The Panic Over Sex Panic!

Last year a debate raged over barebacking, a current nickname for unprotected anal intercourse between gay men. Unfortunately, a debate engendered from genuine concern soon degenerated into the usual shrill, self-righteous posturing and censure that invariably results from any sexual discussion or analysis in this country. We Americans are exceedingly inept at public sexual conversation. Even gay and lesbian Americans.

So it comes as no surprise to me that this year's big gay controversy is still about sex. Seems there's a New York based grass-roots group called Sex Panic! with a gutsy message: People have sexual rights.

Sex Panic! formed in 1997 and regards itself as "a pro-queer, pro-feminist, anti-racist direct action group" with a multi-issue agenda including HIV prevention, the defense of public sexual culture and sexual self-determination. Sex Panic! has a website, pamphlets and regular meetings. Members believe that police entrapment and crackdowns on public sex, closure of commercial sex establishments, plus the demonization of certain gay male subcultures constitute a contemporary American sex panic. Last November they held the National Sex Panic! Summit in San Diego, California. From that meeting came their Declaration of Sexual Rights which includes the following eleven demands.

  1. Respect for sexual diversity.
  2. Decriminalization of consensual sex practices.
  3. An end to censorship and to restrictions on sexual information and public discussion of sex.
  4. Recognition for the right of youth to sexual freedoms and self-determination.
  5. A recognition that sexual empowerment requires health care and education for all.
  6. An end to scapegoating of HIV-positive people and PWAs, including those who are sexually active.
  7. HIV prevention efforts built upon the right to be sexual and the need to sustain shared sexual cultures.
  8. An end to state preference for traditional households and relationships.
  9. An end to harassment of sex workers and legal sanctions against paid sex.
  10. An end to the prohibition and stigmatization of public sex.
  11. Advocacy for the above principles and demands by all progressive and civil rights organizations.

Okay, you've read them. The first nine demands are pure rhetoric and I agree with each and every one of them wholeheartedly. Number 10 troubles me. I simply do not understand some folks continued support of public sex, gay or straight. I have seen public sex lead to public humiliation, entrapment, arrest, beatings, murder and the destruction of lives, families and careers. I have heard some of the very people who engage in public sex admit it's both compulsive and addictive. I can't support number 10 on Sex Panic!'s list because it doesn't make sense. The anonymous thrills of public sex are not without consequences. If you want to have consensual sex in bathhouses, sex clubs or the designated backrooms or bars, I'll be the first one to defend your right to do so. But don't ask me to defend it in parks or rest areas or at the gym. And by the way, the next time I'm shopping at Home Depot and I go to the restroom to pee, it means I really have to pee and I can do so much easier without you straining to get a better look at my penis. Call me a prude. Whatever. The truth is I've had public sex before (because when I was younger I bought into the idea that gay men are supposed to do that). So yeah, I ejaculated in an alley in Key West with another guy while a dog watched and barked at us. Later, as I thought about the experience, I was reminded of an incident from my suburban childhood where I watched two dogs have sex in the middle of the street in front of my house. I don't have public sex anymore because I'd like to think I'm a little more evolved than our four-legged friends.

On to number 11. Go back and read it again. It makes me uncomfortable in the same way that "Contract with America" business did a few years back.

Honestly, I consider Sex Panic! to be a fairly benign organization. The only thing extraordinary about some of its members is that they unashamedly discuss the intimate details of their sexual encounters in public and in print. For instance, '97 Summit organizer Tony Valenzuela (an HIV+ activist and porn star) shared his complicated personal journey with HIV and publicly admitted to finding pleasure, intimacy and meaning in sex without condoms. He was scathingly attacked for his reflections and labeled a promoter of unsafe sex by groups like P-FLAG and author Michelangelo Signorile. I think Tony Valenzuela did everyone a service by giving an honest speech about desire, needs and the unique personal value some people still place on intercourse without protection. Do I cringe at the notion that an HIV+ gay man is having unprotected anal intercourse? Absolutely. But I also cannot harshly judge a man with guts enough to remind us that our sexuality has been compromised by HIV and that sometimes reality does not include 100% "responsible" sexual behavior.

Out magazine columnist Michelangelo Signorile's recent misbegotten attack of Valenzuela and Sex Panic! is typical of what passes for journalism in the mainstream gay press today. Signorile, whom I liked so much better when he was outing prominent closet cases in the early '90s, seems hellbent on squashing any idea he did not personally conceive and any discussion he can't personally facilitate. He has all the charm of a hysterical witness embellishing the facts of a multi-car accident on the interstate. He wants us to believe Sex Panic! is some sinister, delusional organization advocating barebacking and whitewashing the past. I think what really frightens Signorile and so many other gay and lesbian writers about Sex Panic! is the unabashed way some of its members reject guilt, fear and repression, calling for sexual empowerment and candid conversations about what we do sexually and why we do it.

I've visited Sex Panic!'s website, read their publications and transcripts of speeches by members. I found a lot of thoughtful remarks about sex, safer sex and gay male sex culture. It was also obvious to me that this is an organization in its infancy, a bit wobbly, but deserving of an opportunity to grow and be heard. No, I don't agree with all their demands and I think some of their rhetoric is silly. I found some of ACT UP's language and actions unsettling over the the past ten years, too, but in retrospect, their contributions to AIDS education, research and advocacy are undeniable. I sincerely hope Sex Panic! survives the current criticism because time is past due for frank talk about the anxieties, realities, desires and paradoxes of gay male lives.