Saturday, February 18, 2006

Sexual Conservative Privilege

I learn from almost everything Darkdaughta posts, but I think it is particularly worth drawing attention to this recent piece. It uses the classic essay on white privilege by Peggy McIntosh, "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," as a model for addressing the privilege held by those who are sexually conservative and the connected oppression of those whose desires take them to places that are more transgressive in terms of sexual and relationship practice.

Unfortunately, I don't feel like I'm in a position to respond to these important ideas right now quite as completely, personally, and publically as I would like and as they deserve, which is politically problematic of me but it is where I'm at. However, I will say a few things.

I suspect that the reactions of more than a few people to the essay will be a gut response based not in what it actually contains but based on previous encounters with superficially similar language coming from quite a politically different place. I have heard/read the use of words like "erotophobia" and "sex-negativity" and so on deployed in a very atomized, individualistic, power-blind liberal framework, where they are used as a political-sounding response to legitimate concerns about oppression, usually of women, in a way that functions to deflect rather than engage with questions of oppression. The critical thing that I would point out about this essay is that it is most definitely not using some sort of abstract, liberal notion of sexual freedom as a distraction or depoliticizing opposition to, say, an anti-patriarchal politics. Rather, it is integrating an axis grounded in sexuality into a larger framework that is intimately concerned with power and privilege and oppression, and seeking to understand how they work together.

Some political perspectives refuse to see the difference between atomized, selfish, liberal individualism on the one hand, and ethical, anti-oppressive, anti-hierarchical autonomy on the other. Even those who try to live the latter, especially those of us with a certain amount of privilege, can fall fairly easily into the former without seeing or understanding it. But the two really are quite different.

The next question, I suppose, would be whether sexuality deserves to be its own axis in anti-oppression analysis. I seem to remember encountering some fairly politically sophisticated argument that would come down on the "no" side, and I don't think I understand that argument (or remember it) well enough to respond to it effectively at this moment. But my gut is on the "yes" side.

One of the reasons why my gut comes down on that side of the issue so clearly is because I have become aware of how powerfully present sexuality is as a force in so many public contexts, yet how invisible mainstream analysis tends to make it. Anti-poverty and social welfare issues, for example, are intimately tied up with sexuality (and gender and race and ability, of course). Welfare systems tend to be organized around regulating the sexuality of poor women. And mobilizing the desire to regulate and/or the fear or hatred of the sexuality of poor women (particularly women of colour) is a standard ploy by the right in debates about welfare. Or look at the way that fear/hatred of transgressive sexual practice was used (along with lots of other things) to get working-class white voters in the U.S. to turn out in large numbers to vote for the more blatantly imperial and oppressive of the two permissible parties in the 2004 federal election. Or even look at the book that I reviewed a few days ago, which talked about how 700 years ago the Church was using fear/hatred of sexuality as a core element in mobilizing the populace against Jews and heretics and other Others as part of a broader strategy to consolidate its own power.

Some would argue that all of this is reducible to gender, I think. I'm willing to learn more about that perspective, but I don't think I agree. It is very closely related to gender (and other axes of oppression) but it is not one and the same.

One place where I might quibble a bit with the essay is around some of the the choice of vocabulary, particularly the ways that "conservative" and "radical" are used. It feels that using those terms in those ways muddies some distinctions that might be important. It seems to me that it would be useful to more explicitly distinguish between sexual practice ("fucking against the grain," as Tenacious delightfully describes it) and political practice around sexuality. For example, is someone who has engaged in a serious, self-challenging way over the course of years with their own desires and practices, and has come to a set of sexual practices for themselves that is not particularly transgressive, but who takes personal risks in supporting the creation of space that allows for sexual autonomy and expression of transgressive sexualities, really most appropriately labelled "conservative"? And is someone who practices non-monogamy, for example, but who refuses to really engage with their own "stuff" and who has trouble being honest and engaging in the commitment to process (self-oriented and with partners) that it seems to me is essential to ethical, anti-oppressive non-monogamy, really worthy of the label "radical" (which is, in many of the subcultures that most people who would read this blog inhabit, a valourizing label)?

