Sex and the Single Guy/ Not With My Flag, You Don't | Media | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Media

Sex and the Single Guy/ Not With My Flag, You Don't



By Michael Miner

The managing editor of Windy City Times has risked suggesting that the sexual life of many gay men is a sin. In a column published last February Dan Perreten described an unnamed friend whose "entire sexual experience for two decades was limited to a kneeling position in adult movie theaters, bathhouses and dimly lit back rooms of sleazy bars."

Perreten presented this friend as typical, and as typically unfulfilled. "In the modern language of psychology, we might say his behavior demonstrates a battered self-image," he wrote. "In even more modern 12-step language, we might say he was in the grip of an addiction to immediate gratification that blinded him to his deeper desires. And in the ancient language of religion, we would say he was sinning, moving away from his own higher self and God's best wishes for him."

To accept sin is to acknowledge that there's conduct that might be necessary in some situations but is nonetheless categorically wrong. War would be one example, abortion another. Say what you will about either, in the eyes of any God worth positing there's no such thing as a good war or a good abortion.

Some would insist, and have insisted for centuries, that sex is another example--a wicked thing best performed with a sense of sorrow. Others grudgingly concede its pleasures but hedge them with taboos. First among their prohibitions, miles ahead of sex with another man's wife, is the sex they label sodomy.

If you've lived all your life with God's vigilantes denouncing you as a sodomite and barricading you from decent society, while the gently pious pray that God forgives and redeems you and freethinkers gallantly condone the condition they know you would change if you could, you probably have had it up to here with the language of sin, morality, right, and wrong.

And so, Perreten's column continued, "If the word 'sin' upsets you, please feel free to use some other term. I happen to think the language of sin and redemption has worked well for thousands of years, but it's also true that those words have been used against us, and many gays and lesbians can't hear them without wincing. The important thing is to open the discussion, to end the silence around how we really feel about our sexual behavior."

Or as he wrote in January, "When I told a friend I was considering writing a column about sexual morality, he gave me one piece of advice: 'Don't use the word "morality." You can talk about sex in psychological terms, but don't use that word.'"

Perreten rejected the advice. And for the last five months his biweekly column "Moral Minority" has rooted around in what he called the "middle ground between the finger-wagging tut-tutters on the Christian right and the social liberals who say that morality is all relative, strictly a private matter.

"We all need role models and guides in determining how to conduct ourselves," that January column continued. "We all need to be able to discuss these matters without fear of censure....The gay community, in particular, could benefit from pondering a number of thorny questions related to sex: What are the effects of the widespread use of pornography among gay men? How much do we support relationships and provide forums for fostering them? How does our focus on casual and anonymous sex affect us individually and as a community? What, in fact, are the moral dimensions of casual sex?"

Thirty-some years ago Hugh Hefner wrote endlessly in the pages of Playboy on the moral dimensions of casual sex. His news, as I recall it, was good; casual sex turned out to be morally invigorating. Like Hefner, Perreten isn't making quick work of the subject, though he thinks he has only a couple more columns on it in him. But his conclusions are considerably darker. "Recreational sex can be fun, often powerful enough to distract us from the deep human impulse to truly bond with a partner," he wrote in February. "But it's a shallow pleasure, too meaningless to really fulfill anyone."

And that's without even getting into the hazard of AIDS, which of course Perreten's series has.

Perreten's essays have infuriated some readers. "I find them disgusting," says Rick Garcia, executive director of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights. "The number one thing I find very disturbing is the title of the column--'Moral Minority.' The arrogance. The assumption that if one holds traditional values with regard to human sexuality--i.e., monogamy, long-term relationships, missionary-style positions--that's somehow a minority position in the gay community! I'm not so sure it is a minority opinion. Calling it that buys into the myths and stereotypes. It just affirms sex-negative people. It affirms negative attitudes about human sexuality. It gives the illusion that gay men in particular are just libertines and he is one of the few voices of morality out there."

But Garcia, a practicing Roman Catholic, adds this: "On the upside, he has raised the issue that has to be addressed. Let's be realistic. In our society we know what the sexual or moral standards are for heterosexual folks. It's taught in our schools and in our churches. For gay and lesbian people there are no guidelines. It's just no. From where do you get guidance? How do you develop a sexual ethic? Perreten does add to the discussion."

Alfredo Lanier, a gay Chicago Tribune editorial writer, thinks Perreten's religiousness--he's an Episcopalian--might put off some readers, "the same way a lot of people are put off by the religious stuff in AA." And he wonders if Perreten's description of soulless gay hedonism is overdrawn. "At the center of his message is that people belong together in monogamous relationships," a proposition Lanier believes is more acceptable today than it would have been in the 80s, "when things were really rocking and rolling in New Town. That whole atmosphere was not very conducive to relationships."

That atmosphere, Lanier observes, lives on in Perreten's own paper. "You have Windy City Times columns on porno videos and leather. You don't have any columns about partners and relationships. Why don't you? There's no Ann Landers or anything like it. Certainly no kind of marriage advice or relationship advice."

But the content of Perreten's paper is what pointed him to his task. "A straight friend was amazed at the ads in back," he told me, "and how the men in the personal ads seemed to reduce themselves entirely to physical attributes. That got me to thinking." He said he asked around the office and found out those ads made most of the staff so uncomfortable that they preferred to cut out articles they'd written rather than show their parents the entire paper.

