Moral Disorder & Sexual Identity (2003)

The first piece was written in 2003 as an introduction to a Swedish edition of For A world Without A Moral Orde r(published by La Banquise in 1983), available on this site. We have only added very few minor changes.(1)

The second piece is an extract from Frank Browning’s  A Queer Geography (1998), a stimulating  approach to the issue of sexual identity. 



Moral disorder

So far, For a World Without A Moral Order and a couple of other texts on similar issues have only managed to arouse the interest of a handful. If we'd explained man-woman or child-adult relationships only through the class struggle framework, and interpreted them as products of capitalist evolution, and if we'd related paedophilia, for instance, to capital's real (as opposed to formal) domination, no doubt we'd have reached a larger global world readership.

Part of the difficulty is that we deliver no message or guidelines regarding affective or sexual relations. We say the only "revolutionary" attitude is not to suggest a solution, but to put forward a critique of the question. In the same way, if we wrote on urban planning, no-one would expect our essay to describe what sort of dwellings people would live in after a communist revolution. We can only explain the causes of present habitats, and their inadequacy for human needs. What we don't know is how these needs would change through a revolutionary process, let alone what they'd be in a future world.

What we're targeting is "morality" as a set of rules made common wisdom, close to science in a way, defined in absolute terms and imposed by society upon each and every member. What we hope for is a world where one could and would still be moral but no single morality would be the imposed social norm, just as no particular activity, providing it that does not harm anyone, would be regarded intrinsically "wrong".

Communism knows no monster: This sentence was printed on the back cover of the 1998 British edition of For A World Without A Moral Order. Many radicals have trouble understanding this. Some do believe in the existence of monsters, in the forms of capitalist bloodsuckers or sadistic fascists, or even of decadent bourgeois perverts. Most radicals, however, will rather interpret our sentence in the sense that revolution would eliminate nearly all possibility of social ( mainly sexual and criminal) aggressiveness and destruction, and would probably rule out the possibility of self-destruction as well: who would wish to commit suicide in a free happy world ?!... In plain words, people would surely be so in harmony with themselves that they'd never feel the need to dominate or abuse or inflict pain upon themselves or upon others…

We'd rather argue that, should abuse occur, the perpetrator would not be ostracized by his fellow human beings. They would not reject the social violator in order to reassure themselves of their humanity by comparing themselves to a non-human human, to a monster. They would be able to recognize what they have in common with him, and to realize that they could have done what he did. And this, we believe, is a much better way of reducing abuse to its lowest possible minimum than any search for normality.

Let's take the case of the infamous Gilles de Rais (1404-1440), a Marshal of France and once a brother in arms of Joan of Arc. He had dozens (some say, hundreds) of kids brought to his castle, and sexually abused and murdered them, until he was finally arrested, tried and sentenced to death. On the day of the public execution, he repented, showed every sign of contrition, and moved the crowd to tears. According to historians, both sides (the assassin and the audience) shared truly genuine emotions. The murderer was thus reintegrated into society. In the Middle Ages, a common devotion and vision of the world held people together and made it near impossible for anyone present to think that Gilles de Rais was faking. There was a tiny minority of non-believers in Europe, but "atheism" did not exist socially. A common belief in a transcendent being (God) was the condition for the social reintegration of the deviant (who still had to be put to death for society to find peace with itself again). Also, at the time, such acts could only be committed by a man who stood by birth above others: Gilles de Rais was one of Brittany's largest landowners, not a 21st century serial killer. Now the days of mass religious communion are gone, at least in the most “modern” parts of the world. A future human society would unify people from the inside reality of their lives, thanks to something experienced between themselves in this world and recognized as such, without the need for an outside unifier.

