Saturday, September 11, 2010

Who Says It's Private?

The right to privacy has long been treasured in American political culture. We don’t want government to interfere in our personal lives, especially regarding sexuality, and we tend to be skeptical of other busybodies as well. It is a cornerstone for many of the advances in sexual justice and freedom, from reproductive rights to GLBT equality.

Privacy has also been invoked in a negative sense as well – to silence and constrain already marginalized groups. Because our culture deems sex “a private matter,” not only do we proscribe sexually explicit media to ridiculous extremes, but we still debate whether couples should be allowed to hold hands or exchange a kiss in public. More often than not, however, privacy is invoked as a reason for upholding double standards upon those less powerful. A woman can put up a picture of her beloved on her desk at work – but if that beloved is another woman, don’t be surprised if someone accuses her of being “militant” or “flaunting” about her sexuality. A spiritual community will encourage folks to come to events with their partners – but no more than one at a time. And no problem saying where you and your partner met – unless you happened to meet at a fetish-themed nightclub.

Granted, some people are just not ready to hear all of that. But there’s a big difference between admitting personal discomfort, and using it to declare an objective moral rule that certain “private” realities are permanently off limits. Many people see this as a form of rationalization, but I wonder if there’s something deeper at work. Western culture, and American culture especially, is one which discourages folks from admitting to weakness. Admitting personal discomfort with something can sound very much like a personal failing, as opposed to creating a moral proscription based on that discomfort.

Nor is it confined to outright conservatives. Many folks who are comfortable with GLBT friends, or who are queer themselves, may bristle at discussions of polyamory or kink. Often they make the distinction between “orientation” and “behavior” – who you’re drawn to, or what gender with which you identify, versus how many partners or what you choose to do with them. Are they forgetting that holding your beloved’s hand on the street, or displaying their picture in your cubicle or office, is also considered behavior – and also likely to be declared “off limits” by someone who takes offense? Should we not ask ourselves whether it is the behavior itself which makes us uncomfortable, or the reality which it represents?

The very meaning of privacy is the power of the individual to discern and decide which aspects of their lives should be free from intrusion, and from whom – to set a boundary, if you will, between what others can and cannot know about you. Respecting privacy is not merely about staying on your side of the boundary, but letting the other person determine who or what belongs on which side. Should the comfort level of others be a part of that decision? Of course - but not the only part, and certainly not when it threatens one's integrity, or otherwise damages souls or relationships. Boundaries ultimately need to be negotiated, in good faith among equals who are willing to learn and grow together.


  1. I enjoy “flaunting” my ways of life.
    I enjoy making people think about other ways of living.

    I also enjoy being left alone.
    Privacy is when you can't here them talking. People will always talk.

  2. Inferno:

    What is "flaunting" to one person is another's refreshing candor.

    There's a maxim from the Old Guard: "Don't scare the villagers." That's often been interpreted to mean keeing everything on the down-low, so as not to attract attention or suspicion.

    Problem is, with kink getting more coverage in mainstream media (to wit, CSI's Lady Heather) the so-called villagers now know we're out there. Keeping secrets from them will only make them more suspicious and afraid.

    How, then, do we find a way to engage vanilla folks and help them understand what we're really about? It's a question our community is still struggling with, esp with many still adhering to the strictest interpretation of that Old Guard rule.

    There will always be some who will always take offense. All we can do is shake the dust from our boots and walk away. And what we need to think about is how to engage vanillas without giving offense.

  3. I'm reading a very interesting book that stands many ideas about public and private on their heads: Publics and Counterpublics, by Michael Warner. I can't really summarize it, but I can point you to it and give it a qualified (I'm not done with it yet!) recommendation.

  4. John, thanks for the recommendation. Perhaps you could add a follow-up comment with the book's ISBN for everyone?

  5. The ISBN is 978-1-89095-129-0 and a summary can be found here. The cover is precious and should be seen in its full wrap-around glory.