The ‘S’ Word

The ‘S’ Word (Hint: this is no fecal matter)

            It is perhaps ironic, given its most human and personal quality, that sex is the topic that most people find the most difficult to speak about. If death is the unfathomable topic, and religion as well as politics are the ones most likely to lead to conflict, it is sex that all agree upon in an oddly related manner. It is quite fathomable, and simply speaking about it, at least, is unlikely to lead to conflict per se. And yet it remains taboo in all agrarian and post-agrarian social organizations. Any investigation into the reasons for this perduring sensibility would have to be anthropological in scope, and I am not equipped, so to speak, to perform such an analysis. What I can do, however, is ask a number of questions about the current version of the taboo, to see how it employs the same principle as the Durkheimian sacred in order to traverse world-scale historical and cultural boundaries and thus maintain its almost ominous elephant in our shared rooming house of society.

            Before the agrarian epoch, as may be observed in the remaining ethnographic contexts over the past century and a half, eating and sex were equivalents. In a great many such horticultural organizations, even the word for both acts is exactly the same. This notion that consumption was somehow related to consummation suggested a nascent mysticism. The Christian cult, in its first fluorescence, held that the Agape, the ‘love-feast’, was a mimesis of the union between Man and God, between the material and the mystical, and it is very likely that in pre-canonical Christianity, a strong erotic component was present, as it was in almost all of its Levantine competitors. The two key factors for Christianity’s ultimate success, well before it became imperially legal and thence ultimately official, was that unlike its competition, it admitted both males and females equally, and it also did not hitch itself up to a specific laboring class. Though, as Weber notes, it was the artisanal class of the Roman Empire that was first attracted to its ideas – which reminds us that Nietzsche’s comment that Christianity was a ‘slave religion’ must be taken metaphorically only, however else one may take it – these radically new sensibilities regarding ethics quickly spread. The artisans, used to working for aristocracy and thus witnessing both its splendor and leisure without ever being able to partake in it themselves, were the most obvious first catch of Pauline pastoralism, and it is rather this other historical point that lies in Nietzsche’s favor when he also characterizes Christianity as a religion based upon ressentiment.

            The Agape would likely scandalize today’s evangelicals, but it also served to promote the anti-gay stance that gradually became associated with the new instanciation of Abrahamic social relations. Evangels tend to want to have things both ways, as it were, but in this case, one must accept the usual bimodal eros untethered in order to maintain the boundary against same-sex unions and associated activities. Repressing the former only yields the presence of the latter, as the early Christians were aware but which our own versions of them desire to deny. Yet as early as Hellenistic times, as Foucault relates in his celebrated if regrettably truncated ‘History of Sexuality’, tracts and texts abounded exhorting people to abandon same-sexuality in favor of what was to become the dominant act. The Hellenes’ arguments were, by our standards, often earthy, laying out in the plainest language, for example, the advantages of womanhood as a sexual being in terms of there being willingly present a full three apertures, to stay civil, as opposed to the mere two available in men. That these are pre-Christian positions is instructive; the sense that large-scale Near Eastern civilizations had an immense demographic and hence military advantage over those Mediterranean was already very clear. With the Alexandrian empire at its height, these same early Europeans had at first hand come up against the great hordes of Asia Minor and well beyond, before Alexander himself wisely chose to stake his uttermost outpost in southern Afghanistan and proceed no further.

            Gay unions do not reproduce, and this basic biological fact contributed mightily to the sense that such activities would, in the end, result in the loss of culture as a whole. It is this sense that became a true sensibility, and may be seen today not only inside evangelical circles. There is yet a widespread notion that any departure from doxic sexuality is dangerous, even promoting of a crisis. That there are differences along more picayune lines – that sexual activity should be the sole purview of formal marriage, say, rather than of youth and its attendant ‘fornication’ – does nothing to obviate the more general agreement that in order for a culture to preserve itself, it must bear its own children. This last can be emphasized as a rider to the previous because anti-gay sentiment is often linked up with that anti-immigration. This too has both an irony and an authenticity to it: these ‘others’ still know how to breed! That is the essence of their threat to us. Even if we can scoff at the outlandish claims of Moscow and Tehran that ‘there are no homosexuals in our country’, what cannot be sniffed at is that however many are present abroad, their combined presence has no effect on the ability of these other cultures to think to dominate, and on a global scale. The clearest sign of this emerging dominance lies of course in the market, and hence in economic power, rather than that military, but the latter is coming along as well. In an age where large standing armies are obsolete, the link between demography and power is much more indirect than it was for the Alexandrians and their immediate successors. Even so, such a link is not entirely vacant. All of this contributes to the anti-gay line, and its historical bases, if not necessarily its contemporary concerns, are eminently factual.

