Monthly Archives: July 2006

Marriage isn’t radical enough — why fight for it?

I’ve written way more about the same-sex marriage fights than I ever intended to write. And apparently I’m not finished yet. This morning an amazing thing happened. The New York Times reminded me of my own objections to fighting the same-sex marriage fight. Of course I’ve largely conceded those objections but I was so happy to see the argument acknowledged that I had to blog about it.

In today’s Sunday Syles piece, Anemona Hartocollis begins with a brief profile of a gay activist who believes the fight for same-sex marriage rights is misguided. His objection is that marriage is not radical enough. I absolutely agree.

Marriage is an institution that has, historically, been oppressive and limiting and not based on romantic or sexual love. It has more often, historically, been a way to preserve property rights and sexual rights for men and has depended on unequal divisions of labor which have disadvantaged generations of women. In the US it represents a legal obligation to remain monogamous, though of course many people shun that obligation. (And to digress for just a moment, isn’t it interesting that “monogamy” has come to refer only to sexual relationships while “polygamy” remains definitionally linked to legal marriage?)

If marriage is, now, about romantic love and sexual love and individual commitments made between partners, why should anybody need the state to sanction those vows? Certainly marriage does not confer significant long-term stability with so many marriages ending in divorce. Certainly many people find it difficult to remain “monogamous” in the sexual sense whether they are married or not. Why fight for what seems, perhaps, like a dying institution or one that relies on traditional, outdated, and limiting expectations about sexual behavior?

And yet…

And yet… the piece of paper that is a marriage certificate confers a great number of state-sponsored or state-supported rights and provides access to important resources. In this sense, marriage really is NOT about romantic and sexual love. Marriage is still the contractual arrangement that it has always been, but it is better understood as a contract between individuals and the state rather than between individuals and each other. And that access is currently exclusively the domain of people who are granted “heterosexual privilege.”

I am a great example of someone who benefits from heterosexual privilege without being heterosexual. I love, adore, am sexually attracted to men, women, and especially people who blur those categories in interesting ways. I am not “straight” but I benefit from heterosexual privilege because I am in a relationship with a man. I have been in relationships with women where I did not have the choice to marry or to reject marriage. I have been in relationships with men where I have had that choice. And twice I have chosen to marry.

My first marriage was an idealistic and failed attempt to renegotiate the traditional structure of marriage. We wrote vows that, if read carefully, disavowed any promise of monogamy, for example. There were many conflicts that caused the end of that relationship (and certainly being married did not prevent the end from coming). One conflict certainly involved our differing levels of commitment to living in a household that didn’t follow the mainstream script. And because our desire to marry was all about being in love with each other and with the idea of creating a radical marriage, when the radical marriage part didn’t work out, the “being in love” part was suddenly vulnerable to all of the other threats by which “being in love” is prone to being attacked.

When Will and I started our relationship we rejected the idea of marriage. It seemed unnecessary. We didn’t need the state to recognize our commitment to each other, we didn’t particularly want to follow the mainstream script. My family accepted our relationship as valid regardless of our marital status. Will’s parents wouldn’t promote us to a shared bed until we were married but we visited their household infrequently enough that sleeping in separate beds was hardly an unendurable trial.

We married for unromantic reasons, and it was that decision that made me again reconsider my own objections to the same-sex marriage fight. After my first marriage ended I had recommitted myself to rejecting institutions that were based on unjust privilege. If Will had been a woman we could not have married. Why should we take part in an institution that excludes so many people so arbitrarily? And, why take part in an institution that is all about legal obligations, really, and not about love?

As it turns out, the reason was “Exactly because it is all about legal obligations and not about love.” But not about Will’s obligations to me or mine to him. Those have not changed since we married. Nor has our love for one another. Rather we chose to marry because it clarified the state‘s obligations to us.

An event occurred in our relationship that made it suddenly very important to me that my position in Will’s life and his in mine be respected by the state, by Will’s children, and by our employers. I think it is wrong that marriage as defined in US society is the ticket to these protections. If marriage is, at its heart, a contract between individuals and the state, then why cannot any combination of people enter into that contract? I understand the need for the contract but I don’t understand the limitations placed on the number and gender of parties to it.

