On Repressive Sentimentalism

D.S. Black, Digital photography of photograph of sidewalk stencil in San Francisco by Radical Gay Group Gay Shame. Courtesy of the artist and Gay Shame.

Gays are our utopian heroes. Many things changed in the twentieth century. No change was more momentous and utopian than that men could choose men for love objects, and women choose women, to remake the sexual household. If the household organization of three thousand years of recorded history could be altered simply in the interest of what people wanted, in the interest of desire, then anything could be changed.

Traditional society choked this down—some more progressive parts of it did, anyway—by attributing same-sex love to brain chemistry, or a gay gene, and an eternal sexual identity that must be rigid and ineluctable. It hypothesized three millennia of men and women who must have been closeted, before they had such wonderfully enlightened friends and neighbors as we are. Only in this restricted way could society understand homosexuality without gayness threatening to reveal more new choices.

The utopians among us held our peace. It seemed impossible to stay in view of the rest of traditional society, the reactionary and hostile parts, and make our argument to fellow progressives that gay reorganization might be better than the old heterosexuality, and not just a neutral object for tolerance—that liberation from the heterosexual family was something we all could wish for, and that it needn’t stop where it has. Then, because such a large part of the gay community publicly seemed to prefer the necessitarian, “eternal” framework, finding it the best way to make sense of individuals’ own experiences, and to justify them to family and friends, we utopian straights—bystanders, well-wishers, but dilettantes—had another good reason to keep quiet.

The eruption of gayness into public history has come to be memorialized in New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots. This past anniversary summer of 2009, speechmakers could date a civilization-level change to one unique day forty years ago, or more precisely to some hot June nights. As a movement, gay emergence has been utopianly leaderless, multitudinous, upending everything without a Christ, a Martin Luther, or even a Martin Luther King, Jr. to codify and restrict its meanings. Stonewall was in its way the most gorgeous and absurd original moment for such a movement—not a pious political protest, but an incident of pissed-off collective spontaneity outside a grotty bar. Or you could date the eruption to twenty-five years ago, in the AIDS epidemic and gay men’s battle, with the support of gay women, against a plague that was hailed as the revenge of nature. They wouldn’t bow to lethal nature. Either they would fight it, medically, or their desire would become nature, too—philosophically—and they would study how to die: with Foucault, Jarman, Mapplethorpe. So things looked from the outside, anyway, growing up in a society that seemed destined to become deeper, because freer and less simpleminded, the more queer it got. All of this meant that near-millennial transformation could still happen in our own lifetime. We could still have our better world, and soon.

Social utopianism has long focused on the reorganization of households, but has rarely accomplished much. Straight utopians argued for free love, free divorce, unorthodox childrearing and communal parenthood, and got divorce, followed by more imprisoning marriages, followed by more divorce.  Because the home has seemed to be at the origin of economics (the word comes from the Greek oikos, household, and household management, oikonomia), a revision of the home, say one based on non-reproductivity and made by equals of the same sex, could ground a wider egalitarianism. Because the family, as the crucible of personality for children, seems to be the origin of violence, hierarchy, and tyranny—in the old descending triad of dominance: man-woman-child—a revision of the family, such that children could look forward to forming their own future households on different models, could gain new principles of power for society.

If any utopian change rivaled gay liberation in the twentieth century, it was women’s liberation. Surely this was where the energy of gay emergence came from in 1969, more than from Civil Rights. The explicit, principled liberation of women from the home, their deliberate entry into the workforce, their self-assertion as sexual actors, their breaking with the mere mother role, and even with the monogamous Other role . . . All these refusals to be defined by home and children had a liberating but also an ambiguous resonance with LGBT life. Gay men and women couldn’t produce children, by themselves, without technology or donation. But straight women had to have technological means so that they wouldn’t have to produce children. They needed this just to gain the most basic equality with men for freedom of action and plans. Their equality thus always depended on very crude, banal biotechnology, as gay liberation did not: oral contraception from 1960, and constitutionally protected first-trimester abortion (contraception after the fact) from 1973.

