04 9 / 2012
This essay is the second in a collection of essays I’m writing on race and sexuality. In the first essay I discussed how we must begin to think about how constructions of race and white supremacy are central to even our most personal sexual desires. In this essay I want to back-track a bit and outline the framework I am using to grapple with these questions.
I can’t tell you how many times my friends (of all races) have told me to “get over” my white fetish. They resonate with my plight and understand where it comes from, etc., etc., but they point it out as an obvious site of contradiction in my politics and activism. They establish a timeline – Okay so I understand you grew up in a conservative town, but now you’ve been out and away for a long time…isn’t it getting better? The parameters are set: we begin at internalized racism, self-hatred, and longing for whiteness and we are supposed to ‘end’ at radical self-love and for other people of color. They tell me to try things out with boys of color, “experience what I am missing out on.” When I even bring up the possibility of finding a non-problematic white person, one who, in fact, contributes to my project of racial emancipation I am often shot down.
It seems – as it often does – that progressives have found ourselves in a bind.
As soon as we articulate our racialized desires, we are told to get over them because they are problematic. In the true spirit of liberalism – we present a compelling critique without meaningful alternatives. Yes, I agree, that it would be absolutely wonderful to experience desire for a boy of color – hell – for women, for people of all genders, races, ethnicities, abilities, etc. The fact of the matter remains that there is a large distance between the utopian politics I can entertain intellectually and the body I have been implicated with: a body that messes up, desires confusingly in contradictory ways, a body that finds it nearly impossible to love itself completely.
In this piece I want to grapple more with the project of emancipating desire and what that entails. The question “When are you going to get over it?” I think is the wrong one considering the epistemology it is derived from. This question is symptomatic of a particular way of understanding sexual desire that often denies the material reality of our bodies – bodies that find themselves located within violent differentials of power, bodies that experience race, gender, desire in intricate and multi-faceted ways.
Beyond That’s Problematic! Developing a language of critical attraction
What strikes me when my friends tell me to “get over my racial fetish” is the assumptions at work about the elasticity of some sorts of desire and not others. These same queer friends get offended when their parents, their church, their government tells them to “get over” their desires and be straight. What becomes interesting here is how particular types of desire – often types of desires that don’t fit well into ones understanding of normality and propriety – are seen as fleeting, protean, malleable (racial fetishisms, pedophilia, etc.).
Let’s think about the mainstream strategy of the gay and lesbian movement here. In its plea for acceptance, gay and lesbian people market (and I use this word intentionally) their desire as essential, static, and uncontestable. Same-sex desire gets depicted as a fixed mode of being, a “born this way,” an innate characteristic of a body. In this strategy of acceptance and adherence to a homosexual/heterosexual sexual binary, gays and lesbians delegitimize other types of desires and modes of relating that do not align well with this narrative. The argument becomes: “we as gays and lesbians are legitimate because we are not pedophiles, not drug addicts, not racial fetishists.” We become legitimate because our desire is inborn, it is domesticated, it is private, it is married.
What gets lost in articulating these identity-based claims? Who must be put down in order for gays and lesbians to experience ascendency? What kind of (racialized) bodies must be outcast from the nation state for gays and lesbians to be incorporated into the national imaginary?
When people used to tell me to “get over it,” I would respond, “I can’t – this is just who I am!” My response – as a delegitimized sexual subject – was to retreat into the parameters of essentialism and therefore respectability. It was to make a claim that I have no agency, no control over my desires and that this was just the way things are.
What I’ve since realized, is this gesture constitutes a serious dismissal of a radical and transformative introspection of desire. In accepting essentialism in all of its seductive rhetoric, we ignore the ways in which we actually do have agency, the ways in which we actually do have control over our desire. In accepting essentialism we position our desires as impenetrable (no pun intended), and thus don’t even attempt to question them. In saying that I was “just this way” in the same way that my queer people of color friends would tell me that my attractions were “just racist,” I precluded any possibility of critical self-investigation and development. I accepted my desire without problematizing it and having to ask the more important question, the question that I think motivated my friends remarks: How are you reconciling your white fetish with the Revolution?
