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Sunday, October 03, 2004

Sex, lies and justifying the means by the ends

I'm reading a book called Anything but Straight by Wayne Besen, an HRC activist, and I think I can safely say it's an interesting read and a fun one because Besen has a rowdy sense of humor that sparkles through what would otherwise be a depressing look into the "ex-gay" ministries that are foisted on us by the likes of Focus on Family. His thesis is simple--these "ministries" don't really exist to minister anybody but are simply a front for the larger anti-gay rights movement. Their one and only real purpose is to be a prop for homophobes to point to when someone ventures to point out that it's wrong to discriminate against gays for something that they "can't help". He makes his point well--in their single-minded determination to get even a shred of evidence that homosexuality is a "behavior" and not part of a person's actual identity in the way that heterosexuality is, right wing Christians are allowing these "ministries" to break up families, doom innocent people to joyless marriages, drive people to despair and suicide, and even in one case claim that Jesus made an HIV infection disappear.

What is really interesting about the book is that Besen found that the entire ex-gay movement is completely permeated with lies. The "successful" ex-gays he interviewed would go on TV and radio programs and claim to be completely converted to heterosexuality and then would confess in interviews with him that they still pretty much only fantasize about members of their own sex and struggle daily to find their own spouses arousing. Ministers would imply or outright make promises to gay people who were entering the program that they would turn into heterosexuals who could have families and acceptance in their communities, but it would turn out these ministers knew the of the few who even made it through the program, most would either return to having same-sex relations shortly or have a celibate life. The few that Besen could dig up that had married were rewarded handsomely by the Christian right by making their living off telling others that homo to hetro conversion was possible. "Ex-gays" fall off the wagon so often as to make the whole thing seem like a joke--Besen surprised a huge ex-gay leader while he was drinking and flirting in a gay bar. Success statistics of gays converted to straights were made up by leaders or fabricated by taking the numbers of people who came to meetings and counting them as converts though the vast majority never did change their sexual orientation or even behavior but just left the program.

The pile of lies that the ex-gay ministries are built on is breath-taking, and the fact that most of the leadership seems to be well aware that they are lying is just astonishing. Nonetheless, I think it's safe to say that they mean well--they have convinced themselves that the ends justify the means. If you have to lie to someone and make all these airy promises that they will get to be happily married church leaders if they stick with the ex-gay program, well, they seem to figure that it's okay as long as that false hope can keep a few from fornicating with members of their own sex.

Well, as I figure it's pretty much always wrong to lie to someone about something directly pertaining to them, I thought that was a horrible stance but somewhat understandable. After all, these fundie Christians are convinced that having gay sex condemns you straight to hell, so I sort of see how sparing someone the flames of hell is a perfectly fine end to justify the means. There are times when blatant lying is justified, the usual example being if you're hiding Jews and the Nazis come a-knocking. Of course, whether or not you have Jews in your basement might be of interest to your evil Nazi visitors, but it still in none of their business. Whether or not the program you've entered to save yourself from your own "wicked" sexuality has a snowball's chance in hell of working is your business, and it's cruel to lie to people this way.

Mulling this over, I got into my car to drive to the grocery store and I kid you not, there was a program on about the virginity pledges that the Christian right is imposing on (mostly) teenage girls. The program they were highlighting seemed pretty elaborate--the girls were given rings and asked to take "pledges" to keep their virginity for future husbands. Whether boys were given rings, I didn't hear. I imagine they stick with the word pledge even though the ceremony resembled vows even more for fear of seeming too Catholic.

(A big deal was made out of these rings, which the girls were to wear until they traded it in for a wedding ring, I guess. I don't know at what point the ring is turned in. But since the obsession with virginal young brides is such a fetish, I hope those with the rings milk it for every sexual thrill it's worth--you know, an elaborate half-naked wedding night ritual where the ring is turned over to your new husband before you turn over your "cherry" could be fun if the whole virginity thing is such a thrill. But I'm of the school of never doing anything half-assed, so what do I know?)

Anyway, in interviewing some of the young women who had brand new virginity pledges and rings to go with them, the interviewer found that very few were all that committed to the idea of pure chastity until the wild abandon of the wedding night. All had vowed, um, pledged to stay chaste until their wedding nights and all had taken that "pledge" while fully intending not to keep it in the spirit in which it was written. All had given themselves an "out" for some amount of premarital sexual contact, be it by defining heavy petting as outside the boundaries of the pledge or by figuring that what they were waiting for was technically love, not marriage.

