As an issue that draws out the antagonisms between lesbian and gay identity and its queer critique, public sex--in clubs, parks, or restrooms--is exemplary. Sex Panic's willingness to shelter almost any kind of nonstandard sexual behavior under its umbrella confounds a traditional gay activist like Signorile. "I think most people who've come out of the closet don't have a lot of concern for married men who get arrested in toilets," Signorile says. His allegiance is to men and women who have publicly identified themselves as homosexual and can therefore be engaged in dialogue and changed and mobilized politically by the gay culture.
In the language of queer theory, Signorile speaks a "minoritizing discourse," a term coined by Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet. For him, gay identity defines a subset of the population, and closet cases are deserters in this minority's battle for recognition. Warner and Sex Panic, on the other hand, speak what Sedgwick calls a "universalizing discourse." They see what married men do in tearooms as their business because they feel that disowned, deviant desires affect everyone in society, even (or perhaps, especially) those who do not admit or act on them.
Queer theory's taste for public sex and its distaste for community norms are both evident in Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS Activism (South End Press, 1996). Released in the wake of the 1995 GALHPA-APAL wars, the anthology was edited by Dangerous Bedfellows, a collective of NYU graduate students. "We are focusing on acts rather than identities," the collective declares in the introduction, sounding a distinctly queer note. Along with analytic essays, Policing includes interviews with sex-club owners, transcripts of legal documents, Odets on HIV prevention, and Bérubé on the history of bathhouses.
The book also contains evidence of queer theory's troubled relation to ethics. The editors' desire to "screw with the notion of a totalizing queer leadership class or gay 'community'" lets in voices that are radically free of any tribal or group affiliation. But in politics, as opposed to literary criticism, it can be unsettling to listen to a voice unconstrained by responsibility to a community. Between the same covers, Odets's chapter on HIV prevention lies uneasily with the essay by the HIV-positive former porn star Scott O'Hara, who writes, "The life of a Negative, at this point in our history, seems to me to be the most irrelevant and pointless of positions," and who applauds the attractive "strong personality" of a friend who intentionally got himself infected. And it is not reassuring to hear the owner of the West Side Club both deny that what he runs is a sex club and say, "If I were to get AIDS today, it's my own fucking fault. I deserve it"--apparently restricting the blame for infections that occur in his club to the decisions his clients make as individuals.
In places, the theoretical sophistication of Policing seems only a shade removed from old-fashioned rationalization. In an April 1994 Newsday article, for example, Rotello had described the unprotected anal intercourse that he witnessed in a sex club as a "sex murder/suicide." Upset by his imagery, Dangerous Bedfellow Alison Redick analyzes Rotello's text as follows:
Rotello's representation is alarmist, and Redick is correct to say he condenses probabilities into certainties. But anal sex without condoms is the most common way gay men become infected with HIV; seroprevalence among gay men in cities is widely estimated to be 50 percent; and although people infected with HIV may live for decades--especially now, thanks to new protease inhibitor treatments--there is not yet a cure for AIDS. Rotello's characterization may strike Redick as homophobic, but her critique looks uncomfortably like denial. Why shouldn't it anger Rotello to watch two men who do not know each other fuck without rubbers? Sorrow or concern might also be an appropriate response, but merely to parse the representational politics seems a little cool.
ALMOST A YEAR AFTER the Dangerous Bedfellows anthology appeared, Signorile and Rotello elaborated their side of the public-sex debate into book-length arguments. In April 1997, Rotello released Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men (Dutton). In May, Signorile followed his friend's book with Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life (HarperCollins). Both titles build on the writers' earlier journalism. Signorile criticizes gay culture for allowing its aesthetic and moral values to be set by a small group of wealthy white men--known as "the circuit," "the scene," or "the A-list"--who consult only their own pleasure. Rotello hammers away at what he calls the "condom code," the belief that condoms can both prevent HIV transmission and preserve gay liberation's experiment in sexual permissiveness. Adopting the language of ecology, Rotello calls condoms a "technological fix," an attempt to erase a problem's consequences without confronting its underlying cause--in Rotello's opinion, the gay-male norm of multiple, concurrent partners. Rotello demands a rethinking and an adjustment of sexual behavior by gays as a community, not just as individuals, because mathematical models predict HIV transmission rates will not fall so long as even a small "core group" of gays continue to be highly promiscuous.
