The ’Ick’ Factor: How Gay Sex Plays in the Equality Debate

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Apr 12, 2010

The perception among many activists that pro-LGBT political advances have arrived at far too slow a pace in recent years has led to a great deal of finger-pointing. Some aim at the large "Gay Inc." national organizations. Others point to leaders of failed efforts to block same-sex marriage bans in California and Maine. Others cite America's long history of religious activism in politics.

In response to what some perceive as a failure of effective LGBT leadership, many queer activists have called for a strategic turn toward civil disobedience and direct action-oriented organizing, borrowing a page from the history of the African American civil rights movement.

Others maintain the path to federal equality is found in lobbying and keeping faith in the community's "fierce advocates" who hold public office. Still others find the path to equality in some nebulous middle ground between fiery radicalism and patient compliance.

All finger-pointing aside, most of the organizing strategies being trumpeted by activists have zeroed in on specific pieces of legislation as rainbow-hued lamp posts leading toward equality while dismissing the actual content of often hate-filled rhetoric used by the movement's adversaries to block LGBT people from any number of political victories.

We laugh as New Hampshire lawmaker Nancy Elliott explicitly describes the horrors of anal sex between two men in a public hearing on same-sex marriage, but fail to address the question of why a topic which holds no bearing on the legal discussion at hand would be offered by an elected public official in the first place.

In fact, Elliott may have inadvertently stumbled on the real reason why we're not winning full equality. Elliott's articulated disgust with the physiology of gay male sex may, in fact, be far more pervasive in our society than the far right.

A certain disgust with our sex lives may, in fact, have a far-reaching effect on our public lives, according to a respected academic.

The Essence of 'Ick'
Dr. Martha Nussbaum is a professor of law and philosophy at the prestigious University of Chicago's law school. She has termed Elliott's aversion to man-on-man anal sex "the Ick Factor."

According to Nussbaum's theory, those opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, maintain their beliefs largely due to an underlying, subconscious feeling of disgust at the thought of what defines "gay" as, well, gay - as well as lesbian as lesbian: What is done in the bedroom.

Socially conservative, anti-gay political leaders capitalize on these feelings, transforming them, often, into victories in the voting booth. In many cases, they've been successful, providing ammo to activists who feel the attacks beg confrontation.

EDGE recently spoke with a number of queer leaders who responded to Nussbaum's wriggling-in-excrement factor of ick while strategizing an LGBT response to political rhetoric rooted in our bedrooms.

Dr. Nussbaum first arrived at her theory, further outlined in her recent book, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, through the work of philosophers William Miller and Paul Rozin. As Miller argues in the introduction to his seminal work, The Anatomy of Disgust, "Disgust and contempt play crucial political roles in creating and maintaining social hierarchy."

Nussbaum took that theory a step further and applied it, in the wake of Proposition 8, to the LGBT community. She then drew parallels to her theory's application in other political movements.

"I think [disgust] plays a part in lots of arguments against same-sex marriage," Nussbaum told EDGE, "those that use the idea that straight marriage will be 'defiled' or 'tainted' by the approval of gay marriage."

Disgust, she adds, has never been a non-issue: "All societies known to us have subordinated some group or groups of people by ascribing disgusting properties to them. This is a key feature of misogyny, of anti-Semitism, of historical Indian caste prejudice, of American racism and so forth."

'Ick' in the Ballot Box
The theory of disgust, Nussbaum argues, has reared its head continually in other anti-gay legislation through the years, ranging from issues like sodomy to non-discrimination statutes. It usually focuses on squeamishness on male-male sexuality and ignores the fact that many straight couples engage in kinky, non-traditional sexual practices.

In 1992, campaign literature in the battle that led to the passage of Colorado's Amendment 2, which barred communities from passing non-discrimination laws for sexual orientation, said gay men ate feces and drank blood.

More recently, the issue has come up in arguments against retracting the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. There are those who say the presence of gay men in such intimate settings as changing rooms and showers would promote a large "response" in their heterosexual peers. After now-former U.S. Rep. Eric Massa's ticklegate scandal, in which anonymous former fellow Naval officers maintained that he came onto them, some argue that points to straight soldiers at risk, and that the "Ick Factor" will affect unit cohesion.

