Like many men, in light of the #metoo movement, I have been led to reexamine my own sexual history. But as someone whose typical partners have been men, the stakes are different. For, according to one thread of #metoo’s logic, when I examine my conscience, I have to reimagine myself as both predator and prey, groomer and groomed.
The idea of sex as a hunt, however, is grossly heteronormative, something out of Greek mythology, wherein Zeus’s primary mode of seduction was disguise and trickery. In pederasty as described in Plato, however, the lover approaches the beloved with reverence. Consummated or not, seduction was never about deceiving the beloved; it was a way of guiding the younger man to contemplate the good, the beautiful, and the true as they exist in their pure, unchanging, and eternal states.
My intention here is neither to romanticize a social institution that undoubtedly led to abuses of power, nor revive Greek metaphysics, nor propose that we forget the denigration of the body that was Plato’s heritage, once Paul of Tarsus and Augustine got their hands on him. My point is that men who have sex with other men do not characteristically imagine sex as a hunt for prey. Or if they do, it is typically a camp performance. Even the fungible roles of top and bottom are erotic theatrics: only the desire of the bottom provides the top with his raison d’être.
When, thanks to #metoo, I revisit moments in my life when I could have been construed as predator, I recall in particular what I assumed at the time were sex games, the first tentative steps down seduction’s path. Two guys stripped to their jeans, barefoot, wrestling on the pristine wooden floor of the one’s apartment, trying to negotiate together how far their desire might, in that moment, lead them. Picking up a guy in a nearby bar, you walk together back to your apartment, an adorable boy wearing a baseball cap who spent the night in your bed, and who, when you kissed him, murmured something between yes and no, and you, praying to the Blessed Mother that you would do anything – anything – for this boy to love you; he kisses you passionately but it goes no further, because that is what he asks. Or the various guys with whom you felt such a profound, deep connection of friendship that your body ached to comfort them; how, one night, the two of you end up sleeping in the same bed; and how, the next morning, with an almost unimaginable kindness, he lets you down.
None of these examples resulted in sex. But still, I worry: was I too aggressive in offering my body to these boys? Or were we in fact communicating silently, somatically, so that whatever consent required had been provided when they stepped into my bed? Or are these examples an alibi for the much more banal instances in which I pushed against someone’s hesitation in order to test it or even, to contradict myself, conquer it. Even Plato’s The Phaedrus mentions how, at first, the beloved is not sure what is happening to him, and so hesitates at the older man’s “advances.” So many of our sexual metaphors assume a pursuer and pursued!
Even with my partner (and now husband) of sixteen years, I still struggle to determine if he has given his full consent – to the point that it irritates him to hear me say afterward, over and over, “Was that okay? Were you really okay doing that? Did you do it because you wanted to, or because you know I wanted it?” Because, despite our sophisticated ripostes, a certain feminism does indeed shame us for our sexual choices – as I well learned at a Women’s and Gender Studies conference a few years ago when asked to respond to a critique of porn that spoke, in the voice of a morally repulsed feminism, against some of my most treasured sexual fantasies.
Admittedly, I lost my temper. And, admittedly, I apologized later to my three women co-panelists – none of whom ever acknowledged my concern that a colleague was, in a public presentation to an audience of undergraduates, vilifying queer sexual acts I treasured, acts from which I had learned a great deal about myself, my body, its capacities for pleasure, and its ability to encourage another man to hand his body over to me to make of it, as Kant might say, an object of our mutual enjoyment — and for me to do the same for him. Because I know that, whatever else happens during sex, our shared goal will be to assist the other in the admittedly risky process of taking our bodies somewhere new, discovering capacities for pleasure and unpleasure we did not realize we had. Obviously, in front of that group of undergraduates, I was not prepared to make a case for the way in which disgust itself could be erotic.
Which is to say that, until there are drastic changes in society and culture, when two men have sex, it will never signify in the same way as when a man and a woman have sex. The cultural meanings that accrue to each act are significantly different. This is what it means to say sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality are cultural and historical constructions. They propose possible ways of being in the world while foreclosing others. Given the social meanings of gender, sex does not mean the same thing for two people of the same gender as it does a man and a woman (and when I say gender here, I mean gender, that embodied sense of what it means to be male, female, or non-binary; the social meaning of two non-binary people having sex is not the same as two women, a man and a woman, and so forth). Which means that it might not be appropriate to conceive of what happens sexually between two men as if it were exactly analogous to a heterosexual encounter.
