Monday, April 20, 2009

Shifting stigmas

During the latter part of June, we here in New York will be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Often described, this event needs no further rehearsal at this time. This summer, after the festivities have concluded, I may have more to say.

For those who experienced them, the twelve years between Stonewall and the inception of the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1981 were a golden age of sexual freedom. With sodomy still against the law in many states, much remained to be done. Yet clearly we gay people were on our way

With the momentum of liberation up and running, many looked around for new frontiers. What would be the next wave in the ongoing tide of sexual freedom? Bridging both the straight and gay communities, S/M seemed an obvious choice. S/M is best understood as a kind of erotic theater, and not as infliction of pain, as many falsely believe. These activities were OK as long as they were consensual--but sometimes consent was hard to define. Also, certain practices, such as fisting, were inherently dangerous. In the last analysis, the boundaries of S/M are unclear, for nowadays mild varieties are incorporated in the scripts of “normal” sexual encounters.

Then there was incest, another possible new frontier. But incest rarely caused complaint, except in exceptional instances, as in the two Austrian cases where fathers forced their daughters to bear their children.

In some ways prostitution best fulfilled the requirement of a successor cause in the realm of sex. When performed consensually, prostitution seemed clearly to fit the definition of a victimless crime--that is, something that is not a crime at all. However, ancillary issues began to intrude. Wrongly perhaps, prostitutes were blamed for spreading HIV/AIDS. New issues of trafficking came to the fore. Showing a trend to second thoughts, even formerly tolerant countries like The Netherlands and Germany have begun to reassess their policies regarding prostitution.

There was one more candidate for a successor cause. For some, intergenerational sex was the next Big Thing, a belief symbolized by the founding of NAMBLA. For a variety of reasons this expectation did not pan out, and those with a sexual interest in children and adolescents figure among the most stigmatized persons in America today.

By contrast, thirty years ago there was almost universal condemnation of transvestites and transsexuals. The official line, strongly urged by radical feminists, was that such individuals were engaged in mockery of women. This was thought to be undeniably true of males who assumed women’s dress. Even more so the postop M2Fs, who offered deplorable models of the "constructed woman." Yet blame could also attach to the F2Ms, who were seemingly deserting the women's cause.

A seemingly similar phenomenon was represented by small groups of men who affected "gender-fuck" fashions, sporting, say, a beard and mustache, while wearing a skirt, makeup, and a lumberjack shirt. Yet unlike the more usual type of cross-dressers, these men did not attempt a convincing simulation of women. Indeed, in their mockery of masculinity they could be regarded as allies of the feminists.

With some reservations, then, pedophilia, pederasty, and ephebophilia were UP a generation ago; transpeople were DOWN. These days that situation is hard to imagine, so much have the two groups changed in the eyes of the public. The relationship has been turned upside down.

How did this historic shift occur? I can only offer a few elements of a more comprehensive answer.

Some hold, that compared with the seventies, the country has fallen into an antisexual mode. It is true that the "anything goes" attitude of of former days wilted with the inception of the HIV/AIDS crisis. My own view is that people are being more careful about sex, but are still in the aggregate having about the same amount. During former decades college coeds were notoriously prim and unavailable. Now these young women talk happily of forming "hookups." People still get married, but typically they cohabit before. So the sexual revolution has reached heterosexuals, the majority.

Another thing thas happened is that sex that is thought to be sleazy is no longer in fashion. One can see this with the decline of the sex shops, which seem more and more seedy and repellent. Those who are drawn to sleaze--or just can't get a date on Saturday night--continue to lurk in such venues, but these folk seem to be a dwindling minority. For others, there is a profusion of makeout bars of all kinds.

Of course not all groups are participating equally in this sexual bazaar. It may be that transpeople have less sex, but I think that their ascendency in the pecking order has other causes.

With the passage of time, transpeople have tended to benefit from the postmodern emphasis on fluidity and transitional states--on avoiding fixed “essences.” Some would invoke the concept of liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") defined as a state of being on the "threshold" of or between two different existential planes. The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. People, places, or things may not complete a transition, or a transition between two states may not be fully possible. Those who remain in the territory between two states may become permanently liminal.

Liminality may capture some of the interest, even enthusiasm that some outsiders feel for transpeople. However, it does not accord with the experience of many who are committed to the “trans” status. In particular, those who complete the full schedule of surgical intervention believe that they have attained the sex that “they were meant to be.” For them, there is no ambiguity. Likewise, many transexuals in the full sense reject the gay label; as they perceive the matter, they love those of the opposite sex. Some others pursue their own sex--that is, the sex of arrival--or regard themselves as bi.

