Sex Acts/Identities And The Adjacency Effect

Why does it matter to you if someone gets an abortion? If someone has non-heterosexual sex? If someone is transgendered or transsexual? If gay marriage is legal? If polygamy is legal? Why do people get so riled up about this stuff?

There are, of course, arguments to be made about harm in some of these cases: abortion kills fetuses, or babies, or mini-people, depending on your beliefs about when life starts. Polygamy can allow men to dominate over women, taking advantage of the fact that women are economically disadvantaged in many societies, and may thus be compelled (economically or socially) to enter into marriages that are damaging to them.

But as a scholar of culture, I think there’s something else going on. I’m going to call it the “adjacency effect” although this same phenomenon has been discussed by many other (more renowned than me) scholars by many other names : stigma, pollution, sympathetic magic.

Did I just write “magic”? Yes, I did. Bear with me.

The basic principle I want to illuminate here is how the gender, sex, and sexuality of some people is perceived to be damaging, polluting, and harmful by and to other people, even when there is no empirical way to demonstrate that the claiming-harm group has been harmed. The only empirically demonstrable thing is that the two groups share social space; that is, they exist adjacently to one another (one reason for naming this phenomenon such).

In my post on holiday giving and the Salvation Army’s nasty homophobic agenda, I wrote:

All this makes me wonder, again, what exactly gets these homophobes so riled up. Like, every time a gay couple has sex, does it send invisible waves that disrupt the pacemakers of homophobes? What actual effect does non-heterosexual sex have on their physical persons? How do they even know when people are having non-heterosexual sex – or, for that matter, kinky sex or non-monogamous sex or anal sex or other kinds of sex that are doubtlessly just as abhorrent to them?

I was mostly joking about the invisible waves thing, but I return to that concept because it’s a usefully concrete metaphor for what I think is going on here. The fact is that some groups feel threatened by the mere existence of other groups, despite the fact that no bodily harm occurs or is even threatened.

What makes these people (homophobes among others) think that harm is coming to them? Their beliefs. Plain and simple. They’ve been inculcated into a worldview wherein the mere existence of people unlike them does ontological violence to them. To translate that out of scholar-speak, they’ve been brought up and lived within a paradigm that teaches them that people who don’t live like them are threatening their chances of getting into Heaven, their relationship with God, their relationship with their country, their own sexual identity, and stuff like that.

To a secular, non-homophobic person like me, putting it in plain language makes it sound a little extreme and unrealistic. But the adherents of Christian Dominionism (admittedly a somewhat loose movement) spell it right out: “Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ-to have dominion in the civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion that we are after. Not just a voice.”

These are the people who say “My right to be offended [by reminders of gay people in public life] trumps your right to exist.” Who believe that gay activism will lead to the perversion of children and the paganization of society. Who call feminists “selfish, narcissistic, family-destroying whores.” Who teach their children “Defiance of gender roles was just one of the most obvious signs of demonic control.” Who raise their children to fear “the World, the Flesh, and the Devil – all of which, [one blogger] believed, were aligned against God and doggedly determined to steal, kill, and destroy my eternal soul, and my precious children’s souls too!”

Against all logic, these people see themselves as the victims of fellow humans: “Homosexuals, they claim, are a threat to Marriage (as an institution in the abstract), a threat to The Family (as an institution in the abstract) and a threat to the Word of God (ditto). Reality doesn’t support such claims, so they embellish reality. They claim that same-sex marriage would destroy the institution of marriage because, um, mumblemumblemumble pound pulpit, it just would! Same-sex marriage, they claim, would mean your church would be forced to perform gay weddings.”

While patriarchal Christians are some of the more outspoken denouncers of gay rights and women’s rights, let’s not forget that people who don’t identify with conservative Christianity can also be hateful and prejudiced. You don’t need to be Christian to claim the “trans-panic” defense in court for killing someone who is transgendered. Hate crime laws have sadly failed to protect transgendered people from violence. And if there’s a stronger way of saying “you do not belong in this world and your existence threatens me” than murdering someone, I can’t think of it.

Anyone, religious or not, can suffer from ontological shock: the state of being forced to question one’s worldview. This can have positive results; as one aforementioned blogger writes, empathy is the main reason some fundamentalists rethink their condemnation of gay people: “Most straight people who come out of fundamentalist religion and become supporters of LGBTQ rights, at least according to the stories I’ve read, began to rethink their homophobic training by getting to know a gay or lesbian person, often accidentally.”

But ontological shock – a shock that shakes you down to the core of your very beliefs – can also have negative consequences. Violent ones. Things that challenge your fundamental view of the world can come across as threatening to your very being. 20% of 2011′s hate crimes were motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation (FBI stats here). This is an increase from the previous year’s rates, and it’s worth noticing that hate crimes are notoriously underreported, with the Justice Department asking victims anonymously receiving far higher reports of incidents (200,000 as opposed to 6,000 actually reported). It’s not as though the only deleterious effects are criminal and tangible, either; suicide among LGBT youth is comparatively higher than other teens especially due to bullying. The transgender health stats reflect experiences of prejudice and a need for unbiased health care. Nearly 1 in 5 women in the US have been raped during their lives, while that number rises among ethnic populations, such as over 1 in 4 Native American women (CDC stats here), with drastic health consequences.