Rotello knew whom he was likely to anger most. "Gay culture's very male view of sexual entitlement," he writes, "has been intellectualized by gay academics in ways that would be considered scandalous if they were coming from straight men talking about women." Then, in late May, as if to throw salt in the queers' wounds, Larry Kramer praised Sexual Ecology in an editorial that excoriated gays for enshrining promiscuous sex at the center of their literature and culture. "Do we see Anna Karenina being fucked by her husband or her lover once, twice, a hundred times?" Kramer asked. "In her cunt, up her ass? Then being tied up and pissed upon? Surely gay culture is more than cocks."
Queers struck back almost at once. Sex Panic was born in the apartment of Treatment Action Group staffer Gregg Gonsalves, after an April meeting of an HIV-positive support group that included Warner. "We had our support group," Gonsalves says, "and at the end, it moved to talking about Gabriel Rotello's new book, and we all got sort of exercised about it."
"We were just sitting around and talking about how depressing it was that we kept hearing these stories about bars being closed," says Warner. "And then we kept turning to the gay press, and instead of seeing coverage about this or resistance to it, we would see these reactionary screeds by Rotello and Signorile." Says Gonsalves, "And we thought, why don't we do something about this?"
Gonsalves recruited among grassroots activists, and Warner, along with art critic Douglas Crimp (whose boyfriend, Damien Jack, is a member of the same support group), recruited scholars. About fifty people showed up at the first Sex Panic organizational meeting in late May. Kendall Thomas, who teaches critical race theory at Columbia, suggested a teach-in as the group's first event.
The involvement of Warner and Crimp would itself be reason enough to link Sex Panic to queer theory, but Warner spells out the connection explicitly. He points to the participation in Sex Panic of many who do not identify as lesbian or gay, ranging from straight men and married women to people allied with the transgender and female sex-worker communities. Says Warner, "We're not simply advocating a redemptive gay identity and its acceptance by the mainstream."
But how do you mobilize people to act politically for their desires? And what kind of politics emerges if you make the attempt? Queerness, as Warner defines it, undermines a great deal. It opposes "not just the normal behavior of the social but the idea of normal behavior." This might be wishful thinking--as charming and as unlikely to be realized as Godwinian anarchy--but queer theorists claim they take subversion as a principle, not a gesture. Queers want to rescue desires that have been disavowed by society, and as a matter of principle they refuse, while doing so, to judge or master them. But won't the things queers discover on these missions of nonrecovery always appear as violations of the ethical system they resurface into? "We might even say," Warner writes, "that queer politics opposes society itself." Shouldn't self-conscious queers, then, expect society to panic at the sight of them?
During the question-and-answer period after the teach-in, a man stood up to announce he was "what is known under Megan's Law as a sexually dangerous predator," jailed for four years for having sex with underage boys and now tracked by the police. He was met with a silence that was both stunned and respectful. In the history of lesbian and gay activism, sex with minors has often been the issue that forces new grassroots movements to decide what to include and what to exclude from their own charmed circles. This government-tagged sexual predator represents a question Sex Panic has not yet answered. No one in the room either seconded or reproached him. But he may yet force Sex Panic to choose between political viability and pure queerness.
At the very end of the evening, another man stood up and falteringly said that he felt the gay community's celebration of multipartner sex made it more difficult for him to maintain an exclusive, long-term relationship. He was interrupted and heckled--the only instance of either behavior during the teach-in. Someone in the audience cattily suggested that the man join Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. As Kendall Thomas admitted at the time, the Sex Panic teach-in was a "frankly partisan gathering." Still, it is odd that the side of this debate in favor of destigmatizing sexual desires cannot listen to a would-be monogamist as indifferently as to a convicted pedophile.
AT FIRST GLANCE, it is hard to see why gay marriage and promiscuity cannot lie down together peaceably, the lambs beside the wolves. And in fact a peaceable kingdom is Sex Panic's explicit position. "In order to be for a sexual culture," says Warner, "you don't have to be against intimacy or against couples or against commitment. It's a false choice."
But at stake is a community norm, not individual choices. The fight to set that norm is a zero-sum game, even if individual decisions to respect, defy, or ignore it are not. Defenders of gay marriage certainly see it that way. As Rotello wrote in The Nation, "The core of the [queer] objection--that marriage would provide status to those who married and implicitly penalize those who did not--seems essentially correct." Or as Jonathan Rauch wrote in a New Republic essay that Warner likes to quote, "It is not enough...for gay people to say we want the right to marry. If we do not use it, shame on us."
Queers may doubt and resist norms, but the ferocity of Sex Panic's response suggests they too sense that on this question, only one side will win. Rauch's use of the word shame "should really trouble anyone who has progressive politics and supports gay marriage," Warner says. "It also shows that however liberal people like Rauch and Sullivan claim to be, they're constantly abjecting a negative image of gay men who have sex."
