Tee Hee, You Said “Bonk”: The Blowfish Blog

Bonk-cover

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog: a review of the new Mary Roach book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. It's titled Tee Hee, You Said "Bonk", and here's the teaser:

If ever a book was tailor- made for me to enjoy, this is it.

I’m a huge science nerd. I’m a huge sex nerd. How could I not love a book called Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex?

Well, let me tell you how. Exactly.

First, I should disclaim for a brief moment: Bonk is not a terrible book. The subject matter — the history of the scientific study of sex, and some of the more interesting examples of its current state — is a compelling one, loaded with fascinating ideas both about sex itself and the appallingly/ entertainingly conflicted attitudes society has about it. And the author — Mary Roach, celebrated author of Stiff and Spook — is no slouch. She’s a thorough researcher and a clear, chatty writer, adept at taking complicated and potentially boring scientific ideas and making them accessible to the lay reader.

Please note that I refrained from making a childish, Beavis and Butthead- esque sex joke about the "lay" reader.

Which brings me to the problem.

To find out what my problem with this book is, read the rest of the review. Enjoy!

Tee Hee, You Said “Bonk”: The Blowfish Blog
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God’s Will, and Pathetic Excuses for Bad Behavior

Mystery of gods will

So what does it mean to say that something is God's will?

Especially if it's something done by a person, or people?

And double especially if it's something done by, you know, you?

There was an amazing and heartbreaking story on This American Life this weekend. A longish, complicated-ish story, but the short version is this: Two babies were accidentally switched at birth. The parents of one of the babies figured it out almost immediately. And yet they didn't say anything about it, to anyone — not the kids, not the other parents, nobody — for over 40 years.

Their reason? Well, that's part of the longish, complicated-ish story. (The full story is available here if you want to hear it.) But the short version: The father — an evangelical minister, a fact that'll factor in soon — didn't want to embarrass the doctor by calling attention to his mistake. And the mother was very sick for months after the birth: she didn't have the strength to go against her husband (who was apparently a difficult man to go against), and by the time she recovered, she felt it was too late.

So. Here's where the atheist blogger gets her dudgeon on.

Forty plus years later, these parents finally decided to tell. A terrible, disruptive event, as you might imagine. The evangelical minister father wrote to the other mother, apologizing for essentially having stolen her daughter and raised her as his own…

…but at the same time, saying that it was God's will.

?!?!?

You know, I have come up with some truly shabby excuses for my bad behavior in my day. I'm human, and I am not immune to the siren song of deflecting blame and guilt onto other people. Or onto bad luck, and accidents of the universe at large. But this? This takes chutzpah of a Herculean scale. This one has got to go in the Rationalization Hall of Fame. I'm actually somewhat awe-struck. Or I would be, if I weren't so appalled.

Sawzall_large

I mean, by that logic, you could say that anything you did was God's will. Stealing someone's car. Sleeping with their spouse. Carving their liver out with a Sawzall. Shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Anything at all that you do — the most selfish, wicked, fucked-up shit imaginable — could be defended by saying that it's God's will.

Of course, this inevitably leads to questions of free will and God's omnipotence, how can any of us truly have free will if it's all part of God's plan, yada yada yada. But right now, I'm just focused on the astonishing abdication of personal morality and responsibility.

And this isn't from just any old hard-core evangelical Christian. This is a minister we're talking about.

In a way, it's a fascinating version of that classic half-assed excuse, "Well, it all turned out for the best." In this case, of course, it didn't turn out for the best. A lot of lives were pretty badly fucked up by these people's actions. But if it's God's will, then by definition it turned out for the best. If God willed it, and God is all-good, then it must be the best. Q.E.D.

Which, again, could be applied to anything at all that you do. Or anything that anybody does.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

It's a good thing this guy's not an atheist.

Because if he were an atheist, he'd have no sense of responsibility, no basis for morality, and would act as if he could just do whatever he wanted.

God’s Will, and Pathetic Excuses for Bad Behavior

Sexual Freedom In A Shopping Bag: “Sex And The City”

Sex and the city poster
This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. And yes, the movie came out two months ago; but I have to wait two months before reprinting the stuff I write on the Blowfish Blog, so suck it up.

The problem isn’t that it's sexually conventional.

