Rachel Held Evans and the ‘gag reflex’

on August 27, 2013

At his Gospel Coalition blog, Thabiti Anyabwile writes that in arguing against gay marriage, social conservatives ought to use the “yuck factor” in our favor. The title of his post is “The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage.'” His post includes a description of gay sex apparently for the purpose of inducing in his readers the ‘gag reflex’ mentioned above and, as a result, to convince them of the efficacy of such an argument.

Unsurprisingly and perhaps understandably, Rachel Held Evans had a conniption when she read about this. Her response accuses Anyabwile of homophobia:

“I believe the post exhibits homophobia, not because of the author’s conservative position on same-sex marriage, and not because the author intended to be hateful, but because the post employs degrading, fear-based language to dehumanize gay and lesbian people.”

Is Evans right? Is Anyabwile a guilty of homophobia? While Anyabwile’s post is at best a limited commentary on a secondary means of argumentation, it is not homophobic.

Moral revulsion is, to be sure, one guide to morality. However, it is a guide that is affected by all sorts of factors beyond rational criteria for assessing morality itself. As Evans notes:

“A person might get a bit squirmy at the thought of his parents having sex, but it does not then follow that his parents’ sex is inherently immoral. Furthermore, there are heterosexual acts that can be considered immoral—adultery, for example—but that might not induce Anyabwile’s handy ‘gag reflex.’”

This is a helpful point. Our gag reflex is not a infallible guide for ascertaining whether or not an action is moral. I’m sure there were a number of New Testament Jewish Christians who had a very difficult time eating a pulled pork sandwich with their gentile co-religionists. Yet, it was not until his heavenly vision that St. Peter was able to accept eating non-Kosher food. Evans should not hold her breath for the sort of vision that would convince mainstream evangelicals of the beauty of the gay sex act.

In her response, Evans reads into Anyabwile’s post more than is actually there. It should be noted, that he nowhere argues that our gag reflex–socially constructed as it likely is–should be the exclusive guide to morality. He instead argues that our moral revulsion at homosexual sex acts is something that can be used persuasively alongside other arguments to undermine the legitimacy of same sex marriage.

In reality, we use this rhetorical device all the time, which does not, admittedly, make it good, right or helpful. How many people have given up meat because of the moral revulsion they feel on reading a description of the slaughter process on large modern farms? How many people have called their senator or signed a petition in light of footage of dead people gassed in Syria?

Anyabwile rightly notes that this sort of description can, in essence, be a tiebreaker in making moral decisions. It works because humans aren’t computers–as Evans seems to suggest– but are a mix of reason, emotion, and social formation.

As to the charge of “homophobia,” I think Evans misses the mark. Let’s use her own definition of homophobia as our starting point. Does Anyabwile, “employ degrading, fear-based language to dehumanize gay and lesbian people”?

In reading and rereading the Gospel Coalition Post, I was unable to find any instance of degrading or fear-based language used with the intention of dehumanizing a gay person. That’s not to say that there was not strong language. There most certainly was, but Anyabwile uses his strong language in describing homosexual sex acts, not in describing homosexuals.

Some will claim that this is a distinction without a difference. I beg to differ. It’s almost necessary that someone opposed to homosexual practice will find the physical reality–this is what we’re talking about–objectionable. This is not homophobia. The intent is not to degrade a person, but instead to bring to the fore the reality that homosexual marriage presupposes homosexual practice.

Describing that practice is fair game. As Evans applies her definition, it would be almost impossible to write any essay critical of homosexuality without being culpable of homophobia, much less one that aims to employ both logic and rhetoric to persuade a reader of the author’s perspective.

As I’ve written before,

“The contemporary [GLBTQ] movement is essentially the continuation of the attempt to deny that a connection exists between sex (referencing bodily structure and chemistry) and gender (one’s self-perception). In some respects it comes quite close to a gnostic denial or devaluation of the physical—we are who we are on the basis of our interior self, free to choose to alter our physical structure according to our own ‘inner self-knowledge.’”

