Spindelman, Marc, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law
III. The Ideology of Sexual Freedom: Proofs
A. Douglas Crimp, How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic
Douglas Crimp's How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic appeared in a special issue of October, dated Winter 1987, (118) which Crimp edited, and was republished in a volume dated 1988, also edited by Crimp, called AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. (119) This volume remains one of the most important--certainly, one of the most engaging--collections of intellectual interventions into the HIV/AIDS epidemic ever published. (120) It deserves its stature.
At the heart of the bid Crimp ventures in this essay is a flourishing gay male sexual culture, built out of a profound respect for sex, a culture of various experiments in bodily pleasures. Happily, sex has produced, along with these pleasures themselves, a good deal of practical knowledge about pleasures--knowledge that behavioral therapists, attempting (mostly unsuccessfully) to change gay sexual behavior, seem never to have figured out. (121) Especially helpful in the age of HIV/AIDS, gay men have learned that sex's joys come in a "great multiplicity" of forms. (122) We know it is possible to change our sexual behaviors if we want to, including to save our own lives. Best of all, we know we can--and how to--do so without having to give sex up altogether. The idea commonly bandied about, that our sexuality, particularly in the age of HIV/AIDS, "will destroy us," (123) is thus recognized by Crimp as nonsense. The truth we must heed and spread instead is that "it is our promiscuity that will save us." (124) HIV/AIDS has given us new reasons to worship the productive powers of sex, not to abandon it or have it with dread. (125)
As much as Crimp idealizes sex, and is committed to protecting it and ensuring its proliferation, the particular version of sex he is selling is not, at least at first glance, the sex that the ideology of sexual freedom values. The sex he is interested in has no violent, destructive, "dark" side. It is only ever a force of, and for, good. This does not mean sex's demons, such as they are, play no part in Crimp's analysis. They are actually integral to it--but as essential features of views that Crimp sets out to reject, not positions he himself claims to espouse. Those who see and think about and talk about sex as a devastating force, those who believe it leads to human suffering, especially from HIV/AIDS, in ways that must, like sex itself, be stopped are, as sex's enemies, the enemies of the good. They are Crimp's enemies, too.
In this spirit, Crimp predictably offers up the work of the gay author and playwright Larry Kramer as an exhibit. Predictably, because Kramer, even before the HIV/AIDS epidemic emerged, was perhaps the most prominent gay critic of gay sexuality and gay sexual life, at least since his book Faggots hit the shelves in 1978. (126) With the appearance of HIV/AIDS, Kramer's views on gay sexuality and gay sexual life were given a new stage and airing. The problems with gay sex, whatever they had been before, Kramer believed, or hoped, could not now be ignored. By having sex the way we did, by being politically committed to fucking the way we were, we were, Kramer argued in a variety of print (and other) venues, literally killing ourselves and one another. Kramer's thought: Sex is not worth dying or killing for.
Kramer's signature tone--angry, preachy, sometimes shrill--regularly obscured the larger message of his work. On a fair, substantive read, Kramer did not mean to damn gay men or gay sex in their entirety. Rather, by his own measure, he was hectoring them out of love. (127) In his own way, he was trying to point out that we could, instead of choosing what he saw as meaningless, anonymous, pointless sex, with the devastating consequences he saw it was having, choose sex, if we were to have sex, that was full of meaning, of love, of commitment, and that affirmed life, above all. …