14 9 / 2012
I’m a hot ass mess. I am sooo messy. I’m the gurl you gossip about with your friends because she don’t have her shit together. I’m the mess who’s crying at the club (you think she’s drunk out of her mind, but she’s pretending). I’m the guy who’s giving you mixed signals. I am all of these people, all of these feelings, and more. And, I don’t give a fuck.
Recently I had a pretty serious accident and sustained burns on my feet, thigh, and hands. I found it difficult to perform the most basic of tasks: typing on my laptop, cooking dinner, giving myself a bath, walking down the hill to the grocery store. At first I felt uncomfortable asking my flatmate for his support and would try to over-exert myself when he was out of the house (giving myself clandestine showers aka falling in the bathroom and exacerbating the problem). I was a mess. There were days I couldn’t do anything. I spent the majority of my time feeling things. Not all of these things were optimistic: sometimes I thought about what would have happened if I didn’t wake and my entire body caught on fire, sometimes I thought about the reactions of my family and friends and who seemed to care and who didn’t, sometimes I thought about what would have happened if I died.
We are told that these feelings are natural. We are told that this is part of the process of healing and recovery. Then we are told to get over it. We are told to move on, to be happy, to clean our shit up, to become another productive body contributing to society’s collective delusion of stability, able-bodiedness, and happiness. And that’s what people kept telling me: hang in there, it gets better, you’re looking much better. And so I lied to them.
I lied to them because the Olympics were going on and we all had constant reminders of how powerful, how able bodies are able to be. Not just in the Olympics: walking on the streets, in the news, everywhere we look we see bodies that have got their shit together, bodies that dress impeccably every fucking day, bodies that somehow find a way to eliminate the distance between ‘couch’ and ‘gym.’ Some nights I would be awake with my entire body throbbing. Sweating, I’d sit up on my bed wincing and tell myself not to cry, tell myself that even though I’m not an Olympic athlete, I am a human with a body capable of power, capable of growing, of healing, of forgetting. Some mornings I would wake up suddenly when the light hit my face because it reminded me of the fire. Some afternoons when I walk into my apartment I smell something burning and run upstairs to make sure that nothing is on fire.
After the accident I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my body.
I’m one of those people who reads a lot of postmodern theories about bodies and how they perform and eat and fuck, but I’ve never really felt my body, never really listened to what it was saying. As an able-bodied and middle-class person ascending in ‘higher’ education, the truth is I have never had to pay much attention to my body: I have never worked a direct service job, never seriously entertained the idea of being an athlete or serving in the army. I was taught to cultivate my mind: to read books, to make art, to grow intellectually. Processed through a Western education system I learned that my ‘mind’ was the repository of knowledge: that inventions like science were more legitimate than feelings like god. I only became reminded of my body in the extremes of discomfort or pleasure.
I think I really felt my body for the first time – in all of its radical and visceral honesty – lying in the emergency room wincing and feeling like I was on fire all over again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for me to recognize and acknowledge my body and all of its faults, inconsistencies, and demands. I have been thinking a lot about how my body is actually one of the most radical texts I have yet to read and discover.
During my accident and short period of different ability (acknowledging the privileges of the impermanence of this here) at first I found myself apologizing for everything. “I’m sorry for holding you back / I’m sorry that I can’t party with you tonight.” I found myself asking: why do I feel compelled to apologize? What is so wrong about my body that it could not be accommodated for? And I began to think – what if we stopped apologizing? What if we just lived our bodies in their full integrity in all of the visceral affect, without apologizing?
Think of the ways we find ourselves apologizing for our bodies. Excuse me, sorry, can I go use the bathroom? Sorry, I turned in the assignment late I had a tough night last night, Sorry I can’t keep up with you, I’m just not that fit… Apologies have become so normalized in our days that they seem routine. I started to count the number of times I apologized for body in a day: for it being in the way, for it not being able to keep up, for it not being productive enough, for it being messy. Let’s ask ourselves: are we actually sorry or have we been made to feel sorry?
Often many of the times we apologize it’s because our bodies are making a critique of the space and other people don’t like it: our bodies are telling our colleagues that this meeting is far too long, that there should have been food here, that this workout was too intense.
