Category Archives: Sex

John C. Wright’s anti-gay argument

John C. Wright’s case against homosexuality, laid out mostly in Part V of his essay on sex (links to all six parts available here), can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is in society’s interests, for various prudential reasons, to insist that the sex act proper (copulation) be restricted to marriage.
  2. People will be able to comply with the above restriction only if they cultivate habits of sexual self-command (chastity) rather than sexual self-indulgence (unchastity).
  3. All sexual acts other than actual copulation — that is, sodomy and other acts called “unnatural” in less sensitive times — are “unchaste in essence” because they “mock or impersonate the sex act with the same physical sensations as the sex act, but they are [sexual] by accident, not sexual essentially.” Unnatural sexual acts may nevertheless be permitted within marriage as an adjunct to, but never a replacement for, the sex act proper, “provided these acts increase the union and love of matrimony.”
  4. A preference for unnatural acts over copulation, such that one’s preference weakens one’s appetite for copulation rather than strengthening it, is a neurosis. Unnatural sex acts should be treated as we treat drinking and gambling: “If done in moderation, in certain times and settings, no opprobrium attached. When they become addictive, obsession, or neurotic, they become vices, and must be deterred.” “Customs and manners therefore cannot support non-copulation forms of neurotic sexual deviance without eroding matrimony. The two are mutually exclusive.”
  5. Therefore, regardless of whether or not homosexuality is in itself harmful or bad, “it still cannot escape the general prohibition against non-essential forms of sexual gratification neither leading to nor supporting copulation.”

I basically agree with (1), though it must be stressed that the marriage-only rule works only if it is enforced by society, and that in a society which does not enforce it there’s no particular merit in choosing to live by it as a matter of personal principle. In this way marriage is a bit like a driver’s license. It’s in society’s interest to insist that all drivers have a license — but if driver’s licenses were considered by the law and society to be completely optional, a driver would be under no moral imperative to get one. He would be under a moral imperative to drive competently and safely — the behaviors which the institution of driver-licensing is meant to enforce — but provided he did so, there would be no need for the formality of getting an actual license. That formality is of no benefit to society unless it is mandatory. The same goes for marriage, which is basically a license to have a sexual relationship. It’s arguably a good idea for society to require that all sexual relationships be licensed (more on this in another post, perhaps), but absent such a requirement, there’s nothing particularly moral about getting such a license yourself (though in some cases you might do so for reasons of self-interest). As with driving, the important thing is not the license itself but the behaviors the license is meant to enforce. But, all that aside, I’m going to grant (1) for the sake of argument here. Whether or not you agree with it, it should be interesting to accept it as a premise and see whether the suppression of homosexuality follows — whether, that is, any valid line of reasoning lies behind the common use of “pro-marriage” as a euphemism for “anti-gay.”

Point (2) is an interesting one. Though it seems almost a truism, it’s often overlooked in discussions of sexual morals. If it’s important to control one’s sexual urges in at least some situations (and everyone agrees that it is, though they may differ on what those situations are), then there’s a case to be made for sexual self-control as a general principle, for chastity as a virtue to be cultivated. Masturbation, for example, may be a harmless habit in itself, but by abstaining from it one develops a habit of controlling one’s sexual urges, making it easier to refrain from committing actual sins such as adultery and rape. (Quoting Hamlet at this point is almost a reflex, but I’ll control myself.) That’s one theory, anyway; the other theory is that suppressed lusts eventually burst out in a far more virulent form — that, as Nietzsche has it, lust begs for a piece of spirit when a piece of flesh is denied it. The latter idea is so fashionable, and the intellectual fashions these days are so uniformly obtuse, that my natural inclination is to side with Wright on this one — but really it’s an empirical question, to be settled by psychological observation and experiment rather than armchair philosophizing. In any case, let us grant this point also for the sake of argument.