P.C. and all the rest of it

When we wrote For A World Without A Moral Order, we'd never heard the phrase Political Correctness. In 1983, to us, the initials "P.C." only meant "Parti Communiste" (the official Stalinist party in France) and possibly "Personal Computer". Today's Political Correctness is more than yet another odd variety of American fads like organic food, surgical strikes and outdoor air-conditioning. It is one of the forms taken by the management of the current moral disorder (reactionary politics is another form). The boundaries between Law and transgression are now blurred. Social mediation (patriarchy, sex roles, school, union, party, old-style work discipline and top-down values in general) came under attack in the 60s and 70s. They have gone under, butwithout being replaced by any stable alternative standards, let alone by relationships we'd regard as human. Present society holds together as much through anomy and moral crossdressing as it previously did through rigidly set behaviour patterns.

Let's just take a look at family values. In the past, smacking kids was OK. Sometimes (as in England) school was granted some parental power, and the teacher was legally allowed to perform corporal punishment within certain limits. Now fixed roles have been shattered, not so much by our liberation endeavours as by the capitalist recuperation of our failure to liberate ourselves, and there's nothing left but individuals unsure of their part. "Discipline" is not natural any more. So parental attitudes have to be defined and ruled by law, and smacking is banned. Social workers, lawyers and experts walk in. Today's Gilles de Rais are not assisted by priests but by an array of psychologists.

We do not regret the old days when parents (or teachers) could smack a ten year-old without risking to be taken to court. We just think that taking them to court is one of the saddest, as well as actually inefficient, ways of dealing with conflict (or abuse) between adult and child.  

Political Correctness and the current reactionary backlash (the Moral Majority lobby that was supposed to be pulling the strings in the Bush administration and is now influential in the American Right) are US born twins. (2) The country that goes to the extreme commodifying of everything, be it man, woman, child, pet, nature, etc. is also the country that cares (or pretends to care) the most about safeguarding what it consumes. Those that created the huge Chicago slaughterhouses that so impressed European visitors in the 1930s, are the keenest animal rights' defenders. National parks are what's left of the Wild West after it's been emptied of the Indians, plundered and tamed.

We'll limit ourselves to human beings here. Women and children are subjected to an odd mixture of promotion and protection. Our society is tough, but it praises the weak, or those it calls weak, or those it creates as weak, because it is able to prey and grow on them while pretending to help. The modern State is a benevolent dictator. It would love to treat us all like children. Being treated like a kid through protective-repressive laws is what lies ahead of every citizen, for our own good, needless to say.

We need hardly emphasize that our opposition to both "rightwing" patriarchal moralizing and "leftwing" soft moralizing has nothing to do with opting for Political Incorrectness. The current righteous drive breeds its opposite: conservative politicians (and some artists) proclaim themselves Politically Incorrect. Just because multiethnic multiculturalism is trendy, it does not make mono-ethnic culture any more palatable than it used to be in 1950. It is pointless to take the exact opposite of what society offers or imposes as a role model or as a desirable lifestyle at any given time. Provocation is not another word for subversion. Conformism is never a critique of marketable anti-conformism.

Social regression

As early as 1835, the French historian and acute observer Tocqueville, who'd spent nine months travelling in America, wrote that in the United States, as long as individuals act as responsible citizens (i.e., as long as they abide by the existing laws), they're free to differ culturally and to act accordingly in public. For instance, the expression of various religious mutually tolerating rites is accepted. So is atheism, as long as it just stands like another creed among many. Instead of building itself against particular identities, as it did in France, American citizenship grew with them. We are now witnessing the Americanization of the capitalist developed world, that is, at least in Western Europe and Japan.

What is now known as the gay community is the result of a social movement that was forced backwards. To just take the example of New York, an open and active male homosexual culture existed around 1900, with a strong working class element, and mixed with "hetero" and Black areas, bars and music. It was repressed in the 1920s and 30s. The well-known "Stonewall riot" (June 27, 1969) against police harassment and beating-up was not a purely homosexual event. True, the cops' conscious hatred was directed against homosexuals, but the cause of the event and the people's response went beyond the sex issue or boundary. "Irrational, spontaneous, hectic, born out of lumpenproletarian rage" (3), the riot joined transvestites, prostitutes and homeless teenagers in a revolt that was more social than sexually-oriented, at a time of deep unrest across the US and in the world. It's the failure of those social forces to fuse into revolutionary action that brought back separation between categories, and gave birth to the "Gay Power" slogan, alongside with "Black Power" and a host of others. Logically, the gays later turned into an inward-looking community of their own, defining themselves by what supposedly differentiates them from other people, not by what they have in common with others. The vast crowds that now march and have fun in the totally innocuous and highly commercial Gay Prides on June 27 do not realize they are dancing on past social defeats.

