Tomorrow morning – like in six hours (better get to bed…) – I’m giving a talk in a class at U of T called Feminist Studies in Sexuality. (I’m also teaching about bisexuality at Good For Her tomorrow night, i.e. Wednesday, June 4. Details about that are posted at the end.)
The basic premise of the U of T talk is that I’m going to give a bit of a theoretical framework based on the readings the students have been doing, followed by a sort of personal testimony, followed by a fairly hefty question period. The instructor gave me a lot of leeway in my approach to the talk; really, I could pretty much talk about whatever I felt like, but since the class is about feminism and sexuality, I felt like it made a lot of sense to give that shape to things. It felt like to speak just about non-monogamy, or just about kink, for example, would be to give an incomplete picture of the way feminism and sexuality are related for me both personally and theoretically, so why not just toss it all into the mix together and see what comes out?
Like any good speaker, I wrote up some notes, which quickly turned into a sort-of paper, and then it occurred to me that it might translate reasonably well into a blog post. So here it is. It’s not heavily worked, but it holds together all right. Nothing much that should be surprising to your average sex-positive kinky queer non-monogamous trans-friendly and/or ally who’s a reader here, but what the hell. Enjoy!
Taking It All the Way: The Evolution of a Sex-Positive Feminist
Talk for “Feminist Studies in Sexuality” class
University of Toronto – Pat Durish
Andrea Zanin, June 4, 2008
Janet E. Gwilliam, in her article “Censorship, Sexuality and the Possibilities of Legal Reform, Or, Can We Queer the Canadian Charter?” (1), writes, “I argue that the deployment of the category ‘sexual orientation’ is problematic within a juridico-discursive context as it necessitates the construction of the equation of sexuality with homosexuality, and leaves unchallenged and unproblematized heterosexuality as the hegemonic expression of sexuality.”
Jane Rule, in her testimony in the Little Sisters’ trial (2), said, “The assumption that there must be something pornographic (in my writing) because of my sexual orientation is a shocking way to deal with my community. Of course we have writers who are writing erotica and so we should. I celebrate that. We are not a community churning out sex tracts. We are a community speaking with our passion and our humanity in a world that is so homophobic that it sees us as nothing but sexual creatures instead of good Canadian citizens, fine artists, and brave people trying to make Canada a better place for everybody to speak freely and honestly about who they are.”
The idea that sexualizing GLBT people, defining us by our sexuality alone, makes us one-dimensional in the eyes of the law—true. That it obliterates the reality of heterosexual sexuality, makes it normal and therefore undeserving of critique or analysis—also true. That these things have repercussions on the treatment of sexual minorities under the law in this country—certainly true, even if we are closing certain gaps these days.
However, it is also problematic for me to read the implicit sex-negativity that’s present to varying degrees in both Gwilliam’s analysis and Rule’s testimony. The strategy that is too often used to combat this uni-dimensional sexualization is to disavow that sexuality entirely, or as close to entirely as we can, and that I believe is a mistake. We are sexual beings. It’s okay. It’s a beautiful, positive, good thing to be sexual.
It’s good to feel things about sex. While it’s not necessarily the sole truth or essence of our selves, it connects us with a deep piece of who we are. Sexuality may not be the soul, but it is certainly a powerful vector for connection with the soul. It’s a site for profound self-knowledge, and healing, and growth. To ignore it represses the soul.
It’s good to analyze sex, to question what it means to be sexual in this world, in this location, in this era, in this body and gender, with this desire – whatever those things may be for you. This process politicizes sex, makes connections between that intimate self-knowledge and the way we relate to others, to the members of other groups and categories. It makes us consider why we place ourselves in the categories we choose or that are chosen for us, why we stay in them, why we break free of them, and what it means that tons of people out there don’t question those categories. Sexuality is not the mind, but it certainly presents an array of highly relevant and productive questions for the mind to entertain.
And then, it’s good to actually have sex. To put that deep knowledge of self and that open-eyed, lucid questioning of the world into concrete physical practice – to explore through the body. It’s a sort of learning and joy that you can only get to physically; thinking and reading only gets you so far. You can study dance all you want, but until you try to move your body to music, you’ll never truly understand. Balance in all things.
So there it is. I think that sex is good, or at least has enormous, rich, unparalleled potential to be good. It’s entirely possible to use sex – like knives, or fire, or any other powerful tool or force – for terrible ends. But its potential is also to be productive, not only, and not even primarily, repressive or oppressive.
With that in mind, I can’t support a political strategy that pushes sex away, that minimizes its importance, that dismisses it or tells me it’s shameful and ugly. It would be like telling pieces of my soul, and my mind, and my body, that they can’t exist because they’re not convenient or pretty enough. (You can see how this ties into feminism.)
