- Sex, France and Arab Men by Todd Shepard
Chicago, 317 pp, £37.50, February, ISBN 978 0 226 49327 5
‘It is usually agreed in France,’ the poet and essayist Edouard Roditi wrote in 1962, ‘that Arabs have been gifted with greater manliness than us.’ Algeria had recently won its independence after a long war of liberation, and the loss was experienced by some French men as an emasculation, a feeling reinforced by stories of French soldiers castrated and disembowelled by Algerian fighters. ‘In Africa, it’s OPEN SEASON on Whites,’ the far-right monthly Europe-action proclaimed in 1965. Worse, France was now prey to an ‘Arab invasion’ that was turning France into a ‘bitch nation’.
‘Perhaps if I hadn’t gone to bed with Algerians I might not have been in favour of the FLN’ (the Algerian National Liberation Front), Jean Genet told Playboy in 1968. His remark became a rallying cry. In 1971, Tout!, then France’s most popular leftist periodical, published a manifesto under the heading ‘We have been buggered by Arabs.’ The signatories – ‘more than 343 sluts’ – announced: ‘We’re proud of it and we’ll do it again.’ ‘Isn’t it obvious,’ another article declared, ‘that this is a form of revenge, offered to them by us, against the Western coloniser?’ Tout! published a translation of Huey Newton’s ‘Declaration in Support of the Just Struggle of Homosexuals and Women’, one of the earliest texts to identify the coincidence of racism with homophobia.
As Todd Shepard explains in Sex, France and Arab Men, France’s sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was shaped by the Algerian war of independence in ways that have since been overlooked. From gay liberation and queer theory to debates about sex work and anti-rape activism, major shifts in French sexual self-definition often transected with the figure of the ‘Arab’, and especially the ‘Arab man’. Arabs themselves – in France they were mostly North Africans – had a part in this conversation, though scarcely on equal terms. Shepard argues persuasively that they have been written out of the story in favour of what he calls a ‘vanilla gay past’.
The mood in France during the Algerian war and its long aftermath, he believes, was loaded with ‘the erotics of Algerian difference’. It wasn’t just that sexualised stereotypes of Arabs proliferated, but that sexual expression and desire themselves were transformed as the place of the ‘Arab’ in the French imagination came into contention. The disconcerting implications of this process for the voiceless non-Westerners in question are clear to Shepard. But he also sketches the radical possibilities that attended the birth of France’s sexual revolution during the trente glorieuses and offers us a rare glimpse of a sexual politics that quickly gave way to the ‘binarism’ that is dominant now, in which people are either gay or straight, and cultures – almost exclusively in the global South – that appear to frown on homosexuality are seen as repressive, backward and inferior. Shephard’s study, with its emphasis on daring ideas about sex and revolution half a century ago, is rich with implications for the present.
It hadn’t always been the case that Arabs were seen in France as bearers of ‘manliness’. In Orientalism, Edward Said identified an earlier stereotype – the effeminate, youthful, available Arab – by reading across a wide range of scholarship, fiction, poetry and art, mostly English and French, all of it produced in the imperial era. The threat – and the allure – of North Africa had always lain just beneath the surface. But by 1962 the Arab world was no longer under direct European control, and those dangers seemed imminent. From a place of extravagant possibility, glossed in erotic postcards of ‘native’ women and the fabled accessibility of boys and men, Algeria became a place of sexual threat and North African men in France were seen as a phallic fifth column, in an echo of the 1820s, when, as the historian Gillian Weiss has shown, a panic about the sexual enslavement of white women paved the way for the French invasion of Algeria. Rumours of ‘white slavery’ – that white women were being kidnapped and sold in the Orient – were revived more than a century later in the aftermath of the Algerian Revolution, with Arabs now playing leading roles (though one rumour, which gripped the town of Orléans in 1969, pinpointed Jewish-owned department stores as the new sex traffickers).
