The Landscape of Desire: Unweaving Threads
Shay Woodall: “I’d like to take a moment to discuss sexuality and gender, particularly discourse from the cis gay and lesbian community.”
“I won’t date you if you’re trans, or a POC, or fat, or disabled, or neurodivergent. Sorry it’s just a preference”. How many of you have heard or seen this in your lives or on dating/hookup apps and sites?
In this first of three essays I’d like to take a moment to explore the landscape of power and desire by examining various strands of the kyriarchal matrix. This topic is very close to many trans people’s hearts because we, like so many of those on the margins of the acceptable, are often told that we are unlovable, that our bodies are perverse, and that our gender is merely a trick to ensnare cis folks and violate their consent. I hope this inspires some real self-reflection and brings all of us into deeper relationship with ourselves and others.
As always, the writing here reflects my own intersections and my best understanding of these topics at the moment. Thank you, as well as to all the comrades who gave feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.
I. Theorizing Sexuality and Gender
Before we can really delve into how we theorize sexuality we first need to define what it is. That might seem an easy thing to do, after all human sexuality is “simply” how people experience and express themselves as sexual beings. Yet underneath this seeming truism lurks a complicated mess. Is sexuality something that we are (the identity model)? Is it something that we do (the behavior model)? Are we born with our sexuality as-is or is sexuality linked to social structures and culture (nature vs nurture)?
The overarching view of sexuality and gender in society is that there are only men and women and people can be attracted to only one or the other, possibly both, but always heterosexuality is normative[i]. This dominant paradigm of sexuality and gender is underpinned by the kyriarchal matrix. Patriarchy (particularly cissexism and heterosexism), white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, ableism and more all weave together to weigh in on how we view ourselves and especially our capacity for relationships, sexual or otherwise. It informs who and what we find attractive, how we create and maintain relationships, and so much more. Let’s look at some, though hardly all, of these kyriarchal strands:
1. Patriarchy. Women are often granted sexuality only insofar as it lends itself to the “male gaze”[ii] and the desire of men. Women don’t have sexuality in our own right, instead our sexuality exists only for the consumption and commodification of men in heterosexual matrimony. Our sexuality is, in short, viewed and treated as property.
As a case study let’s look at the phenomenon of “frigid women” which came to prominence at the turn of the 20th century (though the idea is much older). Sigmund Freud came up with the idea that cis women first associate sexual pleasure with clitoral stimulation and later in life must transfer that to vaginal stimulation and if they don’t they suffer from “penis envy” (and thus masculinization). This idea would be developed by psychoanalysts and sexologists who would go on to depict a woman’s inability to sufficiently enjoy sex with their husbands as a sexual disorder that should be pathologized and treated. It’s also part of what motivates oppression against aspec folks now, given that their very existence disrupts the idea of sexuality as consumption.
2. Heterosexism. A couple of years ago there was a push from the cis gay and lesbian community to exclude the T (trans) from LGBT. Which is strange given that heterosexism, cissexism, and biological essentialism are all inextricably bound. The dominant model of gender and sex is binary, grouping people into two distinct largely opposite categories of “male/men/masculine” and “female/women/feminine”. Considering this view of gender and sex is binary only three possibilities for sexuality emerge: heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. When the scope of gender and sex is widened however to include the full range of human diversity such a model becomes obsolete.
Another interesting point emerges from this as well because gender becomes framed through a heterosexist gaze. Take for example that gay men aren’t just oppressed for being attracted to other men, society treats gay men as *emasculated* (and thus not performing “masculinity” correctly). Lesbians are often treated and seen as “masculine” with corrective r*pe being used to “feminize” lesbians (thus lesbians aren’t performing “femininity” correctly). Sexuality through this lens becomes a performance of the “proper” gendered order and violence, often sexual in nature, becomes a tool for enforcing that order. Going further, sexuality as a performance of proper “gender” seeps its way into otherwise queer relationships by seeking to reproduce in part heterosexist logic (the butch/femme and top/bottom dichotomy in lesbian and gay communities).
