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Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media by Simon Watney

April 1, 2016

PDWhat a different world it was back then in 1987. The media talked of a ‘gay plague’ and blamed the ‘victims’. Meanwhile, hysterical people killed men they suspected as having ‘given them AIDS’. Even responsible papers like The Observer contributed to this frenzy.

As the title suggests, this book looks not at crime but at so-called deviant sexual practice, taking the debates of Policing the Crisis further by providing a foundation for a better understanding of how controversial social and sexual issues become inscribed with certain kinds of meaning across a wide variety of media forums. The gradual creation of a ‘folk devil’ described by moral panic theorists applies to neither gay men and lesbians nor people who are HIV positive. Instead there is a whole world of ‘monstrous’ representations. Since sexuality is subjected to regulation and control through a multiplicity of institutions each with their own distinctive discursive practices and textual strategies, moral panics are not, as some have suggested, the key to understanding fears and anxieties about AIDS. The theory of moral panics is unable to conceptualise the mass media as an industry intrinsically involved with excess, with the voracious appetite and capacity for substitutions and displacements.  Panics seem to appear and disappear, as if representation were not the site of permanent struggle of the meaning of signs.

At first, AIDS was presented as something that happened to ‘other’ people’. When it spread to ‘straight’ people’ we were told than now ‘normal families’ were at risk – so seemingly, gay men weren’t past of normal families.

The author was awarded the 2001 Pink Paper Annual Lifetime Achievement Award, London, for his “long campaigning for lesbian and gay rights and the rights of those affected by HIV and AIDS.” Openly HIV-positive, he was a trustee of the charity Crusaid from 2007 to 2010, with a particular interest in questions of AIDS and poverty in the UK. Simon is also a widely published art historian and was a senior lecturer in art history at the University of Westminster.

PD 2Quotations:

Homosexuality has long been at the receiving end of such campaigns. It was in a similar climate that the modern gay identity was harassed into existence in the first place. Why homosexuality should be so vehemently targeted in this manner constitutes one of the central themes of this book. In a culture which is as thoroughly and pervasively homophobic as ours, Aids can only too easily undermine the confidence and very identity of many gay men. It may equally, however, have the opposite effect, arousing intense anger against the institutions which so brutally and callously disregard the enormity of this crisis as it is being lived through, day after day, by those most directly involved in it. As one of the finest commentators on the subject, Richard Goldstein, has observed, in the context of predictions that perhaps one in ten of gay men in New York City will contract Aids: “Straight folk seem like tourists, oblivious to the blitz”.2 Should I need to spell it out, that would mean 200,000 deaths in New York alone, 100,000 in London.

At this moment in time it is impossible to know how many people would agree with the words of Rabbi Julia Neuberger that “it is a strange God who chooses to punish male homosexuals and not female, and who is angry with drug-takers who inject intravenously but not with those who sniff”.3 We must also consider the almost total blanketing of information about the emotional and psy­chological consequences of having tested positive to the virus’ antibodies, the terrible stress in thousands and tens of thousands of gay relationships, let alone the experience of having Aids itself. Sympathy goes to mothers and children, to haemophiliacs and those who contracted Aids through blood transfusions which were  contaminated before the virus was even isolated. But for gay men with Aids there seems nothing but hatred, fear, and thinly veiled contempt. The British media cares as much about our health as Der Sturm cared about that of the Jews in the 1930s. This is especially wicked, since gay people with Aids have to deal with a situation in which there is little hope of a cure, and they cannot necessarily rely on families and non-gay friends. When the possibility of re-infection feels like a continual “threat that’s everywhere and nowhere”, as one friend of mine with Aids describes it, the emotional resources needed in trying to repair one’s immune system are all too often used up in defensive measures against the surrounding incendiaries of hysteria.

On top of the deaths of our friends, and our own fears for ourselves and those closest to us, gay men currently face a massive resurgence of militant aggressive homophobia. Six years into this epidemic the press is still able casually to imply that the HIV virus is contagious and thus catchable from casual contact, in the face of all medical research the world over.


We cab fairly discern a situation of relative advantage and American and British gay men. Since the rulings have tended to protect the position of America in the name of “freedom of speech” in ways which are unthinkable in the United Kingdom, where only one licensed sex shop has survived recent legislative purges to sell the mildest forms of sexually explicit gay materials and sex-aids (known in a characteristically more friendly and positive way in the United States as “toys”) — dildos, leather wear and so on. Yet at the same time American gay culture has conspicuously failed to develop the types of collectivist institutions, organised neither for profit nor for sexual exploitation, which abound in Britain in the form of co-operatively owned cafes, discos, information switchboard services, legal or­ganisations and publishing houses, as well as a flourishing tradition of independent gay theatre, pop music, film, poetry, and fiction, which is clearly at odds with dominant cultural values and institutions. For this there is little or no equivalent in the United States, where collectivism appears decidedly un-American.


For gay men, sex, that most powerful implement of attachment and arousal, is also an agent of communion, replacing an often hostile family and even shaping politics. It represents an ecstatic break with years of glances and guises, the furtive past we left behind. Straight people have no comparable experience, though it may seem so in memory. They are never called upon to deny desire, only to defer its consummation.

