If You Want To Understand Modern Sexual Ethics, You Have to Talk About Prostitution

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My latest post at the Ploughshares blog focuses on an encounter I had in a Havana taxi with a middle-aged European sex tourist and his jinetera, or bought girlfriend.

It’s a story I’ve thought about telling on this blog several times, because we talk about natural law a lot here. And, sitting in the backseat, watching that fat, fatuous, hairy-eared old man paw the girl next to him, and knowing they would soon be in bed together because he was paying to make it so, one word came to my mind: unnatural.

I think that reaction is pretty normal. When I tell the story to friends, their response usually starts with a shiver of disgust. I think it’s fair to say that prostitution is less socially acceptable today than it has been in the past. There’s evidence, for example, that men are much less likely to pay for sex now than they have been in the past, and Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have argued that falling demand for bought sex has drastically reduced prostitutes’ earnings over the past century.

We see this in cultural expressions, too: today’s lit world is hardly the same as the one where “Norman Mailer told Updike he should get back in the whorehouse and stop worrying about his prose style.”

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If folks on the religious right are going to stick to the idea that the Sexual Revolution has reduced our sexual ethic to consent, they need to reckon with that shiver. Denny Burk, for example, just responded to Belinda Luscombe’s new Time piece on the dangers of porn by lamenting, “We are at a place in our culture in which sexual morality has been reduced to consent.” Further, he says, it has “delivered to us a generation of men who think of women as objects to be used and abused for their sexual pleasure.”

But the declining demand for prostitution suggests to me that, today, sexual morality has not been reduced to consent. When it involves adults, prostitution is consensual.

Further, the idea that this generation of men (more than previous generations!) thinks of women as objects for use and abuse is a truly bold and hard-to-defend claim. I’d say the reason visiting prostitutes has become less socially acceptable is because it’s harder and harder now to think of women as objects. I know that’s what got me in the colectivo: looking at the guy, I wondered, Why on earth would you have sex with a woman who’s only doing it for the money? Prostitution starts to become unthinkable when you care what the woman thinks.

IMG_0511In other words, when women have a voice in sexual matters, prostitution naturally tends to decline. The same could be said for other conservative freakout-bait, like incest and polygamy. While you may hear advocates for those things using the language of the Sexual Revolution, culturally, those things are less prevalent in modern societies than in traditional ones.

I don’t expect this to convince many on the right, who have invested so much in the narrative of moral decline that they can’t get their minds around any type of good news. If, for you, data showing teenagers are having less sex is a sign that we’re losing our cultural virility, then you can certainly see decreasing prostitution as a symptom of our porn-addled decadence. But I write it anyway, as a reminder that there is another vision of sexual ethics, and that there are other narratives to explain our world.

Plus, I’ll take any excuse to post photos from Cuba. Pico Iyer is right: it’s the easiest place in the world to take pictures.

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At Sojourners: Sex, Barrenness, and the Desert

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Sojourners, a great journal dedicated to “faith in action for social justice,” is running something I wrote a while back on the desert as a metaphor. Here’s how it starts:

Last fall, in the middle of my first attempt at the academic job market, I got invited to a wedding in far west Texas. By “far west Texas” I mean Marathon, in the part of the state known as Big Bend, about a seven-hour drive from my house. It’s a beautiful drive, moving from the Hill Country of central Texas into grasslands that, somewhere between Sonora and Ozona, give way into the desert that leads up into the low mountains of Big Bend. Or at least I find the drive beautiful — another wedding guest complained at the rehearsal dinner that there was nothing to look at on the drive.

To be honest, I didn’t look at much on the way up, either, except my laptop and my phone. I sat in the passenger seat typing job documents the whole way. I think I actually applied to three jobs between Ozona and Fort Stockton. But I had some time to go for a run on Saturday morning, so I laced up my shoes and headed down Avenue D, across 1st street and a pair of train tracks. A quarter-mile later (no suburbs or outskirts in Marathon), I was in the desert.

Joan Didion says we’re “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be” because “otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Well, 17-year-old me isn’t as mad as Didion’s younger self sounds, but he was out there in the desert nonetheless, asking, “Why haven’t you been back here?”

It hit me on that run that it had been almost seventeen years — half my life — since I had been in Big Bend country. Which is strange, because the area held an epic importance to me as a teenager. Which itself is strange because I only visited it twice. I guess those two visits made an impression.

