Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 March 2017

Kink, Identity, and "Sexuality"

I have been thinking a lot, for the last two weeks, about kinky sex practices, domination/submission, violent or painful sexual activity, leather, and identity. This has been spurred by two different friends and their careful promptings. (I am surrounded by smart folks and, as always, I am grateful for that.) One shared this article – "Is Kink a Sexual Orientation?" by Jillian Keenan – saying, incidentally, that he thought the piece was "poorly written garbage nonsense". Another asked me what I thought about the large amount of violence in gay pornographic films. (I will post on a different day about this.)

Leatherdyke Dorothy Allison
Meanwhile, I have been reading, for the last week or so, the collection of essays called Leatherfolk, edited by Mark Thompson. Thompson's book was a groundbreaking collection in gay and lesbian studies when it was originally published. I had read essays from it before (Gayle Rubin's "The Catacombs: a Temple of the Butthole" is a classic!) it was just something I had never got around to reading from start to finish. Leatherfolk is part theory, part history, part politics, and part spirituality. I loved the first three sections and was almost completely bored by the fourth (For the record: I have nothing against people deciding to explore existential or universal truth through fisting – fist for whatever reasons you like! And in fact I have no doubt that a person can reach a higher plane through pain just as she could reach a higher plane through hallucinogens. I just find that the people who actually want to talk about this – who, incidentally, all call themselves shamans or faeries or words like that – speak in a language that doesn't connect with me. Get your spirituality however you like, but I've come to understand that this is not for me.)

And this weekend, for a course I'm teaching, I reread Rubin's "Thinking Sex", that game-changing essay that articulated new theories of sex-positivity and benign sexual variation during the culture wars of the 1980s.

* * *
Is kink a sexual orientation? The answer is obviously. What is orientation except the direction in which one is oriented? I don't understand why Keenan has chosen this term to begin her inquiry. It seems to me that her real question is Is kink a sexuality? In other words, should kink be given the same status in our culture as homosexuality and heterosexuality – a status now in some ways protected by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges?

Keenan cites Dan Savage as one person who mostly disagrees with the idea that kink might be a sexuality. She quotes him as saying, "While some kinksters identify strongly with their kinks and are open about their sexual interests, being into baby bonnets or bondage isn't about who you love, it's about how you love."

I find this line of reasoning completely incoherent. Frankly, I do not define sexuality as having any relationship to love. Let me make a change that I hope will be helping Savage out: If we rephrase him so that he's saying "[kink] isn't about who you fuck, it's about how you fuck", then we get closer to the heart of the matter, and we get to the stakes of this question that is, in fact, central to mainstream LGBT politics.

The LGBT movement has carved itself a niche whereby it claims ownership of something called "sexuality", and this movement claims that a person's sexuality is only a small part of who one is. (Sometimes this part is considered the most important component of who someone is – as when they call on an actor to come out of the closet – and sometimes this part is referred to as an almost totally inconsequential attribute – as when they say that someone, usually an athlete, "just happens to be gay".) In any case, for the mainstream LGBT movement, sexuality (homo or hetero) is something essential, unchanging, and biologically given; it is also something that is deeply oneself, in many cases explaining the self.

And no matter how many people stand up and say "no that isn't how sexual desire works for me", no matter how many people say they have chosen their homosexuality, no matter how many people identify as bisexual or pansexual or asexual, no matter that historians have shown that across time sexualities have differed widely, and no matter how many straight people have occasional sex with same-gender partners, the LGBT movement tells us: no, actually, we are all born this way. And you are either born this way or born that way.

In other words, the movement has opted for this unchanging, biologically given version of sexuality instead of one more closely linked to reality. I guess this essentialist version of sexuality makes more sense to some people (the police, non-denominational ministers, your parents). More importantly, the movement has done this because they assumed it would be easier to get acknowledgement and concessions from the conservative state this way. And they have succeeded. This has been a way to get recognition from the state. That is all good and well. But most queer people (and lots and lots of straight people) know that this essentialist tale is simply not true. (Anyone who has ever experimented with a sexuality other than his or her own ought to be able to attest to that.) But as they propagated this essentialist story, they also shored up the gender binary and (worse yet) lied about how desire actually works in human bodies. Jillian Keenan's own bisexuality and kinky queerness point up the lie in this LGBT position.

We have a political term for this, of course. It is called strategic essentialism. Those who opt for strategic essentialism know that we are not all essentially one certain way, but we opt for this story in order to achieve political change. But it seems to me that many in the LGBT movement actually believe the essentialist story that we thought we were using strategically. And if we believe this lie, and teach it as orthodoxy, it will become essentialism itself. In fact, if the U.S. Supreme Court is saying it, it seems to me that essentialism has arrived.

I don't know who these people are, but they seem fine.
You may actually see your sexuality as something with which you were born. That is fine for you. But it is absurd to look at someone who says she wasn't born gay and tell her that oh yes of course you were. While there may not be as many sexualities as there are queer people. It is important to remember – as Eve Sedgwick reminds us in Epistemology of the Closet – that we are all very different from one another. We see our sexualities in different ways, we explain the origins of our sexualities in different ways, and we engage in all sorts of sexual practices that differ from one another. In fact, I'm willing to bet that you have done one or two things with one of your sexual partners that you never did and never would do with one or other of your partners. Any identity we claim with one another is bound to be strategic, contingent, temporary – certainly the identity claimed between gay men and lesbians must be!

