by Natasha Lennard
In an era of orgy apps, how radical is radical sex? In an age when an online porn mega-corporation represents every possible perversion, what liberation is left in taboo-transgression?
I want to share a couple of personal anecdotes. I don’t mean them to be confessions in the sense that Michel Foucault used the term “confessional”—as the revelations of some Truth from the depths of myself or my experience. But these are sex stories (kinda), and Foucault noted that sex—what we talk about when we talk about sex—takes the privileged form of confession in our society.
So perhaps I can’t, we can’t, talk about sex non-confessionally; it’s a discourse constructed on the idea of revelation. That’s how truths about sex, or anything, are built—in the false belief that they are “found.” That’s what these sex stories are about: the myth of revelatory sex, and the truths it produces.
One is about a threesome I didn’t have, another is about certain porn that I don’t watch. They both involve an ex-partner whom I dated from my early-to-mid-twenties who believed in revolutionary sex to the point of ideology. These are cautionary tales in how easily invocations towards radical sexual practices—especially in the context of political movements—can be recuperated into patriarchal power structures, techno-capital, and the creation of more bourgeois desiring machines. And through them, I want to question what it means to talk about radical sex becoming recuperated at all.
What, if anything, was radical in the first place?
Queer As In “Fuck You”
At a time when technology presents itself as playing a liberatory function with regard to the pluralization of sexual possibilities, it’s important to question the underlying idea that abundance, of partners and perversities, equals liberation. On the other hand, I don’t want to fall into a trap which denies the possibility of radical modes of sexually relating to each other just because seemingly “radical” sexual preferences and identities are easily accessible on the App Store or on a porn tube site. These are open questions, but they give lie to claims about the inherent radicality of certain sexual practices—a lie too often peddled by the bombastic men-children and self-satisfied sex-posi “adventurers” spanning from the far left to the Burning Man playa.
This ex and I were together during Occupy and involved in New York’s fractured anarchist scene, which briefly held itself together with school-glue solidarity for a few heady months. We were non-monogamous but had hardly acted on it, aside from a couple of threesomes with other women, the sort of which I’ve had in numerous relationships with men without this ex’s radical posturing.
He spoke a big game about queering. About challenging a social order organized by heteronormative and coupled forms. He saw a political imperative in pursuing polyamorous and queer constellations. In (what seemed to be) queer porn (more on this later) and in kink he saw revolutionary interventions. Sometimes he used “queer” to mean a political subjectivity that works to undo both hetero- and homo-normativities—queer-as-disruption, as opposed to gay-as-assimilation: “Not gay as in happy, queer as in ‘fuck you.’” Sometimes he used “queer” to describe any sexual interaction between non-straight, non-conventional-bodied or cis-gendered folks—“queer” as in a label you can use to identify yourself on an app designed for threesomes. Both meanings exist and they intersect—his problem was collapsing them together entirely. His problem was also alcohol.
I too believe that a heteronormative social order which punishes desires, identities, and sexual practices outside of its narrow remit must be burned to the ground. Individuals and communities have fought and died, and still do, to be able to love and fuck without persecution. The work of queer pornographers to give these desires representation and recognition is crucial.
And, of course, joining a movement to fight persecution is the very meaning of political subjectification. Times of political revolt have long been attended by claims about the revolutionary force of challenging traditional sexual prescriptions. And little wonder: sex is a discourse that plays a major role in shaping what kinds of selves get to exist and how they get to exist together. This is the stuff of politics.
The problem with my ex’s position was modal. He viewed certain sex—certainly not all sex—as a necessary rite of passage, without which no appropriate radicalization was possible. His belief touched on the religious—a faith that certain sex acts between certain bodies carried a radically transformative quality a priori. For a man who claimed to be a Foucault scholar, it was a baffling assertion of normative moral facts. But we met when I was very young. He was twelve years my senior, and it took me some time to weed out the hypocrisy and dogmatism from what, if anything, was righteous, or even sexy.