The first came after my freshman year in high school, with my (Episcopal) church youth group. The second was the spring of my senior year, as a part of series of field studies for an ecology course at my (Catholic) high school. That second visit gave me words for what I had sensed but not understood on my first trip. Our teacher showed us that what from our bus windows looked empty and barren was actually teeming with life, and not just any life but the most extraordinary, the heartiest, the strangest and most beautiful plants and animals. We went out into the rocks and saw miracles of color. Bluebonnets twice the normal size. Mountain lions. Century plants. Cactus flowers. We learned that what looked “all the same” from the highway was actually an endless series of micro-climates, that, owing to tiny differences in sunlight, elevation, and temperature, creatures that couldn’t exist in one spot were thriving a hundred yards away. He made it impossible, in other words, for me to see a desert and say there’s nothing to look at.

Read the whole thing here, and definitely check out some of the other great recent posts at Sojourners, like this one on the “irregular” ordinations–forty years ago last week–of four female Episcopal priests.

On the Celibacy Conversation

Over at Crisis Magazine, Austin Ruse complains about the press that “the New Homophiles” have been getting lately, including this story at the Washington Post.

“The New Homophiles,” in case you didn’t know, is Ruse’s term for gay Christians who, in his words, are “young-to-youngish Catholics and Protestants announcing their unabashed and unashamed ‘gayness,’ yet announcing also their fidelity to Christian sexual morality.” That is, they don’t have gay sex. Some remain celibate, some even marry people of the opposite sex. But they continue to identify as gay.

Now, I’m not going to slag off anyone, gay or straight, who upholds a call to celibacy. I mean, I think sex and sexual relationships are good, but I think it can be good to forego those things if you have a good reason. And while I don’t see a good reason to require celibacy anywhere in the Christian Right’s arguments against homosexuality, if you think celibacy is your path to holiness, by all means, go for it.

Damon Linker, responding to Ruse, writes, “In the end, the problem for Ruse and like-minded Catholic conservatives is that homosexuals refuse to disappear” (h/t Bill Lindsey). Reading his words, one gets the idea that there’s something behind the rejection of the New Homophiles, despite their adherence to traditionalist morals. Specifically, it seems like their very existence challenges the easy stories that the Religious Right wants you to believe about homosexuality and the Church.

A few weeks ago, Ryan Anderson, Eric Teetsel, Rob Tisinai, Jeremy Hooper, and Timothy Kincaid had a revealing conversation on this topic on twitter. Even though Anderson and Teetsel seemed to endorse a New Homophile stance on homosexuality, the course of the conversation revealed how little they had thought about what that stance entails.

[NOTE: This will be a little hard to reconstruct, since Anderson seems to have deleted several of his posts from that day. At least I can’t find them—if you know how to recapture tweets that have disappeared, let me know.]

It started when Anderson posted this story, by a lesbian who upholds traditional Christian teaching against gay relationships. Hooper criticized the posting, then Teetsel jumped into the fray. After a bit of back-and-forth, Tisinai wrote:

To which Anderson responded that neither he nor Teetsel were arguing that gay people shouldn’t have relationships.

Since Anderson and Teetsel were arguing that gay couples shouldn’t have sex, that seems to me like a nod to the New Homophiles who, despite their celibacy, emphasize connection, relationship, and community.

Tisinai and Kincaid pushed Anderson and Teetsel on how, exactly, these celibate relationships would look:

Kincaid asked again, without ever getting an answer, whether these relationships could contain romance and/or sexual desire. Unfortunately, the conversation got derailed when Teetsel made this (strikingly wrong) comment:

That’s bad, but I want to focus here on the questions that didn’t get answered.

Because at the same time that Anderson and Teetsel were saying that gay people should have non-sexual relationships, Teetsel was saying this:

See the issue?

You can’t ask two people who relate to each other sexually to have a non-sexual relationship. You can’t tell two people who are smoldering with attraction for each other to keep their relationship non-sexual. I don’t mean that it’s a bad idea—I mean it’s literally impossible. Even if they abstain from sex, the sexual nature of their relationship persists. You can tell them not to have sex. You can tell them not to have a relationship. But if sexuality is something that’s integral to your entire identity—as Teetsel says it is—and that forms the basis of a given relationship, then you can’t just cut it out of that relationship and still keep that relationship intact.

For example, my wife and I could never “live as brother and sister.” I mean, if there were some good reason for us to never again have sex, that would suck but we could do it. But our relationship would still be sexual, because that’s its nature. It’s built on sexual attraction, and comprises a shared sexual history, and if we had to stop having sex for some reason then we would experience a shared sense of sacrifice and loss. If it’s true for us, it’s true for gay couples, as well.

