Mark Pennington on Sex and Status Anxiety

by Reihan Salam

In his novel Extension du domaine de la lutte, Michel Houellebecq wrote, in the voice of his protagonist:

In a totally liberal economic system, certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system, certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

Mark Pennington offers some thoughts on this broad theme:

Those fortunate enough to be born with genes for above average attractiveness are likely to have a greater choice of potential partners than those less well endowed – but they no more deserve these characteristics than does someone deserve the advantages from being born into a higher income home, having the intelligence quotient of Stephen Hawking or the football skills of Wayne Rooney. On egalitarian grounds, therefore, differences in attractiveness meet the usual criteria considered to warrant redistributive state action – they are an important factor influencing the quality of individuals lives and they are distributed in a manner which is to use Rawls’s terminology, ‘arbitrary from a moral point of view’. One might, therefore, seek to justify a range of policies to improve access to ‘sexual goods’. These could include the provision of vouchers to enable the less attractive to buy the experience of sex with someone who is physically more desirable or if the direct involvement of money payments for sex is thought to debase the nature of the act then people could secure these goods ‘free at the point of delivery’ from professional public service sex workers contracted by the National Health Service. Alternatively, the less attractive might be provided with subsidised access to cosmetic surgery, or the more attractive might be required to undergo some simple and relatively painless surgical procedures in order to ‘level the playing field’.

With the possible exception of Martha Nussbaum, who has argued that sexual fulfilment is a human right, most egalitarians would (thankfully) balk at such suggestions.* That they do so, however, reveals the root inconsistency of much egalitarian doctrine. So called ‘luck egalitarians’ are obsessed with ‘compensating’ people for inequalities which result from ‘chance’ rather than ‘choice’ – but if eliminating the effects of luck is the key to social justice then un-chosen differences in sex appeal which contribute to the chances of a fulfilled life should indeed be the subject of redistribution.

It will not do to claim that income redistribution is justified because it requires less invasive procedures – a lifetime of punitive taxation for a high income person may turn out equally invasive as taxing the beautiful or requiring that they undergo a one-off ‘de-beautifying’ procedure. Moreover, if we accept that sexual equalisation is in fact too intrusive to warrant state intervention this would be to concede that luck cannot be eliminated as a significant factor in peoples’ lives. It will be no comfort to the rich but ugly person to know that their wealth can be confiscated in the name of social justice but that their lack of sex appeal cannot be the legitimate subject of public policy because this would be ‘too intrusive’. All the egalitarian could say to such a person is that they are the unfortunate victims of the ‘wrong kind of luck’.

One potential rejoinder is that “sexual goods” are inextricably bound up with the human beings who provide them, and it is unconscionable to conscript free individuals in service of achieving some larger egalitarian social goal.  But Pennington addresses this concern by presenting the subsidized cosmetic surgery example, which compensates those suffering from a congenital lack of erotic capital with a dedicated subsidy. The implicit idea behind our revulsion at what might be called “sexual redistribution” as opposed to “economic redistribution” is that freedom in intimate life should receive more robust protection than freedom in economic life. It is not obvious, to me at least, that the freedom to work and to earn is not central to or constitutive of one’s identity in a not entirely dissimilar way. And if we embrace that view, perhaps it is fair to say that state interventions in voluntary economic transactions should have to clear a somewhat higher bar than they do under the status quo. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.