We don’t need your permission, Your Holiness

November 22, 2010

Although this post doesn’t directly bear on Australian politics, it does relate to some of the issues surrounding the imminent Victorian state election. Parties are positioning themselves on issues relating to human sexuality. The most obvious, of course, is same-sex marriage. Saturday’s Equal Love rally in Melbourne saw State Education Minister Bronwyn Pike break ranks with her party to speak out. She was joined by Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens. In contrast, the Democratic Labor Party went on Sky News to strongly oppose same-sex marriage on religious and (increasingly spurious) cultural grounds, and Ted Baillieu, speaking for the Coalition, simply issued a blunt ‘no, I don’t support it’.

Same-sex marriage isn’t the only such issue, however. In the seat of Richmond, Greens candidate Kathleen Maltzahn has taken aim at sex workers, and the Sex Party in particular for putting forward policies targeted at securing rights and protections for them.

Adoption by same-sex couples is also on the table. Premier John Brumby has already flagged his intention to review the laws surrounding this issue, and both the Sex Party and the Greens have policies calling for same-sex couples to be treated as equal under the law.

And that’s without going into abortion policy, access to reproductive technology, sex education and surrogacy!

Sexuality, it seems, is a bigger issue than it might appear in the Victorian election. It probably pales in comparison to people’s preoccupation with an efficient and comprehensive public transport system, but it’s there. People are thinking and talking about it.

With all that in the air, recent statements by the Pope deserve a closer look. There are a lot of Catholic voters in Victoria, and at least one political party – the DLP – with its roots firmly in the Catholic Church and its doctrines. And while, at first glance, the Pope’s words might not seem at all related to any of the above, take a closer look.

The Pope now thinks it’s okay ‘in some circumstances’ to use condoms. How nice of him. But wait, just what are those circumstances?

“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality,” said the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics …

“There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be … a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes.”

And this ‘softening’ of a hard-line anti-condom stance is being ‘cautiously welcomed’ by HIV activists and health experts. The AMA even likes it.

I don’t think so.

This isn’t any kind of softening. This is the Pope saying, ‘what you’re doing is wrong, and you get one chance to avoid the wages of sin. I’m being generous here – I’m letting you use a condom but you’d better come to your senses.’

Gosh, whatever can he be talking about? Oh wait, of course, he’s talking about anal sex between men. Which is, of course, wrong. His one example is a little homily about a rentboy – who, implicitly, is infected with HIV – who might be ‘allowed’ to wear a condom so he doesn’t spread the disease to any of his clients. Of course, the Pope’s not condoning it, oh no. He wants said rentboy and his clients to realise that, by generously granting permission to protect themselves, they are expected to – what was the phrase – develop a ‘more humane’ sexuality. In other words, stop what you’re doing and be heterosexual or celibate.

And make no mistake, the Pope’s not saying the client gets to use the condom. No, no, it’s the filthy whore who needs to protect the client – who, after all, can be redeemed. Never mind that sexually-transmitted HIV has to come from somewhere, usually the client – in Pope World, just making yourself available for paid sex appears to automatically ensure you’re infected.

Of course, female prostitutes don’t get a look in. They don’t get the special dispensation. And why should they? After all, this whole sorry mess came about because of a woman, didn’t it? It’s one thing to give men the chance to get on the straight and narrow, but a ‘fallen woman’ doesn’t get the same chance. They reap what they sow.

Oh, and forget about using condoms as contraception. The Church is rock-solid on that one. No special dispensations, either. You don’t want kids? You can’t have kids because it would endanger your life/pass on genetic abnormalities/send you to the poorhouse? You have one option – don’t have sex. Because we all know that sex only has one purpose, right?

There’s a lot of talk about how it might be a small thing, but at least people will be protected.

No, they won’t.

Contrary to Papal belief, most prostitutes are extremely careful about the use of condoms. Many will actually refuse a client who won’t wear a condom. (Oh but wait, the clients don’t have to, do they?)

Yes, there are exceptions – people who are victims of sexual trafficking, who don’t get that kind of choice, and people who are either too stupid or too uncaring to take precautions so that they don’t pass on the infection. Now, I’m going to give the Pope some credit for brains here. I’m going to assume that he doesn’t really think some trafficker of underage boys in Thailand will now sit up and say, ‘Hey, the Pope said it’s kind of okay to give my kids condoms, better go do that’.

So what’s the Pope’s real point?

This little pronouncement of the Pope’s – which the Church are already rushing to say isn’t ‘magisterial’ (i.e. insert disclaimer here) – isn’t some indicator that maybe his religion is finally waking up to a few realities of life. It’s not a ‘compassionate’ acknowledgment that there are terrible diseases out there that can destroy the lives of innocent people. (Remember, this is the same guy who said condoms didn’t protect anyone against AIDS, and banned his African followers from using them.)

This is about some kind of horrible pseudo-redemptive ‘lesson’. Some things aren’t permitted, and you’d just better consider yourself lucky that he’s giving you the chance to wake up and toe the line. After all, unless sexuality is ‘humanised’ – i.e., stop with the buttsex you filthy men – not even a condom will save you. If AIDS doesn’t get you, Hell will. And that goes double for sex workers.

And just to spell it out in really blunt language: this is not really about protecting anyone. Although the Pope – when asked – admitted that using condoms might ‘reduce infection’, he was very clear that the real purpose of this ‘permission’ is purely to give people enough time to repent. It’d be a good thing if people (see: men who have anal sex) didn’t infect others, but condoms are not a ‘moral solution’.

This is entirely in keeping with the Church’s historical aversion to the free exercise of sexuality between consenting adults. That the Pope is dressing it up with grudging little concessions doesn’t alter that one bit. It’s still about dictating what expressions of sexuality are permissible. To paraphrase a certain former Prime Minister: he will decide who gets to have sex, and under what circumstances they can have it.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find that just a tad offensive – particularly when it comes at a time when we are at last talking and acting on issues that have for too long been branded as ‘immoral’ or banished to the too-hard basket by politicians with both eyes on the numbers and none on the people.

So, Your Holiness? Take your oh-so-gracious, lesser-of-two-evils concession and shove it. We don’t need your permission to love each other. We don’t need your permission to protect ourselves from infections that have nothing to do with God and everything to do with blind shitty luck And we don’t need you to tell us we can’t have sex unless we’re prepared to risk pregnancy. We will care for each other without your ‘help’.

We live in the 21st Century, and you have no power over us.


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