So when Anderson/Teetsel say that gay people should still have relationships, Kincaid and Tisinai are right to ask how they envision that happening. What would those relationships look like? Would they be with men to whom those men are attracted? With women to whom they are not? Are they likely be as deep as what I experience with my wife (and what Hooper & Tisinai experience with their husbands)?

Generally, in the Christian tradition, we don’t encourage people to form deep, meaningful, *sexual* relationships with people they’re forbidden from having sex with. Thus, if a married man finds himself attracted to a woman who’s not his wife, we’d tell him to guard himself from getting too close to her. Why? Because that would be considered an occasion to sin, and therefore something to avoid. That means that a straight man’s relationships to women to whom he might become sexually attracted are necessarily less deep, less meaningful than his relationship to his wife. Which is okay, because the good of marriage makes that sacrifice worthwhile.

But Anderson and Teetsel don’t want that good available to gay people. Nor, seemingly, would they encourage gay people to form (deep) relationships with those to whom they’re attracted, or to whom they might feel a romantic or sexual connection. So there’s something appalling in the breezy way those guys say, “But you can still have relationships.”

And in the way Teetsel says “Celibacy is a gift.” As the conversation went on, Teetsel compared a gay person’s decision to remain celibate to his own abstaining from sexual acts before marriage: “I abstained from sexual intercourse for many years before marriage,” he wrote. “Was hard. Wasn’t torture.” Of course, for at least part of the time he was abstaining from the act Teetsel was building a sexual relationship.

This is why, though I often disagree with them, I appreciate the writing of the New Homophiles: there’s a realistic sense of loss when they talk about their celibacy, an acknowledgement that they’re giving up something that goes beyond sexual acts. There’s a recognition, in other words, that what they’re giving up is a form of relationship—in fact, the most important type of human relationship most of us will find in our lives. Teetsel and Anderson don’t seem to get that.

Revisiting the Culture War with Wendell Berry (Part B)

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At the start of the summer of 2010, when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I sent out an email to everyone I know: Hey, I need work. I’ll do anything. Got any ideas?

The boss of my sister-in-law (yes, that one) responded: I have a ranch that’s overgrown and needs tending. The work is literally backbreaking, but if you’re interested meet me at the Wal-Mart on 71 tomorrow at 6 am and we’ll drive out there.

He needed someone to clear the land of cedar, agarita, and cactus, to make it better grazing for cattle and to help the grass and the oak trees thrive. So that’s what I’ve done for basically the entire course of my PhD program, at every summer and winter break, and odd weekends in the fall and spring. Though I’ve done some of the work with a chainsaw, the majority has been done with stone-age tools: a shovel, an ax, a pick. I chop the cedar trees, hack the agarita from under its roots, and dig out the cactus with a shovel. Then I throw it all into the back of the twenty-five-year-old Chevy I borrow from my boss and drive it to piles to be burned later. Sometimes I get to burn those piles; sometimes, for a “break,” I get to do odd jobs around the 150-year-old ranch house, like paint the trim or fix the doors on the toolsheds when they’ve warped.

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In a real sense, this blog grew up around my work out there. When I first started working at the ranch, gay marriage and contraception were hot topics, and my conservative Catholic friends on Facebook were debating and pointing me to blogs and articles, and I was getting into long combox debates about the subject. At home in Austin I’d print out the blog posts and articles from journals like First Things and The Public Discourse, and I’d check out the books they’d recommend, and I’d take them along with me to the ranch to read during my water-breaks. Then I’d scribble my responses in a notebook I kept with me in the truck. Sometimes, if I was feeling hot enough about what I had to say, I would drive into town (30 minutes away) during my midday break, head to Fredericksburg Coffee & Tea (which has free wi-fi), order an iced tea, and post it right away. Usually, though, I would wait until I got back to Austin.

In 2012, I got tired of writing the same things over and over again, and so I decided to start this blog, where I could post these arguments once and then just point people here when, for example, they’d bring up the incest argument or the food/sex analogy. But my composition process stayed the same: I did most of my thinking while I worked, and most of my reading and writing from the ranch pickup truck or the kitchen table in the ranch house. And I posted most of my arguments having just come from the ranch, often with ranch dirt and cedar needles still ground into my jeans.

What that means is that a lot of the arguments I’ve come up with have literally been composed to the rhythm of tree-chopping, or while dragging brush across a field. Which I think matters because, often, the underlying subject in these debates is nature. What is natural? Is homosexuality natural? Can gay marriage be natural? What does nature have to say about these things?