We cannot discuss sexuality and gender identity in a way abstracted from our physical selves. We are embodied selves, and our sexuality exists in our physical bodies as well as in our souls. For this reason, among others, Anyabwile can authentically address this issue in the way he did and not be homophobic.

You may disagree with his argument and may believe that moral revulsion is not a sure guide in morality, but I do not think you can ask an author to avoid any reference to or judgment about the sex act(s) that underlies all homosexual practice.

In many respects we are what we do. Aristotle noted, “Plot is character revealed in action.” Evans fears that describing gay sex is somehow dehumanizing. She writes,

“Sensing that the consideration of full personhood might sway the gay marriage debate toward legalization, he suggests we should deliberately move away from speaking of gay and lesbian people as multi-dimensional human beings and instead reduce them to sex acts in order to make others more repulsed by them.”

Again, if Anyabwile were really saying this it would indeed be problematic. Nowhere does he suggest that copulation fully defines homosexuals any more than it defines heterosexuals. Ironically, it is the GLBTQ community itself that has posited sex acts and sexuality as the basis of identity differentiation.

Rather, he is suggesting that as we consider the issue of gay marriage we not lose sight of what we are really talking about. We’re not simply talking about the abstractions of “love,” “attraction,” “desire.” We are talking about the physical expressions of these abstractions in the context of relationships and sex acts between people of the same gender. This is a legitimate element—if not the only element—of forming value judgments about gay marriage.

  1. Comment by Ray Bannister on August 27, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Years ago, living in the Chicago area, I had a friend who was an anesthesiologist at a local hospital, and she sometimes worked the graveyard shift in ER on weekends. She had a lot of colorful (and horrifying stories) to tell about some highly unusual injuries and insertions that male patients showed up with. She’s retired now, and, as you might imagine, she is very opposed to same-sex “marriage,” not just on biblical grounds, but based on her experiences seeing how human beings, made in God image, could allow themselves to endure what most healthy-minded people would regard as abuse or even torture, all in the pursuit of sexual gratification. The gay activists have been very successful in emphasizing the domestic angle, two men or two women who love each other and supposedly are committed in the same way a married man and woman would be. However, the men this woman encountered in the ER, were the “untold story” in gay life, the subculture’s normalization of promiscuity, drug abuse, and the various below-the-waistline injuries that are regular seen in hospital ERs. If love were the goal, fine. These injuries were not caused by love, and AIDS is not the result of monogamous bliss. I have never myself witnessed more than 15 seconds or so of gay porn, but I saw enough to know that if the population at large saw more than 5 minutes of it, the attitude toward gay marriage would change overnight.

  2. Comment by Faith McDonnell on August 27, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Whenever I hear the words “gag reflex” or “icky” I immediately think of the Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco. If you’re brave enough, you can see it documented by Zombietime.

  3. Comment by Donnie on August 28, 2013 at 12:08 am

    Zombietime’s expose was exactly what I was thinking as well.

    The idea of “what two people do behind closed doors” doesn’t cut it when tens of thousands of people are openly committing these acts in public, in broad daylight. Not only the “ick” factor but the health concerns.

  4. Comment by Adrian Croft on August 28, 2013 at 8:09 am

    Piggybacking on what Faith and Donnie said: For many years that was a nude beach on the Wisconsin River near Madison, a famously liberal city, with a lot of straight residents who were outspokenly pro-gay. Beachgoers had no problem with male couples showing up together, or large groups of men together, but they began to complain that certain woodsy areas along the beach were being used for gay sex, to the point that people (those with kids, especially) didn’t wander too far down the beach, knowing they might stumble upon an outdoor orgy. The county came in and cut down much of the shrubbery to minimize the sexual antics, but it still continued, so police began to patrol the beach regularly (“your tax dollars at work”), and the last I heard, the beach was completely closed on week days, and there was talk of shutting it down completely. When Madison liberals start complaining, you know the sexual activity must have been pretty blatant, which supports the article on the “yuck” factor: normal people’s tolerance for gays is bound to be affected when they see with their own eyes just what happens – anonymity, multiple partners, drugs, etc.

