This morning, the New York Times published a conversation between John Corvino and me, in which we address the question, “Can People With Dementia Have a Sex Life?” Predictably, controversy ensued. The dispute began when Dr. Corvino linked to the dialogue on Twitter:
With the violent rhetoric that readers of the New York Times have come to expect from conservative Christian thinkers, Matthew Lee Anderson responded:
@johncorvino @ronbelgau @roomfordebate I’m taking that personally, John.
— Matthew Anderson (@mattleeanderson) April 22, 2015
Things went downhill from there:
@johncorvino I’ve heard it used for all traditionalists. I didn’t know the extension might not be licit. @ronbelgau should decide for us. — Matthew Anderson (@mattleeanderson) April 22, 2015
The simple answer is: it’s complicated.
If we adopt an originalist standard, then the case must be decided in Matt’s favor. The Bridges Across project, where the SideA/SideB terminology originated, defined Sides A and B in terms of belief:
SideA believes that the sex/gender of the partners in a relationship or sexual act does not affect the moral status of the relationship or act.
SideB, in contrast includes those who believe that the sex/gender of the partners in a relationship or sexual act is morally relevant. In particular, they believe that same-sex relationships and sexual acts are immoral, and/or they fall short of God’s ideal. They generally believe that people should either have sexual relations within the context of a heterosexual marriage, or they should abstain from sexual relations completely.
However, as Oliver Wendell Holmes observed,
With regard to that we may add that when we are dealing with words that also are a constituent act, like the Constitution of the United States, we must realize that they have called into life a being the development of which could not have been foreseen completely by the most gifted of its begetters. It was enough for them to realize or to hope that they had created an organism; it has taken a century and has cost their successors much sweat and blood to prove that they created a nation. The case before us must be considered in the light of our whole experience and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago. (Missouri v. Holland 252 U.S. 416 )
Since the term “Side B” was defined at Bridges Across in the mid 1990s, it has tended to shift in common usage from a belief marker to an identity marker: a “Side B” person is a gay person who holds “Side B” beliefs (in the originalist sense).
So the short answer is that both are right: Matt correctly identifies the original sense of the term, while John—with a typically liberal bias—focuses on the dynamic sense that has emanated from the penumbra of the original term.
As a compromise, I suggest that, henceforth, John refer to Matt as his tallest SideB friend.
The case is remanded to Twitter.
This is the kind of violent controversy that you and John opened yourselves to with that ungracious display of nuance and collaboration in the NYT piece. “Room for Debate” indeed.
as usual, both sides are wrong. Let me tell you about how my tradition figured this out the right way a long time ago.
Ron! I saw you in the NYT!!!!! Congrats! (Sorry, this is completely unrelated to the post)
So, this is me feeling/prepared to feel really stupid, but the state of these conversations has tweaked my capacity for sarcasm, which I thought was basically unbreakable.
Are you saying Douthat’s piece is actually violent rhetoric? If so, I’m definitely interested in hearing why, I’m not looking to pick a fight. If not, can someone get me a glass of water and a sedative?
No. That was sarcasm.
::pops an adavan::
In seriousness, really appreciate the work that you do Ron. I’ve learned a ton from you and your colleagues.
What about those of us who believe that the Side A/B rhetoric is dehumanizing, as it implicitly suggests that being gay is reducible to sex? As Wes noted in his recent book and as Jeremy noted a few months ago, gay people are not reducible to sexual desires. I think of Denny Burk’s recent piece on why celibate gay people are still committing sin simply by being who they are. The premise that underlies Denny’s whole argument is the assumption that being gay is reducible to sexual desire. Matt Anderson has made similar assertions in engaging Michael Hannon’s piece, where Matt avers that heteronormativity is implicit in the logic of Scripture. In making such a statement, Matt clearly asserts that people can be reduced to their sexuality and that social identities based on that reduction are a good thing. In fact, according to Matt, operating with such reduced social identities is implicit in the logic of Scripture.
