Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Men Who Buy Sex

A new report on prostitution has just been released, publishing the findings of hundreds of interviews with male clients of prostitutes. More comment to follow. Perhaps.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I've been pondering the ethics of writing about religion from a position of agnosticism. My work aims to be more than merely descriptive: analytical with a politics of social justice. I find some theologies obnoxious, morally repugnant. But who am I to tell someone else what to believe? As an historian I attempt to understand how particular religious cultures come to be. I'm almost comfortable pointing out how they have been different in the past, or how an historically continuous, but more morally palatable tradition might develop. But I balk at more straightforward judgements.

I was quite confronted then by the conclusion to Bill Maher's recent mocumentary Religulous (2008). The film points out the ridiculous, the violent, the intolerant in the more colourful ends of the major monotheistic religious traditions. Then, at the end, Maher delivers a lengthy straight to camera monologue condemning all forms of religion as leading to violence, fulfilling their own prophesies of armagedon. Maher becomes an evangelist for atheism. Given the his jocular tone through the film up to this point I was expecting a "live and let live" sort of ending. His bald condemnation of spirituality took me by surprise. And got me thinking.

In one sense, Maher is actually in a more honest position than I. He is speaking for his own position. I am looking over my neighbour's fence, telling them how they could be better. I am a cultural busy-body: not a particularly complimentary metaphor. Other liberal academics and cultural commentators might like to position themselves as a GP, a cultural doctor, curing the ills of the world. But this metaphor only works if the 'patients' come to you. Going out searching for patients, seems less (para)medic, more vigilante.

One way around this dilemma might be to collapse the boundary between religious and secular within society. If people of (varying degrees of) different faiths constitute a civil society, then any member of that society can perhaps rightly comment on any faith to the extent that it effects that society. But this sounds so insipid, easy. I'm looking for a more rigorous ethical basis for my critique.

And, as has been happening more and more lately, I find myself falling back on/reading with interest, Marxist types. In this instance (courtesy of Justin Neuman) I'm looking at Terry Eagleton's 'Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections of the God Debate' (2009).

More, when I've actually read it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Protestant denomination in the world. It has a long history and in the twentieth century had a remarkable social presence. The SBC actively worked against segregation and promoted temperance. Until the 1980s it had relatively progressive policy of sex-education. It also has one of the narrowest views of homosexuality of any mainstream Christian Church. There is nary a mention of homosexuality in the SBC until Anita Bryant’s 1977 campaign to ban lesbian and gay teachers from Florida schools. The SBC passed resolutions in support of Bryant that year, and slowly began to articulate its position on homosexuality. The tone of statements on sexuality from the Church’s main social issued body, the Christian Life Commission, were surprisingly pastoral – gentle even – in the 1980s. Unlike fellow Southern Baptist Jerry Falwell, the CLC seems to have promoted a relatively sympathetic response to the AIDS crisis. However, eventually what is known variously as the Conservative revival, or Fundamentalist takeover, was manifest in the Commission’s sexual policy and, along with anti-abortion campaigning, anti-homosexual politics became the Commission’s principle preoccupation. Which is where the Church seems to be today. It promotes the ex-gay movement, opposes gay marriage, and opposes anti-discrimination legislation (ie actively supports discrimination).

I don’t know that the SBC has ever had a liberal attitude towards homosexuality. But its capacity for tolerance has certainly diminished over the past twenty years. They have gone from quietly and infrequently saying that homosexuality is condemned in the bible to loudly, frequently and publicly opposing gay law reform, effectively legitimating homophobia. So while more and more States here pass gay marriage and remove legislative discrimination against LGBT people, the largest Protestant denomination in the world hurtles in the opposite direction. And it is hard to imagine what could alter its course.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Music City

I'm in Nashville. Music City. The town of Honky Tonks, the Grand Ole Opry, and crazy Southern goodness. I have to say I was more than a little apprehensive about coming here. Australians are quite prejudiced about America, and the friendliness of the people, and the similarity of the city to many Australian towns has quite surprised me. I've been charmed by random locals, and introduced to more new types of food the past week than I would have thought possible.

The archives, too, have been a pleasant surprise. Studying homosexuality in the Southern Baptist Archives was always going to be something of a risky proposition. And the staff have been a little cautious about my topic. But they have also been extremely helpful. And generous. And, at times amusing. I never thought I'd get told to "holler out" in an archive. Or eat fried catfish in one!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Polygamy and the Homosexualists

The recent global wave of pro- and anti- gay marriage legislation has produced a fascinating public debate about the nature of marriage. One of the most interesting elements of the debate has been the conservative attempt to define marriage – even at a constitutional level – as a permanent relationship between one man and one woman. Conservative worldviews position marriage as the cornerstone of society. Challenges to ‘traditional’ marriage, such as the campaign for gay marriage, therefore threaten their whole social order. As Gwen Landolt, national director of conservative lobby group REAL Women of Canada, wrote: “If you can break down the laws guarding heterosexual marriage between a man and a woman, then anything can happen…If you can have a partner of the same sex, then logically you can have two or three of the opposite sex.” Landolt links polygamy and gay marriage as equally unthinkable and connected breaches to civilised marriage practice. While the connection between the two may only exist in the paranoid imagination of conservative ideologues the link does suggest a deeper critique of ‘Christian marriage.’

