COMES NATURALLY #18
Spectator Magazine - March 4, 1994
(c) David Steinberg
Antisexualism: A Basic Question of Who's Abusing Whom; Eroticism Moves Uptown at the Robert Koch Gallery
Of Racism, Sexism, and Antisexualism
It happened when the issue of child abuse was finally brought to public attention. It happened, in a somewhat different way, when AIDS became an issue of national social and political concern. And it's happening again around the issue of sexual harassment.
Again and again, an important, sex-related social issue comes into the national consciousness at long last, only to be trivialized, distorted, and generally swept away from what is most important by a wave of antisexualism that seems to keep following immediately behind. Again and again, the raising of a sex-related concern becomes the stimulus for an outpouring of antisexual outrage, for the venting of the basic fearful misunderstanding of sex that is so firmly embedded in the core of our national psyche.
This basic bias against sex, what I am calling antisexualism, is so much taken for granted that we don't even see that it exists. We make antisexual assumptions so quickly and automatically -- give sexsuppressive choices and perspectives the right of way so unconsciously - - that we don't even see what we're doing as a process of choice. We see it, simply, as the way the world is, as if there were no alternatives. And if someone dares to question this antisexual bias, we dismiss them as crazy, off the wall, rude, provocative troublemakers.
I want to name this phenomenon because naming a pattern calls attention to the fact that something specific is going on.
The naming and identification of racism and sexism has served to focus attention on biases that, like antisexualism, went unquestioned for generations. Naming racism and sexism, examining how these biases are ingrained in the fabric of how we act and think, has provided perspective from which patterns of both individual behavior and institutionalized policy could be clarified and challenged.
Because we have the concepts of racism and sexism to work with, personal acts and social decisions that previously seemed unrelated to each other can be understood as manifestations of underlying patterns and assumptions. These basic assumptions can then be questioned, challenged, and (to some extent) changed.
This is the difference between liberal and radical solutions to social problems. Radical means, literally, pertaining to the root of the matter, dealing with something by getting to the bottom of what's going on. Clipping weeds day in and day out is one way to keep the lawn looking good, but if you can pull the weeds up by their roots, you get to do other things with your weekends.
Many people will argue that finding a cure for AIDS need not be the same kind of national priority as finding a cure for leukemia because AIDS is the result of chosen (that is, sexual) behavior. This is one kind of antisexualism.
Antisexualism says that anyone who engages in sex, who engages in sex too much, who engages in sex with the wrong people or in the wrong ways, deserves whatever negative consequences they get. Sexual people deserve this because everyone should know, after all, that sex (or too much sex, or unconventional sex) is trouble, and anyone who plays with trouble is asking for trouble. Sexual people deserve this because antisexualists assume that unapologetically sexual people (oversexed people, people outside the antisexual mainstream) are just a little less human than everyone else, just like people of color and women were once unconsciously taken to be second-class citizens.
That people are terrified of AIDS in ways that have nothing to do with the real risks posed by the AIDS crisis is another expression of antisexualism. Why, after all, do we demand absolute safety in sex, in contrast to the accepted daily risks in other parts of our lives -- like driving our cars, walking on the streets, or taking Valium? Exaggerated fear of AIDS is not responsible caution and concern, as is so piously claimed. It is rather an expression of our unconscious, generally unacknowledged, fear of sex itself -- of our antisexualism.
Consciously and deliberately using a social concern like AIDS as a device to enflame and encourage sexual fear, and therefore to discourage and constrain sexual expression, could be called institutionalized antisexualism -- antisexualism incorporated into the institutional structure of society as social policy.
Antisexualism and the Abuse of Children
The way antisexualism takes over sex-related issues of national concern is demonstrated even more clearly by the way the national diatribe on the sexual abuse of children has developed over the last several years.
Childhood sexual abuse was one of those long-standing, long-ignored, sex-related issues that desperately needed to be brought to public attention. Huge numbers of children were being psychologically damaged by sexual abuse -- usually by parents, often by other relatives, much more occasionally by the likes of strangers and child care workers. The whole system of terror, shame, and guilt worked so effectively that for decades (perhaps much longer) no one was able to talk about what was happening in a way that carried any social credibility.
