Sunday, September 23, 2012

A decent argument against legalising gay marriage.

Critical thinking is not about being the biggest, baddest arguer on the block. Critical thinking is actually about robustly attacking one’s own presumptions, more so than those of others. As part of that, critical thinking involves putting in the effort to strengthen those opinions you disagree with so that you’re not just preserving your opinion because your opponent made some silly mistake.

To give an example I like shopping at markets rather than supermarkets. If someone who disagrees with me says that they like supermarkets for their convenience of everything in one place I could point out that supermarkets are consciously designed to make you wander back and forth across the whole store finding three items (while rows of stuff is at grabbing height for children!).  Across a large supermarket with the floor space of a small market your shopping items may be under one roof but are hardly in the one place. I may have won that argument however I haven’t done my own thinking a lot of favours. It would be better if I paused and thought is there any convenience benefit to shopping at a supermarket that does stand up (such as a single point of sale which is probably what was meant by “one place”). Then I could contend with such a benefit. That’s improving your opponents’ argument first.

In the spirit of critical thinking then I have been trying to ponder what would be a decent argument that access to the legal rite of marriage should remain restricted to heterosexual adult partnerships and continue to exclude homosexual adult partnerships.* This to me is the best way to write out the question posed by the “gay marriage debate”. The question isn’t whether or not gay people should be married. That could equally be answered by the statement that nobody should get married.

I haven’t come up with anything very solid at all. What I’ve been able to do is figure out what we can safely exclude when looking for such a decent argument. This post is a walkthrough those exclusions.

Firstly it doesn’t matter what homosexual people are generally like.

Sometimes you hear arguments against gay marriage which are really just a grab bag of insults against gay people. Certain images of gay culture are derogatorily referred to (like gay male bathhouse culture) to falsely insinuate that gay people are not the marrying kind anyway. This argument largely works because gay people and their supporters get so annoyed when they hear it that they lose their cool. That looks bad and thus reinforces that the speaker was right. “See, gay people get so easily offended by just straightforward facts about gayness how could they possibly make a go at marriage where such offence is par for the course.**”

If we can stay calm in the face of vitriol however this argument is a push over. Why? I know gay people for whom I have a far more sexually permissive history. But my legal access to marriage with my partner is clear. Meanwhile these gay friends of mine (guys and girls) are all about having a mom and mom or pop and pop apple pie relationship till death parts them, God bless their gay hearts. And they are the ones who want to get married. 

It really doesn’t matter if the average or even most common homosexual is a hedonistic sensualist with a death wish, a porn addiction and a scatological fetish.  It really doesn’t. Firstly, because they probably aren’t the ones who want to get married. Secondly, because even if marriage becomes available for homosexual couples we can still say that any homosexual couple who meets those descriptions oughtn’t get married. Same as we might for a straight couple who does. The argument of what gay people are generally like would only ever contribute anything if we were arguing whether or not all gay couples should get married (right now). But we are not arguing that, any more than the current situation is that all heterosexual couples ought to be married (including all the abusive ones for example). We are merely arguing whether or not it should be a legal option for both types of couples.

Restricting marriage to heterosexual couples does not even say people with a supposed range of character flaws can’t marry. It just says they can’t marry people of the same sex. We really have lost our original topic by this point, which may have been the intent of this kind of argument. Any argument based on an alleged nature of the average gay person is basically the rhetorical equivalent of throwing sand in the face of your opponent. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but as it evokes a hostile reaction it can sometimes look like a win.

Secondly we can’t argue from authority.

To “argue from authority” is (in rhetorical jargon) to make a case based on someone else saying our conclusion rather than any reasons for that conclusion. So for example an argument from authority would be to say that Albert Einstein (who we all might agree is a pretty smart guy) says that time travel is impossible (or possible, I’m not sure what he said actually).

In this particular debate two kinds of arguments from authority are brought into play. One is that a particular magic book supposedly says something that means marriage should be restricted to heterosexual couples. In this post I showed how arguments about the authority of magic books are generally fruitless. There’s never a test a magic book can fail that disproves its authority. This kind of argument can drag us into this fruitless territory.

However we don’t need to disprove the authority of a magic book (or argue that it doesn’t say what is being claimed) to show this type of argument is irrelevant. We only need to show that whatever the magic book says, it still needs to be argued that all the opinions of that magic book should be enshrined in law. Given that the basis for law in this country oughtn't be the opinions of any particular magic book that’s the end of that argument.

The second common argument from authority regarding this question is to say that so-and-so gay person doesn’t think we should allow gay marriage. If a gay person thinks so then it can’t be homophobic and if it isn’t homophobic it must be true, seems to be the logic. For that to be a valid argument we would have to accept that if a gay person thinks we should allow gay marriage that that is a compelling argument too. It’s nonsensical.

Arguments from authority are not decent arguments in any situation anyway. Even Einstein had to provide reasons for his opinions.

Thirdly it is not enough to argue that there is a purpose to marriage that only makes sense for heterosexual couples.

At first this can seem like a strange exclusion. Surely if marriage serves a purpose that only makes sense for heterosexual couples, then it makes sense to exclude homosexual couples from access to marriage?

However what we haven’t done with these kinds of arguments is to show how allowing homosexual couples to legally marry prevents or endangers the exclusive purposes it might serve for heterosexual couples.

