“[A]n unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.”
~ Lewis Hyde
Conservative Sexual Fetishism
Conservatives, as you might’ve noticed, have always had a fetish about other people’s sex lives, an obsessive-compulsion that drives their reactionary minds like a dominatrix wielding a whip; and in the Burkean wardrobe of the moral imagination, conservatives really do like to kink it up. Particularly titillating to fantasize about is that of other people having perceived illicit sex, be it pedophilia or bestiality or simply garden-variety homosexuality (i.e., anything religiously proscribed, consensual or not, that will get you a one-way ticket to Hell). There is the irresistible allure of the taboo, and large swaths of human experience are taboo in conservative ideology. That is a lot of material to work with in scripting and staging morality porn on the inner stage of the conservative soul. So, what could otherwise be a normal, healthy, and pro-social expression of sexual freedom, in being denied, becomes distorted and demented. This perverted mentality is motivated by the same vexatious urge behind the preoccupation over other people not having sex as well, the barely submerged eroticism bursting forth like the plump bosom underneath a tightly-bound bodice on the cover of a romance novel. Even in negation, suppressed sexual energy overwhelms like being told to not think about pink elephants.
The unnatural concern in having one’s focus neurotically drawn toward others not having sex is evidenced by the popular Christian genre of virginity porn (e.g., the Twilight novels written by a conservative Mormon); the sexualized obsession with innocence that, to consider another category of culture war fantasy, also underlies right-wing conspiracy theories of pedophilia, innocence harmed and defiled. Or think about the weird phenomenon of purity rings, where a young woman’s public identity of moral purity and social worth is constructed according to the imagined non-act of avoiding vaginal penetration, whatever sexual acts she actually does or does not do secretly in her private life; it then being a question of how far can she go (kissing? groping? heavy petting? fellatio?) while maintaining this prized ‘virgin’ status that, according to belief, is ultimately determined by an omniscient, intrusive, and voyeuristic father-god who, like a peeping tom, watches his human children’s every sexual act or non-act, as the case may be, and judges it like giving an ice skating score (for humor: Garfunkel and Oates, The Loophole). Praise be! Now there is a fascinating fetish. The intensity of thwarted desire, like floodwater building behind a dam, combined with a sadomasochistic religiosity; that could become immensely intoxicating.
It’s amusing that Edmund Burke made famous the conservative-style moral imagination in his lurid portrayal of a wild mob, seemingly with lecherous and lascivious intentions, having violently ripped away the French queen’s delicate underclothing; presumably revealing her tender flesh and womanly parts to the prying eyes that sullied her purity, innocence, and nobility — basically, it was a rape fantasy and it obviously got Burke all worked up and excited. It was an invented scene of repressed sexual frenzy being messily released like a young boy’s ejaculate, not an accurate historical account of sociopolitical events during the French Revolution; and it is to be suspected that the pent up libido, one of the few real and accurate details, was based on Burke’s personal experience. That writing has set the tone for the reactionary mind ever since, and it helped liberals like Thomas Paine to make clear what was so dangerous and perverse about such untethered frothing. In any case, it was Burke who named this kind of ideologically-motivated and collectively-expressed fantasizing as ‘moral imagination’ and, in demonstrating it’s compelling persuasiveness for the reactionary mind, the practice of it has stuck as the main weapon of culture war and moral panic ever since.
Conservative Projections of Shame
Such inventive eroticism, equal parts lustful and prurient, is symbolic of all things illicit, far beyond being limited to any possible variety of sex act (described or implied, denied or suppressed); as representing the bestial nature of the body, an expression of Adam’s Original Sin, the eternal field of battle between God and Satan, good and evil. It doesn’t matter what other people are actually doing or actually want to do, nor necessarily about the fantasist’s behavior either. This is entirely about the conservative’s carnal nightmares that they are trapped in, as they can’t escape their own mind; and, indeed, they apparently get off on it, which surely further adds to an endless cycle of masochistic shame that draws them ever back into the shadow of their own unresolved issues. It certainly makes for a time-consuming hobby, if one is worried about getting bored; and the reactionary mind, in particular, despises boredom. That is the necessity of melodramatic political theatre and political spectacle — it is entertainment, pure and simple; as much or more to entertain the one telling it, in how the purpose of evangelizing is mostly to further entrench the conviction of the evangelical, not about converting unbelievers and saving souls.
