Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Attraction, Sexual Interest, and White Het Male Supremacy

the image above is from here
I chose the chart above to open this post not because it is one that reflects my beliefs, but because I think it does represent some dominant views about how relationships form and progress.

As I noted at the beginning of my last post, I recently submitted two comments to a white transgender feminist's blog. She didn't publish them but did explain that she wouldn't be posting them.

I'd like for the topics to be addressed to allow any of my readers to comment here on these issues. I think each issue is relevant to building respectful, radical, revolutionary community. So I've posted links to her blog's two posts (with my revised comments) here and in my last post, also published today at A.R.P. I've revised my comment quite a bit below to elaborate on and clarify points I'm trying to make.

Thank you to A Radical TransFeminist for promoting and supporting these discussions.

The discussion there, as I understand it, was about challenging our internalised and externalised supremacist attitudes and practices, including the practice of focusing our attention on those atop various hierarchies and leaving out of our vision of attractiveness those lower on various political-social hierarchies.

Related discussions and struggles elsewhere have focused on getting masculinist, pornographic, and predatory values, aesthetics, and practices out of our sexual, romantic, social, and economic lives. This one divided up the white queer community I was part of decades ago. (Masculinism and pornography won out, unfortunately. But with the awareness of the disproportionate number of queer people who are survivors of sexual abuse, particularly in childhood, at least predatory practice has been consistently challenged.) Yet another set of concerns and challenges relates to how lightness of skin, straightness and lightness of hair, and eye shape and color become a measure of attractiveness and value within and without communities of color, including Jewish communities.

Another dimension of this struggle is the one towards decolonial love, something I've heard only a very few white people talk about as an ethical value and political-personal necessity. Novelist Junot Diaz addresses this and intersectionally related matters *here* in a video of a speech he gave last year. This speech generated a very good and deep discussion among many activists and artists I know, which is taking place in email. And, I'll include a link to a critique of his work *here* at the blog QueerBlackFeminist.

On Attraction


Here is a very revised version of my comment.

I’d written something a while back that I’d like to post a link to here as response-piece to what you’ve written above and in your second post on the subject.

Compulsory Sexuality and Asexual Existence

To summarise my reason for linking to it, I experience the perspective above as pro-compulsory sexuality and as pro-sexual, in the liberal sense. I question whether the challenge before many of us, rather than expanding who we find attractive sexually or romantically, is challenging why we find anyone “attractive” in the dominant sense. An argument I read somewhere stated that we ought to see the beauty in everyone. But that sentiment, while admirable on some level, unfortunately puts aside the issue of what ‘beauty’ is in imperialist, racist, colonialist, capitalist, patriarchal societies. I hear a clear demand that we challenge the ways we internalise oppression, writing off classes of people as unattractive.

That makes me uncomfortable. But why?

I get how white singer John Mayer stating that his genital is white supremacist is racist and misogynistic in all kinds of ways. I’m arguing that it wouldn’t be my counsel or charge to him, or wish for him, to find Black or Brown people attractive and to act on that; he’s clearly so bigoted that such interaction flowing from his white and male entitlements to get what he wants would quite likely trigger and oppress anyone of color; it would be my counsel that he interrogate what an attraction to whiteness means and is and see where that leads him.

I live in a dominant culture that requires us to manifest (well, sell and purchase) ‘beauty’ in some form. That requirement comes with the belief and attitude that being not-beautiful is to also be worthless, except perhaps as labor. Implicit in a charge for us to expand the populations of classes of people we find attractive, I see a somewhat anti-asexual charge to be attracted to people in the first place.

I want to support the effort to encourage meaningful, caring, honest, intimate, counter-hegemonic, decolonial mutual relationships among people as a way to build sustainable, healthy, revolutionary community; I just take issue with that being identified as primarily a matter of attraction and sexual interest. I see our struggle as this: to form friendships first–whatever else follows. Friendship, as many feminists and womanists have written over the decades, normally requires and presupposes a kind of equality of interest and needs. Romantic and sexual relating, historically and traditionally, requires and presupposes inequality. This is why sexual relationships are compulsory and institutionalised and friendships, however ubiquitous, are not.

There’s an appeal here in my remarks for people who occupy oppressive positions structurally to stop engaging in the practices that traditionally oppress, and nurture those that traditionally do not, in part because doing something with history and tradition behind it is, I’d say, going to be less exhausting than doing otherwise. Not that ease is a primary value. There's little about challenging and transforming the status quo that is easy. But an argument I hear a lot is how self-condemning it can be for lesbian, gay, het, and queer people to continually interrogate their/our lack of attraction to women or men or transgender people. The process of coming out as lesbian or gay, as I understand it personally and from personal friendships with lesbian women, involves unlearning heteronormative and patriarhcal ways of being, ways of feeling, and ways of acting. It may also lead to challenging ageist, racist, and classist assumptions, among others.

