Thursday, December 15, 2005

Homosexuality and disgust

In the last few weeks the film "Brokeback Mountain" with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall has been getting a lot of ink. I needed tell you that it is about two cowboys in love.

In a commentary available at "Slate" Mickey Kaus has evinced a desire to avoid the movie because, as a heterosexual man, he finds the subject of homosexuality distasteful. (Kaus conceded that he will probably see the movie eventually.)

Relevant to this issue is a brief segment from my manuscript "Tropes of the Homolexicon." (The opening paragraphs owe a debt to the Wikipedia entry.)


Disgust is an emotion, associated in the first instance with things perceived as unclean or inedible. Disgust ranks as one of the basic components of the theory of emotion advanced by Robert Plutchik. There are two categories of disgust: physical disgust, linked with physical or metaphorical uncleanness, and moral disgust, a more sublimated form. A sense of fastidiousness represents perhaps the most diluted form of disgust. Disgust is the opposite of sympathy, affinity, and liking.
Many hold that disgust has its origins in (and in some cases to be identical to) instinctive reactions that evolved as part of natural selection for behavior which tended to prevent food poisoning, or exposure to danger or infection.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has published a monograph entitled Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, examining the relationship of disgust and shame to a society's laws.
A recent study found that women and children were more sensitive to disgust than men. Researchers have sought to explain this finding in evolutionary terms. At all events “real men” undergo a desensitizing process which makes them less susceptible to the emotion. As will be seen below, reactions to homosexuality among men are an exception to this tendency.
While some find wisdom in adhering to one's feelings of disgust, some scientists have asserted that reactions of disgust depend upon prejudices that should be challenged and refuted.
Let us turn now to more specific applications. Some find even the thought of homosexuality repellent. This response is in part a reflection of individual temperament and experience, backed up, as so often noted in these pages, by centuries of disparagement.
Some straight men report that even seeing the penis of another man is displeasing. The thought of two persons with penises interacting sexually is even more so. It is odd that a man should have this response to an organ that is, after all part of his own body, but it sometimes happens. As a rule these phalliphobic men do not exhibit the same response to lesbian behavior. Up to point they may find it titillating. It is for this reason that short lesbian scenes sometimes appear in straight porno films. Gay-male scenes never do.
Apart from sex and the contemplation of it, some dislike what they regard as the "antics" of gay people, their flamboyance and assertiveness. These individuals find that the discussion of homosexuality—even in the harmless way of mentioning one’s significant other—to reflect a supposed homosexual obsession with sex, which they find distasteful. Needless to say, they are bewildered when gay people say that they are not interested in the details of the opposite sex life of those they encounter. For some straight studs boasting of their sexual conquests is their right. But such rights are withheld from "disgusting, promiscuous" gays, who "insist on rubbing the sordid details of their sex life in our faces." The oddity of this comment is shown by the fact that such offendees even object to gay peoples' showing signs of affection, such as hugging and holding hands, conduct they find readily acceptable with opposite sex couples.
Objection to the more usual forms of gay sex, including dating and affection, is one thing. We enter a gray area when we enter the realm of the paraphilias. While S/M does occur among straights, it is more common with gays. Urolagnia, sexual interest in urine, has perhaps a prima facie disgusting quality. Such forms of gratification are perhaps an acquired taste, not unlike those who cherish snakes as pets. That is to say, the aversion can be overcome, but if it has not an adverse reaction will ensue.
Disgust with gayness and its attributes is an aspect of homophobia in the strict sense. In everyday parlance the word homophobia is used to cover all sorts of opposition to homosexuality. To the extent that it involves an emotional, possibly irrational aversion, that is a phobia, it may be properly regarded as the umbrella category to which disgust at homosexuality belongs.
In Leviticus 18 and 20 the Hebrew Bible stigmatizes male same-sex love as to’ebah, which the King James version renders as abomination. Other terms represent later strata of disapproval, including such common terms as bugger and faggot. Learned discourse speaks of reprobates and degenerates.
Some slang terms emphasize the more graphic side of sexual conduct, including "cocksucker" and "turd burglar" (UK). Some, it is said, have a predilection for smegma or cock-cheese. Poor personal hygiene is stressed in "dickbreath."


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