01 July 2015

Liberation and the Future Trajectory of American Sexuality

"Coming Out" as a Sacrament

In the past twenty years, an inordinate portion of American cultural and political life has been devoted to the discovery and disclosure of authentic sexual identities.  "I am trans." "I am bi." "I am gay." etc.  Up to this point the mainstream discourse about sexuality has focused on what we might refer to as the confession of a hidden truth.  We are all invited (like penitents kneeling before the priest of public opinion) to search deep within ourselves for the truth of our own sexuality, and, once we have discovered it, to announce it, exercise it, and strive to fulfill it.

This impulse to be shriven of the secret of one's sexual truth has created an entertainment and media industry saturated with plaintive voices declaring "That's who I am!" to warm-hearted consumers who want to participate in the liberation and moral affirmation of everyone embracing their "true selves".  The whole festival has an aura much like the sacrament of penance or a riverside revival: we rejoice in the admission of the penitent, we urge his conversion to a new way of life, and we gladly absolve him, just as we ourselves wish to be absolved.  Those who refuse to participate are labeled "merciless" or (in the Church) "pharisees", for trying to subjugate these New Men to the Old Law of sin and judgment.

In recent months this process has reached what seems to be its apex, with the unbelievable flurry of adulation surrounding the sex-change of Bruce Jenner, the huge number of celebrated cases of teens (or even younger children) choosing to "transition" to life as members of the opposite sex, and finally the Supreme Court's recent discernment that two men or two women must be allowed by all the governments in this country to contract "marriages", based on an occultist reading of the US Constitution.

Liberation and the Sexual Revolution

Right now, the focus of much right-wing reaction is the narrow legal implications of the Supreme Court's judgment, and the next institutional target of the gay liberation movement.  Some are focusing on the non-profit status granted to religious institutions, others on the problem of religious liberty at large.  I think that, while these concerns are real, it may be more useful for strategic purposes to get a sense of what the present moment means for the project of sexual liberation and therefore where it is likely to head next.

As Michel Foucault pointed out repeatedly in the late 1970s and early 80s, the gay movement is not primarily or ultimately about liberation.  Liberation is just one phase or mode of this struggle.  In its liberation phase, the goal is to remove the moral, social, and legal structures which prevent people from exercising free choice with respect to their pleasures and relationships.  Liberation is the evangelical phase of the movement, but the conversion of society is not a sufficient goal: the cries for self-discovery and openness do not determine or direct a culture toward a goal.  Freedom, as has often been pointed out by critics of the Enlightenment (both Christian and post-modern) is only superficially about the removal of constraints; primarily freedom is about the ability to pursue a desired end, and to determine the means by which the end is reached.  Thus, if the present sexual movement is to sustain itself in the long run, the creation and maintenance of a culture presents itself as a question and, ultimately, a more important one than liberation.  Liberation for what?

The Identity of the Young Revolutionaries

In assessing the present state of the sexual revolution, one needs to think about goals, sentiments, and diminishing returns.  It is clear, given the minuscule proportion of the population who are actually homosexual (something around 1.6%, according to the CDC), and the fact that even fewer of them are presumably actively engaged in activist work, that the stupendous development and propulsion of the liberation movement is a result of devoted activists outside of the gay community itself.  For whoever is driving the movement, then, what exactly is the motivation?

From my experience, the mindset of the average liberationist activist is one of very intense sentimental moralism.  The moral formation of the present generation has left them self-centered, averse to responsibility, intemperate, and intellectually undisciplined.  I roll my eyes as much as anyone at giddy generalizations about "millennials", but these themes seem to match the reality.  If there is any primary moral imperative behind the soldiers of the sexual revolution today, it is "do not offend".  This is clear both from the mania over political correctness and the speed and fervor with which each and every plaintive cry of oppression is lionized and turned into a rallying cry for the obliteration of the offender.

