Sex Talk

Public discourse has not caught up with the lived contradictions that lie at the root of sexual harassment and the culture of harassment. The media can’t get enough of these stories. And yet, no amount of coverage of rape, harassment seems to shift things. The story of one’s harassment/rape has always already been written by someone else. This is one of the many things that make sexual violence so awful. It is why DJT’s language matters, why it feels so familiar. We know that sentence, because we have felt it on our bodies.

All that talk — the blaring of the story of one grope after another — we are angry hamsters in a spinning wheel.

There is no necessary relationship between how much people talk about sex, and much sexual generosity/intelligence is produced by that talk. Plenty of sex talk is abusive, phobic, sexist and harassing. Much of that sex talk is presented as “knowing” but is in fact ignorant. Plenty of sex talk is a site of intimacy, bonding and generosity. Much of that talk is staged around one’s humiliation and ignorance but is in fact wise.

People sense a hypocrisy in public outrage vis a vis DJT’s behavior but can’t quite name its nature.

Harassment does not disrupt the workplace’s order; it actually regulates it. The more hierarchical and segregated the environment, the more this is true. Those who confront and resist harassment take a beating for this reason.

Take the strange and shifting place of sexuality in this anecdote lifted from a story in The Nation, regarding a recent DJT rally. The reporter describes a conversation with a female DJT supporter:

She also mocked the women who accused Trump of assault. ‘What we say in private, who cares? The other day, a bunch of women at work: We was talking trash talk, about sex and everything else, it’s what we do. None of us are saints. Who cares?’ She doesn’t care if he grabbed these women against his will? ‘Who said he grabbed them? And lemme tell you right now: back in the day, a billionaire had come by, I’d have been wanting him to grab me! I’m sure they were wanting him to grab them.’ Then she added, ‘Even though I am a victim of sexual assault.’ I told her I was sorry for that, and she brushed it off. ‘That right there with the women, if it happened, I’m sure it was wanted.’

We should not mistake the contradictions that this woman voices for stupidity. This woman is describing the lived contradiction shaping the life of the sexed worker — the worker who embodies sex, is sex, and moves through the workplace as the embodiment of the world that has already been mined for resources before she arrives for her working day. Sex haunts the workplace as the sign of all that has been stolen from the worker before she earns a dime. Groping literalizes that theft. It is a reminder: that body is not yours. Never was. In a way, there is a cruel truth to that fact. These stories of sexual harassment are slippery. The harassment story spreads like a germ from one man to another. This sick energy swirls around the figure of a powerful woman in a pantsuit who presents herself as a soulless wall — she is irrelevant. This is what harassment does to its victim. Maybe that position advances to: She is the same as him. She is the problem. Get rid of them both. But of course, she is not.

She is different, and yes — difference is the problem here. She is the one who will embody our embarrassment. That is HRC’s struggle — how not to become that figure (which has never not haunted her, as the public’s “good wife”).

We bemoan the fact that DJT’s racism never grabbed the public’s fascination in the way that his sexual behavior does — that, too, is a difference problem. One is knotted into the other: his campaign opened, after all, with the declaration that Mexicans are rapists. And because this country didn’t, in numbers, at that moment, recognize the seriousness of the problem in his candidacy — we are here, now, counting the numbers of women willing to come forward and tell the stories of how they were touched.

Until we get how harassment grows from the contradictions which structure our lives, until we come to grips with how, as Silvia Federici once put it, “sexuality is work,” we will not get very far in cleaning up this mess. In part because we’ve grossly underestimated its scale.

Pink Slime: on racist reporting of anti-racist student activism


From Bon Appétit’s website: “And good luck locating Indian food as authentic as what our eBay and Google guests enjoy at our cafés at any other workplace.”

Popular media is determined to present the national student body as a generation of spoiled brats. Pundits cherry-pick and decontextualize stories from student papers, presenting individual campus struggles to a scandalized public as symptoms of the collapse of moral character. It is no wonder that activists at the University of Missouri attempted to exile the press from their fall 2015 demonstrations. Journalists are not what they were in the 1960s. The few who have the resources, drive and ability to report a story are far outnumbered by the flock of sneering bloggers who supply Facebook and Twitter feeds with rhetorical pink slime.

