“Present fears are less than horrible imaginings” (Shakespeare, Macbeth)
To consider and be comfortable with authentic displays of variant genders and sexualities seems such a basic, healthy, productive, powerful, potentially opening and enlivening premise; yet, sometimes, when alternative sexual preferences, practices, or ways of being, switching for example, conflict, questioning, confusion, doubt, judgment, invisibility, and shame arise—this can happen within the personal life, such as in one’s desires, and/or in the external, outside community and society, such as when observing a person, or taking in culture/media/literature.
Why dwell or consider variancy is one question to ask, but much more empowering is to ask: why not?
Where do we, as keen thinkers, cultural makers, theorists, and sexual beings sit in our beliefs, fears, and discomfort with sex and gender norms and variances? This important question is often shied away from, yet acknowledging our points of views and moral judgments and/or biases, where and how they are formed, and what conversations and contexts they are really based on, is something we can choose to consider and be mindful of.
Let us then consider: where do we allow ourselves room to reconsider, rethink, and move beyond what we know to be “true”? These reflections are advantageous for us as evolving, open-minded people, especially students and educators who aim to further knowledge and understanding.
The Notion of “True” Identities
In his groundbreaking two-volume The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault asked readers to begin to look at their individual and societal beliefs and values and to be open and willing to reconsider their positions and points of view regarding sexuality. He encourages us to consider: “there are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is going to go on looking and reflecting at all.”
Might we take on Foucault’s invitation: give up what we perceive and think we know as the truth in regards to sexuality and gender? Give up knowing what we think we know and be willing to consider thinking and perceiving differently than we do? In the areas of sex and gender, which are two areas of our life and society that are heavily and emotionally laden with predetermined knowing, this is a fundamental step in opening up what is possible both for us as individuals and for the larger society.
A first step is to reflect on the conscious and unconscious moral rightness that is embedded and accepted in our culture vis à vis heteronormativity. Western society is infused with an ethics-constructed (made up) history of proper sexual and gender conduct. Sexual and gender conduct is regulated by ideologies that have found their way into our laws, administrative, governmental, legal, social and family codes, procedures, and foundations; and these avenues of socialization, religion, education, and institutions of mainstream ideology, expression, and thought are powerfully influential, heavily guarded, and maintained. Our society does not view the co-creating of authentic sexual and moral norms as valuable; rather, constructive criticism and creative contribution are often highly suspect and shunned.
It is thus exceedingly important that those of us committed to supporting freedom and equal rights for all, especially via full expressions of gender and sexuality, expose and pay attention to the false and constricting stereotypes that form and influence our gender and sexual expressions. Both intentionally and unintentionally, North American society, our smaller communities, and even our subcultures keep non-traditional and non-normative identities and desires (and arguably, desire in general) closeted. Controls around desire, sexuality, and identity are delivered both overtly and covertly.
A LIttle History on The Fragility of Society and Heteronormativity
The invention of sexual norms and conduct—and its wicked sister sexual perversion—was a gradual process that took form over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sexologist and psychiatrist Richard Von Krafft-Ebbing was an influential voice as 19th-century psychiatry accepted his theories, which still permeate modern thinking. He wrote, “every expression of [sexual instinct] that does not correspond with the purpose of nature—i.e.: propagation—must be regarded as perverse” (Psychopathia Sexualis, with Especial Reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct, 52-53, as cited in Sexuality, Ed Robert A. Nye, 149). For some, this may seem a comical view of sexual pleasure or instinct. However, consider how propagation/reproduction still informs the notion of sexual instinct; consider the mainstream, heteronormative current that runs underneath most cultures and religions: a woman is made for a man, our language-based culture defines a woman’s vagina as a sheath for a sword (Oxford Dictionary), and most organized religions of the world advocate the doctrine that sex ought to be propagation/ reproductively based.
