Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Talking about sex

The main, if not the only, argument against GLBT equality made by the Right is that they don't like how we have sex. It's a little disturbing how much they think about it, though, with an obsessive fascination in physical mechanics that is positively prurient.

And this extends to the point where the Right reduce every GLBT relationship to something that is only sexual. In fact, they tr to say we aren't gay, if we aren't actually having sex. They would never, ever accept their own marriages being reduced to who does what in bed, as though sexual activity is the only definition of the relationship or orientation. But just as prejudice leads to the dehumanization of minorities into The Other, so does it here. It dehumanizes GLBT people to the level of rutting animals. And by erroneously implying that the only purpose of marriage (and sex) is reproduction, the Right contributes to this.

In many animal species , the desire for intercourse is absolutely linked to the fertility of the female. An unspayed female dog is safe on the street from males unless she's in heat, for example. Sex there is decidedly driven by the "biological imperative" and nothing else.

By contrast, sex in primates is not procreative. Which is not to say it doesn't have a procreative function, but its function is not limited to making babies. Just think of the bonobo chimpanzees, who use sexual stimulation as, if you'll forgive the term, a social lubricant and means of communication. Hetero, homo, it's all the same to them. If it feels good, do it. It's the opposite extreme from the dogs.

Human biology too is clearly geared for sexual acts to be uncoupled from reproduction: you can't tell easily when a human female is fertile, and moreover fertility is not seasonal, but year-round. Sex is undeniably fun and pleasuarable, encouraging us to engage in it regardless of its procreative possibilities, which we do, enthusiastically. So sex for us also has many parts beyond simple biological baby-making. It's what we choose to do with those parts that is the challenge, that elevates us above the bonobo--and the dog.

I'm unabashedly old-fashioned in this regard. I believe that that sex should be an ultimate expression of joyful union. That's what turns sex into making love. The meaning of physical expression in the context of an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual relationship is pretty darned amazing, and I think should be encouraged and supported.

So for this reason, denying marriage and partnership rights to GLBT couples is actively promoting an animalistic view of sexual expression. Other commentators have also argued that there is a deeply conservative argument for marriage equality, in part to demand sexual accountability and morality of everyone. No one gets a "free pass", the expectation for faithful monogamy and restricting sex to the context of an actual relationship should be universal. Many GLBT relationships have achieved this degree of commitment, much as the Right ignores us. Indeed, I would argue that maintaining our relationships despite the lies and excoriation they heap upon us shows our strength. Many straight relationships might find it challenging to endure what we have (and still we rise!)

In their obsession with denying that GLBT have actual relationships, as opposed to simply having sex, the Right ignores the actual problem: the "animalization" of sex that occurs throughout our society, particularly in the young. Not just gay kids, but many,many straight kids. And I think we have a social problem that has nothing to do with orientation, but a lot to do with undervaluing relationships as the proper context for sexual expression. Admittedly many people are less conservative than I, and perfectly happy in a friends-with-benefits world, but even "friends-with-benefits" has a relational context and can embody some amount of mutual respect.

Yet too many kids are way beyond that, engaging in the casual pick-up, the swapping partners, and other practices. Rather than recognizing sex as a healthy expression that should occur within a real binary relationship, they engage in meaningless physical stimulation: a bonobo-view of sex, akin to scratching an itch. I find this deeply depressing, and deeply degrading particularly to young women. The sad thing is that they will not necessarily realize this unless and until they experience sex in the context of a significant relationship, when their regret at cheapening their bodies with casual and meaningless encounters may be immense.

So the Right is too blinded by their bias and hatred for GLBT people to tackle the actual problem, which is a society and culture that elevates sex over relationships regardless of orientation. And they blame us for this, we who are married, partnered, unioned, and committed to long term and meaningful relationships, rather than blame their own inconsistency. The problem isn't GLBT people "cheapening" marriage--if anything our marriages strengthen the important links between sex and relationship. We actually share common goals.

Recognition that sexual expression is not limited to procreation and that fertility can be controlled challenges us to demonstrate the appropriate context and meaning of sexual relations. I'm not promoting abstinence-only education--far from it. But I'm arguing that part of comprehensive sex education should take a page off the abstinence folk, and put sex back in context of relationship. It's time we stop obsessing over who does what how in bed with their committed partner, and obsess instead over making healthy sexual decisions, regardless of gender and orientation. Otherwise we contribute to an ever- cheapening popular culture that would reduce all of us to the level of the bonobos.


James said...

Great article, IT. And of course, the Right is never out there working to take rights way from unmarried hetero couples, nor even condemning such sexual activity.

Erika Baker said...

My pop-psychology instinct tells me a slightly different story. The people who know what true marital intimacy is like are, on the whole, not homophobic. Where they don't like gay sex, they generally have the awareness that relationship are about so much more and they tend to be non-judgemental if not actively supportive.

But people living in cold marriages genuinely may not "get" this talk about love and friendship. To them, what makes their marriage a marriage is the sex. Friendships happen outside their marriages and love, possibly, not at all.

We all tend to project our own experiences onto others, and so I am minded to believe that those who are obsessed with our sex lives and who reduce everyting to sex, are probably living just that kind of life within their own marriages.
Which means that, when we talk of love and intimacy, they may genuinely not have a clue about what we're saying.

David said...

Erika's got a real good point there.

And I would suggest that sex divorced from feeling & emotional intimacy is as psychologically degrading for young men as it is for young women.

(an aside: my word verification for this comment was "tease" - really, no joke :)

Lisa Fox said...

A very fine essay, IT. (Sorry I missed it when you first posted it.) And, like David, I suspect Erika is onto something valid there.

Paul (A.) said...

(Also sorry I missed this the first time around; thanks for yesterday's link.)

Another point about "gay sex": From the physical standpoint there is absolutely nothing that same-sex couples do that opposite-sex couples cannot. And even "anti-homosex" theologian Robert Gagnon admits (albeit in footnotes) that such acts are licit, if not encouraged, for heterosexual couples by scripture.

So for the "conservatives" it is not really about the "act" -- it's about the people involved.

Or in other words, if it were really "unnatural", you couldn't do it.