Throughout my life I have found myself apologizing not only for my bodily functions, but also for the symbolic meaning that has been forcibly placed on my body. I am sorry about 9/11 (but I am not Muslim). I am sorry for holding his hand and making you uncomfortable. I am sorry for wearing clothing that makes you angry (I mean question your gender and sexual preference). I am sorry for bringing up race when we’re hooking up. I’m sorry that I can’t stop thinking and writing about race. I am sorry that I don’t work out. I am sorry that I am so hairy.
And these are the types of apologies that are not verbalized; they are the apologies that we inscribe on our bodies. They are the times I would sneak in the bathroom when I was a kid and steal my sister’s razor to shave every hair on my body so I could fit in and look like my (white) classmates at school. They are the times I first moved out of the house to college and realized that I could now buy hair-removal cream without my mom knowing (I didn’t do it). They are the times I told my mom that I wanted to go to Church like the white kids, that I wanted to buy more expensive brand-label clothes. All of these acts of assimilation (erasure) are apologies – we refuse to allow our bodies to exist authentically and we silence its critique. As queer bodies, as bodies of color, or other abject bodies, our bodies tend to be inherently critical of the spaces we inhabit. Yet in our efforts to assimilate, to apologize, we deny the knowledge, the ways of knowing of our bodies.
I find myself apologizing the most to white men. I apologize when I change the names of my majors to seem more alternative and less radical. I apologize when I change the tone of my voice, speak deeper so I sound more straight-acting. I apologize for being too political, too brown, too effeminate, too extreme, too radical, too everything by conforming and modifying my appearance, my body, and my behavior to fit into a paradigm where I come across as normal, status quo, desireable (just with that provocative edge). Most of the time I apologize with my silence. I refuse to articulate my attraction to them because I fear their judgment, fear that they will tell me that they are not attracted to my body (and that I will agree because their eyes are the ones I have been taught to view my body through).
And I am tired of silent because I was tired about lying about the pain of embodiment, the migraines, the throbbing of the night. And I bet you’re tired of being silent to and I want to ask – what if we stopped apologizing? What if we asked ourselves every time we felt the urge – no, the compulsion, the imperative – to apologize, why we were doing it? What if we only apologized when we meant it, not because we had to?
I want to live as an unapologetic body. I want to be a body that is so brown it offends you. I want to be a body that is so queer it makes you uncomfortable. I want to be a body that is so consumed, so overfilled with emotion that it makes you cry. I want to be a body that doesn’t apologize for not turning in assignments because it was making art. I want to be a body that listens to you crying and doesn’t judge you. I want to be a body that is so messy, so all over the place, that it makes you feel positively put together.
I have seen the way that the burns on my fingers have healed and I have seen the way skin has peeled and re-grown and I have felt the lowest and most base things and I am recognizing that it is more about the feeling, more about the growing, more about the process, than the result. And when we apologize, we forego the process, we abandon the critique, we assimilate.
So I want to put forth a theory, a politics, an aesthetic, an affect of UNAPOLOGETIC BODIES: bodies that acknowledge that apologies function at the level of our silence and oppression. Here are some initial components – have any contributions?
1. RADICAL HONESTY: What if we didn’t have to wear a suit and tie to work if we didn’t want to? What if I could tell you that I didn’t actually like your outfit? What if I could tell you that I – that we – are not doing fine, that we are actually in terrible pain, that we are conflicted, that we are messy, and that we need you desperately. What if we could tell everyone we were attracted to that we fancied them? What if we didn’t have to closet our crushes? What if we could tell our (a)sexual and (a)romantic partners what exactly we wanted? What if we could break up with friends? What if we didn’t have to fake smiles at parties?
I think we have forgotten how radically honest our bodies are: the way our bodies tell us that we have to use a toilet no matter how inconvenient the situation, the way our bodies tell us that we are sleepy no matter how much work we have, the way our bodies tell us that we are in pain no matter how much we are supposed to be happy, functional, competent. I understand that if you and I were radically honest we would get kicked out of schools, fired from our jobs, etc. – but let’s envision ways to be more (radically) honest with one another. Let’s allow our colleagues to go to the bathroom without asking, let’s stop thinking it’s weird or strange for someone to twitch, scream, yelp, dance during a meeting. Let’s create spaces where people can figure out what authenticity means to them, and where we can validate it, in all of its hot messery. Let’s stop telling people that we are fine, that we straight, that we are religious, that we are respectable if we’re not. Let’s embrace the most unruly parts of ourselves – because this is what our bodies do. Our bodies, they are often messy, uncomposed, bleeding, twitching, itching – this is part of what we are (don’t deny it).