Today gay progress is in an expansionist phase under the banner of the right to marry. It asks for the opportunity of traditional marriage—the very thing many of us straights (not to mention the ’80s gay thinkers we, too, read and lionized) hoped gay life would undermine, in the name of new, better ways of ordering relationships. Women’s heterosexual progress, in contrast, is constricted and embattled, carrying on still under the simple name of “feminism,” which ought to be the most honored term in our language, but has somehow become as risible to Americans as “civilization” was to the Ostrogoths. Feminism is reduced to pleading for abortion rights, while the common sense of three decades ago is hemmed in by a secular right wing that has adopted the extremism of orthodox religion. Abortion defenders must pretend that it is a “tragic” but necessary evil; a redoubt of “choice,” just like any other choice; a sentimental necessity for the victim of rape or the mother whose life is in danger. In short, safe medical abortion, a fundamental social good in any sexually egalitarian society, an invention to be celebrated like the polio vaccine, must disguise itself as everything but what it is—the freedom from involuntary motherhood, owed to any woman young or old, to let her shape a life equal in freedom to those of men.

Same-sex marriage and the minimalist defense of abortion are both tactically sound for now. But the strain one begins to feel in public discussions is that people of good sense are being compromised by sentimental rhetoric originally adopted to convince bigots. Sentimentalization may be effective in a Hallmark regime, but it’s a bummer at home. Around the kitchen table, we ought to speak plainly. The goal of gay marriage, in the pro-marriage position, has to include indifference to marriage as an institution.  Marriage must remain abstract—it hardly matters if anyone does it once the original blush is off and the initial rush abates. But the point of abortion rights, in the “pro-choice” position, should truly be abortions. Abortions need to occur concretely, readily, until the day contraception is magically universal and perfect; the idea that they’re inevitably tragic is just false.

Here is marriage: The division of humanity into closed couples, when modernity has given us a chance at something much better—affiliation by manifold currents of love, interest, and likeness which overflow the monogamous male-female dyad. Defenders of marriage as a “haven in a heartless world” pretend we’re still ruled by anomie. The primary effect, they say, of the modern workplace, the modern city, modern friendships, modern groups, is still to separate the individual from all fellows, to atomize him—with no hope available but in simulacra of the old bowling leagues, or Odd Fellows Hall, or ladies’ club luncheons. Only the nuclear family remains. That’s while the heterosexual family doesn’t serve any of its other old functions: It is no longer necessary as the site of the pre-capitalist workshop. It is no longer the only structure for child-rearing, as children now come out of so many differently constituted families. The family no longer houses the old folks of several generations. It’s no longer even the privileged secular space for intimate confession and support, as this modern necessity is increasingly outsourced, well down the class ladder, to therapists, gurus, and members of all the helping professions. When marriage has as its main purpose a total and unique defense against loneliness and isolation and anomie, then it’s been saddled with a function too grand and dishonest for it ever to meet; no wonder it will seem imperfect, disappointing, not yet the right, final marriage.

The appeal to anomie simply ignores, post-1960s, the emotional capacities we’ve gained. We now resist atomization and anomie with the wide range of unusually warm, non-exclusive and simultaneous friendships, often verging on erotism but not compelled to it, both across and within the sexes, and among straights and gays—this extraordinary birthright the ’60s gave to all those of us born, say, after 1969. The range is better than any narrowing. The multiplicity of friendships trumps the marriage structure. Yet these relations really survive, and thrive, only until marriage begins to clear its throat, and they are jeopardized by the cowardly constraints of couplehood. Marriage is lye poured upon the petri dish of the new relations of erotic sociality.

