Persons, Not Body Parts

In my post yesterday, I said nothing about the substance of Phil Robertson’s comments to GQ Magazine. I said only that I did not think his comments about gays were bad enough to deserve suspension (I actually think his comments on race are more disturbing, though as far as I know A&E didn’t make an issue of these comments in announcing his suspension).

I deliberately did not address the substance of his comments, because I didn’t want to seem to be joining the people piling on and calling for his head. However, I then spent a lot of time yesterday moderating comments here and at First Things, and became convinced that I needed to say something more about the substance of Robertson’s remarks.

I have no objection to Robertson paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; I’ve quoted those verses on various occasions myself. However, there is a glaring problem in his comments that none of his defenders seem to see.

In pointing this out, I want to be clear that I am responding to his comments in the GQ interview. I do not watch his show, and I do not know him personally. However, since the interview is the source of controversy, and the interview is what many Christians are defending, I think it worthwhile pointing out that at least part of what he said in the interview should have attracted much more objection from Christians than it has. A blanket defense of Robertson’s words is, from a Christian perspective, indefensible.

Here is the worst part of the interview:

It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying?

I hesitate even to write the next sentence, because it is so offensive. However, if you are a married man, I want you to imagine how you would respond if someone talked about your wife in a way that presumed that your attraction to her was primarily a matter of what her vagina “has to offer.” Or just as a Christian, ask yourself how you would respond if marriage were portrayed, from a man’s perspective, as being primarily about vaginas, what’s “there,” and what they’ve got to “offer.”

This is the Playboy philosophy, pure and simple, which reduces a woman to a close-up of what she’s “got to offer” to men who see her only as an accessory for their own pleasure.

This is a profoundly demeaning view. I don’t mean to say that a man’s desire for his wife is not, at least in part, a desire for physical union with her, or that that desire for physical union does not involve some attraction to sex organs. But it needs to be much more. It cannot be reduced to that.

In Love and Responsibility, John Paul II clearly distinguished between attraction to the physical sexual characteristics of a woman, and attraction to her as a person. Christian marriage is, first and foremost, a union of persons, not just mutual use of bodies. Chaste attraction is, first and foremost, attraction to a person, not to their body parts.

In Christian teaching, there is a simple word for the kind of attraction Phil Robertson describes: it’s called lust.

A lot of Christians assume that if I say I’m attracted to another man, I’m automatically describing lustful desire, reducing him to his sexual body parts. (This is one reason that the term “same-sex attraction” is such an unhelpful and imprecise term: it lumps all attraction into a single category, when it’s vitally necessary to distinguish between a healthy attraction than can lead to spiritual friendship, and a temptation to lust.)

The assumption that attraction equals lust is not true. If I think a man is attractive, that could involve lust, but it need not (see also some of Aaron Taylor’s thoughts on this point). And even if the temptation to lust is present, I have some freedom about whether I give in to the temptation, and see him as a potential sexual object, or whether I resist the temptation and see him as a person created in the image of God.

As Wes pointed out yesterday, Robertson just doesn’t get the way gay, lesbian, and bisexual people experience attraction (on this point, see Preston Sprinkle’s excellent commentary). More importantly, howerver, his comments are inconsistent with the way Christians should experience attraction.

Regardless of who we are sexually attracted to, self-discipline and the education of desire is critical. An unmarried man who is attracted to an unmarried woman (or vice-versa) has the option of discerning whether this desire for the other person can lead to marriage. For most people, however, most instances of attraction to another person over the course of their lives will, if submitted to God, lead to friendship or to nothing at all.

As I said yesterday, I think A&E over-reacted. But I think Christians, in rushing to Robertson’s defense, are swallowing a camel they should not, indeed, must not, swallow. We should be very concerned with the way Robertson’s words reduce Christian teaching about marriage to desire for vaginas. This is as absurd as the claim that Pope John Paul II and Hugh Hefner are really talking about the same thing, and must be firmly and clearly rejected.

Update: See also Audrey Assad’s excellent “Personhood, Sexuality, and Phil Robertson.”

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

35 thoughts on “Persons, Not Body Parts

  1. “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying?

    I hesitate even to write the next sentence, because it is so offensive. However, if you are a married man, I want you to imagine how you would respond if someone talked about your wife in a way that presumed that your attraction to her was primarily a matter of what her vagina “has to offer.””