2. INTERDEPENDENCE: At first I apologized for asking people to help me out performing basic tasks. It was only through being unable to do these tasks that I began to recognize how hard it is to actually be a functional body in our world. I don’t think we realize that enough (but our bodies do: remember the stress, the fatigue, the hunger). It actually takes a lot of attention, of focus, of coordination, of inspiration to perform our daily tasks. And being a body – especially an abject body in our world – is challenging.
I want to envision a world where helping one another isn’t seen as a positive gesture. I want to envision a world where giving gifts don’t require thank you notes because we live in a culture of giving, a culture of sharing, a culture of interdependence. We should not celebrate or glorify activists or volunteers for doing good work – we should all be doing good work, finding ways in our own careers, studies, and other pursuits to do public good. This is something we learned from our bodies but are increasingly forget. Remember how we required our guardian’s milk to survive? Remember how we required our caretaker’s words, touches, embrace to learn how to feel, think, speak? Remember how we required our siblings fights, arguments, tantrums to relate, empathize, anger, build coalitions? We grew up relating in such radical and interdependent ways and then we were confronted with the expectations of our bodies: confronted with the 4 year degree, the 9-5 job, the 8 digits that defined our identity and we were told that as bodies we must be individuals that function well alone.
3. RECLAIM HOT MESS AND DECOLONIZE YOUR MIND: I spent my summer in Cape Town, South Africa. Last week one of my closest friends and I met-up and had a thorough debrief and laid all of our hot mess out on the table (what a beautiful process). After our catharsis she called me a few hours later and told me that she hadn’t thought until now what it meant to be a Xhosa African woman. She realized how her mom told her to only talk to the white kids growing up, to go to the private school, to forget her native language and dance and ceremonies and go to school and now she (and I) are forgetting our bodies, are forgetting the radical potential of our bodies as texts, as sites of culture. Our conversation got me wondering – what it is about the imperative of Western modernity that denies our bodies (even though, ironically, it is predicated on the labor of bodies of color?) What I’ve begun to think about is that often to become appropriately modern, to become appropriately successful and useful in our world we are compelled to forget our bodies and their knowledge.
Ask yourself — what are we learning in school and how are we being taught to articulate and answer questions? And how have our schools discouraged our rage, quieted our anger, silenced our beating hearts? And what if we viewed emotional and artistic expression as legitimate as your capitalist economics books? In prioritizing bodily knowledge and listening to our bodies we can resist the imperative of the modern neocolonial subject – a subject that divides their time, space, emotions into pre-defined spaces, times, places, a subject that conforms, that apologizes, that weeps in silence.
Listening to our bodies isn’t enough, we must RESPOND to them – and the truth is – sometimes our bodies encourage us to be hot messes. What I notice about all of the expressions we label ‘hot mess’ is that they tend to defy logic, tend to be outside of the boundaries of rational respectability. We call others hot messes in order to establish our own put-togetherness. The ‘hot mess’ becomes our collective site of baggage, of trauma, of vulernability. In relegating hot messery to the Other, we hope to prove our own stability. What if we all recognized the ways in which we were hot messes? What if we (re)learned how to appreciate hot messery with empathy, vulernability, and solidarity? What becomes increasingly apparent is that we are learning to delegitimize emotion (unless it is positive) as an authentic and powerful mode of expression. We are learning to prioritize well-reasoned arguments over catharsis, over bodily release.
Sometimes our bodies encourage us to cry, to dance, to whine, to bitch, to moan, to orgasm – so let’s do it! Let’s not give a fuck what they think about it! Let us cultivate solidarity with Prince Harry, with all the people who fuck up, who make bad decisions, who aren’t private about their affairs, their messups, their inconsistencies, their heartbreak, their inconsistencies. So let’s be that hot mess at the club, at school, at work, at all the spaces where we are expected to be something we don’t want to be. Hot mess is an act of protest, an act of resistance, an embrace of your body integrity. So let’s be colored, let’s be queer, let’s be political, let’s be radical, let’s be messy and REFUSE to apologize.
One of my poems from my latest collection “UNAPOLOGETIC BODIES:”
we, welfare check
we, hate crime
we, police state
we, who have bodies that fuck,
bodies that mutilate,
bodies that twitch,
bodies that pack
refuse to apologize,
refuse to forget.
