Saturday, January 01, 2011

Without Equality Sexual Revolution Only Leads Further Into Oppression [Anthony McCarthy]

Imagine you have a gay son. Of course some of you won't have to imagine that because you have a gay son, or, perhaps, a son who is gay and hasn't come out. Imagine your gay son is a teenager or young adult. Immediately, you know that it is very likely that your gay son is going to have sex with other gay men, if not when he's a teenager, when he's an adult. You know about AIDS and HIV, you know that it is spread through unprotected anal sex and you might know that anal sex is among the most common* sexual practices among gay men today. If you are aware of what is known about the transmission of HIV you certainly would want to encourage your son to not engage in unprotected anal sex and, if you are brave enough, you might at least make certain that he is aware of what he needs to know to lessen his chances of becoming infected. That's not easy, even for a gay uncle who is all too well aware of what AIDS is. I know this from personal experience. I would imagine it's harder for most straight parents.

One of the most important realizations about the AIDS epidemic in gay men in the 1980s and 90s was that it was largely a product of the legal oppression of gay men. Gay men hadn't been allowed to marry, they were forced to remain hidden to escape discrimination and violence. That situation prevented many gay men from forming intimate sexual relationships that were ongoing, though some did manage to have them. It also led to the phenomenon of known cruising spots where you could find other men who would have sex with you, strangers who would have sex anonymously and who you might never see again. Those places were everywhere, there were guides published of where to find anonymous sex even in the most surprising rural locations.

Even before AIDS, the practice of casual sex with strangers led to very high rates of venereal diseases among gay men including hepatitis, I remember hearing one gay man assert that having hepatitis was something of a right of passage for gay men. That hepatitis is a seriously dangerous illness, that often leads to cancer of the liver, wasn't taken seriously by a lot of gay men and most other STDs were thought of as being a minor inconvenience. Again, there were and are gay men who don't engage in casual sex with strangers, there are many.

With the identification of AIDS , even before the virus was identified, lessening the impact of the practice of anonymous sex among gay men led to the temporary decrease in new HIV infections, but only after a massive effort to change habits. And that effort was met with strong objection, especially on the part of some of the theorists of gay politics of the 70s. Anything that discouraged gay men from having casual sex with whomever, in whatever way was declared by these thinkers to be internalized oppression. They held that the liberation of sex from love was a major achievement of the gay revolution they imagined they were the bulwark of. They rejected the public health campaign that encouraged condom use and taking measure to protect gay men from the virus, in the early days of the crisis, in the most strident terms. Apparently something called “sex” was, they imagined, separable from the people who participated in it. Which goes as great thinking in some quarters.

When Gloria Steinem said “The sexual revolution was not our war,” it was a brilliant insight. The sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s were mostly for the benefit of straight men, Hugh Hefner's adolescent fantasy life becoming generally available. Without equality, without both political and social equality and the rights that equality is made of, just being able to have sex without social and legal repercussions is bound to result in an extension of oppression. That has been the case extending into history when men were almost always free to rape slaves with impunity, with the approval, explicit or implied, of the law and general society**. I assert that it was also not the revolution that gay men needed either.

The dynamics of freeing sex in a culture of inequality is somewhat harder to see in gay men because even gay men aren't oppressed in the same way and to the extent that women are. But there are inequalities within gay relationships, sometimes economic, sometimes based on differences in intelligence and experience, quite often based on relative psychological vulnerabilities and not infrequently on the basis of differences in physical strength. The variations within any identified group are enough to make any general assertions about the members of that group, increasingly inaccurate.

Some people have noted that the AIDS crisis organized gay men as nothing else ever had. After the idiocy of the fashionable political cant of the 70s was overcome, to some extent, gay communities organized to try to change behavior and stop the transmission of the virus. And that was pretty successful until the idiotic assertion that “AIDS is over” was declared with the availability of drugs to suppress the virus in those who already had it. Though that was a lie, there are about 40,000 new infections in the United States every year, the drugs have major and serious side effects and are expensive and there is no guarantee that the virus won't continue to generate resistant forms that could be even more devastating than the original strains were.

And, as you know, women are infected with HIV through vaginal sex as well as through anal sex by men who are infected. Straight men are often infected through anonymous sex with women or men just as gay men are. I suspect that for many women, who have grown up with the idea that AIDS is primary a problem for gay men are at the stage gay men were in the early days before the syndrome even had a name.

Of course this is all by way of explanation for my comments on the accusations made about Julian Assange. Being a witness to the deaths of dozens of gay men I knew, knowing that just about all of them with a few exceptions, likely were infected through casual sex with someone they didn't know, knowing that women can be infected by men, all of that informs my thinking on whether or not people should be having casual sex with people they don't know in 2011. And the fact is they shouldn't. Women deserve better than they're going to get from men under those circumstances, men who have sex with men deserve better than they get from it. There is nothing liberated about being infected with HIV or hepatitis or chlamydia or any number of other infections that can injure and kill you. Having sex with someone who can persuade you to engage in sex you don't want or who can trick or force you into it is the opposite of free choice. No more than getting robbed by a conman. And there is no law you can make that will protect you from any of that which is stronger than protecting yourself. And there is nothing that is more likely to protect you than knowing who it is you're agreeing to have sex with.

Imagine that these women had sex with a man who was infected with HIV and he was enough of a con artist to convince them to engage in sex without a condom. I would find it hard to believe anyone who doesn't realize that is possible for many if not most women or gay men, especially if they are young and inexperienced. There is no law that is going to protect you from a good con man who is already in your house or in your bed.

I have nieces who I love as well as if they were my daughters, I have nephews who I feel the same way about. I don't want them to have sex with people they don't know because it is dangerous and it leads to a general cheapening of relationships and a decreased respect for other people. I don't want them to grow up feeling coerced into having dangerous and casual sex with people who they have no reason to believe will care about them and have any regard for their well being. The sexual revolution wasn't the right war. The one for equality is. Equality is the supreme political value, with it comes all other rights. Equality is valued less that liberty precisely because it comes with personal obligations to treat other people as you would want to be treated, and more so if you don't think you deserve to be treated well. Only within a culture of the personal restraints required by equality would it be safe to assume that you could engage in casual sex with strangers safely. And even within that, other, culture and with those unavailable assumptions, it would still be risky enough to be unwise if not irresponsible.

* There is a lot of evidence that anal sex wasn't the predominant form of sex among gay men in the United States until the 1970s. There is a large percentage of gay men who don't practice anal sex even today, due to personal preference and in response to HIV. Personally, I didn't and don't and am disgusted at the coercion that gay men often experienced to engage in it has, apparently, become acceptable among young straight people.

** Hagar's treatment in Genesis is pretty standard treatment for slaves. In the story Sarah even suggested it to Abraham as a means of having a son. But the idea that she might have sex with a slave, if it was Abraham who was infertile, doesn't seem to have been seen as an option.

Note: You might want to read this more recent discussion between Gloria Steinem and Suheir Hammad which discusses some of these issues.