    Except, he didn’t say that a man’s primary attraction to his wife his her vagina. He said that a woman’s vagina is more attractive to a man than another man’s anus (which is not even a reproductive organ). So your entire characterization of him is incorrect, since you are putting words in his mouth.

    Any heterosexual man will agree that a woman’s vagina is more sexually attractive than the final piece in another man’s digestive tract.

  2. His primary argument to gay men is that they should choose marriage to a woman because vaginas are better than anuses. That is putting body parts at the center and ignoring persons.

    I doubt seriously that he loves his wife for primarily physical reasons. But if you read my post, I’m talking about the argument he gives in the interview, not whatever he may think more broadly about marriage:

    I want to be clear that I am responding to his comments in the GQ interview. I do not watch his show, and I do not know him personally. However, since the interview is the source of controversy, and the interview is what many Christians are defending, I think it worthwhile pointing out that at least part of what he said in the interview should have attracted much more objection from Christians than it has.

    It is his focus on vaginas in his argument for heterosexuality in this interview that is the problem.

    • “His primary argument to gay men is that they should choose marriage to a woman because vaginas are better than anuses. That is putting body parts at the center and ignoring persons.”

      This is the modern problem. For a long time, we’ve been separating “persons” from “body parts”. I grow tired of this sort of forced dualism. I’m a Thomist myself. I do not distinguish between body parts and personhood. The human soul is, by its nature, embodied. The word for soul in Latin simply meant that which distinguished a living person from a corpse. To arbitrarily separate the body from the soul carries little rhetorical weight for me.

      I would argue that vaginas -are- intrinsically better than anuses for sexual purposes because vaginas are sexual organs and anuses are digestive organs. The natural ends of sexual organs are sexual intercourse, which requires an organ from both a male and a female to occur – and the natural ends of sexual intercourse are reproduction. Again, as a Thomist, I do not separate the final cause of a thing from its formal or material cause. You need all of these to accurately describe something (like sexuality).

      Perhaps you find this offensive? I suppose you ma. But I do not see how it is untrue. Keep in mind that I have not argued that the attraction itself is a sin – only that the things that Phil Robertson has said seem to line up fairly accurately with the nature of sexual and digestive organs, as well as the nature of human sexuality itself. Is this not why the Scriptures say that homosexuality is an “unnatural desire”? Because it is contrary to the nature of sexuality and the organs used in the act?

      • 1. John Paul II makes the distinction between attraction to body parts and attraction to persons in Love and Responsibility. If you think that the Pope’s teaching is a example of dualism, I don’t know what to say, other than that you’re wrong.

        Regarding whether my stance is dualistic, re-read the article:

        I don’t mean to say that a man’s desire for his wife is not, at least in part, a desire for physical union with her, or that that desire for physical union does not involve some attraction to sex organs. But it needs to be much more. It cannot be reduced to that.

        I’m not trying to say that the person is separate from their body, but that focusing on body parts misses the full embodied reality of persons.

        Robertson’s view is reductionistic, which is a far more common form of modern thought than dualism, and equally opposed to the Thomistic and Catholic understanding of the person.

        2. Half of your comment is responding to an argument I haven’t made. I agree with Catholic teaching on sexuality, and have nowhere suggested that anuses and vaginas are equally good for sexual intercourse. If you look up and to the right on this page, under the heading, “About,” you will see: “We believe in a traditionally Christian sexual ethic: that God created human beings male and female, and that all sexual intimacy outside of a faithful, lifelong marital union of a man and woman is contrary to His plan.” That’s obviously going to rule out gay sex.

      • “It is his focus on vaginas in his argument for heterosexuality in this interview that is the problem.”

        The argument that a female’s reproductive organs are more sexually attractive than a man’s digestive organs?

        What, exactly, do you disagree with?

        What is reductionist about his view, if you don’t think he reduces marriage down to a purely physical attraction?

      • “John Paul II makes the distinction between attraction to body parts and attraction to persons in Love and Responsibility. If you think that the Pope’s teaching is a example of dualism, I don’t know what to say, other than that you’re wrong.”

        Except I did not say that there was no difference between attraction to body parts and attraction to a person.

        Body parts are included in the definition of a person. Someone who is attracted to a -person- then, is also attracted to what makes up that person (that would include body parts). Is this really that controversial?