For example I can think of a fairly obvious purpose for straight couples to marry that only applies to them. Straight couples can accidentally have kids when they have sex. Obliging straight couples to make a commitment to each other before they have sex consequently provides a means of preparing their relationship for those accidental kids. Gay relationships don’t produce accidental kids so this purpose of marriage doesn’t apply to them.

However if gay people get married to express a commitment to their relationship even though they won’t have accidental kids this doesn’t do anything at all to prevent or hinder straight people getting married to express a commitment to their relationship because they might have accidental kids.  The former doesn’t preclude the latter at all.

For some people their marriage is a very religious affair. It is absolutely important to them that their legal marriage is also “in the eyes of their God”. It may even be a way of praising their God for them. It would be peculiar to suggest that in order to protect their ability to do this we have to prevent the legal marriages of people for whom this purpose doesn’t apply (non-theists and worshippers of other Gods). People currently are able to get married for all sorts of reasons, some of which are relevant to only some and not others.

What’s left?

Now having excluded the above three categories of argument I am at a loss to think of anything else that supports the restriction of access to legal marriage to only heterosexual couples. I can think of many reasons why the state shouldn’t get involved in marriage at all. I can think of arguments why marriage is all round not a good idea even. But I can’t think of a single decent argument that legal marriage ought to be restricted to heterosexual couples.

That surprises me. I am actually suspicious that my own opinion is preventing me from making the effort to come up with decent counter arguments. After all most opinions I have would be a consequence of my balance of for or against arguments. I can usually recognise a few good counter arguments to a even my strongly held views. In this case... perhaps someone else has some ideas?


* The members of the partnership can both be gay as but the partnership is still “heterosexual” if one is a woman and one is a man.

** If you marry Pat Robertson.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

From a resident of Babylon: The irony of dismissing Rastafari.

From a resident of Babylon.

Lately I have been interested in Rastafari*. It’s been a persistent interest which first began when I was in Toronto, Canada many years ago. It’s flared up lately with the writing of this blog.

This interest has stayed at a very low level of fulfillment. Rastafari is a hard “religion” to investigate for the following reasons:
*Self-identified Rastas only compose about 0.01% of the Australian population. (They only include about 600,000 worldwide) Sitting down with a community of Rastas (my preferred way of learning) is certainly not feasible in Bendigo.
* Rastafari is a belief system which emphasizes the autonomy of each believer. To some extent they are a mystical religion which requires direct engagement by the self with Jah (God). That’s a harder belief system to describe to outsiders.
*They reject the idea of  broad “isms” which benefit from academic study and consequently they aren’t clearly articulating their theology for that purpose. That’s partly due to their mysticism but also part of their critical approach to knowledge production;
They believe that knowledge production by a corrupt world order (Babylon) is the means of our mental slavery. As a resident of Babylon that puts me in a hard place to learn about them.

I am not much closer to “knowing” about Rastafari than I was when I first encountered it directly amongst the street involved youth of Toronto. Hence I’m not going to try explaining this belief system from this blog. Take whatever you learn about Rastafari from me with a big grain of salt.

Instead I merely want to explain my interest in Rastafari and why this belief system ought to interest anyone who is also interested in Christianity. I think that’s actually worthy enough of a series of posts because Rastafari is commonly dismissed as a “proper” religion and is certainly disregarded by most Christians as having anything to say to their faith. I’m interested in questioning what exactly a proper religion is anyway.

This first post is also hopefully a humble invitation to Rasta women and men to open a conversation about their beliefs. I’ll be titling each post in this series as from a resident of Babylon because I recognize that I am approaching this belief system from inside a culture of privelage and expectation. Part of that culture is the voice that says Rastafari can’t be worth looking at because it is not a powerful (white) religion. Hopefully we can all ignore that one.

The Irony of it all.

Sometimes the response of first century Jewish culture to Jesus is presented in the following way. The Jewish people are seen as waiting for their messiah but when such a messiah actually arrives they are not prepared to recognize them.

That’s a very simplistic rendering of the situation. Not all Jews in the first century anticipated a messiah. Very few (if any) would have anticipated an exclusive son of God who was themselves divine and uncreated. Despite that, all the earliest known Christians were Jews so some clearly were prepared to recognize him.

However this crude assessment of first century Judaism’s response to Jesus is at least as fair an assessment of modern western Christianity’s response to Rastafari. Once again not all Christians are waiting for the physical return of an individual Jesus Christ, but it is a fairly universal part of the faith. The Rastafari movement makes the claim that this wait is over and that the Messiah has returned but surprisingly not as expected.

If nothing else the psychology of the average Christian should be one which is open to just such a surprising re-incarnation of the Messiah. Crudely speaking first century Jews were surprised by Jesus. It seems forgetful to allow the same to happen to oneself as a Christian.

Obviously with a million wannabe Messiahs (like David Koresh) running around its exhausting to investigate all of them. As a basic rule however Christians want to reject any reason for disbelieving a Messiah that would have applied to their own messiah. That means the following reasons for dismissing Rastafari have to be discounted;

1. Rastafari is an ethnically and geographically specific religion. So too is a Christianity that began in Jerusalem and was centered on the life of a single man in that area. Further to understand Jesus’ message and role gentiles in his time needed to understand a whole Jewish story that would have been alien to them. An obligation to understand African history in order to access the meaning of Rastafari is not any different and shouldn’t be allowed to be a barrier for non-African Christians. In fact it may just be that God works through oppressed cultures best.

