(Not) coping with the diversity of the real

By Lorenzo

The heterosexual/homosexual distinction is relatively recent, being coined in the mid C19th. Like all binary classifications, it is somewhat problematic in dealing with the diversity of the human. That being said, it is not merely a social construct: there is a real underlying diversity in human sexuality that it tries (somewhat clumsily) to grapple with.

The attempt by Michael W. Hannon in his essay Against Heterosexuality in the Catholic magazine First Things to employ the works of queer theorists and Michel Foucault to entirely dismiss the concepts of heterosexual and homosexual fails on various levels, but its most basic failure is simply not acknowledging any aspect of the sexual diversity of the human that the distinction tries to grapple with. (It is hardly surprising that the term bisexual does not turn up anywhere in the essay. [In contradiction to a famous study of a few years ago, it appears that bisexual males do exist.])

But there are a lot of problems with the piece. First, Michel Foucault is a notoriously unreliable source for historical facts. Second, just because the terms heterosexual and homosexual are relatively new, does not mean that a sense that people differed in sexual orientation was not much older. Rictor Norton’s The Myth of the Modern Homosexual is a good source for that (see also here).

The reality of diversity

Third, there is now significant scientific evidence of diversity in sexual orientation. Such as differences in reaction to the smell of sweat, to visual stimulation (the more so among men than women), and in cross-gender brain structures and cognitive traits. (Really, is anyone surprised that lesbians tend to have more typically “male” cognitive features and gay men tend to have more typically “female” cognitive features?) This is still a developing field. There may well be problems with the heterosexual/homosexual construction as it has developed, but it is an attempt to grapple with a real phenomenon–human sexual diversity.

(Oh, and a tip for female authors in particular: gay men are not girls with penises, they have testosterone; it makes a difference. For example, gay and straight men may look at different porn, but they use porn in essentially the same way.)

If, as our author alleges, the matter is all social construct and not any underlying awkward reality, then one does not have to struggle with why said social constructions popped up in the first place, let alone why there has been a decades-long queer rights movement. Nor any awkward questions about why it has succeeded as much as it has.

The author does make reference to:

Over the course of several centuries, the West had progressively abandoned Christianity’s marital architecture for human sexuality. Then, about one hundred and fifty years ago, it began to replace that longstanding teleological tradition …

The older teleological view measured morality against man’s rational-animal nature; in the sexual realm, this meant evaluating sex acts by reference to the common good of marriage, which integrated spousal union and the bearing and rearing of children.

If the reality of human sexual diversity is ignored, then the long persistence of said “marital architecture” is completely unproblematic. Conversely, if humans are, and always have been, sexual diverse, then how did such a tradition persist for so long?

The short answer is brutality: it was brutally enforced. Somewhat intermittently, and with periodic moral panics and purges, but the basis of its maintenance was brutality. As the necessary enforcing brutality faded away, the reality of human sexual diversity began to emerge into the light, so to speak. Why the movement for gay rights? Because people were able to connect who were tired of being treated like crap. (There was also a much broader resistance to the very narrow and controlled conception of family the Church pushed that has won out.)

The growth of science provided non-religious grounds for knowledge and authority; the interaction with other cultures created an awareness of the diversity of human gender taxonomies and sexual ethics; the growth of transport and communication technologies allowed smaller and smaller minorities to connect; mass urbanisation allowed folk to congregate together. In other words, much the same patterns as underlay the other steps in the Emancipation Sequence. And you cannot put the genie back in the bottle without the necessary enforcing brutality.

Sodomising Scripture

But this does not exhaust the problems with the essay. The author tells us that:

The Bible never called homosexuality an abomination. Nor could it have, for as we have seen, Leviticus predates any conception of sexual orientation by a couple of millennia at least. What the Scriptures condemn is sodomy, regardless of who commits it or why.

Well, that is not remotely true, because sodomy is not a Scriptural concept; for the New Testament predates development of the notion of sodomy by centuries, much of the Old Testament by about a millennia.

