Choose Your Own Adventure

Racialized sexual fantasies imagine desire as an array of exciting ice cream flavors, but the consumer is always assumed to be vanilla.

Mainstream economists like to take individual “preferences” for granted, as if they emerged miraculously out of thin air, and make these preferences the measure of usefulness. The liberal discourse around sexuality works in essentially the same way – not so much wrong as insufficient. The logic of both money and desire supposedly centers on mutually beneficial exchanges between consenting independent adults with full disclosure of relevant information. But this apparently liberated hedonism hides a far more puritanical, masochistic regime in which desire is a solitary pursuit.

The article of faith that in the beginning was the preference precludes consideration of how we could cultivate the desires we desire. Non-desire sparks no conversations; as theorist Guy Hocquenghem says in his celebrated essay The Screwball Asses, “Most everyone agrees that the refusal of desire is sovereign: ‘I don’t want to, that’s all!’” We know we are allowed to change our mind but we don’t know how to talk about how we might want it to change. In liberal sexuality nothing fundamental to the self is really exchanged along with bodily fluids; we are not transformed, not created interpersonally.

Online dating profiles, especially on Grindr, the gay cruising app, have brought new visibility to racist dating criteria. When it comes to sexual preferences, people who don’t think of themselves as racist, and who in other situations would feel compelled to cloak their implicit racism in socially acceptable forms, evidently feel no qualms about proclaiming their desire for “only white guys,” “no blacks, no Asians,” etc. This escapes significant censure by riding the coattails of the “Born This Way” discourse, which encourages us to strip away guilt and reveal our “natural” desires. The expedient argument used for decades to promote wider toleration of queer sexualities – i.e. as long as there is individual consent, sexuality is natural, amoral and should be non-ideological – also allows people to indulge their own racism under the cover of the primal innocence of sex. The “just a preference” argument pleads that it can’t be helped. But this naturalizes both sexuality and race. If we recognize race as socially constructed then racial sexual preference must be socially constructed fantasy too. We can’t become innocent of the original sin of being born into a racist, sexist society, but what kind of redemption is possible? Can we cultivate certain desires over others? Can we guide our fantasies to be more in line with our broader social ethics?

The idea of training our desires to match our values brings to mind the embarrassing parallel of “ex-gay” therapy. Before unreflectively damning the ex-gay industry, it is worth thinking about what exactly we find so abhorrent there and what that says about our attitude to desire in general. It’s not just the false advertising and the pointless harm that “gay cures” inflict on individuals that outrage us. Wouldn’t we be just as uncomfortable with gay cures that actually worked? And what about therapy that promises to make you bisexual? Or to make you more monogamous or less sexually jealous? Or indeed to make your sexual desire less racist? How much must we fetishize the authenticity of sexuality? Hocquenghem writing in 1972 regrets that among his comrades in the gay liberation movement:

A homosexual trying to allow heterosexual desire to reappear from beneath the tangle of his fears of women would be accused of treachery and assimilated to someone who, pulled in by orthodox psychoanalysis, accepts to be healed of perversion by a society to which he stands opposed.

Clearly then desire is political. But what is the meta-principle brought to bear on desire? For Hocquenghem the answer is love. We should not surrender love to the conservatives’ domestication of desire around the family hearth. For the revolutionary queer project to be rescued from its moribund disarticulation of desire and politics, “…love would have to mean nothing else but an effervescent desire to desire, that is, the opposite of falling in love.” This is not the pseudo-Buddhist idea of love as a generalized, objectless compassion, which is more like a desire not to desire. This is love that negates the egotistical false opposition of narcissism and self-annihilation.

For Hocquenghem the tendency among gay men to construct their sexual objects as irredeemably other “… is a form of the prohibition against fraternal incest.” The white, middle-class Parisian men that Hocquenghem hears proclaiming their desire to be penetrated by working-class Arab men have fixed ideas of the sexual roles each must play. This is tourism where roles are taken as given, not transgressed. Their sexuality “demands racism as a particular form of exogamy.” Theirs was a hidden subculture, but today online dating profiles advertise racial preferences like favorite ice cream flavors. Light-hearted references to “rice queens” (white gay men with a preference for Asian men), for example, are treated almost as a celebration of multiculturalism. When race is imagined as a set of flavors to choose from, the consumer is automatically assumed to be vanilla, and as Hocquenghem says, “we must not forget that a collector is always somehow a bourgeois.” The logic of cruising:

…displays strong analogies with capitalist accumulation, in that it continuously projects into the past, due to its mechanism of collection and seriality, just as it projects into the future due to its forward-looking mechanism through which the conqueror thinks of his next conquest immediately upon completing the first.

White supremacy does not have to rely on increasingly untenable racial purity. More mixing does not necessarily herald an end to racism. The one-drop rule and the idea that whiteness needs to be guarded against contamination developed contingently during the history of colonialism. At other times Empire has ruled through asymmetrical mixing. Imperial whiteness is returning to an “inclusive” center that regulates the periphery, more like Imperial Rome perhaps. Many people of color internalize racial-sexual hierarchies and so feel flattered, even legitimized, by the generosity of white desire. We are encouraged to package our particularities for the white market as fusion cuisine, world music, ethnic chic, etc, while the black other is pushed further away.

Personally I am glad people are relatively open about their racial sexual preferences. It allows me to reject a racialized role at an early stage. In other social interactions, I'd prefer people at least politely repress their racism, but the idea that a lover might secretly desire me either because of or despite my perceived racial identity horrifies me. When I desire another I talk too much. When I feel desired I fall silent and I want to dance. But if I suspect another desires invisible race behind my visible skin I cannot remain silent and I cannot dance.

Some time ago I persisted masochistically with a long conversation on Grindr with someone who wouldn’t accept my refusal to racialize myself in answer to his repeated question “Where are you really from?” and his insistence that I had “some connection to the desert.” After complimenting my “beautiful skin color,” he explained he was hoping I would say, “Yeah I’m from a sexy place… more than England.” His desire could not subsist on my appearance alone. As with Hocquenghem’s 1970s Parisians, his desire needed my appearance to be sutured to a particular racial fantasy. Drawn in, I couldn’t help speculating on the content of the orientalist fantasy in which I was struggling not to play a part – did it include a virile, chauvinistic masculinity perfumed by the kind of Persian femininity mocked by ancient Spartans; a baking sun firing quick passions, while the pressure of Islamic taboos makes illicit lust yet more ardent? I disappointed myself by finally getting angry at his smug insistence that he already knew the truth of my race, and it was just for me to admit it. The inescapability of his identification produced the feeling of something precious having been forcibly ripped from me, all the more precious for being unreal and never having been mine in the first place. I wish I had been able to resist the temptation to prove him wrong, as if what really mattered was whether or not I actually do have Arab ancestry.

I felt the need to drag myself out of that swamp and wash myself down, to reverse the direction of humiliation by making myself knowing rather than known. Why is misrecognition by others so traumatizing? Is it that it reminds us we don't recognize ourselves? There is a circularity to desire and identity, wherein the way you imagine you are desired is central to your identity and indeed your desire.

Lacan explored how fantasy structures desire, enabling it to spiral in on an object. We are constituted as subjects by our total lack of substance. What we can observe of ourselves appears ephemeral, contingent and inessential as soon as we get far away enough from ourselves to see it. What is real in us seems to be hidden behind a veil. But the veil hides only a void, the lack of any guarantee of consistency. Another way of putting this is that we are unable to see ourselves, just as eyes cannot see themselves, and so we are formed by our position in relation to the world, rather than an essential substance.

However, we have the sense of not being pure empty subject but also having an inner nature, a hard kernel of object inaccessible to us but more true than our conscious self. This hard kernel is constructed imaginatively through fantasy. The human subject needs some fantasy of the (lack in the) Other in order for their desire to take form and grasp at a particular object. We fantasize that another person’s desire for us proves that we are really real; we are the object that can fill the gap inside them. This fantasy precedes and structures our desire, which can never satisfied because the Other is only another person, an incomplete subject just as incapable of perceiving the secret reality inside us as we are of perceiving theirs.

That guy on Grindr needed a fantasy of my “race” in order to imagine himself as the object of my desert passions. The problem is not his objectification of me, but rather his subjectification of me in order to objectify himself. This is the paradox of contemporary racism, which insists that people “self-identify” according to a phantasmagoric scheme.

This helps us to understand the enjoyment people get from advertising their “negative” dating criteria on Grindr profiles. Sounding like a racist jerk might put off many more potential partners than just the targeted subgroups but remember that most Grindr activity remains purely online and masturbatory, not meant to lead to encounters in the flesh. The point of advertising yourself as wanting “No Asians, No femmes” is to construct a fantasy, to enjoy imagining yourself as an object unavailable to the desires of the banished other, the non-white, non-masculine, etc. In a world of increasingly blurred boundaries, spectral whiteness and masculinity reassert themselves in a fantasy of purity, which is almost equivalent to a fantasy of interpenetration with the irredeemably other. Faced with the Grindr grid of apparently limitless possibilities, the abstainer experiences the disciplining pleasure of self-denial.

Hocquenghem’s equation of love with “an effervescent desire to desire” has to transcend exogamy defined according to existing power structures. But our love will be sucked dry if we see desire only through politics. Hocquenghem warns against revolutionary homosexuals who “take our desire for revolution for the practical reality of our libidinal desire.” This risks self-consciousness leading to another form of exogamy “where a dick can only make love to a head and a head to a dick.” Imagine a queer theorist reading The Screwball Asses on a train when he sees a hot guy who starts to flirt before pulling out his own copy. What does that second copy do to the sexual desire? Surely it would vanish instantly? Hocquenghem knows this only too well, as he starts the book acknowledging that he is addressing exclusively those who are sexually unavailable to the writer since “we only speak of sex in front of people with whom it does not take place or who likewise admit to having no desire for us.”

Is it self-defeating to search for transformative sexual relations, to subjugate desire to a political principle? We know that change happens by stealth. Maybe the ego needs to pretend its own stability is secure in order to be open to life and its own transformation. Thus sexual partners are met with distancing techniques (anonymity, codes of NSA, exoticization, etc) or first vetted through dating protocols to ensure compatibility (with class position being more determining than ever.) We look for sex to take us for a brief vacation from ourselves to deposit us back just where we started, like a bourgeois yoga class.

Hocquenghem asks: “When shall we be able to shatter the power of words by the movement of skins?” But the idea that we should favor ill-disciplined pleasure over disciplined desire is hopeless. The only meaningless sex possible would have been between Adam and Eve before the Fall. Now, Born This Way into sinful civilization, we can only disavow meaning. Repentance is not the same as innocence. Discipline is necessary so we can have meaningful lives based on a relationship with desire, not just pleasure. The point is not to be good or happy but never to give in with respect to your desire, i.e. never to deny it, nor to accept it as just given, but instead to follow it upstream, to traverse the fantasy, to encounter the edge of the subjective abyss from which infinitely fractal and beautifully perverse desire flows.

Forget sex anyway. We live in a time when friendship can be more revolutionary than sex. Society seems to fear the transformative potential of friendship, that amorphous concept of partiality. Witness the media invention of the term “bromance” – its light tone carries a real attempt to mock (heterosexual) male friendship as both gay and incestuous. Perhaps we should take that seriously and see love as that desire to discover new desires with our friends, the base unit of politics.