The future of sex
The hesitantly speaking perverts of Krafft-Ebing’s medico-forensic pages, confessing their most intimate secrets to the new sexual experts, have walked out of the clinical text and onto the stage of history, the living proof of sexual diversity.
Jeffrey Weeks, 1986
The 1960s and 1970s constituted a pivotal period of intensification of public discussion and politicization of sex in the West, which ultimately led to a fundamental review of the prevalent ways of understanding and experiencing sexual practices and identities. While the relaxing of moral and legal controls over sexual activity is commonly taken to have been the defining feature of the sexual revolution, feminist and gay critiques of the normative status of heterosexuality have triggered transformations of sexual meanings that are no less radical. Mainstream public discussion of sex, however, remained at first firmly wedded to the idea that sexuality meant – necessarily and only – heterosexuality. Typical popular works of the time such as The Joy of Sex, which its author had described as ‘an unanxious account of the full range of human sexuality’, did not cover homosexuality or lesbianism, for example. The similarly popular 1969 sex manual Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex But Was Afraid to Ask replied to the
question of ‘what do female homosexuals do with each other?’ as follows:
Like their male counterparts, lesbians are handicapped by having only half the pieces in the anatomical jigsaw puzzle. Just as one penis plus one penis equals nothing, one vagina plus another vagina still equals zero.
And yet, the social and political changes of the time created a context that facilitated the greater public affirmation of ‘peripheral’ sexualities, to use Michel Foucault’s term, most dramatically illustrated by the proliferation of lesbian and gay communities. Though pockets of same-sex subcultures, for example in the form of meeting places, can be identified earlier in modernity, particularly in large urban centres, the development of gay and lesbian cultural spaces and political organizations from the late 1960s onwards was unprecedented in human history.
The founding moment of the modern gay liberationist movement is commonly taken to be the spontaneous rebellion against a routine police raid at the Stonewall gay bar in New York in 1969, though many precursors existed, starting with the organizations defending the rights of sexual minorities that emerged in Germany towards the end of the 19th century around the exact same time the modern label ‘homosexual’ was invented. Stonewall was followed by the founding in 1969 of the National Gay Liberation organization in the US, the short-lived Gay Liberation Front in the UK in 1970, and many similar organizations in other countries. While some gay rights organizations, such as Lambda in the US, focused on reforming discriminatory policies from within existing political structures through litigation or lobbying strategies, others, such as the anti-hierarchical ACT UP, have pursued more unconventional and confrontational tactics towards the ‘breeders’ (heterosexuals). The unique problems posed by the appearance of Aids further galvanized political mobilization,
10. Gay liberation in New York, 1970
in particular of gay men. The sexual transmission of Aids, and the fact that it initially devastated large and already vocal gay communities in urban settings such as San Francisco and New York, helped to further unite gay men, strengthening collective identification with communities of choice both nationally and internationally. Many Western countries have subsequently passed a raft of gay rights legislation in crucial policy domains such as the military, employment, and civic partnerships, especially since the 1990s.
As part of their repertoire of political strategies, homosexuals have re-appropriated the labels that had been applied to them in the past, transforming their social meanings in the process. Terms such as ‘fag’, ‘dyke’, or ‘queer’, for example, initially used pejoratively, have been effectively co-opted by groups such as ACT UP and the New York organization Queer Nation, who adopted the defiant slogan ‘we’re queer, we’re here’ as an identity label around which gay pride and collective mobilization have been organized. In this vein, the use of ‘gay’ as a self-description, which spread from the American context in the 1950s and 1960s, marked the politicization of homosexual identity (leading to new identity divisions, as in ‘he might be homosexual, but he’s not gay’). More generally, many of the categories that 19th-century sexual science had so meticulously delineated, including transsexuals, transvestites, sadomasochists, paedophiles, and fetishists, have provided platforms for public self-affirmation and demands for recognition.