Of course, later translations inserted sodomy into Scripture, but that does not make sodomy a Scriptural concept, no more than inserting homosexuality into Scripture does.

Moreover, using Leviticus as an authority hardly works–Leviticus repeatedly insists that its proscriptions are an all or nothing matter: you have to either enforce the lot or none, you cannot pick and choose. (So tattoos, for example, are right out, as are priestly tonsures.) Every Christian, and every denomination of Christianity, is in breach of Leviticus.

If you are picking and choosing which bits of Leviticus to take notice of, your authority is not Leviticus, it is whatever basis you are using to pick and choose. Nor does Leviticus condemn same-sex relations per se, it condemns a man taking the female role in sex. The point, fairly clearly, is to enforce strict gender differentiation–more specifically, to not have men “unman” themselves by taking the female role. Women lying with women is, apparently, fine.

Sodomy refers, of course, to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the plain, in Genesis 19. A good exercise is to read the Scriptural story closely and clearly without the imposing the since-traditional “it’s all about butt sex” interpretation on the text. Does that interpretation make any sense from the actual Scriptural passages?

Put it another way, how do you turn attempted group rape of visiting guests who were messengers of the Lord into any sort of condemnation of any sexual practice as such? Especially given there is no divine intervention until it comes to saving Lot’s daughters and the messengers are there to warn Lot that God has already given up on the cities. (Does, for example, the brutal group rape and murder in Judges 19 mean that there is something wrong with opposite sex sexual relations?) The answer is, you can’t. You have to add to the text to elevate same-sex relations to being the key issue.

Note that seeing the key issue as vile treatment of visitors and guests, of the stranger among you, is very much in accord with other Biblical passages, such as Exodus 22:21 and Exodus 23:9. The notion that the most important thing was the butt sex that didn’t happen, is supported nowhere.

So, how did the since-traditional interpretation arise? By an intellectual applying an academic theory to the text in order to score points in a cultural war. The intellectual was Philo of Alexandria (c.25BC-50AD), the academic theory was Greek natural law philosophy and the culture war was between monotheist Hebrews and polytheist Greeks.

Here is Philo the culture warrior, condemning a pagan religious parade:

At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres. And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes, like those who, having been the cause of great blessings to their native land, walk about attended by body-guards, pushing down every one whom they meet. (Special Laws III, VII, 40)

It could be any contemporary Christian, Jewish or Muslim cleric condemning the Gay Pride parade of your choice.

Since Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the plain, were the premier examples of God’s specific wrath (apart from small matters such as the Flood), a range of (often not very specific) sins were attributed to its inhabitants in Scripture. Philo, however, focuses particularly on the consequences of prosperity:

As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire; and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they made also their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of man, as far as depended on them. At all events, if the Greeks and barbarians were to have agreed together, and to have adopted the commerce of the citizens of this city, their cities one after another would have become desolate, as if they had been emptied by a pestilence. (On Abraham, XXVI, 135-6)

The concern for strict gender roles comes across very clearly. But it is also an introduction of the (Greek) notion of the “laws of nature” which the inhabitants of the cities of the plain sinfully discarded. It also establishes the utility of denying human sexual diversity, for such denial provides the best of both worlds: on one hand, by pretending anyone might do it, same-sex activity is turned into a huge moral threat bringing with it social sterility; on the other, by condemning something most people are uninterested in doing, you are selling very low cost virtue.

There is, in fact, a curious insecurity about opposite-sex attraction involved. (Though if being female is such a desperately inferior state, then perhaps the resilience of being attracted to them is something to be insecure about.) An insecurity there is no biological or social basis for–in no society, not even in societies where same-sex relations are a compulsory adolescent experience (yes, there have been some) do men give up having sex with women, or having children. Opposite sex desire is a reliable feature of human affairs. Merely not a universal feature of actual humans.