2. Isn’t the Rastafari movement all about cannabis use? The gospels record that Jesus was equally dismissed by his peers for his feasting and drinking. Christianity is not an ascetic religion originally. In fact wine is still a core element of most Christians worship. Further anyone who thinks that Rastafari is all about drug use needs to consider its role in fighting the real demon drug of American black communities – Crack - as well as alcohol abuse (some Rastafi would say that Alcohol is the drug of Babylon). As a drug educator I know that people around the periphery of Rastafari can absorb ideas that don’t help them to support peers who have a problematic relationship with cannabis.  But that’s the same with the drinking culture that is around the periphery of Christian societies.

3. Most importantly of all. Rasta is sometimes dismissed because the return of the Messiah they believe in didn’t change the world in any obvious way. This needs to be something that Christians are very careful before they care about. Yes, “Babylon” is still in charge and Africa, Africans and the whole world still can be seen as wearing its chains. That means that the Rastafari understanding of the immanence of Jah’s (God’s) kingdom in fact shares something perplexing and profound with the Christian understanding of the same. Jesus life and death didn’t change anything in how the world worked. The Romans were still occupying Jerusalem. Wars have still occurred and re-occurred since. You still get sick and die. For Jesus to be seen as victorious requires a very different idea of victory than the worlds. Hence the world’s measure of victory shouldn’t be used to dismiss the messiahs return in Rastafari or any other belief.

In future posts I hope to spell out what actually attracts me to Rastafari particularly. Then I might write about why I feel wary of it. For this post I just wanted to counter those internal voices that tell us that this faith is easily dismissable, particularly from a perspective of exploring the Christian story.

The last thing I would imagine that Christians want is to be waiting for the return of their messiah long after they have come. Given this is what they see as the failing of first century Jews, the irony would be astounding as well.

*I'm not sure if Rastafari or Rastafarianism is better grammer but as I think the ism is viewed negatively in Rasta culture I have gone with the former. I have no idea if I am using "Rasta" correctly either.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Between moral chaos and the law.

Sometimes arguments about society and its laws introduce a binary choice: either the unchanging mandates of biblical Christianity (or at least deference to that source of authority) are upheld or moral chaos will ensue.

This argument features in discussions about gay marriage where the suggestion is made that if we permit gay marriage then we have nothing to stop us condoning pedophilic marriages too. It’s a disgustingly simple argument which is heartbreaking for gay and lesbian people to hear over and over again. But that is just one example of the broader argument:

“Without the solid rules of the Bible as a foundation for our society then anything and everything can be permitted. Democracy must fall if the bible is forgotten. Murder would have to be tolerated. People will wear two hats. It will be lunacy and destruction.”

Now there is a lot to argue against this. Firstly, not everyone in a non-biblically influenced society has brought catastrophe to their civilization. There are plenty of extra-biblical indigenous societies which can’t be dismissed as doomed. Secondly, although numerologists began numbering we have been able to ditch numerology from schools without ditching arithmetic. We can keep public hospitals without keeping a belief in faith healing or Paul’s teaching on women’s hair in the same way. Thirdly, Biblicism has not been a very good guarantee of pro-social behaviour. The Brethren currently claim to be biblical and are a bunch of tax-dodging, family-court defying cultists. More generally the nominally Christian west has been a pillaging psycophathic coloniser which runs greedily into energy crisis after energy crisis. It’s a bit early to call its success on biblical principles.

I’m not going to spend more time in this post on those arguments however. I’ve made them before, they are pretty obvious and in my experience people over a certain age who can’t think of them are generally unwilling to believe them anyway. There are definitely Christians who know them and could make such arguments much more calmly than I to their peers as well.

What I want to ask is not whether this binary is real (it clearly isn’t) but whether Jesus himself or his early followers would have been charged with facing a similar binary. Jesus broke with many of the Jewish rules for life. He did this in a time when legalistic purity was one of the ways Jews were protecting their society from becoming Roman and essentially pagan.

In fact a good picture of the state of Jewish identity in Jesus time would be the state of Muslims in somewhere like Palestine/Israel today; occupied, vilified, under martial law and very clearly second class citizens in their own holy land. In such a context the binary I described becomes tinged with deeply wounded ethnic pride; people who don’t hold to cultural laws in all their unfashionableness are viewed as cultural collaborators with their oppressors.

What is different in our time is that cultural Christianity is in a much more dominant position than first century Judaism but is feeling its decline in status. The U.K. has dissolved its empire over the last century with Hong Kong it’s most recent concession. The U.S.A. is slowly ceding its status as superpower to its creditor nation, China. In both countries real wages are declining. Both countries are hardly defeated; it is just that the apex of their power is behind them, as is their period of strongest Christian identity. In our time, therefore, this binary of Biblicism versus chaos has the added flavour of threatening the downfall of empire and civilization. That wouldn’t have made sense in Jesus’ time where a triumphant empire and civilization was clearly an aspect of pagan Rome.

