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Queering the Apocalypse, II: Skirting Eco-Apocalypse by Reconstructing Sexual Ethics.

Previously in this journal (Clark, 1999), I developed a new midrashic layer for apocalypse studies, delineating a possible queer reading of apocalypse based on and responding to the earlier feminist reading of apocalypse by Catherine Keller (1996). Examining Keller's own discussion of the edginess and marginality of apocalypses throughout history, I found myself intrigued by the extent to which apocalyptic thinking demonstrates a forfeiture of hope for justice in this world. Indeed, the "apocalyptic habit" of mind, or apocalyptic patterns in our thinking (Keller, 1996, p. 128), are too often enacted as self-fulfilling prophecies of virtually suicidal doom for apocalyptic communities who have "circled their wagons," self-defensively living out their particular sense of victimization. Agreeing with Keller that ecological disturbances of apocalyptic proportion are the "effect[s] of systemic injustice" (1996, p. 54), I then turned to the sexual ecology of Gabriel Rotello (1997). Using these two texts in tandem, I explored the question of whether the urban, gay male, sexual subculture(s), or ghettos, might not also be understood as apocalyptic communities--living out victim identities (due to homophobia) toward the self-fulfilling and doomed ends of viral apocalypse (due to HIV/AIDS). Revisiting some of my own work in sexual ethics, I reiterated the need among gay men to re-examine our sexuality and our sexual behavior--in short, to develop alternative visions. At the end of this admittedly dark, deconstructive project, I began to elaborate one such counter-apocalyptic alternative: long-term and monogamously committed same-sex couples. A more thoroughgoing reconstructive project remained to be undertaken. Toward that end in the present essay, I now argue that reconstructing sexual ethics through profeminist and men's studies-friendly analyses provides us with important ways to skirt, to avoid, and to counter apocalyptic tendencies within and among us.

Feminist and profeminist thinkers have long contended that the erotic may be understood as our sacred urge to connect with self, others, otherkind, and the divine, that it is in fact "the energy behind our capacity to care" (Graham, 1997, p. 17). Anne Bathurst Gilson (1995), as but one example, argues that eros is "a life-giving force, permeating all aspects of our lives and intimately connected with the pursuit of justice. [It] is the source of our creativity [and it] connects us with God"; in fact, she later continues, "God is as present and participating in our lovemaking as in other aspects of our lives" (pp. 108, 116). Because eros is "a yearning for embodied connection [and] a movement toward embodied justice" (Gilson, p. 109), "we cannot help but care about those with whom we are intimate, and caring about them gives us energy to challenge institutions, social trends, or individuals which threaten or oppress them" or which, by empathetic extension, threaten any others, human or nonhuman (Gudorf, 1994, p. 138).

In other words, given our sensory and sensuous embodiment, our eros both compels, enables, and infuses our interrelatedness and our caring for both other humans and otherkind. At its best, eros compels ecological relations of mutuality, integrity, and sustainability and of that "care-filled attention and respect" by which we befriend one another and all creation (Spencer, 1996, p. 323). Furthermore, while we may enact our eros in sexuality that is itself "a means of divine and human grace that makes life fuller and more loving," regardless of sexual orientation, erotic love is not, however, simplistically reducible to sex or genital activity (Graham, p. 61). In fact, "eros should not be confined [or limited] to the love between lovers," reiterates Gilson. "It permeates our life together and draws us into sensual, mutual relationships with one another" that often cannot take or need not take genital form (1995, p. 80). At the same time, of course, sexually enacted eros can lead us to a deeper appreciation of eros as both ecological and interconnecting. "Sexual intimacy and bonding," for example, "give us insight into what community is" and, as a result, can be a terrifically empowering "source of energy for the task[s] of social change" (Gudorf, p. 135). In short, we realize that in "re-claiming and re-defining erotic power, we reach out to the [ecosystemic] web of relation of which we are a part" (Gilson, 1995, pp. 82-83).