Much is made of the relativism of the present moral climate, and people on the right frequently puzzle over the irony that the agents of relativism frequently seem to be more aggressively moralistic than the people they condemn for moralizing.  But classifying the moral climate as relativistic is wrong, because it treats as theoretical something which is essentially based on sentiment, not abstract judgment.  The agents of moral transformation are not principled relativists (though they might talk like relativists when you press them to give principles).  Their rule is not "there are no objective rules" but "one must suspend judgment".

For these people, the goal of the present movement is to achieve universal lifestyle affirmation.  As long as one is not an offender, a judger, or an oppressor, one ought to be celebrated for living however one wants to live.  The main targets of this movement, then, are the forces most present in the personal experience of these people which are associated with oppressing, judging, or offending.  There are three of these: the first is institutional Christianity (which goes under the name "organized religion"—yet no one has any illusions about what this term really means), the second is the Republicanism of FoxNews ("conservatives"), the third is the forces of racial discrimination and economic oppression (wherever they may appear).

I am not sure how effective the present movement will be in destroying racial discrimination.  As for the other two, they seem not to be threatened by it at all.  Institutional Christianity, on the other hand, seems well-placed in American society to be attacked.  First off, it is something that most Americans still have direct personal experience with.  Many Americans (and especially middle class white Americans, who make up the bulk of the movement under discussion) have not directly experienced phenomena they would understand as "racist" or "economically oppressive".  Racism, for them, is a vague thing relegated to The South and inner-city ghettos.  However, virtually all of them have direct or proximate experience with religion, and if one thing can be guaranteed about religious organizations, it's that they tend to promote moral judgment.

Excursus on the Present State of American Christianity

American Christianity is divided into a few general sectors.  Among protestants there are the "mainline" denominations, which have ceded most right to moral judgment in a process of gradual cultural accommodation.  Where moral judgment remains in these groups, it is not on the basis of anyone's lifestyle, except insofar as that lifestyle participates in judgment, discrimination, or oppression (or environmental abuse, which is a a complex issue we will not discuss).

Non-mainline protestants can be divided between more or less fundamentalist groups (e.g. the Southern Baptist Convention) and more or less traditionalist groups (e.g. the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), the latter being a fairly small portion of the protestant population.  The great strength of the evangelical/fundamentalist movement is its focus on the revealed truths of Scripture, and the prioritization of the words of the Gospel over every other form of knowledge and opinion.  The weakness of this movement stems mainly from its anti-intellectual bent and phobia of argument and rigorous analysis, which results indirectly from its ahistorical character and lack of conversance with the Christian tradition as a whole. These faults are not found so much among traditionalist protestants, but their main weakness is their marginal status.  They seem (in my Catholic eyes, at least) like so many little lifeboats, weltering amidst the flotsam and chaos left behind by the sinking masses they have separated from.  One wonders whether they are really seaworthy, whether they will be able to endure the turbulence and storms of the future.  (To be sure, some of these groups seem to have a good deal of institutional and intellectual vigor, but they remain marginal and largely invisible.)

Aside from protestant groups (I have omitted evangelical pentecostals, with which I am not familiar), there are the various Orthodox Churches in US, which are traditionally stronger and more culturally grounded than the traditional protestant denominations, but suffer from the same marginal status and invisibility.  As with pentecostals, my familiarity with the situation in American Orthodoxy is too superficial to comment further.

Amidst all of these is the Catholic Church in the US, which has to date managed to resist, institutionally, the corruption of the mainline denominations, but to little effect.  The pairing of official moral orthodoxy from Rome with creeping progressive rhetoric, refusal to enforce Canon Law, abhorrent clerical mismanagement, and regular displays of institutional (but rarely personal!) self-incrimination has deprived the Catholic hierarchy of almost all credibility and made them a superb target for abuse.  American Catholics on average stopped being catechized sometime in the late 1960s, and since then have been indoctrinated—generation after dwindling generation—into a ponderous Gospel of vague niceties and merely "meaningful" rituals sustained as a matter of cultural identity more than anything.  The best among them are orthodox in their faith, but have been so miserably ill-supplied with tools for understanding and defending that faith that they lack the confidence to speak up for it publicly.  While the shepherds have been busy catching flights and ministering to the wolves, thieves have broken in and led the greater part of the flock away to be slaughtered.  Nevertheless, when one looks for the face of resistance to the movement transforming American society today, one is most likely to find that it belongs to a Catholic Bishop.  And, it is truly depressing to say, the current habits of the American episcopate mean that this bodes ill for us in the future.