One current practice does fit the concept of liminality. These are individuals, born female, who do the top only, without interfering with their genitals. This phenomenon accounts for the recent TV publicity about a "man who gave birth." Anatomically, the individual was a man only in the upper half.

Many who are accepting of “trannies” tend to side with libertarian arguments about control over one’s body. Over the last few decades, dress codes have been greatly relaxed for various reasons, making cross-dressers less conspicuous--and sometimes even chic. Call it the RuPaul effect. Moreover, the idea that one could alter one’s body configuration through plastic surgery has become widely accepted. In this light sex-change operations can be regarded as simply an extension of “aesthetic” plastic surgery. Of course, transsexuals do not view the operations in that way, but we are seeking to explore the reasons why the majority have come to tolerate them, and not the beliefs of those who undertake these arduous programs of somatic self-definition.

At all events, trannies--of whatever variety--are seen as taking steps that affect themselves only. In this way their modus operandi accords with the dominant ideology of expressive individualism. One could even say that they are contributing to consumerism by their increased purchase of clothing, beauty products, and elective surgery.

Very different has been the fate of those who seek to practice intergenerational sex. They now routinely evoke horror.

In keeping with feminist theories, many have come to accept the idea that sexual relations must be between those who are equal or nearly equal. Intergenerational sex is viewed as violating this norm, because the adult is more powerful than his or her younger partner. The activity comes under the rubric of exploitation.

Most parents, especially if they are middle class, are strongly opposed to their children forming an “inappropriate” sexual connection. Gradually, our society has extended the notion of childhood, so that it encompasses the teenage years, sometimes going beyond. Parents who have a large monetary and emotional investment in their offspring during this period believe that they have the right to supervise and control the behavior of their charges.

“Kiddie porn” evokes particular scorn. As modern technology has made the spread of such images easier, so too have the methods of detection become more elaborate. Internet solicitation can be monitored. An example of this procedure is the television series “To Catch a Predator,” which most apparently watch with satisfaction, even though it relies upon entrapment techniques of dubious legality, to say the least.

One can only proceed a certain distance in an effort to understand the way in which trannies and intergenerationalists have exchanged places in the pecking order. However, the overall pattern of marginalization of sexual minorities lends itself to an analysis derived from the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim held that in modern societies crime could never be eliminated, or perhaps even reduced. The relegation of certain groups of people to the criminal class serves the function of affirming the values of society’s “respectable” core. In this way there is a symbiosis between “decent, normal people,” the bearers and beneficiaries of the dominant ethos, and those who are banished to the fringe. Each depends on the other.

In order to apply this perspective to the trannie v. intergenerational problem, we need to step back for a moment. Thirty years ago, when the movement to legitimize intergenerational sex seemed promising, it was common to frame it in a kind of Whig context. The meliorist theory associated with the Whig thinkers and historians maintains that humanity is engaged in a never-ending progressive endeavor, leading to a better life for all. As one problem is successfully addressed, a new one presents itself to be solved in turn. In other words, as adult-adult homosexuality became increasingly accepted, it seemed that it would be possible to benefit boy lovers and girl lovers in the same way. Of course it did not turn out that way. More than ever nowadays, boy lovers and girl lovers are “monsters,” fulfilling the Durkheimian function of defining and reassuring the majority.

Transpeople, however, do not seem to be needed for the purposes of demonization. They can be regarded as harmless eccentrics who express themselves by altering their appearance and/or bodies. Perhaps in this way they do fulfill a more benign version of the Durkheimian principle. They elicit pity on the part of some “normals,” but do not provoke reprisal.

PS. I find the label "erotophobia" misleading. From time to time, most of us experience some sort of aversion to sex, as when we feel that we have been manipulated into it, or are concentrating on other matters.

Some forty years ago there was a fashion among historians of sex to divide cultures into "sex negative" and "sex positive" ones. Medieval Islam was classified as sex positive--but for whom? After the relative freedom women seemed to have enjoyed in the early days of Muslim expansion, they found their options sharply narrowed, a situation that has its tragic analogues nowadays. And of course adult males attracted to other adult males generally encountered sharp disapproval (as distinct from pederasts). Rumi and Shams were exceptions. (In a useful article in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality Warren Johansson traced the idealization of "sex positive" cultures to eighteenth century Europe with its utopian notions of a paradise of sexual freedom in the South Seas. Ostensibly, but quite dubiously, the anthropologist Margaret Mean gathered evdence for this permissiveness in her work in Samoa. For his part Wilhelm Reich traced the neuroses of the modern West in large measure to erotophobia. In my view erotophobia is a cultural construct that is not helpful in understanding recent developments in sexual behavior.)

