More on choice: Frots, g0ys, and other options

One of the side effects of the Cynthia Nixon fracas was a return to some of the old men-Mars-versus-women-Venus themes: specifically that women’s experience of sexuality was different, somehow more deliquescent, than men’s. Andrew Sullivan wrote:

My own view is that female sexuality is inherently more fluid than male sexuality, and that lesbians and bisexual women, because they are less fixated on crude physical signals for arousal, have more of a choice than men, gay or straight, in their choice of loved ones.

I always mistrust this kind of thing a bit. Men, for one thing, have been extraordinarily creative over the centuries in inventing excuses to touch each other in apparently non-sexual, but obviously satisfying, fashion. There’s football; there’s wrestling; there’s Western civilization. All these suggest a fluid component to their own sexualities, where male intimacy and arousal can coexist easily with heterosexual passions. Now an Indian colleague has pointed out some websites — very manly websites — dedicated to exploring exactly the same thesis.   They share an aversion to established identities, a dislike for “gays,” a fear of anal sex (it would be worth exploring more deeply, comme on dit, why that act seems to carve selfhood in stone), and an insistence that large numbers of men want sexual contact with other men, but just don’t want to be defined by it. Or talk about it.

Which doesn’t prevent the websites from talking. My favorite is That’s a zero in the middle; I don’t sense that anybody at the site speaks Yiddish. They say they’re for men who

are looking for answers to some serious questions about themselves. Most are shocked when they learn that +60% of all guys have similar questions (the majority)! Most (but not all) of these guys have feelings for women, but also deal with internal issues arising from the fact that they also have affections for other guys, too! And, such guys don’t identify as “GAY” at all!

Don’t identify with “GAY”? No! Guys like us actually find the imagery & stereotypes that are promoted from WITHIN the so-called “gay-male community” to be repugnant to our sensibilities of masculinity & respect.

60%! That’s a big figure. “Playing inside another person’s butt” they see as “dirty, degrading, and damn-unmasculine.”  Logically, then, they’re not crazy about trans people, or the “modern gay movement,” which has “shamed M2M affection as it was hijacked by pornographers, perverts, sociopathic-personalities & fascists.”  They also have a thing about Muslims: “We suggest that Old Bomb Head’s brainwashed, flag-burning, bomb-toting followers – join the ranks of Hitler & other similar violent political leaders – in HELL.”  Apparently the common Orientalist stereotype, that the Muslim world is simply teeming with hornily ambivalent men, hasn’t reached them.

Then there is the Man2Man Alliance, which, its website proclaims in large Roman letters,

Is a coalition of
Who practice
Phallus-against-phallus sex
who reject anal penetration, promiscuity, and effeminacy among men who have sex with men
who put forth the truth that one man should love one another through the celebration of their mutual masculinity and the exaltation of their mutual manhood

Matching genitals: What to do when lost on a cold night in Western Civilization

This also features the fear of what happens Back There, turned into a virtual ideology of sexual positioning:

[A]nal penetration subjugates one of the participants to the other, effectively emasculating him, turning him into a pseudo-woman … unmindful of the basic human need for a shared experience without pain and with dignity.

Whereas Frot, phallus-against-phallus contact, is the acme of sexual activity between Men because it’s focused on that which makes Men Masculine, namely their genitals — their Manhood — rather than their organs of fecal excretion.

To draw a parallel with male-female sex: Men and Women connect to one another genitally. They are made that way, like counterweights or puzzle pieces, complementary of one another. In the same way, during phallus-to-phallus sexual activity, Men are related to one another as they should be, in that part of their body that fits together genitally and sensually.