These superstitions still prevailed in France when the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action (FHAR) was founded in 1971 by a radical group of women and men who – two years after the Stonewall riots in New York – were keen to import sexual radicalism from the US. One young member spoke of the need ‘to destroy the family and this society because they have always oppressed us’ and called for ‘a homosexual front whose task is to fight and destroy fascist sexual normality’. Remarks of this kind were scandalous, and in due course Sartre, the nominal figurehead and editorial director of Tout!, was indicted for public indecency and pornography (he was later cleared). The journal’s offices were raided and ten thousand copies were seized. Félix Guattari, director of publication for the academic review Recherches, which published Tout!, was convicted of an ‘offence against public decency’ and fined 600 francs. Police harassment and internal disputes had driven the FHAR into the ground by 1974, but it is still remembered for its anarchic meetings at the Beaux-Arts and for its many factions, including les Gazolines, a group of femme provocateurs who called for the nationalisation of sequin factories.
The poster boy for gay militancy at the time was the writer and philosopher Guy Hocquenghem, who in his mid-twenties published an account in Le Nouvel Observateur often described as the first ‘coming out’ in France. Hocquenghem had been a member of the Communist Party’s youth wing, but was expelled; he became a Trotskyist and, increasingly frustrated with the anti-homosexual attitudes of the radical left, was closely associated with the FHAR. Homosexual Desire, his first book, was published in 1972. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972) and Fourier’s Le Nouveau Monde amoureux (written in 1816 but not published until 1967), it was a sweeping attempt to theorise the relationships between capitalism, sexuality, the state, desire and identity. A graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Hocquenghem was teaching philosophy at Vincennes alongside a roster of soixante-huitard theorists, including Foucault, who was briefly head of the philosophy department.
For a sexual revolution with a full-blown political revolution in its sights, Wilhelm Reich’s thinking was indispensable. In Reich’s view, capitalism required the imposition of patriarchal sexual authority across the board, and a workers’ revolution would necessarily involve a sexual revolution. FHAR members were quick to seize on a theory that explained the ‘sexual misery from which we all suffer, homos, women, blacks, Indians, immigrants, proles, high schoolers, youth, the insane’ and led logically to a ‘solidarity of the oppressed that links us with Arabs’. In Three Billion Perverts: The Big Encyclopedia of Homosexualities (1973), the FHAR’s landmark publication (rapidly banned), a long entry under the heading ‘Arabs and Us’ explored the sexual convergence of French ‘homos’ and ‘Arabs’. There was a troubling dimension to this writing. A dissenting piece in Three Billion Perverts, unsigned but probably written by Deleuze, argued that ‘Arabs and Us’ was an unfortunate mixture of ‘politically revolutionary’ sentiments and ‘perfectly fascist and racist’ notions, which proposed the ‘Arab’ as an object of white male fantasies.
Women in the FHAR, Shepard suggests, were increasingly out of step with the group’s attitudes. When they complained about harassment from men in the street, their male comrades replied that they would like nothing better. Despite their central role in the early days, women left the organisation en masse and set up new groups, like the Gouines Rouges (Red Dykes). From the mid-1970s, anti-rape activism swept the feminist movement and the men-women rift briefly eclipsed the debate about race. The rift widened when some feminists pushed for harsher rape sentences. The debate over the state’s role in protecting women from violent men produced a strange reticence from gay men. Some even derided the mobilisation around rape as ‘anti-sexuality’. Hocquenghem thought the ‘leagues of women against rape’ were the avant-garde of ‘a new puritanism’ standing in the way of ‘male desire’ and the wish for ‘sex with a brutal edge, for the phallus’. In response, feminist militants like Leïla Sebbar ridiculed the ‘tears’ of men on the left who rushed to defend convicted rapists while expressing no concern for the victims of rape.
