The Aporia of Real Desire and Its Capture: On Bro Culture and the Varieties of Feminism

Excuse the frankness here and the use of “colloquial language”. Sensitive readers or employers may want to skip it, but the frankness is intended to break the easy path of intellectualizing the problem, speaking respectably when this concerns a culture that deserves no respect and is no respecter of persons. We need to be shocked by ourselves, even if at the end still having to live with ourselves.

On twitter @liamrulz posted a link to this awful story about some super-bro party “movement”. I’m sure the fact that this is the first time I’ve heard of “I’m Shmacked” shows my age or my hatred for what counts as journalism on the nightly news, but I was struck by a number of disturbing questions after watching the youtube video embedded in the report.

The video is just dripping with dudebro douchebaggery (something of course is going on here when this misogynistic product concerned with producing shame in women about the “fact” their pussies smell is now used to describe dudes who act like assholes) that anyone familiar with today’s twenty-something and thirty-something men should be familiar with. The appropriation of some hip hop party song replete with the casual use of the word ‘nigger’ while the majority of bodies on the screen are white and middle class is a staple of this white culture. We also see the usual rape culture bullshit with dudes smacking random girls asses, getting two presumably hetero girls to make out for the enjoyment of the men watching, the shaking of booze all over crowds of people as a surrogate dick getting its moneyshot. It is all too typical, too predicable, and depressing for having seen it year after year. But I was struck by my own reaction as I watched the video, and I don’t mean to present this as a confession, but only as a kind of attention or reckoning with myself. I noticed that, amidst my usual disgust with dudebros, I couldn’t help but look at all the women in the video and think both “damn, check out that ass” and “what the fuck is wrong with these girls?!” As these, again mostly white, girls got their asses and tits out, as they twerked, as they appeared to enjoy the male gaze and the male grope, amidst my own enjoyment of their performance I thought of Spinoza’s remark that people fight for their enslavement as if it were freedom. I want to investigate this thought and the way this moment of my own judgment reflects a kind of problem both for women thinking through these issues and for men who are inevitably complicit in rape culture even when they don’t want to be.

I want to be clear that this isn’t thought through and that these are thoughts in process. Much of it is probably wrong, but I think the coordinates are correct. Those coordinates and their relation can be summed up in the declaration found in the original title, “women like to fuck, but bro culture demands that women be fucked”. (NB: The second aspect of this formulation isn’t mine originally, it was mentioned to me but while I don’t want to take credit for the formulation I also don’t want to implicate the original source in my public use of vulgarity.) This concerns desire, the way desire may be captured in ideological forms that put that desire in question, and the complicity of both men and women with regard to the ideologically captured desire. Some of the questions around this flow out of my own attempt to understand how to affirm feminine desire (the right of women to express their desire and sexuality any way they want to or do not want to) and being suspicious of my own affirmation of that desire (after all, as a man with sexual desire I benefit from pornography, ethical or not, as can be seen in the way I can even take enjoyment of women displaying themselves as they do in the video above), alongside a general pessimism regarding the possibility of finding a “real desire” beyond the ideological capture (what can be summed up as ideology critique).

While much of what I’m about to say should come with the usual caveats of white dudes talking about issues unrelated to our direct experience, it is also important to realize that some kind of critical attention has to be given to the male experience in the world. That’s obviously very dangerous, since of course most of the attention is always given to men! But, in this context what I mean is something akin to a consideration of men not as the starting point, but thinking men under the conditions of the problematics of feminism. Still. Dangerous, I realize. In part it’s thinking under these conditions that leads me to say that, obviously I am a misogynist in the sense that I benefit from that system, even if I aim to not be in my individual actions. I benefit from the way women are systematically destroyed in our culture. The way they are told to be fucking pretty or no one will want them. The way they are told they’re fat, they’re ugly, their pussies smell, their hair isn’t soft enough, they’re way too fucking hairy, they need to know how to fuck, how to handle a dick, how to work, and have kids, and work with kids, and make dinner, and spend all their money on figuring out how to stay pretty and not smell and make sure they are still tight for their partners. I can’t imagine what that feels like, just thinking about it outside of the situation sounds exhausting. And while I want to be an ally, I also look at Jennifer Lawrence crawling in her nightgown and think “god damn, she can get it” and then joke about it with my lesbian friend or see James Deen being rough with his co-star(s) and think “that dude knows how to fuck and she knows how to take it”. And the great thing about being a dudebro who wants to be a queer ally is that I can have it all (at the structural level)! How shameful, though of course I feel no guilt (thinking of Victor Turner’s differentiation of the two as William Jordan III explains it in his The Sunflower Forest).