The term perverse is currently defined as “showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable, often in spite of the consequences; contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice” (Oxford English Dictionary). The first part of this definition certainly may be seen to apply to non-consensual, heinous acts, such as rape or molestation. However, as many pro-sex advocates have asserted and relentlessly sought to explain the context of consent and pleasure is most often absent when the word pervert, or perverted is used in the mainstream; this absence has a profound effect on how we view sexual activities and proclivities. If we hold the belief that only we as individuals have the power to name whether if the actions we consent to are empowering or not, how can any sexual act we choose be perverted, “unreasonable, or unacceptable”? To pervert is to “alter (something) from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended” or to lead (someone) “away from what is considered right, natural, or acceptable.” A “pervert,” even if one considers themselves at the source of choosing what is acceptable and consensual, thus becomes someone “whose sexual behavior is regarded as abnormal and unacceptable.”
The majority of Krafft-Ebbing’s reproductive, propagation, heterosexually based perspectives and judgments continue to form our sexual belief and practice systems. They can be seen in our language use and word meanings. For example, adjectives of the word perverted as found in The Oxford English Dictionary support the negative, unhealthy inference and run along the lines of “unnatural, deviant, warped, corrupt, twisted, abnormal, unhealthy, depraved, perverse, aberrant, immoral, debauched, debased, degenerate, evil, wicked, vile, amoral, wrong, bad; informal sick, sicko, kinky, and pervy.” What is pertinent here is the base assumption and foundation of the unacceptability of difference or different from that which is normal and/or standard; different becomes and is seen as a negative—often to be avoided and/or thwarted. Charting this point of view on sex and sexuality, which has an implicit moral judgment within it, allows for us to create and make visible another point of view: we can distinguish that something new is possible. The awareness of how the word pervert or perverted came about allows us some space to reconsider different points of view concerning what is normal, reasonable, and acceptable.
Havelock Ellis was one of the most influential, forward thinking sexologists of the 20th-century. Unlike many sexologists and psychologists who offered a plethora of interpretation, Ellis, with research based, methodological consistency, detailed hundreds of cases without coming from a reproductively based point of view or perspective to distort them. His two volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex is still indispensable as a resource for case studies of sexual study and variancy. In his preface to Volume I, Ellis writes, “in this particular field [of sexology] the evil of ignorance is magnified by our efforts to suppress that which never can be suppressed, though in the effort of suppression it may become perverted” (SPS, Vol. I: The Evolution of Modesty: The Phenomena of Sexual Periodicity, Auto-Eroticism, 1919, iii-v). First published in Sexual Inversion, 1897). It was Ellis who brazenly led the way for future sexologists and philosophers, like Kinsey and Foucault, to examine sexuality and perversion without interpretation and without the moral judgment or belief system of “wrong.” Ellis wisely asserted that “when the rigid secrecy is once swept away a sane and natural reticence becomes for the first time possible” (SPS, Vol. I: The Evolution of Modesty: The Phenomena of Sexual Periodicity, Auto-Eroticism, 1919, iii-v.).
Bringing further awareness to the construction of sexuality, this time from a woman’s perspective, Margaret Sanger advocated for birth control and thus the visibility of women’s sexual emancipation. Theodor van de Velde and Marie Stopes asserted that oral pleasure was important, and Alfred Kinsey extensively studied varying sexual practices over a forty-year career. Kinsey’s commitment to honoring sexualities which had been previously deemed “unnatural” had him document 20,000 interviews; in an effort to position what was perceived as “abnormal” Kinsey’s research demonstrated that “abnormal” sexualities were, really, quite normal. In 1948 he would assert that the “heterosexuality or homosexuality of many individuals is not an all-or-none proposition …it is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tried to force facts into separated pigeon-holes” (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 638-39).
