Several friends contacted me over the weekend with news that Wesleyan University has taken the ever-expanding list of initials used to refer to sexual identities to new heights of absurdity or sensitivity, depending on one’s perspective. We are now apparently up to fifteen letters: LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM.
It is easy to laugh at such gibberish on the grounds that it is as absurd as it is self-regarding. Yet that would be a mistake. First, there is the long-established inability of such groups to laugh at themselves. Indeed, the new libertinism often makes the old Puritanism look comparatively self-effacing and gently playful. Those who publicly roll their eyes at this latest lunacy can no doubt expect to be buried under a deluge of the moralizing in which the ethical guardians of contemporary sexual ethics routinely engage. These days one must first count the social media cost before putting one’s hand to the sardonic plow.
Second, there are surely grounds for congratulating folks at Wesleyan on their consistent honesty in the cause of sexual liberation. Liberation, that is, of sex from any intrinsic moral significance. As Luther said to Erasmus in very different circumstances: You and you alone have placed your finger on the hinge on which everything turns.
If very few of the sexual acts of today’s identity politics are procreative, that has certainly not inhibited their proponents’ impressive ability to give birth to endless categories of sexual preference. This is the result of more than a mere lack of conceptual contraception. It also indicates the loss of any sense that sex in itself might carry some kind of larger moral significance. Indeed, the plethora of sexual identities now available witness to the fact that there is no longer any basis for rejecting any kind of sexual act, considered in itself, as intrinsically wrong. The multiplication of such categories is part of rendering sex amoral: When everything is legitimate, then nothing has particular moral significance.
This endless expansion of sexual categories is a necessary consequence of what is now the fundamental tenet of modern sexual politics, and perhaps a key element of modern politics in general: That a person’s attitude to sex is the primary criterion for assessing their moral standing in the public square. If you say that sex has intrinsic moral significance, then you set it within a larger moral framework and set limits to the legitimate use of sex. In doing so, you declare certain sexual acts illegitimate, something which is now considered hate speech. This constant coining of new categories of sexual identity serves both to demonstrate this and to facilitate its policing.
Ironically, many on the bien pensant left are only now realizing this: I confess that the excoriation of British gay activist, Peter Tatchell, for signing a letter expressing concern for encroachments on freedom of speech at British university campuses, is a cause for smug amusement to those like myself who have followed his career and growing influence with dismay. That he is now being lambasted for giving tacit support to transphobia is most ironic. Yet he has only himself and those like him to blame. The criticism of his action arises out of the same amoral Puritanism for which Tatchell himself has campaigned for many years: By divesting sex of intrinsic moral significance he has helped to create a world where those who attempt to set limits to the legitimacy of sexual activity are seen as the moral equivalent of racists and the intellectual equivalent of flat-earthers: Irrational bigots who have no place in the public square.
Wesleyan University is not to be criticized but congratulated, at least in terms of the transparency and consistency of its vision. It is simply an honest and consistent example of the moralizing amorality of this present age. It denies intrinsic moral significance to sex and enforces this through a proliferation of sexual categories designed to outlaw any claims to the contrary. It is therefore those who have campaigned to turn sex into mere recreation and who now express surprise and dismay that this has created a less, not more, liberal society, who are to be decried for the fools that they are.
(In the original posting, I made the mistake of referring to Wesleyan College, rather than Wesleyan University, in the last paragraph. These are two entirely separate institutions and I apologize to Wesleyan College for any confusion or offense that my error caused).
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.