I scurried out of my burrow the other night to attend a talk at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan entitled “Love, Sex, Politics & Relationships”. This is the kind of provocative subject that brings liberal New Yorkers out in droves sniffing for controversy and more than a little titillation. The roster of speakers seemed to promise at the very least a serving of sparks: gay sex columnist Dan Savage, best-selling author and serial bride Erica Jong and the ubiquitous Andrew Sullivan.
Two gay men and a straight woman feminist. Well, I thought, that makes some sense, since gay identity is largely a political construction and feminism is political by definition. Still, you might have thought that a talk addressing sex would include a representative from that little group of 135 million people in this country who make up “straight men”, but there you would be wrong. This is Manhattan, you see, where peoples’ sensitivities have been worn down to a dull patina by relentless over-stimulation. Here, sex is only interesting if it’s served up by renegades. Let straight men have their own talk. In Dubuque.
Given that the topic for discussion was sex and politics, I looked at my watch and noted the time counting down to the first mention of the word Nazi. I didn’t have long to wait. The moderator, a petite psychotherapist from Cornell, opened the floor to the speakers and Jong rushed into the breach by announcing to the audience that the country was in the throes of a takeover by fascists! And then she dropped the “N” bomb. It set the tone for a good part of the conversation.
But you would be wrong if you assumed that we were treated to an hour long diatribe that challenged the status quo. Oh no. What we got was a paean to normalcy, a litany of the virtues of nuclear family, marriage and parenthood. Understandably, given the cast of characters, gay takes on these issues predominated. And threading through the discussion were vague pseudo-scientific pronouncements abut the nature of men and women (basically, men with lots of testosterone = sex, women with little testosterone = culture, gay men = somewhere in between, and lesbians = whistling in the dark). The tacit acceptance of very debatable science on gender orientation seemed to say, we can’t help what we are but we basically want what you want. The value of the social institutions of marriage and traditional family was taken for granted, what was cause for action and hyperbole was resistance to access.
It was amazing to see how truly conservative the claims of the left had become. Gone were the challenges to traditional modes of living that conservatives hold up as the bugaboo to motivate their base. At one point Sullivan said that the radical right was a reaction to the excesses of the leftists of the 60’s and 70’s and no doubt it is. Also generational — people tend to become more conservative, because less resilient, as they age. The implication being that the old school radicals were wrong, in tactics if not in aim, but this generation of queers and feminists had put things right.
In 1970 one could not have imagined seeing a thrice-married admitted adulteress and two homosexual men singing the virtues of marriage. Held up as the sine qua non of the good life, they never acknowledged that half of all marriages in this country fail. As an institution it isn’t even working very well for straight people, why would gays harbor the romantic notion that it will work for them? The AIDS crisis didn’t happen because men couldn’t marry each other. I suspect that the slapdash attempt to apply a weakening heterosexual tradition to homosexual society won’t go far in solving the problems of gay identity. But we’ll just have to see.
The lack of depth in the discussion of politics and family and where they intersect was disturbing. Economics never entered into a discussion of family structures and the rhetorical battlements in the “culture wars” were taken at face value, without discussing the interdependence of “liberal” and “conservative” identities — one cannot exist without the other.
There was a fascinating moment when they all acknowledged that conservatives need the abortion debate alive in order to define themselves. If abortion goes away as an issue, those who define themselves in opposition wander aimless. Yet they failed to see that the exact same dynamic exists in the gay/straight dialectic – for both sides. Savage especially, whose politics and temperament seems to be driven more by hatred of his enemies than love of his allies, has ossified over time into a mirror image of all that he loathes. There may well be a way out of the death struggle that conservatives and liberals find themselves in on issues related to sex and liberty, but people like Savage and Jong haven’t the imagination to chart it. Instead we were treated to pseudo-scientific assumptions that reify stereotypes and foreclose political possibilities.
Sullivan is always interesting to watch at events like these. The man, a walking catalog of conflicts, inconsistencies and self-described hypocrisy, carries his virtue within him, as yet not fully expressed. If we could only get him to speak honestly, really honestly about his experience as a Catholic homosexual who lives in a milieu of heterosexual conservatives, we could all learn a lot. But, until then, we will have platitudes about the sanctity of sex and marriage.