A sexual revolution is happening right under our noses, embraced by a generation of young people whose coolest chick heroes are personifying this brave new world, loudly.1
Is Nikki Gemmell right and if so, how does this relate to the ‘sexual revolution’ we spoke of in the liberationist days of the early 1970s?
When Anne Summers invited me to speak at the fortieth anniversary celebration of her book Damned Whores and God’s Police, I was both flattered and a little apprehensive. Anne and I had been friends on and off throughout the decades since we both wrote our first books and shared a common mentor in Henry Mayer, the remarkable professor of government at Sydney University. He was one of the ‘Dunera boys’, Jewish refugees who travelled to Australia in the days leading up to the Second World War, were interned in Hay and Tatura, and went on to have a remarkable influence on postwar Australian life.
On the first day of the conference the four of us who had been asked to comment on Summers’ opening address filed on stage and I took an anxious look at the audience; perhaps four men in a sea of women of all ages, though like most such events skewed towards the elderly and the young. As it turned out I had no reason for concern; the audience was good-humoured and more interested in celebration than argument. That evening I went to a reception on the roof of an old building in Ultimo, sat on a wooden deck framed by the night skyline of the harbour, and listened to Margret Roadknight, one of the legendary feminist singers of my youth. Among the nostalgic songs from our activist youth Roadknight added a new one, based on the fact she’d stayed in a South Australian bed and breakfast the day after then speaker Bronwyn Bishop had slept in the same room.
The conference raised a number of inter-connected questions for me, as part of a generation who saw ourselves as radically changing society and have had to adjust to a world that is changing faster and in directions we could never have imagined. Questions around gender and sexuality remain as charged as they were in the 1970s but they take different forms, so that those of us who came of age in the countercultural liberation movements are disoriented by what seems a strange mix of conservatism and radicalism, the desire for lavish weddings, hetero- and homo-, coexisting with a growing awareness and acceptance of transgender that challenges all our assumptions about sex in its biological and social meanings.
The women’s movement of the 1970s had an ambivalent relationship to ideas of ‘sexual revolution’. At least in Sydney the liberationist movements drew on people who’d been influenced by the Sydney Push, a group of self-important anarchists who had extolled the virtues of ‘free love’, usually meaning that younger women hooked up for various periods of time with older men. Not surprisingly feminists were more ambivalent about ‘sexual liberation’ than were gay men; too often it had been understood as carte blanche for heterosexual male enjoyment with little concern for any possible consequences. At the same time the women’s movement argued strongly that women needed to be freed from the restrictions on sexual pleasure that had subordinated their bodies to the demands of male privilege and to reproduction.
One of the striking events at the Damned Whores conference was a sex worker panel, at which five women sex workers presented the realities of their lives. I had expected fireworks, passionate assertions that their choices could not be as free as they claimed, demands for enactment of the Swedish model, which criminalises the buying, though not the selling, of sex. But the audience reacted with interest and muted sympathy; okay, I was on the side of the Damned Whores, but I would like to have heard at least a mutter from God’s police. Unfortunately lunch came too quickly to allow for any discussion.
Sex work is often the touchstone for heated discussion about sex and consumerism, with many feminists appalled by the idea that women (male workers are usually overlooked in these debates) might voluntarily sell their bodies. Less often discussed is the way in which sex work separates physical pleasure from emotion, even though sex workers often act as de facto confidantes and objects of romantic fantasy. Even less honest discussion goes on around the pleasures involved in the act of buying and selling, though why should we be surprised that this may be a major factor in a consumer society? I have known several sex workers who will talk with surprising fondness of clients, but also acknowledge the ways in which money can create desire. The available research suggests that workers are more likely to speak honestly of their experiences than are clients.
As Nikki Gemmell suggests, the rules of sex and gender are being rewritten in contradictory ways, often by young women who do not identify as feminists but assert their right to equality in all areas. The current radical mode is captured in the bitter debates around older feminist critiques of transsexuality, symbolised by the publicity around Caitlyn Jenner and attacks on Germaine Greer for her views on transition, but also in a magazine such as Archer, a glossy magazine dealing with ‘sex, gender, intimacy’, one of whose issues, highlighting sex for older women, received a media award from the United Nations Association of Victoria.