However, for as long as marriage-as-defined is the ticket, then we need to continue to fight for universal access. Same-sex marriage is a tricky issue. It retains the monogamy part of the traditional arrangement and it accepts the continued disadvantaging of singles. In my ideal world, things like health care and pension benefits and hospital visitation rights, for example, would not be linked to marital status. The first two would be universally provided and regarding the third individual wishes would always be respected. But I’ve come to believe in incremental steps.

In other words, I would like to see marriage-as-we-know it by and large rejected. But people can only reject something they are free to choose, and right now many people are not free to choose marriage in the first place. So, the fight need to be either to eliminate marriage altogether, or to expand the definition of marriage so that it is more inclusive. The later road seems, for now, to lead to greater equality and justice for. But it should not be seen as the end of the road!

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under News..., public discourse, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality

Risks and Complications (and necessity) of Reconceptualizing Sexual Orientation

I remember in college becoming a Rita Mae Brown addict. I especially loved Bingo and Six of One, two novels about a small town that straddled the PA/MD border and thus was half in the north and half in the south. Her setting of the town in this way perfectly reflected her characters’ tendencies to defy easy categorization. I was instantly turned on by this because it provided me a sense that my own difficulties in classifying myself were not unheard of. Later, I discovered Carol Queen and other sex-radical sex-positive writers who told their own stories about breaking down boundaries between gender and sexuality categories.

As I wrote yesterday, I think that breaking down our sexual orientation categories would help us to understand the complexity of sexuality more clearly. But doing so has risks. Identity groups can organize for social change in ways that individuals have a hard time doing. The gay rights movement wouldn’t have been possible without a gay/lesbian identity to organize around. That movement has expanded to include people who identify as bisexual, and to include transfolk, and has gone a long way toward fighting discrimination against people who don’t comply with heteronormative dominant culture. Breaking down that sense of sexual orientation as we know it — as fundamental, perhaps biological, based on a limited number of categories — could mean losing an important organizing tool, and that means making it harder, perhaps, to protect people from harm, from discrimination, from violence.

That is especially problematic given that there is another risk in fracturing sexual orientation categories into thousands of pieces and focusing on behavior instead of broadly-defined identities. The religious right, which often also reduces sexual orientation to behavior, might then have ammunition to use in its war against all non-reproductive-marital sex. I don’t want to underestimate this risk. So if we begin to do this, we of course need to be committed to actively building sex-positive spaces and doing that probably requires being much more open about our day-to-day sexual realities so that the real sexual diversity that does exist in our society can be made visible and connected to real human beings.

People who benefit from heterosexual privilege need to ‘come out’ about their own sexual activities. They need to own up to the porn they watch, the BDSM clubs they visit, the polyamorous relationships they work hard to maintain. Doing this will help end discrimination against people who identify as gay or lesbian in a way much more lasting than our current efforts at protecting people based on sexual orientation categories. No longer would we have to fight to have our sexual orientations grudgingly “tolerated.” Instead, we would be developing a culture that accepts sexual diversity broadly, where no consensual sexual relationships and activities are stigmatized.

In other words, we would finally have reached a point in our cultural evolution where ‘sex is good’ is part of the mainstream belief system. Once sex is good, we will have to worry much less about sex being used as way for one group to dominate other groups.

In one of my favorite essays on oppression, Marilyn Frye uses a birdcage as a metaphor for the complex structures of oppression and privilege. Heterosexism is one wire in that cage and it is connected to all the others. It is connected to the wires of race, gender, class, ethnicity, age, political power, etc. While you can’t destroy the cage by removing a single wire, removing one wire weakens the others. Here is just one example: If “sex is good” no matter who is having it or how they’re having it, then interracial sexual relationships are good. If interracial sexual relationships are good it is harder to keep people segregated by race.

I don’t mean to suggest that reconceptualizing sexuality on its own will result in utopia, but it is a necessary part of creating a just, equal, safe, free society.

2 Comments

Filed under Gender, public discourse, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality

Yet another example of how our sexual orientation categories are inadequate

This morning’s New York Times editorial page contains a piece about HIV/AIDS in prisons. The idea is this: even though many men in prison don’t identify as gay or homosexual, they are still having sex with men and they need appropriate HIV/AIDS prevention education and materials.