The problem is that it's sexually conventional… while giving itself airs about being sexually modern and cutting- edge, and pretending to offer innovative, category- breaking, woman-positive insight into sex and relationships.

That's only one of the problems, actually. This is a movie loaded with problems. In fact, I would argue that the "Sex and the City" movie is essentially a series of cinematic problems loosely strung together with some pictures of pretty clothes. But this is my Blog and not the New York Times or Film Threat, so the problems with the sexual politics are the ones I'm going to talk about.

I should tell you right now: I am not a fan of the show. At all. I've seen roughly a dozen episodes, and every one made me want to throw the remote through the TV screen. So I did not come to this movie with the proper, unbiased film- critic attitude. I came thoroughly prepared to despise it and everything it stood for.

But I've come to movies before with that attitude, and have found myself pleasantly surprised.

Not this time.

And so we come to the problem at hand. The attitudes about sex in the "Sex and the City" movie are deeply conventional, as facile and unimaginative as anything else in the movie … and yet it presents itself, in this smug, self-congratulatory way, as an example of brave, ground- breaking, "I am woman watch me fuck" sex- positivity for the modern age. It offers glib platitudes as if they were profound insights, and its approach to sex is as consumerist and status- oriented as its approach to… well, everything.

Lots of spoilers, btw. Consider yourself warned.

Shoes

Let's start with just one small example. There's a bit in the movie where Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is interviewing potential assistants, and she goes through an amusing parade of blatantly terrible candidates before she hits on the perfect Jennifer Hudson. She meets the brainless ditz who doesn't want to do any hard work. She meets the scary, obsessive, borderline- stalker fan. And then she meets the ridiculously over-qualified gentleman in the impeccable suit, with the outstanding credentials and the beautiful manners and the business degree from Harvard or wherever, the guy who you're wondering why the hell he's applying for a job as Carrie's personal assistant instead of at a brokerage or something… until he gives her a simpatico smile, and the camera pans down, and you see that he's wearing pink spike heels.

It's not clear whether he's a drag queen, a transvestite, a fetishist, or just a guy who likes to wear women's shoes. That question is never answered, or even asked. Carrie's reaction — and the reaction of the movie itself, the reaction it's trying to create and assuming it will get from its audience — is reflexive, unthinking rejection. Of course he's not qualified. He's wearing heels. Next.

Now. To be fair. Even if you're the most progressive, sex-positive person on the planet, you might find something a little inappropriate about a guy — not a transsexual, but clearly a male- identified man in a man's suit — wearing pink high heels to a job interview. You might see it as inserting a note of sexuality into a situation where it's not really called for. But on the other hand… well, if you were interviewing for a position as Carrie Bradshaw's assistant, wouldn't you wear the best pair of heels in your closet? And if you were a writer who was famous for being a shoe-obsessed fashion victim, would you really reject a job applicant out of hand simply because he — and not she — shared your passion, and showed it? It may have been a miscalculation… but it's hardly cause for the automatic ridicule, revulsion, and rejection that the movie presents it as. If you're really a cutting- edge woman with modern sexual attitudes, a guy in spike heels should not be that big a deal.

But let's take a larger example. A clearer example. An example that's not ambiguous, and one that's actually central to the plot and character development (such as they are) of the movie.

Samantha

Let's take Samantha.

Samantha (Kim Cattrall), for those of you who've never seen the show, is the shameless slut, the woman who "acts like a man," the one with the sexual appetites and attitudes of a Casanova. As the movie begins, she's been settled down for years with a man she loves, and loves to fuck. But she's starting to feel restless — for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest is that she still has a roving eye for pretty men. She feels that her relationship is forcing her to suppress an essential part of who she is — the part that likes to pick up cute guys for casual sex. And so she ends her relationship: sadly, regretfully, but clearly believing that it's necessary.

Now. Did anyone else see this movie? And at this point in the story, did anyone else want to stand up and scream, "For the love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, will you PLEASE try non-monogamy?"

Opening up

I'm not saying non-monogamy is for everybody. I'm not saying it's the perfect answer to all problems in all relationships. I'm not even saying it would have solved this couple's problems. But if a central problem in a relationship is that one of you really likes to fuck around and feels stifled when you can't — if one of you truly loves the other and wants to stay with them, and at the same time genuinely feels that you can't be true to yourself if you don't have the freedom to be a big slut — then non-monogamy should at least be on the table. It might not work, your partner might not consider it, it might not be what you ultimately want… but at the very least, the concept should cross your mind.