One can scarcely fathom that this 1948 concept has not taken to shape our society’s proclivity to put ourselves and others in simply constructed and easily identifiable familiar boxes. Kinsey worked tirelessly in his effort to expand gender and sexual norms and paved the way, much as Ellis did, for all those that would take on the study of sex and sexuality. Consider that Judith Butler’s entire oeuvre could be seen to be based on a few lines of Kinsey: “the living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex” (Kinsey 63). Certainly, we could take out the words “sexual behavior” and “sex” and put in any descriptor that equates to full self-expression and living a life of aliveness: the sooner we move the theory that the living world and human beings are a multi-dimensional continuum, ever changing and fluid, the sooner we reach a radically accepting reality of being diverse humans.
For the most part, heteronormativity, bourgeois hegemony, sex role stereotypes, and a culture of surveillance continue to govern and dictate the display of North American gender and sexual identities. Asking oneself “where is heterosexuality not privileged” allows one a little clarity in seeing how heteronormativity governs our world. Without even really choosing for ourselves, we hold fast to a center of societal values, which are constructed as “normal.” These values are primarily based on reproduction and are seen as consistent, unquestioning truths to be lived and carried out without deviation. These values influence how we are raised and child-rear, how we are educated and educate, how we read and write, how we consider Literature and Theory, how we vote, how we consider ourselves, our communities, and our world. And it is these values and social contexts and sexual socialization that provide us with “the institutional and cultural arena in which we create our sexualities” (Kimmel & Plante, 73).
Transgressive Shifts and Building Bridges
While the larger society often seems overly committed to upholding these sorts of moral policing and enlists shame, embarrassment, and the fear of being “abnormal” when one operates outside of these “normal” values, queer (sub)cultures—academic and non-academic—are not immune to this policing; in fact, subcultures have become very good at it. Sexual and gender deviance, most especially, are often met with discomfort, confusion, confrontation, antagonism, and/or disbelief: “deviance” is thus kept on the margins and fringes of our treasured communities, society, and academic discourse.
In the still profound manifesto “Thinking Sex” Rubin discusses the history and concepts surrounding the visibility and inclusion of transgressive sexual and identity practices. She challenges sexual essentialism and hierarchies and introduces a very useful tool: “the wheel of sex hierarchy” to begin to question where we stand in accepting or damning gender and sex practices and preferences. This wheel juxtaposes “the charmed circle” of “good, normal, natural, blessed sexuality” with “the outer limits” of bad, abnormal, unnatural, damned sexuality” (13). The wheel illustrates ideological beliefs and values as relational (consciously or not) and operative when thinking, reading, and theorizing about basic sexuality, gender, identity, and transgressive practices. The charmed inner circle comprises of heterosexual, married, monogamous, procreative, non-commercial/free, coupled, in relationship, same generation, private/at home, bodies only, and vanilla sex practices and preferences. The damned outer circle comprises homosexuality, unmarried/in sin, promiscuous, non-procreative, commercial/for money, alone or in groups, casual, cross-generational, public/outside the home, pornography, manufactured objects, and sadomasochistic sex practices and preferences. As with any binary there exist gradations between what is considered normal and unnatural, dangerous and safe, good and bad.
Bridging sex panic and negativity with pro-sex arguments is useful when beginning or dwelling in a conversation on gender and sexual variancy. The sex panic of the 1970s followed from the anti-abuse and anti-porn crusades of the 1960s. The religious right and the second wave feminism of antiviolence and rape crisis activists, most notably voiced in the work of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon became strange bedfellows. Sex was wrong and a defamation of character and personhood. For the prudent feminists, sex was positioned as abuse, with women either in the position of victims, with such phrases as “vaginal sex/thrusting is persistent invasion” (Intercourse 122); while for the religious right, sex was still equated to love within the marriage system.