    If you’re curious about this, Google “nude beach Mazomanie Wisconsin.”

  5. Comment by Donnie on August 28, 2013 at 9:02 am

    That’s a pretty common thing from what I gather. When I was a young child and my parents and I were on vacation, my dad always accompanied me to the restroom, especially in rest areas. I came of age around the time of Adam Walsh’s kidnapping, so they didn’t want to take any chances with creepy sex predators in the men’s room. Having a couple of police officer friends who routinely arrested men for this kind of behavior added to their concern.

    Also, there used to be a rest area near the WV/PA state line and the newspapers always had stories about men arrested for “lewd behavior.” The police presence really got heavy after orgies became common.

    Taken as a whole, it really makes you wonder why a parent would want a gay man to be a boy scout leader. Yes, separate issue, I know, but still related.

  6. Comment by Christian on August 27, 2013 at 4:23 pm


    If one of your arguments against marriage equality is that it’s “icky”, then you’ve already lost

  7. Comment by wyclif on August 27, 2013 at 4:52 pm


  8. Comment by Greg Paley on August 27, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Umm, you kinda twisted words, which is a familiar tactic of the left. No one said “marriage equality is icky.” The upshot of the article is, homosexual sex is icky. And it is. Keeping the public in the dark about the ickiness is an important part of the gay activists’ strategy. Apparently you approve of that strategy.

  9. Comment by Jeff Gissing on August 28, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Even if it is one of a constellation of arguments?

  10. Comment by Nick on August 27, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Worthwhile comments. If nothing else, this gives permission to say *something* in opposition to non traditional marriage. The current drive by gay activists is for total muzzling of any dissent of any kind whatsoever. Thus, the laws in NJ and CA to prevent licensed therapists from doing *anything* to encourage someone in the thought that maybe there is an alternative to being a practicing (acting on the desires) homosexual.

  11. Comment by Philip Brooks on August 27, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    When the IRD is scared enough of you to write an article like this about you, it means you’re doing something right. Keep them coming Rachel!

  12. Comment by Jeff Gissing on August 28, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Philip – I wrote this article not because I am scared of Rachel, but because she overreached in her response. I hope that she will continue to write and share her thoughts because in so doing she is facilitating an important discussion.

  13. Comment by Kay Glines on August 29, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Jeff, on any message board, it’s a given that liberals always accuse conservatives of being “fearful.” I think the idea is that we are afraid of change, when the truth is we are just as likely to buy the latest electronic gadget as anyone else is, but we don’t assume that morals can be updated the way that Windows can.

    And speaking of message boards, I have seen a lot of malice expressed on those toward anyone who dares to question SSM or to suggest that there is a sordid side to the lifestyle. The boards seem to attract lots of people who mostly claim to be married heterosexual males, but I’m skeptical, as I find the shrill hostility could only come from gay men who see Christians as a threat to their agenda. I don’t hate gays and lesbians, some individuals I rather like, but the nastiness on the message boards (including this one, occasionally) does make me wonder about the mental (and spiritual) health of these people, and doubtful of their fitness as parents. I certainly can’t see gay couples teaching their children (however conceived) to be tolerant of Christians.

  14. Comment by Adrian Croft on September 4, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    “Scared” of Evans?? Nonsense. The church has endured foes much more substantial than her.

  15. Comment by Daryl Densford on August 27, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Jeff, thank you for this reflection! I’ve always avoided the “gross” argument assuming it was not valid, but you make the excellent point that moral revulsion is actually an acceptable argument, even if it is just a supporting argument. Thanks!

