Pharyngula

Kenneth Howell was an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. He is not being rehired at the end of his contract, apparently because he has been accused of hate speech against gays by a student. He had written an email to his students defending the Catholic position on homosexuality, and a friend of one of the students wrote to the university and the media accusing the professor of “hate speech”, of “indoctrinating students”, and “limiting the marketplace of ideas”.

I hate to say it, but I think the student was wrong. I read the professor’s email, and I don’t think it is hate speech at all.

It’s stupid speech.

A letter that condemned students, that threatened students if they didn’t agree with his views, that discriminated against a segment of society, or that denied people full participation in the culture for their views or background or private practices…that would be hate speech. This letter, though, is a pedantic and polite explanation of the views of the professor and of the Catholic church and of his interpretation of utilitarianism, and in fact is careful to say that he isn’t condemning any individuals. We can’t endorse using this kind of discussion as an excuse to expel people from academia — we want professors and students to be able to communicate freely with one another, without fear of retaliation. I see no sign that the professor was discussing the matter in a way that disrespects any of his students.

And the student complaining was doing so poorly. The professor’s ideas made him uncomfortable. He disliked what he said. He thought the professor was insensitive.

Those are not good reasons. If a student is never made uncomfortable, that student is not getting an education.

Bad reasons are given, but I still think UI made the right decision in not renewing this guy’s contract. Kenneth Howell is in ignorant fool who mistakes his religious dogma and his personal prejudices for knowledge.

Here’s an example. Keep in mind that this fellow is a professor, supposedly teaching college students something about philosophy. Here he’s trying to explain why homosexuality is wrong.

But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.

One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.

REALITY, huh?

Here’s reality. A penis fits nicely in the hand, and a hand is usually better at stimulating the clitoris than a penis in the vagina, and our anatomy is such that our arms are of the right length to comfortably reach our genitals. Therefore, masturbation is a moral sexual act. We can extend this to point out that a man’s hand can stimulate a clitoris and a woman’s hand can stimulate a penis, and therefore, mutual masturbation, as is being practiced by tens of thousands of teenagers on this Friday night, is also a rightful act. There is no practical difference in anatomy or physiology between mutual masturbation between a heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple, so these acts are also entirely natural.

This reasoning can be extended to a great many sexual acts: oral and anal sex, frottage of various kinds, fantasy play, sadomasochism, etc. There are more aspects of male and female anatomy in which they are alike than in which they differ, and in fact the only act which can be uniquely performed by a male and female couple is penile-vaginal intercourse. So this one act out of many is all that this professor can point to in order to justify heterosexuality as the only proper interaction, but this requires ignoring the majority of human sexual behaviors. I have to wonder if all Catholic teaching permits in the bedroom is genital-genital contact. How sad for them.

Complementarity is also an invalid requirement. Men have lips and a tongue; women have lips and a tongue. It seems to me that a lot of heterosexual couples acquire a great deal of pleasure from kissing, despite the fact that the anatomy of that portion of their bodies is largely interchangeable (in an abstract sense, of course). Is this wrongful? Or are we forced to agree that the equivalent kissing between two men or two women cannot be judged by the nature of the act to be in violation of natural moral law?

I would entirely agree with Howell on one point: complementarity of the psychology of the two sexual partners is an important part of healthy sex. Unfortunately for his premise, psychology is not so strictly sorted with the genitalia; just as there are many women and even more men with whom I would be miserable and stressed to share a bed, there are people who have a great deal of difficulty finding the necessary complementarity of desire in partners of a different sex. This should be the most important criterion in a sexual partner, whether you can find joy together, and it’s often independent of all that meat below the neck. Although that stuff helps. And the brain often finds arousal in surprising places.

Howell’s ideas about homosexual practices are embarrassingly ignorant. He doesn’t know, so why does he profess to know? This myth that homosexuality involves taking the roles of man and woman is one of the oldest and silliest claims around — it’s not usually true (although it can be, since sex seems to throw out all our rules and expectations). Gay men are attracted to men, lesbians are attracted to women, not to clumsy impersonations of the sex they are less interested in.

Homosexuals and heterosexuals do not engage in actions for which their bodies are not fitted. If they don’t fit, they can’t do them. I mean, really.

The health argument is completely wrong. Many homosexuals will engage only in the kinds of activities that heterosexuals would call heavy petting — this obviously isn’t a problem. That good Christian homosexual, George Rekers, reportedly achieved arousal and orgasm from massage and a “long stroke” which did not involve extensive genital contact at all. And most of the sexual activities carried out by gay men are also carried out by heterosexual men with their female partners. You just can’t isolate gay practices as unnatural without also condemning a great many heterosexual practices.

Also, if we’re going to judge the rightness of a sex act by its health consequences, then lesbians are the most natural and moral of us all. They have the least risk of transmission of sexual diseases, do the least physical damage to each other’s delicate tissues, and are not going to get each other pregnant, which has incredibly deleterious effects on a woman’s health. In fact, the worst thing you can do to a woman sexually in terms of her health is for a man to put his penis in her vagina. Talk about violating the structure and health of a human body!

Of course, later in his silly letter Howell tries to claim that sexual reality is all tied up in procreation and cusses out that great Catholic evil, contraception. Again, he has a blinkered view of sex: some of the best reasons to have it are love and fun. But then, Catholics always seem to forget those.

I think it entirely reasonable to boot Kenneth Howell out of UI because he’s not very bright and doesn’t meet the intellectual standards I expect of UI professors. Of course, part of the reason for his weird shortcomings is the fact that he’s a professor of religion who is spitting up Catholic dogma, and one big problem is that a respected major university is offering courses in Catholicism taught by its adherents as serious philosophy, rather than teaching it as cultural anthropology by someone who can maintain a little distance from its weird precepts. Kick Howell out, but send the Catholic theologians packing right after him.