All of that might be fine, if conservatives were able to keep such dark fantasies and fetishes as a private psychosis and delirium, and as long as no illegal acts were committed (each to their own, live and let live; as a liberal would say), but no such luck. The freedom of personal imagination and the responsibility of personal conscience, as idealized and practiced in a secular liberal democracy, has never been the keystone of conservative moral order inseparable from conservative social order. The problem is that, as part of their lust for power, they are always trying to use their own perverse imaginings as rationalizing fodder for culture war in order to supposedly stop other people from doing what conservatives do in their own minds, whether or not acted out in their own private lives. They can’t stand their sense of self-disgust and so feel compelled, if in a state of horror, to set it loose on the public stage. It’s a cry for help, but the rest of us aren’t sure how to help them. Should we have a national intervention for the sake of public health?
Conservatives are forever trying to pass, reinforce, and defend laws against what they deem immoral behavior, sexual and otherwise, not because of what non-conservatives might do but because conservatives fear, maybe for good reason, that they can’t control their own behavior. They think they know what others would do because they know what they would do, if they had the opportunity, for they are fantasizing about it all the time. So, they seek to apply a distorted Golden Rule: Rather than do unto others as you would want others do unto you, it’s stop others from doing what you believe is wrong as you would want others to stop you from doing as bad or worse. That is how the reactionary mind assumes social order must be maintained, by way of authoritarian systems of social control, since people are treated as inherently bad and untrustworthy. Everyone, after all, is a born sinner; an old theological dogma that persists even into the secular thought of many non-religious individuals.
Conservative Social Control Replaces Self-Control
In the dark corners of the reactionary mind, the terror and torment is that these shameful fantasies, repeating over and over as hidden sins and repressed lust, will escape out into the real world and make for interpersonal messiness; but, as Jesus warned, even a sin of thought is still a sin; no doubt a condemnation that plagues the worried soul of many a conservative. It must be frightening to have such a libidinously demented fantasy life that always feels out of control, like a demonic force ever tempting one to horrific wrongdoing and moral depravity. We might not want to be too harsh considering that conservatives, in respect to themselves, might be correct about the need for external power and hierarchical authority of behavioral control. They might really become dangerous, if they ever stopped collectively suppressing their anti-social tendencies and harmful desires. Maybe they need all the assistance they can get.
No doubt, the persistent sexualizing that is played out on the inner stage of the conservative mind isn’t merely that of innocent and impotent passing thoughts, as the reactionary mind is addicted to what it denies, pulled toward what it pushes away. This oppressive repression acts as a fuel to the fire of their anxiety-driven righteous anger of self-loathing, what makes them so worked up in a way that liberals have a hard time understanding. Such sexual repression, as endless examples show, really does increase sexual compulsion and/or malbehavior. Think of how many gay-hating preachers later were found out to have been covertly following an active gay life, sometimes using church funds to do so. Or think of all those priests who, in having taken vows of bachelorhood and abstinence, ended up taking advantage of the children under their care. Conservatives are warning about the darkness they know intimately in their own hearts. It’s an indirect admission of an uncomfortable secret and an unpardonable guilt that they can’t give voice to in a more straightforward manner, for the public humiliation would destroy them.
So, they express these uncontrollable urges as dark temptations and harmful inclinations projected onto those other supposedly bad and dangerous people: leftists, liberals, and atheists, or else minorities and the poor, strangers and foreigners, those perceived as deviant or different, basically any target that can be conveniently othered and scapegoated (literally, living beings to be sacrificed after symbolically placing the community’s sins upon them). One such immorality play, particularly powerful, in the conservative imaginary is bestiality, and there isn’t much else like it. As with the exaggerated emphasis on and disturbing obsession with pedophilia, the conservative holds bestiality aloft as a caricatured sexual extremism that stands in for nearly every sexual act other than missionary style between a religiously married man and woman; although, within a conservative patriarchy, there is greater forgiveness toward a heterosexual male’s non-marital or extramarital sexual activities (men have needs, so goes the argument), and there is some wiggle room about age of consent for many conservative societies.
Conservative Symbolism and Imagination
Intriguingly, within a worldview of debilitating anxiety over impurity and perceived threats, the moral imagination of the reactionary mind has often used animals to make its points about the needs and claims of cognitive certainty, shared identity, group boundaries, social order, class/caste hierarchy, and moral worth: peasants and slaves as beasts of burden, the indigenous and backwoods whites as wild creatures, Africans as monkeys, Irish as white gorillas, Jews as a sub-species, immigrants as diseased rats, homeless as stray cats, and on and on; such bizarre metaphorical stereotypes being endless. As another example, ethnic Catholics, in the WASP imagination, were historically likened to ‘animals’ breeding out of control; in justifying xenophobic demands of anti-immigration, oppression, segregation, and eugenics. Ironically, this anti-ethnic and anti-Catholic prejudice was the reason that most American Protestants (in both main parties), during most of the 20th century, supported family planning clinics, birth control, and abortions. Civilized humans, in their superior self-restraint, supposedly don’t give into the wild lust of wanton bestial copulation and procreation.
