Vol 1. No 3. December, 1997
Sex-Lib Activists Confront 'Sex Panic'
by Rex Wockner
SAN DIEGO -- About 125 activists and academics gathered here Nov. 13 on the opening day of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force's annual Creating Change conference to organize against what they see as a new "sex panic."
Participants in the first-ever Sex Panic! Summit said gay men are under attack from politicians, cops and, most disturbingly, gay "neo-conservative" writers who disapprove of promiscuity, sex clubs, backrooms, 'tea rooms,' cruisy adult bookstores and so- called public sex at such places as parks and beaches.
"A sex panic is a moral purity crusade," said gay historian Allan Berube, who opened the summit with a "History of Sex Panics" presentation. "Sex panics usually take place during politically conservative times, election years, world's fairs, epidemics, anti-crime drives and religious revivalism, and often as a response to the successful political activism of targeted groups.
"Sex panics are started up by morally outraged, 'right-thinking' crusaders -- usually politicians, religious leaders, journalists or professional experts," Berube explained. "These leaders first expose a frightening, 'new' problem, such as 'epidemics of unsafe sex,' satanic cults in daycare centers, homosexual rings in Congress or academic lesbian 'sex conferences.'
"The media jumps on the bandwagon with lurid exposes, labeling those in the stigmatized group as dangerous perverts, deviants or degenerates who need to be identified, controlled and contained with drastic action to restore order and protect society."
The current sex panic, Berube said, "demonizes gay men ... for stealing moments of sexual semi-privacy with other men in places such as public parks; public toilets in subways, bus and train stations, libraries and department stores; movie theater balconies; military bases; public baths, gyms, YMCAs and hotel rooms; backstreets and alleys; trucks, docks, ships and piers; booths in porn shops; gay bars, sex clubs and bathhouses; SM dungeons and other sex play spaces, and, recently, cyberspace."
In reality, Berube says, "in and around these locations, erotic adventurers and non-conformists have created some of the most imaginative, creative, varied, unruly and long-lasting forms of gay sexual culture. ... These cracks in our anti-sexual society have offered me creative moments of intimate sexual adventure with strangers I never saw again. These erotic spaces have been little utopias of Whitmanesque camaraderie -- places where I could imagine living in a world that deeply valued the varieties of erotic desire among men. It is absolutely essential that I and my peers find a language much richer and truer than lifeless words like 'public sex' or 'multiple partners' -- a better language to describe, honor, defend and critique this remarkable thing we have been creating together against impossible odds for such a long, long time."
Throughout the day, several speakers denounced either directly or indirectly gay authors Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorile. Outing inventor Signorile has a new book out chronicling drug abuse and "barebacking" (anal sex without condoms) among gays who attend "circuit parties." Rotello's new book attempts to prove that core groups of promiscuous urban homosexuals are transmitting HIV at a high enough rate to keep the AIDS epidemic alive.
"A growing number of openly gay columnists -- mostly white and mostly male -- have been writing for mainstream corporate publications," Berube said. "Unfortunately, some of these new columnists have used their power to take up the formerly straight task of initiating anti-gay sex panics, publicly attacking gay- male sex, calling for an end of promiscuity, and for the closure of gay baths, sex clubs and even gay bars. ... In his Newsday column, Gabriel Rotello wrote a sensationalistic expose of gay sex clubs, attacking them as the 'killing fields of AIDS' and 'bustling hives of contagion' where he claimed to have witnessed 'sex murder/suicides.'"
In a 10-page letter distributed to Creating Change attendees, Rotello defended himself: "I am not a neocon, or any kind of con," he wrote. "I consider myself a progressive, and any look at my record and my writing will confirm that. I am also not 'sex negative.' I wrote columns in NY Newsday against New York's campaign to ban porn shops, against the harassment of gay discos and bars (which has gone on for years), and in favor of transgendered rights and queer power. I co-wrote the 'Little Black Book' that is used all over the country to advise people of their rights when they are arrested for public lewdness."
