our deviance can be dangerous.
radical love letter #57
A note! It’s been a long time since I wrote, and an even longer time since I’ve written consistently. Now that I’m officially done with my 9-5 I’ll have space to do a lot more writing, which I am very excited about. That will mean more newsletters, but they may vary in form and content. If you’re a fan of the recommended reading links, more juicy personal shares, etc., stay tuned, they’ll pop in again. But to start, I’m back with an essay that is a variation on a theme I’ve traversed before— this time borne of a particular experience with half-naked photos. Thank you for being here and please feel free to share the newsletter with a friend who might be interested in radical analysis and big feelings. <3
About two months ago I drove to a remodeled garage in a suburb of Cleveland and took off my clothes in front of a woman I had just met. I put on lingerie and sat in a green velvet chair where another woman put lots of makeup on my face. We talked about the early 00s emo scene, having or not having children, and getting coffee during the pandemic. I was there in this sweet situation with two strangers-become-friends because I had answered a call to take boudoir photos in exchange for letting the photographer use them to promote her work, and I was stoked.
I also knew that I wouldn’t post these photos myself until after my full-time job (teaching community-based experiential learning courses for an education non-profit) officially came to an end (due to my moving to Cleveland and them going back to in-person). Although I had posted scantily-clad photos on my social media before, the explicit sexualness of a boudoir shoot felt too risky. These were the kinds of photos you might dub “not safe for work” (NSFW) and I was too gainfully employed to risk it (especially when my employment involved teaching young people).
I have been thinking about this alongside questions surrounding the liberatory potential (or lack thereof) of queerness, or more specifically queer sex/uality. In certain circles (queer, radical ones) this is well-trodden territory: there may have been a time when gayness in all its forms was a radical assault on oppressive norms and even systems, but it’s been so deeply co-opted now that queer identity is not only benign but also an extension of capitalism (think of corporate Pride floats, for example). A helpful reference point for this is Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System, which is ultimately pessimistic about homosexuality (or even the category of ‘queer’), in and of itself, to be a politicizing force. Of the current state of things, Chitty explains: “As [acute] state violence [against formally-criminalized queers] receded, markets stepped in to meet and shape a consumer profile of gay identity.”
Chitty draws on John D’Emilio’s essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity” which argues that although gay sex has existed forever-ish, gay identity was actually enabled by industrial capitalism that drove people out of agrarian family units and into same-gender work and social spaces. But gay sex posed a problem to the very system that paved way for it: if queerness flourished, the nuclear family unit might be threatened, and so too would the consumption that the burgeoning capitalist system relied on (home ownership, car ownership, breeding to produce children who would need products, family vacations, etc.). So capitalism responded as it often does: if it can’t beat ‘em, it’ll join ‘em. Like it did with radical racial justice movements, the state worked to coopt queerness as a means of defanging it of it’s radical potential.
Writer and activist Yasmin Nair makes a similar point in her simply titled essay “Your Sex is Not Radical.” She notes correctly: “how many people you fuck has nothing to do with the extent to which you fuck up capitalism.” Queerness as an act (sex outside of heteronormative perscriptions of it), on its own, no longer threatens the system, because queerness is now profitable.
So back to these photos: in absolutely no way do they challenge the State or any of its arms of violence. But my hesitation to share them makes me curious about the way that sex (or sex-implied signifiers) is the one thing we are required to keep out of workplaces (and the public sphere more generally). It was only recently that the idea of losing your job because of racist beliefs (for example) was even a possibility, but we have decades of cases of people losing their jobs for having a background in sex work, being scolded for wearing “inappropriate” clothing to the office, and so on. I’m less interested in thinking through workplace firing policies and more interested in what this says more broadly about the potential stakes of sexual deviance. Undeniable, there is something threatening about sex to bourgois institutions, but how, if at all, can we wield that as a valuable tool in the struggle?
This week I spent time with a friend who is a bit of a non-monogamy activist (at least an educator and advocate of), and we dove into a conversation about what a world without the State might look like (a favorite and frequent topic of conversation). This quickly led to the topic of sex. My friend, pushing back against Nair, still sees queer relationality (sex and the adjacent connection it offers) as deeply radical, as long as it’s rooted in the rejection of what they call “pair-bonding.” When we rely on the State and one other person to meet our needs, my friend argues, we will lose every time. A new way of being in the world will require more collective ways of living and taking care of one another, which we can’t get to without scrutinizing the reliance on the couple form. Similarly, queer theorist Michael Warner argues,
“The impoverished vocabulary of straight culture tells us that people should be either husbands and wives or (nonsexual) friends….It is not the way many queers live. If there is such a thing as a gay way of life, it consists in these relations, a welter of intimacies outside the framework of professions and institutions and ordinary social obligations.”
And it is in these spaces outside of institutions where possibility lies.
Although I think some people would be genuinely eager to remain in couple-like forms, even without the influence of dominant norms, I still agree that if we want to challenge the organizing system of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy, we have to think about new ways of being together. And what draws us towards one another more than desire? Sex still matters, still has stakes, because it’s one of the strongest forces that compels us to building life together. And what we have to figure out, what we must contend with if we want to move beyond systems of oppression, is how to build life together more freely.
Boudoir photos don’t have anything to do with non-monogamy per se, nor are they necessarily queer, but I think when we are public about our sexuality (by which I mean that we are sexual creatures more than I mean anything about our orientation), we allow it to enter the conversation about power. Fucking won’t liberate us, but our liberation simply won’t be possible without considering all that will be required in our new world building-- and turning towards ‘deviant’ sex practices offer us examples of potent modalities, alive and breathing here today.
I’m not the first to say this (nor is it the first time I’m saying it) but something about posting these pictures made the gap between theory and praxis feel enormous. I can link you to several different essays, books, and zines that make these claims, but my social media feeds and work and/or organizing conversations are generally sexless spaces, even in topics of discussion. Sex workers are constantly shadowbanned for nipples and butts (usually bigger and non-white ones get censored first), and our “solution” to sexual violence is too often to suggest that it is possible for sex and desire to be absent from work and even social spaces. When I go “lewd on main” it’s because, for one, it’s fun, but moreso it’s because I still believe, even with all the valid caveats and critiques, that sex matters. And more importantly that deviance is, as the NSFW warning suggests, “not safe.” Our desires may not be radical, but our deviance illuminates the roots of the violent intersection of sexuality and the state. And in that way, I think, our deviance can be dangerous.
love & solidarity,