A few weeks ago, I heard the most beautiful, inspiring story. A friend of a friend, a woman in her late 30s, had summoned the courage to be her true self – first she told her close friends, then she told her siblings, and finally she told her parents, that she was attracted to women. The reaction from her friends and family was the same – unqualified support and love.
I was deeply moved by the story – I don’t know the woman, don’t even know her surname, but that process of someone feeling like they have to hide an inherent part of their identity due to external stigma before overcoming that pressure and finding love and understanding is, well, it’s profoundly moving.
A few weeks later, Ursula Halligan wrote about her own similar experience, and the echoes were loud and painful – the denial of one’s identity, the self-reproach, the shame and sadness before the ultimate acceptance, support and immense relief.
The struggle they experienced brought to mind something we might call Savage’s Hierarchy, a sort of Maslow’s Hierarchy, but for desire and sexual identity. I have heard it described by the great Dan Savage, who is not only the world’s greatest ever sex-advice columnist, but also perhaps one of the world’s foremost philosophers. From “Good, Giving and Game” to “Dump the Motherfucker Already”, from the “campsite rule” to “monogamish” to the “It Gets Better” campaign, Savage has articulated a consistent set of principles that serve as a guide not just to sexual satisfaction, but also to love and life in general. He is the Bertrand Russell of modern relationships, basically.
His hierarchy consists of three layers of desire, in ascending order: “What you want to do, what you are doing, and what you tell the world you’re doing.”
The closer the alignment of those layers, the happier and more content we are, the more ourselves we feel, basically. The further apart those layers are, the greater the mental and emotional dissonance, and the greater the toll it takes trying to reconcile them, or worse, enduring the impossibility of reconciling them.
The textbook example is of the gay or lesbian teen, struggling with every layer of the hierarchy: ashamed of their innermost desires; unable to act on them safely or at all; and finally unable to tell the world what they want or who they really are. That’s a recipe for stress, emotional breakdown, self-reproach, depression.
The great thing about Savage’s Hierarchy is its flexibility – it applies to everyone’s desires, so illuminates the struggles of shy people who struggle to date, say, or straight people with unusual kinks, or married couples in sexless marriages, or any configuration you can imagine. Striving for alignment of the layers of our sexual identity is something we all do, whether we realise it or not.
And of course, the principle doesn’t just apply to our desires – the conflict between who we want to be, who we really are and who we present ourselves to others as is the central tension behind our sense of self. It’s a tension that has been explored by generations of thinkers, from Descartes to Hume, from Freud to Lacan, but for our purposes here, I like Savage’s take just fine.
But perhaps the hierarchy applies not just to people but to societies as well. What does a society truly want to be, how does it function in practice, what image does it project to the world?
It’s illuminating, I think, to see today’s Ireland, the Ireland that goes to the polls to decide whether it wants full marriage equality for everyone regardless of who they love, through the prism of Savage’s Hierarchy.
The social changes that have roiled Ireland with the decline of the Catholic Church can be seen as a kind of seismic shift in the country’s three layers – in an oppressive Catholic theocracy that stigmatised and shamed basically all sexual desire, it was really difficult for anyone except the most devout to easily align their three layers.
Savage’s Hierarchy also helps to shed some light on the more galling elements of the No campaign. Certainly, I find most of the No campaign’s arguments and talking points to be appallingly misleading and mendacious. Above all the tendency, and eagerness, of prominent No campaigners to assume the status of a persecuted minority is an act of jawdropping chutzpah given the context, a debate about offering equal rights to a minority that has actually been long persecuted.
But seen in the light of Savage’s Hierarchy, the behaviour of the No campaign begins to make a good deal more sense, even if it remains highly objectionable. Without seeking to psychoanalyse individual No campaigners, it’s possible to discern that the larger philosophy espoused by the No campaign is rooted in an orthodox Catholic mindset that shames sexual desire.
That means, in practice, being inculcated in a culture in which the only permissible way to align the three layers of sexuality was to deeply internalise the message that the only acceptable form of desire was preferably joyless procreation within marriage. The three layers involve subjugating “unacceptable” desires, only having sex within marriage for the ostensible purpose of having children, and assuring your social status by showing the world how pure and traditional you are.
Anything that deviates from that model is deeply threatening, because it calls into question all that self-oppression – and people getting divorced, or having affairs, or being gay, or anything that falls outset that narrow range of “acceptable” behaviour, must be demonised. Demonisation is how the uppermost layer of the hierarchy was strictly policed, and forcing people to publicly deny their sexuality works its way down the layers through a fear of exposure at the middle layer and a sense of shame at the foundational layer.
To have a handful of people deviating from the “norm” is useful, in that it’s then easy to demonise “deviants”, which in turn serves to enhance the social reward for keeping your layers aligned to the orthodoxy.
You get too many people deviating from the orthodoxy, however, and the ropes of Catholic, sex-negative oppression used to keep everything in place begin to fray.
The ropes have been fraying for a long time now, because desire is a wondrous thing of infinite variety, and too many people expended too much of themselves trying to deny their true sexuality (the fact that the Catholic Church was particularly hypocritical in its attitude to certain people acting out their deviant desires in a non-consensual manner was a big factor in all this, of course).
One result of this social upheaval in attitudes to sexuality is the loss of prestige and social status that comes from upholding the previously imposed values, and I suspect that is what lies at the heart of the No campaign’s persecution complex. Of course, it is a cynical and reprehensible attempt to constrain criticism of their increasingly unacceptable views, but I think there is a degree of genuine shock at how the tide has turned on their worldview.
Thus the palpable anger at having their privilege revoked – views and opinions that were once respectable and commonplace in the context of a Catholic theocracy now prompt scorn and ridicule, and they can’t stand it. But that’s what happens when you’re on the wrong side of history – social progress happens when enough people decide certain attitudes are no longer acceptable.
So today, Ireland has an opportunity to categorically say that we, collectively as a society, are leaving that oppressive cultural mindset behind.
Today, perhaps, marks an inflection point in our evolution from a deeply sex-negative Catholic country to a society that tolerates and embraces all sorts of sexual difference. It won’t just be members of the LGBT community who want to marry who will benefit if the referendum passes, but all of us who value real liberty.
Today, Irish society has the beautiful opportunity to reconcile our three layers, to free ourselves of any shame in desiring different things, to remove the stigma of doing different things, and ultimately to allow everyone to be who they want to be.
A better tomorrow, I feel, is just hours away.