The Guardian Impressively Talks About Gay Sex By Not Talking About It

In a recent Guardian article, British journalist and author Nick Cohen puts on his whimsical ally cap and tries his best to tackle an age-old question: Why are straight people so darned invested in what gays do in bed? 

While Cohen is a well-intending friend of the gays and goes so far as to describe himself as one of the “men who are ‘secure’ in their heterosexuality [and] have little interest in what their homosexual friends do in bed,” I immediately felt like the question of why queer sex is so policed would have been best answered by someone who’d actually been on the receiving end of that kind of homophobia, or someone honest enough to own up to their own homophobia (be it internalized or free-range).

Narratives from those who who have been discriminated against and those from reformed homophobes seem to bear the most leverage in society today. Not only do we need to understand how this sort of oppression affects people in order to ensure that it does not continue to occur; we need to believe that people can actually change for the better. Because he wasn’t exploring homophobia from either of these two positions, Cohen’s extremely verbose essay – while witty at times – did little for me.

Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen

Instead of pinpointing the specific reasons why people are willing to condemn gay sex, Cohen explores the sterile, old hat history of homophobia in religion, and how it is often rooted in contradiction and self-loathing.  He pokes fun at Catholicism’s hypocrisy in asserting that sex is not the enemy one second, and then stating otherwise the next:

 It is not true that all we ever “think about is sex”, protested the Catholic journalist Melanie McDonagh in the Spectator. Without a blush, she then went on to demonstrate that she could think of little else. Society should tolerate men and women whose attraction to their own sex is not expressed in sexual relations, she explained, as she began her discussion of vicars’ todgers. If a vicar uses his penis for sex “without a procreative purpose”, however, then out of the church he must go.

Obviously Catholicism isn’t the only religion that waves a cautionary finger at homosexuality. Different denominations of every known religion have taken varying positions on gay sex, from “don’t do it” to “don’t do it outside of a sacred union” to “have at it, babe.” Cohen does them all justice, including American evangelism, on which he humorously comments that “the path from the pulpit to the gay massage parlour is so well trodden by evangelical preachers that it is a wonder there is a blade of grass left on it.” However, I found myself bristling when Cohen suggests that those interviewing gay vicars for promotion in the Anglican church experience more turmoil than the gay vicars themselves:

A vicar can be in a civil partnership, [the Anglican church] conceded earlier this month. But if he wishes his superiors to elevate him to a bishopric, he must submit his sex life to cross-examination. Only if he can tell them he abstains from sex will they promote him. These are questions that shame the interrogator more than the interrogated.

The most fascinating part of Cohen’s essay comes when he stops talking about religion and brings up the AIDS epidemic in Britain and how political conservatives were forced to actually acknowledge the disease and its scope of devastation. He tells the story of William Whitelaw, a British Conservative Party politician who blushed when he was instructed to describe anal sex to prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Whitelaw and and Thatcher

Whitelaw and and Thatcher

When Cohen concluded his essay on the note that gay sex is none of straight people’s business, I found myself wondering if his disinterest and apathy towards queer sex was any better than the overinvestment which blatantly condemns it. Whether intentional or not, both erase and invalidate our sexual experiences. While Cohen never really answers his title question of why straight people are obsessed with what gay people do in bed, I’d venture to guess that it’s because society simply doesn’t talk about queer sex on the same level that it does good ol’ PIV intercourse. And when we don’t talk about something, its taboo factor only stands to increase.

It seems fitting that the guy who says he “doesn’t care” about what we do in bed never outright discusses queer sex, let alone sex between women, or gender non-conforming folks. It would’ve been nice to see Cohen clarify that not all gays and lesbians have bodies which fit the status quo, and that people who identify as queer are constantly finding new ways to mess with the boundaries of morality and immorality as defined by faith. But this just wasn’t the case.

Fetishizing queer sex is one thing, but being curious is another. We kill the gasp! factor surrounding queer intimacy by talking about it. I can’t fault a heterosexual friend for asking me about strap-ons when I know she went through high school without ever talking about lesbian sex in her health class, and that the Cosmo she reads as a young adult is no better. I want straight people to care! I want them know that’s it’s possible to be respectfully curious, to ask questions, to get brutally honest answers from those of us within the LGBT community instead of misinformation from god knows where. The only dangerous questions are those which go unasked.

Talking about LGBT bodies is a good thing, particularly when it comes to the reproductive justice. I want to be able to have meaningful conversations about the lesbian aversion to gynecologists, in-community sexual assault, cancer awareness for transgender individuals, and so many other issues unique to our community.

