Is Gay Love Really Just “Graphically Misshapen” Friendship?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
July 24 2014 3:20 PM

Stephen Webb Doubles Down on the Inferiority of Gay Love

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Second-class affection.

keymoon / Shutterstock.com

On Tuesday, First Thing’s inimitable Stephen H. Webb wrote a spellbinding article explaining that because anuses aren’t vaginas, gay marriage isn’t a civil right. I dutifully responded, noting that Webb’s view of marriage is far too primitivist to capture the complexities of the civil institution. Now, Webb has struck back, doubling down on his claim that a marriage without penile-vaginal intercourse is no marriage at all.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

I encourage you to read Webb’s piece in full, because it’s an excellent illustration of the bizarre, antediluvian view of love and marriage that, I believe, finds few takers in this century. As you might recall, Webb insisted in his first piece that gay marriage could only be true marriage if “the anus is the same as the vagina,” and if anal sex is “just as fecund, just as spiritually uplifting” as vaginal penetration. In my response, I asserted that those who seek marriage aren’t just “a pair of smitten genitals with bodies attached,” but rather are full human beings who hope “to create an enduring, lifelong bond of love.” Here’s Webb’s retort on the topic:

So everything does come around to the differences between vaginal intercourse and anal penetration. … I am aware that for some people, maybe even many people, male and female, receiving anal penetration can be pleasurable. … [But] [i]f the anus is the new vagina, can it really hold all the mysteries of intimacy and all the intimations of unity that intercourse has provided for marriage from the very beginning of that institution?
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How you answer this question depends entirely on what you consider to be “the mysteries of intimacy” and “the intimations of unity.” If you believe that intimacy is a mutual love and support deepened by shared sexual pleasure, then, sure, “the anus” can provide that. (You’d probably cringe at reducing such a complex emotional connection to a mere body part, though—I certainly do.) But if you believe that real unity can only be formed when a penis enters a vagina, you’re on Webb’s wavelength.

The problem here is that there’s only one reason to believe that penile-vaginal intercourse is the sole genuine form of unity: orthodox Catholic dogma. I’ve written about the fundamentally religious basis of coitus fetishism before, and there’s no need to rehash all that here. What’s interesting to note, however, is that Webb attempts to ground his own intercourse fixation in science:

From the perspective of biological evolution alone—without any reference to religion—it is evident that the male and female bodies are directed to treat that act as foundational for a lifetime of exclusive commitment and sharing. It is not enough to just enjoy each other’s company or to decide to be together in order to avoid the pitfalls of loneliness.

In fact, Webb has this exactly backward. Humans did not evolve to be strictly monogamous. (At best, evolutionarily speaking, we’re monogam-ish.) Rather, monogamy is a largely modern phenomenon, something we must actively choose when we wish to share our intimacy with only one person. Marriage is an expression of that choice. Thus, while sex certainly deepens the marital bond, it does not hold the mystical, almost supernatural powers Webb ascribes to it.

Why is this important? Because if Webb’s theory is correct, it’s not just gay marriage that’s invalid—it’s gay love. According to Webb, thanks to the lack of penile-vaginal intercourse, gay couples can never really share anything except friendship:

Marriage is not just a very close kind of friendship, although that seems to be how many gay couples experience it. Marriage is a spiritual unity founded on (and given expression in) a singular act of physical unity. … But [i]f anal penetration can elevate gay friendship into a relationship that turns two people into one, then I stand corrected.  

It’s tempting to be insulted by Webb’s assertion that the love gay couples share is really just a “graphically misshapen” form of friendship. But don’t take the bait. Very few Americans share Webb’s antiquated, coitus-obsessed views of love and marriage, and more abandon them every year. If you think true marriage only springs from penile-vaginal penetration, then by all means, shout Webb’s theory from the rooftops. But if you believe that marriage is a lifelong commitment deepened—but not defined—by sex, then feel free to shrug off this dogma as the nonsense that it is.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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