One of the things I really like about Facebook is that it provides a sort of cyberspace town square where people can, and often do, voice contentious opinions without worrying (too much) about other people’s feelings. (Of course, Diaspora is better.) I think of it a bit like Online Road Rage, where the medium itself offers a useful distance between people to degrade some of that gross “polite” veneer, the kind of politeness that is, itself, so very oppressive. I think this is part of what makes Facebook conversations notoriously heated.
You probably already know that I’m no stranger to such threads. Here’s another one that is relatively calm, long-lasting, and intersectional enough that I wanted to cross-post it to my own space. It started when one of my recent acquaintances shared a link to this fluff piece proclaiming millennials to be “The Greatest Generation (In Bed) – How Millennials Are Changing the Sexual Landscape“:
Friend: Yeah baby! Millennials 4 lyfe! I particularly think #4 “We’re having more sex than anyone since the 60s – but not having unwanted kids.” is the coolest. Especially because we grew up with really shitty sex-ed like everyone else did, we must be educating ourselves and learning up good. Generations of sex activists and pioneers like Dan Savage deserve credit too, but anyone from my generation knows that we all struggled against the oppression imposed by our ancestors’ generations to get where we are (in bed). The other awesome thing about this struggle is that the good karma pays off immediately and in very wonderful ways. Keep spanking, pegging, grouping up, toying, masturbating, connecting with yourself and others and having a great time my comrades. In the mean time, here’s one of my favorite millennial sex activists: Official Laci Green! The best thing I learned from Laci Green that I didn’t know before was that hymens don’t get broken and actually shouldn’t bleed. They sometimes need gentle stretching. Popping cherries is a patriarchal sex-violence myth.
Me: Hm. Also, “When ‘sex-positive’ is a euphemism for ‘male gaze’
Friend: People for more sexy pictures of male bodies and an end to men’s objectification through our representation in porn (and at sex clubs) through our isolated penises!
…All these pictures representing sex have women in them… Thanks for pointing that out, [maymay]. Here’s Dan Savage’s husband in a speedo to help balance it out.
Me: It’s deeper than just the imagery issue, of course. I used to be really on board with the sex positive rhetoric until I realized how it’s functionally doing for sexuality what white pacificst liberalism is doing for racism: it’s enabling it. Sex positivity took the core of a great idea (“sexual shame is often really hurtful”) and turned it into a relatively harmful politic that can be functionally distilled into the glorification of women’s bodies and sex in general—but the thing is, sex is NOT inherently good (nor bad), and so politicizing sex and sex acts as inherently good is just as askew from reality for a lot of people as politicizing it as inherently bad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that in theory, but in the real world, where the difference between theory and practice is that in theory they’re the same but in practice they’re different, what happens is that the people with pre-existing power and influence (like white, rich women, or cisgender het men) end up controlling the conversation about women’s bodies.
It’s all nice and well to say “let’s make men care about women’s orgasms!” there’s a way in which that’s actually worse for women (and their orgasms) than if men just GTFO out of their sex life. What happens for a lot of people—not all people, and specifically not “rich white women” or more precisely those who are benefited by the sex positive rhetoric, like Laci Green—is that when we raise a generation of people according to a politic that says “women’s orgasms matter,” where you once had a generation who didn’t really think twice about women’s orgasms, now you have a generation of people for whom “women’s orgasms” are a status symbol for the people in power. The difference often looks something like this:
Stereotyped sex in the 1950’s:
MAN: bang, bang, baby, done.
WOMAN: Um. Okay.
Stereotyped sex in the 2000’s:
MAN: I’m gonna get you off because I’m a STUD!!!!
WOMAN: Umm…why does everything still have to be about you?
See what I’m getting at here?
This is not to say that the sex positive rhetoric hasn’t been useful—it IS useful, for some people, some of the time. But the way it sells itself is so absurdly all-encompassing that, on the whole, I think it does a lot of cultural damage without realizing it and without being willing to acknowledge the places where it really hurts huge numbers of people. I call the sex-positive enthusiasts “the sexually privileged %1”, a phrase I think was coined by R., and she and I talk a little bit about this in our essay, “Consent as a Felt Sense.” Might be worth reading if you’re provoked to self-critical thought by any of this.