Philo was not conforming to the rabbinical oral tradition concerning the cities of the plain, which held that they were not immoral, but anti-moral: that is, they actually punished people for displaying moral behaviour towards the weak and vulnerable. Which has the virtue of making the both their punishment, and its extent, congruent with the moral message elsewhere in the Old Testament: it certainly makes much more sense than fearful insecurity about the power of opposite sex attraction or the apparently enormous moral significance of butt sex. (To the extent that sodomy has a precise theological definition, it means any non-reproductive sex to the point of ejaculation; but anal intercourse has always been the archetypal version of sodomy.)

Philo’s conception was, however, an intellectual winner, winning converts outside Judaism, extending to Christianity and Islam. The Qur’an incorporates the notion that the cities of the plain were destroyed for their homosexuality, even claiming they were the first to engage in such.

Editing nature into convenient form

When one looks for the original argument that demonstrates same-sex acts to be unnatural, one comes across much assertion, but precious little argument. The original source seems to be Plato’s The Laws. In Book One, the Athenian asserts that:

Now the gymnasia and common meals do a great deal of good, and yet they are a source of evil in civil troubles; as is shown in the case of the Milesian, and Boeotian, and Thurian youth, among whom these institutions seem always to have had a tendency to degrade the ancient and natural custom of love below the level, not only of man, but of the beasts. The charge may be fairly brought against your cities above all others, and is true also of most other states which especially cultivate gymnastics. Whether such matters are to be regarded jestingly or seriously, I think that the pleasure is to be deemed al which arises out of the intercourse between men and women; but that the intercourse of men with men, or of women with women, is contrary to nature, and that the bold attempt was originally due to unbridled lust. The Cretans are always accused of having invented the story of Ganymede and Zeus because they wanted to justify themselves in the enjoyment of unnatural pleasures by the practice of the god whom they believe to have been their lawgiver.

The implied argument, from the citation of animals, is that it is contrary to nature because we do not see same-sex activity amongst animals. In Book Eight, the Athenian says:

For if any one following nature should lay down the law which existed before the days of Laius, and denounce these lusts as contrary to nature, adducing the animals as a proof that such unions were monstrous, he might prove his point, but he would be wholly at variance with the custom of your states. …

Our citizens ought not to fall below the nature of birds and beasts in general, who are born in great multitudes, and yet remain until the age for procreation virgin and unmarried, but when they have reached the proper time of life are coupled, male and female, and lovingly pair together, and live the rest of their lives in holiness and innocence, abiding firmly in their original compact:-surely, we will say to them, you should be better than the animals.

So, the argument seems to be that animals follow nature, animals don’t do it, so it is against nature. If nature is the measure of the natural, then the argument is way out of luck, for nature is an incredible array of sexual, gender and mating diversity. Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity provides chapter and verse.

As for the purpose of sex being reproduction, nature is not helpful there either, as sex is used for a much wider range of purposes in nature than merely reproduction. Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People provides considerable detail on that. The Athenian of Plato’s Laws is not a very good, nor a knowledgeable, observer of nature.

Folk became aware that nature did not live up to the alleged restrictions of the natural: animals such as hares and hyenas were identified as letting the side down. This was coped with in the way teleological conceptions normally cope with uncooperative diversity–the conclusion was used to police the premises. That is, evidence in nature which contradicted what was declared to be the natural order was declared to be unnatural–outside the “proper” order of nature. If one is allowed to simply exclude the contrary cases, then one is fine. (Marxists turned this into a fine art with respect to the social order, but natural law theorists were perfecting the technique centuries earlier.) Of course, one’s theory then rests on nothing but itself, but that has never proved to be an insuperable difficulty for any faithful concerning the teleological apparatus of their devotion.