Importantly for Gilson as well, our most justly embodied erotic interactions also require appropriate self-love. Appropriate self-love "requires that we affirm [both] our right to exist and our capacity to act as moral agents"--our capacity to embody and to enact accountability in-relation; indeed, without appropriate self-love, we will most likely be unable to love others or to work together for justice (pp. 12, 13). Appropriate self-love is necessary, she argues, "if one is to feel confident enough to engage the risks that solidarity requires"; one specific requirement for solidarity is that, even if we strategically focus on one form of marginality (such as anti-gay/lesbian oppression), we must not be blinded either by our privilege or by our particular marginalization to the marginalization and/or oppression of others different from ourselves (1995, pp. 14, 15). Gilson also observes that appropriate self-love goes hand-in-hand with embracing our eros, that very eros that informs and empowers our compassion and our struggle for justice; indeed, eros grounds, informs, and infuses that "power-with" whereby we come to know that relational mutuality is "about sharing power" (pp. 72-73, 121):
 Eros is not about control; it is about connection with our whole selves and
 the [whole] selves of others.... Ultimately, integration and connectedness
 come from erotic power.

 ... Eros [i.e., erotic power-with] is the energy of relationship and the
 basis upon which we attempt to understand one another. (pp. 75, 76)

Ultimately, if we are to do more with our embodied and relational lives than merely enduring and surviving, if we are to reconnect with and love our neighbors, including otherkind, appropriate self-love is "absolutely essential" to our thriving together, whereby we "enhance the quality of life for all" (Gilson, pp. 129, 130).

If we are to fully appreciate the extent to which our eroticism and our appropriate self-love must go hand-in-hand to undergird the tasks of justice and liberation, we may need to look more closely still at the ways in which sexual pleasure reinforces both. Granted, to affirm sexual pleasure in the midst of a hegemonically erotophobic as well as heterosexist ethos, especially in the face of the at times seemingly apocalyptic sexual ecology of HIV/AIDS, can be a very difficult task. Christine Gudorf (1994), for example, argues that it is precisely this religious and cultural negativity which demands that we reaffirm the value of embodied, sensory, and sexual pleasure for an erotic ecology, because "body pleasure ... communicates to us our own goodness [which] is essential if we are to understand ourselves as beloved by God" (p. 98). Similarly, Scott Haldeman (1996) has insisted that "experiencing pleasure in our bodies [through masturbation, as his example] awakens a desire for pleasure with others, a desire that moves us beyond a lust for dominance and toward more just relations with all" of life (p. 117).

Not surprisingly, of course, such an unabashed affirmation of embodied sexual and even genital pleasure is not free of certain caveats. Given our increasing awareness of ecosystemic interconnection, for example, we must also be aware that neither mere endurance (surviving) nor a greater fullness of life (thriving) can occur in isolation. In other words, "our sexuality is never ours alone; it necessarily implies relation" (Gilson, p. 8). Or, put yet another way, if sexuality and sexual pleasure are to be not solipsistic and self-centered but eco-centered instead, such pleasure must also be relational; indeed, our sexual pleasure may very well be enhanced by relational accountability, our lives in-relation deepened by greater mutuality and honesty in our sexual interactions (Gilson, pp. 80, 85). Clearly then, we must avoid both treating our sexual partners as mere objects and exploiting those partners as the mere means to the selfish end of our own sexual pleasure; after all, "sexual pleasure must not only be pleasurable ... but rather mutual" (Gudorf, pp. 116, 117). Gudorf even goes so far as to argue that "accepting mutual sexual pleasure as the primary purpose of sexual activity requires respect and care for the partner," including responsibility and accountability; indeed, "the level of meaning invested in sexual activity is intensified by the degree of respect and care that exists between the partners, and the greater the meaning, the greater the potential for pleasure" (pp. 139,140). She is thus able to defuse some of the fear of sexual pleasure in our Western erotophobia, insisting that the argument that all sexual pleasure is somehow "irresistible" and/or addictive "simply is not true"; moreover, she further contends, some control of sexual pleasure actually intensifies sexual pleasure for oneself and one's partner" (1994, p. 85).