For Archer the personal is still political, but the feel of the magazine is very different to the earnest rhetoric of the 1970s movements. The editor, Amy Middleton, is a stroppy young journalist who founded the magazine because she saw a gap in writing about sexual diversity between highly academic literature and mainstream pap, and through determination has produced five issues of a magazine that now turns up in mainstream newsagents. Archer echoes the questions asked by the liberation movements—one of its recent online articles was about ‘honouring both clitoral and vaginal orgasms’, and Christos Tsiolkas wrote an early piece acknowledging desires for much younger men—but it speaks to a generation for whom nothing about sex and gender seems fixed. Middleton is married to another woman, but encouraged me to write about my doubts about same-sex marriage for her journal.
Summers had asked me to address the proposition that ‘gay liberation has now won everything it wanted and so is no longer needed whereas women are, despite many advances and accomplishments, a long way off from “equality”, let alone liberation’. I think this is both right and wrong, and in answering Summers’ challenge I sought to reopen questions about what we meant by the term ‘liberation’. In DWGP Summers insisted that liberation is more than equality: ‘The struggle for, and the attainment of liberation is all about altering the most fundamental tenets of our method of social organization; it is about abolishing privilege and exploitation and concentrated power.’
We rarely use this sort of language today, but it is important to remind ourselves of the very strong case Summers made against assuming that liberation means no more than being ‘squeezed into the existing system’. We have learnt that a woman prime minister does not mean the end of misogyny, just as a black president does not mean racism has disappeared from the United States. Those of us who see ourselves as progressive recognise that sexism, racism and homophobia are often interconnected and reinforcing, but we need to recognise that because one is subject to one particular form of prejudice and persecution does not automatically mean we will behave better to others, or indeed understand their particular experiences.
The ideas of liberation that became prominent in the 1970s required a particular form of identity politics, so that liberation became simultaneously a call for strengthening group identities and freeing ourselves from the ways in which these could be oppressive. When African Americans spoke of black power they were demanding a cultural as much as a political shift, one in which difference could be asserted rather than apologised for. This assertion was strongest in the women’s movement in the development of various forms of separatism, and the growth in the 1970s of womyn’s festivals and retreats—note the deliberate respelling of the word—which in turn created major dilemmas for women who had male partners or children.
Whether liberation means the creation of space for communities with particular identities or rather the breaking down of those spaces is an ongoing dilemma, even if today it is a demand more likely to be associated with conservative religious and ethnic groups than with sexual radicals. (In the past decade there has been controversy around demands for women’s only sessions in public swimming pools—and for the right of certain gay male venues to exclude women.) This in turn opens up questions of who can and cannot claim a particular identity: we are very aware of the political minefields that exist when one challenges claims to Aboriginality, or argues whether someone who is transgender should be accepted as the gender they experience as against that to which they were assigned at birth.
But Summers was also clear that liberation for women could not only be measured by simply assembling ‘an elaborate com-posite of information’ about what she termed the artificial construct of ‘Statistical Woman’. Rather, what was needed was a genuine change in self-perception whereby women might overcome ‘the images which society has constructed of women which are generally demeaning or low status ones and which women have ingested as part of their acculturation to the society in which they live’. The focus of the liberationist movements was as much inwards, on rebuilding confidence and self-acceptance, as it was on breaking down social and institutional restrictions.
One of the essentials of the idea of liberation was that the oppressed needed to liberate themselves; this idea is taken up in the film First Wives Club (1996), which ends with the three protagonists joyfully singing ‘Sisters doing it for themselves’. We have moved a long way from this assertion. When I spoke recently at a marriage equality rally in Melbourne I was struck by the eagerness of straight male politicians to embrace the issue and make it theirs. But as like the Liberal Party I can’t resist arguments about same-sex marriage, I shall return to this question later.
When we spoke of liberation 40 years ago we had at least three ideas in mind: first that the liberation of one group could only occur through a general transformation of society; second that such a transformation needed to happen at both the public and private levels; and third that while we created a new form of identity politics we also saw its limits. One slogan of the time, ‘Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice’, sums up the attempt to reconcile these claims.
If the gay movement has been more ‘successful’ it is because it has managed to disentangle itself from all three of these precepts by defining us as a minority whose civil rights should be recognised. This is not to deny the huge shifts towards acceptance of homosexuality in almost every Western society over the past 40 years, symbolised by the removal of sodomy laws, the increasing numbers of open homosexuals in positions of power and influence and what at times seems the almost compulsory inclusion of lesbian and gay characters in television and film. But while the pace of change in attitudes and legal recognition has been remarkable, there remain deeply ingrained fears and uncertainties that most homosexuals live with to a greater or lesser extent.