Based on nothing but assertion and a deemed license to exclude contrary cases it may be, but the classing of same-sex activity as unnatural had grim consequences when tied to monotheism. For the notion that same-sex activity is unnatural is then turned it into an act of treason against God, as nature’s Creator. As early as the C4th, St John Chrysostom (c.349-407), the patron saint of preachers, is assuring folk that same-sex activity is worse than murder. (It being treason against God and all.) For:

All passions are dishonorable, for the soul is even more prejudiced and degraded by sin than is the body by disease; but the worst of all passions is lust between men…. The sins against nature are more difficult and less rewarding, since true pleasure is only the one according to nature. But when God abandons a man, everything is turned upside down! Therefore, not only are their passions satanic, but their lives are diabolic….. So I say to you that these are even worse than murderers, and that it would be better to die than to live in such dishonor. A murderer only separates the soul from the body, whereas these destroy the soul inside the body….. There is nothing, absolutely nothing more mad or damaging than this perversity.

One notes again the concern for male status and standing. Apart from St Paul in Romans, there is no Scriptural basis for claiming that women can commit “sodomy”, and precious little Patristic support. (St Paul’s wording fairly clearly shows the influence of Philo.)

By the medieval period, in the medieval best seller The Golden Legend, compiled by an Archbishop of Genoa later beatified for his editorial and compilation efforts therein, we are told that a miracle of the Nativity was:

And it happened this night that all the sodomites that did sin against nature were dead and extinct; for God hated so much this sin, that he might not suffer that nature human, which he had taken, were delivered to so great shame. Whereof S. Austin saith that, it lacked but little that God would not become man for that sin.

The Christmas day massacre–God kills all the sodomites so that Incarnation can happen and the Gospel of Love can be let loose on the world.

So, sodomy is not Scriptural; the claim that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was all (or even primarily) about same-sex activity is, to say the least, weak; the it-is-unnatural argument is based on a complete misreading of how nature actually is and the whole thing rests on an insecurity about opposite sex attraction which also has no basis.

(Though Christianity is a very broad tradition–St Aelred of Rievaulx suggests, in his Spiritual Friendship, that Jesus and John were married in Heaven.)

Having someone to pick on

So, what gives?

Several things. If entire sections of nature can be excised as “not counting”, then a minority of humans can easily be so. The conspicuous thing about arguing that sex-is-only-for-reproduction, reproduction can only be properly done within marriage, it is all about human flourishing is that it relies on excluding the same-sex attracted–their flourishing clearly doesn’t count. And that exclusion is the point.

I said there was no cost to most folk in banning something they have little or no interest in doing. But there is a cost: the cost is treating fellow human beings badly; which is actually the point–having a very vulnerable group to so easily and (mostly) costlessly pick on.

Queer folk grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus. It is hard to think of any group that it is easier to isolate and pick on; particularly as it is hard to think of a group that it is easier to drive into hiding and not speaking up for themselves. They make such a splendid target–and that is the point.

For where do priests and clerics get authority most easily and graphically? From being gatekeepers of righteousness; from telling you what is righteous and what is not. And the more unexpected the markers of righteousness are, the more the “expertise” of the priest or cleric is need.

We don’t need priests or clerics to tell us that murder is wrong, that theft is wrong–cultures either come to those conclusions or they don’t get off the ground. But we do need a priest or cleric to tell us that heaven hates ham, that God hates butt sex, that dogs are unclean. It is not morality, but moral taboos that are priests and clerics distinctive stock-in-trade. (As it is, for that matter, for secular clerisies.)

A consequence of turning the archetypal instance of God’s specific wrath into being all about butt sex meant that picking on this incredibly vulnerable group was “necessary” to preserve social order from the wrath of God. Which made it a desperately important issue–so much so, that discharging semen into someone’s anus was apparently worse than murder. Well, it had to be, otherwise God was being pathological. Of course, if the story of the cities of the plain was really about systematically picking on the weak and vulnerable, then … (One might also stop to note that the Gospel Christ has very little to say about secular authority, but a great deal to say about religious authority being used in cruel and oppressive ways.)

It is very clear that there are plenty of believers who are outraged that queers are being treated as “real people” not the targets of oppressive, no-voice repression that is how any Godly society should treat such folk.