The problem, identified by the Times, is that discomfort with the idea that men are having sex with men leads some prison officials to deny that it is happening. I would suggest that this does not describe the problem completely. Another part of the problem is that many people simply can’t believe that straight men have sex with men, too. After all, if you’re a man doesn’t having sex with a man mean that you’re gay? NO! Of course not. Certainly you can be “straight” and have sex with men, just like you can be “gay” and be married and have sex with your wife. Broadly defined identity categories rarely capture the variability of individual experience. This, I submit, is because the categories we use are inadequate.

Clearly men who think of themselves as straight sometimes want sex with men. Also clearly, or at least clearly to me, sexual orientation is much more about identity and self-definition than it is about the behaviors we engage in. This must be true because even celibate people have ideas about their sexual orientations.

What if, instead of thinking about sexual orientation in terms of a small number of categories that are supposed to capture some part of our deepest identity, we think about sexual orientation more literally: that is, how we are oriented to sex. What kinds of sex do we enjoy? What kinds of partners do we enjoy sex with, and not just gender-wise, but more even specifically than that. (After all, neither lesbians nor straight men are attracted to all women, just some women, and so on down the SO categories.) I recognize that this fractures sexual orientation into thousands of possible categories and that doing so wrecks havoc with identity politics, and that wrecking havoc with identity politics has some risks. But we need to take those risks right now. The Times editorial provides one good reason why.

If we could address questions like these openly, honestly and without fear of stigma, we could address public health questions like the one raised in todays Times editorial. After all, these men who think of themselves as straight but who have, temporarily, enjoyed sex with men, will get out of prison one day and go on to resume relationships with women or form new ones. These women, thinking of themselves as being involved with straight men, might well underestimate their risk of HIV, believing that their men were celibate during their prison time.

This is not a new problem. Sex educators have for a long time encouraged people to discuss their sexual histories with new partners. But our categories of sexual orientation get in the way, I think. For a man who really thinks of himself as straight to admit to sexual desires for another man, or to having been assaulted by a man, or even to just using another man for pleasure during a prolonged time away from women, the stigma attached to homosexual sex, and the fear of being labeled “gay” might override his desire to be honest with a new female partner.

Changing the way mainstream US society thinks about sexual orientation is not just an interesting thing to ponder theoretically. It is necessary for safeguarding public health.

(Risks and Complications of Reconceptualizing Sexual Orientation coming soon)

(Meanwhile, for a summary of the different ways that sexual orientation has been and is conceptualized, this wikipedia entry is a pretty good one.)

1 Comment

Filed under public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexual orientation

Sex is a way of knowing

I think that is one reason that sex is so fascinating to me. It is a way to really get to know people. And a way for me to deepen my knowledge of myself.

Sex is a way that I continue to learn and test my physical capacity for pleasure, for pain, for blending the two. I learn my limits. I learn what my body can do. I am thrilled by those discoveries. Some of my favorite sexual moments have not been orgasm-centered but rather have focused on extending some capacity of my body. The excitement of discovering some new capacity, the, “wow, I didn’t know I could do that!” moment precedes the physical pleasure of the “oh yes that feels good” moment.

Sex is a way that I learn about my mind. My fantasies, my desires, my hesitations, my fears, all these are exposed through sex.

Sex with other people, sexual interaction, is thrilling because it is thrilling to discover what turns people on, how they communicate what they want, how they express pleasure, what they’re afraid of, how they fantasize and how they feel about their desires.

When I have sex with someone for the first time I am often very forward but I don’t want to “run the show.” I want to know how people will interact with my passion, my energy, with whatever I put out there. It’s like dance. I want to know if I move this way how will you move? If I say this what will you do? Then how will I respond? I want to know what you want and how you can make me feel. I want to know how you will react to the exposure and vulnerability and power of sex and how I will react to your power and vulnerability.
And the people I most want to have sex with are people who somehow stimulate my curiosity or who are just so good at something that I can’t help but be turned on. In that way, too, sex is a way of knowing, of learning. Or rather, knowing and learning is, to me, often very sexual. Some examples:

A few days ago I was watching someone enter data on a DOS machine. I’d never seen anyone do this before. There was a series of numbers and letters on the screen that looked like gibberish to me and yet this person pointed out some lines of numbers and read it as if it written in English. I was instantly turned on. I know he can’t teach me how to write DOS statistical programs by having sex with me, but now I am curious about him in a new way. It’s as if the part of my mind that is stimulated by new curiosities is the same part of my mind that sexually stimulates the rest of me.

