“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.
“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.”