the problem with experimentation

I thought that this piece by J.K. Trotter on Tom Hardy’s past partial admission, then sort-of-denial of having sexual encounters with other men was interesting. It simultaneously made me feel a little sad that Hardy (or more likely, his people) would feel the need to be aggressive in defining the story, while also making me understand why they would react that way. After all, people made a really big deal about it, as Trotter notes. It demonstrates that, while gay people have faced and continue to face a unique level of discrimination and threat of bodily harm over their sexual identity, there remains something uniquely controversial about same-sex attraction or sex between people who don’t identify as gay. (Or queer, or similar.)

Two points: one, I think it’s a shame that so many of the pieces that discuss such issues use the terminology of experimentation. It’s natural, I suppose, but it really limits the world of same-sex activity by people who don’t identify as gay. What if a straight-identifying person wants to have sex with someone of their gender without viewing it as an experiment? What if someone wants to avoid self-identification in that way entirely, but is not in any sense experimenting?

Second, the way in which same-sex sexual activity is inherently newsworthy (whether on a large-scale for celebrities or small scale for one’s personal social circle) stems from some progressive attitudes as well as regressive ones. The latter, traditionally, view same-sex sexual activity as sinful, or dirty, or shameful, or otherwise pathological. But though they view same-sex sexual experiences positively, some progressive (I stress: some) mimic one aspect of regressive attitudes — namely, that same-sex attraction or activity are inherently a really big deal. In other words, a lot of good, decent, well-meaning people have replaced the notion that same-sex sexual activity is a terrible shame that is unmentionable and worthy of condemnation with the notion that same-sex sexual activity is a wonderful act of discovering one’s identity that should be celebrated. Obviously, the latter is worlds better than the former. But both treat such acts as existential — as defining the person in one particular way. And self-definition is, well, terrifying, in a lot of ways, and difficult and personal and private. What we should pursue is the right of the individual to determine how big of a deal it is for him or herself — for some to be defined through their sexual identity and some not to be.

Under those conditions, the language of experimentation makes sense; it’s a way to linguistically preempt the notion that one’s identity should be inextricably bound to who one has sex with. It’s useful, in other words, even if it’s somewhat distorting. But I think better alternatives are possible.