Terrains of Choice-making
People say “the personal is political” a lot, and I think almost always in a reductive way. It doesn’t just mean that our individual “personal” issues—like our sexuality, our families, our fucking—are political negotiations. Is it even useful to call these “personal” issues? Aren’t impersonal issues also political? And if so, everything is political, so why use the word to delineate anything at all?
Perhaps like this: The personal is political because personhood is political. Who gets to be a person and how? How are persons formed, categorized, and organized in and through relations with each other? These are determined by operations of power. The personal is not political because personal choices are necessarily political choices, but because the very terrain of what gets to be a choice and what types of persons get to be choosers—what types of persons get to be—are shaped by political power. The sort of political power that whispers through human histories of convention formation and maintenance, of hierarchy and adherence to it, of regimes of expertise, of oppression, of struggles and paradigm shifts.
Remember how Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada chastises Anne Hathaway’s character, the naive assistant, for thinking she had agency when she’d chosen to buy a blue sweater? A Foucauldian point well made: capital didn’t make her choose and buy that color sweater, but it did overdetermine the conditions of possibility for any such purchase.
And so it is with our sexual desires—we think we just have them, as if centuries of power operations had not determined not only our desiring tendencies, but the very terrain of what gets to be a choice or a chooser. The risk of a personal-is-political discourse that focuses on individual choice rather than terrains of choice-making is the development of a politics that finds its primary expression through, say, buying organic or downloading an app for non-monogamous fucking that allows you to define yourself as “pansexual.” Who you are is held stable, while your personal choices are deemed political. This is what I call neoliberal identity politics—another phrase used a lot these days, and almost always incorrectly.
Sex Cops and Body Fascists
So back to this ex.
After one of the many days of vigorous street protest during Occupy’s heyday, a large group of anarchists were reviewing, recuperating, and relaxing in a Brooklyn loft space often used for such purposes. I had to leave reasonably early to wake up for a radio interview of some sort. My ex stayed late and ended up going home with another person (who then identified as female, but no longer does). And, as far as he explained it the following day, the assumption had been that I would join them in bed the next day.
The particulars of our non-monogamy at that time (not all non-monogamies are the same) required that he inform me in advance of going home with another person. Since I had been asleep, this was not possible and his unopened texts could hardly be said to count. So that was a fuck-up on his part. And it’s a fuck-up particular to our technological moment: instant communication has never been so easy, producing at times a misleading presumption that we have communicated—or should have been able to communicate—information to an intended party simply by sending it. The speech acts fail, and digital enmeshment is curbed by the timeless human predicament of being asleep.
This isn’t just an issue when communicating polyamorous plans—it’s a problem of an expectation being produced. Expectations of reception and response didn’t emerge with the invention of instant messaging. Centuries of waiting on tenterhooks for letters preceded this. But I think the assumption of instantaneousness produces an often incorrect feeling that the sender has successfully communicated. In this case, he had not.
The far greater violation, by my lights, was his assumption that I would want to have sex with this person, and his acting on that assumption—he said this was the condition under which they went home together. Moreover, that I should want to have sex with this person because they were, as he put it, “queer and cool.”
The arguments that followed didn’t focus on the problematics of him assuming my desires for me. They turned on the fulcrum of why my desires weren’t somehow better. I wasn’t attracted to this person, so my ex called me a body fascist. My ex might be right. My libidinal tastes fit firmly within conventional determinations of beauty. I could, and often do, look back on this story as an ur-example of a manarchist (as they are known) weaponizing the idea of radical sexual politics in order to police the desires of others to serve his own.
And that’s all true. No one should be expected to fuck anyone. But this is complicated by the fact that sometimes our desires are worth questioning and challenging. Sometimes experimentation, while it should be conditional on consent, does require trying things we might not immediately desire in and of themselves, but as potential introductions to desiring differently. Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it.