For someone like me, there’s only so much of this you can read without going out and — well, never mind what I go out and do. I’ll confine myself to noting that M2M Alliance is under the sway of Robert Blyish rhetoric, the Battle in the Sweat Box:  “Manhood, Manliness, Courage and Valour; Justice, Wisdom, Faith and Fidelity; Self-Control and Self-Sacrifice; and Prowess in battle. Men living under this ethos commonly seek an intense, lifelong, erotic bond with another warrior.” In contrast, G0Ys seems fixed on an idyllic adolescent Eden of blameless fondling, as much as the heroes of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar or of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

The universal truth & the universal unspoken need of virtually every guy entering puberty is to be able to get close & cuddle with the buddy of choice.  They want the wrestling match to turn tender.  There – male aggression is privately mutated into male tenderness & shared intimacy.  It’s often the very-core of the most extreme friendships.

Plus all those ampersands give their prose a nice touch of Whitmania, as though tender Walt himself were leaning over the wounded soldier’s bed, gnarled hands spidering down toward the fount of manhood.

There’s oodles to dislike here, perhaps more than there is to say. The phenomenon of the straight guy on the down low, or doing it for trade, has been around and classed as such for as long as there were not-straight guys, who identified with the act of homosexual sex and threw their selves into it. So that’s one obvious spectrum through which to see this: yet another excrescence of the economy of sex, particularly the economy of denial. A late friend of mine in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, once listed for me an essentially ethnographic categorization of the different types of straight guys who went for him when they were out on the prowl, released from wife or girlfriend. I still have it in my notes somewhere; it was fascinating. But of course, these classifications were all from the perspective of people who were, as it were, already classed — already pinned to the butterfly board. The point with the manly men was that they didn’t class themselves as anything. They were just men.

What interests me here is the way that this particular brand of strongly masculine-identified,  bisexual behavior is no longer reticent: is speaking its names, analysing itself, and looking for an identity of its own. What’s going to come of it? I’m inclined to urge some untenured anthropologist to start studying these movements, as types of how sexual identities emerge. Maybe, fragile things, they’ll wither and blow away first. But you never know. Iron John is still selling. All it needs is an identity to match.

On choice

Cynthia did not put adequate thought into the ramifications of her words

The Cynthia Nixon scandal roils on. I’ve stopped keeping count of who’s blaming her for what these days; the last I heard, she was responsible for kids being electroshocked in Tennessee. Loose lips sink ships; but it seems that Cynthia’s, like a Helen of Troy in reverse, have torpedoed a thousand of them. It all reminds me a bit of G.W. Bush’s press secretary, in the chilly first days of our War of Terror, warning critics that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”   I am not sure that Guantanamo has a cage or two for loquacious actors, but I gather some folks wish it did.

In discussing the affair, Andrew Sullivan graciously linked to my own post, and the question of what would happen if we treated sexual orientation like religion, “a decision so profoundly a part of one’s elected and constructed selfhood that one should never be forced to change it.” He added:

Of course, I don’t actually experience my faith as a choice, in the usual sense of the word. It feels as deep a part of me as my orientation.

Those two sentences rang true, and they pointed me to a basic question. What do we mean by “choice,” anyway?   There are certain cultural horizons that define people as much as any biological ones do.  And thinking about these things can make the concept of “choice” seem inadequate as a way of grasping how human beings act, decide, and are.

It’s inadequate, at least, if taken in the way we moderns tend to treat it, as a pure act of untrammeled freedom, occurring on an abstract plane vacated of constraints or pasts.  Andrew has stuck with being a Catholic despite the Church’s best efforts to make people like him pariahs. Is that courage, or acceptance? I would bet at some point he has expressed this as “I choose to be a Catholic because” … But I would also bet he has expressed it as “I can’t imagine not being a Catholic because…” Both seem to me equally valid ways of saying much the same thing – equally true pictures of the same situation, only seen from different aspects, like the blind men groping the elephant. We don’t always choose by making pure, existential leaps in the dark, like Kierkegaard or Lord Jim. Sometimes our freedom consists in staying rather than in going, though to stay means embracing the conditions that formed us and limit us. Sometimes we choose by being, not deciding.

