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Dreher, Linker, Sullivan

For any who haven't been following it, Damon Linker, Rod Dreher, and Andrew Sullivan have been conducting an interesting discussion of why it is that gay marriage and the legitimization of homosexuality generally are non-negotiable lines in the sand for so many social conservatives. Damon's initial post is here; Rod has responses here and here; Damon has a response to those responses here; and Andrew sums up his view here.

Dreher's stated objections to the "licitness" of homosexuality boil down to two, I think: that scripture is clear and adamant on the subject (which Damon discusses) and that it is part of a broader trend of destructive sexual permissiveness (which Andrew discusses). In the latter context, Dreher again and again conflates homosexuality and promiscuity, refering to "permissive sexual ethics," ""sexual 'liberation' " and a state in which "the only rule governing people's sexual behavior is their own desire." On two occasions he brings up the "lost children" of Rockdale County, Georgia, the subject of a "Frontline" documentary about a suburban school district in which extreme promiscuity among the students, many in their early teens, led to an outbreak of syphilis. But this seems an awfully strange example to bring up (twice!) in an argument against gay marriage and the legitimization of homosexuality. From the transcript of the show:

It was not uncommon, when all the young people would get together, to engage in group sex. There was group sex going on in terms of one guy having sex with one of the girls, and then the next guy having sex with the same girl. There was group sex going on in terms of one girl having sex with multiple male partners at the same time, multiple females having sex with each other at the same time. I would say that the only type of group sex that I did not hear about in this overall context was group sex between just guys. 

It seems pretty clear that the problem here was a heterosexual one. (My assumption is that those "multiple females" were not gay in any conventional sense of the term.) Dreher would presumably respond that all the ways in which traditional sexual mores have broken down are interrelated. But this is just lazy.

Like Dreher, I think promiscuity is distasteful and often destructive (and adultery doubly so), and I'm terrified at the thought of my children ever finding themselves in a situation like that in Rockland County. Such breakdowns of the traditional sexual order hold obvious risks for individuals and society more broadly and, as a result, remain the objects of widespread condemnation. The arguments against these behaviors are easy to make, and do not require leaning on scripture or "the way things have always been" or comparable buttresses.

Other breakdowns of the traditional sexual order, by contrast, have shown no meaningful sign of causing harm. Oral sex between consenting adults is an obvious example. It's still technically illegal in some states, and is frowned upon by many religious traditions, but almost no one is terribly concerned about it today (if, in fact, they ever were). Gay sex between consenting adults seems to me to fall rather clearly into this latter category; at the very least, it should be incumbent on those like Dreher who want to lump it into the former category to explain why it belongs there. 

Where Dreher's argument is weakest, though, is on the subject of gay marriage, as Andrew notes with eloquence. Yes, the idea may break with tradition, but it breaks in the opposite direction from promiscuity and group sex. It is not about creating a state in which "the only rule governing people's sexual behavior is their own desire." It is about adding rules to an exisiting sexual relationship, about exchanging a public recognition of the relationship for the assumption that it will adhere to certain social norms. (No, not all gay marriages will succeed in adhering to those norms, but obviously neither do a great many straight ones.) It would be interesting to see Dreher disentangle the threads of his thinking here, to acknowledge that not all deviations from traditional sexual mores are comparable, to state which he thinks are more risky and which less so and why. Instead, by idly lumping gay marriage in with the Rockland County scandal, Dreher obscures more than he clarifies.

 --Christopher Orr