Friday, November 20, 2009

Equality vs. sexual freedom

As the first decade of the 21st century starts to wind down, the task of characterizing that segment of time starts to present itself. With regard to gay people, an interesting reflection has been posted by Marcus McCann, who has recently assumed an editorial post with Xtra, a leading Canadian gay paper ( The editorial bears the provocative title “Abandon Equality.” Here are a few excerpts:

“The decade in which “same-sex partners” turned into gay “husbands” and lesbian “wives” is winding down. In a few weeks, the naughties will be over and we’ll be into 2010. . . . It was a decade dedicated to marriage, partner benefits and adoption rights. I mean, that’s the dominant story: over the last 10 years, equality-based crusaders won all kinds of things for gay couples. Go us.

“The other side of the story is a bit different: In the 2000s, we had major bathhouse raids in Toronto, Hamilton and Calgary, and we demanded that charges be dropped (to mixed effect). We challenged censorship at Canada’s borders, and won an ultimately hollow victory. There was a big win in the courts for sex clubs and swingers, but hookers and rent boys are still duking it out for the freedom to work safely.

“So, on one hand, we have a rosy set of equality-based victories, mostly benefiting long-term gay and lesbian couples. On the other hand, we have a host of sexuality- and freedom-based battles, many of which are ongoing.”

Mutatis mutandis, the US has seen a similar series of contrasts. Then, however, McCann zeroes in a surprising target. He says: “The equality stuff has largely run its course for gay people.” The writer questions “equality activism. Its dominant critique is “we want in,” which is not a critique of institutional power. In fact, a critique of institutional power is impossible in a “we want in” paradigm. Why not change the world to make it better instead of settling for full participation in the way things are now?

“Since equality-based logic has no yardstick to measure the virtues of a law, other than to advocate for its equal application, the equality movement will always remain essentially conservative.

“Under the logic of equality, criminalizing gay sex is bad because gays and straights should be treated equally. But prostitution — so long as the laws apply equally to all sexualities — is fair game for state intervention. Polyamory, same. SM, park sex, porn: same, same, same.”

In short, McCann seems to be arguing that there is a trade-off in which the quest for equality means short-changing sexual freedom.

Now some comments of my own.

For someone of a certain age (such as me) the "struggle for sexual freedom" has a powerful ring. Yet in all honesty, I fear that that resonance is one of nostalgia, particularly for the free-wheeling days of the sixties and seventies, the era of "anything goes," or so it seemed.  In moderation, I trust, I reveled in the world of the baths, the trucks, the piers and so on--you name it.  Sexual freedom!

But inevitably the zeitgeist moved on, powerfully nudged by the AIDS crisis.

In all likelihood, the outlaw tradition will persist in gay-male culture, but as a sideline only.  Young people nowadays seem only to want the house in the suburbs with a picket fence.  Even in these hard times they can do it if they are DINKS, dual income, no kids.  Or even a kid or too, since adoption is one of the salient features of the aughts.

On another level, my own experience has been that it is very hard to oppose the slogan of "equality," no matter how dubious (sometimes) its advocates' arguments may seem.  Since the French Revolution, equality has been the ultimate litmus test in Western civilization.  It also resounds in the Third World, where we have been told, falsely I believe, that people do not care about such things.  So why should gays and their allies be different?

By contrast, the poster boy for the sexual revolution is now that old roue' Hugh Hefner shuffling around in his robe through the grounds of his decaying mansion in LA, attended as ever by a small band of gold-diggers. This is too bad, but many things that once seemed glittering prizes have lost their luster.


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