The relationship between technology and sexual liberation is not a new one. But just as the 1960s did not in fact usher in “free love” despite the liberatory introduction of the contraceptive pill, the internet and app technology have further complicated issues of pleasure, agency, and sexuality, and the ways they are bound up with economic and political power, as opposed to resolving them.
Four years before Tinder was founded, I was painted a picture of radical sexual practice that looked something like the stereotype ideal of a liberated sexuality: full of fluid sexual opportunity unconfined to the presumptions of the couple form and relationship teleology. Now Tinder, Bumble, Feeld and any number more hook-up apps sit snug on our screens next to weather apps and Google calendars, I’m skeptical — not of technology’s ability to deliver a platform for radical sex but of the very idea of “radical sex” tout court.
Sexual abundance of partners or perversities does not equal liberation. Specific sexual practices are not a shortcut to political engagement
At a time when technology presents itself as liberating, it’s important to question the idea that sexual abundance — whether of partners or perversities — equals liberation. Such a notion fails to address why it is that types of sexual interaction can be experienced as freeing, and the oppressive consequences of asserting that certain, allegedly “radical” sex is sui generis liberatory.
I should preface this by stressing that I believe sex should play a huge role in a politics of liberation. A heteronormative social order that punishes desires, identities, and sexual practices outside its narrow remit must be burned to the ground. Individuals and communities have fought and died — and still do — to be able to love and fuck without persecution. The work of queer pornographers to give these desires representation and recognition is crucial. And of course, joining a movement to fight persecution is the very meaning of political subjectification. Sexuality is a discourse that plays a major role in shaping what kinds of selves get to exist and how they get to exist together. This is the stuff of politics.
But specific sexual practices are not a shortcut to political engagement. Too often, the open question of how modes of sexual relation can exemplify and sustain a radical politics is elided by claims that certain sexual practices are inherently radical — a lie too often peddled by bombastic men-children and self-satisfied sex-posi “adventurers” across the political spectrum.
In my early 20s, I dated one such man, who believed in revolutionary sex to the point of ideology. We were together during Occupy and involved in New York’s fractured anarchist scene. He spoke a big game about “queering” and about challenging a social order organized by heteronormative and coupled forms. He saw a political imperative in pursuing polyamorous and queer constellations. In (what seemed to be) queer porn and in kink, he saw revolutionary interventions.
Sometimes he used queer to mean a political subjectivity that works to undo both hetero- and homonormativities — queer (as disruption) as opposed to gay (as assimilation): “Not gay as in happy; queer as in ‘fuck you.’ ” Sometimes he used “queer” to describe any sexual interaction between any people who were not straight, conventional-bodied or cis-gendered. This was queer as a label you can use to identify yourself on an app designed for soliciting threesomes.
Both these usages are common and the meanings do intersect; his problem was collapsing them entirely. He viewed certain forms of sex — certainly not all sex — as a necessary rite of passage, without which no appropriate radicalization was possible. His was a near religious faith that certain sex acts between certain bodies carried a priori a radically transformative quality. Unknowingly, this self-defined anti-state communist was urging political engagement as an individualist, unilateral practice.
The phrase “the personal is political” is often misunderstood as meaning that personal choices are necessarily political choices. It’s better understood as emphasizing that the very terrain of what gets to be a choice and what types of persons get to be choosers are shaped by political power — the sort of power that whispers through human history in the maintenance of conventions and hierarchies, in various regimes of expertise, as well as more overt forms of power like the illegalization of abortions.
As Michel Foucault argued in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, what we talk about when we talk about sex tends to take the form of confession because we (wrongly) treat sex as a site of revelation about our “true” natures. Sex is held to reveal an inner “truth” about identity that is actually shaped by a variety of social forces. So it is with our sexual desires: We may think we just have them, as if centuries of power operations had not determined not only our desiring tendencies but the very terrain of what appears as a choice or who is recognized as a chooser.
The risk of a personal-is-political discourse that focuses on individual choice rather than the terrain of choice making is that it may lead to a politics expressed primarily through, say, buying organic or downloading an app for non-monogamous sex that allows you to speak the “inner truth” about yourself as “pansexual.” Though your personal choices are deemed political, who you are is held stable. That is, the matrix that forms who we get to be goes unchallenged, even as we may find ways to better leverage cultural capital to make choices that improve our relative positions (i.e. if representing oneself as “pansexual” were to increase one’s cachet).
My old ex, with his misdirected faith in sex as radical, harbored a similar position. During my time with him, he would not only violate the particulars of our non-monogamy (not all non-monogamies are the same), having sex with partners without notifying me, but also would assume that I would want to have sex with people he chose because they were, as he put it, “queer and cool.” Our ensuing arguments would turn on the fulcrum of why my desires weren’t somehow “better.” When I wasn’t attracted to a particular person, he called me a “body fascist” — which may well have been the case, given the way my libidinal tastes fit firmly within conventional determinations of beauty. Sometimes our desires are worth questioning and challenging. But the form his accusation took was not a potential introduction to desiring differently but instead exemplified how radical sexual politics can be weaponized — how they can lead to further policing of desires rather than its undoing.
By treating sex as a political project of rupturing preconditioned desires, we might end up merely reducing each other to experimental objects for our own self-development — the neoliberal project of enhancing our “good” political status. Such an approach treats sex acts as unilateral techniques of self-construction, as if the simple meeting of certain bodies serves to subvert and reorganize desires. What demarcates that sort of political sex from the sort of privileged play of Burning Man orgies? Post festum, does the world look much different?