But it never crosses Samantha's mind. Samantha — the proud slut, the sexual adventurer, the one of the four friends who supposedly has the most sexual knowledge and experience — seems to have never even considered this option.

And none of her friends suggests it to her.

I'm going to indulge in a little cultural stereotyping here, so please forgive me. One of the big themes of the TV show (and a lesser theme of the movie) is that these four women are… well, let's not say "fag hags." Let's say "modern cosmopolitan women with lots of gay male friends." Therefore, the fact of non-monogamy cannot have escaped their notice. Non-monogamy isn't universal in urban American gay male culture, but it's certainly very, very common. And anyone who's familiar with that culture knows it. Yet none of these women — not Samantha, and not any of her friends — considers Samantha's dilemma and thinks, "Gee, she acts like a gay man anyway — why shouldn't she try having a relationship like one?"

I could go on.

Sushi

I could talk about the idea that combining sex with food — what Dan Savage calls "faux naughty, boring breeder kink" and Susie Bright calls (I'm paraphrasing here) "a vain attempt to get your lover to go down on you" — is wild and kinky and adventurous. Not that there's anything wrong with combining sex with food, and not that sex is a competition… but if that's your idea of cutting-edge modern sexual adventure, you need to go someplace where they're doing flesh-hook suspensions and anal fisting.

I could talk about the displacement of sexual affection and emotion into consumer goods and status symbols: the way all four main characters use an elaborate system of hieroglyphics where objects — jewelry, clothing, beautiful apartments — stand in for emotions and relationships…. with the attention focused almost entirely on the objects, at the expense of the actual emotions. And I could talk about how this is presented as normal, reasonable behavior. Comical, yes: but comical in an "isn't it funny how we all do this, what a silly universal human foible" way. (Yes, we all invest certain objects with symbolic meaning…. but the "Sex and the City" women transform this tendency into a vapid consumerism so extreme as to be grotesque. A far cry from the cutting- edge rethinking of sexual culture they supposedly aspire to.)

And very importantly, I could talk about the idea that when you deny your partner sex for months — and are snarky and dismissive when they want one of those rare times to be more than just routine — you nevertheless don't bear any responsibility when they cheat on you, and have the complete right to present yourself as the sole injured party. The movie seems to think it's being super- modern for acknowledging that one-time cheating shouldn't be met with inflexible unforgiveness… but it never considers the possibility that, when you deny your partner sex for months — with no sympathy, and no good reason. and no end in sight — then maybe, just maybe, you don't have the right to expect them to stay celibate forever.

I could go on. But I think you get my drift. The sexual consumerism, the default assumptions about sex and gender and relationships, the mocking revulsion at anything that resembles actual sexual transgression… it all adds up to a conventional, reflexive, not very imaginative view of sexuality.

Subvert the dominant paradigm

Which is fine. Not every sex comedy has to subvert the dominant paradigm. But not every sex comedy pretends to. Not every sex comedy offers a preachy little homily at the end about breaking down categories, after it's spent two hours reinforcing almost every sexual category in the book. Not every sex comedy smugly pats itself on the back for being more feminist and sexually progressive than "Leave It to Beaver."

What gets me mad isn't the retrograde attitude. What gets me mad is the retrograde attitude being packaged as sexual revolution in a Gucci shopping bag. The fact that this glib, shallow, vapid piffle is being presented as the new erotic feminism — the fact that this is what's being offered to women as a ground- breaking vision of sexual possibility — that's what made me want to throw my popcorn through the screen.

P.S. For an even more vicious — and, if I'm to be honest, much funnier — review of the "Sex and the City" movie, visit my friend Nosmo King's blog, Faster than the Speed of Satire. And then tell him to get off his ass and blog more often.

Sexual Freedom In A Shopping Bag: “Sex And The City”

Good Stuff, or, Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #2

Carousel horse

And it’s time for another round of Stuff I Saw On The Blogosphere, And Liked, And Think You’ll Like Too. Otherwise known as Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival. #2.