  16. Comment by eMatters on August 27, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    You can use the “ick factor” argument all you like without apology, in addition to many other arguments, both biblical and secular. Toilet paper must be a billion dollar or so industry for good reasons: People like to keep feces far from their bodies. Why anyone would regularly do that on purpose is beyond me. (Yes, I know that some heteros have anal sex, but it is still gross and I doubt many women like it). The fact that you have to try and persuade gays to use condoms for anal sex is a sign of their pathology. You would think that a normal person would beg to use six of them if they were forced to have anal sex.

  17. Comment by Greg Paley on August 27, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    When I saw Evans’ picture, I figured things would be hitting the fan, and she never disappoints, does she? The original “I love Jesus, however” poster girl, with her passion for being accepted by the secular media, uses their terminology, as if she were their puppet (and is). “Homophobia,” “fear-based,” “dehumanize.” Keep it up, Rachel, you are distancing yourself from your evangelical past at lightning speed!

    As usual, she has no clue what she’s talking about. She wants us to accept gays as “multi-dimensional human beings.” Great idea – tell them to treat each other that way, not just as pieces of meat to be used for titillation. She says we shouldn’t “reduce them to sex acts.” Rachel, WE don’t reduce them. They do that to each other. Her handlers or puppeteers or whoever they are are determined to keep her away from the nasty reality.

    Her last book is past its peak, so she’s desperate to stay in the limelight. It is shameful to watch this willingness to say and do anything to grab some attention. I truly pity her.

  18. Comment by Eric Lytle on August 27, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    David Horowitz, former radical and now conservative pundit, wrote about being taken to a gay bath-house and how horrified he was to find men hooking up for sex without even exchanging first names, in some cases not even seeing each other’s faces, engaging in group sex, fisting (it’s exactly what it sounds like), urinating on each other, barebacking (anal sex with no condom),rimming (check Wiki, I won’t provide the details here), plus serious usage of drugs, including inhalants that, according to studies, have a strong negative effect on the immune system. Needless to say this no-strings, no-names bath-house culture was a major factor in the spread of AIDS, and some large cities actually gave some consideration to shutting the bath-houses down in the 80s, but they didn’t, on the assumption that this was an institution that was very entrenched in the gay culture. However, even if AIDS did not exist, consider the sheer dehumanization of it all. Heterosexual Christians are human, after all, and we do fall into sexual sin, but there is no condoning of such sin (not in the evangelical churches, anyway). But among gay men, there is no scorn or contempt for the promiscuous lifestyle, it is perfectly acceptable. Some pro-gay Christians might suggest that marriage would help diminish the culture of promiscuity, but this is very unlikely, given that the majority of gay couples have “open” relations and feel no guilt or shame about pursuing apart from their partners, or with them. I doubt that the typical liberal journalist or politician would ever repeat Horowitz’s “research” and venture into a bath-house to see just what gay men regard as normal. Some of us know policemen who have had to arrest men who were seeking out sex in public resrooms, but you won’t hear cops giving their opinion on gay marriage. Very revealing was the left’s reaction to the arrest of Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, a married and conservative member of Congress, caught trying to connect with a man in a toilet stall. The left heaped contempt on Craig, not just for fitting their image of a conservative hypocrite, but for sex in a restroom, yet that type of sex is common for many gay men, and apparently the sheer anonymity and furtiveness of it remain attractive even though there are numerous social groups and other means for men to meet. In short, there is a serious “trash factor” in the gay world, one which, among themselves they condone and even celebrate. We can safely say that Barack Obama, the Episcopalians’ presiding bishop, and the new gay bishop in the ELCA are not going to discuss this publicly, and anyone who does discuss it is “homophobic” and “bigoted.” How about “realistic”?

  19. Comment by cleareyedtruthmeister on August 27, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    Craig was not going to out-hypocrite hypocrites. Not possible. The hypocritical left has no real substance, no real consistency in anything other than being anti-tradition and anti-conservative. Their eagerness to point out hypocrisy in Craig and exempt themselves is stunning, but not really surprising. In aiding and abetting these moral misfits Ms. Held fits the classic definition of “useful idiot.”

