Q: What do cats, veganism and vibrators have in common?
A: Any group – goths, skateboarders, LARPers, movie buffs – come with additional communal qualities. If you’ve hung around the queers, it helps if you:
- like cats
- carry a great vegan cake recipe
- have a funny anecd0te about dildos
This is partly because people with similar life experiences develop similar interests. Because LG couples traditionally did not have children, a “fur baby” such as a cat is a thing or a yearning shared by lots of LG people. My theory on veganism is as follows: because LGBT people “come out” as a oppressed minority after a time spent closeted in the majority, they become far more conscious of inequality compared to – say – a cis woman, who’s lived so close to inequality her entire life it’s like no longer hearing the hum of the cars in the city. Because of that experience of sudden, radical awakening, I think it politicises many queer people and they look around to see what else they can fix.
Obviously, though, I’m here to talk about dildos.
Have you ever just been in a queer bar, festival, whatever, chatting with a bunch of strangers, and suddenly everyone is boasting about their totally radical foursome they had last weekend with their metamor, their Master and an adorable femmeboi they picked up? Like the cats and the tofu, there’s a good reason the queer community is all the sex talk, all the time. For one thing, sex is a major thing non-heterosexual queers have in common. As part of the radical awakening, someone who’s been taught to be straight is naturally going to say “let’s see what else this thing can do…!” and seeing what other facets of their sexuality they can customise, hence why we have so many poly or kinky queers. And because ours is the love that dare not say anything at all, everyone fights back by talking as much as they can. That’s doubly true for many AFAB people, another demographic encouraged to shut up.
So I get it. There are good historical reasons for the sex talk. And good political reasons too: if you want to break down society’s shame about sex, then doing it in a supportive environment with those who share your goals is wise. But it annoys me too, and I want to discuss my annoyance.
I don’t think it is necessary to use big words here. It’s not Oppressive or Marginalising or Reproducing The Kyriarchy. There are certainly levels on which it can be those things. I can’t speak for every asexual or every survivor in the LGBT movement – there’s no one way of being asexual or of surviving in any case – but those are two groups that come to mind who might be alienated by it, if you wanted to make a more overtly political argument.
Instead, it feels like good, old fashioned peer pressure. So many teenage novels are about this exactly – Just 16 and Doing It come to mind. The queasy age where everyone is bragging immaturely about their maturity and counting their bedpost notches, and everyone’s listening to the bragging and feeling insecure. I don’t imagine many queers enjoyed that bit first time around. Yet – to my ears at least – it feels like exactly the same behavior, albeit with slightly different standards. We have our own five bases. If I had to name some bases, Poly, Kink and Openness would be three of them, possibly with Pan and Radicalness as the other two. Please don’t mistake me for being anti PKOPR, or anti PKOPR people. It was bad in the 70s when kinky lesbians were bullied, and in some cases, attacked by vanilla lesbians for Doing Sex Wrong; it’s bad every time mainstream society uses its power to hurt PKOPR people. My criticism is purely of having a sexual standard, and enforcing it to the detriment of those who don’t fit.
I think most people politicised around sexuality – whether they identify as feminist, sex positive, radically sex negative or see it as part of their queerness – have a similar utopian ideal of what they want to see:
- Enthusiastic consent
- No shaming
- No fear or abuse
- Adequate education
- A neutrality of practices (there is no hierarchy between vanilla and kink, or gay and straight, or mono and poly – everything is equally accepted, with one not more “normal” or “healthy” or encouraged than the others)
This utopia is much needed. Wider society is simultaneously sex-obsessed and prudish, a dangerous combination. We’re pushed into sex and then punished for it. This is regardless of gender: women have the slut/prude problem, but I think the male equivalent (stud/loser) is just as damaging. The stud box must be a very pressured place to be, which doesn’t allow for men not to want sex.
I think the goal of the sex talk – if it has a goal – is to break down the prudishness, as a way to rebuild a better sexuality. But if we are to dismantle the worst of sexual culture, we need to work on the sex-obsession too. Part of the obsession/prudishness is compulsory sexuality:
Compulsory sexuality’ refers to a set of social attitudes, institutions and practices which hold and enforce the belief that everyone should have or want to have frequent sex (of a socially approved kind). (original source, found via (source))
Queers will be familiar with this from the mainstream, where “socially approved” = vanilla, mono, PIV, within marriage or at the very least a serious relationship. The obsession provides the “compulsory” – everyone wants this – while the “socially approved” is the prudishness, silencing and trampling anyone who has the Wrong Kind.
But my experience of the queer community is that it reproduces compulsory sexuality exactly. True, its social approval is the opposite of the mainstream – the pressure is to have more partners, have more casual shags, have kinkier sex, and then to talk about it the next day. We reproduce that same pressure we once felt to date straight, creating the pressure be more radical. Every time I’m at a queer event, within five minutes someone is making me feel guilty for not keeping up. I’m not sure there are many places where a stranger will talk about their box of sex toys before asking your name. I talk about these things with my friends, but that is different – I’m talking about the community-wide assumption that any time is good to talk sex, and to validate some kinds of sex over others.