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.”
03 1 / 2012
The first time I learned that I was ‘oppressed’ was when I arrived as a freshman at Stanford University. University was the first time I met like-minded ‘activists’ and we began to organize around our collective ‘disempowerment.’ I learned how to construct a narrative of my own oppression – as a ‘queer’ ‘gender transgressor’ of ‘color’ from ‘the South,’ I learned about the distinct axes and hierarchies of power (race, sexual orientation, gender identity, geographic location, religious identification) that had caused me to be ‘oppressed’ by society. In college, activism became the way in which I could battle these systems and liberate myself and others from this ‘oppression.’
For the next few years I wrote spoken word poetry about my oppression, I spoke on panels about what it was like for this queer to grow up in Texas, I made a point to remind my largely (neo)liberal University that minority issues were still important. I decided I wanted to major in Gender & Sexuality Studies and Ethnic Studies with a focus in Queer Studies (not just Queer Studies, but Queer of color Studies) (really just a complicated way of saying Me-studies). At first I felt anxious about studying myself, but my professors reinforced my conviction that my narrative, my story had been silenced from history and it was the project of minority-based disciplines to excavate and promote these ‘oppressed’ narratives. I believed them and fell in love with postmodern theory and my increasing capacity to deconstruct my surroundings, understand ‘power,’ and theorize every component of my life. My education reinforced the idea that I was oppressed. I learned about ‘hegemonies’ and the way that power gets allocated and normalized. I learned about the importance of subaltern voice and began to see myself as a necessary intervention, as an important (silenced) subaltern voice.
This narrative of oppression wasn’t limited to my college campus. LGBTQIPA activists confirmed that – yes – I was oppressed, feminist activists agreed, anti-racist activists also gave their vote of confidence. In the issues I became increasingly passionate about – mainly queer, feminist and anti-racist struggles – I found acknowledgment, validation, and solidarity around my ‘oppression.’
I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about identifying as ‘oppressed.’ In my liberal University, in the activist urban spaces I frequent, hell even in the international activism work I do abroad, I have created spaces of solidarity, of safety, where I no longer receive prejudice; those around me do not merely affirm my identities, they celebrate them. While we still have a long way to go in the rest of the world, I have managed to create and participate in relatively safe spaces.
I want to interrogate how I – a middle-class kid with an incrediblyprivileged education can see myself as ‘oppressed’? What does it mean for me to utilize a language of oppression considering the social spaces of safety I have created? More broadly – what does it mean to claim animmaterial oppression? In this essay I want to open a space for dialogue within our activist communities to discuss (and act!!) on the politics and ethics of claiming oppression.
Two Shades of Feeling: (Im)material Oppression
What makes me feel oppressed? In this piece I do not want to make the conservative argument that the language of oppression actually createsthe oppression (the horrid self-fulfilling prophesy narrative). What I’m asking is – what makes the language of oppression so meaningful to me considering my social and economic location?
When I envision my oppression I remember what it was like growing up as a (insert all my oppressed categories). My ‘oppression’ is found in my past – it is the time I was first called a faggot, the time I was called a terrorist, etc. My classes on oppression have introduced me to theories that can describe this process – this process of being ‘hailed,’ being ‘Othered’ as the deviant. I could talk to you extensively about the consequent literature on stigma and the psychological implications of being ‘demonized’ as the ‘Other.’ So, it seems, the language of oppression is appealing because it helps explain, contextualize, (and get over) the wound, the injury of difference.
When I think about my own ‘oppression’ I rarely think of the structuralopportunities I have been denied because – while at some level I’m sure that on account of my race and gender presentation I have been denied opportunities – these experiences have not been as significant, as isolating as my (psychological) feelings of difference. This is reflected in my own art and activism. After I identify myself as oppressed, I make a call for acceptance, a call for inclusion – not a call for reparation or redistribution. The oppression that I – and many of my peers – claim that we have experienced stems from a politics of recognition, not redistribution.
Queer theory has made me hesitant to suggest that there is a dichotomy between recognition and redistributive – based justice / activisms (and indeed there is significant work on categories of ‘race’ and ‘gender’ that disrupts this dichotomy), but I feel this may be a useful heuristic to explore further.