In short, neither individual desire nor personal pleasure alone can be the sole criterion for ethical sexual behavior; instead, just relatedness in our sexuality must "ensure the ongoing welfare of the relational partner" (Graham, p. 176). We might even argue that sex and sexual pleasure that is "pleasing to God" (Rudy, 1997, p. 126) must include quality of life enhancing responsibility and accountability in-relation. Not surprisingly then, to most unabashedly celebrate sexual pleasure entails equally and adamantly insisting on the relational context of that pleasure. Writes Gudorf (1994), for example, "Sex--as symbolic of commitment to a sexual relationship--must come to symbolize the ability of persons, whole embodied persons, to experience union" (p. 132). Eros and pleasure and empowerment, shared and nurtured together, are surely important graces for any relationship, including those of gay and lesbian coupled commitments. These are the graces of sexual friendship, and I have argued all along that we should befriend our spouses. Frank Leib (1997) and pastoral theologian Larry Graham (1997) echo these sentiments: "Marriage itself should resemble ... a friendship" that entails the intimate sharing of daily life together, experiencing and building upon the mundane and the necessary as well as the pleasurable and the sexual (Leib, p. 71; cf., Graham, p. 63). Very importantly, none of these activities of committed and shared daily living require that the partners be two heterosexual persons of opposite sex.

At the same time, Graham is especially sensitive to the unique problems facing those of us who are not heterosexual and yet who seek to establish long-term coupled relationships nonetheless. He observes, for example, "Because of the extremes to which lesbian and gay persons must go to find and build relationships, there [is] great fluidity in establishing and maintaining partnerships. Often, unresolved grief from former relationships [is] carried over into new ones ... destabilizing [them] ... and compounding pain and loss" (p. 102). Unresolved grief and compounded pain and loss may blur and confuse us, destabilizing various kinds of relationships. When I visited the Names Project memorial quilt only weeks after the unhappy ending of a three-year relationship in late 1988, I could neither contain my grief nor discern which relationships I grieved for the most--for broken relationships and lost lovers still living or for ended relationships and friends now so prematurely deceased. My lingering multidimensional grief distorted my judgment and misdirected my sexual interactions for months, obviating safer sexual choices and nearly blinding me to the one true friendship, to the one steadfast erotic friend, who has now been my spouse for a decade. It took Bob and me well over a year to overcome the destabilizing energies, to realize we were neither one's past lovers, to come to know we could do more than just endure and repeat our pasts, and to determine to create a different present and future.

The "great fluidity" and the "destabilizing" forces, so pervasive in the gay male sexual subculture or ghetto, preclude insisting on monogamy as a moral benchmark carved in stone for everybody to achieve, even as those same dynamics make insisting on relational commitment or fidelity to shared quality of life all the more necessary. As I have repeatedly contended, monogamy is a pragmatic choice and perhaps even yet another grace which both simplifies and enriches our lives. Gudorf (1994) basically agrees, commenting "though some people will be able to achieve sexual intimacy with more than one person, and perhaps [even] more than one [outside partner] ... at a time, for most of us there is simply not enough time in our day" for our jobs, our home life, our neighborhood, our volunteerism and our other commitments, and time for achieving and sustaining "intimate sexual relationships with a number of different persons" (p. 134). The simple reality is that, if we too hastily pursue quantity rather than quality, the quality of our lives and of our relationships is bound to suffer; somebody or somebodies, perhaps even ourselves, ends up treated as an object and not as a friend.

Although I am clearly urging us toward monogamous sexual friendships or marital commitments, I must continue to reckon with the destabilizing fluidity among us: None of us should ever feel compelled to apologize for our particular relational configurations if those ecological and erotic networks are shaped by love and accountability. To borrow Gilson's (1995) language, we can synthesize agape and eros in our particular embodiments of relational fidelity without somehow employing agape as a validation, qualifier, or restriction of our eros, of our sexual pleasure and fulfillment in-relation, however we may choose to configure those relations (pp. 22, 74). I must also reckon with yet another caveat, that romanticizing and over-idealizing gay/lesbian couples can also "conceal wide-spread abuse and human suffering" (Ellison, 1996, p. 9). Not only must the gay/lesbian and the larger communities become more aware of the potential for abuse within same-sex couples--including developing appropriate interventions and care for the abused--we must also expand our awareness to broader arenas of oppression, making the ecological and social justice connections and responding accordingly. Despite the destabilizing and homophobic pressures on our marriages, we must never retreat into our coupled commitments as dyadic ghettos apart from the world. We must instead find in our erotically pleasurable relationships that very erotic empowerment we need to embody our caring into the larger ecosystemic and relational world, both for the sake of our constructed families and for the larger webs of life of which we are unavoidably a part.