Perreten elaborated on his motives in an E-mail he sent me. "I already mentioned the precipitating incident (taking a look at WCT's phone sex ads), but I didn't discuss the philosophical shift that preceded it. Every minority community--to a lesser or greater extent--blames its problems on the oppression it suffers, on those who inflict the oppression....I have spent a lot of time looking at how the homophobes make life difficult for gays. But I began to tire of always harping on the same theme: bigots are bad. Well, my audience already knows that. I felt like I was preaching to the choir.

"In addition, as a member of the gay community, I felt that the fault for our problems couldn't lie entirely outside of ourselves. That's certainly not true of any individual human being I know, and it's certainly not true of any community. I take it as a sign of maturity...that we can look at ourselves and begin to take responsibility for our own actions and, where wrong, begin to correct them."

Perreten's essays have been attacked, in the letters columns of Windy City Times and beyond, as self-righteous, overdrawn, unnuanced, and unsupported by any evidence beyond anecdote that the rampant promiscuity he belabors exists. "He's talking about the sex lives of single gay men," says psychotherapist Bruce Koff. "And he's talking specifically about the culture that exists basically in a one-half-mile area on Halsted between Addison and Belmont. I think he's describing one portion of the population accurately."

This portion provides Koff with many of his clients, including members of two therapy groups composed of gay men who have trouble establishing and maintaining relationships. "I have rarely encountered so much reaction to a set of columns as I have to Dan's," Koff says. "Among my clients the reaction has been across the board, but for the most part people are grateful he's raised these questions. Some accuse him of being judgmental, but I really think he's done a good job of getting people talking to each other honestly and from a number of different perspectives--from the perspective of personal identity, from the perspective of morality, from the perspective of AIDS.

"I think he talks specifically about how men are socialized around sex. When gay men are given few other opportunities to demonstrate to themselves and others their value, sex becomes one way of doing that. And that's one of the points he's trying to make."

Koff is a former executive director of Horizons Community Services, a gay and lesbian social services agency. "The flip side is, a lot of gay men do manage successful relationships. That doesn't get addressed much at all," Koff says. "One thing Dan said is that gay men don't get exposed much to role models. They don't see them in film or in the media. It'll be interesting to watch this next generation. A lot of the younger gay kids maybe do see some variation."

"Lots and lots of people in the community don't think promiscuity is a wonderful thing," Perreten told me. "One of the things I'm amazed at is the sense of relief and joy of some of the letter writers and people I meet on the street who say, 'My God! I've thought this stuff for years, and I've never felt brave enough to say this.' I get this over and over."

"Moral Minority" is Perreten's swan song at Windy City Times. He's leaving the paper in September to study ethics at the divinity school of the University of Chicago.

Not With My Flag, You Don't

A few days ago the flag over my neighborhood post office flew at half-staff. Who'd just been shot? I was scared silly.

An inquiry proved immensely reassuring. The flag, it turned out, had been lowered to honor Memorial Day, in response to a notice received from post office headquarters. My worst fear was that a local postmaster had taken action on his own authority, on behalf of someone I might not even approve of.

You may recall that when Cardinal Bernardin died, Catholic institutions across Chicago lowered Old Glory. Though the cardinal was a fine man, the church clearly crossed the line. "Showing respect is well and good," I muttered to myself, "but let them do it with the archdiocesan flag. Lowering the national ensign is a wanton breach of the wall dividing church and state."

No reasonable reader can argue with me on that one. But people think they can do with the flag anything they wish. If a Catholic parish is free to lower the flag when a prelate dies, it can be lowered for the potentate of a dubious sect, even an atheistic internationalist. I'm a liberal, trained to put up with a lot, but what am I expected to feel when I see my flag flown at half-staff to mourn some loathsome ideologue? When the very people who sneer at my values appropriate my ensign, can nothing be done?

I have at home a flag that flew over the Capitol in Washington. This precious gift flew there for perhaps 30 seconds before it was hauled down and replaced with another, so brisk is the market for flags that have flown over the Capitol. What to call this enthusiasm? Some call it patriotism. And when any flag is disrespected--be it a two-inch piece of cardboard left on the street in a clump of crepe paper after a toddlers' tricycle parade or a grander ensign forced to fly above some outworn creed or alien ideology or schoolhouse in which the wrong ideas are taught or even a self-service gas station that charges too much--hasn't a piece of the heart of America broken? The flag speaks for America, but who speaks for the flag?

For flag reform to be meaningful it must be comprehensive. The U.S. Flag Code lays out in exacting detail when and how the flag should be flown. But as Supreme Court decisions have made clear, it's a toothless document. A joint resolution now before Congress would at long last give government the power "to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." This proposed constitutional amendment enjoys wide support and is expected to be approved by the House in a day or two, if it hasn't been already. But it's no more than a hopeful beginning. Once the principle is firmly established that disrespect of the flag can and must be criminalized, the door is open to protecting it from any and all abuse. As long as anyone is free to appropriate the symbolism of the flag for his own ends, however hostile to traditional American values those ends might be, our most sacred icon is not safe. When the constabulary steps in, it must step in all the way.

Like the airwaves, the American flag is a public trust. So what I propose is an aggressive Federal Flag Commission charged with regulating the use of the American flag and making sure that it's flown only in those circumstances deemed to be in the national interest. In the future the Chicago archdiocese would be expected to fill out an application and undergo a federal review of its documents before it could lower the Stars and Stripes. Otherwise it would be flirting with confiscation and arrest. It's not for some parish priest to decide who America weeps for. It's for the men and women we send to Washington.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Perreten photo by Robert Drea.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →