What’s wrong with gay sex?

Here’s a chpt of my book The Philosophy Gym on gay sex. It’s topical again given current traumas in Church of England.

Mr Jarvis, a Christian, was asleep in bed, dreaming of the Last Judgement. In his dream, Jarvis found himself seated next to God in a great cloud-swept hall. God had just finished handing down judgement on the drunkards, who were slowly shuffling out of the exit to the left. Angels were now ushering a group of nervous-looking men through the entrance to the right. As the men were assembled before Him, God began to speak.

God: So who’s next? Ah, yes, the active homosexuals . So tell me, Jarvis, what shall we do with them?
Jarvis: You’re going to punish them, aren’t you?
God: Why do you say that?
Jarvis: Because to engage in homosexual behaviour is wrong, of course.

The Appeal to The Bible

God gently rubbed his chin and looked quizzically at Jarvis.

God. Wrong? Is it wrong?
Jarvis: Yes. You say so yourself in The Bible.
God: Ah. The Bible.
Jarvis: Yes. Look right here. “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.” Leviticus 18.22
God. Well, I may have been a little hasty. I’m not sure about that bit now.
Jarvis. Not sure? You’re God! You don’t make mistakes!
God: Perhaps I am not the real God. Perhaps I’m merely a dream God – a figment of your imagination.
Jarvis: Oh.
God. Also, why do you assume The Bible is one hundred percent reliable?
Jarvis: You mean it’s not?
God: I didn’t say that. But look, if you plan entirely to base your morality on the contents of just one book, you had better be sure it is the right book. And you had better be sure to what extent it can be relied upon, hadn’t you?

The Lord pointed to The Bible lying in Jarvis’s lap.


God: Flip forward a couple of pages. Scan down a bit. That’s it. Leviticus 11.7-8 What does it say?
Jarvis: “And the swine, though he divide the hoof; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat.”
God: Ever eaten a bacon sandwich? Then you have sinned! Now a little further down.
Jarvis: “These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales…”
God: “…ye shall not eat of their flesh.” Didn’t your last meal include moules marinière? Why aren’t you Christians out boycotting seafood restaurants and warning of the perils of lobster thermidor?

Jarvis turned a little pale.

God: If you read over the page from the passage about homosexuality, you will discover that it’s also wrong to wear a jacket made from a linen/wool mix.
Jarvis: I hadn’t noticed that bit before.
God: Further on it says it’s sinful to lend money for interest. Yet you condemn not one of these things, do you?
Jarvis: No.
God: But you confidently cite that particular passage of Leviticus to justify your condemnation of homosexuality. It seems you are picking and choosing.
Jarvis: But surely you no longer mean those other passages about seafood, jackets and lending money to apply? They’re outdated, aren’t they?

God looked sternly at Jarvis.

God: The word of God? Outdated? Okay, I don’t blame you for failing to condemn those who wear jackets made from a linen/wool mix. But you’re using your own sense of right and wrong, your own moral criteria, to decide which passages of The Bible to accept and which to reject, aren’t you?
Jarvis: Yes, I guess I am.
God: Indeed, it’s because the morality of The Bible does generally fit in with what you already think about right and wrong that you are prepared to accept The Bible as my word, isn’t it? If The Bible recommended stealing, lying and killing, you would hardly be likely to take it as My word, would you?
Jarvis: I guess not.
God: Then I think you should be honest. Rather than picking those bits of The Bible you like and rejecting the rest, and then claiming that your particular selection has my divine stamp of approval, I think you should just say that you think homosexuality is wrong and leave me out of it.
Jarvis: Very well.
God: Right, so if you believe homosexuality is wrong, can you explain to me why it’s wrong? Why do these men deserve punishment?

Homosexuality is unnatural

Jarvis looked out at the assembled crowd and scratched his head.