The very terrain of choice is shaped by political power — the sort of power that whispers through human history in the maintenance of conventions and hierarchies
The counterargument is not to retreat to the reactionary normativities that queerness attempts to disrupt. It’s not actually more radical to be monogamous just because everyone and their paramorous triad seems to be meeting in an expensive bar in Williamsburg and reveling in their radical performance after finding each other on Feeld (an app designed with that exact thing in mind).
As queer theorist Guy Hocquenghem asks in his once-banned 1973 text, The Screwball Asses, “Will any desire, apart from obedience, ever be able to structure itself otherwise than as transgression or counter-transgression?” He argues that “limiting oneself to a sexual path, under the pretext that it is one’s desire and that it corresponds to a political opportunity for deviance, strengthens the bi-polarization of the ideology of desire that has been forged by the bourgeoisie.” Supposed transgression can’t but reaffirm the status quo as the stable center of what it aims to transgress. The bourgeois sexual adventurer has little interest in exploding the order that gives their “transgression” its value. Hocquenghem didn’t need to live in the time of Grindr, Tinder, Bumble, or Feeld to know that “there is no escaping economics … Roles are not broken but granted.” We do not undo structures of capital and the identities they uphold by “expanding our horizons” in app land. Which is not to say don’t do it — but don’t claim liberation.
In an essay called “On Queer Privilege,” the writer known as Fuck Theory put it well: “consider the implications of a smug condescension that presumes to judge people’s sexuality based on the way they relate to other people’s genitals and to evaluate the revolutionary potential of an act based on its statistical prevalence. Is this what we want from queer theorizing?”
The same ex who had castigated me for being insufficiently queer used to watch a decent amount of porn. His tastes were not mine, but that he would find his tastes represented was a good thing. Still, as with many porn viewers today, his means of viewing was through a set of reductive search categories on behemoth tube sites like YouPorn, PornHub, and RedTube, all of which are owned by the same company, MindGeek.
It was not his fault that these tube sites rely on a grim taxonomy of racist, sexist, transphobic, ageist, and ableist tropes: “big black,” “Asian teen,” “thug,” “schoolgirl,” “MILF,” “shemale,” and so on. But there was a telling dissonance in how he would praise the sites’ content for its radicality while overlooking how the sites reinforce the porn industry’s archaic categories and undermine its workers’ rights and economic leverage.
Writing about porn in 2004, film theorist Linda Williams noted that “as the proliferating discourses of sexuality take hold … there can no longer be any such thing as a fixed sexuality — male, female, or otherwise.” She wrote that “the very multiplicity of these pleasures and perversions inevitably works against the older idea of a single norm — the economy of the one — against which all else is measured.” Insofar as the social order no longer insists on one “single norm,” she has a point. But the multiplicity of represented pleasures and perversions on tube sites has not ended the fact of “female, male, or otherwise” sexuality (by which I presume she meant gender). Proliferating perversions, as represented in categories of online viewing and participation, may have created a new norm of multiplicity in arousal, but this has not disrupted the hierarchical play of powers that control what can be represented as (a) sexuality. We must still navigate old and violent stereotypes, and a mega-corporation content provider, as well as most mainstream production companies, are interested in keeping it that way.
We do not undo structures of capital by “expanding our horizons” in app land. We still navigate violent stereotypes, and most mainstream production companies are interested in keeping it that way
There’s an inherent limitation to the progressiveness of such a porn landscape if bodies are primarily sought, categorized, and thus sexualized via their race or any other category. So the finding in a survey of millennials conducted by PornHub and Mic.com that “ebony” and “black” were among their top 12 porn search terms can hardly be seen, as Mic.com claimed, that the generation was not privileging whiteness. As I wrote for the Nation at the time, such porn inscribes racism through the notion of taboo, and reinforces it materially by attaching premium pay scales and exclusivity agreements on “interracial” scenes.
In an essay titled “Your Sex Is Not Radical,” writer and activist Yasmin Nair rejects the relevance of sexual practices in political organizing. When she asserts “that how many people you fuck has nothing to do with the extent to which you fuck up capitalism,” I agree with her. But her total separation of politics from sex fails to consider the role that the representation of sex plays in constructing the “truth” of sex today. You don’t have to be a pearl-clutching anti-sex-work moralist to acknowledge that online porn plays a powerful formative role in our lives, informing notions of what sex gets to be. Given this, the need for political and ethical work toward a world of porn with better taxonomies and worker protections is obvious.
But sexual practices in and of themselves are not necessarily constitutive of resistance. Polyamorous configurations in basement BDSM dungeons doesn’t change who owns the houses. Technosociologist Zeynep Tufecki makes the point that traditional political movement tactics have gotten easier over the years “partly thanks to technology”:
A single Facebook post can help launch a large march! Online tools make it easier to coordinate phone calls, and even automate them. Legislators have figured this out; they are less likely to be spooked just by marches or phone calls (though those are good to do: their absence signals weakness).
Her point is that tactics which once signalled “underlying strength” no longer do, by virtue of the ease of reiterability.
The same might be said of sexual practices which once were considered threats to capital’s reproduction through the family form and property relations. “Radical” sex can hardly be said to be an inherent threat to the status quo when Silicon Valley scions helicopter in to burning to have it.
To be blunt: When there’s a popular app for organizing your next queer orgy, how rupturous of our political status quo can the mere fact of such an orgy be? Radical sexual practices — especially in the context of political movements — can be recuperated into patriarchal power structures, techno-capital, and the creation of more bourgeois desiring machines. The challenge is to come together to fight old oppressions, rather than scrolling through screens seeking new transgressions.
Adapted from an essay that originally appeared in Logic. Read their manifesto, subscribe, and check out their new book, Tech Against Trump, at logicmag.io.