What is your sexual identity? And what is your erotic desire?
Are you female or male, straight or gay/lesbian, trans, intersex or something still other, a “gender nonconforming” person?Welcome to 21st-century postmodern sexual identity.
Equally critical, how do you fulfill your erotic desire, achieve sexual satisfaction, feel pleasure? By yourself?, with another?, with more than one?, as a top or bottom?, with sex toys and costumes? Or simply in private, with someone you care for, “naturally”? Or not at all? Welcome to 21st-century postmodern sexual pleasure.
America celebrated the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman, the nation’s poet laureate, on May 31st. He gave voice to sensuous, sexual desire, especially the pleasures of nature and erotic – especially homoerotic — indulgences. In his 1867 poem, “A Woman Waits for Me,” he chants:
A woman waits for me—she contains all, nothing is lacking,
Yet all were lacking, if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right
man were lacking.
Sex contains all,
Bodies, Souls, meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the semitic milk,
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals,
All the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth,
All the governments, judges, gods, follow’d persons of the earth,
These are contain’d in sex, as parts of itself, and justifications of itself.
Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.
Whitman’s words and rhythmic invocation bespeaks a consciousness of sensuous life that has always been part of the human experience. He invoked those legendary voices from time immemorial to proclaim the sensuous joys of erotic pleasure.
Yet, since the nation’s founding four centuries ago, pleasure — in all its forms – has threatened what was prescribed as “acceptable” social and sexual life. For many, sex was to serve one simple purpose – to foster procreation, thus legitimizing the nation’s moral order. For Whitman — and a growing number of others – sexual pleasure offered a lot more.
Whitman’s great literary work, Leaves of Grass, was published a decade earlier, in 1855, and celebrated erotic desire. It drew the wrath of the literary establishment. The New York Herald objected to Whitman’s “disgusting Priapism”; a New York Times critic accused Whitman of rooting “like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts”; and the New York Criterion attacked it as “a mass of stupid filth.” Emily Dickinson criticized the work and Willa Cather referred to Whitman as “that dirty old man.”
In the two centuries since Whitman’s birth, America’s sexual culture has profoundly changed. Cather’s “dirty old man” has morphed into a 21st-century eroticist, one for whom the living nature of the human body remains as marvelous as once-wild nature. Sadly, two centuries after Whitman’s birth, we live defined by a profound contradiction: sexuality is freer than anytime in U.S. history while the threat to nature has never been greater.
Few remember how shocked, shocked!, mainstream America a half-century ago was by Alfred Kinsey’s revelations about male and female sexuality. Based on approximately 18,000 interviews conducted between 1938 and 1953, Kinsey’s twin studies — Sexual Behavior of Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior of Human Female (1953) – represent a landmark in not only empirical research, but moral philosophy as well.
Kinsey and his team revised the popular tri-part model of human sexuality – i.e., heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual — into a seven-point range that ran from zero to six in terms of sexual proclivity, or heterosexual-to-homosexual scale based on the reported sexual practices of his subjects. His research acknowledged the fiction at the heart of traditional Christian patriarchal ideology that then framed American moral order and legal standards.
To everyone’s – including Kinsey’s – surprise, his 804-page scientific tome, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, became a best seller, quickly selling over 200,000 copies; it rose to the top of the New York Times best-seller list in spite of the fact that the Times failed to review it when it first appeared and refused to carry advertisements for the book.
Kinsey sought to make it impossible to continue to deny the full range — or “individual variation,” as he referred to it — of sexual practices engaged in by American white men and women. For Kinsey, there were no “homosexuals” or, for that matter, “heterosexuals” – only people engaged in sexual acts which were labeled the one or the other. Equally revealing, Kinsey recognized that then-conventional sexual values did not accept the difference between sex for procreation and for pleasure. Perversion was understood as a sexual practice that subverted the goal of reproduction.
His findings are, today, broadly accepted as part of national value system yet are still contested by religious fundamentalists. Often forgotten, the first volume on male sexuality precipitated a near crisis of social conscious. Moralists, politicians, academics and the medical establishment could no longer conceal the deepest private truths about the sex life of adult Americans.
Kinsey’s research was conducted during the post-WW-II era, a period marked by a fierce culture war fought on two fronts. It was a “cold war” waged against subversion, the communist threat, civil-rights activists and bohemian free-thinkers; and a “hot war” against sin, perversion’s temptations, including pornography, comic books and homosexuals. The “hot war” involved campaigns against rock-&-roll, fashion, movies and birth control (e.g., information and devices). The campaign culminated in the trials, convictions and executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953.