What becomes continually apparent is we do not yet have a way to talk critically about our desires and how these yearnings are actually central to our process of collective liberation.
I can’t tell you how many activists I’ve met who leave their politics at the doorstep and engage in erotic and affectual relations un-critically, seduced by the semantics of ‘love’ and ‘lust.’ Indeed – blithe acceptance of sexuality is becoming increasingly characteristic of liberal spaces: we create ‘safe spaces’ in our organizations where we allow people to self-identify with tokenized identities that are becoming increasingly comfortable to (neo)liberalism: LGBTI(ETC). Yet the ‘safety’ of these spaces often eliminates the possibility for meaningful critique: we cannot interrogate the white gay rice queen (white man who predominantly sleeps with Asian men) about how he exercises his racial privilege as part of his queer identity, we cannot question the class privilege of certain queers in the room who are able to have more access to sex (with their iPhones, their cars, their money for club fees). With an increasing culture of ‘human’ and ‘LGBTI’ ‘rights,’ we have seen a blanket and uncritical acceptance of sexual minority ‘identities,’ but not yet a serious engagement with practices, and how those practices (by sexual minorities themselves) can reify other systems of oppression.
While I do not mean to undermine the importance of these safe spaces and do not mean to dismiss continuing (extreme) manifestations of sexual prejudice, I want to raise the point that I don’t think we’re going far enough – I don’t think we have yet thought seriously enough about the need for ourselves to think critically about our sexual, erotic, and affectual desires and how they might be antithetical to our larger projects of liberation. Not only have we pushed far enough, we have not developed the language necessary for such an endeavor.
In our increasingly ‘queer’ movement – ironically – the only models we have for serious attempts to shift and interrogate our desire are provided by right-wing conservatives (for example: Evangelical Christians who send their children to gay-reparative therapy). We have increasingly abandoned the radical second-wave feminist spirit of women who chose to be lesbians politically, women who theorized heterosexuality as a mechanism of patriarchy, women who practiced asexuality politically as a way the hetero-patriarchy infused in all sexual encounters.
As Lisa Duggan has written about in the past (“Queering the State”), Right-Wingers and Queer Theorists are the only ones who talk about sexuality as a socially constructed and contingent phenomenon. Thus, as progressives, we don’t have a way to encourage critical introspection of desire without aligning ourselves with people who, certainly, would be opposed to our political envisions. Duggan suggestions that we need to shift the debate and stop speaking about ‘sexual minorities’ as individuals with fixed identities, but rather talk about sexuality the way that we talk about religion: as a sustained commitment that certain individuals choose to participate in/with. Indeed, as Duggan notes, (neo)liberal tolerance for ‘religion’ views it as a comfortable mixture of choice (an individual chooses to be spiritual yet it is a choice that is not delegitimized) – and identity. It is a choice that is respected as being intentional, focused, and dedicated.
I find Duggan’s suggestions promising. We need to invest more in our (a)sexual desires: study them, discuss them, deconstruct them, think about how we do (or do not) situate them in our politics.
I want to envision a critical self-engagement with our desires that is not conservative, hegemonic, imperial, or dogmatic. I want to call for a politics of thinking about want more holistically and how realizing ‘want’ without critiquing it can have adverse consequences. I want us to think about our sexual desire as a process much like our academic intelligence. We need to learn about what turns us on, why it turns us on, how we feel about it. This process – like any other absorption of knowledge – is collective: we must encourage being called out, questioned, and not retreat into the domain of identity politics and subjecthood (but I’m gay…you don’t understand). We have to be able to speak confidently and justify the exercise of our libido.
Reconceptualizing Liberation: Beyond That’s Problematic!
When I ask for all of us to think critically and shift our desires, I don’t want to be in the same camp as the Evangelicals. I don’t want to locate all agency in the individual (you can get over problematic desire yourself) at the cost of the system (the system constructed your desire). We don’t have a way to address the complex interstices of ‘individual’ and ‘system’ and this significantly stalls our capacity for transformation For example: My friends tell me to get over my (individual) desire and I responded by blaming the (system).
