My recent column on the difficult relationship between human nature and sexual politics has generated a response that itself is worth talking about. The wave of anger and condemnation that has come from some quarters is dramatic evidence that the column’s central contention is right. At the heart of the culture wars is a very deep-seated disagreement over whether or not women’s natural bodies give women unique or particular purposes — and, if so, what those purposes are, and how our morals, politics, and laws ought to treat the relationship between those purposes and women’s choices about how to actually live.
It’s not very controversial to point out that sex and gender are foundational to the culture wars. But it is apparently extremely controversial to claim that we can’t make sense of how and why they’re foundational without acknowledging that the root of the battle is over reaching — and enforcing — a consensus about the relationship between what women do and who women are.
This despite the fact that many on both sides of the culture war are frank about their desire to craft an enforceable consensus on issues like abortion, birth control, prostitution, gay marriage, and gay adoption.
For many on both sides, the belief is that their opponents really do stand for barbarism and against civilization. Supporters of the right to choose to have an abortion are believed by many pro-life people to support a barbaric, uncivilized act. Those who would restrict officially recognized marriages to one man and one woman are seen by many gay marriage advocates as using the power of the law to atavistically reverse the partly organic, partly hard-fought progress of civilization.
It’s easy to see how such high stakes can lead to large-scale anger. It’s more difficult to understand how the most measured invocation of some important social contributions by women drawn from the functions of the female body can produce shock waves of horror and derision — especially from a column that points out that a society which rejects the premise of a question about sex, gender, and natural purposes might very well have achieved a great leap forward in the progress of human civilization.
After all, as some have pointed out, Christianity itself — often associated with Aristotelian views tightly tying sexual biology to social role — is in fact a creed that in many ways profoundly liberates individuals from their natural bodies. In practice, however, and probably inevitably, Christianity has become tangled up in an institutional mess of competing moral and natural claims. As I’ve written for a symposium at Cato Unbound:
“Traditional marriage” is an institution without a fully authoritative account of which moralities, which traditions, and which human characteristics command us to say no, by varying degrees, to which others.
Because what we call traditional marriage masquerades as what it isn’t — an institution without any radical internal tensions — culture warriors on both sides turn to the state to enact or interpret into law an authoritative account of what marriage is.