For myself, though I am certainly not a practicing Christian, though I was not raised in an especially devout family, and though I believe virtually nothing of Christian dogma, when I’m asked about my religion I almost always describe myself as Christian – because certain aspects of a religion that in other ways I loathe form my horizon still. The myths of resurrection and redemption are deeply if inarticulately ingrained in me,  frames of hope and mercy through which I understand the world. (I have tried telling people I’m an “agnostic Christian,” but it nearly always makes everybody terribly mad.)  I confess to a mild, instinctive mistrust of people who convert from one whole religious tradition to another: Muslims who become Christian, or Christians who become Hindus, switches like that.  (I make something of an exception for Buddhism, since it is less a religion than a philosophical stance.)  At some gut level I feel you can lose your religion and become an atheist, but you can’t just take on a completely different tradition, with all its weight and taboos and cultural baggage. Such converts appear to me at times like followers of Gilbert Osmond, the cold-blooded collector of culture in James’ Portrait of a Lady, who said that if you happen to find yourself one day without a tradition, it’s incumbent on you to purchase a new one as rapidly as possible. But that won’t work!  I feel like shouting. You can scrap your original one, but that doesn’t mean the new one you try to own will own you.

Objectively, I realize this is completely silly. To change your beliefs in one compartment of your life doesn’t make you a luftmensch (a person of the air, as the Nazis called the supposedly rootless Jews). Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with being a luftmensch.  Air is healthy. My point is that I feel a weight, a drag, of resistance to the idea that choice is unconditioned, and I feel it in areas completely apart from the putatively destined, determined realms of sexuality or desire. There’s not some simple antinomy where genes decide a part of who we are, and all the rest is up for grabs. Everybody has their arenas where they feel freer, and others where they feel fixed. Our histories decide them, not just some biological allotment.

Another instance: I know I am and will always remain a middle-class American. Being rich or being poor, moving to another country, even changing my passport wouldn’t alter that. Wherever I’ve lived outside the US borders,  I’ve always eschewed the American expatriate scene. You don’t go abroad in order to make new American friends.  But from time to time, every couple of months or so, I found I needed to talk to my fellow countrypeople. Not to share political chat, or explore our economic interests, or voice some gross contempt for the locals: But because there was a subtler if more trivial common horizon of pop culture, of gestures comprehended and jokes understood, of TV commercials we watched when we were kids.  I needed that to remind me of who I was. Living in Romania, I might have a lover who was Romanian, and we might understand each other better than anybody else in the world did. But he still didn’t know why the silly rabbit could never eat Trix. Sometimes I needed to talk to people who knew that Trix was for kids.

It’s strange I should feel this about religion or nationality, by objective standards fairly contingent things, when I firmly believe we can change our genders. But gender, when it’s assigned to us at birth, isn’t given us with a history. As we grow up, it takes on all kind of symbolic meanings, but doesn’t necessarily acquire a past.   Being a “man” doesn’t require associating yourself with the whole history of manhood (some model figures, yes, but manhood itself doesn’t have a story). It’s forward-looking. You will become a man, fathers tell their sons, you will grow into manhood. Gender is a project, a perpetual becoming. It’s easier to abandon a future than a past. By contrast, faith and class are part not just of our personal histories, but of the immensely longer history behind us. Some people can liberate themselves from that history to greater or less degrees; some don’t want to.   But whether any one area of your life has been thus liberated as against another is, perhaps, a morally neutral question. What Kant called the project of autonomy, the task of ridding yourself of the vast weight of the given, is necessarily partial. No one can ever denude herself altogether. Recognizing that you can never place all your life under the dominion of choice, you must choose where you will strive to exercise your choices.

