Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sodom & Gomorrah

One argument I've encountered against San Francisco's (formerly, regrettably) lax restrictions on public nudity, and its (threatened) cultural heritage of sexual liberation is the fear that it may become (or already be) a modern day Sodom or Gomorrah. I shall respond to that argument in this post.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most infamous stories in the Bible, located in the book of Genesis. As the story goes, these cities were so wicked that God felt it necessary to utterly destroy them and all their inhabitants in a rain of fire and brimstone (classic Old Testament stuff, here).

All their inhabitants, I say - save the devout Lot, that is, who nevertheless offered up his own daughters' virginities to satiate the carnal hunger of an angry mob of Sodomites. Curiously, for all their wickedness, the mob didn't take the bait, preferring instead the angels disguised as men that Lot was harboring in his home.

After fleeing the city just moments before its destruction, Lot's wife was transformed into a pillar of salt for having the gall to look back and witness God executing his wrath on the hordes of unrepentant sinners (you know what they say about the cat and its curiosity).

Then, mistaking this act of divine vengeance for another apocalypse on the scale of Noah's Flood (apparently not being aware of God's covenant with Noah - symbolized by the rainbow - never to wipe out humanity on such a scale again), Lot's apparently not-too-bright daughters take it upon themselves to ply their father with wine until he passes out, so that they may "lie with him" in order to pass on his seed.

There's got to be some twisted moral in there about trying to control your daughter's sex life - if you value your daughter's virginity, offer it up for the taking. If she gives it to you, then it was yours all along. Actually, I include this part of the story because it makes for a deliciously perverted tale, and also because it places God's condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah on largely sexual grounds in a critical light.

There is not a lot of description about just what it is that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (and a few other nearby cities) were engaging in to warrant the brunt of God's wrath, but the two clearest interpretations involve inhospitality and homosexuality. As for the latter, we can see why the term "sodomy" has entered the popular lexicon as a euphemism for anal sex, or sometimes other 'perverted' sexual practices.

Obviously, if we interpret the Sodomites as truly wicked beings - ones that would willingly engage in the rape of nonconsenting individuals - then there's not much room for sympathy; this is exactly what people do who hold up Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of sexual perversion turned abhorrent.

But, it could also be interpreted as an example of a civilization engaged in alternative sexual mores, who are wrongfully punished by a judgmental and vindictive higher power. This is my preferred interpretation, loose though it may be, as it most properly parallels the way that religious conservatives disparage the freedom of citizens to engage in sexual practices that they don't personally condone.

This is, in fact, the perfect context within which to throw around the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah - cities which were actively condemned to destruction by God - to illustrate the perceived danger that sexual licentiousness will inevitably lead to not just sinful but criminal and abhorrent practices that must be stopped before it goes too far.

And this is, indeed, the exact context within which the example of Sodom and Gomorrah is raised in comparison to the sexual liberties that are practiced (or were, until just recently) in San Francisco. Acceptance of homosexuality? Naked people gathering in city parks? Street festivals celebrating sexual fetishism?

Surely, to a sexual conservative, this all must sound pretty frightening. Gay men in leather with their genitals exposed whipping each other while jacking off out on the streets!? Heavens! If God won't strike this city down himself, then we must act in accordance with his divine will, as set out by precedent in the Book of Genesis!

But the truth is, these are just people proudly celebrating their sexual identity. They are not raping innocent bystanders, nor are they particularly unwelcome to tourists and strangers. If they were engaging in actual criminal behavior, then neither the city board nor the neighborhoods would tolerate their festivities.

And if they were, that would be a matter for the police, to serve and protect the public in the course of upholding the laws (against ethically-based crimes like rape) that are already on the books. That this community permits public activities that other communities may deem 'morally hazardous' is irrelevant.

Who does it harm to let them celebrate? If you are offended by it, you are welcome to steer clear. If you think it pollutes the purity of the human soul, then that's your belief, and you're entitled to live your own life in accordance with it, but it is not your responsibility (nor your right) to impose those beliefs on the lives of others, like some classical missionary.

After all, doing so would violate the principles upon which a fair and just society is constructed, which is exactly what the concept of a single righteous God attempts to accomplish. Who is to say that your God is superior to any others, when you don't have any proof whatsoever (other than blind, empty faith - which your opponents may also have, by the way)?

The founders of American democracy understood this, as can be interpreted from their inclusion of the principle of free exercise of religion in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," and what is sexual morality if not an establishment of religious beliefs about purity and carnal hunger?

As a free and enlightened society, it may be our duty, by some perspectives, to prevail upon other establishments of civilization that are not so humanistically enlightened as us. But, in the process of doing so, we must be extremely careful not to presuppose the supremacy of our own moral standards over others.

Thus, if there is a situation in which someone is in need of assistance to combat an abuse of power that violates the fundamental rights of the individual, it is a just and honorable act to step in and offer a hand. But this is not the same as forcing heathens to adopt alternative standards of morality against their will.

If, for example, a group of citizens desires to establish a community (within our jurisdiction or without) that is characterized by beliefs and behaviors that some other group deem morally contentious, there is no justice in oppressing that group and denying its freedoms, for the sake of normalizing the standards of the country or the world.

Now if, by chance, some member of that community expresses distress for one reason or another, then it is justified to examine the circumstances and determine whether the group actually is engaged in criminal acts. (Which, incidentally, may well have been the purpose of the investigating angels who were visiting Lot in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Alas, their suspicions were realized.)

But so long as the people involved in any questionable practices are consenting to do so, then we have absolutely no right to intervene. Even if, perhaps, we think they are harming themselves, for ultimately, it is their choice what to do with their minds and bodies, just as it is every individual's choice whether or not to "sin". After all, even by religious arguments, it is not man's duty to pass judgment, but God's.

If we think they are being criminally misinformed ("brainwashed" in cult language), then it is prudent for us to attempt to better educate them. And if they are in danger of severe and irreparable harm, then it is only natural to expect some sort of explanation for why they are doing this. But so long as those activities are conducted only upon those who have given their express consent, then the ultimate choice is theirs.

But San Francisco is no secretive cult, and even the consensual BDSM practices you might witness during the Folsom Street Fair are becoming mainstream, thanks to the recent popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. When people complain about the sexual liberties in San Francisco, it's never about acts that are legitimately crimes - like people being raped, robbed, and attacked.

No, it's always framed in terms of decency and perversion. I think those prudes are terrified - that in any place in this country, perverts might have the courage to take to the streets in broad daylight. Well, if you ask me, I think we're due for another sexual revolution.

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