Another example: Connversations with people who are clearly passionate and expert in a field will often turn me on, if they capture my curiosity. I can remember this happening with a brilliant lawyer when talking about constitutional rights, with a historian when talking about medieval Europe, with a labor organizer when talking about arbitration rules, with an engineer when talking about machine vision. The criteria seem to be that the conversation center on something about which I know little about, that I become curious about it through the conversation, and that the person to whom I’m talking is both expert and passionate about the subject.

Knowledge is a turn-on. Skill is a turn-on. People doing what they’re good at are sexy. This is why long-term monogamy seems so potentially limiting to me.

There is always more to know.

3 Comments

Filed under public discourse, sex, sex -- kinds of

A new “rationale” for opposing same sex marriage?!

This just in! The House of Representatives failed to find enough votes to pass a proposed amendment to the Constitution restricting marriage to one man and one woman. And this despite the introduction of a brand new rationale for opposing same-sex marriage: Peace in the Middle East!

According to the New York Times, today, Georgia Republican Phil Gingrey said that maintaining traditional definitions of marriage “is perhaps the best message we can give to the Middle East and all the trouble they’re having over there right now.”

Really. He said that.

I admit I’m puzzled and don’t know what he means, exactly. Is he saying that the best message we can give to the Middle East is that we’re increasing support for discrimination in the United States? Is he saying that the best message we can give to the Middle East is that we’re too busy trying to find ways to restrict access to marriage to pay attention to “all the trouble they’re having over”? Or, is he actually saying that the best message we can send to the Middle East is that we are becoming more sexually and socially conservative? If that is the message he thinks we should be sending, perhaps we ought to ask him what other “traditional” family policies he’d like to introduce or re-introduce.

We know he’d like to roll back abortion access (on his blog he calls himself a “pro-life” OBGYN) Perhaps he’d like to go back to a more “traditional” time when women could not own property, and did not have a right to their own wages? (Keep women financially dependent on men and divorce will decrease!) Would he prefer to adopt the Saudi policy of forbidding women to drive? There are, after all, many ways to limit freedom.

I wrote a few entries ago about the symbiosis between opposition to same-sex marriage and support for sexist gender roles. Representative Gingrey’s statement would seem to further support a connection between the two positions.

It may seem like a purely symbolic vote, today, given that the Senate rejected this amendment back in May, but it’s worth noting that 236 House members voted in favor of the amendment (187 voted against, 1 voted “present” and 9 didn’t vote), and that the supporters acquired 9 more votes than they had two years ago when they tried this the last time.

Retaining “traditional” marriage in the U.S. is not going to bring peace to the Middle East. I can’t imagine even Rep. Gingrey thinks that this vote has anything to do with helping to resolve the crises in the Middle East. But if this is part of an effort to move back to more “traditional” gender roles we all need to be paying very close attention because the effort isn’t likely to end with the marriage amendment.

Comments Off on A new “rationale” for opposing same sex marriage?!

Filed under Gender, News..., public discourse, Same-Sex Marriage

“Heading South”

I haven’t seen the “Heading South” yet, but I just read this Sunday Styles piece about the movie in today’s New York Times. It seems sort of like “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” but with white women doing the travelling and with the exploitation made much more clear.

I’m interested in how people will talk about the film. Will they compare the travels of these women to the sex-tourism travels of men seeking out young girls and boys in Asia? Will the focus of conversation be on the race and age differences? Will it be on the paying for sex or the colonialist undertones? Will they say “you go girl” and cheer on the women who are acknowledging their sexual needs and exercising their autonomy?