It is true that some in the gay marriage camp today do seem to want to take the sex out of "homosexual." I have argued with them at length about this. By the same token, though, there has been a vast enlargement of the scope of sex for young heterosexuals, and young people in general. Those who made the sexual revolution have, arguably, not been among the benefiaries. But others have.

PPS. I should have made clear that the Whig theory is not always wrong; it is just that it should not be applied indiscrimately. Together with others (including ex-governor McGreevey) my friend at Gayspecies has argued that gay marriage is an extension of the ideals of the Enlightenment. I am not entirely sure of the argument from equality, but assuredly gay marriage increases happiness for those who want it, without any harm to others. The harm that is perceived is imagiinary.

A learned friend, a specialist in 18th-century thought, informs me that the views ascribed to Whigs nowadays are a distortion. I accept this correction. Yet we still use terms like Gothic architecture (which had nothing to do with the Goths) and West Indies (which are not in India). The Whig term remains a useful label, and the beneficial historical process so described does sometimes occur--perhaps often even, but just not all the time.

Another way of conceiving the issue is in terms of the doctrine of progress. Today, with the damage that is being done to the environment by overproduction and sales of consumer goods, we have become more skeptical. Again, we should try to make descriminations. There has been progress in many spheres--every day I thank Ganymede for this computer--but there are unintended consequences as well.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wayne, an articulate and perspicacious essay. I wish to expound on the intergenerational issue, and its political, moral, and social significance.

I think all healthy individuals recognize prepubescent children are not "objects" of sex, but are using power and authority over those unequipped by nature and maturity to assimilate adult molestation as anything other than the paraphilia we name "pedophile."

Thus, NAMBLA, when it was once allowed to march in the Gay Freedom Day Parade, evoked a resounding opprobrium from onlookers and participants, of all sexes, and sexual orientations. Their inclusion that one year was not repeated in subsequent years. Thank heaven that someone with smarts pulled the plug.

In 1978, with Anita Bryant and Senator Briggs, on the march to preclude homophiles from teaching in public schools, this seemingly easy political victory had reinforcements from advertisements claiming homophiles "recruit" children to molest and convert into their sinful lifestyle. Despite the energetic and industrious effort of Harvey Milk, Sally Gerhardt, and hundreds of others, the proposition, No. 6, was slated to win throughout California in a landslide, carrying even San Francisco County a week before election.

The Field Opinion Poll released eight days before the election seemed like the end of our Gay Liberation -- until the following day (Tuesday) former governor Ronald Reagan issued the briefest statement opposing the initiative. Under no reasonable conception, had the Gay Freedom Day parade organizers allowed NAMBLA its place could Reagan -- or most politicians -- have rejected Proposition 6: The Briggs Initiative. But because it had, Ronald Reagan, who remained very popular -- especially in the Jerry Brown years -- still carried significant clout.

On Wednesday, newspapers throughout the state gave the Reagan opposition headlines usually reserved for world wars -- and in one respect, this initiative was only one of many the rabid right planned to take to the voters. As far as this proposition was concerned, no other political issue in the past fifty years represented more punitive and retributive consequences, and it was slated to win in a landslide.

Yet, on the day of the election, the landslide occurred, but in defeating Prop. 6 -- the single greatest shift in political sentiment ever registered by the respected Field Opinion Poll. Indeed, the initiative was defeated in Senator Brigg's Orange County. Some of us learned that day to cultivate friends and allies, and alas some learned to remain bitter.

But under no circumstances could or would a politician, much less a conservative politician like Ronald Reagan, oppose any proposition that endangered children. And fortunately, the organizers had the foresight to exclude NAMBLA and any of its allies from its parades as "child endangerment." Over time, only the truly deviant in the psychosexual pathology of paraphilia would not understand the harm and injury done emotionally and physically to prepubescent children by adults. The issue is rather clear cut until puberty sets in.

