Friday, July 16, 2010

Thoughts on LBGT politics

At the University of Illinois-Champaign Urbana (where I am a student), there has recently been something of a stir regarding the firing of a member of the religion faculty for opinions about homosexuality expressed in an email he sent to his Modern Catholic Thought class.

I wanted to use this opportunity to address something in LGBT rhetoric that has long bothered me. I grew up Evangelical and, while my views have changed considerably, it was a long process, and there was a long time in which I felt my religious views taking me in one direction regarding homosexuality and my conscience taking me in another, and I was trying hard to figure out what to think. One of the major things that made it take so long was standard LGBT arguments--I wanted to be convinced by them, but there were serious objections and questions I had that simply weren't addressed. In retrospect, there were arguments that I think could have convinced me (as my views eventually did change), and I wanted to blog about this both to increase LGBT people and their allies's understanding of more conservative views and to help them to be more persuasive in their arguments.

A Facebook group challenging his dismissal posts the email that prompted this situation. His argument isn't especially novel, but I want to summarize it for the purpose of analysis. I encourage readers to take his argument seriously, rather than quickly dismissing it or being offended by it.

The email was, purportedly, about ethical theory and utilitarianism, and he decided to use homosexuality to "illustrate" his position:
Before looking at the issue of criteria, however, we have to remind ourselves of the ever-present tendency in all of us to judge morality by emotion....Empathy is a noble human quality but right or wrong does not depend on who is doing the action or on how I feel about those people, just as judging an action wrong should not depend on disliking someone.

So, then, by what criterion should we judge whether sexual acts are right or wrong? This is where utilitarianism comes in. Utilitarianism in the popular sense is fundamentally a moral theory that judges right or wrong by its practical outcomes. It is somewhat akin to a cost/benefit analysis....I think it's fair to say that many, maybe most Americans employ some type of utilitarianism in their moral decision making...

One of the most common applications of utilitarianism to sexual morality is the criterion of mutual consent. It is said that any sexual act is okay if the two or more people involved agree. Now no one can (or should) deny that for a sexual act to be moral there must be consent. Certainly, this is one reason why rape is morally wrong. But the question is whether this is enough.

In standard anti-gay fashion, he then brings up two rather popular analogies:
If two men consent to engage in sexual acts, according to utilitarianism, such an act would be morally okay. But notice too that if a ten year old agrees to a sexual act with a 40 year old, such an act would also be moral if even it is illegal under the current law. Notice too that our concern is with morality, not law. So by the consent criterion, we would have to admit certain cases as moral which we presently would not approve of. The case of the 10 and 40 year olds might be excluded by adding a modification like "informed consent." Then as long as both parties agree with sufficient knowledge, the act would be morally okay. A little reflection would show, I think, that "informed consent" might be more difficult to apply in practice than in theory. But another problem would be where to draw the line between moral and immoral acts using only informed consent. For example, if a dog consents to engage in a sexual act with its human master, such an act would also be moral according to the consent criterion. If this impresses you as far-fetched, the point is not whether it might occur but by what criterion we could say that it is wrong. I don't think that it would be wrong according to the consent criterion.

The part where he argues for his own position will be reserved for a later post.

I am going to suspect that few readers of my blog are especially convinced by his argument. In my critique, I do not want to simply tell people who already agree with me how incredibly wrong he is. Rather, I want to give a critique that takes seriously his arguments, finding what genuine insights they have, and on that basis make arguments that may help to allow for more meaningful dialogue rather than simply angry shouting--and, I hope, making more LGBT allies.

A very common response in LGBT politics is to quickly condemn anyone who makes a parallel between homosexuality on the one hand, and adult-child sex or human-nonhuman sex on the other. I don't think this is helpful because, quite frankly, there is an important truth that this argument recognizes. Accepting gay sex as morally okay requires giving up "Because it's a rule, dammit!" and "Ewww!!!!!" as the basis for sexual ethics. I also suspect that there is a universal cross-culturally tendency for some conservatively minded people to have a deep fear that abandoning certain current norms and rules will inevitably lead to an anything-goes antinomianism. This fear seems to be connected to the many anti-gay slipper slopes that are used.