At the end of the day we are problematic bodies living in a problematic system. We ambition, we yearn, we dream to escape it and unfetter our desires. However, we find ourselves restrained, shackled, domesticated by the very system we are trying to dismantle. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we desire ethically and politically within such a problematic world: how do we acknowledge the violence of our desire, but still get off on it?
Radicals throughout the years have posited particular states of being and modes of relating as the panacea – a phenomenon that has become quite ubiquitous in queer communities. We hear people who practice radical polyamory condemn people in monogamous relationships for “buying in the system.” We hear gays and lesbians call out bisexuals for choosing an opposite sex partner, we hear genderqueer activists yelling at transsexuals for wanting to “pass” and therefore “reinforcing the gender dichotomy.” While, yes, I agree that there is some grain of truth to this: chances are a same-sex couple of the same race will be gawked at more on the streets than an opposite-sex couple of the same race and therefore – yes — we need to acknowledge the relative privileges we all hold, etc. However, what often gets lost in this debate is intentionality.
My issue with the rhetoric of “get over it,” is that it draws a linear trajectory from ‘abjection’ to ‘liberation’ and locates these affects within particular types of relating. Furthermore, such rhetoric focuses on a capitalist understanding of ‘results’ being the only indication of ‘progress.’ Bodies of color intimately connected to whiteness are always necessarily constructed as self-hating and antithetical to racial justice whereas bodies of color loving other bodies of color are always necessarily constructed as liberatory, radical. This rhetoric also demonizes bodies that demonstrate hyper-racialized fetishes in a way that I find troublesome. In haling those of us with white fetish, Indian fetish, insert racial fetish as “problematic,” other progressives are able to excusive themselves from any serious engagement with the racial construction of their own desires. It establishes that the ‘fetishist’ is the only one with problematic desire, the only one with fetishes, the only one who needs to work on their desire. It establishes the domain of racial fetish as only for a minority of people, not for all people.
I don’t think we can afford to locate ‘liberation’ in ‘abjection’ in particular ways of relating or being: in doing so we universalize our own individual perspective (a gesture that, as I need not remind you, was central to the white (settler) colonial project). As bodies implicated within systemic violence – I don’t think we can afford to focus on product-oriented thinking (being completely liberated from white supremacy), instead we must focus on the process, the cultivation, the exercise of our desires. What I suggest we do is draw more of our attention to intention: how are we thinking about our desire in the big picture? Or more specifically and personally, is this white boy contributing to my process of radical racial emancipation? How do I reconcile my attraction to white men within my larger anti-racist and anti-colonial political agenda? How do I see whiteness as an institution and as a body politic fitting into the revolution I envision?
This is one of the many things I find promising of queer ways of conceptualizing sexuality. ‘Queer’ — as a movement, a politics, an aesthetic — incorporates all those who are thinking critically and intentionally about their desires in order to challenge systems of heteronormativity, white supremacy, (neo)colonialism, patriarchy, etc. Queerness requires us to recognize that there is not one path, not one mode of politics, not one type of liberation: rather we need multiple, diffuse strategies to contest dominant power. A white straight couple isn’t necessarily “part of the system,” if they are perpetually finding ways to complicate society’s assumption of their relationship, finding ways to organize around the social and economic privileges they have been afforded for radical transformation.
13 7 / 2012
As part of a day-long workshop called “Mapping Your Sexual Desire: Liberating Your Sexual Body” we were asked to write our name and what we were “interested in” on our nametags. I was the youngest – and perhaps most inexperienced (though not to conflate age and experience here) — of the bunch, simultaneously shocked and excited by the prospect of being so honest, so public of the nature of my desires. I soon realized that I didn’t really know what my body desired (I suppose that’s why I was at the workshop). I ended up writing something like: “Alok / conversation / cuddling.” The guy next to me was interested in waterworks, the one across liked being chained up and abandoned…I think there was a barebacker in the group, as well. I felt positively vanilla.
