why we’re almost always talking about the wrong things when we talk about sex

As you may be aware, Portland Mayor Sam Adams is under some flack for lying and then admitting about having sex with an 18-year-old. He denied the affair during his campaign, became the first openly gay mayor of a U.S. city the size of Portland, and then this week admitted to the affair.

You know what, it sucks that Adams lied to Portland citizens about the affair. Everyone’s chiming in that he’s lost the city’s trust. Just Out, Portland’s gay rag, wants him to resign because the trust is so broken. Basic Rights Oregon, the gay and lesbian rights group, writes:

This situation is not about gay or straight. It’s about personal responsibility. The Mayor himself has made this very clear in his public statements. He is being subject to the same public scrutiny as any elected official in the same situation, and that’s appropriate.

When someone breaks new ground – as Sam has – they carry added burdens and responsibilities. As a public figure and a gay community leader, Sam Adams is no exception to this rule.

The question now is whether Sam can rebuild trust with Portland voters. That will determine his path forward. He’s going to have to work hard at it, and only time will tell.

Perhaps BRO and Sam Adams are right when they say this isn’t about being gay or straight. What BRO and Just Out especially aren’t right about is how to frame this. Just Out’s editors state, “The bond of trust and confidence has been broken.” But they don’t state when and who broke this bond — indeed, if this bond ever existed.

The real question that isn’t being asked is why Adams felt compelled to lie to begin with. And the answer to that lies in our culture of shame — that certain sex acts are shamed. Michael Warner, in The Trouble with Normal writes about shame extensively: There are two ways to approach shame, generally, in building politics and identities. One is to accept a shaming society and to engage in that shaming behavior. The other is to critique and reject a shaming culture — indeed, to continue to do “shameful” things and yet refuse to be ashamed. His classic example is the Clinton sex scandal, which showed just how much of a culture of shame there is in U.S. sexual culture. And here we are again, shaming a public figure for his sexual acts.

Why, Portland, do you give a rats ass who he had sex with? The real issue isn’t that he lied. The real issue is that he felt compelled to lie in the first place because to be honest about this meant being shamed around it. And why, BRO, the supposed leader of gay and lesbian activism in Oregon, and Just Out, the supposed gay media of Portland, do you decide to continue a culture of shame instead of critiquing it?

If Portland suddenly can’t trust Adams because he lied about his sex life (of all things!), perhaps it is actually Adams who can’t trust Portlanders. I believe people lie for generally two reasons (there are probably many more, I just haven’t thought this out too much): 1) malevolent reasons for gain (e.g., there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), or 2) you feel you can’t trust someone or you fear their rejection or shame. We could read a lie about a sex act as being malevolent, as part of a desire for power and prestige. But even then, the lie wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t reject people based on their sex acts, because ultimately, I believe this lie is rooted and sprouts out of a culture of shame.

Adams had sex with an 18-year-old. So what. Deal with it, Portland, and get over yourself. (The only grounds I see this issue worth being of concern is if the sex was non-consensual, and as far as “we the public” know, it was consensual, except perhaps under a structuralist(?) argument involving the relationship between institutional power and consent, but that’s another issue.)

UPDATE: Alex Blaze at the Bilerico Project has an excellent post about this issue.

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5 Responses to why we’re almost always talking about the wrong things when we talk about sex

  1. Ira Socol says:

    Shame-based culture that “we” are – why else would you be compelled to deny the pleasures of consensual adult sex? Why else would anyone have asked?

    Until we begin to get at our rather psychotic relationship with pleasure, much less our psychotic relationship with the concept of sexual activity, we end up wasting vast energies on this nonsense.

  2. Nate F says:

    While I think it is not hypothetically unreasonable for culture at large, especially PDX culture, to un-shame certain sex acts, I do think that it would be difficult to make that change among the current voting public immediately. But that’s not really what I wanted to comment on…
    What I did want to say is that I think your admonition of the LGBT press is dead on. You would think that these editorial bodies, at least, would be the FIRST ones to make the case the you put forth here. While they would almost certainly be the minority report in this case if they did so, now that they have chosen to harmonize with the voice of the dominant culture thay have essentially stunted any forward momentum that the movement might have had.
    So, yeah. Good take. I’m blogrolling you, homey

  3. Dennis says:

    I’m with Ira on this one. It’s almost comic, but mostly tragic, watching Big Important Public Figures and Newspapers and Journalists crap themselves over the idea that someone had a good time in the bedroom, and ohmygodthat’ssoterrible.

  4. Jon says:

    Thank you for this editorial Michael. Sam should stay.

  5. Reid says:

    Ahh, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thanks for sharing!

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