Well, slap my arse with a cheap serviette and call me Balzac, the internet is at it again. And by “it” we mean a moment of possibly well-meaning, but ultimately meaningless, mob whining. When independent publisher Mia Freedman screwed up on television last Friday and carelessly compared homosexual desire to the urge to rape children, she felt the boot of the Twitter militia land on her well-known face for a week.
Here’s the troubling video that launched a hashtag:
There can be no gain, of course, in defending any part of a dire analogy in which Freedman compares what she understands to be the ineluctable desire of homosexuals to that of child abusers. It’s terribly silly and not just because the apples-oranges comparison of consensual sex to sexual abuse is one that is so flawed and old, we might expect to find it in the rotten arsenals of Boer War commanders. Freedman’s was an inadvertent echo of the view of homosexuality as criminally deviant, and just as there is no reason to defend her flub, there is no real reason to call for civility on social media or the traditional media it now so generously feeds. To ask for restraint in what fast became a headline bollocking would be as effective as asking the sun not to shine on paedophiles. It’d be nice, but it’s not going to happen.
So, to be clear, mine is not an urging to Leave Mia Alone. In any case, Freedman would know that the price she pays for her use of social media as a business tool is an occasional plunge in value, which will likely be redeemed by next week. It is certainly not pleasant, but it is ultimately no big deal to be pilloried for what was, rather clearly, an error in judgement — one that likely says a lot less about any crypto-homophobia she might have (and I believe she does not) than it does about the frequency of her media appearances. As Harry Frankfurt says in his wonderful essay on bullshit On Bullshit, if you talk for long enough on television, you are bound to say something stupid.
I will say that I find it peculiar that Freedman emerges so often as the yardstick against which social and traditional media progressives measure the size of their dicks. Sure, the gentle first-person liberalism of her best-known digital property Mamamia is not my style, but I’d hardly put this publication up there with the Herald Sun as a document of influential hate. However, Freedman is a very poised and polished-looking lady and when, as happened on television, her intellectual ambition exceeds the limits of her expression, we can only expect that the nation will behave as it generally does and apply undiluted Roundup to the pretty poppy.
Anyhow. This is Australia, and that’s the gig.
“Rape remains a sexual practice, and you can’t drain the sex out of it just by saying that it doesn’t exist.”
Of course, if Freedman’s error had prompted great discussion of sexual identity, this would have all been in some sort of greater service. But it didn’t. All that happened is that 5000 people told her that she was an idiot after she had already publicly called herself an idiot. There are those simple folk that think that any opportunity, including rebuttal, to say that Gay is Good en masse must be taken for the cause. But in this case, like so many others, I can’t agree. And that is because the foundation of Mia’s statement, which is that sexual identity is an immutable thing, is something that few would publicly dare criticise.
I certainly do not endorse Mia’s analogy, but neither do I advocate for the critique of it, which ultimately accepts that the “right to love” — which I believe is the phrase we queer people are being saddled with these days — is natural and/or foundational.
In other words, there is no real rejection of Mia’s statement beyond saying that it is wrong to utter the terms “gay” and “paedophile” in the same sentence.
If we are to have a useful conversation about sexual identity, we need to go much further in our rejection of such a statement and ask if it is useful, because it is certainly not verifiable, to claim that any human sexual act or preference is “natural” or ineluctable. I have a great impatience with Born That Way thinking and the bullshit sociobiology that produces it which is in no way foundationally different to the misuse of Darwinism we see in Nazi propaganda. And no. I don’t care if I just Godwined all over your browser. These evolutionary ideas are just that bad they’ve earned it.
The idea that human sexual preference is natural is very widespread. Of course, progressive people who hold the Born That Way view of gay would not go so far as to agree with the appallingly wide scientistic literature on rape as a natural act. There are certain sexual identities and practices we are permitted by the times to see as natural — largely heterosexuality, homosexuality and, more lately, transgenderism — but there are others we must see as aberrant and, presumably, as the result of bad nurture, not good nature. If you ask your average tolerant Joe what sexual acts he deems as “unnatural”, he might include, for example, masochism or polyamory. These are practices, along with sexual abuse, that we can say are the product of society. Everything else, in the popular view of sexuality, just occurs “naturally” and should be protected as the “right to love” etc.
There is another view that holds that all sexuality is social, or “unnatural”. And before you get worried that this is a kind of rapey nihilism that leads to an endorsement of sexual abuse, who am I? A guest on Ten’s The Project? Clearly, the matter of sexual consent is central to the separation of rape from other sexual practices. But just as we can say that rape is the byproduct of an untraceable nurture, we can also say the same for all sexual practice.
The view that some forms of sex are natural and others are not is common and powerful, but it’s also pretty indefensible. And, in fact, it is the view that first codified homosexuality in the Western world in 1870 as unnatural and something that would be remediated for more than a century by juridical and medical institutions. Clearly, it was wrong to jail and torture those now identified by law and medicine as homosexual, and it is not wrong to discipline and treat rapists. But we discipline and treat rapists not because their acts, like all sexual acts, are unnatural, but because they impact on the bodies of others.
If you take Mia’s view that homosexuality is an immutable natural preference, you are logically obliged to consider all sexual practice in the same way. And the argument that rape is about power, not sex, does not actually beat the constructivist view of sexuality that I hold. One could equally argue that sex is about power, not sex. Rape remains a sexual practice, and you can’t drain the sex out of it just by saying that it doesn’t exist. It is, of course, an unspeakable violation. But that doesn’t mean it is not sex. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t, if you are forced to consider your views on homosexuality, disagree with Mia. If you think that sexuality is something that should conform to nature, then you probably can’t spot the flaw in her argument.
The real flaw in her argument is to repeat the Born That Way foundationalism that contemporary rights campaigners took on first as a strategy and now as a belief. “It’s only natural” has worked to make many accept the sociobiological fiction that certain kinds of sexuality are innate, but it has also worked against the intellectual work of gay-lib and constructivist thinkers on sexuality of the late 20th century. Judith Butler, Gore Vidal, Michel Foucault, Alfred Kinsey and Australia’s Dennis Altman were all key, if theoretically diverse, voices in the formation of an understanding of sexuality as always and inevitably constructed. And these days, we’re back to banging on about “natural” and “unnatural” categories of sexuality with no memory of the fact that this division is what led to the brutal idea of the “pervert” in the first place.
Of course, it’s great fun to dis stupendously successful mummy bloggers and it’s marvellous to show how tolerant and loving you are by being intolerant and hateful toward an arbitrary individual. But it might just be more useful to work out if you don’t, in fact, agree with Mia that sexuality is fixed and natural.