I’m sure you’ve all heard it before. If we normalize and accepting being gay, next we’ll have to accept pedophilia! If we allow gay marriage, we’ll have to let people marry turtles, or dogs! I remember hearing these arguments growing up, and they made perfect sense to me. So I’ve asked myself why they made sense to me then and make no sense to me now, and I have come up with not only an explanation but also a handy way to visualize it.
I call it the tale of two boxes.
I mentioned yesterday that I learn from the comments my readers leave. Well, the seed of this idea was born after reading this comment by reader smrnda:
I actually think that Christian sexual ethics – which are based on purity rather than consent, are really to blame. When I read lists of ‘sexual sin’ that include say, ‘masturbation, homosexuality and rape’ I get really bothered since most sensible people would know that it’s really inaccurate and insensitive to put those together on a list as if they were equivalent – I mean, the first two being moral issues is a joke, the third is one of the most terrible things you can do. Most people are horrified at sexual abuse and rape and power and oppression – the whole ‘purity thing’ doesn’t seem to single out sexual abuse and assault as special categories worthy of special disdain. The whole ‘sexual sin is sexual sin’ trivializes real wrong sexual behaviors.
Reading this comment got me to thinking, and here are some conclusions I’ve come to.
Let’s imagine everyone has two boxes, one in which they place all the sexual acts they believe are wrong, and the other in which they place all the sexual acts they believe are okay. The thing is, not only do conservatives and progressives (we’ll use those terms for the moment) divide acts differently between the two boxes, they also label the two boxes differently.
In other words, conservatives divide sexual acts into “wrong” or “okay” based on what God thinks of them, and progressives divide sexual acts into “wrong” and “okay” based on whether or not they are consensual.
Because of this, conservatives associate acts like gay sex, pedophilia, and bestiality in a way progressives don’t, and progressives associate acts like marital sex, premarital sex, and gay sex in a way conservatives never would. Similarly, conservatives see a bright line between, say, marital sex and gay sex but not between gay sex and pedophilia while progressives draw a bright line between, say, gay sex and pedophilia but not between gay sex and marital sex.
Thus when a conservative hears someone saying that gay sex is okay, they’re seeing that person dip into the box labeled “What God forbids,” and thus they wonder how, if you can dip into that box for one thing, that’s any different from taking something else out of that same box, like pedophilia or bestiality. But for the progressive, pedophilia and bestiality aren’t in the same box as gay sex. So when the conservative asks how someone can accept gay sex but still condemn pedophilia or bestiality, the progressive says, “What? Where in the world is that question coming from?”
And when conservatives object to gay marriage by equating it to marriage to animals, they’re once again looking at these things through the lens of their two boxes – “what God forbids” and “what God allows.” To a progressive that argument makes no sense, since they view these things through the lens of their two boxes – “non-consensual acts” and “consensual acts.” Marriage to an animal would never be consensual, but marriage between two men or two women is consensual, so why would you ever compare the two?
I think understanding that conservatives and progressives class sexual acts based on completely different categories – God’s commands v. consent – is important in understanding why the two sides so often seem to speak past each other.
I want to finish by quickly drawing this back to my “so you say you don’t hate gay people” theme. Regardless of what a person says about not hating gay people, if they group consensual acts like gay sex together with non-consensual acts like bestiality and pedophilia, they’re going to come across as offensive. Really offensive. And not really very loving, either.