Jan 17, 2022 • 9M

David Davis

an interlude on heteronormativity

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Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji in bed in  Nagisa Ōshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

I haven’t written about sex in a while. As I wrote a few months ago, I have been trying to think about it less: I’m sick of intellectualizing every emotional fluctuation and fantasy, every craving and mood.

There are risks to this compulsive cataloging, itself a reaction, in part, to the modern world’s technologically-produced proliferation of pleasures, with which identity and a variety of disciplining forces (e.g., criminalization, medicalization) have become intertwined. The “oracular” algorithms that clog our feeds with ads for so-called genderless clothing and TikToks that mirror back at us our own cherry-picked characteristics, like our ethnicity or our interest in vegan baking, supposedly know us better than ourselves. Initiating a feedback loop of identity, desire, and ultimately consumption, this artificial knowledge informs and influences—produces, as the theorists say—what those selves are, and could be.

These risks don’t come without rewards. The at-times paradoxical blend of radicalization and co-optation, like consciousness-raising vs “awareness,” or therapy1 vs. self-help infographics, with which we locate our selves in this hegemon, sometimes favors us. In 2020, when I was writing a DAVID series on genital preference, I tweeted: “the cool thing about having sex with a lot of people is getting to see a wide variety of bodies in sexual and non-sexual situations. it has informed my understanding of so many things, especially so-called ‘genital preference.’” The interrogation of our own desires, as I went on to tweet, has implications for our identity and self-conception; this can be (politically) formative as well as regressive.

These interrogations are why I could be radicalized by my marginalization, such as it is, and why, more importantly, I could build outward from my individual identity to a politic that’s not actually about me. It’s funny to think that picking up a Reader’s Digest in an auto shop when I was 17, in which I read that masturbation is actually okay and won’t kill you or make you go blind, was one of the many small revelations that made it possible for me to eventually become a person, which was foundational to my eventually becoming a political person.

These revelations are temporally as well as quantitatively incremental. Learning how to decouple sex from procreation, heterosexuality, and monogamy, and to subvert the scripts we’re trained from birth to follow—that is, to denaturalize sex—requires time and exposure to people, experiences, and information. Not all of these exposures make sense to us immediately, like the Reader’s Digest article did for me; revelation can be cumulative, contextual, a practice in hindsight, and not just a lightning bolt.

For example. A year after reading that Reader’s Digest, while drunkenly fooling around in a car with some straight guy, I became too distracted by what he looked like to fuck; instead of getting angry or pressuring me, he listened while I talked at length about much I wished I had his body (?!?!), then drove me to a Jack In The Box and bought me food to soak up the booze. I’ve always looked back on that experience with gratitude—he was kind to tolerate my strange behavior, and he didn’t even try to rape me. Only relatively recently did I understand what was actually going on between us, or between me and his body, anyway.

Moments like that one that help drive that denaturalization of sex, but rarely are they totalities unto themselves. It’s context, like I said. But there’s something else to it: the sexual self-knowledge that leads to political awareness and action must be chosen, again and again. It cannot be passive, because sexual repression, cissexism, comphet, and capitalism are not working passively against us. Which isn’t to say that they exert their pressures uniformly. The pressure comes from all sides, not just above.

For example. We are aware that heteronormativity motivates with punishment. It also motivates with incentive, which is something that straight people have a harder time acknowledging, especially these days. The gender and sexual scripts that we all know, though maybe don’t always recognize, often offer both punishment and incentive: girls wear pink, boys don’t cry, marriage is romantic, the nuclear family is safe, natural, and eternal. There are scripts for sexual intercourse, too, and while they can be stifling, constraining, or boring (or worse), these scripts are also incentives in themselves. That’s because, when you believe that there’s only a handful of ways to fuck, sex becomes remarkably easy. This is one of heteronormativity’s incentives to conform.

I don’t mean that straight people can’t or don’t do weirdo sex shit, or that being able to do a handstand while getting drilled means you have some kind of advanced understanding of sexuality and yourself, or that sex that looks normative can’t be pleasureful. What I mean is that we’re initiated into sex as something that can be learned, mastered, and replicated, over and over, like it’s a product on an assembly line. It is always the same, across time, space, and bodies. We’re all familiar with the script of cis man and cis woman having vaginal intercourse2, so much so that most of us can do it in our sleep, even if we don’t appear in the script whatsoever.

So what’s the benefit of this sex script, then, if it’s so deleterious to pleasure and connection? How is this an incentive of heteronormativity, and not a punishment? Well, if you know exactly how sex is supposed to be—what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to do it, and how it’s supposed to make you feel—then you don’t have to be present for it, do you? You can do it, or have it done to you, in your sleep. It’s not just that deviation from “normal” sex is pathologized, criminalized, or unimaginable—it’s that following the script for normal sex can be done with a minimum of static, if not effort or pain. Heteronormativity renders sex as a specific series of acts that is done with specific people, with specific goals in mind, so much so that concepts like consent are challenging to understand and difficult to introduce into our sexual practices. Sexual practices like consent that we, as good feminists or leftists or whatever, can all agree are good are also difficult, because they require effort, negotiation, vulnerability, accountability, and presence.

In the Realm of the Senses Review :: Criterion Forum

Like I said, there are risks to overthinking it. But being present can often feel uncomfortable, and no more so than when you’re trying to unfuck your approach to fucking. These sexual scripts seem simple enough on the surface, but they have roots. They’re like mushrooms that way, with fruit that we see, and miles of mycelium hidden deep underground, so that it’s easy to mistake an ecosystem for a single organism.

My advice is to follow pleasure, but there is a caveat: pleasure, like sex, like gender, like desire, also needs to be denaturalized. This is where more challenging avenues to pleasure, like difference, pain, and even abstention, come into play. I recommend those, too.

David tweets at @k8bushofficial. Preorder their second novel, (Catapult, 2022).

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1

This is not to say that we aren’t critical of therapy or its role in the medical-industrial complex.

2

A euphemism that I actually avoid because of its inherent implication of penetration of a certain kind. Put another way, why does “vaginal intercourse” mean cishetero penis-in-vagina? Why wouldn’t it mean any other configuration, including one in which penetration isn’t happening, isn’t happening in the vagina, etc.