I think that those of us who are members of sexual minorities are well placed to say to the world, yes, we are sexual. And guess what? So are you. And if we make you uncomfortable because of that sexuality, it’s because we deviate from the statistical sexual norm, and that makes the norm itself something that can be called into question – which means it’s questioning your adherence to that norm. Right where it counts, in that place of intense intimate, political and social power, we stare it in the face, and say “hello, here is the presence of possibility.” And boy, is that ever threatening. I want to keep that threat in my hand, not water it down to make things easier for the masses. It’s a positive and productive threat, a threat to reductive thinking, a threat to blind adherence to the norm, a threat that comes with a promise: the promise of boundless potential.
This political stance of course ties into my own history. The personal is, after all, political. So here is my story.
As a child, I can recall three things that resonated very strongly inside of me: a strong sense of justice, enormous creativity, and a precocious sexual desire.
One of the first things I understood about my sexual desire—at age two or younger—was that it was highly attracted to power dynamics, to intense physical sensation, and to the creative exploration of sexual possibility. Of course, I wasn’t able to put that into practice to any great degree with other people until I was much older, but my identity and practice today as a kinkster—a BDSM practitioner—reflects that very early knowledge.
It didn’t take long for me to become a feminist. That innate sense of justice translated into a passion for social justice well before the double digits, based very keenly in my own sense of getting the short end of the stick because I was female and young—therefore not to be taken seriously. I didn’t discover the language for that frequent experience of impotent rage until I was a teenager, but it was there from early on.
I also realized very early that I was bisexual. The term I prefer now is “queer.” It wasn’t so much a sense of thinking I was straight and having a moment of realization that I was attracted to women; rather, it was an ever-present possibility of attraction without much regard for a person’s physical gender, and a gradual process of realizing that not everyone around me felt the same way. That process came accompanied with the realization that it was considered unacceptable to feel sexual towards other female people, and that the only acceptable piece for me to express was my heterosexual attraction—though only within some fairly rigid parameters. I didn’t want to be penalized, so I went with it, even though I didn’t really get what the problem was.
Feminism, for me, brought these things together. It gave me language to talk about justice; it showed me that others were talking about the body in positive ways. This included the acceptance of gender traits outside a patriarchally dictated idea of masculine and feminine, of bodies (fat, dis/abled, of colour, of age) outside a patriarchally dictated box, of desires (same-sex) outside the heterosexual imperative, and of bodily functions (menstruation, female ejaculation) outside the sanitized construction of femininity and the female body. Feminism gave me language to see sexuality as empowering, as a place where women were entitled to experience desire and pleasure, rather than existing as a receptacle for men. And it gave me language to talk about power relations, about consent and justice and entitlement and boundaries, about the meaning of “no” and the power of “yes.”
One concept that feminism introduced to me was the idea of marriage and enforced monogamy (rather than consciously and carefully chosen monogamy) as being implements born of a philosophy of the social and bodily control of women. I’d always had a strong distaste, a gut-level revulsion, to the idea of being tied to someone forever with no further possibility of exploration. It just sounded so repressive, like someone cutting off my leg and telling me it was just so much less complicated to have only one. Maybe it was seeing my parents’ very traditional marriage and feeling the weight of its oppressiveness; maybe it was my sense of possibility just a bit outside my reach. Either way, the idea that other options existed was incredibly liberating.
With that came the feminist-born permission for me to not desire to have children. I’d spent a couple of weeks, as a six-year-old, playing mommy to my dollies because I felt that’s what I was supposed to do; my mother’s overjoyed approval confirmed that, and it made me nervous, as I had found no particular enjoyment in my play and it felt somehow like a heavy weight of expectation had settled upon it.
I had a series of monogamous relationships with men from the time I began dating, at age 12, until I was 20. They were characterized by lots of sexual exploration—most of it very positive, and some of it that taught me what I’d rather not do again. Among other things, I came out as bisexual at 14, was very quickly shown that this was not acceptable, and promptly went back into the closet. But my feminist learning again showed me that other possibilities were out there. I completed a women’s studies certificate at CEGEP, and entered university with a women’s studies minor. I used these courses as places to develop my thinking both through academic paths and through the resulting self-analysis. Feminism and women’s studies gave me space to understand the world, to explore questions of sexualities I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of experiencing.
Freshly out of a three-year relationship at 20, I spent two years single and celibate, needing to get my shit together and do some emotional self-care after a rough adolescence. I promised myself I wouldn’t become involved with a man again until I’d finally had a chance to explore the side of me that was attracted to women. I came out into the queer community at 21 and instantly became an activist.