What is gay ? A man who only goes out with men, convinced he will never feel the attraction of the opposite sex ? How should he know ? How can he exclude the possibility of being overwhelmed by the desire for and of a woman ? Isn't it part of the essence of desire to come without warning ? (Faced with a declared definitive heterosexual male, the gay will always suspect, and not without reason, that this too-sure-of-himself person is shielding himself from the possibility of his being attracted to another man...)

Granted, thanks to this gay-ity, the gay man feels safe from discrimination. (As long as he stays within his own quarters, that is: even in San Francisco, a man-man couple can walk hand in hand in the Castro district, but risks being jeered at – or worse – only one mile away from Castro.) Different clubs, different neighbourhoods, different literature, and last but not least a different vocabulary. Indeed, quite a few gay writers would classify this text as "homophobic", since we refuse the notion of a gay identity.

How sad that, in order to escape age-old repression, and in the hope of going beyond patriarchy, millions could imagine nothing better than making up a category even narrower than the family, and founded only on the choice of sexual object: penis v. vagina. Act is made into identity, definition into destiny, and sexual preference into a world vision (gay culture).

Sexual Identity ? (From Frank Browning’s “Queer Geography”)

“A while later, toward the end of breakfast, I bring up a conversation from the previous evening, about mating and pederastic sex rites in an obscure New Guinea tribe called the Sambia people. Gene has come to tolerate my periodic, arcane obsessions. This time, however, he is genuinely puzzled over my prolonged curiosity about these more or less Stone Age people and their relation to the topic of this new book, which is about the way Western gay men locate a sense of place in the world. Yet after years of sorting through tracts and tomes on modern sexual identity, I find these premodern people on the other side of the earth endlessly fascinating, for without exception all the Sambia males enjoy at least a decade of exclusive childhood and adolescent homosexuality, after which they embark upon a lifetime of heterosexuality. Sexuality - homosexuality - occupies a radically different place in their lives than it does anywhere in the modern gay rights movement.

Among the ritual burdens of modern, egalitarian mateship is an expectation that each partner will listen to the other's professional obsessions, anxieties, and frustrations - his about suppliers, customers, and taxes, mine about characters, stories, and deadlines. On this topic Gene offers a warning: I had best be careful in writing about such things as young boys being snatched away from their mothers and forced into years of group fellatio. Child abuse, according to the dicta of American gay respectability, is child abuse, whether it takes place in New Guinea or New Rochelle, and it is not a topic the sages and activists of the gay movement care to talk about.

Duly noted. But, I say to Gene - who is finishing his coffee, anxious to get to his shop - it's not just the child sex that seems so upsetting about the Sambian sexual/homosexual system. It's the entire Sambian organization of sex and sexual identification that makes my gay friends fidget. What most distresses them is the extent to which Sambian sexual behavior seems so circumstantial, so lacking in what we call sexual identity. From age seven or eight, according to anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, every Sambian boy is instructed to "eat the penis" and swallow the semen of an older male. Ideally he should ingest semen every day. That is how the Sambians believe they build up their maleness, discover their masculinity. Then, once the child has reached puberty, he undergoes another ritual initiation, is called a "bachelor" and then finds younger boys to fellate him. All this continues until eventually he becomes an adult, marries, and with the birth of his first child turns to conventional heterosexuality.

To the leading authors and strategists of the American gay movement, sexuality - sexual orientation - is an identity, something sure, certain, reliable, around which life and literature can be forged, through which rites and rituals are being invented. To the Sambian, whom you have sex with is secondary to the rigid demands of existing tradition, ritual, and collective Sambian identity. For a while you are strictly "homosexual." For a brief period you may be "bisexual" in that you can be fellated by either a man or a woman. But by adulthood, you become operationally and happily heterosexual. To a population of middle-class Americans who have argued that sexuality, and particularly homosexuality, is basis enough to build community and cultural identity, the Sambians seem to turn the world on its head.

