The last thing the deaths of those Amish girls was about is school security. It was a one-room school! It’s impressive how inventive people can get at avoiding painful questions.

Their killer, Charles Roberts, was a soul in sexual torment. That his life seemed normal means the pressure inside must have been unbearable. Imagine having a clear plan of kidnap, sexual assault and murder, yet no one has a clue. It was about drivenness — he said it had been there since he abused younger relatives when he was 12. They say it never happened; it doesn’t matter. The guilt and self-loathing are the same. He lost a newborn daughter, which he seemed to take as punishment from God for his earlier crime, or perhaps a way to ensure he wouldn’t do it again to his own child.

When he reached the school, things went awry; the sexual part didn’t unfold, but the murders did. Maybe he thought it was “the best” he could do, morally, in his wretched state. I don’t get the sense of a monster, rather of something understandable and human, which might have been fixable had there been people sensitive and competent to talk to about it.

Now add religion of the primitivist sort that is extremely common in the U.S., either fundamentalist or evangelical. It frowns on sex except in marriage, in which case there is an ocean of loathsome practices that will need to be suppressed until they explode at home, in the community or do severe internal damage.

People used to claim that Catholicism offered an outlet for these torments in the confessional, but that hardly stands up now: Imagine confessing a desire for sex with kids to a priest who may be plagued by similar thoughts, or even has a track record. Sexual distress and religion have a long intimate history. I used to know a number of priests who left their calling. It was always the same reason: not loss of faith but fear that they might never know what it was like to kiss a woman.

Now add politics. We live in a time in which opportunistic politicians prey on these conflicts about sex among religious people, to generate voter support, often for right-wing economic agendas. I consider that a non-controversial statement of fact. Thomas Frank and others have shown it in the United States.

For a Canadian version, see Marci McDonald’s exhaustive article in the current Walrus magazine. It is in the interest of these vultures to ramp up anxiety over sex, not allay it. So Prime Minister Stephen Harper will re-raise the issue of same-sex marriage in Parliament and, when that fails, perhaps bring in a Defence of Religions Act, encouraging churchgoers to feel like a menaced sect whom he alone can protect.

You can see why there’s such panic on the right in the U.S. over the congressional pages scandal: The men pledging to save the nation from sexual blight turn out to be the perps.

This brew of sex, religion, politics — a genuine case of the personal being the political — is not new. It was discussed in Europe between the world wars. It was common then to say that masses of people were dislocated and disoriented in almost every way: by war, depression, mass migration. They responded with yearning for strong authoritarian leadership. That gave rise to fascist movements, which weren’t necessarily racist. God, of course, would be the strongest leader.

There was debate about the role of sexual repression and ignorance in an era both repressed and sexually rebellious. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich argued that repression led to fascism, and — I know it sounds quaint — that satisfying orgasms would overcome the need for dictatorial father figures. His “sex-pol” movement had 40,000 members in Germany. It didn’t work, but at least he and others faced the challenges.

This mire, which involves sex at its centre however you define it, remains unresolved. It has gone through many phases. Repression hasn’t worked. Neither has expression (or “liberation”) as advocated by Wilhelm Reich and Hugh Hefner, among others. Guilt and malfunction seem to emerge in every context. People don’t see disaster coming. Or they see it but don’t act. Then they send in the professionals and grief counsellors.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.