Structure, agency, prejudice and who we have sex with

There are two great principles that a lot of us agree on: people shouldn’t have to have sex with anyone they don’t want to have sex with, and people shouldn’t be prejudiced. But what happens if someone doesn’t want to have sex with someone else out of prejudice? Arguments about this have been blowing up in my Facebook and Twitter for the past several months.

Fortunately, there is a way to combat prejudice without impinging on people’s right to say no to sex. All we have to do is separate structure from agency.

At the Lavender Languages conference in 2013 I attended a fascinating but disturbing talk by Brad Rega called, “‘No Queens, Chocolate, Or Fried Rice’: Anti-effeminate and racist discourse among gay men.” It was basically a depressing catalog of phrases used by gay men on hookup apps like Grindr to indicate all the categories of men that they are not interested in having sex with. Others have confirmed that this is common, as seen in the screenshot above, one of several posted on onehallyu.

The right to say no to sex is a matter of individual agency. The men posting these ads are exercising their agency. This may affect potential partners on an individual level, and that is unfortunate. On the other hand, there’s a case to be made that these effeminate and/or nonwhite men (and basically everybody else) are probably better off not having sex with such people.

If we think about why we really care that some guy doesn’t want to sleep with “fried rice,” it’s clear that we care at the structural level: it’s been shown that society benefits when people have contact with others who are different from them. People who aren’t prejudiced want to remove stigma from categories, and when people advertise their prejudices publicly, that contributes to the stigma.

Prejudices like these are also symptomatic of larger structural inequalities. These individual men may have all kinds of reasons for not wanting to sleep with “chocolate,” but the fact that so many men post these messages makes it clear that many of them are acting out of the same racist motives that lead real estate agents to lie to black people about the availability of apartments in some neighborhoods.

The tricky thing here is that structural problems emerge out of thousands, if not millions, of individual acts of agency. It can be tempting to push back on every single one of these; in fact, this is basically what we’ve been taught to do since Leviticus. But that’s not the best way to solve structural problems. Because human beings are complex dynamic systems, and human societies are complex dynamic systems of human beings, there are many other ways, some of them quite counterintuitive.

Here’s an example: as far as I can tell, none of these guys have a code word to tell Grindr they don’t want to sleep with Irish men (“No corned beef”?). This is not because they love Irish people, but because any remaining prejudice against them is minor and not particularly active in gay hookups. This suggests that if we can end general prejudice against black people, Asians and effeminate gay men, those phrases will disappear from Grindr.

Of course, ending prejudice against black people is great – it’s not like some of us haven’t been trying to do that for centuries! But that timeframe just shows how futile it is to think we can accomplish this by pushing back against “No chocolate” comments – at best it would drive the racism underground.

Is it wrong, then, to publicly shame people for posting their racist sexual preferences? No, I don’t think it is. It may impose a certain amount of decorum in these spaces. If that’s what you’re after, go for it.

On the other hand, we have to agree that these racist guys should be absolutely free to exclude anyone from their dating pool. Don’t think that shaming a bunch of gay men will make a big difference in the underlying racism. If that’s what you want to change, get in touch with others who are working on it, find out the true vulnerabilities of this structure, and put your effort towards things that are actually effective, like dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. We can absolutely honor sexual autonomy and combat racism at the same time.

And yes, I may be talking about gay men and racism here, but I’m also talking about transgender issues.

Everyone has the right to say no

I have been asked for my opinion on the debate over whether it’s okay for lesbians to preemptively restrict their sexual partners to people who fit their definition of women, in particular excluding anyone who has a penis. The bottom line is that everyone has an absolute right to control their own sexual activity, and to say no to sex with anyone, under any circumstances.

People also have a right to decide who they want to flirt with, to date, to fantasize about. Everyone has an absolute right to exclude any individual or group from their pool of prospective romantic partners, for any reason.

To be honest, it would be hypocritical of me to say anything else, because I am pretty much only attracted to women. Not on principle, and not with a specific definition of woman that anyone else would agree with, but that’s what turns me on. None of that really matters at this point, because I haven’t been sexually active with anyone other than my wife since before we were married, and I’m very attracted to her.

This issue is particularly important to me because I was touched, without my consent, as a child. But it is something that everyone should care about, because it is a matter of physical and emotional autonomy. Even beyond the individual level, if we cannot all feel safe in our bodies, what effect does that have on our society?

Four observations about attraction to trans people

There have been a lot of arguments over whether it’s okay for some people to not find trans people attractive. I’ve got things to say about that, but first I wanted to get some facts cleared up.

