Saturday, February 21, 2009

Heterosexuality Is Unnatural, no matter what Sex Essentialists say

What follows is a book review from Achille's Heel: The Radical Men's Magazine

The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz

Twelve years ago, Gore Vidal asserted that "there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or hetero acts." He repeats this hypothesis in an argumentative foreword to Ned Katz's book. But Katz seeks to dig deeper than this and questions the assumptions that lead us to divide people, acts, relationships and feelings into binary opposites. Starting with the first appearance in the United States of the word hetero-sexual, in 1893, he shows how it has moved from its original medical definition to its use in describing "normal", different-sex eroticism.

The original definition is important in the argument that Katz develops. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, attempts were made to identify and name various deviations from the procreative norm. "Hetero-sexuality" described one type of non-procreative perversion involving different-sex desire. Erotic attraction was seen as a healthy sexual instinct when procreation was its aim, but not if it involved only the satisfaction of lustful impulses. It was these drives and impulses that were taken up by Freud, from 1905 onwards, in the development of his theories of sexuality.

It is difficult to imagine a time before knowledge of the powerful concepts and images that Freud put before us. Katz shows how the presumption of a predominantly male, heterosexual norm pervaded Freud's writing, creating an assumption of the biological and historical roots of the hetero/homo divide. In a similar way, Freud displaced the procreative norm and replaced it with the concept of sexual libido and its satisfaction.

In terms of individual development, the choice of sexual object (same- or opposite-sex) was not fixed or restricted, but Freud made it clear that a heterosexual outcome would be both normal and preferred. Homosexuality is seen as "fixated" and "immature" and an undesirable developmental outcome. This impression of an essential, historical and biological truth focussed negative attention on abnormal homosexuality. More importantly, it directed attention away from the heterosexual norm. Katz invites us to check the relative invisibility of discourse on heterosexuality by browsing the indices of relevant seminal texts. As an example, he cites the standard index to Freud's complete works. This contains only one reference to heterosexuality but more than a column of references to homosexuality. Katz goes on to show how heterosexuality grew rapidly from a preferred developmental outcome into a universal, cultural norm. He places Gore Vidal's distinction between persons and acts as post-Kinsey in that Alfred Kinsey's research, reported in "Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male" (1948), described a range of behaviour and practice that did not fit neatly into exclusively homo- or heterocategories.

In the same decade, the words "gay" and "straight" were being used as descriptions of sexual identity, with "straight" meaning "not homosexual". The concept of a gay or lesbian identity and the growth of identity politics have been instrumental in affirming the feelings and lifestyles of those who are glad to be gay. Ned Katz recognises the importance of this movement, but is pessimistic about its potential in the breaking down of the heterosexual norm.

Acceptance of genetically-determined sexual orientation is compared with similar biological "evidence" used to justify the practices of slavery, racism and sexism. Rather than argue on these grounds, he sees a way forward, through a focus on what is held in common and not through an emphasis on what makes us different from each other. His model for this is based on challenges to the dominant male, heterosexual culture posed by liberal, radical and lesbian feminists since the early 1960s. Katz draws together the strands of a feminist de-construction of heterosexuality, from Betty Friedan's dissatisfaction with arbitrary sexual designations, placing limits on women's potential, to Adrienne Rich's explicit criticism, in the early 1980s, of institutionalised heterosexuality.

Katz looks forward to a time when homo- and hetero- distinctions will become redundant. As Lisa Duggan points out in her afterword, this is bound to make some readers uncomfortable, if not downright hostile.

Conservative "essentialists" will perceive an attack against the institutions of marriage and the family. On the other hand, those working for lesbian and gay rights may feel that their position is undermined and that it is better to argue for equality on the basis of gains already made. Katz and Duggan both suggest that an acceptance of "difference" can lead, at best, to a state of tolerance, whereas true equality can only come if we "change the notion that heterosexuality is normal for the vast majority of people, and shift social, cultural and political practices based on that assumption".