    The aforementioned “gag reflex,” to borrow the reasoning of contemporary liberalism, may well be a useful evolutionary development that ensures survival of the species. In other words such a reflex may be just as natural as (the claims they make for) homosexuality. What self-respecting liberal can argue with that, even if they care nothing for Scripture?

  20. Comment by Kay Glines on August 29, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Cleareyed, I mentioned in my post (above) to the author of the article that the viciousness of gay activists on the message boards is off the charts, and the name Larry Craig comes up constantly, as if his being married and conservative and Republican is some kind of proof that all conservatives are hypocrites and that, thanks to him, we have no right to voice our views on moral issues. If I ever met Craig face to face, I’d be tempted to tell him, politely, that his restroom episode did a huge amount of harm to the cause.

  21. Comment by cleareyedtruthmeister on September 1, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    I’ve experienced that hate myself. Just go on a liberal website–Daily Kos, etc.–or even a supposed Christian one like Christian Century or Sojourners, and make a civil/rational/Biblical case for traditional marriage. You may have to stand back from your computer as the flames fly out!

    Why is this hate and intolerance generally ignored by the mass media? THEY are part of it!

  22. Comment by Paul Hoskins on August 28, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    There is a predatory element among gay men that gets glossed over. My dad told the story of hitch-hiking across the South (back in the 1950s, when it was relatively safe). As he tells it, of 9 guys who gave him rides, 3 pressed him for sex, not just verbally but groping, and one of the 3 informed him that “the code of the road” ruled that if you want a free ride, you better provide, and dad didn’t. I know there are plenty of predatory heterosexual males out there, but what sticks in the mind from my dad’s and similar stories is this utter normlessness among gay guys, no holds barred, no personal connection with the other person, just this robotic pursuit of anonymous sex for its own sake, almost like they glory in being able to do it with no emotion.

  23. Comment by Sam on September 3, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    I’m guessing most of you folks don’t know any actual real, live homosexuals. As much as you seem to get excited talking about their sex lives, they really are just as boring as you are. I suppose one difference, however, is that gays typically don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their straight neighbors’ bedroom activities, while the conservative Christian next door seems to be about to explode thinking about (always thinking about!) what’s going on with their neighbors.

  24. Comment by cleareyedtruthmeister on September 3, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Lame, cliche argument Sam. Try to think of something more original.

    We would like nothing better than to talk about something else, but those of you who seem intent on ramming LGBTQ propaganda down our throats (Hollywood, the media, even our own President!) won’t allow us to. If you don’t believe that then you don’t read the mainstream news.

    Yes, we know gay people. We are not interested in bashing them, not nearly as much as some of them are interested in bashing historic Christian teachings and those who subscribe to them. That’s where the real intolerance is coming from.

  25. Comment by Jeff Gissing on September 4, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    And you know this how exactly?

  26. Comment by Jeff Gissing on September 4, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    That comment was directed to Sam

  27. Comment by Adrian Croft on September 4, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    Thanks for assuming things that aren’t even remotely true. Most Christians I know probably wouldn’t discuss homosexuality at all except, as you may have noticed, we get called HATERS all the time, so that does get people’s attention. You are very mistaken, I have zero interest in what homosexuals do in their bedrooms, except that they indirectly affect my budget, since I write bi-monthly checks to Blue Cross, and even though I’m in excellent health, my money goes to pay for drugs and medical procedures for people whose lifestyles result in incurable diseases.

    I do in fact know gay men and lesbians, and I have felt their tongue-lashing and been called a “bigot” and “homophobe” and also a “breeder,” so my opinion of their “tolerance” has been deeply affected by these interactions.

    Btw, I’m not ashamed of being a “breeder.” When I’ve been called such, I’ve sensed some envy in the insult. I pass my DNA on to future generations, so in a real sense, I never die.

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