First, in my thinking of Spinoza with regard to feminine desire I thought of my own discomfort with radical feminism. A discomfort that I normally stay silent about because it seems the last thing intelligent women who are debating and discussing with one another need is another white dude butting in with a “Well actually…” By radical feminism I am referring to the tradition of feminist thought normally associated with Dworkin and there are a number of critiques of this position, some feminist and some not. For example, the stance that many have taken with regard to trans issues are often troubling and sometimes just disgusting. There are certain issues with this that relate to a poor understanding of nature and some residual commitment to natural law in considering questions of gender and sex. But being able to critique that may be an easy way to avoid dealing with the ideology critique that radical feminism deploys that does challenge me as a man in the way I consume women’s bodies. When you watch a video like the one linked to above where women are treated as more or less sexy holes to be fucked it becomes difficult to dismiss radical feminism completely.

While in debates concerning sex work (various levels of prostitution, pornography, and so on) the stance does often look like a failure to trust other women and their autonomy, there remain serious questions about the view of the self proposed by those affirming sex work as well (many of these women are, to my mind, also radical feminists but I’m not sure the titles they take on in debates with Dworkin-esque radfems). The ideology critique performed by radical feminism puts in question whether or not one is truly autonomous in their desire and while I am sure that there have been responses to them, I am unfamiliar with them and would like to correct that. The aporia we encounter here, though, is between real desire and desire mediated by patriarchy. Do the women in the video enjoy twerking? Is it affirming of their real desire? Or are they playing the role of girl who can be fucked? How do you enjoy being a sexual body without being fucked (over)? How can you enjoy it without wondering, do I really enjoy this and if you are the position of structural power how can you then not wonder “do they actually enjoy this and how can I trust them to know? If they don’t, is this not part of a generalized rape act?” The answers to any of these questions are far from clear. I don’t mean to suggest the answer of the woman will be, “you know what, I don’t enjoy this”, but it may be. The lack of clarity here is the problem.

While the aporia seems a real one to me, the questions are probably poorly thought out. They belie a certain distrust of women present, for example, in the Tiqquin book Theory of the Young Girl (which was written as a group that included women). So who is thinking about these issues without falling into the polemical stance of sluts vs. prudes? Without falling into the abyss opened up by the cut of good women from bad women (depending on how you decide who is good or bad) that is too often present in the girl-hate of female relations and is a product of and support for patriarchy? Are we simply fucked? All of us, men and women, regardless of our desire’s reality or capture? If this answer to give up on saving desire and follow it? But how to do so ethically in the sense of being attentive to complicity, to the ways that these actions can be reactive or active, can shut down relations or open up spaces of liberty?

37 thoughts on “The Aporia of Real Desire and Its Capture: On Bro Culture and the Varieties of Feminism

  1. I’m inclined to think (or at least hope) that more young men are uncomfortable with this sort of thing than is publicized. While for women it is especially disturbing, given the problem of rape, I also think many college aged men are thoughtful enough to realize this isn’t what they want their relationships with women to look like.

  2. It seems to me part of answering more clearly is the idea of trusting one another to know. There’s something peculiar, to me, about framing the question as whether or not, in fucking my lover, I *trust* her to know what she wants and desires, as though she and I have not already been working on establishing that trust prior to and during the fuck. Maybe it’s that this is exactly the crux, for me, when it comes to accepting that she wants to be fucked, since I also know what it is like to be fucked by her and know what it is to enjoy, desire, and eagerly crave her fucking me. We talk about our desires, about what feels good, emotionally and mechanically and aesthetically, and we practice listening to the words, the shakes, the tremors, the thrusts, the touch of a hand that says, Right there, Yes there. If in the moment of this I stop to say—whether in the spirit or in the body, it doesn’t matter—”But does she *really* like that?” aren’t I in that moment taking away our mutual gift of recognizing one another’s consent, taking away her autonomy by thinking that I *know better* than she does what her own desires are?