Ned Katz's main aim in this book is to focus attention and to encourage debate on the problem of heterosexuality. In this respect, he has produced a valuable resource. "The Invention of Heterosexuality" distils almost fifteen years of discussion, research and writing. It contains a wealth of notes and references that will provide an excellent platform for further study. But, above all, this is an essential read and a fascinating journey through the sexual politics of the 20th century.

Andrew Martin

Copyright © Achilles Heel Collective

Prostitution, Education, Ecocide, and Speaking Out

Among the men I know who are profeminist-identified there is disagreement about many topics, which is understandable given that within large groups of people who identify closely with a collection of related political perspectives--such as Catholic Christians, Secular Liberals, or Sex-positive people--there is generally and usually disagreement. This myth that "profeminism" is "one point of view on the entire world" is made up by Western liberal academicians and the white heteromale supremacist media's spokespeople. In my experience, "profeminists" are grossly pro-civilisation, especially pro-Western civilisation, and grossly silent and "unactive" about the many oppressive conditions women of color--incluing Aboriginal women, Native women, and Indigenous women--experience that are distinct. Other profeminists seem not so pro-feminist as pro-men who speak positively about aspects of feminism. I am thinking at the moment of the inclusion into the academy of Men's Studies programs that are run by whites. Speaking only for myself, I'm not especially interested in making a career out of "studying men" and depending on what, exactly is being studied, and for what purposes, I wouldn't even term this career choice "proWomanist" or "profeminist". Robert Jensen is one man who is profeminist, and who gets criticised by many different groups of people for taking the positions he does, or, for the manner in which he takes these positions. I think it is important for men to not "speak as women" or "speak for women". And I think it's very important that men who listen to women who have been harmed by men in various ways, both institutionally and interpersonally, speak out the best ways we can. While some things Robert Jensen says or does do not resonate with my understandings of "being profeminist", I do believe he is an important voice, a rare voice, as a white man who speaks often about the politics of being both male and white in a white male supremacist system. I applaud him publicly for that. As I've expressed to many people, we men are likely to speak as men, in the politic sense. We are likely to want to speak for people we do not know or represent, to speak in ways that are experienced as (or, well, are) obnoxious, self-congratulatory, and ill-informed. I include myself in the group of men who is likely to speak in those ways. And I try, here, to make space for Womanist and feminist women's voices to be heard not "through me", but rather by linking to or quoting what various women actually say.

One of my friends was a prostitute for several years. (She uses the term "prostitute"; she does not use the term "prostituted woman", or girl.) This is her story, not mine:

She was on the street as a young teenager; a pimp considerably older than her approached her and pretended to be a caring boyfriend. She was not on the street to be a prostitute. She was on the street because she ran away from home and had nowhere else to go. She was a prostitute because a pimp found her, seduced her, and seasoned her to be his prostitute. She was a prostitute because there were procurers who felt entitled to "rent" her for sex, with cash money going from prostitutor to pimp. (It is easy to forget that without pimps and procurers, or prostitutors, prostitution wouldn't exist as such. This may be evidenced in the fact that since Sweden decriminalised being a prostitute, and instead criminalised being a pimp and prostitutor/procurer, by many accounts the rates at which men seek to "rent" women for "sex" has decreased.

For much more on Sweden's approach, see here.

This friend of mine has done lots of work with other women inside systems of economic and sexual exploitation, specifically the systems of poverty, prostitution and pornography, which greatly, but not entirely, overlap. Note the "with" italicised above. It is often assumed by pro-prostitution folks that the women who work to fight against white and male supremacist systems of sexual exploitation are only Academics. The very privileged Melissa Farley, often miscited as THE spokesperson for "the anti-prostitution movement" by pro-prostitution activists, and Catharine A. MacKinnon, often miscredited with being the sole creator of sexual harassment law, are exceptions to the rule, however. My friend worked primarily with very disenfranchised, very socially disregarded women, white and of color, most poor, some illiterate, many of whom understood quite clearly--intellectually and viscerally, the links between the devaluation of girls and women, incest, rape, prostitution, pornography, genocide, and ecocide.