We have witnessed the notion, belief, and construction of “bad sexual citizens” move through the state-sanctioned harassment and persecution of the 1950s, through the liberationism of the 1970s and into the assimilations of the current decade. Decades of waves of legal reform and activism that have balanced tolerance versus equality still have us existing in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” society where we exchange marriage vows and desires in closets free from public scrutiny, policing, and acceptance. The “national ideal of the heterosexual citizen” is still challenged enough to be unable to witness and honor same-sex marriage vows, the vows and legalities of a marriage commitment defended as reserved for those that are citizen enough. It could easily be argued that liberationism lives “primarily as a cultural sensibility” (Seidman 227).
What require transparency are the dichotomous norms of gender, sexuality and difference: these dichotomies lie behind state controls, repression, policing, and fear of the “other” or different. We want to continue to engage in some probing questions: where do we witness inequalities between “normal” and “abnormal” sexualities and sex practices? Where do we witness inequalities between “normal” and “abnormal” genders and gender identities? If we as a society seek to value celebrating our differences, might social controls and policing of sexual choices that support the dichotomies of “good” or “bad” citizenry need to cease at all levels?
Assimilationist organizations, like The Gay Activist Alliance, have demonstrated a mainstreaming of our differences and alternative lifestyle choices to move us from the margins as outsiders to the center as acceptable citizens. Whereas it used to be that “the fight for gender justice was viewed as inseparable from struggles to transform gender roles, the institution of marriage and family, and the political economy of capitalism and imperialism” Seidman and others assert that assimilatory politics and practice do not challenge “the broader spectrum of sexual-intimate norms that govern behavior, such as the norm of marriage, monogamy, or gender norms of sexuality” (226-27). The question of marginal or central lives and acceptance raises the question: can one absorb, resemble, and integrate without losing that which makes one different?
While some may not want to be different, others seek to celebrate difference and want the freedom to live those distinctions fearlessly. Conversely, might the radical notion that sex differences and queer desires are not personal, not to be owned, claimed, or worn as badges serve one not only individually but also as a society? Would a depth and resonance of acceptance and authenticity that has never been known be possible? Might this freedom be worth considering accepting that people simple are, and thus double as a way to resist all strategic essentialism?
Building bridges among movements of equality, engaging in either coalitional or social justice work as it is sometimes called, is something many of us have done for decades. In the informative book Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics, Dagmar Herzog supports a key aspect to my work: that inclusivity is paramount in our movements that advocate for a world where sexual and gender equality exist. She writes that what remains missing is:
A defense of sexual rights that does not privilege those who match the norm over those who do not, that does not lie about the complexities of human desire, that does not need to pretend that sex is perfect every time (if only you follow the rules and/or buy this product), and that does not root sexual rights only in the negative imperative to reject sexual victimization but also affirms humans’ rights to sexual expression, sexual pleasure, and the freely chosen formation of intimate relationships. What’s missing is the basic idea that sexual rights are human rights — for adolescents, sexual minorities, and for individuals both within and outside the institution of marriage (182).
Many decades of confusion and fear-based reactivity around sexuality, especially women’s and LGBTQ sexuality, have served to produce a two-fold effect: the first is to elicit a political and social agenda that is remarkably anti-sex and restrictive of personal choice, freedom, and action. The fact that gay men cannot donate sperm or blood in Canada and that same-sex marriage and adoption is still illegal in many countries of Europe speaks volumes on how we view sexual difference. Same-sex sexual activity is still illegal and punishable by way of prison terms in countries ranging from Western Africa and Western Asia to the Caribbean and Central America.
The age of consent laws are increasing, rather than decreasing, in both Canada and the US despite the fact that teens are having sex at similar ages and rates as before. Sexism, paranoia, fear of the unknown are subtle when countries like Canada, England, and the United States support anti-erotica, pornography, and BDSM censorship legislation and laws that, effectively, make adult consensual acts and choices illegal; consent has become “immaterial” and pro-sex arguments are “degrading and dehumanizing.” Consent laws in many US states, Kansas and Georgia for example, punish young people for consensual homosexual acts with far greater penalties than for heterosexual consensual acts.