    It takes practice and discipline to listen, all that old canard about foreplay being all the rest of the day the lovers spend together before they ever get in the bed. Working out who didn’t pay the bill or flush the toilet or pick up the cat shit or fold the towel or yell at the neighbor’s dog/kid is all about learning to trust one another to make mistakes and own them or to make successes and own them, all of that without letting the self-centering overshadow the other center within the lover. Building up that trust translates into the bed (or couch, porch, table, &c) by trusting the lover will make mistakes but allow corrections and will make successes but allow new experiments. We come to trust.

    I learned about loving my culture and my people and my friends and my nation in a public education system dominated by the military and the corporate hegemony. Mired in the language it gave me, my words always go awry from me when I want to say that I want better of my nation and my friends and my people and my culture. I feel the shape of the ideology demanding both compliance and acceptable dissent, and yet I find that looking inward to what could be or must be a real love for all of those things, if I were looking for something solid, only finds reflections of reflections in these halls of carnival mirrors and rotating floors. But it’s when she looks inward into me that I can leave that last little tour of the funhouse. I don’t think there is going to be a definitive answer for what my real desire is when it comes to sex, national identity, contractual exchange, or pedagogical approach, but then I don’t think that who I am as an I is something definitive in the first place. If my very self is a constructed, algorithmically-generated narratival structure made by a biocomputer using a semantics and a syntax developed through cultural embedding, then perhaps it is time to start embracing a certain measure of trust in whom I allow to rewrite the code.

    The lover who wishes to fuck and be fucked, who trusts me enough to fail and learn alongside, I’ll trust her to let me know when we can code together.

  3. i really liked what you had to say here. the only thing i had a problem with was that you seem to be coming from this place where there’s this unbridgeable gap between men and women, and somehow guys have to assume this awkward (impossible) stance of somehow thinking themselves out of their “privilege” or something. i think it’s a lot easier than that, in fact i think it’s ridiculously simple. just put the shoe on the other foot and imagine ask yourself what you would want if you were one of those girls, or one of those guys. it’s really no different (girls or guys). if i was one of those girls i would want to have fun and get compliments and attention, and probably put on a wicked buzz and get laid. and if i was one of those guys i would want to have fun and get compliments … etc. you get my point. if i was a girl i’d want men to desire my ass. if i were a guy, i’d want girls to desire my ass, and my crotch. it’s not really all that different. but in *neither* of those scenarios would i want to have anything to do with motherfucking rapists, or, to be honest, with any of the guys (or girls) in those videos. not my kind of folks, really, they act like high school kids on a spree, and not smart & interesting high school kids either, but more like a bunch of dumbass future pharmaceutical reps and accounting auditors. boring, unoriginal, and white kids partying to rap is just lame as shit.

    i think the possibility of sexism comes in when you have to start playing weird perspective games instead of treating other people *exactly* how you want to be treated, and imagining that they want *exactly* the same thing as you. and i don’t mean that in a complicated way, at all. but by adopting a simple rather than a complex imaginative view of the other, you can cut through a lot of the literally unthinkable mind-games that start cropping up when (at least as a guy) you tell yourself that you’re always already (i’ve unironically loved that little phrase since the first time i heard it like 100 years ago) needing to shed just one more, and another, and another, layer of a perspective you imagine to yourself someone who is “other” would be perceiving you possessing as a member of some privileged group that’s not “other”. just makes your head spin, the endless regress. and in the end, really, it’s kind of condescending for me to think that I have to change the way i think in order to get into somebody’s head. what i mean is, for a lot of male “feminists” or “sensitive dudes who relate to poor people and black people”, i don’t think what they’re doing when they put themselves into sympathetic proximity to those Others and contemplate what they need to do imaginatively to bridge the gap between them is to think “hm, i need to be a lot smarter, and more ambitious, and better looking in order to get into that noggin over there.” i think a lot of times they’re thinking something along the lines of “well, i’m feeling pretty guilty about being better and/or having fewer problems than these folks, so i’d better imagine that they’re resenting me for being all better and shit, and imaginatively join with them in my (self-)loathing.” why not just assume they’re you, plain and simple? like, “hey, i’m a newspaper boy for a day, what do i want? hm, a good bike, but not too expensive, with gatorskin tires – and a good route – is it gonna rain? need a nice hat and slicker…blah…blah.” in a situation in which it’s actually, feasibly possible to imagine yourself into someone else’s shoes (it’s frequently gone without being noticed that it’s not possible to imagine yourself into the shoes of an abstraction like “black female feminists” – just doesn’t work), you’re gonna focus on what you want and what it’ll take to get it. there’s no question of making weird adjustments – if you are thinking about sex with different genitalia, or with a sex other than the one (?) you usually fancy, then just, again, imagine what you would concretely and practically like.

