“Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation/We have assumed control.” – Rush, 2112
Whether it be from Jim Morrison’s being booted offstage to the slowly-repealed sodomy laws of the United States, the controversy over who can marry who, or even the sexual travails of Tamar, Er, Onan, and Judah, human society has consistently and constantly attempted to regulate who may have sex with whom.
There seems to be an economic rationale – though justified by “morality” behind much of this. The Biblical story of Tamar is an excellent example. In it, her first husband Er – the eldest son of Judah – is struck down by God for unspecified wickedness before producing an heir. The second son of Judah, Onan, is tasked with creating an heir. The child produced by their union would stand in as a child of Er. Onan instead withdraws, “spilling his seed” onto the ground. He wants to take the inheritance for himself and his line. This produces the misnomer of Onanism for masturbation, though both are related to a lack of procreation. For this crime, Onan is also struck down. Judah refuses to let Tamar be with any of his other sons, which would leave her without any means of supporting herself. Rather than accept her destitute nature, she poses as a prostitute, and Judah has sex with her. This produces Judah’s heir – and incidentally, Tamar’s place in society and economic security.
Likewise, the societal concept of the family as an economic (and social) unit leads to a defensiveness of the structure. A threat to the stability of the family – and the nature of the social contract – is parsed as a threat to the entire system of society (Luker). Rather than being interpersonal relationships, it has been a complete way of economic life. This has not stopped individuals from expressing their sexual identity and needs in ways outside the procreative heteronormative sphere; homosexual acts have been around since antiquity, and what we would now recognize as stereotypical gay male behavior was quietly acknowledged throughout history. The image of the Victorian fop, though recently romanticized by Ted Turner’s faux-historical romances of the 1990’s, is actually a representation of quasi-closeted homosexual men (Katz).
The Industrial Revolution, for all its ills, has brought about consider amounts of surplus to society. In a historical instant, the imperative of mere economic survival does not require the same sort of family unit. The surplus created has allowed the existence and eventual tolerance of what would otherwise be considered “dangerous” deviations from a merely procreative norm. The creation of a homosexual identity, for example, has largely been able to exist due to the societal separation from the need for merely procreative relationships (D’Emilio). This surplus did not create the scientific advances of the latex condom or the pill, but permitted their acceptance as normative parts of our society.
However, humans are not the rational actors of economics. Our concepts and ideas rarely change as quickly as economic conditions. Further, despite recent surpluses “lifting all boats”, they have not been lifted uniformly or equally. This may go a long way to explain why, for example, there appears to be a stronger stigma against homosexuality and transsexuality among economically disadvantaged groups (Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought). This mix of learned norms, individual desires, and economic realities has led to conflicts and confusion over these intersections. This is not simply limited to the status of homosexuals; sexualized expression in popular culture alternates from castigation of sexual promiscuity (reference any slasher movie from Friday the 13th onward) and the hypersexualization of modern music stars (Dreamworlds3). The internal conflicts of lesbian mothers are a quintessential example of this dialectic; the thesis of the traditional family smacking right up against the antithesis of a lesbian couple (Lewin).
The eventual synthesis – the future shape of our society is still in flux. There are no precedents for this situation. Our species simply has never had the widespread degree of surplus that we have today. We still try to parse our individual expressions into the old, limited categories, even when they no longer fit. Yet it is perhaps here that the most hope lies. Images of transsexuals – were once thought to merely reinforce existing gender stratifications. Yet the resistance to the binary male/female hetero/homo combinations has been under way for a little over a decade (Devor), and media representations have begun to take a tonally different quality. Whether through the election of a transgender woman to the mayorship of Cambridge to the gentle coverage of two pre-adolescent MtF girls on This American Life, the fault lines might just be widening.