A Natural Selection, by Olivia Judson of the New York Times Blog. On examples of evolution taking place in our lifetime, in an observable time span. (I especially like the example of the Croatian lizards: it seems to me to be a wonderful counter to the idea that sudden jumps in the evolutionary record indicate divine intervention. This is a pretty drastic evolutionary change in a short period of time… and there’s no reason to think it’s the result of anything other than descent with modification.) Via Pharyngula.

Cereal Box Science, by Jens Hegg of Please Hold, Your Call is Very Important To Us. On why you need to be careful when reading commercially- motivated or self- serving “science”… and how to recognize it. Via the Tangled Bank carnival.

I’m Only Going To Be Alive Once, from Susannah Breslin’s
Letters from Johns. In the Letters from Johns project, sex customers write in anonymously describing their experiences with sex workers and explaining the reasons they’ve done it. This is a particularly thoughtful and articulate example.

Need a Babysitter? Don’t Call God!, by The Chaplain at An Apostate’s Chapel. Why do so many Christians believe that God helps them find parking spaces and car keys, but doesn’t protect children who are being abused? An idea that’s been expressed before… but The Chaplain expresses it uncommonly well here, with articulate intellect and passionate anger.

Back into the secondhand smoke fray, this time with a Scottish brogue! by Orac at Respectful Insolence. On a large, rigorously- done study measuring the effects of workplace smoking bans on rates of acute coronary syndrome… and on the results, which were so striking they amazed even Orac.

Doctor Bashing by Steven Novella at Neurologicablog. A defense of doctors and the medical profession against outdated stereotypes… and a discussion of how confirmation bias works to bolster bigotry. Via the abovementioned Respectful Insolence.

Who Can Discuss Sex Without Discussing Damage?, by Dr. Marty Klein at Sexual Intelligence. Dr. Klein asks, “Is there any point in talking about cars without mentioning car accidents? Certainly. Is there any value in discussing the Golden Gate Bridge or Niagara Falls without bringing up drowning or suicide? Of course there is. So why do so many people find it impossible to tolerate a serious conversation about sex that doesn’t include human trafficking, rape, kiddie porn, and child molestation?”

And, of course, for the six of you who may not have read it already, The Great Desecration, by PZ Myers of Pharyngula. In which PZ desecrates a cracker (and gets an unimaginable shitstorm of death threats and hate mail as a result). A thoughtful and well-written piece, with enlightening information on the anti-Semitic history of host desecration. (See also this piece by Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism, On Desecration, in which the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy deplores PZ’s cracker desecration as not only unethical but unconstitutional. No, really.)

Good Stuff, or, Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #2

The Problem of Unfishiness: Religion, Science, and Unanswered Questions

How do we deal with unanswered questions? Especially when it comes to the most basic things we believe in?

I once had a Christian friend tell me that she didn’t have a really good answer to this question, which she called the “problem of evil”. I was flabbergasted; it seemed that merely naming it was enough to keep its rhetorical force from having an effect.

It’s like meeting someone who thinks that everything in the world is made of fish, but when you ask why things don’t feel like, smell like, or behave like fish, they say “ah, the ‘problem of unfishiness’, it’s occupied our brightest fishists for many years!”

Mystery of gods will

One of the peeviest of atheist pet peeves is the way so many religious believers, in the face of huge unanswered questions about their beliefs, essentially throw up their hands and say, “Yup, it’s a mystery.”

Exhibit A: the comment above from Paul Crowley. The question at hand is a familiar one: an all- knowing, all- powerful, all- good God, but evil and suffering in the world, blah blah blah. And the answer… well, the answer varies, from person to person and from sect to sect. But essentially, the answer is always some version of, “We don’t know.”

“It’s a mystery.” “God moves in mysterious ways.” “It is not up to us to question God’s ways.” “That’s where faith comes in.”

Zebrasoma_flavescens

And as Paul pointed out, this drives atheists insane. Far too often, it’s exactly as he described it: you point out to an ardent fishist all the different ways that the world is not fishy, and they nod sagely and reply, “Ah, yes, the problem of unfishiness.” And then they go on blithely believing in the fish-based world: as if the unanswered question had no relevance, as if it didn’t reveal a major crack in their fishy foundation. (Possibly getting mad at you in the meantime, for being so intolerant.)

