Anyone familiar with Gender Studies will know about the old argument – is our biological sex our defining feature, or are we more the product of a culturally and socially constructed thing called gender? The Sex/Gender debate has rumbled on since de Beauvoir, and will continue to rumble on, though with variations. Perhaps the notion of sex is socially constructed, or gender is simply the social exaggeration of sexual characteristics; theories of masculinity, queer theory, new trends in feminist thought have abandoned and returned to the sex/gender debate like the waves lapping at the shore.
There’s something missing in the sex vs. gender debate – for want of a better phrase, “actual” sex. Sex acts themselves, the thing or things we get up to in the bedroom, or elsewhere. What I want to suggest is that, when it comes to how we are identified, categorised and judged, it’s often our sex acts which define us. Sex acts, and sex acts. Are we willing to do certain thing? Do we live in a society or subsection of society where some things are permitted, others are forbidden for fear of ostracism or death?
I’m going trying to claim that gender theory has never talked about sex is anything other than its biological sense. The best piece I know on the topic of sex acts is Gayle Rubin’s excellent essay “Thinking Sex.” But what I merely want to do is offer some thoughts on the matter, and suggest that gender perceptions outside of the academic world are fixated on, fascinated by, often, entirely based on, what people actual do when they have sex.
What is sex?
I’m posing that question seriously. On a purely linguistic level “sex” is a signifier with several “signifieds.” Sex is often used with reference to anatomy – we talk about “biological sex” at a superficial level, and about “hormonal sex”, “”gonadal sex” and so on when we’re getting down to the nitty gritty of it. In other words, “sex” is a category of identity – certain characteristics give you a “sex” which is something by which you are denoted and marked out.
Of course, the other meaning of sex is to mean intercourse. That’s something we all agree on. We have sex. Someone can have sex appeal, we have a sex drive, Sex in this sense is a verb. It’s an action, or taken as an adjective, it’s an incentive towards and action. At the same time though, sex is far too often simplified when we think about what sex actually is an act. To put it rather bluntly, we tend to never really think about how we fuck. For example, sex is very often thought of as heteronormative, monogamous, and occurring within the confines of a structure (that structure can be marriage, or a long term relationship). It starts in a certain way and ends in a certain way, usually with male orgasm and ejaculation. When, as sexually frustrated teenagers, we talked about the “base” system in sex, what we were essentially saying was that there is a hierarchy in sex acts, with the ultimate goal being orgasm (your own, mind. My interpretation of the bases system was the that it was a very male way of thinking about sex, though I can’t quite put my finger on why) through PIV (Penis in Vagina) intercourse. Oral sex, mutual masturbation, and other kind of sex acts are seen as somehow lesser. Why though? What I’m driving at is that I don’t think sex has a script, nor does it have a limited dramatis persona. Sex can occur in different ways with different people (and different numbers of people).
You are what you do – identity and sex acts
For a long period of human history, describing yourself as “gay” would have drawn blank looks. This is because homosexuality as an identity didn’t exist until recently. The first recorded use of the word “homosexual” comes from an 1869 leaflet, arguing against anti-sodomy laws. Of course, attraction and sex between two people of the same gender existed, but what was important was that the act became the identity. Men who had sex with men were called “sodomites” and were confined by Dante to the 7th Circle of Hell, for those who “did violence against nature.” So much of perceptions of sexual identity appear to be tarred by societal anxiety about men having anal sex with men that even today, bigots and homophobes the world over make it a forefront of their rage. Interestingly, there is no corresponding, act based identifier for women who sleep with women – Sapphist or Sapphite was sometimes used, though as a term it directs attention towards Sappho’s poetic works, more than to a sexual act or acts. Why this is the case is an interesting question in and of itself; my speculation on this would be that since the history of sexuality and sex was so often charter by men, it became androcentric – within a patriarchal logic, the idea that women might be able to gain sexual pleasure and fulfillment without a man is unthinkable. Anyone interested in seeing this mindset in modern times, have a browse of the Men’s Rights thread on Reddit. Actually don’t, it’s awful. But what we can draw from this was that homosexual men were, for a long period of time, defined by the act rather than any other point of identity.
Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, argues that from about the 18th century onwards, discourses of sex were no longer confined to married, heterosexual intercourse, but began to focus on sexualities and sex acts which didn’t fit the union, and thus new identities were created, of which homosexuality was one. What I want to suggest, at this point, is that process is still ongoing. We still believe that certain sex acts occur within certain unions, and not others. We still seem to think that, in a heterosexual relationship, that sex culminates in PIV, as noted above. Anything else would be weird, would fall outside an acceptable standard of union.
Let’s think about it in terms of anal sex. For some reason, a cultural logically contradiction seems to exist regarding anal sex acts and heterosexual masculinity. Having anal sex with a woman is seen as a step further than vaginal sex – “does she do anal?”, “How to get her to have anal,” are a few of the articles on “Men’s lifestyle” websites that you can find after a quick browse in the sex tips section. “It’s tighter, it’s hotter, it’s sluttier,” one of the articles proclaimed. In that, we see again a sudden question of identity. Girls who have anal sex are categorised as “sluts.” The men who engage in it with women, as ever seem to have no change to their identity, apart from maybe unspoken high-five for being such a massive lad. Discourse around the act is gendered and smacks of sexism, but it is, for all intents and purposes, reconcilable to heterosexual identity.
What then if a heterosexual man admits to enjoying anal penetration himself? The same act suddenly has hugely new implications for male sexual identity. I stumbled across a number of sex life forums where men admitted to this, they were greeted with a kind of revulsion. “Means you’re a fag, mate,” said one commentator on a thread, while another, less blunt person added, “If I enjoyed taking it up the arse, I’d be questioning my sexuality.” Why the sudden shift in meaning, in implication of what amounts to the same act? Is it because there is an unspoken power dynamic within sex, between penetrator and penetrated? Such a mindset does seem to exist. The reason (or at least, one of the reasons) why women are judged more harshly for their sex acts is because with patriarchal logic, women are the passive, penetrated participant in sex. The penetrator is the one with power, the inevitably masculine. That one of the penetrators’ might enjoy penetration is unthinkable in patriarchy – the title and privilege identity of “man” no longer fits.
It’s interesting to note, however, that that cultural logic is a rather anglocentric method of thinking about the issue. Don Kulick, Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University, has written some interesting research on travesti. Kulick writes:
A male who anally penetrates another male is generally not considered to be homosexual. He is considered, in all the various local idioms, to be a Uman; indeed, in some communities, penetrating another male and then bragging about it is one way in which men demonstrate their masculinity to others (Lancaster 1992:241; cf. Brandes 1981:234). Quite different associations attach themselves to a male who allows himself to be penetrated. That male has placed himself in what is understood to be an unmasculine, passive position.
But, unlike anglocentric conceptions of sex, sex in the Brazilian context has a different dichotomy:
Gender in Latin America should be seen not as consisting of men and women, but rather of men and not-men, the latter being a category into which both biological females and males who enjioy anal penetration are culturally situated. This specific situatedness provides individuals-not just men who enjoy anal penetration, but everyone with a conceptual framework that they can draw on in order to understand and organize their own and others’ desires, bodies, affective and physical relations, and social roles.
Kulick goes onto explore the complex series of cultural interpretations which surround anal sex in the travesti world. What we can take away from his article is that the idea of “anal penetrations = homosexuality” in men which I outlined above is not set in stone, but is contingent on circumstance, social roles, and body politics.
