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Choosing Sides

I did not go to a Gay Pride march this year or last year, neither the small one in my town nor the large one in San Francisco. It was a conscious decision. I am not, at this time, proud of the gay community, and I don't feel like pretending that I am. At one time I was an organiser and active participant in Gay Pride; something has changed, but what?

Increasingly the gay community, that uneasy coalition of lesbians and gay men whose culture is dominated by gay male traditions and aesthetics, is identifying itself with the sex industry and with kinkiness and decadence of various kinds. This has led to the bitter debate in the lesbian and feminist communities between advocates and critics of sadomasochism/pornography/prostitution, but the issue is deeper than that (and wider than just the gay world). Unfortunately the majority of the gay community and its media leaders seem to be on what I believe to be the wrong side.

The result: what I might charitably call confusion, and less charitably call arrant hypocrisy, in the gay media. Take my home-town gay newsmagazinegif, for example. On page 5 of the Fall 1991 issue Frances Lawrence of Rutgers College is proudly quoted: It must take a generous spirit to believe that cross-burning, swastika-painting, and racial and religious hate slogans are brave gestures of free speech. The paper implicitly supports her efforts to uphold Rutgers' anti-harassment codes and protect gays on campus from insult and attack.

On the other hand, on page 6 we find a full page ad thanking a club called Bulkhead Gallery for its support and its commitment to free speech. It was at this club that a live sadomasochistic sex show called The Torture Circus was recently presented; the show drew a certain amount of feminist response because of a number involving a woman (in collar and leash) whose clothes were cut from her body with a knife by another woman. When some businesses were requested to withdraw sponsorship and advertising for the club, there was a firestorm of accusations of censorship which ended with a public apology to the gay community from one restaurant. Apparently we are to extend a very generous spirit indeed when violence against women (as opposed to Jews or Blacks) is being symbolically evoked and enacted.

On page 20 the news clips include triumphant mention that The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission has announced a proposal that would ban negative comments about gays and lesbians from the air. But on page 33 a local artist and writer comments that we are witnesses to a sexual revolution that is shaking all the most solid, archaic, and conservative of systems . . . art's free spirit . . . greatly disturbs the tranquility of those who demand 'respect' and 'morality'. This double standard on the part of gay and lesbian writers and publishers is not uncommon; it has become the rule. The gay community wants respect, legal protection from hate speech against queers, yet it defends and praises any and all sexual imagery and speech, even when violent and hateful towards women. Public, ideologically defended lesbian sadomasochism is a visible and (for many feminists) distressing manifestation of this trend.

Sm fashion and mystique are sometimes seen as a passing style among younger people, like various youth trends which have come and gone in the past few decades. Youth culture in the US, whether gay or straight, exaggerates the national attraction to things flashy and exciting, and to whatever seems to shock our parents. And sex still passes for a shocking or rebellious activity - particularly among queers, still accustomed to public ridicule and discrimination for their choice of lovers.

However, the appeal of sm is not new. There is a long cultural tradition in the industrial West (and other places) of eroticised violence; there is a strong tendency in male-supremacist societies for violence itself to be found sexually arousing and satisfying. The inclusion of violence and death in pornography is as old as Western culture.

Neither does sadomasochistic chic appeal only to the young, or only to queers. Department stores reorganise their window displays to include a hint of b&d (bondage and discipline). Mainstream women's magazines encourage women to explore their enjoyment of being spanked by their husbands. And ambitious members of the newly-respectable university departments of Women's and Gay Studies capitalise on the popular trend by contriving hip new philosophies and politics of deviance, sex rebellion, gender radicalism, and so forth.gif (The prevailing economic and physical conditions of women's lives seem to have become too unoriginal, too boring, or perhaps too depressing for the serious academic attention they rated fifteen years ago. Derridagif is more fun.)

I don't believe this mini-phenomenongif within the gay and lesbian subculture (from its lowbrow commercial roots to the highfalutin theories of the academicians who hope to make a dissertation and a reputation out of it) can be isolated from larger trends in youth culture and popular culture in general. In browsing through a discography of heavy metal bands I was struck by the same self-conscious decadence - what was at one time known as fascist chic - expressed in band and album names. An iconography of violence and violation is shared between the queers and the often queer-hating, queer-bashing young metal-heads. And a common thread runs through the album art, the sm sex magazines, the pornographic prose and film, the flyers for the sex shows, the promo posters for the spandex-boy bands: it is the thread of shrewd, calculating, manipulative commercialism. The gay subculture is merely responding to the prevailing social winds. And those winds are blowing ill for women.

There seems to be a turning away from any serious material analysis of the conditions of women's lives, the problems of global capitalism, and the challenges to democracy. The emphasis of the eighties and nineties is far more on self-actualisation (or self-indulgence) - on individual adjustment and accommodation to the mechanisms of society - on entertainment and art - than on a search for practical ways to maintain justice and prosperity for a whole society. Even among those leftists who are seriously studying global economic and ecological crises, the issue of sexual exploitation of women is last on their list. And there is an increasing tendency to focus on sexual liberation as a primary goal of, or a replacement for, feminismgif.

It seems to me that many women, lesbian and straight, are uncomfortable with the current trends in lesbian and feminist thought and practice; we feel something is amiss, that the movement or the community has somehow lost its way, lost its ideals, lost its mind. But we are often prevented from leveling any criticism at those things or people which disturb our sense of rightness.

One factor which can shut us up is too narrow a focus. Arguments and justifications which seem reasonable within the very small, closed room of (white US) academic feminist theory or lesbian political infighting suddenly lose their appeal when you step back and take a wider (economic, historical, or ethnographic) perspective.

Another discouragement is the clever and well-developed rhetoric which centers around sexual liberation - meaning the sex entertainment business. In this dialectic the standard response to questioning or critique is a counterattack in which the questioner is dismissed as narrow-minded, na—ve, repressed, sex-negative, or worse: neo-conservative, fascistic, anti-gay, anti-life, anti-fun. Most of us are understandably reluctant to be identified with any of these unlovable characteristics, let alone all of them at once. Particularly, we are reluctant to appear in any way supportive of the Rightists who have done such damage to American life and politics in the last decade.

But there are very good intellectual and political reasons for feminists (indeed, for anyone committed to simple social justice) to have and to express strong doubts about the value and impact of sadomasochistic style and practise, prostitution, and pornography. I do not refer here to revealed religion, fear of nudity, or a fascistic desire to control what everyone does in their bedrooms. I am talking about a sensible distaste for unfairness, exploitation, manipulation, and the unlovelier aspects of capitalism; about an aversion to male supremacy and its inevitable side-effects; about a perspective that is woman-positive .


next up previous
Next: Welcome to Fantasy Island Up: No Title Previous: No Title

De Clarke
Tue Aug 13 19:56:13 PDT 1996