The increasing recognition of sexual diversity within politics, culture, the media, and the consumer industry has, in turn, led to a decline of the idea of ‘perversion’. The sexological account of sexual normalcy that constructed the concept of the ‘pervert’ during the 19th century has been undermined by the public flowering of sexual minorities. As the sociologist Jeffrey Weeks puts it:
There no longer appears to be a great continent of normality surrounded by small islands of disorder. Instead we can now witness clusters of islands, great and small… New categories and erotic minorities have emerged. Older ones have experienced a process of subdivision as specialised tastes, specific aptitudes and needs become the basis for proliferating sexual identities.
The multiplication of identity labels has created difficulties, however, for coalition politics around sexuality, forming a source of possible tensions between respective political agendas. For instance, while the interests of gay men and lesbians often converge around issues such as parenting and adoption rights, lesbians have questioned why they should focus activism on Aids and sodomy laws (still in force in around 70 countries, but usually enforced against male-to-male sex only) when such issues have little impact on them. Lesbians perceive greater overlap with the political agenda of heterosexual feminists rather than gay men around health and reproductive policies, child care, or discrimination against women in the workplace. Moreover,
some issues, such as the fight for improvement of breast cancer treatments, have been identified as affecting lesbian women particularly, since breast cancer disproportionately affects women who have not had children, which is the case for many (though by no means all) lesbians. Whereas many lesbian activists have strongly supported feminist campaigns for abortion rights, male gay organizations have generally refused to become involved with this topic on the grounds that ‘it is not a gay issue’.
Furthermore, feminists, gay men, and lesbians have disagreed – both within and across these groups – over the respective merits of practices such as sadomasochism and pornography, while transsexuals and transvestites have been the object of feminist critique for perceived reinforcing of gender stereotypes. Feminists have also clashed with male gay activists over the promotion of ‘gay marriage’. As the sociologist Stevi Jackson has pointed out, in the eyes of many feminists, the fight for gay marriage was about extending the male privilege anchored in the patriarchal institution of marriage to gay men and women, while leaving the gender hierarchy upon which the institution itself was founded – and which had led some feminists to call for the abolition of marriage in the past – unquestioned. Against this backdrop, some feminists, including lesbians, asserted that gay liberation had become a movement for male gay liberation. Thus political divisions between gay men and lesbians in the gay rights movement emerged in similar fashion to those, discussed in the previous chapter, between heterosexual and lesbian feminists.
Other sexual minorities created separate organizations. For example, and perhaps most controversially, paedophile interest groups emerged from the 1970s in numerous countries, including the Netherlands, the US, and the UK. Paedophile activism was particularly prominent in the Netherlands, where the respectable Dutch Sexual Reform Organization (NVSH) supported the publication in 1972 of the book Sex met kinderen (‘Sex with Children’), which outlined international research on
‘inter-generational sex’, and which was widely drawn upon in paedophile political activism across Western Europe. In 1979, a petition to the Dutch Parliament calling for the legalization of consensual sexual relationships between children and adults was supported by the NVSH, feminist organizations, and the COC, the oldest still-existing gay rights organization in the world (founded in 1946). Around the same time, the Protestant Foundation for Sex Education (PSVG) distributed tens of thousands of copies of an information booklet with the title Paedophilia to Dutch elementary schools (1979-81).
In contrast to the World Health Organization’s characterization of paedophilia as a sexual and mental disorder, paedophile activists argued for greater legitimacy, declassification of paedophilia as mental illness, children’s sexual rights, and the decriminalization of (consensual) inter-generational sex.
In France, various public petitions of the late 1970s called on Parliament to abolish age of consent laws; in particular, a 1977 petition calling for the decriminalization of all consenting relations between adults and minors was signed by prominent public intellectuals including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and France’s most prominent child psychoanalyst Fran§oise Dolto. Paedophile advocacy groups thus operated in a context in which cultural ideas about children’s sexuality were being redefined more generally, and in which the age of sexual maturity had dropped significantly, probably due to better health and nutrition. For example, by the 1960s to 1970s, girls reached puberty on average around the age of 13 in Western countries, as well as among prosperous groups in many non-Western countries, compared to 16 or 17 a century earlier; and boys reached physical sexual maturity around 17, compared to 23 in the mid-19th century; a trend that has continued since.
