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  • Coalitions and Coterie
  • Ira Lightman
Edwards, Tim. Erotics and Politics: Gay Male Sexuality, Masculinity, and Feminism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1994.

This book doesn’t quarrel too much with anyone, but then it doesn’t leave itself much room for polemic, so thorough is its survey of essays and books about and by gay men and feminists. It listens, which can’t be a bad thing. Tim Edwards’s procedure is to quote most of the writers he discusses at some length, and nearly always to show them in a favorable light, even when they clash with each other. Edwards is trying to settle an existing feud rather than to start a new one, and to establish the common ground on which more productively cross-disciplinary approaches to sexuality might emerge.

The feud at issue here is that between feminists who have written critically about pederasty, pornography, and sexist attitudes among gay men, and gay men who have responded to these attacks by writing critically about feminists’ too-sweeping (and hence homophobic, heterosexist) generalizations about gay sexuality. A good example of the latter is Craig Owens, who, in a marvellous essay from Men in Feminism cited by Edwards, argues that feminists accept Freud’s theory that anti-gay bigotry stems from repressed gay desire in straight-identified men because this theory piques the bigoted straight-identified men who are implicitly these women’s target.1 But, says Owens, this approach fails to acknowledge genuine homoerotic feeling that hasn’t passed through a self-hating, gay-hating denial stage, i.e. it fails to acknowledge the very areas of feeling that mean most to many gay-identified men. Thus, Owens is arguing, feminist application of this “homophobia equals homoerotic” equation draws on straight experience rather than gay experience, and is in fact marginalizing of the latter. Similarly, other gay male critics of feminism cited by Edwards point out that feminist critiques of pornography begin by postulating the essence of the practice, then proceed to demonize it, and, by extension, to demonize all gay manifestations of it. This kind of feminist critique locates the abusive dimension, the insult, of a sexual practice within a straight sexual relationship, in terms of the institutionalized misogyny and oppression of women within patriarchy, and then extends the analysis without pausing to consider the quite different forms of oppression patriarchy exercises over gay men.

The stakes of these critiques and counter-critiques are high, for they lead feminists to associate gay men, and gay men to associate feminists, with patriarchy rather than with its active resistance. Indeed, gay men end up accusing straight feminist women not only of naively collaborating with the patriarchal enemy but of supplying that enemy with the academically legitimized weapons he needs to police the terrain of sexual difference.

Edwards does a good job of describing this situation. He calls particular attention to the curious protocols of the whole debate, which reflect the demographics of feminist and gay sympathizers. The former, being the larger group, offer broad generalizations and critiques of the latter, while the smaller group for the most part merely defends its own turf from unfriendly critical incursions. While feminist writers have presented wholesale critiques of the theory and strategy of gay male activism, it is almost unheard of for a gay male writer to attack the theoretical positions and institutional practices of feminist women except where these touch upon gay politics itself. This creates a fundamental and limiting asymmetry in the debate which Edwards does well to highlight, though it has nothing to do with the substance of the arguments advanced.

But for all its usefulness as an overview of the current state of gay and feminist politics—and the book ranges widely across such topics as pederasty, pornography, visibility, AIDS, and postmodernism—this volume seems somehow too narrow in its conception. Reading it I found myself trying to imagine a more boldly interdisciplinary or multi-voiced version of the project: a broader dialogue. It’s not so much that I wanted a more ethnographic approach. True, this book lacks the kind of oral-historical dimension that would incorporate the views of people who can’t write or can...

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