  1. It’s not just trans women complaining about this. Recently a masculine-spectrum friend told me he was upset that a partner of his might not be attracted to him as a man. He wasn’t just personally hurt; he found it transphobic. So despite what you might hear from certain radical feminists, this is not just a plot by “males” to eliminate lesbians. It’s a concern for all kinds of trans people.
  2. Trans people are not inherently unattractive. Just look at the successes of “shemale porn” and Buck Angel if you want counterevidence. There are women who are attracted to trans women, men who are attracted to trans men, and trans and nonbinary people who are attracted to all genders.
  3. Sexual preference is not the only thing that determines attraction. A woman once told me that she was attracted to both men and women, but she didn’t find tall women with big shoulders attractive, or short guys with big hips. Just because people aren’t attracted to you doesn’t mean they’re not attracted to trans people.
  4. Attractiveness is not the same as validation of our gender presentation. Someone can find me intensely attractive because they think I’m a cute guy in a skirt and not because they think of me as a woman. Whether people mind this depends in part on how committed they are to their gender identifications.

Coming out as a transvestite

On this National Coming Out Day, a lot of it feels so old news. I came out in 1996 – over twenty years ago! And yet I’m still uncomfortable talking about my sexuality. I say the word “transvestite,” but I don’t stress what it means. I posted a version of this last year as a private post on Facebook, but I’ve been afraid to put it in a blog post, or even a tweet – afraid that if people find out it will destroy any credibility I have as a trans person, destroy my social life, and make people not want to hire me.

On some levels it seems like we’ve made such strides in terms of openness and acceptance of sexuality, and on other levels it feels like we’re stuck back in 1950 or even 1880 and haven’t moved an inch. Even in terms of trans acceptance, we’ve made progress, but only at the cost of a lot of us denying our sexuality. Is that really progress?

Anyway, I’m a transvestite. And yes, that means I’m transgender. Are you a transvestite too? Happy National Coming Out Day!

Degrees of sexuality

Every kind of sexuality exists on a continuum of intensity. Partnered straight sex does not go immediately from sexless formality to orgasm, and neither does gay or lesbian sex. In between there is fantasy, provocation, flirting, dating, touching, kissing and foreplay.

The progression is not necessarily linear or inevitable. People may feel conflicted or ambivalent, or simply not have a clear idea of what they want. They may change their minds, or feel differently when circumstances change. Fantasies go unfulfilled. People flirt and nothing comes of it. They kiss and don’t call. They have sex but want to go back to flirting.

There is also ambiguity and formality in sexuality. People go through the motions to please a partner. They kiss because they’re lonely. They fool around even if they don’t feel like it, because they got all dressed up and don’t want that effort to go to waste. They wear revealing clothing to feel admired or to be cool on a hot day, or because their other nice shirt was in the wash, or because it’s part of the dress code, official or unofficial.

If you read some writings all the nuances go out of the window. In these portrayals there is a linear progression from provocative dressing to flirting to kissing to foreplay to intercourse. People either want intercourse or they don’t, and their feelings never change. If they want it everything else is simply a series of hoops to jump through on the way.

There are two kinds of discourse that erase all the nuances. The first is erotica, because all that stuff about ambiguity and ambivalence can be a huge turn-off. We want a little bit of a story, but not so much it distracts us. We also want to be flattered, and too much nuance can muddy the picture.

People also ignore these nuances when disapproving of other people’s sexuality. It’s okay for Us to affirm our sexuality with all its nonlinearity, ambivalence, ambiguity and formality, but the Others, whether they be gay men or lesbians, straight unmarried couples, straight masturbators or BDSM fetishists, are not allowed this level of humanity. They are single-minded sex maniacs, monsters prepared to put their gratification before all else.

I can testify to this from experience. When I was a teenager I read and heard things about gay men that made me think of their sexuality as single-strength, either on or off, and I judged them accordingly. As I grew up and my gay male friends came out to me, I saw the humanity of their sexual feelings and stopped judging. (I also stopped judging other people in general, which was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.)

This isn’t to say that there aren’t sexualities that come with their own problems. When people feel desire for children, or nonhuman animals, or people that they have power over, there is a real danger of abuse. When people get obsessed with objects, or objectify other people or their body parts, that presents a barrier to the formation of true relationships. When sexuality is connected to violence, there is the danger of that violence getting out of hand. But we can’t simply say that everything and everyone associated with these problematic sexualities is automatically bad, or even criminal. We need to treat them realistically, acknowledging their complexities and finding solutions to the problems they pose.

I’m also not saying there aren’t bad actors out there. There absolutely are, but they’re represented in all sexualities, and they’re a minority of all sexualities. We need to keep this in mind, and remember that everyone deserves safety and compassion.