The Goals of the Movement

More than racism, economic injustice, or republicanism, then, Institutional Christianity has a unique place in the lives of the drones of the revolution: it is something they are personally familiar with, something that flaunts the imperative not to judge, and something vulnerable to attack.  So, if it is the main target, by disposition and proximity, of the present movement, the endpoint of the struggle for liberation will be the systematic silencing by whatever means of those branches of American Christianity which sustain a moral voice in the public square.  As the ability to resist and condemn is removed—through the stigmatization of moral judgment, through the use of massive economic and social pressure, through legal and fiscal penalties imposed on those who persist—the impulse toward liberation as a movement will subside, because it will no longer have a target.  

However, as we have already stated, liberation is not the true goal of this movement.  The struggle to liberate occurs in the first instance as the struggle to liberate nature: each of us is supposed to have a natural sexual identity which we must discover and disclose to the world.  But the emphasis on nature and the battle cry "Born this Way!" are really only superficial rhetorical tools, which the movement will cast aside in due course.  As we approach the completion of the liberation phase of the revolution, the ideal will be inverted.  From the sudden shift to transgenderism as the sexual topic of choice, we can see that we are already arriving at this moment.  The goal soon will no longer the accommodation of nature, but the transformation of nature into an expression of art.  

Previously we were convinced to grant the gay community its deepest desire: the desire for domestic normalcy.  Now we will find that in the moral space opened up by the elimination of our "taboos" against sodomy, many new sexual activities and pleasures have been liberated as well, and not just for the gay population—for everyone.  Everyone knows the trajectory that lust follows as it becomes more refined.  Already by the same perverse implantation (Foucault's phrase) that led to the modern homosexual identity and its acceptance, the practice of sadomasochism is reaching the mainstream, various heterosexual forms of sodomy are already widely thought of as normal, and so on.  One reads stories about "revenge porn", about the proliferation of increasingly refined fetishes and fetish communities, one sees the astonishing depravity suggested in mainstream music videos...  

Among conservatives the focus is on polygamy and incest, but these will not be the ultimate objects of pursuit.  The goal is pleasure and self-expression, not marriage.  Marriage was simply the last obstacle to the destruction of prohibitive sexual morality.  Once its ultimate trivialization has been achieved, and the goals of liberation have been met, marriage will be cast aside and ignored.  It is not, from the perspective of sexual art, a liberating or creative institution.

On the day the Obergefell decision came down, an astonishing number of large corporations went out of their way to express support for gay liberation.  From this alone it should be clear that corporate interests and the sexual revolution are closely intertwined.  As the movement switches gears from the liberation phase to the cultural determination phase, corporate interests will become ever more deeply involved in the production and development of sexual practices.  Earlier we asked what we were being liberated for.  The answer, I believe, is the creation of a new art of sexual consumption.  Nothing at present in our society is so closely and deeply associated with the imperatives of personal identity as sexuality, and no addiction is so universal as the addiction to sexual entertainment.  Surely nothing could be more appetizing fuel for the engines of commerce than a commodity that is irresistibly addictive, immune to moral scruples, and seen as the primary expression of personal identity.  We have liberalized sex! Now all that remains is to accelerate and diversify our production of it and to strengthen its cultural role as necessary for identity and self-fulfillment.  Once the activists have gotten morality out of the way, capitalism will take care of the rest.

[For a good explanation of the principles employed in this post, the reader is invited to read this interview with Michel Foucault from 1982.]