TL;DR: Sex positivity and its short-sighted liberal politic is mostly a reaction to certain but not all aspects of misogynistic patriarchical values that is not in and of itself sufficient or helpful and, moreover, when taken in isolation is actually harmful to more people than it is helpful. In other words, if “traditional family values” were the thesis, sex-positivity is the anti-thesis, but neither of those alone or together can bring us to synthesis.
There was some back and forth about the above but it was largely people’s own attempts to digest the above. Later on, I found this excerpt of “Sex, Power, and Consent” by Anastasia Powell and went back to the thread to post a link to it:
In the meantime, young women are still left to negotiate sexual encounters based on a model in which the central aim is still first and foremost to satisfy male sexual desires. The new politics of choice have thus had the cumulative effect of making young women’s continued experiences of sexual pressure, coercion and violence increasingly difficult both to name at an individual level and to subject to concerted political action at a societal level.
In this post-feminist context it has become difficult to be openly critical of sexual mores (even those regarding consent and sexual violence) without being labelled anti-choice, anti-sex and seen as rejecting the very sexual freedoms that feminism fought to achieve. This in turn demonstrates how fields of interaction can indeed be re-moulded (as feminist adaptations of Bourdieu have suggested). However, in this particular case it is a re-packaging of old gender norms within a rhetoric of choice that both resists any substantive challenge to the underlying gender structure and obscures the persistent operation of male power and dominance within sexual encounters that continues to exist.
There was some more back-and-forth, until some drive-by commenter remarked simply, “Yay sex!” This comment got a few likes, which pissed me off. So I replied:
Me: /me rolls eyes at the “Yay sex!” comment. See Sex-positivity isn’t so positive.
Of course, the offending commenter came back with some stupid remark about how they encourage everyone to enjoy whatever experiences they want. I didn’t let it go:
Me: Good point, Mak. It’s completely appropriate of you to be totally unconcerned with the ways that uncritical politics affect other people.
A few more back-and-forths with this idiot and then I finally replied with the following before blocking them:
Me: Of course, Mak. Your uncritical participation that whitewashes any potential problems with others’ critiques of your blind faith have no bearing on consensus reality and, after all, if only people who are harmed by the kind of bullshit moral relativism you espouse would just CHEER THE FUCK UP then the actual material impacts of their circumstances causing them to experience the facts of their lives in a way that is not quite as happy as YOU’D like them to be would change, right? *rolls eyes* I am so over this. Blocking Mak now.
Amazingly, the original poster came back to the thread with this highly supportive comment:
Friend: I agree with [maymay]’s drift and criticism here. I was going to object to the tone but then I realized that in a lot of these cases we’re seeing the micro of what the civil rights movement did in the macro of society. People of color came out and demanded that they be treated like people and that they get to do the same things everyone else was doing. That rightfully fed-up pissed-off activists from oppressed groups and their allies are coming into the lives of me and my privileged white friends and demanding that we see and keep everyone in mind and treat them like people is fucking righteous and awesome. Thank you [maymay].
I don’t think other people’s suffering is a good reason not to be happy or live your life fully, but it is a great reason to examine yourself and your beliefs. Whatever they are, our subconscious prejudices and misconceptions limit not just others but also ourselves.
Mak, both of us, probably most white people, especially men, are full of shitty glass ceilings that limit everyone around us in our interactions. It’s crazy that sometimes we express those limiting expressions through our happiness or philosophy of positivity but we are connected to everyone and we prevent our natural and essential flow of energy when we hold beliefs about how anything should be.
Also, I think I understand why “sex positive” is oppressive now even though I never saw sex positive the way it seems to be seen generally. The complexity of human experience goes deeper…
My mantra for the day: “eeeee”
Me: Woah, did I just read “I was going to object to the tone but then I realized” on a Facebook comment that was not ultimately a tone argument trying to shut me up? :D It is a very sorry thing indeed that this actually impresses me. :\ See some archived posts tagged “tone” to read more about how this usually goes down.
