Once, there was no sex. I don’t mean before 1963, but before 1633, in which year John Donne, amongst others, first used the word “sex” in our sense in his poem “The Ecstasie.” Interestingly enough though, unlike certain slightly older, somewhat cognate terms like “lust” or “venery,” the new usage of “sex” implied quite specifically attraction to the opposite sex.”

Sonja: Can someone please explain Milbank’s latest essay to me? Apart from taking some mean swipes at gays (I think), I don’t understand what he’s saying in the first half. Am I right that he’s got some weird kind of homophobia that now encompasses women? (Actually, that would just be classical homophobia, wouldn’t it?)

Sonja: Hm. I just finished reading the whole essay. I do understand very well what he’s doing in the second half. Awful. What happened to him? Did he not used to be like this, or did I just not read him close enough back then?

“Still more, I was expecting to hear from feminists that sex isn’t something locked-up in its own furtive box (albeit sometimes popping out into the wide-open spaces like a Jack) but is really all the more enjoyable when linked to the emotions and woven into the whole tapestry of a life shared with someone one knows in depth.”

“But to my surprise, I waited in vain. It was as if the chattering classes did a quick turnaround overnight. They seemed to have thought to themselves, if Stephen Fry – acceptably gay and cosy voice of Middle-Class England, muffins in north Norfolk and the values of The Archers (a very long-running radio rural soap) – now says that this is what sex is like, then he must basically be right.

Why should one find these responses perturbing? I suggest because here feminism betrays everything it rightly stands for by making a certain model (not, of course, the only available one) of specifically male homosexuality – since there are no lesbians out there on the Heath either – normative for “sex” in general.”

Katie: I’m only half way through, but he is empirically wrong to claim that feminists take a machismo understanding of sex. has he not read catherine mackinnon? or many lesbian scholars. his description of feminism is a straw man. maybe people didn’t respond to this Fry’s claims about women and sex because they thought they were silly and not worth their time?

“What we have today instead is the idea of “sex” as something that either is, or else should be, implausibly independent of gender and procreation altogether and in every way. (And only poor readers will ignore these qualifiers and imagine that I am here attacking condoms.)

Implausible, because that would suggest that we can really will ourselves entirely away from our biology and our unconscious impulses. And undesirable as well as implausible, because this biology yokes our most intimate and egotistic passions to the most unselfishly ecstatic of ends – having children – which ensures the continuation of the species and of human society down the ages.

Equally, since our bodies as opposed to our souls are tied to a generic identity, they can most easily surpass narcissism at this generic level through attraction towards what is generically different in one particular and opposite respect: namely the difference of sex.”

Sonja: Also, can someone please do a post on the implicit imperialism in this piece? I think it’s there, yes? The idea that the heterosexual male, because he is willing (or perhaps just enabled by his own superior nature) to undertake the “most unselfish” of all things (begetting and raising of children), somehow brings order and civility and God to what would otherwise be a sprawling mess of gay and silly feminine “egotistical desire”?

Katie: also, i think it is waaaaay too simplistic to describe the desire to have children as “our most unselfishly ecstatic of ends.” this is just not true. seems to me that the desire to have children, especially biological children, is at least as selfish as it is selfless–this doesn’t make it wrong, but it’s undeniable.

Katie: I would think martyrdom is much more unselfish than having a biological child.

Katie: and he has a weird, non-aristotlean/Thomistic and non-biblical understanding of the soul.

“This mode of unsexed sex is, in essence, sheerly mechanical, impersonal and masturbatory. Indeed it is more self-bound than most masturbation, whose fantasy pays sad tribute to the real.”

“Nevertheless, the new understanding of sex as fundamentally private and non-relational tends to be most of all exemplified by one particular ‘hard’ male gay culture of cold promiscuity. This is because it seems to nominalistically refuse all lure of generic alterity or otherness in whatever mode, and so all non-narcissism of the body. Thus it also refuses any sense of being “bound by the other” as opposed to the other being the mere occasion for the incitement and exercise of one’s own desires.”

