Distal Muse Archives

Fine Lines

by Mark W. Tiedemann

     Senator Rick Santorum, Republican, Pennsylvania, doesn't have a problem with homosexuality.  He said that in an interview recently which has caused considerable stir among many quarters.  No, he says, he has a problem with homosexual acts.  (Interview taped April 7th for AP Wire Service and printed in the San Fransisco Chronicle.)
     How's that?
     Oh, if you're gay, that's fine by him.  Just don't do anything about it.  Don't, in other words, have gay sex.
     He lumps it in with such things as incest and adultery (putting adultery on moral par here with incest--not that he has a problem with adulterers as long as they don't actually commit adultery) and says that the actions of these groups eat at the fabric of the family in America.
     But, one might ask, what's the point in being tolerant of the condition if acting upon it is forbidden?  I mean, why be gay (or bisexual or polyamorous or even, just to throw in some perspective, celibate!) if indulging your particular appetite is to be outlawed?
     Which is the whole point.  Senator Santorum has quantified elegantly the American problem with matters sensual--be what you are if you must but keep it all inside.  We don't want to see it, hear about it, even assume that it's going on.  If we thought for a minute people were actually meeting in secluded, private places to get naked and do things which make us uncomfortable or--maybe more pointedly--make us curious about what it might be like, then we couldn't maintain the facade of wholesomeness we desperately pretend is reality.
     We've been like this since the Puritan Age (which in many respects still clings to us, like a caul).  Being Human in all its myriad and manifest parts troubles a great many of us because we have no brief for allowing ourselves to simply enjoy.  But we can't quite expunge it from our being, so we play games with ourselves.  Hide and seek, compartmentalization, Let's Pretend, and in our less gentle periods Witch Hunting and Public Pillorying.
     Dimmesdale preaches from his pulpit about the mortal sin of carnality and adultery even as Hester walks around town wearing the Scarlet Letter earned in his bed.  If only he could have kept his hands to himself, we hear him thinking, if only she hadn't said yes, if only I didn't have these urges, which all men (and, evidently, all women) have, if only--
     Never a question that perhaps the urge should be rehabilitated and we ought to stop feeling so guilty about what is essentially one of the best things humans have to share with each other.
     What Senator Santorum is doing is displaying the American capacity for drawing fine lines between things.  Go ahead, he seems to be saying, be a sexual creature, I have no problem with that--until you actually have sex.  Then we have a problem.
     I have a problem with the Rick Santorum's of the world.  I guess that's obvious.  I've had a problem with people like him since I was fourteen.
     Somewhere along the line, on my entree to puberty, I absorbed a classic case of sexual guilt.  I went to a Lutheran school, and of course we had the lessons about Abraham's wife and Lot's wife and the woman at the well and so forth--and of course the biggie of Sodom and Gomorrah.  All that sex and look what it got them!
     Of course, Lot's willingness to hand his daughters over to that crowd of hedonists just to curry favor with Yahweh got short shrift.  And we never ever discussed what Lot's daughters did to dad in the cave where they hid after the calamity.  (I mean, really, the Lord had sent messengers to tell Lot to get out of town, how come he couldn't send another messenger to tell his daughters that the world hadn't ended and so they didn't have to bang pop to repopulate the world?)
     Anyway, I had days on end of self-inflicted moral agony over self-abuse.  Torment of the most profound sort.
     I am not one who tolerates living under a cloud for long.  Some things we should feel guilty about.  Guilt serves a function in appropriate doses.  You should feel guilty about lying and stealing and beating someone up.  You should feel guilty about spreading bad rumors about other people.  You should feel guilty about paying yourself enormous bonuses while the company from which you're drawing a salary is going into bankruptcy and people you're supposedly responsible for are losing their jobs.  (I have no problem with someone who is an avaricious corporate cannibal--as long as they don't act on it!)
     Guilt over masturbation is not in any of those categories.
     I became profoundly disenchanted with organized religion around that time.  I then thought that the church--any church--used guilt about sexual matters to achieve a kind of extorsive control over people in the privacy of their own minds.  "You've done this bad thing, you need to confess your sin to the lord, to your pastor, etc."  Eventually, you feel guilty every time you do it, you scurry back to church to seek forgiveness (and while there put your coin in the collection plate) so that you can get through to the next time you do this bad thing.
     Then I thought, that's too simplistic.  It's more complicated than that.  So I followed a tortuous trail of eschatalogical research for years, trying to figure out why this is such a big deal.  Of course it begins with Paul, who seems to have had a really bad attitude toward women.  But it got confused with a mishmash of pseudo-religious attitudes about creation and propagation, which in turn got tangled with consanguinity issues and patriarchy (gotta keep it straight whose kids those really are) and later with political sovereignty issues, none of which did anything to make the problem clearer--
     Except to point up the fact that sex is extremely powerful stuff and has the potential to ruin lives.
     Ruin them how?
     Well, disease is an obvious one, but I think not central.  Rather, I think it has to do with our attempt to hold onto something over time--hold onto those things upon which we depend for a sense of stability and purpose and identity.  Central to the fact that our egos are fragile things that can be damaged with a word or a look.  Central to the fact that we are possessive critters, despite what Marxists may say, and we want to build a fence around things we claim belong to us.
     But chiefly central to the way we organize as political units.
     What, we're going to have a lesson in poli-sci now?
     No, not really.  Just a very basic and fundamental tenet of so-called community building which has to do with loyalty.
