The March issue of the ecumenical journal First Things features a thought-provoking essay titled “Against Heterosexuality” by Michael W. Hannon. With its sensationalist title yet substantive arguments, it focuses on the nature, history, and implications of sexual orientation and its categories. Hannon’s piece is well worth the read, but its arguments suffer from serious flaws.
Hannon presents his case as follows: The notion of sexual orientation as an essential aspect of the human person is a relatively new idea, a “fragile social construct” that only came about in the nineteenth century. Contrary to the claims of “orientation essentialism,” therefore, sexual orientation is not innate to the human condition, having not existed as a category of identification for the vast majority of human history. Furthermore, just as it was once constructed, the idea of sexual orientation must now be deconstructed, for it breeds vice in allowing individuals to identify themselves by their sexual desires and label themselves as either heterosexual or homosexual.
According to Hannon, the vices in self-describing as homosexual are that it “tends to multiply occasions of sin” by intensifying “concupiscent desires,” by fostering a “despairing self-pity,” and by encouraging a “strong sense of entitlement.” Yet just as bad, if not worse, are the vices in describing oneself as heterosexual: It “ushers in a pathetically uncritical and … unmerited self-assurance, not to mention an inaccurate measure for evaluating temptation” simply because the heterosexual sees herself as normal and better—and therefore less sinful—compared to the supposedly deviant homosexual.
In other words, the former keeps the individual from not only the virtue of chastity but also those of faith, hope, and charity; the latter keeps the individual from the virtues of diligence and, more importantly, humility. Put bluntly, “If homosexuality binds us to sin, heterosexuality blinds us to sin.”
Again, for Hannon, like for many queer theorists on the far left, the answer is to deconstruct this orientation essentialism. But unlike the queer theorists, who seek this deconstruction so as to allow individuals to freely explore their sexual desires without any restraints that a specified orientation may impose, Hannon seeks this deconstruction for a different reason, of course. Hannon wishes to replace the orientation essentialism with the restoration of the “older teleological view” that evaluated sexual acts “by reference to the common good of marriage, which integrated spousal union and the bearing and rearing of children.”
Invention or Discovery?
Let us begin with the claim that sexual orientation is an invented and therefore unnatural social construct. The first problem here is that Hannon assumes that social constructs cannot be grounded in facts of human nature, even if they themselves are not facts of human nature. On this point, one can think of particular gender roles, for instance, that are based on and tied to one’s sex (which, by the way, are themselves being increasingly deconstructed in Western society). Consider that men tend to be physically stronger on balance than women; so masculine roles based on hard physical labor are to an extent biologically justified, even if the category of masculinity as constitutive of identity is socially constructed.
Hannon takes the point of sexual orientation’s construction as a mere invention as opposed to a new discovery or understanding of the human person. While it is almost certainly true that no one before the nineteenth century identified as heterosexual or homosexual, that does not mean that individuals before then did not still have primarily opposite—or same-sex attractions—attractions that were more than just sexual and that undoubtedly influenced most of their social interactions.
So from the very beginning, Hannon’s assertion of the fragility of orientation essentialism is questionable at best. Regardless, he deploys the arguments of several queer theorists—from Michael Foucault to Jonathan Ned Katz—who “readily concede that such distinctions [between heterosexuality and homosexuality] are fledging constructs and not much more” and who “aim to expose the counterfeit credentials of sexual orientation and, taking a page from Nietzsche, to genealogically explain it away once and for all.” The point remains, however, that to argue against the sexual categories of orientation essentialism does not change the fact that some individuals continue to be primarily, if not solely, attracted to one sex in particular, a fact Hannon seemingly ignores. The reason these attractions merit an identity construction is that they are totalizing in our daily lives; they are physical, emotional, and spiritual too, and they influence how we approach and understand almost all of our relations with other persons.
The problems with Hannon’s analysis do not end there. He states the following:
‘”My own prediction is that we will see this [heterosexual/homosexual] binary thoroughly deconstructed within our lifetimes. But in my view, we proponents of Christian chastity should see the impending doom of the gay-straight divide not as a tragedy but as an opportunity. More than that, I want to suggest that we should do our best to encourage the dissolution of orientation within our own subcultural spheres wherever possible.”