So: Is kink a sexuality? Yes. Certainly as much as heterosexuality and homosexuality are sexualities. Kink is a mostly inexplicable, possibly acquired, orientation toward particular erotic behaviors. I fail to see how being erotically interested in leather or tennis shoes or denim is any different from being interested in penises or vaginas or breasts. (Incidentally, most of us have asses and mouths and fingers, not to mention ears and eyes and armpits.) Still, the truth as I see it, is that there really is no such thing as either homosexuality or heterosexuality except as practices. What the question underlines is that the frame of sexuality is a weak one for explaining actual human behavior.

Dan Savage and others, the judicious keepers of the LGBT movement, can't grant "sexuality" status to other modes of queerness because this would undermine the essentialist position. Was a kinkster born this way? That is how the movement understands what sexuality is, so that is what they would have to argue. (The idea is absurd. Even if I was born liking, say, racially mixed guys with hairy chests of a certain age, society expects me – since it values marriage – to change my orientation over time to racially mixed guys with hairy chests of a different age.) As Keenan notes in her essay: "Some friends have told me that kink should not be considered an orientation since that could open the door for any deeply felt sexual identity to claim that status. Is sexual orientation a slippery slope? Are we two clicks away from a strong preference for nerdy-Jewish-tech-guys-with-dark-hair-and-an-athletic-streak being called an 'orientation'?" But arguing that these sexualities are essential opens up a whole other can of worms; it leaves open the possibility that someone might want to categorize rape-fantasy as a sexuality and someone else might want to categorize cross-generational attraction as a sexuality. Who knows what proliferation of unspeakable sexualities we might unearth? Who knows what protections we might have to ask the government to grant. My two examples are designed to point up just how much the LGBT movement's position is actually wedded to the same old hierarchy of sexuality that was in place long before its own arrival. The LGBT movement still wants to be able to discriminate between bad sexualities and good sexualities, proper sexualities and improper sexualities. They can't help judging, and they most assuredly haven't heeded Gayle Rubin's thirty-year-old call for a theory of benign sexual variation. The granting of "sexuality" status to kinksters would undermine the main thrust of the LGBT movement's position, to wit: that white gays are well behaved citizen-subjects who want to vote and get married and purchase sofas and time-shares and lawn mowers just like everyone else.

Fakir Musafar
There must be other paths to increased sexual liberty. The essentialist one has (apparently) been the easiest one, although obviously it has not been easy! But it is also a path that has re-confirmed the power of the state/church. It is a path that grants government more power, a path that asks for the government to recognize us and not to recognize others. This request for recognition, in addition to excluding explicitly those whom we have decided we do not wish to be recognized, also has the effect of giving the state itself more power. Why are we arguing that the state that has the authority to recognize what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior? Why have we decided that what we all want is the government to grant us our humanity? Not only is this a terrible political practice for anyone who believes in liberty, but it is also a terrible politics for anyone who believes in sexual freedom. And if we pin our hopes to government recognition of humanity, we are bound to be disappointed when the government changes and other, more hostile rulers, take the place of the benign ones we believe we've convinced. We are granting the government more power because we believe that it will do the right thing. But governments do not do the right thing, they do what is politically expedient. And even if they do the thing that you think is right for a little while, that doesn't mean that they'll do it indefinitely, and the voting public can always change its mind, stirred to action by the next ridiculous politician in a baseball hat.

The folks from Fifty Shades Darker
It is worth asking why Jillian Keenan wants kink to be granted sexuality status. The benefits that have, in the United States, accrued to essentialist sexuality have been great indeed... for a select few. But serious leatherfolk were already complaining 25 years ago that S/M practices had gotten too soft, too bourgeois, too respectable. When Keenan answers Savages comment that "[kink] isn't about who you love, it's about how you love" with the retort that "kink is how I love my husband", I have to admit to shaking my head at the absurdity of the claim. Perhaps there are leatherfolk who could read such a sentence without laughing, but I assume that any domina worth her salt would feel her gorge rise or burst out laughing or both. Love? Husband? This is radical sex? It sounds a lot like Leave It to Beaver. 

I propose that we begin actually to believe that sexual variation is benign. I propose that we make it a project to convince people not that we are all the same but that we are all different and that that is ok. I propose that we begin to believe that people should be free to make their own sexual choices – and that people actually make those choices and not that they are driven, through some genetic or chromosomal compulsion, to do those things. 

This would mean taking ownership of our desires and pleasures.
It would mean that we stopped asking whether this or that sexual practice was good for society.
It would mean that we stopped worrying about why someone was into a particular sexual practice and worried instead about how to make it better for her and the sexual partner or partners involved. 
I am no utopian, as you probably know if you know me, but it seems to me that these ought to be the terms of any fight for sexual equality. Trying to convince congressional republicans and our sexagenarian aunts and uncles that the kinky sex we're into or the non-committed, non-monogamous sex we're into, or the porn we like, or the particular ways we like to be touched, choked, stroked are just like the sex grandma and grandpa used to have is a battle that we will lose even if we win. We'll only wind up using kink "to love our husbands more". And in order to keep our positions in society, we'll find ourselves in the reprehensible position of needing to judge the "weirdos" whose sex isn't as respectable as ours.