Jarvis: I didn’t say you should punish them. Perhaps they should be forgiven. But they have sinned. I can give you a number of reasons why.
God: What reasons?
Jarvis: The first is that homosexuality is unnatural.
God: Ah. That’s perhaps the most commonly held justification for condemning homosexual acts. But in what sense is homosexuality unnatural?
Jarvis: Well, most people aren’t actively homosexual. So homosexuality is an aberration from the norm.
God: In a sense. But then most men don’t have red hair. So red hair is also, as you put it, an aberration from the norm. Yet there is nothing unnatural about red hair, is there?
Jarvis: True. What I mean is that homosexual acts are unnatural because they are not what nature intended.
God: Not what nature intended? Hmm. Again, you need to clarify. Do you mean that homosexual acts run against those tendencies that nature has instilled in man, those that come most naturally to him?
Jarvis: Yes, I suppose I do.
God: I see. But now what about cleanliness? Cleanliness is next to Godliness, they say. Yet it hardly comes naturally to most human beings does it? Children seem positively fond of dirt. Man, for the most part, is pretty filthy, and doesn’t much mind being so. Your human obsession with hygiene is a very modern development. But then, by your own reasoning, cleanliness is morally wrong.
Jarvis: Oh dear.
God. Indeed, much that comes naturally to man is immoral. But he also seems naturally inclined towards greed, avarice, selfishness, infidelity and aggression. Humans have to struggle to control these natural inclinations. In fact it’s only those who succeed in thwarting these repugnant natural tendencies that are considered virtuous. Yet you would now reverse this and say that these tendencies, being natural, are good and what runs against them bad! Let me introduce you to someone.

Suddenly, Jarvis felt another person sitting close by. He turned to his right and saw a bald, serious-looking man dressed in a dark suit.

God: This is John Stuart Mill, who lived from 1806 to 1873. Mill here didn’t always give me a good press. In fact meeting me came as something of a surprise to you, didn’t it Mill?

Mill smiled nervously.

God: But he does has something interesting to say about what is natural. Don’t you Mill?
Mill: Conformity to nature, has no connection whatever with right and wrong….To illustrate this point, let us consider the phrase by which the greatest intensity of condemnatory feeling is conveyed in connection with the idea of nature – the word unnatural. That a thing is unnatural, in any precise meaning which can be attached to the word, is no argument for its being blameable; since the most criminal actions are to a being like man, not more unnatural than most of the virtues.

No sooner had Mill finished speaking than he vanished in a puff of smoke.

God: A fine mind, that Mill. So what do you say now?

Jarvis looked a little irritated. He remained convinced that there is something unnatural about homosexuality, something that makes it morally wrong. But he was struggling very hard to identify exactly what this unnatural and immoral feature is. Then, after a few minutes, Jarvis had an idea.

Jarvis. I have it! The penis has a specific function, doesn’t it? It’s designed for procreation: for the production of children. Homosexual activity is thus a misuse of that particular body part. One is using a body part contrary to the way nature intended.
God: I see. But then most sexual activity is morally wrong. For most sexual activity – even heterosexual activity – involves the thwarting of the procreative natural function. Masturbation is sinful: it cannot result in the production of children. Oral sex is sinful. The use of any sort of contraceptive device is sinful. Is that what you believe?
Jarvis: It’s certainly what many Catholics believe, isn’t it?
God: True. But look, if the justification for considering all these sorts of sexual activity sinful is that they involve using body parts contrary to their “natural” function, then what about, say, wearing earrings? It hardly looks like a “natural” use of the ears, does it, hanging lumps of metal off them? Yet it’s not considered sinful. No doubt you would deny that wearing earrings involves, as you said, using a body part “contrary to its basic, essential function”. But why?
Jarvis: I’m not sure.
God: And in any case, the question remains: Why is it wrong to use a body part contrary to its basic natural function? I just don’t see why it follows that if something comes unnaturally to us, or to a part of our body, then it’s wrong.

Homosexuality is dirty

Jarvis was struggling to answer God’s question adequately. So he decides to try a different tack.

