Of heteronormative plumbing and men

pipesI’m not terribly clear on why the federal government has a surgeon general, but it’s been one of the highest-ranked public health positions in the land since Ulysses S. Grant filled it with John Maynard Woodworth in 1871. President Bush’s nominee for the vacant seat is one Dr. James W. Holsinger, a University of Kentucky professor.

Holsinger has come under fire in the media and among some gay groups, mostly for a research paper he wrote for the United Methodist Church in 1991. While he’s not criticized for belonging to the United Methodist Church, which officially believes homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, he’s been criticized for belonging to a congregation that has a ministry to homosexuals who desire to leave homosexuality. He’s also been criticized for upholding church doctrine on approving same-sex unions or permitting ordination of gay clergy.

But the big news has been over the research paper. Major kudos to the Lexington Herald-Leader and ABC News for posting the paper online. In the paper, which is very brief but contains citations from The New England Journal of Medicine and The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, he argues that the male and female sex are “indeed complementary.” Nothing terribly earth shattering there. He also goes into great detail about the increased incidences of disease and trauma among those whose sexual behavior involves the gastrointestinal tract. The report was given to a committee studying whether to change the church’s position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The UMC retained its position.

Comparing the results of male homosexual behavior to those of male heterosexual behavior used to be a topic for discussion. Suffice to say that such comparisons are not frequently seen these days. I’m not sure why — if it’s changing ideas about the morality of homosexuality or political correctness dominating academia or a changed understanding of human sexuality and its ramifications in the medical community. I really don’t know why — but there has definitely been a change in how we discuss these issues.

It’s a very interesting story — not only because the topic is rather salacious but also because it says a lot about newsrooms, modern culture and how our approach to issues changes over time. One of the things that makes the report difficult to cover is that it basically lists studies showing higher incidences of medical problems associated with anal erotic behavior. Some of it is graphic, as medical issues tend to be. So media reports have focused on this section of the paper, which is written rather clearly and without graphic descriptions:

[I]t is clear that even primitive cultures understand the nature of waste elimination, sexual intercourse, and the birth of children. Indeed our own children appear to “intuitively” understand these facts. I think we should note that these simple “scientific” facts are the same in any culture — patriarchal or matriarchal, modern or primitive, Jewish or gentile, etc. The anatomic and physiologic facts of alimentation and reproduction simply do not change based on any cultural setting. In fact, the logical complementarity of the human sexes has been so recognized in our culture that it has entered our vocabulary in the form of naming various pipe fittings either the male fitting or the female fitting depending upon which one interlocks within the other. When the complementarity of the sexes is breached, injuries and diseases may occur as noted above.

Sarah Vos at the Herald-Leader characterized that section as follows:

Like male and female pipe fittings, certain male and female body parts are designed for each other, Holsinger wrote in a paper prepared for a United Methodist Church committee studying homosexuality.

Here’s how Associated Press reporter Jeffrey McMurray conveyed the report:

Sixteen years ago, he wrote a paper for the church in which he likened the reproductive organs to male and female “pipe fittings” and said homosexuality is therefore biologically unnatural.

Uh, not exactly. He said that it was so obvious how male and female genitalia were complementary and it was so well understood by everyone — even reporters, one could presume — that the terms male and female are used to describe pipe fittings. Again, he argues, the complementary nature of the sexes is so obvious that we even use the words male and female in other contexts. To say that he compared male and female genitalia to pipe fittings is to miss the point of his argument and make it seem less nuanced.

Either way, I’m not sure why that portion of the paper is so noteworthy. If it is noteworthy, it makes one pause — is it possible that the plumbing profession is suffering from heteronormativity? Is it a good thing that plumbers developed their vocabulary before political correctness took over? And how, exactly, would people who oppose Holsinger on this point recommend we rename pipes?

Jake Tapper’s article for ABC suffered from a horrible headline but his story was much better. First, the headline:

‘Homosexuality Isn’t Natural or Healthy’

Bush’s Choice for Top Doc Compared Human Genitalia to Pipe Fittings and Said Homosexual Practices Can Cause Injury or Death

Only problem with the headline is that Holsinger neither said nor wrote those words. We’ve already discussed the problem with the subhead.

Anyway, Tapper actually quoted in detail from the paper and showed some substantive responses to it under the heading “What Holsinger’s Paper Argues”:

Holsinger’s paper argued that male and female genitalia are complementary — so much so “that it has entered our vocabulary in the form of naming pipe fittings either the male fitting or the female fitting depending upon which one interlocks within the other.” Body parts used for gay sex are not complementary, he wrote. “When the complementarity of the sexes is breached, injuries and diseases may occur.”

