Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 6, October 25, 2003


What’s Goin’ On? Sex and Social Change in America
Building Bridges III Keynote address – 10/17/03

Carol Queen, PhD

(Editor's note: Building Bridges III was held in Seattle, October 17-19, 2003 by the Institute for 21st Century Relationships. This was the opening address, and set the tone for the conference. You can contact ITCR at www.lovethatworks.org)

My remarks get their title from Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s goin’ on” – thanks to Loraine Hutchins for that inspiration. What gives me the interesting job of talking about what’s going on in sex and society is my training as a cultural sexologist, which essentially marries a degree in sociology with a PhD in sexology – and that’s not the only time today I’ll have occasion to talk about a new form of marriage. As a cultural sexologist, it’s my job to look not only at the “small” picture of people’s intimate lives and how the society in which they live supports, opposes, or constructs them – I also get to look at “big picture” issues, and that often means looking back at the history of sexual issues and changes.

Maybe not coincidentally, Marvin starts his song by observing, “Mercy, mercy me – things ain’t what they used to be...” Given that I’m speaking to you now, affiliates of an organization that wants to bring together groups of people who don’t always talk to one another, Marvin’s clearly right. And this is an undisputably significant year for sex and alternative sexual practices – this is the year Lawrence vs. Texas overturned the nation’s sodomy laws. I’ll be talking more about sodomy in a minute, too.
But a French proverb tells us that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” And that’s what’s goin’ on today, too – we’re gathering together here to talk about what, in 1850, would have been called “free love.” The movement that spawned the “free lovers” was a serious social justice movement, allied – granted, sometimes uneasily – with the abolition and feminist movements of the nineteenth century. Its adherents didn’t all believe in unfettered sexuality, although some of them did. Instead they were open to alternative marriage and family situations, some of them communal; they believed in consensual sex inside and sometimes outside of marriage and in the right of women to divorce. Most of us are their children, and they formed a potent – and vilified – counterculture during the 60 or so years of their movement.

60 years! And I was going to start my remarks back in the 1970s, giving an overview of the last 20 or 30 years of cultural changes having to do with sex. I now find I have to look farther back than that, partly to illustrate the way our various issues really do constitute a movement for sexual and relational freedom, whether or not we talk to each other enough to realize this is happening.

I was able to check all but one or two of the areas of interest on my Building Bridges registration form. Depending on the day of the week, I’m everything but a polygamous Mormon. I was a sexual revolution-style free lover in the early 70s, a lesbian in the late 70s, a queer-identified bisexual after that, a polyamorist before the word was coined, and a thrower of big sex parties. I’ve got more sexual orientations than average, and not only that, I’ve even done research. For some of it, I wasn’t even lying down!

So I’m in a position to talk more than perhaps most people across lines of identity and affiliation. I don’t always have a lot of use for lines, whether they’re drawn in the sand or fencing us in.

In that spirit, I want to ask how many of you here consider yourselves sodomites – or did until the Supreme Court rendered that term archaic. How many of you have committed sodomy? How many of you understand sodomy to refer to homosexual sex? That understanding was shared by the Supreme Court in 1986 when they upheld the last sodomy law challenge that came before them, Bowers vs. Hardwick.

It’s my educated judgment that virtually everyone here qualifies as a sodomite – depending on the state you find yourself in. Sodomy was defined differently in different states, and had at the heart of its various definitions not homosexual behavior, but non-procreative sexual behavior. In various times and places it included not just anal sex (homo- or heterosexual) but also oral sex, bestiality, even masturbation. Not only was it not frequently used to prosecute people for consensual acts, its close relationship with homosexuality wasn’t firmly embedded in US law until the 20th century. So much for upholding Hardwick because “homosexuality has always been a matter of State concern,” which is essentially what the Supremes said in 1986. The term homosexuality wasn’t even coined until the late 1800s – just a few years before some of the rest of us began to be known as “heterosexuals.”