Katie: and i’m pretty sure heterosexual prostitution is a form of “private, non-relational sex” that is at least as old as and much more pervasive than the way he thinks gay men have sex

Sonja: I’m starting to feel like Milbank is almost a caricature of himself. If you asked all the post-colonial theorists to get together and design a character who embodied everything they were critiquing, would it not be Milbank? That he embodies it in such a sophisticated way makes it almost surreal, no?

Katie: seriously. i’m really just sick of attempts to describe homosexuality as a severing of the soul from the body, as a flight from “otherness” or embodiment, as a form of masturbation. it’s really sad and non-sensical. this type of anti gay argument is not only incoherent, as you pointed out, but is quite un-christian. it’s almost a pagan exhaltation of procreation as the epitome of the human.

Katie: what a strange world he lives in when the love of a biological relation is “the most unselfish…of ends” and the love of a person of the same sex who is genetically other and unrelated to you is the epitome of narcissism!

Katie: and his need to pin all the problems with sex in our contemporary age (it is private and non-relational) on gay people (specifically, gay men…he of course does not mention lesbians, whose lower rate of promiscuity, compared even to straight women, would of course undermine his entire argument) without examining the economic factors and political factors behind this are also quite typical of an imperialist mindset. is it any surprise that a privatized, non-relational, neoliberal economic order, in which economic exchange has become both completely disembodied and completely severed from obligations and duties to real people and real communities, produces a problematically privatized sexual sphere?

Katie: also, why talk just about gay men?  What about straight men using internet porn?  This is actually masturbatory.  Also, here, men seek to derive sexual pleasure from the bodies of women without having to deal with the actual presence of real women’s bodies.

Sonja: I think it is totally just the other side of the imperialist coin he carries about, don’t you? A fun exercise would be to print this essay in a column parallel to his essay on the “lamentably premature collapse” of the colonial empires. He is totally colonizing The Other, politically and sexually.

Sonja: And how about the gender hierarchy in here? According to this essay, the purpose of women is basically to keep men from turning gay, isn’t it? It’s acceptable for men to dominate women so as to have an outlet for their aggressive masculine energy; without women, the result is just a bunch of egalitarian homosocializing, which seems to trouble Milbank not because of its gayness, but because it lacks hierarchy. Am I reading him wrong? Because it sure looks like he thinks gayness lacks hierarchical power relations.

Sonja: Also, some day I want to make the case that John Milbank is just Eusebius of Caesarea returned from the dead. I am so, so serious.

Katie: Also, his claim that since homosexuality is without attraction to the sexual other it becomes “impersonal and mechanical” just isn’t true.  It seems possible that homosexuality affirms the goodness of the sexed body at least as much as heterosexuality does.  If bodies and gender were not a special part of human being, then homosexuality (and to a lesser extent, heterosexuality) would not really exist.  Sex, it seems, would be all about function rather than attraction.  But homosexuality, precisely because it is non-procreative, affirms the importance of sexed bodies to a greater degree even than heterosexuality does, because without this mysterious attraction,  heterosexuality would really be about gendered function rather than gendered relationality.  Homosexuality insists that there is an irreducible reality to the human body as female, male, or intersexed.  Moreover, the body is not merely instrumentally or procreatively important, and the body’s importance cannot be replaced or sublimated by so-called “chaste friendships.”

Katie: For a lesbian, for example, a “feminine man” (whatever that means) simply will not do.   It is silly to think that the goodness of God’s creating us “male and female” can be affirmed only through heterosexual relationships or through sexual relationships of any sort.  While heterosexual relationships may be an especially emphatic demonstration of the goodness of our creation as “male and female,” this does not mean every man has to have a sexual relationship with a woman!  (Have you heard of clerical celibacy!)

Katie: Also, if homosexuality did what Milbank and others says it does (assert that gender and sex are irrelevant) then why would anyone be gay?  On page 236 of his book, Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God,” Eugene Rogers argues, “sexual attraction is explicitly or implicitly concerned with real bodies…gay and lesbian people care about bodies—otherwise many of them would take the easier route and settle for those of the opposite sex.”

Sonja: Katie, your point about homosexuality affirming the importance of sexed bodies reminds me very much of Rowan Williams’ essay, “The Body’s Grace.”

