privilege, guilt and the global politics of the sexually different

The following is a comment that was just left following my post “‘It’s Not About Sex’ and Other Lies.” It’s incredibly thought-provoking and so I wrote a long response to it, and then I realized that really this should be a post in and of itself.

So, for starters, here’s Marissa’s comment.


Thanks for sharing this speech; I was sent the link by a friend.

It expressed a lot of what I didn’t even know I’d been ruminating about!

I guess all I would like to add would be this, which of course goes without saying in some sense, but by the end of reading your post I felt it’s what I needed to comment.

I agree that we who are concerned about these things are doing beautiful and valuable work. Where I struggle, at times, is to see this work as _essential_, in the face of other shit going on in the world that is eroding people’s perhaps more basic (?) rights to food, shelter etc.

Now to hierarchy the needs of humans isn’t that useful. And we need serenity to accept the things we cannot change. I guess the least I can do is acknowledge my incredible blessings/fate/grace/luck that in my world, one of the most difficult things right now is coming out as poly to my family and friends. Not, what to eat or how the fuck to access drinking water.

How do queer, kink, poly etc communities place themselves into the global community which includes: pogroms, malnutrition, all kinds of real exploitation?

I spoke recently to a woman who has been working for over a decade at the local women’s refuge. She takes a zero-tolerance approach to violence. She sees where people allow other people to be violent to them as the beginning of the end; opening themselves up to the risk of non-consensual violence. I know this to be true, but I choose to take the risk. Am I willing to jeopardise her work and message by making my point?

One of the things I struggle with is how to prioritise my own commitment to breaking this shit down, for myself and in the way I live my life, over other kinds of “goods” (e.g. being quiet when it’s not the right time to bring this shit up). How tolerance to the mulitvarious expressions of self that we predominantly see in the relatively affluent part of the world connects with those communities of people who simply don’t have the energy to care about this shit right now.

I don’t think that the kink etc some of us experience is a “more advanced” form of civilisation. I don’t believe, for example, that once societies have a guaranteed basic income, they will as a matter of course, in the fullness of time, have and want the kinks that other societies now have and want.

Meaning to say, I do not expect that societies of people that do not obviously include people who express kinkiness, queerness, poly-ness, whatever either (a) actually do have people who are “like me” / “like us” about these things already in secret, or (b) include any people who will ever want to embrace my understandings of these things.

And despite that non-expectation, the “beautiful and valuable” work of which you speak here I think can resonate and connect with those who don’t even care or want to be queer or poly. Because what we’re really talking about, as you say, is having the room to explore the possibilities of whatever the fuck we want in a base-line consensual level (i.e. at the level that it counts, for us).

In that sense, we commune across kink, across cultures. We find this other community which includes straight / non-kinky people, people who don’t particularly want marriage for love let along sex for kicks, people who are too tired or thirsty for any kind of non-necessary physical activity, but who are nonetheless open to being tolerant… even if not actually tolerant at the time.

I’m not sure what my point is. Just teasing some of my thoughts out, I guess. More or less a variant of a t-shirt slogan I would love to paint up one day: “My family emigrated to a western county and all I got was this lousy white liberal guilt.”


And here’s my response…


Hi Marissa,

Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

I totally hear you on the questions you’re raising. Sometimes as a sexuality activist and thinker, I find myself wondering if everything I do is all just a form of Western indulgence brought about by my comparatively huge amount of privilege.

And yet… it’s also not that simple.

You asked, “How do queer, kink, poly etc communities place themselves into the global community which includes: pogroms, malnutrition, all kinds of real exploitation?”

I don’t necessarily think there’s one simple answer to this. Except that I know so many queer people, as well as (and overlapping with) kinky and poly people, who are super attuned to social justice here and internationally and who actively work toward making the world a better place way beyond the bounds of sexuality-based communities. Queers are often at the forefront of anti-oppression and international solidarity work, among many other areas. Is it because of their sexuality? Probably not in any direct way, but I can’t help but think that for people who have a really embodied, personal sense of justice and injustice—as sexual minorities often do—it is not a stretch to forge links between that and wider understandings of justice and injustice. I’m not saying all queers are heroes by any stretch, nor all poly or kinky people, but it’s worth thinking about these links nonetheless.