    i honestly think it’s as simple as asking yourself what you would want if you were you, but in their situation. i think the answers would come right away. it would also eliminate the awkwardness that happens when somebody smacks you down for being a “tourist” or for condescending – the insult they’re reacting to comes from pretending to know what the Other thinks *as an Other*. it’s much cleaner if you imagine other people as if it were you your very own self in those shoes. my two cents. i went on too long, apologies.

  4. I’m intrigued by this notion of real desire, and whether it is ever anything but mediated. I’m not postmodernist enough anymore to think that it is always must be. But neither am I romantic enough to think the instances where it is — a jelly-shaking orgasm – is necessarily innocent. Maybe like language, there’s some remainder — that the purity is not prior to mediation, but somebody whatever is left from the burn-off through its atmosphere. At any rate, I think it’s probably fair to say that men are the least capable of accessing this. I don’t say this as strictly a self-hating cis-man either. As you ably point out, we’re subject to patriarchal culture as anybody, even if we reap its rewards more often than not. (Our self-hate often a kind of bacon-bit reward. No win for you, fellas, sorry.) We don’t need to theorize a way for us to access it, if minimally, since we’re slipped some adequately ersatz version under the table, whether we asked for it or not.

  5. “Spring-heeled Jim winks an eye / He’ll ‘do’, he’ll never be ‘done to'”

    In _Intercourse_, Dworkin talks about this set-up as a metaphysics of force. Male(-gendered) desire and pleasure are signified and enacted through displays of force, and in the last instance through the actual use of force. Female(-gendered) desire and pleasure are signified and enacted through absorbing force, through positioning oneself to be acted-upon by it, and in the last instance through self-negation in submitting to it. For Dworkin, this “metaphysics” is intrinsic to gender as it is understood and practised under a regime of male domination, and it is a “naturalised” metaphysics in as much as it is not only imposed on subjects from without, but ubiquitously (and falsely) held to be the expression of their essential and natural being. So, at the very least, the radical feminists (Dworkin/MacKinnon axis) saw and named the thing you’re seeing and naming. They didn’t like it, and they liked even less that they were supposed to like it.

    I’ve long been in sympathy with the radical feminist desire to *cauterise* these “complimentary” images of maleness and femaleness, to burn them right out of the human soul (I mean “soul” as in “the soul of man under socialism”, or “economics are the method: the object is to change the soul”). However, what actually happens when you try to do that is that you generate tremendous resistance, because people’s actual, genuine, bona fide desire and pleasure just are articulated through the symbolic law. You can’t burn out the “metaphysics of force” without singeing parts of people that they’re very attached to. Some people decide that they don’t like those parts very much, and sign up enthusiastically for the project of changing their own (and, somewhere over the revolutionary horizon, everybody else’s) souls. Voila, political lesbian separatists. But the counter-current is people who say “no, fuck you, this is *my* masochism and I’m going to own it and express it as I wish”. And these two currents really don’t get on, and are I think constitutively doomed to talk past each other.

    I do believe that the “metaphysics of force” model of gender is both ubiquitous and false. You can argue that it’s not *total* – that here and there gender is understood and practised differently – but I think that it’s hegemonic even so, and the way a hegemony works is to mobilise a dominant position as if it were total, as if any exception were an aberration: gender is the law. What’s more difficult is the argument about whether or not it’s “false” – what would a “true” model look like? True to what? I think James Deen’s performances are ridiculous and gross: I don’t want to be (the kind of being that could “know how to fuck” like) him, and I don’t want to be (the kind of being that could “know how to take” being) fucked by him. So at a fairly visceral level I think he’s a living lie, someone who acts out a knowledge-about-fucking that knows nothing, that substitutes itself for what Dworkin called sexual intelligence. But I’m still trying to understand how “sexual intelligence” can be oriented towards anything other than the unmasking of the false – how it can be the engine of a creative project rather than just a destructive passion for the real.