But are atheists being fair here?

After all, the world of science and secular knowledge is also full of unanswered questions. Big ones. What is consciousness? How did life originate? What happened before the Big Bang, i.e. what caused the Big Bang, i.e. why is there something instead of nothing? And the world of science responds to these questions by essentially saying, “Yup, it’s a mystery. We don’t know the answer. Sorry.”

But I think there’s a difference.

A huge one.

Man using microscope

For one thing: When science is confronted with a question it doesn’t know the answer to? It doesn’t just give up. It doesn’t throw up its hands, gaze into the air, and revel in the glorious mystery. It says, “We don’t know the answer to that question — yet.”

“Yet” being the key word.

Science’s response to unanswered questions is to say, “Hm. Interesting question. What might the answer be? We really don’t know — but we’re working on it. We have a number of possible theories; we’re gathering data; here are some of the promising directions we’re moving in.”

Crayon

Whereas, when religion is faced with questions it doesn’t know the answer to, it just gives up. It takes the empty places in the coloring book, the places we haven’t filled in yet with actual tested knowledge… and fills them all in with a blue crayon. And it calls that blue crayon God. And it thinks that’s an answer.

(In other words, when science is faced with a question it doesn’t know the answer to, its response is, “Processing… processing…” Whereas, as Ingrid put it, religion’s response is, “Error… error…”)

Which is a big problem. It’s a practical problem: for one thing, when an actual real answer to an unanswered question does come along, it can be damn difficult to scrape the blue crayon out of people’s brains and replace it with the right color. (Witness the difficulty many Christians have accepting the theory of evolution, or the age of the planet and the universe.) And in my mind, it’s a philosophical and ethical problem as well. When faced with an unanswered question, I think it’s a lot more honest to say, “I don’t know,” than to say, “The answer is God.” (And despite atheists being so frequently accused of arrogance, I think it shows a lot more humility as well.)

But I think there’s another difference as well. An even huger one. And it has to do with the nature of the unanswered questions themselves.

The questions that religion can’t answer? They cut right to the heart of their theory. They reveal profound inconsistencies of the theory with observable reality…and fundamental contradictions within the theory itself.

Tornado

The obvious example is the one this whole post started with: the obvious contradiction of an all- knowing, all- powerful, all- good God who nevertheless permits horrible evil and suffering, and even causes it directly himself. I have never seen a theology or an apologetic that explained this without either (a) conceding some portion of God’s knowledge, power, or goodness… or else (b) copping out with “mysterious ways.” The hypothesis of the God who is all- etc. and yet permits and creates terrible suffering is fundamentally flawed: a theory that completely contradicts everything we see about the world, with a logical paradox at its very heart.

Whereas in science, the unanswered questions are simply unanswered questions. They’re gaps in the knowledge… but they’re not flaws in the knowledge. There’s a difference.

Evolution

Example. Take evolution. As of right now, the question of abiogenesis — how the process of life originated in the first place — is unanswered. It’s a question that’s being worked on, but right now we don’t know the answer. But that doesn’t undercut the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution — the theory of how life forms became so well adapted to their environments, how complex forms of life descended from simpler ones, etc. — is still supported by a massive, overwhelming body of evidence from every field of biology… regardless of how the process started. Abiogenesis could have come from some chemical process whose exact nature we don’t currently know, or it could have come from visiting space aliens, or it could have come from the invisible magic hand of Loki… and the theory of evolution would still hold up. The unanswered question of abiogenesis is a big one — but in the science of biology, it’s not a flaw. It’s merely a gap.

And when actual flaws in scientific knowledge are revealed, then the knowledge gets discarded as mistaken pretty damn fast. In science, if your theory is shot full of internal contradictions, or if it conflicts with a massive body of data, then that’s it for the theory. Individual scientists may cling to their pet theories, but the scientific community as a whole discards it, and moves on to a new theory that better explains all the data, and that makes better predictions about the future, and that isn’t shot full of internal contradictions.

And scientists who cling to their pet theories, despite the contradictions, aren’t admired as “people of faith.”