Jarvis: Okay. Suppose I accept that Mill is correct. Morality has nothing to do with what’s “natural” or “unnatural”. Still there’s another much more obvious and better reason for condemning homosexual practices. I hope you won’t be offended if I speak frankly.
God: Be as frank as you like.
Jarvis: Very well. Homosexuality is dirty, isn’t it? Sodomy – placing ones penis in someone else’s anus – means that it is probable that one will come into contact with faeces.
God. What you say about sodomy is true. But does this show that all homosexual acts are wrong? No, it doesn’t. There are plenty of active homosexuals who don’t practise sodomy. You can’t condemn them, can you?
Jarvis. No.
God: Also, there are heterosexual couples that practise sodomy, aren’t there?
Jarvis: There are?
God. Take my word for it. But in any case, just because an activity is dirty doesn’t make it wrong.
Jarvis: Why not?
God: You’re a keen gardener, aren’t you?
Jarvis: Yes.
God: Well, gardening is a pretty dirty activity, isn’t it? Particularly where you live. There is rarely a day you spend in the garden that doesn’t result in you immersing your hands in cat faeces, is there?
Jarvis: I guess that’s true. You are right. Gardening is dirty, but it’s not immoral. So I can’t really use the alleged dirtiness of sodomy to justify my morally condemning it, can I?
God: You’re catching on, my boy.

Homosexuality is unhealthy

Jarvis now tried a different tack.

Jarvis: To engage in homosexual activity is unhealthy. That’s why it’s wrong.
God: Unhealthy?
God: Yes. Take HIV for example. HIV is an infection that results in AIDS. AIDS kills millions of people. And it is through homosexual activity that HIV is spread. Correct?
God: You are partially correct. HIV can be spread through all forms of penetrative sex. Indeed, many heterosexuals are infected too.
Jarvis: That’s true.
God: Also, homosexuals may practise safe sex. Heterosexuals too. Practice safe sex and the risks are pretty low.
Jarvis: Hmm. Also true, I guess.
God: Perhaps it’s true that homosexual acts are more likely to pass on the disease than are heterosexual acts, even if they are of the comparatively “safe” variety. But does that make it wrong? If it were found that drinking wine is similarly a bit less healthy than drinking beer, we wouldn’t morally condemn those wine drinkers who refused to switch to beer, would we?
Jarvis: I guess not.

Homosexuality corrupts the young

Jarvis: But what of homosexuals who prey on innocent young men? That’s wrong, isn’t it?
God: But it’s no less wrong when men seek to seduce innocent and impressionable young women, surely?
Jarvis: Well, yes, that is wrong too. But what the homosexual seducer does is more wrong.
God: Why?
Jarvis: Well, because the young man involved may then end up adopting a homosexual lifestyle himself. He may be corrupted.
God: You’re assuming, I think, that homosexuals tend to be made, not born. That’s contentious, is it not?
Jarvis: Well, isn’t it plausible that some men who would, other things being equal, go on to have only heterosexual sexual relationships may have a tendency towards homosexuality that, given the wrong sort of experience at an impressionable age, may result in them then pursuing homosexual liaisons later in life?
God: That’s not implausible. But notice that you’re begging the question. If there’s nothing morally wrong with homosexuality, then what difference does it make if a young man does end up engaging in homosexual acts? Why insist that this young man is corrupted?
Jarvis: Well, homosexuals live miserable lives. In many societies they continue to be vilified. So, as a result of his early homosexual experience, this young man may end up having an unhappy life. The homosexual who initiates the young man into this life must know this. So what the initiator does is wrong.
God: Perhaps. But even if what you say is true, is the blame for the young man’s misery to be pinned primarily on the homosexual who initiates him?

God pointed an accusatory finger at Jarvis.

God: Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to blame people like you for making homosexuals miserable by vilifying them?

Homosexuals are promiscuous

Jarvis didn’t bother to answer God’s question. Instead, he pointed out something about male homosexuals that does appear to be true.

Jarvis: Male homosexuals tend to be rather more promiscuous than heterosexuals. Doesn’t that, at least, make them worthy of your moral condemnation?
God: This, at best, would give me reason to condemn those homosexuals that were promiscuous. It would not justify my condemning homosexual acts per se. In fact there are many homosexual couples that remain faithful throughout their lives. And plenty of heterosexuals are promiscuous too.
Jarvis: True. But homosexuals tend to be more promiscuous.
God: In fact, there’s a scientific explanation for that. Males seem naturally much more disposed towards having no-strings sex than do females. Ask heterosexual men if they would accept the offer of no-risk, no-strings sex with an attractive stranger of the opposite sex and over 90% say “yes”. Ask heterosexual women the same question and the vast majority say “no”.
Jarvis: That’s interesting.
God. Yes. So you see, in heterosexual relationships, women act as a natural brake on the male’s impulse to have sex fairly indiscriminately. For male homosexuals this brake is missing. It is unsuprising, then, that they tend to be more promiscuous than are heterosexual males. It’s not that they are any less moral. It’s just that they have more opportunity to do what most men, whatever their sexual persuasion, would do given the opportunity.
Jarvis: Nevertheless, you admit that male homosexuals do tend to be more promiscuous, and promiscuity is not to be encouraged. So male homosexuality is not to be encouraged, surely.
God: Your argument rests on the assumption that promiscuity is itself a bad thing. But is it?
Jarvis: Isn’t it?
God: Can you explain to me why you think it is?