Point (3) is more of a jump: that all unnatural/non-coital sexual acts are essentially unchaste — by which word Wright means vicious rather than virtuous in the Stoic sense, demonstrating (and, through the power of habit, reinforcing) a tendency to self-indulgence rather than self-mastery. It’s not immediately clear to me why yielding to lust should be considered less self-indulgent when done in the biologically correct manner, and the bit about their being sexual only accidentally rather than essentially doesn’t really clear it up much. Reading between the lines, though, I think Wright’s point is something like this. Sex has three basic functions: reproduction, bonding, and personal gratification — the last of which is obviously self-indulgent in nature. Even in cases where personal pleasure is one’s primary motivation, the fact that other purposes are also being served makes it fundamentally less of a vice than, say, solitary masturbation, which has only one possible purpose and has therefore rightly become synonymous with self-indulgence. To borrow an analogy Wright has used elsewhere, we may often eat primarily for pleasure rather than nutrition, but the latter end is also being served; eating for pleasure and then making oneself vomit it up, on the other hand, has no possible function apart from pleasure and is therefore fundamentally vicious.

But are non-coital sex acts really vices pure and simple, in the same category as masturbation and bulimia? They may not have any reproductive function, but they retain the bonding function of sex proper. Wright admits as much when he allows for non-coital acts so long as they “increase the love and union of matrimony.” Even outside of a matrimonial context, it’s hard to argue that these acts are purely vicious, since personal pleasure is not their only function and is sometimes not even a function. (For many people, I suspect, performing fellatio or cunnilingus or allowing oneself to be sodomized is actually an act of self-sacrifice, something in which they take little pleasure themselves but which they are willing to do as an expression of love and to give pleasure to their partner.) So I can’t agree with Wright’s classification of these acts as “unchaste in essence,” a designation which should be reserved for acts which have no function apart from self-indulgence.

Point (4) is that any sexual preference or appetite that draws one away from the sex act proper rather than towards it — i.e., homosexuality — cannot be supported by society without eroding matrimony. I find this to be a very weak argument. First of all, the “matrimonial position” Wright advocates is not that everyone must get married (as a Catholic, he obviously has no problem with celibacy), but that no one should be having sex outside of marriage — and, as Wright emphasizes again and again, the sexual practices of gays are not really sex. Gays are not engaging in extramarital sex and are thus not part of the problem marriage was instituted to solve. Wright tries to argue that non-coital acts are nevertheless a problem because they are detrimental to sexual self-control, and that a person who indulges in such acts makes himself less able to resist the temptation to indulge in extramarital sex. But, as Wright emphasizes again and again, gay sex (unlike non-coital heterosexual acts) draws people away from copulation rather than towards it and therefore cannot be said to be making anyone more susceptible to the temptations of extramarital sex. Once again, the matrimonial position is that extramarital sex (in the narrow sense of copulation) should not be allowed. Since homosexual acts are not extramarital sex, and presumably do not make one more likely to indulge in extramarital sex, it’s hard to see what the problem is.

The only way I can see that tolerance for gay sex could undermine marriage would be if the sexual liberties of gays somehow had a tendency to negatively affect the chastity (sexual self-control) of straight people — a possibility which is perhaps not as far-fetched as it seems. One could perhaps make a case for gay abstinence similar to St. Paul’s argument that Christians should not eat food offered to idols. (See 1 Corinthians 8.) If you’re a staunch Christian, says Paul, eating food that has been offered to a pagan god doesn’t mean anything and is not an act of idolatry, since you know that the god in question doesn’t actually exist and are therefore not worshipping it — but for someone less firm in his monotheism, less sure of the nonexistence of the pagan gods, the very same act would be idolatrous and potentially damning. Therefore, writes Paul to his Christian audience,

take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

In the analogy I’m proposing (one which will undoubtedly rub some Christians the wrong way), the strong Christians Paul is addressing represent gays, the Christians whose monotheism is shaky represent straights, idolatry is extramarital sex, and the eating of food offered to idols stands for extramarital sex-like acts other than actual copulation (for the sake of brevity, I’ll just use the word “sodomy” in its broad sense). For gays, extramarital sodomy does not lead to extramarital sex and is therefore not (or not always) wrong — but, if practiced openly and with society’s approval, this liberty of theirs could embolden straights to indulge in similar acts, which for them do lead to extramarital sex and are wrong.