Take recent stories about student questioning of Oberlin College’s dining options. Oberlin’s dining services are provided by Bon Appétit Management Company, a food services corporation that brands itself as socially progressive through its use of “locally sources/humanly raised” product, etc. They operate “650 cafés in 33 states, with dozens of marquee clients.” Students complained that much of the international fare on Appétit’s menu is more appropriative than authentic. (One of the offending menu items is a pulled pork sandwich served on ciabatta with cold slaw, presented as Banh Mi). They asked to sit down with those designing the menu, in the interest of improving it. Their complaint to the campus dining service was reported by the school’s paper, the Oberlin Review. That article led to a New York Post headline which declared, “students at Lena Dunham’s college offended by lack of fried chicken.”

This is not an unusual path in the development of a story. College campuses have long served as inspiration for collective finger wagging. Student art projects, sit-ins, course ideas, new majors, experimental pedagogy can be trusted to make headlines during a slow week.

One might see in this story an interesting conversation between international students, Oberlin staff and Bon Appétit, a national food service corporation that uses social consciousness as a marketing tool. One might spy a story about the flattening of campus culture by the delocalized corporate management of student life. Life at one liberal arts college looks increasingly like life at every other liberal arts college because, nationally, a handful of corporations produce all aspects of student life. These corporations promise to make life on college campuses “better,” but in doing so they make it more uniform. That uniformity includes the translation of diversity into easily produced and consumed menu-items. This, the use of diversity as a marketing device, was actually the focus of Clover Lin Tranh’s November 6 story for The Oberlin Review. The exchange between students and staff at Oberlin is, in fact, typical of college life. For people working in student affairs, it’s hardly newsworthy. It is a basic workday.

In their earnest idealism, student activists are vulnerable to judgment from a cynical public. Today, the latter is more interested in the problem of student entitlement than it is in the crisis in public education. If Oberlin students seem “spoiled,” it is because the overwhelming majority of students in this country are served salt-cured ambiguous animal protein soaked in grease — and the public accepts this, just as it accepts in strip-mining of the national curriculum and the degradation of teaching. It is pink slime everywhere in our schools — those of us who teach college are now used to students who have never been inside a library, and whose progress in their degrees is hampered by their need for remedial writing and math. Those remedial needs, by the way, are generally met by adjuncts — by teachers working part-time with no health or retirement benefits, who have no say in campus governance and no pathway for career advancement.

One might understand individual stories of student activism as confrontations with the difficulty of recognizing and working from difference. Differences in cultural practices of hospitality are an important threshold for conversations about race, ethnicity, nationality and religion — especially within the context of a residential campus. One might assume that students are translating into collective action some of the material they are learning in the classroom, and that they want to make the campus a more interesting place to live. Instead, popular media dismisses students as entitled monsters.

Teachers and staff members who work with students know that the college campus has always been, by definition, a community dedicated to struggle — education is, always, hard work, and it is a collective undertaking. Each class of students will hold the campus to a new, different, and evolving standard calibrated to their needs and ambitions. Faculty and staff negotiate with these needs and ambitions. That is our job. Today that job includes suffering through the blunt force of popular media’s racism, which would have the reader believe that earnest anti-racist activism is the real problem, and not the brutality of the profoundly racialized forms of class warfare that render student struggles for equality into a form of entitlement.


NOTE: Normally I write about sports here but every now and again I have other thoughts.

No Lesson Plan: notes on a shooting

As something people experience and express, sexism is intensely variable. For some, systems of hate and fear are never more than a background hum. For others, those systems manifest themselves as discrimination in the workplace, police violence, and worse.

People with the Isla Vista killer’s suite of disorders (a cocktail of schizo-paranoid-psychotic thinking mixed with who knows what disorders) will tap into the grid of hate and fear. Sexist thinking seems to have given a shape to his persecution complex. It seems to have legitimized a God-like complex. This is to say that aspects of this person’s writings are surely sexist, but they are also hallmarks of certain kinds of paranoid/psychotic formation. Supremacist logics are grounded in these paranoid/psychotic/schizo formations. History does not suffer from want of evidence on that score. What to do with the coincidence (the happening-in-the-same-time-and-place) of the crazy and the real? With the singular (the “shooter”) and the systemic (“sexism”)?

Not all people who go on murder sprees leave an accessible archive of their psychosis behind them – this seems to be more and more common, however, as social media gives people new ways of expressing those thoughts. How should we read them? In fact, why does the public read them at all? What do they tell us that his murder spree doesn’t?

I’ve had the unfortunate fortune of working with detectives who specialize in threats, stalking, and intimate partner violence. They have an interesting way of looking at things. They are concerned by the way that a person’s tilt into violence is generally accompanied by a suicidal not-caring about what might happen to others, or to themselves. These detectives have a chance to prevent murder. What makes a person violent – as a question – concerns them deeply.  One scary scenario involves the projection of the death-drive onto the object of a campaign of harassment – in which hate/fear/desire drives a fantasy of mutual destruction – the object of their hate/fear/desire (the person who is the object of attachment but also rage) is absorbed into a suicidal mission. A person might dream of that cataclysm, but an awareness, a certain grip on the sane – a desire to live, a desire to stay out of jail – might keep them from acting that fantasy out. When that awareness falls apart – when that sense of a modest future of not-murder/not-suicide fades – that is one place where murder happens.

Women victims constitute a vast majority of their cases; perhaps because in disordered thinking the consequences of harassing and threatening women feels less serious – easier to get away with. That is, indeed, one shape that sexism takes. And, statistically, men are more likely to act out these murder/suicide fantasies – one of patriarchy’s signatures is its naturalization of a man’s impulse to harm and destroy. (A bitter twist: socially, threats of violence issued by women are taken less seriously; threats between men may also be taken less seriously as men are imagined as less vulnerable. So same-sex intimate partner violence may be ignored, minimized, its murderous potential disavowed or absorbed into a homophobic narrative.)

Sexism circulates as an explanation and as a fertilizer and as a foundation for all kinds of misery. It explains everything and nothing.

What made the people murdered by that guy vulnerable to his violence? Sexism is a part of that story, but there are other things that escape that word. One might meditate on sex and its relation to power; one might consider this historical moment as one in which things feel pointless, when life within the US feels pretty desperate – like living in the middle of an egomaniacal and embittered monster. What makes the world so chaotic, what makes the college campus and the female student such a compelling target? That’s sexism but it is also, say, a distortion of class warfare.

What makes someone want to burn down not only their life, but the world? To shoot up a sorority or deli, to drive his car into a crowd, to murder men while the sleep (one theory as to how he killed his roommates). To mainline the worst of everything?

I will not read that guy’s text or watch his video – I refuse out of respect to his victims, for, in fact, the broadcast of those messages – some kind of master-narrative – was surely one of his desires – but I do not need to read them to know what they say. Master narratives are always sexist and racist, self-serving and, at their core, crazy.

Sexism gave a sense of legitimacy to his psychotic narrative. And yet he didn’t only murder women; he started off by murdering his male roommates and one of their friends. He did not only blame women for his unhappiness; he blamed the men around him, too. Yes, we can understand that as part of sexism’s logics. We might also understand heterosexual culture as fucked up – the designation of women as the obstacles to sexual happiness is one of the heterosexuality’s worst features. He started off killing the people closest to him, however – these men (whom we can guess he was also harassing) were murdered with a knife. He murdered two women, four men. Most of his victims were men of color.

Sexism is such a powerful narrative structure – it gave him his “reason” – should it also give us so much explanatory force with regards these horrific events? People are compelled by his own explanation for his actions. But how much more do we need to know in order to understand that racism, sexism and class warfare were part of his life, and are part of ours?

Of course it is a good thing that so many people are thinking and talking about the relationship of sexism to violence, especially if that conversation unfolds with an awareness of how proximate discourse on “protecting” women from violence is to racist expressions of violence, especially if that conversation unfolds in the interest of maximal sexual freedom and happiness, and less carving up of the world by gender. As a queer theorist, however, I notice that the state of sexual emergency which we encounter in and around today’s campus makes advocacy for sexual freedom, for sexual generosity more difficult. More confusing and strange.

That this killer – a man – drove to a sorority seems to give this story some kind of shape. But does it, really?

Last week, in Santa Barbara, a profoundly distressed young man took all the pain and all the misery of his experience and loaded it into a gun. He enacted a murderous fantasy in the name of his desire. Whatever his rationale, he was an equal opportunity killer.

The knife, the gun – the act of violence – what meaning it bestows on the world is itself a brutality. What is there to think from such a place?

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