And, often, I’ve been flabbergasted at the distance between the “nature” described by the First Things/Public Discourse crowd and what I actually see before me, around me, under my feet, and above my head at the ranch. What I see in their writing is a universe whose order is easily apprehended: in which everything is as it seems, in which you never have to grapple with exceptions, in which you can be comfortable in your certainty and never worry about changing your mind. What I’ve seen at the ranch is the opposite.

That’s why, I think, the ranch has proven such fertile ground for this blog. That discrepancy makes me want to write, makes me want to argue, and makes me want to reclaim a word, nature, that matters to me and that I think these guys drain of all of its meaning and majesty.

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Take this recent post by Anthony Esolen at Life Site News. Now, it’s Esolen, so a lot of the writing is good. Like this sentence:

I am persuaded that we could clear our heads of most of the unnatural evils we have come to accept if we would simply leave the Teaching Machine and the Entertainment Machine, and go out of doors, and stay there for a while, walking, listening, perhaps whistling, playing, working, thinking, or simply being.

Lovely, and true. But, as Esolen always does, he ruins it with a bitter note that’s both ugly and factually wrong:

Or you are in the field, working, wiping on your sleeve the sweat from your brow and brushing away the gnats. The hay has to be made. The silly feminist who declares that fairy tales are evil – she has never had to make the hay. Most things that most people fret about, and most of the unnatural states they imagine themselves into, vanish into the vanity they are when you have a field, mown grass everywhere, and hay to make. Your very muscles will rouse you back into reality.

I mean, I don’t think fairy tales are evil or anything, but Esolen would still probably consider me a silly feminist. And yet I’ve wiped plenty of sweat off my brow in the fields.

Esolen tries to enlist nature to his side of the culture war by tying things he doesn’t like (gay marriage and feminism), to things that are clearly bad and unnatural: fluorescent lights, rushed lunches, consumerism, Justin Bieber. That’s bad enough, but I want to focus on his conclusion:

Our opponents claim the unnatural. Let them. Nature is on our side, and she does not change.

Nature doesn’t change? Sure. But so what? That’s the wrong lesson to take from her. We’re humans: we operate on a much smaller scale. So we need to be humble in reckoning our knowledge of her, careful before claiming certainty, and always ready to learn something new about her. We need to be prepared to accept that our understanding of nature can change.

To wit:

The summer of 2011 in Texas was the hottest any state has ever recorded in the US, with more than 100 days over 100 degrees.

I remember well what it was like to be in that moment. Rain was inconceivable, a rumor, something less than a memory. I watched the grass turn from brown to yellow and then to white, and even the cedars were losing their color. I was sure, that summer, that I was watching the Chihuahua desert swelling up from Mexico and swallowing the Edwards Plateau.

There’s an Elmer Kelton book with a title that captures that summer: The Time it Never Rained. I love that title: it gets at both the sense that what we understand now is what will always be, and the folly in believing that sense, in taking that momentary idea of the infinite as something actually infinite. Because the last time I was at the ranch, this past August, it was green. Unbelievably, there were flowers in the fields, that late in the year.  Believe it or not, I woke one morning to a cool breeze.

This is what nature teaches you, over and over again: you are wrong. What you think will last will not last. What you think is certain is not certain. Arizona was once underwater; Scotland once had a tropical climate. Esolen is right: nature doesn’t change. But it always surprises, because, as a gifted poet puts it, “The trouble, obviously, is that we do not know much of the truth.”

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I don’t want to give the impression that all I do in my free time at the ranch is work on this blog. I have lots of time to myself there, and the blog only fills up a small part of it. I did most of my reading for comprehensive exams at the ranch, and I’ve written big chunks of my dissertation there, too. And I always keep a book of poems and a book of essays in my bag for pleasure reading.

One writer whose books are often in my bag also happens to be a guy whose view of nature matches what I see when I’m out there: Wendell Berry.

When asked by interviewer Sarah Leonard about persistent themes in his writing, Berry responded:

‘Wonder’ is a word that applies. To live and work attentively in a diverse landscape such as this one—made up of native woodlands, pastures, croplands, ponds, and streams—is to live from one revelation to another, things unexpected, always of interest, often wonderful. After a while, you understand that there can be no end to this. The place is essentially interesting, inexhaustibly beautiful and wonderful.

That wonder often appears in Berry’s writing, especially his poetry, in moments of sudden revelation, where beliefs are upended, even reversed. A tree falls: the world is changed. Married for decades, a couple discovers they have continents worth of knowledge to discover in each other. I mentioned before the poem “Breaking,” from The Country of Marriage, in which the speaker compares his previous beliefs to water flowing over ice. The speaker concludes: “And now / that the rising water has broken / the ice, I see that what I thought / was the light is part of the dark.”

