This essay originally appeared in Sublation Magazine.
One of the more bizarre moments in the war between Israel and Hamas was the spat about the two cultures’ approaches to homosexuality. In October, Western activists calling for ‘queer’ solidarity with Palestine were treated to shocking videos of terror fighters, purported to be members of Hamas, throwing gay men to their deaths from rooftops. Some of these images turned out to have come from another conflict. Israel nonetheless responded by releasing a photograph of an IDF soldier holding the pride flag over the ruins of Gaza.
Alongside reports of the brutal war deaths of women and children, the perils of gay sex make for uncanny propaganda. The 2012 Israeli film Out in the Dark follows the tender cross-border romance of two men overcoming their societies’ ideological divisions. “I don’t care about the Jews, the Palestinians, Fatah or Hamas,” declares the Palestinian. All this goes well until Israel’s security forces threaten to out him to his homophobic freedom fighter brother. Love is love, but war is war, and both are violence.
These terms are easy to confuse. In August, Iraq’s media regulator censored references to “homosexuality”, branding it a “sexual deviance” instead. In a country where only 2% of the population is accepting of homosexuality and violent repression of gay people is widespread, this seems like pointless semantics.
How might this terminological change affect the rest of the population? In describing homosexuality as abnormal, the state stigmatises the existing gay community and, plausibly, suppresses its future number. The creation of the category of ‘deviance’ also internalises the consequences of gay sex: where previously homosexuals were arbitrarily persecuted by the police, now their sexuality itself is made synonymous with distress.
The images used to define categories have significance far beyond. The change in the semiotic order that describes a transgression of the norm means more to the heterosexual majority than to the contravening minority. The sex lives of straight Iraqis now need different adjectives and will thus be governed by different rules. There’s also a practical side-effect: some of the country’s heterosexual women will enter into sham marriages with gay men, some happily, others not. We know this because this is how gay men in the West survived before homosexuality was decriminalized. There is thus a tangible link between the image of homosexuality and the sex lives of heterosexual women.
“Let gay men fuck so that straight women don’t have to put up with their repressed homosexuality” may be a bizarre way to argue against the illiberal sexual norms of Islamic societies. It’s even stranger as an argument against a ceasefire in war. But gay sex, normal or deviant, is a useful floating signifier in the terrain of sexual difference and, as recently, violent disputes. How painfully the suffering minority is compelled to look upon itself influences the majority’s experiences in counterintuitive ways.
In the West, depictions of homosexuality have been changing too, only to deny the possibility of suffering altogether. Gay sex used to hurt. Until recently, mainstream cultural depictions of sodomy were full of pain, uncomfortable grunts, and violence. Marcel Proust, sometimes credited with inventing the modern homosexual, described Baron de Charlus mid-act with the tailor Jupien as “one person […] slitting another’s throat” so graphically that it’s a wonder that the author hasn’t been cancelled for homophobia. The violently passionate way the young delinquents fucked in Jean Genet’s formative 1949 Journal du voleur gave ‘breaking and entering’ a new meaning. On Brokeback Mountain in 2005, anal sex was difficult sex. Even at the height of postmodern camp kitsch, Antonio Banderas didn’t have a smile on his face when push came to shove in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1987 omnisexual romp Law of Desire. There was a time when the emancipatory struggle of homosexuality wasn’t merely a matter of politics and social attitudes: it was also physical.
But today, the ‘Gay & Lesbian’ listings on streaming services are a vision of wholesome innocence. Saccharine coming-of-age stories compete with banal celebrations and affirmations in which carnality is an afterthought. The 2022 post-camp rom-com Bros in which Billy Eichner tries out every gay stereotype mercilessly lampoons the relationship between physical prowess and sexual activity before pathetically submitting to cultural castration. There’s still queer horror and the odd sob-story rent boy documentary. But such artifacts are framed as exceptions or mistakes: gay body slashers are more slapstick than fatal thrusts and Netflix removed the LGBTQ tag from the Jeffrey Dahmer drama following public complaints about the murderer-rapist’s true story’s unwelcome association of homosexuality with violence. Even in Out in the Dark, the rupture comes from a car bomb. As though by a proclamation of a media regulator, the carnal link between gay sex, pain, and violence is relegated from the mainstream to a speciality PornHub category.
All this could lay the grounds for a PhD thesis in queer studies which concluded that anodyspareunia, the pain experienced during receptive anal sex, was a heteronormative construct. Indeed, there’s a stark difference in the cultural expectations of older generations for whom homosexual activity was associated with transgression and pain and those coming of age today who are being served a vision of lube and liberation. But if the pain and violence of gay sex weren’t merely a myth, where have they gone?
One answer is that nothing has changed in the bedroom and that most sexual acts, gay or straight, still involve one partner in some way dominating the other. In anatomic principle and on average, gay relationships don’t have to involve such an imbalance but, in practice, they often do. Studies show that sexual violence in same-sex relationships is not uncommon. The preponderance of men who describe themselves as ‘dom tops’ on hookup apps such as Grindr suggests that despite the sanitized language of sex-positivity peddled by Instagram influencers, gay sexuality has not consciously decoupled from the male imperative to abuse for pleasure.
