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What to think of “Heterosexuality”

Last week Michael Hannon posted an essay at First Things arguing against the idea of sexual orientation and the nomenclature of “heterosexuality.” It quickly became a big hit, so popular, in fact, that it warranted a (very poor) response from Slate.com. There was certainly an important truth to Mr. Hannon’s essay: the language of “orientation” and the larger phenomenon of identity politics are themselves contributors to the contemporary political problem.

But there were many problems with Mr. Hannon’s essay, and Matthew Lee Anderson has done a good job of pointing some of them out. These paragraphs are especially to the point:

Hannon’s claim emphasizes those who take ownership of the “heterosexual” label: his polemic is against those who are “self-proclaimed” as or people who are “identifying as” heterosexuals. But few heterosexuals think of their own sexual identity the way those with same-sex attraction tend to think of themselves *as* gay or lesbian. Their majority sexuality is simply the tacit backdrop on which people live out their lives rather than that-by-which they are differentiated.

My friend John Corvino will sometimes talk about heterosexual folks who take a line akin to “it’s fine if gay folks do their think, so long as they don’t flaunt it in public.” Only “flaunt it” happens to mean holding hands, or kissing, or doing what opposite-sex couples do in public all the time. Many heterosexual folks don’t feel the asymmetry, as we are unaware of the extent to which sexuality structures our lives outside the bedroom. But that also means the emergence of heterosexual desires in a person lacks the same kind of formative power that the emergence of opposite-sex desires often has. I doubt most “heterosexuals” would ever recognize themselves in the term, at least not without someone who makes it a question for them: they don’t need to, precisely because being a part of the “normal group” frees them from the burden of self-ascription.

Which means that if such a pride does exist within heterosexuals, it must either be so tacit and structural that it is invisible to them and so outside the boundaries of conscious repentance or it is not structurally tied to their “heterosexuality.” The latter is more likely. The notion that pride necessarily accompanies “heterosexuality” is a difficult argument to make. If orientation as a category *does* exist for ethics, then on the traditional Christian view there is nothing *per se* wrong with being ‘a heterosexual,’ if by that we mean ‘a person whose sexual desires are generally stable in being directed toward the opposite sex under certain conditions.’ There are other questions to ply toward those desires, as I noted above conservative Christians so frequently do. But as the Catholic catechism would put it, the sexual inclination toward the same-sex–whether stable and recurrent or not–is itself “objectively disordered.” Heterosexuals may be prideful, and may be proud that they do not have same-sex attraction, but the pride has little to nothing to do with the substance of their “orientation” or its role in identity or social formation.

In fact, “heterosexuality” only seems to dethrone Jesus as the norm if we think that Jesus’s life and ministry somehow subverts the normative (creation) order of opposite-sex sexual desires, even if we don’t then describe those desires as an “orientation.” The singleness of Jesus does not put same-sex desires and opposite-sex desires on the same moral plane. It is, after all, not simply sexual acts that Christ suggests he is interested in, but the whole stable of thoughts, intentions, and dispositions that make up our inner life. These also need reformation, to be brought to conformity to the witness of the Gospel not only in the manner that we have them but also in their objects.

Recurring sexual desires of any sort are not themselves a sign of holiness: but recurring sexual desires toward a member of the same-sex raise questions that such desires toward a member of the opposite sex do not. Eliminating the aspect of “recurring stability” from those desires–or what has come to be known in shorthand as our ‘orientation’–doesn’t eliminate the deeper “heteronormativity” implied in the logic of Scripture. If nothing else, Jesus has a bride, and there is no understanding his life as the pattern for our lives without grasping the deep, mutually fulfilling stable and recurring desires at the heart of their union.

My biggest objection to Mr. Hannon’s argument was that it lacked a sort of creational founding. Whether or not we want to use the language of “heteronormativity,” we do want to say that heterosexual bonding for the sake of mutual society and procreation just is “normal” or natural. This expression of sexuality is not a conscious choice, nor is it really the adherence to canon law or a larger philosophy, theology, or “worldview.” Instead, it is simply hardwired into human existence. However we decide best to articulate this point, it is the foundational one. We are not interested in “traditional marriage” but rather natural marriage.

Two other important issues are not adequately addressed by Mr. Hannon, both having to do with why this language of orientation came to make sense or, at least, be persuasive in the modern world.

1) The meaning of “love” itself needs to critically examined. De Rougemont may have gone too far in attempting to connect the modern prioritization of eros with Catharism, but his point that marriage has been defeated by passion is hard to escape. And the philosophical problem here certainly seems to go back much further than Freud. Mr. Hannon notices that this happens, but seems to chalk it up to the work of the social sciences. But I wonder if the social sciences weren’t themselves responding to something prior.

2) But I think that Allan Carlson is right to point out that economic factors better explain the practical revolution in this area. In his review of Stephanie Coontz’s book on the downfall of marriage, he explains:

[T]he true “great disruption” in family affairs… occurred about two hundred years ago: the industrial revolution.  This upheaval displaced the home as the center of productive activity.  It pulled fathers, mothers, and children out of households for work in centralized factories.  It thrived on a hyper-individualism that denied the claims of family and community.  The historical pageant of the last two centuries has actually been the seeking of ways to shelter families from the full logic of the industrial principle.  This quest, not romance, was the true source of the breadwinner/homemaker model: the factories could have the fathers, but not the mothers and the children.

The reason that “traditional” assumptions about marriage and sexuality don’t hold persuasive power like they used to has much less to do with grand philosophical ideals than it does with very ordinary factors like employment, expenses, and practical benefit. It simply doesn’t make much sense to have a strong central family in modern liberal economies. In major urban areas they are actually something of a handicap.

And it seems that on this point, the Roman Catholic social teachings could really provide a helpful answer, or at least the beginnings of an answer. I am a bit surprised that First Things hasn’t really emphasized that perspective in the last few years.

For us Protestants, of course, there’s no reason why we can’t emphasize it, and we can even show, as Dr. Carlson has done such a fine job of doing, that the older Protestant social position taught basically the same thing. Where we differ, and I think this probably explains the recent confusion, is that Protestants do not need to rely solely on ecclesiastical directives or specific theological points to make this case. Rather, Protestants have argued that the estate of marriage is a creation ordinance, going back to man’s original state. And so Protestant views of marriage have always been rooted in the doctrines of creation and anthropology, or perhaps more simply put, nature.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

One reply on “What to think of “Heterosexuality””

I dont think that I have yet to see a response to Mr. Hannon that addresses his claim that the previous framework before the heterosexual vs. homosexual framework came into being was perfectly fine and did not have the downsides of the new framework.

Do you believe that the new framework is in some way an advance over the old one and if the answer is yes, then where is the advance? If the answer is no, then I dont see how at core, we can have much disagreement with the article.

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