The gay writer Renaud Camus, a contemporary of Hocquenghem, took another path. While Hocquenghem saw the North African presence in France as enriching and potentially liberating, Camus felt that there was nothing to be learned from Arabs: they were relics of a moment before men discovered that it was possible to be gay. ‘These people cannot even conceive that they could be homosexual,’ he wrote in 1978. A year later, he published Tricks: 33 Stories, a series of vignettes depicting sexual encounters between uninhibited men. Arabs appeared in the book – which had a preface by Barthes – only as counterfoils to white gay sexual expression. Tricks caused a sensation; it was also a sign of what lay in store. Being fucked by Arabs, Camus felt, was passé: what mattered above all was same-race, same-sex intercourse and the extinction of difference: white men who identified as gay should fuck white men, and do so in conspicuously gay spaces. ‘He believed,’ Shepard says rightly, ‘in the primacy of sameness.’ By 1977, Hocquenghem had seen the future and he was unimpressed. ‘The Latin solidarity of queens, Spanish-flamenco queers, or big Arab-loving queens of the South of France,’ he lamented, has been replaced by ‘the empire of Anglo-Saxonised homosex’. Hocquenghem died of an Aids-related illness in 1988. Camus has ended up a ferocious white supremacist and ultranationalist. He is famous for his prophecy of a ‘great replacement’: ‘native white’ populations across Europe will sooner or later be outnumbered by third-country migrants and their children.
Sexual liberation is now seen as a pillar of Western freedom: Africa, the Arab and Muslim world, Asia and the Caribbean constitute an anti-gay empire, marked in forbidding red on maps that chart homophobic legislation around the globe – a perfect inversion of the 19th-century Arabist Richard Burton’s ‘Sotadic Zone’, a vast geographical space, named for the scurrilous Greek poet Sotades, in which the ‘vice’ of homosexuality was allegedly rife. This widening chasm between a liberated ‘us’ and a repressed ‘them’ has created what the scholar Jasbir Puar calls ‘homonationalism’: recruiting the discourse of LGBT rights for the cause of the global neoliberal ascendancy, at the expense of those whose behaviour is seen as falling short and therefore requires some form of intervention or control. ‘Homonationalism’ lies at the root of ‘pinkwashing’, the term now used by activists to describe the CIA’s recruiting tent at the Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade, for instance, or GCHQ’s vocal support for National Coming Out Day, or the Israel Defence Forces selling themselves as the world’s most ‘gay-friendly’ military. Corporate pinkwashing is now commonplace: in 2014, even the Keystone XL Pipeline tried to advertise itself as a gay-friendly alternative to OPEC, through a website called OPEChatesgays.com.
Shepard is right to point to the ‘vanilla’ nature of a particular strand of gay neoliberalism. But countercurrents persist, and not only in the expected places. Before he fell from grace, Milo Yiannopoulos could speak about his ‘very anti-white bedroom policy’ and oppose Planned Parenthood because ‘they kill all those black babies’, who ‘in twenty years … could be my harem’; the man he married in 2017 was not only black, but also, according to him, Muslim. Yiannopoulos blurs the distinction between the fetishisation of non-white men (the FHAR) and outright rejection of them (Renaud Camus). Meanwhile much writing about the lives of white gay men is preoccupied by the spectral figure of the enabling black or brown sexual partner: take the work of Alan Hollinghurst, for example. In France, sexual fascination with Arabs and Muslims, men in particular, still has a place in the national psyche, a point recently made by Mehammed Mack in Sexagon: Muslims, France and the Sexualisation of National Culture.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Hocquenghem was a luminary of the French left. Nowadays he is much less well known than other thinkers of his generation. His prickly intransigence became more pronounced with age. In 1986 he published an ‘Open Letter to those who Traded Maoism for the Rotary Club’, castigating his fellow soixante-huitards – he listed them by name – who had relinquished their revolutionary dreams to become state functionaries and bourgeois careerists. He was just as furious about the direction taken by gay culture in the West. In the many freedoms that gays now enjoyed in metropolitan clubs, Hocquenghem saw a fatal bien-pensant approval at work: gay life had been approved and institutionalised and gays were succumbing to the allure of respectability. Something disruptive and dangerous had been lost. Nine years before he died, he published La Beauté du métis (1979), an attack on Frenchness and a celebration of cultural and sexual mixing. The book lambasted ‘france’ – which he refused to spell with a capital letter – as a country in denial when it came to Arab culture. On a trip to an immigrant banlieue north of Paris, he asks a group of residents what they would do with the money if they were awarded reparations for the exploitation they’d suffered at the hands of the host culture: would they invest it in a better life in France, or go to Africa? ‘Assimilation or return: neither one nor the other,’ they replied. ‘We prefer to stay here as outsiders.’ It’s a remarkably queer response.