Mar 1 1998

Sex Panicked

Women Unheard in Sexuality Debates

The topic of sexuality received unprecedented news media attention in the 1990s–in part due to the AIDS crisis, in part because of a national fight to bring down centuries of legal, social and cultural bias against people who are bisexual, transgendered and/or lesbian and gay. In many year-end round-ups, the media remembered 1997 as a high-point for the acceptance of homosexuality–epitomized by the success of the ABC sitcom Ellen, which stars an out-lesbian actress in an out-lesbian role.

In some other world, all the talk about the diversity of human sexuality and the damage done by demonizing difference might have led to more sophisticated public discussion of the relationship between the state’s power and people’s personal lives. But not in this one.

In the U.S. media universe, corporate excitement about gay and lesbian buying-power and public curiosity about individual celebrities who are gay exist side by side with a tremendous discomfort around anything having to do with sexual freedom. The same year in which Ellen DeGeneres came out saw an increase in government efforts to control sexuality–yet the media used the debate about that to launch, not an interesting conversation, but a conservative backlash in which, Ellen or no Ellen, women and lesbians in particular were silent and unseen.

Favorite sons

In the space of four months, the New York Times op-ed page ran no less than three pieces by out gay men related to homosexual promiscuity and the spread of AIDS (Michael Signorile, 8/16/97; Gabriel Rotello, 8/22/97; Larry Kramer, 12/12/97). This followed similar stories in the gay press and new books by former OutWeek editor Rotello (Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men), and by OUT magazine columnist Signorile (Life Outside).

By year’s end, homosexual promiscuity and AIDS had become the single sexuality-related topic addressed in mainstream and alternative media alike, and a handful of white, male authors had become what some might call the “house homos” in a diverse array of publications, including The Nation, the New York Times, the conservative Weekly Standard and even the far-right Heterodoxy.

Signorile’s book, about what he calls the sex-fueled parties of the gay male circuit, brought praise from William Bennett (Weekly Standard,11/24/97), who used both his and Rotello’s work to feed his argument that “the real threat to homosexual Americans is not discrimination but physical devastation.” Rotello and Signorile, according to Bennett, corroborated his belief that “homosexuals live in a world filled with anguish, loneliness and much early death” and should not be “socially validated.”

Playwright and ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer declared in the Advocate (5/27/97) that “Nature extracts a price for sexual promiscuity” and that “we brought AIDS upon ourselves.” He sounded not unlike Patrick Buchanan, who once wrote (syndicated column, 5/83) that “the poor homosexuals” have “declared war on Nature, and now Nature is exacting an awful retribution.”

Vocal–but unheard

In broad-strokes, Rotello, Signorile, Kramer and like minds (including former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan) argue that with the advent of new life-sustaining drugs, homosexuals are forgetting the dangers of AIDS and reviving a practice of sexual abandon that is literally plaguing the community. Kramer and co. claim to represent a silent majority who are trying to promote monogamy and fidelity against a radical minority, who, they say, have been in charge of the queer community for far too long.

The radical minority, they say, is led by what Kramer (New York Times op-ed, 12/12/97) refers to as “a small and vocal gay group that calls itself Sex Panic” that “is an advocate of unsafe sex.” Prompted by Kramer et al, the New York Times‘ new gay-beat reporter, Sheryl Gay Stoltberg, ran an article on the group Sex Panic on the front page of the “Week in Review” section (11/23/97). “On the one side” of the debate, wrote Stoltberg, “are those like Mr. Kramer who are beseeching homosexuals to adopt a culture rooted as much in art, literature and relationships as in ‘what’s between our legs.’… On the other are those like [Kendall] Thomas and Michael Warner…of Sex Panic who argue that promiscuous sex is the essence of gay liberation.”

It’s unclear from Stoltberg’s story and from Kramer’s attacks what Sex Panic actually argues. Stoltberg’s story included eight quotes from Rotello, Kramer and Signorile, and only three from Sex Panic members. No equivalent opinion pieces by members of that group have so far been printed in the daily press.

In an interview, Allan Berube, a gay and labor historian who’s worked with Sex Panic, described the group as an “open public forum” of individuals who could not be said to argue any single thing. According to its literature, Sex Panic came together to protest the Giuliani administration’s zoning policies which were pushing sex shops, strip clubs, bookstores–and the safer-sex information that those places commonly offered–beyond the city’s limits. Sex Panic says it is committed “to HIV prevention through safer sex, to sexual self-determination for all people and to democratic urban space.” (“Sex Panic!,” a pamphlet, can be acquired by calling 212-252-4925, or emailing

Lesbians in shells

What’s clear is that this is no “debate,” and that there are many unheard sides. The women’s side, for one. In his New York Times op-ed, Larry Kramer railed against lesbians, who he said “crawl into shells rather than confront the idiocy of what Sex Panic is demanding. Why are they refusing to speak out?” He ignores, as Stoltberg did, the women in the group. “There are quite a few women active in Sex Panic and we have a range of concerns and motives that don’t get included in the…analysis,” says one member, Lisa Duggan.

Those voices and concerns are excluded from the media debate too. Amber Hollibaugh, field director of women’s services at GMHC, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, has been involved in battles over sexuality and health and censorship for years. “Communities of color, women and working class communities have different experiences” from those of privileged white men, she says. Different relationships to the police, to name just one example.

What’s missing from this discussion, says Hollibaugh, is a gendered and class-conscious analysis. Lesbians “don’t even have publications that would help us articulate and debate a sex-positive, lesbian politics.” Virtually the only appearance lesbians make in the current discussion is when men point to them as paragons of sexual conservatism, whose nuclear domesticity should be mimicked by all gays.

Obscured concerns

As for the concerns obscured by what may someday be called the Sex Panic debates, there are plenty of stories having to do with sex that need good investigative reporting. HIV infection rates are skyrocketing among heterosexual women, people of color and the young; HIV+ immigrants continue to be threatened with deportation and the denial of health care. In 1996, Utah banned all extra-curricular high school groups in order to stop one three-member gay and lesbian student organization from meeting.

And perhaps the biggest under-covered story in this respect is welfare: The 1996 act specifically targeted female sexuality, tying financial aid to a woman’s age, the number of children she has and her marital state. Making no bones about what the law’s framers meant by “personal responsibility,” the Personal Responsibility Act mandates “abstinence education” as part of the program states are to offer parents who are out of work and poor.

Throughout U.S. history, government officials and people posing as public guardians have regularly invoked morality and health to justify attacks on sexual and racial minorities, immigrants, women and the poor. They’ve hoisted a banner of somebody’s idea of “sexual purity” and demonized those who failed to fall in line. In the current debate, women, people of color and the poor are almost entirely invisible.

As Carole Vance (editor of Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality) told Extra!, “Most mainstream journalists don’t understand that this could have anything to do with women.” Which means that journalists are denying the public the perspectives of precisely those people who have the most experience–and expertise–when it comes to panics about sex.