I ended up leaving the workshop early. My discomfort didn’t stem from some sexual naïveté, prudishness, or internalized conservativism (at least I hope not). It arose more from the type of discourse, the logic of the event – the way that sex, intimacy, and desire was discussed.
In this piece I want to problematize dominant narratives of sex-positivity. I will demonstrate how sex-positive spaces have the tendency to rely on the heuristic of a normal body – a body that is often assumed to be sexual, white, Western, and well-to-do financially. In this piece I want to imagine a sex-positive feminism that thinks more radically about sex, bodies, relationships, intimacy, and liberation. I recognize that there is no ‘one’ type of sex-positive feminism and that I cannot judge the entire goals of a movement from the experiences I’ve had interacting with these spaces. I acknowledge, too, how indebted my own sexual ethics, politics, and values are to contributions from sex-positive feminists. (I am supportive of the majority of conclusions and aims of such activists for example the idea that sex/the erotic is often stigmatized, that states/patriarchy/hegemonic institutions police and restrict our desires, that one should never be judged for having ‘too much’ sex, the importance of frank dialogue and (enthusiastic) consent, the role that sex plays in overcoming trauma, etc.))
I hope that my critiques can help us, as activists committed to a sexual liberationist project, envision a more inclusive, complicated, and embracing movement for sexual autonomy and the realization of radical collective pleasures.
What is sex, anyways?: Radical Post-Colonial Asexualities
Last week a gay friend at a bar asked me what I was going to be doing over the weekend. I told him that I had tickets for a really great queer art performance scripted by a friend. He looked at me, a bit aghast, and said: “Why watch that when you can get the real thing – why don’t you go find some hot guy on the dance floor, bring him back to your room, and fuck him.” I insisted that I’d really rather watch this play, but he maintained “there’s nothing better in the world than orgasm.”
Really now? I want us to think more critically about the dominance of ‘orgasm’ in discourses of sex and pleasure. The assumption at my workshop was that everyone who participated was motivated by sexual desires and enjoyed having sex. ‘Liberated’ sex was presented as the panacea for our sexual repression – finding what really ‘got you off’ would help you ‘unlock’ your ‘deepest’ ‘sexual’ desires (orgasm). After we found this site of desire, we were encouraged to re-visit as frequently as possible.
As asexuality activism reminds us, the idea that all people are born sexual is one of the most misleading social assumptions that our dominant culture teaches us. It’s much more complicated and many individuals (not just self-identified members of the ace community) experience sexual desire so simply. From the vantage point of asexual subjectivity, sex-positive rhetoric is often exercised in an almost missionary fashion: bodies are educated about mystic forces that they are capable of, told that they must adopt a specific doctrine, and then, with enough practice and commitment, they will experience liberation (read: orgasm). While this narrative may apply to many sexually-able people, differently sexual people are immediately isolated from this conversation.
Many ace bodies are completely disinterested in sex. Does this mean that they cannot experience liberation of their desire? Many ace bodies can orgasm, but do not experience it as a driving or motivating force in life (I’ve heard – “it feels like blowing your nose” a few times). Does this mean that they just haven’t located their true desires yet? Do they just have to ‘get better’ at sex?
I’m troubled by this paradigm: that bodies that somehow are not being pleased (in a very narrow understanding of bodily pleasure) are constructed as un-enlightened, ignorant, repressed. Bodies that can orgasm at will and experience all the time are depicted as liberated bodies, bodies that have somehow been ‘saved’ from pathologizing discourses that delegitimize queer sexuality. I understand and empathize with where this paradigm comes from. As queers whose bodies, whose acts have been criminalized, shamed, etc. it makes sense that our movement has located a radical politics in not only accepting, but publically articulating and demonstrating our intimacy. However, we have to make sure that the liberated bodies we imagine do not rely on the same tactics of exclusion we have opposed in the past. In much of our current rhetoric: sex is presented and uphold as the dominant site of pleasure and intimacy. Other ways of relating, other ways of experiencing happiness are seen as inferior.
