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Homosexuality, Morality, and Revulsion

I think I’ll step into a hornets’ nest. I think we need to get a couple of things clear regarding feelings about homosexuality.

The debate flared up again recently because Perfect Peter (aka General Peter Pace) said it was immoral. (The substance of that statement is hardly worth addressing. We’ve been floating along, letting immorality be defined as whatever anyone says it is, and now we have wingnuts calling a vaccine against a lethal disease “immoral.” So, just to define my own terms, immoral actions hurt someone, carelessly or on purpose, for no reason that the sufferer wants. Surgery is not immoral. Torture is. Since homosexuality hurts nobody, always assuming it’s taking place between consenting equals, it’s obviously not immoral.)

The reaction of the tolerance crowd (which, I hope, includes me) to statements like Pace’s is to bring accusations of bigotry. So far, so good. It is bigotry. But then there’s also the objection to expressing any dislike of homosexuality. That, I think, is where we go off the rails.

It is counterproductive to tell people how to feel. There is no point telling someone that their feelings about God don’t exist (as Dawkins is trying to do), or that it’s stupid to admire celebrities, or that they don’t actually like the taste of coffee but they’ve learned the habit. The only result of trying to tell people how they feel is a yes-no shouting match. Unless you’re telepathic, it is impossible to know another person’s feelings directly. Only the person involved has direct knowledge, and anyone else does not, and therefore has no business making pronouncements on something that they cannot know.

So there is no point telling people that they shouldn’t be put off by homosexuality. They are. Instead of denying how they feel about it, I think it would be much more helpful if they had the right context for those feelings.

Now, admittedly, a large segment of homobigots are simply anti-sex or else, when male, seem to have some kind of insecurity about masculinity. (I always feel, as a biologist, I should tell those guys that the various bits are firmly attached and won’t fall off if they don’t drive a truck.) I’m not talking about those attitudes here, since they go way beyond being put off.

Among the people who are put off, without a lot of added baggage, they assume that feeling is based on the wrongness of homosexuality. Since there is nothing actually wrong with it–and the more honest among them will admit that if pressed–what are they feeling?

I think we’re up against some very simple biology.

Look at our attitudes toward biological functions in general, not just sex. We all like to eat. We all get revolted at watching somebody else chew with their mouth open. We don’t feel bad taking care of personal hygiene issues, but we get very huffy if someone else doesn’t do that in private. There really isn’t any biological function you can visibly perform, except breathing, without causing comment. Breathing is probably exempt only because it’s invisible.

What I’m saying is that it’s in the nature of biological functions to gross us out unless we happen to be doing them ourselves. The more familiar we are with these functions, the less we freak out about them. New parents have more initial reserve, shall we say, about dealing with diapers than experienced ones.

Attitudes to sex follow the same pattern. Doing sex is great. Unexpectedly having to watch somebody else do sex is liable to get the couple involved arrested. It’s the same pattern: watching somebody else performing biological functions we’re not involved in tends to lead to avert-your-eyes situations.

Add to that the fact that homosexuality is less familiar to most straight people than heterosexuality, and there’s a double dose of feeling put off.

That’s all very well and good, you’re probably saying, but the problem isn’t gay people rolling around in the town square, doing their thing. The problem is that others don’t want them to do their thing anywhere.

Indeed. And I think that’s because talk of gay sex makes people think about gay sex, and that grosses them out. Then they leap to the conclusion that, of course, the disgust is based on the awful immorality of the situation.

No, the disgust is based on the same feelings we have about lots of other biology. It has exactly NOTHING to do with morality.

If that distinction could be more widely appreciated, people might realize that even though they’re put off that doesn’t mean they have to do anything about it. All they have to do is keep out of it. It’s not immoral and it requires no action except minding your own business.

I think the people who would like to see more tolerance don’t help matters by insisting that there’s no place for disgust. We conflate disgust and morality as much as the bigots, only in the other direction. We’d all be a lot further ahead if we provided context instead of denial.

We shouldn’t deny the revulsion that some people feel. They just need to understand what the revulsion means. It doesn’t mean any more than the same feeling about lots of other biological things. Thinking about people having sex, if you’re not attracted to them, is always vaguely, or even hugely, off-putting. (I mean, just think about your parents . . . no, don’t think about it. But it would be very unwise to start agitating against parents having sex, just because the thought was so gross.)

So let’s stop attacking people for feeling disgusted. I once saw a guy in a gay pride parade carrying a sign that read, “I don’t understand your sexuality either.” Where he’s a step ahead is that he knows that doesn’t mean he has to race out and do something about it. There are lots of people, straight people, whose sexuality I’d rather not think about. That’s okay. They can do their thing and I can do mine.

And that is the big take-home message: Biology is not morality. Feelings about biology are not morality. Morality is morality. And everything else is nobody’s business but your own.

Technorati tags: homosexuality, morality, Pace, Peter Pace, immorality