Ephebophilia and intergenerational homoeroticism is less of an issue, since postpubsescent teens have the biological necessities to be homoerotic, and some, even the emotional maturity to use it. Some even prefer older men to teens their own age, and some older men are only too glad to accommodate their erotic discovery. While I remain guarded and cautious about such encounters, even when thoroughly "consensual," we have to ask ourselves whether a sixteen-year old has the maturity to consent. He or she does not in a legal sense. Contracts by individuals under age 18 are prima facie invalid for their lack of contractual capacity -- regardless of the potency of raging hormones. Again, no issue of approximate ages exploring each other homoerotically arises, as mutual curiosity among relative co-equals places neither in a privileged position to the other; but rather the incongruity of ages is not the concern, but the incongruity of relative capacities between significant age differences, especially when one of the individuals is an ephebophile and the other is an androphile. By statute, most states consider such acts illegal, which is not to validate the law, but to suggest a general concern socially about appropriateness of teen-male and adult-male possessing co-equality that all "consensual" and contractual engagements require.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous John Lauritsen said...

The question is posed: why in the past generation have pedophilia, pederasty and ephebophilia gone down in favor, whereas transpeople gone up in favor?

One simple answer, in addition to those given by Wayne Dynes, is that there has been an increase in *erotophobia* (fear or hatred of sexuality). (As one example of erotophobia: there is now a generation of boys and men who are ashamed of their own bodies -- who are reluctant to undress in the locker room -- who
wear shorts or bathing suits in the shower, steam room, or sauna.)
The categories which have gone down in favor -- S&M, intergenerational sex, incest, and prostitution -- are all sexual. But transpeople, at least those who have resorted to surgery, represent the opposite: a total negation of sexuality.

Of course it is impossible to change a man into a woman, or vice versa. A "male-to-female transsexual" is a man who has been castrated, and thereby transformed -- not into a woman, but into a eunuch. Such an individual has been *neutered* or *de-sexed*, not changed into the opposite sex. Likewise, a "female-to-male transsexual" has been neutered, not changed into a real man.

"Wer darf das Kind beim rechten Namen nennen?"
(Who dares to call the child by its right name?")
-- Goethe, Faust I: 589

John Lauritsen

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Lauritsen's comments are astounding, and must represent a very narrow stretch of geography.

I will agree in a general aversion to eroticism, if and only if, we mean a "romantic, intimate, and respectful" homoeroticism. Otherwise, the commodity of human sexuality and its ready availability have never been more engaged -- not even in the Seventies.

But, then, that may be part of the problem, when humans are converted into sexual commodities, then the satisfaction one gets is usually very low -- lacking emotional depth, reciprocal respect, sensual as well as sexual delights, but a "transaction" rather than an encounter, "ordered" on hook-up sights like ordering a Whopper from Burger King.

"I'd like a ten-inch top with greasy hair, extra tattoos, hyper-muscular, but hold the attachment, cock rings, and empathy."

12:23 PM  
Blogger James Jope said...

I agree with much of Wayne's very good essay, but I should like to add some comments:

The suggestion that shifting alliances have affected some of the changes also applies to transsexuals. In the sixties, their stigmatization was supported by gay men, because gay men were inappropriately associated with effeminacy, and regarded transsexuals as reinforcing that stereotype. Now that gays have convinced both the majority and themselves that they are hyper-masculine, they can consider transsexuals more objectively.

Durkheim's theory is essentially about scapegoating, and any society as unjust and neurotic as ours certainly needs a scapegoat. It was clear to intelligent observers of the emerging right-wing campaign against intergenerational sex that this was little more than a deliberate maneuver to resuscitate their discredited scapegoating of gays.

Turning to Mr. Lauritsen's comments: He appears to be ignorant of everything that makes modern surgery different from mere castration. The construction of an erectile vagina certainly makes the person more of a woman, and the hormone therapy (unfortunately) can even elicit stereotypically feminine emotions. The only remaining female trait that is not reproduced is reproduction itself. Thus, Mr. Lauritsen, insofar as he seems to regard reproduction as defining what it is to be a woman, is, in effect, subscribing to the oppressive ideology of the Roman Catholic Church.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Zagria said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Zagria said...

I have posted a detailed response on my own blog at

On issues other than trans ones, I would comment that having spoken to a few of the gay pedophilia persons, I am left with the impression that they want nothing at all to do with the heterosexual ones. Some do not even know who Gary Glitter is. As they reject their heterosexual peers, how can they possibly get anywhere.

Lauritsen is so ignorant that -- well what can one say. From his choice of wording I cannot see that he is open to either evidence or rational argument.

12:22 PM  

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