  6. I mean that there’s a certain libidinal investment that automatically accompanies the use of semi-pornographic language. I am the first to say that this is not the same kind of environment as a classroom, but it seems to me that at least for me, as a man, it would be pedagogically dangerous to speak this way with students and encourage them to speak this way (differently dangerous depending on the gender distribution of the class, but always problematic).

  7. You don’t think there is a libidinal investment in respectability discourses? Or in safe classrooms in general? In so far as the post has to do with the seeming trap of all our available options for thinking through these problems, yes, that is why I was using words that are harder to gain distance from and harder to be used in the endless task of defending oneself as not implicated. I am still having trouble seeing what this has to do with a classroom though. I wasn’t suggesting anything pedagogical here and, while I think my students are in this world, I don’t know that when I have them they have developed all the skills needed to engage in this kind of phenomenology in a discerning way. I wouldn’t use this kind of discourse simply because I don’t know that many students would be ready at this stage to separate the discussion from how they perceive me and I wouldn’t want there ever to be a question of propriety. That said, when we read Mary Daly one of my classes had a very good discussions about rape culture, around the way women dress and the word ‘slut’, but I banned men from talking and would only ask clarifying questions myself.

  8. Great piece.

    While it’s greedily pragmatic, I think a distinction between individuals and structures can be useful for this question. So, an individual woman can contemplate the structural pressures, or at least the ones she can identify, and then make her choices with that awareness. You might find some of the writings around BDSM and feminism useful here.
    To compare with other structures – clearly in the video linked there is economic exploitation as well as sexual exploitation at play. We can critique and even despise the economic structures that drive us to purchase things, and participate in society in certain ways, but that doesn’t mean to be good anti-capitalists we must shun all materialism.

    My initial response is that while it is not possible for female desire to ever be free of patriarchal influence (and, incidentally, capitalist influences regarding what is “sexy” also), I think the level of corruption can be reduced.
    Sex can be incredible subversive for a woman, and thereby empowering. This is where a lot of sex positive feminists are coming from, with talk about “reclaiming” words like slut and so on. But I think you can reach this position even starting from the radical feminist positions about sex. If a women is aware of the myriad and contradicting pressures that are influencing her choice, and makes her decision aware that it is corrupted, and evaluates her physical or emotional enjoyment against those considerations, the level of corruption is diminished.

    The problem that’s left though is that, within heterosexual sex, only the woman has this capacity to diminish the level of corruption. A male partner explaining to a woman how she should decide whether to sleep with him or not doesn’t really have the same impact!!

  9. I was going to type out a long thing, but no. I don’t think that’s what’s going on, but I could be wrong. I don’t think I come across creepy here, but maybe I do, that’s also not the point to me. I don’t really care about coming across as respectable. On the other hand, women have been in contact with me off site about the piece. I’m sure some women find it uncomfortable, others just generally don’t comment here. Instead of ascribing reasons for their relative lack of participation, which is generalized across the blog anyway, maybe we should let actual women do that? It’s also why I’m really uncomfortable with Dom’s desire to take away women’s desire (in so far as some women name what they want in a way that goes contrary to what Dom thinks they should want) as well as being generally uncomfortable with the Pauline approach to this. And I think those are part of the problem I tried to identify in the post.

  10. I still think Adam has a point, in the sense that men that feel similarly to you also have the temptation to a kind of Schwyerian performance, which is just an immunized form of the kinds of phenomena being critiqued.

  11. Well, I’m sure Adam has a point. But I am finding it difficult to figure out what exactly it is. At point he seems to suggest a creepy element in my pedagogy and I have to push back against that. I work very hard in my classes to make them safe in that respect, while also creating a space for difficult (“dangerous”) discussions about gender, race, class, and so on. At points there seems an implied worry about how it comes across. I didn’t follow the Schwyer thing and only know about it through the glimpses I saw on twitter, so I don’t know if I’m falling into the same trap here. But my general point is that it’s all a trap. So, being respectable and refusing to speak about it frankly is also a trap. Confession is a trap. Being paternalistic towards women’s desire is certainly a trap, but so is couching yourself as an ally of sex positive women. My point is that men win either way.

