Saturday, 30 June 2007

Examining Your Desires

After writing this I wound up thinking a bit about "examining one's desires" and why, exactly, I think it's a faulty way of thinking about the potential connections between sexual desire and sexism, racism, etc.

In order to use a real example but not make the discussion about my personal stuff, I'll give the example of my mom.

My parents are white. My mom has a thing for black men. For as long as I've known her, she's loved to watch basketball in part because she's a sports nut... and, in part (and she freely admits it) because she loves drooling over the hot black hunks on the teams. She had a girlish crush on my seventh-grade gym teacher that made me blush. She talked a lot at great length about the beauty of black men's bodies and the comparative ugliness of white men.

I don't think she had (or has now) any idea that her sexual attraction to these men could be at all exoticizing.

So let's say I decided to fix this. Let's say I snuck in one night and gave her copies of "Eating the Other" and the scenes from Invisible Man that involve the main character trying desperately to fend off a white woman who is desperate to be "raped" by a "boo'ful black bruiser" but has no interest in him as a person and no idea that he doesn't want to be seen as an oversexed animal.

And let's say she got it. Let's say a little lightbulb went off over her head and she remembered asking her kid embarrassing questions about the cuteness of her OMGBLACK GYM TEACHER YUM YUM!!11!!eleventyseven! and went "Oh my God, that was gross of me!"

Suppose all that. Now, there's still a huge question: Will this woman, whose sexual desire is so keyed into race, stop having sexual responses to seeing a certain subset of black men?

If she doesn't, what does that actually mean?

By asking this, I'm not saying "wow, you mean anti-racists, lay off my mama, she's programmed to lust after people with a certain amount of melanin!" I'm not asserting that isn't exoticizing when I ask "what does that mean?"

What I am wondering is exactly what it is we're trying to accomplish. Is it just awareness, such that "okay, now I've told her and she'll be less obnoxious about it and think before she airs her basketballer fantasies in front of people who will be very upset by them?"

Is it reprogramming, such that she won't experience these people as particularly sexually attractive? Clearly she'll hopefully have a respect for these men as people that she may lack now (I am not sure exactly how to analyze whether she does or not, and I think whether she does is much more complicated than just looking at sex/desire/arousal), but will that respect alter her sexual desire, or simply coexist with it?

If the attraction remains, strong as it ever was, but she's aware... have we failed, or have we succeeded?

Do we have a way to quantify what "examination" does and when it succeeds and when it fails? When is more "examination" needed, and when is it not?

My personal feeling is that complete naivete about a desire like this may warrant some encouragement of "examination." But outside of the situation in which someone has no idea that there's a history of exoticization (or whatever), I'm not sure asking "have you thought about what that means?" again is useful.

21 comments:

ellefromtheeast said...

I think the best you can hope for is that people 1) recognize the socio-historical context of their desires, and 2) have a genuine desire not to perpetuate injustices. What you can't expect is that other people will work through the implications and consequences of that context for their relationships in exactly the same way you would.

People who are like this description of your mom are clearly in category 1, and if there's any advocacy of feminism within BDSM, to my mind it's all about consciousness raising in category 1.

There are people with category 2 problems, and I frankly don't think they can be reasoned with. Men who want "mail order brides" because they think "Oriental" women are more obediant and "traditional" I think are fundamentally category 2. They're taking advantage of simultaneous patriarchy and neo-colonialism, and they know it and love it.

But people who are fully cognizant of power and privilege and really want progress - well, they may or may not come to the same understanding that you do.

And I think that's why you admire Sheila Jeffries's decision about squelching fantasies. I mean, it's her loss, but at least it's internally consistent with her reading of history and society, and there's a weird virtue in that.

Trinity said...

"I think the best you can hope for is that people 1) recognize the socio-historical context of their desires, and 2) have a genuine desire not to perpetuate injustices."

Yes. Very well said.

"There are people with category 2 problems, and I frankly don't think they can be reasoned with. Men who want "mail order brides" because they think "Oriental" women are more obediant and "traditional" I think are fundamentally category 2. They're taking advantage of simultaneous patriarchy and neo-colonialism, and they know it and love it."

And yes, yes, yes, hell yes. :)

But there is the added wrinkle that I think a lot of people can easily go through their lives without c-r in 1). For example, my mom hasn't done much of that I don't think. I never actually talked to her about this, as when I was younger I didn't really know myself that it was something that could be worrisome. And nowadays I haven't found any good time to bring it up.

And well... what about the hetero couple who tries M/f D/s in the course of sexual experimenting and likes it, without any in-depth discussions of feminism and patriarchy? If that dominant man has never had his consciousness raised in a feminist manner, he's not in category 1) either.

And well, I can perhaps agree that gently mentioning that some people take issue with his style of relationship might be appropriate in some situations. But if you never did, how bad is it, really, that there's a guy with free-floating fantasies of dominating women that we haven't yet made sure to zap with our feminist ray?

