Queer Hippo: musings on human sexuality

Posted on September 20, 2011

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[This is a 'Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis' post: the ideas have been in my head for several years, and I've been wondering what, if anything, to do with them. Then I thought of the title, and just had to publish somewhere. There's a book here - I'd be interested to know if readers of the blog think I should write it.]

The debate on human sexuality as it is being conducted in every Western denomination of which I am aware is being conducted badly. An assumption is shared by both sides of the argument, an assumption which would be denied, on the one hand, by contemporary queer theory, and on the other by the ethical reflections of the greatest bishop of Hippo, St Augustine. This post is about the things that queer theory and Christian ethics in the tradition of St Augustine meet and agree on – they do not agree about everything, but they do about a surprising amount.

At the level of denominational politics (there are exceptions, I know, but their voices are not being heard in the denominations as far as I can see), the debate on human sexuality in Western denominations is being conducted on the grounds of ‘what is normal': is heterosexual monogamy the only pattern of sexual expression that is ‘normal’? (In which case the ministry and the blessing of the church should be restricted to traditional western marriage.) Or, is it ‘normal’ also to be gay or lesbian? (In which case people committed to faithful and exclusive gay/lesbian relationships should be accepted as ministers of the church, and such relationships should be blessed.)

From the perspective of contemporary queer theory, there is only one possible response to debates of this sort: profound sadness at their failure to address reality.

From the perspective of St Augustine’s sexual ethic, there is only one possible response to debates of this sort: profound sadness at their failure to address reality.

Let’s start with queer theory; here we need to look at Judith Butler’s developments of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Foucault demonstrated (with extensive boring empirical/historical evidence of the sort a postmodern icon is not really supposed to collect, but then Foucault, like Derrida, was always considerably more intelligent than those who defined the category of ‘contemporary postmodern icon’…) that modern Western constructions of sexuality are, well, modern and Western. Prior to Freud and Wilde, no-one considered themselves to be heterosexual or gay or lesbian, or behaved as if they did. Same-sex attraction and action was routine, of course, but there was no sense that a man attracted to men should therefore be less attracted to women. Equally, other mores were at work in other times and other places. Famously, in ancient Greece, ‘normal’ sexual attraction for a man (who was a member of the culturally dominant class) involved being attracted both to a wife and to one or several young male apprentices; in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, until recently, polygamy was normal; almost endless other constructions of sexuality can be found in history and across the world today.

On this basis, Foucault proposed that sexual identity is socially constructed. Our culture offers us certain permissible (‘normal’) ways of regulating our sexual desires, and there is a powerful, for most overwhelming, cultural pressure on us to conform to one or another of the permissible options; the permissible options, however – the accounts of what is normal – vary from culture to culture. Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble, analysed how this social construction happens in our Western culture, and proposed that we established as ‘normal’ a link between (biologically determined) sex, (culturally constructed) gender, and sexual desire. Successful inhabiting of the culture involves (amongst many other things, of course) constructing a gender identity which conforms to culturally-determined accounts of what is proper to your biological sex (becoming ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’), and regulating your sexual desires in accord with that identity: manly men desire feminine women, and vice-versa. Butler proposes a strategy of resistance: the conscious and public adoption of non-standard gender identities, to expose and disempower the cultural hegemony that controls us.

(Of course, Butler wrote over two decades ago. In many of the subcultures that make up Western culture gay and lesbian identities are now accepted as ‘normal’, and to conform to those identities is an equally successful way of inhabiting the culture. This is not to deny, and certainly not to excuse, the homophobia that still exists in many places, but it is to recognise that in the culturally-dominant discourses in the West, homophobia is now – rightly, of course – unacceptable. It wasn’t when I was a child.)

I suppose, though, most people who are interested in these questions have read Foucault and Butler: to the next step is perhaps a little more obscure, but goes by the name of queer theory. This remains a contested term, but my description would be something like this: queer theory is an analysis of gender and sexuality which refuses in principle any suggestion that certain patterns are more ‘normal’ than other patterns, because any such suggestion would impose the oppressive category of ‘abnormal’ on those who did not fit. A recent scare story about the federal government in Australia proposing to recognise 23 genders did the rounds on some conservative Christian blogs. If you trace the story back it happens not to be true; the origin is the list of terms in ยง2.2 of this discussion paper, which identifies 23 terms presently used in Australia to name chosen gender identities. Even if the original story had been true, however, this would not be enough for a proper queer theorist: the person who cannot find a home in any of the 23 identities defined as ‘normal’ would remain oppressed.