I am not suggesting that fantasies can be free from racism, sexism, power inequities, and homophobia. I am suggesting that we resist the logic that assumes that sexual fantasy maps directly onto the social such that my pleasure in being a “cum dump,” to refer to one of the terms vilified by the conference paper I referenced above, says something particularly profound about how I operate in the social arena in terms of my treatment of women. The fact that many gay identified men have sexual fantasies about inhabiting the worst kind of sexual stereotype of a woman says something interesting about collective forms of fantasy like porn – primarily perhaps that porn really is a conversation among men about their sexual fantasies. But it verges on silly to suggest that my sexual fantasies prove that I am either a dupe, victim, or perpetrator of misogyny.
To be absolutely clear: when a white gay man writes, in a personal ad, “No blacks, no fems,” that is racist and sexist —because a personal ad is a social space. And while we cannot literally will ourselves into arousal, sex is such that, until we are open to a particular fantasy or act, we may not even know that we like it. In its finding of objects, desire is so promiscuous that it can surprise us, crossing boundaries we thought we impermeable.
Of course, social norms inflect fantasy, providing it with erotic material. But to draw a straight line between sexual fantasy and social behavior is to misunderstand both. It was not sexual fantasy that drove white slave owners to rape their Black slaves; their sexual fantasies “found” chattel slavery as an object at hand to eroticize. And while slavery can be abolished, racist sexual fantasy cannot. By cultivating anti-racist practices, however, we can make them, too, available to sexual fantasy so that desire really might be re-educated – in the sense of being able to find new objects, objects it once overlooked.
This is what a queer sexual politics as I understand it proposes; it seeks to open us up to the wider erotic possibilities of the world, and it does so by combatting racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, agism, all the forms of prejudice and hate that interfere with our ability to recognize our potential to love the stranger before us.
I can also think of instances in my life where, from today’s #metoo vantage point, I might be construed as a victim. At the time, however, I felt fully culpable. How should I judge this younger self? Was he really, as some might say, de facto prey because he was sixteen—even though he arranged to be in a place where other men a generation older than he would feel both driven and authorized to act on their desire (because, face it, as much as he was dying, dying to be touched by another man, and whatever his body knew about signaling this to them, he would never dare make the first move — for fear of rejection)? If I arranged the where and when of the sex, didn’t this make me responsible?
Which is to say that, on some level, I literally have difficulty imagining being coerced into sex—another illustration of how powerful gender as a cultural construction is. And whiteness? And nationality? And even, in this instance, class? As Hiram Pérez argues, the 19th century eugenicist project of dividing populations into the allegedly opposing categories of homosexual and heterosexual occurred in tandem with the division of those same populations into male and female, white and black, citizen and alien. Clearly, my own social privilege inflects my sexual fantasies. And it is that social privilege that leads me to say that, even at sixteen, I was nobody’s sexual victim. And never would I construe the sexual journey on which these older men took me as a process of being “groomed.”
Clearly, not everyone possesses my social privilege. But, as someone who teaches undergraduates, I worry about a generation that seems encouraged to take no responsibility for its sexual choices. I was shocked to discover, for example, the way some of my students brought up the issue of predatory sexual behavior in our discussions of the films A Single Man and Carol. In neither of these two films did the older person prey upon the younger one—in fact, in the former, the older man fends off the advances of his student– and yet one of my students insisted that, thanks to their age difference, her money, and the fact that she buys her a present, Carol’s seduction of her younger lover was an instance of “grooming.” Seeing themselves as sexually vulnerable, my students could literally not imagine an instance when intergenerational sex might be pleasurable to the younger partner.
Thanks to the discussion, I revealed to my students that my own husband is forty-four—sixteen years my junior—and someone who repeatedly tires of me saying, “Why would you want to be with someone my age?” We are literally a generation apart—his mother is a year older than I am—and yet we have managed these past sixteen years to grow alongside one another. Forcing my students to think of me as a sexual being was bad enough, but requiring them to imagine me as a dirty old man? While my revelation may not have changed how they view themselves—as one of my brightest students replied when I asked them if they though of themselves as children, “Yes!”—hopefully, they also reconsidered their assumption that inter-generational sex is de facto exploitative. (One conversation I was not ready to have with them: how sexual pleasure can actually increase over the life span. Only the future knows if, when I teach the course again, we will be led to reflect upon this theme!)
As Michael Warner has argued, queer life encourages a variety of intimacies that heteronormativity’s impoverished vocabulary cannot grasp. For many men of my generation, there was nothing intrinsically abusive about intergenerational sex, and I can fully support #metoo without rewriting my own sexual history as one of victimhood. Even at sixteen.