Despite these differences the culturally revolutionary Jesus movement of the first century still would have had to face the charge of bringing moral chaos to Jewish society. The early Christians were rejecting the importance of Jewish laws which were unchanged for over 600 years (if you take Deuteronomy literally then possibly up to 1200 years).  Some of that was based on the example of their crucified leader during his life (i.e. working on the Sabbath). Other laws including the requirement for male circumcision or prohibitions against eating “unclean” foods were rejected by the apostles without clear instruction from (a living) Jesus. These laws composed a covenant with an unchanging God upon which Jewish social order may be built. Breaking them would have challenged the promise of any order at all.

On top of that Jesus’ followers, as they grew in numbers, would have been seen as part of the moral chaos upon which any decline of the Roman empire could be blamed. This was in fact the basis for their persecution after the defeat of Roman forces along northern borders. Christians were even labeled atheists. They were the underminers of traditional social norms upon which Roman success had been built. (Sound familiar?)

So what did Jesus and his followers replace the law with so that they wouldn’t simply be left with moral chaos? There are two answers to this and which one you believe is a very significant division in Christianity.

  1. Jesus replaced the law with his own authority. Jesus was able to work on the Sabbath and forgive sins because he was Jesus – the Son of God. Only he could amend or alter the laws. In fact these actions are to be seen as proof of Jesus’ uniqueness and not as a license to do anything similar. The apostles and early church had an authority derived from Jesus to change some other laws or acted on clear instruction from the Holy Spirit or Jesus himself appearing in a vision after his death. In the Roman Catholic Church this restricted apostolic authority is seen as enduring.

  1. Jesus replaced the law with love. Jesus and his followers (like at least one other Jewish movement in the first century) believed that moral choices could be navigated with compassion and love. In fact they believed that they had to be. Only by reading scripture with love could it be properly understood even to the point that laws had to be changed if necessary to submit them to the directive of love. The type of love necessary was best exemplified by the relationship between a parent and a child. It was instinctual and humble – an opposite of expert authority derived from scholarship of the law.

By understanding that some Christians hold to the first position we can see why they appear to engage with moral issues in a Pharisaic manner. Their final word on any issue is a bible verse. Just like Jesus’ theological opponents during his life these Christians have their laws of God which cannot change and which must be obeyed. These Christians may try to hold to the Old Testament laws as well except where they have been explicitly amended by Jesus or the apostles. The fundamental moral organizing principle of the universe for them is AUTHORITY – God’s authority, Jesus authority, the Bible’s authority.

I am deeply grateful to have found in my partner a Christian who holds to the second position. For her the fundamental moral organizing principle of the universe is LOVE. – God’s love, Jesus’ love, our love. Neither she (nor I) can claim to have fully grasped or embraced all the implications of that notion. But because of her faith in it she has an insulation against bitterness and cynicism that I envy. She is a genuinely good person without all those judgmental strings that “goodness” can sometimes come with. I see all that recognized in everyone who knows her.

Personally I don’t have faith in any “real” central organizing principle to morality. Obliged to put something in the centre I put empathy but tentatively. I think morality is something we have invented for good or bad. We are still inventing. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) stop. But I think one of our most amazing inventions of it occurred in first century Jerusalem as understood by my partner.

I think that we have in the model of the loving parent a way of imagining morality as possible without certainty derived from a text (I for one manage to parent without certainty). I think we have found a spot that is neither complete moral chaos where might equals right nor divine authoritarianism (where might equals right as well). I think it’s amazingly profound that this answer is buried in a way amongst us. In Jesus’ time and today ethical lawyer types can overlook the tacit knowledge that guides a loving parent. For them it doesn’t seem like enough to base a society on. For them it still sounds like moral chaos.


Postscript: I am aware that I have created my own binary between a morality based on love or legalism. I think it’s justified. I think that at some point Christians in particular have to choose between the two and that their choice then infects all their other decisions. It’s a common Christian understanding that you can’t have two masters.

I know, though, that many (maybe even most) Christians struggle over this binary and straddle it. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that all the “good” people live on one side of the distinction.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sex is Great.

My last two posts were on sexuality. “Sexuality” is often what people say when they mean sex but they want to sound professional.

I hope those posts were written with a sex-positive feel. That’s also something I tried for in an earlier post on “complementarianism” in the bedroom. Now I want to write about exactly what sex-positivity is and why I think it’s something to keep in mind.

Sex-positivity begins with the presumption that our culture has a negative attitude to sex. That’s a hard presumption to sustain. After all what is our culture? Is there one culture to the world, or Australia or even Bendigo (where I live)? I don’t think there is, so I want to step away from this general statement that our culture has a negative attitude to sex.

Instead I’d rather say that there are negative attitudes to sex amongst my own social networks which are unremarkable. By passing uncommented on they receive a broad tacit approval. I look around and in this regard my social networks seem typical of my local community, my country and what the U.S.A. and U.K. at least look like on T.V. Let me give an example that you also might be familiar with;

When my daughter was just born (literally days old) a member of my extended family said that we would need to get a shotgun to keep the boys away when she was older. What they were trying to say was that she looked beautiful. I find it completely pervy that to do that they had to age a just-born infant until they were of sexual age. Her infant beauty was best expressed to this man in a sexual context. That’s part of the pedophilic and sexist gaze that women have to deal with in our society. Why can’t they just be beautiful babies? But that’s not the objection I want to focus on right now.