        I’m not saying you can’t see a difference between “body” and “person”, I’m saying that you can’t talk about “person” without talking about “body” (since “person” includes “body”)

    • “But if you read my post, I’m talking about the argument he gives in the interview, not whatever he may think more broadly about marriage:”

      You however, wrote this:

      “I hesitate even to write the next sentence, because it is so offensive. However, if you are a married man, I want you to imagine how you would respond if someone talked about your wife in a way that presumed that your attraction to her was primarily a matter of what her vagina “has to offer.””

      Seems a contradiction to me.

      • The paragraph you quote is about the way Robertson talked about body parts and sexuality in his interview, not his more general views on sexuality, about which I know nothing.

        You have a very odd definition of “contradiction.”

      • “The paragraph you quote is about the way Robertson talked about body parts and sexuality in his interview, not his more general views on sexuality, about which I know nothing. ”

        Given that on the one hand, you were offended by what you presumed were his views on what the “primary attraction” of a woman is to a man and on the other, you say “I know nothing about his more general views on sexuality”, I find a contradiction. I remain confused by your wording, and even more so by your response, since you have used both the terms “sexuality” and “marriage” in what argue you are not commenting on.

  3. Hi Ron,

    I’ve been encouraged to hear your thoughts on this, and I’m curious to get your thoughts on a particular question. I shared illuvitus’ impression that Robertson’s comments were more directed at a comparison between options and not a reduction of marriage to sex alone. (Which from what little I know of Robertson, I think he would agree with you that marriage can in no way be reduced to sex.) His words reminded me of Thabiti Anyabwile’s comments from a few months ago.

    In both cases, they’re implicitly relying on a gag reflex that we agree is deeply unchristian. But they’re also appealing to a sort of implicit understanding about the way the body works. It reminds me of a section from Pilgrim’s Regress where in a guard is delivering meals to the prisoners:

    “If the meal were eggs he would recall to them that they were eating the menstruum of a verminous fowl, and crack a few jokes with the female prisoner…
    ‘Our relations with the cow are not delicate – as you can see easily if you imagine eating any of her other secretions.’
    ‘Now at last I know you are talking nonsense.’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘You are trying to pretend that unlike things are like. You are trying to make us think that milk is the same sort of thing as sweat or dung.’
    ‘And pray, what difference is there except by custom?’
    ‘Are you a liar or only a fool, that you see no difference between that which Nature casts out as refuse and that which she stores up as food? …I am talking of what happens. Milk does feed calves and dung does not.'”

    This sort of sense – of there being a clear indication by nature as to the purpose of our bodies – seems to me to be a significant motivator for Anyabwile’s and Robertson’s comments as well. And in Lewis’ example, we think this gag reflex is actually appropriate while we don’t think it appropriate when applied to gay sex.

    (Note, of course, that any such argument would also apply to heterosexual anal sex, which is by and large becoming entirely culturally acceptable – a fact which no doubt affects why the argument fails so broadly in our culture.)

    So I’m curious: What do you make of this sort of argument? Is there any place for making this sort of case when we talk about homosexuality? Is it such a sensitive issue that this type of argument is callous? Or is it because the argument is bandied about in a way that seems to equate homosexuality with sex alone, or that seems to target further disgust at a minority group already suffering from discrimination?

    Best,
    Jordan

    • If the argument had been made in the terms you suggest, I would not object to it. But I stand by what I said above. Whatever Robertson’s view of marriage in general, in his attempt to argue that gay men should prefer to marry a woman, his focus is on vaginas being more desirable than anuses. This is reductionistic, and very different from the way that someone like Kyle Keating would describe his reasons for marrying his wife. (Note that I regard this as the most serious problem: if you want to make sense out of why gay men should prefer marriage to a woman to a relationship with a man, you want to look at Kyle’s story, not to reductionist stories about body parts.)

      I think that the argument you’re making would make sense, as would the argument Illuvitus makes about reproductive purposes. But that is not the argument Robertson made. I responded to what he actually said.

      If the youth pastor spoke to the Church youth group about sex only in terms of body parts, we would think that was a problem that needed correction. We might ask various questions about what he might have meant or what he might have been trying to say. But we would recognize that talking about sex in reductionistic terms was a problem.

      I don’t know anything about Phil Robertson beyond what I’ve read in the last couple of days. I wasn’t trying to guess what I thought he might have meant. I was only saying that what he said was reductionistic, and that for Christians, reductionism about sex is a problem.

