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Is Sexual Preference a Human Right?

November 5, 2014

As a Canadian, I would like to take this opportunity to say, I am sorry. Last week one of our own chose to frame the punishment he recieved from his employers for his personal conduct as nothing more than discrimination against those with non-traditional sexual preferences. According this man, his accusers are women with whom he sought consensual, if perhaps unconventional, relationships who later sought punish him with their allegations. In a lengthy online missive, he argued that his particular sexual preferences are a human right, and as such he should be protected from professional discipline based on his sexual behavior.

The man I am speaking of is not Jian Ghomeshi, the Canadian radio celebrity who claimed that he lost his job because his employer found his preference for rough sex “unbecoming of a prominent host on the CBC.” The man I’m speaking of is Robert Hanna, the Canadian-born University of Colorado philosophy professor who was suspended last fall, without pay, after he was accused by two women in his department, one a faculty member and one a graduate student, of sending unwelcome sexually explicit emails.

Just like Ghomeshi, Hanna has chosen not to remain silent in the face of these accusations but, rather, to claim that he is a victim of persecution. In a statement titled Sexual McCarthyism, Polyamory, and the First Amendment, Hanna writes:

What I am wanting to point out, is that in the era of sexual McCarthyism, many intimate, romantic relationships, or wanting to have such relationships, even when they are entirely governed by mutual moral respect and rational consent, are being used as sufficient grounds for disciplining or firing people…

Indeed, and as a consequence, many academic people, usually (but not always) women…sometimes out of sheer malice, “just because they can” – have recently learned that…”sexual harassment” complaints are extremely effective weapons for silencing and terrorizing other academic people, usually (but not always) men, and for taking revenge for past slights, real or imagined.

This is virtually identical to Ghomeshi’s claim in an open Facebook letter that his firing is the result of a “campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization” by a jilted ex-girlfriend who has sought to punish him out of disappointment and jealously.

Hanna takes this argument further, claiming that he has been targeted because some find his “sexual orientation” distasteful:

There is a sexual orientation known as being polyamorous, which means being disposed to falling and being in love with more than one person at once. In practice – that is, the practice of polyamory – this means seeking and having more than one mutually morally respectful marriage-like relationship at a time. So in that sense, it could be called ethical polygamy…

People who have admitted to themselves that they are polyamorous have also rationally chosen this way of life, for better or worse. So in these respects, their sexual orientation is exactly like that of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer people, a.k.a. LGBTQ people. They’re all just who they are: they’re peculiar, just like all people everywhere and every when; but polyamorous people are also sharply different from the serially monogamous, heterosexual norm in contemporary North American society; and therefore they’re subject to various kinds of fear, hatred, prejudice, and taboo.

Likewise, Ghomeshi has made the following statement regarding his preference for rough sex:

I am being fired in my prime from the show I love and built and threw myself into for years because of what I do in my private life.

Let me be the first to say that my tastes in the bedroom may not be palatable to some folks. They may be strange, enticing, weird, normal, or outright offensive to others. We all have our secret life. But that is my private life. That is my personal life. And no one, and certainly no employer, should have dominion over what people do consensually in their private life.

And just like Hanna, Ghomeshi argues, “Sexual preferences are a human right.”

Neither Hanna nor Ghomeshi is getting much support from the groups whose rights they appear to be representing.

The Philosophers’ Ethical Non-Monogamy Alliance, a Facebook group in which academic philosophers come together to explore “political, personal, disciplinary, and theoretical issues surrounding ethical non-monogamy,” has responded to Hanna in a guest post at Feminist Philosophers, saying:

We consider it obvious, but we now clarify explicitly for the avoidance of any possible doubt, that polyamory is in no way equivalent to, or an excuse for, the sexual harassment of students or colleagues. Polyamory is neither constituted by nor an excuse for pursuing multiple relationships – whether “marriage-like” or not – without concern for whether the objects of pursuit are comfortable with being thus pursued.

We find it both conceptually confused and highly offensive to associate polyamory with sexual harassment in the manner exemplified in Hanna’s article.

In an excellently titled blog post, Poor Persecuted Pervert, BDSM advocate and women’s studies Ph.D. student Andrea Zanin makes the following observation about Ghomeshi’s claim:

A danger inherent in this kind of media-message success is that the “don’t hate me for being kinky” defense will be used by people who perpetrate non-consensual violence, and that we, as a community, will stand by uncritically – or worse, cry out in support – as victims of violence are once again silenced. I don’t wish to be complicit in someone’s misappropriation of BDSM terminology and codes as a shield for rape and assault.

I started this post with a sincere Canadian apology. I make this apology not just because both of these men are Canadian, but rather because in many ways the willingness of these men to claim that their rights have been violated is rooted in Canadian culture.

Back in 1967, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau uttered the now famous proclamation, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” While Canadians are divided on many issues, there is almost universal support for Ghomeshi’s claim that “no one, and certainly no employer, should have dominion over what people do consensually in their private life.” In such an environment, it is completely unsurprising that, when faced with complaints of inappropriate sexual behavior, the best possible defense in the court of public opinion is that corporations or governments are interfering in the bedroom.

For many years, I have wondered what might be the limit of our tolerance for sexual freedoms. I have no doubt that that tolerance ends when those sexual freedoms infringe on the dominion, to use Ghomeshi’s word, of one’s own body. Given how difficult it is to determine when that is the case, or is not the case, however, I suspect we will be hearing many more stories of “poor persecuted perverts.”

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