It may be that Sex Panic's catholic sex positivity is the group's most valuable contribution to the debate over HIV prevention. Warner insists on understanding why some men have high-risk sex. "Moralizing may help us feel superior, but it's not going to help them," he says. "There's a utopian longing behind almost all of these things that some people want to just dismiss. That's what queer theory can bring to the discussion."
At times, Rotello and Signorile suggest that merely to talk about the motives behind unsafe sex is tantamount to approval. In Sexual Ecology, for example, Rotello wrote, "If gay men begin to make a virtue of confessing that they don't always have safer sex...won't that create a new community norm in which unsafe sex is acceptable?" Rotello now says that if he could make only one revision to Sexual Ecology, he would clarify that he is in favor of men talking about why they have unsafe sex--if their goal is to get community support not to have unsafe sex in the future. But it is also true that against Odets's sympathetic depth psychology of sexual risk takers Rotello's book pits a dismissive list of the "justifications and excuses" gay men use when asked why they have unsafe sex.
EVERY THURSDAY night at eight o'clock, Sex Panic meets at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. The only structure to the meetings is a ring of chairs and a pair of co-facilitators, who change weekly. When I visited, the group was planning two September events: a second teach-in, this time at the NYU law school, and a historical slide show by Bérubé that would double as a protest against a new curfew on the West Village piers--a curfew that Sex Panic says is being selectively enforced against young queers of color.
How effective is Sex Panic as a political force? "Controversy is the tool [we] have right now," Bérubé says. "We make a little disturbance so people notice there are other voices." When university professors stand up to defend public sex, people pay attention. But although they drew a sizable audience, Sex Panic lost its first scrimmage against Rotello and Signorile with a fumble.
Key to the message of Sex Panic's first teach-in was its urgency. "Not since Stonewall have we faced so much harassment," their flyer read. Sex Panic's claim of a shutdown stood on two legs. First, according to the Anti-Violence Project, more gay men were reporting that the police had arrested them for public lewdness than in previous years. Second, the city had recently closed a number of gay bars and clubs. For Sex Panic, these two phenomena were linked. At the teach-in, Maura Bairley of AVP accused authorities of "smoking gay and lesbian people out of the clubs, onto the streets, and into the jails."
Unfortunately, no one in Sex Panic had researched either claim thoroughly. When pressed by LGNY, AVP, to its credit, offered hard numbers. Comparing its data on the first six months of 1997 to its data on the first six months of 1996, the organization reported a 61 percent rise in arrests for public lewdness. But the raw numbers AVP released were less impressive: Eighteen arrests were reported to the group during the first half of 1996, twenty-nine during the first half of 1997. Scattered over half a year, eleven additional arrests in New York City looked like something less than a crackdown.
Rotello and LGNY editor Paul Schindler also dissected the club closings Sex Panic had lumped together. Several had been closed under charges of drug trafficking--for example, those owned by Peter Gatien, a mogul of straight as well as gay nightlife. Others were shut for failing to have the cabaret license required by New York City law to permit dancing--an expensive legal hurdle but one that many gay clubs meet. Again, the monolithic image of oppression targeted at gays seemed to crumble.
In Chelsea, the current roost of New York City's itinerant homosexual community, a new boutique, café, or bar for lesbians and gays seems to open every month. The West Side Club that so angered Rotello in 1995 is still in business. Furthermore, as Rotello notes, "the current edition of Homo Xtra lists thirty-six advertised venues where gay men can 'get off' in commercial sex establishments in New York."
If Sex Panic has not been crying wolf, its members need to explain why. They point to 1995, when the city closed many adult theaters because agitation by Rotello and GALHPA had brought higher surveillance, as documented in the Policing anthology. But as LGNY's Duncan Osborne has reported, since January 1997 New York's health department has issued only one warning and closed only one establishment--and that temporarily--which suggests that the panic in question may already be over.
Warner responds to LGNY's coverage by spinning it. Rotello, he points out, has moderated his once-strident language. "Compare Rotello's rhetoric now with his tabloid columns a couple of years ago," Warner says. "He seems to have realized that he is in danger of losing support in the middle.... The rightward slide of the debate has been slowed."
Duggan offers a more provocative answer. She points out that when clubs closed in the 1950s no public official admitted to a coordinated crackdown. "It is correct that there is no conspiracy," Duggan writes by e-mail, hypothesizing that instead there is an uncoordinated trend caused by larger forces, which are also squelching public spaces for debate and expression nationwide by defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and corporatizhas moderated his once-strident language. "Compare Rotello's rhetoric now with his tabloid columns a couple of years ago," Warner says. "He seems to have realized that he is in danger of losing support in the middle.... The rightward slide of the debate has been slowed."