It has been pretty well-established that sexuality is a spectrum and not a binary (which Hannon does acknowledge when he writes, “The ever-increasing laundry list of orientations demonstrates the insufficiency of those neat and discrete categories.”) This fact is not mere pedantry, for it largely blunts Hannon’s point here. There cannot transpire a “doom” for a divide that does not exist. Furthermore, it is the use of this dichotomous framework that leads Hannon to conflate that supposed “impending doom of the gay-straight divide” with the “dissolution of orientation” altogether.
Even Dr. Alfred Kinsey (of Kinsey Scale fame) over sixty years ago recognized both that sexuality is a spectrum and that it can be fluid throughout one’s own life, all of which points to the fact that even when sexuality was in the process of being constructed, room was still being made for those who did not adhere to the so-called binary.
Coming Out and Attraction
The next part of Hannon’s argument is that orientation essentialism lends itself to vice. The vices he mentions can absolutely manifest themselves in our use of these sexual categories. But simply because they can lead to those vicious actions and outlooks does not mean that they must or are even more likely to. And, actually, refusing to acknowledge and be open about one’s sexuality can just as easily lend itself to vice. Eve Tushnet, ‘00, a conservative and celibate gay Catholic, argues as such with regard to homosexuality:
“The closet also offers a lot of temptations to sin; I’d say for many people it just is a near occasion of sin. There’s the obvious temptation to lie. There’s the temptation to throw other people under the bus to make yourself look more hetero, or butcher or whatever. There’s the temptation to deny or speak uncharitably to openly gay friends (or, for that matter, enemies). There’s the temptation to cut yourself off from other people so they don’t get too close—to avoid friendship, and avoid help. Being in the closet makes it harder to act rightly.”
One can argue that Tushnet would lose a lot of force in her points were sexual categories not to exist; if one couldn’t call oneself homosexual, then there would be nothing to lie about or hide. At least that is the assumption. Yet even in such a world as Hannon would like to see, an individual with same-sex attractions would still feel inclined to lie, to isolate him or herself from deep relationships, and to feel the same “despairing self-pity” of which Hannon speaks.
As Wesley Hill, another writer at First Things, argues, hiding or rejecting one’s sexuality “involves an unhealthy self-focus, a constant policing of speech and actions, which can be profoundly crippling to your spiritual life,” and it can “cause you to refuse to recognize your gay or lesbian neighbors.” In terms of Christian virtue, thus, humility, hope, and charity are threatened.
Regarding the vice of self-described heterosexuals, Hannon suggests that such identification can be “absurd” and “vainglorious” because it can make the person think that he has an “inherent moral quality,” that his equally erotic desires are somehow more virtuous—all because there is a “homosexuality” to contrast his own “heterosexuality” against. And Hannon rejects seeing these persons as “paragons of chastity just because they avoid the unchaste pitfall du jour.” For this to be Hannon’s driving point, he seems to overlook a gaping blind spot: sexual sin still exists for the heterosexual. Much of society still frowns upon adultery, promiscuity, pornography, and prostitution, for instance. And it goes without saying that society takes sexual abuse incredibly seriously; after serial killers, those who suffer the harshest criminal sentences are rapists and child molesters.
In fairness, listing these sexual sins only mitigates Hannon’s argument; he is not arguing that self-described heterosexuals fail to recognize their sexual sins but rather that, due to the supposed binary, they see themselves as morally superior to homosexuals in essence, allowing them to stigmatize homosexuals to a greater degree. That being said, this is decreasingly the case as homosexuals are becoming more accepted in society. Among younger generations, there is no longer a dichotomy that sees heterosexual acts as good but homosexual acts as bad. Instead, it is more likely the case that those who see chastity as a virtue will continue to view all sex outside of marriage as bad, regardless of sexual orientation. As such, the solution is not to suddenly do away with orientation essentialism.