(not quite the critique i was thinking of...)

In its most basic form, the critique is to radically historicize an institution that Conservatives construct as universal and transhistorical. Other, more skillful scholars have shown just how recently heterosexual monogamy became the totalising paradigm that we take for granted in the West. Rosemary Radford Reuther and John Boswell in particular have provided masterful histories uncovering the long history of gay marriage and the short history of modern Christian family values. It is understandable that ancient gay marriage ceremonies, obscured by millenia, have not feature prominently in marriage discourse until historians such as Boswell remind us of them. I am continually surprised how even the very recent history of marriage and the family can fall from consciousness. For instance, while most people would be aware that the decision of some North American Episcopalians to celebrate gay unions and ordain an openly gay bishop is apparently causing the Anglican Communion to haemorrage abjectly all over the global media, few seem to be aware that in 1988 it decided that it could tolerate polygamy amongst converts. Seemingly the Anglican Communion can live with one breach of 'Christian Marriage' but not another.

Mormons, roughly as numerous as Episcopalians in the United States, seem much more open and consistent. Their highly publicised support of proposition 8 repealing gay marriage in California is contiguous with the repression of polygamy, especially in the context of their Canadian cousins' current attempts to use gay marriage in Canada to legalise plural marriage. The historical experiment with non-monogamous marriage explains, even necessitates, a more voluble defence of heterosexual monogamy today. The apparent paradox in current Anglican toleration of polygamy but not gay marriage has a similar root. The Latter Day Saints need to distance themselves from their polygamous past led them to support proposition 8. It was the Anglican need to distance itself from its complicity in a colonising past that enabled it to recommend toleration of polygamy. The Church of England's need to be postcolonial mirrors the Mormon need to be post-polygamous. Polygamy and gay marriage both challenge the hegemony of heterosexual monogamy. But not simply and not coherently. History's tangled web enables tolerance here and intolerance there.

The variable possibilities of tolerance of polygamy in various Churches surely provides a template for tolerance of gay marriage. Christian marriage is palpably not exclusively heterosexual and monogamous. Why the fuss over homo-marriage when polygamy is silently accepted.

P.S. And another thing, whatever happened to polyandry:

Christianity, social tolerance and homosexuality in twentieth-century Great Britain and the United States

Or as my head of deparment put it, "Glam historian in Gay Probe"

A little blurb about my new research project:

The connections between sex and Christianity are both self-evident and extremely relevant. In the last fifty years it has seemed as though Christian churches were obsessed with sex, especially homosexuality. In his 2008 Christmas message, Pope Benedict XVI listed homosexuality, alongside climate change and war, as one of the three major threats to humanity (see left).
Contrary to expectations, however, not all Churches have promoted a conservative line on homosexuality and homosexual reform. While some Churches have been among the most vociferous opponents of reform, even validating discrimination, others have led reform. So while on the one hand Christian Churches have led opposition to gay marriage in the United States, on the other hand the English Churches actively campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1950s. The way in which different cultures of Christianity explicitly and implicitly negotiated new understandings of sexual identity over the course of the twentieth century is central to understanding the dramatic differences in their capacity for tolerance of homosexuality. In this study I will chart how different the three main Christian traditions in Britain and the United States reacted to medical models of sexuality in the early twentieth century, and then show how their new understanding of sexuality influenced their responses to and participation in the politics of gay law reform. The project is interdisciplinary, bringing the insights of queer theology to the history of sexuality; it will make a major contribution to our understating of the place of religion in public policy; and this knowledge of religious tolerance of sexual diversity will also aid understanding of wider social tolerance (see below).

Friday, February 20, 2009

How Green is this Valley!

The view from my office...

In September 2008 I moved to Wales from Melbourne to take up a lecturing position in History at the University of Glamorgan. Nestled in ‘the valleys’ of the Vale of Glamorgan, twenty minutes from the centre of Cardiff, the University typifies the cramped, economic architecture common to former polytechnics: an abundance of concrete. Its with only concessions to landscaping are those necessary to accommodate the extraordinary rainfall (how a university half way up the side of a fairly steep hill can flood, as it did in my first week here, still boggles my mind). And yet, there is an aptness, a banal poetry to the place, for this utilitarian grey and white complex fixed to the side of a very green valley is the former School of Mines.

It's a nice job. Compared to the lecturing, supervision and administration loads, publishing pressure, and competitive environment of other universities, Glamorgan’s academic environment is as pastoral as the grazing sheep I can see from my office window. Classes are small, averaging about fifteen, and a full time load is three, twenty-four week classes. The students are mostly from the South Wales valleys and are polite and relatively enthusiastic. My colleagues have been similarly welcoming and enthusiastic.

This blog will chart my rambling progress/regress/stasis as I work, write and teach in my first tenured job.