Sexual preferences represent a rich site for ethical exploration of topics such as oppression, responsibility, freedom. Because everyone has sexual preferences of some kind or another, everyone has some stake in the answers to these questions. Moreover, the deeply entrenched (indeed, possibly involuntary) nature of sexual preferences illustrates the extent to which oppression is socialized and internalized by individuals in even the most intimate spheres of life.


  • Philosophy of Sex
  • Philosophy of Oppression/Injustice
  • Feminist Philosophy
  • Ethics
  • Applied Ethics

Assigned Texts

  • Ted Chiang, “Liking What You See: A Documentary”, in Stories of Your Life and Others (New York: Vintage Books, 2016), 237-274.
  • Naomi Wolf, “The Beauty Myth,” in The Beauty Myth (New York: HarperCollins, 2002): 9-19.
  • Sheila Lintott and Sherri Irvin, “Sex Objects and Sexy Subjects: A Feminist Reclamation of Sexiness,” in Body Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016): 299-318.
  • Nathaniel Coleman, “What? What? In the (Black) Butt,” APA Newsletters: Newsletter on Philosophy and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues 11:1 (Fall 2011): 12-15.
  • [VIDEO] Tony Ayres, “China Dolls” available at
  • Robin Zheng, “Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetish,” The Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 2:3 (2016): 400-419.
  • Charles Mills, “Do Black Men Have a Moral Duty to Marry Black Women?” Journal of Social Philosophy 25:1 (June 1994): 131-153.
  • William S. Wilkerson, “Is it a Choice? Sexual Orientation as Interpretation,” Journal of Social Philosophy (2009), 40, 97–116.
  • Joyce Trebilcot, "Taking Responsibility for Sexuality" In Philosophy and Sex, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009): 337-345.

Optional Texts

  • Deborah Rhode, “The Importance of Appearance and the Costs of Conformity,” in The Beauty Bias (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010): 23-44.
  • Hans Maes, “Falling in Lust: Sexiness, Feminism, and Pornography” in Beyond Speech (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017): 199-220.
  • Elizabeth F. Emens, "Intimate Discrimination: The State's Role in the Accidents of Sex and Love," Harvard Law Review (2009): 1307-1402.

Recommended Schedule





Beauty/Physical attractiveness

Chiang, “Liking What You See: A Documentary”

Wolf, “The Beauty Myth”


Beauty/Physical attractiveness

Lintott and Irvin, “Sex Objects and Sexy Subjects: A Feminist Reclamation of Sexiness”



Coleman, “What? What? In the (Black) Butt”

Zheng, “Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetish”



Mills, “Do Black Men Have a Moral Duty to Marry Black Women?”



Wilkerson, “Is it a Choice? Sexual Orientation as Interpretation”



Trebilcot, "Taking Responsibility for Sexuality"

Note: This is a packed and (perhaps overly) ambitious schedule designed with 1.5 hours of class time per day in mind. It may be preferable to drop one or two texts or spend more than one day on a point, depending on how much class time is available.

Background Information

The unit begins with a “hook” by way of a sci-fi short story (Chiang) that takes the format of a documentary featuring a wide array of perspectives (and arguments) on a college campus preparing to vote on whether or not to require the use of a technology that would prevent people from perceiving others’ physical attractiveness. From there, it moves into political territory with a feminist critique (Wolf) of beauty standards, along with a revisionist feminist conception (Lintott and Irvin) of sexiness.

The second week moves to race, with a short article (Coleman) on the harms of sexual racism, i.e. exclusion of potential partners on the basis of race, and another (Zheng) on the harms of sexual fetish, i.e. exclusively preferring potential partners on the basis of race. The latter explicitly compares the case of race with physical attractiveness. The second day features an article (Mills) points out an asymmetry in same-race preferences within a dominant group vs. within a subordinated group, and presents political arguments in favor of the latter.

Finally, the third week addresses sexual preferences on the basis of gender, with two pieces (Wilkerson, Trebilcot) that challenge the conventional wisdom that sexuality is not a choice, that it is something one is simply born with.

As a whole, in addition to the specific arguments engaged in the texts, the unit can also be used to ask questions such as:

  • Are our sexual preferences (and by extension, other practices in intimate, private family life) proper objects for moral evaluation, or should there be some “protected” sphere of life in which the individual is free from such considerations?
  • Are we morally responsible (blameworthy, etc.) for our sexual preferences?
  • What are the different ways in which sexual preferences and practices can be morally problematic?
  • If we discover that our sexual preferences (and by extension, other attitudes or aspects of our identities) are morally problematic, must we try to change them? Can we?
  • If we feel that widespread patterns in sexual preferences are oppressive, what can and should be done to intervene? Is there any role for various institutions (e.g. the state) to play in this?

Author Information

Robin Zheng,