The great postwar consumer revolution – the “American Dream” — promoted an insistent sexuality that threatened many traditional values. It was an ideology and practice that was increasingly articulated – sometimes to exaggeration — in all aspects of a person’s life. Most insidious, it was principle targeted at women and, increasingly, underage girls. Most evident, the sexualized female was promoted by the fashion and cosmetics industries as well as in all media forms of representation.
The ‘50s gave rise to an insurgency that shaped the disruptive ‘60s and now, a half-century later, gives voice to a set of critical issues that are informing the upcoming 2020 elections. Most important, since the “hot war” days of the ‘50s, sexual politics (e.g., abortion, gay rights, sex work) have become an important political issue. It joins civil rights (e.g., voting, legal policies), foreign policy (i.e., war and other interventions), climate change (i.e., weather, earthquakes) and bread-and-butter concerns (e.g., income, health care) as a 2020 campaign issue.
In the shadow of Kinsey’s work, Herbert Marcuse published Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955). In it, he reinterpreted one of Freud’s most notions within the context of the contradictions of post-WW-II consumer revolution. “What makes an infant characteristically different from every other stage of human life is that the child is polymorphously perverse,” Freud wrote. He added, the child “is ready to demonstrate any kind of sexual behavior, with any kind of pleasure, without any kind of restraint.”
Marcuse warned, “the full force of civilized morality was mobilized against the use of the body as mere objects, means, instruments of pleasure; such reification was tabooed and remained the ill-reputed privilege of whores, degenerates and perverts.”
Michel Foucault provided a second stepping stone from Kinsey to 21st-century sexual culture. In The History of Sexuality (vol. 1), published in English in 1978, he identified a key transition in sexual politics from the late-19th century to the mid-20th century: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”
Now, four decades later, sexual culture is being further reconfigured under a broad catch-all concept, “LGBTQIA” – it refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexual or allied. Broadly speaking, these are gender nonconforming people. Looking exclusively at transsexual people, Paisley Currah asks:
Are transsexual people born in the wrong body, or is the wrong body narrative imposed by a medical establishment and legal architecture intent on maintaining the rigid border between male and female, even as they develop diagnoses and criteria that would allow one to move morphologically and/or legally from one gender to another? … Is gender a property of the brain or an effect of the social, of the psyche, of discourse, of language?
He adds, “third wave feminist theory … denaturalized gender.” He stresses that radical queer theory is about “celebrating fluidity over stasis, acts over identity, a queer anti-normative politics over the assimilationist tendencies of the gay and lesbian rights movement. Queer theory wanted to free sexuality from heteronormativity, intimacy from monogamy, and sex from private property.”
The old ‘60s slogan, “the personal is political,” has become a 21st-century truism. For many Americas, a person’s sex-identity embodies her/his self-identity, the person’s political self. The American Psychological Association points out that the notion of “transgender” is “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” It adds that “gender identity “refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics.”
Planned Parenthood further clarifies the difference between sex and gender, noting:
Gender is … a social and legal status, and set of expectations from society, about behaviors, characteristics, and thoughts. Each culture has standards about the way that people should behave based on their gender. This is also generally male or female. But instead of being about body parts, it’s more about how you’re expected to act, because of your sex.
John Galbraith Simmons, writing about sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) in Sex and Gender: A Reference Handbook (2017), notes “advances in the biological sciences complicated traditional gender determination at birth and obviated the simple binary male/female dichotomy.” He adds, today “SRS could be considered a mature set of procedures to treat a condition, transsexualism, which provided most patients an acceptable remedy for gender dysphoria.”
However, since the rise of 2nd-generation feminism in the 1970s, some radical feminists have objected to male-to-female transsexuality. Robin Morgan made perhaps the strongest assertion, arguing in 1973:
I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.
Others have pointed out that most trans women have taken female hormones, but only about a quarter of them have had genital surgery.
Michelle Goldberg observed that radical feminists insisted that “gender is less an identity than a caste position.” Such feminists adhere to a simple principle with regard to transsexuals:
Anyone born a man retains male privilege in society; even if he chooses to live as a woman—and accept a correspondingly subordinate social position—the fact that he has a choice means that he can never understand what being a woman is really like.
Some of these feminists promote “womyn-born womyn” events, excluding male-to-female trans people. Some insist that female-to-male transsexualism is a capitulation to misogyny.
A number of contemporary writers embrace this analysis. Daphna Whitmore argues, “Trans ideology is bollocks.” She points out “we are suppose to believe that trans women are women, lesbians can have penises, and biological sex is a social construct. … The majority [of transsexuals] are hanging on to their penises and are aggressively demanding rights that impact on women.”
