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March 18, 2004

The Premise Must Stand

The Providence Journal's connection to the blog world, Sheila Lennon, who is syndicated on Web sites around the country, didn't give any indication that she noticed that Rev. Donald Sensing is a relatively popular blogger when she addressed his piece on Opinion Journal, even though there's a link in his byline blurb. Perhaps partly because she didn't explore Sensing's work, she didn't notice that her assumptions about his view of civil same-sex marriage were incorrect. Apparently believing that he was tracing support for a federal marriage amendment back to a previous battle that cultural conservatives lost by way of the judiciary when the Supreme Court (see addendum below), in Griswold v. Connecticut, granted the right to contraception, she dusts off her side of the argument about the Pill.

In doing so, Lennon reminds us that the major divide in our country reaches down to individuals' fundamental beliefs. Thus, she apparently sees Sensing as striving toward his opposite vision of reality by bringing up the long-settled matter at all. As with so much from the Left, in these times, downsides to the preferred conclusion are forbidden to be seriously entertained, particularly if they are broad and cumulative.

Nobody with even a modicum of compassion will deny that the burden of childbirth and (preferably) rearing is a heavy consequence for a few moments of pleasure, and almost anybody will admit at least some sympathy for a young woman's wish that something had interfered before the situation had shot to the next level of sticky morality. But what if, as the years go on, taking measures to avoid that "unfair" consequence contributed to ever-increasing corruption of society, affecting more and more people, damaging lives from shore to shore? Well, best not to think about that; best, instead, to hack away at the arguments on which such an idea might rest (even if the ax that chips one point actually hammers in an even stronger one).

To this end, when Rev. Sensing writes that the "impulse toward premarital chastity for women was always the fear of bearing a child alone," Lennon responds:

No, the fear was of becoming pregnant instead of going to the prom or going to college, and of incurring parental wrath. Bearing a child never inevitably implied raising a child. Many went away to "maternity homes" and gave up the child for adoption, or their mothers raised these children as their own "change of life" babies. Others sought -- or were forced into -- illegal back-alley abortions, sometimes with tragic results.

This litany of worries represents a valid argument on behalf of the Pill, as far as it goes. However, Rev. Sensing was arguing that the drug "removed this fear." It is the emotional barrier to premarital sex that he is describing, and it hardly serves to disprove him that Lennon can name additional bricks that were once part of it. Apparently not realizing this, Lennon shifts her grip to swing at Sensing's assertion that "women have also sadly discovered that they can't reliably gain men's sexual and emotional commitment to them by giving them sex before marriage":

You can't gain love by blackmail, then or now. Withholding sex to force men into marriage is hardly a path to "sexual and emotional commitment" either.The Pill permitted both sexual expression and family planning.

Well, to be sure, access to sex is not the most firm foundation on which to build a marriage, of itself, but that hardly refutes the suggestion that granting such access beforehand is any better. It certainly removes that mutual mystery, excitement, and pleasure from the independent entity — the marriage — formed at the altar. I shudder to consider what Ms. Lennon's view of men is that she believes them so enslaved by the prospect of fleeting orgasms that they would enter into lifelong commitments with a particular woman purely on that basis.

However, to the extent that regular sex does act as a motivator (and that extent may be considerable), one would think that even Lennon would concede that withholding it has some utility toward ensuring that the relationship has other reasons for being than "sexual expression," in or out of marriage. This differing perspective carries into the matter of infidelity. Lennon apparently agrees that any relationship built on sex alone will be susceptible to cheating, only she prefers to emphasize spousal affairs, and she is, let's remember, concentrating on the wonders of the Pill. To Sensing's suggestion that the ideal of marriage "ensures that her kids are his kids," Lennon writes:

Mr. Sensing, before the Pill there were plenty of children sired by "milkmen" and brought up by unknowing cuckolds as their own. Unless they were dead ringers for friends of the family, sometimes no one was the wiser.

How much better off we are, therefore, now that cuckolds need never know! (Unless, of course, the "milkmen" are carrying diseases along with their deliveries.) Of course, we're human, and marriage will never be absolutely perfect — or its ideals perfectly followed — and any children born of extramarital affairs are "plenty." But is increased ability to get away with such sex really likely to have a strengthening effect on marriage? Moreover, aren't "milkmen" all the more likely when couples don't even get married?

This is a precise example of the degree to which some in our society don't realize just how much proposed changes rely upon the very foundation that the changes will corrode. It is as if Ms. Lennon sees the Western idea of marriage as some obvious ideal written into human nature. To the contrary, civil marriage is a mechanism to encourage relationships toward an ideal — to battle, as it is Sensing's objective to explain, individual urges that can be damaging not only to individuals, but to their families and society as a whole. If marriage, as an institution, can only be expected to endure when "the people in them are committed to each other" already, why does society need to encourage it?

Lennon writes that the "societal strictures that the Pill loosened were artificial to begin with," but a similar argument can be made about any "stricture" meant to dampen the echo of the animal in us. Tolerance of difference — particularly when it comes to speech? Not a natural inclination. Leaders' stepping down when their time is up? Artificial. A system of laws? Only necessary because people will tend to break "natural" rules if unenforced.

