Liberty Commentary

Sexual Socialism? A Reply to William Saletan

by Michael Kleen

In a bizarre and perhaps misguided effort to score points against the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell,’s William Saletan made a series of embarrassing errors when he accused Mrs. O’Donnell of being a “masturbation socialist” in his recent article titled “Sexual Socialism.” While clearly misunderstanding the term “socialist,” he attempted to point out hypocrisy in O’Donnell’s stance against government control over General Motors while she was also (based on her beliefs as a Catholic) opposed to masturbation.

“The next time you hear O’Donnell decry socialism, remember how little she respects the individual in the most private of matters,” Saletan concluded.

Socialism, however, is an economic theory and has nothing directly to do with personal behavior. Webster’s National Dictionary defines socialism as, “an economic theory or system of the reconstitution of society on the basis of cooperation of labor and community property, under government control.” Likewise, communism is defined as, “the form of social organization in which private property is abolished and goods held in common.” It is not possible to socialize a private activity like masturbation (as long as it is not being performed for monetary gain, of course).

Now, that is not to say that a socialist State could or would not seek to regulate or even criminalize such behavior, but a State with a free market system could likewise do so without contradiction. Even if the reasoning behind the regulation takes the whole of society into consideration, the regulation itself cannot be called “socialist” any more than it could be called “capitalist” or “distributist.” This mistake is the result of believing that “social” (pertaining to men as living in a society; i.e., living in communities) and “socialist” are equivalent.

In his article, William Saletan correctly pointed out that the Catholic position on masturbation stems from a concern for man’s place in society. “Masturbation is wrong [from the Catholic point of view] because you do it alone, outside the ‘moral order’ of social relations in which you’re supposed to perform your proper function,” he explained. “It’s something you do for yourself instead of ‘giving’ yourself to the larger purpose of human procreation.”  He was wrong, however, to equate this moral position with an economic theory. It is not “socialist” to advocate for a particular standard of behavior.

Mr. Saletan then attempted to turn O’Donnell’s own words against her and concluded that the Catholic position on masturbation amounted to making the person into “a cog in the wheel.” Mrs. O’Donnell previously used the phrase “cog in the wheel” to refer to the place of the individual in a socialist economy. Ironically, Mrs. O’Donnell was using the correct definition of socialism when she employed that analogy, while Mr. Saletan was not. Who comes off looking like the fool?

Lastly, Mr. Saletan’s argument falls flat even in its own context. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that socialism did mean public regulation of private behavior. Does Saletan believe that Christine O’Donnell intends to use public means to enforce her belief about masturbation? No—he explicitly states that it would be absurd to think that she could even try to outlaw such activity. In the end, he condemns her only for her “antipathy to non-procreative sexuality,” which hardly makes one a socialist even under the broadest of definitions.

You do not have to agree with Christine O’Donnell to see the contradictory and hopeless amateurism of Mr. Saletan’s argument. Fundamentally, I agree with his assertion that “your wallet doesn’t belong to society. Neither does what’s under it,” but he does not advance a cause for personal liberty with this polemic against Christine O’Donnell. Instead, his article “Sexual Socialism” demonstrates the disaster that can occur when we fail to understand the terms we use.


Michael Kleen is the publisher of Black Oak Presents, a quarterly digital magazine of Middle American art and culture and proprietor of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in American history, and is the author of One Voice, a collection of columns regarding issues in contemporary America.