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Pride, promiscuity, and preventable illness

When public health collides with identity politics

Participants carry a large rainbow flag down Ocean Drive during a Pride parade in Miami Beach, Fla., on April 10, 2022. Associated Press/Photo by Wilfredo Lee

Pride, promiscuity, and preventable illness

The fact that even such a bastion of contemporary cultural orthodoxy as the New York Times carried an article that highlighted the role of Pride Month in the spread of monkeypox is a fascinating sign of the times. In retrospect, the monkeypox outbreak brought about the collision of two of modern America’s moral absolutes: the unconditioned legitimacy of consensual sexual self-expression, and the imperative of public health. In such a scenario something clearly had to give, and in this case, public health got the boot.

At least in the short term, the general policy among the nation’s public health officials was to avoid making a clear connection between gay promiscuity and a highly elevated risk of catching the disease. But the victory was somewhat Pyrrhic, coming at the cost of the health of the very people this policy was meant to protect. Cultural protection of a politically favored community came at the price of immense suffering for individuals who happened to belong to it.

There are so many predictable aspects to this debacle. There is the obvious subordination of public health to identity politics. This is not the first time this has occurred. Who can forget the fact that churches meeting during Covid were considered highly controversial because of the risk of spreading the disease, while Black Lives Matter protests were seen as legitimate? This exposes the duplicitous rhetorical imperative, “Follow the science.” Following the science is always an empty term because science is descriptive, not prescriptive. It can tell you how to save a life, but it cannot tell you why a life is worth saving.

In short, science is not, in and of itself, a social policy. Social policy surely takes account of science but then must be formulated in terms of other factors, such as risk assessments in the light of a hierarchy of social goods.

Further, we see the lengths to which the modern world will go in its desperate need to keep alive the myth that sexual activity is a cost-free recreation. For many years, society has taught us that, if all participants are in agreement, no particular sexual act or pattern of behavior can be rejected as wrong. Now it seems that this type of political judgment is to be extended beyond morality to matters of health as well.

We see the lengths to which the modern world will go in its desperate need to keep alive the myth that sexual activity is a cost-free recreation.

The net result is unnecessary human suffering. In the case of monkeypox, that suffering has proved at least to be somewhat less than life destroying and to be more of a temporary, if thoroughly nasty, inconvenience and drain upon precious health resources. When it comes to the other health issues that gay sex raises—increased risk of certain cancers, for example—the band plays on, to riff on the title of a book about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

That crisis had a similar dynamic: Those within the gay community who called for practical changes to the promiscuous gay lifestyle as a means of combating the illness were quickly written out of the narrative. Who knows how many lives were lost as a result? But when sexual hedonism can call upon the politics of identity, it proves a powerful combination.

The New York Times indicates that there is some remorse among members of the medical establishment after the fact, but the big question now is: will it be different next time? If a disease were to emerge among a politically favored constituency that posed a much greater danger to the world at large, would our political leaders then have the courage and resolve to act appropriately, announce the right warnings, and close down true “super spreader” events? Or would their fear of those identity revolutionaries to whom they have apparently mortgaged their careers prevent them from doing the right thing?

When they won’t even do the right thing in order to protect the gay community, what chance do the rest of us have?

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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