The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life
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The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life [Hardcover]

Michael Warner
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews Review

The Trouble with Normal argues passionately against same-sex marriage, but here's the twist: not because it denigrates the institution of marriage, but because it perpetuates the cultural shame attached to sex between consenting but unmarried adults. When gay men and lesbians try to claim that they're just like "normal folk," Michael Warner writes, they do a profound disservice to other queer folk who choose not to live in monogamous or matrimonial bliss and who believe that the solution to being stigmatized for your sexuality is not to pretend it doesn't exist. Same-sex marriage advocates, he continues, often seem to be willfully blind to the cultural ramifications of their position, viewing marriage as "an intensified and deindividuated form of coming out." They don't seem to realize that if society validates their relationships, other types of relationships will by necessity be invalidated. (He also makes a strong case for the fight against sexual shame's being more than a queer issue, citing 1998's presidential impeachment crisis: "[Bill] Clinton, certainly, was not the first to discover how hard it is in this culture to assert any dignity when you stand exposed as a sexual being.") Extending his analysis, Warner shows how the championing of married gays and lesbians as "normal" is part of the same cultural climate that leads to "quality of life" crackdowns against queercentric businesses--as is already underway in New York City--and a deliberate sabotage of safer-sex education that puts millions of Americans at continued risk of exposure to HIV. Warner's precise, straightforward argument is enlivened by numerous sharp zingers, as when he accuses Andrew Sullivan of "breath[ing] new and bitchy life into Jesuitical pieties" about sexual morality. The Trouble with Normal is a bold, provocative book that forces readers to reconsider what sexual liberation really means. --Ron Hogan

From Publishers Weekly

Articulate and impassioned, Warner, a professor of English at Rutgers University, confronts what he views as the current trend toward sexual conservatism in gay and lesbian politics. Responding directly to books such as Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal and Gabriel Rotello's Sexual Ecology, as well as to advocates of legalizing gay and lesbian marriage and of closing down bathhouses and other sex venues, Warner claims that the gay movement has embraced an ethic of "sexual shame" and de-emphasized gay sexuality in an attempt to win mainstream approval. Instead of targeting gay sex, Warner argues, the gay movement should be "combating isolation, shame, and stigma." He places his theory in a broader social contextAmost emphatically in relation to the media coverage of Clinton's affair with Monica LewinskyAand details what he sees as the rise of "sexual McCarthyism" in U.S. culture. He also claims that this repression hurts safe-sex education efforts, weakens the gay and lesbian community and, although it is fueled by homophobia, ultimately infringes upon the rights of heterosexuals. While many of these same issues have been addressed in recent books, particularly Samuel R. Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Warner is most effective when specifically countering what he considers to be the antisexual position of such gay spokespeople as Larry Kramer, Michelangelo Signorile and William Eskridge. However, his detailed response also positions his arguments as an intra-community fight and may limit his readership. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

"In this book I am trying to point out the way current conflicts within the gay and lesbian movement, especially debates about public sex and marriage, are not so much debates with shared assumptions as points of conflict and miscomprehension between increasingly divergent worlds," writes Warner (English, Rutgers). Advocating "a frank embrace of queer sex in all its apparent indignity, together with a frank challenge to the damaging hierarchies of respectability," his book is largely a response to Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal (Knopf, 1995) as well as to other arguments in favor of same-sex marriage. Refreshingly iconoclastic in his refusal to rely on the traditional dualities of Left/Right, liberal/conservative, centrist/radical, assimilationist/separatist as he explores the ethics of sexual shame, Warner is certain to ignite the ire of many. And although some of his arguments fall flat because of overgeneralizations, this provocative polemic is recommended for specialized collections.AJames E. Van Buskirk, San Francisco P.L.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

