Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Sterility [II, 45]

The following strikes many as a truism: homosexuals differ from heterosexuals in that the former perform sterile sexual acts while the latter engage in procreation. One has to amend the last point to "may do so," as modern contraceptive devices make the link between heterosexual intercourse and procreation elective. Yet there is a further problem with the simple dichotomy of sterility vs. fertility, for it assumes that all gays and lesbians are Kinsey sixes—that is, that they never have sexual relations with the opposite gender. That is clearly not so. Also, some heterosexuals are biologically sterile for one reason or another. Finally, gays and lesbians can have children through artificial insemination.

Still the sterility aspersion persists. In its crudest form this notion draws a bright line between same-sex behavior, which cannot lead to procreation, and heterosexual conduct, which can and does. The argument goes back to a late text of Plato. In Book VIII of “The Laws” (ca. 380 BCE) the Greek thinker makes this distinction, comparing homosexual emission to the “sowing of seed on rocks and stones where it can never take root and produce new individuals.” Four centuries later the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria echoed these ideas.

The medieval scholastic critique of usury (lending money at interest) found an analogy with the sin of sodomy. Just as money joined with money cannot create offspring, so too the conjunction of two men or two women is unproductive. Both types of behavior are “sins against nature.” The term bougre did service to affirm the putative connection between usury and sodomy. Originally referring to an Albigensian heretic, the expression came to encompass both the usurer and the sodomite. In the end the latter meaning prevailed.

Here is a recent instance of sterility rhetoric. In his autobiographical memoir Tristes Tropiques (1955, 1973), the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss opines that Fire Island is one of the two weirdest places he has ever seen (the other is in Brazil). In a few swift strokes he lays out his version of the notion: "Cherry Grove is chiefly inhabited by male couples, attracted no doubt by the general pattern of inversion. Since nothing grows on the sand, apart from broad patches of poisonous ivy, provisions are collected once a day from the one and only shop, at the end of the landing stage. In the tiny streets, on higher ground more stable than the dunes, the sterile couples can be seen returning to their chalets pushing prams ... containing little but the weekend bottles of milk that no baby will consume."

Lévi-Strauss fails to mention that Cherry Grove is scarcely a typical version of gay life.


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