Analyzing Thomas Nagel's "Sexual Perversion"


Human sexuality is often considered a controversial topic since some believe that it should be a private matter, only to be discussed by those involved. Some people tend to be surprised when a person “overshares” about his or her sexual life and accidentally reveals some acts which for others seem unnatural. In this expository essay , we will discuss the topic of sexual perversion and which acts are actually considered unnatural and therefore, perverted.

Sexual Perversion

Thomas Nagel wrote in The Journal of Philosophy his article Sexual Perversion back in 1969 . Here, Nagel attempts to understand why certain things are considered sexually perverted, while others are not. In the article, Nagel analyzes different types of sexual acts, as well as desires, and how or why they are considered perverted or not. He uses hunger and food to illustrate and make his points more understandable.

The strength in Nagel’s argument is not in his definition of sexual perversion but in his evaluative and amoral analysis of perversion. He based it on a psychological perspective rather than on anatomical or physiological aspects. His amoral stance on the topic of sexual perversion is crucial since this topic is often intertwined with cultural and religious biases.

Nagel begins by establishing the basis for his analysis, which is the definition of sexuality . Here, he notes that certain general conditions be met for the concept of sexual perversions to be viable, even if some people believe that the idea does not make sense at all. Nagel says that there will have to be sexual desires or practices that are considered in some sense unnatural for them to be considered a perversion. And in the case that there is a perversion, there also should be unnatural sexual inclinations and preferences that are gotten from other reasons aside from inclination.

In addition, he references Sartre ’s description of attempting a successful sexual relationship, whose goal is to achieve “a double reciprocal incarnation”. In other words, this is to make oneself and one’s desires for the other known to them, through which both self and other can experience arousal. From Sartre, Nagel describes sexual desire as involving a kind of perception, not just of the object of desire but also of one’s desire, and of the other’s arousal from the perception of one’s desire.

Nagel postulates that sexual desire, and eventually arousal, is not only anchored on one’s attraction for the sexual object but of one’s perception of one’s arousal as well as that of the other’s. In simpler terms, there has to be a “mutual awareness” of each other’s desire which will serve as a kind of stepping stone toward the sexual act. Sexual act, in turn, is not just based on the physical or the anatomical, but largely on “countless features of the participants’ conceptions of themselves and of each other, which become embodied in the act.” 

With this definition, Nagel is already setting the parameters for what may be considered perverted. From this definition, we gather that sexual desire and sexual acts can transpire between two beings with sufficient self-awareness, such that they can recognize each other’s desires. It is necessary for not only the partner to be aroused by the sexual object, but to be aroused by one’s own desire. Any deviation from this would therefore be a form of perversion.

So what acts are considered sexual perversions?

Nagel establishes the parameters for “perverted” sexual acts by analyzing some of the most common sexual acts. Nagel clearly states that there can be no clear distinction between “perverted” and “unperverted” sexual acts for no act can fully fit into the categories. Even those considered “unperverted” (in the sense that they are accepted) may, in some aspects, transcend the categories established. 

Voyeurism and exhibitionism, Nagel expounds, are considered perversions since they are incomplete relations. These are considered incomplete relations because they do not require “a double reciprocal incarnation,” or even mutual recognition. The exhibitionist’s goal is simply to display his desire, a kind of recognition is expected, but he does not necessarily expect to be desired in return. Similarly, the voyeur does not even require recognition as the other person may not be aware that he/she is being perceived as an object of desire.

Pedophilia and bestiality are considered perverted because although sexual acts with children and animals do permit the perception of the other person’s desire, they lack the reciprocity required for a sexual act to be considered complete. In these kinds of sexual acts, the individual does not derive his/her desire from the sexual object’s desire, which should come from the object’s perception of the individual’s initial arousal. Thus, sexual acts involving children and animals are always incomplete.

Likewise, sadism and masochism do not achieve the goal of “double reciprocal incarnation,” and thus fall under perversion in Nagel’s analysis. However, in contrast to pedophilia and bestiality, sadism and masochism fall short in terms of interpersonal reciprocity. In sadism, the sadist’s perception of himself as an object of desire is the center of the sexual desire, instead of the other’s perception. Whereas, in masochism, the masochist views himself as the object of the sadist’s control, rather than as the object of desire. In both cases, desire fails to be the source of the object’s self-awareness.


The distinction between perverted and unperverted becomes blurred when the discussion moves to masturbation, orgies, and homosexuality. Masturbation may be considered perverted since it involves engaging in private fantasies that cloud the recognition of the partner unless the partner has been informed beforehand. But even in the instance of letting the partner know, the mutual recognition of each other’s desire is out of the equation.

On the other hand, orgies can give way to interpersonal reciprocity. However, since the relation occurs between multiple persons at a time, it is quite difficult for interpersonal reciprocity and desire to be properly shown and given. Some may even argue that it’s not possible, but that depends on the individuals involved.

Lastly, homosexuality is a controversial topic. This kind of relationship cannot easily fit either category. The system of desire or recognition of each other’s desire implies, according to Nagel, that the aggressor or the initiator is the male. It is the male’s arousal is that initiates the perceptual exchange. Therefore, in a homosexual relationship, it is not clear who fulfills the role of the aggressor and the receiver.

It may even be said that the couple in a homosexual relationship cannot adhere to these sexual roles. However, as Nagel also questions, how important these sexual roles are is debatable. When homosexuality is analyzed based on whether it can allow interpersonal reciprocity, there is no question that this is unperverted since mutual recognition of each other’s desires is achieved.

Furthermore, the categories are blurred because certain relations, like those between heterosexuals and homosexuals, cannot necessarily be considered perverted. Instead, it can be recognized that they can have perverted forms, such as sadism and masochism. For Nagel, what is considered unnatural in human sexuality and which does not reciprocate the other’s feelings of desire and arousal is considered perverted.

Writing about topics like this may seem difficult as it involves philosophy and a thorough research process . Not only that, but at times the writer finds it hard to detach themselves from their own biases. One simply cannot let his or her own personal judgment cloud what is stated in what they have read in their research. This is why some students ask for help in writing papers like these. Other than the reason that this task is time-consuming, most seem to need the help of a professional writer in constructing a rather formal paper in which one's own biases should not be reflected.

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Nagel, T. (1969). Sexual Perversion. The Journal of Philosophy,  66(1), 5-17. JSTOR. Retrieved November 26, 2020.

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