    Can I please ask we move away from a discussion focused on my desires and status here? I have already deleted comments that pushed it that direction, but have kept all yours because it’s the regulars. I realize this is my own fault for putting myself in the post, but when I’m speaking of “my desire” there I wasn’t really thinking I was some special case. Maybe other men are better than me (or maybe not), but I was just naming in general the bind I think most men find themselves in if they are “thoughtful”. I was also trying to resist some purity stance where the dudebros are over there and the good men are over here. It’s important to name one’s complicity while also resisting the idea that naming complicity or performing some kind of self-flagellation redeems you. On this issue I feel that we are all very much fucked (and the ambiguous sense of this term is intended, the negative sense but also the more joyful one with space for actual moments of human connection and happiness, perhaps). I don’t have the style figured out how to talk about all this yet, but I am very dissatisfied with a the distance of a academic analysis. I was trying something here and maybe it didn’t work, but let’s move on from treating the genre as a way into psychoanalyzing me for now.

  12. No, I’m not suggesting a creepy element in your pedagogy! I was using the (counterfactual!) example of the classroom to highlight how some of the kind of talk you engage in might go wrong, because I thought the problems would be more vivid and obvious if we imagined a classroom setting.

  13. “Passions I allow, and Loves I approve, only I would wish that men would alter their object, and better their intent.”

    The role of a schema like Dworkin’s “metaphysics of force” is to say “you should not (and do not really) want this; you should (and really do) want that”. It’s far more insidious and coercive than anything I could dream up or ever hope to enforce! It says something about the ideological efficiency of such a schema that any challenge to its prescriptions is immediately taken as a challenge to the desires it prescribes, as if one could not desire anything at all without being told in such a way that it was one’s true desire. That’s why, even though Dworkin insisted all along that _Intercourse_ wasn’t anti-sex, or even anti-intercourse as such but was intended as an act of heretical disloyalty to The Holy Fuck as the materialisation of the law of gender, it was still obstinately received as a book about how wanting to put the p in the v was bad and wrong…

  14. I particularly wanted to respond to this, not least because I read it just after a conversation I had with my 17 year-old daughter in the car on the way to school. But I didn’t have time – I had to take her 12 yr old sister to the doctor, hit three stores to (not) find the holy grail of hipster bags for her 15 yr old sister, write two late references letters and take apart a doctoral student’s first chapter, then there were groceries to get, dinner to make, laundry to dry and dishes to do. It’s now past 10 pm, and there are so many new comments I’ve totally lost the the point I originally wanted to make. So I’ll just tell you what happened in the car. I made some typically annoying mom-ish remark about the vacuous sexism of some song she was playing, to which she responded, with the wearied teen scorn/irritation reserved for mothers, “God Mom, you’re such a feminist.” I promptly responded with a typically annoying mom-ish rant on the ongoing oppression of women everywhere and what the hell is wrong with your generation?! Mom-teenager dynamics, and what the necessary rebelling may be giving rise to notwithstanding, I’m totally confounded by the attitudes of girls in her generation on the issues Anthony talks about. Why do they all want to have Brazilians?? Ok, I know the answer, but what freaks me out is how they’ve all internalized the masculine pornographic norms amongst themselves and for themselves, without ever have tested it on any real boys, without ever having had sex or even getting naked in front of anybody but me and their sisters. And it’s not because they’re staking claims for a liberated sexuality. HOW can my totally stunning daughter constantly say she’s too ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ for any boy to date/love her? Did YOU know that eating pineapple makes your vagina smell good?? How is this part of the requisite cultural knowledge no self-respecting teenage girl can do without? Part of my cri de coeur is the eternal repetition of the ‘kids these days’ drama, and the worry that I’m a crappy single mom and that my generation of feminists didn’t do enough or keep up the fight. But it’s not just because I’m old and out of it, as my kids sometimes say. Seriously, WHEN did feminism get to be old-fashioned or a dirty word?? Part of me strictly can’t believe that this is where we/they are now, after all that. Even if I know my girls are on their way to being strong, independent women and that they even sometimes think I’m pretty cooI, and I do get the sense it’ll all come out in the post-adolescent wash. I hope so, which by now is pretty much all I can do. That and keep up my mom-ish annoying feminist ways.

