Thursday, April 24, 2003

Rick Santorum's comments about homosexuality, on which I've already commented briefly, continue to generate controversy. The first wave included Oxblog's David Adesnik, Matthew Yglesias, "Atrios", Arthur Silber, Bill "DailyPundit" Quick, and a whole host of gay rights groups, who all took Santorum's comparison of homosexuality with polygamy, incest and adultery as a vicious, bigoted insult against homosexuals. Then Eugene Volokh made exactly the same point I made--that from a moral and legal point of view, there is considerable merit to Santorum's comparison--and took it one step further by arguing bluntly that all of these, when involving consenting adults, should be considered legal, under the principle of "freedom of sex". First waver Yglesias, joined by Kevin "Calpundit" Drum, Andrew Sullivan and Jacob Levy, dodged the issue by shifting their attention to other parts of Santorum's remarks, which were more generally critical of all sex outside of marriage, and pronouncing him on those grounds a puritan fascist homophobe bigot, and much worse besides.

It was left to Slate's William Saletan to ask the lingering question: "Morally, I think incest is bad because it confuses relationships. But legally, I don't see why a sexual right to privacy, if it exists, shouldn't cover consensual incest. I think Santorum is wrong. But I can't explain why, and so far, neither can the Human Rights Campaign." In fact, Yglesias now wonders why anyone would object to Santorum's legal comparison of homosexuality with incest--a comparison which he just yesterday considered a revolting demonstration of anti-gay bigotry. It seems we're all pure sexual libertarians now.

And's not just William Saletan who doesn't seem quite at ease with the whole "incest--hey, whatever" business. Andrew Sullivan actually distinguishes between incest and homosexuality, on the grounds that the former greatly increases the risk of conceiving genetically abnormal children. (Volokh explicitly rejects this argument, pointing out that people with heritable genetic defects, for example, are not forbidden to procreate.) Jack Balkin and Oxblog's Adesnik invoke "evolving social norms" to distinguish the two behaviors, while continuing to condemn Santorum for even suggesting the comparison in the first place. And both Volokh and Yglesias, while stoutly defending the legality of consensual incest, felt compelled to make it clear that they find the very thought of incest personally repugnant. Yet not only had none of the participants felt the need to say any such thing about homosexuality, but we can just imagine how most of them would have reacted had, say, Rick Santorum done so.

What are we to make of this mess?

First of all, it's clear that pure sexual libertarianism--"an it hurt none, do as thou wilt"--is not the guiding cultural principle these days, at least in the blogosphere. On the contrary, what we see operating amounts to a new "traditional" sexual ethos, replacing the original one to which a few throwbacks such as Rick Santorum adhere. For want of a better term, I will refer to it as the "college consensus", because it reminds me of the sexual conventions I am familiar with from my college days.

Now, while college kids were (and, I presume, still are) quite sexually open and "non-judgmental", as the expression has it, in my day, they were no more dogmatically devoted to strict libertarianism than today's bloggers are. Rather, their sexual beliefs were derived from their perception of what attractive, popular, sophisticated, socially successful college kids would want to be seen to believe. This calculation inevitably involved a certain tension: on the one hand, one didn't want to be perceived as too prudish, uptight, or timid; on the other, one feared being thought creepy, slutty, or desperate. One therefore attempted to walk a confident, frank, open-minded line between dullness and depravity.

One's attitude towards homosexuality, for example, was a clear social marker. To feel (or, at least, to admit) discomfort at seeing open displays of gay affection was unforgivably uptight; it was viewed as a clear indication of discomfort with sexuality in general--and perhaps with one's own. One student who wrote a letter to the school newspaper expressing disgust at a gay couple he saw engaging in a bit of uninhibited slow dancing at the local pub touched off a heated debate between the campus' small contingent of Santorum's kindred spirits, on the one hand, and most of the rest of the student body, on the other. There was no question which side "won", in social terms at least.

Although there wasn't much discussion of incest on campus (thank goodness), pornography played a similar role. It was considered ignorant and backward to want to criminalize pornography on moral grounds, but deep offense at the "degradation of women" it was said to represent was commonplace among women, and men were generally expected to explain, "incest-style", that while we may defend people's legal right to watch the stuff, we personally found it unappealing and objectionable. (In other words, our sex lives were just fine without it, thank you.)

Of course, sexual norms change over time, and no doubt today's college students are very different from those of roughly twenty years ago. Nevertheless, we might wish to pause and ask ourselves whether the traditionalist, religiously-based perspective of Rick Santorum, whether we agree with it or not, is really so much more ill-intentioned--or, for that matter, more arrogantly, shrilly moralistic--than the college consensus or its successors, whatever they may be. Perhaps those of us whose social lives no longer depend on our impressing our peers with our sophistication can set an helpful example by attempting, henceforth, to engage in a more toned-down, less hysterical debate.

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