The End of Sexual Identity – A Review

Jenell Williams Paris’ “The End of Sexual Identity” joins a number of other books recently published which ask Christians and others to take another look at how our Western society has created a social construct called “homosexuality” and how this has invaded the thinking of both the church and the wider culture.

As a cultural anthropologist, Paris takes a fresh opportunity to explore how we use language to explain the social constructions that our society has created. In particular, this book explores the Western phenomena of “homosexuality” and, in the midst of comparing the Western views of sex, gender and sexual identity with other societies’ understandings, argues that what for many in our culture is seen to be a given (the “gay/straight” dichotomy of sexuality identity) is in fact merely one way that human beings have configured their societies to deal with the many varied forms of sexual attraction and behaviour that humans experience and undertake. From here Paris asks us to return again to the Bible in an effort to clarify what the call on a Christian is in regard not only to his/her sexual life, but more deeper in respect of his/her very (sexual) identity.

Regarding neither heterosexual nor homosexual as valid Christian identifiers of sexual identity, Paris calls instead for a view of sexual holiness that has far more to do with Christ then culture. Identity should not be in either sexual desire nor in sexual activity, but rather in the person of Christ and a deeper understanding of the nature of sex as outlined in the Bible. The modern notions of sexual identity rooted around desire for a particular sex are rejected (correctly) not as scientific insights but as manufactured truths which didn’t exist a century ago and speak only of and to a small sub-section of the whole diverse human cultural sexual experience. The book closes with a challenge to find a re-definition of the human sexual experience that better fits the actual truth of the myriad of individual stories.

The invitation for us is to assign new meaning to the direction of sexual feelings. If wanting to have a sex with a particular person, or a particular type of person, isn’t an indicator of identity, then what do those feelings mean? Like Paul’s redefinition of foreskin, we could redefine sexual desire as simply a part – not the whole – of who we are. Neither foreskin nor sexual desire should be used as a public marker of identity and a criterion around which to establish groups of insiders and outsiders. Moreover, sexual desire could, like the uterus, become a lens  through which we see greater spiritual insight, instead of being an element of life that circumscribes a person’s worth and social role.

If Paris is right, and I think she is, it is not even acceptable to speak of oneself as “post-gay”. Post-sexualityism is the new paradigm.

For other good reviews of Paris’ book read here and here. You can join in the conversation on Facebook.

42 Comments on “The End of Sexual Identity – A Review

  1. Peter

    Thanks for posting this review – it sounds like an excellent book. I am especially struck by two points in your review:

    1. The socially constructed nature of 'homosexuality': People have throughout history participated in same-sex activity and always will. It is, however, only in the last few decades that the gay rights movement has defined same-sexual desire as a signifier of identiy. And this is both culturally specific, largely to Europe and North America (E&NA), and ahistorical. Living in Africa, I am struck by the extent to which both same-sex activity happens just as much as anywhere else and how little of it is defined as 'homosexuality'. The much publicised indigenous gay-rights movements of Africa remain tiny and largely composed (with the exception of South Africa for political and sociological reasons) of western oriented, relative well educated Africans who have been exposed to and absorbed the E&NA notion of 'homosecuality'. Uganda is an especially good example in this regard.
    2. 'Neither heterosexual nor homosexual (are) valid Christian identifiers of sexual identity': Non-Christians of course cannot understand the power of this observation, beset as they are by a culture that for all sexual orientations defines sexual self-expression as one of the ultimate modern human rights. The power of our identity 'in Christ', one of THE phrases of the New Testament, is that all self- and societal constructed views of identity fall away once we submit to Christ as Lord and accept, and indeed celebrate, the Godly boundaries on different types of activity that come from finding our identity first and foremost in Him. Of course, I should really say 'SHOULD fall away' as, being imperfect and fallen humans, we will always only partically succeed in reaching such an ideal. Salvation is instant, sanctification always takes a lot longer!

    • Philip

      A friend in Toronto has just sent me a link to a fascinating account of someone who has embraced an ex-gay "lifestyle" by someone who knew him well when he self-identified as gay, both activist and role-model. Other people's decisions /life trajectories are sometimes puzzling; many of the comments reflect this but generally they are sympathetic and respectful – perhaps because this is the NY Times :-)

      I'd be interested in what you make of it, as someone who has made a similar life-journey, as far as I understand. Best wishes, Tom

      • Tom

        I read this excellent article through the link on Anglican Mainstream. What especially appealed to me about it was its tone. The author, while disagreeing strongly with the subject of the article, wrote about him with both compassion and understanding and refused to judge him. I felt that it offered a model of how discussions should be conducted between those of opposing views on homosexual behaviour. It was especially marked that the tone was markedly more civil than much of the conversation in the church!

        You probably haven't read my testimony but it was and is very different to that of the subject of the article. He was a high profile gay activist and deeply involved in the gay scene; by contrast my actual same sex experience was only limited to the first time I had sex at the age of 12, although I experienced same-sex attraction on a number of occasions at different points in my teenage and young adult life. He self-identified as gay for a significant period of his life; I never self-identified as gay and was very clear that I was experiencing SSA, even at the time when that attraction was at its most intense. So our life journeys have been very different!

        One of the things that appeals most to me about Peter's site is his focus on the discovery and development of our identity in Christ as the key to addressing the challenge of homosexual desire as a Christian. With the focus on Christ and what he says about our identity, the issue of homosexual desire and practice becomes eventually incidental – our desire becomes more to obey God than to follow our desires. This was exactly my experience – I was able to resist, combat and turn away from SSA when it was at its most intense, primarily because of what I believed, that homosexual practice is both sinful and not God's desire for us as His people.