26 thoughts

  1. 1) Please do this all the time. Mystery Theology Theater is awesome.
    2) Putting feminists in quotations–“feminists”–fills me with speechless rage. No, Milbank, you do not get to decide whether people are good enough at feminism to deserve the term.
    3) I find the article as a whole immensely incoherent, which makes his scolding of “poor readers” amusing/irritating.
    4) I do think though that your criticism, Katie, namely that he claims that feminists take a machismo understanding of sex, is not quite on the mark–I think he was talking specifically about the responses to Stephen Fry’s comment in that passage. The real problem is the jump he makes later on from the “lightweight liberal feminists” to “Feminism.”
    5) Okay, the move at the end to “let’s revive romance” made me, as an English major who studied a fair bit of medieval romance at one point, throw up in my mouth a little. Um, how is the courtly love tradition any less masturbatory, narcissistic, and distant from the actual bodiliness of love and sex than “the most coldly promiscuous tendency within male gay culture”?
    6) So finally, I’m puzzled as to how an article that’s clearly written with the best of intentions can fail so miserably. I was going to say that I think I agree with his general point, but I can’t figure out what it is. I DO find myself nodding heartily at individual sentences–such as the comment that, for (perhaps) most of us, sex is just better with someone you trust. And yet…

    1. lovethequestions, I think your point #4 is spot on. I should have been more clear–you’re right, at first, he accuses not “all” feminists but only those who responded to Stephen Fry’s comments of adopting such a machismo view, but then, as you point out, it is later that he sloppily equates “lightweight liberal feminists” with “feminism.”

      And I think that critique (both your critique of me and your critique of him) is a perfect example of your larger critique that this article just doesn’t make sense.

      And I love your point 5. Totally spot-on. It also reflects a certain cultural bias that he praises “courtly love” but would probably not extol the latest Taylor Swift song and certainly not Nicki Minaj’s or Soldja Boy’s latest http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FJO6b8GL3M&feature=channel

      each of which are just 21st century incarnations of courtly love.

      1. perhaps he has gotten carried away by his own self-understanding as “conservative,” which might lead him to think that the solutions to our problems are to be found, almost exclusively, in the past?

        So, this is why he might look so favorably upon courtly love but scoff at or not even think about contemporary pop music sung by heartsick teenagers….

      2. Well, I don’t know Milbank well enough to know whether he would scoff at T Swift etc., so I’d rather not put words in his mouth. BUT I think your comparison is actually quite an apt one–that Soulja Boy video in particular is all about the delayed fulfillment and eroticization (sp?) of desire.

        What makes me queasy about both medieval and modern incarnations of courtly love is their essential one-sidedness. (Insert something about the male gaze here.) It’s not that they’re not beautiful; they are; “Troilus and Criseyde” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” are just about as good as English literature gets. One could even say that, in its own time, courtly love was a step up for women. But say what you will about pedestals, they tend to end up being a barrier to actual intimacy–and I think actual intimacy is what Milbank’s article wants to be all about.

  2. Great post!

    I know that John Milbank used to support some sort of sacramental recognition of same-sex unions (and many in the Radical Orthodox crowd have been friendly to same-sex relationships, as several of them appear in Gerard Loughlin’s Queer Theology anthology). I wonder if his mind has changed or is changing. I think that here Milbank wants to distinguish between all homosexual relationships and the kinds of anonymous sexual relations mentioned in Stephen Fry’s comments. But at points it is unclear exactly what he is criticizing. And I think he gives way too much credit to what Fry–a comedian–said. I think it’s wrong-headed to blow up Fry’s comments as if they expressed the (homo)sexual zeitgeist. It’s like when some fear-mongering types try to claim that NAMBLA is representative of the desires and secret goals of all gay men.

    I suspect and I hope that Milbank would endorse something along the lines of what Eugene Rogers proposes in the book mentioned in the post. But that’s the most generous reading of his strange article that I can muster.

    1. K Patrick,
      Thanks for your comments and thanks for pointing out that Milbank and others in RO have demonstrated support for gay and lesbians in the past. I think that’s an important fact to keep in mind.

      Given all that you said, what do you think he is doing in this post? Why did he choose this cultural moment to make the case for monogamy?

