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Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Moral majority my foot

It's something that's been pointed out repeatedly: preachers, politicians and those who make a living out of criticising other people's behaviour seem to abide by a rule of thumb - the louder they shout about how SINFUL something is, the more likely they are to get caught doing it. Homophobic preachers turn out to be gay. Pro-family politicians get caught cheating on their wives. Old Fashioned Values types get caught molesting the ducks in their village pond. Okay, I made that last one up, but the others are fairly common.

What's going on here? The theory I've seen most argued is sexual guilt; here are two particularly good articles arguing the case. The theory is this: plagued by an inner demon, people start shouting about how it possesses everybody else, to compensate for their guilt, and because they assume that everybody else is as guilty as they.

It's an entirely convincing theory, and I'm sure accounts for a lot of it. But, just to add to the speculation, there's something else that I haven't heard mentioned: familiarity.

My theory is this: we tend to base our understanding of human behaviour on our own experience, whether we feel guilty about it or not. The people ranting about activities they indulge in may partly be compensating - that is, the guilt comes first, and then the ranting - but it might also go the other way around. Looking for something to rant about, they pick the first 'vice' that comes to their mind. And, human nature being what it is, that's very probably going to be their own. It's a malevolent manifestation of an ordinary mental process - but the process in itself need not be malevolent.

Let's posit a perfectly ordinary, nice guy who happens to have a taste for, say, girls tied up and blindfolded with white silk scarves; we'll call him Jack. Now, Jack has no particular sexual guilt; there are things he likes and things he doesn't. He's heard of golden showers and spanking and ponyplay, but none of them float his boat - but there's something about that be-scarfed image that really does it for him. Some of his girlfriends have refused, or tried it once and decided they don't like it; others have been into it; he finally found a girl, let's call her Jill, who loved scarf-play and was also fun to be around and cooked fantastic pancakes. (I'd like my imaginary people to be happy, since they're trying to prove my point.) So Jack and Jill have a variety of sex, and at the kinky end of their repertoire, the silk scarves await.

Jack's sister, Mary, has a fetish of her own: she really likes nipple clamps. Her first boyfriend fled in horror at the thought, which made her feel pretty bad about herself, but lately she's taken up with Michael, who can't believe his luck at finding a girl who's willing, nay eager, to engage in something his previous girlfriends always refused point-blank to consider. Mary and Michael have their vanilla side as well, but when they're feeling kinky, out come the clamps.

One Friday night, all four of them are together at a family dinner. In passing, somebody at the table mentions kinky sex. None of the diners sit up and say, 'Oh yes, do you know what my favourite kink is?', because Auntie Susan's present and they don't want to shock her (unaware that ole Susie has a thing for dressing up as a naughty nurse who the kind-but-firm doctor just has to take in hand) - but in the privacy of their own minds, all of them think, 'Oh yes, kinky sex. That can be fun.'

But Jack's thinking, 'Kinky sex, that's right, that's bondage games and artistic poses.' Mary is thinking, 'Ah yes, kinky sex: masochism and sensation play.' Michael's thinking: 'Kinky sex, that means getting to enjoy your sadistic side in a consensual setting.' Jill's thinking, 'Kinky sex, oh the thrill of helplessness.' Susie and Uncle Henry, the lucky dog, are thinking, 'Ah yes, role play; those youngsters aren't as hip and revolutionary as they think.'

The thing is, these couples are picturing completely different acts, and within those couples, the understanding of them is different. Mary's heard of silk scarves and Jack's heard of nipple clamps, but those are not the images that leap to their minds. Because when they hear the word 'kinky', they're thinking of non-mainstream, somewhat naughty sex - and exactly what that means to them is based on individual preference.

Now, my imaginary couples are all well-adjusted people who think sex is for fun, so they don't cringe when someone mentions the word 'kinky', they just twinkle at their beloveds when they think no one is looking. But let's consider the case of Ezekiel.

Not unlike Jack, Zeke is a nice guy who would really love to see a beautiful woman bound and gagged - but unfortunately for Zeke, he grew up in an environnment where the common word wasn't 'kinky', it was 'immoral'. Or 'disgusting'. Or 'perverted'. Zeke's never dared suggest to any of his girlfriends that he's heard of this really interesting-sounding game that some people like to play; it's stuck in his fantasy life, and while he feels pretty bad about himself, and sure that everyone else is more normal than him, the image keeps returning to his mind. Zeke, living in a culture where sex is considered immoral and non-standard sex particularly immoral, also has a more limited range of information than Jack and Michael. The stuff he'd like to do leaps out at him every time he sees a suggestive-looking advert, but he was never allowed dirty books, his mates' locker-room talk is limited because they're all as short of information as him - or as frightened of being judged - and anything kinky is very much What Other People Do.

So, say to Zeke 'sexual immorality', and what happens? His mind leaps to the kind of 'immorality' with which he's most familiar: his own secret desires. Ask Zeke to talk about immorality, and he'll talk about those terrible men who want to degrade and exploit women.

His pal Jacob, on the other hand, is gay, but he can't tell anyone that. Poor Jacob struggles desperately not to look at the handsome men on the street, to keep his eyes off the Calvin Klein billboards, but however hard he tries, he can't stop wanting men. Ask Jacob to talk about immorality, and what 'immorality' is weighing most heavily on his mind? Homosexuals.