Our language around “choice,” and “freedom,” is terribly impoverished. By “ours” I mean “us Americans”: but also parts of the LGBT movement in many places around the world, which have got their vocabulary and a fragment of their worldview from an American definition. This is one consequence of being from a place where choice is so valorized, so elevated as the sole intent of life, that no one bothers to define or interrogate what it means. We either imagine that choice is completely free, untrammeled,  taking place in a vacuum –or that we’re completely constrained, controlled,  defined, overdetermined creatures of an implacable destiny. It’s obvious, and yet hard to articulate, that neither is true.  It’s telling that one side in the most extended U.S. political battle of the last forty years couches its advocacy in terms of the “right to choose.”  It’s never the right to choose something – to have an abortion or not, to carry a child to term or not. All that’s elided, as though “choice” summed up that and everything else that could be said. Certainly, this rhetoric was field-tested for palatability and persuasiveness, and I cringe to cavil at it. Equally certainly, controlling reproduction opens up for women a whole repertory of other choices that would otherwise be closed.  But insistently reiterating a right to unlimited choice must turn many a listener’s mind to all the things she never had a choice over: the hand-me-down clothes in childhood, the crappy carpet that came with the house, the job, the husband. And with that comes resentment, a feeling such choice is less a right than an invidious privilege.  Has this whole strategy worked out the way we planned?

The truth is that we choose; and we choose from a repertory that our pasts have given us; and we choose as beings who are already endowed with histories behind us, not sprung fresh and new from Jupiter’s head or the half-shell.  We bring our lives to our choices. What would they be worth otherwise?

Being in love is a bit like what I’m talking about.  There has to be an element of free will in it, otherwise nobody would want your love. To be sure, nobody in love feels entirely free. Nobody deludes themselves they’re in full command of their feelings. Yet who would wish to be presented with an attachment that’s just a bundle of involuntary drives? Who would like to be told, “Honey, my hormones selected you,” even if they get a bouquet of roses into the bargain? From one side it’s an unstoppable passion, but that’s not the only aspect. The side from which we can say we chose the loved one represents our respect, not just for them as deserving objects of desire, but for ourselves as reasonable beings who deserve to be desired back.    And yet, of course, it’s a determined choice. And of course, love opens up a Pandora’s jewelry box of further choices everyday: To stay or to go, to accommodate or argue, to speak or be silent, to share or not to share.  In our intimacies where we struggle most to be ourselves, choice and compulsion are inextricably intertwined.

Nixon in "Wit": The bald truth

Maybe we in the United States need a bit more Edmund Burke, to ground our sense of freedom in a context.  Burke understood that when we vote our ancestors vote with us: that we are inheritors of history, not just its inhabitants and masters.   But that knowledge is not just a property of the Right. Marx too grasped that our consciousness is conditioned, that history makes us before we can make it.

Nor do philosophers map the only road to realizing this. A poet or two has been there first. These days Cynthia Nixon is reading John Donne on Broadway (the New York Times, which exposed her heresy on “choice,” gave her a glorious review to make up for it).   Perhaps, in her private moments when the audience is gone, she also whispers to herself some lines from Auden:

Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice
Again and again we sigh for an ancient South,
For the warm nude ages of instinctive poise,
For the taste of joy in the innocent mouth. …

We envy streams and houses that are sure:
But we are articled to error; we
Were never nude and calm like a great door,

And never will be perfect like the fountains;
We live in freedom by necessity,
A mountain people dwelling among mountains.


Cynthia Nixon, Joseph Massad, and not being an American gigolo

Many years ago, I decided never to take an interest in the sex lives of people more famous than myself. This came after hanging out with some famous people and some not so famous people, and noticing that all the excitement lay with the latter.   Anal sex with one of the stars of American Gigolo, as described to me by a friend in excruciating detail, was not nearly as innovative or arousing as the mute inglorious milkings available every night in the refreshing anonymity of the rushes in the Back Bay Fens. As of now, there are something like six billion people in the world, and 5,999,999,999 of them are more famous than I am.   The boost to my mental concentration that derives from ignoring all their sex lives is considerable.

Nixon, partner Rojo Caliente, and child: Perfect, but not by choice

Still, there’s Cynthia Nixon.   Which one did she play on TV?  I confess, I can’t even remember. Oh, Sex and the Citythat hootchy-kootchy halftime show from ancient times! —when  I caught five minutes of a rerun in a hotel last month, it seemed as dated as Baroque opera. But that doesn’t stop her from continuing to be a celebrity, and most people really do care about celebrities’ sex lives. And so most everybody noticed when she told the New York Times: 

“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not. … Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive.”