It is exactly because the Pill made it possible to argue that the opposite-sex requirement for civil marriage is artificial (by removing the natural consequence of sex) that it is relevant to the current debate. As Sensing writes, "When society decided... that society would no longer decide the legitimacy of sexual relations between particular men and women, weddings became basically symbolic rather than substantive." Following the threads of each side of this debate, it is striking to note just how closely they agree about the specifics, differing only in emotional reaction to them — in whether they are harmful or beneficial (or at least neutral).

So, for example, Lennon's comment about enduring marriages' resulting from personal commitment, not social strictures, is presented as if in opposition to Sensing's quip that, "Men and women today who have successful, enduring marriages till death do them part do so in spite of society, not because of it." Where Sensing writes:

Sex, childbearing and marriage now have no necessary connection to one another, because the biological connection between sex and childbearing is controllable. The fundamental basis for marriage has thus been technologically obviated.

Lennon writes:

Of all the reasons gay people may wish to marry -- be they romantic, economic or wanting to be part of a historic movement -- the Pill seems least relevant of all: Gays need not even take it.

My suspicion is that folks who argue this issue in Ms. Lennon's way understand, almost instinctively, that if they allow themselves to agree with the specifics, they'll have to address the principles behind the argument. And if they have to address those principles, they'll have to make judgments. And if they are forced to judge between their preference and a well substantiated analysis following decades-old trends, they will have to consider the piled up consequences of fundamental change. Consequences like shredded lives and an ever sinking sense of propriety as the very society that such people value so personally has its supports torn out one by one.

Ms. Lennon has emailed to object that the first paragraph of this post is insufficiently clear that I inferred that she wasn't aware of Sensing's blog from fact that she doesn't mention it (although it would seem inherently relevant on a mainstream media blog with a heavy emphasis on online work and culture). The inference was bolstered — if incorrectly — by the fact that she brings up "mess[ing] with the Constitution" over gay marriage without noting that Sensing's view, presented at the end of his Opinion Journal piece and explained on his blog, conflicts with those who support an amendment. Not wanting that insufficient qualification to free those who disagree with me from addressing the rest of the post, I'm perfectly happy to add language to clarify this matter, and I have done so.

She also says that I "made up" the bit about her "believing that he was tracing support for a federal marriage amendment back to a previous battle." I've added an "apparently" here, too, but it might be useful for me to provide the comments that make it so:

Of all the reasons gay people may wish to marry -- be they romantic, economic or wanting to be part of a historic movement -- the Pill seems least relevant of all: Gays need not even take it. ...

Polls show most Americans share Mr. Sensing's opposition to extending marriage to gay people. I don't have a dog in this fight, but I don't think we should mess with the Constitution over it. And I don't think we should blame it on science. The societal strictures that the Pill loosened were artificial to begin with, and, as a woman, I experienced both sides of this as more than a theoretical argument. ...

[The pre-Pill era is] not a time I'd hold in a golden haze as the good old days.

Ms. Lennon has been cordial and helpful in the past, with the Redwood Review, so it is worth stressing that my intentions with this entry were limited to the topic at hand and opinions thereon. However, if I were to understate the degree to which I disagree with the arguments and beliefs of people in the Rhode Island media, I would hardly ever speak above more than a whisper.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 18, 2004 4:03 PM

My church denomination condemns homosexuality but at the same time refuses to allocate any significant money for transformation ministries. The latter is telling, because it says that though we regard homosexual practice as a sin, we don't believe one can change. So, in the life of the church we will neither include you or exclude you. We will pretend that we don't consider ourselves better than you, but we will marginalize you nevertheless.

The Apostle Paul suggested celibacy for all adults, but granted that most would not be able to control their passions, and thus should marry. Yet those who condemn homosexuality mouth trite phrases about how for homosexual practice being a "lifestyle choice" and compare that choice to the decision to rob a bank.

The church doesn't express any reasonable expectation that homosexuals will refrain from sexual relations, yet opposes anything that might bring gays into more stable relationships.

Once, I supported the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the military. But then the evidence showed that the military leadership continued on its witch hunt. Similarly, I have supported the term "marriage" for the joining of male and female alone, preferring a rite of blessing for gays and lesbians instead. However, when I see that so many opponents of gay marriage make references to bestiality, polygamy, necrophelia, etc., then I know that some of them are simply pompous frauds, couching hatred of gays in religious language.

Posted by: Joel Thomas at March 18, 2004 9:41 PM

JK: I think your last paragraph is the most important.

JT: A lot of evidence shows that homosexuality in adults is highly correlated with sexual abuse as a child. See Clayton Cramer's blog for information (such as here). Homosexuality is a psychosis, like kleptomania, compulsive lying, pyromania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other things. That doesn't mean it can be treated successfully, or that it can be overcome by willpower; it's very possible that there's a genetic component that makes some people more susceptible.

Fine. None of that has any bearing on whether homosexuality is a morally acceptable "lifestyle". There are many other sexual fixations that can fit into the same category; polygamy can't, but the others you mention might, along with pedophilia and other more mild fetishes. None of this has anything to do with making a value judgement, it's just a statement of fact.

Posted by: Michael Williams at March 19, 2004 2:09 AM

"Homosexuality is a psychosis"??? Not according to the APA, it isn't. And it's not a fixation, either. Gay men are no more fixated on sex than are straight men. I have observed this on many occasions, since I happen to know quite a few straight men.

I could probably talk about how it's not a compulsion, etc., until I'm blue in the face, but somehow I suspect that it wouldn't make a blame bit of difference.

Posted by: John S. at March 22, 2004 12:38 AM