Too straight down the aisle

Sexual Justice

March 13, 1998

Sexual Justice is an extremely engaging, lively, and original treatment of the rights of sexual minorities, and of a host of other topics into the bargain. Although Morris Kaplan teaches philosophy at Purchase College in New York, his interests are as much historical as philosophical, and as much psychological as political. One of the pleasures of Sexual Justice is purely literary. Its author is anything but hesitant about making a case for the legal as well as the moral and social rights of gays and lesbians - he was a lawyer with the New York Legal Aid for some years - but the book is written in a constantly good-humoured tone, as though Kaplan is happily surprised to find himself in the company of Plato, Freud, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and a host of others. Walter Pater and Benjamin Jowett in Victorian Oxford jostle the Supreme Court justices in 1986 Washington who decided Bowers v. Hardwick - the extraordinary case in which the court decided against "the alleged right to commit homosexual sodomy" - and Kaplan has something interesting and fresh to say about them all.

Kaplan divides the book into three sections - principles, psyches, politics - but readers will find another triad at work - history, philosophy, and law. The intellectual elegance of Sexual Justice stems in large part from the way in which Kaplan moves back and forth between the perspectives of these three disciplines. Plato's Athens appears not only as the site of a form of sexual love that took status more seriously than gender, but also as the setting for Plato's Symposium, which is given a splendidly high-spirited and imaginative reading. Kaplan argues that "Plato's Symposium is not a complete account of eros and its place in human life. One of its major effects is to question the very possibility of such an account." In that spirit, Kaplan emphasises not only the contrast between the love that animates the lover of learning and the sensual passion that drives others almost wild; he emphasises the need for a political understanding of eros, too. This is not just the rather trite observation that sexuality takes on the colour of its cultural setting; it is the rather tougher thought that a "full and satisfying life requires the constraints of justice as well as the needy excesses of love." That is, the sort of sexuality we can practise consistently with self-respect, and with a reasonable hope that it will not be self-destructive, is in part a matter of the sort of citizenship we can hope for.

That thought, of course, pulls us back towards our own times and to what Kaplan refers to as the regime of compulsory heterosexuality. It has lately become fashionable to say that "the love that dare not speak its name" has now become the love that simply cannot stop talking; but the jibe misses the point. Or rather it misses quite a number of points.

One is that we are a long way from having come to an agreement about what sexual rights gays and lesbians have. Britain, like the United States, still forbids gays to join the armed services - a ban that is almost unique among purportedly civilised states, and which in Britain's case is likely to be overturned when Britain adopts the European Convention on Human Rights. The rights of homosexual partners to take over accommodation owned by each other, to share in pension rights, and in the US to be covered by each other's health care plans, are all highly contentious.

Even the less demanding right that one might loosely call a right to social acceptance is somewhat shaky. Kaplan quotes Freud as insisting that homosexuality is neither a sin nor a disease but merely a variation in sexual orientation - but notes wryly that Freud also considered homosexuality a form of "arrested development". Freud might save one from the police and from hospitalisation, but do we also have a right to be freed from the good-natured but clumsy attentions of those who suppose that our development has been arrested?

Kaplan wants something more than a bare agreement that the time is past for throwing homosexuals in jail for what they do discreetly and consensually - even if that bare agreement is itself threatened by the Supreme Court's decision that the Florida statute criminalising sodomy and threatening the practitioners of oral or anal sex with 20 years in jail was constitutional.

An especially nice discussion of what one might want comes in the final chapter of Sexual Justice. There, Kaplan argues, as you might say, left hand against right. Much of the chapter is a defence of same-sex marriage. This part of the argument is neatly done, but in essence unsurprising: those who wish for the stability provided by the sort of legal arrangements we call marriage ought to be able to enjoy it. Nothing other than marriage in the same sense as heterosexual marriage will quite do; tinkering with the arrangements for housing, healthcare and the rest would alleviate some of the financial discrimination against same-sex couples, but it would not amount to the acknowledgement of their right to a protected intimate existence on the same terms as everyone else.

The more startling argument, however, comes at the very end of the book, when Kaplan dispels any suggestion that he is advocating same-sex marriage as a way of stabilising the lives of gays and lesbians. There he argues that those who choose to engage in casual sexual relations have a right to do so safely. Official policy may have unwelcome side-effects. Seemingly safe-sex promoting policies adopted in New York drive homosexuals into unsafe relationships while the more relaxed policing policies of San Francisco allow a form of self-policing that ensures much greater safety. Or to put it otherwise, the achievement of sexual justice takes several different sorts of intelligence, most of which are on display here.

Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford.

Sexual Justice: Democratic Citizenship and the Politics of Desire

Author - Morris B. Kaplan
ISBN - 0 415 90514 1 and 90515X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 291

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