By now Gene has turned on the dishwasher, wrapped a scarf around his neck, and pulled on his red "Eli Cutter" cap, ready to get on with the practical matters of his workday. He is patient, but he has scant time to spend palavering over the sexual behavior of South Pacific warrior tribes. He interrupts my perambulations about the atavistic homosexual rites. Some unknown person slipped the flyer into the mailbox the day before at his shop. (His shop is in an industrial warehouse underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, the sort of neighborhood where wise people carry steel pipes for protection after dark.)

The flyer offers T-shirts, silkscreened with a dozen S&M bondage shots of superpumped muscle toughs in a variety of aroused poses. Bondage not being one of Gene's erotic fantasies, he proposes that it might be more appropriate to my inquiries. He is, however, puzzled that the flyer should have appeared, without an envelope, in his shop mailbox since, so far as he knows, the other occupants in his warehouse are straight. Still, the day before, there it was. But who left it? The two rock musicians who live there and seem to have a steady stream of girlfriends? One of the married guys who works for him? One of the men from the carpentry shop on the ground floor? The UPS man? His landlord? The array of sexual rites and participants in New York is infinite. Anyone, for any number of reasons, might have deposited the flyer in his box. Whoever left it, however, had torn off a corner, including the mailing address for the T-shirt company but leaving the phone order number.

Just as I've begun to ponder the ubiquitous ordinariness of perverse porn in America, Gene draws me back from bondage boys to New Guinea. "I don't know why anybody should get so upset about them," he tells me. "These people - the Sambians - they aren't homosexual. It doesn't have anything to do with being gay."

"No, not gay," I say. "But they are homosexual, at least for a while. They have sex with other men. They even say they all came to love it. They say swallowing semen was just like their elders told them it was, 'sweet as mother's milk' and just as essential to growing up strong. Like Wonder bread. They even talk about feeling genuine affection for their first partners, even romantic attachment."

"Not really, they're not really homosexual," Gene insists. "It's just some sort of rite of passage, and anyway, I gotta get to work."

Of course, our experience of homosexuality and the Sambian's is utterly different. However much we and the Sambian men may celebrate and even ritualize the primal experience of cocksucking, however much we may both experience the act as a profound form of male bonding and solidarity, we cannot assume that homosexuality has the same meaning for each of us. Indeed, most students of sex and culture argue that ritualized, tribal homosexuality (or for that matter even sexual attitudes at the time of the American Revolution) bear little resemblance to urban sexual life of the last hundred years. With rare exceptions gay communities, gay families, gay churches, gay psychologists, gay reporters, and gay politicians did not exist before this century. The psychological and social meaning attached to these gay phenomena did not exist: we, as individuals whose imaginations and opportunities are shaped by this gay terrain, did not exist.”

(A Queer Geography by Frank Browning, Crowd, 1998, pp. 15-18. Frank Browning is also the co-author of An American Way of Crime, Putman, 1980.)


(1) For a  World Without a Moral Order  was first published in French in La Banquise #1, 1983, and then in English by the American magazine Anarchy, Fall 1993, and again in pamphlet form in Britain in 1998. On the same subject, see Alice in Monsterlandalso on this site.

(2) The American magazine Communicating Vessels made the following remark on that passage: “…even right-wingers sometimes use political correctness to their advantage. This administration, in advocating for potential intervention in Liberia, for instance, in my opinion, made use of the fact that Condoleezza Rice is black. She was quoted in the New York Timesas saying something to the effect of how American slaves founded the state of Liberia… Politics makes no pretensions regarding who, and what, will be utilized to secure the continuation of its existence. Because this administration is clearly racist, does not mean that it will not use anti-racism as a defence mechanism...”

(3) From an essay by homosexual yet non “P.C.” writer Bruce Benderson. Author of Towards a New Degeneracy (1997), and of the novel The Rumanian. Story of an Obsession (2006).