BarbusCarnaticus

Hanging on to the fishist viewpoint, coming up with elaborately contorted rationalizations for it, devoting your life to explaining either why it makes sense or why it doesn’t have to — and refusing to let go of even one aspect of the fishist hypothesis to make it more consistent both with itself and with reality — is not seen in the world of science as noble, or admirable, or a sign of strength of character.

Which is a big, big difference.

The Problem of Unfishiness: Religion, Science, and Unanswered Questions

On Watching… The Blowfish Blog

Remote_1

Please note: This post, and the post it links to, contain detailed descriptions of my personal sex life and sexual practices. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that: This would be a very good post to skip.

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about… well, the title on this one is pretty self- explanatory. It’s called On Watching The Same Ten-Second TV Spank Scene  Over And Over And Over, and here’s the teaser:

It seemed vaguely ridiculous at the time.

It seems even more ridiculous now.

Why — in a world where I have almost infinite pornographic material at my fingertips — would I find a ten-second spanking scene in a cable TV comedy series so erotically compelling? Why would I rewind and re-watch it a half a dozen times… and then fetch my vibrator, and watch it a dozen times more?

What is it about sex scenes in non- porno movies and TV shows, novels and comic books, that makes them hot? Not necessarily better than porn; but different, and different in a way that makes them special and exciting?

To find out why and what, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

On Watching… The Blowfish Blog

Atheist Dreams

Picasso_dream

Do any of you ever have atheist dreams?

I don’t mean atheist dreams, as in, “dreams and hopes for a better, more atheist- friendly world.” I mean atheist dreams, as in, “I dreamed that Christopher Hitchens was trying to sell me life insurance,” or, “I dreamed that the ghost of Thomas Aquinas appeared at my dinner table and told me it was okay to be an atheist.”

No, those aren’t real dreams. I made them up. But I did have a real one a little while back. I was waiting in line with a group of friends to see Richard Dawkins read at a bookstore. But I’d won a contest, and the prize was that Richard Dawkins stood in line with us and hung out with us while we waited for the bookstore to open. He was a surprisingly good sport about it, and was good company, but we were all a little star- struck and didn’t quite know what to say to him. (I woke up feeling slightly baffled by the recursion conundrum of Richard Dawkins waiting in line to see himself read.)

I forgot to log it in the dream diary at the time. But it’s stuck with me, and it’s made me ponder the degree to which atheism and the atheist movement have entered my subconscious. (I have other atheist dreams, too, usually about blogging or reading other atheist blogs. Most of them aren’t that interesting — although I’m still tickled by the one about atheist plumbing — but I have them fairly often.)

And I was wondering: Does this happen to anyone else? Do any of the atheists reading this blog — or any of the non-atheists, for that matter — ever dream about atheism? If so, what do you dream about? When did it start? And how do you feel about it? (My atheist dreams make me feel a little bit nerdy, but in a good way.) I personally find it slightly odd to dream about something so abstract — to dream about the non-existence of something, essentially — and I’m curious if this is a widespread phenomenon or not.

Atheist Dreams

The Last Taboo

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Taboo

You’ve almost certainly heard this phrase before. If you’ve been paying attention to sex in society and popular culture, anyway. You may have read it in a political debate; a conversation about porn; even a movie review.

“(X) is the last taboo.”

Now here’s the weird thing, the thing that should be making your bullshit meter go off with clanging alarms and flashing lights: You’ve probably heard this phrase used to describe half a dozen or more sexual practices.

Last taboo

You might have heard that homosexuality is the last taboo. Sadomasochism. Incest. Bestiality. Necrophilia. A very quick Google search on the phrase “the last taboo” adds scatology, pedophilia, sex among the elderly, and even virginity to the list (along with a wide assortment of non-sexual topics, including atheism, abortion, cannibalism, menstruation, death, consciousness, anti-Palestinianism, money, mental illness, and the discounting of business-class seats on airplanes).

Okay. Reality check number one: Not all of these things can be the last taboo, can they? At the very least, doesn’t one of them have to be the next- to- last taboo, and another one the next- to- the- next- to last, and so on? Unless every one of these taboos is miraculously falling at exactly the same time… in which case I suppose they could all be the last taboo. But that doesn’t seem very likely, does it?

