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Against Sexual Scandal by Lauren Berlant

March 11, 2008, 4:17 pm

via Lauren's blog Supervalent Thought

If I were an actual public intellectual, here’s an op-ed I would write. I don’t know actually how to write this kind of thing, it’s more pop-ed than op-ed since it popped out of me when I woke up at 5 this morning. Advice, emendation, commentary are very welcome, and I appreciate it especially if you comment here rather than via email, because then it really is world-building.

Against Sexual Scandal

Whatever happens to Elliot Spitzer as a result of the revelations about prostitution the force of this story is not, once again, why big men do stupid sexual things, or why Type A’s get tired of being so good and have to become bad just to attain some balance.

The story is also not about how righteous moralists always have a dark secret they’re creating noise to distract us from paying attention to. It is not really, either, a good opportunity for dancing in the streets because one more powerful person has come tumbling down—after all, some powerful people are better than others, and when the person falls from the mighty naughty force of their appetites nothing about power is changed at all, quite the contrary. The law, the family, marriage—exit polls suggest that all of these will be the winner here, after being horribly maligned by a bad man who forgot his oaths to honor them.

Instead, what stories like this really do is to damage the reputation of sex. Whenever there’s a sex scandal, I feel sorry for sex. I felt sorry for sex during the Larry Craig brouhaha last summer. What if he liked being married and procreating and giving anonymous head? What if that was his sexual preference? What if he was not really gay, as he claims, but had sexual desires that seemed incoherent from a normative perspective? Some of the response to Craig was like the response to moralists like Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, and now Spitzer—moralists deserve to suffer the same force of negative judgment they wielded on others. Shame on us? Shame on you, ha ha! But lots of the response was sheer homophobia. And all of it was sheer erotophobia.

Erotophobia, fear of sex, tinged toward hatred of sex. Public sexual scandals revel in the hatred of sex. Disgust at the appetites. The strangeness of sex, the ordinary out-of-controlness of sex acts and sex drives that we all experience (if we’re having it). Actually, usually, sex is not a threat to very much. But it feels like a threat to something, which is why so many people stop having it.

So when a sexual scandal happens, people indulge in projections of what makes them uncomfortable about sex: its weirdness (I was just standing up and talking and now I’m doing this?), its sloppiness, its awkwardness, its seeming disconnection from so many other “appropriate” drives (to eat, for example). Then there’s one’s fear of becoming a mere instrument of someone else’s pleasure, in a way that one doesn’t want.

Nonetheless, I’m just saying, I really like sex. We have no idea what sex would be like in a world that saw it basically as a good. A weird good. A good that can tip you over and make you want to do strange things. A good that can reveal your incoherence, your love of a little disorder, your love of a little control (adjust the dial as you like). A good that can make you happy, for a minute, before the cat starts scratching the corner of the bed, or the phone rings, or the kids mew, or you’re hungry and sleepy, or you need another drink, or the taxi comes.

In “queer theory,” where I live, sex is often associated with shame. It is not only that people shame us because of our association with sex (see “erotophobia,” above). Sex itself is said, variously, to reveal our narcissism or regressive tendencies, and our aggressions too. It is not just “pastoral,” an expression of goodness or communication between (or among!) hearts. It is not just lovely and loving. It’s a drive, and that’s shaming. And exciting. It needs “sexual ethics” for taming.

At the same time, it’s also playful, if you can remember that part; it’s also ridiculous and hilarious, if you can remember to notice that. It can also be very interesting and various, if you want it to be, as lots of people do.

And who knows what else it could be if so many people didn’t fear and hate it so much that people with complicated needs have to hide and secret it from their loved ones, to whom they have promised to make more sense than anyone can make. Who knows what sex could be if people were encouraged to enjoy it as play rather than as a drama, a genuine test of recognition, or tool of unwanted control over selves and others.

I feel sorry for everyone in Spitzer’s nimbus; but I feel really sorry for sex. Once again it has appeared in public, as it usually does, as a bad thing that people do to people. Sometimes, too often, it is. But realism about sexuality, about what it could be, deserves better. It deserves comedy too–not romance, and not, so inevitably, more stories about tragedy and scandal.


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