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To Love, Honor, and Contract: Engagement and Domesticity in Kant’s Rechtslehre
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Feminist accounts of sexual objectification draw on a surprising source: Immanuel Kant. Martha Nussbaum (1995), Barbara Herman (1993), and Rae Langton (2009) have persuasively argued that the account of sexual objectification developed by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin are Kantian in character. Kant’s theory of objectification has much to offer feminists: he argues that sex involves the use of persons as things, points to the problematic role that the market plays in both objectifying and com-modifying bodies, and concludes that institutions are necessary to protect us from this dehumanizing exploitation.

Feminist philosophers suggest that two elements of Kant’s theory of objectification might be useful to contemporary feminist discourse. First, Kant argues that sexual objectification is reciprocal so that the humanity of both partners, regardless of gender, is compromised by the kinds of use sex involves (Herman 1993). Sex is, for Kant, always a form of use, since it always involves using a person as a thing. By presenting the problem of objectification as equal for both genders, and arguing that a symmetrical solution is called for, Lina Papadaki argues that Kant’s ideas seem “to be more empowering for an individual woman trying to avoid her objectification than MacKinnon and Dworkin’s” (2007, 346).

Second, Kant claims that no contractual agreement can make sexual use permissible. Because Kant’s account of contract emerges out of his understanding of commercial exchange in the marketplace, this amounts to a prohibition on any form of commodified sex, or any instance of sex where the value of the person is connected to their sexual attributes or desirability—a powerful claim for those interested in limiting rights to prostitution or pornography. Kant’s argument hinges on a denial of the right to property in the person: a person, he says, cannot sell any part of him-or herself directly for the enjoyment of another, because “a person is a unity” and the sexual attributes of the person are an intrinsic and indivisible part of the self (1981, 166).

Kant’s proposed solution to the dangers of sexual objectification and commodification is likewise of interest to feminists: Kant claims that sex can be rightful only given an institution that prevents persons from reducing one another to their sexual attributes and that fosters respect and reciprocity between sexual partners. This, he thinks, will involve a new set of rights that protects persons from the commodifying tendencies of the marketplace. But the institutional arrangement he proposes should, I think, give feminists pause: sex, Kant thinks, is permissible only within marriage, which Kant defines as “the right to a person akin to the right to a thing” (1996, 276). In this relation, each partner “surrenders the whole of their person to the other“—and, because this relation is symmetrical, when I gain this right to my partner’s person, I in turn “win myself back” (1981, 167).

We might expect that feminists would not find marriage—particularly in a form explicitly defined as a “right to a person akin to the right to a thing,” or indeed, “winning oneself back“—an ideal solution to the dangers of sexual objectification. But feminist philosophers have increasingly defended the Kantian account of marriage, arguing that if we take Kant’s claims about the symmetrical nature of objectification and surrender in marriage more seriously than his troubling claims about the moral inferiority of women, we find ourselves with an account of egalitarian marriage designed to protect the rights and dignity of each partner—an argument very much in line with contemporary defenses of marriage emerging out debates over same-sex marriage (Brake 2007; Denis 2001; Papadaki 2010; Varden 2007).

This essay pushes back against the claim that the symmetry of Kant’s theory of objectification suggests a greater equality or empowerment for women. While most feminist explorations of Kant and sex have focused on marriage (Denis 2004; Herman 1993; Korsgaard 1996; Papadaki 2010; Varden 2007), I explore the role of engagement in Kant’s arguments, in order to show how assumptions about the structure of market-based relationships shape his understanding of marriage, gender equity, sex, and the family. By tracing the distinction Kant draws between the relationship of an...



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