Last week, Ted Cruz made headlines by accusing “the left” of being “obsessed with sex”. It was self-evidently a hilarious bit of projection, because it’s clear that the people in this country who are obsessed with sex are conservatives. It’s conservatives who put anti-abortion restrictions before all other legislative priorities. It’s conservatives who are so worried about who is fucking who when that they want to involve your boss in your birth control decisions. It’s conservatives who are so stuck on what gay couples do in bed that they want to deny them marriage because of it. This is really obvious.
But I feel like that retort is a little inadequate, because it might accidentally feed into the idea that there’s a “right” amount of thinking about sex and that if you think about it more than that, you’re somehow broken or perverted. And my problem with religious conservatives is not that the first thought on their minds when they wake up, their every waking thought during the day, and their last thought when they go to bed is thoughts of other people fucking. A lot of people think about sex a lot, without it being a problem. My problem is that this thought enrages them and makes them feel entitled to punish you for it. It’s quality, not quantity, that is the problem. It’s not like abortion restrictions are any easier on women if they fall to docket item #3 or #4 on the agenda, instead of always being #1.
But watching this Duggar scandal unfold, I have come to realize there’s a difference between merely thinking about something a lot and an obsession. (Or at least when it comes to touchy issues like sex.) What makes the conservative attitude about sex obsessive is the way that sex is seen, in their eyes, as a demonic force that haunts the world and how this leaks into everything, distorting and perverting it. It isn’t that they think about sex a lot, but how they the think about it, in other words.
This whole Duggar situation really exposes how true that is. The enforced wholesome thing has always had an air of perversion about it, of course: The chaperones, the ugly “modest” clothes, the aggressive pretending that you’re not thinking about sex when it’s all you clearly can think about. Sex is seen as a scary, evil force and they give it all this power that it really doesn’t have if you have a healthier attitude about it. And because of it, there’s this real inability to understand that other people really don’t feel like we’re constantly walking a tightrope, about to fall into the abyss. You don’t see attitudes like the one displayed by Michael Seewald, the father-in-law of one of the Duggar girls, who defended the Duggar family’s cover-up of this crime.
There are many who seem shocked that a child from a Christian family would do such things. While it is always alarming when we find out about our children’s sins, we should not be surprised. Christians (and many other reasonable people) believe that we are all born with a sinful nature. David, king of Israel spoke of his inborn sin like this when he was repenting of his adultery and murder by proxy: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Psalm 51:5. The prophet Isaiah concurs. “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” Isaiah 64:6. While not all of our sins find a way to manifest themselves externally we all know the corruption that is present in each of our hearts. It is a mercy of God that he restrains the evil of mankind otherwise we would have destroyed ourselves long ago. Many times it is simply lack of opportunity or fear of consequences that keep us from falling into grievous sin even though our fallen hearts would love to indulge the flesh. We should not be shocked that this occurred in the Duggar’s home, we should rather be thankful to God if we have been spared such, and pray that he would keep us and our children from falling.
Ah, no. You get the strong sense reading this that the implication is that we’re all barely able to stop ourselves from sexually assaulting someone and it’s only the fear of getting caught that is holding us back. As PZ Myers noted, however, that’s just not the case. “I was also the oldest of a large family of six kids, and surprise, I was never even tempted to molest my sisters. I did not have to pray to resist. I was not restrained by religious fears,” he writes. “They were my family, and I saw them as people, friends (sometimes, briefly, annoyances). This corruption that Seewald sees as an intrinsic part of our existence was simply not there.”
I don’t want to make too much of this, since child abuse happens in all sorts of homes with all sorts of religious backgrounds. But setting aside this specific instance of abuse, what we’re seeing here is an attitude is that makes the religious right functionally a sex cult, especially when it comes to the far-right enclaves such as the Duggar’s. Sex is a demon that haunts their world, and everything in their lives is structured around trying to hold the evil at bay. Sex isn’t treated like a normal part of life that people just do, but this force that controls us and which traps people into a lifelong struggle of self-hatred and fear. Even when they’re trying to put a positive spin on it and talking up the sex they are allowed to like—between married couples—this fear-laced obsessiveness leaks out.
Take, for instance, this interview Cosmo had with the Duggar girls:
Jessa: My parents are pretty good kissers! They very much like to show their kiss in public places, so they kiss in front of us all the time.
Talking about “their kiss” as if it’s an object and not an action? Treating it as an object of display instead of a way to show affection? There’s no authentic pleasure or joy here. It’s just the neurotic behavior of people desperately trying to show their mastery over a force that haunts them day and night, and failing.
The weird part is that this is all a self-created problem. For healthy people, even if sex is a big part of their lives, it doesn’t rule them in this way. Most of us think of it as a fun way to spend time, a good way to share affection, and a physical desire, but it’s not some kind of overpowering force that we can barely get a handle on. Even if you’re really horny! It’s like food or your hobbies or even your job: An important part of your life that you want to give a lot of attention to, but it’s not all-defining in this way.
Seewald mocked the idea that this is “a result of sheltering and repressing human desires”. Well, yes. This obsession with “modesty” and “purity” is a sex obsession. All this forbidding this and that drives up curiosity and creates obsession. Sex becomes the ring from Lord of the Rings and fundies are all a bunch of Gollums. Sex is an important part of life, but it’s not some kind of all-encompassing force that will ruin you if you let it. And I think this whole debacle really drives home which “side” has the healthier understanding of sex.