Friend: Being friends with a lot of people who don’t respond well to being told they’re assholes when they were trying to be loving and supportive, I try to use NVC [non-violent communication] because I’ve found it is better for our relationships and does a better job of accomplishing the understating that I am trying to convey.
I don’t think the poor fragile sensibilities of the ignorant privileged person should outweigh them being bade aware of the shittyness they bring to the world for everyone so I am also in favor of people getting pissed off and raising hell.
I am a fan of both the MLK approach and the Malcolm X approach… But in my personal life I am trying to evolve more towards the non-violent communication approach…
Me: That’s definitely not been my experience, friend.
Friend: You’d have to talk to my sister about how often she (the GSA coordinator at a youth outreach center with a women and gender degree who just came back from a conference on LGBT equality) has spent helping me understand why some asshole or assholes are attacking me for I-have-no-idea-what when I was only trying to help. Over time I’ve been more able to help explain to some of my friends why others of my friends are pissed off at them. …Perhaps it takes all three approaches. Being ganged up on and bullied by people I thought were my friends and who recently did the same things they are mad at me for, spurned my desire to do research and talk to my friends who went to college about these things but it didn’t inform me. Many of my friends are less inclined to have the “huh, these people are being really mean to me, I’ll do some research” response that I have had.
Still, I have a lot of friends who come from much more sheltered lives then I, who refuse to believe there’s a world outside of their super-limited, privileged, private-school, spiritualize/philosophize-away-everything lives and my gently trying to explain it to them isn’t helping one bit. It’s much easier to stay in the bubble. — It’s probably good for society whenever those bubbles are popped; but that’s some macho violence bs and I’m not ready or don’t understand enough to do that properly like Osho or Socrates or Nelson Mandela seem to have been able to do. To entice the enbubbled to pop their own bubble, that is the trick!
Me: I think NVC can be really useful, as long as you remember that it relies on a starting set of assumptions. If those assumptions are operating in the environment where you employ NVC, it can be a fantastic tool to steer the outcome to whatever you perceive the “good” outcome to be. But if those assumptions are not in place, then it’s a pathetically useless tool. For instance, go to pretty much any mental health support group meeting in the country and ask the people there if they’ve ever tried using NVC with patients. I’ll buy you a beer if you DON’T get eyes rolled at you.
Moreover, “enticing the enbubbled to pop their own bubble” is an oxymoron and at best results in things like “white anti-racists,” which is also an oxymoron. (There is no such thing. See “The White Anti-Racist is an Oxymoron: An Open Letter to ‘White Anti-Racists’” by Kil Ja Kim.) The nature of a “filter bubble” means “popping” it happens by the actions of or exposure to someone ELSE. (For this concept demo’ed in the realm of Facebook itself, see “Beware of online filter bubbles“.)
These simple facts have been known forever and continually get rejected by, well, white people, because white people are not honestly interested in having their filter bubbles popped by Black and Brown people. When Black and Brown people DO pop filter bubbles, we—through our tacit support of the State—enslave, exile, or kill them. See this famous quote by Frederick Douglas: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
If you want to see an example of “resisting with words” then consider listening to some Black Power poetry by the recently passed Amiri Baraka. Start at the Democracy Now! segment memorializing his life.
Then remember that this person was also friends with Nelson Mandela and met with him and Malcom X to try to coordinate global resistance to white supremacy—after which Malcom X was murdered by the US government, just like the US government murdered MLK Jr. (Don’t take my word for it: read the court transcripts.)
Friend, maybe you already know Nelson Mandela was a militant who organized literal armies to resist apartheid. He openly advocated violence in that context. He was even offered a Presidential Pardon and freedom from his sentence of LIFE IN PRISON DOING HARD LABOR if he renounced violence. He refused. (Even the Washington Post mentions this fact.) But most people don’t know this, and most people probably won’t know this, because most history books and references to his life purposefully don’t include this bit.
My point is that there comes a time where patience is less useful than violence, and it’s important to know how to recognize that point BEFORE you reach it. This ridiculous pacificist strain of white neo-liberalism that thinks everything can be solved without killing if only people knew how to “Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!” is and has always been immensely racist.