Concurrently, fourteen US states are taking a stand for a responsible safe sex education program, refusing federal funding for sex education owing to the federal requirement that schools only teach abstinence. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” and “just say no” policies and laws stifle sexual and gender identity and expression as our North American legal and legislative system punishes mothers and women especially, but also fathers and gay men, who are LGBTQ and deemed deviant. Countless political scandals and dismissals, military discharges, corporate and educational firings, school ground beatings and murders, and a long historical, medical, political, legal, and cultural record of the suppression of sexual and gender “deviancy” and “perversion” have produced a pervasive culture of fear and cover-up, closeting and secrecy.
The second effect, of course, is that consensual communities and activities are pushed underground. Isolation, repression, silence, and a loss of visibility and community are the results. All one has to do is peruse the “casual encounter” advertisements of any city’s Craigslist site to find a plethora of perverse, subversive desires seeking manifestation. Further, the free, culture newspaper of any big city, such as The Village Voice in New York, offers similar advertisements and searches: many either originating from and/or geared to relatively conventional, middle and upper class men. One could also visit a bathhouse or rest stop to find heterosexual, married men seeking out same sex, casual encounters (while insisting they are straight), walk past a street corner where sex workers stand waiting for their next customer, or curiously ask those who are willing to be honest about their desires and preferences a few questions. The casual encounters ads and the street corners specifically cater to the plethora of mostly married, “straight,” and otherwise conventional men looking for something very much outside of their “normative” lives. These ads, seeking out, and experiences are not rare or even uncommon: they are regular/normal occurrences in a culture of reproductive, heterosexual, monogamous sex even as the culture deems them deviant and suppresses the discomfort underground.
Policing, enforcing and living from the stereotypes and norms of what a woman or man should look like, how they ought to present themselves, dress, appear, and/or be, limit the world for everyone. Ought the same not apply to our sexual choices?
There exists North American and European access to pride days, LGBTQ centers and organizations, human rights legislation, same sex marriages in some states, provinces, and countries, a visibility and acceptance that no other decade has witnessed. Further, legislative and social reforms are continually being sought. For example, in September of 2011, the addition of an “X” category of gender/sex (the terms are used indiscriminately) to identify intersexed and transsexual people (to which a person must have Doctor’s note and/or be undergoing “clinical study”) on passports from Australia was approved. Yet, a network of large-scale walk-in closets and silences abounds as North American undercurrents of anxiety and fear surround “deviant” LGBTQ sex and proclivities.
Those who occupy variant or non-normative combinations of the above, even within our don’t-box-me-in LGBTQ subcultures, do not always experience positive press or visibility. Sometimes non-normative folks are categorized as confused, wrong, weird, abnormal, and the like. Understandings of normal and abnormal genders and sexualities can be deeply internalized: one is either male or female, butch or femme, boy/i or girl, feminine, masculine or androgynous, man or woman, top or bottom, sadist or masochist. As much research has shown, individuals who challenge societal norms of binary conceptualizations of sex and gender, who may live androgynously between genders or be fluid in their gender expressions, are likely to be ridiculed and stigmatized. Living a life on guard takes a serious toll on one’s internal self-acceptance, integrity, and place in society as many personal narratives have recounted:
I don’t live without gender. Every day I’m forced to make a conscious choice about what part of myself to reveal on that specific day. How vulnerable am I willing to be? How strong do I feel? Somedays its great fun and sometimes it’s a real drag. It’s never not an issue, but it makes me who I am. (Justin Bond in Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook, 283)
Issues of safety for genderqueer people are often a daily occurrence. Experiencing the fear, anger, disbelief, and questioning when we leave the house and use public transit or a public restroom—and the discomfort that some folks experience and have when sharing space with us—can serve to constrict authentic displays of gender and sexual variancy as well as authentic displays of our common, heart-centered humanness. Individuals and allies, who make up LGBTQ and humanitarian focused communities, are called upon to double our efforts in being alert to how we, individually, constrict our own gender and sexual displays as well as those of others. Looking at how one feels and thinks when experiencing a challenge to the binary systems that are held as beliefs is critical.