I’m asking, in the hypothetical future why am I shotgun blocking my child’s sex-life anyway? It’s true that sex has dangers and that as a parent I will want to protect my child from those dangers when they loom. However sex also has pleasures. As a parent I want my child to enjoy her body and her life including her hypothetical future sex life. When my child’s future sexual attractiveness is contemplated why then are we supposed to go to the dangers of that first in our heads?

By contrast what if my child had have kicked into the air causing everyone to exclaim that they would have a big future in footy. People make those kind of lame predictions around infants. I’m prepared to speculate that per capita more people are injured playing football than are injured having sex. However the first place people would have gone in their minds wouldn’t have been the dangers of footy. Instead people would have imagined the joys of footy. In fact for those for whom footy means a lot they wouldn’t have been thinking about footy so much as just imagining their toe connected perfectly to the ball. Just the word Footy would have triggered a whole swell of positive memories not wariness at all.

Confession time; I’m not a footy fan. Hence it’s not a great metaphor to stick with. I do however love climbing trees. For me just the words “climbing trees” are like a sonic massage of my joy glands in the way that the word footy might be for you. Climbing trees is even more dangerous than footy though. Everyone either breaks something climbing trees or comes awfully close or they just aren’t that into climbing trees. But such danger is not my first thought.

Thinking about the dangers of climbing trees is important. It’s important to the joy of tree climbing even. You won’t after all make it to the top where the best view is, if you fall down halfway. You might have to cease your tree-climbing while a broken arm heals.  It’s unlikely but you might die and never climb a tree again. However any thought of danger only makes sense in the context of the joy of tree-climbing.  The joy is the point to considering and avoiding the danger.

When our first thought is of the dangers not the joy of tree climbing then the meaning of both joy and danger change. We might as well put fences around climbable trees or chop them all down, or stand between them and our children with a shotgun. Even the joy of tree climbing has become a danger itself as it just tempts us to climb anyway - bad, bad joy.

That thought makes me sad and angry. In fact in response I am playing a movie in my head involving my heroic liberation of trees for the climbing. Fences are torn away. Axes and shotguns are broken over my knee. Children cheer. It is a very kick-ass movie.

Sex-positivity is just applying this kind of attitude (to climbing trees) to sex. Dangers are considered in the context of joys rather than joys treated in the context of danger. Sometimes this is justified as “natural”. I don’t care for “natural” as a justification. It’s a very woolly term which makes no sense if like me you see nature as morally neutral. I don’t think because we can’t breathe water that scuba diving is some sort of perversity of the natural order for example. Likewise I’m not interested in cultivating a “natural” attitude to sex or defending sex-positivity as natural.

For me the only argument for sex-positivity is well… positive sex. Just like with footy or climbing trees I’m not really thinking about sex here. I’m just imagining my toe connecting perfectly with the ball metaphorically – if you know what I mean. If for you sex has been a negative experience then I would respect your emphasis on its dangers. That makes sense. But my experience of sex has sometimes been even better than climbing trees. It makes sense that I recall its joys for their own sake.

To do that however puts me at odds with those cultural elements which are sex-negative. The more those elements are around me the more my sex-positivity is a reactionary stance. I have to become a sex-rebel. That creates a problem.

Reactionary stances have a lot of energy behind them. They’re angry and frustrated. That makes them especially attractive to hijackers who want to use that energy. All positions can be hijacked. Look at the way the desire to feel successful is hijacked by marketers of luxury goods or how greed is hijacked by political parties to get re-elected. Reactionary positions can be co-opted in the same way but are often even more useful to their hijackers because they are regularly being ignited by what they react against. Lots of enthusiastic energy keeps being generated.

Reactionary movements also can lack self-confidence and the language to express themselves. Sex-positivity is a prime example. If you grew up like me then you are grew up surrounded by almost entirely cautionary messages about sex. You and I were also not given the language to say why this is wrong. This is a hijackers perfect opportunity. They can provide the language that puts them at the centre of any solution to the problem of sex-negativity.

One great hijacker of sex-positivity is the sex-industry. This broad grouping of businesses making toys and porn, selling sexual services or running workshops on sexual activities are not in my mind evil. Some of them are trading what they believe are quality products and services.  Some are definitely not though. Some are the worlds worst employers as well. However good or bad they are businesses. They are almost entirely motivated by profit. To the extent that they are telling you that your liberation from sex-negativity requires you feeding that profit warning bells ought to go off. They are co-opting sex-positivity for their own ends.

Let’s be really clear. There is absolutely no need to watch DVDs, read magazines, learn jargon, buy expensive gear, attend conferences and trade fairs, or join on-line forums in order to embrace the joy of tree-climbing. These commercial activities are not climbing trees. Nor are such things necessary to be sex-positive. To labor the point they are not sex. You can even dislike all those things and be hugely sex-positive. Porn merchants will try and tell you otherwise but they are trying to sell you porn.

Some other hijackers of sex-positivity are actually some spiritual and religious movements. I have encountered people who argue that their faith adherants are the only true sex-positives and that if sex-positivity is my goal then I should follow their teachings about sex, buy their books, attend their workshops, buy more books and so on. There seems to be almost as much money changing hands here as in the sex-industry. Once again though, these are not all evil people. In fact they are not even all motivated by profit but sometimes genuinely by concern.