That's part of why I'm often skeptical of "examine your..." Because you know, not everyone does and I'm not at all sure that's the end of the world. Some people should, sure... but I think we know that on a much more individual basis than we like to admit

*and* we also know that it's often really not useful. I mean in my own life, there are some desires I have that I've thought about until my brain cramped and still had no idea why the fuck they're there.

ellefromtheeast said...

I do think that people who don't examine the socio-historical context of their desires are more likely to do something hurtful or damaging, like make sweeping generalizations. The couple you describe could easily wind up saying, "Hey! Everyone should try this "Surrendered Wife" book! It saved our marriage, so it must be how marriage is supposed to work!" Um, no. Or like the character who doesn't understand how she's insulting the protagonist in _Invisible Man_.


"I mean in my own life, there are some desires I have that I've thought about until my brain cramped and still had no idea why the fuck they're there."

And here I agree with you. I don't think we can always - or sometimes even EVER - know WHY we want what we we want. But we can think about what it means to want that in this social location. Forget origins; I care about consequences.

Trinity said...

"I do think that people who don't examine the socio-historical context of their desires are more likely to do something hurtful or damaging, like make sweeping generalizations."

True, but I also think there can be a tendency in feministville to exaggerate how bad this is by itself.

Because the problem isn't just that that guy over there (or that dupe o' the Pat over there, tsk!) made a sweeping sexist generalization oh noez.

The problem is who that generalization affects. Are they telling their daughter or son what it's like to be a wife or husband? Are they shaming some local person into feeling forced into these dynamics? Are they writing books in defense of male "headship" that will have influence on many people?

Or are they just, say, telling ME "read _The Surrendered Wife_," which is likely to have little effect on me (okay, maybe I might be having an insecure day and feel inadequate for five seconds until I remind myself that's wackadoodle.)

All these things, I think, matter to whether the recommendation of c-r actually means much of anything.

I guess my beef is I care about the practical. What are we really doing. Giving advice over the Internet to new feminists, or doing activism, or what? What do we hope will come of it?

Which the "examine your desires"ing I see doesn't come with. It usually just comes as a part of an argument against "sex-positives", "I worry that you don't..."

and that's talking about a useful tool, sure, but IMO to little actual purpose.

And then there is of course the reality that a lot of people aren't going to go for c-r presented as c-r. Where they might listen to "You know, I read this scene in a book where someone acted that way toward the black protagonist, and it really made him feel slimy..." and go off and think.

I guess my main issue is the way that it's presented, as some way of explaining that you don't take an issue seriously enough rather than as "Okay, here's a specific situation illustrating an issue that can crop up with that fetish. What would you do if you were in the middle of it?"

Trinity said...

"And here I agree with you. I don't think we can always - or sometimes even EVER - know WHY we want what we we want."

Or sometimes we can, but it doesn't really matter. Even if, say, a desire IS clearly linked to something awful -- well, what then? That doesn't by itself make it go AWAY.

(Though like you say I think awareness is good, as it makes you consider issues seriously before trying it out, for example.)

"But we can think about what it means to want that in this social location."

Exactly.

Still, though, if it IS consensual and private, I think the people who think that "matters" may be wrong. Because, well

say Sheila the amputee is in love with her devotee husband, who freely admits he fetishizes disability in part because of the stereotype that PWD "are helpless," stuff about "broken beauty," whatever.

He knows, though, that this isn't reality, just his penis bouncing giddily to a stereotype. She doesn't mind and they play with this in bed and find it all fun.

In that case I honestly feel like... okay, whatever you want, dudes.

(full disclosure though, I'm not an amputee.)

Anonymous said...

Trin, what about the devos? I ask, since I AM a devo.

Yes, yes, I have "examined my desires" out the ass. (Are you kidding? I've worried since I was 12 years old that I might be exploiting or hurting someone, even
as a heterosexual female.)

But since that puts you on the receiving end, what do you think? As you know, disability blogs and message boards like to roast devos for sport.

I've never had the opportunity to ask you before, so thanks for bringing this up.

ellefromtheeast said...

Trin, I think that when I say that I care about consequences and you say that you care about the practical, we mean pretty much the same thing.

It sounds like what's going on here is just that you've been burned by this and I haven't, so I have more patience for this particular trope. But I bet if someone pulled the same crap on me once or twice that you've gone through, I'd probably wind up exactly where you are. :)

I've just had an experience on the other side, though, where a little c-r was needed. Someone posted a message to a list about a "Christian" parenting group that was giving out free paddles - to use for BEATING your "unruly" CHILDREN. And a friend of mine had to point out that maybe "Oooh, look, free paddles!" wasn't worth associating one's self with the physical abuse of non-consenting minors; even if you agree with spanking kids every once in a while, this was waaaay over the line. So that's the kind of scenario I was envisioning asking people to think through a little more thoroughly.

Trinity said...

My personal, quite uninformed opinion of devos is: sure, whatever.

But again, not being an amputee, I'm not the one who's qualified to decide whether it's offensive (if one is following that whole rubric, which I keep thinking we should all toss and then thinking "hmm, maybe not").

