Women students in Texas are planning to take their sex toys to class to protest a law that would allow the carrying of concealed weapons on campuses. The attempt to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the gun law is puerile and confused. It is hardly surprising that a law intended to apply one principle (in this case, the right to bear arms) can easily be made to appear inconsistent with a law designed to protect something entirely different (the protection of public decency), yet this does not necessarily imply any real conflict or inconsistency between the two. The legislators are engaging in no hypocrisy here. Even as an Englishman, and therefore almost by definition someone with rather liberal views of gun control and some sympathy with the protesters, I find their case to be logically muddleheaded—though I suspect they are not too concerned for logical consistency. If they were so, they would surely have made an argument and not simply proposed an obscene gesture.
The protest is, of course, still shocking, though sadly not because of its obscene nature: It is the fact that this planned public obscenity is no longer shocking which truly shocks. Indeed, I suspect that my use of the term ‘public obscenity’ provokes a mocking sneer in more than one reader. It sounds so quaint and old-fashioned, does it not? That too should be shocking. Both witness to the porn fatigue that now characterizes what remains of our culture. When not even the flaunting of a myriad plastic penises by a multitude of angry young women can elicit more than a jaded yawn or a roll of the eyes from a middle-aged reactionary like myself, then there is a real cultural problem here.
Yet the significance of this proposed action should not be confined to what it reveals about the illogical thought processes of student protesters or the jaded and casual attitude to obscenity in modern society. The nature of the protest also witnesses to two further and even more disturbing facts about this present age. First, it is yet more proof that the distinction between public and private is today virtually non-existent. From pornography to the life-as-performance phenomena of Youtube and Facebook, the idea is now dead that there should be a difference between what is appropriate behavior in public and what in private. Whether society can be sustained on the basis of such is at this point an open question. Civilization has rather depended upon precisely that principle for a very long time.
Second, it reveals once again that morality is rapidly being reduced to individual rights. The irony is that many will actually agree with the protesters' ‘argument,' or at least be incapable of seeing why it is fallacious. That is because there is only one transcendent principle of morality which society recognizes: The personal right to be and do whatever I wish, wherever I wish, whenever I wish, subject only to the rather nebulous and occasional notion of another’s consent. Thus, if you have the right to bear a gun in class, then I have the right to wave a plastic penis in your face in the lecture theater. The notion of a common good which might transcend, and thus curtail, the rights and tastes of any given individual is apparently no longer credible.
Still, there is a certain appropriateness to the fact that these protesters have chosen a woman’s sex toy as their weapon of the moment. I do not think that they could have selected something which more perfectly sums up the spiritual principles of this present age: Obscene, hedonistic, solipsistic, Onanistic. Plus, of course, made out of plastic, and that probably in China.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.