BY FLORENCE WALKER 20 AUGUST 15
How can this be put delicately? A hole is a hole is a hole. Alright, maybe that wasn’t so delicate, but the mechanics of sex are pretty basic. Put Monsieur Le Grand Saucisson inside something, move it backwards and forwards a bit and, “hey presto!” Unfortunately, our big human brains tend to complicate even of the most simple of actions.
Historically, we imposed rules on our sexual behaviour and then started categorising our behaviour as identities. Suddenly, the act of using a hole belonging to a man made you “homosexual” or possibly “bisexual”. Today we have a plethora of identities relating to sexual activities and we define and judge each other using these arbitrary labels. With the increasingly popular view that sexuality is fluid, when will we finally stop trying to label others and ourselves? Let’s have a look at some examples of different attitudes to sexual identities around the world to try and find out…
In India, many sects of Hinduism see so-called homosexual acts as just one of the many diverse ways that love can be expressed to attain “moksha”, a state of mind required to break the cycle of reincarnation. The Hindu texts mention sex acts can take place between men or women who are friends and trust each other. Oral sex is emphasised and penetration with artificial phalluses is also suggested. These acts do not define the practitioners as homosexual or as defying the order of nature, they are carried out between people as friends rather than homosexuals. A beautiful catch-all phrase embraced by ancient-Greek scholars for such unions is that of “lover”.
Despite all that, homosexuality was made illegal in India in 2009, a country where 80 per cent of the population identify themselves as Hindu, a religion where homosexual acts are not necessarily problematic. The specific act is Section 377 of India’s penal code, which forbids “sex against the order of nature”, which is interpreted as gay sex, with a possible sentence of 10 years in prison. The law dates back to the days of British colonial rule in India. Unsurprisingly, Section 377 has been met with strong opposition.
He’s got your back
The Sacred Band of Thebes was an elite fighting force of 150 same-sex male lovers who fought in the Theban Army in the 4th century BC. At the time, to die for your lover was considered a noble and honourable death. It was believed that the love between fighting couples made them fight harder to protect each other. Usually there was an age difference between pairs which created an imbalance of power in the pairing so one would take the role of the “lover” (ἐραστής) and the other the “beloved” (ἐρώμενος). The receiver (or bottom, in modern parlance) was the more effeminate position. Although when you’re a fighting soldier carrying a great big sword it’s difficult to understand exactly what’s so effeminate about him.
Even sex between men in Ancient Greece didn’t entirely avoid definitions of the “natural” order. Sex was still very much understood as sex between men and women, but sex between men and men wasn’t frowned upon. Does this mean “homosexuals” were accepted within Greek society? Not really, but only because the idea of “homosexuality” hadn’t been invented yet. It just wasn’t a thing.
We have to jump forward a couple of millennia before we see any kind of widespread definition of homosexuality, and we have 18th century psychoanalyst and category-fanatic Richard von Krafft-Ebing to thank for that. Before Krafft-Ebing, the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” didn’t exist. These terms have caused Western cultures all sorts of issues because of their presentation as “unnatural” and “natural”, respectively. Jane Ward in her book Not Gay: Sex between Straight Men pulls together case studies from around the USA to piece together an argument which shows that men having sex with men does not make them homosexual per se. Male-on-male sex in many cases is functional, with no romantic leaning. It can relieve sexual frustration and even build a stronger heterosexual identity.
One of Ward’s primary examples of this is “hazing”, a set of rituals used in the US military (and elsewhere) to test the limits of new recruits, with activities including anal penetration by other soldiers. While the acts would clearly seem sexual to outsiders, by subjecting themselves to acts in a setting where they are understood as undesirable, their heterosexual identities are reinforced. The rituals are meant to be embarrassing and demeaning. By pushing boundaries and breaking taboos, friendships are forged and cemented. This example neatly shows how our imposed definitions of sexual activity can create behaviour in humans which defy all logic. By behaving this way, the soldiers can reinvigorate their masculine standing while alienating people who are actually attracted to members of the same sex, all at the same time. Genius!
Go with the flow
In recent years, there’s been increasing acceptance of the idea that sexuality is genetically determined, but really the only thing that’s genetically determined is which type of sex organs we’re born with. There is no way of measuring how “straight” or “gay” anyone is, and any attempt to ring-fence behaviour according to such logic runs the risk of attributing non-existent morality to them and causing unnecessary distress and confusion. There’s nothing defined in nature that tells us what to do with our sexual organs, only what we see or hear other people do. It’s this realisation that human behaviour is so varied and complex that makes the term “sexual fluidity” such a happy compromise. Sexuality can’t be explained, only experienced.
If you do want to try things out: be safe, be kind, wear a condom, and don’t fear labelling yourself. You’re only human after all.