History professors actually submitted a brief in Lawrence vs. Texas that in effect explained to the justices that everything they knew was wrong – that the assumption that US law had always criminalized such conduct was incorrect. Sodomy laws like the one in Texas began to crop up all over the country during the mid-20th century – just yesterday, in historical terms. They were one of the many cultural changes swept in after World War II, and the modern gay rights movement rapidly emerged during this upsurge in anti-gay harassment. But that’s not the only thing that was goin’ on in the 1950s, sexologically speaking. The '50s gave us the Kinsey Report – and it also gave us the rush to the suburbs, pulling women out of independent wartime lives. It gave us the McCarthy Era, when your sexuality as well as your politics could be judged. And all that change and heightened repression ushered in a decade of enormous upheaval and experimentation, the 1960s.

The Free Lovers were reincarnated in the 1960s. The Pill offered more freedom than ever. Throughout that decade and well into the 1970s American who wanted to – and a lot of us did – experimented with sex, relationship style, and living arrangements. Many of us concluded from these forays into multiple partnerings and unwed cohabitation that we desired something newer from sex and relationships than traditional America offered us – though that “tradition” actually covered up a reality more varied than most history has let on. Our understanding of the past is only as good as the information we’re given about it, and much alternative American history – including our history – never makes it into the books.

The women’s movement of the '60s and '70s emphasized sexual possibility for women – for a while; it grew conservative under the weight of sex-negative activists like Andrea Dworkin and the difficulty of staying positive when so many women’s sexual lives were fraught with difficulty and pain. The post-Stonewall gay movement emphasized everyone’s inherent bisexuality – for a while, until many gay men and lesbians owned up to real prejudice against bisexuals in real life.

Eighty or so percent of women who enjoy swinging are bisexual, at least behaviorally, though the Lifestyle has been a much less welcoming place for bisexual men, partly because of AIDS phobia. And the social changes set into motion by the AIDS epidemic itself have not played out; they include, besides an upsurge in fear and moralism, a marked increase in public discourse about sex. The Surgeon General’s brochure, mailed to every American home in the late 1980s, opened the door for an unprecedented wave of sex publishing and every other kind of discourse, including the uncensored online variety.

So here we are. Our kids don’t know about condoms (at least, not from school), but we do. Every conceivable sexual community has a website and a chatroom, or several thousand. Or do they? One of the amazing things about sex on the internet is the way it allows previously lonely and just-too-different individuals to find each other and create community. And the next thing you know, the Furries are having their own conference.

Here we are. What’s goin’ on? Here’s my overview of today’s – and maybe tomorrow’s – issues.

The media has a camera pointed at our lives. Thanks largely to cable, not a month goes by that I don’t give some show a tour of the Good Vibrations antique vibrator collection, talk about women who like gay male porn, or speculate on the next big sex toy of the future. Sexual variety has finally come out of the closet, whether or not its practitioners have – and it turns out the closet must have been really, really big to accommodate all the clown sex, Tantrikas, transgendered call girls, and extended poly families that have been stuffed inside. These shows don’t always show us at our best; they don’t always get it. Some are downright exploitative. But they illustrate sexual possibility nightly, and they clearly lead some people to realize actual community may exist for them.

The action isn’t just on the coasts, if it ever was. I live in San Francisco, America’s poster city for sexual and relational diversity. But I leave home once or twice a month to speak elsewhere, at colleges and universities, in bookstores and sex shops and the occasional hidden dungeon. I can tell you what the people in the Midwest and south-central United States say to me: You can’t find a duplex in Minneapolis because all the polyamorists have snapped them up; there’s an SM house in Salt Lake City just blocks from the Tabernacle, full of frisky, kinky jack Mormons; several communes full of gay male Radical Fairies live right up the hill from the Christians in rural Tennessee. We may still have sexual secrets, but thanks to the Internet, we are not so isolated any more – nor are we forced to live in urban coastal cities, unless we choose to do so.