Categorically denouncing violence as “macho violence bs” is not only oppressive, it’s sexist, because it erases the history of VIOLENT struggle by women—who, by the way, many kinds of violence is MOST OFTEN used against. For a recent example of our own history in the States, see Assata Shakur and read up on the Gulabi Gangs in India.
In social justice organizing lingo, we diplomatically call this “diversity of tactics.” There was a video from Occupy Oakland that I liked some time ago that explains this concept in more detail. Notice that the speaker, a woman of color, does mention that “some of us might have to bomb some trains,” or similar. It’s only “macho violence bs” if you’re not the one being killed, imprisoned, or exiled.
By the way, I have very little interest in speaking to anyone who went to college on the basis that they went to college, your sister included. What do you think college is if not the epitomy of a colonialist filter bubble? For more on that, read this excerpt from Feminism For Real: Deconstructing The Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism.
Friend’s sister: At the conference I just had the privilege to attend, one of the moments that really rang true for me and helped open my eyes was in a day long Racial Justice Institute. The facilitators addressed the fact that we, as people invested in social justice, often want to enter the room as individuals. We want the most important things about us to be the things we have done, the ways we identify, and the words we speak. However, when we enter the room, we also enter with all our group identities, so for me, I enter as a white, employed, lower-middle-class, genderqueer, queer, femme, traditionally (in a white supremacist system) educated, able-bodied, English-speaking, US citizen, Jewish, female, etc. person. Those things affect what I see, how I see it, what I say, how others respond to me, etc. We also enter the room with our systems. Every single one of those groups is systematically given either privilege or is oppressed in our society. Yes, listening to me based on the fact that I have a degree is ridiculous. But I have had the opportunity to explore my identity and process it with others doing the same thing. When we forget everything we bring into a room with us, or the fact that every person we interact with also brings those things with them, that is when we do harm. I would be comfortable to say that it seems harm has been done in this feed. Triggers have been triggered, including mine. I am not given credibility constantly because I am young, I am female, I am queer. Within the social justice movement, I see it as my responsibility to bring awareness to it when people are doing harm and when I am given the opportunity to listen to a person who has experienced things I have not, I make it my responsibility to shut the fuck up and listen because they do not have to teach me about their experience and they are. I am not saying listen to me because of my degree, but we should all be listening because everyone on here has a story, and everyone has been triggered and put on the defense.
Me: Shorter [friend’s sister]: “Blah blah blah social justice rhetoric blah blah blah golden rules about triggers blah blah blah oft-recited platitudes.” See also “Complicity with Abuse: 101-level information social justice hobbyists are dangerously ignorant of.”
Friend: Ha ha, [maymay] you seem to lack the ability to have a civil conversation. Along with calling out privileged folks who are unaware of the many impacts their ignorance can have on the world, maybe we should call out counterproductive assholes too. That way we can all get called out as a big happy family! Insecure and ashamed about your white male body much? It seems like you’re against everything. Do you have any constructive ways that people can be people in this world or is everything evil?
Me: LMAO, [friend]. So my tone’s not a problem when it’s directed at someone who’s not a blood relative of yours, like Mak, but it IS a problem when it’s directed at your sister? Real integrious, dude.
Look, your sister’s comment has zero substance and only contains things I’ve heard a gazillion times before. I’m over it. I’m not impressed by ridiculous technical jargon and I’m not impressed by self-effacing confessions of privilege. Call-out culture is just as susceptible to being called-out as anything else is.
If you’d actually read the “Complicity with Abuse” post, maybe you’d actually have a shot at beginning to understand why Victoria’s comment is totally boring. But if you’re more interested in defending your sister’s social status than you are in taking a look at what’s wrong with the patterns of empty rhetoric she’s using, well, that’s very understandable. I’ll just judge you based on your choice to respond to my critique of your sister’s comment by calling me “insecure and ashamed.” Because, really dude? Really?
Friend: …Anything constructive to offer?
Me: Nothing more, no. I’m done here. Turning off notifications from this thread. Have fun with your social justice hobby, y’all.