- Category: Feminism & Sexuality
- Created on Tuesday, 26 June 2012 11:01
- Written by Gary Keith
"By one estimate 2% of gay men in the U.S. are having 24% of gay sexual activity. The enjoyment may result in part precisely from novelty, variety and impersonal nature of the interaction.
"So, having agreed that it’s ok to be gay, and to marry members of one’s own sex, how do we approach a subculture of promiscuity?"
"It is one thing to accept or tolerate a homosexuality that mirrors heterosexuality and.... stable, long-term, monogamous domestic relationships. And another thing to accept the realities of gay/queer sexual behavior."
"I almost feel I should apologize for including the detail to follow, but I think it reasonable in the context of this discussion to be frank and specific. Anyone uncomfortable with mildly explicit discussion of sex can skip to the end."
"The mounting support for equal rights for gay men and lesbians is a good thing, but one should challenge the expectation that the legally equal queer emulate the straight married person, and that we should aspire towards a broad and tolerant vision of multiple sexualities."
* * * * * * ** * *
This continues several discussions here on Kasama including "On telling each other how to fuck" and Jed Brandt's "Misuses of the Erotic: Debate Among Revolutionary Youth."
* * * * * ** * * * *
by Gary Keith wrote:
“But there is not an inherently and necessarily antagonistic contradiction between capital and gay liberation.”
If by “gay liberation” we mean broad and growing acceptance of the idea that it’s ok for people of the same sex to fall in love, have sex, co-reside, get married, adopt kids, enjoy legal protections against discrimination in housing, employment, etc.—then no, there’s no antagonistic contradiction with capital. There are surely members of the ruling class motivated by religious beliefs to fund attacks on gay rights. But investors profiting off industries like fashion and entertainment surely don’t care if these are largely led by gay men.
When European “socialist” parties having embraced austerity programs try to maintain their support base by endorsing gay marriage; when the Pentagon announces plans to celebrate Gay Pride Month, and when Dick Cheney and his wife proudly announce their daughter’s marriage to her long-time woman partner, you know there’s no antagonistic contradiction between capitalism and gayness. Some of the most avid promoters of the Iraq War (like Andrew Sullivan) were openly gay… If you were to poll people at a gay pride march and ask their views about Obama’s drone strikes on Pakistan and Yemen I doubt the results would appreciably differ from a poll among the general population. In other words, homosexuality per se does not constitute a particular politics threatening the ruling class.
At this point there’d be nothing incongruous about the Navy recruiting young gay men to bomb Iran by means of the Village People’s 1978 (very gay) hit “In the Navy.”
For a variety of reasons—political struggle, the spread of knowledge, advances in science (the 1973 decision of the American Psychiatric Association to removed homosexuality from its list of “mental disorders,” the same decision by the American Psychological Association two years later and similar decisions by comparable bodies around the world), breakthroughs in popular culture such as the positive portrayal of gay men and lesbians on television and in film), the activities of “Gay Straight Alliances” in high schools, etc.—almost as many people in the U.S. now support as oppose gay marriage. Since the Netherlands legalized gay marriage in 2001, 14 countries have done so, plus eight U.S. states. Obama says he personally supports it. One has the sense that the battle for acceptance of homosexuality is being won (although I agree with Ish that what’s been obtained so far is not “gay liberation” but some (significant) reforms accompanied by the corporate cooption of parts of the movement).
But it is one thing to accept or tolerate a homosexuality that mirrors heterosexuality and the still dominant paradigm of stable, long-term, monogamous domestic relationships, and another to accept the realities of gay/queer sexual behavior.
While gay men and lesbians appear to have on average around 6 sexual partners during their lifetimes (the same figure that applies to straight men and women) a significant minority are not interested in or involved in a long-term relationship and not committed to long periods of celibacy but pursue “no strings” sex with numerous partners. Promiscuous by preference, they are perhaps no greater a proportion of the gay male population than their promiscuous counterparts in the straight male population but are the principal patrons of key gay institutions like gay bars and bathhouses.
By one estimate 2% of gay men in the U.S. are having 24% of gay sexual activity. The enjoyment may result in part precisely from novelty, variety and impersonal nature of the interaction.
So, having agreed that it’s ok to be gay, and to marry members of one’s own sex, how do we approach a subculture of promiscuity? Do we say: this is unhealthy, selfishly hedonistic, non-productive, etc., or concede that it’s a valid lifestyle appropriate for some? (I recall Bill Martin’s question: “Shouldn’t there be room in our understanding of sexuality for not letting go of the question, ‘Why can’t the myriad forms of sexuality simply be a source of joy?’ Yes, we go on from there to complicate things with questions of power and gender relations, etc., but why not allow ourselves the possibility (to say something slightly more complicated and less naive) that there is a ‘different economy’ possible and at work in sexuality that ought to be a beautiful thing and sometimes even is a beautiful thing.”)
Similarly: how do we approach the vast array of fetishes apparent in both gay and straight communities? If you peruse on-line sex ads (have largely taken the place of “hook up” areas as places where people arrange to meet) you find that gay men typically self-identify as either “bottoms” or “tops” and specify interest in anal and/or oral sex. (Such sources have been used by the way to produce some plausible statistics on sexual behavior; see for example this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/oct/19/gay-men-promiscuous-myth .) These can be further subdivided into categories; there are men who like to suck but will not swallow, men who suck and like to swallow, etc. There is a division of labor, you might say, allowing the man who wants to fuck or be sucked to meet someone who wants to satisfy those needs. Do we “complicate things with questions of power and gender relations”? Do we say: this is un-egalitarian; we should strive for a world in which all gay men are “versatile”? Or do we accept the fact that sexual desire isn’t just about gender but the specific psychological and physical pleasures of favored acts?
I almost feel I should apologize for including the detail to follow, but I think it reasonable in the context of this discussion to be frank and specific. Anyone uncomfortable with mildly explicit discussion of sex can skip to the end.
Among the fetishes often mentioned in sex ads is bondage, which could involve handcuffs, rope, neckties etc. There are many people (gay and straight) who derive pleasure from the feeling of being controlled and unable to resist during sex. Do we say: bondage is the opposite of liberation, this is a matter of internalizing oppression, probably the result of a traumatizing experience in the past (etc)., or simply concede that this gratifies some people and accept it as socially harmless? Some people like to be blindfolded during sex, to highlight the anonymity of the act and allow for fantasy. Some men enjoy sucking penises through “glory holes;” the only thing they see of the partner is his penis. Do we say: this is dangerous, degrading behavior and struggle with such people to change their behavior? Or do we recognize it as their “source of joy”?
Many ads mention “watersports,” involving urinating on someone, or being urinated on, or even “drinking from the tap.” Do we say: that’s disgusting, unhealthy, and humiliating? (The person might respond that humiliation is in fact a turn-on.) Many ads mention specific clothes fetishes, all conveying different meanings: lingerie, leather, jock-straps. Do we tell the cross-dresser, you’re mocking women, and contributing to their oppression, by this behavior, and try to discourage it? Or do we say it’s harmless, and a source of stimulation for both the man in lingerie and his partner? Many ads are posted by, or in search of, transsexuals, most often feminine-looking males who’ve acquired breasts. Sometimes the partner wants to be the active partner, but some want it the other way around.
Many ads specify age preferences (athletic 23 seeking similar; son ,19 for dad over 40; older gent seeking same, etc.) Some seek “bears” (older, hairy men with bellies, typically tops) or “twinks” (smooth young men, typically bottoms). Should we say: the men shouldn’t have age preferences? Or suggest that older/younger relations are inherently exploitative of the younger? Or do we acknowledge that such preferences are normal and legitimate?
Some ads mention porn, and meeting to watch during mutual masturbations. Do we say that two men acquiring gratification while watching male-male sex are somehow—in the usual argument against porn—promoting the objectification of women? Or do we say: so long as the porn was made by consenting adults and contains nothing egregious, fine, noting that this is about as “safe” as sex gets?
The list could go on and on… Some have feet and footwear fetishes. Do we say: it’s wrong to debase yourself like that? Or do we realize that the odors powerfully stimulate some people? Some ask for sado-masochism (SM), of a lighter or heavier variety involving spanking (which some on the receiving end find very pleasurable) specially-made whips, clothespins on the nipples, “C&B torture” etc. Do we say: you’re nuts to take pleasure in pain and humiliation, or in its infliction on others? Or accept this too, as tolerable sexual activity? A lot of men like to rim (lick) other men’s anuses, sometimes specifying that they be “musky.” Do we say: that’s just nasty? Or recognize that it’s some men’s principal source of sexual pleasure?
Some gay couples seek out strangers for threesomes, or search for group sex parties. Do we criticize that, or accept is as innocent enjoyment? Some gay men like to seek out sex in specific venues like parks know as cruising zones, or public restrooms, “adult” bookstores, etc. Do we say: that’s all unacceptable, and we should make sure that police prevent it? Or do we conclude that so long as other people are not harmed by it or complaining about it, it can be tolerated? How do we view gay bathhouses, designed to facilitate multiple anonymous sexual encounters by providing private rooms, ambient pornography and facilities for group activity? Do we call them a threat to public health, or tolerate them while urging all involved to “play safe” knowing many will not?
I’m not suggesting that in the socialist society we hope for in the future revolutionary forces would intrude into the bedroom to prevent any mutual, consensual sexual activity. (But it might through the education system and various methods of propaganda try to promote some notion of “healthy sexuality” that is fundamentally conservative, as was surely the case in the USSR and China.)
I’m merely suggesting that tolerance for homosexuality, which did not for the most part exist in the two great socialist experiments of the 20th century, and came so late to the RCP and so many of us, is just part of the needed tolerance for sexual diversity as we struggle to liberate ourselves in all respects.
In my own opinion, all of the above is ok.
There need not be a communist “line” on any of it, just recognition of the complexity and variety of sexual desire and behavior. There are plainly forms of behavior that are wrong and ought to be illegal, including use of any kind of force. (But the issue is complicated by the fact that there are those who say they WANT to be forced, as part of a scenario discussed in advance. A lot of sex is part-theater.) Sex with children should be illegal; but note that the legal definition of child varies from country to country and the age of consent is 16 in most of Europe. (So gay or straight sex with a consenting 16 year old is ok in Britain, but if the U.S. government finds out about it, the man involved can be arrested upon arrival in the U.S. for breaking U.S. law overseas.) Kids are becoming active earlier and earlier, both with peers and much older people, often at their own initiative. The assumption that any sexual experience before one’s 18th birthday is damaging or a source of subsequent regret is simply wrong. (See Judith Levine, Harmful to Minors, intro by Jocelyn Elder, University of Minnesota, 2002.)
I’ve been referring to gay men (although many of the same fetishes occur among lesbians to—although apparently a lot less). But the situation is complicated by the fact that lots of self-defined “straight” men (perhaps heterosexually married and on the “down low”) seek out particular forms of gay sex. They may say they’re “not into men at all” and are absolutely not into kissing them, but they enjoy the experience of sucking a penis, or being sucked, or taking one or the other role in anal sex. You might think that would make them “bi” by definition but they will insist that no, they’re totally straight but just enjoy this sort of physical interaction. The term “metrosexual” has come to mean (rather like “queer”) someone who wants to defy sexual categories. An increasing number of youth are declining to categorize themselves as either straight or gay; I can’t find it now but there was a recent survey of high school students, I think in New York City, with figures showing this. In any case the world is not divided into straight and gay, but there are intermediate categories among both men and women and of course people less concerned about the gender of their partner than some other physical attribute or the activity they indulge in. The podophiliac (foot fetishist) might be equally stimulated by male or female feet…
Gay marriage is no threat to the system
But I’m wondering: might a society truly tolerant of diverse sexualities, that promotes sex education and the matter-of-fact study of alternative sexual practices, that promotes a cheerful attitude towards sexual pleasure including the “no-strings” type, and doesn’t uphold monogamy as a universal model, indeed threaten the system? Or will the system have to come down before such a society is possible?
In The Origin of the Family, Frederick Engels (following Lewis Henry Morgan) described the evolution of the family as the basic unit in human relations through specific stages, including the “pairing family” based on gender equality and the “monogamous family” based on patriarchy. He discussed how all kinds of events, such as the Protestant Reformation and European colonization, affected the family and marriage in modern times.
As I see it, the basic Marxist insight into gender and sexuality is to posit these things as ever changing and contingent on relations of production and other material circumstances such as the progress of science.
This contrasts with the religious viewpoint that marriage, established by God, has no history and the only “origin of the family” is the creation of Adam and Eve on the sixth day of creation—the view expressed often in opposition to gay marriage by those declaring “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” or “I believe in marriage as it’s existed for 5000 years” etc.
In other words, Marx and Engels rejected any “natural” (fixed) state of human relationships. They were influenced by the radical critiques of the contemporary family made by Fourier and Owen and indeed asserted (as early as the Theses on Feuerbach) that the “earthly family” as it existed in the early nineteenth century must “be theoretically and practically destroyed.”
(On the other hand Engels was convinced homosexuality was “unnatural.” When sexual liberation pioneer Karl Heinz Ulrichs sent Marx and Engels his book on homosexuality in 1869 Engels opined that same-sex relations were “extremely against nature,” and repeated this view in Origin of the Family. This was a major error/blind spot in Marx & Engels’ work.)
“…is it possible to judge human relationships free of the power relationships in capitalism?”
I’m not sure the problem is to “judge,” but rather to understand. Certainly the (good academic) studies of the history of sexuality firmly ground it in analyses of class society and material conditions. Geopolitical circumstances (the integration of large numbers of “Rosie the riveters” into the labor force in the 1940s), advances in science (the pill), the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements of the 1960s, the advent of the internet etc. have helped shape the sexual (and other) relationships of men and women in this country today.
How to understand “human relationships free of the power relationships in capitalism?” We can look at the socialisms which actually existed in the twentieth century, which of course were not at all “free of the power relationships in capitalism” (as Mao contra Stalin emphasized) but at least took steps towards sexual liberation (with landmarks like the New Marriage Law in China in 1950). My sense is that guaranteed education, housing, employment and medical care eroded the power of the father and husband and allowed people to more freely pursue all kinds of relationships. Women became formally, legally equal to men and much more independent. A general culture of egalitarianism emerged.
On the other hand, relationships could be affected by fear of the powerful state apparatus; in the Soviet Union, certainly, one hesitated to express criticisms even to close friends and relatives for fear of punishment. Homosexuality was illegal in the Soviet Union from 1933. This was not liberation. (Strangely enough, East Germany decriminalized homosexuality in 1957 and by the 1980s there was at least one state-run gay bar. The DDR was simultaneously the most efficiently repressive Soviet-bloc state—I think the depiction in the film The Lives of Others (2006) is probably accurate—and maybe the most “liberal” in terms of terms of sexual expression. Famed for its nudist venues.)
Imagine a society in which all the advantages of those (defeated or failed) socialisms are combined with legal and institutional frameworks allowing people to express their (innumerably varied) sexualities freely. One can’t predict specifically what it’d look like, but I think it’s an important goal.
@ Ghan Buri Ghan: I think you misunderstand and caricature my point, which you refer to as a “common error.” I am NOT saying that
“Marriage equality, openly gay military service, and Ellen DeGeneres have freed us up to fight for the civil rights of foot fetishists and water-sports enthusiasts.”
And I didn’t say that
“we are on the verge of winning the struggle for gay liberation.”
Quite the opposite!
I’m saying that the mounting support for equal rights for gay men and lesbians is a good thing, but one should challenge the expectation that the legally equal queer emulate the straight married person, and that we should aspire towards a broad and tolerant vision of multiple sexualities.