Hetro vs. Homo
Fighting Heterosexuality: The Sin of Categorizing Persons March 13, 2014 4:22 PM
My title is not a slip of the pen; it is not supposed to be “fighting homosexuality”. But what could I possibly have against heterosexuality? The problems with this term were recently outlined by Michael Hannon in First Things. The argument is imperfect, I think, but it bears close examination. We can learn from it.
What Hannon suggests in “Against Heterosexuality” is that the terms heterosexual and homosexual are relatively recent inventions which inaccurately categorize persons while stripping sexuality of its moral dimension. Hannon makes very good sense on both counts, and while his case against the normative character of heterosexual attraction is weak and just a trifle wild, Hannon’s overall position aligns nicely with that of many CatholicCulture.org readers, who would prefer that we stop using the term “homosexuality” and instead discuss that issue in terms of “same-sex attraction”.
The difficulty posed by the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” is that whenever we apply them to persons rather than to behaviors, they carry tremendous unwanted baggage. The terms imply three things that are universally false: First, that the human person can be defined in terms of his sexual inclinations; second, that these inclinations divide persons into simple and obvious permanent classes; and third, that our moral analysis of sexual behavior must be rooted in these inclinations.
Breaking It Down
It is in fact an enormous error to view another person through the prism of his alleged personal inclinations or temptations. In the case of Christians seeking to respond to sinful behaviors, half the battle is lost as soon as we identify another person primarily in terms of whatever personal inclinations present problems for the Christian life. This is like categorizing someone who experiences cupidity as a “greedier”; it suggests that at the very root of his nature, this person’s relationship to the saving power of Jesus Christ is fundamentally different (and in fact negatively different) from those who are not “greediers”.
In addition, Hannon’s point is well-taken that sexual inclinations are not fixed in stone, that they can and do change based on cultural norms and on what people commit themselves to personally. In support of this, he cites: (a) Widely-known examples of changing inclinations and multiple inclinations, (b) The growing movement toward unbridled sexual experimentation in the more libertine corners of contemporary culture; and (c) Changing sexual theory. Queer theorists, he says, are in the process of abandoning their push to define “homosexuality” as a fixed classification, partly because this undermines future possibilities for fun which may no longer be considered out of bounds. Sexual inclinations, especially in the dissolute, can be a moving target.
Finally, Hannon is certainly correct in arguing that the emphasis on heterosexuality and homosexuality fails to provide an adequate moral framework for handling sexual desire. The presumption used to be that heterosexuality was morally normative, but by themselves heterosexual inclinations are incapable of serving as a moral standard. For this purpose, the traditional Catholic approach works much better, the approach which ties the proper use of our sexual faculties inextricably to procreation. All sexual behavior, whether heterosexual or homosexual, must be judged in the same way against this teleological standard. In broad strokes, sexual activity is moral when open to producing new life in the family—the stable marital context which children require. But heterosexual lust is no better (and no worse) than homosexual lust. Contraceptive heterosexual sex is no better (and no worse) than homosexual sex.