  15. I know I’ve been banned, but I have a theory about what might be going on here. My assumption is that young people are kind of afraid of sex — they know they want it, but the whole thing is intimidating.

    Why these terrible parties that seem like low-intensity orgies? Because they’re group experiences that defuse the anxiety of the one-on-one sexual encounter. You still have your support network, either to egg you on (guys mainly) or to make you feel safe to explore your “sexiness” (girls mainly). It’s an attempt at “sex without sex” — a general atmosphere of sex, but depersonalized. It “feels” less risky, though we’re all familiar with the ways that it can actually become incredibly dangerous for women in practice.

    Why pornography as a point of reference? Because it’s a legible socially-mediated standard at a time when no other widely known or recognized standard exists. Indeed, pornography is probably appealling in part because of its highly ritualized nature — it makes it seem like there’s a set formula you can follow. And it taps into the adolescent desire to somehow skip straight to being an adult without the requisite experience — as Ruth says, many of the kids thinking in pornographic terms are not even close to having had a real sexual experience, but porn lets them feel like they already know everything.

  16. I don’t know Adam, I think you’re generally right, but then we’d still have to talk about how these parties are totally unequal in their conception, not just the dangerous ways they play out in practice for girls. I mean, it’s not just democratic group sexual experimentation. Rainbow parties, for ie. which I thought were an urban myth, but acutally do happen in Toronto, mostly in private highschools. My sister who teaches in one of these schools confirms, and my kids know about them, even if nobody does that fucked up shit in our school Mom. For those who don’t know, these are parties where girls as young as 15 give boys blowjobs wearing bright lipstick, and the guy tries to get as many colours on his dick as he can by the end of the night. As my 15 yr old says, how to even talk about that shit.
    On the ritualized aspect of porn, you’re also probably right. But again, it’s a sickly sexist form of ritualization. Just think of all those 12 yr old boys jerking off to ‘hot sluts take it in the ass’, just for tame starters. If ritual matters, then we can probably see some Muslim girls who start wearing the hijab, or others who convert to Islam and start covering in those terms too. The same 17 yr old is doing her IB extended essay on the French headscarf affair, and loved Joan Scott’s book. (see? all is NOT lost! it’s all paying off!) I gave her the interview with Balibar in l’Humanite on his new book, Saeculum. She read out the part near the end to me, where he says he remembers being absolutely struck by watching one of those talk show debates about it- the room was divided between the proponents and opponents of the ban, and in the middle there were a group of adolescents. There they were, those girls, stuck between two patriarchies. One wanted to undress them, the other to cover them up, but they were both all about getting their hands on the girls’ bodies.

  17. I agree that it’s all patriarchal and horrifying, and I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything redemptive or positive in the group experimentation. I’m just trying to find ways to understand how the social forces concretely work in a more fine-grained way and to figure out why the kinds of experiences Anthony is reacting to would be appealling on any level. It’s incredibly fucked up that, as you say, the alternatives seem to be to participate in ritual sexual humiliation or else in ritualized de-sexualization — but I understand how a young woman might resist feminist critiques of the former as some version of the latter, even if I don’t think they’re finally correct in assessing it that way.

  18. It seems like it might be helpful to point out of the men’s desire is also socially mediated — something as creepy and contrived as a “rainbow party” can’t possibly be just “about” sex in a direct way. It’s about keeping score, about competing with the other guys. And I think we’re all familiar with the way that weaker-willed young men can be coaxed into behaving in ways they are actually very uncomfortable with, just out of a desire to conform (and hence not be hassled or excluded by the other guys). This is not to say that “men are victims too” or anything like that, but just to emphasize that sexual desire is always socially mediated and often very deeply deformed by the social forces at work.

  19. I have to say first that I think is an excellent piece. Second, that Anon’s comment made me pretty furious -what you’re suggesting is nothing more than lazy male solipsism – the idea that you ‘honestly think it’s as simple as asking yourself what you would want if you were you, but in their situation’ makes me want to bang my head against the wall, repeatedly. Go and read some standpoint epistemology, dudebro. This is basic, low level stuff. I can’t even…


    I basically agree with what Anthony is saying, and for this reason don’t think for a second that there is a ‘solution’ to this conflict. The conflict is the solution. Recognizing, voicing and ‘holding’ it. The very nature of desire as an ever-shifting, reflexive and active thing means that we will never be able to do anything other than witness and experience it, and attempt to channel it away from oppression and towards liberation.

