Printer friendly version

July 20, 2004

The Credibility That Dare Not Speak Its Name

I remember one afternoon, during my late-mid teens, when about a half-dozen of us gathered in B's finished basement to watch a porn video, as rough-edged boys with easy access to a major city are particularly apt to do. Like most such films, the plot was superfluous — smut about filming fictional smut — and followed a predictable pattern of scenes.

When the obligatory "two women in the Jacuzzi" scene rolled around, L expressed disgust and requested that we fast forward to the next scene. It shouldn't surprise anybody who's kept abreast of the culture for the past couple of decades that none of the other adolescents in the room were willing to second L's motion.

About five years later, R's slut of a girlfriend — known among a separate group of my acquaintances from a different town for impromptu Jacuzzi scenes, so to speak — promised him a special surprise for his birthday. When R proved too drunk to follow the two young ladies up the stairs to his bedroom, if memory serves, L was among those encouraging him to sober up quickly.

There are, of course, multiple explanations that one could offer for L's apparent change of attitude. One could even quibble about whether it actually represented a change at all. But I place the two scenes side by side to illustrate how a person's reaction to the same sexual activity can change from disgust to arousal, at least in the expression of that person's opinion and suggestions for action.

In arguing about same-sex marriage over the past few years, I've found one foundation of individuals' positions to vary wildly in substance, but very little in the confidence with which they state their opinions: the immutability of the sexual orientation. I've seen folks on both sides, with the correspondingly antipodal lessons, argue everything from complete choice to genetic destiny. That assessments vary so widely in conclusion as well as perceived implications suggests to me that there is something mixed up with this issue that most everybody is content to leave out of the realm of public consideration.

I've made no secret about the fact that I went through a number of emotionally torturous years. During that time, I was usually lonely, confused, and lacking in a sense of self. Although I would have chosen different experiences, and although I intend to do my utmost to prevent my children from repeating mine, those years did grant me something that I've come to consider invaluable as a thinker, writer, and person: glimpses of directions in which my life could have gone had a single variable been changed.

As the case in point, I can begin with a specific man who was a rare friend to me when my world was crumbling and imagine him having inclinations and intentions that he did not have. From that relatively minor shift in circumstances, I can trace the accumulation of a lifestyle, as the identity that he'd helped me to form expanded to include more people — perhaps an entire "scene." As I'd thrown that identity against whatever visions my parents had of me and my future, forcing them to come to terms with their own feelings about my revelation, whether the clash preceded wrenching turmoil or some form of approval. Actions and declarations and bonds and associations might pile up to the extent that any other life would seem on the other side of and inaccessible except through repetition of those torturous years.

Now, some straights will note that, even in equivalent turmoil, the path that I've described was never a possibility for them. And some gays will insist that I'm describing a transition to something only superficially associated with their orientations. I've no reason to doubt either the sincerity or accuracy of any such statements. But I wonder how many people have some degree of a similar sense. How much might this be an unstated factor in the decisions that people make with respect to same-sex marriage?

To be sure, in some fronts of the battle, the causes and permanence of homosexuality are irrelevant. Even so, the discussion might find new routes toward resolution were people to break through their apparent confidence about the nature of homosexuality and openly discuss the bases for their opinions — both research and personal anecdotes.

Of course, mirroring the multiplying barriers to recantation of sexual identity, possible conclusions of such a line of thought will likely preclude its actually being followed. If sexuality is somewhat fluid, for example, then it becomes even more legitimate for society to single out a particular lifestyle and family type for special approval. More generally, there are as many motivations to deny or assert any given theory as there are personalities.

Despite natural reluctance, some light needs to shine into this corner of the debate. With key activists in the same-sex marriage movement citing (in certain venues) the increased sexual fluidity of children of homosexual parents as a positive development, it behooves we on the other side to raise the standard of personal honesty. The law must not be allowed to lead dramatic changes in our culture under circumstances in which an underlying something remains unspoken.