Thus, what is psychological oppression? Psychological oppression is afeeling of inadequacy, of being discriminated against, of being told that one is ‘wrong.’ Psychological oppression – to extremely oversimplify – is a condition of the mind, the spirit. It follows that material oppression is one that is more concerned with the ‘physical,’ the body. Material oppression is violence, it is poor working conditions, it is poverty, it is hunger, it is homelessness. Certainly psychological oppression informs the material and vice versa, but for the purpose of my argument we will maintain a relative distance.
What strikes me is how when I think of my other ‘activist’ friends, when I think of my courses at school and the theories and disciplines I have come to adore (and fetishize), I recognize that they are mostly concerned with psychological oppression. Indeed – why do we have a Queer Studies and a Women’s Studies, but not a Poverty Studies, a Violence Studies? Why have my studies in ‘Critical Theory’ been more concerned with affect than statistics, more curious about art than healthcare? How can we have minority studies that are written in a discourse that is only accessible by my ~intellectual~ peers?
We must reconsider how the language of oppression has been dominated by the psychological – at the cost of – the material. While we – as activists – often pride ourselves on featuring the subaltern, we have to recognize that perhaps the greatest subaltern cannot speak. This ‘subaltern’ may be illiterate, too poor to even engage with our discourse, to concerned with surviving material pain to articulate a ‘critique’ of our ‘discourse.’ And those privileged few who overcome psychological and material oppression who do speak are often marginalized by the discourse of our psychological oppression.
This is because our discourse is sexy. It is sexy not just for us, but also to those who listen and feel appropriately guilty. A discourse of affect, of feeling, of Otherization is much more palatable than a discourse of poverty and violence. While we use our language of (queer) oppression to critique phenomena like gay marriage perhaps we should reconsider – maybe we are just like gay marriage. When we articulate our psychological oppression and call for acceptance the challenge we are making, the critique we are articulating, really isn’t that radical. Yes, it’s demands difficult paradigm and conceptual shifts to eradicate notions of gender, sexual identities, racial difference, etc. but these notions function at the level of the ideological. It does not, necessarily, involve a call for money, an increase of taxes, a call for assisted labor, giving up a home.
What if our discourse around our own oppressions is hegemonic? What if it is a result of our relative bourgeois privilege and has actually distanced us from the communities we are (ostensibly) so interested in empowering. Sure, our rhetoric has effectively empowered our individual and collective identities – but at what cost? I do not mean to suggest that we should stop speaking about how we are oppressed; rather I am calling for more scrutiny in the way that we speak about our own oppressions.
We need to think more about the silences in our discourse. Sure there are always Marxist and anti-capitalist critiques of our identity politics, but instead of viewing them as critiques, what if we reviewed them as indicative of significant ways in which we have allowed our own material privilege to create a language of oppression that only applies to us and our own issues? How have we created a discourse and rhetoric of oppression that mandates a particularly privileged visibility and intelligibility? How can we expand our discourse to incorporate subjects who may not be able to draw as linear of an oppression narrative, may not be able to explain feelings of differentiation and inadequacy like we do.
Additionally, we need to think more strategically about how to make simultaneous claims to psychological oppression considering perpetuating material oppression. I do not want to suggest that all material oppression must be overcome before we articulate a more social activism and politics, instead, I’m interested in new ways to build connections and intersections for multi-issue based advocacy. For example – it is all to easy for me (and other queer theorists) to critique the queer movement’s prioritization of gay marriage (it’s so normal!). But, the fact remains that many gays and lesbians are not going to stop lobbying for gay marriage – an institution that is central to their psychological oppression. Rather than simply critiquing this excess privilege, what if we thought of new ways to embed a language of material queer oppression – homelessness affecting queer youth, violence against trans people – within this more normative and sexy discourse? Perhaps this is an impossible project – perhaps psychological oppression will always dominate the material in our capitalist society, but I’d like to see more genuine effort before we draw that conclusion.
The Failure of Intersectionality: Reconsidering Hierarchies of Oppression
The critique that I am advancing suggests that we interrogate more seriously the nature of the identity and oppression frameworks we have constructed. In particular, I want to reconsider the way that we have come to view and utilize the concept of intersectionality.
A facile response to my critique would be to suggest that all of our identities are intersectional. While I may only be psychologically oppressed on the basis of my racial identity, other people (due to their economic, geographic, political locations) may experience enhanced (perhaps material) oppression on the basis of their racial identities. We cannot speak about a category of ‘racial oppression,’ without thinking about the multivaried ways that other axes of identity/oppression shape ‘race.’
