Monday, September 17, 2012

No True Neurotic

There's another attempt to define authenticity that has been on my mind, but I'm giving it a separate post.  I just read Martin Duberman's A Saving Remnant (The New Press, 2011), his dual biography of the gay/lesbian left pacifist activists Barbara Deming (1917-1984) and David McReynolds (1929- ), which is fascinating both because the subjects are such inspiring people and for its account of the social history in which they lived their lives and built their careers.

Martin Duberman was born in 1930, which makes him and McReynolds almost exact contemporaries.  I was born in 1951, which means I came of age along with a sea change in attitudes toward homosexuality, as well as about race and sex.  Sometimes I forget how much difference it would have made if I'd been born even ten years earlier.  Duberman mentions several times that gay people of the generation he shares with McReynolds found it difficult or impossible to get rid of the guilt and shame with which they'd been indoctrinated by their upbringing.  He misses, however, what looks like a coping mechanism that I think is more common among people of his age than it is among younger ones.  It hasn't completely faded away, of course, because there's still a strong antihomosexual (and antisexual) streak in American culture.

I'm referring to Duberman's repeated assertion that McReynolds
strongly believed – and in this he was way ahead of his time – that the real issue was exclusivity, that the rigid categories of “gay” and “straight” served to mask the reality that everyone felt erotic attraction to both men and women (“any man who is not potentially able … to have relations with another man is fully as neurotic as the homosexual who cannot relate to women”) [119].
In support of this claim, Duberman cites the research of Alfred Kinsey, with a boost from William Masters and Virginia Johnson.
Their in-depth studies of groups of gay and straight people – some of the latter overtly homophobic – both insistent on their exclusive orientation, were nonetheless found to have pronounced fantasies about having sex with people whose gender contradicted their conscious, stated preference [ibid.]
It has been a while since I read Masters and Johnson's Homosexuality in Perspective (Little, Brown, 1979).  Among the things I remember most strongly about it was their concern that women's superior sensitivity and sexual technique with other women should not be used as "recruiting" propaganda for lesbians.  Why not? I thought.  Certainly if you believe that people can be persuaded to become homosexual, they should be acquainted with what Masters and Johnson thought were scientific facts -- in this case, that men have very little staying power and pay little attention to the response of their sexual partners, compared to women.

Masters and Johnson also claimed to have converted (or "recruited," to borrow their terminology) homosexuals to heterosexuality in a two-week program with a 71% success rate.  When I read the book, I noticed that they had the same problems most conversion-therapy programs have: understandably, their "successful" patients were not eager to keep in touch with them after the program was over, so they had no way of knowing whether the change had been permanent.  Where follow-up was managed in other studies, reversion was common, and "success" limited to a few months.

In recent years, Masters and Johnson's program has come under suspicion.  Masters refused to show the raw data to his associate Robert Kolodny, who eventually concluded that the cases described in the book were dubious, and in later years Virginia Johnson herself declined to stand behind Homosexuality in Perspective, calling it a "bad book." 

Of course it could be that Masters and Johnson's other claims were valid, even if their conversion program was bogus.  One notable aspect of Homosexuality in Perspective was that it used a heterosexual control group, which is unusual.  I recall their finding that among the most common erotic fantasies they found in their subjects, regardless of sexual orientation, was that of copulating with someone other than one of their usually preferred sex.  The other most common fantasy was copulating with someone other than their partner.  What I don't recall, and maybe I should just go over the book again, is whether either of these fantasies was universal in their subjects, or merely most common.  I doubt very much that every single subject had these fantasies, but even if they did, Masters and Johnson were not doing a sex survey like Kinsey's: they did not even try to study a representative sample of the population.  They selected their subjects carefully, after interviews and medical workups.  It's ironic that the criticism often (and largely inaccurately) leveled at Kinsey -- that his sample was unrepresentative of the population at large -- is actually much more true of Masters and Johnson.  That doesn't by itself mean that their conclusions were invalid, because they were doing a very different kind of research than Kinsey.  But it does mean that you cannot generalize from their subjects to everyone else.  Their work does not prove that everybody is fundamentally bisexual (whatever that would mean), any more than Kinsey's did.