        This experience has started a major theme in both my spirituality and my approach to life – that beliefs are the most important part of who we are, our actions follow from our beliefs rather than the post-modern emphasis on experience determining so much of 'who we are'.

        I must always be careful not to overstate my case. I had a period of very intense SSA in the aftermath of a very painful break-up with a girlfriend and a couple of teenage crushes on guys. At the most, my sexual orientation was mildly bisexual. But at the same time, my adult experience of SSA was very intense and my response to it was determined my belief that homoseuxal behaviour was a sin. Full healing for me came a little later but, again, the key issue was one of identity – my identity in Christ and who he says I am rather than what my desires tell me I am.

    • ‘It is, however, only in the last few decades that the gay rights movement has defined same-sexual desire as a signifier of identity’.

      Philip, I am afraid that you are wrong on two counts here. Firstly same sex desire as a signifier of sexual identity was first postulated inn1869 by a Hungarian who coined the word ‘Homosexuality’ and comes out of the medical/psychiatritic developments of the mid nineteenth century. Secondly, the public early manifestation of a sort of gay rights movement appears in the 1890s with Max Hirschfield in Germany and people like Havelock-Ellis and Edward Carpenter in England in the 1890s. What seems at first to have appeared in the 1960s as ‘Gay Liberation’ out of the sexual and social turmoil of that decade has a very much older history.

      I agree with you that same sex activity has happened always and everywhere. The efforts by some African religious and political leaders to brand it as a Western import are wilfully ignorant and wrong and as far as one can see motivated by short term expediency rather than a longer term understanding of human nature. It is more than unfortunate that the western cultural war over homosexuality, comprehensively lost in the secular west by the social and religious conservatives, are being fought out again on her shores, largely encouraged and funded by rich westerners.

      I would also suggest that with the spread of education and development of ideas of Human Rights it is going to be increasingly difficult for Africans to pretend that somehow western ideas of sexual identity and acceptance of same sex relationships won’t apply to them.

      • Richard

        Fair criticism – my comment was rather loosely phrased. I meant that it is only in the last few decades that the gay rights movement has successfully defined same-sex desire as a signifier of identity to large numbers of the public in general. I recognise that this is the culmination of a long process that started with the Victorian sexologists.

        >>I would also suggest that with the spread of education and development of ideas of Human Rights it is going to be increasingly difficult for Africans to pretend that somehow western ideas of sexual identity and acceptance of same sex relationships won’t apply to them.<<

        Hmm, I'm not sure about that! This sounds suspiciously like the euro-centric thesis that education and development always lead to the development of liberal attitudes. Education and development in Africa have now been going on for 50 years since independence in most countries of the continent and have already produced tremendous increases in life expectancy, literacy and general health.

        I would argue that, if anything, resistence to homosexuality has hardened in most of the continent in comparison to the easy pre-colonial tolerance of same-sex relationships (although these were never described of or thought of as 'homosexuality'). And the key factor is not education and development but the rapid growth and spread of religion, primarily Christianity and Islam in most of the continent.

        If you are arguing that the 'development leads to secularism thesis' will apply to Africa, even over the long-term, then I think you would need to argue that either religion is going to decline in importance or is going to be transformed into its modern European and North American (E&NA) form that is largely theologically liberal and therefore gay-affirming.

        And I'm afraid that the evidence is against you as far as this thesis is concerned. The continent of Africa is one of the fastest growth areas for both Christianity and Islam. Evangelical and charismatic Christianity (ECC) is growing even faster than Christianity as a whole. And good luck with producing a gay-affirming form of Islam in Africa, because I think that you'll need a large slice of it!

        • >>>>Fair criticism – my comment was rather loosely phrased. I meant that it is only in the last few decades that the gay rights movement has successfully defined same-sex desire as a signifier of identity to large numbers of the public in general.

          Surely their success is in establishing said desire as benign or positive? In the days when people could be fired for being gay terms like 'homosexual' were still used, not 'person who engaged in homosexual practise'. Similarly, one might now deplore words like 'bugger' or 'pervert' being applied to human beings but they are still evidence of a (however reductionist) view that sexual practise is indeed a signifier of identity/

          >>>>And the key factor is not education and development but the rapid growth and spread of religion, primarily Christianity and Islam in most of the continent.

          Indeed, and many conservative commentators rightly point out the dangers of liberal cultural relativists forced to pretend that western society isn't superior to the African kind. Fundamentalism is not just an Islamic problem. America is supposedly an evangelical country, even though the 2004 figures indicated that the percentage of evangelicals in the population is actually less than Catholics and normal Protestants combined – quite a change from the days when Richard Nixon could refer to JFK's Catholicism four times in a single sentence as a means to discredit him! But in 2004 evangelical Christian George W Bush was rightly talking about the importance of God-Given Freedom and democracy's superior to theocracy. The overall success of democracy over other values suggests that, when Africa requires less aid, that it could quite natural evolve to states that are properly democratic, with all that implies.

          Given the obvious contradictions between the theocracy of say the Ugandan's anti-homosexuality bill versus the Bill of Rights and post-Magna Carta it is when troubling when reasserters of Christendom celebrate African fundamentalism so. Even more curious is the conflation of 'Charismatic' and 'Evangelical. Todd Bentley kneeing cancer suffers in the balls is not exactly the Christianity of the 39 Articles!