Beyond that, it’s also worth noting that while the terminology, history and social context may be quite different in different countries, same-sex desire and practice, multiple partnerships and non-normative sexual behaviours are not “white things” or things that only happen in North America. I do understand that when someone’s in the middle of a war or a famine, they probably are more interested in escaping violence and getting food than in debating the merits of polyamory or practicing their bondage knots. But from there to thinking that the rich tapestry of human sexual possibility only ever unfolds in peaceful, well-fed and privileged contexts is far from accurate, and to think otherwise denies an essential component of humanity to people from non-Western countries. (It’s not that I think you’re doing this, Marissa, I’m just on a roll here…)

Same-sex-loving and gender-transgressing people (who are sometimes one and the same, and sometimes not) face severe persecution all over the world. Non-monogamous partnerships are common in some cultures, sometimes in ways that are oppressive and sometimes in ways that are not, and (more often than not I suspect) sometimes in complex layers of the two within a given situation; also, a wide range of different types of non-monogamy are often present within a single geographical or social context. (We see that here in North America too, with hip urban swingers’ culture existing a short flight away from hyper-strict Mormon polygamist sects, for example.) For that matter, resistance to both enforced non-monogamy and enforced monogamous marriage is also present in all sorts of places and cultures—the essential piece here being about the right to choose the kinds of relationships that suit us each best regardless of what a given society prescribes.

And while the imagery and language of kink (as it is more or less formally understood) has evolved in a very specific context here in North America, and thus has taken on specific and recognizable forms here, I can’t imagine that we’re the only ones enjoying a wide range of intense bodily sensations, engaging in emotional experiences of vulnerability and control, or eroticizing objects and body parts outside the narrow range of what’s socially approved in any given culture, time and place. It’s entirely possible that in many places across the world, such practices take on extremely different forms, and may be subject to more, less or different types of social opprobrium.

I like how you put it when you wrote, “I don’t think that the kink etc some of us experience is a “more advanced” form of civilisation. I don’t believe, for example, that once societies have a guaranteed basic income, they will as a matter of course, in the fullness of time, have and want the kinks that other societies now have and want.” And I definitely like how you expressed, “I do not expect that societies of people that do not obviously include people who express kinkiness, queerness, poly-ness, whatever either (a) actually do have people who are “like me” / “like us” about these things already in secret, or (b) include any people who will ever want to embrace my understandings of these things.”

But I’d take it a step further even. I’d say that societies all over the world already do include people who transgress the social norms for sexuality and relationships—and those transgressions may not look, in the sense of surface-level visual or linguistic cues, much like the ones we engage in here (though certainly some do). So maybe in those cases we just don’t know what to look for, or can’t see them. Or maybe those transgressions have not led to the development of subcultures dedicated to their practice (though certainly some have). So it’s not so much that people from “other” societies will ever want to embrace “our” understandings—I bet (and in some cases I know) that they’ve already got their own.

I’d venture to say that regardless of geographical location and specific cultural context, a few common themes come up all over the world. The powers that be—and in this day and age, after centuries of colonialism all over the planet, what part of the world is truly free of Western influence in this regard?—generally value certain kinds of genders, certain kinds of sexualities and certain kinds of relationships more than others, and punish those who fail to live up. Violence, coercion, repression, censorship and the like are still tools of oppression used to enforce those norms. People all over the world are told how they’re allowed to love, desire and partner, and what is okay to do with their own bodies vs what is not. These aren’t the experiences of the privileged; they’re overwhelmingly common, and they often come hand in hand with the cultural responses to war, famine and other forms of adversity. Times of war are often times of greatest fear, control and repression at home.

Here in North America, I’m articulating how I think about these things using references and language common to a specific set of subcultural communities, but the message I intend is simpler and, I hope, much more broadly applicable than that. So yes, I do think that doing the work to untangle people’s fucked-up understandings about love, pleasure, pain, fear, vulnerability, power and so forth is essential work, and I think that work has far broader implications and uses than simply to shore up the existing privileges held by (some elements of some) Western sexual minorities.

