Here in Winthrop House, we are about to have a dance called “Debauchery.” Fear of the potential that a dance of this title might bring for sexual forms of behavior has led to a number of meetings and discussions about how to control the people in attendance. A few nights ago, the tutor staff met with the students organizing the dance, to talk about how they had planned for it, how they would deal with public sex and “inappropriate behavior.”
One of the tutors who has responsibility for issues of sexual harassment was pushing the students to say that they would stop active, in-progress sex if they observed it. The students demurred a bit, somewhat uncomfortable with the conversation, saying that they would stop behavior that made them uncomfortable.
Finally, I got tired of dancing the divide between “sex” and “inappropriate behavior.” “What constitutes ‘sex’?” I asked. A moment of silence. And then the aforementioned tutor slowly offered, “Uh, the normal way. Oral sex. And anal sex.”
The normal way. Oral sex. And anal sex.
One of the factors of being a homosexual today, even and sometimes especially in an “accepting” environment, lies in our invisibility. Our presence is taken for granted and regarded as fairly unremarkable. BF and I live with 400 people, as an openly gay couple, on the premise that the same equality and human dignity inheres in our relationship as in any other permanent couple living here in Winthrop House. And it’s not even a premise. Our capacity for love and commitment is the equal of any here in the house. And perhaps it has even has to be more, because of the greater obstacles we face, on external factors, to our functioning in a “normal” fashion.
I know that my life and love are not “normal” in the sense of statistical averages or predominance. But I can find no reasonable logic that says that I am aberrant in any normative sense. I don’t, however, think either of these were what they were getting at in our meeting the other night.
In some sense, it was a form of discrimination. Discrimination is a curious double-bind. One the one hand, we engage in it when we evaluate people because they are members of a minority. But we also do it when we refuse to evaluate people because they are members of a minority. The act of forgetting, as in this case, can be unintentional discrimination.
But, if I may, I think there might be a deeper matter here, a spiritual matter. To speak of sex in the language of “normal” gives some indication of an impoverishment. Sex provides one of the signs that we are not divided beings, at least in total. We tend to think of ourselves Platonically, as having body, soul, and spirit/mind. And for many of us, the spirit/mind predominates, or is at least seen as separate from the other two. And it is where we probably spend the most of our time, cultivating and conversing with our own inner dialogue.
But sex is one of the pieces of who we are that can unite those three elements of being. It can eradicate the differences between them, show them to be only particular understandings of our nature, pull down the mask of identity that we make with them. At its full expression, sex is the appearance of love throughout all of our being, even a sacramental pointer toward Love itself.
I think gay men might understand this better than many other groups out there. We have faced the rejection of our families, our friends, our communities, and (sometimes) risked and lost everything we know to so that we might love as we are. And, while there is a certain libertinism in gay male culture, I’m not convinced that it occurs simply because men, especially gay men, are fulfilling their biological desires (as some argue). I think many of us, even when we think it’s just sex, are searching for dignity and love, our own and other people’s. And since that dignity and love are often denied to us in our other relationships, we go looking for it in the places where we have found it before. Many of us initially found that love for ourselves and for another in the first time(s) we had sex, and that sets a standard.
(In all of this, I am not necessarily saying that sex must only occur in the context of a monogamous pairing to “count.” Far from it. That would be to make the same mistake as the one I discuss here.)
But when we normalize sex, we normalize love. When we make sex about one action or one way of doing it, we imply a limit to love. If we regard a sex act as the “normal” way, whether in the quantitative or moral sense, we fail to regard how it brings us to ourselves. It becomes simply another thing that we do, a routine to check off of our lists of “to-dos.” Sex can bring us to the deepest part of our being, and when we routinize it, we deaden ourselves to ourselves.
I grant that the speaker probably did not take all of this into account when saying it. She probably wasn’t really thinking (which is problematic in its own way). But the underlying problem really is there, I think. If we think of heterosexual, vaginal sex as the “”default”” position, not only does it lock other types and peoples out, but it also reduces the special potential of that act, too.
Bono once said, “Wherever I look, words have been used up. Gone. They don’t mean anything. God. Light. Sex. And the most powerful word has got to be love, but the fight is on for that one.”
We obsessed over sex the other night because we know that sex has power, and that makes it dangerous and vital and superb. When we make it “normal”, we rob it of all those aspects, its power and its glory. This doesn’t just hurt gay people, when we’re forgotten in discussions of what’s “normal.” This hurts straight people, too. If their sex has become routine, “normal”, “traditional”, then they forsake the fullness of sex, the fullness of their humanity, and the fullness of love.
Maybe the fight needs to be on for “sex”, too. And against “normal.”
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