  2. Thanks for posting this, +Peter. Identity has been on my mind a great deal. Human idenity or self-concept is fragile and easily taken off rails by human experiences such as sexual, physical and relational trauma, parental conflict, rejection, abuse, etc. PET scans can show the effects on the different parts of the brain and how they become de-synchronized. Science is showing us that our brains are changed structurally, functionally and chemically cumulatively, interactively, positively and negatively by our experiences, thought patterns, beliefs, actions, interpersonal interactions, what we ingest.

    The greater the trauma or change, the greater its impact on identity. An abused orphan suffers identity-wise. Five or ten minutes of sexual abuse/predation can change a person's sexual response and sense of identity as we have seen, and make for a horrific and tormented life, until treatment and intervention by our merciful GOD. Thank God for His Plan B. Psalm 27:10 – God means to be our Parent, Redeemer and Savior when all else fails and when all hell attacks us. He means His Church to be our surrogate healing family…where His Truth, Love and Life can restore and retrain us.

    It's worse than hell on earth when the Church reneges on this job, embraces sin, sickness and lies and gives out a poisonous toxic message.

  3. For the issue of sexual identity, I continue to be confounded why we aren't turning to Foucault's wonderful excursus "We Other Victorians" in the first volume of his History of Sexuality – especially since this work is likely the most important theoretical, academic work for the LGBT movement (in its highly selective, reconstructed reading of the work).

    I think contemporary culture tends to ignore this, largely because:
    – it is so powerful in demonstrating how "Sexual Identity" is cultural, and should not be taken to be "who we are"
    – it is the most powerful and destructive work ever written in undermining the "repressive theory," and goes so far in exposing that "sexual sermon" we continue to read in the pages of The Guardian, hear on Oprah, and other popular media – about "how sex is being repressed" – and how this "sexual repression" narrative itself is repressive, and makes its adherents into an odd sort of prurient, repressed prudes (while nonetheless engaging in odd paroxysms of sexual expression – in word and deed – in trying to prove that they themselves are not "repressed" and "not like those other folks with their cultural taboos" etc. etc.)

    I'd suggest that this work is almost like a bombshell waiting to go off on Western Culture, in the profound manner that we've neglected its message and continue in our impoverished discourse, fraught with so many ridiculous paradoxes. I'd especially recommend it for Christians like Peter who are intent upon bolstering the argument that "sexual identity" is an ideologically laden term, and that Christians should live according to Scriptural sexual ethics. I'd suggest that the first author to write a compelling account of Foucault's view of the "repressive theory," applied to some ethical issues, and providing contemporary evidence and other argumentation, could very well come up with a book that would be eagerly read by many.

    Gay is a lifestyle. Lifestyles are not strictly a matter of choice; we often find ourselves in them. Any lifestyle is accompanied by its deep habits, its unique longings, its urgencies and exigencies. This also means that some lifestyles are not easily left (ask anyone who's tried to leave BDSM, the coke circuit, the Jehovah's Witnesses, or the gay lifestyle). We once made a distinction between "homosexual" and "gay" with "gay" being more like a lifestyle and a movement. We now require all homosexuals to be gay. This itself shows a rather profound lack of health of the contemporary mindset.

    I don't see any mention of Foucault in the reviews. He is probably shunned by most Christians due to many of his other views (which for obvious reasons aren't acceptable to Christians), and his own odd and highly demeaning sexual choices. Much of Foucault also must be taken with a truckload of salt; and I probably wouldn't advise this book as reading for most laypeople. This however doesn't mean that he wasn't a brilliant observer of our age; nor that his analysis can't be powerfully applied by Christians arguing for Scriptural ethics in sexuality.

    Bringing in Foucault is likely to be very unpopular at first, due to both gay activist and Christian pressure. It will also require us to think deeply, and start thinking also about how sometimes ideas are interlaced with some which we must accept, and some which we must reject; and that ideas must be accepted upon their own merit, and not on the "character assessment" we make of the authors. But I would argue that it is important for Christians to start entering this type of discernment. We are already so enmeshed in the contemporary paradigm of thinking … including the "repressive hypothesis" … that such discernment is necessary for us to find a way to deal with such enmeshment in a sane, rational, and God-pleasing manner.

  4. Modern brain science and psychology research has shown that our lifestyles – actions, thoughts, beliefs, interpersonal interactions change us – actually change the function, structure and chemistry of the brain, cumulatively and interactively, positively and negatively throughout our lives just as exercise and diet change the body.

    This is why psychotherapy works and how the koinonia fellowship of the Body of Christ works. This is why negative thinking leads to depression. This is how PTSD and relational trauma affects us.

    The brain on drugs, whether substances or addictive behaviors is changed, dysfunctional and debilitated.

    God has a redemptive plan for the sin-sick wounded soul(mind/will/emotions) for what happens to the person and the personality when a person is victimized or just plain willfully chooses the wrong lifestyle and his/her brain and responses are acclimated or oriented in the wrong direction.

    God's plan B, repentance, renunciation of sin, confession: agreement with God, practicing Godliness, ingesting the living life-giving (efficacious redemptive anchoring) Scriptures and the encouraging writings of the Saints and walking out the new abundant life in the (hopefully) healing household of Faith is supposed to work. This is why thanksgiving and praise are prescribed for entering into the courts of the joy and presence of our Lord. Thanksgiving actually increases oxytocin and relational capacity, which helps us to relate to God and others. Just as the Commandments were supposed to work His nature into us, God has prescribed and uses the Christian lifestyle to change us, spiritually, emotionally, physicially, relationally and societally.

