Sodom on Itself
What Do Gay Men Want? An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity
reviewed by David L. Tubbs
Writing in 1979, William F. Buckley, Jr., observed that the nascent gay-rights movement lacked readily identifiable national leaders. He also noted that beyond pleas for undefined “equal rights”—no one at the time suggested “gay marriage”—the goals of its activists were obscure. This distinguished it from the civil rights movement, and it helped to explain why many Americans viewed the new movement with suspicion.
Almost thirty years later, the movement has won high-profile cases in both state and federal courts, yet Buckley’s point remains valid. What are the movement’s long-term goals? Would redefining marriage to include same-sex couples signify its end? Or would there be more demands? The continued absence of recognizable national leaders makes it hard to know.
David M. Halperin is a professor of humanities at the University of Michigan, and though his new book has little to say about the struggle over the redefinition of marriage, it helps to answer questions like these. An example of the new category of academic writing known as “queer theory,” his book shows that leading “queer theorists” do not understand marriage and romantic relationships the way the overwhelming majority of Americans do.
For this reason, traditional Christians—and anyone else working to save marriage—need to pay attention to what people like Halperin are saying.
The book is an extended essay, and among its purposes is a defense of male homosexuals from the charge of dangerous, and potentially suicidal, conduct during the AIDS epidemic. Halperin is candid about the promiscuity of many gay men, even those in “committed” relationships, and he would seemingly (his arguments are sometimes maddeningly qualified) resist any attempt to “domesticate” them.
He argues that the key variable is whether the sexual partners have the same “serostatus.” Thus, two men who are HIV-positive (or HIV-negative) should not automatically be criticized for having sex without condoms, even if they are strangers to each other.
He also argues that heterosexual men and women deserve equal criticism for risky sexual behavior, pointing out that “gay sex” accounted for only one-third of the new cases of AIDS reported in the United States in 2005. (He knows that American homosexuals do not constitute anything like one-third of the population, so the problem with this argument will be evident to many readers.)
Acknowledging the realities of the “gay” life, Halperin admits that some men may not know if they are HIV-positive. A homosexual man who is
regularly tested for AIDS—say, once every three or four months—may also regularly have “unprotected” sex between tests and be coy about revealing his behavior to others, including his live-in partner.
Halperin is loath to criticize such men. He insists that sexual intimacy without a condom is more pleasurable, and that homosexual men are not “crazy” to accept the risks. Much depends on individual temperament, including a man’s tolerance for risk and the motives for his behavior. Crucially, he rejects—as naïve and “antiquated”—an unfailing use of condoms as the best strategy to eliminate the spread of AIDS.
This matter takes us to the heart of the book. Halperin wants to promote some kind of comprehensive inquiry into the inner lives of male homosexuals—their “subjectivity,” or (less pretentiously) “what gay men want,” with special reference to their propensity to engage in risky sexual behavior.
Psychology would seem to be well suited to answer such questions, but homosexual people widely distrust it. As an academic and therapeutic discipline, psychology long deemed a romantic attraction to persons of the same sex an illegitimate or abnormal desire. For that reason, Halperin wants to go elsewhere.
The inquiry he favors should avoid the “judgmental” tendencies of psychology and not assume that gay men engage in risky sexual behavior from low self-esteem, doubts about their sexual identity, or a dangerous impulsiveness. Instead, researchers should try to discern their motives for engaging in risky sex and affirm those motives.
Above all, researchers ought to recognize that these motives can be “transgressive” in roughly the same way that queer theorists say the entire “gay” life is transgressive. By this, Halperin means an unwillingness or refusal to be “proper and good.” His views amount to a deep disdain for traditional sexual ethics and the moral norms needed to sustain marriages and families.
If public health officials recognize the legitimacy of transgressive motives and impulses, Halperin argues, they can devise more workable strategies against the spread of AIDS. The goal is not “safe sex,” but “safer sex.” The latter, naturally, is more permissive than the former.
Halperin’s program to conquer AIDS through “safer sex” rests on his reading of other queer theorists and his review of much social research, but the weakness of the book’s central argument should be plain. Put aside his high-brow references to Michel Foucault, psychoanalytic thought, and gay “subjectivity,” and you will find a very egalitarian liberal.
When defending risky sexual practices, he sometimes writes as a rugged individualist, a man who accepts the consequences of his actions and has no need to curry favor with the public. Yet he cannot ignore the American public.
He cannot ignore it because it allegedly owes gay men substantial resources to stop the spread of AIDS, as well as approval and support for their way of life. It owes them, he declares, “support for a vibrant, sophisticated, and safe gay sexual culture as well as . . . reliable, appropriate, and practical information about how to prevent HIV infection.”
Is this reasonable? Since he promotes and applauds “transgressive” conduct meant to destroy real marriages and stable families, why should the body politic extend its hand to him and his peers? What does it owe them? Halperin would at one moment spit on that hand, and in the next moment grasp it for support.
For the reasons that Buckley gave, it is hard to know if Halperin speaks for a majority of American homosexuals. But “queer theory” is increasingly respectable, as evidenced by the publication of this book by a prominent state university press.
Despite the weakness of the book’s main argument and its endorsement of sexual anarchy, Halperin and his allies may be winning the war to define marriage. This portends grave consequences for the rest of us—but perhaps for them as well.
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