We don’t often hear the word “perversion” used much any more, and anyone using the term in print to describe any form of sexual practice better have a good lawyer handy. Some people are proving themselves very aggressive these days, and seem to be not shy about litigating.
In using the term, what is not often noticed is that the use of the word “perversion” presupposes a transcendent norm, a transcultural standard capable of violation. In discussing this, let’s begin by taking an extreme example of something that pretty much everyone can agree upon is perverted, such as food perversions. Oddly enough some people feel compelled to eat (for example) feces, and this is stigmatized because everyone acknowledges that one should only eat food and feces don’t count as food. In the case of food there is a universal standard, and violating it by eating such things is considered not simply to be gross, but also perverted. Mercifully (as C.S. Lewis once noted) perversions of the food appetite are very rare. However if you asked someone to explain why they regarded eating feces as a form of perversion, you might not get a quick answer. If you insisted upon an explanation, they might say something like “the human body clearly was designed to digest certain things, and not other things, and trying to digest the other things is wrong”. In other words, perhaps without knowing it, they would resort to the old category of Natural Law.
Natural Law is one way of stating that there exists for human beings some universal and transcendent standard, something against which all behaviour can be justly measured, and which provides us with a working definition of “normal”. Eating chocolate is normal; eating feces is abnormal. It is perverse—or, if you prefer, it is perversion.
We increasingly live in a world which is eroding the concept of a transcendent standard and of normalcy. In olden days (i.e. 1970 and before) all things and behaviours were compared to a transcendent standard. It is not just the Christians who did this, but all people of whatever creed or persuasion. Christians talked about God’s Law and the Bible; Muslims talked about the heavenly version of the Qur’an, the “mother of the book”; people further east talked about the Tao. Earlier than that even Plato talked about the forms. But everyone, religious or not, acknowledged some prior archetype to which they said people ought to conform if they desired to live authentically and well. The philosophical possibility of perversion depended upon the existence of that norm. If we deny the reality of any transcendent norm, then there can be no such thing as perversion; it will simply have been defined out of existence.
In the place of any transcendent norm we increasingly now substitute the declarations of our naked will. Today things formerly as indisputably clear and biologically obvious as gender have become subject to our arbitrary decisions. I get to decide whether or not I am a man or a woman. If I have the money for medical assistance, my body will cooperate somewhat in my decision. If I have the necessary fame, I might even get on the cover of Vanity Fair.
Are there any limits? Maybe not: one hears in the news of people denying the normalcy of having the usual number of limbs, and who want to have healthy limbs amputated. Said one such woman from (where else?) California who wants to have her legs removed: “Inside, I feel my legs don’t belong to me and shouldn’t be there.” Sounds like something from Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but it’s true. It even has a name: Body Integrity Identity Disorder, and it usually treated as a psychiatric illness, something listed as abnormal in the DSM catalogue (like other things that used to be there and are now considered to be normal).
One again asks the question: why is this re-definition of normal wrong? Who says that normal includes having two legs? If a man insists that he feels inside that he is actually a woman, on what basis do we tell this woman from California that she is wrong when she says she feels inside that both of her legs shouldn’t be there? The answer again: Natural Law, or the existence of a transcendent norm.
Please, please note: I am not (underlined, italicized and marked with asterisks not) asserting in this blog piece the moral equivalence of the practices I have mentioned here. I am not even asserting that they are all morally wrong. I am asserting that any practice should be judged by its conformity to a transcendent standard, and that until we can agree about what this transcendent standard is and what it says, our cultural debates will not make much headway.
It is no good therefore, I believe, arguing much with those keen for a LGBQT agenda. We have to start the discussion much further back. We have to ask the basic question about whether or not there exists such a thing as a transcendent norm for anything, be it gender, sexuality, or the number limbs we should have. Until this is agreed upon we will simply be talking to ourselves.