But by treating sex as a political project of rupturing preconditioned desires, might we end up reducing each other to experimental objects for our own self-development? And more to the point, such an approach treats sex acts as techniques of self-construction, as if the simple meeting of certain bodies serves to subvert and reorganize desires. Maybe it can. Maybe I think there are more urgent political projects than having sex with people I don’t currently find attractive, but who share my political diagnoses. And what demarcates political sex from the sort of privileged play of Burning Man orgies? Post festum, does the world look that different? I knew this would get confessional.
In a skewering essay for Mask Magazine, the writer who goes by FuckTheory coined the term “queer privilege” as if he’d had my ex in mind. He notes that while “there is still a bigoted wide world out there, full of enforced normativity, compulsory heterosexuality, and relentless, violent policing… there are also spaces… where a generalized ideology of anti-normativity holds sway, queerness is a badge of honor, a marker of specialness, and a source of critical and moral authority: in short, a form of privilege.” FuckTheory’s contention with what he calls queer privilege is that such attitudes, and the deep irony of their basis in a misunderstanding of Foucault, are “grounded in the idea of a link between the normativity of an act and its ethical valence.”
He puts it better than I ever could:
[I]t’s worth pausing to reflect on the tone that queer privilege indulges itself in, to consider the implications of a smug condescension that presumes to judge people’s sexuality based on the way they relate to other people’s genitals and to evaluate the revolutionary potential of an act based on its statistical prevalence. Is this what we want from queer theorizing?
The counterargument to queer privilege is not to retreat to the reactionary normativities that queerness, even privileged queerness, attempts to disrupt. No, the radical thing is not actually to be a straight couple and get married and make babies and reproduce oneself as the world produced you. It’s not actually more radical to be monogamous just because everyone and their paramorous triad is meeting in an expensive bar in Williamsburg and revelling in their radical performance. Such a counter-reaction would merely repeat the problem of inherently linking the normativity or abundance of a given act with its ethical weight.
It’s a problem well put by queer theorist Guy Hocquenghem in his once-banned text, The Screw Ball Asses. “Will any desire, apart from obedience, ever be able to structure itself otherwise than as transgression or counter-transgression?” he wrote in 1973, adding, “Limiting oneself to a sexual path, under the pretext that it is one’s desire and that it corresponds to a political opportunity for deviance, strengthens the bi-polarization of the ideology of desire that has been forged by the bourgeoisie.” Hocquenghem didn’t need to live in the time of Grindr, Tinder, Bumble, or Feeld to know that, “There is no escaping economics… Roles are not broken but granted.” The irony: the ex gave me that book.
Which brings me to my second anecdote, which is more of a string of instances.
This same ex used to watch a decent amount of porn. We’d watch together, but more often to discuss it than to get off with each other. His perversions were not mine. And, yes, his tastes were more queer. And he would find his tastes represented— this is a good thing. But his means of viewing were, as with the majority of porn viewers, through a set of reductive search categories on behemoth tube sites like YouPorn, Pornhub, and RedTube, all of which are owned by one monopolizing content delivery giant, MindGeek.
It was not his fault per se that tube sites rely on a grim taxonomy of racist, sexist, transphobic, ageist, and ableist tropes: big black, Asian teen, thug, schoolgirl, MILF, shemale, and so on. It was just a telling dissonance: he would praise the radical content, whilst using the very tube sites that have decimated the porn industry, reinforced its archaic categories, and undermined workers’ rights.
Some years later, I became friendly with some of the actors and directors whose content would sometimes pop up (stolen) as a tube site click in the ex’s searches. I have written about their efforts to challenge porn’s problematic search tags as well as their Homeric and often thwarted attempts to improve working conditions. And while porn workers in the straight and queer sides of the industry challenge the means of their industry’s production and its conservative business model, the mere abundance of transgressive content is misread as revolutionary.