Feelings of disgust are also typically referenced in slanderous remarks openly gay and lesbian political candidates sometimes face, such as Gainesville, Fla. mayoral candidate Craig Lowe. Literature distributed anonymously through the city referenced Lowe's participation in a gender identity non-discrimination campaign in 2008, stating he is "'responsible' for legally allowing men into women's restrooms!" Further attacks toward Lowe have been issued by a local pastor who initiated a "No Homo Mayor" campaign.

How to Respond?
Obviously, someone making reference to eating feces and drinking blood is one thing. But how to respond to a "reasoned" argument that gay sex is inherently, well, icky?

Nussbaum's theory of disgust brings up a number of negative stereotypes of the gay community that, interestingly, many activists and organizational leaders won't come anywhere near. Several contacts within major LGBT organizations declined to comment for this story. That reluctance from some to confront vehemently anti-gay rhetoric is somewhat telling of both the current political climate - and perhaps the skittishness of LGBT leadership to confront the most fundamental issue of how much what we do in bed defines us, in whatever way the information is used.

Sue Sena co-founded New York-based SWISH, a "gay-straight alliance for adults" dedicated to reaching out to gain political allies to the LGBT movement. She admitted to EDGE she was hesitant to speak on the issue of disgust, describing the argument as a tired one she did not frequently encounter.

She sees the lack of new content to anti-gay voices' pronouncements as a sign they are running out of fresh talking points based in logic, rather than subconscious fears.

"I didn't want to give this sort of argument a lot of weight because, obviously, from our perspective it's a non-issue," Sena said. "Our position is that politics have no place in our bedrooms but that's the reality of the situation that we have to deal with these crazy thoughts."

Bigotry and the Bedroom
Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, Chicago's direct action grassroots LGBT organization, agreed the "ick factor" rhetoric should not be ignored by activists. But he takes the theory with a grain of salt. He sees the rhetoric's appeal as a by-product of homophobia deep-seated in American society.

"As with other kinds of group-related bias, that homophobia is very deeply entrenched in our society and that kind of bigotry doesn't wipe away easily," Thayer said. "People may have a certain level of comfort with LGBT people, but if you scratch under the surface to the subconscious, there can be a wellspring of bigotry to be played on. And that's something the anti-equality movement has done."

It is true that in the past, black, Jewish and Italian men were portrayed as sex-crazed perverts. Such sexual demonization is not uncommon in attempts to portray a hated group as the "other." Go to any rabidly anti-Semitic website and you'll find caricatures of hook-nosed Jews salivating after pure-white maidens whom they can torture or "sodomize."

Thayer pointed to the efforts of anti-gay activists like Americans For Truth About Homosexuality's Peter LaBarbera to "expose" events like International Mr. Leather and the Folsom Street Fair as signs of a repulsive gay nature. But he feels the efforts are backfiring, as people like LaBarbera and Elliott are increasingly marginalized as extremists.

He sees that kind of effort - marking the spewers of anti-gay rhetoric as bigots - as a step in the right direction for activists. Look, he notes, at previous community victories over Anita Bryant, Laura Schlessinger, or John Briggs, who tried to have LGBT teachers banned from California schools - a fight that was dramatized in the film Milk.

"We need to successfully label the leaders of the other side as bigots," Thayer adds. "They certainly give us the evidence to do it. But even if we set up a perfect society tomorrow, people will still have these ideas in their heads and that kind of deep-seated bigotry will live on."

Natasha Dillon, an organizer with Queer Rising, a grassroots organization formed after the New York Senate's rejection of gay marriage last December, argues that disgust-oriented rhetoric needs to be countered by LGBT activist.

"I think a lot of our community doesn't want to believe they are part of a minority, they can live in Chelsea, for example, and get by without being treated poorly or feeling different," she complains. "And if you don't read the news, you can avoid the issue."

Next: Beyond Disgust, Beyond Equality


  • , 2010-04-12 07:50:29

    I couldn’t agree more that we need to be present in all aspects of life, not just those defined by our sexuality. As people see us as *people* first, it becomes much more difficult to argue for unfair and unequal treatment.

  • Marc, 2010-04-12 09:17:24

    I think this is a bit complicated and I suspect there are a few things going on here. Perhaps it is just my own internalized homophobia, but it seems to me that the wider community knows *way* too much about our sexuality. Straight men appear to have a lot of fear around anal sex. Perhaps it has to do with associating being penetrated with inferiority or weakness. Even the sight of two men kissing sends some men into a homophobic rage, which is another instance of the ick factor. I have to admit that when I see a car bearing a "Yes on 8" bumper sticker stopped at a light, I want to start making out with my husband in front of them. I am also reminded about one thing I heard someone from Queer Nation say years ago: He was complaining about the argument LGBT leaders were making to straight society when they said, "We’re just like you, except what we do in bed." His response was, "My life is *nothing* like yours *except* for what we do in bed." Harvey Milk was right. Everyone needs to come out in order for society to change.