These acts of violence – bullying, rape, denial of medical care, murder, intimate partner stalking – according to gender or sexual status exist on a continuum. These populations, different though they are, are targeted repeatedly because of the way they fit into the worldviews of those with slightly more power than them: they are not only seen as vulnerable, but also polluted.

There’s another, more subtle, thing happening here too. It is the process by which stigma, pollution, and taint are assumed to insidiously creep from one part of a person’s identity to another, making the whole person immoral and not someone you want teaching your children, running your government, existing in the same community as you.

Folklorists and anthropologists call this process of things-affecting-nearby-things sympathetic magic, based on the scholarship of Sir James Frazer (a brief abstract of his major work on sympathetic magic, The Golden Bough, is available here). “Sympathetic magic” is just the scholarly term for the belief mechanism; it doesn’t mean you literally believe in magic (although, given that some churches teach that demonic possession is a thing, I don’t see how magic could be that far off).

There are two main parts to sympathetic magic – similarity and contagion – but here I’d like to focus on contagion. Contagion means that two things that have been in contact continue to exert an influence over each other. So a folklorist might study a charm that requires a piece of a person’s hair in order to work magic on them. Anthropologist Mary Douglas discusses ritual pollution and taboos that are looked down upon because of association (contagion), such as disgusting foods and bodily emissions, in her book Purity and Danger (summary here).

These are physical examples of contagion, but there are conceptual examples too, such as social stigma, which Erving Goffman has famously explored in the field of sociology. Basically, stigmatized people are judged for not adhering to social norms, and they must try to manage the label of deviance in whatever way possible. This happens to sex workers, drug users, and others who step outside the bounds of normalcy (by choice or not).

With these instances of conceptual contagion, what is happening is that people – who are composed of many parts, beliefs, and actions – are reduced to just one of those parts in the eyes of others. This is where contagion comes in: the unacceptable or taboo part “contaminates” all of the other parts of that person, until an onlooker sees only the “bad” part of the person, not the other parts.

This happens with sex workers who are also teachers, when teachers write erotica, when a transgendered professor is denied tenure. How do the gender and sexual identities of these people have any bearing on what or how they’re able to teach? I can understand the arguments for keeping people who have done real harm to others (such as murderers and sex offenders) out of the classroom… but in these cases, I feel like most of the parents who objected to the teachers’ gender/sexual non-normative parts of their identities were falling victim to sympathetic magic without even realizing it.

This sort of thinking is evident in much of the all-or-nothing attitude toward faith and belief found in many fundamentalist Christian paradigms. As outlined on Slacktivist, “Fundamentalist Christianity is a package deal — an inseparable, all-or-nothing bundle of teachings and ideology that says every piece depends on every other piece. If any one piece of it isn’t true, fundamentalism insists, then it all falls apart and none of it is true. That’s a cruel construct that sets you up for a miserable future. It guarantees an eventual crisis of faith that can lead either to a lifetime of white-knuckled denial and desperate pretense or to the abandonment of the whole enchilada.”

In other words, there is a ton of cognitive dissonance that accompanies a belief system that relies on rigid boundaries to keep it working. I’d say the same is true of contemporary masculinity, which is similarly rigid and demanding of its adherents. Some would even connect the psychology of mainstream masculinity to gang rape. The connection, in my mind, is that there are some behaviors – rape, homophobia, and so on – that dehumanize the victim. These behaviors come from beliefs, and these beliefs do not arise in a vacuum: they are part of a belief system that, I am arguing, relies on stigma and association to dehumanize certain people.

In one blogger’s summary of Christian fundamentalist homophobia, she writes: “Homosexuality, promiscuity, pedophilia, drug addiction, alcoholism, cheating, self-harm, unwed pregnancy and abortion were not treated as separate issues. I was afraid of gay people because I was taught that it was impossible to be gay or lesbian without partaking in all of the above.”

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. These “bad” stigmatized activities are discussed as though they are 100% intertwined. There is nothing to inherently connect all of these activities…except for the links that people create and then spread through teaching and belief.

If you’ve stuck with me through this post, you’ll have noticed there are two reasons for the label “the adjacency effect”: first, social group A exists adjacently to social group B, and their very proximity is viewed as threatening; and second, any “negative” trait that a person or group has is perceived to spread and pollute that entire person, meaning that your personhood or human worth is threatened by any adjacent aspect of your identity.

We need to be talking about this. We need to be fighting it. I recognize that it’s always difficult to take something you’re not fully conscious of and bring it into the light and examine it. But these ideas are harmful, far more harmful than the supposed “danger” that gay people or transpeople or sex workers or feminists pose.

And I really don’t mean to sound like there’s some veiled conspiracy of bigots attempting to control us with IDEAS!!! *spooky music* Obviously that’s ludicrous. But as a scholar of culture, I can tell you that many of the fundamental assumptions in our culture, by which we navigate our daily lives, are invisible to us until we make an effort to investigate them. As anthropologist Ruth Benedict said: “We do not see the lens through which we look.” This is my attempt to reveal a bit of the lens that contributes to hate and intolerance, so that we can work on adjusting our view.

As one of my friends said when I told her about this blog post idea: “If we can see it, it’s harder to control us with it.” That’s exactly what I’m going for. I’ll explore what we can do about this in a follow-up post.

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.