While intersectionality has certainly been useful to me and my peer activists I can’t help but wonder – can ‘class’ really be reduced to an intersectional status? Intersectionality – or at least the way we have conceptualized it – allows me to draw the following conclusions: I am oppressed on the basis of being queer, but poor queers are differently (and perhaps more) oppressed on the basis of their socioeconomic status. Intersectionality permits us to acknowledge material oppression, but still insist on the importance of the psychological – to suggest that there is violence against some queers, but insist on the validity of my own oppression.
What if our concept of intersectional oppressions as actually perpetuating violence against those who experience material oppression? My critique is not of the theoretical phenomenon itself, but on the way that is has been exercised. Let us recall, for example, the glorified history of activist social movements of the 1970s. Activist groups like Gay Liberation Front began to usher in a new era of activism one in which they made parallels with their own oppression (on the basis of sexual orientation) to other oppressions (most notably, racial oppression). While these concepts of solidarity and intersectionality were great in creating the illusion of a human rights activism, they actually eventually lead to an increased ghettoization (where activist movements like GLF and the Women’s movement were criticized for only focusing on single-issue, narrow-minded understandings of identity). This failure speaks to the way that we acknowledge, but do not internalize intersectionality. The gay movement acknowledged racial oppression, but insisted on the importance of fighting for gay rights.
What if intersectionality really means that we should not fight for gay rights? What if intersectionality was interpreted to mean that we should not have such a thing as ‘racial justice’ or the ‘women’s movement?’ If our issues are truly intersecting and mutually constructive of systems of power, wouldn’t it be more advantageous (for us all) to identify the most marginalized issues and work toward the most privileged? Because, if the logic of intersectionality follows, by fixing the systems which oppress the most violently, we will in turn have no need for a ‘gay’ rights – right? But ahh – here is where our contemporary usage of intersectionality complicates things. It is not PC to say that one issue is ‘privileged’ because we all experience our own individual conceptions of oppression and goddamnit the gay movement should be able to continue, even if it is anti-thetical to an anti-capitalist movement! We can’t seem to agree which issues are the most ‘important,’ the most ‘marginalized,’ so we (often) end up fighting for those issues which directly relate to our own feelings of oppression and hope that somehow it will all work out. But what if this disagreement — these complications — are a result of our greed, self-interest and inability (and lack of desire) to grapple with material oppression?
As history has revealed, this ‘Me-Politics,’ this self-promotional politics without a frank analysis of class has lead to a continued silence around material oppression. Rather than being taught new and creative ways to end global goverty, address the affects of colonialism, end homelessness I am learning ways to understand how heterosexuality has oppressed homosexuality.
How have we been reduced to this? How have oppressive systems allowed psychological oppression to continually suppress the material? How can we shift our discourse, our pedagogy, and our activisms to address material oppression?
I am confused and I am disturbed by the implications of the argument(s) that I am advancing. Within this own piece I have been self-contradictory: at points I argue that we should work towards an activism that allows us to advance the issues of psychological oppression along with material oppression and then go on to argue that perhaps it would be more useful (for us all) to engage with the material first. My confusion – in many ways – reflects the position of a generation.
We are young and impassioned activists who have learned a lot about oppression in college. We genuinely want to improve the world’s condition, but the models that we have been equipped with are becoming increasingly antiquated. This piece – this blog as a whole – is an attempt to grapple with a harsh reality: what if the paradigms of oppression, what of the frameworks of (post-) identity that we have learned and loved are actually antithetical to justice for all?
I encourage you (and myself) to think, reflect, and act. Here are some suggestions:
1. Let’s stop constructing meta-narratives of oppression. Not all people conceptualize oppression the way we do and we must not universalize this discourse.
2. Let’s be discerning and economical (pun intended) in the way that we present our oppression. For example, I’m going to be much more cautious as seeing myself as an ‘oppressed’ person, especially in terms of what that means for others who actually experience material oppression
3. Let’s devise creative ways to address material oppression and embed this discourse within our own advocacy and theory. This will involve taking math and economics classes.
4. Let’s demand more analysis of capitalism, class, (neo)colonialism and other topics that are not adequately addressed in our social justice curriculums
5. Let’s reconsider the limitations and promise of intersectionality and think more critically about what it means to claim solidarity with material oppression, but distance it from our own advocacy and activism