Holsinger wrote that “[a]natomically the vagina is designed to receive the penis” while the anus and rectum — which “contain no natural lubricating function” — are not. “The rectum is incapable of mechanical protection against abrasion and severe damage … can result if objects that are large, sharp or pointed are inserted into the rectum,” Holsinger wrote.

The explanation goes on for three more paragraphs. Precisely because summation of controversial issues doesn’t work well for reporters, Tapper handled this brilliantly. He explained difficult words, quoted directly and somewhat extensively from the paper and put it in context of the question the church was trying to answer. He also went on to quote a number of people, such as the head of the Kinsey Institute, who surprisingly doesn’t agree with Holsinger. The head of the Kinsey Institute also accuses Holsinger of being political, which is kind of funny.

It might have been good to get some quotes from neutral observers, less political observers or more religiously oriented observers. To that end, I thought Vos at the Herald-Leader did a good job of putting Holsinger’s professional views — as opposed to his religious views as a Methodist — into focus:

Holsinger’s colleagues at the University of Kentucky were surprised to learn of the views expressed in the 1991 paper. They said his personal objections to homosexuality — if he had any — would not affect policy decisions as surgeon general.

They pointed to a 2002 incident in which Holsinger, then chancellor of the UK Medical Center, defended a session on lesbian health issues at a women’s health conference over the objection of two state senators. The senators threatened to withhold funding because of the 90-minute session.

Phyllis Nash, who organized the conference, said Holsinger did not have to be persuaded to defend the session. “He basically said we are obligated as individuals to meet the needs of everyone, regardless of orientation.”

At the time, Holsinger defended the session in a Herald-Leader article. “It’s important to educate health care professionals on the issues that surround lesbians,” he said. “It’s important professionals have the knowledge base to do care for these patients in a quality manner.”

It was this vignette that made the story particularly interesting for me. Not that we really know the extent of Holsinger’s personal views or religious views on homosexuality, but let’s say Holsinger has the view that his religious beliefs on this topic should have no bearing on his professional vocation. How does that compare with those Roman Catholic politicians such as John Kerry and Rudy Guiliani who support abortion rights despite their personal view that it is horrible? That it literally destroys an innocent human life? Do you see any differences in how the media treat this issue?

And which angles and approaches on this surgeon general story would you recommend?

NOTE: And since homosexuality is a somewhat controversial subject for some of us, please remember to keep your comments on the topic we discuss here — how the mainstream media treat religious issues. We’re not here to discuss the relative merits of homosexual behavior vs. heterosexual behavior or even how churches handle the issue of sexuality. If you want to discuss those things, please feel free to do so elsewhere.

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  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    As Holy Roman Emperor Marcus Sheavius would (and probably will) say, this is on the order of “Extra! Methodists claim water is wet!”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Gosh I think this story is so fascinating that I’ll go ahead and answer my own question about interesting angles . . .

    One thing that the reaction of some groups to this story shows is how divorced reproduction has become from sexuality.

    Do people understand sexual activity as a reproductive function anymore?

    If not, could any of this be related to religious views changing on this topic? Does any of this have to do with widespread religious acceptance of birth control?

    Also, I was just reading some comments from people who were talking about how “dangerous” and “unnatural” hetero sex is. Do people really think that hetero sex — which either through design or evolution — is complementary and involves natural lubrication to ease both reproduction and enjoyment — is dangerous and unnatural?

    I would love to hear more from these people. I would love to hear more from people who think that the male and female sex are not complementary.

    I would hope for many more stories on these issues. We’ll see . . .

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I think this is the first time I’ve heard of somebody being borked (if only by the press) because he’s a Methodist.

    I wish I could be surprised by the juxtaposition of the statement that “injuries and diseases may occur” with the value judgment of what’s “natural and healthy,” but I’m not. This seems like a case where a religion angle is not only not a ghost but the opposite: deliberately injected into a story where it’s not really relevant.

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    I do not see any “religious” vs. “professional” tension here. One of the tenets of Christianity is to hate the sin and love the sinner. There is no more contradiction in Dr. Holsinger seeking to improve medical treatment of individuals engaged in same sex relations than there is in the fact that the Catholic Church has an important ministry to help post abortion women find healing and peace of mind. Objections to behavior never cancel concern for the person.