Like Jack and Michael, Zeke and Jacob will know that there's more than one kind of non-traditional sex, but each of them spends more time thinking of a particular variety than of any other kind. Zeke thinks that gay people are peculiar, because he has no idea he spends every Friday night out bowling with one; Jacob thinks bondage fetishists must be weird control freaks, because he never realised his easy-going buddy has leanings that way. And, thinking that such tastes are weird, they assume, on some level, that very few people must really be into them - too few to start getting worked up about. But their taste, oh my - that's a life-ruining thing! (Because, of course, it is messing up their lives to feel so bad about themselves.) That's serious business! When their pastor talks about how sexual sin can destroy marriages and happiness, each of them, in his own different way, feels like he knows exactly what the pastor is talking about.

Part of this is guilt about their suppressed desires, but there's also just the fact of familiarity. Say the word 'cat' to me and I picture my own cat. Say the word 'home' and I picture my own house. Say the word 'sin' and I picture my own vices. That's how people work. Our mental images are based on what we've experienced - even if, as with Jacob and Zeke, we've experienced it only in longings and fantasies.

Now, if Jacob and Zeke are lucky, they'll find someone who's right for them and achieve some peace with themselves. Maybe they'll have to move to Brighton or San Francisco to do it, but it could happen, and under those circumstances, they may calm down. But it's also possible that they'll remain stuck in the value system that condemns them. At this point, they're at risk of a variety of bad things, depending on their temperaments. Let's say that Zeke is a get-along guy; chances are, he doesn't want to get into a fight with anyone, but he'll be tormented by sexual guilt, find it harder to be open with his wife, and feel lonely and bad. His self-esteem gets rubbed a little raw each day; so, probably, will hers, because her husband somehow doesn't seem happy with her, but won't say why. Depression, stress and marital unhappiness beckon.

Suppose, though, that Jacob is a little angrier than Zeke. Considering the life he's living, he's got reason to be angry. Frustration gets to him, and he's an assertive guy, never one to take things lying down. In another place, he'd have made a terrific gay rights activist, but there's nowhere honest for his campaigning streak to go. If he's not careful, Jacob may find himself up on the podium inveighing against all those homosexuals, those degraded people who give in to desires he's fighting to keep at bay, who are having way more fun than him even though he's trying so much harder to be a good guy than they are ... Pain results for everyone, Jacob included.

But if the temperaments were reversed - if Jacob was the compliant man and Zeke forthright one - then we'd be seeing Jacob in the congregation listening sadly, while Zeke was up on the podium, castigating the degraded people who indulge in exploitative pornography.

The congregation's going to agree with either speech, so they may not think anything funny's going on. But, assuming they got to pick their own subject, it may be worth asking why they picked that one in particular.

If Jacob and Zeke are nice men, they may not want to spend their careers discussing how bad everyone else is. But if either of them is a really mean, aggressive guy who likes to scapegoat, we're in trouble. They've got their issue primed.

While someone yelling about a specific sexual 'vice' when they want to talk about sexual immorality in general is probably covering some guilt - if it's their particular kink and it's not allowed in their culture, they almost certainly do feel guilty - it's also likely to be the easiest 'vice' for them to picture. They've heard of exhibitionism and hot wax and cross-dressing, but because they don't see why anyone would find those exciting, the ideas haven't lingered in their mind very long, and may just not occur to them when they want to talk about temptation. Why would they? The ideas don't strike them as tempting, so classing them as 'temptations' takes an effort of imagination and empathy - and if you're the kind of person who likes to yell about how wicked everybody is, those are probably not the qualities you're leading with.

The basic point is this. Guilt is almost certainly present in people condemning vices they indulge in, but you don't have to feel guilty about a kink to have it be the first one that comes to your mind when you hear the word 'kink'. You just have to be interested in it. (Go on, what were you thinking of? Because I bet it's not the same thing next reader will picture.) Hypocrisy flourishes in environments where natural instincts are driven underground, but in this case, we could be looking at a particularly damaging expression of something we all feel, rather than a phenomenon unique to 'moral majority' types. People are often more similar than we think.

So, looking at the title, "Moral Majority My Foot," I can assume that you have a foot fetish?

Just joking. Great post and it makes me think.
Ah, the fact that that occurred to you obviously means that YOU have one! Ha ha, I have found you out!

(Mind you, if you do, all I really think is that I hope you find someone with nice feet...)
Say the word 'sin' and I picture my own vices.

Enquiring minds want to know...
You know, The Cynic Sage has been doing a highly entertaining chapter-by-chapter analysis of the book Every Man's Battle that seems to illustrate your point quite nicely.
Thanks, Amanda, that's interesting.

Enquiring minds want to know...

Well, I don't handle anger very easily; I'm prone to repressing then exploding. I get too caught up in worrying whether people like me. And I hold grudges. I'm pretty opinionated, too.

What, you thought I meant something sexual? Nah. Sex isn't a vice, unless you're talking about forcing someone, betraying someone or using someone, and I try not to do that. ;-)
I've long argued this exact point myself. On the flipside, the greediest, most grasping, and stingiest people I have ever met were, to a man, on the political left. E.g. the most heartless and aggressive capitalist I ever came across professed to be a Trotskyite.
Thanks for the link Kit! From Only Sayin'
You're welcome, Mark! :-)
Extremely belated discovery of this post (was hunting up Mikalogues: alas this blog doesn't seem to have categories or tags so they're all together). This really, really makes sense! Thank you.
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