      In the Christian writers whom I trust on the issue of marriage, the relationship between a man and a woman is discussed in great depth without body parts being the focus of discussion. Robertson’s focus on body parts to the exclusion of any other consideration does not fit into that conversation at all.

      Yes, more could be said. But that much, at least, needs to be said. Since a large number of people seemed to be defending him without noting the reductionism, I decided it needed to be pointed out.

      If that leads to further conversations about why marital intimacy should be between a man and a woman, and not two men, that’s great. But at the very least, we need to say that our conversations about marriage shouldn’t be based on reductionistic discussions of body parts.

  4. “In both cases, they’re implicitly relying on a gag reflex that we agree is deeply unchristian.”

    Apologies if this question seems trite. I do not mean it to be so:

    Would a gag reflex to other sin be deeply unchristian? Like adultery, covetousness, etc? I ask this, because the way you worded your statement, it sounds like having a natural recoil against some sinful behavior is -itself- a problem.

    I will clarify and say that I don’t believe in condemning a person for their temptations. But I see no reason why temptations cannot be repulsive to someone who does not struggle with a particular sin. Not that they are repulsed by the person (this would, I agree, be deeply unchristian), but by the acts that person is tempted by.

    • I think in general, Christ tells us to look past our gag reflexes. So when we approach the leper, we are to hold him, not to shun him. (This was the power of the photo of Pope Francis.) Our disgust at adultery does not permit us to treat the adulterous woman as less than human. Jesus permitted the prostitute to wash his feet.

      Jesus calls me to look *past* my normal gag reflexes to embrace those I would otherwise be disgusted by. I’m not sure how this means we should relate to sin. Is it fair to say that I’m disgusted by the sin and not the sinner? I’m not sure if my gut (where the gag reflex disgust lies) is capable of those sorts of gymnastics. This is much different from my head, which can fully process being disapproving toward someone’s sin while still loving them as a person.

      I was however, writing bluntly and could’ve probably written that line better. Ron’s thoughts on the gag reflex are here: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/08/22/the-problem-with-the-gag-reflex/#comment-112151

  5. One last post about the duck-man, then I bow out of this conversation. By the way, I believe that one of the writers on this site should comment on the story within the link below.

    http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/what-persecution-looks

    I must disagree that conservative Christians actively cheer on violent persecution–more like they willfully close their eyes to the logical conclusion of the silencing of gays, lesbians, and transgendereds.

    • I think you’re right that most Christians do not actually cheer on persecution. But significant Christian Right leaders have traveled to Uganda to promote these laws. So in a minority of cases, documented in the article you linked, conservative Christians in the US do actively promote persecution of LGBT people.

  6. Illuvitus, the whole point is that the comment seems to imagine that sexual orientation for men is “all about” preferring either vaginas or anuses, and that, given that choice, preferring an anus is incomprehensible and, therefore, homosexuality is perverted and illogical.

    This makes so many leaps it’s hard to count.

    First, it ignores the fact that women have anuses too! If sexual preference or orientation were reducible to “preferring vagina or anus” then the division would actually be most prominent between straight men based on what act they prefer with women, rather than between gays and straights.

    Second, Robertson’s comments involve the common (but totally erroneous) reduction of gay sexuality to anal. Being gay is not about wanting anal sex. It’s about being attracted to men. Even if we were to reduce that, in the end, to sex organs… the penis would loom much larger in the gay imagination than the anus (and surely he, red-blooded man that he is, isn’t denigrating the penis!)

    In terms of possible physical expressions of this attraction when it’s arousing variants are activated, some gay men imagine anal, but a lot don’t actually; a lot imagine other things. Things that, by the way, women are expected to do to men, at least as foreplay, without any “gag reflex” (pun perhaps intended.)

    And even when some gay men are sometimes interested in anal or construct it as their sort of equivalent to vaginal sex (and besides the fact that his comment seems to ignore all those men whose preference would be to “bottom”)… for a lot anal sex is sort of just an adaptive concession to the mechanics of the situation rather than any sort of positive fetish for the orifice itself.

    Though pornography, certainly, contributes to an increasing fetishization of the anus, for both gays and straights, even if it receives disproportionate emphasis among gays on account of that other option heterosexuals have being unavailable…but that’s simply, again, the adaptive reality; I’m sure plenty of gay men, even who do have a predilection for anal sex, wouldn’t mind if men had a separate orifice specifically for sex, but then that’s just not the reality!

