The Welfare State Is Homophobic14 September 2018
CONTENT WARNING: DRUGS, SEX
Queers are outraged about the proposed regulation of poppers—and the restriction of its recreational use. And rightly so. The arguments against these regulations are convincing—it’s your body and your choice to ingest whatever substance you like. But every new prohibition on social behaviours comes from somewhere and we should ask what made regulating poppers possible in the first place, to properly critique these immoral policies.
So, what are poppers? It’s a form of amyl nitrate, and it gets sold as a “leather and cleaner”. It’s also an inhalant used recreationally, particularly in (hardcore and anal) sex acts, and particularly by queer people at raves. For years it’s been used by queer people, to the point it’s become a gay cultural icon.
It has few side effects—but of recreational drugs, it’s one of the least harmful. You sniff it and get a high for about 30 seconds which eventually wears off. The side-effects of constant use are retina damage, and headaches. But these effects are overstated.
Poppers are used for hedonistic reasons, and they’re part of a marginalised subculture—but if you misuse them, you can damage your health.
But what does any of this have to do with the welfare state?
The welfare state is the idea of a regulatory state, which provides social insurance (like healthcare and benefits) for the common good. But this insurance has to be paid for— and therefore, taxes are increased. But to stop costs from being excessive, taxpayers can ban behaviours they deem “costly”. Herein lies the problem—“taxpayers” write those rules and therefore get to regulate people’s lives. Unless a costly behaviour passes a cost–benefit analysis, proving it provides enough benefit to society, it can and should be banned. This power is exercised by the state on behalf of taxpayers, who absorb the costs of the welfare state.
This cost–benefit analysis is incredibly problematic, because voters determine what is costly. Those decisions don’t have to be correct: they can be clouded by ideology, and they often are. And these ideological fears can be prayed on and exacerbated by politicians for votes. So, behaviours are banned in the name of “defending the taxpayer”, but those bans are merely exercises of power over others out of fear. The historical “reefer madness” moral panic only exemplifies this.
The one thing that stops a costly behaviour from being banned is that behaviour having more “benefit”. One example is drinking. We all know how much drinking costs society, but we could never ban it because it’s something the average Aussie enjoys. So, while it’s costly, it also has a greater benefit, and therefore every Aussie should be able to enjoy a beer at the pub or the footy. Drinking is seen as objectively enjoyable, providing some sort of benefit to the average citizen. We could never ban something most of us enjoy, after all—that would be an attack on our way of life.
So, if we’re going to “legalise” costly behaviours, it has to appeal to some objective citizen—your average joe.
But do queer and kink subcultures appeal to the objective citizen? No. Queerness and non-normative sex are stigmatised, and that concept of hedonism is still pathologised by mainstream society. It’s hardly normal to sniff substances and get rammed up the arse—so there can be no objective benefit from popper use, and therefore, we can’t defend the civil liberties of clubbers, the queer and the kinky. Banning drinking is nanny-statism and an attack on the pleasure of everyday citizens—but taking poppers is a dangerous, undesirable, stupid thing to do.
So, if we can’t consider the benefits, let’s consider the costs. We have a rationalised state—the state has limited resources to maximise the common good. And any dollar saved by prohibitions on anything, including poppers, will educate another child or treat another sick patient—as opposed to the use of poppers, which is supposedly minority pleasure at the majority’s expense.
Importantly, the actual social cost of the use of poppers won’t matter. Poppers will be made illegal because its use is seen as costly, while its its benefits are unperceivable. This is the iron rule of the welfare state—that the taxpaying majority can ban behaviours it perceives to be costly.
This entire framework permits the subjugation of minorities and queer desires, because it defers to an “objective, neutral” heterosexual citizen for judgment. The fact most people wouldn’t take poppers at raves or in the bedroom is reason enough for queer behaviours to be prohibited—and the construction of queer lifestyles as costly consolidates this narrative. The bias against queer subcultures literally becomes the welfare state’s point of reference, and everything else follows.
We shouldn’t be surprised poppers are being regulated when the structures of society’s regulations reflect society’s tyrannical, puritan biases against the mad and dangerous hedonism. The issue is not just that banning poppers is nonsensical, but also that the welfare state’s point of reference is heterosexual.