Instead of talking about ‘sex’ and ‘orgasm’ (terms that are often exercised in ways that root pleasure in ‘sex’ acts involving genitalia) we need to talk about pleasure more holistically. In psychoanalysis, cathexis is defined as the process of investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object, or desire. Sexual desire is one type of cathexis – but bodies can be oriented and strive for many other sites of desire in many different ways. Language that emphasizes the importance of not only having sex, but having sex all of the time isolates bodies that negotiate different relationships with pleasure. We must shift our rhetoric to a language centered on self-determination – one that argues that all people should be allowed to do with their bodies as they please to (even if that involves not having sex).
Ace-friendly frameworks also have a lot of parallels with post-colonial critiques of universalizing sexual discourse. The Western world loves to talk about how ‘backwards’ sexually the Global South is (read Massad’s Desiring Arabs and Stoler’s critiques of Foucault for more background on this), but as recent criticism by post-colonial queer scholars have shown – the West applies a very narrow understanding of sexual liberation, an understanding that privileges particularly notions and expressions of (public) visibility that does not graft well on many non-Western traditions. These traditions may have completely different relationships between public/private spheres and different connotations associated with bodies, intimacy, and sexuality. In the same way that ace bodies are constructed as perpetually in a state of un-enlightenment, subaltern bodies are also relegated to the domain of ‘repressed.’ We must move away from such binaristic trajectories that locate ‘repression’ and ‘liberation’ in particular ways of being. Instead, we must recognize liberation as a process, as an impossibility, that we all have our own respective ways of realizing.
Incorporating ace-critiques into our work expands the horizons of what is possible in a body liberation workshop. Sex – as its narrowly defined by heteronormative and acephobic interpretations of bodies and intimacy – is one path of many toward body liberation. For other bodies it may involve hugging, cuddling, good conversation, friendship, dancing, political organizing. These methods of obtaining pleasure are no less legitimate than the ‘holy’ power of orgasm. Incorporating ace-critiques force queers to be more creative and envision new sites of radical pleasure. What if we could speak with such passionate rhetoric about more things we do? What if we could re-frame watching a movie, catching up with a friend, creating art as sex? If a queer project is committed to expanding the terrain of pleasure, we must move beyond bodies interacting intimately in socially rehearsed scripts with other bodies.
The emphasis on sex positive feminism has done much to challenge heteronormative scripts of intimacy – moving us far, far away from phallic/receptable models of sex and valorizing sadomasochism, bondage, and other performative sex acts. However, I still think we can push further. Our rhetoric should not only be about ‘realizing’ pleasures, but also developing the capacity to expand pleasures, learning how to experience the world and all the opportunities it offers with a new capacity for enjoyment, intimacy, and orgasm (in the most dephallicized way we can imagine it).
Inter(sex)ionality: Contextualizing Sex Within a World of Power
As progressive activists we are all too willing to talk about how “sex is political.” We throw around the feminist mantra that “the personal is political,” but sometimes I wonder if we truly internalize what it means to think about fucking and desire in the context of extreme inequalities.
As I’ve argued, sex-positive rhetoric often includes an imperative for people to realize and act on their sexual desires. We are told: if a woman, of a gay man, of a body is attracted to another body it should overcome its internalized slut-shaming and go for it! We congratulate our friends for “getting some” last night. We create hierarchies in our communities – so and so is very experienced (read: liberated). The assumption is that the more we ‘realize’ our desires, the more liberated we become.
For many bodies this is not the case. For some bodies, ‘realizing our desire’ is actually detrimental to our other paths toward liberation and decolonization.
Sex positive rhetoric rarely interrogates the origin of desire – rarely encourages us to ask what kind of bodies get labeled as sexy and why this is the case. Sex positive rhetoric must incorporate an intersectional lens to its discourse. What is ‘desireable’ in our world is determined by global systems of capitalism, (neo-) colonialism, white supremacy, ableism, heterosexism, etc. We have to ask ourselves – in acting in our desires, in getting what we ‘want,’ are we reifying these systems of oppression? It is my contention that sex-positive rhetoric ignores the reality that for many of us, our attractions function as a mechanism of our oppression. Realizing our short-term sexual desires may not actually be positive for our larger project of self-love and emancipation.