Reality check number two: Does anyone actually believe that any of these sexual preferences and practices is the last taboo? Does anyone really think that the taboo against, say, sadomasochism is truly the last sexual taboo in our culture? That if the taboo against it fell and we completely and casually accepted SM, our society would then, for better or worse, be a sexual free- for- all, entirely devoid of any sexual taboos whatsoever?

Have any of the people using this phrase taken a look around them? At, you know, the world?

The world is full of sexual taboos. Loaded with them, up one side and down the other. And I’m not just talking about the big ones like necrophilia or incest. We have taboos against having sex in public. Having sex with someone much older or younger than yourself. Having sex with your best friend’s ex. Leaving your porn out on your coffee table. Discussing the details of your sex life with anyone except your partner, your therapist, and your very closest friends. Interracial sex is now less taboo than it once was (although the taboo is far from gone)… but sex with someone of a radically different social or economic class is still a forbidden thrill. Etc., etc., etc.

40 year old virgin

And it’s not like taboos come in a limited supply, a cookie jar that’ll be empty once we eat them all. One taboo can disappear, only to be replaced with another. We have, for instance, a disappearing taboo against sex before marriage… but we also have a new taboo that we didn’t used to have, a taboo against being a virgin past the age of, say, forty. In fact, some things are now considered taboo that were once not only accepted, but positively endorsed. Marrying your brother’s widow would now be considered kind of icky, not flatly incestuous but not exactly showing the best boundaries in the world. But if that widow was childless, then in the Old Testament days this was not only accepted, but actually required.

And, of course, old taboos can come roaring back again. The permissiveness of the Roaring Twenties was followed by the restrictiveness of the Boring Fifties. Ditto the legendarily free-spirited Sixties and the equally legendary Reaganite Eighties. Pendulums swing back and forth.

I once read an anthropologist (I can’t remember her name — I really should have smoked less weed in college) who wrote that, when it comes to very large, important aspects of human life that have a tremendous impact on us — sex, food, drugs, that sort of thing — the mere fact of having taboos is more important than what the specific taboos are. Having taboos is what makes us feel like we have a modicum of control over these huge, powerful things. The ability to sort sex (or food, or drugs, or whatever) into the Good Kind and the Bad Kind gives us the feeling that it’s us who’s in control of this stuff… instead of the other way around. And whether a taboo is rational, whether it helps us reduce potential harm that might be caused by sex or drugs or whatnot, is very much a secondary issue.

Reefer-madness

Now, I don’t agree that all taboos are created equal. Some taboos do have a basis in reality, are guided at least somewhat by genuine ethical or psychological concerns. Others are so irrational as to seem almost completely random. (Drug taboos, for instance, bear almost no relationship with how much harm the drugs in question can do. If they were, marijuana would be available at every corner store, and the possession of alcohol would be what got you time in the hoosegow.*)

And the fight against totally irrational taboos is not a pointless fight. The last fifty years or so has seen an incredible rollback of a whole host of stupid, none- of- anybody’s- business sexual taboos: from contraception to masturbation, oral sex to pre-marital nookie. And that’s largely been the result of a sustained public relations campaign on the part of people who insisted, loudly and repeatedly and in defiance of the prevailing winds, that these taboos made no sense.

I’m just saying this: Sexual taboos will always be with us. If my anthropologist is right, then as long as sex is a viscerally powerful force in our lives, human beings will feel the need to gain control of it — or the illusion of control, anyway — by sorting it into boxes marked Naughty and Nice.

So I’m going to issue a taboo of my own.

Edict

I very rarely issue edicts and insist that everyone stop doing what they’re doing and instead do what I tell them to. But I’m going to do it now. From now on, at the risk of incurring The Wrath of Greta, everyone has to stop using the phrase “the last taboo.” Especially when it comes to sex. It’s sloppy writing. It’s sloppy thinking. It’s a cheap way of bringing melodrama to your topic. And it’s simply not true. If you need to bring cheap melodrama to your topic, come up with a different way. I don’t care what sexual taboo you’re talking about. Whatever it is, it’s not the last one.

*For the record, I’m not advocating the criminalization of alcohol. I’m just saying that it demonstrably does much more harm than marijuana, and that having it be a legal and relatively taboo-free drug while marijuana can get you actual prison time is a perfect example of drug taboos bearing no relationship to reality.