  • , 2010-04-12 09:44:58

    It is sad that all these right wingers see the sex factor. It is a shame that they cant see us as people first. We have been all over for centries, who knows maybe we are one of their neighbors. Would we be crtitsized for that

  • , 2010-04-12 10:24:03

    To Anon two above: The point isn’t that the straights know too much about our sex lives. The people who are well adjusted can handle the details. The sexually repressed religious nuts freak out when they think about it because they can’t think about sex and especially not hot sex. This article has pinpointed what may be THE hot-button issue that remains the unacknowledged elephant in the room.

  • , 2010-04-12 12:02:44

    If only more people followed the adage to each their own we’d live in a better world.

  • BB, 2010-04-12 13:56:42

    Much of the apparently shallowness of the arguments from the left have to do with a parochialism that is mind-boggling. If 2nd millenium America were the only place and time in earth history where homosexuals faced bigotry and the "ick factor," then the leftist arguments would hold water. Then their incessant hate of the right, of Christianity, of American culture would ring true, but in point of fact we are dealing with some universals here that transcend time, place and culture and the leftist focus on a short enemies list is emblamatic of a real dearth of knowledge and understanding. The profundity of Dr. Nussbaum’s theory is turned into just another cheap tactic to demonize a specific class of political enemy and the actual worth of her theory is shunted aside by demogogic partisans looking for bullet points.

  • , 2010-04-12 15:51:13

    I’m ashamed that NH Rep. Elliott is allowed to not only discuss the "ick" factor, but further went on to openly lie about NH’s second largest school system as allowing the teaching of male/male sexual practices in the elementary school system. Only when her feet were held to the fire with regard to revealing her "sources" did the vile Elliott apologize to her NH House colleagues. As far as I’m concerned, she should have resigned. Where she didn’t, well I guess the ballot box is the next step to rid NH’s House of Rep.s of such bigotry, hatred and hype of this nature.

  • Anon, 2010-04-12 19:58:43

    My reaction to this article, those mentioned in it and those who’ve posted to it: WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE? Bigots are disgusted by gays’ sex acts and use that disgust to rationalize their bigotry? DUH! I had to check to be sure I wasn’t reading the Onion. That this notion is considered revelatory astonishes and depresses me. Forty-one years after Stonewall and some quarters are only now realizing the obvious. This sort of thing might make me feel like a genius if I knew I weren’t. I think I’ll reread ’A Confederacy of Dunces’ to cheer myself up.

  • , 2010-04-13 07:09:53

    You guys keep enjoying your unnatural ick, I will keep enjoying my natural heteral marriage with my wife whom I have been married to for over 30 years.

  • , 2010-04-13 10:43:54

    Is it possible that we have blindly subscribed to stereotypes that proliferate without a shred of supporting evidence? Do objective data exist that lend credence to the actual prevalence of gays/hets who regularly engage in those practices deemed by moral prescriptionists to be "icky"? I do not know the answer... but my suspicion is that we have capitulated to the porn industry to define who the typical gay or het is!

  • , 2010-04-13 11:47:18

    You guys keep enjoying your unnatural ick, I will keep enjoying my natural heteral marriage with my wife whom I have been married to for over 30 years.

  • , 2010-04-13 15:56:00

    "Bigots are disgusted by gays’ sex acts and use that disgust to rationalize their bigotry? DUH! I had to check to be sure I wasn’t reading the Onion. That this notion is considered revelatory astonishes and depresses me. Forty-one years after Stonewall and some quarters are only now realizing the obvious." Just because it’s "obvious" to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be out there and reported on responsibly. Get it in the open and discuss it and deal with it. Obivous or not!

  • , 2010-04-18 06:47:03

    Straights love to perceive the world in black-white terms, but the reality is that most gay sexual practices are enjoyed by so-called straight couples too. Why is fellatio, cunnilingus, mutual masturbation and sodomy OK for heteros but not for GLBTs? Getting puritanical straight Americans to admit what goes on in their own bedrooms would be a big step toward obtaining equality.

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