     How's that?
     To work in concert requires the cooperation of the group.  At the village level this is more or less a simple dynamic that emerges from common consensus.  But when you get to the more complex structures, like city states, countries, nations, etc. then common consensus is a slippery thing.  To get everyone to agree that so-and-so is King and has the right to send you off to war for the "common good" requires more than a little coercion.  Most citizens have to be on the same page for that to happen, which means that we can't have a zillion conflicting loyalties.  There must be a format within which enough of us agree to unite for common cause at the say-so of those in charge that diminishes individual moral protest.
     So we break the community down into substructures.  Neighborhoods is one example, guild groups another.  Look around and you see a multitude of what we sometimes call Special Interest Groups all representing--or purporting to represent--the membership of that group.  These are the present-day examples of what has been an attempt for millennia to create manipulable social groups which can, within themselves, apply appropriate pressure to the membership to get everyone to go along with what the Boss says.
     It's very effective.  Watch any election where you see the politicians vie for the favor of the groups--unions, corporate associations, churches, etc--knowing full well that these groups can "deliver" their membership at the polls.
     It's fractious, certainly, but overall it works.  The groups dictate the loyalties of the members, the community dictates the loyalty of the groups, and the Boss dictates the loyalty of the community.
     All of it is based on what we've come to call The Nuclear Family.  It is this basic unit of social structure that makes it possible for the larger community, at various levels, to coerce individual behavior, either through economic pressure or moral blackmail.  The family is paramount.  The family must be protected.  The family is the center of our life.
     Now, the insidiousness of this is that there is a basic truth to all the rhetoric.  Families are important, in fact, pretty much fundamental to our ability to live full lives.  The chain of loyalty is not even a bad idea in and of itself--how could we have the kinds of civilizations we've had without it?
     So how does this relate to Mr. Santorum's dictum about homosexuality?  Or sex in general?
     Simple.  Sex is potent.  We base a good deal of internal personality and identity on it--the doing, the condemning, the abstaining, what our position is on sex largely defines who we see ourselves as.  The celibacy (presumed) of priests is very much a statement of identity and it has to do directly with sex.  Not doing it says as much about who we are as doing it.
     Putting our sexual attitudes in tidy boxes dictated by others brings us into a very manipulable state.
     And what's wrong with that, you may ask?
     Just this: deciding who we are in this life is the most fundamental freedom we ought to possess.  In this we have choices.  But those choices are all based on what we bring to the table.
     My father was a machinist.  He has always been good with tools and possesses, to my mind, an almost magical ability to make things.  He comprehends machinery, understands mechanics.  He takes to it like a fish to water.  In a past age it might have been socially expected that I too would be a machinist.
     I would have been a pitiful one.  I can force myself to understand all these things, it's not a lack of ability, but I have no natural proclivities in that direction, no real interest, and therefore no desire to be what he was.  It would have been profoundly unfair of him (or anyone else) to have insisted that I follow in his footsteps.  I have other talents and proclivities.  He allowed me the freedom to choose my own path.  To do otherwise would have been crushing to me, immoral.
     So, in my own case, let me paraphrase Mr. Santorum's statement:
     I have no problem with writers.  If you came to me and told me you were a writer, that's fine with me.  I have a problem with the act of writing.  If you commit writing acts, then we have a problem.
     I have no problem with readers.  I have a problem with people who actually read.
     I have no problem with people who are inclined to read in groups.  But group reading is a perversion and people who actually commit group reading are perverse.
     I have no problem with people who want to have sex before marriage.  I have a problem with people who actually have sex before marriage.
     I have no problem with people who are capable of multiple orgasm.  I have a problem with people who have multiple orgasms.
     I have no problem with homosexuals.  Only with homosexual acts.
     He's drawing lines, some fine, some gross.
     All of it assumes that if we don't box our sexuality in, the family will disappear.  If it does, then how will the community coerce our loyalty?
     But this is an old tactic.  Isolate a group most people don't want to publicly associate with to begin with and start making statements about how they threaten the family.  The politics of paranoia.  We've been through this time and time again and it's wearying.
     The family seems to be hardwired into our basic natures.  It's not under threat.  People form and reform families constantly.
     The problem for the Santorum's of the world is that real families are porous and the boundaries shift and don't always form concrete shapes which can be manipulated.  They keep wanting to make it something immutable and that's of course impossible.
     It is curious, though, that the people who worry about these things are those who also have the biggest issue with loyalty.  Not personal loyalty.  Community loyalty.  National loyalty.
     It's no coincidence that the last big anti-war movement (during the VietNam War) emerged during a period of unprecedented sexual experimentation and revolution.  The so-called Love Generation wanted to end nationalism while tearing down the hypocrisy-drenched barriers we had erected around sex and sensuality.
     Out of that came Women's Liberation, Gay Rights, Roe v. Wade, and a host of other still vital social reconstructions that at base declared that sex should not be a prison.
     So I suppose as reaction we shouldn't be surprised at the Santorums who are trying to see if the jail doors might still have locks on them.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann