I’m not inclined to participate further on the debate on non-heterosexualities and school education, partly because I think it’s rapidly running its course, and partly because at the moment I can better focus my writing energies on my thesis. So after this post, I’ll disappear from Troppo til the weekend. But I do want to offer some suggestions on why I think the discussion has been so heated and controversial.
Liberalism, as a way of organising society, as well as a set of principles for government and politics, rests on a normative distinction between public and private spheres. Questions of personal ethics and lifestyle are held to be private, and the public sphere is meant to be impartial as between people’s choices and life projects. Public authorities can legitimately interfere in people’s private choices and actions, however, to prevent people doing harm to others and prevent them from interfering with other’s personal choices and life projects.
Where all this gets thorny, I think, is that matters to do with sex and partnership are normatively private (though subject to some regulation through laws to do with marriage, property and non-consensual sex). Hence the decriminalisation of things like “sodomy” progressively in Australian criminal jurisdictions. So, on one hand, we have public values which suggest people should be free from discrimination (and even in the case of defamation and anti-vilification laws, hateful speech or opprobrium) and on the other hand we have religious groups claiming that certain ways of living and expressing sexuality and intimacy are universally and always wrong. This is where the issue becomes difficult to resolve for some. Some among people holding these values (that is, the condemnation of non-heterosexualities as disordered, unnatural and wrong) would like to see the law reflect that condemnation. The “decriminalisation of homosexuality” rightly shows that a liberal society rejects this.
So what is it about sexuality that attracts such heated disagreeement? It’s got to do with how our culture thinks about sexuality and sex itself.
JUST IN: Rob Corr throws down a gauntlet or two to Ken at Kick & Scream.
The first thing we need to note is that the link made between sex and reproduction is the basis for the claim that only heterosex is “natural”. Human beings are capable of a finite but wide range of sexual acts, and therefore in a sense all sorts of sexual behaviours are “natural”. But the religious link between sex and reproduction derives from Christianity – it was quite foreign to Greek and Roman thought, which certainly regulated sexuality but along quite different lines (power and age, beliefs about potency and virility, for instance). Hence the church’s anathema against sodomy (anal penetration) came about not as a way of stigmatising “gay men” (there were none when this belief was formulated, but more of this later) but as a prohibition on sexual acts which were seen as oriented purely to pleasure. Similarly, coitus interruptus, birth control, and all other ways of avoiding conception were prohibited by the Catholic Church (and in most cases, still are). Christianity had a deep animus against bodily or fleshly pleasures, seeing these as corrupt and sinful consequences of our fallen state.
Although many people who find homosex distasteful would no longer argue a religious justification along these lines, it is deeply embedded in our culture.
It’s very easy, using both historical and anthropological evidence, to demonstrate that heterosex is not “natural” in the sense in which it’s argued to be. The Greeks for instance didn’t just condone but actively encouraged sex between older men and young men. This was seen as being one of the ways citizens were made, and a pedagogical as well as a sexual act. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates expresses great surprise that Alcibiades isn’t attracted to young men, and Suetonius comments people thought it was most odd that the Emporer Claudius preferred only to have sex with women. In the Greek sexual system, sex was related closely to power. Sex between male citizens and adolescent males wasn’t penetrative sex, but rather rubbing the penis between the thighs, because penetration was mapped on an axis of active/passive where to be passive signified inferiority. Thus only women and slaves could be penetrated. For a male citizen to be penetrated was an act of subordination, and deeply wrong for this reason.
Unsurprisingly, the ancient texts which were held in very high esteem indeed in English speaking societies until recently (the highest form of liberal education being an education in the Classics – Greek and Latin language and literature) either glossed over this way of regarding sex, or as E. M. Forster famously demonstrated in his novel Maurice (which he would only allow to be published after his death), were expurgated with phrases like the Oxford tutor’s “omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”. Hence the phrase relating to love and sex between men, which was common at the time, “the love that dare not speak its name”.
Many other contemporary cultures have different ways of organising and regulating sex, and what is “natural” to them, some Native American cultures for instance, recognising more than two genders. But sticking to our own culture, it’s also very significant to note that as Michel Foucault famously argued in The History of Sexuality, the idea that sexual object choice defines identity is a very recent one in our culture. Christianity always taught that sodomy was a sin, for instance, but it wasn’t a defined “sinful” identity. Some people had a predilection for theft, some for sodomy. It didn’t mean that there was a majority of people called “heterosexuals” and a minority called “homosexuals”. Many Kings, such as James I and Edward II had mistresses as well as male favourites, and had sex with both, for instance. It was only when sexuality became far more regimented in the Nineteenth Century and sexology became part of psychiatry’s quest to classify deviations, that the term “homosexuality” was invented. “Heterosexuality” is a newer word, first coined in the 1890s, and was invented to define the norm against the deviant.
How does the closet relate to all this? Traditionally, homosexuality was indeed the “love which dares not speak its name”. People were supposed to conceal their “unnatural” desires. Until things like the Stonewall riots in the 1960s in New York, and the first Mardis Gras in Sydney in 1978 (which was a political demonstration where multiple arrests and bashings by police took place), mostly this system was strong.
The significance of the closet is that queer people were meant to be complicit in their own subordination. By being unable to speak their truth, or the truth of their desires, they were taught to despise themselves as dirty and unnatural beings. Even now, the rhetoric of “discretion” and the apparent fantasy that all queer people will come to work in gold lame g-strings speaks powerfully to the desire to repress, and render silent.
Because our society still has hangups about sex, and because of the cultural legacy of Christian linkages of sex and reproduction, and despite the hypersexualisation of the media and the internet, our culture still tends to regard queer folks as hypersexual beings. Unless they’re tightly constrained, and do their thang “in the privacy of their own bedroom”, who knows what damage all that powerful sexual energy would do? So when we talk about particular individuals being non-hetero, we seem to leap very quickly from identity to sex, which still has some sort of forbidden taboo aspect in our culture. So the call goes out for non-heteros to stop “getting in our faces”. Yet, with rare exceptions like Sydney’s Oxford Street, people who are deeply in love with others of the same sex can’t do what hetero couples take for granted, walk down the street holding hands, or kiss in public. Yet for queer people, every straight couple kissing on the beach or in the park is a sign that they and their sexuality aren’t valued or validated. Or it can be. And the incidence of queer bashing is apparently on the rise, even in traditionally queer-friendly inner urban precincts like Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. So, a huge range of active and passive social and cultural signals work towards keeping queer people invisible, and afraid of disclosing their sexual identity.
Where this ties in with the public/private distinction in liberal societies is the difficulty of containing sexual matters within the private sphere. So, given that many people hold “values” which suggest that homosex is always and everywhere immoral and sinful, any attempt to suggest that it ought to be valued quickly raises the spectre of sex itself, which is something we are not as open about as we think we are. The very same arguments that have been made at Troppo recently about “discretion” among teachers, the need to respect parental values, and not “privilege” homosexuality have both deep cultural roots, and also are very similar to the arguments made in Queensland in the Bjelke-Petersen years against any sex education in schools and condom vending machines in bars and universities – and even in the era of the Goss government, against educational material produced by the AIDS council which talked about “disgusting” sexual practices such as rimming. The moral panic over primary school students learning about non-heterosexualities and having non-hetero teachers who might not be sufficiently “discreet” also plays into our fears about kids and sex – and I don’t just mean pedophilia (the linkage of which with homosexuality is a notorious canard but a very common cultural trope), but also concerns about 8 year old girls wearing miniskirts, kids “pashing” and having “girlfriends” and “boyfriends” in Grade 3 and so on.
The other reason of course, why there’s so much angst around this issue, is the constant need to shore up the system of heteronormativity. Freud demonstrated quite convincingly that when born, humans are “polymorphously perverse”, that is to say capable of receiving pleasure and stimulation from the whole body as one erogenous zone. Although his particular theory of the “castration complex” is contested (and for fairly good reason), there’s no doubt that sexuality is in large part learned behaviour, and most theories of psycho-sexual development in psychology, for instance, start from that premise. Kinsey also demonstrated that most of us, at one time or other, have felt attracted to others of the same sex. Sexuality is much more like a continuum than two polar opposites. But our culture tells us never the twain shall meet, which is why the category of “bisexuality” is so unstable – there’s constant pressure to either be straight or gay.
All human bodies can be sexy, and most men might at one time or other have found a male body or an image of a male body sexy or aesthetically pleasing, and similarly with women and female bodies. But there are deep cultural and social pressures to repress and deny this attraction. Hence we get the exaggerated impulse to keep heterosexuality “privileged” and queer people as invisible and closeted as possible. There’s also – with regard to male homosexuality – an additional dimension of fear – related to how heteronormativity intersects with gender hierarchy. Part of the reason why men are still largely more powerful than women in our culture is what’s called “homosociality” – an easy kinship and friendship among men. But it relies heavily on a shared understanding of women as sexual objects (hence all the locker room humour, “did ya score, last night, mate?”, “she’s a bit of orright”, etc) and a repression of any suggestion that mates might find other mates, well, a bit sexy. So we have complicated and unspoken codes about where we shouldn’t look in urinals, how men look at each other, how close male friends can and can’t express their regard for each other, or when boofy blokes are showering together after the footy. Any concession that homosex is not unnatural threatens all these interlocking attitudes and behaviours.
What we need to do, I’d argue, is get over our hangups here. If you don’t worry too much about sexuality and sex, in my experience, you’re a lot happier. My ideal, and the ideal of “queer”, is that we should have a society where sexual orientation is irrelevant and people are free to be as fluid as they like in matters sexual (within the limits of consensuality) and in their sexuality. Obviously we have a long way to travel, but if we’re afraid to speak the truth of what exists and legitimately exists in our liberal society, it’ll be a much longer road than it needs to be. And people will get run over on the way.