Speaking as a profeminist gay male, radically rejecting heterosexuality and heterosexism means rejecting the ways het men have arranged for people to meet and get to know each other. What het male culture appears to prize is a kind of attractiveness that is directly related to appearance, not substance. Looks are what matter first and often enough, most. Sexual desirability, determined and defined by het men, is what the human objects of het men's attention are supposed to achieve. To reject het men's standards for being "sexy" and "attractive" is to be deemed ugly and worthless--except as labor--by them.

I see the bar and club scenes as doomed to replicate heterosexist and heteronormative standards of appealing to one another as sexy things, as sex objects, as people who must do a whole lot to ourselves before we leave home to go to the bar or club.

So one question is this: in what social spaces are we supposed to challenge ourselves to be attracted to people lower on various social-political hierarchies? In the workplace? In the home? On the street? All of those places are sites of misogynist and racist oppression, and of ageism, of ableism, of classism.

It has been mentioned that if one’s social circle is white, that’s what needs to be challenged. A proposed antidote to someone's all-white circle of potential dates or mates is to bring white folks into potentially romantic or sexual contact with people of color. This, to me, privileges a value of white people expanding our dating pool, but in no way identifies what the benefit would be to people of color, should that pool-expansion occur. So I begin with friendship as a foundation for revolutionary community and affection, not with attraction and sexual behavior as that base. In the realm of friendship, physical and sexual attractiveness isn't a primary value; shared intellectual pursuits, common interests, similar senses of humor, and how people might be helpful to one another are at least as important.

White people, or men, learning to do 'attraction behavior' less oppressively isn't something I hear oppressed people wanting tried out on them. As a survivor of sexual abuse, as an asexual person, as a gay person, and as a Jew in a Christian-dominated country, I certainly don’t want more people smiling at me or approaching me because of ‘attraction’. I’d welcome someone getting to know me in contexts where it is appropriate for us to know each other, due to progressive economic, social, or political work, not in contexts where ‘getting to know someone’ is the sole or primary objective. Not where the reason for people wanting to seek out each other's company is to raise the possibility of obtaining sexual contact or fostering romantic feelings.

I don't want to negotiate social spaces where I'm increasingly put in the position to say no or yes to the advances of het-identified men who are challenging themselves to be open to dating or bedding gay men. Not discussed thus far is the issue of who along the hierarchies ought to be entitled to approach whom? I'd see it as radical if the challenge wasn't for oppressors to find those we oppress more suitable for dating and mating, but rather for us to altogether stop approaching (for the purposes of getting a date or "a fuck") those we oppress.

As I think Catharine A. MacKinnon states in one of her books of essays, consent isn’t all that meaningful a lived concept for women if one only ever is in the position of saying no or yes to the advances of men. One would have to live in a world where such advances are neither compulsory nor anticipated to know what one wants from and with men. I can extrapolate from that to other hierarchies.

I feel that very personally and very strongly, as someone who is gay and a survivor of child sexual abuse and adult sexual exploitation, who unhealthily while normally feels compelled to meet the sexual, emotional, and affectional needs of someone who shows interest in me, especially when they are men. As I contemplate finding someone attractive, and contemplating being found attractive, such imaginings are problematically bound up with racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, misogynist, ableist, ageist, heterosexist, transphobic 'beauty' standards and oppressive interpersonal habits and social customs. Challenging the standards without also challenging and interrupting the oppressive dynamics and habits surrounding them is, for me, a set-up for more oppressive behavior to occur, not less.

To even imagine someone being ‘interested’ in me–when they don’t know me–means that I am led to try and change myself in self-oppressive, self-objectifying, and dehumanising ways. Opting out of the social attraction circuit, like opting out of the social sexual-behavior circuit, can be personally and interpersonally liberatory. I don’t see that course of action identified as valuable and viable in the discussion thus far.

I'm not comfortable with anyone white addressing an audience that isn't only white with a set of demands for what we should do that is deliberately designed to inflict on people of color our own social learning curve. I’ll add that I experience the term “demand” here, in this context, as white or race-superior. Why? Because making demands on readers is something I only experience whites and men feeling entitled to do--and doing regularly. In other words, it demonstrates having enough racial (or, in my own case, also sexual) social power to even proceed in doing it. I believe those of us in dominant structural positions, by race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and so forth, ought not demand something from our political peers that will likely violate and trigger those we oppress.