I wish I could say that the great majority of people who experience same-sex desire and identity are comfortable about these feelings, but unfortunately this is not the case. This is most obvious for people who struggle with homophobic families or communities, but we need beware of too easy generalisations: I have met men from non-religious Anglo backgrounds who are living the sort of double life that one might assume has disappeared were one to base one’s assumptions on the images projected in a television show such as Modern Families. We might all love Josh Thomas, but much of his humour depends upon the persistent difficulty of coming out.
For most people coming out requires a break with the ‘normal’ expectations of their family, and even where families are very accepting it can become traumatic. There is a considerable literature on the psychological effects of stigma and rejection on homosexual and even more so trans teenagers. But even where these appear not to be major issues the experience of confronting deeply embedded social expectations leaves its mark on almost all of us.
I am sitting at a long table at the rear of a beach resort in the Queensland tropics. It is warm, but surprisingly dry; no sign of the tropics but for a lone great egret surveying the visitors with the air of a slightly jaded matron. The resort is usually confined to gay men, but tonight it is in transition; over the weekend it will become the site of a swingers weekend, only open to heterosexual couples, and the organisers have arrived to make preparations. The Sunday night, they tell me, will be ABC: an ‘anything but clothes’ event.
‘Wear a towel’ I suggest to one of the men, who’s already tantalising the room in skimpy shorts and singlet, displaying a neatly tattooed bicep. The woman who choreographs the event starts talking to us about the advantage of using gay spaces; the weekend is known as ‘the only straight in the village’ said her partner in an aside. Already it’s clear that the event is heavily controlled, and admission is only for heterosexual couples who pass strenuous checking. The emphasis is on partying and acting out fantasies; the website seems heavily angled towards straight men, even though swingers clubs usually struggle to attract as many women as men.
The two couples here are perhaps in their early forties, too young to have experienced the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1970s, clearly affluent and remarkably self-confident. One of the women flashes her latest I-watch, talks of her running exploits. Much later that evening, her partner having discreetly left the bar, she will hit on one of my friends: ‘I had to tell her I wouldn’t know what to do,’ he told me rather abashed the next morning.
The image of an old cover from Nation Review flashed into my mind: I wrote a long review of Gay Talese’s book Thy Neighbour’s Wife for a 1980 issue, and the cover image was a very orange picture of two heterosexual couples frolicking in a frothy hot tub. This was just as a herpes epidemic was leading to proclamations that the sexual revolution was over; several years later the onset of AIDS seemed to echo this warning in graphic form. The explosion of internet communication has meant possibilities for sexual experimentation that the swingers in Talese’s book could barely imagine; in one generation we have moved from the liberalisation of laws banning pornography through the era of porn videos to a global self-help industry in which everyone is potentially performer and watcher at the same time. Playboy is seeking to reinvent itself, having discovered that men will no longer shell out ready money for images of female nudes, even when presented as self-improvement.
In many ways the Queensland resort is itself a throwback to an earlier time, a period when gay men needed to seclude themselves from the larger world. Indeed the men there seemed less concerned with sexual experimentation than were the swingers about to arrive; what was different, perhaps, was the ease with which the two groups mixed. But then what the swingers’ website proclaims as ‘an exciting new lifestyle’ felt strangely passé, even if the bodies are better and the participants more assured. It was rather like watching the remade fortieth anniversary version of Rocky Horror Show and being reminded that we spoke of genderfuck before Judith Butler gave us a performative framework to conceptualise it.
What has triumphed, at least in Western liberal democracies, is a smooth blending of sexual freedom and neoliberal economics: when the swingers claim to be a ‘sexy, open minded, liberal club’ I doubt they had politics in mind. Any notions of the necessity for social revolution as a precondition for sexual liberation now seem outdated romanticism; capitalism has proven remarkably comfortable with rapidly changing sexual mores. The couples at my table were all successful small business people, the women as confident in the marketplace as their male partners, reminding me of my puzzlement when several speakers at the Sydney conference insisted that young women today are more ‘timid’. My hunch is that one of the major shifts in the past few decades has been towards greater self-confidence and assertion by young women, even if it takes forms uncomfortable for many feminists, such as an emphasis on style and fashion. Maybe ageing sentimentality leads me to see young men today as more likely to be uncertain and struggling to figure out how to perform their lives.
Is the swingers weekend symbolic of a major loosening of sexual mores, reflected in the popularity of online sites that encourage instant hook-ups?
The fallout from hacking of the content of the Ashley Madison website for extramarital hook-ups, with its slogan ‘Life is short. Have an affair’, suggested that both adultery and hypocrisy are flourishing. The numbers were indeed extraordinary: there were some 250,000 accounts in Sydney, third only to São Paulo and New York City, with corresponding figures for other Australian cities. But further examination suggested many of these were either false accounts or one-off entries by people who made no use of the site. And many more men were likely to use the site than women, reinforcing the common belief that men are far more interested in casual sex, whether for biological or social reasons.
