The alienating epistemic closure of sexual conservatives

On my couch, he asked if he could try something. “Let’s look at each other and think about what we want from this relationship.” Sex hung there, the horny elephant in the room. Despite sharing intimate stories and secrets, we’d barely touched. The thought that came to my head was that I wanted to masturbate thinking about him later. And then immediately I wanted that out of my head. 

I tried the exercise. I’m nothing if not game. And part of the reason I was interested in hanging out with him was to work on my avoidance. Recently I’ve been looking at how to identify and respond to barriers to intimacy and connection in my own life. 

But the elephant was persistent. The harder I tried to think about something else, anything else, the louder the thought yelled. I was uncomfortable. He was looking at me with a placid expression. It made me slightly angry with jealousy. 

Julian Sanchez recently tweeted about “epistemic closure.” By this he means when someone has an ideology and media ecosystem that encourages them to reject new contrary information. And damn if that’s not what I hated about Evangelical Christianity. It rejects any framework for evaluating evidence that might conflict with “God said so,” “It’s yucky,” or “We’ve always done it this way.”

In the shower I was thinking about how the research literature on happiness, as one does. What does science say people can do that will make the biggest impact on how happy most folks are on average? It seems that developing and maintaining close connection and community is the key, not just to happiness but to health and longevity too. Turns out loneliness is literally as deadly as smoking. 

Epistemic closure insulates sexual conservatives from new information that might contradict their existing beliefs on sexuality. 

For example, the 2016 GOP resolution dubbed porn a “public health crisis.” More recently, 

four U.S. Representatives asked Attorney General William Barr to use existing anti-obscenity laws to harm the porn industry. Very recently Bedivere Bedrydant published Libertarians Are Coming for Your Sexual Dignity in the American Mind, a publication of the Claremont Institute. 

Reasonable people can disagree about “God said so,” “It’s yucky,” or “We’ve always done it this way.” But when sexual conservatives make demonstrably false claims to justify their behavior or policy ideas, I feel something approaching blinding rage.

For example, the four Reps claimed, without evidence, that access to pornography has exploded (true) and “coincides with an increase in violence towards women.” First, overall violent crime in America is declining and has been for decades. For women specifically, all available evidence indicates crime against women is declining worldwide. 

So in fact, exploding access to pornography has coincided with a decrease in violence towards women. 

Listen, it would be one thing if we didn’t have enough information to determine what kind of relationship porn availability has with rates of violence towards women. But we actually do. We actually know that having easier access to more porn demonstrably does not increase rates of violence against women. We can’t say it decreases it. We can’t establish a causal relationship in any direction. But anyone who looks at the available evidence can only conclude that there is absolutely no reason to believe that the causal relationship the four reps are claiming exists does, in fact, exist. It boggles the mind that four sitting US Representatives feel perfectly comfortable making demonstrably false claims to a sitting US Attorney General for the purpose of attempting to curtail liberties protected under the First Amendment.

Similarly, Bedivere Bedrydant claims, “People know their porn habit isn’t just bad for them—it’s wrong. There is nothing good about it.” Again, the literature showing porn use is bad for people is scant. Recent studies have shown, for instance, that porn use doesn’t harm relationships. And as for the claim that there’s nothing good about porn, how about the fact that porn use is associated with more egalitarian views on gender roles? Or how about porn’s embrace of body positivity and sexual empowerment for mature women?

Bedrydant actually demonstrates their own epistemic closure with a throwaway line. “Imagine for me that sexologists (is that a real thing? sounds perverted) could prove that watching porn for 15 minutes a day lowered your blood pressure, prevented heart disease, and diminished your chance of stroke.” There are, in fact, researchers studying sex. It really should surprise no one that scientists would study a nearly universal human behavior that is so far still mostly required for the continuation of the species. Certainly no one who is writing on the topic should be so unfamiliar with the research around it that they assume it’s not happening. There is, in fact, at least one academic journal on porn specifically. Porn research is absolutely fascinating. I can think of no better example of epistemic closure than to write an entire article about a topic you know so little about as to be proudly ignorant of the existence of research related to that topic. 

Porn is just one sliver of the universe of sex-related topics on which sexual conservatives make demonstrably false claims to justify their behavior or policy ideas. I would have to write a book to merely scratched the surface of easily demonstrable unequivocal falsehoods sexual conservatives routinely make about queer sex, sex work, premarital sex, kinky sex, etc. 

I realized that perhaps the deepest, realest reason I hate sexual conservatives’ lies around all things sex is that it has been and continues to be deeply alienating for me and people like me.

It manifests in many ways, big and small. In my workplace’s Slack there’s a “fun photos” channel where you’re supposed to post fun photos of your weekend. I spent a good portion of last weekend with quarantine bae inside me. It was incredible. We were playing around with fucking each other slowly, and I remember one time in particular I was riding him and trying to go slow. But then it started to feel too good. And I started to speed up. I wasn’t letting him thrust, or even move. And I saw him just taking in the pleasure of me on his cock. I fucked him until I came and he came inside me at the same time. 

I would love to have recorded that and shared it with my coworkers! I’m sure some of them would be no more interested in seeing it than I am in seeing their sports balling. But for those who would enjoy it, why not share my joy? It feels totally unnecessarily alienating to not be allowed to share my weekend highlights because they’re “not safe for work.” What does that even mean? Why are people allowed to talk about voting for Trump or attending a homophobic church at work, but I can’t talk about getting railed? 

It manifests in parents getting their kids taken away from them because they participate in BDSM. In cops raping sex workers, jailing them, and causing them to lose custody of their kids. 

It manifests in the fact that I spent a lot of my early life convinced I was hideous because I never got to see normal naked bodies. It manifests in girls spending hours worried about their labia and boys spending years worried about their dicks because sexual conservatives claim that if kids run across visuals of the labia and dicks of normal people then… what, exactly? All this worry is alienating, keeping us from sharing what we look like. Keeping us from talking about our fears. Keeping us apart.

It manifests in the fact that I told my sister I’d pray that she wasn’t gay when she confided in me that she was attracted to women. 

It manifests in me having married someone I should have just lived with and then moved on from because it would have embarrassed my family for us to live in sin. 

For most of us, who aren’t in BDSM, who aren’t sex workers, who aren’t nervous about our bodies, who aren’t extremely horny and obsessed with sex, the status quo is mostly okay. We would rather not see our coworkers banging in the “fun photos” Slack channel, but thank you for the offer. Those of us who didn’t start fooling around in college and then involuntarily flash back to hot scenes during French class and worry that everyone could see it on their face are fairly well-served by the default. 

But the rest of us, in the very best case, are embarrassed and afraid to say, “I want to masturbate thinking about you later.” 

And for what? Claim after claim after claim after claim sexual conservatives make to justify compelling us through shame, stigma, or violence to hew to their narrow sexual rules turns out to be demonstrably, unequivocally false. We are suffering, alone, afraid, and ashamed for absolutely no demonstrable benefit to anyone. 

Maybe it turns out porn use is bad for us. Maybe not. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that everyone who weighs in on the topic be interested in knowing and telling the truth about it.