Moreover, the queer (the sexually and gender divergent) are a natural target for monotheistic religions. First, because the One God is not a sexual being in the way polytheistic deities are. In animism and polytheism, sex connects us to the divine. In monotheism, it separates us from the divine. Except in one form–reproduction, because that connects us to God the Creator. So, reproductive sex becomes the OK form of sex. Second, because such targeting provides a splendid point of divergence from polytheistic and animist religions; it being very clear, very low cost for most folk and picking on such a vulnerable group.

Third, because monotheism comes only from the Middle East, so only from plough-and-pastoralist societies–that is, patrilineal and patrilocal societies. If there is only one Ultimate Authority, that Authority is bound to be conceived as Male and with Male authority priests. (Polytheism tended to include third gender priests, animism third gender shamans: so another point of differentiation.) Which naturally encourages a very strict gender dichotomy.

All of which leads to monotheism’s history of murderous hatred of the queer.

The various monotheisms do not use the same set of scriptures, they do not use the same set of justifications, or, in the case of Zoroastrianism, come from an entirely separate scriptural tradition, but they keep coming to the same conclusions.

But the reasons for the recurring pattern are not reasons anyone is going to use as justifications. Hence the need to create various legitimating theories when talking to non-believers (as Jews and Christians were). A need which way overshoots the actual scriptural and philosophical supports claimed for them.

Missing the irony

It turns out there is also another cost. What you do to others, others can do to you; especially if you have already set up the patterns and justifications. So Jews justified picking on pagans as against God; Christians picked that up and justified picking on pagans and Jews as against God; Muslims picked all that up, and justified picking on pagans, Jews and Christians as against God. The dhimmi, Pact/Conditions of Umar elements of Sharia are the anti-pagan, anti-Jewish laws of the Christian Roman Empire extended to Christians, theologised and generalised.

And they have all agreed about picking on the queers and never, ever saw any irony involved.

Now, in the increasingly intolerantly secular West, it is believing Christian and Jews who are on the receiving end. Folk being outraged by political correctness yet failing to see any parallels with previous gender and sexual correctness are, once again, not seeing the irony. (But, then, nor are the purveyors of political correctness at all grasping that moral fervour, far from protecting folk from being oppressive, is a great motivator and justifier of oppression.)

Though I wish queer folk would learn the lessons of history better and not join in. But it seems folk simply don’t so learn, because their moral fervour is (always) true righteousness personified. Selling belief in collective moral narcissism is demonstrably a perennially easy sell.

And they always have a theory. It is just never a good one.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. conrad
    Posted May 4, 2016 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of theories, I’d be careful about suggesting that brain structures between groups are different in a meaningful way– there is a lot of variation in people’s brains at the individual level, and ascribing various regularities in the variation to causal effects on complex cognition would be very speculative (that won’t stop people, and you can see any number of results that generally turn out to be p-hacking and unreplicable). There are results out there suggesting differences in gay/straight brains, but I’m yet to believe any of them, let alone believe the difference have causal effects.

    Even without worrying about brain stuff, many of the cognitive difference between sexes people once thought existed turned out to be mainly socialization (I personally think there almost none). Alternatively lower level effects are more possible (e.g., levels of arousal to broad categories of stimuli, although these too differ massively at the individual level).

    On a different note, it’s curious that things like sex toys have existed throughout history, yet generally people have not been persecuted people for having them, despite them presumably being unnatural in terms of who does what in the animal kingdom (perhaps bonobos have them–they do everything else).

  2. Posted May 5, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The group variation/individual variation issue manifests in almost any serious discussion of group differences. Though there has to be something going on simply to get differences in sexual direction and interest. And socialisation is surely also subject to high levels of individual variation.

    As for cognitive differences between the sexes, expecting hard lines seems unlikely to pan out, but varying distributions seem more likely.

    On sex toys, amusing point. Orang utans have been spotted using twigs as masturbation aids. Sex toys are neither publicly salient nor raise issues about gender roles.

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