Some thoughts on the Debate – 2 – The Glorification of Heterosexuality

The more observant of you will have noticed that one of the pictures on the header of this site (refresh a few times to see them change) is myself reading a book by Jonathan Mills, entitled “Love, Covenant and Meaning“. This book was recommended to me by Nathan, one of the commenters on the Covenant website.

Mills’ basic thesis is this – Western christianity has been diseased by the romantics, and that in that process we have lost sight of what marriage is all about. That change in perspective fundamentally damages our ethical basis and leads us not only into all kinds of faulty reasonings about sexual attraction, but also in our approach to how homosexual people should approach relationships.

Mills begins by explaining how before Rousseau, western civilization didn’t have romantic novels. Oh yes, we had novels with sex and adultery and other forms of misdemeanour, but they were all about men and women who were happily married, had a bit of a dalliance, and then came to their senses and returned to their spouses, or who didn’t return and everything was utterly shameful and disastrous. This was because until the romantics, western society viewed marriage as primarily a social construct, created for the benefit of men and women. You got married to have children. You got married to provide stability to society. You got married to provide stability to your wider family. It was a bonus if you actually fancied the person who you got married to, if you experienced love at first sight.

Mills argues that this was the Biblical picture. When you explore what the Scriptures say about marriage, they very rarely describe it in terms of romance. The New Testament never uses eros when describing love inside marriage. The focus is on learning to love someone and growing in that learning to love. Yes, sex and sexual attraction plays an important part (and is rather useful when trying to produce another generation of humans), but it was not the driving force behind the reason to get married – it simply came as part of the package.

The romantics changed all that. What the romantics did was elevate sexual desire and romantic attraction to the forefront of the reason to get married. Now you didn’t find a wife to make sure your family was well connected, now you found a wife because you fancied her.

This is, dare I say it, the guiding moral today. We enter relationships far less on the basis of whether, on consideration, they will be socially, intellectually and emotionally beneficial to us; we enter relationships often because we are hot for the person we are now connected to. Sex has been moved from that thing which seals the contract of marriage to that thing which has no relationship whatsoever with the contract of marriage. It is the mainstay of consideration around relationships, the one factor that is always present and assumed to be so. The moment one begins going out with someone, one is making judgements as to when sex will happen. The first night? After a few weeks? A few months? And why not make such considerations, because the reason you went out with them in the first place was because they were attractive.

And this way of thinking has become predominant in the church as well. Even in solidly conservative churches, the single men and women discuss who they fancy and why. We glorify heterosexual attraction and we celebrate it’s consummation in marriage. Boy meets girl, boy and girl are Christian so they heroically keep their pants on till the wedding night when boy and girl, finally married, now get to have it off and undertake the activity whose desire has been present in their relationship from the beginning, because he asked her out as he thought she was hot.

And while that may be a caricature, it’s a good caricature. We use the language of heterosexuality to describe our relationships says Mills, and then we justify eventual sexual union on the basis of “well I’m a boy who fancies her and she’s a girl who fancies me”. And this seems all very well, but then say Mills, then we meet our gay friend who says “well I’m a boy who fancies him and he’s a boy who fancies me”, and all of a sudden we declare that sexual desire isn’t the be all and end all of relationships, that while heterosexual desire is a justification for entering into a life-long union, homosexual desire can never be. And our gay friends look at us as though we’re bigoted homophobes who want the sauce for the goose but not for the gander.

And they’re right aren’t they?

But it doesn’t stop there argues Mills. Because we have made heterosexual desire of the leading, if not the prime factor for getting married, we then make the logical jump to assume that if one doesn’t have heterosexual desire one shouldn’t get married, or one should at least seek to nurture heterosexual desire before one does get married. “Gay men can’t get married” is what we implicitly say, they’re not capable of it because they aren’t attracted to women. “Well let us marry each other then”, comes the reply, and when conservatives respond with cries of “Oh no, that won’t do” then we are rightly criticised (again) for having one moral standard for ourselves (life-long union on the basis of sexual desire) and one for another (the denial of life-long union on the basis of sexual desire).

It wasn’t always like this argues Mills. In the past “homosexual” men have married women, loved them, raised families and generally got on fine. The reason they could do this was because they didn’t live in a society that obsessed about sexual identity. There wasn’t gay or straight, there were only men and women. Men got married to women and had children with them, because that’s what everybody did. They may not, from a 21st century perspective, have particularly fancied their wives, but then many of the “straight” men around them weren’t in that situation either. It’s not that they didn’t sexually desire them, it’s just that they didn’t obsess sexually about them day and night.

Here’s what Mills wants us to understand:

Of course, in defending the validity of marriage for “homosexuals”, I do not have in mind men who are having venery with men whilst also being married. That is as wrong as committing adultery with women. When I argue that “homosexuals” may marry, I have in mind men whose veneral desires remain entirely or mostly focussed on men yet who have never become involved in venery with other men, or who have succesfully settled (one day at a time) into refraining from such venery … I don’t think a man lacks that capacity for marriage and family life merely because his sexualness, if liberated, would drive him towards venery with all attractive men, rather than with all attractive women. Such a man has no reason to fear that the love and meaning he and his wife have in their marriage is actually bogus. And no one else has any reason or right to deem his marriage bogus either.

Mills’ argument is very simple – remove the consumation of specific sexual desire as a key driver for marriage, and you will destroy not only the sociological barriers to traditional marriage for men who are sexually attracted to other men, but also you will remove the argument from the pro-gay camp for recognising and accepting gay unions. This is because the glorification of heterosexual desire has led us down a road that has inadvertently justified many sexual relationships outside of marriage. Without the glorification of heterosexual desire, other sexual desires cannot necessarily be protected by the state in the way that heterosexual desire currently is. If marriage is about man and woman, not about heterosexual and heterosexual, then the need for legal guarantees over the union of homosexual and homosexual vanishes. Marriage, Mills argues, is not ultimately about hitching up with the person you fancy -  it is about forming a union between a man and a woman that benefits them, their family (to be and already existing) and society.

That though may be the reason why many in the pro-gay camp will not like what Mills is saying, because he calls on them to lay down the rights that they assume come alongside the experiencing of certain emotions, and instead embrace the traditional forms of societal structure. Mills’ argument removes the attempt to justify any form of relationship based on sexual desire, as that isn’t what the Scripture says is at the heart of (intimate) relationships. Instead Mills (and Jesus?) calls on society to die to its own wants (sexual and otherwise) and to turn to God’s plan and society’s betterment.

I’m not sure many people (unlike your author) want to hear that.

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