The Last Taboo

Who Marriage is For: A Tale of Two Weddings

Who is marriage for now?

And what is it, anyway?

I want to tell a story. Two stories, I guess, about two weddings, that show how radically the answer to that question has changed in just the past few years.

In front of CIty Hall 2004

The first time Ingrid and I got married at City Hall, the whole thing had a very different feel. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision in 2004 to authorize same-sex marriages in San Francisco came totally out of left field, and everyone knew that it would probably be overturned by the courts. (Which, of course, it was.) So underlying the exuberant joy was a feeling of urgency: a knowledge that there was an axe hanging over our heads that could drop any time, and an almost panicky feeling of needing to get your joy in under the wire.

Licenses on City Hall steps 2004

There were huge lines out City Hall doors. Dozens of ad-hoc officiants who had been specially deputized to perform weddings. A dozen or more weddings happening all over City Hall at any given time, all day, every day. It was a lean, mean, fast-moving wedding machine. We couldn’t even get very dressed up, because we didn’t know if we’d have to wait in line in the rain all day (we got very lucky and got a dry day for our wedding); we signed our papers on the steps of City Hall.

Kissing on City Hall steps 2004

And, of course, the overwhelming majority of those weddings were same-sex. If you were a straight couple wanting to get married at City Hall that first week, and you hadn’t already made an appointment, you were out of luck. It was a happy, joyful mob scene… and it was all about the queers.

So the whole thing was less like being welcomed into society as first-class citizens, and more like a massive act of queer civil disobedience. (Improbably led by the Mayor of the city.)

In front of City Hall 2008

Last month’s wedding, the second time Ingrid and I got married at City Hall, was different.

There was no mob scene, no line out the door. There is a possible deadline — the court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in California could be overturned by a ballot initiative in November — but November is a ways away, and nobody was feeling that if they didn’t get married that day they might never get the chance.

Vows 2008

There were certainly a whole lot more weddings happening than there would normally be on a Thursday at City Hall, with extra officiants on hand and a host of volunteers there to shepherd everyone through the process. But it was much calmer, much more business as usual, than the weddings in 2004. It still felt like history in the making, and everyone there was aware of it… but it was a much more peaceful joy, a gentle folding of a new flavor into the batter.

And here’s the thing, the point I want to make:

It wasn’t just same-sex couples getting married that day.

There were plenty of opposite-sex couples getting married at City Hall the day we were there. In fact, when we signed in for our appointment to get our license and have our ceremony, the schedule listed the couples as “Same sex” or “Opposite sex.” And just from a quick glance, it looked like it was running about half and half.

So there we were in City Hall: a City Hall dotted with women marrying women, and men marrying men, and women marrying men.

And it struck me:

This is huge.

This is the change: the change we’ve been working and fighting for.

This is exactly the way it should be.

Licenses 2008

In California at least, marriage has changed. It’s not longer a relationship and contract between a man and a woman. It’s a relationship and contract between two people. Any two people.

In California at least (and Massachusetts, and Canada, and Spain, and a few other places around the world), marriage is no longer about maleness and femaleness; the man’s role and the woman’s role in the family; the husband and the wife. It’s about two people. Spouse 1 and Spouse 2, as they put it on the forms we filled out.

Ingrid is my wife, and I am hers. And that means essentially the same thing as the fact that our friends Tim and Josie are husband and wife.

I think this is what I was getting at when I wrote How Gay Marriage Is Destroying Normal Marriage — No, Really. Same sex marriage is changing what marriage is — for everybody. For the men and women getting married in City Hall the day Ingrid and I got married, marriage won’t be the same. The fact that Ingrid and I were getting married the same day that they were means that their marriages won’t be the same. They won’t mean the same thing.

The 2004 weddings were about the queers. June’s weddings were about everybody.

Equality california

Important note: The deadline is a few months off, but there is a deadline. In November, there will be an initiative on the California ballot, asking voters to amend the state Constitution and ban same-sex marriage. If you think this issue and this movement are important, please consider supporting Equality California. If you donate through their Love Stories program by July 31, your donation will be part of a matching program which will make your donation even more valuable.

Oh, and to any polyamorists reading this: Yes, I think it should be available to more than two people. Hopefully that change will come someday as well.

Who Marriage is For: A Tale of Two Weddings