A few years ago, I attended a lecture on disability fetishism. Disability fetishists include people who are sexually attracted to people who are missing digits, joints and limbs. There are websites and chat rooms in which “devotees” exchange pictures, information, and advice. Some are turned on by the idea of cutting off their own limbs and, for example, take pictures of arms or legs tied behind themselves, giving the impression that they too are part of the specially figured community. A few have managed to convince doctors that their particular desire – to have a limb removed – is necessary and healthy. They claim that they feel “incomplete” whole-bodied. One doctor reported the satisfaction he received knowing he had fulfilled the deepest desires of one of his patients, now an amputee-by-choice.

The amputee/devotee community has their stories to tell, their needs they want met, and their pleas and appeals. They are not a large group, certainly below most sexual rights radar screens. But the very presence of their desires raises interesting issues for us liberals: under what conditions can we make judgments about someone’s desire?

The usual response, typical of many Americans, is that if it is between consenting adults and no one is getting hurt, all is permitted. Amputation fetishists hurt no one but themselves, and that they are “hurt” in the process of amputation (or the longing to be amputees) is something with which they would vehemently disagree. Since finding out about their condition, I’ve asked many people what they think. Though repulsed by the idea of someone cutting off their arm, most shrug, and say “to each their own.”

Liberal resistance to making negative claims about desires has an understandable context. In the last fifteen years, we’ve seen a revolution in social acceptance, in the West, of homoerotic desire as something not to be “judged.” Homosexuality has come to be accepted as wired into one’s self as race or gender. We are a better society for embracing sexual difference. Even more revolutionary are the rapidly multiplying forms of gender and sexual identities emerging as candidates for social acceptance. For many gay and lesbian people, accepting transsexuals as a distinct and deserving part of the struggle for rights has not been without dissent. There is the threat that trans issues dilute the basic agenda for normalizing gay and lesbian people. Some raised questions about women becoming men, for example. Isn’t this something like a black person wanting to become white? If gender is a social construction, others have asked, why do we allow trans folks to claim that they are “essentially” a different sex? If we turn one way on this question, we must admit some sort of biological essentialism; if we turn the other way and accept gender constructivism, then desire to become another sex must be deemed capricious. Despite these problems, many are rightfully moved by the sorrowful tales of inner torment that transsexuals undergo and we now see the growing normalization of people who have undergone sex change operations.

Yet is there a limit to liberal tolerance? Though it may be dangerous to deem desire destructive, in some cases, I believe, we must. In fact, we do it all the time. We often deem certain issues of consumption to be wrong: eating meat, driving SUVs, mail-order brides. Of course, we justify our condemnation within the liberal paradigm: meat production is harmful to humans as well as animals, SUVs erode the environment, and mail-order brides are shot through with unhealthy power relationships and subvert feminist goals. But there are desires that we also deem aesthetically or politically wrong that are not so explicitly harmful. We look down on aggressively promiscuous males, pick-up artists, as obnoxious. We deem the choice of ostentatious cars or expensive watches to be wasteful.

Certainly we don’t think that these excesses ought to be legally curtailed, but we judge these desires to be in ill-taste, aesthetically, politically and socially. We find some desires obnoxious, and we are explicit about our repulsion. More doctrinaire leftists like myself may derive our judgments from an overarching idea of what human beings ought to be doing (community organizing, politically engaging, morally concerning). From my perch, expensive watches and expansive estates take away resources better spent on, say, TB medicine in the Third World. Still, a desire for a thousand dollar watch, though socially constructed, may seem every bit as real as the desire to cut off one’s limb. Why condemn one, but reluctantly condone the other?

My suspicion is that we believe that erotic desires go so deep, that we can’t hold people accountable for them in the same way as wanting botox or beer. The latter choices are less intimate to our ideas of self, and thus more controllable, than sexuality. True, amputee fetishists may not choose their fetish, but why should that lead to our approval of it? At some level, we might want to propose that some desires are perverse. This puts us in conservative territory. “Natural law” advocates claim that homoerotic desire goes against the natural order, that humans are created to be heterosexual. But the prevalence of queer people and the vivacity of queer culture should make us reluctant to see the unnaturalness in a subculture so fabulous. Perhaps amputee fetishists are just engaged in a minority alternative lifestyle, less fabulous, that also deserves my tolerance. Last week, during just such a discussion, a famous natural lawyer asked me if we were to approve a consenting couple engaging in S/M. I shrugged my shoulders, seeing nothing wrong with S/M, having heard stories of enough practitioners to “get it,” even if it wasn’t “my thing.” However, he expected me to be queasy about this counterexample. Is my repulsion to amputationists akin to the prudish opinions of the natural lawyer?

Let me propose a tentative progressive theory that begins in a conservative insight. Conservatives rightly observe that trends in culture tend to snowball. Conservatives fear that once we let down the barricades for gay people, others forms of alternative sexual desire will seep in, eroding what they see as society’s fundamental unit, the family. They see abortion and euthanasia as the first move on a slippery slope towards an inhumane society. This is why conservatives fear certain libertine demands, why pot is considered a “gateway” drug. Conservatives are wary about where those cultural gateways are placed, and when and why we open those gates. They worry that open gates (unfettered liberty) will erode the social bonds that constitute social order. I believe there is some truth to this, that humans tend to loosen social norms over time, and that we who are concerned about justice needs to weigh those fears with what social norms are apt to be loosened.

Consider body modifications. First we were wearing earrings, then nose rings, then tattoos on calves, now tats on necks, multiple facial piercing, and so forth. The next trend in body modification will be for horns, reptilian features, even wings. What starts off subversive becomes quickly old hat, leading to more intense forms of practice, which are then normalized, thus raising the bar on what we undergo. Before it was technically possible to, say, turn oneself physically into a lizard through body modification, who desired it? Before it was possible to elongate one’s ears, who wanted to do this? Our desires are determined, in large part by the social-possible. If since mid-century we can now change our sex, it creates the desire for some to do it. Just as capitalism enables desire for meaningless things by the production of meaningless things, so too by our culture creating the possibility of modifying our bodies, some begin to desire those modifications.

Body modification is a suitable segue to the problem of judging fetishes. I would argue that body mods are an excessive extension of the desire to create oneself. It is a form of narcissism, a rejection of social norms in the name of a unified non-conformism (even individualism conforms to recognizable patterns). Desire for that tattoo or piecing is all too real because desire is all too real. It may be the case that our fetishes are extensions of self-indulgence, and if so, why not take a critical stance towards this egoism? If the conservative fear of harmful desires storming the gates of society has some truth, we must guard against replacing social responsibility with the erotic obsessions with the self, reifying what may be pathology.

In other words, liberals are in danger of making a fetish out of our fetishes. We have led ourselves to believe that all consensual sexual desires are natural rather than humanly constructed. If constructed, we can alter and adjust them, even change the material-social conditions that set the stage for their emergence. If constructed, we must insist that our desires are not natural, not inevitable. To relinquish control over our own selves is to abandon the modern project of self-control to the whims and caprices generated by our accidents of birth and biography.

At the end of the day, liberals need to be willing to wag their finger a bit. Short of legal sanction or harassment, we certainly have a right, and even the responsibility, to make judgments on people: morally, politically, socially. In turn, they have the right to tell their stories, defend their desires, explain their situations to the best of their abilities. We who reflect on these matters should be sympathetic, but we cannot grant a blank check to any and all desires. Expensive watches, tacky decorative plates, beer bongs, and elective amputations may all be in the same sketchy subset: the surrender of one’s better self for one’s base desires.