As said above, when it comes to sex acts and identity, women get the short end of the wedge. The classic scenario is familiar to most people. If a woman won’t have sex, won’t put out, won’t get it on, she’s “frigid”, a “bitch,”, or her sexuality is suddenly up for public question and debate. On the flipside, if she does have sex, she’s a “slut,”, a “whore,”, “easy,”. Whatever she does, woman’s humanity is brought into question by her decisions about sex. Submit to male power, and you might be valued as a sex object, albeit briefly. Fail to submit, and you’re simply not a person. There’s something wrong with you. This way of thinking of female sexuality is so pervasive that it is simply unconscious for most people; and yet it also reveals a certain public/private divide. As a student, I regularly found myself at breakfast, listening to men in my year talking about how many girls they had slept with that month. I recall one time when a man announced he’d “banged five in three days,” to cheers and backslaps. His sex acts were his status winners. I remember sitting there at the time and thinking, “If he had been a she, someone would have called her a slut by now.” Later that same day, I heard another conversation about a girl who had broken up with her boyfriend and gotten with another boy in the space of a week. “She’s easy isn’t she,” said one of the girls involved in the conversation. Would the tone of that conversation, would the language used, have been different if it has been boy being talked about?
What’s interesting about the above example is how it links back to something Kulick said about sexual divisions tying into gender divisions. Our student lad is congratulated because he has demonstrated his ability to have sex with multiple people – reinforcing his masculinity. Our “easy” girl is “easy” because she has surrendered her sex too easily, and her femininity is denigrated as a result. It comes as no surprise that masculinity is often tied to quantity of sex (i.e. how many partners you can get through) whereas femininity is tied to quality of sex ( i.e. can you be faithful or are you a slut). If we assume compulsory heterosexuality, then those two categories of person need to interact, and how that interaction is “read” always favours the man – the women, in other words, become kind of disposable.
The fact that some sex acts are perceived as more legitimately “sex” than others, the fact that certain sex acts can have an impact on our sense of identity as people, raises the question of sexual hierarchies. Sexual hierarchies, I argue, don’t just occur in relation to your sexual orientation, or gender identity, but also include the kind of sex that you have. These hierarchies don’t simply occur within mainstream, hegemonic communities or groups that might not challenge patriarchal logic, but an odd inverse can be found in within radicalism.
The queer anarchist writer, Abbey Volcano, in an excellent essay published in the anthology “Queering Anarchism” writes that within radical spaces a form of sexual hierarchies has evolved. Certain types of sexual orientation, identity and conduct (non-heterosexuality, non-monogamy, fetishism etc) are interpreted as more “radical” than others, and valued above more mainstream sexualities (heterosexuality, monogamy, and so on). This, they argue, merely mirrors the hierarchies outside of radical spaces. Volcano writes:
“People in these situations seem like they’re playing a game together – a grand contest to assert who is more authentic, more oppressed, and thus more correct. It’s at this point where identity becomes fetishised; where essentialist understandings of people trump good sense; where a patronising belief in the superiority of the wise, noble savage often overrides any sense at all. Often this tactic of agreeing with ‘ the most marginalized in the room’ will be used as a substitute for developing critical analysis around race, gender, sexuality etc.”
Volcano here speaks about something that has always annoyed me about radical circles – a belief that just because you have certain sexual characteristics, or live a certain sexual lifestyle, you are inherently more radical than others. In my view, radicalism is about questioning and deconstructing hierarchies, not building alternative hierarchies in opposition. Doing so can tend to lead to a return to a “two camps” way of thinking about politics – you are either radical or status quo, non-monogamous or monogamous, queer or straight, and so on.
What I’m trying to get at here is this: sex is both a personal choice and a political category. Engaging in certain sexual acts (say, BDSM) is something you and a consenting partner(s) do on your own terms, but it becomes political because it sits outside of an unspoken matrix of acceptable sex acts. The same could be said for non-monogamy. But even if sex can be a political act, I would be hesitant about the idea of any choosing to engage in any kind of sex act because they are political. You should do what you want with whom you want if you and they (however many there are of them) want to do it. Engaging in something because it is more “radical” does not sit with me as concept, but perhaps this is just me.
Again though, in what I’ve just outlined, we see that identity as a political agent is hinged on what you do. This is not to say that gender or sex in the more traditional sense are not worth considering, but merely that those of us who study gender need to broaden the horizons of our analysis.