Having politically correct sex?

or, Do I bend a little to the left?

By Pete Sigal
April 1990; pages 7, 15; Volume 1, No. 5
Politically Correct Sex

Editors' note: This article first appeared in the UCLA alternative newspaper Free Association, but its content could apply to this and most other left publications. We'd like to print local articles on gay and lesbian issues, but we've had trouble finding writers. Until we do find them, we will continue to reprint articles to fill this gap in our coverage.


After quickly volunteering to write an article for this alternative "radical" newsmagazine, I almost immediately found myself having second thoughts. What kind of useful article could I write? What kind of ideological litmus test would my article have to pass through in order to get printed? Not that I don't trust the editors of this magazine. After all, a few of them are friends of mine, and they're good people even if they have little understanding of the subject about which I would want to write. No, my problems have more to do with what audience this magazine will seek, what audience it will get, and how that will determine the magazine's agenda.

If it is like most "radical" newsmagazines, this one will aim for a diverse audience, particularly targeting the "third world" communities. It will start with a core of readership that is primarily made up of white heterosexual "progressives." The editors of the magazine must make a creative attempt to outreach to other audiences they want. Yet, in attempting such an outreach, most other alternative media outlets (e.g. LA Weekly) have simply tried to use Marxism in a non-traditional manner, not understanding why many of us in the targeted communities reject the Marxist ideology.

The reasons for this rejection have been stated over and over again and I will not repeat them here. I will simply say that in communities that are consistently repressed by all governments, there is little trust in an ideology that gives more power to a government (even a "worker's government"). So, if these "radical" newsmagazines, which since the end of the 1960s have led the battle for the hearts and minds of the "new left" (here I refer to those political activists who come from the traditions of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, most of whom have rejected traditional Marxist ideologies and economic determinism), continue to advocate Marxism, they will never understand the needs of the communities for whom they suggest the "revolution" is being waged.

More specifically, I want to ask, why can't the members of the "new left" who are editing and reading this magazine understand the gay and lesbian community? Many do not profess doctrinaire Marxist ideologies - although a majority support some form of Marxism - and most maintain open minds to other people's beliefts. Yet few understand or even attempt to understand the relationship of politics and revolution to the person who wants to get fucked at an orgy full of men much less the person who gets off by having a fist in his ass.

Many straight "leftists" are uncomfortable around gay men who are openly sexual and promiscuous. And just as many condemn those who practice leather sex and sadomasochism as "fascistic." The Marxist left has historically refused to endorse a revolutionary agenda that includes sexual liberation, and has often been openly homophobic. Much of the "old left" continues to condemn gay and lesbian sex as a "bourgeois vice." The "new left," having developed out of the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the sixties, tends to be less openly homophobic, but, nonetheless, most "new leftists" still fail to understand the important role sexual liberation must play in any "revolution."

While many gay men die of AIDS, most of the "new left" has failed to respond to the crisis. The anti-gay U.S. government's criminal negligence during such an epidemic could have given the "new left" an issue that would have shown the gay community that "new leftists" do care about gays and lesbians, but all the "left" proved was its own homophobia. As Cindy Patton points out, "the radical left ... saw AIDS as an individual problem for a particular group of gay men who overindulged in that private activity of sex." In other words, most "leftists" have failed to understand the relationship of politics to gay and lesbian sex.

Although, Patton continues, "in a few cases, leftists brought their political expertise to bear on AIDS organizing ... there have been virtually no structural or ideological ties between the 'political' and 'sexual' cultures. Straight leftists appear comfortable defending the right to engage in private consensual sexual acts, but perplexed about where to stand on the public, social consequences of those acts. Unlike the right, the left took a long time to grasp the idea that because AIDS was connected with sexuality it made a tremendous potential weapon against lesbian and gay rights and culture." Straight "leftists" have never understood the development of a distinctly gay culture. While these same "leftists" realize that distinct cultures exist in the Black and Latino communities, they can't understand a culture based on sexuality. It just doesn't fit in with a materialist analysis of the world.

