Sunday, November 27, 2005

Resisting the cultural normalization of sin

You've probably seen the commercials by now. They show some attractive twentysomethings pursuing multiple sports and outdoor hobbies and whatnot, with a voiceover talking about how busy they are living their
lives to the hilt, but then (and we cut to the person cuddling with an equally attractive member of the opposite sex) lament that their lives are so full that they don't have time to take their herpes medication. Basically they're advertising a new medication where people trying to control their outbreaks will only have to take one pill a day, instead of half a dozen or a dozen per day, or something equally strange.

Now, I admit, having to take that many pills that frequently does seem rather strange. Could they not have developed some sort of time-release delivery for this drug before now, like they'd done with so many other drugs already? I'm no pharmacist, so I don't know any of the details, but it would have made me raise one eyebrow in curiosity, if I could move my eyebrows independently.

I also want to emphasize up front that I don't wish herpes, another STD, or any disease on anyone. I will not presume to judge that any person would deserve it more or less than another.

However, I'm a little less sympathetic to people who play with fire and then get burned. I might not be in a position to recognize the degree or lack of justice in the consequences for someone's behavior, but as a rational being I am not entirely unable to recognize that there is an order between cause and effect. It would be dishonest for me or anyone else to deny that for a given behavior, certain outcomes can be expected. There is such a thing a personal responsibility.

So, one of these new herpes medication ads came on the TV the other night, and I started making fun of it, since the irony was palpable. "Like wow! I don't have time to take care of my health! There are too many other things for me to do to take care of my health! Sure, I exercise, but exericse is FUN! Just like all the sex I have! We all know sex isn't bad! We got over those puritanical and meaningless taboos a long time ago! Pills, though? I'm too cool and busy to take three or four pills with every meal! I can't even be bothered with condoms! Why should I have to cramp my own style with all these pills? It's hard enough trying to remember the condom, let alone hiding the lesions! Like, for sure!"

Then, this morning, a person who was there confronted me on my lack of charity. Okay, perhaps my reaction was on the strong side, but at the time I was mainly making light of the irony, and dramatic humor seemed more effective than subtle humor at the time. I admit, it wasn't my kindest hour. Apparently someone close to this person picked up herpes somewhere, probably from his work in the medical field, since there was never any infidelity (at least, not on the part of the agents we know). I thought I had made it clear that I was joking about the people who seemed to feel put out by the fact that they gambled on microbe roulette and lost, and that the people who get infected despite a lack of risky behavior are in the minority. Everyone was certainly laughing at the time. I suppose I could have been kinder, but I'm not ready to give up all humor in the interest of never hurting anyone's feelings (especially in this oversensitive day and age). I also thought the imagery in the commercial was obvious. It wasn't about generously helping unfortunate victims of an unpreventable ailment. It was about enabling people who assign self-entertainment a higher priority than just about anything else to continue cavalierly sidestepping the quality of life (if you'll permit me) issues that, themselves, should be indicative of something amiss.

This conceptual blindness shows up elsewhere too, especially with other pelvic issues. I shall endeavor to belabor them just a little.

My current favorite example is a commercial for a new birth control device. Apparently it's great because it effuses lower levels of hormones than older methods. Nevertheless, side effects include blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes (or something else equally debilitating). Why fewer people aren't saying "Blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes? Hallelujah, I'm finally free of the tyrrany of childbearing!" I can't understand. They're pretty serious side effects to write off as acceptable risks for a medication that basically is supposed to become a way of life, if you ask me. If I had to take a few injections of something that increased my risk of heart attack or stroke in order to cure pancreatic cancer, I'd do it. If I had to take several injections a month for years at a time, with the same risks, just to make my sexual experience appear a little more natural, I'd be looking for other options. After the first time I burned myself with hot water, I learned not to mess with hot water; I didn't write it off as an acceptable risk for just walking into the kitchen. Am I in the minority?

This advocate for the honest herpes victim also chided me for trivializing the the means by which people get infected in the first place. Sure, a number of them get it because they're gambling three or four nights a week, but "more than you probably think get it in a committed relationship from someone they really love."

Indeed? You mean one of those transitory committed relationships that comprise what they're calling "serial monogamy" these days? Oh, wonderful! It's just the same as marriage, which isn't likely to last more than five years beyond the point that a cohabitating couple decides to legally ratify what they've been doing for several months or a few years, anyway, right?

No, it's not.

I'm glad that some people take relationships seriously, that most people do at least some of the time. It's better than sexual predators intoxicating and then raping someone new every Friday and Saturday night. It's still a sin against chastity, though. Morally settling for lots of adultery with fewer people because of a lower turnover rate isn't morally acceptable at all. Sleeping with only one person who isn't your spouse for a couple months at a time is not different in kind from sleeping with only one person who isn't your spouse for a night or an hour.

I'm reminded of a sketch on Saturday Night Live from...the early 1990s, I think it was. Paul Reiser was playing himself on a talk show, and for some reason the host saw fit to ask him how many women he'd slept with. He gave some number that was in the high single digits, the joke being that a real stud of an actor would have slept with ten or twenty times as many women by that time in his career, so Mr. Reiser was getting defensive, since who doesn't want to be thought of as a sexual
Tyrannosaurus? At one point, Chris Farley stood up, claiming to represent a group called Virgins For Virtue, and praised him for having only slept with half a dozen or so women, since in today's Hollywood, it's just about the same as being a real virgin.

Sure, it was funny, but such is the nature of satire: to make us laugh at something that is serious. I'm not sure that they were trying to make a point of showing how silly it is to equate chastity with slow adultery; it was funny enough to see Paul Reiser's studliness challenged by everyone willing to overlook the difference.

Still, I wasn't expecting people like this one, with whom I grew up, went to church with for twenty years, and learned a lot from during my formative years, to fail to make the distinction as surely as someone who actively believed any such distinction was meaningless--I may discuss it more someday. As I wouldn't wish herpes on anyone, I also wouldn't deny any of them humane treatment; caring for the sick is a work of mercy. Overlooking sin, however, is not. Others better than I
have said it more clearly than I. Admonishing sinners (Gently, but unequivocally!) is a work of mercy. Whitewashing their behavior is playing accomplice to the sin and at best is a sign of lack of conviction.

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