This piece from New York magazine about a daughter-father sure is… something. As you might expect, it’s produced a feeling of visceral revulsion in me. I also think that since the uncoerced and informed consent of all parties is the only criterion for whether sexual conduct should be permissible, I think it should be legal. In those two opinions — that the relationship is viscerally unpalatable to me and that it should be legal — I imagine I am joined by a majority of progressive types.
But I also think that it’s very healthy for me to be feeling grossed out by other people’s consensual sexual practice. It’s good from the standpoint of living in a democratic society; it’s always beneficial for one side of controversial political questions to actually experience the stakes of the other side. I am part of a social and political movement that thinks we should permit those sexual practices that involve the consent of adult, informed, uncoerced partners, and that do no harm to others, and further that we should be tolerant towards those who practice sexual acts that we don’t. But in the realm where this has had the most widespread valence, sex and marriage between partners of the same sex, the negative consequences for me are very low, because I don’t feel any revulsion towards those things. It’s easy for me to advocate tolerance towards them because for me they don’t require tolerance at all. So this experience, of feeling grossed out by practice that I think we have to tolerate, is a healthy way to experience the other side of that equation.
Now some will immediately say that there is a qualitative and substantive difference between same-sex relationships and incestuous relationships, differences in power and in rarity and in civic need, etc. And I agree completely; those two things are not the same. (You can expect, of course, a deluge of tweets saying “deBoer thinks gay sex and incest are the same!”) The point is not that I think that these behaviors are comparable, but rather that the feeling of revulsion I feel towards the act described is (as far as I know) similar to the feeling of revulsion that opponents of same-sex relationships feel towards those acts. And that, fundamentally, is a healthy political experience. It’s not like I hold these two revulsions to be equal from my own perspective; I would not tolerate the public expression of revulsion towards gay sex from people I am friends with, while I would be very surprised if I had many friends who didn’t feel revulsion towards father-daughter incest. But as a matter of genuinely understanding what I have long insisted other people should believe if they want to be enlightened and moral political beings, I find the comparison useful.
I find political learning for me is precisely as useful as it is difficult. No political lesson that ever came easy to me has had much use. Politics really mean something when they hurt. And one of the problems with politics is that most of our lessons come easy and pain-free, whichever side we’re on.
I also think that we need to get used to hearing more about these things that gross us out. Because consent, as powerful and essential of an instrument as it is, does not have the power to make sex palatable for all of us. And when you think that civic morality should not have any place in dictating consensual adult sexual practice, that will inevitably have consequences beyond the ones you intended. That’s life, that’s politics.