For better and worse (and for richer and for poorer), marriage is also almost inevitably intolerable to any post-’60s individual who counts the accumulation of strong experience and passionate feeling as the sine qua non of meaningful existence. Massachusetts had the great dignity to give us our first gay married couple, Marcia Kadish and Tanya McCloskey, on May 17, 2004. But something must be said about the fact that Massachusetts also recorded the divorce, in 2009, of another of that first day’s married couples, Julie and Hillary Goodridge, plaintiffs in the original lawsuit that won marriage rights—a dissolution greeted with malicious rejoicing by “defense of marriage” commentators. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that relationships dissolve. Certainly it’s not inexplicable. Marriage is “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings,” Susan Sontag noted, with her characteristic concern for strong experience: “The whole point of marriage is Repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies.” Our culture has caught up with the ’60s Sontag, and, like her, wants to sharpen its feelings, and never repeat, and not be codependent. Individualistic and self-oriented though it may be, this cultural change means that the situation of classic marriage is untenable, except perhaps where it approximates “serial monogamy,” the term known to pick out the responsible relationship paradigm of our moment. Serial monogamy represents the fusion of our spiritual concern with peak experience with our moral concern with fidelity. That’s why it is so uncontroversial. You have a multi-year marriage-like arrangement until it burns out, then you develop another. The serial monogamist must be dutifully faithful to someone until the morning she wakes up to realize she’s “unfulfilled”; that is to say, however pure of heart and kind of soul she is, she realizes that she is not finished with experience and growth, and that it will not revive with this partner. At that romantic moment she is released from her bonds. Our modern moral system does not fault her, if her feeling for growth is sincere.

And yet if you commit to marriage as your end, you win the piety battle, or, say, the war for harmless cuddliness. To marry is the closest adult thing to making your eyes big, your forehead rounded, and your hands into adorable little paws. Look at hubby-wubby! It is so responsible. It says that your desire is not for pleasure or fun, it is for fitting in. It is for the maintenance of what already is. How can you refuse these sweet-natured, utterly ordinary and gentle people—gay marriage-ists—who want to sacrifice themselves to this really rather miserably difficult institution, one which doesn’t even work well for straights, who have it so easy? Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage. For moderates, on the fence about bigotry, it really will be too cute to deny.

Add to that some oddities of rights under the American system, and you have a winning strategy. If gay people can gain the right to marry, they get everything else without divisive confrontation. Once the state and society will acknowledge strong forms of relationship between citizens who happen to be gay—specifically marriage, a relation once built on the prospect of reproduction, which gayness uniquely complicates—then all purely internal or individual rights (non-discrimination, free expression, privacy, et cetera) should surely fall into line, not by legal consecution, but as a matter of mood. And within either a state or federal constitutional framework, access to marriage and the obligation of government to recognize it seems inevitable. A right to marry existing exclusively between “a man and a woman” feels nonsensical in a legal tradition that imagines every individual as a subject without attributes—not to mention an Anglophone jurisprudence founded on free contract and voluntary association. You can debar a class of people from such rights, legislatively, for a little while, but not for long once any judiciary gets a look at the issue. Thus opponents are driven to the desperate expedients of constitutional amendments, devoted solely to discrimination against a small group, which will be too trivial to pass.

Abortion, however, unlike marriage, is unlovely. It’s a basic practical necessity of modern values, like sports medicine and hotels, but it is being sentimentalized out of existence by its opponents. Defenders seem cowed by the climate of opinion the sentimentalists have created. “Choice” worked as a rallying cry for a long time. But it’s hardly enough if you can’t also say what abortion itself is really for, and why it’s not “sad but necessary” but right and good.

In a nutshell: Abortion is for freedom first—freedom rather than choice. It’s about the freedom of women from having to alter their lives irrevocably for children they don’t want. From a different perspective, it’s also about the social good of prioritizing children who are wanted above possible children who aren’t. A state or society that forbids abortion comes down on the side of women’s enslavement to reproduction. That may not even be legally out of line (pace Roe v. Wade), it’s just morally tyrannical.

