In an era when long-suppressed sexual minorities are emphasising the importance of ‘coming out’ and many of us are trying to understand each other’s sexual identities at a more granular level, another question is going largely overlooked: are we too preoccupied with sex? Koli Mitra asks…
Are we too preoccupied with sex? It might be an odd moment to ask that question, at least in India, where, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Chapter XVI, Section 377 of the Penal Code, thereby re-criminalising a vast swath of human sexuality with one stroke of the pen, certainly feels like a win for sex-negativity, if anything. But the truth is, active repression of sexual behaviour – or positive sex-negativity, if you will – is never really evidence of moderation. Rather, it is the flip side of a fixation. Besides, the resuscitation of a ‘law’ like Section 377 is not actually ‘sex-negative’ per se. It’s really about controlling other people’s sex lives in a blatant effort to preserve the male-dominant, hetero-normative privilege structure and to keep sex shackled and bound to the will and preference of the powerful. That still qualifies as an obsession with sex. It is, in fact, the worst kind of obsession, being selective, oppressive and grim (unlike the gay pride parades, which are at least celebratory, welcoming and liberating in spirit, despite being vilified by reactionaries for being too aggressive or ‘in-your-face’ in expressing a particular ‘take’ on sexuality).
Elsewhere, the law is making progress toward the ‘equality’ of committed sexual relationships. The United States Supreme Court has recently struck down a 1990s law, the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which attempted to limit the extension of marriage beyond that between a man and a woman. DOMA did not ban same-sex marriage, but rather, it carved out an exception from the US Constitution’s guarantee that states will recognise contracts made in other states; it exempted individual states from the obligation to recognise same-sex marriages contracted in other states, where such marriages were legal.
It wasn’t as bad as a ban on same-sex marriage, but it was still troubling, because it denied same-sex partners a range of rights and privileges that the formal status of ‘marriage’ allocates by the operation of law in the absence of specified terms of a contract: inheritance, medical decision-making powers and visitation rights; some services provided by government, tax breaks, joint-property rights, and health insurance coverage, to name just a few.
But why must the law prefer and privilege sexual/romantic relationships? What if you live with an adult family member, like a sibling or parent, or even a really good friend – a platonic life partner? What if that is your ‘family’? Why can’t you get them covered under your insurance? Why can’t we have mechanisms for declaring mutual interest in entering a ‘family relationship’ and have that give rise to a set of legal protections, privileges, rights, and promises. Why not let people choose from a menu of the rights and obligations they would like to undertake? Why must we insist on sex being the defining component of it? (Note, that, although the lack of sex does not automatically invalidate a marriage, it can be invoked by either party as grounds for dissolution; it is also considered strong evidence of fraud in cases of insurance coverage or immigration laws, which allow people to sponsor their foreign-national spouses, but not other people).
However, to the extent the law does discriminate in favour of sexual partners, expanding it from heterosexual partners to all sexual partners is at least a start, whereas an attempt to limit homosexuals is a start in the wrong direction.
But why must the law prefer and privilege sexual/romantic relationships? What if you live with an adult family member, like a sibling or parent, or even a really good friend – a platonic life partner? What if that is your ‘family’? Why can’t you get them covered under your insurance?
There are, of course, compelling arguments against any expansion of the institution of marriage. Sarah Keenan contends, in It Gets Worse: The queer feminist case against inclusion, that the LGBT community’s focus on the ‘right to marry’ and other demands for inclusion in the hallowed institutions of dominant culture only serve to fragment the solidarity among marginal groups and to allow wealthy, white, gay men and women – especially men – to take fuller advantage of their class and race (and gender) privileges by diluting and mainstreaming the one marginal element in their identities. Nithin Manayath has argued that, for some of the most vulnerable people in India, ‘marriage equality’ would be a dangerous extension of the ways they are exploited (rather than offering any new ‘protection’). One example Manayath cites is that of the hijra community, which has a long tradition of informal marriages, with specific social implications within the community. However, the ‘other half ’ of many of these marriages involves men from outside the community, often straight men with families elsewhere, whose commitment to the hijra marriage is provisional or fleeting. Mayanath notes that elevating these marriages to legal status risks giving these outside men – including those who have long abandoned the ‘marriage’ – a legal claim on what little savings or personal property is left behind by a deceased hijra partner, who is unlikely to have intentionally bequeathed anything to the ‘husband’ since “a hijra’s dharma stipulates that she give her wealth to her guru or chelas, [disciples] and not leave it for some man, who is likely to desert her at some point to return to his ‘true’ family.”
Germaine Greer finds it strange that gay people want to get married. “The problem with gay marriage,” she says, “is not the gay bit but the marriage bit…. In a sane world, heterosexuals would be demanding the rationalisation of marriage or, better, its abolition.” She points out the unsavoury history of marriage and the disturbing present-day fact of entering into a contract with vast, unspecified terms and potentially binding oneself to onerous obligations, completely without intending to.
Yet, people do want to get married, whether it’s a rational desire or not, and for those who make a free and informed choice to do it, it’s hard to make a morally acceptable justification for legally barring them from it. But the deeper problem of the exclusionary nature of marriage is not simply that it fails to recognise same-sex unions. It’s that it grants to sexual partners unique privileges and benefits not enjoyed by single people, other family-units, or platonic partnerships.