    • >>>>>This is why psychotherapy works

      Really? Peter Breggin's Toxic Psychiatry he still had the good grace to acknowledge that psychotherapy hardly 'works' for all people, and for all problems. Similarly, if you wish to invoke mental health disciplines ( your points above are interesting; I admire Jeffrey Schwartz' work on OCD and neuroplasticity) then it should be acknowledged that their scientific consensus hardly proves your theological understanding of homosexuality. Homosexuality is (to say the least) not likely to be repathologised in DSM-V and (to cite an oft-cited but no less important for that fact) even the best anti-gay theologian, Robert Gagnon, had to use Paul Cameron's ludicrous statistics because they are still the 'best' 'scientific' support of the alleged evils of homosexuality. Whilst NARTH have about as much 'scientific' cache as the Discovery Institute.

  5. Sorry this is so disorganized. I should not try to write long thoughts in little boxes…but compose in a larger format.

  6. By the Christian lifestyle I mean living within the boundaries of Scripture, the Commandments, the whole counsel of the Church, past and present.

    As Fr. Dale Matson, who is also a clinical psychologist, at his blog, Soundings, points out, changing behavior changes identity. He is thinking the Didache should be used as much as the Catechisms in preparing Christians for baptism and confirmation.

    The early church was extremely careful in bringing pagans into the Church, having them renounce sexual sin, occult involvements meticulously and formally – out loud. We do this as well in healing prayer ministry to be sure all possible ties to idolatry of the flesh and spirit are renounced and that the person is willing to relinquish all sin and have it be removed by God.

    Much of what we see in the Church with 'gay' bishops, priests and parishoners is people who have not made a complete surrender of themselves to God. It is rebellion, idolatry, soulishness.

  7. To be true: The book has disappointed me. Paris simply takes the concept of social gender from Foucault or … (I would say a modern form of gnosticism). She does not argue with the profound philosophical, anthropological and theological (!) criticism of this concept. Her demand for an christian ethics without law (only love, cf p. 92) is a projection (and not reformed at all). Paris simply defends a very special approach of the postmodern ethics which is spread today in the cultural and gender studies very much. That means not that this approach corresponds with the reality. I cannot recommend the book.

    Blessings, Ron

  8. Philip

    Thanks for clarifying that for me. My position on the ex-gay and post gay thing is probably that I believe it is possible – sometimes. In cases like yours and Peter's (as far as I have understood him and I am open to correction) your unwanted SSA were never fully sexualised (acted upon) at all or for any length of time. Many happily heterosexual men have dabbled with other men in the youth. This did not make them gay. You say yourself your sexual orientation was mildly bisexual – and that's what I would have expected. I think anyone with any chance of shifting their sexuality has to be somewhere along the continuum towards bisexuality for there to be any chance that it would REALLY work. The rest might be self-kidology – wanting a thing to be does not necessarily mean it will be so – as so many of the failed ex-gays find out to their cost. What makes the article interesting for me is that the guy in question does on the face of it fulfil the criterion that he was REALLY gay in the first place but now isn't. We can't be sure, can we, and only have his assurances to go on. The friend who sent me the link to the article was a monk in a Roman Catholic order for 6 years but eventually left because he came to the conclusion that he could no longer accept the Church's teaching about sexuality. He commented to me about the piece that he found it very interesting and moving as well as profoundly sad. Moving because he really identified with the writer who was attempting to try to understand what had happened to his former friend and colleague. But is sad to see how someone who had tasted the joys of living a rich and satisfying life out of the closet has felt the need to return to the closet again and is, presumably, doing everything he can to kill his natural desires. It seems to him that if he were truly straight he'd know that as he would find himself attracted to women but none of that comes through in the article. But the article does remind him how complex sex, religion and personal fulfillment issues are although my friend says he's sorry he felt the need to back-stab his former lovers, friends and colleagues in the process of rejecting his former identity. Poor guy, he seems such a lost soul. He wonders how long it will take him to discover that his present journey is unlikely to end in happiness and fulfillment. As the author says, it's unlikely to be anytime soon. So there you have an opposite view to your own about how much celebration there should be over the article.

    People who don't have any really grasp of what it is like to be gay can have no conception of how horrible a closeted life is and how destructive it can be. When the NARTHists start telling them they CAN change them and this is supported by well-meaning but ignorant people I believe they do great harm to the vast majority of gay identified people who cannot hope to achieve a change in their desires – comments like "no one is born that way" do not help when the experience of so many gay people from earliest childhood suggests they have always been like that since they become pre-sexually conscious. I think if the Church is to retain any credibility it has to accept that some people are gay in the population and try to deal with it as part of its theodicy rather than try to wish it away with discredited Freudian explanations and other cultish mind-altering programmes.

    • Tom

      Thanks for your well-thought out comment. I'd pretty much agree with your analysis of my personal journey in sexuality – I can't speak for Peter obviously. I don't pretend that even SSA was ever a big part of my life. I did however find that much of the root of SSA, for me, lay in family and relational hurts which supports the analysis of the post-gay movement, although I also accept that there is not a direct causality for all gay people. I simply find that orthodox Christian theology, the type of analysis on Peter's site and many, though not all of the diagnoses of the ex-gay movement explain my own experience.