Warner (English/Rutgers Univ.) challenges the current stodginess of queer activismfocused as it is on the gay community's hope to be considered ``normal''through his incisive critique of the banalities and dangers of such normalcy. Criticizing the way some identities are deemed normal while others are not (... la Foucault), Warner delineates with lapidary skill the problems of the cultural constructions of the normal, how heterosexual lives are thus validated at the expense of the queer. Using a smoothly textured argumentative style, Warner showcases the functioning of shame within a conservative ideological framework to reward some identities and punish others. His argument stands strongest when he concentrates on how the eradication of shame from sexuality would liberate queer communities from the monolith of marriage and how the rejection of normalcy would accord the gay community a liberated space within the spheres of the sexual culture. Ironically, the trouble with The Trouble with Normal is that it directs its arguments toward the queer community rather than the straight one. Telling gay people that, for various ethical reasons, they shouldn't even want to marry, when they already can't, does not change the fact that laws that enfranchise some while disenfranchising others are discriminatory. Warner's rhetoric persuasively reveals the hierarchical parameters of marriage and the constraints of normalcy, but a more universal approach to his topic would delineate the limitations of marriage for all peoplenot just queer people. In the end, his polemic leaves standing discriminatory treatment of queers for the sake of a theoretical attack on normalcy. Warner's ethical vision succeeds as a utopian revelation of sex freed from shame, but a sharper eye for the real-life ramifications of such an outlook might have revealed its limitations. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.


Judith Butler Maxine Elliot Professor, Rhetoric and Comparative Literature, University of California-Berkeley, Author of Gender Trouble and Excitable Speech A brave and timely book, Michael Warner's The Trouble with Normal offers a thoroughly intelligent and impassioned critique of gay marriage and the mainstream trend of the lesbian and gay movement to embrace -- without critically evaluating -- the normalizing institutions of the state. Warner is arguably the most productive and radical of queer theorists in our time, and his arguments are an urgent necessity if progressive sexual politics is to retain its claim to radicalism. He not only shows us how shame grips and damages political positions that seek the imprimatur of the normal, but traces with convincing detail the concrete political disenfranchisements for sexual minorities that follow from the purging of a radical perspective on sexuality from lesbian and gay politics. One may not concur with every word, but everyone will attest to the power and necessity of the invaluable critical voice offered here. -- Review

About the Author

Michael Warner, Ph.D., is Professor of English at Rutgers University, where he teaches American Literature and Queer Studies. He is the author of The Letters of the Republic, American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, and Editor of Fear of a Queer Planet. He also writes for The Nation, The Advocate, The Village Voice, and other periodicals. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One: The Ethics of Sexual Shame

Sooner or later, happily or unhappily, almost everyone fails to control his or her sex life. Perhaps as compensation, almost everyone sooner or later also succumbs to the temptation to control someone else's sex life. Most people cannot quite rid themselves of the sense that controlling the sex of others, far from being unethical, is where morality begins. Shouldn't it be possible to allow everyone sexual autonomy, in a way consistent with everyone else's sexual autonomy? As simple as this ethical principle sounds, we have not come close to putting it into practice. The culture has thousands of ways for people to govern the sex of others -- and not just harmful or coercive sex, like rape, but the most personal dimensions of pleasure, identity, and practice. We do this directly, through prohibition and regulation, and indirectly, by embracing one identity or one set of tastes as though they were universally shared, or should be. Not only do we do this; we congratulate ourselves for doing it. To do otherwise would require us to rethink much of what passes as common sense and morality.

It might as well be admitted that sex is a disgrace. We like to say nicer things about it: that it is an expression of love, or a noble endowment of the Creator, or liberatory pleasure. But the possibility of abject shame is never entirely out of the picture. If the camera doesn't cut away at the right moment, or if the door is thrown open unwontedly, or the walls turn out to be too thin, all the fine dress of piety and pride will be found tangled around one's ankles. In the fourth century B.C., the Athenian philosopher Diogenes thought that the sense of shame was hypocrisy, a denial of our appetitive nature, and he found a simple way to dramatize the problem: he masturbated in the marketplace. Many centuries of civilization have passed since then, but this example is not yet widely followed.