This brings us to the proper role of the proper kind of sex, and hence what is improper. Within this ideological worldview, if all other humans unlike oneself (non-WASPs, non-Americans, non-whites, etc) are mere animals or are animal-like, then someone of the right group having sex with someone of the wrong group is akin to committing bestiality, incurring moral impurity for all involved and requiring punishment or exclusion to reinstate the moral order, to make the world right again. The perception of the natural world, be it sincere belief or cynical rhetoric, has long been implemented as a metaphorical model for the human world; most powerfully symbolized by the physical body. So, bestiality is never really about bestiality, in all its glory of ideological resonance; and, more broadly, sexuality is never merely about sexuality; similar to why conservatives preaching on abortion aren’t actually talking about the claim of killing fetuses and aren’t actually expressing concern for the sanctity of human life.
Filtered through symbolic conflation, every culture war issue means something else, all rhetoric of moral panic points elsewhere. It’s just distraction of ideological sleight-of-hand. This might be why bestiality, something that doesn’t actually come up in normal life all that often, plays such an outsized role on the American right in their social commentary, culture war, religious moralizing, and political narratives. It gets awkwardly mentioned way too often that it starts to make the rest of us feel a bit uncomfortable. What is up with this strange obsession? Outwardly stated, the eternal warning of social conservatives is that, if as a society we allow gay sex or whatever, it will inevitably lead to a libertine free-for-all where sexual deviants will roam the land anally-raping cows and molesting children; or something like that. In that moral worldview, there are only two possibilities, total repression or mass orgy; with the wrong choice leading to bad consequences — first anarchy and chaos will burst forth upon the streets and into the schools, preying upon the innocent, and then social breakdown and societal collapse will follow in its wake.
Conservative Storytelling and Fearmongering
Do many conservatives really believe any of this? Probably not. That is besides the point. It’s make-believe and useful-fiction, if still powerful, both powerful as social control and powerful as political theatre. It’s not uncommon for people to act according to what they, deep down, know isn’t true; for suspension of disbelief is required to some degree in any fictional narrative or fictional enterprise. And humans have a talent for knowing and not knowing something at the same time. It’s all about telling a ‘good’ story. We liberals get confused because we have a tendency to take conservatives at face value, since they are always proclaiming their own literalism. Of course, they could never admit that narrative matters more to them than truth because, then, the spell of the narrative would be broken. The story told is more comforting than would be reality disclosed because, no matter how fearful and discomforting that story, the conservative doesn’t want to become aware of what they really fear, what is in their own heart and mind. This is why their moralistic storytelling is often confused and doesn’t quite add up, when rationally analyzed. The purpose is not to make sense but to make nonsense, to disconnect one from direct and visceral sensory experience of reality. Such a way of thinking is shown with an amusing example, going back at least to the 1990s but probably earlier.
An old conservative argument is that the Western Roman Empire fell, not because the Christians turned it into a self-destructive theocracy, but because the Roman population suddenly started having too much butt sex. Strangely, Romans were supposedly less gay when they were pagan worshippers and only turned to a widespread fondness for men-on-men action once Christianized in the last centuries of Roman reign. It’s not clear how that puts Christianity in a positive light, but for whatever reason a significant number on the religious right find it a compelling argument for why they should once again be allowed to return to their nostalgic dreams of theocratic longing, to Make Rome Great Again! But was the Empire ever great in the first place? In any case, there is no decline of the Empire for a simple reason: The Empire never ended. That is how a wise philosopher once put it, in talking about the authoritarian right-wing of his own time. It has never ended because the power-mongers will never let it end, in reality or imagination. Yet, if you listened to them, you’d think the Empire is in a constant state of threat; that at any moment the radical left and/or the dirty masses will rise up to finally defeat and destroy the Forces of Order for all time, bringing on an Age of Darkness and Despair, the End Times foretold in Holy Scripture.
