotic, right? Which you may just get out of the
But then also what glues all those things together.
Right. Probably we could think...
So I think Agnes and I both admired the way that your book review made
explicit sort of some implicit rhetorical strategies in the book you were
reviewing. And that was one of its delightful parts. And you talked about how
the author is trying to sort of, you know, send away the dogs, I guess, or the
ones people who might be distasteful in the readers' eyes, through this
concept of, I guess, a reverse implicature or whatever. And it's at one point,
you said the dog should have their day that maybe it wasn't entirely fair to
exclude them from the conversation. So clearly, in our discussion, it's
actually even when people make their positions pretty explicit, it's still
often hard to understand them and we can misunderstand each other. My question
or comment would might be about, like, when we allow people to draw these
implications of what other people have said, how reliable are we in assigning
those implications? And how far can it go wrong to allow people sort of to
freely claim that other people imply things without a check on that? That is
how wrong can – or is our conversation going in sort of allowing these
widespread claims about implications without sort of verifying with the person
that they in fact, meant the things that were implied, supposedly implied?
So I'm not excited about how far society has gone in this direction. I do
think... Yeah, so I think if you have a society where there's a few phrases
that everybody knows have really, really specific meanings. Like, you know,
after Nazi Germany, it's like, they're all these words... I think actually, in
Germany, there's like a problem where you can't use the word, like leadership
conferences have to have these weird names, because you can't use the word
You can't use "Führer." You can use "Leiter" but not "Führer."
Exactly. So it's like, there's all this kind of like, talk around in German.
And like, OK, when you have something like that happen, yeah, I guess you
just, you have, it's going to be complicated to deal with it.
No, kids name Adolf.
Exactly. No kids named Adolf.
But yeah, I think I think it's a major problem that we have these layers of
things or phrases or even inferences that have become like, right coded or
left coded or center coded or coded in some way, where often people who are
using them won't even necessarily know. That makes it very, very hard for
normal people to have conversations about stuff. Because you say something
that seems like you're like, "Hey, I don't know. I'm just a person who knows
some things, not as much as everyone but like, I have opinions. We're a
republic. I want to talk about them." And then you make some argument and then
people are like, "Oh, this is a dog whistle for you know, everyone knows when
you say family values you mean, you know, something..."
Yeah, rape. Like I love rape, yeah. I don't know how that is. But you know,
but that's like a very, very hard way to have a conversation in public. Like
people... Yeah. So, I think it would be good if – and I'm not sure I have like
a path to this but like, in general, I think it's not a good idea to assign,
like, some sort of like implicature to people unless you have like, a really
strong basis for doing it. And...
And I'd hoped you'd say, but I just wanted to make you say it.
So, presumably, I thought there was something– there was a tension in the
thing you said, Robin, which is like you started with, I love how you drew all
these implications from Amia's book that she didn't actually explicitly say,
but you ascribe them to her anyways.
Well, aren't you...
Isn't it terrible people do that?
Yeah. So like, actually – so I think that this is, maybe this is me annoyingly
saying the same thing over again. I think that language is also part of the
sacred. And this is an example of that. That is, this implicature thing gets
out of hand. We literally can't control it, right? So like, you may be annoyed
at someone else doing it, and you're doing it by being annoyed at them doing
it. And it's so frustrating, like, I can't tell you how frus– because I've
tried to catch myself. And I think maybe there should be like a general thing,
like a class of like, solutions to sacred problems. Because these are super
hard problems. And it's not a matter of how well-meaning or well-intentioned
you are, or they're on the right side or whatever, both sides are just doing
it. Like, you just keep, you're just caught in it.
Yeah. Yeah and both consciously and unconsciously, right? Because like, you're
just, sometimes you're writing to a particular audience, right? So you're
like, I'm just going to write in sort of the language that these people use.
And then to other people – and I think to probably some people, and maybe this
is how Srinivansan experienced writing the book herself. Like, maybe she
wasn't thinking like, "Oh, ha ha, I'm going to make these like, I'm going to
consider these arguments that aren't really like, considered OK on the left to
think about. But I'm going to do them by like, repeatedly, like sort of trash
talking, like the people who people on the left assume or the people who would
make these arguments." Trash talking is too strong of a word, but like, you
know, sort of, you know, saying things...
Excluding in a certain way.
Cast suspicion on, Oh, we all know that most people who think this kind of
thing are privileged White guys, but, you know, actually, there are...
Reasonable people who think this.
You know, there's a reasonable way to think about this. And like, so maybe
there is an audience that needs to be reached in this way. Right? Like, they
can't be reached any other way. And so Srinivansan is like helping them. But
like, it's also – it just seems, yeah, I don't have a solution. It's just very
unfortunate that this is – and it's, I mean, it's also something that's
clearly ratcheted a lot.
I think the most harmful form of it is where you look at someone's
credentials. And so if they're sufficiently, you know, colored, gendered,
progressive, et cetera, then you give them a lot of latitude for what
expressions they use, or what interpret– you give them a sort of favorable
interpretation. But if they have all the wrong characteristics, then you're
sort of justified in making the worst possible attributions to whatever they
said. And so there's asymmetry in there – there's which means that those other
people have to be extremely careful how they talk, and even then they maybe
thought foul. But we good people can sort of be sloppy and joking and, you
know, and talking directly, because, you know, we can be assumed to be having
a good intention.
I don't think that's the worst part.
It's pretty bad part.
I think the worst part is just that we are caught up in it ourselves, and that
we harm our own souls, every time we try to fight it.
Yeah. So do you have a solution, either of you?
My solution is everybody should just be super literal all the time.
I agree. So I that I just tried to respond to what things people say directly
and try not to describe intentions.
We both fail at that all the time.
For instance, we fail on it by approving in some sense of the whole first part
of Audrey's review, right? We like that. That was ascribing stuff to Amia that
she doesn't literally say, the literal reading when just be ascribing to her
what she says.
Right. She actually just thinks that white men are more likely to hold this
You know, but here's some other reasons. Yeah.
That that would be another approach. I mean, that's an ideal. I'm not saying I
can do it all or even most of the time but that is, my solution is if you
could just get yourself just commit to actually being little, rather than
saying that that's what you're doing. OK with not just saying it but actually
doing it. I kind of just the – and I try, but I fail. But yeah, that is my,
the best solution I've come up with so far, but I'm open to other ones.
Yeah. Well, I'm not sure because it seems like we still do need to have this
capacity to evaluate this thing. It's just that like, it would be good if
collectively less of our attention socially were spent doing it. And, you
know, it's hard to... it's hard to fix that without just drawing attention to
That's the sacredness part right there.
Yeah, I don't know. Yeah, do you both think the reason it's gotten so much
more intense in the last, I don't know, five years, is mostly about like the
structure of social media, or the Trump presidency, or any ideas?
I think Robin and I have different views. Maybe we should each say our views
and then we should stop because we're kind over our time.
OK, all right. You first.
OK. My view is that a big part of why it's gotten so much worse is that we
have tried to master it and it is sacred. So a lot of the dynamic is fueled by
the people fighting.
I'd say we are in the midst of a rare religious revival period. There's a new
religion on the scene and people are energized and eager to support it and
show their support for it. And this is part of that sort of process. It's
where they go out of their way to interpret things in that lens and show that
they're on the right side of this.
OK, well, thank you so much for talking to us. This is a great conversation.
Yeah. Thank you, both.
Thanks for hanging out, bye.