I offer my own queer racialized body as an example. As a body socialized in the imperialist and white supremacist country in a region populated by predominantly white, upper-middle class, Christian, heteronormative, etc. peoples, my understanding of beauty was severely and violently delineated by power. I grew up continually being reinforced at every level that white, straight, masculine men – the bodies of power in our community – were the most beautiful and desireable bodies. My desire and the internalized-racism and feelings of self-inadequacy that spawned are a tactic of white supremacy. How are people of color, how is the Global South supposed to overthrow white supremacy when we have been internalized at some level to find white people the most beautiful? How are we supposed to find a radical power in browness and blackness when whiteness has colonized our very capacity to experience pleasure in our own race?
If I followed the mandate of sex-positive rhetoric to act on my desires I would not challenge my white and male fetishisms. I would congratulate myself for ‘liberating’ my desire and getting with white guys. But I ask – whose terms of liberation are these? ‘Realizing my desire’ is too simplistic of a narrative for this queer and racialized body. Acting on my desire can actually be detrimental to more important projects (to me) of decolonization. This is not to say that I am advocating that bodies of color should refuse intimacies with whiteness. Rather, we must think more critically about how we negotiate this desire and more cautiously about when we do and do not choose to act on it.
I want us to think of a sex-positive feminism that challenges the essentialized, static, and hegemonic notions of desire we are socialized into. I want a sex-positive feminism that makes us find beauty in the ugly (as Mia Mingus implores us to in her incredible work: http://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/moving-toward-the-ugly-a-politic-beyond-desirability/). I want a sex-positive feminism that acknowledges how we are implicated within corrupt regimes of power, but still encourages and capacitates us to expand the horizons of our desire and learn to find all (consensual) bodies beautiful and worthy of desire.
While I acknowledge that because we have been so violently socialized into these beauty norms without our consent it may be nearly impossible to overcome, that doesn’t mean we should not try. Liberation is a collective and gradual process. If we want to envision sex as political, we need to recognize that our own bodies work against us as hegemonic tools. Instead of only talking to the ‘hot’ people in the bar, of only looking for your particular fetish – let us try, actively, to expand our horizons; to talk to bodies and explore their politics, to join and relate to bodies that entertain a similar vision of a liberated world of desire.
What is wanting in the revolution?
Throughout this piece I have gestured to a critique, more broadly, of wanting: of how particular bodies become wanted, and other bodies undesireable, about how we are told to exercise and realize our wants, without contesting where they wants originate from, etc. I’d like to end with a call for us to re-imagine the character of ‘wanting’ in the way we articulate our desires and politics..
What I mean to say is: What does it mean to ‘want’ in a capitalist society that has made every transaction about obtaining profit? What does it mean to ‘want’ when the only way we have learned to want is for our own self-gain?
A couple of months ago I found myself at some underground queer party in San Francisco. There was a sex-room at the back, everyone around me was inebriated and doing hard drugs, and (white) boys were grinding together, unapologetically, in various shades of nudity. In this site of pleasure, in this sex-positive space, in this destination of (I) want, I found myself profoundly disheartened.
Not all pleasure is ‘good’ – in fact, pleasure and wanting can lead to the demise of the radical and utopian worlds we strive for. We need to unhinge the “I” from our desires and think about our individual desires, our individual libidos, within the context of our collective social movements.
How can we re-orient ourselves to think about collective based pleasures? How can we think about creating sites of pleasure that are not dominated by individual hedonism? Who has access to the types of pleasure we normalize as transcendent? How do we experience pleasure responsibly in a world of extreme poverty? How do we realize our wants without contributing to the despair of others?
A sex-positivity that seriously engages with these questions, among others, is one that I can confidently say that “I want.”