I would generally define being gay along the same lines that Wes does: It is a collection of sensitivities that includes a heightened sensitivity to same-sex beauty, including beauty in interpersonal relationships, fidelity, aesthetics, and the like. Moreover, these have to be mapped against a culture’s view of masculinity. In cultures where such sensitivities are included within the normative script for masculinity (Italy, Spain, southern France), it may well be unnecessary for me to identify as gay. I tend to identify as gay because I have a desire for close same-sex interpersonal relationships that would largely be precluded from me if I were to opt into the culture’s hegemonic script for marriage and family (nuclear family). In our culture and especially in conservative Christian culture, marriage and family means terminating all close friendships with other men. I have 2-3 formerly close friends who live near me. The only time they ever call me is if their wives and kids are away. I finally coaxed one of these friends to go to a soccer match with me. We went, but he spent the whole night communicating with his wife. In a mere 4 hours, she sent him 93 texts. If he didn’t respond to a text within 15-20 seconds, she would call. He explained, “This is hard for her; she believes that marriage means that I can have no emotional connection to anyone besides her, the kids, and our parents.” Sadly, that’s what marriage and family generally means in our culture. And it’s what evangelical churches generally promote. Our one night out resulted in a weeks-long fight that eventually involved their church’s session. The session recommended that my friend limit his outside-of-work social interactions to situations where his wife can be present (and vice versa). We have come to construe “one flesh” as one person.
I would largely construe my being gay in terms of a dissent from that types of relationships that such heteronormative scripts permit. Now than I’m older and can more easily find women who are less interested in the “nuclear” model of relationships, I find it easier to date women and find an attractiveness to the opposite sex that I didn’t possess when I was in my 20s and faced immense pressure from my church to get married, cut ties to my male friends, and start having children.
In my view, homosexuality is largely a social construction that represents a socialized dissent to overly restrictive heteronormative scripts. Sure, some parcel of that may include experiencing erotic excitement in the presence of those with whom we have close interpersonal relationships. That’s a somewhat involuntary biological response, and should not be construed as a desire for sex. But, as I see it from the perspective of an early-40s gay guy, there’s a larger issue. And that issue has more to do with a deep desire for same-sex friendship coupled with a social environment that wrongly views such friendships as necessarily inconsistent with marital fidelity.
I’m staying at my family’s beach condo this week. I was having dinner at the bar of a tapas restaurant the other night. A younger married couple was sitting to my right. When she got up to go to the restroom, the guy looked to me and said, “Dude, your life must be awesome; we’ve been married for a year and, aside from the sex, it’s been nothing but a suffocating experience; so, feel free to hop into our conversation because I could really use a social break from her right now.” If we’re going to reduce being gay to anything, who not reduce it to our electing to try to keep our same-sex friendships into adulthood rather than having to give them up for a smothering marriage.
Thus, it’s probably no accident that those who work the hardest to promote rigid heteronormative marital scripts centered around the nuclear family (Burk, Strachan, etc.) are the same ones who insist that being gay MUST be reduced to sexual desire and only sexual desire. It’s like a protection racket for their screwed-up view of marriage.
Raising a family is hard work. Married couples have literally no time for anything except for the kids. They even don’t have time for each other much less for friends. This is the truth and it has nothing to do with “heteronormative” or stuff like that. It is lack of time that makes me not able to call my friends even though I want to very much.
Oddly enough, my parents had plenty of time for social engagement with other adults beyond their marriage and beyond raising their kids. I’m somewhat intrigued by the “free-range parenting” controversy that’s brewing with the couple in Maryland. We seem to forget that such parenting styles were common just 20-30 years ago. Parenting isn’t any harder now than it was then, unless you’ve simply chosen to make it harder…by creating layers of senseless busywork to weigh people down.
I grew up in a neighborhood dominated by second-generation southern and eastern European immigrants. Many families raised 10 or more kids. Many mothers stayed home, but filled their lives with things besides serving their kids. Fathers came home from work, ate dinner, and played bocce in the park as the older men got drunk in grappa and cheap beer.
That’s closer to what the “traditional” family was like, not this modernist, neo-Freudian “nuclear” construct that has domesticated us all into utter numbness. My childhood was filled with characters, many not too different from the guy Bill Murray played in the movie Saint Vincent. I miss that world. It was a complicated, messy world without clear boundaries, but where things generally worked out for the best. My dad didn’t need the wagging fingers of Denny Burk and Owen Strachan to tell him how to be a biblical man. My mom was not his closest friend. She still isn’t. And he isn’t her closest friend. They just lived. Sometimes I think that our fear of failure has led us to so script our lives that we’ve done nothing but prevent ourselves from succeeding.
You might miss that world but it is long gone!
I hear it from my friends and I live it myself. What keep us from calling each other and being with each other are everyday responsibilities, not Freud and not Burke.
I liked your thoughts here especially ‘my life was filled with characters’ and that your dad did not need to be told how to be a biblical man. You said “I miss that world. It was a complicated, messy world without clear boundaries, but where things generally worked out for the best.” I think that world still exists in places where community and acceptance are valued. We can make that happen just by being present in our daily lives and by associating with our neighbours whether or not they are christian like us. The angst we feel is more from the hesitation people have to mix with each other. Generally people these days are anxious about the stranger on their street rather than eager to meet someone new.