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Why Are Religious Conservatives So Scared of Gay Sex?

Anti-gay bigotry is just one piece of a larger picture of conservative fear and loathing of all forms of sexuality.
 
 
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The past year has been a remarkable one for moving the ball forward for gay rights: the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the addition of New York to the list of states where gays can marry legally, and the Obama administration first declining to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, and then going on the record opposing it as unconstitutional.

Subsequently, those on the right who are still willing to strongly oppose gay rights are becoming more shrill in their opposition. The National Organization for Marriage, which already had a gold medal in the "bigotry Olympics," felt the need to respond to these changes by appointing a new leader who had criticized the supporters of Prop. 8 in California for not being bigoted enough, saying that any rights given to gays in relationships was too marriage-like for his tastes.  

What gives with all the hatred for gay people coming from conservatives, even as the rest of country is beginning to get over long-held prejudices? Part of it is just straight-up protectiveness of heterosexual privilege. Part of being conservative is relishing things (like rights) other people don’t have, and so of course they object to letting gay people have the things that straight people have always had. But quite a bit of what’s going on is that anti-gay bigotry is just one piece of a larger picture of conservative fear and loathing of all forms of sexuality. 

In socially conservative circles, sex is seen as illicit behavior at best, and criminally perverse at worst. The liberal model that imagines sex as a fun, life-affirming way to spend your time simply doesn’t compute. When you think of sex in terms of subversion and criminality, gay sex looms large in your imagination as the filthiest, most sexy-sex there is. Social conservatives simply can’t get past the images in their minds of dudes sticking it to one another, and it completely skews their ability to think logically and fairly about extending basic human rights to gay people.  

While right-wing pundits speaking to a national audience have learned to temper their remarks about homosexuality and try to steer the conversation away from opportunities to say ignorant things about gay people’s sex lives, the religious leaders and more underground right-wing media is still singing the same song. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, recently went on the record saying that gay rights will bring in “an outright sexual paganization of society.” Anti-gay activist Scott Lively was on WorldNetDaily again recently suggesting that being gay is a matter of having a philosophy of “sexual anarchy,” as opposed to it simply being a sexual orientation. It’s common for conservatives to suggest that accepting homosexuality means accepting pedophilia, because they see both as outrageous perversions instead of making the distinction between non-consensual and consensual behavior.  

The ex-gay movement is further evidence of the religious right’s obsession with gay sex that stems from a larger obsession with sex. The very premise of “ex-gay” therapy is that all it takes to stop being gay is to stop having gay sex. Many “ex-gay” people describe themselves as continuing to lust after members of their own sex, but identify as not-gay because they don’t do anything about it. This reduces being gay to a behavior, when of course most people understand gay as an identity. Just as you don’t stop being straight when you find yourself going through a dry spell, you don’t stop being gay because you’re not having gay sex. But the religious right is so obsessed by sex that they simply can’t get past it to look at people as whole human beings.  

The religious right looks at sex the way most of us look at drugs. In their eyes, straight, married sex is an indulgence like a glass of wine at dinner--oh, you know you probably shouldn’t, but they shrug it off, especially if they view you as a wealthy, privileged sort who can “handle” the responsibility. You can extrapolate from there: premarital sex between engaged couples is like smoking pot, cohabitation is like having a cocaine habit, and hooking up casually is like doing meth. In their worldview, gay sex is like heroin, and they insist it’s actually as dangerous as heroin.   

The overt hostility to most sex, and only tacit acceptance of in-the-dark-missionary-position-married-once-a-month-sex is pretty much the defining feature of the religious right. Many religious-right leaders are beginning to clue into the fact that their overt anti-pleasure attitudes aren’t good for PR, so there’s been some attempts to remake their arguments against all sex outside of heterosexual marriage to create something more enticing. Ted Haggard, for instance, tried to sell the line that if you’re Christian and wait for marriage, you’ll have "the best sex life." Even when he was pushing the line initially, it seemed forced, but later revelations that he did not, in fact, think he had the best sex life and instead chose to have meth-fueled gay sex with prostitutes proved exactly how dishonest his claims really were. 

Slightly more convincing are various grassroots attempts by religious-right women to actually live the claims that chastity before marriage means nothing but hot sex after marriage. (And of course, you have unmarried fundamentalists like Lila Rose working the “sexy virgin” angle as hard as they can.) It’s understandable that
fundamentalist women feel the need to take this approach.

The hostility toward sex for pleasure hasn’t prevented men in red states from becoming the biggest consumers of porn. Their claims that anti-feminism makes women happier has to butt up with images of sexually liberated feminists doing whatever they want to please themselves sexually. But even a site like Christian Nymphos is shot through with the belief that sexual pleasure is a dangerous force that must be strictly controlled, and that women may only have it if they
sacrifice their autonomy and dignity to a Biblically mandated female-submissive marriage. At their site, single women are not even allowed to leave comments or ask questions. Even knowledge of sex is considered too much for a woman who isn’t under direct control of a man. And for married couples, all sexual thoughts and fantasies are to be directly strictly toward their spouse, erasing their individual sexual natures. In other words, even pro-sex right-wing Christianity is still hostile to the concept that individuals have a right to their sexuality.

The religious right is much more comfortable treating sex like it’s dirty, and then obsessively cataloguing how dirty each act is in comparison with other acts. For an entertaining look at how outrageous this can get, I highly recommend watching this clip from “The Dildo Diaries,” in which the Texas legislature debated whether or not to make anal sex illegal. When challenged about whether or not the law should ban it even for married couples, Rep. Warren Chisum said it should be banned “especially” for married couples, and added, “I can’t believe anyone would do that if they was married.” Much hilarity on the floor of the legislature ensued, but the moment really stands out in history as a crystallization of the social conservative attitudes toward sex: it really shouldn’t exist at all unless it’s within in the confines of marriage and with as little imagination and frequency as possible.  

Once you grasp how the social right sees this issue, many of the other issues that matter to them make sense: their hatred of Hollywood for suggesting that sex might be something people do for fun; their jihad against pornography; the war on birth control and Planned Parenthood; objections to abortion rights; support for abstinence-only education; and their objections to the HPV vaccine. And of course, extending any rights whatsoever to gay people. It all goes back to sex, and their sense that it’s a filthy thing to do in all circumstances, though of course filthier in some more than others. But the idea that sex is anything but a naughty thing you should try to avoid seems as much an anathema to them as adding a daily glass of wine to the food pyramid would be to teetotalers. 

 
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