The existence of trans and non-binary genders complicates the discourse arising from cis lesbian and gay communities. Those who police the boundaries of what is and isn’t “queer” (aka: gatekeepers) appropriate queerness to mean only certain ways of being against the normative order and not others. As Susan Stryker notes in the Transgender Studies Reader vol 1:
“Like recent feminism and feminist scholarship, queer politics and queer studies also remain invested, to a significant extent, in an underlying conceptual framework that is problematized by transgender phenomena. “Sexual object choice,” the very concept used to distinguish “hetero” from “homo” sexuality, loses coherence to the precise extent that the “sex” of the “object” is called into question, particularly in relation to the object’s “gender.” Queer studies, though putatively antiheteronormative, sometimes fails to acknowledge that same-sex object choice is not the only way to differ from heterosexist cultural norms, that transgender phenomena can also be antiheteronormative, or that transgender phenomena constitute an axis of difference that cannot be subsumed to an object-choice model of antiheteronormativity. As a result, queer studies sometimes perpetuates what might be called “homonormativity,” that is, a privileging of homosexual ways of differing from heterosocial norms, and an antipathy (or at least an unthinking blindness) toward other modes of queer difference.”
3. Capitalism. In Caliban and the Witch Silvia Federici argues that capitalism developed in response to peasant revolts in medieval Europe to curtail the growing popularity of communalism. Federici writes: “capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle—possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide”.
As part of this process gender became a “specification of class relations”. That is to say class is stratified by various hierarchies and gender was animated by capitalist logic to divide labor and wealth within the working class itself. Or as Federici summarizes:
“The expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence, and the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans to the mines and plantations of the New World, were not the only means by which a world proletariat was formed and ‘accumulated.’ This process required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of witches. Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply the accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as “race” and age became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.”
Sexuality in light of this view and anti-capitalist critique can be seen as a further “specification of class relations”, one in which the reproductive capacity of those in relationship (and individually) are seen as paramount for the continued production of an exploited underclass. The capitalist logic here goes so far as to create laws regulating sexuality, from laws governing marriage to abortion to sex work and more.
4. White Supremacy. As we’ve seen from previous sections sexuality and sexual violence are animated in support of a system (or systems) of exploitation and oppression. When white supremacy and colonialism enters the conversation the violence of the system is compounded in soul crushing ways. Gender and sexuality are racialized and exist as much within the matrix of white supremacy as within patriarchy and capitalism.
With the advent of modern racism, race became enshrined as an essential characteristic and hierarchies of “humanness” thus justified the exploitation of racialized bodies, lands, and resources. The sexuality of people of color is often seen as inherently violent and/or uniquely promiscuous because of how race is produced in a modern context. Sexuality becomes a way to create and reinforce racial stratifications and hierarchies.
The sexuality of people of color is often reduced under a white gaze to one of hypersexualization or desexualition for white consumption. The jezebel stereotype for example relies on the idea that black women are inherently hypersexual and that Asian men are often seen as emasculated and unsexual. Or consider that Jewish women in the Shoah[iii] were forcibly sterilized and subjected to regular sexual violence. Sexuality for people of color is inherently racialized and through the logics of white supremacy considered inherently deviant and thus subject to surveillance and policing (whether through codified laws or through normative cultural values).
5. Animacy Hierarchies. In Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, author Mel Y. Chen offers a poignant discussion of the concept of animacy. In a nutshell, animacy is a concept from linguistics that describes how “sentient” or “alive” a noun is. This concept however can be broadened past the realm of linguistics to the ways in which a given body is “invested” with humanness or animateness. Cognitive linguist Mutsumi Yamamato describes animacy as:
“The concept of “animacy” can be regarded as some kind of assumed cognitive scale extending from human through animal to inanimate. In addition to the life concept itself, concepts related to the life concept—such as locomotion, sentiency, etc.—can also be incorporated into the cognitive domain of “animacy.” …A common reflection of “animacy” in a language is a distinction between animate and inanimate, and analogically between human and non-human in some measure. However, animacy is not simply a matter of the semantic feature [+-alive], and its linguistic manifestation is somewhat complicated. Our cognition of animacy and the extent to which we invest a certain body (or body of entities) with humanness or animateness influence various levels of human language a great deal.”