As far as the larger fetishizing of PWD in general: I don't really have a problem with it unless it comes with assumptions about how we should behave, that we're all alike, that we should feel flattered, etc.

Or that we're *all* helpless and that's what's hot about us. I'm a top! :-P

But if people want to erotically play with that stereotype, consensually, and this doesn't affect what you assume about other people (which I could be naive in thinking is more normal than not)... go for it.

Trinity said...

"omeone posted a message to a list about a "Christian" parenting group that was giving out free paddles - to use for BEATING your "unruly" CHILDREN."

Now see, I'd totally take them, on the theory that they've already been made, I'm not paying and thus not materially supporting these folks in any way if I take it, and one less of them means one less being used to hit a child.

ellefromtheeast said...

Trinity, that's what my husband/dom said. So I now, after extensive conversation, see your point. :)

Chewie said...

Elle is making me look better than I may deserve (I think). I actually went a step further, and advocated getting them -- no, Elle, I won't -- as a subversive act. After all, I thought the creators would be horrified to see the use they would be put to, either in same-sex (or gender) play, or in a sexual context.

She pointed out, though, that at least in some households (M/s ones, perhaps), the use would be similar enough to not horrify the paddle creators, which undercuts the subversiveness of their use. Progressive subversiveness, she said, had to come from a reflective attempt to subvert.

(Bringing it all back home...)

I disagree(d); I believe in naive subversion. So, while I've got a big intellectual hard-on for reflection generally, I tend to think it's most important for (A) self-growth, or (B) relationships, in order to help figure out where another is coming from. But, for other purposes, which might include the example of your mother, I think self-reflection is less important.

Trinity said...

"I disagree(d); I believe in naive subversion."

So do I. "What counts as subversion?" games hold little interest to me, honestly, unless they are a response to someone asserting, for example,

"any woman engaging in BDSM is subverting patriarchy. It's a feminist act no matter what. We're that much closer to patriarchy ending because of BDSM -- even the Goreans and the Taken In Hand, because it means women can do what they want!"

in which case one can totally appropriately say "okay, so show me the clear effects women doing this are having on societal norms as a whole."

But when one is talking about subversion in terms of "these individuals can no longer do this because I took their item away" Big Significance really doesn't matter to me.

Or when one is talking of subversion in one's personal life, such as a female het sub saying "Now that I am doing BDSM, I have much more ownership of my sexuality, because for the first time my consent and my desires matter, even though that consent is to his domination. Before that, I basically let people do what they wanted with me. I didn't realize my sexuality was mine."

I don't think that's the same as changing the meaning of a social assumption for all women (which is often what the other side thinks "subversion" has to mean), but I do think it matters and counts.

Trinity said...

But when it gets into "a top using this for play could be subversive, but a Domestic Discipline-style couple using it as the punishment paddle isn't subversive enough"

my brain a splode.

I'm not a fan of DD at all (or of punishment in D/s, unless *maybe* it's about taking away rewards), so I'd recommend against it for my own reasons, but how subversive that makes using the paddle, I've no idea.

Richard said...

My masochistic desires come from a very dark source. To put it brutally my father knocked my mother’s teeth out and I’m trying to relive that.

Thankfully the physical violence ended when I was very young. But he remained a terrifyingly aggressive, verbally abusive husband. I identified with my mother. I eroticized their relationship as a little kid. By the time I was eleven I wanted boys in the neighborhood to tie me up and hurt me.

I’ve understood this about myself for years. Thought about it often and in depth.That has never diminished the desires.

But I’ve never sought actually abusive relationships. And I’m lucky enough to have a loving partner who helps me create a private erotic space in which these desires can be dealt with.

Trinity said...

"To put it brutally my father knocked my mother’s teeth out and I’m trying to relive that."

I think there's a lot that people don't understand about trauma, particularly how it relates to BDSM. Especially since there are two ways to work with it:

re-enactment you don't want or like but feel stuck in
and
re-enactment that's about the intensity of the emotions you feel, the intensity of the experience, but not the bad parts of it.

Or at least, that's how I feel about the stuff in my BDSM life that is tied to my trauma. There's something very pure about those memories, even though they're unpleasant. I knew I was *alive* when I was fighting to survive, if that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with your mother being sexually attracted to black men. Nor do I see any problem with being attracted to someone you don't know very well. Sexual attraction isn't the same as romantic love. I also would smack my daughter in the mouth if she tried to psychoanalyze my sexual desires.

Trinity said...

Anon: Pick a psued and say something intelligent.

Anonymous said...

I think my prior comment is the most intelligent one here. There is such a thing as too much theory.

There's nothing evil about sexual attraction across racial classifications.

Trinity said...

"There's nothing evil about sexual attraction across racial classifications."

Can you point me to where I said that there was? I'm not seeing it.

And pick a pseud. Typing something into a text box is clearly a skill you've already got.

belledame222 said...

I think my prior comment is the most intelligent one here.

Well, smell YOU, Nancy Drew.

Trinity said...

"Well, smell YOU, Nancy Drew."

belle ftw!