Also on the matter of race, was the race awareness training session for bi community activists in the UK either white-led, white-organised, or majority-white in attendance? If any of those, I’d then proceed to articulate a critique of such a process for arriving at what terms are most racially respectful and appropriate. Recognising that there are some significant differences between U.S. and UK dominant society that I might not be sensitive-enough to, I’ll add that I prefer the term 'racially oppressed', to 'minority-ethnic' when discussing who is subordinated, marginalised, and imperiled by race. For me, the latter term problematically reinforces whiteness as normal-majority and race-neutral. It also pretends that whites aren’t a global minority. It also conflates race with ethnicity.

While this comment contains challenges, I want that to be held in the context of me strongly encouraging you to keep up the great work. I’m thoroughly enjoying reading your deeply thoughtful pro-radical posts. I find you, a white blogger, to be deeply and sincerely committed to complex, intersectional, counter-hegemonic practice and that’s as rare in my experience as finding a man who does the same.

On Trashing, Calling Out, and Accountability, with thanks to A Radical TransFeminist

portrait of Alice Walker is from here

I recently submitted two comments to a white transgender feminist's blog. She didn't publish them but did explain to me that she wouldn't be posting them, which I appreciate her doing. I welcome finding out what it is about the comments that led her to not post them, at a later date when she feels like communicating more with me.

I'd like for the topics to be addressed here to allow any of my readers to comment here on these issues. So I'll post links to her blog's two posts, with my comments in this and the next post to this blog. I'll revise my comments for clarity and to correct some typos.

I'm putting the initials of people's names in the comments below, as I don't have their permission to use their names here. One exception is the name Joreen, which was a chosen name used in movement work by Jo Freeman, a long-time white feminist writer and attorney. Her work is referenced; she isn't a participant in this discussion. See *this* for more, and see *this* for Jo/Joreen's piece on Trashing which is the foundation for the discussion at the other blog.

On Trashing


Here is a revised version of the comment I submitted:

I’ve witnessed and experienced a lot of destructive dynamics, also some amazingly life-affirming and spiritually supportive dynamics, in feminist and profeminist spaces. I’ve seen far more positive than negative things happen. And I appreciate you creating this space to talk about this issue. While I’d like to be part of this discussion, I’m not sure I should be a contributor. If the issue is how people treat one another harmfully and abusively in the name of feminism and profeminism, I’d like to comment. If, on the other hand, that is the issue (with a focus on trashing), but only within women-only spaces, then that’s not something I’d feel would be appropriate for me, an intergender male, to be part of.

I nodded all the way through your remarks about Joreen’s piece. As a sexual assault survivor, I felt uneasy about the use of the term “psychological rape”. So thank you, L, and H, for sharing your response to that. I was deeply conflicted about whether to even mention it here, because, as H also stated, I don’t know her own story of physical abuse, and because, well, I’m male. The phrase that also felt deeply problematic to me was this one: “like a thousand cuts with a whip”. For me that phrase references an experience of physical-spiritual-political assault at the hands of white supremacists during U.S. slavery, Jim Crow, and since. I don’t think it is appropriate or respectful to survivors of slavery and those racially targeted for such abuse to appropriate the term even as simile.

That said, I respect Joreen’s bravery in tackling this issue and can hear how painful her experiences were. And I’ve seen how people in radical spaces sometimes want to demonstrate their/our/my sensitivity to issues by immediately and primarily pointing out what feels “off” about someone’s remarks, rather than by first highlighting what feels right on.* I feel for the ways she’s been hurt and rejected in spaces and by people she looked to for solidarity and community. I’ve known women hurt in so many ways, most callously, brutally, and lethally by men, but also hurt emotionally and psychologically by other women. And I’ve experienced, just within my own family of origin and friendship circles, how people closest to me in various ways, are capable, due to conditions of trust, shared history, and vulnerability, of hurting me deeply in ways some of my oppressors, now that I’m an adult, are not.

*I have been thinking about  this. I am aware that in online discourse far more than my offline discourse, criticism is, often, "what people do" without necessarily knowing the people we're criticising. This is dramatically different in my offline life. I'll far more typically withhold criticism if I think it might harm a relationship with someone I care about. The relationship's well-being is preferenced over my critical voice; it's not that I work to silence myself exactly; it's that I don't let criticism become the primary value. I suspect that because online forums make space for critique of writings and disagreement over discourse, that gets valued over the relationships that might otherwise form and flourish among the contributors. I've not found online sites to be a place of forming friendship. I've met people online that I've become friends with offline, or in email. But the nature of the online forums don't, for many reasons, create safe-enough space for friendship to bloom, in my experience.

