Are homosexual acts right?

The single most important question in the current debate over homosexuality is whether it’s good for those sexually attracted to persons of the same sex to act on their inclinations. If it is, then it’s a violation of their rights to stand in their way or act as if there’s something wrong with what they do. And if it isn’t, it still might be advisable to leave them free to do what they want or protect them in various ways, but it puts the discussion on a very different footing.

One response to the question is that it shouldn’t be asked, because consensual sexual activity is solely the business of those immediately involved. That response makes no sense. If it were right then marriage, paternity suits, child support orders, crimes of passion, sex education and AIDS prevention programs wouldn’t exist. In addition, we share a common moral world with others. Love makes the world go ‘round, and since there’s an intrinsic connection between sex and love the world has a rightful interest in sexual conduct. Also, to think about our own situation we need the help of general principles that have implications for others. How we think about others depends on how we think about ourselves, and conversely. That’s what it is to be a social being.

So the question is unavoidable and should be asked. But how can it be answered? One answer is that homosexual activity is good, because it’s good for people to do what they want unless it injures other people, and it’s not immediately obvious how consensual homosexual acts injure those not directly involved. The obvious rejoinder is that sex is intrinsically and intensely expressive. It places values, establishes relationships, communicates and impels. Since the human world is ordered (or disordered) by personal and cultural expression, expression affects and can injure others. On this line of thought, the question as to the goodness of homosexual acts then becomes the question of the goodness of what they express — to their meaning as human acts.

Sexual acts might mean a variety of things, but they can’t be made to mean anything and everything. Their somewhat unbridled and unbalanced quality seems to require a definite setting that connects them firmly to something much larger that gives them a meaning adequate to the experience. Their possible meanings might include:

  1. Pleasure. It’s hard for sexual acts to express simple love of pleasure, though. There’s always more to it than that. Sex is intensely focused on another person, and simple love of pleasure is not. “Sex as simple joyous pleasure” is a fantasy that may be OK for drinking songs but not for real life.
  2. Friendship. Nor can sexual acts express simple friendship. Friendship has a reflective and mutually independent quality hard to reconcile with sexual relations unless both are part of something much larger (like marriage).
  3. Self-transcendence through intense experience. Another fantasy that doesn’t work. Intoxication is always followed by the morning after. And what about the other person?
  4. Dominance or submission. Sexual acts can certainly express those things. Since sex aspires to the unlimited, Sade has become the poet of this form of sex. It’s obviously destructive.
  5. Marital union. This really seems the only stable and satisfying setting for sex. It’s impossible in the case of homosexual acts, though, because the bodies of the participants do not form an objective functional unity that points by its nature beyond the act itself and beyond the personal interests of the participants. (Many heterosexual acts — extramarital affairs, heterosexual sodomy, and acts involving artificial contraception — also place themselves outside this setting.)
From the foregoing, it seems that sex can have stable positive meaning only in the form of acts that express marital union. In other settings it can not successfully express a love that transcends pleasure and personal interest, because its meaning is too much a matter of interpretation. One cannot bootstrap into the transcendent through interpretation. Sex does aspire to transcendence, however, and in a setting that denies that aspiration it takes on an element of meretriciousness or willful fantasy — it can’t mean what it wants to mean and pretends to mean. It therefore becomes crippled, perverse or abusive. Hence the tendency, not just in the gay world but in modern sexual life generally, toward role-playing, instability, betrayal, disillusion, and the abusive side of sexuality. Participation in activities that point toward such things may be a temptation, but not a good.
Posted by Jim Kalb at May 07, 2003 05:12 PM | Send

Your own first paragraph suggests you are uncomfortable with the question you have posed. The reason is simple. The more interesting question is most probably not whether sex is good, but whether it’s bad. One must always admit neutrality into the debate. Sex may or may not be “good”, but it may also be neutral.

In the case of a good act, the government might attempt to encourage it, but must be careful when trying to enforce its will upon society. In the case of a neutral act, the right of the individual cannot be abridged. It may be difficult to agree an act is neutral, but most probably no more difficult than agreeing an act is good or bad. In the case of a negative act, the right can only be abridged upon socio-consensual agreement that the negative weighs enough to justify it.

I would be extremely interested if you would consider recasting your article, enumerating sexual acts with an eye to their negative effects, rather than their positive ones, in order to discern whether the right to engage in each act should or should not be abridged by society. Under our Constitution, a right is generally held unless abridged.

Posted by: Hovig John Heghinian on May 7, 2003 6:29 PM

But the issue on homosexuality isn’t primarily whether it should be forbidden. There’s also whether “gay marriage” should be recognized, whether “homophobia” is a bad thing that should be suppressed, what children should be taught about homosexuality, and so on. So I think the primary question is what sorts of things homosexuality and sex generally are, and how they fit into human life. But those are just basic questions of sexual morality.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on May 7, 2003 6:50 PM


The article under discussion did not discuss in general the “issue on homosexuality”. It was in particular an article entitled “Are Homosexual Acts Right?” By “right”, the article meant “good”. The article poses, in its introductory paragraph, whether sexual acts between homosexuals are “good”, because if so, “itís a violation of their rights to stand in their way or act as if thereís something wrong with what they do.”

In my previous comment, above, I wondered if the question was ill posed, and might instead be reconsidered as “Are Homosexual Acts Bad?”, my main reason being that homosexual acts might actually be neutral, in which case, they should be just as constitutionally protected as if they were “good”. If the article fails to consider the neutral case, i.e., if it does not admit in its enumeration of various forms of sexual activity that certain of those acts may be neutral, if not all of them, then with all due respect to the author of a logical and cogent essay, the argument misses the crux of the inevitable social debate, looming on this country’s horizon.

Not to put too fine a point on it, or descend into unecessarily crude analogies, it’s not necessarily “good” to own a television, nor jump out of a plane, nor go without bathing for a year, but there seems no discussion over a person’s right to do it. Even advocats of gambling bans are arguing the act is “bad”, ergo its proscription. Under a country governed by our Constitution, the bar to limit a person’s right to act cannot be set at whether or not the act is “good”.

Posted by: Hovig John Heghinian on May 7, 2003 7:33 PM

Oh, but I thought I subsumed the neutral case in the “good” case by admitting the force of the argument (I stated it without rebutting it in any way) that if someone wants to do something and there’s no reason it’s bad then it’s good for him to do it. So thereafter I had to show there was something wrong with homosexual acts to reach the conclusion that they’re not good. At that’s what I tried to do.

It seems to me the general trend of public discussion is that homosexuality is good for homosexuals, so that seemed to me the issue to deal with. And once again, I’m not dealing with legality but with fundamental rightness and wrongness, so the reference to the Constitution seems misplaced.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on May 7, 2003 7:47 PM

“From the foregoing, it seems that sex can have stable positive meaning only in the form of acts that express marital union. In other settings it cannot successfully express a love that transcends pleasure and personal interest, because its meaning is too much a matter of interpretation.”

This is an excellent statement of the issue. I’m reminded of my idea that sex goes wrong, both in art and life, when it is treated as a thing by itself instead of as part of something larger. Mr. Kalb has connected that idea with the idea of the transcendent. Sex points toward the transcendent, therefore for its true fulfillment it needs a stable human/social setting proper to the transcendent, a setting that transcends the participants as individuals. And that can only be marriage.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 13, 2003 3:55 PM

First license for a homosexual marriage issued in North America. How further down can things go, and how fast?

Posted by: Joel on June 10, 2003 5:24 PM

Over the past several years I have been reminded on a number of occasions of the titanic, boiling anger that seems to lie barely beneath the surface of this question on the part of homosexual ideologues. If you haven’t glimpsed it, it can take your breath away. There is something profoundly disturbing about it. An old friend of mine spoke up against the notion of homosexual “marriage” in the local paper. He showed me some of the e-mail and hard-copy mail he received as a result, and has described a few of the late-night phone calls he has endured. To say that it is out of all proportion to his mild demurrer is the understatement of the millenium so far. Threats of violence (specifically homosexual rape), vile abuse, accusations that he’s a repressed homosexual himself (why does THIS one come up with such monotonous regularity?), etc. etc. One senses something demonic at the root of it all.

Posted by: Seth Williamson on July 20, 2003 2:21 PM

“First license for a homosexual marriage issued in North America. How further down can things go, and how fast?”

Things can and will get worse. Normalization of pedophilia is just over the horizon. What’s to stop them?

Pedophiles are where homosexuals were in the 70’s. They are now building a cadre of intellecual and academic supporters. They have ties, albiet somewhat occluded, within the homosexual “community” and special interest groups. After all, pedophiles are really just an extraordinarily perverse sub-set of homosexuals. Birds of a feather and all that.

Posted by: Jason Eubanks on July 21, 2003 1:52 AM
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