            Aside from these more objective factors, there remains the residue of mystagogic variables which proclaim that informal sexuality, let alone same-sexuality, constitutes a betrayal of the covenant Man has with God. If Adam’s rib is more truly his upstanding member, then we allow ourselves to perform the singular act of mystical union, a kind of personal Agape, if you will, and with the same goal as had the early cultists, and this aside from admitting a great variety of obvious japes; the ‘ribbed’ condom, say. This singular goal, to reproduce the new ethics and spread the glad tidings – the one is the action and the other the resultant act – had as its resistance the previously dominant same-sexuality which was seen in Greek and Roman cultures as both a form of mentorship and of simple pleasureful leisure, as well as the sensibility that the Gods were themselves equally capable of desire, even lust. Zeus’ intimate and unceasing peregrinations were well known, but it cannot be more clear that the pre-Christian Mediterranean also made less transparent distinctions amongst love, lust, desire, and pleasure which became more rigid in the following epoch. As Nietzsche cleverly put it ‘Christianity gave Eros a poison to drink; he did not die of it, to be sure, but degenerated into vice.’

            And the scope of what constituted vice thus became much wider, so that by the time of the Troubadors and the incipience of romantic love, the chief draw of this new feeling was not so much that contrasting-sexuality be abandoned, but rather that its very formality had gotten in the way of its authentic celebration and thus union. And though it is certainly the case that in some arranged or pseudo-arranged marriages, the latter the ideal of evangelicals, love can arise after the fact of formal union, most Westerners agree that love precedes marriage and must do so if the formal socially sanctioned relationship should have any authenticity and perdurance itself. And it is not that vociferous Christians entirely disagree with this notion either, it is just that one should refrain from materially consummating such love in sexual union pre-maritally. This mutual chastity, it is argued, can only heighten desire, and thus and thence the desire of the lovers for one another. It is, perhaps oddly, an ethic borrowed not from the history of religion but rather from that of poetry and the courtships of the medieval romances.

            We have briefly seen that there are a number of related and unrelated factors at work which backdrop the ongoing taboo surrounding sex in our society. Foucault himself warned us that we should talk less about sex, perhaps contra to Salt-N-Pepa and a myriad of others, and actually do more of it. This Dionysian cast was not at all absent for the early Christians, so we are left to explicate, insofar as we can given the vicissitudes of history more generally, how we have moved ourselves from doing to talking, from openness to secrecy, from blitheness to neurosis, about sex. If we can do so with candor, it may be the case that we begin to see more clearly the relationships between technology and same-sexuality, between demographics and political economy, between morality and ethics, and of the utmost, those tensions interior to the intimacies between actual human partners, no matter their ‘orientations’. If we yet seek a unio mystica between and amongst human beings, if we continue to imagine that reality may be reenchanted through desire and even lust, then by working through what can only ever be a partial talk therapy of the phenomenology of sexuality, we may find ourselves much closer to understanding our culture’s essential ideal; that of love itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Christians in Drag

Christians in Drag

            One can be forgiven, to use a word advisedly, if one imagines that drag story times held in libraries was merely someone’s witty nod to Eric Idle’s similar Monty Python sketch. In it, he begins numerous children’s tales only to find that the illustrated book he is reading from contains very much adult content – “with a melon?!” – and is thus forced to stop and resume again and again. But in fact such scenes are now commonplace in North American public libraries and aside from the historical smirk with which they are due, one could also be forgiven for forgetting about it entirely.

            Not so for self-proclaimed Christians and other neo-conservatives, who have openly attacked these potentially charming events as offenses against the proper rearing of said children. In a world of their imagination, such critics take gender to be binary, children to be gullible and easily manipulated, queer, transgendered and other non-binary self-identities to be sins against nature, and librarians to be liberals with such open minds that their proverbial brains have fallen out.

