"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Divine Retribution

Jim Burroway, in today's "Daily Agenda" at Box Turtle Bulletin, has a couple of interesting items that fall under the heading "Moralistic Reactions to Disease." I'm going to mix them up a bit -- he's following the "Daily Agenda" format, which doesn't necessarily lead to a clear narrative.

First, some fairly recent history, in the form of this quote from the ever benign Pat Buchanan, from a New York Post column in 1983, when AIDS was rearing its ugly head:

Through much of the first decades of the AIDS crisis, moralistic preachers, pundits and politicians described the fatal disease as divine punishment for what they saw as illicit behavior. In 1983, for example, New York Post Columnist Pat Buchanan wrote, “The poor homosexuals… they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”

That's not a new attitude. Burroway outlines some of the history in both entries, which are concerned with the reaction to venereal disease, as they used to call it, from scientists. Yes, scientists.

In 1916, Dr. Winfield Scott Hall, professor of physiology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, published a book, Sexual Knowledge, “for the instruction of young people, young wives and young husbands… on the best way and the best time to impart sexual knowledge to boys and girls.”

It contained gems of scientific thought like this:

Nature has devised a retribution for illicit intercourse in the form of venereal disease. If the parties observe fidelity to their marriage vows, venereal disease is experienced in wedlock only on very rare occasions, and then through some accidental infection, as from contact with some public utensil, as a public water closet, a public towel, or a drinking cup. So rare is this unfortunate accident, however, that we may say that intercourse in undefiled wedlock results normally in pleasure and gratification to both parties; while intercourse out of wedlock, or illicit intercourse, is destined, as a rule, to be visited with retribution.

There was pushback, of course -- not everyone was a moralistic asshole, not even in 1916. The immediate response to Hall's book came from Dr. William J. Robinson, who, unfortunately for Hall, was editor of the American Journal of Urology and Sexology. My favorite bit from his review (which Burroway quotes at length):

Venereal disease is Nature’s retribution for illicit intercourse. And what is measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria a retribution for? What is consumption, cancer, heart disease, Bright’s disease, a retribution for?

Some years before, biologist Ilya Mechnikov addressed the same issue, in rather more moderate tones:

In the question of the prevention of syphilis, the moral problem is still more easy to settle. … The certainty of safety from this disease might render extra-conjugal relations more frequent, but if we compare the evil which might come from that with the immense benefit gained in preventing so many innocent persons from becoming diseased, it is easy to see which side the scale dips.

Now, lest you think that this is all a nice little historical quirk, think about the current outcry in some quarters against PReP and the use of a potential HIV vaccine. The surface reason is that these measures will encourage people to be careless. I suspect you don't have to dig very far to uncover an underlying assumption: promiscuity is bad. (Even in Mechnikov's comment, there is the underlying assumption that "illicit" sex is wrong, but we must protect the "innocents.")

This is not an attitude that has left us. Do I need to draw the obvious comparison to the "right to life" anti-abortion activists -- who are now revealing themselves as not just opposed to abortion, but to any form of birth control? Yes, it's heavily involved with misogyny, and it comes from the "Christian" right -- the same group that is so obsessed with gay sex, which is, by definition, "illicit." The assumption is that any sex outside of what they deem appropriate is due for punishment, whether it be some horrible disease or merely an unwanted baby that you can't care for. (I'm not going to go into what sorts of sexual behavior are "natural" for human beings -- going back into history and looking at the behaviors of our closest relatives, there are all sorts of things going on, from monogamy to alpha males keeping harems to free love. I'll let the anthropologists sort it out.)

But it's not only about sex -- it's about the whole idea of disease as a "punishment," which on its face is ridiculous -- unless, of course, you subscribe to the belief that we are all born bad. Needless to say, I don't subscribe to the idea of "original sin." My sins, such as they are, are my own, thank you very much, and I'm not about to ask forgiveness for being born.

And I'm afraid that, try as I might, I can't ascribe this idea to anything other than a world view that tries to dictate to nature how it's supposed to behave. (One of my favorite quotes from former Senator Frothy Mix runs to the effect that birth control, etc., are bad because they lead to sexual behavior that isn't the way it's "supposed to be.")

The problem is, nature isn't listening.

Do read Burroway's entire post -- it's quite illuminating.

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