Most telling was an interview with the adult in charge of the whole thing that day. I was actually a little startled to find out it was a man, since it seemed to me to be inappropriate to have teenage girls talking about their struggles with sexual desire with an adult male heading the discussion. (Again, I didn't hear the whole thing--it might have been a mixed-sex group, but the only male voice I heard was the group leader.) The interviewer questioned the group leader about the studies of these chastity pledges and how they have shown that kids who take them contract STD's at the same rate as kids who don't. The leader admitted that those studies were right but claimed victory anyway because kids who take the pledges tend to delay sexual intercourse more. (Yeah, a whole 18 months.) He cautiously said that they knew that most kids would turn into normal fornicators eventually, but pointed out that delaying sex for even a year was beneficial because kids could develop skills to better handle sexual situations in that year.

The interviewer conceded that it might be very helpful for kids to delay sex long enough to have the maturity to handle it better, and I found myself agreeing. Who could disagree with that? But since I had been reading this book, it stuck in my craw. These supposed Christians are lying to these kids in order to manipulate them into behaving the way they want them to. They are asking these kids to take vows they know full well that the vast majority are going to break, and they justify lying to them because it causes a slight delay in when they have sex. But at what emotional cost? There's no way to measure that.

Upon returning home and cracking the book back open, I found that the next part had a minister chastising a gay man by repeatedly reading the passage from Leviticus forbidding sex between men over and over and over again. I read this with bemusement--lately it seems like the Christian right forgot there are other passages in the Bible. Like, for instance, passages decrying the way that dishonesty can eat away at people.

To me, this is a huge sticking issue. Yes, the Bible has passages forbidding homosexual contact. But the mandates against lying are worded much more strongly. One is forced to wonder if perhaps the Christian right is following biblical mandates as much as they say or if they are bending scripture to justify their own prejudices.

I've had Christians explain to me patiently that lying itself isn't forbidden, just "false testimony". Okay, well that actually is a really good point--it would be immoral and unethical, not to mention impossible, to forbid speaking untruth altogether. We not only have the Jews in the basement Nazis at the door example but also all the technical lies we speak throughout the day to preserve the greater good. And even small selfish lies are at best minor sins. The real issue is providing "false testimony"--and I agree completely. There are few things more awful than lying on a witness stand to put someone away.

But it's disingenous to think that the only thing the Bible could mean by "false testimony" is lying under oath, especially considering that Christians use the word "testify" to mean telling stories about how their faith has shaped their lives. To me, telling people that Jesus can guide them away from homosexuality or premarital sex or whatever is the very definition of false testimony. If the leadership of the Christian right is really concerned about the well-being of their various flocks, it would do them well to reconsider how damaging it is to encourage them to lie.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"[the delay presumably caused by the virginity pledges is] beneficial because kids could develop skills to better handle sexual situations in that year."

These people want children to be sexually mature should they get into a sexual situation? Gee whiz, I guess they're also in favor of comprehensive sexual education too, and the group of Evangelical Christians who oppose sex-ed is an entirely different group from the one that tries to get girls to take virginity pledges. Unless, that is, sexual maturity should one get into such a situation be bad if it is the consequence of education and good if it's the consequence of "natural" social maturation, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Julian Elson


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh. You've managed to permanently turn "virginity pledge rings" into something dirty in my mind. Congratulations.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a surprising number of ways that conservative Christians justify lying to the general public. One of the favorites (Old Testament Scriptural ref. not at the tip of my tongue at the moment) is to regard the lie as being the same as a lie to an enemy in wartime. In other words, all non-Christians, all Christians of another stripe, all neighbors and all family - are enemies to be lied to, because they are consciously serving Satan or unconsciously being used by Satan. Spiritual Warfare is a 24/7/365 thing to the conservative Christians, and justifies everything.

Ex-gay lies are no different from fake-abortion-clinic lies and lies about abortion causing breast cancer. To me it reflects their lack of belief in the spiritual rightness of their cause, their unwillingness to let their God step in and "help the gay man with the gift of celibacy" or whatever the Catholic line is (Catholics don't do this ex-gay shit, they say, deal with it, and don't do anything).



Anonymous Sarah said...

Hey, I just stumbled across your blog, and I have really been enjoying reading your articles. This particular one I had to comment on, as I'm a Christian, and in middle school, went to a church that had these chastity pledges and everything. I completely agree with you on the subject; in my opinion, their only purpose is to make young adults feel guilty, like sexuality is somehow wrong.
On the topic of the Bible's passages on homosexuality, lying, etc, I find it interesting that the right-wing Christians always seem to neglect the section in the New Testament about the greatest commandments being "love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind" and "love your neighbor as yourself" and that all the rest will follow after that. It doesn't really seem to me like lying to the public, protesting homosexuality, etc. is exactly loving....but maybe thats just me.



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