Culture  Sex and the secular

Queer theorist Michael Warner on religion’s authority over sexual morality

Last Friday, Thomson house hosted a group of intellectual minds surpassing even those of its usual residents. Whilst the graduate students drank their end-of-week pitchers, downstairs a group of Montreal professors, students, and activists waited beside the usual McGill cheese boards. Michael Warner, the Seymour H. Knox Professor of English Literature and American Studies at Yale University, was the night’s featured guest. A specialist in Queer Theory, Warner is perhaps best known for his book The Trouble with Normal. Published in 1999, the work challenges the idea of normalizing the queer community toward established conventions (such as marriage) in order to gain true liberation and equality. As well as claiming that “marriage is unethical,” Warner defends pornography and sex outside the home. The book aimed to cause somewhat of a stir – a part of Warner’s anti-normalizing ethos. For Warner, the queer community should not be made to fit “normal” society, but rather “normal society” can learn from queer communities what is wrong with the “normal” ideology.

But that was then, and this is now. Warner has since worked on various other, yet interrelated ,topics, such as “The Portable Walt Whitman,” a figure around whom many of Warner’s interests coalesce. As well as an early beacon of sexual liberation, Whitman can be seen as a key secular figure. This intersection is the specific focus of the paper Warner presented on Friday: “Sex and Secularity.”

The paper, as Warner stated himself early on, is somewhat of a confused bag of ideas; it is not the unified thesis we are trained here at McGill to produce. It is a conversation starter, which, at its most basic, asks why there is “a uniform silence on the topic,” why no one has sought to write on and defend the sexual conduct of the secular as a separate question from their lack of belief. Sex is used by the religious, “now more than ever,” as “a defining frontier between their faith and the secular.” An example of sex being used as a beacon of misguided and immoral secularity, Warner suggests, is the Pope’s repeated claims that homosexuality is one of the great threats facing the world today.

The central point which arose in the discussion was that these kinds of claims are not in keeping with religious history. Fifty years ago, the Pope could not say things like this. The false narrative of religious anti-sexuality and secular pro-sexuality is the fiction on which these modern viewpoints are enforced. In fact, fluctuations in religious views regarding sexuality can be traced through history; in the Christian tradition it was the Reformation and Puritanism that changed previous, more liberal, attitudes towards sex, glimpsed, for example, in medieval literature.

The growth of a secular community, it seems, has led to fears of religious extinction and hence a panicked response. People are eager to prevent the “danger” of secular sexual immorality from spreading. This has gone so far that in America sex offenders have recently been deemed beyond the law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that if someone is convicted of sexual offence they can be imprisoned indefinitely, beyond the length of their legal sentence. How has it come to this, that sexual offence (at least alongside terrorism, suspects of which are still regrettably outside the law) is America’s biggest fear?
The problem, Warner and others have decided, is dramatization. The solution: de-dramatization. The idea is to suggest that the issue is far less important than it is made to be. Being gay is not an affirmation of identity; it is not an all-encompassing way of life which an individual asserts against everything else. It is merely an orientation. The fear is held by those who oppose it; they fear a threat not really present, but it is easy to convince people that it is. As a part of this solution, it is suggested that we must erase the binaries of religious and secular; sexually conservative and sexually transgressive. These orientations need not be so viciously grouped and we must acknowledge variance and points of similarity within them. There can be an ethical and secular sexuality; ethics here are not the domain of the religious only.