Following Berube's history lesson, University of California at San Diego literature professor Judith Halberstam linked the current gay sex panic to feminist sex wars over pornography in the 1980s, Australian politics professor Dennis Altman offered an international perspective on sex panics, and writer/activists Alex Garner of San Diego and Scott Tucker of Philadelphia presented an analysis of "gay anti-sex critiques."
The participants broke into groups and came back to propose a plethora of projects -- including issuing a manifesto, forming a loosely structured organization, and posting photos on the World Wide Web of cops who entrap men in cruising spots. Several additional sessions aimed at advancing a host of proposals were held throughout the Creating Change weekend.
"I think we're looking for three things," said summit co- organizer Eric Rofes, an instructor at the University of California at Berkeley. "First is to increase people's understanding and analysis of the context in which the current crackdown and critiques of gay-male sex culture are occurring. The second is the establishment of some communications networks between people who share visions of the kinds of sexual cultures we want to form and the kind of relationships we'd like to have with both the mainstream community and the mainstream gay community. And the third are some specific organizing projects to fight the right-wing attacks on gay sex."
According to Australia's Altman: "What's really concerning people here is the extent to which there is now an argument _within_ the organized gay world [in the U.S.] about what many of us would see as a repressive response. And it ties in with this whole ideological thrust for marriage, monogamy and a very privatized and conservative view of sexuality."
San Diego activist Tony Valenzuela, the main instigator of the summit, said he was inspired that participants "are very invested in this issue in their own hometowns and are talking about how to not only nationalize but to improve on what they're doing in their own locations. ... And people are very serious about having some kind of organizational body or networking alliance that takes this on," he said.
Keith Griffith, owner of the World Wide Web site www.cruisingforsex.com, which offers detailed lists of cruising spots nationwide, said he found it "very empowering to see all these people with so much energy and enthusiasm about sucking cock. ... I think gay men have a lot to teach the broader culture about how healthy and wholesome sexuality is," he said.
Jim Baxter, publisher of the North Carolina gay newspaper The Front Page, noted that North Carolina isn't participating in the new sex panic -- because they never finished the old one.
"It's a continuous thing that we live with all the time," he said. "But it's interesting to see these things framed in this context. It's a whole different way of looking at things that we just take for granted -- the hassles of public-sex spaces or adult bookstores, which is the closest we get to sex clubs."
A number of women attended the summit even though it was inspired by events taking place in gay men's sexual culture.
"There's a number of reasons women are affected by the sex panic," said San Diego activist Brenda Schumacher. "One way would be to look at the current sex panic and the way it presents a single lesbian identity -- as in Gabriel Rotello's book in which he states that gay men should be more like lesbians. And just by saying lesbians, he means monogamous, long-term relationships. And really, not all lesbians are interested in monogamy or serial monogamy, and yet, through his argument, we're kind of boxed into one identity, and that's quite unhealthy for women of course.
"Lesbians can also bring a lot to this movement in that in the '80s lesbians experienced the sex panic around pornography and we really don't want to see that replicated," she said.
The day after the summit, participants circulated "A Declaration of Sexual Rights" to Creating Change conference attendees (reproduced here in the sidebar).
A Declaration of Sexual Rights
The LGBT movement, feminism, and AIDS activism all include long histories of advocating the principles of sexual self- determination. These principles are under attack. In the name of 'mainstream' acceptance, many are increasingly willing to embrace regulation and stigma for more marginal groups. And in the name of fighting AIDS, many deny that effective HIV prevention must emphasize pleasure and the complexity of sex. Increasingly forgotten are the diverse pleasures, intimacies, meanings and relations that sex enables. Those with fewer recourses and least access to power -- including those marginalized by race, class and gender -- suffer disproportionately from denial of sexual rights.
In this context we reaffirm the following principles implied in the right to be sexual:
1) the right to sexual and reproductive
In light of these principles, we demand:
1) Respect for sexual diversity.
This statement created and endorsed by the National Sex Panic Summit held November 13, 1997 in San Diego, California.
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