Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2016/ Heterosexual Pride Day

Heterosexual Pride Day

(UPDATE: To my chagrin, I appear to have plagiarized many of the ideas in this blog post from an essay I read in Carol Queen's excellent -- and very NSFW -- book Real Live Nude Girl. Oy vey.)

Recently, there was a Twitter brouhaha about designating June 29 as "Heterosexual Pride Day". This idea comes up a lot, often proposed by straight people who find LGBTQ Pride events unneccessary. Predictably, a lot of the reaction to the idea of having a Heterosexual Pride Day has been dismissive and snarky: eg Every Day is Heterosexual Pride Day , or A Rare Moment for Straight-Love Celebration.

I find this incredibly irritating. I am irritated at those who cavalierly propose Heterosexual Pride Day as a mechanism for undermining LGBTQ pride celebrations, and I am even more irritated at the snarky response. I unironically believe that the world would be better off with a Straight Pride movement and a Straight Pride celebration. There are a whole lot of straight people who are dealing with a lot of unnecessary stigma and shame for their sexualities and their relationships. By pretending that "Every Day is Heterosexual Pride Day" we are falling into the same trap that homophobes do: that there is one kind of sexuality that is Correct, and that everything else is deviant and worthy of ridicule.

I expect that many of the things I am about to write are going to come across as controversial or maybe even offensive. With that in mind, here are some disclaimers:

Okay? Okay.

"Correct" Sexuality

In our culture, there is a script that sexually normal people are supposed to follow. I think of this script as "Correct sexuality", and currently I think the script looks something like this:

Many of us have this in mind when we think about our sexual lifetimes, and these are the standards by which we judge ourselves and each other. We view this script as Correct.

Other cultures consider slightly different scripts as Correct. In some cultures you do not go on casual dates or seek out your own life partner; instead your parents arrange a marriage for you. There are sects of religious conservatives that abhor secularism. Their script is more restrictive: they do not have sex or cohabitate before marriage (or even masturbate by themselves!). Their script involves young people getting married quickly and having as many kids as possible.

Deviations from this script are judged. Some deviations are punished more heavily than others. I suspect that divorce might be so common that it might be part of the standard script now, and thus it is not punished very heavily. At the same time, but we frown on divorces when they are not for "good reasons". Getting out of an abusive marriage is a "good reason"; leaving a marriage because you want sex too much is a bad one.

Sometimes spouses die early deaths; in these cases it is socially acceptable for the widows or widowers to remarry.

But what about spouses who have sex outside their marriages? What about people who don't get married, or people who choose not to have kids once they do? What about people who have children before they are married, especially if they are teenagers? What about married couples who are sufficiently feeble that they are moved to nursing homes, but who still wish to have sex with each other? What about people who never marry, and end up as spinsters? What about people who enjoy long term relationships, but have no intention of cohabiting or marrying anybody? I claim that our judgements of such people are harsher, and that implicitly or explicitly we think of such people as sexually Incorrect. We might tolerate such people, in the sense that we do not stone them. But depending on the violation we might ostracise them. Who wants to hang out with a cheating spouse? Shouldn't we worry that single women whose biological clocks are ticking might steal our husbands from us?

Morality and Immorality

Although we have drifted from strict religious interpretations of sexual correctness, I believe we are still heavily influenced by them. Some people feel that religious morality is unchanging and comes directly from God; I believe that we derive these rules based on interpretations of textual and cultural cues. In the past, religiously-based sexual morality just happened to coincide with demographic imperatives for young people to have lots and lots of children, thus outpopulating competing tribes and providing useful cannon fodder in times of conflict. With seven billion people on the planet, maybe those imperatives are less clear.

Regardless of how these rules came about, I feel we still hold to them strongly, and we judge those who violate them. I feel that this implicit morality lies behind some of the oppression LGBTQ people have experienced historically, which happens to coincide with the convenient way LGBTQ people are used as wedge issues in political disputes. (Why exactly are we obsessed over which bathrooms transpeople should be allowed to use, again? Surely it has nothing to do with political diversion, right?)