Firstly, the notion of homo­sexuality as a contagious condition, invisible and always threatening to reveal itself where least expected. And secondly, the spectacle of erotic seduction, in which “innocent”, “vulnerable” youth is fantasised as an unwilling partner to acts which, nonetheless, have the power to transform his (or her) entire being. Thus I read in the sex education textbook which was in my school library in the 1960s that it is, “obvious that sexual love among persons of the same sex is a perversion because, quite apart from any other arguments based upon ethics and morality, such a practice cannot result in procreation … The greatest danger in homosexuality lies in the introduction of normal people to it. An act which will produce nothing but disgust in a normal individual may quite easily become more acceptable, until the time arrives when the normal person by full acceptance of the abnormal act becomes a pervert too.”

There is an important internal conflict at work within this text, and countless like it, concerning the “normal” person’s “disgust”, and the seeming ease with which it is apparently over-ridden. If this were the case, and one accepted a contagion/seduction model of homosexuality, then everyone would be at risk from pleasures which remain too awful and dangerously seductive for the text to dwell on … It needs to be understood that the widespread association of homosexuality with the subject of child molestation is not accidental, but stems from the way in which homosexuality has been theorised since the late nineteenth century, when the word largely replaced other terms and produced the idea of a single, coherent, uniform type of human being — “the homosexual”.

Here a simple anecdote might serve to help. I am drinking in a gay pub in London with some friends. Three young men appear, in their early twenties, immediately too “loud” to register as gay. They become an object of mild interest, mainly defensive, since three men can pull a good few punches before they’re thrown out. As we all suspected (unspoken) two of them begin to strike peculiar poses, the postures of “queers” they’ve seen on television. They giggle and shriek and are having a whale of a time. By now nobody is taking any notice of them. They are unlikely to be violent. However offensive they may seem, this is tempered by a certain pathos — the sight of people who are both unaware that they appear ridiculous, and objects of silent contempt on the part of the very men (and women) whom they themselves so demonstrably despise. Despise, that is, until one of them needs to go to the lavatory. Everything changes. “Watch out John! Keep your back to the wall! Watch out for the wankers!” etc. Yet nothing has altered around them. The Janus-like figure of the “queer” has simply been turned round in their heads. A bar full of contemptible, feminised men has been invisibly transformed into a menacing crowd of sinister, powerful predators. They at last see us as we see them, but without the humour or the pity. Finally the risk of being raped proves too much for them, and they leave, reverting to heterosexuality by way of the mincing queen once more. Back at the bar they’re already forgotten. Another incident averted. But the boys will talk about it for weeks, how they were all touched up, how John had his bottom pinched, how they had a good laugh, how they hardly got away with their lives.

The notion of homophobia was initially conceived in the United States in the immediate wake of Gay Liberation, as both a disease and attitude “held by many non-homosexuals and perhaps by the ‘majority of homosexuals in countries where there is discrimination againnst homosexuals.” It thus has to describe both homosexual and heterosexual attitudes towards homosexuality. In effect, the term rely reversed the widespread tendency to pathologise all forms of homosexual desire and acts as symptoms of a single underlying ‘perversion”, whilst accepting and reinforcing the authority of medical, psychiatric and legal institutions to define “the perverse”. It remains most unlikely that we shall find a single “cause” which might explain the entire range of hostile responses to homosexuality, any more than we might find such a single “cause” for the entire range of homosexual desire itself. Ironically, the discourse of “homophobia” turns out to be as reductive as the explanations of homosexuality which it ostensibly seeks to counter.

On the one hand we are invited to think of ourselves as a coherent, unified group, roughly analogous to race, deriving from a supposedly shared and primary level of sexuality. On the other hand we actually experience our social being as a series of discontinuous exclusions through which we move at work, in our families, and elsewhere, always modified by the contingent factors of class, education, the nature of our employment, and so on. This is why the notion of belonging to a single “gay community” is ultimately unhelpful and unconvincing. For whilst we may collectively resist particular instances of injustice, campaign for the improvement of our civil liberties, and celebrate and support ourselves within a culture of sexual affirmation, this does not imply any essential unity to homosexual desire as such. We undoubtedly constitute a con­stituency of shared interests in relation to the workings of police, state and other institutions of power. But this should not lead us to lose sight of the diversity of human sexuality in all its variant forms, which it is perhaps the most radical aspect of gay culture continually to assert and expose. As a result, every gay man is always “of” yet not entirely of his ascribed social position within the triangle of class, race and nationality. His sexuality is always, by degrees, at variance with the alignments which he knows he is expected to take to the great institutions of marriage, child-raising and property, together with their myriad reflecting rites and rituals.

lesbians and gay men need more than ever to insist, in the words of George Eliot, that “our passions do not live apart in locked chambers.”

fact the most recent evidence strongly suggests that, far from being the “cause” of Aids, gay men were routinely injected with HIV infected blood products, in the form of gamma globulin used in the treatment of hepatitis-B, which was prepared throughout the 1970s from blood which had been illegally imported from central Africa.’

James Baldwin has noted:”The victim can have no point of view for precisely as long as he thinks of himself as a victim. The testimony of the victim, as victim, corroborates, simply, the reality of the chains that bind him – confirms, and, as it were, consoles the jailer, the keeper of the keys. For precisely as long as the jailer hears your moaning, he knows where you are. The sound of the victim’s moaning confirms the authority of the jailer, the keeper of the keys: those keys that, designed to lock you out, inexorably lock him in. He is the prisoner of the delusion of his power, to which he has surrendered any possibility of identity, or the private life, and he glimpses this, sometimes, in his mirror, or in the eyes of his children. His only real hope is death. That is why he cannot love his children, the proof being that he dare not consider his dreadful legacy, this fire­bombed earth: his only real achievement”.”

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