I’m not sure what to say about this column, frankly. It’s interesting to note that Good Vibes is no longer a worker-owned cooperative, and had in fact begun the process of de-workerizing its structure long before it was sold to a national retailer. I’m still of the mind that material objects can acquire the racial status of humans, become epidermalized (a process that art critic Jennifer Gonzalez describes in Subject to Display as “one in which the object is positioned in history, in a collection, in the marketplace, or in a museum display as racially defined”), though their rhetorical placement within the discourse of that display does not necessarily signify in obvious or uncomplicated ways. And I do find the discourse of self-discovery to be more than “personal” — it’s ideological, industrial, global too. So maybe it’s that I agree with some of the pieces still but I want to put together a different puzzle now.
“I sold my first harness yesterday!”
K tells me, all excited, in a downtown Oakland restaurant where, I’m sure, such words have never been uttered til then. As she’s relating her “firsts” –first vibrator, first dildo, first harness sold– I think to myself that I’ve never seen anybody get so excited about their retail job, and wonder if the glow of selling sex toys will fade, in time. I hope the businessmen at the table next to ours can hear, and then change my mind — I don’t think they deserve the cheap thrill.
I ask her just what differentiates one harness from another, and she launches into a lecture –still fresh in her mind– given to her just the day before. Leather harnesses come with a lifetime guarantee, some people prefer buckles over d-rings, some harnesses come with different-sized rings for different-sized dildos, et cetera. I get dizzy with the wide array of choices available on the market and my mind starts wandering into theory, as it often does when not corralled, and into theories of consumer capitalism and the utopian promises offered up by the commodity and oh dear, should I be thinking these things while Karyn explains the difference between silicone and rubber?
I remind her to let me know where the products she sells are manufactured, again.
The other day I was browsing Good Vibrations in the City –I think M and I were cracking on the “innocent” packaging of a “sport massager” when I practically stumbled over their “African-American History Month” display. On a low-standing table covered in kente cloth sat propped-up porn videos featuring black performers, “black erotica” novels and how-to guides (including Taschen’s Black Ladies volume, the epitome of the “colonial gaze”), and a veined black rubber dildo, complete with testicles, modeled on black porn star Sean Williams’ penis.
Both vaguely disturbed, I grabbed M’s arm and we left. Out loud, we might have said something about “niche” marketing, the mostly white clientele in the store, or the further commodification of an already token gesture (being “African-American History Month“) by a supposedly conscientious feminist collective. We might have said something about how black struggles’ for civil rights was summarily distilled into the freedom (if you’ve got the cash) to buy product.
But what had really unsettled me, what I left unspoken at the time because I didn’t know how to articulate it, was this: for a split second, looking at that display, my mind had conjured photographs and descriptions of lynchings.
A few years ago I attended a forum organized by a group of Korean/American feminists. Through a translator, a Korean woman described her efforts to help other women escape U.S. military-sanctioned prostitution or service (including employment at the myriad of bars and clubs geared toward the U.S. troops), detailing abuses by U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea, including rape, kidnapping, mutilation, and brutal murder. One young woman, Yoon Geum Yi, a bar waitress, was repeatedly beaten over the head with a Pepsi bottle. Her murderer then inserted an umbrella into her anus, the Pepsi bottle in her vagina, and a match between her teeth.
The guilty G.I., Kenneth Markle, got away with a slap on the risk for her murder. (Most crimes committed by U.S. soldiers against Korean civilians go unpunished.) It was, to say the very least, nerve-wracking. And carefully outlined was the U.S. military’s neo-colonial role in South Korea, ties to other outposts of American masculinist imperialism (the Philippines, for another), and an analysis of that invasive historical narrative.
During the Q&A session, then, a young white woman in the crowd, a few rows back, stood up and asked, “Isn’t her message damaging to the sex-radical movement in the U.S.?”
The audience was stunned into silence. If I recall correctly, the translator and the panel moderator refused to address the question.
The myopia is amazing.
Months later, the “African-American History Month” display at Good Vibrations still nags. I wonder, out loud, what kind of historical narrative is being consciously invoked and to myself, I wonder which ones are repressed, those that inevitably haunt the “positive” space of celebrated black (porn) sexuality and evoke its own structuring absence.
See, at about the time I wandered into Good Vibes I’d also been reading A Red Record by anti-lynching black activist Ida B. Wells in a graduate seminar. A Red Record is simply that: a record of lynchings so, it’s hoped, we never forget the breadth of racist violence that laid the foundation for much of American ontology. Among the more common features of lynchings is the genital mutilation and castration of black men (and, it should be noted, black women).
And the recent trial that eventually convicted one of the white supremacist men who brutally murdered black Texan James Byrd, Jr., was simultaneously present, a reminder of a past that’s hardly past at all. I remember listening to the reports from the courthouse that February; a Pacifica reporter had described the damage done to Byrd’s body, seen in autopsy photographs. Flesh torn from bone, the reporter also noted the mutilation of his genitals.