There is an extreme form of religiously-derived morality which seems deeply immoral, but which I feel still influences the ways we view sexuality. Some religious people believe that our lives on this Earth are nothing more than tests, and that the only purpose of these tests is to distinguish those who will accept Jesus Christ as their saviour (and thus get into Heaven) and those who do not (and are thus doomed to eternal damnation, because God loves us). In this worldview there are only two options: salvation or damnation, and everybody who faces eternal damnation is doomed equally.

In this worldview, it is perfectly acceptable to inflict arbitrarily high amounts of shame, fear and guilt on the population in order to save a few more souls, even if in doing so everybody else suffers a great deal. If imposing moral norms on a thousand people who would otherwise be damned makes just one of those people accept Jesus and the other 999 much more miserable than they would otherwise be, that that is infinitely preferable to doing nothing and allowing all 1000 people to face eternal damnation.

I find this calculus horrifying, and disagree with it profoundly. But before you ridicule me for even conjuring up this strawman that obviously no reasonable person believes, ask yourself why administrating the HPV vaccine to all young women is so controversial. Ask yourself why so many parents are freaking out about including discussions of homosexuality in sexual education curricula. Ask yourself why there are still people who don't want their children learning how to use condoms safely. I believe the underlying principle is the same, and very similar to the extreme religious view: if we take steps to educate and protect children about the consequences of sex, then maybe more of them will have sex at an earlier age (and thus be damned eternally, or something). It is better for 999 teenagers to contract STIs and suffer needlessly so that one teen might be scared enough to be abstinent than it would be for that teen to become sexually active at an earlier age.

One problem about discussing morality is that so much about it derives from our Judeo-Christian heritage, and so proposing alternative conceptions of morality comes across as anti-Christian. And in fact I do not know how to be a moral or ethical person, and I am not sure I understand what morality or ethics really are. But I do have a rule of thumb which I personally find helpful: I view actions that reduce the amount of kindness and trust in the world as immoral, and those which increase the kindness and trust as moral. It is on that basis that I would like to resume this argument.

Lessons from LGBTQ Pride

In recent years I have become more involved with LBGTQ-themed activities in the community. I also read a lot of LBGTQ-themed blogs. If there is one lesson I have learned from these experiences, it is that there are a lot of ways to live in this world. Let's consider a few of the ways gay and bisexual men in particular have structured their lives:

No doubt I am missing some options. None of this even gets into the topics of what kinds of sex these men choose to have, or the different subcultures these men fall into, or the different norms held within these communities. I also limited the list to gay and bisexual men; you could come up with similar lists for all kinds of other sexualities and gender expressions. I have learned that there is not a "homosexual lifestyle". Rather, there are many many different kinds of lifestyles.

Here's a really important point: none of these structures adhere to the straight script of Correct sexuality. But they are not all morally equivalent. It is not the case that "anything goes", as is so often asserted by those who advocate religously-derived sexual morals.

For example, I consider men who sneak around behind their wives' backs to be engaging in fairly immoral behaviour. If their wives believe that the marriage is monogamous, the husbands are undermining that trust. In addition by sneaking around, they are exposing their spouses to STI risks that those wives don't know about and might not consent to.

Contrast this to the situation to those men who have admitted to themselves and their wives that they have homosexual feelings, and who have made arrangements with their wives to have sex outside the marriage. Those arrangements might take many different forms. Some wives might not want to know the details of outside dalliances; others might enthusiastically demand full debriefings (so to speak). Some wives might allow only a few known sexual partners outside the marriage, and might get veto power over those partners; others might leave such decisions up to the judgement of their spouses. Some wives might allow outside sexual partners, but only when their husbands are out of town. In my mind, any of these situations is far more moral than husbands sneaking around, even if in both situations sex is happening outside the confines of marriage.

I have observed that LGBTQ people tend to be more diverse in their relationship structures, and on the whole are less ashamed of that diversity than straight people are. By living their lives openly, LGBTQ people explicitly decide not to follow the scripts of Correct sexuality, and this gives them the freedom to figure out kinds of relationship structures that work better for them. In contrast, many straight people seem constricted by sexuality scripts that tell them how they ought to live their lives.