Finally, this silence was courageously broken, and a flood of onceunimaginable experiences poured from the locked chambers of denial into national awareness. Unfortunately, what was released at the same time was an even larger outpouring of shock and horror, based not in the reality of sexual abuse, but in the fear of sex itself. Concern for the sexual welfare of children was immediately subsumed, and largely negated, by the need of adults to vent their own confused, traumatic feelings about sex through the vehicle of supposed concern for abused children. In many cases (perhaps most) the horror and outrage of relevant (and many irrelevant) adults went far beyond the traumatic feelings of the children involved. Because no one called attention to the essential antisexualism of what was going on, this process of diversion was allowed to confuse the issue without being questioned.
It is amazing to me that supposedly concerned adults are so free to use children as receptacles for their own troubled sexual feelings. I know one woman, active in the abuse issue, who began teaching her daughter at the age of three to wear underwear because, the mother insisted, there were men out there who wanted to hurt her vagina. She did this, of course, out of concern for the safety of her child, but inflicting that kind of sexual fear on a three-year-old strikes me as its own form of child abuse: the fears of the parent visited upon the child.
Abused children became the latest in a series of available conduits for antisexual hysteria. It seems to have become more important to use these children as channels for the venting of national sexual outrage than to help them deal with their real hurt, fear, and anger.
Thus, we would now rather convince our children that every mildly discomfiting experience is to be interpreted as sexual abuse than help them deal with and understand what happens to them in less traumatizing ways. We would rather have our children afraid to say hello to a stranger in a supermarket than separate (for them and for ourselves) real from antisexually inflated dangers of their being molested by drooling strangers. We would rather banish men from work with children and have all teachers, all child care workers, most fathers, and many mothers afraid to touch their kids in any but the most perfunctory ways, than consider the possibility that the inhibition of affectional touch is likely to have as devastating an impact on our children as sexual abuse has ever had.
This is antisexualism at work. It is antisexual -- an expression of our basic fear of sex -- to say that an unpleasant, uncomfortable, or abusive sexual incident is so different in kind from other forms of difficulty and trauma that we must protect our children from such possibilities at all costs, even if the consequence is shackling them with lives stunted by exaggerated fear and sexual shame.
No two ways about it: Sex is a vital and important aspect of who we are -- highly charged (especially in a culture so terrified by sex), intimate, located close to the centers of personal identity, selfrespect, and personal empowerment. Violating a person's sexual limits is more profound than transgressing other personal boundaries -- more serious, even, than violating their physical boundaries by hitting them, or their property boundaries by breaking into their home and stealing the silverware that was the one remembrance they had of their beloved great aunt.
But the fundamental hubbub that we carry around about sex, the sexual upset that forms the basis of antisexualism, comes not from respect for the power and importance of sexuality but from fear of it. Again and again, this fear -- together with the antisexual biases that are the social expressions of this fear -- makes it impossible for us to deal effectively with sex-related social issues. Having legions of psychiatrists and social workers searching for sexual abuse under every wet bed does nothing to help the children who are truly being abused. Infusing our children with our adult sexual traumas and confusions does nothing to help them safely and creatively deal with their uncomfortable, unsettling, or traumatic sexual experiences.
Sexual Harassment and Antisexual Harassment, or Who Gets to Say What in the Public Mix of Things
Like childhood sexual abuse, sexual harassment is an issue that has finally broken into national consciousness after decades of trivialization and denial. Like sexual child abuse, it is an issue that is rapidly being eclipsed, distorted, and sensationalized by the antisexualism it inevitably provokes.
The antisexual epidemic that is surfing the issue of sexual harassment has become truly frightening. No need to talk about anything as ambiguous as date rape, whether I don't know means no, the media-joke Antioch guidelines. No need to talk about sexual harassment that involves actually touching someone. It has come to where sexual harassment means having the nerve to so much as talk about sex on the streets, in restaurants, in the workplace, or in the classroom.