Posted by Justin Katz at July 20, 2004 11:45 PM
Life
Comments

You're right that for many the SSM debate---and most questions about homosexuality---touch on an unspoken assumption about whether gays choose to be gay. It carries a lot of emotional energy, but I don't see its relevance.
We already disapprove of many behaviors that obviously involve genetic predispositions. We usually pity alcoholics for their inability to stop drinking, but that doesn't mean that it's OK for them to drink.
If the question is about whether a person freely chose a given behavior, there is no reason to look only at genetic causes. Traumatic childhood events can be just as effective at forcing the behavior on an unwilling actor. This is the old sixties cliché: Don't blame the mugger because he grew up in a broken home, knowing only violence.
Most people reject that today. The mugger may well have grown up in circumstances that would lead any person to violence, but we still consider his behavior to be wrong. We will still lock him away for any crimes he commits, even if he convincingly shows that any person born in his situation would have done the same thing.
The point is simply that the degree to which some behavior is voluntary has nothing to do with how we should react to it. Lots of people have strong impulses that we demand that they not act on, which often produces very tragic situations. Professor Gunter Schmidt of the University of Hamburg put it this way:
“[T]he pedophile's sexual orientation is deeply rooted in the basic structure of his identity. Pedophilia is as much a part of him as is love for the same or opposite sex for the homosexual or heterosexual man or woman, the difference being that the one is accepted, while the other is categorically forbidden and virtually impossible to realize. In view of the pedophile's burden, the necessity of denying himself the experience of love and sexuality, he deserves respect, rather than contempt.”
I would substitute pity for respect, but he has a very good point: There but for the grace of God go I, or you.
So I consider it a red herring to get too deeply into the question of whether gays choose to be gay. I’ll accept for purposes of argument that it’s an overwhelming compulsion from conception. So what? Lots of people have weird compulsions that range from the dangerous to the harmless. The question is whether the expression of that compulsion is harmful either to specific individuals or to society generally.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at July 21, 2004 2:14 PM

Ben:

Are "genetic predispositions" irrelevant in your defense of heterosexuality?

Posted by: arturo fernandez at July 24, 2004 12:22 PM

"Lots of people have weird compulsions that range from the dangerous to the harmless. The question is whether the expression of that compulsion is harmful either to specific individuals or to society generally."

Right; pedophilia harms children, end of discussion. Homosexuality harms no one, and certainly doesn't harm society in general. Yet, repressing homosexuality does tremendous harm to the psyche and soul of the homosexual individual.

Posted by: Jon Rowe, Esq. at July 26, 2004 9:47 PM

No, Jon, that's not the end of the discussion, because some are already making the argument that pedophilia doesn't harm the children (and pedophilia isn't the only "weird compulsion"). In this vein, the movement to mainstream homosexuality offers a template for both rhetoric and methodology, a big one being "official" removal from lists of disorders. (Really, that eight-letter label is all that separates "a struggle with illness" from "tremendously harmful repression.")

But apart from all of that (which doesn't exactly speak to the points that I'm seeking to make), I find this statement of yours intriguing:

Homosexuality harms no one, and certainly doesn't harm society in general.

One would think that, even from your point of view, the "certainly" would apply to the first clause, not the second. I'd say the question of whether the normalization of homosexuality harms society in general is certainly up for debate, to say the least.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 26, 2004 10:02 PM

The defining feature of wrongfulness of pedophilia isn't that its wierd, or that its icky or "unnatural," but that it harms children. If some folks are making arguments that it doesn't harm, well let's take them on, or, at the very least, let's gather the information in a disinterested manner, and then make a decision. But it doesn't matter whether pedophilia is a disorder or not, what matters is whether children are harmed.

Case in point, much of what is termed "pedophilia" clearly ISN'T a disorder but rather stems from a "normal" sexual orientation: I'm talking about behavior between an adult and a post-pubescent but underaged teen. For instance, there is nothing "abnormal" about a man feeling lust for say, Michele Wie, the 14-year-old Pro Golfer who is already 6-feet-tall. But if it would harm her for her to be involved in a sexual relationship with an adult male, then the act is wrong for that reason and that reason alone.

Posted by: Jon Rowe, Esq. at July 27, 2004 6:20 PM

Hmm...

Case in point, much of what is termed "pedophilia" clearly ISN'T a disorder but rather stems from a "normal" sexual orientation: I'm talking about behavior between an adult and a post-pubescent but underaged teen. For instance, there is nothing "abnormal" about a man feeling lust for say, Michele Wie, the 14-year-old Pro Golfer who is already 6-feet-tall. But if it would harm her for her to be involved in a sexual relationship with an adult male, then the act is wrong for that reason and that reason alone.

I presume, from your dispassionate language, that you would be open to the idea that such a sexual relationship would not harm Ms. Wie — who is mature enough for a career in the public spotlight. I suppose the next question is who qualifies as the arbiter of harm.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 28, 2004 12:40 PM

No actually, I've come to the conclusion that the age of consent should be somewhere between 16-18. Where we ultimately end up drawing the line will seem arbitrary b/c there is no "magic moment" when a teen become mature enough to consent with an adult. The line's got to be drawn somewhere, however.

Posted by: Jon Rowe, Esq. at July 28, 2004 5:34 PM