…how is it that in a society like ours, sexuality is not simply a means of reproducing the species, the family and the individual? Not simply a means to obtain pleasure and enjoyment? How has sexuality come to be considered the privileged place where our deepest “truth” is read and expressed? For that is the essential fact: Since Christianity, the Western world has never ceased saying: “To know who you are, know what your sexuality is. Sex has always been the forum where both the future of our species and our “truth” as human subjects is decided. Michel Foucault
If you cast a quick eye over the events of the last few weeks you will find a common denominator – sex. Whether it’s religious/political controversy and manipulation over the Safe Schools program, speculation over the relationship between failed Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, the outrageous proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage, slurs used by a former NSW Liberal campaign manager against a rival ALP candidate, the attempts by his own party to smear Liberal candidate Tim Wilson’s sexuality, or star footballers shagging their best friends’ wives, sex, how it is performed, by whom it is performed on/with whom, and the perceived legitimacy or otherwise of its performance is at the heart of these superficially disparate events, a small selection from the plethora of examples available.
That this should be so seems to me breathtakingly and incomprehensibly stupid. How, indeed, has sexuality come to be considered the privileged place where our deepest “truth” is read and expressed?
Straight, white, conservative men and women are fighting to retain their privilege to define what is sexually “normal.” Anyone who fails this test of normality is pathologised, demonised, marginalised, ostracised, and othered, and because straight white conservative men and women have such a narrow definition of what constitutes “normality,” swathes of humanity are inevitably excluded.
For people such as Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen to accept programs such as Safe Schools, they must first acknowledge the legitimacy of sexualities other than their own. Christensen, along with the rest of the conservative crowd, claims to attach a profound moral value to traditional sexual expression: anything other than hetero and preferably in a committed relationship is immoral, and so disturbing it must be stamped out. In this world view, any efforts to assist the young among us who are struggling with sexual identity will only encourage them away from the deepest truth of heterosexuality, and worse, will put ideas into the heads of children who were comfortably straight before they heard about the program.
In other words, if we don’t offer any assistance to LGBTQI kids, they’ll just get straight because.
Lyle Shelton, CEO of the Australian Christian Lobby, recently claimed on Twitter that same-sex marriage would deprive him of his primary signifier of normality: if same-sex couples are permitted to marry, went his argument, people wouldn’t know he wasn’t gay. This is a terrifying and likely unwanted insight into the self-obsessed mind of Lyle Shelton, but it does articulate a deep fear of conservatives about their heterosexuality, and how they use sex as a moral marker of privilege, creating a distance between us and them that allows conservatives the illusion of rightness and safety.
What is conspicuously absent from the claim of sex as a privileged place of deepest truth is the question of power. Conservatives currently hold the power to to determine an overall sexual “normalcy” in Australian society, and the repercussions for those who do not comply with their limitations is considerable. Sexual difference is a useful conduit for the exercise of power, and this co-option of sex for the transmission of power is exactly what we are witnessing in the Turnbull government, as the right-wing faction brings the PM to his knees, and forces him to act against his own beliefs on the question of sexual difference in order to save his job.
The relationship between sex and power is complex and fraught, both in intimate relations and politically. The focus on sex and its expression as the dominant concern obscures what is actually going on. If you manage to establish a discourse in which sexuality and its performance are markers of acceptance or rejection then you have power, whether you’re in politics, a cult, a football club, a school or a family. Our sexuality is perhaps our most vulnerable aspect: who controls our sexual expression by whatever means, overt and covert, has immense power over our self-regard and well-being.
It’s not about sex. It’s about power. But don’t expect the straight white moral conservative men and women to admit to that.