When All Gay Desire is a Desire for Gay Sex

This piece was originally published at Spiritual Friendship on July 18, 2014.


A response to Katie Grimes’ response to Eve Tushnet. 

You can learn a lot in nightclubs. One evening, I was out dancing with some friends at a local bar, when a man approached one of the women in our group. She turned to him, and they danced. Then he got a bit handsy. Then he got more handsy. Then she told him to back off.

This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes men will approach one of the women, and the two will dance for a bit, having pretty innocent fun at the moment, and then move on when the song is over. There are two kinds of men at nightclubs: men who want to have fun at the club, and men who want to “have fun” after. For the second group of men, every interaction is just one small step in a longer series of actions leading to the bedroom. They’re wholly incapable of enjoying a song or a dance, because they’ll always want something more.

In a sex-crazed culture, intimacy is rarely tied to a single moment. It’s simply a small part in a series of acts leading to sex. This is especially true for sex and porn addicts, who have trained their senses to desire one thing, to make every action a means to get that one thing.

This is the way in which many conservatives have come to understand same-sex desire as “intrinsically disordered”: all such desire is so disordered because all such desire is simply a mask for a desire for sexual activity. This is further confirmed by some same-sex-attracted Christians who see all of their own desires as so disordered. Unable to distinguish between a contained intimacy and an intimacy which is simply a step towards a further intimacy, their past (or current) sexual activities have trained them to see their desires in a very particular way. They’re incapable of enjoying a dance as a dance, because they’ve trained themselves to only use dancing for sex. For them, same-sex attraction is like alcoholism: they can no longer enjoy a drink, because for them a drink has become solely a step towards drunkenness.

Katie Grimes adopts this commonly conservative view of same-sex attraction in her recent piece, “Gay and Catholic? A Response to Eve Tushnet.”

I won’t here spend much time on Grimes’ theological interpretations. Indeed, her application of Catholic theology needs little discussion here. One must first understand the subject of application before one applies. I need not quarrel over theological matters with Grimes. Her problem is not simply a misunderstanding of theology; it’s a misunderstanding of gay people.

Grimes completely equates Eve Tushnet’s understanding of lesbianism with “the desire for gay sex.” Grimes understands sexual orientation as solely this desire, and it is through this lens that Grimes interprets Church teaching. If this is what it means to be gay, then I would entirely agree with Grimes that “this is exactly what homosexual women and men ought to do, seek to eradicate their orientation towards what the magisterium classifies as the categorical evil of gay sex.”

Tushnet, however, has never promoted such a reductive view of what it means to be a gay person. She has written on how being gay has much to do with how we love. Love, however, can be had without sex, just as sex can be had without love. In The Atlantic, she has written how for her “the call to love takes the form of service to those in need, prayer, and, above all, loving friendship.” Thus, Grimes’ critiques of Tushnet are generally unhelpful, because as it turns out, when talking about sexuality, Grimes and Tushnet are talking about different things.

Rather than the stinted understanding of being gay that Grimes advocates, Tushnet’s (and most gay people’s) understanding of being gay is much more holistic and complex. For us, same-sex desire is no more reducible to a desire for gay sex than Thomistic theology is reducible to decontextualized syllogism. People, like theologies, demand a whole. And understanding them begins with docilitas, rather than presumption or prejudice. Those without a disposition of docilitas will find themselves wholly unprepared, not only to enter into theological mysteries, but also to enter into the mystery of the human person. Like the sex addict or the alcoholic, whose sensual wisdom is clouded by lustful appetite, the prejudiced theologian will find his or her wisdom clouded by politicized unrealism. The danger is not only that theology will be misunderstood; it’s also that the human person will be largely unseen.

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