That sudden change, that sense of reversal, is exactly what one feels on reading his essay “Poetry and Marriage: the Use of Old Forms.” That’s what I was trying to get at last week: Berry traces a systematic argument about poetic form and then, we could almost say miraculously, finds a way to accommodate a poet (Walt Whitman) who violates the central principle of that argument. And he does it not begrudgingly but cheerfully, as if making a discovery: Wow. The world is bigger than I imagined.

This sense of wonder might just be how Berry can come to support a phenomenon that Esolen swears to us is impossible in nature. “Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air,” Berry writes, “and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle.”

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I’ll end with a story from the ranch, and one more connection to Berry. I don’t tell this story often, because it seems too small to be worth sharing. But it fits here, so here goes:

I was working one afternoon at the edge of the south field, clearing away brush and small cedars from a tangled, overgrown oak grove. Chopping away at a cedar, I noticed something moving behind me. When I turned, I saw a tiny green grass snake on the stump of the tree I had just cleared. He was just watching me. Not hiding, not tense, his head raised up, just looking. He kept watching as I finished with the tree and moved on to the next. He watched me for a solid ten minutes, and then he slithered off, finally bored I guess, and I moved on to another group of trees.

Understand, this snake was well within the reach of my ax. Everything I know about nature and about snakes told me he should be wary of me. But he wasn’t. And when I turned to him, he didn’t flinch or skitter off. He just kept watching. He just seemed curious.

Now, I’ve seen more exciting animals at the ranch, had more dramatic encounters with people and beasts. But that one has stuck with me for some reason, probably involving the way that it challenged my idea of the ways nature works.

I feel less silly telling it, though, because I recently read Berry’s essay “Getting Along with Nature” (1982), in which he tells a similar story:

At the end of July 1981, while I was using a team of horses to mow a small triangular hillside pasture that is bordered on two sides by trees, I was suddenly aware of wings close below me. It was a young red-tailed hawk, who flew up into a walnut tree. I mowed to the turn and stopped the team. The hawk then glided to the ground not twenty feet away. I got off the mower, stood and watched, even spoke, and the hawk showed no fear. I could see every feather distinctly, claw and beak and eye, the creamy down of the breast. Only when I took a step toward him, separating myself from the team and mower, did he fly. While I mowed three or four more rounds, he stayed near, perched in trees or standing erect and watchful on the ground.

Berry goes on to ask, “Why had he come? To catch mice? Had he seen me scare one out of the grass? Or was it curiosity?”

Like me, even Berry feels sheepish about sharing his story. “In some circles,” he writes, “I would certainly be asked if one can or should be serious about such an encounter, if it has any value.” But, he concludes, “I would unhesitatingly answer yes.” And he goes on: “Such encounters involve another margin—the one between domesticity and wildness—that attracts us irresistibly; they are among the best rewards of outdoor work and among the reasons for loving to farm.”

The behavior of Berry’s hawk, and my snake, reminds me of his exhortation, in “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” to “every day do something / that won’t compute.”

In telling his readers to do that, he’s not arguing that they should act against their nature—he’s telling them that’s what their nature is: a world full of surprises and contradictions.

The truly gorgeous thing about this is that it doesn’t require us to get rid of what we know. It’s a process of addition. I would be stupid to say, on the basis of my encounter on the ranch, that animals, or snakes, or tiny green grass snakes, have no instinct for self-preservation. But I also can’t deny that that instinct isn’t always the governing force for a snake’s behavior. To deny what I’ve seen, just because it challenges what I already knew, would be just as stupid.

Berry finds this process of addition fascinating, and so do I. I get to live in a world where, if I want to be truthful, I have to say a) snakes will do whatever they can to preserve their own lives AND b) sometimes a snake will risk his life to watch you chop down a tree. A world like this is truly a world of infinite possibility. “You cannot leave anything out of mystery,” Berry writes, “because by definition everything is always in it.” Recognizing this, I think, is truly a way of approaching the divine.

But this is precisely where (I think) Berry loses some of his biggest fans—and it’s where our conversations about nature tend to fall apart. You cannot leave anything out of mystery. That is a radical sentiment. And not everyone is willing to take it seriously.

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Making Gay Okay, Chapter 1: On Rationalization and Sodomy

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.

“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 ScienceSodomy and EducationSodomy 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!

image

[Fred Clark would say: “Return to Go. Start over. Try a different path — one that has some hope of leading you somewhere that is not absurd, monstrous, evil and inhuman.

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.

They’re rationalizing.

Next up: Some quick hitters on Chapter 1, and Aristotle vs. Rousseau.

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NOTES:

*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.