Homosexuals use each other as means, not ends

Jarvis: Well, take for example those bathhouses in San Francisco. You know, the ones in which homosexual orgies are supposed to have taken place. Men having sex with complete strangers at the drop of a hat. These men would be treating other men not as ends in themselves, but merely as a means to an end, that end being their own immediate sexual gratification. Now that is morally wrong, surely. It was the philosopher Kant (1724-1804) who said: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” And that is quite right, isn’t it? One ought to treat others as ends in themselves, rather than as the means by which one might obtain a quick sexual thrill. That, surely, is why such promiscuous behaviour is wrong.
God: An ingenious argument, I admit. But not persuasive. Let me conjure up for you another philosopher, Lord Quinton (1925- ), who has something interesting to say on this matter.

A figure began to materialize to Jarvis’s right. First some hands appeared; then a nose. Finally, there was Anthony Quinton standing before him (Quinton, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to God).

God: Ah. Lord Quinton. My friend Jarvis just suggested that it is wrong to use another person not as an end in themselves, but merely as a means to sexual pleasure. Homosexuals are less likely to enter into lasting, monogomous sexual relationships. They are, perhaps, more likely to engage in casual sex with a complete stranger, on a whim. Is it that a problem, morally?
Quinton: It is certainly true that long-term, morally and personally profound relationships are less common among homosexuals. How much does that matter? If I regularly play tennis with someone but do not see him except on the tennis court and at the health juice bar afterwards, if, in other words, I am interested in him only as a tennis partner, am I ignoring his status as an end in himself? More to the point, if I pick up different opponents every time I go to the courts, on a purely casual basis, am I acting immorally?
Jarvis: But hang on. Sex is not like tennis is it? Sex is a much more important part of life, surely.
Quinton: Except for a minute number of people sex is a more important part of life than tennis. A life in which it is merely a source of short-term gratification and not an inseparable part of a whole shared life is to that extent trivialised. But triviality is not a moral offence; it is, rather, a missed opportunity and one which, in fact, many homosexuals do not miss.

God waved his hand and Lord Quinton began to dissolve into tendrils of cloud. As the last wisps drifted away, God looked intently at Jarvis.

God: So you see, it may be true that some homosexuals use each other as means to an end and not as ends in themselves. But, as Quinton just explained, it’s difficult to see why there is anything morally wrong with that. It may also be true that some homosexuals miss out on the kind of deeper connection that can be made only within a stable, lasting and sexually exclusive relationship. However, as Quinton also just explained, this is surely not a reason morally to condemn them.

Jarvis scratched his head. He now felt very confused.

Jarvis: But I felt sure that you would condemn homosexuality.
God: If two consenting adult males want to enter into a sexual relationship, why not? So far you have not given me a single convincing reason why such activity demands my condemnation. Homosexual sex does no harm to others. Nor does it appear to do much obvious harm to the individuals involved. Why shouldn’t people engage in it if that is what they want?

Homosexuality and “family values”

Jarvis: You say that homosexuality does no harm to others. But perhaps it does. Perhaps it has a corrosive effect on society as a whole. For doesn’t it eat away at the institution that lies at the heart of any civilized society: the family?
God: Why do you say that?
Jarvis: Well, for a start, if everyone was exclusively homosexual, then there would be no families, would there? The human race would die out!
God: Does that make homosexuality wrong? I think not. For, similarly, if every man became a Catholic Priest, that too would mean the end of the family. Yet there’s nothing immoral about being a Catholic Priest, I hope?
Jarvis: No. But look, societies that fail to condemn homosexuality crumble. Once homosexuality is considered a morally acceptable alternative to heterosexuality, the result must be the breakdown of the family. And the family is the glue that binds society together, is it not?
God: You seem to be suggesting that homosexuality is like some sort of disease that will inevitably eat away at the vitals of society unless strongly dealt with.
Jarvis: Yes, I am.
God: But why must a society that tolerates homosexuality crumble? Actually, it seems to me that societies tolerant of homosexuality thrive just as much if not more than intolerant ones. And why do you believe homosexuality is a threat to the family? Why can’t we have both strong families and tolerance? You really have made no case for any of these conclusions, have you?

