… to engage in one of the most thrilling intellectual adventures of my life: debating at the Oxford Union. Yes, that Oxford. In England. And the topic, “This House believes that Promiscuity is a virtue, not a vice,” is truly the debate I was born to have. You can imagine how delighted I was, shortly after New Year, to hear from Charlie Holt, current president of the Oxford Union. And you can see why I might wear a Cloak of Promiscuity! In fact, I had purchased it just that afternoon, on Oxford’s High Street, and it was just the thing: a scarlet linen wrappy garment with sleeves like a sweater and everything else drapey and capelike. And in fact the words I’ve used for this post’s title, above, were my first words at the debate. But let me back up a little. In visiting Oxford Union I joined an august company — which includes among many others Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, Albert Einstein, Kermit the Frog, and Ron Jeremy — and stepped into history: a most gorgeous red-walled room with the acoustics of a theatre or church, the sort of place that would make almost anyone want to wax stentorian. It certainly had that effect on me. And I was on a team of notable sex-positive feminists, joined by Joani Blank and Shere Hite. One the opposing side: the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, who’s an Anglican flirting very heavily with the Catholics because the Church of England has gotten too liberal and, especially, woman-inclusive for his tastes; Anne Atkins (be sure to scope out that link, it’s a doozy) — Anne reminded me of a sort of “Ann Coulter’s mum” type, though her snark was far less toxic — only the USA can grow an Ann Coulter; and finally (and the last to stand up and debate), Wendy Shalit, with whom I’d debated in San Francisco after her first book, A Return to Modesty, came out (her newer book is called Girls Gone Mild, and it has my vote for the very best-ever title of a book with whose premise I’m sure to disagree). Plus two intrepid Oxford students went mano a mano on the topic before we got to it. Just hearing about our opponents’ profiles may be enough to give you a sense of what they said; in fact, they left few of the usual anti-promiscuity stones unturned, though less was said about gay men than I expected. Our debate was skewed toward addressing the issue of women and promiscuity, which is why the proponent side (”a virtue, not a vice”) lined up three women with strong ties to feminism. (I do understand that some feminists are allergic to feminists like us, but that’s a topic for another day.) The Bishop has provided pastoral care to people whose lives have been crushed by promiscuity (plus, usually, booze and a bunch of other things); Anne Atkins and Wendy Shalit both feel sex is SOOOO much better in a committed monogamous relationship, plus Wendy was quick on the draw with statistics and did not seem to understand the distinction between causality (promiscuity leads to depression and suicide in teens — hey, what about the teens who aren’t having sex? A lot of them are awfully depressed too) and correlation (which does not imply causality). When Robert called her out on her knowledge of stats later she bristled and said, “My father is an economist!” Um, Wendy? This year, that’s actually not the strongest argument. Actually, when I met the Bishop he asked me, “So, are you a novelist? Or perhaps a banker?” I wanted to tell him that promiscuity is all the vice I can manage, in every respect less a weight on the heart of God than what the bankers have been doing. Anyway. So Dr. Hite started off with a discussion of female sexuality — Freud famously lost a wheel over the question of what women want, but Hite has contemplated that question for a lifetime; she pretty much left Sigmund in the dirt years ago, at least as far as data collection is concerned. Joani’s take on our topic was fabulous: she laid out ten things to contemplate when considering having casual sex with a person, not only showing the thoughtful, boundaried side of promiscuity (very helpful — and great modeling, JB), but also giving some valuable instruction on just how to be positively promiscuous. And, as my always-helpful darling Robert had discovered in helping me research the book-learnin’ side of my topic (I felt I already had an adequate grasp of the praxis), Joani’s helpful hints were going to the right crowd: the UK was said to be the most promiscuous place in the world! And by Wikipedia — so it MUST be true! So I felt it was left to me to argue actively in favor of promiscuity’s virtues. This is a complex topic and they had only allotted me ten minutes (which, as those who have ever seen me speak will know, was downright sadistic). I had to choose my battles, so I took on two main points: 1) Promiscuity is a virtue because it allows people to learn about sexuality and the diversity implicit within its study and practice: in short, promiscuity is many people’s primary (sometimes even only) form of sex education. Granted, you don’t always get clear information from sleeping around, but you don’t learn about the range of human anatomy and desire when you’re monogamous either; in an ideal world, promiscuity can teach you a lot. To shorthand the range between ideal and awful, I co-opted the Tarot theory of “the exalted and the detrimented”: that is, a single phenomenon can express its characteristics positively or negatively, depending on the context. I may be the first person who has argued Tarot Theory at Oxford (at least since the Middle Ages), and if so, I’m pleased to have been able to add to the conceptual tool kits of the students present. Actually this notion has always been highly useful to me, and is deeply embedded in my ideas about sex-positivity. So maybe I’ll write more about it sometime. 2) Promiscuity is a virtue because it helps us develop good social skills and a certain compassionate fellow-feeling for others. Sure, you can get soused at a bus stop like the poor members of the Bishop’s flock who, from the sound of it, then commit and suffer from sexual mayhem; but that’s never been my experience of promiscuity, and is certainly not the iconic “free love” that Victoria Woodhull advocated and that, at its most “exalted,” brings people together to seek connection and pleasure. Look, you have a better time riding the bus when people are nice to each other… why should sex be different? (Irony alert for you literalists: I do not mean to say here that sex and riding the bus are just like each other, or should be. Sheesh.) This also gave me the opportunity to speak pro-actively about gay and bisexual men, so often the targets of promiscuity-bashing but to me, some of the best teachers — and most profound developers of the fellow-feeling of sexual pleasure-seeking into community care-taking when HIV emerged and the need arose. (In fact, I said that I was going to speak about and for gay men for a second because no one else on the panel, as far as I could see, represented them, “at least not at this point on the space/time continuum” — Robert said the look on the Bishop’s face was priceless.) In fact the whole experience was priceless: spending our anniversary traveling to Oxford (as I announced during the debate, “20 years of stable yet promiscuous relationship” — hey, if I’d had time I’d have lectured them a little about Bloomsbury). Priceless to see our host Charlie in his white tie and tails (and I’m sure it was just coincidence that this sort of garb is likely to make so many of us inspired to thoughts of promiscuity; in fact, most of the OU students were fabulously dressed, because unlike so many places in the US, there, being smart is hot, and it was an added thrill to chat with so many smart, hot leaders of tomorrow). Priceless too because the town of Oxford exudes its intellectual history: it is old, lovely, serious, with hewn stone and wrought gates and gargoyles. Gargoyles! In fact, imagine a room out of Harry Potter with slightly older students talking openly about sexual freedom, and that image is about right. I left Oxford thinking that the future, so dicey in so many ways, has a distinct, gleaming — and yes, sexy — thread of hope in it. Postscript: We’re supposed to receive a video of the debate and have permission to show it at The Center for Sex & Culture, so go sign up now to get our email calendar, or bookmark it! And, to answer the two most frequently-asked questions I’ve heard: No, we didn’t win. Audience members leave through specially-marked doors to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the evening’s proposition: we lost 107-123, though one of the OU students whispered to me that word was out the conservative Christian organization had packed the room. Fans of the Bishop’s, no doubt. But most importantly: What DID Kermit debate about? Even Charlie didn’t know, or if he did, he lied to protect OU’s sensitive historical secrets, or to prevent their power from being unleashed upon me. It’s like the Da Vinci code! I think the topic must have been “This House believes that it’s easy being green.” But who won? Like any debater, I can see both sides.
I Donned My Cloak of Promiscuity and Went Down to Oxford…March 13, 2009