Ann Menasche, in “Remembering lesbians in lesbian and gay liberation,” argues:
Lesbians have become extremely marginalized within the modern LGBTQ+ ‘alphabet soup’ – the corporatized stepchild of the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement. … We are being pressured and guilt-tripped on the one hand to accept men calling themselves women into our communities and our bedrooms. At the same time, rebellious young girls with same-sex feelings, and lesbian adults are being convinced in growing numbers they are really “men” and are being coerced or swayed into “transitioning”.
These critics raise a fundamental concern as to the status transsexual people: Who are they? As Currah asks:
Are transsexual people born in the wrong body, or is the wrong body narrative imposed by a medical establishment and legal architecture intent on maintaining the rigid border between male and female, even as they develop diagnoses and criteria that would allow one to move morphologically and/or legally from one gender to another?
This question defines one of the boundaries of early-21st century sexual culture.
American sexual culture has fundamentally changed during the last half-century. Key to these development are a series of critical Supreme Court decisions that have been ruled since Roe v. Wade (1973). They include: Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) that affirmed Roe and introduced two new elements: (i) it permitted states to regulate abortions so as to protect the health of the mother and the life of the fetus and (ii) permitted states to outlaw abortions of “viable” fetuses; Lawrence v. Texas (2003) that overturned Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), extending privacy protections to adults who engage in private, consensual sodomy; U.S. v. Windsor (2013) that ruled the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional; Obergefell v Hodges (2015) that legalized gay marriage; and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016) that overturned a Texas law restricting the delivery of abortion services.
Shifts in the nation’s sexual culture are expressed in still other developments. Thousands across the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ’69 Stonewall riot as a celebration of self-hood. Others remembered the momentous American Psychiatric Association (APA)1973 resolution to remove “homosexuality”from its list of mental illnesses. Some recalled successfully beating-back Anita Bryant’s anti-gay Save Our Children campaign to ban gays in Miami (1977). Military personnel cheered the adopted the “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy, in place from 1994 until 2011.
Last year, 400,000 fetishists, their admirers and voyeurs gathered in what is considered the world’s largest assembly of sexual deviants, San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair. And then there is the ever-growing “sexual wellness” – i.e., sex-toy – market with estimated revenues of $14 billion industry; Amazon dominates this niche sector, offering an estimated 60,000 products.
The Trump administration is aggressively promoting the religious right’s culture wars as federal policy, seeking to turn back the sexual clock. Sadly, it might succeed.
Trump & co. are pushing to overturn Roe, thus ending legal abortion rights; whether Trump’s reconstituted Court will reverse the earlier decisions is an open question. It is restricting teen sex education and birth control information. It supports failed “conversion” therapies that purport to end homosexuality and bars transsexual people from the military and led the effort to curtail the rights of gender-nonconforming students (i.e., “bathroom bills”).
The Christian right shares the fear of the changing sexual culture. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warns: “in the postmodern world, all realities are plastic and all principles are liquid. Everything can be changed. Nothing is fixed. All truth is relative, all truth is socially constructed, and anything which is constructed can also be deconstructed in order to liberate.” He added:
For those whose agenda is to undermine Judeo-Christian morality and to disconnect Western civilization from biblical norms, there is no better strategy than to subvert marriage, family, and sexuality, and unleash on society an age and culture of polymorphous perversity.
Today, transsexual people are playing a social role analogous to that played by homosexuals during the early day of the culture wars. Then, gays and lesbians were targets of mass discrimination campaigns, included congressional hearings, the loss of jobs and widespread arrests and jailing. Even worse were the anonymous as attacks, robberies and even killings of purported homosexuals.
Most troubling, what is old is new again. The Human Rights Campaign reminds Americans that in 2018 26 transgender people were killed in the U.S. “due to fatal violence, the majority of whom were Black transgender women.” For 2019, so far at least 11 transgender people were “fatally shot or killed by other violent means.” Do these attacks on black transgender people suggest a deep social – patriarchal, heterosexual – fear of postmodern sexual culture now in formation?
Following Foucault, one can ask: did Whitman’s premodern, 19th-century sodomite become the modern, 20th-century homosexual who, as the postmodern, 21st century takes shape, become the transsexual? Does this reconfiguration of postmodern sexual identity suggest the eclipse of patriarch and old-fashioned heterosexuality?
To answer these questions, we need three critical pieces of the puzzle. First, we need a 21st-century Whitman to reconceive sexual pleasure, one that links the body as a living, erotic social organism to the natural world of which it is part. Second, we need a postmodern Kinsey to reconceive the sexual spectrum, freeing people from the tyranny of patriarchal heterosexuality. And then we need today’s activists and the growing popular insurgency turn into a popular movement like that of feminism and gay rights that could move America into the sexual future.