      Obviously this article describes someone who was and is in a very different situation, and I am glad that my explanation clarified things. But I picked up very different things to you in the article …

      >>But is sad to see how someone who had tasted the joys of living a rich and satisfying life out of the closet has felt the need to return to the closet again and is, presumably, doing everything he can to kill his natural desires.<>People who don’t have any really grasp of what it is like to be gay can have no conception of how horrible a closeted life is and how destructive it can be.<<

      One thing that struck me was the very honest description of how its subject thoroughly immersed himself in 'the gay lifestyle', to the point that when he started to rethink things he had been living as a threesome with both his regular partner and a young man for quite a few months.

      It is this type of behaviour, sadly so common amongst gay people, that I see as 'destructive'. I genuinely don't understand how gay people can claim how 'coming out of the closet' can be so liberating when it leads to such flagrantly immoral behaviour as this. Surely if it were the the process that you describe you would see a diminuation of this type of behaviour and other common features of the gay lifestyle, such as cruising and cottaging, rather than an increase, as society becomes more accepting of gay relationships?

      • Philip

        Thanks for your openness but just to make thing clear, these were my friend's comments rather than mine though I think they were worth reporting because it does seem as if the closet that the guy in the article has returned to could be more destructive for those who cannot restrict themselves to its confines. Thus I take your point about SS destructive behaviour but I think Ryan is absolutely spot on in his comments to you on your last response that this is more likely to be enacted by the closeted wedding-ring wearers than those who are out of the closet and owning their true nature. AIDS is much more of a problem in places like India and Africa precisely because of the culture of denial as the WHO acknowledges.

  9. >>>>It is this type of behaviour, sadly so common amongst gay people, that I see as 'destructive'. I genuinely don't understand how gay people can claim how 'coming out of the closet' can be so liberating when it leads to such flagrantly immoral behaviour as this

    'Leads to' in most cases? Hardly. The fact that some people interpret a coming out statement like "I'm gay" as "I have lots of promiscous, dangerous sex, and take drugs too" is a proof of societal homophobia, not any intrinsic immoralities mandated by coming out itself. And of course it's well-noted that dodgy cruisy sites and public baths have more than their fair share of guys with (heterosexual!) wedding rings. Someone in the closet is by definition unlikely to go on a same-sex date, or hold a same-sex partner's hand in public, and all to often limit themselves to meaningless anonymous encounters. So it's unlikely that coming-out leads to more risky sex – not least as someone in the closet is unlikely to avail themselves of safe sex advice at an LGBT centre or the like.

    The heterosexual world will probably (human nature being what it is) continue to have promiscuity, pornography, drug dating etc until the world ends, so it's unfair to expect cruising to disappear. An interest in casual sex is a fallen-human problem, not a gay one.

    • Ryan and Tom

      I accept some of your points. Certainly not all gay people are promiscuous and have dangerous sex and there are stable,long-term gay relationships. And, although I am no expert on the 'gay scene', I am sure that there are many heterosexual guys there as well looking for a quick fling.

      But that merely takes us back to one of the main points in this thread – that 'homosexuality' is social constructed – doesn't it? I assume that very few, if any, of the heterosexual guys active in the gay scene self-identify as 'gay', although they are clearly are 'men who have sex with men' (MSM). They just fancy sex with a man every now and then instead of their wives, in the way that same-sex activity has no doubt happened throughout history!

      But, Tom, you're right to raise the example of mostly heterosexual MSM in Asia and Africa as an important path for AIDS and other STD transmission and to point out that it is receiving growing attention. This is because the practice is both fairly common and the culture of denial greatly increases risks. This is one of, although not the major, reason why I am in favour of decriminalisation of same-sex activity worldwide.

      But I don't believe you when you imply either that much of the destructive sexual behaviour in the gay community is due to continued homophobia or heterosexual guys having a bit of a cruise for a change away from their marriage! You'd really need to cite some evidene to support that I think, which we can get into if you want although in my experience its usually both a lengthy and futile business citing studies as it is unlikely to change beliefs either way.

      Let me just respond with an anecdote which I often use in such circumstances. My last place of residence before leaving the UK was Hampstead, fairly close to Hampstead Heath, which is one of the best known and age-old cruising areas in London. Even in the mid-'80s cruising was fairly common on certain parts of the Heath from dusk onwards (and sometimes even daytime), especially during the summer months. And there was, even then, a typically British unspoken pact both ways between straights and gays: "You don't hassle us and we won't hassle you". Fine all round!

      I keep in touch with the area and gay cruising has exploded in prevelance to the point that it is almost a mass activity in summer in the well-known area behind the Jack Straw's Castle pub. (See… for one of many reviews) Even to the point of the famously tolerant Hampstead residents writing letters to the press about it.

      And, on the Heath certainly, very little is MSM looking for a quick fling! London is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the UK. It is very easy for gay people to meet, make friends and form relationships of whatever duration. So why would cruising (and cottaging for that matter) have exploded as an activity over the period, when it has actually become much easier to be gay in London?

      • >>>>But I don’t believe you when you imply either that much of the destructive sexual behaviour in the gay community is due to continued homophobia or heterosexual guys having a bit of a cruise for a change away from their marriage! You’d really need to cite some evidene to support that I think, which we can get into if you want although in my experience its usually both a lengthy and futile business citing studies as it is unlikely to change beliefs either way.>>>>>

        Hi Philip. Endevouring to turn over a new leaf of sorts so hope my above comment wasn't overly guns-a-blazin' ;).

        You yourself say earlier on that non-gay identified guys fancying same gay sex is a long-established phenomena; so it's curious that in that comment you cast doubt on the fact that "much of" cruising et all can be explained this way.

        Not to be vulgar, but hasn't Hampstead Heath long been a famous and, er, vigorous cruising ground, the difference being that it is no more acceptable for it to be publicised as such? Figures on its popularity in the old days would most probably come from arrests, but of course even then it was hardly true that every cruiser was caught.

