Thursday, November 26, 2009

Misogyny and queer-hatred

My review of Ronald Long’s book on male homosexuality and religion provoked interest in the connection between misogyny and “homophobia”.

I really dislike the term ‘homophobia’. The issue is typically not fear but hatred. There is a condition of fear of homosexuality (normally, the fear of one’s homosexual feelings, the fear that one is homosexual). But that is a very specific situation. The wider issue is hatred, so I will use the term ‘queer-hatred’ as being both more general and more accurate. (‘Gay’ suffers from being a bit too much of being a very specific term and identity, ‘queer’ strikes me as broader.)

That there is some connection between misogyny and queer-hatred seems obvious enough. The countries in the world that are most violently oppressive of homosexuals are also the countries that are most oppressive to women. Resistance to equal rights to women have come from much the same groups who resist equal rights for homosexuals. It is the most misogynist religions—those for whom the clerical role is a male monopoly—which are the most queer hating. Homosexual liberation has marched along with women’s liberation—it struck me as a very nice historical resonance when I noticed that the word homosexual was coined in the same year John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women.

Discussing the connection runs immediately into sex and gender issues. People are born male or female (apart from a tiny minority), at least in physical form. But how sexual identities are conceived can vary widely.

Modern Western societies take it for granted that sex is properly between equals or near-equals. Which is why paedophilia has become so anathematised: it is such an offence against the notion that sexual partners should be equals, and against consent and personal autonomy (all the more so since it also raises fraught issues about how consent and personal autonomy are to be conceived given the changing cognitive status from baby to adulthood).

But the notion that sex is properly between equals or near-equals is very far from a universal human norm. Indeed, historically it is far more common to have the view that sex is properly between unequals. So a male penetrating a female was fine—that was between unequals. But a “proper” male was never penetrated—for that “unmanned” him, it moved him from the status of superior to inferior.
Ancient Greece and Rome—with their higher status and lower status males—had no problem with same-sex relations provided they did not upset existing status relations. So a mature man could have an adolescent lover—that was between unequals. (Indeed, those oriented towards their own sex were often driven to such relations, as the only socially acceptable way of expressing their sexuality.) A citizen could penetrate a slave—that was between unequals.

But the monotheisms fundamentally denied this notion of lower and higher status males. All males were religiously equal. But sex was still properly between unequals. So, in status terms, sex was only permissible with women.*

ASIDE: This status structure is not the most important factor in the sexual logic of monotheism. The most important factor is that, in monotheism, sex separates us from the divine: from the solitary One God. The only connection of sex to the divine is for it to be procreative, for then we are agents of the One God as Creator. But giving female sexual power any legitimate authority upsets the highly masculinized vision of public authority that monotheism has (religious authority is male, God is primarily God-the-Father). So female sexuality becomes inherently threatening. Which then feeds back into the status point.

Particularly in Islam. Islam has a more positive view of (male) sexual pleasure because it is a religion of layered submission and therefore of layered domination (men over women, believers over unbelievers). So females serving the sexual pleasure of male believers fits its status-structure. That Islam had socially segregated women, was intensely patriarchal and a slave society meant it reproduced many of the features of classical Greece, including status-divided homosexual activity and homoerotic art (mainly poetry). END

The rise of the women’s movement and changing social circumstances has led to the slow overturning of the notion that men have superior status to women. So sex has become something that is properly between equals or near equals.

But if sex is properly between equals or near equals, then that frees social space for homosexuality, since that is patently sex between equals.** It really is a nice historical resonance that the word homosexual was coined in the same year as J S Mill published The Subjection of Women.

Misogyny and queer-hatred naturally march together because both are based on the notion that men are superior to women. That men and women have different roles and that it “unmans” a man to perform a “female” role, such as it “de-feminises” a woman to perform a “male” role.

That homosexuals do tend to be cognitively cross-matched (i.e. female homosexuals tend to show some “male” cognitive traits and patterns and male homosexuals tend to show some “female” cognitive traits and patterns) just reinforces the tendency for misogyny and queer-hatred to march together: if males are superior to females, it is obviously “just wrong” for a male to show “female” interests and patterns of behaviour (thereby “unmanning” himself) and for a female to show “male” interests and patterns of behaviour (thereby “aping” her “betters”). The mixing of the traits of equals is obviously less confronting than the mixing of the traits of unequals.

For some, such crossing of gender lines is confronting in itself: but it is clearly a lot more confronting if it also crosses status lines.

Misogyny is all about men having higher status than women, about there being superior male roles and inferior female roles. In societies without the “right sort” of lower status males for “real men” to penetrate***, queer-hatred is going to march with misogyny because homosexuality and homosexuals violate the status lines of misogyny.

Can a strongly queer-hating man not be a misogynist? According to Dan Savage, not often:
I think a lot of homophobia is hatred of women repackaged, 'cause gay men seem to preoccupy homophobes the most. It's usually about anal sex, and gay men are perceived as taking on the woman's role, and women are despised. The woman's role is less-than. And in a male-supremacy culture, men who take on the woman's role willingly kind of freak out some of the dudes. If you could eradicate misogyny, homophobia would evaporate. That's why I always tell women, "If you're dating a homophobe, you're dating a guy who's secretly a misogynist, who secretly hates you. And you shouldn't."
I can see a man being queer-hating due to inner fears about his own sexuality. (That is, being genuinely homophobic.) I can see someone having strong objections to homosexuals because of strong beliefs about the form of sexual acts. But a queer-hater not being misogynist is clearly not the way to bet.

Can a misogynist not be a queer-hater? Of course: there are misogynist gay men. But that is typically antipathy based on difference. A straight man who is misogynist is someone who, in some important sense, despises his preferred sexual partners. What reaction do you think he is typically going to have to men who “take on the role” of the despised AND are “freed” from the burden of women? Who are “weak” but not burdened with dealing with their "inferiors"? Again, a misogynist not being a queer-hater is clearly not the way to bet.

Misogyny and queer-hatred do not have automatic one-to-one relations. But, in the absence of appropriate lower status males to penetrate, the premises of misogyny fuel queer-hatred.

* There is a lot more that can be said about conceptions of the proper role of sex. (Such as about antipathy to the pleasurable/connective role of sex, that what one did with slave boys was clearly not of great moment in Islam or the flourishing “beat life” in Muslim countries with strong social segregation of women: social prisons producing "prison" sex.) Still, this simple syllogism has considerable power.
** The attempts to tie homosexuality to paedophilia (there is no connection: indeed, paedophiles who are heterosexual in their adult relations are particularly prone to prey on younger boys, since then they have less of the adult male characteristics they are not attracted to) may in part express some notion that sex “just can’t” be between equals, so “naturally” gays are going to prey on young boys.
*** Classical Greece was a strongly misogynist society (imagine a society run by the equivalent of football jocks), but had appropriate types of lower status males.


  1. That's a very interesting observation by Dan Savage -- and you know what, I think he's right. Always illuminating, you are, Lorenzo.

  2. Yes, I thought Dan Savage's observation had something to be said for it :)

    And I certainly try to be illuminating -- for myself to start with!

  3. Interesting post! I always wondered why men don't mind watching lesbian porn but are repulsed by gay porn. Perhaps there is more to it?
    Any thoughts on homophobia displayed by women? Does it have to do with the 'yang' in women or is it because of same reasoning of some gay men being misogynists?

    1. No strong thoughts: except may be (1) hating the "competition" and (2) threatened by upsetting of a strong sense of gender roles.