men, masculinities and gender politics

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First published in OutSmart Magazine, Houston, February 2001, pp. 80-83.

In a discussion about sexuality with a gay man recently, I used the dreaded "M" word: morality. He visibly recoiled. "I know there are moral issues about sex," he said. "But I get nervous when I hear the two words together."

His fear made sense: When almost all talk about the morality of gay and lesbian sexuality comes from the right wing–which is all about how gay sexuality isn’t moral–it’s easy to understand why gay folks might have a knee-jerk aversion to anyone discussing gay sex in moral terms. In a world in which the expression of love and desire for a person of the same sex can be punished–by anything from a demeaning remark, to loss of a job, to a violent attack–shying away from such conversations is understandable.

But if we throw up our hands and reject any discussion of morality, we leave the topic to the fundamentalists. There is no escape from morality, nor should we seek such escape; to be human is to engage these issues. The fact that the gay community often has been judged by people with little understanding and hostile motives does not mean that we shouldn’t ask moral questions. The question is, can we engage in this moral discourse honestly, with a commitment to justice, without turning away from difficult questions?

We need to reclaim morality and redefine it, to discuss and explore whata progressive sexual ethic might look like.

First, a note about the rather complicated position from which I speak. I am a gay guy who has had a girlfriend. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m a straight man who sometimes has been sexual with men, at one point closeted and later openly. Or maybe I’m bisexual. Or maybe I’m making it up as I go along. Because I have crossed lines often, maybe I have shaky standing to speak about gay male sexuality. Or because I cross lines, maybe my vantage point provides a valuable view. Readers can make their own decisions about how, or whether, to listen to me.

I am not arguing for a single sexual ethic for all, or for an ethic to be imposed on people by some coercive power. I am simply suggesting that the discussion matters. For me, that discussion is grounded in a school of thought that is decidedly out of vogue these days: radical feminism, especially radical lesbian feminism.

Here’s my summary of that radical feminist viewpoint: Sex in our culture is built on a dynamic of domination by men and submission by women. Men in contemporary American culture are commonly trained to view sex as the acquisition of physical pleasure through the taking of women. Sex is a sphere in which men believe (by this I don’t mean that every man believes this, but that many men believe this is true for all men) themselves to be naturally dominant and women naturally passive. Women are objectified and women’s sexuality is commodified; women become a thing-to-be-taken or a thing-to-be-purchased (for example, by paying for dinner or buying a prostitute). Sex is sexy because men are dominant and women are subordinate–power is eroticized. Emotional intimacy has little or nothing to do with this sex; the sexiness of sex comes from simple physical experience and from power.

Because the object of gay male desire is the male body, not the female, it is tempting to dismiss this feminist critique as having no relevance for gay men. Yet in many ways, gay and straight men are not all that different in the way they are trained in our culture to understand and practice sex: sex as the acquisition of physical pleasure from another, sex as the exercise of power over another, sex disconnected from intimacy and affection toward another. That doesn’t mean every man, gay or straight, is locked into those values, but simply that typically we are raised with them. Those values are one part of what we can call "patriarchy"; it’s the water in which we swim.

For me, coming to understand myself as gay (in the complicated sense mentioned above) has meant not only acknowledging desire for men, but also trying to resist the patriarchal ways of thinking and acting the culture gave me. Such a commitment is difficult to make good on in a world of male privilege, and I have found few role models for how to live ethically as a man–straight or gay–in patriarchy.

Philosopher Marilyn Frye has suggested that if a gay man rejects patriarchy, he will have to do what lesbian feminists have been doing all along: invent. She writes: "He has to invent what maleness is when it is not shaped and hardened into straight masculinity, gay hypermasculinity, or effeminacy. For a man even to begin to think such invention is worthwhile or necessary is to be...the traitor to masculinity that the straight man always thought he was."

With this in mind, I want to discuss a sexual practice that is common, though by no means universal, in the gay world–anonymous sex.
A gay friend once told me, "My sex life is great, but my love life stinks." He meant that he was getting adequate physical satisfaction through casual and often anonymous sex partners he picked up, but that he felt something missing in his emotional life. His comment was not only understandable but unexceptional. In a system that views sex as the acquisition of pleasure, anonymous sex is a perfectly plausible way of obtaining sexual gratification. But does such sex provide the human connection that we seek in our erotic lives?

Promiscuous gay sex is often set off against monogamous heterosexual sex, as if the two were somehow inherently opposite. On one level, of course, the generalizations are false: Many gay men are not promiscuous and many straight men are not monogamous. But to probe further, to raise questions about anonymous sex and promiscuity is not to endorse mainstream heterosexual dictates about monogamy. Promiscuity and monogamy (whether gay or straight) are more often like flip sides of a coin. The important question is not simply the number of sexual partners, but how one has sex. A married heterosexual man can have sex with his wife in a manner that treats her as nothing more than a physical pleasure object, just as a gay man can enter the bushes in a park and engage in sex with a stranger in the same fashion.

For many men (gay and straight), life includes both a period of promiscuity (in which the goal is to have sex with as many as possible) and a period of monogamy (in which the goal is to have sex with only one, although often with the possibility of illicit sex on the side, kept out of view and hence made more exciting).

While there is no guarantee that sex within a monogamous relationship moves beyond that, anonymous sex is patriarchal sex and, I believe, incompatible with resistance to patriarchy and the search for a deeper connection to ourselves and each other.

People often press me to explain exactly what sexual practices can create this connection, but I do not think the task is to write a manual. This is more about our relationship to each other than about specific acts. If sexuality is about invention and creation, then a metaphor may be of more help.

There is a cliché that when an argument is of little value, it produces "more heat than light." One of the ways this culture talks about sex is in terms of heat: She’s hot, he’s hot, we had hot sex. Sex is bump-and-grind; the friction produces the heat, and the heat makes the sex good. Sex produces heat. Sex is hot.

But what if our embodied connections could be less about heat and more about light? What if we could hold onto the passion and intensity of sex, but instead of desperately seeking hot sex we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if such touch were about finding a way to create light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better? If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not heat but light to illuminate the path.

How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light? I am not always sure. There are lots of ways to produce light in the world, and some are better than others; moral and political considerations are relevant. Sunlight is better than light generated by fossil fuels. Light that draws its power from rechargeable solar cells is better than light that draws on throw-away batteries.

Likewise, there will be lots of ways to imagine sex that transcends the patriarchal straightjacket. Some might be better than others, depending on the values on which they are based. Our task is not only imagining new ways of touching, but always being attentive to the ethics and politics of the touch.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. The ideas in this essay are developed in more detail in his essay "Getting It Up for Politics: Gay Male Identity and Radical Lesbian Feminism," in the 1998 Opposite Sex, Sara Miles and Eric Rofes, editors.