It is an enduring sign of moral torpor that social conservatives prefer that women in Africa contract HIV rather than risk promoting “promiscuity” by telling them condoms prevent it. This perverted hierarchy of values prizes the trivial over the consequential, counting the regulation of human sexuality among the primary goals of government and society. Insidious in its vacuity, it led President Bush to propose the Defense of Marriage Amendment to the Constitution in the midst of the Iraq War. Two weeks ago, it led the Cornell College Republicans to protest a lecture about anal sex — Anal Sex 101: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask — funded in part by the Student Assembly.
In an e-mail to the Cornell College Republicans list-serve, President Ahmed Salem ’08 wrote: “[W]hile we do not think that all events funded under that fee have to conform to our conservative stances, we also believe that condoning such a moral atrocity using our own student money is abhorrent and should not go unnoticed.”
The simultaneous expression of outrage and the anticipatory hedge — “not all events ... have to conform to our conservative stances”— is contradictory; it seems rather that this is an instance of such gravity that the general principle of tolerance needed to be set aside to discourage forms of sexual activity “not within the bound [sic.] of mainstream moral decency.”
The sense of moral indignation expressed here relies on an axiomatic understanding of the immorality of anal sex, combined with visceral disgust and a fantasized consensus about the exclusive primacy of vaginal intercourse. In its dependence on socially ingrained revulsion, it is reminiscent of the Two Minutes Hate in Orwell’s 1984; it is shared and cultivated irrationally. C’mon, it’s gross, don’t you agree? Some commentators even deconstruct, in painstaking detail, the mechanics of anal intercourse and — with the gusto of a demagogue — demand that their listeners share in the repulsion, a ritual that is almost pornographic in its elicited excitement of emotion.
This particular form of revulsion relies more generally on discomfort with the human body, one that employs the metaphor of sex as hygiene, wherein certain acts are labeled “dirty,” “indecent,” “atrocious.” (This conception overlooks the fact that even human birth is messy, intimately characterized as it is by blood, bodily fluids, flesh and waste.)
As for the equation of “mainstream” and “moral decency,” one need only call up one of countless historical examples to show its fallibility as an ethical metric.
For this sort of thing there is always a back-story, some post hoc religious or biological justification. For those who do not think the minutiae of Biblical exegesis provide solid footing for public policy, the natural world becomes a crucible. Promiscuity is immoral because it spreads disease, but conversation and contact with others is not, even though it does too (viruses have moral categories). Anal sex is against the natural order of things because it is not procreative; nature provides a model here. But the fact that animals are neither abstinent nor generally monogamous does not; people are — and should be — different from animals in this respect.
In looking to nature as a moral model, social conservatives inevitably end up ignoring that about nature that does not fit ideology. In handpicking facts about the natural world to frame human events, they ignore the sobering fact that the relationship between the two is, lamentably, one of abiding indifference. It is unfortunate that Hurricane Katrina, the bubonic plague and cancer strike without reason. But it is another sign of moral dereliction and callousness to say that this is not the case. I doubt that the morality of a nation — measured on some spiritual meter tipped in one direction by anal sex — is causally linked to natural disasters or even Sept. 11. I would further insist that more people have suffered because of these inquisitors who persecute those who have anal sex than because of anal sex itself.
The position of the College Republicans is difficult to grasp given its strange interface with the world and how obstinate it is in its irrationality. These crusaders call home and tell their proud parents how they fought the good fight that day defending the sanctity of vaginal intercourse. They think of themselves as shining lights in the darkness of the liberal Ivy League. As Salem wrote: “[T]his is our chance to share our values.”
Members of the College Republicans might argue that this was primarily about S.A. funds providing support for the lecture, but the fact of the matter is that S.A. funds also provided support for their protest. And as I wrote, the statement that not all S.A.-funded events must conform to conservative values is disingenuous; the College Republicans protested the event precisely because it was not in concert with conservative values.
I find mysterious the value system that classifies something as banal as anal intercourse as morally atrocious. What is really a moral atrocity is that, of all the pressing social and ethical concerns of our time, educated men and women choose to expend energy on a cause that is, to be colloquial, quite stupid.
Gabriel Arana is a graduate student in linguistics. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The Red Line appears Thursdays.