Of course I don't mean we should lose sight of the fact that being drawn through engagement with one's own desires to sexual and relationship practice that is transgressive but not oppressive is the basis for experiencing this type of oppression; or that sexual and relationship practice (regardless of whether this is arrived at through long personal process or through unexamined acceptance of socialization) that is in line with what society tells us is and enforces as "normal" conveys privilege. I just wonder whether there might be better language for capturing it -- language that would make it more emphatically visible to people who are privileged in other ways but who want to go out and get their rocks off that being sexually transgressive is not all there is to being sexually radical, and that there are elements of responsibility that are integral to the struggle to create spaces for genuine and widely experienced sexual autonomy as well.

Other interesting reading on related issues that may not be quite as thorough in taking an integrated anti-oppressive standpoint as Darkdaughta, but that I have found useful: The Trouble With Normal by Michael Warner; a few different things by Lisa Duggan; and a few of the essays in Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme Vol. 24, Nos. 2,3, "Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, Transsexual/Transgender Sexualities."


Ricia said...

There is, no doubt, correlation between any nature of analysis that can be approach on this matter - and the class structure. They are mutual contexts.

One would not be able to address gender issues, if there were not class conflicts and tensions between genders. One would not be able to identify sexual politics, norms, or said 'deviances' if there were not also identifiable distinctions or circumstances that related to class brackets. Etc., Etc.

This is where (in large part) the phrase "the personal is political" (and vice versa) came to be - was where analysis of such nature unto itself was being analized (sp?).

Any attempt to divorce one concept from the other, is impossible when refering to existing realities. If it were not so, we'd know the world had changed remarkably. Perhaps also, impossibly so.

Good post. thanx!

: )

Tim said...

I must learn more about this non-mainstream socio-informatic dynamic of non-low brow sort of pseudo much like intellectual masturbatory (or less than sexually monogamous) discourse which would, as it were, simulate dialectic communication. The low level of non-technical jargon transgresses the boundaries of convention by way of involution, to borrow a patriarchal mode, in it's own involvements - amounting to a towering edifice of profundity validated by it’s own gender neutral ejaculate.

This subculture is fascinating, and I am eager to learn of it’s many lofty achievements. (And any achievements it has, no doubt, are rarified indeed!) I look forward to emulating your methods.

Scott said...

Wish there was a simple emoticon to indicate eye rolling in response to friend Tim, above...

Scott said...

Though Tim does have a point, I guess, buried underneath the steaming pile of sarcasm.

The fact is, the crucial information and the important new ideas are in Darkdaughta's original post, which is totally accessible and much more important to read than mine. My own thoughts on the topic are just processing -- processing what she wrote, and relating it (even if that isn't very visible from what I felt comfortable making public) to my own journey around issues of sexuality -- and I'm not sure I really expect anyone else to get much out of them. In fact, that's why I posted this stuff here instead of just commenting in more depth on Darkdaughta's site. Anyway, most of my writing on the blog is pretty straightforward, I think, but sometimes, usually when I'm working certain kinds of stuff out as I go, I can swerve off into more obscure language.

I know. I'm trying to quit. I've got a patch, and there's this great new group I'm going to.

But actually, I don't apologize for it...when it happens it's because it helps me think something through. And this is, after all, my blog.

Dark Daughta said...

Thanks for this constructive criticism. Now, I have to go back and think about some of the points you raised. Not right now. It's late.

Since you've been so engaging with my subject matter, I'll give you a piece of information that may also be relevant and obvious to Ricia, this issue holds a lot of pain surrounding ostracisation, emotional burn out, lack of support, lack of employment opportunities, fear, anxiety and lived oppression all attached to speaking openly and writing from places inside of very conservative people and women of colour communites, for me.

My essay isn't based on a theory, it's lived reality even as I understand that there are scores of others whose ability to avoid detection or harm is considerable less than my own.

So, if you see sarcasm or veiled rage poking through any of my posts, it's because I don't have a lot of space to be objective or distant. This is one facet of the defiant life I lead.