Abortion proponents have to shift our minds’ eyes back to the embryo from the “fetus.” As the years go on, there are ever better reasons for people to become immune to anti-abortion extremists’ bizarre intuition that an embryo could be a person. Modern sexual practices and hospital in vitro fertilization have made it increasingly unintuitive. On the anti-abortion view a large number of “persons” must currently be sitting in IVF-clinic refrigerators around the country. Medically assisted reproduction fertilizes multiple embryos for each one that a woman has implanted in the womb. Why not picket for their interests? Liberate them to a countertop, where they’ll continue to have no attributes whatsoever? Most people who aren’t religious fundamentalists don’t picture an embryo as a person; for that matter, it often feels as if anti-abortion people think of the embryo as a person mostly polemically, or on principle—they say “Life begins at conception,” but don’t picture “conception”—they picture babies. It’s also a strike against sentimental feelings about embryos that we’re always leaving the stray prerequisites of them lying around, in the ovum that gets flushed into a tampon every month with menstruation or the sperm left in a condom or wiped on a masturbator’s handkerchief. You’re romanticizing materials that generally are waste. An embryo is a tiny, contingent bundle of cells that needn’t have come together. The substance of a baby is in a woman’s contribution of nine months’ blood, nutrients, energy, life, and time.

To defend abortion from within this realm of baby-thinking, you have to pull in two directions: once, toward the embryo and away from the “fetus”; again, away from the “fetus” and toward the child.  ((Advanced-stage fetuses, rather than embryos or children, are at the center of anti-abortion agitation because of mind-numbing philosophical conundrums (what are being and becoming? when does a seed become an apple? can nonexistent people have interests in their possible future existence?) that arise around issues of parts and wholes, transition, and possible versus actual existence. Advanced-stage fetuses become valuable because fetuses look, when medically imaged in different scans, quite recognizably like models or statues of human babies. Pro-lifers emphasize the most confusing phase of development in the womb, in other words, so that the timid ratiocinator can be shifted to the more direct, but misleading, test of “sight” and carefully colored pictures. If you remove the fetus from the womb at this point, you still have a clot of matter without personal attributes, but with reminders, premonitions, or homologies of a human person.)) The anti-abortion case likes to take the real person you can talk to out of abortion—the woman—by claiming contrary and overriding interests for an invisible and mute figure, the possible child. But possible children aren’t really as discouraging to women’s liberation as they’re often thought to be. A lot of people, for example, share an intuition that goes something like this: any of a woman’s children, let’s say her first, is her first child regardless of the month or year she started gestating him, or the ovulation window she chose to work within. This is certainly the picture parents and children work with. (“Mom, why didn’t you have me when you were younger?” “Because I was still in school, honey!”—We don’t answer, “If I had, you wouldn’t exist,” and not because we’re shielding the child from strongly felt ontological problems.) And it’s a fact that no mothers in America stay pregnant for the entire period that they could, from age 13 to 45. They are choosing one pregnancy-window, or a few, from a possible thirty or so. Nor do women who have an abortion forswear childbearing over a lifetime. What the anti-abortion position does is to insist on the willy-nilly creation of a class of children (from the millions of possible children who can be created, or not created, at any moment, by all of our choices) who are specifically those that are not wanted. It prefers unwanted children to wanted—forcing children into existence when they are likely to have worse lives, less happiness, more sorrow, more pain, rather than when they are likely to have better lives.

The sentimental pro-abortion commercials I’d like to see would be the TV spots that feature kids born to loving mothers who had abortions earlier. “Thank God my Mom had me when she could afford to care for me. Thank God she had me when she could love me, instead of having to give me up for adoption. I’m glad Mom chose to have me when she was an adult; now my Mom and Dad love each other. Thank God people let my Mom make her own decision about it.” If it’s sometimes intuited as unreasonably selfish when a woman isn’t willing to contribute nine months’ worth of blood, energy, and time to bear a possible person that comes into her womb (as we might be obliged to donate a kidney to a donor-match), it’s not in the least selfish for any woman to choose when she wants to contribute all these things. As for the strictly punitive, “personal responsibility” impulse—which says, “Well, she chose to risk getting pregnant!”—until one is prepared to forbid doctors from coming to the aid of the “responsible” parties to other unintended but foreseeable events that alter someone’s life (fireworks accidents, motorcycle accidents, toothpick-down-the-throat canapé accidents), it’s not clear why abortion is different.

If marrying is cute, and children are delayable, is the underlying animus about sex? That’s what cynics have always thought.

