The joke’s on us.

Christine O’Donnell’s politics are hilarious: she thinks we should go around telling people masturbation is wrong. Thing is, there’s a Supreme Court justice who’s very angry that we can no longer make it illegal.

Christine O’Donnell’s victory in the Delaware primary is indeed great news for the Democrats—and may finally get the media to pay attention to just how out of the mainstream Tea Party candidates really are.  I have to agree with Jonathan’s commenters, though: her saying masturbation is equivalent to adultery is a bizarre view but very different from calling for a government ban.  (Some people say masturbation is equivalent to adultery; some say people should have sex with butterflies.  Neither position, given that it will have zero effect on public policy and is not even a statement about public policy, either picks my pocket or breaks my leg.)

However, there is somebody who is appalled that we can’t ban masturbation: Justice Scalia.  Remember what he said in his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas (towards the end of section I):

State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’ validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision; the Court makes no effort to cabin the scope of its decision to exclude them from its holding. …The impossibility of distinguishing homosexuality from other traditional “morals” offenses is precisely why Bowers rejected the rational-basis challenge.

What a massive disruption of the current social order, therefore, the overruling of Bowers entails.

(bold type added).

This was a completely unforced error.  Justice Thomas, also dissenting, wrote that banning gay sex, while in his view constitutional, was “uncommonly silly” [citing Griswold v. Connecticut], and that “punishing someone for expressing his sexual preference through noncommercial consensual conduct with another adult does not appear to be a worthy way to expend valuable law enforcement resources.”  Scalia could have said that, but he didn’t.  What makes him angry is not that a legislature might be able to jail people for spanking monkeys—but that it might not.

We’ll hear the last of O’Donnell after she gets the votes of everyone in Delaware who’s never masturbated.  Scalia, we’re stuck with.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

5 thoughts on “The joke’s on us.”

  1. Aquinas, who was considerably smarter than Christine O'Donnell, taught that masturbation was worse than adultery. Maimonides thought it equivalent to murder and listed it as grounds for exclusion from the Jewish community.

    So cheer up, folks! If you take the long view, we're making progress.

  2. I can top Aquinas (though maybe not Maimonides): Kant said that masturbation was worse than suicide—after saying that suicide was indeed, as the German term implies, a form of murder. And he also said that we should ignore murder of illegitimate children since they could have no rightful place in society. See here ( I've checked the quotation in the case of masturbation and it's accurate except for some punctuation (in the standard pagination it's at Ak. 6:425).

    But almost all philosophers simply rationalized their archaic prejudices on these matters. (For that matter my favorite, Hume, rationalized a rather casual racism–as did Kant, at greater length.) We're supposed to do better–not by having better philosophers, but by having better prejudices.

  3. Sex with butterflies? Challenge on feasibility. Is this from an unpublished manuscript of Nabokov's?

    But you might be able to have masochistic sex with trained vampire bats. We had a discussion earlier on octopi. Sex with a giant (female) mutant praying mantis would be as they say a unique experience.

  4. Calling on teenagers not to masturbate is subject to a challenge on feasibility too. (Making them feel very guilty about it is another matter: all too feasible, though decreasingly so.) That was my intended point: fantasies about things that won't happen are no injury to me.

    I own no unpublished manuscripts by Nabokov, but a neglected passage in *The Satanic Verses* comes close. As for bats and mutant mantises: the former is probably being practiced at this moment somewhere in West Hollywood. The mutant mantises sound more like Nevada.

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