It’s these things that flashed before me, standing in front of that display, noting the prominent place of the black rubber dick.
How should I read this? I see ghosts as the violent historical circumstances of maligned black (and in the dildo context, specifically male) sexuality are seemingly disappeared here. Because this history of violence is so integral to our collective psyches, I want to know how it haunts, and who; if it signals a loaded racial fetish, a bondage-and-domination fantasy with deep historical roots.
And I’m thinking of a sex column I read over a year ago in which a white straight woman narrates her arousal watching Amistad, visions of buff, black men in chains. She doesn’t understand why her black boyfriend doesn’t want to enact those scenes and wants to know how she might convince him.
Is sex always just about fucking? Does sex have a history? a memory? For the white woman, it seems the violent legacy of slavery is best dealt with by stripping it of its historicity, its material and psychic realities of torture, suffering, and death. But as feminist theorist and video-maker Laura Kipnis writes, “How long can the amnesia last? And does it stay forgotten?”
And what if he wanted to do it, and who’s to decide what counts as “authentic” sexual expression? The idea that we come to know and love someone, including ourselves, through the lens of an inevitably produced social identity – including one filtered through stereotype, the Black Buck, for instance, or a dystopian historical tale—only disturbs because it is, after all, a very real possibility.
“What a radical concept! Our own sexuality offers us liberation here on earth, in our lifetime. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, whether you’re an industrialist or on welfare, whether you’re a struggling young artist or have vast holdings in South Africa, you too can be liberated. Why bother to demonstrate, contribute to Amnesty International, or try to change the system when you can now achieve liberation in the privacy of your own bedroom?”
–Laura Kipnis, “Ecstasy Unlimited: The Interpenetration of Sex and Capital”
Flipping through the catalog K left with me, I start wondering, once again, about the utopian promise of the commodity, the ideological guts of consumer capitalism, and the glowing rhetoric of freedom and individual self-determination that defines all ad copy – including that for sex toys. The revolutionary premise of sexual liberation feels short-sighted. What does it mean when political is an individual enterprise that can happen entirely within the confines of the bedroom (or whatever room you decide to deploy your toys) and the orgasm the tool of emancipation? What exactly counts as “liberation,” and what is the vehicle for it?
What partially counts as subversion in this scenario is also a matter of material privilege, niche marketing and complicity with the problematic logic of transnational capitalist production. Those battery-operated vibrators aren’t manufactured by other First World, savvy urban (white) women. Turn the box over and there’s the “Made in China” tag that potentially signals poor factory conditions and low wages. In an age of globalization of “free trade,” it’s the goods that get to travel across national borders (in order to “liberate” First World sex radicals), but not the workers (who might be a little queer themselves). The sex-toy industry is also just that: a multi-million dollar industry pulling down more than the GNP of not a few “Third World” nations. We may be purchasing opportunities for self-reinvention and sexual pleasure, but we are also hopelessly complicit in –and appropriated by– the commodity logic of techno-culture.
And so I’m thinking of something Kipnis wrote: “Our sexuality is produced in the form of a commodity; our fantasies are repackaged and sold to us as products in porn stores; our desire has the grammar of consumer capitalism, and those sexual forms will exist as long as those social forms exist. The irony is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance.”
I don’t have conclusions, only questions and frustrations. I’m a mess of contradictions myself. I don’t deconstruct, I just bask in the glow. I want to acknowledge complexity, that we are more than the sum of our parts – which is why, I think, I don’t like the formulaic stuff.
Anti-porn arguments bore me. Such accounts get in bed with right-wingers, infantilize women, condescend to sex workers, refuse to critically consider porn as a social practice, and prescribe what gets to count as “healthy” sexuality (usually vanilla, reproductive heteronormativity). Yawn.
But sometimes, it’s true, as a critical theorist, pro-sex politics also bore me. They sometimes (not always, sometimes) feel limited, especially when what counts as politics is just about fucking. And because I’m a cranky girl, I worry about the very real potential for flattening all those uneven social relations and their histories into a spread-around lack of mind-blowing sex. (If you doubt, did you read the above?) If we meaningfully consider sex and sexuality –especially in its regulation and criminalization—in a dialectic with ideologies of race, gender, nation, capitalism, and material relations, the rhetorical hard-sell of personalized liberation falls flat.
It’s Queer Pride weekend and I open up a local weekly and the Good Vibes ad copy catches my eye: “Out of the streets, into the sheets.” I know it’s meant playfully, but it still itches badly. To paraphrase critical theorist Lauren Berlant, the real fear in America is not that we –queers, feminists, and others of our kind – will have sex in our bedrooms, but that we will have politics in public.