An ethical response to the problem of shame should not require us to pretend that shame doesn't exist. That, essentially, is what Diogenes wanted to do. Most defenders of sexual freedom still try some version of this response. They say that sexuality should be valued as pleasurable and life-affirming; or, some say, as a kind of spirituality. Still others see sex as a radical subversion of repressive power. Whatever truth may lie in these or similar ideas about why sex is good, I suspect that most people sense a certain hollowness to these anodyne views of sexuality as simply benign and pleasant. People know better, though they may not admit it. As Leo Bersani wrote in a classic essay of 1987, "There is a big secret about sex: most people don't like it." Perhaps because sex is an occasion for losing control, for merging one's consciousness with the lower orders of animal desire and sensation, for raw confrontations of power and demand, it fills people with aversion and shame. Opponents of moralism, in Bersani's view, have too often painted a sanitized, pastoral picture of sex, as though it were simply joy, light, healing, and oneness with the universe. Many of the moralists do the same when they pretend that sex is or should be only about love and intimacy. Either way, these descriptions of affirmative sex begin to sound anything but sexy. And no matter how true they might be, at least for some people, it is futile to deny the ordinary power of sexual shame.

So the difficult question is not: how do we get rid of sexual shame? The answer to that one will inevitably be: get rid of sex. The question, rather, is this: what will we do with our shame? And the usual response is: pin it on someone else. Sexual shame is not just a fact of life; it is also political. Although nearly everyone can be easily embarrassed about sex, some people stand at greater risk than others. They might be beaten, murdered, jailed, or merely humiliated. They might be stigmatized as deviants or criminals. They might even be impeached. More commonly, they might simply be rendered inarticulate, or frustrated, since shame makes some pleasures tacitly inadmissable, unthinkable. They might find themselves burdened by furtiveness, or by extraordinary needs for disclosure, or by such a fundamental need to wrench free from the obvious that the idea of an alternative is only the dim anticipation of an unformed wish. In any case, they will find it hard to distinguish their shame from its politics, their personal failings from the power of alien norms.

For most people, at least, the ethical response to sexual shame seems to be: more shame. The unethical nature of this response jumps out when we consider the moralisms of the past. The early-eighteenth-century tract Onania, for example, declares that masturbation is a sin "that perverts and extinguishes nature: he who is guilty of it, is laboring at the Destruction of his Kind, and in a manner strikes at the Creation itself." Reading this tortured logic, it's easy to wonder: what were they thinking? More important: why were they so driven to control something that we now recognize as harmless, and by definition not our business? To most readers, I suspect, the irrationality of past moralisms is reassuring: we're smarter than that now. But it could just as easily alarm us, since pronouncements about what kind of sex is or isn't good for others are by no means a thing of the past. Religious groups no longer say much about God's punishment of Onan for masturbation, but they still invoke biblical authority against gay people, sadomasochists, fetishists, and other alleged sex offenders. The secular arguments persist as well: though few people still think that the preservation of the species is a law of nature that has to be executed in every orgasm, they do still think that marital hetero sex has a rationale in nature, however Darwinian, and that it is therefore normative. These alibis of sexual morality crop up everywhere, from common prejudice to academic psychology. Popularized versions of evolutionary biology are enjoying quite a vogue now because they seem to justify the status quo as an expression of natural law.

Perhaps we should call it moralism, rather than morality, when some sexual tastes or practices (or rather an idealized version of them) are mandated for everyone. All too commonly, people think not only that their own way of living is right, but that it should be everyone else's moral standard as well. They don't imagine that sexual variance can be consistent with morality. And they think that anyone who disagrees with their version of morality must be a fuzzy relativist. Their suspicion of sexual variance is pseudo-morality, the opposite of an ethical respect for the autonomy of others. To say this is not to reject all morality, as some conservatives would have us believe; it is itself a moral argument. After all, it would be hard to constrain violence toward women, sissies, and variant sexualities if we thought that all morality were merely a version of the same coercion. Some shame may be well deserved.

The difficulty is that moralism is so easily mistaken for morality. Some kinds of sexual relations seem as though they ought to be universal. They seem innocently moral, consistent with nature and health. But what if they are not universal in fact, or if other people demonstrate a different understanding of nature and health? It would take an extraordinary effort to consider the views of these sexual dissidents with anything like openness, because the first instinct will be to think of them as immoral, criminal, or pathological. And of course they might be. But anytime it seems necessary to explain away other people's sex in these ways, the premises of one's morality could just be flawed. What looks like crime might be harmless difference. What looks like immorality might be a rival morality. What looks like pathology might be a rival form of health

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