Both of these factors will influence one of the next cultural tipping points: what happens when more and more people do not limit their relationship style and sexual expression to what the larger culture considers normative. Even more interesting may be the question of identity – when people actually identify with these “outsider” sexualities, what might change socially and politically? When gay men, bisexuals and lesbians stood up to homophobia, things changed. Now we have queer caucuses in every profession, LGBT-identified politicians in office, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and ding, dong, the sodomy law is dead. Will people in the Lifestyle, coming out and writing to their legislators, be able to get bawdy house rules off the books that make their parties illegal? I know gay men’s sex clubs, brothel owners, and SM playspaces also need to see that law repealed – but swingers are so numerous and so widespread, their clout might be impressive. The sodomy law is not the last archaic anti-sex law on the books. Even if you don’t count having sex for money – which I do – every state in the union controls whom you can fuck, how, and when. Though Texas’s sodomy law is dead, their law against possessing more than five sex toys still lives on. (It’s considered “intent to distribute.”) And in Alabama a fairly new law says you can’t have even one, unless you have a note from your doctor.

These laws are in few peoples’ sights today – but they will be. The repercussions of Lawrence vs. Texas will be felt for many years. Ultimately, unless our liberties shrink, they will expand.

Rights for the LGBT community aside -- if doing makeovers on hetero slobs is in fact a civil right to which most queers aspire – this community continues to address its own biases. Many in the gay rights movement ultimately sanctioned a split, either/or notion of sexual orientation – “Are you gay or straight?” Plenty of people aren’t either – or male or female, for that matter – and another cutting-edge issue today is our ability to be just who we are, not urged to stuff ourselves into the best-fitting box. Orientation, gender roles, preferences – none of these are binary, either/or. We don’t even know how many options we have.

Of all the hot-button issues today, perhaps none is more controversial – and as linked to Lawrence – as gay marriage. It’s spun as everything from a basic civil right to the end of civilization as we know it – a Weekly Standard pundit even called it the slippery slope leading to acceptance of polyamory, which I expect will give several of you a heightened zeal for supporting it. I personally don’t support any marriage, really – I have managed to avoid it for many years and am doing just fine, and remember that one of the tenets of the Free Lovers was freedom from marriage – but there is no question that the unequal treatment of Americans over this issue will not go away until the marriage laws change. All our relational choices may wind up in the hot seat, or perhaps on the witness stand. And they should, because more important than what we choose intimately may be that we choose – that we engage in our relationships because we want to, and configure them in the best ways for us and our lovers. Increasingly, we are taking seriously our ability to do just that, “slippery slope” or no.

The slippery slope that concerns me most is the one that leads not into the future, with its mostly-unknowable changes, but the past. Abortion is on the line, sex education has been gutted, pornography is under attack, and under the guise of fighting terror, the state might be reconstituting an Orwellian nightmare of surveillance. If you think the latter has nothing to do with sex, you’ve forgotten the many ways “anti-American” was defined during the McCarthy Era. The personal is the political, as '70's-era feminists pointed out, and no issue is more personal than sex and relationship. The question remains: Will people, and their elected officials, stand up to these attempts to turn the clock back? How much freedom do Americans want – for themselves, and each other?

Or, to put it another way, “What part of ‘pursuit of happiness’ don’t you understand?”

Marvin sang, “What’s goin’ on? Tell me what’s goin’ on, and I’ll tell you what’s goin’ on.” In essence, that describes my job, and it’s a task I wish the whole culture would embrace. I listen to the choices people make, the changes they want in their lives so they can pursue happiness their best ways. And I take that seriously, and talk about it, and teach from that perspective. Sexology is “the study of what people do sexually and how they feel about it,” and we may yet have the sexual world we want – if we can speak our own truth and desire, and listen to each other’s. Building Bridges is a fabulous place to practice speaking and listening to each other. Have a great conference, and take home what you learn.

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