    But desire is not stable, static or unchanging, and more importantly, it IS reactive – ie. it changes and reacts to other desires, people, experiences and events. Desire is not a ‘thing’ that we can even adequately discuss let alone adequately identify.

    I think it’s interesting that there has been a focus on Anthony’s personal desire in these comments – either by Adam’s concern about his admission of his desire for women, or through the other posts, now deleted. Why is this? Why is the male desire again being centre staged? Because male desire always is. Is it not interesting to note that a discussion of desire and women has itself been turned into a discussion about (one) male(s) desire?

    Finally, it is plainly obvious (I would hope) that it is impossible to separate out female desire from male desire, or one desire from another. There is no Platonic form of desire, either gendered or sexed, or not. Because desire feeds off other’s and Other’s desires (Other in the Lacanian sense), it will never exist as a separate ‘thing’, so attempting to work out what is ‘good’ desire and what is ‘bad’ desire (or what is ‘female’ and what is ‘male’) is a worthwhile but goal-less task. It is worthwhile because I do truly believe that the more aware and conscious of motivations and influences we have, the better we can become as people, the less oppressive we can be.

  20. (One could more charitably read my comments as expressing the same concern as Catherine’s about Anthony’s choice to make his own desire such a focus of attention in the original post.)

  21. I like this post a lot and I am pleased that you have written frankly. And yet I find these conversations largely depressing and frustrating. Not only because of the apparent incommensurability between the kind of radical feminism have you described and postmodern discourse re the subject, but also, because I think as a heterosexual women I have been formed by both discourses. I tend to agree with Catherine in that desire is unstable. Still, to you say that the conflict is the solution seems terrifically ungratifying to me. The instability of desire seems to me, as that which points to the aporia of contemporary discourse. I think current attempts to retrieve a Platonic desire, and attempts to cast desire within a post-structuralist framework of agency, both tend to sidestep the issue of gender and patriarchy in (albeit different) ways that only theoretically consider the moment when a women lays on her back to take it from some dude (and honestly Anthony, I think your language here really does help confront this). That is, I am just not sure that the 17 year old girls some of us are thinking of and talking about belong to a generation which some ambivalent posture towards desire is going to help them (and are currently reading this Mum’s advice , which half a million people think is awesome). That desire itself seems to be neatly commodified through agency’s of consumption, perhaps suggests that desire – as it relates to the potential of consent and gratification in heterosexual sex – is not a category through which we can see a way out right now. What alternative have we? I am not sure, but I do think current categories are becoming unhelpful.

  22. I’m a woman responding. I find “participat[ion] in ritual sexual humiliation or else in ritualized de-sexualization” the problematic, but for a moment I’m interested in a lesser concern. I appreciate Anthony’s questions “How can you enjoy it without wondering, do I really enjoy this and if you are the position of structural power how can you then not wonder ‘do they actually enjoy this and how can I trust them to know?'” Given these are such incredibly difficult questions to contemplate with any leverage, and — at least in my experience therefore not productive of thought (the impossibility . . .) –, I wonder if bracketing them might aid in gaining some, that is assuming briefly rather possibility, and extremely. I’m here reflecting upon voyou’s post about /Spring Breakers/, particularly the questions “could human beings withstand utopia? And, if they couldn’t, should that lead us to reject utopia, or humanity?” I mean, what is utopic in this case? A “pure,” un-reactive (to societal constructions, not to an other’s or other desires as Catherine Tomas outlines) desire? . . . Analogically — to put it strongly but to follow it to this point — as in the radical unidirectionality of Laruelle’s One? In terms of the impossibility of its being affected? Only affecting? I in fact don’t have the time or energy to characterize this more fully but might encourage Anthony (given his command of Laruelle and purported desire to contemplate such questions) to juxtapose this analogical characterization with that earlier question, about whether such a utopic configuration could indeed be withstood, etc. Where might the explosion of this configuration lead us? What depiction, at least? I’m interested in listening, or viewing by proxy.

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