Between them three of the gay saunas in Melbourne list up to a dozen events a month for ‘swingers’, suggesting that there is a steady appetite for the worlds described so lovingly by Gay Talese in the 1970s. But these events draw only a small fraction of the number of homosexual men who frequent the saunas in search of instant sex and companionship. It seems still the case that the rules of the game for gay men remain rather different to those for the great majority of either heterosexuals or lesbians.
Most of the men at my local gay pub might not meet the standards of the swingers for either fitness or age; the pub has been gay for 25 years, and it boasts official exemption from anti-discrimination laws to allow it to hold men-only events. Once a month, on a quiet Monday, it holds a jocks-only night, code for near naked drinking and quick sex in a couple of dark corners. (Like some pornography, the dress code insists only on footwear.) To someone unversed in gay mores this might seem like a scene from Dante: naked men packed into a small space, heads and cocks moving spasmodically, men moving in and out of social chatter to quick sexual play, none of it as callisthenic as I pictured the evenings unfolding at the swingers weekend. There’s a strange community that comes with anonymity and a willingness to discard embarrassment; there’s a range of ages and body types, less racially mixed than the city outside though, as is true of much of Melbourne, the real minorities are natural blonds.
The mood is lighter and less intense than I remember in the sex palaces of New York before the AIDS epidemic closed them down; too many of the guys here know each other, and manage the social and the sexual with some ease. Some are here with their partners, accepting that casual sex play threatens a relationship far less than emotional infidelity, which is borne out by recent research on gay relationships.2 Not all gay men accept this: a few years ago a couple of us were challenged by angry young men at a writers festival event for asserting that monogamy was not a requirement for a successful relationship, and in an Insight program earlier this year one gay man spoke of ‘cheating’ as if monogamy were self-evidently the bedrock of any committed relationship.
At the same time the growth of the internet has given heterosexuals the same possibilities for instant sex that used to be the reserve of gay men. Hook-up apps such as tinder allow heterosexuals to cruise for casual sex in ways similar to those used by gay men on sites such as Grindr, although people who have compared the two sites say gay men are far more likely to want an immediate hook-up rather than a date.
A beautiful November evening in Adelaide, and I am sitting with a group of younger queer historians watching the Adelaide Pride Parade. Unlike the massive and choreo-graphed showcase that means Sydney’s Mardi Gras now stretches for several hours and many kilometres, the Adelaide march retains something of an amateur feel to it, as if the participants have just assembled by chance, only a few in costume, and decided to walk through a largely deserted CBD. A few determined fundamentalists, with banners promising eternal damnation, have positioned themselves in front of the march, the police holding back a dozen Dykes on Bikes, as if the reving of their engines proclaims a desire to mow down the crowd. Some moments of theatre—most visibly the Marching Dunstans, a living tribute to Don Dunstan, women, men, even a couple of kids, dressed in white safaris suits and pink shorts—but the loudest chants come from the predictable Socialist Alliance contingent, who, oddly for revolutionaries, seem most exercised by the marriage issue.
But what is the point of pride marches? Originally they were marks of defiance, at a time when the very assertion of homosexuality was to challenge propriety and the law. Today they have become another ethnic festival, moments of celebration that allow people to come together in a passing sense of community. Many more people crowded into the small street at the tip of Adelaide’s CBD for the evening street party, at which the star of Adelaide’s FEAST Festival, Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, made an appropriately glamorous appearance. Yes, the festival celebrates ‘diversity and inclusion’, but it does so in ways that are totally unthreatening to the established order. The much larger and more commercial Sydney Mardi Gras now features large groups of marchers from commercial enterprises such as the ANZ Bank, for which liberation is no more than a marketing slogan. Summers’ assertion about the success of gay liberation might seem fulfilled.
If in some ways the Adelaide march looked like a return to the late 1970s, it also represented a new normal, ‘from outlaws to in-laws’ as the accompanying history conference put it. As is the case of much in the very large and ill defined ‘LGBTI community’, the march recalled Raymond Williams’ insistence on ‘residual and emergent cultures’, whereby new forms and ideas coexist with those of the past, often given new life by nostalgia. Thus against most expectations drag has persisted as a central part of the queer entertainment scene, as is clear from Melbourne’s Midsumma, the largest queer cultural festival in the country, where shows such as the ‘Miss Gay and Ms Transexual Australia premiere beauty pageant’ use contemporary language to describe the ongoing links between sexual and gender dissidence.