But the reality is the Empire can never end as long as its foundations remain protected within the insurmountable walls of the reactionary mind. God and His Kingdom, like the supernatural beings of fairyland, are always receding as the Age of Miracles and Magic disappears into the hazy past; while the reactionary mind longs for the return of the archaic voices of authorization, in their comforting certainty. In the reactionary mind, the Queen is forever being violated and ravished, and yet the Empire somehow remains forever in place. The Queen comes out every day, like a Disneyland worker putting on her costume and acting out her role, to the delight of her audience. The other ghosts of the haunted moral imagination, in various guises, likewise get trotted out to keep the whole charade going. It is sort of amusing, when one takes it as a strange and deranged form of entertainment. Along with watching actual porn on the internet, the conservative creates ideological porn to be viewed on an inner screen. By the way, according to internet data, porn viewing rates are highest in the Bible Belt, specifically with the highest rates of gay porn. When religious conservatives preach about the evils of sexuality, the sins of the flesh, they have many porn viewing hours under their belts to assist their mentally visualizing in great detail what they claim to hate so much. Let’s just say they Biblically know what they’re talking about. The moral imagination of the reactionary mind is so vivid for a reason.
Conservative Fantasizing About Bestiality
All of this craziness was brought back to our attention because of a particular case of right-wing moral panic, involving the right-wing’s beloved bestiality fetish. The self-identified conservative Ryan Farmer, just some random dude online who salivates over people having sex with animals, earlier this year wrote critically about Maryland’s House Bill 209 that is a repeal of Section 3-322 of Maryland’s criminal code, what has been called the ‘perverted practice’ statute. That statute “is built on a foundation of animus against homosexuals, but goes substantially farther, likening oral sex—which surveys demonstrate is practiced by upwards of 80% of adults—to bestiality” (The Honorable Luke Clippinger, HB0209 2022-01-21 Testimony to House Judiciary Committee). It was already technically unconstitutional and effectively unenforceable because of an earlier federal court decision, but police officers were still charging gay men with violating it (Bradley S. Clark, Why does Maryland law still prohibit sexual contact between same-sex couples?). The morally outdated law was simply being used to harass individuals, as motivated by the immoral bigotry of police officers who were using it as a cudgel of prejudice.
That was the real issue. Socially acceptable and consensual acts of sexual freedom, even something as simple as fellatio, were being conflated with bestiality; and homosexuality was being implicated as well. To reinforce this evil caricature of otherwise normal and healthy sexual behavior, Farmer stated that, “Effectively, this is legalization of bestiality, as these Delegates have no clear interest in re-enacting the criminality of performing sex acts with an animal” (2022 HOUSE BILL 209: MARYLAND DEMOCRATS SEEK TO LEGALIZE ACTS OF BESTIALITY). That is, as always, total bull shit. Being “a proud Marylander,” he had to have known that House Bill 641, signed into law a few years ago, had already made bestiality illegal separate from all the rest (Dawn White, Gov. Hogan Signs Bill Making Bestiality A Felony). So, why is he lying? Well, to the reactionary mind, there never needs to be a reason to deceive and manipulate, as long as it gins up fear and anxiety; that is all the justification that is required, mere moral panic for the sake of moral panic. It’s what the conservative craves, the state of agitation that feels normal to the permanently agitated psyche.
As a side note, one might strongly suspect that, as with gay porn, bestiality rates are probably higher in the Bible Belt and in other conservative areas, considering all of those lonely conservatives out in rural areas (what happens in the barn stays in the barn), and who knows what is going on beneath the thin veneer of normality out in the conservative suburbs (always a favorite setting for horror stories); but unfortunately, it’s doubtful there is good data on such things. In all seriousness, that is an interesting thought. Maybe conservatives are rightfully concerned about bestiality because they know or suspect that it’s common in their own conservative communities. It’s a similar logic that led Edmund Burke, in being familiar with the English precedent of regicide, to focus on the beheading of the French king. His real concern, unstated because it was too threatening, was nearer to home. Rather than French events having influenced English society, it was actually the Anglo-American recent past of English Civil War and American Revolution that had inspired the French revolutionaries. That is precisely what made it so terrifying. Someone like the Englishman Thomas Paine, radical and revolutionary, was a homegrown product of traditional English culture; a strain of moral imagination that was best left unacknowledged.
Conservative Moralistic Authoritarianism
It does make one wonder. Of all things, real and imagined, why is bestiality in particular so horrifying? It’s not as if conservatives are generally and strongly motivated by concern for animal wellbeing, such as in terms of the fundamentalist belief that God created animals solely for the purpose of being used by humans. Many and maybe most conservatives apparently are fine with what those on the left would often consider cruelty and harm toward other species, involving laboratory testing, puppy mills, factory farms, slaughterhouses, hunting, meat-eating, environmental damage, ecosystem destruction, mass extinction, etc; not that all of these issues fall along simplistic and dualistic ideological lines. Here is the point. If you were asked if you’d prefer that someone killed and ate you or had sex with you, which would seem the better option and which the worst? Assuming an animal had consciousness and intelligence, how do you think they’d answer that question? The sense of moral depravity and deviancy, in the conservative mind, has nothing to do with the animal’s rights and protections, the animal’s life and happiness; and has nothing to do with reduction of suffering, according to the least harm principle; nor is it about defense of consent, considering the most conservative (and most religious) countries and U.S. states have the lowest ages of consent for sex. What is perceived as wrong by conservatives is the perceived moral harm to the social order, the impurity that would infect society. So, the concern is not that of what a human does to an animal but what the taint of the animal does to the human.