As for the woman with the zero-tolerance approach to violence, I don’t think you are in any way jeopardizing her work by making your point (or living your kinks, as the case may be). The equation of kink with violence is a deeply flawed and laughably simplistic paradigm that shows a serious misunderstanding of the subject at hand and a refusal to engage in the most basic of critical thinking. Kink isn’t violence, and it isn’t a slippery slope toward violence either. It’s a way of experiencing pleasure, sometimes (though not always) via bodily stimulation. Her equation of kink with violence only stands if she’s also going to consider “violence” to include all team sports (football, hockey, rugby) and all other forms of physical exercise and recreation (hiking, surfing, running, swimming, bodybuilding, yoga, spending time in the sun or the cold), all body modification (tattoos, piercing), many kinds of physical therapy (physio, electro-stim, deep-tissue massage), all direct and most indirect medical intervention (dentistry, surgery, bone-setting and casts, stitches, all drugs), most (if not all) forms of employment (emergency response services, mining, road work, food service, anything that involves lifting, moving or typing), most forms of transportation (walking, cycling, driving, flying), many forms of food and drink (alcohol, dairy, wheat, sugar, hot spice), various types of spiritual practice (fasting, pilgrimage, kneeling), pregnancy and childbirth, and all types of penetrative sex. In short, anything that carries some risk of discomfort or damage to the human body but in which we engage for a wide range of perfectly good reasons nonetheless.

If anyone engages in these activities—any of them!—due to coercion or force, then by all means, condemn the coercion wholesale. Same standard applies to any kinky activity. But if that’s not the case, (your acquaintance should) get over it already, and focus on preventing coercion and force where it’s actually happening rather than inventing it where it’s not. Creating false connections between happy, healthy, mutually pleasurable activity and real-life coercive violence only serves to diminish the very real experiences of violence that some people have, and to dilute the focus that should be placed on ending violence in the world.

Marissa, you say you “know this to be true,” as in, that by engaging in kink practice you are opening yourself up to the risk of non-consensual violence. But this is not “true.” You aren’t putting yourself at risk of non-consensual violence by being kinky, any more than you would be by dating or partnering with someone in a completely vanilla way, or for that matter, making friends with someone at a cocktail party. People don’t need kink to become violent. They just do it. Vanilla people beat up their partners all the time. Date rapists don’t need to dress up in leather and batterers don’t generally carry floggers. Sure, you’ll find those same elements in the kink world like anywhere else, but no more so, and possibly less. You can’t protect yourself by staying away from the kinky people, and you won’t put yourself at risk by spending time with them. You certainly won’t keep yourself safer by denying your sexual inclinations. If you never engage in them, you’ll never get to pick apart or experience how your desires truly work, or to talk about them clearly or express them, or to develop a bodily knowledge of what pleases you and what does not. (I’m not suggesting you’re doing that – as you have said you make the choice to do so – but as a general point this bears saying nonetheless.)

You can mitigate your risk by developing strong instincts about who to trust; by setting good boundaries; by acquiring strong communication skills; by working on the ability to say a powerful “no,” a meaningful “yes” and a detailed “maybe” depending on what you actually want; by learning how to avoid, and confidently defend yourself in, situations of physical assault (get comfortable with leaving a risky situation without apologizing or worrying that you’re not being “nice,” and get comfortable with screaming and hitting if you can’t leave!); and by participating in efforts to change the world’s consciousness about how it’s not acceptable to rape or sexually assault people. None of this will protect you from being attacked (anywhere!), but it sure will give you some valuable tools in interpersonal relationships and help you get out of sticky situations.

I totally get the temptation to get swallowed up in liberal white guilt. And yet, I think there are richer, more productive ways of engaging with the questions you so clearly articulate. The common theme underlying all your questions, I think, is agency. And I think that, if we bear in mind the broad range of realities, cultures and experiences that exist in the world, and act with as much consideration for that as we can at all times, we can both recognize agency, and the struggles for agency, in “other” societies and claim agency for ourselves in our own society without worrying that somehow our sexual and relational proclivities are somehow inherently oppressive to others. They’re not. There is room for all of us here.

6 thoughts on “privilege, guilt and the global politics of the sexually different

  1. Thank you for sharing this – both of you. I too have thought about sexuality work in relationship to the other issues in the world. I know the work I/others do is important. Perhaps it is important not despite, but because of, the many issues that exist in the world.

    Your posts sparked a new desire to examine and clarify my thoughts, if only to myself. I am now contemplating reasons the work is important, and places it has impact, that I don’t focus on very often.

    I look forward to seeing how this reflection plays out and I thank you for inspiring it.

  2. The more I read of your writing, the more I like it. Very thought provoking, very intelligent and very well written. Thank you again for your words, and thanks also to Marissa!

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