        Given London's size wouldn't one expect there to be more of *everything* happening there? Some gay men like cruising. Some gay men do not. But the fact that there are (again, given London's size) so many gay men in London means that the amount of cruising and acceptance thereof will be very high. This of course does not mean that a *majority* of gay men are into cruising. And even if they are, it is unrealistic to expect cruising and cottaging to disappear. Marriage, to the conservative, has been a culturally valued institution for millenia; heterosexual fornication and pop-culture acceptance of it (c.f. sexualisation of youth, music videos, lad mags) have hardly disappeared. There was, famously, all sorts of sexual misbehavior in supposedly straight-laced Victorian Britain (Her Majesty allegedly not believing that lesbianism existed was an unintentional witticism then, not just now). There's a curious dichotomy in much conservative rhetoric. For example, in The Bible and Homosexual Practise, Robert Gagnon says that the 'nature' argument is a red-herring.Most straight men are aroused and interested in sex with multiple sexual partners; yet such promiscuity remains immoral. Exactly. And the prevalance of such desires and expressions of them in no way diminishes the morality of monogomous sexuality expressed in marriage. If marriage became less popular than heterosexual fornication this would in no way invalidate non-procreational heterosexuality per se . Yet conservatives continue to cite promiscuity as necessarily invalidating of gay relationships per se, and cite gay promiscuity as a key feature of homosexuality per se rather than fallen male nature.

        And the fact does remain that, for all the contemporary gay world may seem appalling, it's still a vast improvement on the AIDSy bath houses and (cruising ground) homophobic physical assaults in that were so much a feature of less gay-accepting periods.

  10. And thanks for the link Philip – I note that it stresses safety and also the importance of not disturbing the community :

    "Safest Cruising Ground I know. The Police know what goes on there and are happy to steer clear if we Guys don't annoy the locals too much."

    Which supports my point that the principle change is in acceptance and safety, not popularity. There may of course have been less cottaging in the days when homosexuality was flat-out illegal, but I fail to see how the litany of ruined lives – for engaging in consensual sexual acts between two adults – is anything to miss.

    • Ryan

      Thanks for your reply – and your new leaf! Just to be clear on what I am saying, I am not in favour of bans on cruising or cottaging, just as I am not in favour of bans on outdoors sex (After all, I would have been affected by such laws in the past, if I had been caught – ooh er, missus!) Unless such activity is flagrant and involving indecent exposure, which I gather remains an offence in the UK.

      But you missed a few of my points. As far as I am aware gay sex on the Heath always has been a primarily gay rather than MSM activity, although I am sure that there are some MSM encounters. Indeed, such is the historic popularity of 'going up the Heath' a phrase that even I heard within its salacious context when I was living in Hampstead, that it's been described as a 'rite of passage' for young gay London men (see this Independent article at….

      And passive police tolerance of cruising on the Heath, such is its historic popularity, is not new and was going on in the '80's when I lived there. So I think that my point stands. Why should cruising have expanded so much when it is so much easier for gay people in London to find and make friends and form 'committed, loving and faithful' relationships?

      • >>>But you missed a few of my points. As far as I am aware gay sex on the Heath always has been a primarily gay rather than MSM activity, although I am sure that there are some MSM encounters.>>>

        Well, part of the problem is that none of us are offering data, if it even exists. You'd agree that the furtive nature of cruising means that a closeted MSM is more likely to go there than an e.g. gay bar? If cruising grounds have a mixture of gays/MSMs in a manner quite distinct from the gay/straights-with-no-sexual-agenda-who-just-want-to-be-trendy then doesn't that support my original point i.e. that 'coming out' per se doesn't automatically or even usually risky same-sex behaviour? One might deplore casual gay cruising, but those who have embraced their gay identity, entered the culture, and stocked up on lube and condoms are surely less likely to have risky anonymous sex than closeted MSMers? Similarly, you yourself and the article you cite both identifying al fresco cruising as a long established phenomena. That hardly supports your claim that cruising has exploded in popularity. Whereas your cited article includes this :
        "The police, for example, seem not to worry about rounding up cruisers the way they once did"

        Which supports my point re criminality. If we were seeing a migration of people from monogamous relationships into cottaging then that would be sociological interesting and perhaps warranting of serious questioning but there is no evidence (offered, at least) to support that claim. And is your citing of the fact that it's easy for gay people "meet, make friends and form relationships of whatever duration." for LGBT people an argument against, not for, the positive nature of coming out? Afterall, someone in the closet can engage in all the MSM sex they wan't up the Heath (one assumes that no-one is asked for their Gay Lobby Membership Card before congress can progress ;-)) . But it is surely more difficult to make self-identifying gay friends and engage in actual gay dating without first coming out. So coming out has far more to do with this than it does in entitling one to a guilt-free Licence to Cruise.

  11. Philip (and Ryan)
    I am sorry to be much slower than you and Ryan in taking up the points in our conversation, so I am grateful to Ryan for returning the ball quicker than I do (so to speak, this being Wimbledon fortnight!). One thing occurs to me, though, in the oft-cited objection to homosexual promiscuity (if this is different from/greater than heterosexual promiscuity) is that the very people who come out with this are the very same who say there is no such thing as gay nature – only gay behaviour. If they are also implying that there is some kind of causal link between a gay inclination and promiscuous sex this won't do; it would therefore be rough-shod nonsense to say homosexuals are "more promiscuous period". Also to try to draw a distinction between gay men's and MSM's promiscuity is very problematic. (None of us has quoted data but there is a book – Love in a Different Climate by Jeremy Seabrook – that attempts to map MSM in India. Even then, the evidence is based on conversations he had on a cruising ground in New Delhi so largely anecdotal, though first-hand.)