However there is no need to understand a theology of tree-climbing. You do not have to have a metaphysical opinion on the tree before you ascend one for the love of it. Tree climbing has its own joys accessible on their own. Anyone who steps between the tree and you and claims their complicated mumbo-jumbo must be grasped for tree climbing-positivity’s sake is co-opting that stance for their own movements goals. Anyone who steps between sex and you and claims their religion must first be grasped for sex-positivity’s sake is doing the same.

On that last point please put everything I have to say about sex in the same category. It is not necessary to read my blog to explore a positive sex life. As I’ve gotten older I’ve grown resistant to attempts to hijack my sex-positivity. However there is  also a “natural” tendency to become a hijacker ourselves as we get older. There is such powerful energy behind sex-positivity. It is tempting to harness this energy to other causes -in my case, feminism. I’ve seen it harnessed to promote veganism for goodness sake. Maybe feminists and vegans do have better sex. However sex has its own joys – all on its own. You don’t really need to position yourself in a grand theory of gender or give up meat in order to find those joys.

I actually think that the pursuit of the joys of sex will lead us to make healthier decisions in the rest of our lives. However I wouldn’t want to make a religion out of it either. If we go down that route we re-open the door to all the hijackers to complicate matters again. Perhaps the other part of sex-positivity is this; It’s not a way to be cooler than everyone else, its not the salvation of our souls, it’s certainly not the answer to everything. Its just sex. And that’s good enough.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Sex Mapping (Across the Universe) Part 2. - The funner bit.

Gender based sexualities: Relatively fixed patterns of sexual attraction to one gender or another or both that give us the labels of homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual.

 In my last post I conducted a rudimentary deconstruction of gender based sexualities. I tried to show how the origin of this type of classification was to contain and reduce sexual behaviour that went against patriarchal gender organization. I rushed through a lot of information. If you want to read more I would recommend tracking down some of the writings of Denis Altman. I don't think I said anything outside the mainstream of sociological views of the western history of sexuality however.

I ended that piece promising fun and I hope I deliver with this post. To begin with lets return to the gender based sexualities. Sometimes these are referred to as boxes. You fit into either homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. That’s a bizarre construction because bisexual is really just a box for those who don’t fit the other two. It seems strange to make it a type when it is more of an anti-type and it feels to me like its purpose is to contain in its own box the very fact that the boxes don’t always work. Think about it, how bisexual is an average bisexual? What box fits people who are a bit bisexual and bit monosexual? Bi-bi-sexual?

The category of bisexual indicates that lots of people struggle to find themselves in these discrete boxes. There are sometimes traumatic exits and entries into different categories. One way of reducing that trauma is to knock the sides of the boxes to produce a spectrum of sexuality that looks like this.

Now we can inhabit any number of points along the spectrum. We have gone from three to a potentially infinite number of categories (Eg. “mostly both but a little more into guys”.) I still feel though that a map of sexuality that looks like this is too colourless to correspond to my world. People are spectacularly diverse and a single line doesn’t seem to capture that at all. The artist in me recoils. Is this how one dimensional the world looks to you?

In my last post I described how for some people gender based sexualities describe a deep truth. For those people a relatively fixed point on this spectrum makes sense.

Then there are those of us who are more amenable and responsive to what culture is determining about sexuality around us. Or to put it another way, we meet a lot of different needs with our relationships and some people seem to be better able to adjust what they find attractive to what meets those needs. I’m thinking of the women I know who genuinely had wonderful lesbian relationships in their twenties and thirties but now heading past forty find they are predominantly attracted to men. Sometimes these people get maligned for being fair-weather lesbians; ie. now that they are out of university and toting nappy bags at play groups they seek the respectability of heterosexuality. I really don’t get why that is maligned though. It seems like a “smart” sexuality to adapt to social circumstances beyond your control. Indeed it seems like we all do something like this – turning down the hottie with the right genetics because they have a gambling problem for example rather than continuing our pursuit based on a fixed sexuality. Some people just seem to be able to adapt more effectively in regard to the gender pattern of their attractions.

Such a changing sexuality only warrants criticism if you presume that for all people there is an innate and fixed gender based sexuality that they are betraying. That to me is imposing a map onto people rather than mapping from people. That’s why if I was to map sexuality I would have to add at least one extra axis.

Now we’ve effectively doubled the positions a person can occupy with their sexuality. (Double infinity is a lot!) Some people might identify as fixed, will always prefer one gender over the other and no amount of cultural change will affect that. That explains the people who were gay and lesbian in the nineteen fifties for example. Other people (like myself) have a preference but experience shifts in their lifetime.

Note: Recognizing fluidity in some people’s sexuality is not an endorsement of proposed therapies to turn gay people straight (or vice versa if one exists) and not just because fluidity doesn’t appear to be universal. Something can change (the seasons change for example) but therapies can’t honestly claim to direct that change without any proof. Besides you can’t fix what isn’t broken.

Some people who will have stopped reading by now. Those who have left may be bored by talking about sex or even by sex itself. For them the notion of a identity rooted in sexual desire is profoundly disinteresting. Yet how do they place themselves on the single line or even our dual axis map of sexuality? They can’t. There’s no place for a person to simply respond with “Don’t care.”