Writing about porn in 2004, film theorist Linda Williams rightly noted that "as the proliferating discourses of sexuality take hold... there can no longer be any such thing as a fixed sexuality— male, female, or otherwise.” She wrote that “now there are proliferating sexualities, the very multiplicity of these pleasures and perversions inevitably works against the older idea of a single norm—the economy of the one—against which all else is measured.” And insofar as there is no longer one “single norm,” she had a point.
But the multiplicity of represented pleasures and perversions has not ended the fact of “female, male, or otherwise” sexuality (by which I presume she meant gender). Proliferating perversions, as represented in categories of online viewing and participation, may have created a multitude of norms, but this has not meant a disruption in the hierarchical powers that control what gets to be represented as (a) sexuality.
And don’t speak to me about radical sexual preferences if you claim to care about intersectional struggle and search “BDSM gang bang” on a tube site of stolen content, which directly hurts workers, and which runs on a taxonomy of reductive tags.
A survey conducted by Pornhub and Mic.com aiming to review the porn choices of millennials (of course) found that “‘ebony’ and ‘black’ were among the top 12” of their favorite search terms. Mic’s hot take was that the youths were, happily, not privileging white bodies. But as I wrote for The Nation at the time: there’s an inherent limitation to the progressiveness of such a porn landscape if bodies are primarily sought, categorized, and thus sexualized via their race. Especially when production companies still put a premium —with payscales and exclusivity agreements—on “interracial” scenes (almost always a white woman and a black man), inscribing racism through the notion of taboo into the back end of the business.
There's an App for That
In a dismissive and cursory essay titled “Your Sex Is Not Radical,” writer and activist Yasmin Nair rejects the relevance of sexual practices in political organizing. I agree with her when she asserts, “the sad truth that many of us learn after years in sexual playing fields (literally and figuratively) is that how many people you fuck has nothing to do with the extent to which you fuck up capitalism.” But her totalizing view separating politics from sex fails to consider the representation of sex and its role in constructing the truth of sex today.
We must recognize that the pearl-clutching anti-sex work moralists who fear that porn is warping kids’ minds have a point. Online porn plays a powerful formative role in our lives, especially the millennials among us, informing notions of what sex gets to be. Given this fact, the need for political and ethical work towards a world of porn with better taxonomies and worker protections is obvious. My ex saw political heroes in his favorite porn stars, which would be fine, if he had thought of them as workers first. There is no escaping economics.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the picture I’ve painted, that my relationship with this man ended in violent catastrophe. I grew to hate him for many reasons, but not before I had spent months, which bled into years, rethinking my approach to sexual desire. It was a revaluation of values and assumptions about what I want, for which I’ll always be grateful and in which I continue to engage to this day. In the years since we parted ways, I’ve had far more of the sex he would have deemed “radical” than I ever did with him. Some of it was transformative, some hot, some of it love, some boring and irritating—none of it revolutionary.
Technosociologist Zeynep Tufecki makes the point that traditional political movement tactics have gotten easier over the years, “partly thanks to technology”:
A single Facebook post can help launch a large march! Online tools make it easier to coordinate phone calls, and even automate them. Legislators have figured this out; they are less likely to be spooked just by marches or phone calls (though those are good to do: their absence signals weakness).
Her point is that tactics which once signalled “underlying strength” no longer do, by virtue of the ease of re-iterability; the threat is neutralized and the ruling order knows it. The same might be said of sexual practices which once were considered threats to capital’s reproduction through the family form and property relations. Technocapital soothes the status quo: there can be polyamorous configurations with BDSM dungeons in the basement, but the houses are owned.
To be blunt: when there’s a popular app for organizing your next queer orgy, how rupturous of our political status quo can the mere fact of such an orgy be? To be honest: that’s not totally a rhetorical question.
Natasha Lennard writes about radical politics and philosophies of violence for publications including Esquire, The Nation, The New Inquiry, and The New York Times opinion section.