In Chapter 1 of Making Gay Okay, Reilly lays out the thesis that he’ll elaborate over the next twelve chapters. Here’s the idea: America’s rapidly growing acceptance for homosexuality is the result of a nationwide process of rationalization, a rejection of right reason that jeopardizes the very foundations of our society. It starts with the gays, he says (“Men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected to their private lives,” said Aristotle), but has taken hold in society as a whole because of our embrace of the individualistic, Rousseauian worldview he’ll detail in Chapter 3.
Rationalization, Reilly says, works like this: “Anyone who chooses an evil act must present it to himself as good.” But that’s not enough—he also has to convince others of the goodness of evil. And that’s why, Reilly tells us, we now see a push not just for a private right to consensual homosexual acts, but for public affirmation—even sacramentalization—of those acts.
Rationalization, then, is an incredibly important word for Reilly, and I’ll have more to say on the specifics of his argument as he develops it. But this week I want to look at something that’s off right from the start, a big hole right at the base of his thinking. Because, while “rationalization” is an important word for Reilly, it’s not the most important word in the book.
Guess what is?
“Sodomy” appears 132 times in Making Gay Okay, including in the titles of five of Reilly’s twelve chapters. The whole second part of the book is titled “Marching Through the Institutions,” and Reilly makes clear that what is on the march is sodomy. The chapter headings include Sodomy and Science; Sodomy and Education; Sodomy and the Boy Scouts;Sodomy and the Military. “[O]nly the act of sodomy (along with other peculiarly homosexual practices),” Reilly writes, differentiates an active homosexual from a heterosexual.” And he’ll also tell us, “If you are going to center your public life of the private act of sodomy, you had better transform sodomy into a highly moral act.”
In fact, the whole book seems to be little more than an elaboration on an anecdote Reilly gives at the end of Chapter 1. Evelyn Waugh was asked why there are no good proofreaders left in England. Reilly tells us that Waugh responded,“Because clergymen are no longer defrocked for sodomy.”
Of course, “sodomy” has had a lot of meanings through the years. But since the word is so central to Reilly’s thesis, surely he will give us a clear definition, right?
Here’s what we get, in a “note on usage” right before the start of this chapter: “In different legal and cultural settings, the word sodomy has included different things at different times. But, in every variation, it has always encompassed anal intercourse and is meant to here as well.”
Wow. That is… imprecise.
Sodomy means lots of things, and one of those things is anal sex? Here it is meant toencompass anal intercourse?
That’s not a very helpful working definition. Is he defining sodomy narrowly (sodomy = anal sex), or broadly (sodomy = all the things that have been considered sodomy)?
I can’t tell.
Because he’s right: sodomy has encompassed different thing at different times. Oral sex, mutual masturbation, contraceptive sex, even solitary masturbation. For centuries, the prohibition on sodomy has been justified by the Thomistic notion that it involves a misuse of the sexual faculties—that is, use of the sexual faculties for something other than their intended purpose, procreation. That includes anal intercourse, of course, but also all the other things listed above. Yet anal intercourse also stands out among that category of acts as something that’s 1) (probably) more common among gay men than among heterosexuals and 2) a subject that will cause a portion of the population to squirm.
Reilly wants to keep the broad definition of sodomy, because the “natural law” reasoning he’ll develop in Chapter 2 depends on it—from his teleological standpoint, oral sex, masturbation, and contraceptive sex are all wrong for the same reason as anal sex. On top of that, he needs that broad definition of sodomy to be able to condemn lesbians who (probably) have less anal sex than gay men or even straight couples.
At the same time, when he uses the word “sodomy” in the book, he sometimes just means anal sex. He wants that narrower definition for two reasons:
First, in his chapter on sodomy and biology, he’ll spend a lot of time arguing that “sodomy” leads to increased risk of disease. But almost of all his data in that section relates to anal sex—in fact, some of the other types of activities that have historically been characterized sodomy are considerably safer, in terms of disease transmission, than unprotected heterosexual intercourse.