As part of my own effort to disengage from behavior that I now see as non-constructive and anti-revolutionary, I’ve decided not to engage in “snark”, let alone trashing, because I see it as part of the same cluster of cynical, self-protecting while hostile, anti-revolutionary practices that apparently passes for radical and profeminist behavior in lots of places (feminist and non-feminist). I used to direct snarky comments to white men on and off my blog, and I don’t any longer: a white man just submitted a comment to me, on an old post, about his view that misandry is a serious social problem, not as harmful as misogyny, but not non-existent either. I've heard similar things from so many white men that I've grown weary of responding. Often, in my weariness or my laziness, I might resort to snarky response. Because I'd be tempted to do so with this newest comment-submitter, I won't publish his comment and won't respond at all. His comment also violates some of my comment policy. (I don't publish pro-MRA positions here.)

I value direct, emotionally honest communication. And I also have complex PTSD which means that my feelings and reactions sometimes exceed what’s happening in the present. I can suddenly feel tremendously vulnerable or in danger. How I respond in those instances is sometimes out of proportion to what is happening before me because my history is dredged up and projected into the moment. I've often described this as "my past bleeding into my present". Due primarily to privilege, including access to mental health care workers who regard me as fully human because I’m male, white, and not poor, I have learned to identify when I’m triggered and have learned some methods for re-grounding myself in the present. But that’s not always easy or even possible to do. And I also see how, with my many privileges, I can too often get away with not taking full responsibility for my actions and pretend that other conditions are responsible for how I behave.

I have seen how white supremacy and male supremacy generate and exacerbate complex PTSD for white women, for women of color, and for men of color. I’ve seen how whites and men deny that our actions trigger distress and many other feelings and experiences in people we structurally, systemically, institutionally, and interpersonally oppress. And I’ve seen how, when whites and men are called out by women of color especially–almost always in ways that strike me as profoundly measured and respectful, that Calling Out is named many negative things by whites and men. Most of the things it is called effectively (and often enough willfully) work to further hurt, subordinate, and silence women of color. One of the things such Calling Out is called is “Trashing”.

For example, I’ve known whites who consider being named “racist” by a person of color to be a violent and inexcusable form of trashing. And the politics of what is considered violent is noted quite succinctly by the white male radical Derrick Jensen in his Premises of Endgame: “Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed [by oppressors]. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.” I thought about that as I was appreciating J.M.’s comment.

One of the requests I hear Joreen making is to not talk about someone’s ‘being’ and instead to critique the behavior or what someone is ‘doing’. This is consistent with my own values: challenge the behavior; don’t go after someone personally. And, when possible, try and hold the whole of someone’s humanity in mind and heart when offering critique. My values were learned mostly by studying and being around modes of critical engagement practiced by womanists and feminists. Alice Walker has been a significant role model in this regard. Her open letter to Tiger Woods is an excellent example. Also Flo Kennedy on horizontal hostility ["Women Against Women: Horizontal Hostility," domestic violence; "Sexuality '85" conference; Alabama NOW; Massachusetts; Ohio; Ontario; Wisconsin; Wyoming], Pearl Cleage on the necessity of oppressors listening to the oppressed-as-experts [see pages 32-33 in Deals With the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot], and Andrea Dworkin as evidenced in her address to allegedly anti-sexist men at a men’s conference.

With that in mind, I’ve also heard many times from women of color how whites and men try and control how women of color behave. They/we try and control how women of color speak, how they express their emotions, and, especially, how and to what degree they critique whites and men. Whites and men (and especially white men) also hold the unearned power to allegedly ‘accurately’ name what occurs, to construct and determine which stories comprise truthful history, and be the final arbiters of (white- and male-centric) justice on matters of social and interpersonal wrongs. As I see it, oppressive sexual and racial politics are at work when people with various forms of privilege agree to critique ‘trashing’ without also explicitly putting on the table the issue of how people with structural advantage and power get to name the behavior of those who are oppressed. In that context, Joreen's or my own priority to be critiqued on our behavior not on our personhood, when the person calling us out is structurally oppressed by us, becomes a secondary matter to oppressed people naming what is harming them in ways meaningful and helpful to them. Simply put, Alice Walker's level of grace and compassion in confronting Tiger Woods is hers to determine; it is not for him to require.

I just want to place that perspective front and center, with the intention of fully supporting your own concerns along those lines, L.

Finally, I'm wishing a belated Happy Birthday to Alice Walker! (Her birthday was February 9th.)