The obvious solution is to eliminate the double standard, not by suppressing homosexual acts altogether — that would be a double standard the other way, leading to the opposite problem of gays being emboldened by the liberty of straights — but by creating an institution of gay matrimony and insisting that all sex and sodomy be limited to marriage. Aside from the Corinthian argument, there are other reasons this is a good idea. Although the strongest arguments for matrimony involve children and are therefore not directly applicable to sodomy, other arguments — about minimizing emotional pain, dealing with the problem of violence between sexual rivals, and controlling the spread of venereal disease — apply to both equally.

This proposal is unlikely to find many supporters. Advocates of gay marriage are, after all, accustomed to thinking of it as a freedom rather than a restriction, a right rather than an obligation, and might not be so enthusiastic about it if it comes at the price of suppressing gay fornication. Nor are conservative Christians likely to think much of it. Still, I think it’s the logical conclusion of Wright’s argument.

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John C. Wright on sex in society

John C. Wright is apparently a science fiction writer. I’ve never read any of his books, but now that Scientists Considering Christianity is defunct and Jim Kalb seems to be posting less and less often, Wright’s LiveJournal has become one of my main sources for intelligent conservative Christian writing. (I try to read such material regularly as a counterbalance to my natural tendencies as a clueless liberal atheist.)

Recently, in response to a deluge of comments from gay activists who accused him of (among other things) being opposed to homosexuality solely for religious (read: irrational) reasons and questioned whether there could be any other reason for such opposition, Wright has posted a six-part secular defense of marriage and traditional sexual morality, explaining the train of thought that led him to become a sexual traditionalist before his conversion, when he was still a passionate atheist.

It’s given me a lot to think about, and I intent to return to it at my leisure and spend some time thinking about each of his points. So, for my own future reference (and for anyone else who is interested), here are links to the six parts, with summaries of what each covers:

  • Part I: On self-control. On the objectivity of morals. On virtue. Law and custom. Do as thou wilt. The bounds of the question.
  • Part II: Is marriage a contract? How pliant is human nature? Is sex entertainment? Men are jerks.
  • Part III: The sex act. Passions related to the sex act. Prudence related to the sex act. Humans are altricial. Bastards and cuckoos. Permanence. Exclusivity. Polygamy. Violence between sexual rivals.
  • Part IV: Third parties to marriage. The father of the bride. The grandparents of the child. The investment of the interest in virginity.
  • Part V: Matrimony and fornication. Prudence regarding matrimony.
  • Part VI: What does this have to do with science fiction? A personal note to Mr. Charles Stross. A general challenge. Christian modifications to this position.

Although triggered by an argument about homosexuality, Wright’s essay isn’t primarily about that topic. It mentions it only as a sort of postscript, and my initial reaction (as I said, I plan to reread it later and take some more time to think about it) is that his case against homosexual acts isn’t nearly as strong as his case against premarital and extramarital sex. (As I mentioned in the course of my discussion with A. C. Grayling, I just don’t think sex-like acts other than actual copulation are anywhere near as morally serious as the act itself; because they are disconnected from the possibility of childbirth, less is at stake.) I’ll come back to this topic later after I’ve had some time to digest and dissect his arguments.

Incidentally, the barrage of angry comments from homophobophobes to which Wright was responding was triggered by another post (since deleted) in which he made some sarcastic remarks about this news story: It seems the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) releases an annual report grading TV networks on their depiction of gay, lesbian, and otherwise sexually atypical characters, and that Syfy (formerly Sci Fi) got an “F.” Predictably, the network executives fell over themselves to apologize and earnestly insist on their commitment to diversity, and Wright, being in the science fiction business himself, was understandably worried about the precedent set by GLAAD’s ideological bullying and Syfy’s groveling submission.

