This is not surprising. The essay, "The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and 'Gay Marriage'", is striking in what it advocates. One might even say shocking. Anyabwile, with obvious sincerity and a sense of moral conviction, argues that conservative Christians should make more use of the following strategy when debating homosexuality and same sex marriage:
They should try harder to fire up and channel visceral disgust against same-sex activity.
As Richard Beck puts it, "The article attempts, unapologetically, to elicit and then direct feelings of revulsion and disgust toward gay persons."
More surprisingly, Anyabwile in effect confesses why he advocates this strategy. Years ago he was privy to a well-argued, eloquent, reasonable, and essentially conservative defense of same-sex marriage rights, one that left him stumbling clumsily for a response. His retort fell flat in the face of it.
And in hindsight, he thinks that the retort that would have worked, that would have neutralized the argument's effect on those listening, would have been to invite others to focus on the details of gay sex in a manner intended to elicit disgust.
There's only one way that Anyabwile can justify such a move, and that would be to assume that our feelings of disgust have evidentiary value on moral matters--in other words, to assume that feeling disgusted by X is a good reason, by itself, to believe that there is something wrong with X.
But there are all kinds of problems with this assumption.
I love sardines. I've been known to eat them in the presence of others. Often these poor witnesses respond with disgust. Some are disgusted by the mere mention of me eating sardines. I confess that sometimes, based on a devilish impulse, I've described to these sardine-haters the act of eating sardines in a manner akin to the vivid detail that Anyabwile recommends with respect to gay sex.
Something like the following (and since Anyabwile prefaced his explicit descriptions with warnings to the faint-hearted, I should do the same and say that if sardines make your stomach heave, feel free to skip the block quote):
We are talking here about a man, at lunch, plunging his fork into the silvery skin of a small fish, a fish that has been canned with the bones still inside its body. We are talking about lifting that punctured fish corpse up towards human lips, the finned tail flopping as the scent of sardine and olive oil reaches the nose. We are talking about the man shoving the entire body, skin and bones and all, into his eager mouth.Thankfully, although my descriptions (not to mention my public indulgence in the act) sometimes cause people to scrunch up their faces in horror and utter sounds of disgust, no one has on the basis of their visceral reaction concluded that what I was doing was morally wrong (although some have defended this conclusion based on concerns about overfishing). After all, everyone knows that their disgust isn't relevant to the question of the morality of sardine-eating.
When it comes to such disgust, I found myself on the other side of things a few years back when I was traveling in Korea. Frequently I'd pass street vendors selling something called Beodegi: silkworm pupae that are steamed or boiled. I remember Koreans buying paper bags of them on the wooded path up to a Buddhist monestary I'd come to visit, and crunching them like popcorn as they strolled among the trees.
It was disgusting. The things smelled disgusting. They looked disgusting.
The sound of crunching silkworms made me want to gag. But I did not, on the basis of this, conclude that they were doing something wrong. I did not conclude that there was something wrong with these Koreans--something amiss with their moral sensibilities based on their apparent lack of disgust at their own behavior.
After all, I like sardines.
After all, what someone is disgusted by varies based on upbringing, socialization, familiarity, and a range of other factors that have nothing to do with morality. And sometimes disgust can be a tool or a symptom of serious social injustice, in which marginalization of certain disempowered classes is perpetuated in part by encouraging feelings of disgust. As Richard Beck notes,
...disgust properties have always been imputed onto despised groups. More, disgust creates justifications for violence and social scapegoating. From kids being bullied on playgrounds to acts of genocide, disgust justifies exclusion, violence and extermination.People used to be disgusted by interracial marriage, not because their moral sense was discerning the wrongness of such marriage and communicating it through feelings of disgust, but because an unjust system of discrimination had shaped the human capacity for disgust in the service of injustice.
One of the most eye-opening discoveries I made after developing friendships with gays and lesbians was this: the visceral disgust that so many heterosexuals have when they contemplate having gay sex is matched by a comparable disgust that many gays and lesbians feel when they contemplate having (or actually do have) heterosexual sex. To be more precise, when any of us imagines participating in not-our-kind-of-sex, we are prone towards a yuck-reaction.
When gays and lesbians, too often pressured by a heterosexist society into conforming with the dominant sexual expectations, find themselves engaging routinely in not-their-kind-of-sex, they may become desensitized to this reaction. But it will never be a joy. It will never be a source of bonding. It will never be what sex at its best is meant to be: not just a physical act but a means of forging intimacy. (This point is beautifully made by Kimberly Knight in her recent response to Anyabwile.)
When I'm disgusted by the beondegi-eater, it's because eating is such a universally human phenomenon that I find myself instantly imagining myself in the place of the eater, sympathetically sinking my own teeth into the worm pupa's steamed little body. Likewise for sex.
The disgust begins to fade as soon as I remove myself from the imagining, as soon as I remove from myself the impulse towards vicarious participation in something that doesn't suit me. When that happens, I am better able to see that the beondagi-eater isn't me, that my disgust isn't hers, and that my reaction is utterly irrelevant to the question of whether eating beondegi is right or wrong.
In topics that, for many, are more morally vexed than the permissibility of eating sardines or beondegi, we do no one a favor by encouraging disgust.
If something disgusts you, by all means refrain. But don't treat your disgust as evidence of someone else's sin.