    I agree with Joel that here we are dealing with an interjection of religion. The Doctor’s point is that anyone can see that “the parts don’t fit.” In that sense, on medical grounds alone young people should be discouraged from same sex relations, just as they from smoking.

  • Eric G.

    I’m surprised that in the articles I haven’t seen more mention of Everett Koop. Koop had conservative social views, yet he was praised (and criticized) for dealing with the medical issues in a forthright manner.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    There is no more contradiction in Dr. Holsinger seeking to improve medical treatment of individuals engaged in same sex relations than there is in the fact that the Catholic Church has an important ministry to help post abortion women find healing and peace of mind.

    And the Catholic Church often comes under fire for doing exactly that, and for the same reason. If we provide assistance to post-abortive women, we acknowledge that there’s something to assist with. The abortion industry would prefer that that never be spoken, to kind of an Orwellian Newspeak end. With the current trend in the media to maintain the fiction that the sexes are interchangeable, it’s a taboo to acknowledge that any danger can exist in homosex that doesn’t in heterosex.

  • Margaret Newman

    Both ABC News and The Lexington Herald-Leader provided the title of the paper, “The Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality”, which you did not. But neither media outlet addressed the issue of how his medical cautions about homosexual activity do not apply to female homosexual activity. And neither addressed why most arguments against homosexual practices focus on those of gay men rather than those of lesbians.

  • Bob

    I can imagine someone objecting to the terminology used in hardware items. Just don’t let them plumb your house if they do. It won’t hold water.

  • Harris

    What makes the issue somewhat fuzzy is the equation of sexual behavior with sexual orientation. But that confusion almost certainly reflects a confusion within religious communities themselves: is it a matter of the heart, of orientation, or of actions (behavior). Moreover, as surveys reveal, ven in the faith community, some if not all of the sexual behaviors of homosexuals are found to some degree within the heterosexual community, as well.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And in a world where words had sensible meanings, “heteronormative” would mean “different from the normal”. Or is someone trying to deny that heterosexuality is the norm?
    [Stomping off, bellowing "The Ballad of Beta-Two"..]

  • http://holybulliesandheadlessmonsters.blogspot.com/ A. McEwen

    many have cited that Holsinger’s paper is factually inaccurate because that it contradicts itself on several occasions. For example:

    Check out this part on page four:

    Consensual penile-anal intercourse can be performed safely provided there is adequate lubrication. Few anorectal problems and no evidence of anal-sphincter dysfunction are found in heterosexual women who have anal-receptive intercourse. However, forceful anal penetration without lubrication against a resistant sphincter will result in abrasive trauma, causing fissures, contusions, thrombosed hemorrhoids, lacerations with bleeding, pain, and psychic trauma (Bush, 1986). The most severe type of anorectal trauma follows fist fornication which during the 1970s was practiced by approximately 5% of the male homosexual population (Geist, 1988). It should be noted that this activity is occasionally practiced by heterosexual and lesbian couples.

    Holsinger is admitting that heterosexuals engage in anal sex. If this is the case, then why does the focus of his paper deal with the alleged harm gays face because of anal sex.

    Also, his admittance of heterosexual anal sex contradicts his “pipes don’t fit” argument.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    Not just pipes, but a great many electrical connectors have been designated male and female. Many have part numbers with M or F suffixes. For instance, most of the plugs and sockets in a home entertainment system are designated by sex. FYI for all you reporter types out there.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Everybody remember we’re not debating homosexuality or heterosexuality but media coverage of the religious news story.

    Future off-topic comments will be deleted.

  • Captbilly

    How is this a religious news story? I can see how some would go over the 1991 paper to try and predict how Holsinger might behave as Surgeon General, but I do not get how you would see this as a religious story. Is it because the paper was written for a church, or do you see the content as religious?

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Plumbing isn’t the only domain that makes use of “male” and “female” terminology. Go buy any non-USB computer cables. Same thing. Ask for a mouse and if it’s the old-style 5-pin cable you better know if you’ll be needing one with a male or female connector. If you get a female and your computer port is a female, well, you got problems, right here in River City. Are USB ports a vast politically-correct conspiracy?

    I wonder, would those reporters hire a plumber who says, “Nah, it doesn’t matter what the fixtures are. I can put two males together with duct tape–no problem!” Think they would accept that on the grounds of inclusive diversity?

    Since I review books I have reviewed several now that discuss issues of morality and medical issues. One is the way the reproductive organs used in hetero sex are created/evolved differently from the, well, waste removal system. It hurts in more ways than you can imagine.

    A good book to read on the subject is Unprotected by Anonymous, M. D.