I actually consider that to be quite a large flaw with our sexual map. The value of a system of identification is diminished if people are obliged to pick any category over no category. How do you establish the worth of their choice? To remedy that with our own model lets step into the third dimension with an additional axis.

There are now so many more markedly different points a person can occupy. With our two new axis we have opened up spaces that had no place on the original single line. I think that makes it harder to construct a normal category. In a whole classroom of hormone-addled teenagers there may still not be two people in exactly the same place. I hope by now there are already some blown-minds contemplating a three dimensional sexual identity. My partner and I were on interestingly different points ourselves. Where are you?

Try and imagine an outer layer to our sexuality sphere. In that outer layer there are people who are extremely fixed or fluid, preferring one gender over another, and into sex over reading or reading over sex. Let’s call them extremes. In the core of our sphere are the absolute moderates who are a bit of both in all three categories. Imagine if those were two boxes (instead of homosexual and heterosexual). It’s a very different way of looking at the world.

But we can go further. If the limits of our graph (and our three dimensional world) only permit us three axes we ought to ask ourselves if the ones we’ve chosen are the most important ones for ourselves. Particularly if we drop the gender based line we move radically away from the original gender based sexuality scheme. We can now formulate a language of sexuality that is almost completely alien from what we are usually given to work with. I think that’s a great exercise even if we return to the gender based axis as more personally useful. We will have opened our mind to very different ways of identifying our own and others’ sexuality.

When I was in Canada for a year I found it interesting that more people there identified their sexuality in terms of the type of person they wanted to be in a relationship themselves (rather than by the object of their attraction).  If someone told me about a new lover in Canada they would often say things like “they make me feel confident and happy with myself or I’m constantly on my toes and have to keep my wits about me or they make me feel strong and protective or safe and protected.” In Australia however people tend to talk about a new lover entirely in that lover’s attributes; “they’re funny, they’re ruggedly handsome, they’re a brilliant dancer, they bake a great muffin” etc.

When we switch our horizontal axis out we might want to change it for something that is more about us than our ideal partner. Using this graph as an example, who might you be standing next to, that previous graphs put you opposite?

Maps like this allow us to express natural sympathies that exist amongst people that are traditionally grouped apart. My mother once complained about the tawdry immodesty of Sydney's Mardi Gras. I told her that there were would be some lesbians and gay men that shared her feelings. Similarly you can be a Mills and Boone romantic waiting for someone to sweep you off your feet with rugged intensity - whether they are your own gender or not. Or you might find that nauseous. Why shouldn't we map sexuality along lines such as these rather than a line that may not say anything about what's most important to us?

Sexual identification is something that goes on in our society. We cop it and we do it. Originally it began as a tool to aid patriarchy but it has evolved into something else and it is still evolving. Where will it go next and what do you want to call your own sexuality? The implications of a society whose members are able to do that with unlimited variability are unknown and exciting.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sex Mapping (Across the Universe) Part 1.

What does it mean to say that you or someone else is lesbian or gay or bisexual or heterosexual? These words are identities. You or I might identify someone with one of these labels who wouldn’t identify with such a label themselves.

This is partly because these words are part of a schema of understanding sexuality. If a person doesn’t share that schema they may not agree with your identifications even if they agree on all “the facts”. In some cultures for example men who prefer to have sex with men over women don’t consider themselves to be gay. Likewise not everyone who exclusively has sex with their "opposite" gender considers that a result of their heterosexuality.

The schema that underpins homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual identifications has four key elements:
  • Sexual attraction is a distinct and special type of attraction (we can talk about sexual attraction as separate from just the pursuit of status or pleasure or as distinct from our need for other types of love).
  • Sexual attraction experienced in one instance is not a completely unique phenomenon. It will have something to do with the sexual attraction experienced in another instance. (Hence you can draw a pattern of attraction over a period of your life. You can meaningfully talk about commonalities between the people you find attractive.).
  • The most meaningful pattern of sexual attraction regards the gender of your object of attraction. (It’s more important for identification if all your desired lovers are men or women than that they are all short or into Dr.Who. Strangely, its even more important for identity if you’re attracted to both men and women than if you are just attracted to fans of Dr.Who )
  • Sexual attraction is relatively innate and fixed.

I’m not saying these four elements are the reason for our use of lesbian, gay, bi and heterosexual as identifications (hereafter called gender-based sexualities). These four elements are merely requirements after the fact.

That’s a bold claim I’m making. I’m saying that our gender based sexualities don’t spring from the universal reality of the above four elements. Instead the reality of the above four elements is imposed on us in order for gender based sexualities to work.