  3. I definitely agree that there are problematic aspects of this article (I think we could give more time, as suggested above, to the romanticization of romance…) but I don’t actually read Milbank as making the sort of universal statements you’re (rightly) concerned about. Given the tendency we’re all aware of to make these kinds of jumps — gay and lesbian relationships just expressions of narcissism, etc., one might wish that Milbank hadn’t gone in a direction so easily brought into that narrative… but I don’t think it’s his intent to endorse that narrative fully. I read him as saying, instead, “There are certain rights we justly need to defend — but let’s be nuanced in our defense of that, and be careful that our concern that such rights not be attenuated not lead us to endorse what we really shouldn’t.” Perhaps he’s not speaking in the most nuanced or careful terms — but I actually read this article as calling for more nuance and care.

    E.g., in the context of his arguing against a total severance of sex and gender, or a total severance of procreation from sexual intercourse:

    This is one reason for our hysteria over the issue of child abuse: our new understanding of sex gives us no clear grounds for explaining why it is wrong, other than the vulnerable idea that sex with minors must, by definition, always be coercive.

    In this context we forget that normal homosexuals do not desire simply ‘anything’, as if any desire was legitimate, but adult members of their own sex. Somehow, for whatever range of reasons, it is the specific otherness of other mature members of their own sex towards to whom they are sexually drawn. [emphasis mine]

    And narcissism of the body is often avoided here through a re-invention of generic difference in terms of age-difference, class-difference, national-difference, role-difference, simulated gender-difference and complementarity of opposite character, and so on.

    Likewise homosexual love is frequently orientated to the future either through various modes of child-rearing, the education of others or common shared projects.

    Milbank’s point, it seems to me, is not to say that homosexuality is intrinsically narcissistic, promiscuous, and antagonistic to what sex is meant to be — but that one certain strand that has existed in gay male culture is problematic from any perspective (“My third response was that I was waiting to hear from other men, both gay and straight, that while they didn’t much fancy the chill of the Heath of a November night, they really did rather enjoy sex back home, amidst all domestic comforts with a regular partner.”) and we all need to be more forthright in saying so.

    Again, though, I’m not trying to say there aren’t problematic facets of this — as K Patrick says, it’s wrong-headed to view Fry as overly representative, and it seems wrong to look at this sliver of gay male culture apart from a lot of other social forces — would the bathhouses of the 60s/70s/80s have held the attraction that they did outside the context of a broader culture of massive homophobia? I don’t want to get too far into commenting on a small sliver of gay male culture, because it’s not something I’m actually able to speak to…

    But my main point is I think questioning the purpose, context, problems, etc., of focusing on this and focusing on this now — no writing takes place in a vacuum, so what is the motive for this piece? — is quite necessary, but I don’t actually read this as an attack on all gay people. I read Milbank as saying he’d be quite happy for women and men, gay and straight, to say, “No, anonymous promiscuous sex is not what I or my community should see as a goal. Stable committed relationship sex is just bed.”

    1. Wow, Bridget, I never thought I would see you defend Milbank, haha. But this is good; perhaps we are seeing things that are not there. Speaking for myself, I read this essay in the context of his two previous essays on the ABC Religion website–on defending colonialism and on defending Constantine, respectively. In each case, the colonial empires and “Constantinianism” are endorsed because they are seen to bring order to the irrational/selfish/incompetent/intellectually impoverished other, in much the same way that the Logos and emperor do in Eusebius. Both essays are, in my opinion, hypermasculine, and it’s against that background (which I take to be the general drift of his thought these days) that I am reading his comments on heterosexual sex as paradigmatic for this benevolent kind of colonialism and on homosexual sex as generally the antithesis of that scheme. I say generally because it seems to me that, despite being careful to say that “not all gays are like this, guys!”, the fact that his essay if frontloaded with promiscuous gayness belies the nuancing he sets out to do later. I think the essay implies that good heterosexual sex is the norm, whereas good homosexual sex is the exception.

    1. Yea, Bridget, I think you are right on with your critique of my post. Echoing K Patrick and lovethequestions, I think my biggest problem with his article is that its overall point or purpose was unclear. I agree with you that I don’t think he meant to gay-bash, but, I think he could have made the same critique about our “privatized, non-relational” view of sex without using promiscuous gay male sex as his negative contrast. I will stand by my larger critique that I think it is inadequate to criticize a “privatized, non-relational” view of sex (which gay men supposedly epitomize), without also critiquing our privatized, non-relational economics.

