Under what conditions should a person be free to indulge his sexual fetishes in public? This question was brought into stark relief last week at a school in Ontario, where the attire of a male teacher now identifying as a woman raised a new version of the old question “how many grains of sand make a heap?”: How many cup sizes make a pair of prosthetic breasts wildly inappropriate? Like the existence of the heap, at a certain relatively advanced size the inappropriateness seems blindingly obvious — but it’s hard to say exactly at what point this began.
Responding to its critics, Oakville Trafalgar High School has suggested that its teacher’s attire fell under the protected characteristics of gender identity and gender expression enshrined in Canadian law. It’s a similar argument to the one wheeled out a few days earlier to defend another sexual fetish being assimilated into the LGBTQI+ rainbow — this time by the World Professional Association for Trans Health (WPATH) in its new medical guidelines, widely considered as the gold standard in trans healthcare.
There are several striking things about WPATH’s latest edition — not least the absence of stated minimum ages for surgical interventions on dysphoric minors. But for our purposes, I draw your attention to the chapter on eunuchs. Against initial appearances, this isn’t a chapter on how best to look after someone who has suffered an unfortunate loss in the tackle department. No — being a eunuch is now presented as a state of mind, irrespective of physical state. More specifically, it’s an unfairly stigmatised “gender identity” that in certain circumstances may require supervised surgical correction to mould outer flesh to inner fantasy. Just as our buxom Canadian is supposed to be a woman just because she feels like one, according to WPATH, if you lie in bed at night longing for castration, then you are already a eunuch — and a particularly vulnerable and stigmatised member of society because of it.
To establish the extent of the phenomenon, WPATH points us towards The Eunuch Archive, a web forum with more than 130,000, er, members, and many more unregistered guests. What their chapter conspicuously doesn’t say is that longing for castration is at least in many cases a fetish, something that is abundantly clear if you have the stomach to browse the “fiction section” of The Eunuch Archive. For some men with this fetish, the ultimate arousal — quite literally, one assumes — is to go under the knife. (WPATH notes that “many former Eunuch Archive members have achieved their goals and no longer participate”.)
When first popularised in the 18th century by thinkers such as Hegel, the original concept of a fetish referred to an object from a primitive religion, thought to be imbued with supernatural or magical powers. So perhaps it makes sense that, in the quasi-religious world of contemporary LGBT activism — with its incantations, sacred texts, priests, and magic potions — sexual fetishes should eventually find political protection.
Whatever the case, there are many who think this is all the fault of “the libs”. The broad-brush story goes: consider liberalism as a historically embedded, culturally prevalent mood rather than as a carefully worked-out academic theory. Understood this way, liberalism has its own fetishes: “freedom”, “choice” and “consent”. Rather than pronounce on any substantive conception of the good life, it prefers to let individuals find their own versions, and so contains no resources to say what is wrong with people walking about with absurdly large fake body parts or chopping real ones off to get sexual kicks. This view seems encapsulated in the response of soft-porn star Aella to the Ontario incident: “This seems fine to me? It’s the teacher’s body — let them do what they want with it. I kinda feel like you being weirded out is your business.”
But this general complaint about liberalism surely overstates the problem. Most people of even vaguely liberal tendencies would still instinctively endorse some version of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle: roughly, that the actions of a person or group can legitimately be criticised or even restricted where they harm others. This is not particularly technical stuff, nor is it out-of-line with basic social instincts. Who wants to live in a society where the freedom of others is completely unfettered?
Take the commonplace liberal distinction between what happens privately (and so is your own business) and what happens in public (and so is everyone’s business). Many fetishes are by their very nature public — they require an audience, willing or not, to get sexual arousal going. Even those that don’t require this are still all over the internet, discussed by their owners in forums, represented in pornography and erotic fiction, and politically advocated for by advocacy groups like WPATH. Fetishes are everyone’s business these days.
And nor is it difficult to come up with a credible account of the harm involved. Exposing children to visceral emblems of adult sexuality is likely to plunge some of them into strong feelings they are too immature to deal with, as well as potentially adversely disturbing the shape of their own future sexuality. It sends the message that boundaries are not important, and — in the case of the Ontario teacher — is likely to undermine the self-esteem of girls in particular by teaching them that parodic representations of their own bodies are socially acceptable in ordinary life.
Meanwhile, the decision by an authoritative body like WPATH to treat wannabe eunuchs as having unfairly stigmatised sexual identity, just like any other sheltering under the LGBTQI+ rainbow, has a number of undesirable effects. Most obviously, WPATH’s overtly sympathetic presentation of castration will surely increase the likelihood of larger numbers of males eventually self-mutilating. And apart from making a mockery of genuinely threatened sexual identities, the attempted assimilation of fetishism into LGBT rights makes a popular backlash against the whole of lot of us more likely too. In the old days, the activist’s aim was to demonstrate that gay people are not sexual deviants. These days, activists seem to want to suggest that sexual deviants are just like the gays.
When it comes to understanding the harm, then, angels dancing on the heads of tiny pins this ain’t. The more interesting question is why, when it comes to fetishes, people of liberal tendencies seem so reluctant to apply the harm principle. Why is it so difficult to say critical things about fetishes out loud? It’s particularly puzzling when you compare it to hair-trigger uses of the concept of harm in other areas.
For some, I assume it’s just idealistic naivety about the functional and obsessive way that male sexuality frequently can play out. For others who aren’t ignorant of this fact, part of the reticence may be a desire not to look like a censorious prude in public — a desire which apparently still lingers in many perennially adolescent minds to the exclusion of any other sensible thought. If it’s true that most of us are having less sex than we used to, it figures that some might compensate by trying hard to look like open-minded sexual sophisticates outside the bedroom.
But I suspect that, perhaps for women in particular, there may be more to it than this. The old joke says that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged and a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested. Many women have been mugged by men — that is, sexually assaulted — and are likely to be sensitive to the potential predations of the male libido. But equally, many women have been arrested, in the sense of having had their sexual expression policed and controlled. Historical examples abound, as do contemporary ones from countries such as Iran, where last week a 22-year-old woman was murdered by the morality police for not wearing her hijab “correctly”. Perhaps consciousness of the culturally provisional nature of relaxed attitudes towards female sexuality is also part of the background here. Perhaps there is lingering anxiety about where trenchant social critiques of sexual behaviour will end up.
Yet whatever the reason for the reticence, liberals need to gird their loins for the dinner party circuit or the school gate, and start saying in public and with some conviction that certain sexual behaviours are unacceptable. They need to draw principled distinctions between gay men being afraid to come out to their peers, and men with castration complexes being embarrassed to tell their wives; between women wearing short skirts to parties and men wearing giant comedy breasts to work.
For if they can’t resist these slippery slopes, there are plenty of rabble-rousers out there who are only too happy to seize the opportunity to push gay and trans people all the way down them. A backlash is coming — indeed, is arguably already here, with white supremacists threatening Pride marches in the US and an apparent increase in violent attacks on gay men in the UK. As Mill understood well, public disapproval can be used for good or ill. Now is the moment for liberals to get involved and start endorsing sensible sexual boundaries, before others remove them altogether or set us all back hundreds of years.