We’ve all been there.
You visit a hookup or dating website, cruise somebody’s profile and are confronted with the list: no fats; no femmes; no Asians; no blacks; masc only; my age or younger; str8-acting, you be too; non-scene; and on and on. What we find is a lot of hate when all we want is head.
“Gay men have forgotten how to have sex,” says Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, editor of the forthcoming anthology Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?
“For so long that was supposed to be something gay men were good at, but I’m not so sure anymore. They might be good at the technique but not the openness. Sex should be about opening possibilities, not closing them off.”
The negative language so prevalent on Craigslist and Grindr seems to signal that the culture of sexual liberation has been replaced by sexual segregation.
Gay sexual oppression is catalogued painfully on the Douchebags of Grindr blog, which sorts prejudiced profiles based on everything from racism and sexism to self-hating homophobia. But even though we see it everywhere, most people are as willing to admit to the exclusionary aspects of their desires as Lindsay Lohan is to submit to drug testing — statements are qualified by “Sorry, that’s just what I’m into” or “No hard feelings, it’s just my preference.”
Sycamore says that while people have the right to say what they’re attracted to, they have a responsibility to watch how they say it. “On the one hand, people are stating their preference, but on the other, these are not neutral terms. If we were living in a culture where everything was the same, it wouldn’t be a problem. But when sexual preference reinforces dominant systems of power in an unquestioning way, that’s when it becomes problematic.”
Michael J Faris, co-author of the essay “Fucking with Fucking Online: Advocating for Indiscriminate Promiscuity,” believes that sexual oppression too often is unexamined. “Desiring one thing more than another I don’t see as a bad thing,” he says. “When you say, ‘I won’t date a black person or won’t sleep with a black person,’ that’s what I see as being racist. If you can’t interrogate your desire, that’s a problem.”
Sociologist Adam Isaiah Green, a faculty member at the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, believes “the concept of sexual racism is too strong and too intentional. Our liberation movement worked to remove shame from sexual desire, and I think we should take a lesson from it in terms of how we deal with the topic of racialized desires. Sensitizing ourselves to the connections between our most inner sexual desires and the sociopolitical landscape we are immersed in also seems like a good way to go.”
Self-described “Queer brown drag queen faggot” ML Sugie, who co-authored the essay with Faris, questions whether strict qualifiers should play any role in desire at all: “I can’t make the case that race, ethnicity, body type, ability — any of it — has any business being involved in hooking up, beyond what people have told me are for aesthetic reasons, which I take to be code for ‘unjustifiable hierarchies that I don’t want to explain.’ It just isn’t intelligible to look at someone and say, ‘I want to reach orgasm
by being fucked, but only fucked by a person of this ethnicity or race.’ The connection just doesn’t make sense. What is it about certain ethnicities or races that make it so you just can’t get off or find them sexually attractive? And how fucked up is that?”
As Faris notes, “If attraction didn’t change, you would never see two 80-year-old people together. More than likely, when they were 18 they didn’t find an 80-year-old attractive.” Unless one of them was named Harold and the other was named Maude.
Ali Abbas, author of the essay “Death by Masculinity,” notes, “Sexual desire will not, like many other things, come naturally. Desire is universal, but how we shape that desire is based on our willingness to pursue it. Who is to say that desire just naturally happens? Why can’t desire be a mode of living that requires contemplation, action and self-reflection rather than strict requirements?”
It seems the terms we use to describe desires are as fluid and hard to define as the desires themselves. Faris doesn’t think universal definitions for terms like “straight-acting” or “masculine” are possible. “When I’m online and someone says, ‘Are you masc?’ my usual response is, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Those things are all culturally relative. I grew up on a farm, and you have these big women who are doing farm work, which is very masculine, but it’s not viewed as being masculine; she’s just being a wife. By femme, what do you mean? Do I gesticulate a lot? Yes. Do I do drag? Yes. Straight acting is the most hilarious term. To be straight is to be attracted to or have sex with women.”
Faris suggests that, instead of using negative terminology that describes what they don’t want, people should explain what they do want and deal with others as individuals. If you aren’t attracted to Asian men because stereotypes suggest they are smooth and you prefer hairy men, you could write, “I like hairy men” on your profile, not “no Asians.” “I think being explicit with what you’re into is more inclusive. It might mask things and make them invisible and harder to discuss. But it still makes things more inclusive,” says Faris. “If
someone is reading through a bunch of profiles, at least they don’t feel rejected by 40 profiles that say, ‘no Asian dudes.’”
“Changing negative descriptions into positive descriptions doesn’t change the fact that they are still requirements based on things like race, looks or gender expression,” counters Sugie. “It merely flips the statement from ‘What I don’t want’ to ‘What I require.’ It doesn’t change the content of the message, only the wording. Why is it so important that someone find a slim, masculine, hairy, buff man? Do you have some sort of vintage sling with a really low weight limit? A grand piano you’d like him to help you move after you fuck? What exactly are you going to do that requires such a specific, acrobatic person — and can I watch?”
What else can be done to change our bad behaviours? Sycamore believes that confronting others’ desires as well as one’s own is effective. He recalls challenging someone for having ‘no Asians’ written in his profile: “He said my distaste was ‘just because you’re Asian.’ It’s fascinating that people think the only ones who could be offended by this racist thing is someone who’s Asian.”
Raymond Miller, author of Little Kiwi’s Word Museum of Wonder and Terror blog, revels in challenging people and frequently shares his Grindr exchanges. “I’ve received so much mail in support of it. There’s the occasional letter that says, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are.’ The irony is that they say, ‘How dare you judge me’ when they’re judging everyone else. And it’s always white boys that can’t believe someone doesn’t want them because they’re supposedly the gold standard.”
Miller has an interesting proposal for driving home the point that putdowns in the form of come-ons are not welcome in our culture. “I want to organize a sexual boycott. Maybe if people stop getting laid they’ll realize what they’re doing is prejudiced. I don’t know why some guys only want to fuck Hitler’s Youth. I think it’s ugly, and I don’t want to reward that. Tell them that because of what they say, they’re not getting laid tonight.”
Sugie suggests a different strategy: “If you’re just trying to hook up, don’t be so picky about it. Indiscriminate promiscuity is about letting go of our notions that we should measure someone’s sexual worth based on scripted notions of race, class, gender expression, body and ability, and instead focus on creative sexual acts.”
Green goes further: “Foucault once proposed that we craft a sexuality not on desire, but pleasure. Desire is heavily psychoanalyzed, but bodily pleasure much less so. He believed that one starting point for a less socially disciplined sexuality was to focus on the pleasures of bodies — the pleasures our own bodies receive in sexual play and the pleasures we feel when giving sex.”
Words can beat people down, but it’s within our power to change how we frame our desires, and even to change our desires to create more inclusive screwing. By challenging ourselves and others we can expand our desires. So go out there and be indiscriminately promiscuous. Or deny that bigoted beefcake a hookup because of his prejudiced profile.
Just make sure you tell him there are no hard feelings — it’s just a preference.
Alex Rowlson is a freelance writer who is working on his PhD in history at the University of Toronto.