    It also totally ignores the existence of lesbian women, of course, who do in fact often see what the vagina “has to offer.”

    This trope is common: reduction of queer sexuality to male homosexuality, and reduction of that to an anal fixation. Totally reductionist and inaccurate.

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  8. Are heterosexual men really that fixated on the sexual act itself rather than the “femaleness” of the person they’re desiring? Isn’t the plumbing just part of a very much larger package that is composed of personality and many other attributes?

    Perhaps this is why they project this reductionist approach towards us. I honestly don’t know … any straight men out there who can answer this?

    • None of my straight Christian friends use this kind of crude and reductionistic language to talk about the women they love. They talk about their wife’s personality and character. Which leads me to believe that they do view the plumbing as just part of a much larger package.

      But then when Phil Robertson only talks about the plumbing, and talks as if the plumbing ought to be the primary consideration that would lead me to fall for a woman, it’s not nearly as obvious to me that we’re talking about a whole package. We seem to be talking about plumbing.

      I doubt any of my straight Christian friends could give a helpful response to this question, because I doubt any of my straight Christian friends would use the kind of language Robertson uses. Just being straight doesn’t give insight into why Robertson reduces intimacy to body parts.

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  12. Thank you for this column. Phil’s comments in GQ, AND also at various times during the show as to relationships between men and women, have made me very uncomfortable, to say the least, but I had trouble formulating a written WHY.

    This column describes and explains it perfectly.

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  14. Every gay pride parade I’ve ever even read about, has proven to me that homosexuality is about lust, not love. If it was about love, they simply wouldn’t degrade each other in that fashion.`

    Heterosexual strip clubs are equally offensive, for exactly the same reason.

      • Heterosexual strip clubs ARE all about lust. And any heterosexuality that is not open to procreation is all about lust.

        The only form of sex that is about love instead of lust, is the kind that in 9 months you have to give a name to, and that takes 35 years to even come close to finishing.

      • The point I was trying to make is that using excesses in gay pride parades to reason about all of homosexuality is no more reasonable than using strip clubs to reason about all of heterosexuality.

      • I wasn’t talking about the sexual revolution; I was merely pointing to the issues in your logic. The sexual revolution in general definitely has its own problems.

        I find it odd to say that only procreative sex has an element of love, though. Even many people I know who are sexually active outside the bounds of marriage still love each other quite clearly. “Loving” isn’t identical to “within the boundaries God has set,” even without considering things like birth control used in marriage.

        Now, though, you’re bringing up some ignorance about sexual orientation. Many of us on this blog have sexual orientations that are not heterosexual, but are nonetheless committed to following traditional Christian teaching in how we live our lives. There are unique issues that our orientation brings up, just as many different people are in different situations that bring up unique issues. This isn’t something that psychiatrists came up with; it’s our lived experience. It’s demeaning to simply ignore or marginalize those whose experiences in a fallen world differ from those of the majority.

    • Ted: it’s difficult to know what you’re saying because you are speaking imprecisely. “Homosexuality” is a pretty broad word which can have to do with the experience of romantic or sexual attraction to one’s own sex. or with same-sex sexual activity.

      This comment seems to suggest that the problem with “homosexuality” isn’t the “homo” but the “sexuality,” that gay pride parades, etc., are all about lust, like heterosexual strip clubs.

      But not everyone who experiences homosexual attractions engages in any homosexual activity, nor is attraction identical to lust–it can lead to lust, but it is not the same thing.

      Both in your first comment and in the subsequent exchange with Jeremy, your arguments are very difficult to follow because you are equivocating between the sort of gay sexuality on display at gay pride parades, and homosexuality, a much broader concept which applies not only to the people in the parades, but also to people who are completely opposed to the behavior at gay pride parades.

      If you can’t recognize that basic distinction, you’re going to have a hard time engaging intelligently with the arguments and experiences on this site.

      • Yes, I have a hard time with insanity. Which is odd, because I am labeled insane myself.

        I would agree the problem is with the sexuality, rather than the homo. Same gender friendships are a necessary part of all human experience; as are opposite gender friendships.

        But those friendships aren’t sexual in nature, nor do they contain attraction- which even in heterosexuality is something we can train our brains to do.

        I think the word we are dancing around is platonic?

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