While some gay/lesbian writers still resist same-sex marriage as heterosexually mimetic and inimical to broader liberational discussions of sexual ethics, other savvy observers of our community have realized that our marital commitments and coupled relationships are the "greatest source of care" in our lives (Graham, p. 90). They in fact constitute our immediate families. Pastoral theologian Graham, for example, not only perceives marriage as the miracle of two erstwhile strangers finding one another and joining lives in commitment over time, regardless of sex or gender, but also insists that many gay/lesbian couples "more than fulfill the qualities of loving commitment, social responsibility, and religious vocation honored" by the larger culture (p. 133). He even goes so far as to argue that our same-sex marriages and our constructed gay/lesbian families enact and embody real "family values" such as love and commitment, honesty and trust, understanding and acceptance, resilience, tenacity, and hope, and respect for difference and diversity; he specifically cites "love, justice, community, [and] hospitality toward the outsider" in his introductory remarks and later reiterates that "love, belonging, respect for differences, commitment, and honesty" are the qualities he has personally observed in actual gay/lesbian couples and families (pp. ix, 81).

Obviously, Bob and I concur with Graham's observations. We believe that same-sex coupled commitments are highly desirable, even as we realize that our community's destabilizing "sexual fluidity" may produce alternative arrangements that are equally valuable, provided that they also include mutual accountability in-relation. We believe the concept of "family" can be broadened beyond its narrow heterosexist configurations, both communally and intergenerationally, without simplistically dismissing same-sex couples. At the very least, same-sex couples represent one viable option among others for living ecosystemically and interconnectedly in the world. I find in ethicist Gudorf's (1994) conclusions the best summation of what a number of us are espousing and celebrating:
 Families do not need to include children [or] blood kin. Families need not
 be based on [traditional/legal] marriage. Families can be collections of
 persons who are committed to the physical, moral, spiritual, social and
 intellectual development of other members of the collective unit [including
 two gay men and various nonhuman lives] in an ongoing way.

 Marriage can take many shapes and forms. Institutions such as churches
 [and synagogues] and states should allow various forms of marriage, and
 should be open to any marital roles/patterns which are non-abusive, just,
 and socially responsible. (p. 79)

I am increasingly convinced that we can both celebrate long-term monogamous same-sex couples and begin to articulate values that are sex-positive and ecologically sound as well. We can begin to reconstruct sexual ethics as an activity or a "process of [re]constructing sexual relations, genital and nongenital, which are just, loving, and promotive of individual and social growth" (Gudorf, p. 15) and, I would add, ecosystemic vitality as well. As we realize more fully that "our lives ... are wrapped up in those of other people" (Rudy, p. 112) and otherkind, we may become more attentive to the dynamics of power and privilege and of sexual abuse and violence; we may become even more invested in justice as right-relation and in our bodies as ecosystems having both integrity and limits; we may become more adamant still about opposing gender roles in our relationships and about nurturing intimacy, stead-fastness, mutuality, equality, and hospitality in those relationships instead. If we can come to see yet again that "sexually is our embodied sensuality and capacity for connection" (Ellison, p. 78), both humanly and ecologically, we may more fully live our way into values such as those articulated by ethicist Marvin ellison. He urges us ...