Duggan offers a more provocative answer. She points out that when clubs closed in the 1950s no public official admitted to a coordinated crackdown. "It is correct that there is no conspiracy," Duggan writes by e-mail, hypothesizing that instead there is an uncoordinated trend caused by larger forces, which are also squelching public spaces for debate and expression nationwide by defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and corporatizing large portions of public life. The city's sanitizing of Times Square for Disney, she feels, is emblematic of this process.
Against the press's steady salvo of facts, Sex Panic fires back with interpretations. It is a tactical mistake that academics in the humanities often make when attacked by journalists; to say Rotello's discourse is homophobic or sex negative does not answer his claims about the epidemiology of AIDS. As Rotello retorted to a Sex Panic letter writer, "No honest, nonjudgmental discussion of how AIDS happened to gay men, or how it could be contained, should be ruled off the table because somebody believes it's offensive."
IN A RECENT Nation article that attacked "right-leaning gay talking heads" for monopolizing the media, Warner wrote that "the phone lines have been cut" between mainstream gay journalists and liberationist queer academics. Indeed, I could only find one scholar in lesbian and gay studies with even an attenuated good word for Rotello. Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY and founder of its Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, gave Rotello's Sexual Ecology a qualified favorable review--in The Nation, of all places. When I tell Duberman that his review surprised Michael Warner, among others, he chuckles. "I was a little surprised myself," he says. "That's what happens when you keep an open mind."
Duberman had reservations about Rotello's book. It disturbed him that Rotello wanted to regulate sexual behavior but had not spelled out how to reconcile that goal with individual freedoms. He found some of Rotello's generalizations--about "the ageless lessons of social cohesion," for example, or the lesbian ideal of "fidelity in relationships"--to be sonorous rather than accurate. And he sensed that Rotello's heart was in "the inherent superiority of monogamy" to an extent not entirely justified by epidemiology alone.
In fact, when I relay Warner's defense of sex clubs as "world making," Duberman agrees. "I've been defending what I've been calling sexual adventuring for thirty years," Duberman says. "This kind of adventuring is an essential part of learning about one's sexuality and forming a community. It's not like I don't believe everything that Warner is saying." Nonetheless, Duberman describes Rotello's book to me as "a conscientious and caring attempt to deal with what seems to be a real problem." But he is nearly alone among scholars in judging Rotello's approach to be "genuine and...worthy of respect."
While I was working on this article, a friend told me a story that helped to distill the real problem that has split the journalists and the Sex Panic scholars. (He said the story was true, but it might be urban legend; think of it as a thought experiment.) Bob has sex from time to time with Adam; they aren't boyfriends. Adam is HIV-positive, something Bob and Adam both know. Together, one evening, they pick up a third man, Chris. Bob knows that Chris is HIV-negative and that Chris does not know Adam's serostatus. While the three are in bed together, Adam starts to fuck Chris without a condom. This makes Bob anxious, but he does not say anything to stop it.
As a puzzle, the story has several easy and unsatisfactory solutions: Adam is evil, Bob is a coward, or Chris is an idiot. Probably most gay men today would choose the third solution--in part to ward off consideration of the other two, like the owner of the West Side Club when he said, "If I were to get AIDS today, it's my own fucking fault." However, what interests me about the story is not any single answer but the fact that as casually as it tumbles three men into one bed it turns gay sex into a conversation about ethics. No matter how traditional the coupling may look, there are never just two men involved when gays have sex. This is what makes anonymous queer sex utopian and metonymic for Warner and what makes monogamous gay sex ecological and responsible for Rotello.
It may be that queer theory has no questions to ask about the sex-act-cum-conversation in my friend's anecdote. A theory that resists assembling acts into identities may not be able to help individuals trying to negotiate with one another. A theory that protects sexual acts from moral valences may not be able to help gays judge and adjust their sexual behavior or reward and punish their peers. Maybe queer theory as an enterprise senses that it will look promising only as long as it speaks from outside any tribe or community. Or maybe queer theory has to stay outside by definition. But debates over ethics are always fought inside, where close quarters give the tribe's members daily evidence that people are limited, disappointed, and compromised. If queer theory stays too enraged to join this conversation, it will never be guilty of taming or trapping sex. It will always be able to point out another way of organizing sex, or not organizing it, that would be more free. It will always be able to take an ambiguous comfort in the fact that present-day sex is not the utopia it might be. But then queer theory will be only academic.
Caleb Crain is a graduate student in American literature at Columbia University. His essay "Leander, Lorenzo, and Castalio: An Early American Romance" is forthcoming in Early American Literature.