Wings of desire: Reflections on sexual desire, identity and freedom

DOI: 10.1080/02580136.2018.1532188
Author(s): Abraham OlivierDepartment of Philosophy, South Africa


The aim of this paper is to give a critical discussion of Sartre’s concept of sexual desire and its relation to self-identity and freedom. Why Sartre? Sartre is one of very few philosophers who offers a systematic account of sexual desire. He has influenced eminent philosophical concepts of sexual desire held by, for instance, de Beauvoir, Lacan, Foucault, Levinas, Irigaray and Butler, but not much is written about his own notion of sexual desire. This alone is reason to explore Sartre’s view. What makes his view of sexual desire particularly interesting is that it is framed by his theory of freedom. Sartre offers the original, radical notion that freedom is absolute. Because consciousness is never self-identical, he argues, human identity is not fixed. Instead, we are consequently nothing else but what we keep desiring to make of ourselves. He concludes that we are always free to choose our drives and desires, even what seem to be our most enslaving, natural sexual instincts. The question raised in this article, however, concerns what the nature of sexual desire is and how free we really are to choose our sexual desires. I first contextualise Sartre’s view of sexual desire within his notion of desire in general and its relation to instinct, drive, consciousness, freedom and identity. Then, I give a detailed discussion of his analysis of sexual desire, its relation to freedom, and, what Sartre calls its failures. Finally, I discuss a critique of, and alternative to, Sartre’s theory of sexual desire from the perspective of my own notion of heteronomous and autonomous desire and freedom.

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