Jarvis grimaced.

God: In fact, it seems to me that your attitude towards homosexuals is driven less by reason and more by emotion: by feelings of disgust and revulsion.
Jarvis: I do have strong feelings about them, yes. They do revolt me. And shouldn’t society take into account the strong moral convictions of the great many who have such feelings?
God: But it’s clear, isn’t it, that morality isn’t simply a matter of emotion? Just because most people feel that something is disgusting or abhorrent doesn’t make it wrong. After all, plenty of people feel strongly about the moral inferiority of Jews. Plenty feel similarly about blacks. Plenty feel sickened by foreigners. Yet all these feelings are without justification. That kind of “them and us” sentiment on which “they” are held to be dirty, nasty and immoral comes very naturally to you humans. Perhaps you should be more vigilant, more on your guard against letting such feelings get a grip. As Ronald Dworkin points out, you certainly shouldn’t mistake such feelings for moral conviction. Isn’t that right, Ronald?

Another shadowy figure started to take form next to Jarvis and began to speak.

Dworkin: If I base my view about homosexuals on a personal emotional reaction (‘they make me sick’) you would reject [it]. We distinguish moral positions from emotional reactions, not because moral positions are supposed to be unemotional or dispassionate – quite the reverse is true – but because the moral position is supposed to justify the emotional reaction, and not vice versa. If a man is unable to produce such reasons, we do not deny the fact of his emotional involvement, which may have important social or political consequences, but we do not take this involvement as demonstrating his moral conviction. Indeed, it is just this sort of position – a severe emotional reaction to a practice or a situation for which one cannot account – that we tend to describe, in lay terms, as phobias or an obsession.

Jarvis looked uncomfortable.

God: See? You’re in the grip of a phobia or obsession.
Jarvis: Oh dear.
God: Having said all that, let’s get on with the judging.

God reached forward and pressed a small red button on his armrest. Immediately, the hall was bathed in an eerie red light and the air filled with the deafening “Parp! Parp! Parp!” of a claxon. Jarvis noticed that over on the left of the hall a number of doors had sprung open and little horned creatures with long tails were pouring out. These devil-creatures immediately began to prod the assembled homosexuals back in the direction of the doorways with their spiked forks. Many of these unfortunate men were now holding each other and whimpering.

God: That’s right. You all burn.
Jarvis: In hell?
God: I’m afraid so. They didn’t follow instructions. Couldn’t be clearer. You pointed out one of the relevant passages yourself. Homosexuality is an abomination. I razed Sodom to ground, didn’t I?
Jarvis: But a minute ago you said…
God: I have been testing you. I have pretended to be a bleeding-heart liberal in order to establish your commitment to The Bible. I do tests. Don’t you remember Isaac and Abraham – Genesis 23?
Jarvis: But what about forgiveness? Aren’t you going to allow them into heaven?

God pointed to the men being herded about by the devil-creatures

God: Let them into heaven? How can I?
Jarvis: But I thought you said…
God: There you go, thinking again. It’s all in the book: The book you hold in your hands. Take a look at Corinthians, 1, 6:9-11. It says very clearly that ‘abusers of themselves with mankind…shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. Such were some of you, but ye are washed…ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ Now these men are not ‘washed’ are they? They don’t repent. In fact, they flaunt their activities proudly before us. That one even has a ‘Gay Pride’ banner.

There was indeed a worried looking man standing at the front with a slightly droopy cardboard placard.

God: It’s all very clear: they go to hell.
Jarvis: Really?
God: Rules are rules. So who’s next? Ah yes, the lobster eaters. Come on down!

At this Jarvis woke up, his bed soaked in sweat.

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