By bringing up adult-child sex and bestiality, there is a profound irony given the professor's initial statement that we shouldn't "judge morality by emotion." The only reason that these reductio ad absurdam arguments might work is if people strongly feel that of course those things are wrong. I think it's safe to say that these views were not the result of long and careful thinking, but a strong emotional attachment to the societal norms they grew up with (many societies have rather different views on both of these). Pedophilia is an incredibly emotion-laden issue in our society around which rational discourse is genuinely difficult. There was a paper published in a highly respected journal in the late 1990's (Rind et al. controvercy) that did a meta-analysis of previous studies and found that in many cases, adult-child sex is not harmful, that it is more likely to be perceived as positive or neutral if the child consented (in the sense of feeling they were a willing participant), and if the child was male. At first, there wasn't much of a response to it, but then someone on the radio talked about it, and then Dr. Laura got a hold of it, and eventually congress passed a resolution condemning the study. If empirical results that don't fit the received wisdom in this area can get condemned by congress, it doesn't exactly encourage people to do research in this area. Yet in the absence of good research and good data, it is impossible to create informed public-policy.

People do not choose to be attracted to children, and this group of people is one of the most hated groups in American society (and likely other societies too.) "Pedophiles" (a very loosely used term to lump together anyone who is attracted to children and anyone who has engaged in sex with a child [except as a peer of the child]) are an utterly abhorred group of people. They grow up being told that they are monsters, that there is no hope for them, and that they to destroy the lives of numerous children. The organization B4U-ACT, a Maryland non-profit organization aiming to promote mutual understanding between "minor-attracted people" and mental health professionals, has a powerful sideshow that I would strongly encourage all readers to take a look at it. The current situation in the US towards sex-offenders is based on intense hatred and irrational prejudice, often ignoring basic questions necessary for good public policy like "Would this work? What side-effects might it have? Is it an effective use of public resources? Are there other more cost-effective ways to achieve the same goals?" Furthermore, because of SVP commitment and sex-offender registration laws, our current position is that the Constitution simply does not apply to sex-offenders. These have only been upheld by the courts on the fiction that they are not punishment. I think the irony, then, of bringing up sex between children and adults--while encouraging basing opinions on "reason" rather than "emotion"--is rather hypocritical. In modern American society, questioning the received wisdom on the matter is utter heresy, as is even suggesting that the reality of the situation may be more complicated than people want to admit. (And neither of these requires approval of sex between children and adults.)

The typical LGBT response, to get offended by the comparison of homosexuality and pedophilia, is harmful in two ways. First, it accepts and contributes to the stigmatization of a much more hated group. Second, it's not convincing to "moderates"--people conflicted on the subject of homosexuality who could be convinced but aren't. By responding to an argument by getting offended (and in this case getting a professor fired), it communicates that there is no good answer to the argument, that the only way to address it is by attacking a straw man, or attacking the most scary anti-gay people out there, as though everyone with traditional views of sexual ethics was just like Fred Phelps.

A major part of much anti-gay rhetoric is to make a big distinction between desire and behavior. Having gay feelings isn't wrong, they say, only acting on gay feelings is. Much of the pro-gay rhetoric tends to collapse these, making it necessary to accept the latter to accept the former. (Interestingly, while pro-gay rhetoric tends to minimize the difference between attraction and behavior, pro-asexual rhetoric emphasizes this difference in our attempt to distance ourselves from celibacy.)

Going back to the issue of pedophilia, many who argue for treating people attracted to children as human beings certainly do not think that doing so will necessitate approving adult-child sex. (Interestingly, some of the most virulent anti-pedophile websites actually do seem to accept this. For instance, the blog absolute zero opposes B4U-ACT claiming that their "real goal" is to make adult-child sex legal. Absolute Zero's logic--if you can call it that--only works on the assumption that not demonizing people attracted to children will necessarily lead to the acceptance of adult-child sex. If this premise is rejected, there is no reason whatsoever to oppose the work of B4U-ACT.)

If the logic "accepting the person requires accept the desired behavior" is not accepted for pedophilia, it does not apply straightforwardly to homosexuality either. Some reason must be given why the logic works in one case but not the other. (Which is not to say that such logic is impossible to give.)

I have a lot more to say on this subject, but hopefully this post will give some food for thought. I imagine that it should prove to be controversial.


