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 follow through 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. 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 even be asked, because consensual sexual activity is solely the business of those immediately involved. That response makes no sense. If it were right then the concept of marital faithfulness and therefore of marriage would make no sense. Paternity suits, child support orders, crimes of passion, sex education and AIDS prevention programs would have no reason to exist. Love makes the world go ’round, and sex gives rise to the most fundamental human connections. For that reason the world at large has a rightful interest in the sexual conduct of individuals. Also, to think about our own situation we need the help of general principles that have implications for others. We can judge our own conduct to be good or bad, wise or foolish, only with the aid of principles that apply equally to others. 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 simple 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 more complicated than a ham sandwich. It is intrinsically and intensely expressive. It communicates, places values, impels, and establishes and defines relationships. Since the human world is ordered (or disordered) by expressive acts that establish and define relationships, such acts affect others in ways that go far beyond their immediate direct effects. On this line of thought, the question as to the goodness of homosexual acts becomes the question of the goodness of what they express and establish—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 our experience of them. Their possible meanings might include:

  1. Pleasure. It’s hard for sexual acts to express simple love of pleasure, though. 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. Self-transcendence through intense experience. Another fantasy that doesn’t work. Intoxication is always followed by the morning after. And where does the other person fit in?
  3. Dominance or submission. Sexual acts can certainly express those things. Sex aspires to the unlimited, and Sade has become the poet of sex as unlimited domination. Such a view of sex is obviously destructive, though, so why choose it?
  4. Friendship. Nor can sexual acts express ordinary friendship. Friendship has a reflective and mutually independent quality that gets swamped by the intensity of sexual experience, at least unless sex and friendship are both made part of something big and strong enough to contain sex and give it a definite position and significance.
  5. Marital union. This seems the only stable and satisfying setting for sex. The union of a man and woman by contrast joins the bodies of the participants in an objective functional unity that points by its natural function beyond the act and the personal interests of the participants. Such a union cannot be homosexual, though, because homosexual unions are momentary by nature and therefore not unions at all. (Many heterosexual acts—extramarital affairs, heterosexual sodomy, and acts involving artificial contraception—are also at odds with the nature of a marital union. To say there is a problem with homosexuality is not to say that there is no problem with anything else.)

From the foregoing, it seems that sex can have stable positive meaning that coheres with the rest of life only in the form of acts that constitute and express marital union. In other settings it can not successfully express a love that transcends pleasure and personal interest, because it is too intense for its meaning to be imposed from outside. Sex aspires to transcendence, and one cannot bootstrap into the transcendent through arbitrary interpretation. Meanings cannot be forced, so if a setting leaves the interpretation of sex up to the participant high-flown claims take on an element of willful fantasy or meretriciousness. Sexual relations that depend for their justification on such interpretations become crippled, perverse or abusive. Hence the tendency, not just in the gay world but in modern sexual life generally, toward instability, role-playing, manipulation, betrayal, disillusion, and general abusiveness. Participation in activities that point toward such things may be a temptation, but not a good.