What, you may ask, did Syfy do to deserve an “F”? Well, you see, their shows featured only two gay characters this past year — sympathetic characters both (as far as I can gather, not having actually watched the shows in question), but still only two. That’s it. That, according to the bozos at GLAAD, is defamation. You’d think they’d give at least a “C+” for a marginally positive portrayal, but apparently these guys take the idea of “damning with faint praise” very seriously: If you say gays are cool, but you don’t say it often enough or loud enough, you’re serving the Dark Side.

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A response to Anthony Grayling

(This is in response to A. C. Grayling’s comments on this post. Read them first.)

Dear Prof. Grayling,

You are correct that not all of the things I find “wrong” with The Reason of Things are simple errors. Rather, they exist on a continuum from things no informed person would agree with to things I personally don’t agree with, the line between factual error and difference of opinion not always being an easy one to draw. (Since you asked where I’m “coming from ideologically,” this might be the right time to mention that I’m an atheist, a Darwinian, and an anti-solipsist, and that I come from a conservative Mormon background.)

There are also a few grammatical infelicities, which I might as well get out of the way first. “Peninsular” is apparently just a typo, so we’ll say no more about it. The other one that got my attention was “Pushkin’s grandfather was thought to be an African slave in Moscow,” which means that Pushkin’s grandfather’s contemporaries were under the impression that he was an African slave. If you want to say (as I presume you do) is that it is now thought that Pushkin’s grandfather was a slave, try “Pushkin’s grandfather is thought to have been an African slave in Moscow.” But these are, as you will no doubt agree, trivialities. On to more substantive issues.

Regarding kosher laws, the problem is not that you made a trivial error about the precise reason that pigs are unclean, but that you confidently put forth a theory about the origin of kosher laws without actually being familiar with said laws, the content of which seems to me to be inconsistent with your theory. Under kashrut, the following classes of animals are unclean:

  • all mammals except those that both chew their cud and have cloven hoofs
  • all aquatic animals except those that have both fins and scales
  • all insects except four species of locust
  • a laundry list of birds, including many birds of prey but otherwise following no obvious rule

The list of unclean birds does contain some zoological oddities, such as the bat and the hoopoe, but overall it’s hard to see this as a list of monsters. The insects are a case in point: kosher locusts are so similar to unkosher locusts that the rabbis can’t agree on precisely which four species Moses had in mind, and so to be safe all insects are treated as unkosher. Can a “monster” still be considered a monster when it’s so similar to a non-monstrous animal that even those hairsplitting rabbis can’t tell the difference? Also, as I mentioned before, many unkosher animals are perfectly ordinary and were not seen as horrible or unclean, even by the Jews, except in the dietary sense. Horses, lions, and eagles, in particular, are portrayed in the Bible, as in our own culture, as noble and admirable animals, not as monsters. But the Jews still thought, as we too think, that eating them would be a little icky.

Every culture has its traditions about “kosher” food, though in most cultures the taboos are informal and unspoken. The Jews are unusual only in their insistence on codifying the list of unclean animals and trying to reduce it to a few simple principles. Before “Moses” or whoever it was, their traditions about what’s okay to eat were probably just as haphazard as ours. Where I come from, for example, civilized people can eat pigs but not dogs, cattle but not horses, rabbits but not opossums, crabs but not spiders, muscle tissue but not digestive-tract tissue, and so on. Some animals are taboo because we see them as dirty, others because we see them primarily as pets or beasts of burden, and others for no particular reason that I can see; if for whatever reason you’re not exposed to a particular kind of meat as a child, you’ll probably grow up to find it disgusting, a mechanism that allows for a considerable amount of random “kosher drift.” It’s interesting, too, that it’s always meat that’s unkosher. I’ll try any fruit or vegetable I’m served without a second thought, even if I’ve never seen it before and have no idea what it is, but I always experience a little hesitance (and sometimes more than a little) when faced with an unfamiliar meat dish such as dog meat, duck’s blood, or silkworm pupae.