Kinsey may well have believed that everyone is basically bisexual, but his research found no such thing.  Fifty-four percent of his male sample turned out to be monosexual -- that is, either exclusively homosexual or exclusively heterosexual in their sexual outlet -- throughout their lives.  Duberman, who wrote a long and intelligent review of two recent biographies of Kinsey, knows better.  That so many people who do know better nevertheless distort Kinsey's work is interesting, and somewhat disturbing, given their usual disdain for the irrationality and ignorance of sexual conservatives, but they are still wrong.

Besides, this is all irrelevant.  According to Duberman, both Deming and McReynolds had some slight heterosexual experience (as most gay people seem to do, thanks to relentless social pressure to be heterosexual), and in his later life, after years of psychotherapy, McReynolds summoned up a few weak heterosexual impulses in himself, and then dropped the matter.  The notion that exclusive heterosexuality and exclusive homosexuality are both 'equally neurotic', while technically true (zero equals zero) often turns up among people of this era: Margaret Mead has been reported to have said the same thing, as is the maverick psychotherapist Albert Ellis, and quite a few people have quoted it around me over the past several decades.  When I was younger I took it more seriously myself, before I figured out what was wrong with it.

Most blatantly, this claim is an attempt to moralize sexual orientation -- to claim that one sexual orientation is healthier or morally superior to another.  That would have to be argued, not simply asserted ex cathedra, and I'm not aware of any evidence to support it.  It sounds especially odd from the lips and pens of people who accept a medical model of sexual orientation, holding that it's not chosen (and is therefore morally neutral). And I can grasp the notion that someone who shuts himself or herself off from a whole sub-range of sexual experience might validly be classified as "neurotic," though I don't agree.  For one thing, how far do we extend the range of experience that we are required to explore?  A bit of s/m, maybe?  Water sports?  Or does this requirement extend only to sexual orientation?  If so, how much heterosexual experience am I required to have before I'm allowed to say No to having any more?

Try this analogy.  I'm left-handed, though somewhat bi-manual: I write and eat with my left hand, but I play guitar right-handed, and so on.  Some people are more strictly handed, other less so.  Now imagine someone telling them that they're neurotic if they won't try to be more ambidextrous.  I would demand some evidence for the claim in the first place, but more forcefully I'd ask what business it is of theirs anyway.  If this seems an outlandish comparison, remember that left-handedness has been demonized in many cultures, and well into the twentieth century American southpaws were often forced by their teachers to use their right hands in the classroom.  Testing the limits of one's comfort zone is all very well, but it's for me to decide when, how, and how far I'm going to push mine.

Who gets to prescribe what sexual experience someone else must have, anyway?  I've argued before that (as far as I can tell) regardless of our sexual orientation, most individuals of our preferred sex are erotically unattractive to us, let alone the other sex.  Should someone be able to nag me to have sex with him just because I like males and he's male?  Some have tried, Cthulhu knows why.  I don't think anyone has the right to guilt-trip anyone else into putting out, for any reason.  No one should be made to feel inadequate because he or she is unattracted to any person, or any class of persons.  I may feel regret when I turn someone down, but I wouldn't want anyone I was interested in to have sex with me out simply because I asked, regardless of whether he wanted to.

And this leaves aside other questions about sexual availability.  Some people have promised monogamy to their partners.  Monogamy is arguably unnatural, and it's after all only a lifestyle choice, but that doesn't entitle someone to claim that a partnered person is uptight for refusing to have sex with them.  They may well be uptight, but they are entitled to their uptightness.  Quite apart from sexual orientation, not everybody wants or chooses to pursue a wide range of partners.  That variation of human sexuality also needs to be respected, I believe.  We have the right to our irrational little quirks as long as they harm nobody -- and not having sex with someone is not harming them.  Literally dozens of people haven't had sex with me, and so far I've survived.

So I'm bothered by Duberman's question-begging reference to "the reality that everyone felt erotic attraction to both men and women," not least because it evidently wasn't even true for the guy who declared it a reality: he had to undergo therapy for years to persuade himself that he was weakly attracted to a woman.  So first, you need to prove that it's a "reality," and then you need to give good reasons why I should pursue attractions, let alone copulation, with people I'm not conscious of being attracted to in the first place.  This does seem to be mainly a hobbyhorse of the generation of gay people just before mine; but Duberman chose to trot it out in a book published just last year.