Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The "Religious Right" and the sex industry

So, a couple weeks ago I went to a book signing event at a big independent bookstore. Mike Jones, the man who disclosed a sexual business relationship with former evangelical leader Ted Haggard, was there to talk about his book and sign copies. I didn't know what to expect, and in particular I didn't know who would attend. Would the audience be sympathetic to Haggard or to Jones, or would most be merely curious? Would the appearance turn into a slanging match? As it happened, I think most attendees were either curious or sympathetic to Jones. If Haggard supporters were present, they remained quiet during Jones' talk and the question and answer session.

Jones, a long-time bodybuilder, is a good-looking and very well-spoken man. He is unafraid to tackle any topic and in particular is unafraid to speak directly and explicitly about sexual matters. He read excerpts from the book, some about his escorting business, and one about the death of his mother, which occurred only weeks before his discovery of Haggard's identity. During the question and answer session, Jones received generally supportive comments for his choice to reveal Haggard's political duplicity (Haggard, as a powerful spokesperson for his variant of evangelical Christianity, opposed gay marriage and aligned himself with really vicious anti-gay language).

At the time that Jones disclosed his contacts with Haggard and since, I have had reservations about the choice, since the action also impacted Haggard's wife and five children--it seems they did not know about his double life, and found out about it in a particularly public way, and I didn't think that aspect of their experience had been addressed in the discourse about the whole mess. So I was pleased to hear that Jones himself says that in retrospect he might have done some things differently.

During the question and answer session, a number of speakers thanked Jones for his actions and some called him a hero for having exposed this hypocrisy. A few spoke about how significant it was to them that Jones had "taken on the church," and expressed their opinions that the church was the single most dangerous institution facing sexual minority persons. These remarks garnered applause, and I felt uncomfortable about this. It seemed that many of those present saw the sexual minority community and conservative religion as utterly separate and diametrically opposed. (They may also have seen the escorting business as representing the sexual minority community as a whole.) The more I thought about it, the more I thought these remarks, popular as they were, represent a potentially dangerous oversimplification.

I'm not particularly familiar with the sex industry, but in his talk Mike Jones stated that he had had sexual business relationships with many men employed in churches. He also stated that he suspected that some paid his fees with money taken from collection plates. I think it would be fair to say that he saw his work as providing respite from the hostility these men encountered in their work and daily lives, of providing a dose of tenderness and caring that allowed them to go back into the world and function. If it is accurate that there is a significant number of men in conservative religious institutions who desire male-male sex and seek it out from sex workers, then the conservative institutions and the sex industry are not in fact separate and opposed, but tightly joined in a complicated symbiotic relationship. It is pretty well known that some religious institutions raise a lot of money by disseminating really vicious anti-gay propaganda, generally focusing on the sex lives of sexual minority persons to the exclusion of any other considerations. In such propaganda, all sexual minority persons are identified with extreme images of pornography, prostitution, and the like (all of which exist among so-called "normal" heterosexuals as well). So these religious institutions benefit from gay escorts like Mike Jones in two ways: they use exaggerated images of such people in their propaganda, and gain supporters and money; and, individuals within the movements use sex workers in support of living double lives, maintaining their positions of power and reward while obtaining particular satisfactions "on the side." These postures on the part of individuals and institutions are certainly problematic. The sex industry, however, in providing services to men living such double lives, also allows the power structure to be maintained without challenge. It also depends for some of its income on the very existence of structures including religious ones that require secrecy and denial for sexual minority persons. In these ways, looking systemically, both the sex industry and hostile religious institutions are complicit in maintaining one another EVEN THOUGH their positions would seem opposite. Let me make it extremely clear that I believe this symbiotic connection is NOT limited to gay sex; I am writing about gay sex because that's what Jones and his book are about.

Mike Jones, in publicizing Haggard's duplicity, lost all of his escorting business. I don't know that there is any "going back" for him. He could be embraced by conservative religious movements IF he "repented" of his past and denied his sexual orientation. Neither party in the deadly embrace of symbiosis has room for Mike Jones as he exists today. And, sadly, the symbiosis will continue.

There are conflicting opinions about whether, or how, Mike Jones' actions impacted the larger political sphere. The long-term effects on Haggard and his family and his former congregation are yet to be seen. The effect on Jones has been exceptionally complex. Naming him as a hero and ignoring the larger systemic realities may feel good to some, but I do see some moral ambiguity in his actions and positions. I see moral ambiguity most places, so that does not make Mike Jones unique in any way. But, listening to him, I got the sense that Mike Jones is a complex man who might, actually, fare better in his own life in the long run by facing the ambiguity.

That's enough for now. More on the topic in another post.


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