* to eroticize equality and mutual respect

* to relinquish controlling needs and behaviour

* to revalue mutual vulnerability and interpendence, or connectedness

* both to enjoy our bodiliness and our sexual freedom and to assume responsibility as sexual beings, and finally,

* to "condemn abuse and body violation as morally wrong." (p. 94, cf., pp. 76-78)

If we will live out of these values, if we will enact and embody these values, then, according to Gudorf, the morality of any specific (sexual) act can be determined by "the qualitative nature of the relationship in which the act occurs," "the motives emerging from that relationship or lack of" relationship, and "the consequences of the act on persons" (1994, p. 15).

Attending to relational quality and the consequences of our actions brings me back, finally, to one value pairing in Ellison's list that deserves more elaboration--for all of us certainly, but especially for gay men trapped in the fluid dynamics of the sexual ghetto: freedom and responsibility. I have advocated all along that we need to transform our relational styles from objectification to "subjectification" and that we need to reorder our relationships "in the direction of equality and mutuality" (Ellison, p. 12). I also appreciate Ellison's caution that we must do more than engage in mere nay-saying if we are really going to affirm sex-positive values and enable genuine change in our communities (p. 13). At the same time, I do not believe it is mere nay-saying to reiterate with him that "freedom is not license"--that gay liberation is not just about freedom of access to multi-partnered sexual activity--and that we need deeper, more profoundly liberating sexual ethics that empowers us for "responsible freedom" rather than an "anything goes" sexual mindset (pp. 23, 13). Ellison himself argues, for example, that "freedom, sexual or otherwise, is securely constructed only on the foundation of justice as right-relatedness and mutual respect ... Freedom ... is grounded in responsibility to be with and for another" (pp. 22-23). Reclaiming the "R" word for our lives and our sexuality, reshaping our lives around responsibility and accountability in-relation, both individually and collectively, might finally enable the gay male community to move beyond mid-1970s naivete (and its often disastrously crypto-apocalyptic implications for our relationships and for our health) and toward maturity as a community, as a "people." Reassuming responsibility within our ecological webs of relational life might just enable all of us, gay and nongay, toward that same kind of ethical maturity in-relation.


Clark, J. M. (1999). Queering the Apocalypse: Reading Catherine Keller's Apocalypse now and then. The Journal of Men's Studies, 7, 233-244.

Ellison, M. M. (1996). Erotic justice: A liberating ethic of sexuality. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Gilson, A. B. (1995). Eros breaking free: Interpreting sexual theo-ethics, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Graham, L. K. (1997). Discovering images of God: Narratives of care among lesbians and gays. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Gudorf, C. E. (1994). Body, sex, and pleasure: Reconstructing Christian sexual ethics. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Haldeman, S. (1996). Bringing good news to the body: Masturbation and male identity. In B. Krondorfer (Ed.), Men's bodies, men's gods: Male identities in a (post-)Christian culture (pp. 111-124). New York: New York University Press.

Keller, C. (1996). Apocalypse now and then: A feminist guide to the end of the world. Boston: Beacon Press.

Leib, F. B. (1997). Friendly competitors, fierce companions: Men's ways of relating. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Rotello, G. (1997). Sexual ecology: AIDS and the destiny of gay men. New York: Dutton.

Rudy, K. (1997). Sex and the church: Gender, homosexuality, and the transformation of Christian ethics. Boston: Beacon Press.

Spencer, D. T. (1996). Gay and Gaia: Ethics, ecology, and the erotic. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to J. Michael Clark, 585 Glenwood Pl., SE, Atlanta, GA 30316 or

This essay constitutes the unabridged version of the author's presentation during the American Men's Studies Association's annual meetings, March 1999, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.

J. MICHAEL CLARK Agnes Scott College Decatur, Georgia

J. Michael Clark is an academic "migrant worker," teaching both freshman English and upper-level religious studies at various colleges and universities in Atlanta, where he lives with his spouse, Bob McNeir. Credited with pioneering truly unapologetic gay/lesbian liberation theology, Clark's areas of expertise include gender and ecotheology, AIDS and theodicy, gay men and men's studies, and gay sexual ethics. Clark has authored some forty articles and fourteen books, the latest being Doing the Work of Love: Men & Commitment in Same-Sex Couples (Men's Studies Press, 1999). (
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Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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