Sunday, September 6, 2015

S is For Sexual. E is for Ethics.

I know men who say they experienced no shame around being queer in their formative years. I try not to be unduly skeptical. But it’s a stretch. My personal pathologies aside, most of what I’ve observed tells me that for queer men, shame and sexual awakening are closely bound together--as indeed, they are for many more people, women and men, straight and not so straight, than the facile images and narratives of commercial culture might suggest. The widespread success of Alan Downs’ book, The Velvet Rage, suggests how many men who love men find themselves mirrored by its analysis of the role erotic humiliation and rejection have played in the lives of gay boys and youths. Nor am I convinced that even a Supreme Court decision affirming the legitimacy of same-sex marriage gets at the root of the shaming many of us experienced at the age of five, or twelve, or fifteen.

When we emerge into communities fully accepting of our erotic integrity, it’s like arrival in a Promised Land. I’m not talking here only about life in gay-positive neighbourhoods, work in queer-positive institutions, worship in queer-positive churches, shuls, temples. I’m talking about the moments of connection and, yes, I’ll use the word grace, that many of us have experienced in bathhouses, sex clubs, networks of lovers and friends-with-benefits, faerie gatherings, erotic workshops--moments so vividly captured by Mark Doty in the poem to which I included a link here a couple of weeks ago.
When we cross over into such spaces, our affirmation of one another is a natural extension of the affirmation we’re amazed and relieved finally to have experienced ourselves. Go to the Folsom Street Fair or to Dore Alley, or to the festivals they’ve inspired far from San Francisco, and, amidst what moralists are quick to condemn as hedonistic exhibitionism, you’ll see an affectionate cameraderie, even an innocence, that comes when when we can finally let go of fear.
It makes sense that we compensate for years of condemnation and rejection by doing our best to celebrate the difference of others’ erotic lives from our own--and to set aside our negative reactions to the sexual diversity of those around us. That’s part of our healing, and part of healing one another.
At the same time: on guard against ourselves becoming sexual oppressors, we’re capable of coming to view the very concept of “sexual ethics” warily, almost as a contradiction in terms. Instead of looking deeply for the roots of our erotic longings in the bedrock and groundwater of our souls, we throw up our hands, abandoning the work of self-reflection, as though the search for deeper awareness were itself tainted with repression.
Feminist analysis is way ahead of us on this. Women have ample occasion every day to see and experience all too directly the emotional and social havoc and violence wreaked by  unreflective sexual assumptions and practices. We kid ourselves if we imagine that being queer wipes our slate clean of the exploitative messages about sex-as-self-aggrandisement that pretty much all cisgendered boys and men in a society like ours begin absorbing from early childhood on.
We let ourselves off the hook, when what we need most authentically is the insight to distinguish what truly feeds us and enables our growth, and each other’s growth, from what leaves us stuck, dissatisfied, only half-awake to who we are--and oblivious to our failures to treat one another with reverence and respect.
We’re capable of failing to call ourselves and one another to account. We play mutual consent like a trump card to rationalize compulsive, abusive, or seriously dangerous behavior  when it creeps into our own lives--or say nothing when we see it creeping into the lives of those we know. By focusing on acting out our fantasies rather than on why they speak to us in the first place, we slough off the deeper work of coming to understand, and encouraging one another to understand, how and from where they arise , how best to accept their presence as seeds within us that we can choose to water, and when, and how--or not (to use a Buddhist metaphor).
One of the most satisfying aspects of John Cameron Mitchell’s wonderful film Shortbus is that the sexual explorations of pretty much all its characters involve their growth and their awareness of one another’s deep humanity. It’s a beautiful example of what the living out of an unapologetic queer sexual ethics might look like: unstinting in its acceptance of the lives of others on their own terms, full of detours and trips up blind allies, and at the same time mindful that what we do with our own and one another’s bodies, we do as well with our souls and theirs.

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