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

""As a BL, my relationship with some boys will be more than platonic. I am very comfortable with this and see nothing wrong with it."

-Michael Frederick Melsheimer, founder of B4U-ACT

Rind et al was denounced because it was methodologically flawed, outcome bias being just one of a number of problems with the study.

You might want to think about doing some research on the subject you intend to write about next time. Who knows, it might even make your claim of being a university student believable.

Anonymous said...

Psychological Bulletin, Vol 127(6), Nov 2001, 715-733.

"Rind et al.'s study's main conclusions were not supported by the original data. As such, attempts to use their study to argue that an individual has not been harmed by sexual abuse constitute a serious misapplication of its findings."

-The effects of child sexual abuse: Comment on Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman (1998).
Dallam, Stephanie J.; Gleaves, David H.; Cepeda-Benito, Antonio; Silberg, Joyanna L.; Kraemer, Helena C.; Spiegel, David

ACH said...

First anonymous commenter, thank you. Your comment means a lot to me.

Second anonymous commenter, in a way, I would like to thank you for your comment as well, as it well illustrates anti-pedophile methods.

Before addressing your comments, a word to other readers, in anti-pedophile "rhetoric", it is common to randomly thrown in quotes of dubious veracity attributed to members of various organizations (in this case the founder of B4U-ACT) with no connection to the rest of the text. Structurally, it makes them rather hard to read.

That said, I have previously seen the wikipsosure article you quote from. I confess, that I am rather skeptical of the veracity of a number of the quotes--all are images on that site, so there is no way to know whether they have been doctored or not. Furthermore, one person is not the whole organization. I have little doubt among people attracted to children, there is a wide range of views on the ethics of adult/child sex. I assume that there are some who think it is okay (as, no doubt, there are in the rest of the population as well.) And I have no doubt that there are also people who think that it is wrong, but they still feel there is a huge need to be able to provide help for people attracted to children. At present, the stigma attached is so great, that people are afraid to get help. This doesn't help people attracted to children. It doesn't protect children. It just fuels hatred and misunderstanding.

Rind et al was denounced because it was methodologically flawed
I have never seen an article with human subjects research that wasn't seriously methodologically flawed. This is especially an issue for areas that have not been researched very much--it takes time to figure out how to get good methodological approaches. I have seen plenty of seriously methodologically flawed studies with very inflammatory claims, but these were not condemned by congress.

The fact that the article survived peer-review in a highly respected journal suggests its methodology was up to par for articles in the field.

Who knows, it might even make your claim of being a university student believable.
Um...yeah...this says a lot more about you than it does about me.

ACH said...

It has just come to my attention that Michael Melsheimer passed away last week. His obituary is online.

Anonymous said...

I confess, that I am rather skeptical of the veracity of a number of the quotes--all are images on that site, so there is no way to know whether they have been doctored or not.

Au contraire, kidfucker. -> Digest -> 2004 -> Raising Discussion - Venn - 3 January 2004 ->

Which is exactly the same as-

Next time, do your own fucking homework.

Um...yeah...this says a lot more about you than it does about me.

I know, I am pretty good at spotting a pedo frauds.

Seriously, if you're so fucking stupid that you actually believe that they're going to use faked screenshots at Wikisposure, and that nobody has said anything in the nearly two years that it's been up, then the admissions requirements at the University of Illinois-Champaign Urbana would have to be extremely low. I'm pretty sure they're not, so the only other possible explanation would be that you're full of shit.

Better luck next time, child molester.

ACH said...

I confess to not having tried all that hard to look up the sources because I've tried that in the past, and it proved futile. I tried it again here and had the same effect for a number of quotes. I googled the quotes, and wikisposure was the only link I got. Perhaps boychat isn't searchable. I don't know. I don't use those sites.

ACH said...

And as I have now gone and done my homework on wikisposure, it is clear that the site is notorious for distorting information, getting the facts wrong, and being generally defamatory. is a good response to an organization that has (appropriately) named themselves "perverted justice."

Hezaa said...

