Defining Sexual Deviancy or the Problem of Objectivity or Why Sam Harris was Unable to Defend His Contentions


I recently began reading Philip Jenkins’ book, Moral Panic, which traces the fluctuating views of sexual deviancy among Americans in the twentieth-century.  In the book, Jenkins argues that our conception of sexual deviancy is completely subject to the whims of social and environmental influences.  As he explains:

“In this book I contend that all concepts of sex offenders and sex offenses are socially constructed realities: all are equally subject to social, political, and ideological influences, and no particular framing of offenders represents a pristine objective reality. Each in its way is instructive for the light it casts on the concerns, prejudices, and fears of the society that thus defines its deviants and outsiders. The changing frames of the sex offender provide an index of shifting social attitudes to matters as diverse as the status of children, the structure of the family, the range of acceptable sexual behaviors, and tolerance of alternative sexual orientations. By definition, deviance supposes a norm: we can speak of what is odd or different only when we agree on what is normal. In order to understand changing notions of sexual deviancy, then, we must first understand fluctuating concepts of sexual normality.  Abuse is meaningless without a standard of proper use.”

What is interesting about Jenkins’ approach is that he is not rejecting the idea that sexual deviancy is objectively real (as he goes on to say a few paragraphs later) but merely asserting that our concepts of sexual deviancy are completely subjective—that they are the byproduct of, “social, political, and ideological influences.”  If Jenkins is correct, however, and it is impossible for us to conceptualize the true nature of sexual deviancy, then it is, likewise, impossible for us to know what sexual deviancy truly is.  All we could ever know, according to this view, is what our society currently believes sexual deviancy to be; but not what it truly is.

Jenkins asserts that, “by definition, deviance supposes a norm: we can speak of what is odd or different only when we agree on what is normal.”  The problem is, according to Jenkins, we can’t objectively know what ‘normal’ is; only what society says is normal.  This is why his book focuses its attention on the, “fluctuating concepts of sexual normality,” throughout the twentieth-century; rather than on the objective reality of sexual normality.  He doesn’t set out to discover what sexual normality is; rather, he sets out to discover what society, over time, has said sexual normality is.

Clearly, there is tension between Jenkins’ metaphysical realism and his epistemological skepticism.  The question is what is creating this tension?  The answer is obviously his methodological naturalism which stems from his secular humanistic proclivities.

At the end of the day, Jenkins’ book highlights the fundamental problem facing secular humanistic ethics—the problem of objectivity.  The majority of people, like Jenkins, who embrace secular humanism are uncomfortable admitting that moral values are totally subjective; this is because most of them recognize that, say, the brutal rape and murder of a six year old girl is horrendously evil.  Hence, they desire to hold onto the idea that there is an objective morality.  Nevertheless, secular humanists find it impossible to ground or justify such beliefs within the framework of their own worldview.

Some, like Sam Harris, have tried but to no avail.  In a recent debate with William Lane Craig at Notre Dame, Dr. Harris (an ardent atheist) asserted that moral values and duties were, in fact, objectively real.  However, when pressed by Dr. Craig to provide justification, on atheism, for this belief, Dr. Harris was unable to provide any grounds for this belief (in point of fact, Dr. Harris seemed quite unable, or unwilling, to engage with any of Dr. Craig’s arguments).

The naturalistic view of reality that intellectuals like Sam Harris ardently advocate and researchers like Philip Jenkins employ methodologically will never explain what a sexual deviant is or why sexual deviancy is wrong.  Naturalism says that there is no design or purpose in nature and that the universe is merely a closed system of material/physical causes and effects.  Under this scheme, human beings are simply an accidental byproduct of the mindless forces of nature; therefore, human beings do not have a nature, as such, nor do they have an objective purpose.  Accordingly, it is wrong, on naturalism, to suggest that there is such a thing as ‘normal’—in which case it will always be impossible to objectively define what a sex offender or a sex offense is.

Happily, the problem of objectivity is no problem for the theist—especially for the orthodox Christian.  Christians understand what ‘normal’ is through God’s Word—through both the Word (Jesus) who became flesh and the living word of God (the Holy Scriptures).  For the Christian, concepts like sexual deviancy are not up for reinterpretation with each successive generation; rather, they are grounded in an objective reality that we all can know (regardless of our social and cultural background).  After all, as Jenkins states, “abuse is meaningless without a standard of proper use,” and that standard is only found in Christ.

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