But, just as importantly, he wants to play on the body revulsion that lots of people (but not all) feel when discussing anything related to poop or the anus. “Welcome is every organ and attribute of me… Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest,” said Walt Whitman. But some people don’t think that way. Whereas some people see poop as an essential part of a healthy life, I’ve literally had people describe the anus to me as the “‘death’ chute, where waste comes out of the body” and contrast that body part with the life-giving penis.*
This is playing on what’s called the “ick factor.” An infamous recent example of this non-argument is this column by Thabiti Anyabwile, who believes that if he describes gay sex acts graphically enough, I’ll feel a gag reflex, a “gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, “I feel dirty” moral outrage” that will taint me against those acts. Well sorry, I don’t. But I recognize that some people do, or at least that some people confuse their visceral disgust for moral outrage, and that makes the “ick factor” a clever place to turn when your intellectual arguments fail.
See Reilly’s dilemma? If he defines sodomy narrowly, as “anal sex,” his teleological argument falls apart, and he has no reason to condemn lots of gay and lesbian sex as inherently wrong. But if he defines it broadly as “non-procreative sex,” his argument loses a lot of its rhetorical force and most of the (meager) biological evidence he’ll muster in Chapter 5.
So what does he do? He says, Meh. Sodomy is whatever I want it to be. You know, bad stuff.
Remember, Reilly’s thesis is that gays are trying to force on society a rationalization of their behavior. But if sodomy is something that everybody does (“We are all sodomites now,” says Andrew Sullivan), then they don’t really need to: society’s already on their side.
Reilly has an explanation for this, sort of. “The acceptance of each variant of sexual misbehavior,” he writes, “reinforces the others. The underlying dynamic is: If you’ll rationalize my sexual misbehavior, I’ll rationalize yours.” Under this thinking, everybody in the world is a sexual miscreant, and gays are only gaining acceptance because miscreants stick together.
Of course, there’s another option, one that Reilly never really considers. What if society’s into sodomy (broadly defined) because non-procreative sex isn’t necessarily bad? What if it can even be good?
As we’ll see in future posts, Reilly’s argument is headed down the same track that led Thomas Aquinas to argue that masturbation is a graver sin against chastity than rape. More recently, it led Elizabeth Anscombe to say that a married couple using contraception is behaving less chastely than a pair of adulterers. Reilly gets to that logical train wreck himself in Chapter 6, when he approvingly cites William Blackstone’s vision of “‘the infamous crime against nature’ as an offense of ‘deeper malignity’ than rape, a heinous act.”
Let’s be clear: you don’t have to be depraved to reject that thinking. That thinking is insane!
That thinking is so twisted that holding it today, ironically, can only result from one thing: rationalization.
Remember the way Reilly said rationalization operates? You start by choosing something that’s wrong, and then you must present it as good, or right?
Reilly’s thinking on sex (like all of the Catholic Right’s) starts with a mistake: that our sexual faculties have ONE proper end, which is to produce children.** We know that’s not right. And we know, as Tina Beattie says, that “there is no mechanism built into nature” which supports the interpretation that the procreative and unitive aspects of sex are necessarily inseparable. So we don’t have to follow Reilly’s logic to its ludicrous ends; we don’t have to defend absurd propositions like the idea that contraception is worse than adultery or that consensual gay sex is worse than rape. We don’t have to twist into logical knots trying to explain why Pope Paul VI said “controlling births” is okay, but using a condom is not. We don’t have to ignore the reality of millions of couples whose healthy sex lives sometimes (or often) fall outside the limits of strictly procreative sexual activity.
But Reilly and those who think like him do have to do those things, because they’re holding on to a mistake.
Next up: Some quick hitters on Chapter 1, and Aristotle vs. Rousseau.
*Obviously, this overlooks the fact that the penis also expels waste. And so does the vagina, every 28 days. This is one of those dumb, late-night philosophical conversations, but I seriously wonder if these people believe Adam was created without an anus, and if that organ only appeared after his expulsion from Eden. Because if waste is the same as death, and both entered the world with the Fall…? Milan Kundera explored this question, by the way, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I never found his answers very satisfying. Googling “Did Adam poop in the Garden?” also doesn’t turn up anything helpful.
Ooh! Ooh! And here’s a question: if the anus existed before waste/death, but presumably contained the pleasure-giving nerve endings that it has now, what does that tell us about its purpose, or telos?
**Technically, modern Catholics claim that sex has two intertwined ends, the unitive and the procreative. But as soon as they argue against non-procreative sex, they go right back to Aquinas, who only recognized one, and in the process they always subordinate the unitive purpose to the procreative. 100% of the time.