One thing is certain: I do not want to have to wait for another AIDS epidemic for the Willie Whitlaws of the world to finally express concern in my body and the ways in which I use it.

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Sarah Fonseca diplomatically lives, works, and plays in rural south Georgia. A Lambda Literary fellow, her essays and articles have appeared in The Q Review, Lavender Review, Thought Catalog, Autostraddle and Choice USA's ChoiceWords.

fonseca has written 45 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    After the disgusting piece of transphobia the Guardian posted on their website a few days ago (since taken down due to the amount of complaints lodged about it), I wouldn’t be holding my breath for them to have any sort of meaningful discussion of LGBT issues. In fact, I wouldn’t be reading their stuff at all.

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      Oh don’t worry! The Telegraph reprinted the article.

      Now both of them have been sent strongly worded letters and complaints to the PCC. I’m appalled that the editors could allow hatespeech – and that was what it was, complete with threats – to see print.

      Sidenote – sending strongly worded letters is THE MOST BRITISH way to deal with a problem.

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      While the observer and the guardian share a website, the observer has different editors, and that hideous julie burchill article was ok’d and officially published by the observer, not the guardian.

  2. Thumb up 11

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    also queer and gay people can ask stupid or at least naive questions. one does not automatically know everything about strap-ons just because the person is gay. many have a cosmo/heterosexual pre-life and need orientation themselves. i am queer but have nearly no experience in sex. and never met transpeople, for example. there are so many chances for me to ask “stupid” questions.

    we know so much more about heterosexual sex than they know about gay sex. because “their” sex is everywhere. “ours” not. i don’t blame them for being curious. if they want to accept us i think it’s normal that they want to know how we life. it’s about another culture.
    the difference is in the how. how do they ask? do they discuss with us or only about us? is it with people from different corners of the LGBT-community?

    i like your article.

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      I agree. I remember being in my early twenties and getting schooled for saying something that I didn’t realize was offensive to transpeople. I wasn’t taught those sorts of manners growing up (not many people are) and it wasn’t common sense to me. It was stuff that I had to learn and tenish years later I’m still learning. Thanks for pointing out that we aren’t all born knowing everyting. If only . . .

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        Genuine curiosity, asked in a respectful way, and being truly willing to listen openly to a response (as opposed to asking a question which is really a statement) go a long way in making someone willing to engage you in personal questions. So does a short, non-defensive and sincere apology along the lines of “sorry, I’m still learning.” I have to think that so long as you stick to those rules, (really basic manners anyone learns) you’ll do fine.

        What doesn’t deserve a polite response are people who ask questions which are actually thinly disguised putdowns and dumped out onto another person’s lap with little thought of the context or manners, or people who are immediately defensive because they’re being called out on their so-called expertise about matters of which they actually know little. Yes, no matter what your claimed intentions were, it’s usually going to go bad. Most people just want to be treated with respect, as other people get treated (most of the time) instead of as curiosities, objects or jokes. Is that really something you should have to learn beyond the age of 10?

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      ‘one does not automatically know everything about strap-ons just because the person is gay.’

      Very true. I was listening to the KC and Elka L Word podcast and they talked about the Jenny/Niki strap-on scene and how they both thought it was really quite accurate for some queer people. Sex is all kinds of things and sometimes it can seem really weird. A western style harness and a purple piece of plastic shaped in a phallic way? It’s pretty funny looking.

      KC and Elka were discussing how, sometimes in that situation, one girl will be like, “Let’s do this! It’ll be awesome!” And the other might be like, “Uhh ok, this is weird, I’m a girl but I’m wearing a phallic shaped piece of plastic on my pelvis.” From what I’ve seen, most people interpreted the “Jenny, I’m not a dude, how am I gonna…” line as being about Niki’s ignorance as to how to use the strap-on and the meaning behind using a strap-on but I think it was more about her not being able to physically feel Jenny’s (physical) responses. I think she was gonna say, “Jenny, I’m not a dude, how am I gonna feel it [inside you]?” As she’s getting ready, she quietly but firmly tells Jenny “You have to tell me if I’m hurting you, ok?” and then laughs and says she “can’t feel what [she's] doing [inside Jenny].” That scene was amazing to me, and to be honest, my favorite thing about it was the way Niki constantly communicated with Jenny about her comfort and wants. Sometimes, on television, it can seem (imo) in the writing of sex scenes, that asking questions while in the act, whether about comfort or desires, takes the scene ‘out of the moment’ if that makes sense. (Sorry, I realize I may have gone in a slightly off topic direction, it was just a portrayal of queer sex that I found to be interesting).