Yet, both gay men and lesbians have developed distinct cultures. For gay men that culture is most obvious in major urban areas, where we have created gay space most notably in bars and cafes. In these spaces gay men can relate to each other based on their sexuality as well as any other interests. These spaces provide the opportunity for education, socialization and politics as well as drinking, dancing, drugs and sex. In addition, many urban areas have well-developed gay and lesbian central areas (e.g. West Hollywood) where gay men and control their lives within their own communities. Gay men and lesbians have developed a large and distinct collection of literature, music, theater, poetry, film, pornography, etc. Essentially, despite the extreme repression of same-sex relations by the larger society in the United States where the very existence of sexually active gay men and lesbians can be ruled illegal by the state, we have developed an alternative culture and economy where we can have some control over our own lives and our own sexualities.

Still, the existence of this protective culture leads many "leftists" to conclude that gay men and lesbians are part of the "decadent bourgeoisie," and that the culture developed is based on this decadence is "fake." Once again, this degradation of gay and lesbian culture is based both on homphobia and on a lack of understanding of gay and lesbian sex. In other words, to most straight "leftists," gay and lesbian sex is something that can be protected as long as it is kept private, but the public display of sex, the public culture, is a more confusing issue.

Clearly, straight "leftists" need to develop a greater understanding of the pro-sex agenda of man gay men and lesbians. In these days of the AIDS crisis, this agenda has come under attack from the right, has been ignored by the left, and has been inadequately defended by the gay and lesbian community. At the same time, understanding one's own sexuality, whether gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual, has never been more important. As Douglas Crimp has pointed out in his essay, "How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic," the public and explicit nature of sex in the gay male community has helped prevent the spread of AIDS as it had made it easier to promote safe sex education.

Indeed, with a pro-sex agenda, we must promote the positive sexual pluralism and seuxal promiscuity of the gay male community. "Gay male promiscuity should be seen ... as a positive model of how sexual pleasures might be pursued by and granted to everyone if those pleasures were not confined within the narrow limits of institutionalized sexuality." In a repressive patriarchical society the only accepted sex is that which establishes male dominance over women. Sex as equals is unacceptable. Promiscuity and open relationships are unacceptable because they suggest a flaw in man's control over women. Sex between men is unacceptable because it offends the macho mystique. Sex between women is unacceptable because it is rebellious and men can't control what lesbians do in bed.

Radical sexuality in its extreme form becomes leather sex, where two people who trust each other test their limits, role play, inflict and take pain, etc. Leather sex represents the sex that takes place between members of the leather community, a tight-knit, trusting community. It demands complete communication and understanding between members of the community.

States one member of this community, "Watching him put a surgical glove on his fist and then greasing his whole arm, it's an incredibly erotic experience. The trust I feel. The idea of letting him in, of giving up total control, of seeing his hand and then his forearm disappear into my asshole, of going through the pain until I move over that barrier into total pleasure, into an ecstatic, trance-like escape from a dog-eat-dog world, it's the most radical and erotic thing I can do. Sometimes I don't even have to get a hard-on, but that's not important when I move beyond the barrier of pain." Leather sex, rather than simply about dominance and submission is about people giving in to each other completely and voluntarily. If these people are not complete equals, voluntary submission becomes a farce.

The leather sex community understands the need for radical social change as a quest for freedom and more. As Geoff Mains states, "as a sub-culture leather refracts the values of Western society to create its own vision. It takes images of masculinity, the use and abuse of power, and the values of creativity, and pits them against the perils of human arrogance and the realities of human limits." Again here the radical pro-sex message is that sexual repression in the Western value system must be replaced by a sexual freedom that allows all people, all sexual beings, to become equals and to test their own desires and their own limits.

With their current homophobia and lack of understanding, most straight "leftists" have failed to respond to the AIDS crisis in any appropriate manner. Marxist analysis will not give them the answers. Straight "leftists" must in turn learn the lessons of radical sexuality if they are to make any attempt at understanding gay and lesbian culture. While most gays and lesbians do not practice leather sex, and many do not understand it, such radical sexuality stresses the need for freedom, trust, understanding, and knowledge of the self, exactly the qualities that straight "leftists" need when dealing with the gay and lesbian or any other community. Similarly, every repressed community needs to work to understand the traits of radical sexuality in order to truly formulate an all-inclusive revolutionary agenda.