Having said that...
In terms of reference material, folks might actually want to check some of the non-fiction anthologies put out by folks in leather, S/M or fetish communities. There's some really insightful political analysis that gets passed over that could actually shed some light on the issues of oppression I touch on in my essay in ways that make it really clear what the oppression of sexually radical (politicized) communities looks like in the round.

Another point:
Folks could actually, if they wanted to, go much farther back to the Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme issue Lesbians and Politics (
lesbians.html). It predates the issue of CWS you've mentioned by about ten years.

I have a piece that was included which explores the oppression of dykes whose identities aren't considered "normal" and therefore not "political", many of whom were defined that way because they fucked against the grain in feminist and lesbian communities, especially in wimmin of colour communities. This piece highlights issues of power, control and class domination among wimmin of colour, dykes of colour and feminists of colour.

That piece, I think I named it "Uncontrollably and Incorrigibly Yours" pretty much sealed my fate as persona non grata well before I started writing posts on One Tenacious Baby Mama and encountering feminists (of colour) who are newere to these issues than I am.

But, who wants to quibble about sexual conservative privilege when we can all just get along. :)

Dark Daughta said...

This post really sums it up beautifully for me.

"being a sex radical means being defiant as well as deviant. it means being aware that there is something unsatisfying and dishonest about the way sex is talked about (or hidden) in daily life. it also means questioning the way our society assigns privilege based on adherence to moral codes. if you believe that inequities can only be addressed through extreme social change, then you qualify as a sex radical, even if you prefer to get off in the missionary position and still believe there are only two genders."
- pat califia

He just gives me happy tingles all over. :)

Scott said...

I love the Califia quote!

Thanks for your generous replies to both this post and my comment on your original post. Yes, it is obvious that the issue holds many kinds of pain for you. Your pain and anger and urgently lived connection to the issue come across very clearly in what you've written, and if my own abstraction came across as disrespectful to that experience, I'm sorry.

For myself, I definitely feel the political and personal importance of putting my self explicitly into what I write, and I try to do it in the face of my socialization into white middle-class intellectually-inclined masculinity and its impulse to make self supposedly disappear and occupy the mythical and oppressive standpoint of "invisible objectivity." Not putting self into this post explicitly was a regretted but deliberate choice -- politically problematic and indulgent of privilege, yes, but conscious -- related to responding to my own modest (compared to many others) but still real risks, fears, and anxieties around these issues. Even if this post doesn't show it, I am also quite conscious of these issues as lived and not just theoretical.

Anyway, thanks for the references, and strength in the struggle!

Todd said...

I have to wonder if Tim is the same Tim who's achieved a minor notoriety on Lenin's Tomb . . . .

Dark Daughta said...

I thought about something you wrote I think in this post or in one of your comments about people positioning their activities as sexually radical while actually doing quite a bit of harm. I think that this angle is best explored by people who willingly out themselves and engage in dialogue about the erotic as it's linked to the political. The leadership has to come from inside the ranks of those who are dealing with the issues at hand and living life against the sexually conservative grain.. As you said in your last comment, "Not putting self into this post explicitly was a regretted but deliberate choice -- politically problematic and indulgent of privilege, yes, but conscious -- related to responding to my own modest (compared to many others) but still real risks, fears, and anxieties around these issues..." this is a place where you choose to avoid, can choose to avoid the risks associated with speaking and writing openly from your vantage point. Nonetheless, I thought I'd send you a link to another post I wrote where I talked about the nasty, uncomfortable underbelly of my experiences trying to do poly. These aren't things I speak about mostly because I'm surrounded by folks who perpetrate as being so monogamous, so hetero, so not cool with anything that shifts adult relationship paradigms. But, here...

Dark Daughta said...

I've posted something I'm wondering if you'd like to take a look at/comment on/critique...


Scott said...

Hi Darkdaughta...thanks for both links! I'll definitely respond in some detail to the second one, at least, though I probably won't have a chance until tomorrow night...