I base that belief on the following points;
  • Gender based sexual identities are relatively recent ideas. They emerged during the western scientific enlightenment as pathologies (both heterosexual and homosexual were first use to identify disorders) and became popularized through the rise of medicine and psychology in the 18th century. Their original purpose was not sociological but diagnostic. The rise of that diagnostic (and curative) aim directly coincides with the falling away of religion as a means of controlling gender relations through sexuality. I believe gender based sexual identities are where we turned to in order to continue that particular job in an increasingly secular world.
  • Opposition to homosexual practice has historically been bound up with concern over gender relations. Firstly gay male practice is most strongly reviled on the basis that it treats higher status men as like-women in sex at least. This is as old as Leviticus in the Bible. In modern homophobia where heterosexual sex is itself sometimes understood via violent porn images, homosexuality is seen as men inviting rape by being willing to “take it like a woman”. In both cases the motivation for homophobia is maintaining the normal gender hierarchy and punishing the symbolic subjugation of men.
  • Gay male relationships also contradict certain politically and economically prescribed male to male interactions. Men have historically been expected to co-operate or compete with each other without particularity, i.e. as a team with a common cause rather than independent horizontal allegiances. It is important for the military, police, and business as traditionally male dominated spheres that men don’t fall in love with a fellow soldier for example (or worse an enemy!). Such attachments can challenge vertical chains of authority. ( This wasn’t a problem when sex and romantic love were not joined at the hip but became one as we culturally connected the two.
  • Lastly women’s gay relationships are opposed on the basis that they allow women to replace their emotional dependence on men. This is evident in the problematising of women’s “special” friendships as proto-lesbian whether at a young age or older age in early psychological literature. (Female Homosexuality: A Psychodynamic Study of Lesbianism, Frank Caprio, M.D., 1954 ) There may be no sex but the emotional allegiance to other women is opposed just as vehemently. The “problem” of lesbianism has consistently been framed as a fear of men and male authority. The “cure” is to switch that fear for a love for the same.
  • The function of gender based sexualities has been to contain homosexual behaviour by attributing it to a personality type (originally a disorder) which is then inescapably inclined to continue that behaviour. When the behaviour is criminal that’s a powerful disincentive to dally in it.  This containment has reduced people’s reporting of same-sex attraction and may have reduced same-sex sexual behaviour. I believe that was their purpose.

From this I conclude that gender based sexualities began as a continuing means of restraining behaviour that didn’t support how gender was needed to organize society. Put simply our sexual identifications are hangovers from the needs of patriarchy.

However did you feel while reading the above points that they are somewhat out-dated? I agree. In what gets called late-stage capitalist, symbolic capitalist, post-modern or consumer culture the above points are not as relevant as they were under early capitalism. For one thing we aren’t being organized by society into mom and pop nuclear families. As consumers and as self-employed contractors instead of the nostalgic “working family” we are encouraged to be both absolute individuals and yet interchangeable with each other. Gender as a broad category to belong to is arguably less important in our economy.

The social dimensions of this are important. There is (though not without opposition) a growing culture of non-hierarchical heterosexual relationships. Men aren’t presumed to be on top of women in the bedroom. Hence gay male couples aren’t presumed to include one man acting as a symbolic victim/woman. Men also aren’t prohibited from particular emotional attachments with each other. The buddy film (eg. Lethal Weapon) and Snag culture put paid to that. And subsequently gay men are able to serve in many more armies than they recently were. We don’t want women making babies instead of careers necessarily so there’s no need to be (as) concerned about their emotional independence from men. Most importantly we have officially stopped using gender based sexualities as mental illness categories since the 1970’s. Gender based sexualities may have genuinely evolved into something other than control mechanisms.

Furthermore I am not convinced the right view is that gender based sexuality is entirely constructed and imposed from outside us. There are people you meet who are straight and who you think could never be anything other than straight. There are others who are not straight absolutely and deeply. Some of the horrific treatments people have endured to change their sexuality from lesbian or gay to heterosexual are heartbreaking. Sometimes people volunteer for these treatments. The ineffectiveness of their will and ultimately of torture to change themselves suggest that a gender based sexuality for them is far stronger than mere socialization would permit.

For a great many people it does seem that all the elements – the distinctiveness of sexual attraction, the meaningfulness of a gender based pattern to that attraction, and the unchangeable nature of that pattern are very powerful realities. It’s not impossible that this is a consequence of extreme socialization however that doesn’t feel right. If some people are exceptionally able to be socialized (and that’s why they have a clear gender-based sexuality) how could any of those people be lesbian or gay? There are hardly social rewards (outside of small subcultures) for those sexualities. It really seems we have a language here that despite its short history is telling some peoples deep truth in a way we haven’t expressed before.

Lastly in contradiction of their original aim gender based sexualities have been taken up as sites from which to challenge violence done to people for experiencing same-sex attraction. What previously justified electro-shock therapy, chemical castration and worse is now used to prevent those treatments. In fact without gender based sexualities it seems hard to imagine how rights for gay people could have been articulated. This has even included the reclamation of derogatory terms. The original "negative" – that sexuality is a condition beyond conscious control – has become the basis for government action to support people experiencing same-sex attraction.

“Heterosexuals” have also used the concept of their own innate sexuality as a way of articulating needs and wants. People in sexless heterosexual marriages can say how their lives are impoverished with the language gender based sexualities give them. Women’s sexual desire is certainly much more acknowledged than in the past whether as lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual. Arranged marriages are increasingly viewed as unjust for one thing. A sexuality is seen as something we are all entitled to express. Without the concept of an innate sexuality could we have empowered such choices as we have?

Sexual identification is something that goes on in our society. We cop it and we do it. Only recently it began as a tool to aid patriarchy but it has evolved even more recently into something else and it is still evolving. In my next piece on this topic I want to play around with it further and see how we can continue making something of our own out of it.

It’ll be fun.