Here is what I want to talk about: How difficult for is it for older women in the U.S. to find interesting sex partners in the U.S.? Apparently this film is resonating with older women in the U.S. It certainly does seem like our dominant culture defines older women as less desirable partners for men. Is it coincidence that this film hits a nerve in the same time period as Dateline obsession with online sex predators which always seem to be men looking for underage sex partners? If there are older men seeking sex partners and older women seeking sex partners why are they portrayed as needing to enter into exploitive relationships in order to have sex?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to racial, ethnic, nationality, or age differences and I’m not opposed to vacation sex. I’m not even opposed to paying for (or being paid for) sex. Far from it! But the portrayal here is of a society where people are left with “no choice” but to travel to a place where the local population has even more limited choices. Work should not be coercive whether it is sex work or other work. (That means that many of these resorts are problematic to start with! Recall the situationist slogan “Club Med: A cheap holiday in other people’s misery”)

The women quoted in the Times story all attest to the difficulties older women have finding satisfying sexual relationships. We can’t afford a culture that fetishizes youth to such a degree that men and women “of a certain age” need to leave the country to find satisfying sex with desirable partners. We can’t afford a culture that defines “desirable” so narrowly!

I suppose this is easy for me to say as I have always been attracted to people — men and women both — who are much older than I am. But the cultural point remains. Whether it is easy to shift our attentions or not, it is necessary! So lets start fetishizing experience, strength, and age. Let’s make up new language. Imagine the following personal ad:

“Smart, sexy, mature woman with silver-streaked hair and sense of humor written all over her face. Skills honed by years of experience and experimentation. Seeks adventurous partner to push the envelope. No game-playing .. except in bed!”

Okay, so writing personal ads is not going to be my second job, but doesn’t she sound hot?

One of my favorite pornographic novels, Carol Queen’s The Leather Daddy and the Femme, has a character named Mistress Georgia Strong who is described as having “long and shining black hair streaked white at the temples” and she is written as a character that has such authority, skill and experience that in my imagine, no matter how hard I try to stick to Carol Queen’s description, I convert her hair to a steely silver. And she is a powerfully erotic character, perhaps the one in the book I am most attracted to. If you haven’t read the book yet, believe me, you would not pass up a chance to offer yourself to Georgia Strong!

So, let’s get out there and make images of older sexy women (and men). It’s one thing to finally depict older women as having sexual needs and desires, as possessors of lust and passion. Now let’s paint them as objects of lust and passion!

Comments Off on “Heading South”

Filed under culture, Gender, public discourse, sex, sexuality and age

Homophobia and sexism

I remember the first time I read Suzanne Pharr’s book Homophobia: A weapon of sexism. It was back in the early 1990s and I was an undergraduate taking a class called “Philosophy of sexuality.” It was one of those moments when an argument instantly made sense to me. Basically, the argument is that homophobia serves not only to ensure privilege for heterosexuals but it also keeps men and women “in their places” by making them afraid of being labeled as sexual outcasts. Hence the power of the taunt “fag” among boys in schoolyards. Such taunts are certainly used to keep boys conforming to norms of masculinity and they work on the rest of us by encouraging us to stick to our carefully scripted gender roles, which are linked to gendered institutions which privilege men over women.

Why bring this up today? Because I read a post on Slate that revived this argument to explain why opposition to same-sex marriage might not be grounded in homophobia, but instead might be grounded in a fear that “traditional gender roles” have been terribly undermined and need to be restored.

Richard Thompson Ford, in the Slate piece, argues that the resistance to changing gender roles is largely about symbolism and psychological attachment to clearly delineated gendered roles like “bride,” “groom,” “husband,” and “wife.” Those symbolic and psychological attachments are there, sure, but to focus on them misses the larger issue: that is institutional power and privilege, not just for heterosexuals, but for men. “Husband” and “wife” are not just psychological constructs, they are real social expectations. To change them is to change the built-in inequality that they depend on. Once marriage roles are no longer linked to gender roles, questions of division of labor and power that translate into time and money are open for renegotiation on a grand scale. If two men, married and raising a family, can manage the housework, take care of a child, and bring in the income all without a “wife,” then there is no reason that a man and a woman, married and raising a family, can’t divide up the same labor equally instead of falling back on a gendered division of labor that puts much of the responsibility for child and household care on the wife, making it difficult for her to pursue her career with equal focus as her husband pursues his and thus undermining her own economic power and independence.

Of course I hope that you support same-sex marriage because sexual orientation should not be a source of privilege or disadvantage. But even if you don’t support it for that reason, support it because same-sex marriage is a step toward gender equality.

Comments Off on Homophobia and sexism

Filed under Gender, News and politics, News..., public discourse, Same-Sex Marriage