Drag persists alongside an increasing questioning of gender expectations and a breaking down of simple assumptions about sexual preferences. Popular media include more and more discussion of radical views of gender and sexuality, even as broader social acceptance is based on very clear identity politics. One of the ironies of current ‘radical’ discourse is that it simultaneously accepts that identities are products of social forces and that there is an authentic self that only needs support to emerge, even if this requires major medical intervention to align the biological and the experiential sense of gender.
When the ABC television series The Beautiful Lie retold the story of Anna Karenina in contemporary Melbourne it failed to convey the social disgrace that befell Anna in Tolstoy’s novel, so her collapse became totally psychological rather than a reflection of larger social prejudices. Anna’s abandonment of her husband and son no longer implies the absolute disgrace she would have encountered in nineteenth-century aristocratic Russia, certainly not in the bourgeois secular world in which the series was set. In the same way the idea that revolution was needed for homosexuality to be accepted has long disappeared, as we have become another, if somewhat chic, minority in the multicultural fabric, well catered for by SBS.
Many years ago I wrote that most Australians would be more comfortable with a lesbian bar in their street than a mosque; I could not have anticipated how correct that would prove. My local council includes much of the area covered by the only Greens seat in the House of Representatives, so perhaps it’s not surprising that our newly elected mayor, Robert Colanzi, should write in his initial message to residents that: ‘Yarra is many things, including being the centre of Melbourne’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex community … I will be aiming to affirm that relationship and consider the business viability of many LGBTIQ enterprises.’
At the height of my love affair with the United States, where I have spent eight years of my life, I wrote a book called The Homosexualization of America: The Americanization of the Homosexual. (Today an editor would alter that to read ‘How homosexuals are changing America, and why you should feel good about that’.) The basic thesis was that greater acceptance of homosexuality would change the sexual mores of the larger society and, in turn, homosexuals would come to live their lives more like ‘normal’ folk.
I couldn’t have anticipated the rate of change, particularly this century, which has seen ‘LGBTI’ rights seized upon as a marker of tolerance and diversity. In the Netherlands acceptance of gay rights is a test of citizenship; here Bill Shorten briefly mused on quotas to increase openly LGBT politicians. One of the strongest themes of the marriage equality movement is to stress that ‘we are just like you’; and support for same-sex marriage is increasingly couched in terms of committed monogamous partnerships. There is a voluminous literature criticising the ways in which this emphasis occludes a tradition of organising gay partnerships in different ways, summed up by Gore Vidal’s reference to his 50-year relationship with Howard Austen surviving because they never had sex. That line is unlikely to be quoted at many equality rallies, though it may well be seized on with some glee by opponents of same-sex marriage.
It is a paradox that there is a new emphasis on monogamy in the age of hook-up apps, reminding us that hypocrisy will flourish under any conceivable regime. Of course it is perfectly possible to argue for extending the rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples without abandoning a defence of casual sex. It is not merely, as some liberationists like to mutter, that younger queers have sold out to respectability; most homosexuals have always wanted acceptance not revolution, and same-sex marriage has come to symbolise equality, even where it might be problematic for people without conventional gender identities. The last barrier to normalisation has become the rallying point for a queer movement.
Yes, we achieved some of what liberation meant, but sexual freedom has been unharnessed from any larger project of social change, as consumer capitalism has proved it can accommodate a range of sexual freedoms without the broader social changes the counterculture and New Left imagined. Indeed the push to recognise ‘LGBTI’ identities in Asia is increasingly being led by multinational corporations, which promote the idea that greater diversity helps business flourish. Early in 2016 the Economist, standard bearer for an enlightened liberal capitalism, organised a major global discussion of ‘the economic and human costs of discrimination against the LGBT community’, addressed by senior business leaders.
This is not, I should stress, a lament for a dying generation; there are plenty of young queers who are as inventive and brave in their activism as was the Stonewall generation. Increasingly they are found in other areas of political work. My fear in 2016 is that the totally unnecessary plebiscite on same-sex marriage, a legacy of the Abbott years, will soak up far too much of the resources and energy that could go to a renewed radical conversation about what sexual liberation might mean. A significant vote for same-sex marriage will be both an affirmation of Summers’ comment about success, and an acknowledgement of how easily sexual revolution can be coopted.
- Nikki Gemmell, ‘Sex? Anything goes’, Weekend Australian Magazine, 14–15 November 2015.
- Garrett Prestage et al., Monopoly: A Study of Gay Men’s Relationships 2014, Kirby Institute, Sydney, 2015.
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