(Originally written Oct. 4, 2007 on Facebook.)
In response to a comment I received on my previous (and hilarious, apparently) drunken rant (I’m not drunk this time), here are some additional (and less verbally abusive) thoughts. Don’t read if you’re not down with intellectualising about sexuality.
It’s hard for people not to pass judgement on the sexuality of others, even if it doesn’t affect them personally. People are enculturated from an early age about what is normal, natural and morally acceptable. These ideas become so deeply engrained that letting go of these conceptions poses an emotional challenge. First, it’s never easy to question every thing you’ve ever thought you’ve known about the world. Second, opening up one’s ideas about sexuality calls their very own sexuality into question.
Once a person starts to question her own sexuality, the possibilities become endless and that is very scary to many people. Without limits, how does one know what is OK and what isn’t? It’s not safe to have no limits. It’s also scary for many to know that, once they are liberated from their own confines, people will look at them the same way they themselves used to look at those who lived outside the box: with scorn, resentment and hostility. Sometimes there is awe, but with awe comes fear. And that is far from flattering, I think.
If so many people choose to remain within the confines established by the norms of propriety, even though it limits their freedom to do so, there MUST be a pay-off. A sense of social belonging? A sense of mental and emotional stability? A code of conduct that is straight-forward and therefore easy to follow?
Tam, you’re taking sociology at Concordia right now, right? Durkheim may have come up by now – he claimed that belief systems serve the function of maintaining social order because of the encouragement of the desire to adhere to commonly accepted norms. I think that we can transpose this idea onto mainstream sexuality. By sticking to the sexual norms, people feel a sense of social order. When you start letting people of the same sex get married or letting people marry multiple partners at the same time, when you start letting lustful people be lustful in spaces designed for this purpose, when you start suggesting the prostitution become legal, you are setting the stage for social chaos (according to the mainstream, not according to me).
The reason I’m thinking along these lines is that someone recently send an interesting link to an anthro list that I’m on. This link was an article about why people would willingly adhere to belief systems that place restrictions on their individuality. The author argued (I think . . .it’s been a few days and other things have taken up space in my brain in the meantime) that people do this because, to them, the benefit of having a sense of community was more important than the freedom that they would have by asserting their individuality. I immediately linked this to ideas about sexuality and I think that for many people this applies. Ultimately, for some people, it often comes down to choosing between the safety of fitting in with the status quo versus the freedom of following one’s sexual impulses.
What they don’t realise, of course, is that with all of these communities rising up around shared ideas about sexuality, gender, love, etc. (queer, lesbigay, trans, poly, swinging, BDSM for example), one can actually find that sense of belonging they so desperately seek. Of course, the flip side is that many of these communities (as with subcultures and counter cultures in general) wind up creating their own status quos and crushing people’s freedoms in an almost equally repressive way.
Example: having long hair and remaining invisible as a dyke (very common in the lesbigay community).
I would say that this is just about as hurtful as, say, feeling male but remaining invisible as a “guy” or “boy” or whatever because you weren’t born with the equipment (very common in mainstream communities).
So can anyone have the best of both worlds – feeling like one is part of a community while feeling free to explore one’s desires and identity in all kinds of directions? Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve met a few people who seem to have struck the balance between community and individuality but I’m not there yet. For my part, I still always feel in limbo between the safety net of community and the exhilerating freedom of being me. I have very few spaces where I can be me without having to justify myself. Some people seem to think that I’m free . . .I’ve heard that comment from a few co-workers, for example (you’re so brave being out the way you are, etc) but they have no idea how much self-censorship I actually practice on a daily basis to make sure that I continue to “fit in” somehow, in spite of my quirks. The lewd teenage-boy like comments are a flippant way of letting off steam and, to a certain extent, keeping people out of my bubble because they never really get to know who I am, but I feel far from free to express what I really think. Example: I was sitting with a colleage (who, for the record, has been extremely supportive of me and even came to see a drag show) and there was a large quantity of food nearby for an event that we were at. I came within millimeters of saying: “You know, if we were bonobos, we’d all be fucking like crazy right now.” But I didn’t. It’s my own self-censorship that actually got me thinking about all this crap about humans and our ridiculous hang-ups. Because, yes, I have hang-ups too. We all do. Except my hang-ups usually mirror the hang-ups that I assume others around me have and that I fear will lead me to being ostracised if I cross their boundaries. Another example: I would never, ever go to work with a beard no matter how much I may feel like having one that day. Why? Geez, imagine the explaining I’d have to do. On one hand, I’d have to deal with people assuming I’m doing this as some sort of ploy for attention. On the other hand, I’d have to deal with: “Is it Halloween?” There’s no way in hell that anyone would just treat me as usual, or listen to anything I actually had to say, in or out of class. And what would I say anyway? I just feel very male today? That’ll never fly. Nancy, you have boobs, you’re not a guy, come on.
Anyway, enough about me:
So . . . “in today’s society” (as my beloved students would say) where is the balance between safety and freedom when it comes to sexuality or anything else? Can one be a free spirit and still belong? Does having strong social ties automatically entail giving up aspects of one’s individuality? Does being individual and autonomous condemn one to being a perpetual nomad?
It’s funny because when I hang out in James Bay, none of these things bug me because I see the immediate practicality of adhering to social norms. It’s about survival and safety so somehow it doesn’t bug me so much. But when I’m here, and I can’t see any practical reason why I would adhere to some of the norms that are imposed on me, it drives me apeshit (come on, I couldn’t write a note without a swear word in it).