  3. Thumb up 1

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    So I’m not a particular fan of where I live, but St Albans Abbey has some cool stuff going for it. Dr Jeffrey Johns is a very senior (gay) clergyman, who was passed over for promotion due to his sexuality some years ago, and St Albans jumped at the chance to have him (he’s our dean? Maybe deacon? I’m not good at Anglican job titles).

    Anyway, it’s nice that such a traditionally Conservative place decided we’d love to have a respected theologian, regardless of his relationship. I’ve met him in passing, and he seems like a very decent guy. It still sucks he can’t actually have sex with his partner, but if he does become a bishop, it’s been a long time coming.

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    I enjoyed your article, but just thought that I would add a little more cultural context For your American readers. Currently heterosexual marriage in England is consummated when heterosexual procreative sex occurs and can be annulled if it does not occur. Right now the hard line Conservatives who oppose Equal Marriage are being particularly pedantic about what it would mean to make same sex marriages “the same”. This has led to a lot of speculation to say the least.
    Since I reside in the Northern Isles, I am happy to say that Scotland does not share the same legal problems.

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      Julie Burchill’s article was in the Observer, a technicality I know but there is a difference. Burchill’s ego and personality have always been greater than her talent, although I did enjoy Sugar Rush.

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        They reprinted it in the Guardian. Yes, it’s a disgusting piece of bigotry which never should have been allowed in a real newspaper (as opposed to, say, a Murdoch publication). But to be fair to the Guardian, they’ve also published an excellent ongoing series of articles written by a young trans woman named Juliet Jacques about her transition and life which are really an unprecedented first person account of being trans for a large newspaper. I think they started it after getting a lot of criticism about some offensive columns written by another Brit transphobe, Julie Bindel. So, they’re kind of all over the place on the issue. Perhaps different editors within the publication?

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          The Observer has a different editor (it’s published once a week on Sundays), but they both have the same editor-in-chief. They both share the Guardian website. My understanding is that the Observer is basically allowed to do its own thing without much oversight, which they probably are regretting right now.

          I read the Julie Burchill article and it was an awful hate-filled rant. However, in her case, that’s pretty much business as usual and she’s essentially a professional troll.

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          You are right they did regret it. They’ve pulled the article, have written an apology and I think there’s going to be an editorial in next weeks newspaper covering it.

          Its sad really as Suzanne Moore’s original article in the New Statesman is actually quite good, she just unfortunately uses a flippant Brazilian transgender reference which she didn’t mean offensively but that was. Instead of apologising she went on the defensive, made the situation worse and then wrote an article in the Guardian about her misdemeanours that muddied the waters even more.

          Burchill then just added her two penneth because hey any publicity is good publicity.

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          I actually quite like that it was allowed to be published now, after i got over the BLINDING RAGE and got through a bunch of the comments it was ‘ha, she’s just entirely discredited herself in the eyes of the readership’. Not sure if that was deliberate or not by the editor…

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    With respect, Cohen’s article is specific to its English context, where very recently the House of Bishops (part of the synod of the Church of England) has decided to end its prohibition of male clergy in civil partnerships – which are legally equivalent to marriage under English and Welsh law – becoming Bishops.

    Conservatives in the Church oppose this because of the gay bit.
    Progressives object that the prohibition is removed only on the condition that the partners maintain a celibate relationship.

    As usual no-one in the Church of England is happy, but everyone hopes everyone else can be civil about it like a divorcing family at Christmas.

    When Cohen suggested that the shame was with the interviewer, pruriently probing to establish the celibacy of the interviewee, I don’t think he was implying that it was more painful or embarrassing to ask those questions than be asked. But that it was a source of legitimate shame for the Church to think it had a right to those answers at all.

    (The last time I ever felt shame at the hands of the Church of England is when I accidentally dipped my paintbrush in my orange squash at some sort of Sunday school and was too embarrassed to ask for a new glass, even though I was thirsty.)

    Now, I didn’t like the article. I thought it was unfocussed and needed a stern redrafting. It also contained my second most-hated phrase of all ‘secure in my heterosexuality’ (second behind, ‘secure in my masculinity’; a phrase that suggests just the sort of Bastille I’d dig out my storming shoes for).

    But to me his perspective was valid, regardless of his personal experiences with homophobia, because was he was talking specifically about a type of Establishment response to gay-male sexuality, better explored through history than by anecdote.

    What I think the article was getting at, is that over the last fifty years or so in the mainstream imagination, gay-male sexuality has gone from something illegal, clandestine and semi-public (think military barracks, school dormitories and public lavatories), to something pathogised through AIDS and written large by public information campaign (crashing tombstones and stark warnings), to something that can be part of a relationship between private citizens expressed through public, legally-binding partnership (isn’t marriage romantic?).