            With great irony, the person who claims Christianity aloud fails to note that it his own religion that gave birth in the West to the very ideas these story times teach. Compassion, tolerance, forbearance, the accepting of difference – come as you are – and an ethic of love thy neighbor and thy enemy alike. Indeed, any activity that is centered around these ideas, as all those who hold such drag story times claim in contrast to their opponents, could quite easily be taken for as authentically Christian. The fact that those with alternate gender identities tend to see religion of all kinds as a source of enmity against them argues that they too are mistaking the essential nature of Christianity and other related world faiths.

            The radical character of Christian ethics cannot be understated. In the West, before these ideas slowly took hold over specific echelons of the Roman Empire, an out-group member was perceived without exception as a threat if not an outright enemy, and he was treated as such. Along with the earlier advent of Buddhism in the East, anyone who today even merely acknowledges another human being as like herself and thus not necessarily a threat or yet an enemy owes their entire posture to Christianity. The ‘liberal’ librarians and the transgendered readers and teachers and the interested children are all much more Christian than perhaps many of them would be willing to admit.

            And their opponents equally much less so. They too would shy away from admitting as much, but the ethical reality speaks for itself. Prejudice against difference is not a Christian idea, but rather something that animated all cultures in all places before the presence of Buddhism and Christianity. In that prior world, bigotry is understood as compelling and automatic, which is why the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ still speaks to us today. First of all, Samaritans, whoever they might have been, were not commonly regarded as ‘good’. Second, the very idea that one should help a stranger who is also and always a potential enemy is seemingly contradictory to our human ‘instinct’. Third, that we should in the end ‘go and do likewise’ is an affront to all good taste and social status. But the ‘reader’ of this parable was not concerned with reproducing bigotry, but rather countering it, and in the most unheard of way imaginable.

            In attacking drag story times, a self-professed defender of Christianity is actually regressing into a pre-Christian state. It is a common error to mistake the trees of content for the forest of form. In content, various scriptures from the world’s religions appear distanced from our best selves, often describing and reproducing the very bigotries that the new ideas are meant to overcome. It does not help matters that the early Roman church bound together two very different belief systems in one book; the Judaic texts being pre-Christian and thus relatively susceptible to specifically more narrow customs and the tradition of self-preservation. It is also not at all the case that all librarians are open to radical ethics of any kind. I myself have been refused, and as a local author, space on public shelves due the content of my fictional works. And while I have very nominally cross-dressed from time to time on affectionate dares from women with whom I have been intimate – ‘you know, you’d look great in tights’, that sort of thing – I am neither a Christian nor a drag queen. But like those who criticize the apparent intolerance of certain fashionable ‘versions’ of Christianity, believing themselves to be beyond any suasion that this or other religions might yet hold over the modern world, I am misrecognizing myself.

            The reality of all ‘culture war’ conflicts that take the form of the drag story times falderal is simply that views which express the non-Christian sensibilities of blind prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance of others has seen its enemies take hold of the very thing these intolerant people claim for themselves – Christian ethics. No wonder they are so virulent in their vitriol! They claim they are being censored, that a space which is welcoming to all should by definition include them. But what they misrepresent – and I believe, intentionally so – is the fact that they are the ones who are bigoted and indeed practitioners of intense censorship in their homes, their parochial schools, and in their temples. A space open to difference cannot, by its own unmasked and far more honest definition, include anyone who does not themselves agree with the differences taking place within such spaces. An anti-bigot cannot admit the bigot along the same logic that no system of signs includes the sign that describes that system. The last bigotry must take hold against bigotry itself.

            If the opponent of difference is merely attempting to remind us that all differences are acceptable with the exception of the one that denies difference, then that is a motif for an introductory course in logic and little more. It has no merit as a political position, it has no ethical value. It misrecognizes itself as Christian or like persuasion while espousing anti-Christian sentiments, thus it also has no historical reality to it, much the same as almost all neo-conservative delusions. The rest of us, dressed as we are and comfortable in our genders, bland or otherwise, must in turn accept that we are the living representatives of the still radical ethics first broached in antiquities both East and West and that these humane ethics are evidently still very much nothing more, though also nothing less, than a work in progress.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over twenty years.