Saturday, June 24, 2006


I have been reading about Gilbert Herdt's book "Guardian of the Flutes", written in 1981. It's about a tribe called the Sambia where homosexuality plays a large part in boy-to-man rituals. In order to become a man, boys have to perform oral sex on the older men of the tribe and ingest their semen, which it is believed, will make them manly. More info here. Herdt's study is often used in social constructionist arguments about sexuality - the idea that it is society which shapes our sexual identities, rather than them being something we are born with. Herdt's study isn't the only one which supports this point of view. Other cultures have also had very different notions about sexuality - we all know about the Ancient Romans and the Greeks, for example - and there are studies which show that in Muslim countries, homosexuality is common, although goes unspoken. What's interesting about a lot of these cultures though, is that the homosexuality occurs in particular circumstances - and the men who engage in it usually marry women and have children as well.

In many of these cultures there is a huge premium placed on the family and the importance of having children - for some, it is to do with having kids to look after you when you're old, or to send them out to work as soon as possible, or so kids can be sold off in arranged marriages, pass on the family name etc etc. Family life is also big where there are strong inequalities between men and women, as well as marked differences in gender roles - men go out and work, women stay at home and look after children and do domestic jobs. But our western society isn't as bothered about these things as it used to be. Where a society is relatively poor, I'd argue that there are huge pressures to be heterosexual (at least most of the time) - because families act as support networks. However, it's clear that in these societies, homosexuality is also tolerated, as long as it occurs in the background and doesn't disrupt family life.

But our society is different. We have pension schemes, health care and the relatively new notion of "romantic love". Women can go out and work for themselves. We're not as dependent on family structures of support as we used to be - which means we have more chioces. So you can now choose" to "come out" of the closet, and live a gay lifestyle - something which is not an option in other cultures, where there is enormous pressure on you to get married. (I found it interesting when I went to India, for example, where everyone asked me if I was married and then wanted to know exactly why I wasn't, when I said no. At the time, I thought - god, what a repressive society this is! Get me back to the UK so I can be myself and not have to excuse it!)

But my question is - does more choice and freedom result in us having a sexual identity which is more "honest" - i.e. now we get what we want and don't have to hide it? Or are the western identities like homosexual/heterosexual simply forcing us into a narrow set of boxes - where there is less room for us to engage in a fuller range of sexual expression? If evidence from these other cultures suggests that many people are actually bisexual, then where does that leave most people in our culture? They either come out as gay - which is fine for the 4-10% of us who only prefer same-sex partneers. Or they reject that identity, because they can't commit to it 100%, and opt for a straight life - which is what 90%+ of men in our society do (and plenty of women too). But what about all those men and women who actually wouldn't mind a bit of gay sex every now and again? Where do they go? They do exist - and they're not staying at home twiddling their thumbs. Sexual health workers have a name for men like this "MSM" - Men who have Sex with Men (which is a bit of mouthful). I kind of worry about them. First, they often have to be secret about a large part of their sex-lives - which must put all kinds of pressure and guilt issues on them. Second, they can't risk the gay scene, so they have to hang out in heterosexual society and put up with all the homophobia which goes with that, and that can't be good for their self-esteem. Third, even the gay world derides them - saying that they're trying to have their cake and eat it, or hating them for not being brave enough to "come out of the closet". Or these poor guys repress all their same-sex desire and it drives them mad - they end up being the ones screaming about "puffs" and "fags" the loudest.

So I think our present system of gay OR straight is very nice for you if you are one of those people who are lucky enough to be 100% gay or 100% straight. I'd say I'm 100% gay pretty much (or maybe 99% - but that 1% is for another posting). But if you like both sexes, and aren't lucky enough to be living in some well-educated, urban, sophisticated part of the country, then you're screwed (or not screwed!) I've met quite a few of these sorts of men and I always end up feeling sorry for them, wishing that there was more acceptance and awareness of bisexuality in our society. I wish we weren't so hung up on boxing people into tight categories that make us commit to a lifestyle (with a predefined set of expectations attached to it).

And I wish that society didn't place so much pressure on people to be monogamous in heterosexual couples, instead of acknowledging that people don't stop fancying other people once they get married - and if they do want to have sex with other people (male or female) every now and then, that it doesn't have to result in a screaming drama and divorce. Watch any soap opera and 50% of the plotlines revolve around someone getting "betrayed" sexually - we are socially programmed through the media to think that sexual infidelity must result in the end of a relationship. If only people could just be allowed to communicate their feelings and be honest about their sexual desires - and even glad for their spouses when they get a bit of sex outside the marriage, I'm sure divorce rates would drop dramatically. It would of course require us all to discard a lot of our Victorian sexual repression and hypocrisy - as well as jealousy and insecurity, but hey, this is the 21st Century. Maybe it's time we took a grown-up view of sex, rather than viewing it as a Carry-On film or a particularly grim episode of EastEnders.

I started this blog entry by writing about how our western society gives us more choice and freedom in terms of sexuality, because we get to "come out" as gay if we want to. However, in hindsight - I actually think we have less. These identity labels are traps for most people that restrict their potential, and our continual hang-up on monogamy simply puts a pressure on most couples that they cannot withstand, especially in our over-sexualised society. No wonder, divorce rates are so high.

We need to accept that as humans we are sometimes monogamous, sometimes polygamous, sometimes monosexual, sometimes bisesxual. And just deal with it.

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