Gender and Sexual Fluidity in 20th Century Women Writers: Switching Desire and Identity
“This is a provocative and innovative intervention in gender and sexuality in modern literature and gives us a new vocabulary and conversation by which to expand Gender Studies, LGBTQ and Sexuality Studies, Identity Studies, Literature, Feminist Theory, and Queer Theory.”
My academic book, Gender and Sexual Fluidity in 20th Century Women Writers: Switching Desire and Identity, analyses and deconstructs 20th Century writers who traffic in queer, non-normative, and/or fluid gender and sexual identities and subversive practices, revealing how gender and sexually variant women create, revise, redefine, and play with language, desires, roles, the body, and identity.
Through the model of the “switch” — someone who shifts between roles, desires, or ways of being in the realms of gender or sexual identity — Gender and Sexual Fluidity in 20th Century Women Writers: Switching Desire and Identity examines the intersecting locations of gender and sexual identity switching that six prolific, experimental authors and their narratives play with: Gertrude Stein, Jeanette Winterson, Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, Anne Carson, and Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho. I show how each author actively employs switching gendered bodies, gendered identities and/or sexual identities and sexual roles to such an elevated degree that stable notions of the above are continually, and very wonderfully, destabilized.The identities deconstructed and revealed create and give space to, by their playful, exploratory, and destabilizing nature, diverse openings and possibilities for a great expansion and freedom in gender, sexuality, desires, roles, practices and identity.
I am primarily concerned with switching that occurs at the level of language and practice. However, the experiential is also deconstructed. I also examine crossovers of the personal and memoir with the performativity of the authorial voice and illustrate how occupying a gendered body, versus not occupying a gendered body, complicates notions of gender and identity. Through this active phenomenology, I deconstruct and connect a wide range of gender and sexually variant switches and switch moments so that the much needed continuums of identity, play, and practice can enter and galvanize the study and reading of Literature and literary theory.
My subsequent book discussing my theory is titled The Freedom to Switch: Switching Desires, Roles, Gender, and Identity (forthcoming 2020) looks at switching practices as they occur in people’s lives, subcultures and pop culture. In addition to an accessible discussion on switching, this book also contains insightful interviews as well as exercises and questions to facilitate the reader’s own discovery. This book addresses how we can, as intelligent, complex human beings, come to a progressive understanding and acceptance that gender, sex, sexuality, identity, desires, and roles can be constructs to be played with, (re)invented, chosen, and/or celebrated.
This book aims to immediately impact and powerfully validate people’s lives and experiences; by extension, the possibility for all people to live with greater freedom, self-expression, and authenticity through exploring different desires, roles, and practices is established. No matter where or how one chooses to locate oneself or what one’s experience is, my book invites the reader to move from fear into acceptance and to be open and curious with ourselves and others. My work opens up a space of inquiry and discovery: curiosity about constructions of the self and our identities, roles, and desires. This book brings a new acceptance, celebration, freedom, and possibility to all realms of fluidity and switching.
EXCERPT from Chapter 1
What is Switching…
To switch, and the process of engaging in the action of switching, can most broadly be described as dwelling in, and having the intention of, honouring, exploring, and sharing different, switchable aspects of a person: multiple or varied states of being, ideas or concepts, desires, roles, wants etc.. These different aspects could, and very often are, seen or constructed as opposites or incongruous, so by its very nature, the switch is riddled with complexities and uncertainties that can be very individualistic and hence not easily classifiable or conducive to generalization. Experiencing and witnessing each of the different aspects and ways of being as equally authentic and valuable is, at heart, one of the most necessary outcomes of my book and work.
More specifically, a switch is someone who shifts between roles, desires, identities or ways of being in the realms of gender and/or sexuality. Switching has almost exclusively been referred to in a BDSM context (bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism): within the loci of sexual roles and play. My theory proposes a new definition wherein switching reaches well beyond BDSM and the sexual: it is an identity, which may or may not be a pleasure-centered action that moves into the broadness of a destabilized identity. A switch incorporates and moves between gender and sexual identities; I assert that switching gendered bodies and sexual identities and roles is a profound route by which to re-examine the notion of stable and/or destabilized identities.
In the area of gender, switching can be located in shifts of experimenting and playing with gender preference and identity, feminine and masculine clothing, appearance, presentation, naming and/or playing with the performative aspects of expected versus unexpected gender expression(s). Physical features, such as switching between masculine, feminine, and/or androgynous, non-binary features, traits, and/or body parts, and gender-bending to and from differing, queered gender locations are all gender-switching moments. Any gender along the vast continuum of male to female, including genderqueer, two-spirited, non-binary, or trans can switch and move betwixt and between the varied ranges of chosen gendered facets, roles, and/or identities.
In the area of sexuality, switch moments are marked by shifts in the language of sex and orgasm—profanity and language occurring as a key turn to switch—in moving between gentle or loving sex and rough sex, when moving between vulnerability and strength, when adhering to acceptable social conventions versus overturning them, in the locations of sexual taboos, sexual games, pleasure making and giving, pleasing and being pleased, and, of course, in switching between roles: between top and bottom, receiver and giver, dominant and submissive, within an erotic context or in BDSM play. As with gender switching, there are no constraints to sexual switching: one’s sexual preference is irrelevant.
For a short excerpt from My Introduction, on understanding and defining gender and sexual variancy, please go here.
For an excerpt from Chapter 1, on the hidden spaces of BDSM in Gertrude Stein’s erotic writing, please go here.
For an excerpt from Chapter 2, on Jeanette Winterson’s trafficking and switching in the language of love and non-normative identities and desires, please go here.