Groups such as the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the UK (created in 1974); North American Man Boy Love Association
(NAMBLA) in the US (created in 1978); the Danish Paedophile Association (DPA) (set up in 1985); and International Paedophile and Child Emancipation (IPCE) (founded in the early 1990s), drew on Freudian theories and on sexological research, including the Kinsey Reports, to argue that children are sexual beings, and on ancient Greek models of sex to argue for the ‘educational benefits’ of such relationships.
While always a controversial issue among the wider population, public attitudes towards adult-child sexual relationships have hardened significantly since the 1980s, though important cultural variations remain. In Western Europe, paedophile political lobbies have mostly withered away in the face of increasing public outrage at sexual abuse of children, and although in the Netherlands a ‘Love Thy Neighbour, Freedom and Diversity’ Party was founded in 2006 whose aims included seeking to decriminalize sexual activities at any age unless they are dangerous or coerced (it also supported the criminalization of sexual maltreatment of animals, currently not punishable in Dutch law), it was unable to raise the required number of public signatures from Dutch citizens to participate in actual elections. In the US, Canada, and the UK, increasing police surveillance and criminalization of their members have led many – though not all – of the most prominent groups to disband or to transform into less visible Internet-based communities.
Political alliances initially existed between paedophile groups and some gay rights organizations, for example around issues such as the age of consent (the minimum legal age at which individuals are considered to be capable of giving informed consent to sexual relations). The legal age of consent is currently set around 17 or 18 in many countries, with limits of 12 in the Philippines, 13 in Spain and Japan, and 14 in Germany and Italy at the lower end of the scale. Sex outside of marriage is illegal at any age in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. Age of consent legislation constituted a major issue of gay rights mobilization over the past
few decades, since in many countries the age of consent for sexual relations between men was set higher than that for heterosexual relations or same-sex relations between women (which were less commonly criminalized), though many countries have equalized the age of consent in recent years. In contrast, around 70 countries currently criminalize homosexuality (and, in the case of Zimbabwe, same-sex hand-holding as well) altogether.
Gay rights organizations’ alliances with paedophile activism around the age of consent issue, or more generally on the grounds of solidarity with other sexual minorities, have melted away since the early 1980s. In large part this was the result of campaigns from the Christian Right such as the US conservative activist Anita Bryant’s self-proclaimed ‘crusade’ against ‘the threat of homosexual recruitment of our children’, entitled Save Our Children, which portrayed all gays – and gay men in particular – as potential child molesters and triggered the start of organized opposition to gay rights organizations in the US from the late 1970s. While the Dutch gay rights organization COC had declared in the early 1970s that gay liberation would never be complete without the sexual liberation of children and paedophiles, by the mid-1990s the great majority of gay rights organizations had distanced themselves explicitly from paedophile advocacy and condemned the campaigns for the removal of legal protections against sex between adults and children as sexual abuse, as illustrated in the statement about NAMBLA from a representative of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest US lesbian and gay lobbying group: ‘they are not part of our community and we thoroughly reject their efforts to insinuate that paedophilia is an issue related to gay and lesbian civil rights’.
In other policy areas away from paedophilia, strategic alliances were successfully formed. Attempts at greater inclusiveness and coalition politics between different sexual minorities are symbolized by the currently prevalent umbrella label ‘LGBT’ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered community). This
already precarious wider grouping has come under attack, however, from black homosexual activists, who have argued that concerns over black homophobia have been privileged over addressing hidden racism within gay rights organizations. Despite the influence of the black civil rights movement in the US on gay political mobilization, the importance of cultural icons such as Bessie Smith and Audre Lorde, and the prominent role black homosexuals and transvestites played in the context of the Stonewall Rebellion and political responses to Aids, black gays and lesbians are, they feel, underrepresented among the leadership of gay rights organizations and their specific concerns are insufficiently included on gay political agendas.