(There is a poster displayed around the place here in Scotland at the moment produced and distributed by Stonewall Scotland; it shows a dozen or so family groups – one or more children with parents who are (apparently) hetero, gay, and lesbian, of varying ethnicities, some with visible disabilities – under the caption ‘Different families. Same love.’ I confess that my immediate reaction on seeing it was to be appalled at how it constructed as abnormal the families of several of the children I was with at the time: according to Stonewall, it appears, the maximum number of adults in a family group is two, so the girl whose aunt lives with them in her house is rendered strange; adults have to be of the same generation, so the boy whose grandparent lives in his house is classed as weird; and so on. This isn’t queer theory – family groups are not completely defined by sexuality – but the point is analogous.)

From the perspective of queer theory, then, a debate, like the one happening in a certain Western Christian denominations, which seeks to expand the category of ‘normal’ from ‘heterosexual’ to ‘hetero, gay, and lesbian’ is completely uninteresting. Oppression remains inevitable, because closed lists of norms are always oppressive. Human sexual desires are endlessly and infinitely varied, and cannot and should not be confined to certain culturally-imposed norms. All human sexuality is queer, and that is something to be celebrated, not hidden or repressed.

What of the ‘Hippo’ bit of ‘Queer Hippo’? St Augustine analyses human fallenness as a story of misdirected desire. As fallen people, we long for things that will harm us, and discount or despise that which alone can fill the void in our restless human lives. (‘Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.’) Our perception of beauty is distorted, our desires are warped and twisted, and our longings are endlessly misdirected. This is always true of every human being, perhaps in Augustine’s view especially true in regard to sexuality. As a result, for Augustine, ‘normal’ sexual behaviour is an ideal, lost and longed for, not a present reality. So a debate about whether heterosexual monogamy is normal or whether gay and lesbian relationships can be considered normal as well is just not interesting; it has already made an assumption (that the category of ‘normal sexuality’ can be used) that, east of Eden, is untenable. Human sexual desires are endlessly and infinitely varied, and cannot be confined to certain culturally-imposed norms. All human sexuality is queer, and that is something to be soberly acknowledged, not hidden or repressed.

This is important: too much conservative Christian ethics concerning human sexuality assumes that there is a norm – heterosexual monogamy – that is accessible and livable by the generality of people. The Scriptures deny this straightforwardly, of course (‘If it is like that, it is better not to marry!’ – Mt. 19:10), but conservative Christian commentators are not, unfortunately, always very interested in what the Scriptures actually say. And too much liberal Christian ethics concerning human sexuality assumes that there are a certain limited number of norms – including faithful and exclusive gay and lesbian relationships – that between them are accessible and livable by the generality of people. The Scriptures deny this straightforwardly, of course, but liberal Christian commentators are not, unfortunately, always very interested in what the Scriptures actually say.

As Augustine taught clearly, echoing the Scriptures, and the almost-united witness of the Christian tradition, any sexual discipline – including heterosexual monogamy – is a practice of ascesis, which calls those who embrace it to deny and redirect their desires in order to conform them to the gospel. Heterosexual monogamy, like celibacy, is not normal or easy for anyone; it is an accepted discipline that requires the constant and rigorous disciplining and denial of personal desires to be lived out even remotely adequately. Any adequately Christian form of gay or lesbian relationship would not be normal or easy for anyone either; it too would be an accepted discipline that requires the constant and rigorous disciplining and denial of personal desires to be lived out even remotely adequately.

Is heterosexual monogamy normal? No. Augustine and Foucault can agree on that. Are faithful and committed gay and lesbian relationships normal? No. Augustine and Foucault can agree on that also. In Hippo, nothing is normal, and everything is queer.

Of course, even if we accept all of this, we can still disagree about human sexuality. We might all recognise that patterns of human desiring are endlessly varied, and most of us will, I assume, accept that at least some desires need to be disciplined, not indulged (at a minimum, desires that involve non-consensual acts, or children below a certain age). The question is not about our desires, endlessly varied as they are, but about the practices of ascesis that we regard as appropriate.

The Christian tradition has always regarded celibacy to be appropriate, when lived as a gospel-shaped and heroic regulation of personal desire that tends to conform us to Christlikeness; the Christian tradition has almost always regarded heterosexual monogamous marriage to be appropriate, when lived as a gospel-shaped and heroic regulation of personal desire that tends to conform us to Christlikeness; if the Christian tradition is to come to regard faithful and exclusive gay and lesbian relationships as appropriate, it should only be because we have discovered ways in which these too can be lived as gospel-shaped and heroic regulations of personal desire that tend to conform us to Christlikeness.

The issue for the churches should be what is gospel-shaped, not what is ‘normal’.

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