Ruminations on desire and heteropessimism in Q&A form.
Daz Chandler in discussion with Dr Christina Kenny.
You've chosen 'desire' as your entry point into critiquing the massive topic area that is heteropessimism. Why?
Desire is not politically correct. Yes, it is connected to cultural politics, but it also feels (in our bodies) to be separate or axiomatic.
Could you elaborate on how the embodied space of desire might traverse the terrains of cultural politics?
I think when we desire someone, or maybe a sexual act, or certain kind of interactions, we can feel like it's coming from a very unfiltered space or deep place within us. In the heat of the moment, we don't usually consider the possibility that our desires are in any way directed by patriarchy or heteronormativity (and if you did, that type of thinking would likely serve as an anaphrodisiac). But actually, because we are such social creatures – surrounded by messaging all the time about what and who we should be desiring, and who should desire us – colonial legacies of attractiveness, of bodily size, of whiteness, are deeply embedded in our cultural spaces (certainly our visual cultural spaces) as well as our cultural politics. Therefore it can become challenging to decipher our desires from, or even understand that we can be influenced to such an extent by, these insidious forces.
What sort of role does desire play in heterosexual identity?
Desire is not foregrounded when we talk about heterosexuality. Although it is still a desiring identity, the excitement and mystery of that desire is left out of many popular discussions of what it means to live a heterosexual life/to live life as a heterosexual person. I think this is for a few reasons related to the primary concerns of second-wave feminism. Wage equality, the sharing of care labour and informed consent - particularly in marriage and in heterosexual romantic partnerships - have become such dominant and unresolved issues that the excitement of being in these relationships (certainly in the public mind) has been put to one side.
It's largely just assumed that these relationships will happen and it's nice when people are excited by them. I’m certainly not suggesting that no heterosexual person is excited by their relationship but rather that in the types of prevailing conversations about heterosexuality, or heterosexual marriage, or monogamy, we jump over these exciting, desiring parts and move directly into the politics of those relationships; the burden of performing binary gender roles and the burden of negotiating those roles over the life of your relationship.
I also think when it comes to consent, much of the work around that topic area has been focused on heterosexual relationships and often at the expense of examinations of heterosexual desire. I suppose that’s where ‘enthusiastic consent’ comes into play. In other words, that it’s not enough to just grin and bear it, that the participants should actually want whatever's happening to continue, that it should be a pleasurable activity. I think this mode of thinking is moving discourse around consent in a good direction, but of course it still comes out of the important legal argument of who has access to whose bodies and under what circumstances and in heterosexual scenarios, this regularly constructs women as virtuous resistors, pushing up against a kind of masculine sexual aggression.
So in terms of impetus, the principal reason why the vital topic of consent has entered the heteronormative landscape is because of sexual assault, (as opposed to queer sex where consent becomes a normative part of pre-sex negotiation about what you're into, what you don't like etc.) From your research into sexuality, do you think it would still be unusual for there to be any articulation of these things ahead of a heterosexual, first-time experience and how much do myopic interpretations of what constitutes as ‘sex’ play into that?
I think the heteropessimist view of sex is that the act is limited to penis in vagina penetration and there are certain discourses or expectations that we can easily fall into - particularly when we're younger and there's very little modelling on how to negotiate these situations. I remember, once when I was quite young, nearly a teenager, I was watching an episode of NYPD Blue…I watched thousands of episodes of that franchise but this one episode was notable because it starred Ricky Schroder who back then I thought was extremely attractive. Anyway, he played a cop who had come to the end of a very hard day and he and this other cop – a woman who had shared in this distressing or traumatic work event – went for a drink and then ended up back at his place where she casually explains that she doesn’t want to have sex, she just wants to be held. So at the end of the episode, they get into bed together, partially clothed and hold each other. As a pre-teenage girl, I remember being flawed by that. I don’t think I had ever realised that you don't have to have sex in order to seek intimacy in a heterosexual moment. I believe the lack of access to modelling of different ways of being and expressing heterosexual desire is hugely problematic. I think there's often a conflation of sex with intimacy in heterosexual discourse.
What role - if any - does the patriarchal lens have to play when it comes to our understanding of desire and attraction?
I think it's hard for people who are opposite sex attracted to break away from the expectations of gender - even when it comes to which partnerships are going to be acceptable visually. The recent 'controversy’ over Tom Holland dating Zendaya, (where she is taller than him) is a great example of the faux consternation of patriarchy. It's very easy to 'disappoint' or disrupt patriarchal expectations because they are so rigid, and there are so many of them! Having said that, I think desire can usefully disrupt patriarchy, because it can (although not always) sit outside cultural/community expectations (although we know from the generations of queer folk stuck in straight marriages, that the patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality can be incredibly powerful forces - but that these forces have always been resisted as well).
How much would you say heteronormativity is informed by rigid and perhaps archaic understandings of gender?
Heteronormativity is grounded in the gender binary, and also in the cis-gender binary. Therefore, it can be very difficult to exist within heteropatriarchy, if you do not conform to cis-gender heterosexuality.
Your first interview for this project was with a strong man and professional dom. What was it you were most curious to discover / unpack here?
So many things! Firstly, I've always been fascinated to understand the world from different people's perspectives, and I've often thought about the strategies, attention and fears I've had as a cis-woman in different environments, and wondered how other people move through the world in their bodies. What opportunities, challenges and dangers present themselves when we are read differently because of our physicality?
I'm also really interested in the possibility that a kind of hypermasculinity (which in so many contexts is desired because of it's normative connotations) can also be subversive, and I was interested to know how Sir James (in this case) understood his own sexuality in relation to his professional life. And I think that's often missed when we talk about sex work. For really good reasons we talk a lot about decriminalisation, about sex workers' rights but outside sex worker communities, we don't often hear about what sex workers get out of sex work. What I really liked about my chat with Sir James, was that the professionalisation of sex for him (and the community he found there) has been really instrumental on his own personal journey understanding his sexuality. I think many of us assume that sex workers already know about sex and about their sexualities and its their clients who seek out sex workers to explore something. It was clear in the conversation with Sir James that from his perspective, that wasn't the case; that he himself was working through challenges and going through a process of discovery.