There is a second flaw in Hannon’s overall argument, one that permeates religious discussions of homosexuality all too often. That is the flaw of reducing homosexuality (and sexuality in general) to purely sexual terms. Of course, the whole point of sexuality is that it reflects one’s sexual desires, but it is a mistake to limit our understanding of attraction to the sexual alone. But on the contrary, Hannon argues (as do many traditional Christians) that it is wrong both to identify persons by their sinful tendencies and to celebrate those tendencies. “If the sin is theft, then is the standard of evaluation kleptomania? If drunkenness, alcoholism? If sloth, clinical depression?” The claim is that because the act of sodomy is wrong, we ought not identify individuals by their inclination toward that act, and we certainly ought not celebrate that inclination in our laws and culture.
This view, however, that sees the homosexual orientation as merely the temptation to sodomy, is overly simplistic and woefully inadequate. The man who identifies as homosexual is likelier to appreciate another man’s (non-sexual) physical beauty much more easily than he is to appreciate a woman’s; he is likelier to connect emotionally and spiritually with another man much more easily than with a woman. He is attracted to the whole person—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and yes, sexually. Romance and the increased affection, appreciation, and connection—all morally good things—do not suddenly disappear once their focus is on someone of the same sex. There is obviously a sexual component to attraction, but it is not the only one. Too many religious conservatives ignore this fact at the expense of a full understanding of homosexual attraction.
The Incomplete Teleological Framework
The solution for Hannon is to return to a traditional, teleological framework of sexual activity that celebrates it only within the confines of spousal union and openness to procreation. It is hard for many people to accept this framework, not simply because it sets up a difficult standard to abide by (although that is undoubtedly true,) but also because it strikes many as incomplete.
It would be foolish (and hubristic) for someone like me to go up against St. Thomas Aquinas (whom I admire greatly) and the thousands of years of Christian teaching that have presented this framework. But it is quite evident that, at least in Western society, such teachings do not accurately reflect couples’ personal experiences. While morality is in no way subject to the shifting tides of popular opinion, overwhelming moral intuitions can nonetheless direct us toward an objective morality. Also, the traditional framework sees the sexual act primarily as a mechanistic reproduction function and only secondarily as an expression of marital love. It makes it easier to place more moral worth on the unhappily married couple with children over the happily married one without any children (despite being perfectly fertile). And yet, the Church implicitly acknowledges this aspect as a problem by preaching Natural Family Planning, the method of marital sex that offers observant Catholic couples a morally good way of having sex during specific times of the month so as to avoid a pregnancy from resulting. Though this loophole of sorts, the Church is demonstrating that sex can be primarily for spousal union and not necessarily for procreation.
Furthermore, it is just as evident that the traditional framework fails to account for the homosexual person (or one who has homosexual desires, as Hannon would argue). It sees him as only a sexual being tempted by sodomy and called to (or forced into) celibacy. And it keeps him from fully investing himself emotionally, spiritually, physically with another man to whom he finds himself attracted, for fear that those things may lead to the sexual.
It is terribly ignorant and historically inaccurate to believe, as many critics do, that this framework was formed out of malicious intent and out of a desire to see the above consequences. However, it could be malicious to ignore present realities in order to preserve an insufficient framework. If these realities had existed in centuries past, and if Aquinas (and earlier Church doctors) had been aware of them, would his (and the Church’s) teleological sexual ethics have turned out differently? Would it be possible to reconcile the new realities with the traditional doctrine by constructing a new teleological understanding, one that sees the primary telos of sexual activity as the loving union between two persons?
I do not know the answers to these questions, and I do not have more wisdom than my Church. But it seems to me that such a reconciliation is, in fact, possible—though it would require a much fuller theological backing than I am able to provide at present. My purpose here is simply to illustrate why the traditional, teleological view of sex seems unpalatable to many, and why Hannon does himself a disservice by failing to address these obvious points of contention despite proposing this framework as his concluding solution.
In any case, Hannon provides much food for thought for the Christian in offering an interesting perspective in terms of just how effective Christian witnesses can be while still adhering to sexual categories. Ultimately, however, his essay presents an unsatisfactory view of human sexuality that runs counter to the experiences of most individuals.