The average individual on the political left would more likely be consistent in equally opposing both bestiality and carnivory, on principle, as neither could be deemed consensual acts and as both potentially betray the least harm principle; although application of principle can be complicated and nuanced, something a liberal would also be more likely to openly admit and intellectually justify (e.g., there are environmental and ethical leftists and liberals who eat meat, albeit they typically have environmental and ethical arguments for their dietary choice). At the other ideological extreme, more than a few right-wing libertarians would quite possibly perceive neither bestiality nor carnivory as problematic, at least not necessarily in terms of libertarian principle (if for other reasons), in that their concern is merely or primarily about human liberty; and not necessarily the ethics of animal rights and animal protection; but of course, the response of left-wing libertarians would be a different question with a different spin on ‘liberty’, probably more in line with the liberal. So, whether liberal or libertarian, there would be a consistent principle, albeit a different preference and application of principle, but the reactionary mind of the conservative has no similar consistent principle, other than defense of hierarchy for the sake of their own power and authority; and hence the reason social science research finds that hypocrisy is common among right-wing authoritarians, which research in turn links to social conservatism.
Conservative morality, though ideologically dogmatic, is not fundamentally and primarily about anything specific in a real world sense but whatever can get used as a rhetorical red herring while the actual purpose remains obscured, often hidden in plain sight. It’s not about sexuality, as it’s not about abortion, drugs, etc. And it’s not about the treatment or mistreatment of animals, children, or whatever else. Nor is it about rights and liberty. What it is about is denying the agency of the subordinate class, that is to say to keep the oppressed in their place; a rigidifying and stratifying of the social order by way of shutting down of the public mind and moral imagination, hence fear and anxiety as a potent psychosocial force. Social conservatism is and always has been a central component of authoritarianism, a defining feature in fact; and the viscerality of the body and bodily experience (sex, abortion, menstruation, motherhood, sexually-transmitted diseases, etc) is one of the most powerful tools through which to narratize, a point made by Lewis Hyde about metonymy, but also emphasized in Michel Foucault’s biopolitics. It is upon and through the body, along with physicality in general, that ideological worldviews and identities are interpellated, enacted, and enforced; although it’s through a return to direct sensory experience of embodiment that such an ideological trap can be undone, a reconnecting to what was disconnected.
Look to any authoritarian regime, organization, or group and you will always find an enforced submission to constrained and exclusionary sexual mores, identities, and roles; and punishment of oppression, violence, or banishment to anyone who doesn’t comply to group identity and groupthink (e.g., libertines), anyone who challenges the ideological system (e.g., feminists), anyone who otherwise doesn’t fit in (e.g., transgender), and anyone who is required as scapegoat (e.g., homosexuals); where the perceived consequence of punishment is taken as proving the merit and necessity of the moralistic system. The right-wing social order must be maintained at all costs, simply because social order is valued on its own terms; not justified by how it serves the people, for everyone must justify themselves in serving it because, if failing that, their continued societal membership in good standing might not be justified at all. A totalitarian order is considered a necessity because, in a dualistic worldview, without it nothing stands between civilization and the forces of anarchy, chaos, and destruction. But to the liberal-minded, such authoritarian order itself is the madness. That is the gut-instinct in pushing back so hard against sexualized culture war. Freedom, in all ways, is worth fighting for.
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Trickster Makes the World
by Lewis Hyde
[A]n unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.
Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman). This substituting of one thing for another is called metonymy in rhetoric, one of the many figures of thought, a trope or verbal turn. The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. To begin with, there are always larger stories going on— about women or race or a snake in a garden. The enchantment of those regularly repeated fables, along with the rules of silence at their edges, and the assertion that they are intuitively true— all these things secure the borders of the narrative and make it difficult to see the contingency of its figures of thought. Once the verbal tricks are invisible, the artifice of the social order becomes invisible as well, and begins to seem natural. As menstruation and skin color and the genitals are natural facts, so the social and psychological orders become natural facts.
In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.
If this is how the trap is made, then escaping it must involve reversing at least some of these elements. In what might be called the “heavy-bodied” escape, one senses that there’s something to be changed but ends up trying to change the body itself, mutilating it, or even committing suicide…