The Spectacle Blog

Martha Nussbaum’s Selective Outrage for Huckabee

By on 6.25.10 | 1:30PM

University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum has a big problem with Mike Huckabee: he referenced an interview she gave with a gay publication. 

According to Politico, on Tuesday Huckabee got in trouble with gay groups (which ones are not specified) for using the phrase "ick factor" to describe aversion to homosexual acts. He later put out a statement claiming that he was not using the phrase to demean homosexuals, but rather as "a reference to an established phrase used mostly from same-sex marriage advocates and militants - not one I created." He also attributed the phrase to Nussbaum, a prominent same-sex marriage advocate: "Former colleague of then Professor Obama from the University of Chicago's Law School, Dr. Martha Nussbaum, has often made reference to the ‘ick factor' in her professional writings and is credited with applying the phrase to the GLBT community...."

Nussbaum then lashed out at Huckabee in an email to Politico

...I have never used the phrase "ick factor" in any of my three  books dealing with the emotion of disgust, or in any articles. I use  the term "projective disgust" to characterize the disgust that many  people feel when they imagine gay sex acts....

Thus the people to whom the term "projective disgust" applies are the insecure and emotionally stunted people who campaign against equal rights for gays and lesbians, not gays and lesbians themselves.

Mr. Huckabee has gotten bad information about my work and has completely turned its meaning upside down, imputing to me a position (that gays and lesbians are disgusting) that I criticize as childish and morally deficient.

He owes me a public apology.

Perhaps Nussbaum technically has never used that specific phrase in any of her "professional writings." But she had no problem with Joseph Erbentraut, a writer for the gay news site Edge, crediting her with ownership of the phrase  in the interview that Huckabee referenced in his statement. The highlights below are mine: 

Dr. Martha Nussbaum...has termed Elliott's aversion to man-on-man anal sex "the Ick Factor."

According to Nussbaum's theory, those opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, maintain their beliefs largely due to an underlying, subconscious feeling of disgust at the thought of what defines "gay" as, well, gay - as well as lesbian as lesbian: What is done in the bedroom. 

Socially conservative, anti-gay political leaders capitalize on these feelings, transforming them, often, into victories in the voting booth. In many cases, they've been successful, providing ammo to activists who feel the attacks beg confrontation.


Dr. Nussbaum first arrived at her theory, further outlined in her recent book, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, through the work of philosophers William Miller and Paul Rozin. As Miller argues in the introduction to his seminal work, The Anatomy of Disgust, "Disgust and contempt play crucial political roles in creating and maintaining social hierarchy." 


"I think [disgust] plays a part in lots of arguments against same-sex marriage," Nussbaum told EDGE, "those that use the idea that straight marriage will be 'defiled' or 'tainted' by the approval of gay marriage." 

Apparently in Nussbaum's book it's fine for her to tell a journalist that she coined a phrase -- but God help Huckabee if he then quotes the journalist. He better be prepared with an apology. 

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