There are a collection of female and male bloggers and/or activists who are pro-prostitution and pro-pornography who, along with many others, claim to more accurately speak for all women in such systems.

Many who claim to speak for these women are, not surprisingly, men who engage in the practice of procuring sexually and economically exploited women for their own sexual gratification. To be clearer: pimps, whether rulers of corporations or street corners, claim to speak for prostitutes incessantly. Pimps even teach women "what to say". Prostitutors also tell women what to say out loud, because they believe they temporarily own the woman "rented".

Corporate/industry pornographers, by definition and by practice, put words in women's mouths, and make women do things that only some misogynist-racist men desire women to do. As I once remarked on the website Hustling The Left, "Larry Flynt's corporate-pimp speech is spoken with a patriarchal accent, somehow through a vagina. Exactly how is it that a woman's open vulva became his mouthpiece?"

Many of these white women and men who speak for or represent women in prostitution have various other forms of privilege, such as what is termed "education privilege".

I understand "education privilege" to mean a combination of things, including valuing the schooling and the Academy and what it does, as well as access to, entrance into, and success within the Academy, or, making it successfully (however that is defined) from nursery school or kindergarten through one's senior year of high school, or "The Sixth Form" in some upper class prep schools; I get confused by the terms the UK has for its own intellectual schooling levels. I believe obtaining a GED or high school diploma, if not also an undergraduate, graduate, or doctorate degree, counts as a form of "education privilege" because so few people around the world, disproportionately very poor, of color, and female, do not have opportunities or the stability of health and regular access to clean water and nutritious food necessary to make studying in or out of school viable. One of the opportunities is to be literate in such a way as to be able to read and comprehend the content of pro-civilisation textbooks. Most people are not literate, as defined by people who value Western white industrialised societies.

I remain unconvinced that industrialised/technologised societies are promoting and doing much more than being anti-Earth, anti-Life, anti-Indigisism, anti-woman, and pro-white supremacy. Such society's cultures, organised by written language, deeply valuing "Western literacy", grade school, and college are termed "civilisation". As Derrick Jensen and others effectively point out, being "for civilisation" and being "for life" are very, very far from synonymous.

From what I can see, a tiny fraction of people emerge from Western white male supremacist educational systems with the will and energy to challenge patriarchies, end white supremacy, confront heterosexism and capitalism, and expose the general inhumanity of Western civilisation. Due to this view and experience, I am not convinced of its usefulness in radically altering a death-worshipping society. And this is said from the perspective of someone with a lot of education privilege. Were I to have acquired the very same feelings about this society that I now hold, I suppose I'd be far less equipped to do much about it. The Catch-22s of Western civilisation are, well, quite catchy.

What I long for is something that apparently cannot happen: for every woman speak out, without fear, without shame, who understand that sexual exploitation is what pimps and prostitutors are in the business of doing, about the systems of prostitution speak out, without fear, without shame, about what they have lived through or are living through. And that "the rest of us" be able to hear them, clearly, and respond accordingly.

For among all the detractors and proponents of prostitution, very few make the case that it is not sexual exploitation, among other things. As I see it, we collectively and strongly disagree on what forms of exploitation are acceptable and worth fighting to end. As someone who is, at heart, in mind, anti-capitalist, anti-misogyny, and anti-ecocide, my values are antithetical to being an advocate for any form of sexual or economic exploitation. Which doesn't mean I speak out for women. I speak for myself, with the hope that what I say benefits rather than harms a collective group of people known as women. It is inevitably the case that women will have varying points of view about the degrees to which any man speaking out about patriarchy, white supremacy, ecocide, and misogyny are helping or hurting women.

I close this post with the voices of North American women who have been in systems of prostition.