What you say about the rhetoric on sexual activity is applicable to how same-sex marriage gets talked about as well. I've been told that allowing same-sex marriage will lead to allowing siblings to marry--frankly, I don't have a problem with either (it's all consenting adults entering into social contracts to me), and I don't get offended when I am asked about it by a person who opposes same-sex marriage. I try not to let the "ew" factor get in the way of how I talk about sexual ethics, and I think it's really important in the case of pedophilia to distinguish the sexual attraction from the sexual behavior. People don't choose to be sexually aroused by children, and it's important for people experiencing such arousal to be able to get help. You can choose your behavior, but you don't choose the body processes you experience, so your involuntary internal body reactions can't make you a bad person.

Richard Kramer said...

I wish to set the record straight on the Rind article.

While it was attacked as flawed by some therapists, especially those who still promote the discredited recovered memory therapy (such as Fink, Ondersma, and Dallam), the Rind study *is* generally seen as credible by psychological scientists. Following are examples:

Ray Fowler, President of the American Psychological Association: "the findings are consistent with, and, in fact, based on, the 59 previous studies...Because the article has attracted so much attention, we have carefully reviewed the process by which it was approved for publication and the soundness of the methodology and analysis. This study passed the journal's rigorous peer review process and has, since the controversy, been reviewed again by an expert in statistical analysis who affirmed that it meets current standards and that the methodology, which is widely used by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop guidelines, is sound."

Scott Lilienfeld, Emory University (known for criticizing therapies whose effectiveness is not supported by research): "None of the criticisms [of the Rind article] made by Fink and others can withstand careful scrutiny...Many of the critics' attacks on the Rind et al. study reflect basic errors in logic. These are errors to which virtually all human beings are prone, especially when evaluating data that contradict strongly held beliefs." In an article in the American Psychologist he went on to show that every criticism was based on a lack of understanding of Rind's methods or failure to read parts of the article.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science: "We saw no clear evidence of improper application of methodology or other questionable practices on the part of the articles' authors."

Kenneth Sher, University of Missouri, and Nancy Eisenberg, Arizona State University, editors of the Psychological Bulletin: "Our opinion is that Rind et al. made the type of contribution that we look for in a Psycholgical Bulletin review. From the standpoint of the action editor, the major contribution was the systematic attempt to look at moderators of the relation between CSA and a range of problems in early adulthood."

Leonore Tiefer, former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality: "I have been a great admirer of the clear-eyed and comprehensive work these authors have contributed to the murky and polemical field of child sexuality and child sexual abuse."

Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (in a letter to the president of the APA): "We, the president and past-presidents of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, members of the SSSS Executive Committee, and editors of Journal of Sex Research and the Archives of Human Sexuality would like to urge the American Psychological Association to take a strong stand in support of Dr. Bruce Rind (Temple University), Dr. Robert Bauserman (State of Maryland), and Mr. Philip Tromovitch (University of Pennsylvania), and in support of the right and need for sexual scientists to be able to conduct human sexuality research, unconstrained by political considerations."

Links to documents containing the above quotes and articles can be found at

Also, the following study made the statistical and methodological corrections suggested by Rind's critics, and got the same results as Rind:
Ulrich, Randolph, and Acheson (2005). Child sexual abuse: A replication of the meta-analytic examination of child sexual abuse by Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman. The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 4 (2), 37-51.
"The current meta-analysis supported the findings by Rind et al."

Richard Kramer said...

Furthermore, there have been many psychological research articles published both before and after Rind that had similar findings. Here are some recent ones:

Childhood Sexual Experiences and Adult Health Sequelae Among Gay and Bisexual Men: Defining Childhood Sexual Abuse
Authors: Sonya Arreola; Torsten Neilands; Lance Pollack; Jay Paul; Joseph Catania
Published in: Journal of Sex Research, Volume 45, Issue 3 July 2008 , pages 246 - 252;col1

Gay and Bisexual Men's Age-Discrepant Childhood Sexual Experiences
Authors: Jessica L. Stanley, Kim Bartholomew, and Doug Oram, Simon Fraser University
The Journal of Sex Research Volume 41, Number 4, November 2004: pp. 381-389

Childhood sexual experiences and the perception of abuse among Latino men who have sex with men
Authors: Curtis Dolezal, Alex Carballo-Dieguez
Journal of Sex Research, August, 2002, 39(3), 165-173;col1

For a list of more studies with similar findings, see these bibliographies: