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Sex, Freedom, and California's AB-2943 - May 2018

posted May 8, 2018, 1:23 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review

By Claude Hanley '18

In recent years, eleven states have passed laws banning the use (on minors) of “conversion therapy,” a medically debunked and morally bankrupt practice which seeks to change the sexual orientations of LGBT people. Most recently, California’s assembly passed a similar bill for adults, AB-2943.  Like the others, it’s enjoyed broad support from the mainstream left and various LGBT lobbying organizations, like the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the psychotherapist association for gender and sexual diversity, Gaylesta. The bill tells us a great deal about how certain factions in this country think about sex, sexual orientation, freedom, and human nature.  And while banning conversion therapy for minors is good policy, what the bill ultimately reveals isn’t pretty.

Every ban of “sexual orientation change efforts” relies on a very similar definition of the term.  In 2009, the American Psychological Association defined this term as “methods that aim to change a person’s same-sex sexual orientation to other-sex, regardless of whether mental health professionals or lay individuals are involved.”  That seems like a workable definition, because it means exactly what the term says. “Sexual orientation change efforts” means, well, actually trying to change a person’s sexual orientation. But the APA, apparently, wasn’t good enough.  According to more than 20 percent of state governments, and the lobbying groups which helped draft the bill, sexual orientation change efforts include “any practices by mental health providers that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation. This includes efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.”  This definition implies that human beings are slaves to their desires, and indeed little better than animals.

The devil is in the definition.  Efforts “to change an individual’s sexual orientation” include efforts “to change behaviors or gender expressions.”  In uniting these two efforts, the bills identify an aspect of personal identity—the unchosen sexual orientation—with particular behaviors or expressions.  The two form a logical continuum. If a person has a particular desire—say, being attracted to people of the same sex—acting upon that desire is naturally necessary.  In fact, trying to change the behavior is akin to trying to change the orientation.

That is, to put it nicely, absurd. It makes the human person a slave of sexual desire, entirely compromising any meaningful claim to moral freedom.  To be clear, I suspect that I agree with every one of the bill’s supporters on one point: sexual orientation isn’t freely chosen; nobody elects to be gay or straight or otherwise.  But their schema leaves no place at all for moral choice, the process by which a person chooses to pursue a particular course of action. They would have us believe that if a person is gay, his or her moral choice is already made.  Sexual behavior will inevitably express the orientation; there’s no conception that free choice would involve itself at all. Whether you have sex with someone is a matter of biological necessity, not a moral choice.

But this bit of legalistic mumbo-jumbo isn’t just stupid.  It’s also morally cancerous. What does it say about human beings to claim that sexual orientation inevitably determines—indeed, logically compels—a  person to have sex with someone else? It means the person can be identified simply with desire. Our sexual appetites become who we are, not a minor facet of our richer and more complex identity.  When moral freedom disappears, we have neither control over nor responsibility for our own lives. What separates rational human adults from wind-up toys, marching to the gear ticks of a prefabricated sex drive?  If AB-2943 (and a dozen bills just like it) gets it right, every single one of us is hopelessly imprisoned to our lusts. We can’t choose our behavior without denying who we are. This vision of the person doesn’t make us more ourselves.  Instead, it would reduce us to nothing more than animals. It claims that we’re subhuman, in the full sense of the word.

And yet, we dare to call it “liberation.”  That was the rallying cry of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, re-echoed by its heirs for decades since. With that term, our culture signifies a purely political liberty.  Since the type of person we sleep with is (supposedly) who we are, liberty becomes the right for our sexual desires to express themselves in actions. Freedom is expressive sexuality.  It can only be threatened from outside, either by government actions or by cultural norms which condemn particular sexual behaviors. In this regard, the moral objections of others pose a fundamental challenge to our liberty.  By condemning a behavior, they discourage sexual self-expression. Thus, we’re told that cultural norms imprison us, and prevent us from being authentically free. It gives the left a cudgel to hit the Christians with. So what if it defiles human dignity along the way?

Christianity decries this reduction of the person to his or her sexual orientation, and proposes a fuller understanding of human freedom.  Freedom intervenes in the logical progression from desire to action, claims the philosophical tradition of the Christian church. Freedom falls between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, between who we’re attracted to and whether we have sex with them.  After we experience a desire, but before we act upon it, there is a moment of moral choice. In that moment, the person finds himself addressed by the choice which lies before him. In the silence of the human heart, we come face to face with our consciences, with the stable and uncompromising moral truth.  And we possess the terrible freedom to deny, reject, or ignore that truth, and to live with the consequences of our choice. In the depths of who we are, free from both the pressures of our culture and the insistence of our flesh, we possess the capacity to choose for good or evil.

Assertions of traditional morality seek to influence this choice, but they do not try to undermine it.  For instance, the Catholic Church makes moral arguments, on the basis of scripture, tradition, and moral philosophy, that any sexual activity outside of the relationship of a husband and wife is gravely wrong.  By presenting a rational argument, the Church seeks to shape the moral lives of her people. Nonetheless, each person possesses the ability to reject the Church’s teaching, or to affirm it. The moral act will follow from this choice, whether one chooses to remain chaste or to violate the norm.  But the assertion of a moral claim has another purpose: it calls attention to our freedom, to the choice that we must make. If the Church deems an action illicit, but contemporary culture applauds it, the individual is presented with a moral dilemma, whose final outcome only he or she may determine. Controversial Christian teachings reveal the choices before us, and so they liberate us from enslavement to our appetites.

AB-2943 and its companions across the country don’t speak for every LGBT person, and I don’t claim that they do.  But the logic of these bills is the logic of the sexual revolution. It is the logic of our society, too: that we are freer when we enact our desires, that in fact those same desires make behaviors necessary.  This is sexual predestination. The Catholic faith rejects this as the negation of our freedom. So does most anyone afflicted with a drop of common sense. We are not animals, or wind-up toys, or biological automatons. To claim otherwise is morally despicable; it’s the death knell of the trait that makes us human.  Virtue or vice? Good or evil? God or nothing? That is the choice before us. We ought to make it freely.