It’s clear that we’ve grudgingly decided not to legally discriminate against gays, because they are also people. It’s equally clear society wants to punish them for something. You sometimes hear anti-gay positions, too, that accept “gay” as a kind of ontological category—a way that, yes, some people unavoidably turn out—and approve it sentimentally as long as those persons don’t have sex.

Among abortion-haters, an underlying charge is that abortion encourages sex. This is really puzzling. What they mean to reject is “sex without consequences.” Their counter-strategy has been abstinence education for children, which plainly encourages sex “with consequences,” namely pregnancies. This was foreseeable. If you discourage children from contraception and abortion, in programs which portray sex (in marriage) as hidden treasure, adulthood’s lucky prize (think of those “promise rings,” co-ed erotic pledges of purity, courtships sublimated into vows to fuck later, after the wedding), you will reliably create a lot of babies with underage moms, as all scientific studies, plus 10,000 Bristol Palins, attest. What’s so important about “sex with consequences” that you’ll sacrifice your own children to it?

The value of “sex with consequences”—which gays can never have (except for the brief shifting of gravity during the AIDS plague), because they don’t get pregnant, and which feminists say it’s good to escape—is that it enforces domination. It does so through a positive appeal, not open repression. Pregnancy will lay you up for nine months, plus eighteen years of care, sure. That’s not the main issue. Domination depends rather on the beauty of sex with consequences, the pleasure of sex with consequences, to guarantee commitment to the family-centered fold. Women’s straight desire and wish for love and pleasure is the thing that’s supposed to seduce women back into the system of inequality—a beautiful inequality mentally structured by childbearing and the determination of your life course by the consequences of desire. It is beautiful, in its way; as oriental despotism was beautiful, too. You must give something up to leave the system—or else the system is revealed as naked and weak. Thus feminism always needs to be pictured publicly as sexless, man-hating, or just manless—not to mention babyless—or it would become appealing. (Indeed, baby love may furnish the greater lifetime erotic satisfaction for straight women, on the traditional system.) If desire fails to pull people back into patriarchy, patriarchy’s arsenal is diminished.

Remind yourself why utopians have tended to be on the side of sex, along with the diminution of its social consequences (under the heading of “free love”), back through Victoria Woodhull and Emma Goldman to Wollstonecraft and Godwin or, if you like, Shelley and in his way Milton. Still today, it’s hard to be a utopian without being perpetually hopeful about sex. Even in the midst of our partial liberation, our free market investment in sex for sale, you have hope. The “liberalization” of sex has fashioned a new sphere for competition and mercilessness, as the novels of Michel Houellebecq have shown us. Midcentury reformers like Paul Goodman and Herbert Marcuse did not look forward to our compulsory softcore scenes in Hollywood movies, Girls Gone Wild, the pole-dancer work- out, and penis enlargement. Yet you have to stick with sex, as a utopian—even when you’re not a particularly lubricious person yourself.

You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies. Production comes back in with pregnancy and “labor”—that’s why contraception means so much. Competition can come back in with the conquest of partners, and a brutality or technical objectivity in lovemaking that allows men to remake cooperation as if it were struggle—hence utopians’ funny, sentimental insistence on love in the act. Sexual cooperation is the other side of our basic human nature, and matches and disarms economic competition. Conservatives look to the chimpanzees, utopians to bonobos. One viewpoint prefers that side of our evolutionary ancestry that punches and rapes; the other that side, of equal propinquity, that rubs genitals and makes out.

“Sex without consequences” becomes the metaphor for cooperative exchange without gain or loss. For basing life on the things that are free. For the anticapitalist experience par excellence.

Desire, the endless rising or falling feeling of desire, trains you to wish for something even better—if desire can be sustained without the violence of frustration or the social punishment that leads to tragedy. If sex, right now, under capitalism, is being corrupted in a new way, we have to push through to the end of corruption—to a further freedom, counting on the face-to face-relation of sex to survive all depredations. We often say the impulse to sex is like hunger. But it may be more like the wish for laughter, gaiety. Gay marriage is a preparation for institutions beyond marriage; abortion a means to life beyond patriarchy. So we want the beyond … but we’ll take the steps before it, first.

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