At 23, I became involved with my first girlfriend, and in our first few dates she suggested that we have a non-monogamous relationship. It was such a relief to finally find someone who felt the same way I did—that power relations could be sexy, and that monogamy was too limiting for our tastes. I’ve been non-monogamous ever since.
She also suggested that we visit an SM dungeon together. To me, kink was a private affair, it was the way I did sex with my partners alone in a bedroom. So at first I didn’t see the point – and I think a lot of people quite rightly never see the point. But I went to a dungeon with her, and it was a major eye-opener. Here I encountered not one or two but dozens, hundreds even, of people who made a hobby or even a lifestyle out of pursuing highly erotic consensual power dynamics and adventurous sensations and sexual practices. They were my people!
So I read, and I learned, and I watched and listened and thought and analyzed and explored… and practiced. And that learning, as always, pulled me toward analysis and politicization. Academia is a good place for that. So two years after graduating, I went back to school and did another minor in sexuality studies. While I was at it, I created community. And I eventually started teaching, and writing, about what I’d seen and learned.
Part of what feminism taught me was to question gender categories as a whole. I never understood why transgender and transsexual people present such a contentious issue to feminist thought. To me, transgenderism is feminist theory put into concrete, embodied practice. The availability of any gender characteristic to any person regardless of biology is an inherently feminist concept. I’m not trans myself, but I am certainly gender-fluid; feminism opened up that possibility for self-expression, and queer community gave me spaces and people to do it with.
Today, I live non-monogamously. I have two partners, one of them is a trans guy and one is a butch woman; we form a triad, the two of them are lovers as well, and yes, sometimes we all sleep together. We each have other relationships outside the triad as well. Our relationships to one another are heavily grounded in BDSM.
I don’t see anything wrong with people who choose marriage or kids, but I don’t want those things for myself. I love kids and have chosen to form family with them in other ways. My ex-partner, a male-bodied guy, donated sperm to a lesbian couple, and I’ve got a strong relationship with the couple and the resulting child, whom we’ve nicknamed the Spawn. I’m known as the spaunty—my ex is the spuncle, as in, sperm-donor/uncle. They’re on their way to producing a second child, the Spawnlet. My best friend is mother to a rambunctious five-year-old I call Princess Firefighter, and sometimes I play daddy to her. I’m not sure why it’s daddy and not auntie or mommy number two; it just is. Daddy seems to fit the role I take with her, gender be damned (again).
I’m a writer and translator by profession, and I started freelancing a few years ago so that I could pursue my calling as an educator. These days I sometimes teach eight or ten times a month in the realm of BDSM, queer and trans issues, and non-monogamy, everywhere from large international conferences to intimate workshops at feminist sex shops. I’m also a prolific blogger. One of the things that’s most important to me in my writing and my activist work is the marriage of practice and theory, of community and academic knowledge. I’m not interested in being a theorist with no embodied experience of the things I theorize; I’m also not capable of being an embodied subject without getting my mind involved. Sex is the ultimate package deal for me.
Everything I do is informed by the empowerment and ethics that feminism taught me—and the idea that sex has alwaays been, and continues to be, the most powerful place I’ve ever experienced where theory and practice, creativity and social justice, power and pleasure come together.
(1) Gwilliam, Janet E. “Censorship, Sexuality and the Possibilities of Legal Reform, Or, Can We Queer the Canadian Charter?” Canadian Woman Studies / Les Cahiers de la Femme, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2000.
(2) Rule, Jane. Detained at Customs: Jane Rule Testifies at the Little Sister’s Trial. Vancouver: Lazara Press, 1995.
And here’s the workshop info for Wednesday night. Just a quick note: This session is probably most appropriate for people in the early stages of figuring out their bisexuality, or dealing with the bisexuality of people they love, though of course anyone is welcome. Feel free to pass it on to anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!
Bisexuality: What It Is, What It Isn’t, What It Might Be!
Wednesday, June 4, 7-9:30 p.m. at Good For Her (175 Harbord St., Toronto)
This is an interactive workshop for bisexuals, people curious about bisexuality (their own or others’), and people who aren’t sure how they feel about the whole bisexual thing. What is a bisexual? How do bisexuals manage their relationships? How does the world respond to bisexuals? What kind of concerns might a bi person need to deal with, and what kind of joys can bisexuality bring with it? How can you be supportive of a friend or lover who might be bisexual? What about people who call themselves “queer,” “omnisexual” and “pansexual”? We’ll talk about all of this and more in an atmosphere of respect and openness.