The hue and cry over what you can say about your own kind has been almost as bad as what Hannah Arendt stirred up.  John Aravosis told Nixon she didn’t understand herself. First off, she’s wrong about who she is:  “What she means is that she’s bisexual, and doesn’t quite get that most people aren’t able to have sexual romantic relationships with both men and women because they’re just not into both genders.” But moreover, she doesn’t experience sexuality the way she thinks she does:

It’s not a “choice,” unless you consider my opting to date a guy with brown hair versus a guy with blonde hair a “choice.” It’s only a choice among flavors I already like … [S]o please don’t tell people that you are gay, and that gay people can “choose” their sexual orientation, i.e., will it out of nowhere.  Because they can’t.  And when you tell the NYT they can, you do tremendous damage to our civil rights effort.  … [E]verything you say can and will be used against you by the gay-haters.  And when you say things like this, using incendiary buzzwords that don’t really mean what you’re trying to say – when you try to define the rest of us by your incredibly poorly chosen, and incorrect, words – you hurt us all. This was an incredibly irresponsible interview.

Or as another blogger wrote:

Is anyone else here thinking maybe Cynthia Nixon isn’t really gay? Like maybe she’s bisexual, or gay-until-retirement, or gay-until-Ryan-Gosling-calls? …  statement pissed off a lot of gay people, and not just because being gay is NOT a choice for most of them. Years of talking with gay friends over the years have taught me something important: language matters. Gay, queer, bi, whatever — people have some pretty strong opinions about what those words all mean. And Cynthia could have been more sensitive with her language.

There’s an unlovely looniness here. First of all, no one should be forced to surrender their personal identity to political obligation. That’s the antithesis of a liberal society, and has nothing to do with any campaign for human rights. Second, no one has the right to decide or define anybody else’s sexuality for them — to select, for God’s sake, what you can say about yourself. The claim that a blogger who’s never even seen Cynthia Nixon (except in her TV role as a heterosexual) can determine who she is and how she can describe herself is simply silly. But it can also be as malignant as the idea that an activist in London can intuit, and inscribe in stone, the identities of a couple of teenagers in far-off Iran, a place he’s never seen or visited. I’ve written about this kind of gay imperialism extensively. In the US, it’s simply rude and repressive. Practiced elsewhere, it can kill.

The problem is that, in the US, we — the LGBT movement — have staked all our rights claims on the analogy with race. We are a people; we have our own culture and history, even though the categories that define us (so we contend) don’t; and, most importantly, our selves, like our skin colors, cannot change.   Sexual orientation is something deep, unalterable, basic. It’s because it’s unchangeable that discrimination predicated on it is so wrong. And so we’re not defending people’s freedom; we’re defending their imprisonment in themselves. The argument goes: It’s bad enough not having any autonomy over the intimate aspects of your life. Do the state and society have to punish you for that too?

It’s when people try to escape that prison, even for a day’s parole, that we treat them as traitors to the cause.

Foucault grasping sexuality

Of course, this kind of argument is absurd — even about race. It ignores the innumerable historical experiences of “passing,” the different ways that white as well as black people have been defined, the differences in race’s definition around the world — the US conception is incommensurate with the Brazilian, for instance — the fact that the Irish were treated as a “race” in the early 19th century, and many more. To say this isn’t to deny the reality of race as a basis for injustice and a predicate for social division. But to treat it as an absolute fact, an ontological canyon separating some from others, is to ignore its history. Similarly, supposing “sexual orientation” is unchangeable ignores the fact that the category itself has changed since it was invented, and that it was only invented a hundred years or so ago.  Sexuality, as Foucault grasped, doesn’t reveal some “truth” about us. (Even if it did, Aravosis would hardly be in a position to diagnose Nixon’s.)  It reveals our shifting place in society; it’s made of ideas, dreams, opinions, not absolutes.