    A heterosexual friend tells me he does not believe the difference lies between homosexual and heterosexual men when it comes to promiscuity, but between men and women. If straight men could find women for promiscuous sex on Hampstead Heath they'd outnumber the gay men by the same factor they are supposed to outnumber them in the general population. There may be some truth in the idea that men are promiscuous, whereas women, largely are not.

    I don't believe the Bible is a safe guide on the morality of homosexual relationships, any more than it is, say, on lying. It was St Augustine who finalised the Christian position that lying was always wrong. I believe this in itself is wrong and there are some situations where you might be morally obliged to lie. We all know about the murderer at the door scenario. The Catholic Church uses casuistry to get round the problem but in the Book of the Week read on BBC Radio 4 this week, Born Liars: Why We Can't Live Without Deceit, the author tells of a Dutch Family who sheltered many Jews in their house against the Gestapo's express orders to give them up and even lied to protect them. Unfortunately one of the young women who lived in the house was a literalist when it came to reading the Bible and she couldn't bring herself to lie when the Gestapo officer asked her about another blond Aryan-looking girl in the sitting-room "Is she a Jew?" "Yes". Some may admire this but I do not. I do not believe she should have followed the biblical text even if she understood it to be categoric. The Jewish girl's life was worth more than her conscience or obedience to a text. I believe that there are circumstances where we as humans are morally obliged to disobey – I think Abraham was wrong to go along with God's demands about Isaac, notwithstanding that God was playing a game of deceit himself in that he had no intention of letting Abraham go through with the sacrifice…..or maybe changed his mind. Thus I think the very few texts in the Bible that are so often quoted against loving same-sex relations, apart from being quite problematic when read in context, cannot be used as part of a moral argument against something which is not bad in itself. It is no use scraping up bad cases like Hampstead Heath, or AIDS or talking about "God's plan for monogamous heterosexual marriage" (when clearly that has not been the case throughout biblical history – think Solomon, think Abraham) , this like lying, is something where humans simply have to grow up because now we do know better about certain issues than the ancients who penned the sacred texts.

    • A heterosexual friend tells me he does not believe the difference lies between homosexual and heterosexual men when it comes to promiscuity, but between men and women. If straight men could find women for promiscuous sex on Hampstead Heath they’d outnumber the gay men by the same factor they are supposed to outnumber them in the general population. There may be some truth in the idea that men are promiscuous, whereas women, largely are not.

      I believe that whilst there is plenty of good research to demonstrate this last point (that men are more promiscuous then men), the same can be said of the sexuality divide within men. Take for example section III:6 in this otherwise good analysis of the data –
      When the author writes, As you can see, the gay men’s statistics track fairly closely with the straight men’s—up to a point. Where we see a significant discrepancy is at the very high levels of promiscuity (i.e. 20–100, and over 100 partners), that is rather misleading. For example, over twice the proportion of gay men have 5+ partners then straight, almost three times as many gay men have had 11 or more partners over 5 years then straight and when you go to the 20+ level the proportions are over four times as many. This data lends severe weight to the notion that, on average, gay men are more promiscuous then straight men.

      Which of course, it must be said, is not an argument for suggesting that homosexuality automatically means someone will be promiscuous.

      • Indeed, that just supports the point that if there was a heterosexual equivalent of Hampstead Heath it would be full to bursting! Clearly there are financial factors (cost of drinks, taxis, etc etc) in the heterosexual environments conducive to fornication that are not true of the stereotpical gay/MSM ones (actually, however much people find gay sex disgusting, alcohol free cruising is surely *less*, not more, conducive to risky unprotected sex!).

        And there's also the problem about honesty. A straight man who has had oodles of sexual partners – or even just girlfriends- will tend to downplay the numbers when he decides to settle down. And there's lots of slutty ladettes who still wake up one day,biological clocks a-tickin', and decide to portray themselves as potential Brides. There is less dishonesty in the gay world. And let's not forget the significant numbers of straight men who a) are too socially inept to procure casual sex (c.f. the popularity of pick-up artists etc b)engage in forms of casual sex that are illegal and so unlikely to be honestly reported in studies (using street prostitutes) and c) can't afford to go to bars etc and so have to stick to free pornography. The greater prevalence of men in the heterosexual world who , technically speaking, are *not* promiscuous but would be if they could is not, to me, much of a moral credential.

        • I'm afraid the research simply doesn't square up with your suppositions. Just because you would like the situation to be a certain way and can dream up lots of scenarios and explanations doesn't actually mean it is.

          • Your link concludes "87% of gay men display levels of promiscuity that are parallel to those of unmarried straight men."

            ….. which suits my alleged presuppositions just fine.

              • I'm not a statistician, but your hero Gagnon argues (as you know) that one of the evils of homosexuality comes from the fact that that the excesses of male sexuality are tempered by female restraint. Paul Cameron made similar points. Both of these support the notion *desire for* promiscuity is a fallen-male problem, not a homosexual one. C.f. the (predominately straight) billion-dollar pornography industry (admittedly offering multiple 'partners' rather than partners, but it does indicate a male, rather than gay-male, problem). You'd concede that the easier-availability of casual, promiscuous sex in the gay world in no way necessarily indicates a greater *desire* for it as opposed to the straight one?