Sexuality (along with gender, race, ability, etc.) reveals underlying schema about what is considered more “alive” more “human” and the agency thus granted to varying body’s sexuality. Consider that plants, in being lower in animacy hierarchies compared to animals and humans, have their sexuality discussed in largely mechanical terms devoid of the passion, the animateness, that we might discuss the sexuality of other beings. Likewise, human sexuality outside of the normative follows much the same pattern, with intersections and social positioning interacting to affect the animacy of a given body’s sexuality.
In many of the examples discussing sexuality so far, we’ve seen a hiearchialization set up between “normative” sexuality and “deviant” sexuality albeit through differing but intertwined system logics. Sexuality of the deviant is more attuned to a state of being “animal” than human, more “dead” than “alive”, and through the essentializing of identity these logics combine to frame deviant sexuality as static, and justifies exploitation and oppression on those grounds. The process of queering, breaking down binary and normative structures, can be seen as a returning of animacy to the body and the phenomenon of sexuality that body is engaged in.
II. Re-imagining Sexuality
In the previous section I teased out various threads that weave together to underpin our understanding of sexuality, yet these threads aren’t truly separate from each other. They weave in and out diverging at points only to link up later. The importance of intersectional critique is its ability to disrupt “ontological priorities”. That is intersectionality allows us to examine the complicated weaving of oppression and systems without positing any as a “first cause”, instead choosing to see these strands as reflexively[iv] informing each other.
Unfortunately, I’ve given a lot of critique but not so much in the way of solutions and that will hold true for the rest of this article. Given the complexity of sexuality and its centrality to the human condition there aren’t “one size fits all” solutions. But I do have some suggestions for directions we might travel to heal this:
1. Self Examination. Sexuality isn’t static because we aren’t static. We are constantly changing and growing and our sexuality does the same. Unfortunately, we and our sexualities didn’t develop in a vacuum devoid of wider social power systems. By critically examining our sexuality and “preferences”, we can weed out the bits of the oppressor buried deep inside and allow ourselves to really bloom.
2. Revolution. All solutions run up against a limit: the system we live under can’t be merely reformed. You can’t take oppression out of an inherently exploitative system. The system *must* be destroyed and we must dream new ways of living into existence.
3. Relationship Anarchy. Its common for our relationships to mirror in microcosm the macrocosm of oppressive structures that permeate our lives. Anarchism at its core is a rejection of hierarchical power structures and this applies in our personal relationships as much as it does to wider society. While a full and detailed account of relationship anarchy is beyond the scope of this article I’d like to point readers to a series of excellent essays addressing this topic: Focus on Relationships, Time, Touch, and Talk, Using the 3-Ts, and The Big Picture.
4. Radical Self Love. We often internalize the hierarchies of desire and the structures animating them. Whether we are trans, non-binary, intersex, cis, people of color, disabled, neurodivergent, fat, or anything else, we are lovable. Our bodies do not have to meet arbitrary standards to be worthy. When we fight body terrorism we engage in radical self love and, at the threat of being cliché, love can change the world.
In the end our liberation occurs in the liminal places, at the edges of the “acceptable”, in the cracks of the “whole”. Let’s dream a new world into being.
[i] Normativity is the process by which society raises some phenomenon as the “default” and assigns it a privileged status of “good”. By virtue of this process it creates a counter of deviance from the normative, labeling it “bad”, and punishing deviation from the norm.
[ii] The “male gaze”, “heteronormative gaze”, and others are subsets of “gaze theory” and here articulated in conversation with ideas first developed by Michael Foucault. The “gaze” is a relationship into which someone enters that limits perception of a given topic or person and thus what knowledge can be formed. Gazes are created by systems of power and surveillance and can be likened to a set of glasses that block out certain perspectives.
[iii] While Jewish identity in relation to white supremacy is much more complicated in a modern context, Jewish people were unequivocally racialized during the Shoah as non-white.
[iv] Reflexivity is the idea that cause and effect share a circular type relationship, that there is no “first cause”. In the opening to part I of this essay I raised the nature vs nurture debate around sexuality. The answer is that these are reflexive and its that idea which underpins this entire essay and its analysis.
Shay Woodall is a Jewish Priestess and Pagan working to weave a queer and decolonized magic with radical politics. You can find her work here.