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Yes, Your Sex can be Radical

Yes, Your Sex can be Radical: © Micha Klootwijk / Alamy

© Micha Klootwijk / Alamy

America is a land of uptight Puritan scolds policing every bit that peeks out of where it shouldn’t. We’re beleaguered and brutally buggered by callow conformity and righteous repressive paternal diktats. And what happens to all that stopped-up, plugged-up erotic jouissance? Inevitably, phallic missiles spring up to replace all the other phallic fun we’re missing. In short, make love not war, dude. Fuck purity. Fuck patriarchy. Fuck…for peace!

Or maybe that’s all just a load of hooey? So suggests Yasmin Nair, and she makes a good case in her recent article, “Your Sex Is Not Radical.” The left loves to think that S&M and polyamory and copulation in the streets will (metaphorically) violate conservative orthodoxy and bring patriarchal gasbags to their unerotic knees. “But,” Nair argues, “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.”

BDSM communities can be sexist and racist, she points out. Conservative Republicans (like, say, Jack Ryan) can be involved in kinky sex scandals. (“Being into public sex didn’t make Ryan any less of a capitalist,” Nair says.) There’s nothing in itself anti-patriarchal about having multiple sexual partners or different marriage structures, as the multiple wives of many a Hebrew patriarch could inform you.

Sex is sex; politics is politics. “The revolution,” Nair insists, “will not come on the tidal wave of your next multiple orgasm had with your seven partners on the floor of your communal living space. It will only happen if you have an actual plan for destroying systems of oppression and exploitation.”

Again, there’s a lot of truth there. But at the same time—aren’t there cases in which one’s sexual habits require, or inspire, or at least point to some plans for destroying, or at least try to change systems of oppression and exploitation?

Stoya, an adult film performer, has talked eloquently about how her work in the adult industry has informed and shaped her ideas about sexual ethics and consent. And, of course, the gay rights movement has been one of the most important civil rights efforts of the last several decades, culminating (though not concluding) with the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality last week.

Nair is a marriage equality skeptic; she thinks that marriage itself is oppressive. Radicals, she says, shouldn’t look to expand marriage but should instead “demand that the state not determine whether we live or die based on what kinds of families or kinship groups we inhabit.”

But that seems to ignore the way in which marriage equality does in fact change the nature of marriage. Families and kinship groups that were excluded from state protection are now included. That seems like a step towards the world Nair would like to see.

Marriage equality doesn’t solve all of societies problems — and yes, I’d like to see universal healthcare and a robust safety net and a country that didn’t hate poor people. But gay and lesbian and bisexual people have long been among the most despised and marginalized groups in our society.

The Supreme Court took a big step towards acknowledging their humanity and equality. Our culture used to say that only heterosexual people were human. Now — provisionally, haltingly, but still — our culture has changed its mind about that. Altering the understanding of who is granted humanity and dignity seems like a pretty big deal. And that advance was obtained, in no small part, by organizing around whom you want to have sex with. Isn’t that an example of sex affecting politics?

Nair tried to address this by creating a distinction between having sex and thinking about sex. Having sex isn’t political, she says; thinking about sex is and should be. We should think about the moral implications of prison rape, for example, and about the ethics of criminalizing sex work, which puts people who do those jobs at risk of coercion and violence.

“By all means, please, let’s not stop having sex, which can be riotous fun, and let’s not stop thinking about sex in all its multiple forms. But stop pretending that sex is anything more than sex.”

But of course sex is more than sex and always has been. Sex workers who have sex with clients face a plethora of state and cultural sanctions; they are, literally, defying the law. Similarly, men who have sex with men, or women who have sex with women, have long been subject to violence, imprisonment, censure, blackmail, abuse and hatred. Or, as another example, Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will, talks at painful length about how rape in wartime is used as a weapon of terror and genocide.

Humans are meaning-making creatures. Everything we do is imbued with an excess of meaning, and that certainly goes quintuple for anything having to do with that complicated, fetishized, mystified, politicized, terrifying, ludicrous and beautiful thing that is sex.

You can say sex is nothing more than sex, but some sex acts are illegal, and some sex acts are considered abnormal, and some sex acts are coercive and violent. Those are all political and social facts. Even if you close your eyes, they’re still going to be there in the bedroom with you.

Nair’s “sex is just sex” is, in its way, as much a product of liberal utopianism as the sex-as-politics which she decries. Lefty thinkers from Andrea Dworkin to Foucault have dreamed of a world of purified sex, where sex occurs outside power and/or outside policing — where bodies and pleasures are just pleasures and bodies, untouched by The Man and his agenda. It’s a tempting and inspiring vision but not one that we’re likely to see realized in the near future.

In the meantime, people of all sorts will have sex, one way or the other. And like most every human activity, that sex will have both personal and political meanings. Some will be radical, maybe, occasionally, for some people in some situations. Most won’t, because effective radical political action is difficult and conflicted under any circumstances. And Nair’s right to point out that sex isn’t political organizing. But she’s too optimistic, or too pessimistic, or both, when she suggests that you can take the politics out of sex.

Politics has long been used to control sex, and sex has, in one way or another, long been a response to, and a call to, politics. For better or worse, politics and sex fuck each other up.


Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.


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