So for those of you who don’t know me personally, or haven’t heard my unending ranting about the incredible institute I’ve been attending in Istanbul guess what… I’ve just been attending an incredible institute in Istanbul!
The focus of the institute was to develop the skills and understanding of activists, project coordinators and advocates from around the world (with a focus on the global south) to deal with issues of human rights in sexuality and gender. The participants are wildly variant from sexuality educators from Kyrgystan, queer film festival innovators from China, journalists from Syria and women’s rights activists from South Africa. On the first day, we learnt our very first lesson, first thing in the morning.
Make no assumptions
Or, if you must make assumptions, make as few as possible
Or, at least know what assumptions you are making
This mantra would be seriously put to the test over the next 9 days with no topics closed to discussion (except maybe the development of a new framework other than the human rights one to talk about this issues through – I think that was just too much for the organisers to even contemplate!). Conversations ranged from, is adult-child sex always abuse? What is the standard of sexual legitimacy that we want to work with (currently the accepted standard is “consent” but within that word lie many sleeping assumptions and challenges). What is the sexual hierarchy in your part of the world and how can it be changed/challenged/rejected? Does gender really exist outside of the collective societal mind and if not how can we campaign for trans and intersex rights without relying on a gender identity framework? Woah was my brain spinning every night with the ideas and discussions flying around the meeting room at the Hotel Erboy in Istanbul!
So what does it mean to make no assumptions in regards to sexuality and gender rights? First assumption off the rank was the contemporary construct of sexuality in and of itself. Originally, heterosexuality was as much a perversion as homosexuality still is in many places. Heterosexuality was the word given to describe people who wanted to have sex for non-procreative reasons, or in other words, were having sex for fun not to make new humans. The idea of having sex for fun was a big challenge to the hegemonic discourse around sex being something which happened between a man and a woman, within the institute of marriage, for means of procreation. In Victorian times, this was the accepted normative experience of sexuality and included strong ideas about a binary of sex (as in man and woman) men having a hydraulic sex drive that could be directed toward any partner if not controlled by the conventions of marriage and monogamy and women having no sex drive whatsoever and finding no pleasure in the experience. The rise of the physician in Victorian times led to the discovery of a mysterious “third sex” including women who enjoyed sex (and this would include sex workers) and men who had sex with other men, animals, inanimate objects etc. This third sex puzzled physicians and the early “sexologists” as they didn’t understand or appreciate the concept of a variety of sexual appetites or a continuum of sexual preference, performance and personality. So it was that the concepts of hetero and homo sexuality were developed, both pathological, both equally dangerous to society and both treated with suspicion and mistrust (which makes you wonder how clever these peeps were as in my opinion you only have to experience sex once or twice to realise that it’s a fun way to spend a boring afternoon).
So, with the massive assumption that heterosexual = normal well and truly put in it’s historical place, for modern activists fighting for LGBTIQ rights, the question is; how can the current hegemony surrounding the “normalcy” of heterosexuality vs the “abnormalcy” of homosexuality be undermined by looking to the past?
Keep your eye out for more questions about the assumptions we make around sexuality and gender.