Senator Rick Santorum is a disgusting man. His statements on same-sex relationships and abortion are morally repugnant, but that’s not the entirety of his revoltingness. Santorum’s rhetoric is designed to disgust. When he compares gay sex to incest and bestiality, he’s tugging at your sense of taboo so he can elicit the same revulsion that he obviously feels. There’s no ethical association between gay sex and the rape of children or animals – the only common feature is that they fall into the group called “things that make Rick Santorum go ewwwww”.
But “ewwwww” is a politically powerful sentiment. This post from Mind Hacks (quoting from the Boston Globe) explains how a sensitivity to physical uncleanliness tends to be partnered with a consciousness of moral uncleanliness:
“Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.”
Santorum’s comments present homosexuality as disgusting by association; fair play then for Dan Savage to turn that around and reinvent the senator’s surname as a noun meaning “the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex“. Ewwwww! It’s a similar situation with Santorum’s opposition to contraception and abortion. Aside from the right-to-life issues (I’ve detailed my opposition to those in this post), Santorum worries that the ability to control fertility makes people do gross stuff: “[Contraception is] not OK. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” (Santorum sounds like a man who gargles with bleach after a dry kiss. He probably keeps borax in his bedside cabinet instead of lube.)
And, again, opponents turn the force of unpleasantness against him, as in this post by Medhi Hasan for the New Statesman:
“When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, Santorum and his wife spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home where, joined by their other children, they prayed over it, cuddled with it and welcomed the baby into the family.”
Hasan isn’t explicitly judgemental here, but his inclusion of it in a list of curious facts about Santorum makes it clear that this is meant to be another “ewwwww!” moment. There are powerful feelings of disgust around the handling of dead bodies, and an unsympathetic presentation of a family’s mourning for a stillborn child can conjure up a slightly nauseous reaction. Wonkette went for a clearer – and crueller – version of the same gross-out slur back in April. But the story is politically empty. It doesn’t articulate any pro-choice argument. It’s just your basic ewwwww.
The acquittal today of Michael Peacock on obscenity charges for the distribution of videos featuring anal fisting and watersports is one example of the ewwwww not being all-powerful. I seriously doubt that everyone on that jury felt entirely comfortable with the acts depicted. Some probably considered the material revolting. But all the same, they unanimously accepted that acts between consenting adults do not merit legal censure. What a victory it would be if we could get the ewwwww out of politics altogether.