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.”