I am not claiming that all LGBTQ people make good decisions about alternative relationship structures. For example, as a prude I suspect that the casual hookup culture so prevalent among gay men does not work that well for many of its participants, and that this culture leaves too many men emotionally calloused, anxious about their body images, and craving deeper relationships than hookup culture has to offer. But gay men are not obligated to participate in hookup culture, and they have realistic options for structuring their lives differently if they so choose.

The Value of Heterosexual Pride

I think you can see where I am going with this. The kinds of heterosexual pride that the Advocate and Daily Beast articles mock is the same kind of straightness dictated by the scripts of Correct sexuality. But just like LGBTQ people, straight people end up structuring their relationships in all kinds of different ways. Straight people get divorced and remarried. Lots of straight people have sex outside their marriages. Some straight people decide they never want to get married, and others decide they don't want children. Straight people live diverse lives, but I do not think a lot of them live them with pride. Too many straight people feel shame for structuring their lives outside the confines of Correct sexual scripts.

Sometimes people ought to feel shame for the ways they structure their sexual interactions. But sometimes straight people feel shame needlessly, and I feel it causes an incredible amount of harm:

All of these things have consequences, and so many of them are avoidable. If straight people could be more open about the ways they actually structure their sexual relationships (as opposed to the way they think they are supposed to) then they could be healthier. They could learn best practices from the experiences of others in similar situations. They could maintain their relationships better, and end those relationships in safer and saner ways more often. Instead, so many straight people are closeted about their sexual struggles, and all too often those who do come out are judged harshly by their communities and peers.

There are glimmers of heterosexual pride out there. Dan Savage's sex advice is one source. Polyamorous communities are doing a good job of educating their members about best practices and dealing with the complexities of non-monogamy, but their visibility and acceptance within broader society is still low and stigmatized. BDSM communities (many of whose members are straight) have been working on education and visibility for decades, but are similarly stigmatized by broader society. And even within these communities the participants often stay closeted to their friends and families.

There are all kinds of ways to be straight that are nonstandard, but might deserve parade floats. Here are a few types of people who should celebrate:

Pride Within the Script

Even though the scripts of Correct sexuality do not work for everybody, lots of people end up in monogamous lifelong marriages quite happily. Is there anything in the Heterosexual Pride movement for them?

My answer is an enthusiatic yes. If the standard sexual scripts work for you, then that is fantastic and you should be marching in that parade as well, so long as you understand that following standard scripts does not make you more moral than others, and does not give you license to demand that everybody else live as you do.

Weirdly enough I have seen this kind of Heterosexual Pride (and associated support services) among socially-conservative (and usually homophobic) religious groups like Focus on the Family. These groups actually devote some resources addressing problems straight people face in trying to live out the norms of Correct sexuality, and even more weirdly some of this advice seems sensible. There is no reason that secular non-homophobic groups could not do the same kinds of peer education.

In addition, there are a large number of ways in which even those in rigid monogamous heterosexual relationships feel unnecessary shame:

In Conclusion

It feels weird to write this, but I frequently find myself feeling sorry for straight people. Their ability to be themselves out in the open oftentimes seems so constricted. In order to come to grips with their sexualities, most LGBTQ people go through a process of becoming more honest about their sexualities, gender identities, and how they should structure their lives. I feel there is a lot of room for straight people to be similarly honest about their needs.

I feel that too many straight people live in closets of denial. Those who do venture out of their closets then lack the tools and resources to make healthier decisions about their sexual relationships. A Heterosexual Pride movement might address these problems. It would not be the kind of Heterosexual Pride that the anti-LGBTQ people on Twitter expect, but that might make it more worthwhile, not less. I do not actually believe we will see such a movement (partially because it will be co-opted by religious and social conservatives) but I do think it would be of benefit. And that is why I unironically support the idea of a Heterosexual Pride day.