                And why does '5' partners conventionality count for a definition of promiscuity, but '4' does not? Because gays actually score 'better' on that point? And (again, not a statistician) N (presumably sample size?) of 125 for gays but a whopping 1,903 for straights is surely fundamentally flawed?

                • There are enough degrees of freedom for the differences to be significant. And it doesn't matter where on the scale you start – at any point gay men come out as having on average more sexual partners.

                  Now, you might very well argue there are reasons for that and they are not the one's Gagnon et al put forward. You might very well be right, but all I'm doing at this point is saying that the available statistical research shows that gay men have on average more sexual partners then straight men.

                  • Again, not a statistician, but would fairness not require establishing a ballpark for the most common numerical range of promiscuity? If (say) 1.5% of gay men had 2000 sexual partners to 0.01% of straight ones that would not tell us very much, as those engaging in such a ludicrous extreme of promiscuity are a tiny minority and so, by definition, not representative (although I concede that the commonsensical definition of 'average' might not be the stats. one). And at the 5-10 partners in the last five years range we find (according to your link) that the gay percentile is 19.2 to the straight 23.3. That the percentage of gay men who engage in 20-100 or 100+ forms of promiscuity is higher than the straight one surely in no way makes the 5-10 range a less useful representative? Wouldn't it be more accurate to interpret that data with "the percentage of men who engage in extreme forms of promiscuity is higher in the gay world than the straight world, but is still a minority"?

                    • "The percentage of men who engage in extreme forms of promiscuity is much higher in the gay world than the straight world, but is still a minority" is a fair description.

  12. Fair enough.

    As, surely, is "the percentage of men who engage in the most common type of promiscuity (5-10 partners in the last five years) is actually higher in the straight world (23.3%) than the gay one (19.2%)"?

    • Well that's true in the strictest sense, but the real comparisons should be made NOT in individual "bins" (which is what we call these category groupings of a continuous variable) but rather in cumulative counts. So, the real comparison is not 5-10 but 5+ for which the figures are 38.1 straight and 52 gay, a 36% increase for gays over straights.

      • It might be a 36% increase, but it's still only a 13% difference no? (genuine question, as Duckworth/Lewis aside, I don't know stats. )

        52% might be a majority of sorts but a whopping near %40 of straight guys doing the same thing hardly bespeaks a clear contrast between straight and gay (am talking here of fair generalisations that can be drawn from such data; clearly something along the lines of 20% straights to 60% gays have had 5+sexual partners in the last year would perhaps warrant such generalisations on gay promiscuity, irrespective of my ideological team)

        • It's a "significant" difference. That means we're pretty sure that if you were to take other groups of gay and straight men you would see the same results. There is a "clear contrast", though as you rightly point out it's simply saying one group is worse then the other, though both on average are not great.

          • It might be statistically significant, but I wouldn't call 13% (i.e. closer to a tenth than even a fifth) significant in any useful sense. Whereas if group x is e.g. fifty % more likely than group y to do something then that can be the basis for some arguably justifiable generalisations (not that – c.f. debates over IQ differences between races – that generalisations aren't without their problems!).

            And surely taking the straight sample as something like a control and noting a 36% increase on its tendencies in the gay world is problematic, because it's not comparing both objectively? I think most laypeople would assume that a "36% increase" meant that (say) 20% straights had 5 plus sexual partners compared to 56% gays, surely indicating that the 13% figure should be used outwith statty circles?

            • You misunderstand. It is significant and that means it is useful.

              When we compare the figures it is utterly appropriate to say that gay men are 127% more likely to have 5 or more partners then straight men are during a five year period. They are 235% more likely to have 11 or more partners and 482% more likely to have over 20 partners. That is as close to a fact as you are going to get.

              Of course, a significant minority of men have 3 or less partners, but straight men are 41.4% more likely to stay to these reasonable levels of monogamy (3 over 5 years isn't exactly throwing it around is it?).

              • Duly schooled. Although the opening lines in the wiki include:

                "As used in statistics, significant does not mean important or meaningful, as it does in everyday speech. For example, a study that included tens of thousands of participants might be able to say with great confidence that residents of one city were more intelligent than residents of another city by 1/20 of an IQ point. This result would be statistically significant, but the difference is small enough to be utterly unimportant. Many researchers urge that tests of significance should always be accompanied by effect-size statistics, which approximate the size and thus the practical importance of the difference."

                Well quite. I agree that figures like 235% and 483% sound mightily impressive, but you're still just saying that a minority in group y does far more of an act than a comparable minority group x. The fact that group x's tiny minority is still greater than group y's tiny minority in no way makes it any less of a tiny minority and therefore a poor basis for generalisations surely. If 3 people in group x did something and 9 people in group y did the same then that would presumably enable a vast percentile expression of the difference, but such numbers in a sufficent (e.g. the 1000 plus for the straight group here) sample are hardly indicating a useful generality.

                What does "and 482% more likely to have over 20 partners. " really tell us about the average gay men if the calculated likelihood is still so small that it by definition only referring to a tiny minority? I was temporarily very scared once when I discovered that my caffeine intake levels meant that I was twice as likely to have a heart attack. I soon relaxed when I realised that double a small number is, still, a small number.

  13. Wow, this thread sprang to life after my last comment, didn't it? Thanks, Peter, for stepping in and taking things away from my anecdotal example of Hampstead Heath. I was quite happy to have a crack at both the research and the stats, as I do sometimes on Guardian CiF. But it would have taken me longer as you know the research better! :-)

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