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September 15, 2006
SGN.org
Volume 34
Issue 37
 
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Polling about Gay sex
Polling about Gay sex
Commentary by Paul Varnell - SGN Contributing Writer

Like many of us, I suspect, I read with interest those public opinion surveys about whether people think homosexuality or the "homosexual lifestyle" is wrong or acceptable, or however they word it. And happily, disapproval of homosexuality has been slipping over the years.

But pollsters never ask the follow-up questions I want them to ask. When people say they think homosexuality is wrong what I want to know is "Why do you think homosexuality is wrong?" That is, do people have religious objections, or psychological discomfort or what? Do they even have any reasons at all or is their response just a long-standing cultural reflex. If we knew more we could frame replies to meet their objections. But pollsters never ask open ended questions like that.

Then too, I've often suspected that when some people say homosexuality is wrong they mean that they could not imagine themselves engaging in homosexual behavior or that they would be troubled if they discovered that they felt desires for someone of the same sex. That is, they may really mean that homosexuality would feel wrong-for them. Some may even be trying to assert to pollsters that they are not Gay as if saying homosexuality is all right would mean they were Gay.

So I want pollsters to seek clarification by asking: "Do you mean that homosexuality is wrong for you personally, or wrong for heterosexuals or wrong for everyone including homosexuals?" That would also force people who think homosexuality is wrong for "everyone" to acknowledge that they are saying that homosexuals should not have any emotionally meaningful sexual expression.

But now let's imagine that some people imagine they have a good reason for thinking that homosexuality is wrong. If so, I want pollsters to ask people what specifically they have in mind when they use the word "homosexuality." Probably they are not referring to the feelings themselves. Most people recognize that we do not, in the ordinary sense, choose our feelings, our desires. Even most "ex-Gays" acknowledge that their Gay desires do not go away.

So then it must be physical actions that they think are wrong. But what physical actions? Is a man hugging another man wrong? It is hard to think so, given how common that practice is among close relatives. How about kissing? That is not likely considering that men in other cultures kiss one another when they meet.

But what if the kissing is deep and passionate and prolonged? Would that be wrong? None of the traditional arguments against homosexuality seem to rule it out. I would bet that here at least some of the objection would be not moral or religious, but aesthetic or psychological-that the discomfort people might feel is more about men indicating sexual desire for each other rather seeing passionate kissing itself as a sexual activity. In other words, the objection is to what the actions symbolize rather than to the actions themselves.

You probably see where this is headed, but bear with me. What about two men in bed together masturbating themselves while they hug and kiss? It is hard to think why that is wrong. After all, hardly anyone objects to masturbation nowadays except medievalizing Catholic theologians. And If self-masturbation is not "wrong," then why would mutual masturbation be wrong?

What then about oral sex? While people may be uncomfortable visualizing such a scene between two men, it is hard to think of a reason why oral sex is wrong. And if people cannot think of a reason, they need to face up to the fact, once again, that they are mistaking an aesthetic response (it is "ugly" or "disgusting") for a moral argument (it is "wrong").

Nor can people rely for support on Old Testament admonitions about not lying with a man as with a woman. As Gay Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg points out in his recent "Wrestling with God & Men," that expression refers pretty clearly to intercourse (and presumably its Gay male analogue) and can hardly refer to oral sex between men.

After all this we come to anal sex, against which much of Near Eastern religious rhetoric and Western philosophy were once marshaled. I suspect that pollsters would find that when most people say homosexuality is wrong they mean anal sex-if they mean anything specific at all.

But I suspect that anyone who-however reluctantly-realizes that they cannot find any cogent reason to affirm that other forms of sexual expression between men are wrong might find their objection even to anal sex somewhat more doubtful. It is easier for people to maintain categorical positions when they refuse to analyze the components separately.

But as things stand, even the best polling data tell us only a statistical result, not the motives, the anxieties, or the distinctions people make when thinking about homosexuality. We don't know the various reasons why people think homosexuality is wrong. If they think it is wrong "most of the time"-as some do when that option is offered-we don't know when it is acceptable or for whom. And most of all, we don't know what they are including-and excluding-when they use the word homosexuality. You would think pollsters would be curious.

You would think that national Gay organizations would be curious too and commission polls-or at least conduct focus groups. But so far, no such actions, leaving us fighting blind.



Many of Paul Varnell's previous columns are posted at the Independent Gay Forum (www.indeGayforum.org). His e-mail address is Pvarnell(at)aol.com.
 

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