Regarding Japanese pornography, it’s possible that our disagreement boils down to differing definitions of porn, but I doubt that. (For me, erotica is a kind of art, while porn is basically just a masturbation aid. Is that similar to the distinction you make?) China, Japan, and many other Asian countries do have a strong tradition of erotic art which philistines might regard as mere pornography, and perhaps this is all you have been exposed to. I’m sure your innocence does you credit, but let me assure you that, in addition to erotic art, these countries also produce a great deal of simple pornography which is virtually indistinguishable from the Western variety. By that I mean it portrays sex in a graphic and often degrading manner, has no artistic pretensions, is sold in sleazy shops with no windows, and is considered “dirty” or “perverted” just as in the West. Despite what you say, Japanese porn is regarded as porn by the Japanese and labeled as such. (In fact, porn is technically illegal in Japan and subject to strict censorship, though of course such laws are difficult to enforce.) The Chinese also produce a great deal of pornography (see the Taiwanese film Wayward Cloud for a touching and humorous look at the Taiwanese porn industry), and they even have a history of suppressing erotic novels as pornographic (the Ming novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, banned for years but now considered a classic, is the Chinese counterpart to Lady Chatterley) — all without any help from the Abrahamic religions.

Incidentally, your essay also cites monasticism as a manifestation of a uniquely Abrahamic hostility towards sex, but of course the dharmic religions also have a strong monastic tradition. This is especially pronounced in Buddhism, and artworks with a Buddhist agenda, from the Ming novel Journey to the West to the modern Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring, often outdo the Puritans themselves in their portrayal of sex as inherently dirty and corrupting.

Which brings us to the broader subject of sex and whether it is in need of control. Of course I don’t think you are actually in favor of rape or pedophilia. Nor am I necessarily opposed to the idea that many of the traditional sexual restraints imposed by the Abrahamic religions can and should be loosened a bit. What bothered me, rather, was your cavalier dismissal of the whole idea that sex ought to be controlled and limited, which you treated as a bizarre quirk meriting nothing more than a mixture of outrage and bemused curiosity, a good topic for etiological speculation but nothing we need to engage as a serious idea. That you hold the opinions that you do about sex is fine; but that you seem to take them as obviously true, that you seem not even to see the strength of the opposing position — that I find worrying.

The idea behind my reference to rape was that of course sex is in need of control. People may disagree over precisely how much control is necessary or reasonable, but sex is such a powerful force, both for good and for bad, that it should go without saying that some degree of control is necessary — because sometimes sex just is wrong, bad, and dirty. No matter how strong my urge to have sex with a given person, if she’s not willing to have sex with me, I control myself. If she’s a minor, I control myself. If there’s a strong risk of pregnancy and we are not in a position to become parents, I control myself. If she expects, even tacitly, a higher level of commitment than I am willing to give, I control myself. If I’ve promised loyalty to another woman and she’s not that woman, I control myself. If she’s promised loyalty to someone else, I control myself. Et cetera. I would go so far as to say that most people’s default relationship with their sexual urges is — and must be — one of control, because only a small minority of most people’s sexual urges are such that indulging them would be morally acceptable. Your dismissal of this whole line of thinking as beneath your notice makes you come across as an irresponsible thinker. (Of course it’s possible that your oracular pronouncements about sex are the end product of a long and rigorous process of thought to which I am not privy, but I know you only by your short essays, and that’s what I’m responding to.)

That’s about it, I guess. As you can see, “wrong so many times that I lost trust” doesn’t have to be all that many times, just as (according to a recent news article) it only takes a few typos on a resume to dramatically reduce one’s chances of being hired. The two clear errors — about kosher laws and pornography — were big ones, because you drew conclusions from these “facts” without having first checked them adequately. If I been less informed about those two fields, I would have trusted what you said and have gotten the wrong idea, and that realization led me to be more cautious about believing anything you said on topics about which I was less familiar. I nevertheless enjoyed and was stimulated by many of your essays. I especially liked your essay on autodidacts and your incisive take on Harold Bloom. And I perhaps should have paid more attention to your praise of Michael Hofmann as one who “in manifesting a willingness to be unreserved in praise but temperate in criticism … shows that [he] knows how much endeavour goes into writing, and how few rewards it usually gets.”

All the best,

Wm Jas

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