This overemphasis on sex and sexuality is not limited to the legal sphere. Sex and sexuality have encroached on virtually all areas of life. In current popular culture, a fashion-conscious straight man – someone our grandparents might have considered ‘dapper’– is referred to as a ‘metrosexual’. If he likes opera or the colour pink or if he has close friendships with women, then, we have a very hard time accepting that he is not, in fact, a gay man trapped in a very deep closet of denial. Yes, a man actually liking the company of women for anything other than sex is now thought to be an indicator that he actually prefers the company of men for sex! But, that is a tangent beyond the scope of this essay. My point, for the moment, is that things that should be irrelevant to sex are treated as fundamentally sex-linked, or at least, sexuality- linked.
In other words, after decades of the women’s movement and LGBT liberation struggles, we have not abandoned the idea of rigid, stereotyped gender-roles based on biological sex. We have simply reassigned them to gender-roles based on sexual orientation or self-identified sexuality.
Some of the assumptions are timeworn. Athletic prowess, for example, is frequently assumed to be a sexuality marker. We were all taken aback by the news that Jason Collins (the
American basketball player) is gay. He is so rugged, so ‘masculine’ … so, basketball! We are never so shocked to learn that a female athlete is a lesbian. Not ever. And we weren’t surprised a few years ago, when we found out that another male basketball star, Kobe Bryant, was a womaniser or possibly even a rapist, because the alleged victim was a woman, and, while most people who believed the accusation condemned Bryant for it, they were unsurprised by it. It made ‘sense’ in the prevailing worldview, which assumes – insists – that a guy’s ability to play ball must be a function, somehow, of how his libido works.
We have also added some new stereotypes. As noted above, any sign of refinement or even kindness in a man is now seen as the expression of a latent ‘gay gene.’ Straight men are supposed to be misogynistic boors. We have also shuffled a few of the old stereotypes. Women are no longer considered ‘mannish’ for simply wanting careers, but the straight ones are still expected to prioritise their marriages and reproductive lives over their professional endeavours, or at least to struggle with guilt and feelings of inadequacy with respect to their family commitments. Homosexual relationships are increasingly accepted by mainstream culture in most parts of the world, at least in educated urban societies. The well-meaning among us want to give these relationships that ultimate social stamp of approval: the marriage certificate. But, in return, we expect them to follow the hetero-normative patterns of traditional marriage as a template for designing their own marriages. In the popular imagination, fed by popular entertainment, the ideal same-sex union is between a butch (the ‘husband’) and a femme (the ‘wife’), and it plays out a dominant-submissive dynamic.
Popular readings (or misreading or over-readings) of psychology theories also play into the problem. Alfred Kinsey, the biologist and pioneer sexologist, devised a continuum, known as the Kinsey Scale, to measure and express the variability and gradations of sexual orientation. The psychiatrist Fritz Klein refined the scale further, using a multi-dimensional grid to describe how sexual orientation evolves over time and found that lifelong, exclusive heterosexuality and homosexuality were relatively rare, with most people exhibiting some degree of ‘bisexuality’ when a full array of psychological and emotional indices are taken into account. The continuum is now frequently invoked to classify all aspects of human interaction by plotting ‘where they fall’ on the spectrum of sexuality. I had once attended a seminar on race, class and gender in identity formation, where another participant had mentioned – as a given – that ‘we are all bisexual to some extent.’ When I questioned that premise, someone explained, helpfully, that “it isn’t about sexual attraction per se. If you appreciate physical beauty in other women, or if you are drawn to emotionally intimate friendships with women, those are measures of your own bisexuality.” Even my preference for respectful, non-aggressive men was identified as an indication of a latent lesbian orientation. When I declined to accept this conclusion, I was diagnosed as self-repressed or possibly homophobic (my lifelong solidarity and support for LGBT rights notwithstanding).
The question is, if it’s not ‘about’ sexual attraction – per se or otherwise – why must we plot it on a grid meant to describe sexuality? I have no argument with the idea that sexual orientation comes in a whole spectrum of shades rather than a handful of discrete states of being; nor do I necessarily reject the possibility that many people – perhaps even most people – move back and forth on the scale throughout their lives. But it seems a rather large and unwarranted leap to therefore classify all human attraction and intimacy as somehow sexual, making all humans ‘bisexual’ by a tautological fiat.
Along the same vein, it is now conventional wisdom that “no one is fully masculine or feminine… we all fall somewhere on a spectrum.” Then why must we cling to these archaic and misleading lexical conventions of labelling people with sexual words like ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, if they refer to traits that both males and females possess? Why do we sexualise these traits?
Individuals frequently deviate from the gender-roles traditionally prescribed by society for their biologically assigned sex. The extent of the deviation varies greatly. At one time, feminists and others interested in freedom(s) of personal choice used to point to this fact as a reason to question whether sex and gender, encompassing just one area of personhood, should get so much weight in how we perceive our – and any other person’s – identity as a whole. Such a question seems quaint in our time, when every fetish or inclination that fails to conform to a preconceived gender (or some recognised sub-taxon thereof ), gets its own classification as a new ‘gender identity’.
The point of asserting one’s identity is to experience and/ or express a unique, nuanced, authentic, and multi-faceted self, not just to find a well-established niche, a community defined by a handful of recognisable kinks that feels suitable for us, …and then, to conform. But that’s what happens when we obsess about just one aspect of our identity.