Nat Hentoff has been writing about a professor at the University of New Hampshire who was suspended without pay and threatened with dismissal for drawing two vaguely sexual analogies while teaching a writing class. Another UNH professor escaped a similar fate only because he caught a female student's gasp when he said "more bang for your buck," and took the time to explain that the phrase was not a sexual reference but military slang referring to explosives. In both cases, students objected because they felt uncomfortable with the sexual nature of what was being said.
Transformed away from its more significant beginnings by the inevitable antisexual surge, sexual harassment has come to mean nothing more than verbalizing anything that makes anyone uncomfortable in any way about anything that has to do with sex. A lawyer friend tells me with a straight face that a person cannot so much as talk to a co-worker about his or her sex life without the possibility of being accused of harassment. What does this mean?
If you and I work together, I cannot safely tell you what a wonderful vacation I have had, lounging around and making love with my partner every day until noon. I cannot tell you what a wonderful time I am having exploring the world of bondage, or a new vibrator. I can't tell you how relieved I am to have been sexual with a partner after months of being lonely and horny. I can't even talk to you about how strange it is not to be able to talk to you about these things.
In other words, sex has been relegated back to the realm of the unspeakable. Is this antisexual, or what?
I understand, of course, that sexual talk can in fact be harassing. Talking about sexual matters when an associate, particularly an underling, makes it clear that they don't want to hear it is inconsiderate, at least. If repeated, it is truly harassment.
Antisexualism enters the picture when repeated or manipulative use of sexual innuendo becomes generalized to condemnation of sexual discourse of any kind. The existence of the problem of sexual harassment becomes an excuse for shutting down all sexual interaction. It is, after all, sexual interaction, not sexual harassment, that makes antisexual people uncomfortable, and the discomfort of someone who would like, say, to establish a sexless work environment is assumed to be more important than the discomfort of somebody who wants to stop hiding how sexual, or differently sexual, they are.
Let me be clear: People should be able to live or work or ride the bus without having to hear about or think about sex if that makes them uncomfortable. On the other hand, it is equally true that people should be able to live and work and ride the bus without having to hide or disguise their sexual existence. We have a conflict of interests, perhaps. To resolve this issue equitably, however, we first have to take out the antisexual element. Then we can talk about our differences as equals.
Why is it that people are offended at hearing (or overhearing) talk about sex when they wouldn't be offended about hearing or overhearing other topics of personal conversation? Why is it that I can talk exuberantly about a wonderful ski weekend at work, on the bus, or at a restaurant without feeling self-conscious, but if I had a wonderful sexual time, I am supposed to lower my voice? This is basic antisexualism, so unquestioningly accepted by all of us that we don't even see how it works: if two sensibilities are in conflict, the less sexual one (or the more conventionally sexual one) is presumed to be the more legitimate.
I am standing on line, waiting for the doors to open to a concert, talking with friends about what it was like to go to one of the Jack and Jill Off sex parties. Should I whisper, as if I were talking about something nasty, because the people behind us in line seem uneasy with what I am saying? My experience, as a person who wants to be openly celebratory about sex, is that these conversations almost always make somebody around me uneasy. Does that mean that I should never talk in public about what is important and exciting to me? Should gay people not kiss in public because it makes the people around them uncomfortable? Should white people not bring black friends to a party if it makes the other people at the party uncomfortable?
Isn't this pervasive, persistent pattern antisexual harassment? Why isn't antisexual harassment as legitimate a concern as sexual harassment?
A few weeks ago I stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Berkeley. I had just picked up the latest issue of Spectator and wanted to read it over lunch. I flashed back to the controversy at Bette's Oceanview Cafe' a couple of years ago, where a diner offended his waitress by reading Playboy while he ate, thereby creating what she interpreted as a harassing and unsafe work environment for her. Can I quietly eat and read Spectator in public without keeping an eye out for some kind of confrontation?
I was not in a fighting or playful mood; I was tired and hungry. I also didn't have anything else to read, so I gathered my Spectator under my arm and tried to keep only the pages with innocuous words showing as I ordered and ate my lunch. Ten minutes into this I got tired of stealthy page turns and decided that the waitress (if she cared) would have to deal with the pictures that go with the phone sex ads, and I would have to deal with whatever her reaction might be.
