Sunday, May 14, 2006

Disgust [II, 20]

Disgust is an emotional response associated with things that are unclean or inedible. The response ranks as one of the basic components of the theory of emotion advanced by Robert Plutchik. In this view there are two categories of disgust: physical disgust, linked with physical or metaphorical uncleanness, and moral disgust, a more sublimated form. A sense of fastidiousness represents perhaps the most diluted form of disgust. Disgust is the opposite of sympathy, affinity, and liking.

Evolutionary psychologists hold that disgust stems from instinctive reactions that evolved as part of natural selection for behavior which tended to prevent food poisoning and infection. In this sense the response is “hardwired.”

Martha Nussbaum has published a thoughtful monograph entitled Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law/ She acknowledges that no strictly intellectual approach to law will ever illuminate the true reasons human beings join in self-governing unions. Because they reflect our vulnerability, the emotions of fear, compassion, and indignation provide guides to sound legal philosophy, but disgust, Nussbaum argues, should never form an emotional basis for law because it springs from fantasies of superhuman purity and omnipotence.

While they may be intellectuallly persuasive, the views of philosophers like Nussbaum are more reflective of an ideal than a social reality. A recent study found that women and children were more sensitive to disgust than men. Researchers have sought to explain this finding in evolutionary terms. However that may be, it seems that the socialization of “real men” involves a desensitizing process which makes them less susceptible to the emotion. As will be seen below, negative reactions to homosexuality among men are an exception to this tendency.

There are those who find even the thought of homosexuality repellent. This response is in part a reflection of individual temperament and experience, backed up, as so often noted in these pages, by centuries of disparagement. The notion that homosexuality is distasteful is a mild expression of this dislike.

Some straight men report that even seeing the penis of another man is displeasing. The thought of two persons with penises interacting sexually is even more so. It is odd that one should have this response to an organ that is, after all part of one’s own body, but it sometimes happens. As a rule these phallophobic men do not exhibit the same response to lesbian behavior. Up to point they may find it titillating. It is for this reason that short lesbian scenes sometimes appear in straight porno films. Gay-male scenes never do.

Apart from sex and the contemplation of it, some dislike what they regard as the “antics” of gay people, their flamboyance and assertiveness. These individuals find that the discussion of homosexuality—even in the harmless way of mentioning one’s significant other—to reflect a supposed homosexual obsession with sex, which they find distasteful. Needless to say, they are bewildered when gay people say that they are not interested in the details of the opposite-sex life of those they encounter. For some straight studs boasting of their sexual conquests is their privilege. But such rights are withheld from “loathsome, promiscuous” gays, who “insist on rubbing the sordid details of their sex life in our faces.” The oddity of this comment is shown by the fact that such offendees object to gay people’s showing signs of affection, such as hugging and holding hands, conduct they find readily acceptable with opposite sex couples.

Sadly, objection to the more ordinary expressions of gayness, including dating and affection, is a reality. It does not have any excuse. It is different when we enter the realm of the paraphilias. While S/M does exist among straights, it seems to be more common with gays. Urolagnia, sexual interest in urine, may have a prima facie disgusting quality, in keeping with the survival instincts noted at the outset of this section. Involvement with scat, involvement with faeces, is even susceptible to this explantion. In Europe a recent fashion has appeared among small groups for poopie parties. Most find it hard to remain objective about such matters. Still, such forms of gratification are probably an acquired taste, not unlike cherishing snakes as pets. That is to say, the aversion can be overcome, but if it has not been, an adverse reaction will ensue.

Disgust with gayness and its attributes is an aspect of homophobia in the strict sense. In everyday parlance the word homophobia is used to cover all sorts of opposition to homosexuality. To the extent that it involves an emotional, possibly irrational aversion, that is a phobia, it may be properly regarded as the umbrella category to which disgust at homosexuality belongs.

In Leviticus 18 and 20 the Hebrew Bible characterized male same-sex love as to’ebah, which the King James version renders as abomination. Other terms represent later strata of disapproval, including such common expressions as bugger and faggot. Learned discourse speaks of reprobates and degenerates.

Some slang terms, including cocksucker and turd burglar (UK), emphasize the more graphic aspects of gay sex. Some, it is said, have a predilection for smegma or cock-cheese. Poor personal hygiene is stressed in the characterization dickbreath.

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