Netflix’s Sense8 and the Celebration of Human Sexuality

Netflix’s Sense8 and the Celebration of Human Sexuality June 26, 2015


I don’t know which is worse, the fact that I’m a straight white guy or that I like the Wachowskis’ filmmaking. Being born straight and white endowed me with a tremendous amount of privilege in our society, which means my very existence contributes to the oppression of women and minorities to some extent. But to admit that I enjoy the storytelling of the authors of Jupiter Ascending, which was universally panned by critics, is to invite no small amount of derision. Nevertheless, I stand by my affinity for the Wachowskis because watching their series Sense8 on Netflix has reminded me of what I like most about them — their unabashed celebration of human diversity.

I’m not only straight and white, I was also born into Christian fundamentalism in a small conservative town in Pennsylvania — Pennsyltucky, as I have come to call it. I grew up largely in the 1980s, and my social and political conscience didn’t really emerge until I was in college in the 1990s. Homosexuality as a divisive issue wasn’t even on my radar until I was in my twenties. I don’t even remember any overtly homosexual peers in high school or college — there were never any open displays of same-sex affection in either my home community or my college campus, which was in hindsight kind of surprising for a small liberal arts institution on the East Coast.

But I have to admit that while binge-watching Sense8, I felt a twinge of aversion at the first gay sex scene between Lito and his boyfriend Hernando. In it, both characters are completely naked, both have chiseled, athletic bodies, and they kiss passionately, Lito’s stubble rubbing hard against Hernando’s full beard. Hernando slides his hand into Lito’s underwear, and it ends with Lito climaxing with anal sex.

I don’t really know exactly why I felt a reflexive aversion when I first saw that scene. Was it because of my Christian upbringing, being conditioned to equate what’s considered morally wrong with what’s revolting? But I don’t find something like lying to be viscerally repulsive. Was it simply because I’m physically attracted to the female form and not the male? Like the way Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin put it in the song “Royal Orleans”:

New Orleans queens sure know how to schmooze it,

maybe to some that seems alright.

When I step out, strut down with my sugar,

she best not talk like Barry White.

Or is there some deeper, instinctive reason for it?

In a paper from 2008, Richard Redding of Chapman University noted that “Philosophers, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists theorize that the aversion to homosexuality is rooted in the human emotion of disgust, an emotion so basic that even twelve-month-old infants respond to the facial cues of disgust reactions in others more than they do almost any other emotion.” And social scientist Jonathan Haidt notes in his recent book The Righteous Mind, that “The emotion of disgust evolved initially to optimize responses to the omnivore’s dilemma.” In other words, those of our ancestors — who, unlike other animals, had to discover for themselves what to eat — who had a more refined sense of disgust were able to avoid foods and other substances that were harmful, and thereby had a greater chance of thriving and reproducing.

Haidt goes on to cite anthropologist Richard Shweder’s distillation of moral themes into three distinct clusters, one of which he called the “ethic of divinity.” This is the idea that “people are, first and foremost, temporary vessels within which a divine soul is implanted,” and that therefore “the body is a temple, not a playground.” In other words, homosexual acts are seen as violating the sacred order of the universe.

In case you’re wondering, the ethic of divinity — the emotion of disgust clothed in the language of morality — generally sounds like this: “Homosexual behavior is an abomination to God,” says Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. “When God sees it, it causes him to recoil.” Another time, Fischer also said, with regard to Burger King’s “Proud Whopper” advertising campaign, that no one wants to think about two guys having sex while you’re about to eat a hamburger. Truth be told, I don’t want to think about any kind of sex when I’m about to eat some animal flesh.

But Redding also goes on to quote philosopher Martha Nussbaum in his paper: “Although some disgust-reactions may have an evolutionary basis and thus may be broadly shared across societies,” she writes, “that does not mean that disgust provides a disgusted person with a set of reasons that can be used for purposes of public persuasion. Disgust concerns thoughts of contamination as opposed to real harm.”

Whatever the reason for my initial aversion, I can at least say that “eww” isn’t a good argument against expressions of human sexuality. I realize it can be very confusing for your average straight white man to navigate the labyrinth of human relationships — notions of gender, sexual orientation, transgenderism, and transsexualism are all rather fluid and unfamiliar to most people.

But it’s OK to get lost like that sometimes, because it’s only when we’re lost that we earnestly seek answers, that we pay more attention to our surroundings. It’s only when we know that we don’t know that we ask honest questions.

For example, when Lito says describes his first sexual encounter with Hernando, he says: “Our first kiss was over there in the bathroom. It was a religious experience for me. I went to my knees and when I took him into my mouth it was like I was taking the Holy Communion.” My question would be: why can’t the body be both a temple and a playground?

As someone with a naturalistic worldview, it’s harder for me to suspend disbelief in the pseudo-scientific premise of the show than to embrace the celebration of diverse expressions of human love and sexuality — the “endless forms most beautiful,” to paraphrase Darwin’s description of evolution. And contrary to what certain elements of the Religious Right believe, enjoying the portrayal of LGBTQ lives and seeking out their perspectives with an open mind for the last 20 years hasn’t made me gay.

But it has made me more compassionate. I would even say it’s made me more human, more humane. And for that I’m grateful to, and continue to be a fan of, the Wachowskis.


Image via Wikipedia

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