Gagne, Tenksbury, and McGangley’s research corroborates the reality that “gender is not a natural and inevitable outgrowth of sex.” They conclude, “those who are not comfortable expressing gender that is congruent with genital configuration experience an overwhelming urge to experience gender in alternative ways. Nonetheless, the vast majority stay within the gender binary as masculine men and feminine women” (247). The tendency to “stay within the binary gender system is so strong” that researchers have asserted that “gender determines sex, rather than the reverse. Given the limited range of identities available to them it is interesting, but not surprising, that the overwhelming majority of transgendered individuals adhere to traditional conceptualizations of sex and gender” (247).
De-policing The Lie of Sexual Norms and Practices to Allow for Freedom
So while many feminists, progressives, LGBTQ folks, academics, professionals, and our theories have to varying degrees sought to disrupt gender binary systems, conservative sexual judgments, and the fear of appearing or being deviant, or worse perverts, these “normalcies” continue to be ingrained in all aspects of North American society and academia. The fear and paranoia that guide such policing, while sometimes based on a past traumatic or isolated experience, are most often based on unfamiliarity. One might argue that having to defend sexual pleasures and choices is only as unreasonable as attacking and problematizing consensual sexual pleasure choices.
When the historicity is distinguished, most North Americans would assert, at a base level, that each of us has the moral and constitutional right to choose and name what brings us—as individuals–pleasure and happiness. If we take it that, in actual fact, there never has been nor could there ever be, any real, upheld basis for consensual “conventional” sexual norms, despite the fact that many folks attempt to have it otherwise, the notion of perversion becomes quite problematic. For, truly, sexuality and desire are so individualistic and impermanent that no consensus on what is “normative” or conventional can ever—truthfully and authentically—be reached.
The freedom that comes when one chooses to be open and honest about one’s sexual lives and preferences are truly remarkable. Why else would pride parades be such jovial, celebratory events? Accordingly, some pro-sex variants reclaim and find empowerment in words like pervert or perverted in suiting the need to name, identify, and sex up variant, consensual, playful practices outside of mainstream culture. Thus, while it’s not for everyone, the definition of pervert and perverted can be used in a positive, playful, pro-sex context: a pervert moves from being a degenerate to someone committed to “allowing imagination, intelligence, and choice to create sex for pleasure, as opposed to restricting ourselves to instinct, hormones, and religion, and limiting sex for procreation” (Califia 178).
See Pat Califia, Gayle Rubin, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Jeffery Weeks, Annie Sprinkle, and Dan Savage to name a few. Surprisingly, a quick Google search of “sex positive feminism” brings up a surprisingly excellent Wikipedia entry that includes well-researched paragraphs on gender, sexual identity, and BDSM.
For example: when someone publicly shares that they are a male or a female person not ostracizing the person any more than they already are would be a progressive action; considering the barriers that each person may experience at every level of society; being willing to (re)consider the gender presentations that we are use to and/or comfortable with in order to provide a safe space for transgressive individuals to express themselves; constructing our response outside of the emotional and physical abuse that those who are publicly perceived as “not woman” or “not man” experience; engaging in a more inclusive awareness and mindfulness as people in our life cross over into gender and sexual choices that are “other.”
The term vanilla is most often used by BDSM practitioners and allies to describe “normal,” conventional sex and sexual proclivities. Gender is irrelevant to the term’s implications, although, to many, normal sex is still regarded as only occurring between a male born man and a female born woman. “Vanilla” could also be described as sex without much variancy. Culturally, “regular/normal” sex involves a set standard of predetermined and assumed basic practices, positions, and preferences. Vanilla sex implies a certain sense of “purity”: the purist form of vanilla sex would be sex for reproductive purposes only, not for pleasure. “Kinky” is often a word used to refer to non-vanilla sex.