Of course, Nixon made it rather worse by explaining in another interview:

I don’t pull out the “bisexual” word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals. … [W]e get no respect.

The thing is, though (and yes, I note how her own identity has shifted here), she’s right.   In the politics of identity, bisexuals are hated because they stand for choice. The game is set up so as to exclude the middle; bisexuals get squeezed out. in the “LGBT” word, the “B” is silent.  John Aravosis, for instance, says that if you’re into both genders, “that’s fine” — great! — but “most people” aren’t.  First off, that rather defies Freud and the theory of universal infantile bisexuality.   But never mind that. The business of “outing,” of which Aravosis has been an eloquent proponent, also revolves around the excluded middle.  It’s not a matter of what you think of outing’s ethics, on which there’s plenty of debate. It’s that the underlying presumption is that one gay sex act makes you “gay” — not errant, not bisexual, not confused or questioning: gay, gay, gay. I saw you in that bathroom, for God’s sake! You’re named for life!  It’s also that the stigma goes one way only: a lifetime of heterosexual sex acts can’t make up for that one, illicit, overpowering pleasure.  As I’ve argued, this both corresponds to our own buried sense, as gays, that it is a stigma, and gives us perverse power. In the scissors, paper, rock game of sexuality, gay is a hand grenade. It beats them all.

And this fundamentalism infects other ways of thinking about sexuality, too. Salon today carries an article about multiple sex-and-love partners: “The right wants to use the ‘slippery slope’ of polyamory to discredit gay marriage. Here’s how to stop them.”  I’ll leave you to study the author’s solution.  He doesn’t want to disrespect the polyamorists:

I reject the tactic of distinguishing the good gays from the “bad” poly people. Further marginalizing the marginalized is just the wrong trajectory for any liberation movement to take.

That’s true — although whether we’re still really a liberation movement, when we deny the liberty of self-description, is a bit doubtful. But he goes on, contemplating how polyamory might in future be added to the roster of rights:

Really, there are a host of questions that arise in the case of polyamory to which we just don’t know the answer. Is polyamory like sexual orientation, a deep trait felt to be at the core of one’s being? Would a polyamorous person feel as incomplete without multiple partners as a lesbian or gay person might feel without one? How many “truly polyamorous” people are there?

Well, what if it’s not?  What if you just choose to be polyamorous?  God, how horrible!  You beast!  What can be done for the poor things? Should some researcher start looking for a gene for polyamory, so it can finally become respectable, not as a practice, but as an inescapable doom?   (I shudder to think there’s one gene I might share with Newt Gingrich.)

What, moreover, if sexual orientation itself is not “a deep trait felt to be at the core of one’s being,” one that people miraculously started feeling in 1869, when the word “homosexual” was coined?  What if it’s sometimes that, sometimes a transient desire, sometimes a segment of growth or adolescent exploration, sometimes a recourse from the isolations of middle age, sometimes a Saturday night lark, sometimes a years-long passion?   What if some people really do experience it as … a choice?

What if our model for defending LGBT people’s rights were not race, but religion? What if we claimed our identities were not something impossible to change, but a decision so profoundly a part of one’s elected and constructed selfhood that one should never be forced to change it?

Now I have damaged the LGBT rights movement. I’m sorry, but you know, I didn’t really have a choice. The Devil made me do it, as Flip Wilson used to say. We’ll see how that argument washes in defending me against my fellow activists, as well as against the missionaries of Westboro Baptist Church — who surely must understand that when the Devil grabs either your argument or your genitalia, it’s hard to make him let go.

I suppose I have to do something for the gays to make up for it, but I don’t know what. Oh, wait, here’s the answer!  I’ve just signed to star in Sex and the City III. Just wait till it comes out!  In this exotic, erotic, fashion-filled romp, Joseph Massad and I fly to Dubai, argue about identity while hiding from the police in full niqab, and go shopping.