    We’ve gone from deeply private, hidden relationships, where was sex seen to be a matter for public morality (later health). To public relationship, with a net curtain to be drawn across the sex bit. Like you would do for your next-door neighbours.

    Unfortunately, there are conservatives still locked in the public toilet.
    They see gay male sexuality as something grisly, threatening and somewhat exotic, rather like illegal drugs. They still think there’s an argument to be had and they see the argument in terms of a threat to the social order; as something fundamentally public and therefore their business.

    But many of us – even my Farm Women’s Club grandmother, and certainly most people in public life – have come around to an idea of a ‘respectable’ gay sexuality, that pays its taxes, plights a discreet sort of troth at the registry office and camps it up sexlessly on Friday night TV.

    While I agree that as queer people we should be able to talk about our bodies and sexuality, Cohen – clumsily – hits on the crucial and hard-won liberty that we are no longer compelled to.
    Not by the police, not by the medical establishment and not by the Church.

    While our sexualities are condemned, criminalised and patholigsed we have had no choice but to be part of a discourse that wanted our destruction, the eradication or at best marginalisation of queer bodies. That slagging match is ended. Almost.

    Queer people in this country still find flung their way from time to time that special manure of ignorance and prurience, in which the fever dreams of bishops, backbenchers and Burchill grow and bloom wildly. Although that retrograde shit is typically lands on trans* shoulders these days, still forced to grow broad unfairly.

    So yes, we should be able talk about our selves, our health, our desire and our bodies.

    But not if we don’t want to.

    PS. I never, ever want to.

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      Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on this issue. Would you (or anyone else) be able to explain why the sticking point is the participation of gay Bishops in gay sex acts?

      It strikes me as a bit odd, given that the implication is that gay, civilly unionized (sidebar- its there a less clumsy term for this?) men may participate in the clergy but cannot assume a leadership role if they have sex with their partner.

      Based on Zetlander’s comment, it seems like sex is a pretty important component of marriage in the eyes of the Church of England (at least within hetero marriages), so what exactly does the Church think is happening within a gay civil union? What exactly are these poor gay Bishops supposed to tell their parishioners? Getting up in the pulpit and announcing “this is my very special friend whom I love and prepare joint income tax statements with” would seem a bit suspect.

      Is the problem that gay sex isn’t oriented around procreation? In which case, how is it that they allow straight people to use contraception?

      Or am I just not understanding this issue because I’m basing my evaluation on rationality rather than religious dogma?

  6. Thumb up 1

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    “Why are straight people so darned invested in what gays do in bed?”
    Because:
    - The media keeps talking about it (for rating purposes) in a controversial manner.
    - Community leaders/influential people/politicians keep talking about gays, they try to gain more following by bashing gay people. i.e. Republicans.
    - LGBT people are more visible and getting more rights and the homophobics are threatened. In countries where LGBT members are severely closeted you don’t hear people arguing about homosexuality because according to them it either doesn’t exist in their country or everybody lives a traditional hetero life so there is nothing to talk about.
    - Straight men/straight women who are homophobic have homo tendencies themselves.

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    I think it’s a natural curiosity; people in general are fascinated by sex no matter who is having it. Both my straight and gay guy friends discuss sex fairly openly (to be honest half the time I don’t want to hear about it) but I feel when it comes to lesbians discussing sex, it becomes to something of an enigma. However, as long as people are curious in a respectful way, I don’t see the harm in it.

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    I think the problem in regards to discussing gay sex of any variety, is that the discussion in the mainstream is dominated by heterosexual people.

    The problem therein lies, that discussions of gay-sex are held and conducted by those who do not participate, or understand the problems that LGBT+ individuals face in regards to learning and understanding sex, safe sex and the often complex expressions of ‘traditional gender roles’ in untraditional relationships.

    But further to this, and I suppose this is the greatest problem, is that all-too-often, those who decry homosexuality, and disparage our relationships, reduce who and how we interact with people to sex and only sex. In response to this, it becomes difficult to publicly discuss gay sex, lest we as a group bind ourselves to this one-dimensional representation of ourselves, forged by people who more often than not, hate (or avidly dislike) us. Take for example discussions on legalising gay marriage (both in the UK and the U.S), and the discussion itself usually ends up focusing upon sexual acts, and comparisons to bestiality and incest. Thus, in the public domain, discussions of gay sex become linked to these negative and false portraits of gay relationships, based purely on the notion of sexual deviance.

    In a way I wish that more conversations in the mainstream didn’t focus on the sex, but instead treated relationships between same-sex couples as multi-dimensional as heterosexual couples. Only then can we have a meaningful discussion about gay sex.

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