Isolation from the community is the way all communities punish. It’s like if everyone in the room started debating whether Muttiah Muralitharan is the greatest all-time spin bowler, and you need to know the entire rules of cricket and have a Wisden at home to keep up. And this happens every time you’re in a queer space. But cricket and sex are not analogous. Because we’ve grown up with compulsory sexuality, and have been shamed throughout our lives for having abnormal sexuality – not just queer people, I mean everyone, because no one fits in the normal box - the sense of criticism and brokenness is far more primal than whether you share hobbies. I guess if you’re a guy, there is a gendered pressure to follow the football? But I think sexual shame runs deeper. And because queer communities form – essentially – around a shared sexuality, where gay people can feel safe and unjudged together; if the community sexuality is no longer simply about homosexuality but also entails [X radical practices] – that sense of isolation can be far deeper.
For example: at the weekend, I was at a social event with 10 other queers, knew no one but trying to make friends. Lots of dildo chat, naturally, spontaneously, and I’m LOLing internally about the queer community and it’s little foibles, while feeling acutely small and unable to join in with the conversation. Then someone mentions – as a funny anecdote with a shocking punchline – that last week they actually met two mono lesbians, who live on a houseboat and have a cat, and did you know they don’t use toys?!?!? There was a communal giggle – an affectionate one, true – with people smiling and saying “that’s amazing!” as if you’d just talked about a panda rescue centre. And all I could think was, that is really harsh. The assumption that there’s something so odd about being a vanilla lesbian who doesn’t use toys that it’s worthy of note; the assumption that everyone in the room was, obviously, really radical and would share the sense of benevolent amusement that such odd creatures did exist. And everyone did. I didn’t, but I guess I smiled nervously so I wasn’t left out and didn’t seem uncool, or old fashioned like a vanilla lesbian, so maybe other people in the group were doing that too?
Googled: gay canal boat.
I think the queer community can be far harsher with “prudishness” than the mainstream. There’s the suggestion that you’ve fallen short of enlightenment – that if you were less repressed, you would be [X radical practices]. You’re not feminist/queer/sex positive/radical enough – there’s something wrong with you. And you see all the same tactics. What’s the real difference between “Poly/ PIV sex is natural, because evolutionary science, therefore you are unnatural”? Being told to get therapy for your your sexuality by queers is no more fun than by straights. I also think it’s the only place in queerland where the transgressor-of-boundaries gets a free pass, and the boundary-keeper is the problem: if I am uncomfortable, awkward or unhappy to hear about your totally radical sex life, it’s my fault for being repressed/slut-shaming/not radical enough. This is contrary to the way we try to make spaces safe, where someone who hurts with oppressive language or actions needs to modify their behavior to include everyone.
To sum up:
I think everyone knows what the problems of mainstream sexual culture are, and one of those problems is the silence and shame. But in attempting to fix it, we don’t want to accidentally reproduce its worst – the obsession, the peer pressure, the use of the label “prude” to police whose sex is or isn’t OK. There’s an extremely fine line here. I don’t want people to stop talking about sex, because it’s a great weapon against the silence mandated in society. At the same time, when that goes so far and becomes so expected in queer spaces, it starts to have the opposite effect: destroying the sex taboo, but creating compulsory sexuality in its place. Which is just as bad. Feeling wrong for your desires sucks; and feeling pressured into things you don’t desire so you’re not left out also sucks.
Another tool of the Master
I’m not sure I have any suggestions here, only to identify this is a real problem that needs to change. I certainly think we should regard sex chat as something we do a consent-check for, creating space for people who don’t want to know – for whatever reason – to say so instead of assuming. Even my friends ask “…is this TMI?” – I expect as much from strangers. Perhaps that – if you do talk a lot about your sex life in public and around strangers, maybe think about how and when you choose to do that, ensuring you are not behaving like a jock in a locker room, creating peer pressure, or a compulsory standard of Awesome Queer Sex. Perhaps that – people who are not PKOPR need to boast right back, about the amazing mono lesbian toy-free sex you had on your canal boat, so that at least the assumption that such people are antique prudes gets watered down. But both these requests are wrong – telling people to stop or start talking about sex in public are both Tools of the Master, both have long histories as ways to limit sexuality. Perhaps it’s enough to say that the path to utopian sexual culture is complicated. But any practice of ours which replicates oppressive culture so closely has to go.
If you want to read more about this idea, everything by Lipstick Terrorist.
“Are you Kinky?”
For me, a sex-positive environment would be one which recognises that the choice to not have sex can be healthy and feminist. For me, a sex positive environment would be one that doesn’t confuse queerness with kinkiness. It would be a space in which I feel safe and supported while I choose to be less sexual. This isn’t the environment I have experienced in queer spaces.
“Queers are Slutty, Lesbians are Boring”
Mainstream films about us portray us as fucked-up power lesbians who have non-penetrative sex on flowery beds next to our teddy bears. So it’s not surprising that our community-made queer films tend to go in the opposite direction. BDSM, dildos, public sex and leather. However, just like being a lesbian is uncool, it feels to me like the prevalence of these types of sex and relationships in queer films show a one-sided view of queer life. They seem to be saying that this is the epitome of what it means to fuck and love as a queer. If you’re a cool queer, this is what you’ll be doing in your bed/dungeon/swing tonight.
Polyamorous is not a noun
Some of the zines and books I have read on poly suggest the same thing; jealousy comes from insecurities and our natural sexual state as humans is to be polyamorous. If you just worked your shit out then you would be happy being poly. And while I acknowledge that some people are happiest being poly, I find the assumption that someone else knows more about my sexuality than I do a little bit offensive. A friend of mine recently said to me, ‘I really want to be in a monogamous relationship but I know that’s because I’ve been brainwashed. I know it’s my problem.’
and to a lesser extent, I don’t want to have sex