Another explanation is that the excess of male sexual violence, formerly symbolically relegated to buggery, now manifests in the straight bedroom and becomes the burden of women. This doesn’t mean that today’s unrepressed gay men are sneaking into women’s bedrooms and physically hurting females, but rather that the symbolic denial of male-on-male sexual violence has created a new alibi for heterosexual men whose propensity for inflicting pain in the pursuit of pleasure hasn’t changed either. To put it another way, cultural depictions of painful or violent gay sex made it clear that men, all men, recognize just how violent their desire can be. For a man to fuck another man with even a tenth of the sadism caught by Bruce La Bruce in his 1993 Hustler White with characters like ‘slave hanging from ankles’ is for that man to admit knowing that he might and will go that far in the pursuit of his sexual fulfilment. In this strand of gay folklore, rooftop executions are but a kink.
And this isn’t quite the same in fictional depictions of heterosexual rape, for example, because those trade on the idea of sexual violence as exceptional and automatically offer the heterosexual plausible denial. A particular self-awareness arises when the object of a man’s violence is another man that doesn’t in depictions of straight sex. The frictions of gay sex permeating 20th-century culture were thus an uncomfortable mirror to the male propensity to sexual violence.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1982 film Querelle, an adaption of Genet’s novel, gives flesh to this idea by capturing the peculiar relationship between Nono, the proprietor of a speakeasy in the port town of Brest and his wife Lysiane played by Jeanne Moreau. Nono is straight by Genet’s standards, but he has a penchant for buggering young sailors. The fragile Querelle falls under his spell and Nono fucks him with all the tenderness one would expect of a convicted #MeToo villain. Given that sex, blood, and betrayal are all over the plot, the intriguing outcome of this encounter is that it forms a bond between Lysiane and Querelle as she identifies in the young sailor a fellow victim of Nono’s macho desire. By violating Querelle, Nono also admits to understanding his transgressions against his wife.
That this film couldn’t be made today reflects a wholesale change in the understanding of the relationship between male sexuality and violence. The foundations for this link are mythical: Freud’s Oedipal paradigm of sexual development which dominated much of the 20th century had its aesthetic roots in a 5th-century BC play by Sophocles. In psychoanalytic theory, a homosexual’s ‘inverted’ libido produced precisely the kind of kinship between the submissive Querelle and the submissive Lysiane that Fassbinder depicted. This is the subconscious root of the unholy cultural and political alliance of the gay rights movement with feminism that on the one hand saw women nursing dying gay men during the AIDS crisis, but on the other ushered in third-wave causes like family abolition in the 1971 manifesto of the Gay Liberation Front.
The Freudian tradition clashed with the evidentiary rigour of clinical medicine and proved of little practical use in the treatment of pathological sexual aggression. Its reliance on a ‘mythical’ biological essence of masculinity also became inconvenient to reformists. In the popular imagination today, sexual violence is more readily explained by a cluster of feminist theories which attribute it to the socialization of men and concepts such as the patriarchy. If, as this paradigm has it, sexual behaviours are socially conditioned, then the eradication of male sexual violence would be a matter of education. These are the ideas that dominate therapeutic approaches and cultural depictions of straight and gay sex alike. In this school of thought, ‘queering’ Palestine will be part of the peace process.
There is, however, no ceasefire. In Querelle, Moreau’s song is ‘Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves’. But not even Andrew Tate would suggest that male sexual violence is an evolutionary inevitability or that women are merely passive victims. The reality is likely that the causes of male sexual violence are partly biological and party social. But integrationist approaches lack political appeal: a 2022 academic volume on Engaging Boys and Men in Sexual Assault Prevention, for example, considers a range of cultural factors that may spark male sexual aggression but largely denies their links to a biological nature. In such theories, if there is a masculinity to speak of, it is always to be mediated. And this is a tragedy for contemporary feminism because it appeals to an extreme, never-achieved state of ‘zero harm’. How does one teach a man to suppress his sexual urges if he is first told that they are figments of an outdated cultural imagination? Homosexual activity was, until recently, a natural experiment for testing these ideas symbolically.
While protecting women from male violence has been a slow struggle, feminism’s gay allies have submitted to its cultural emasculation. Indeed, it was rather a lot to expect gay men to make up for the general crisis of masculinity. In a dystopian Freudian morality table, the visible sexual suffering of gay men was a noble sacrifice that served as a moderating example for heterosexuals. There’s probably a Greek tragedy about this.
The opposite is happening in today’s culture. One needn’t look to fiction like Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt which follows the ‘misadventures’ of an obstetrician on a maternity ward for examples of gay men contributing to the physical and metaphorical suffering of women. But garden-variety misogyny is hardly worth an epic poem. Gay sexuality is, rather, a weathervane for the twists and turns of the ongoing sexual revolution. If gay sex doesn’t hurt, we invent new forms of pain and punishment. In a tale of unintended but not unpredictable consequences, the symbolic liberalising impulses of the West and the normative censorship in Iraq may end up having similarly deleterious effects on the lives of others.
Main image: Bros, 2022, dir. Billy Eichner