    AS far as Hoslinger’s paper, the press has taken it out of context. It was presented to a church’s doctrinal committee not as a theological treatise and not as a rights treatise but simply as a medical treatise that presents medical science. As the author of Unprotected states, the liberals hate science. And of course the concept of “two kingdoms” being un-vogue outside Lutheran circles the press will assume this one paper is indicative of his views on gays on all issues. I myself believe homosexuality is wrong, but that doesn’t mean they should be discriminated against. The gay community has the same Bill of Rights protection as every other American. That, and Mr, Holsinger’s medical credentials, should be the focus of the nomination.

    If Jocelyn Elders could serve in this post, then James W. Holsinger is more than qualified for the job.

    It is noteworthy that, even with the well-written articles, the headlines (which stick out and form impressions) twist the words of Holsinger and, in fact, turn his point of contention (complemetary nature of the sexes being used in real world applications) used for generations into a “new” illustration by Holsinger. Do reporters think we’re stupid?

    In the Sunday edition of the New York Times same-sex unions (and, from Toronto and Boston “marriages”) are listed and featured in the Style wedding announcements. WIth heteros there is no “pictured at right/left” as there is with same sex couples pictured. I guess it’s just the Times‘ effort to make the lifestyle seem “normal.”

    Mollie has a point about our culture having divorced sexual pleasure from reproduction. We can stop reproduction with birth control and abortion. If we have problems in that area there is adoption, in-vitro fertilization, fertility drugs, and other methods (like surrogating, although I believe it involves some type of heterosexual activity at some point).

  • http://prairiemary.blogspot.com Mary Scriver

    This article stumbles over two very common fallacies that often slip into religious conversation. One is “mis-placed concreteness” where the metaphor overwhelms the reality of the thing being compared. As several have mentioned, the metaphor of electrical connectors could also have been used, since the innies and outies are comparable and Gods have a long history of association with lightning as well as floods. (I admit to blushing the first time I was sent to the hardware store to buy some six-inch nipples.)

    The other fallacy is that old sneak “from is to ought,” the idea that one’s familiar status quo is a moral norm that must be justified by any other considerations.

    Prairie Mary

  • Eli

    Another terribly interesting post, Mollie. OK. I’m won over. If GetReligion hypothetically *did* come out with a Mollie t-shirt I’d have to seriously consider buying it. What can I say? I’m smitten. And I hope Mark’s cool with that. He’s got a keeper there.

    Mary, curious as to what you find fallacious about those two things: either the aptness of the metaphor or the problem with the “is” vs. “ought” of social norms? I’m not sure it’s clear what your points are there.

    As far as the divorce of reproduction from the consideration of sexuality point that Mollie made up above goes, it is something that I have to agree is pervasive in our culture and media. Putting aside the various religious considerations of sex out of wedlock and homosexuality, when sexual imagery is used to sell everything from cars to toothpaste it seems natural that “sex as reproduction” would evolve (or devolve) into the adolescent notion of “sex as consumption”. Like it or not we’re a fast food nation. If we can have fast food why not even faster sex?

    It seems to me that it’s really only when one considers the practical implications of what it actually takes to have and raise happy, healthy children that the ethical viability of meaningless or strictly “fun” sex becomes apparent. If one’s partner is playing around, if you’re a man, does that then mean you get to raise the child that comes out of that dalliance thereby taking away from resources that would have gone to your own children? Or if you’re a woman, will your husband then leave you for the other woman and what sort of resources will then be lost from the care of your own children? That’s some serious junk and it’s easy to see how one’s sense of humor can become compromised when one started out just looking to get laid. What in high school was the appeal of the bad boy or the bad girl naturally evolves into finding someone who will make a good partner for the long haul.

    While sex as fun will never go away, since it is so much darn fun, coming to accept sex as reproduction would take an element of maturity that, I believe, the MSM would be loathe to admit. After all, it would also require an admission of “judgment” as to the quality (or potency) of the sex people were having as well as bringing unwelcome “consequences” into the whole equation. And it seems obvious to me that the postmodern media holds a bitter disdain for both those qualities as far as they pertain to one’s own condition. Judgment and consequences are just *so* uninteresting unless they’re happening to someone else — like Paris or O.J.

  • http://www.universityclub.com wrigley peterborough

    Alas, does no one use the term ‘buggery’ any longer to describe sexual congress ‘twixt two Oscar Wilde types?

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  • http://www.inleader.net Jakob

    This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title . Thanks for informative article