Was it my imagination that she turned somewhat icy and avoided my eye when I was trying to get a refill on my coffee? Why is it that because I like to read the likes of Spectator, Taste of Latex, and On Our Backs I don't get to relax with a good meal and a good read like the person at the next table who's engrossed in Vanity Fair?
If I'm at a restaurant and I want to talk about sex, why do I have to whisper if there are children, or obviously strait-laced people, at the next table? Why does sex constriction always take priority over sex expansion?
This is the fundamental antisexual assumption that we need to look at and challenge. It's not that I want to ruin people's dinners by talking at the next table about how wonderful pussy tastes, or that I want to distract them from the symphony by showing up in s/m drag. I just want to be able to go to dinner, or to the symphony, or to ride the bus, without having to constantly lower my voice or alter my appearance to avoid crossing what I see as other people's absurdly rigid boundaries. Perhaps it will help to be able to say, at least to myself, "Here it is: another example of antisexualism." Then, whether I shrug and put up with it or choose to challenge it, I can at least be a little clearer about the nature of what's coming down.
Erotic? Photography at Robert Koch
I went to see the group photo exhibit, Erotic?, at the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco carrying no particular expectations. The notice in the pink section of the Chronicle was fairly nondescript, and the write-up by Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker was anything but inspiring. Happily, the show turned out to be a delightful collection of 63 photographs offering a broad spectrum of sizes, shapes, styles, and emotions -- exploring the question of what is erotic about a photograph, anyway.
There were classic pictures by the big names in nude and erotic photo work -- Edward Weston, Brassa , Ruth Bernhard, Imogen Cunningham. There were a number of delightfully sensual nudes, especially an unusually appealing photo by Herb Ritts of a man standing behind a perfect sheet of falling water, the plane of the water broken ever so slightly by his knees and his cock; and Nina Glaser's beautiful Eel Necklace, in which a woman sits quietly, the round curve of her belly, the sensual grace of her hand at her thigh, the peacefulness of her face, all complimenting the sinuous curve of a yard-long eel that winds from her breast, up around her neck, and then down, its electric tail pointing to her crotch.
Significantly, there were also a number of photos pushing the edges of erotic propriety in the arena of world class fine art photography. To be sure, there was nothing as controversial as the work of the emerging sexart photographers -- people like Michael Rosen, Mark Chester, Barbara Alper or Tom Millea. But I was pleased to see the elite walls of the Koch Gallery adorned with more than a few distinctly confrontative images.
There was, for example, Joel Peter Witkin's The Graces -- three masked transsexuals with lovely breasts and delicate cocks, each holding a severed monkey head. There was a photo by Robert Mapplethorpe, from the controversial "X Portfolio," showing a nude man bent forward, a large black dildo protruding harshly from his ass. There were no fewer than nine offerings by magical Czech photographer Jan Saudek, including a photo of a woman delicately nursing her Pekinese dog, another of a young nude woman standing tall while bravely brandishing a dagger, yet another beautifully dark, quiet photo of a man with his fist unmistakably in a woman's cunt. There were even two 1872 photos of young Julia Arnold by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodson). To include photos of young children in a show that is specifically erotic, particularly photos by pedophile Dodson, takes courage. And what of the final photo in the show, anonymous and untitled -- a simple color snapshot of an adorable gerbil mounted in a huge rococo gold and black double frame. Erotic? indeed. (For those who might have trouble coming up with $35,000 for Edward Weston's photo of a sensuous radish, or $7000 for the least expensive Mapplethorpe, the gerbil photo is listed deadpan in the Koch catalog at $29.95.)
Good to see the subject of erotic photography taken seriously and humorously at the same time, and presented in a way that helps expand the territory of erotic legitimacy. To combine humor with provocation, lyric beauty with harsh surrealism, the modern with the classic -- and have it all work as a proclamation of erotic expansion -- is a fine achievement. The people at Koch are pleased with the response they have had to the show. They're thinking of making it an annual event, which would certainly be a welcome addition to the ever-expanding local sex cultural scene.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.