      And I agree with you that he doesn’t mean to describe homosexuality as narcissistic, but it seems that what he gives with one hand “narcissism of the body is often (though not always, apparently) avoided [in the case of homosexuals] through a re-invention of generic difference in terms of age etc…” he takes away with the other. Again, the main problem is this article’s lack of clarity. Despite his intentions, it comes dangerously close to sounding like classic “blame the gays” just re-packaged in sophisticated subtlety.

      Also, I’m not sure how any article that speaks of procreation as the epitome of unselfishness can defend itself against the charge of heterosexism if not downright homophobia.

      1. I think, too, that the underlying problem with his latest essay and the two before it is his tendency to distill a “logic” for what are very diverse and historically-determined realities (e.g., logics of orthodoxy, of gnosticism, of marcionism, of Islam, of straight sex, of gay sex). So I would still say that Milbank is positing a logic of [rational Christian] heterosexuality over against a logic of homosexuality which, while particular gays might not embody it, those are still *just* particular gays.

    2. maybe, to simplify and clarify, what I want to say is, I think this is an irresponsible way to make the argument for fidelity and monogamy–irresponsible both in its actual substance (if not intent as you rightly point out), and in its potential for misuse.

  4. My problem with Milbank’s article–and why I think it is appropriate to respond in satire–is a combination of the lack of intelligibility already mentioned above, but most of all his lack of scholarship.

    First, Milbank’s foil is the comedian Stephen Fry. Fry is the only text analyzed, and nowhere is this text put into context. Milbank’s introduction is a personal anecdote where he recalls three responses he dreamed up (“Several responses occur to one…”) but never heard (“….But to my surprise, I waited in vain”). This argument from silence is his main tool of analysis on the text question.

    He then hypothesizes why there is silence, again using language of hypothetical retorts. Milbank may just be trying to avoid using the first person, but his repetitive use of phrases like “responses occur to one,” “to which might well retort [sic],” uses the ambiguity of grammar to treat his opinions as a text to be analyzed–as if they are given to him rather than contrived. This shift is the reason that writers on wikipedia aren’t allowed to use such language (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weasel_word).

    In his explanation of why feminists have not given the responses he is looking for, he states the following “It is true that some of them confessed that they rather lamely preferred the “sharing a dirty secret” thing which fidelity allowed, but they hastened to add that this was just their personal choice,” WITHOUT EVER CITING A FEMINIST.
    He then analyzes this response, asking “Why should one find these responses perturbing?” I personally find them perturbing because they are imaginary responses to a comedian, but Milbank responds otherwise: “I suggest because here feminism betrays everything it rightly stands for by making a certain model (not, of course, the only available one) of specifically male homosexuality – since there are no lesbians out there on the Heath either – normative for “sex” in general.” In short, Milbank critiques feminism by showing how the imaginary response he made up to explain the silence in response to a comedian’s texts is perturbing. Hmm.

    Scroll through his article. The only two hyperlinks are to the comment by Fry–whom he only quotes once–and to the Swimming Pool Library, which doesn’t function much in the way of his argument. Compare this to what is being published in our blog, or in Memoria Dei, or in Faith and Theology. How is it that self-published blogs are citing and linking, and digital-born articles by contemporary greats look like my livejournal entries from high school? Heck, I’ve done more citing, and half the hyperlinking IN THIS COMMENT.

    I recognize the genre of the editorial, but given the ease of linking to a source (perhaps all these “feminists” who aren’t saying what he wants! *footstamp*), I don’t think it is excused from the rigors of scholarship. Milbank is not just remarking on Fry’s remarks in a wry manner, he is making a specific argument regarding sexual ethics, and I think he is doing so irresponsibly. And I would think he was doing so even if I agreed with him.

  5. Thanks for the satire. The comment about Milbank being basically a caricature of what post-colonial theorists would say they are working against is spot on. I only him this sort of column makes him less and less relevant.

  6. I would go so far as to say that this tag-team castration of John Milbank is the best theology post I’ve read this year. The clever “cutting back and forth” (pardon the feral pun) format really enhanced the critical reading experience.

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