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What Is Queer Sexual Empowerment?

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I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.

I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people.  She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago.  And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball.  When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed.  Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment.  It just seemed unnecessary.  And, really, unnecessarily vulgar.  Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?

I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives.  (I’m late, anyhow.)  But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment.  Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics.  (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…)  Good; let’s think sociologically!

But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers.  Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist iconOr, is she yet another pawn of the music industryApparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin.  Fuck.  That is a really disturbing revelation.

Queer Sexual Empowerment

In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment.  It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex.  Right?  It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right?  It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?

My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment.  My mind drew a blank.  What would queer sexual empowerment look like?  In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act.  Fuck you homophobia.  We exist.

For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality.  Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality.  We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad.  I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow.  So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.

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But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex.  I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause.  First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual.  It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy.  The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion.  These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer.  That’s not empowerment.

Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered?  Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences?  Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor?  And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?

As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered.  Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals.  But, not everyone wants that.  Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public.  I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public.  I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men.  Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.

Concluding Thoughts

I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define.  For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred.  Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues.  To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act.  But, only to an extent, it seems.  We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions.  Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.Were Just Like YouIn a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms.  A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off.  The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours.  Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it.  We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”

Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment.  Ugh.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

Racism, as a social system, shapes and structures every aspect of society.  As sociologist Eduado Bonilla-Silva argues in his structural perspective of racism (PDF), racism operates as a social structure that has taken on a life of its own, and serves as an “organizing principle of social relations in itself” (page 475).  So, a more appropriate conceptualization of racism reminds us that it operates as a system of oppression, not merely an ideology (i.e., racial prejudice or, the more sanitized reference to “racial attitudes”) nor actions (i.e., interpersonal racial discrimination).  Borrowing from sociologist Barbara Risman‘s thesis of gender (specifically sexism) as a social structure (PDF), we can think of racism as system that operates on multiple levels:

  1. Racialized Individuals: aspects of the self directly related to race (e.g., racial identity, racial attitudes) and consequences of racism (e.g., health, income, education, values, aspirations).
  2. Racialized Interactions: re-creation and reinforcement of racial inequality in interactions between individuals (e.g., racial discrimination; “doing” race and holding one another accountable for “appropriate” performances of our presumed race; immediate, automatic categorization of others by race).
  3. Racialized Institutions: laws, policies, organizational practices, cultural and social norms that re-create and reinforce racial inequality (e.g., racial disparities in the criminal justice system, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, pay inequality, “professional” standards that privilege white middle-class ways of living and behaving).

When framed this way, our challenge is not to “prove” when race does matter or when racism is at play.  Rather, racism is understood as universally and perpetually relevant, shaping the core of every aspect of social life.  We are hard pressed, then, to prove when race doesn’t mater or when racism isn’t at play.  This puts to rest the misguided and naive discussions about the supposed “post-racial” society.  And, it helps to maintain attention to racial prejudice, while not being completely distracted by playing the “who’s a racist?” game.

Everyday Racism

Even in this modern era — supposedly “post-racial,” or even “post-racist,” — racism operates as a daily burden in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  As such, scholars have introduced a fitting concept: everyday racism:

Racism is easily recognized in its extreme forms (e.g., white youth beating up and killing dark-skinned people), or in its overt forms (e.g., throwing bananas at black players on European soccer fields). Everyday racism can be more coded (a white teacher saying to an African-American student: “How come you write so well?”); ingrained in institutional practice (appointing friends of friends for a position, as a result of which the workplace remains white); and not consciously intended (when lunch tables in a canteen or cafeteria are informally racially segregated and the white manager “naturally” joins the table with the white workers where only they will benefit from casually shared, relevant information and networking).

The term is quite apt, first, because of its reference to the daily occurrences of subtle actions, slights, and microaggressions, and second, because it refers to a common, “everyday” feel of the reality of racism.  By attending to the extreme, overt expressions of racism of a few “bad apples,” we miss the widespread existence of minor, subtle expressions of racism.  Though a rare slight here or there has little effect, the everyday exposure to these slights adds up, taking a toll on the health and well-being of each person of color.

In fact, the health consequence of everyday racial discrimination is comparable to, and may even exceed, those of major events of discrimination, like being unfairly fired or denied a job.  This is, in part, due to the heavy cognitive and emotional toll of processing — “was that discrimination?  was that because I’m Latina?”  Despite the stereotype that people of color are quick to “play the race card,” to assume unsatisfactory or differential outcomes are the result of discrimination, most probably go through a series of steps in their heads before concluding racism may have been at play.  That represents a lot of used up mental and emotional energy, on top of all of the other stressors everyone experiences regardless of race, as well as those disproportionately faced by people of color (e.g., poverty, barriers to important institutions like education, health care, etc.).

Ironically, because of accusations of hypersensitivity or that one is “playing the race card,” people of color face even greater pressure to process potentially racist events before making such conclusions.  Yet, one still faces the risk of having one’s claims of victimization denied or dismissed.  This, then, could lead one to doubt or question their own experiences, or feel that white people — even those who proclaim to be allies, liberal, anti-racist, or “color-blind” — just don’t “get” it and thus aren’t worth speaking with about issues related to race and racism.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

I will say up front that this may be my own, personal burden: daily disappointment.  It may come as a surprise that I am stubbornly optimistic.  I have chosen to devote my life’s work to challenging inequality, prejudice and discrimination, and exclusion, and promoting equality, acceptance, and diversity because I have high hopes that such change can (continue to) occur.  And, though a product of their time and social context, humans are capable of good, humanity, and peace.  So, despite the crappy things that I may experience, witness, or read or hear about today, I will sleep tonight and wake tomorrow with replenished hope for peace and justice.

My optimism is a gift.  And, it is often a curse, leaving me open to constant disappointment.  An example:

I spent my first Christmas with my partner a couple of months ago.  Deciding against participating in the capitalist take-over of the holiday, we spent the day together as our “gifts” to each other.  I decided to take a brief walk to get some fresh air, and used getting sodas from the local gas station as a fine excuse.  (There wasn’t much else open on the holiday.)  I walked to the store jamming to Shangela’s “Werqin’ Girl,” and feeling great (I’m digging songs by drag queens these days).  I headed to the back toward the coolers, and two women entered the store after me.  With sodas in hand, I got in line to check out.  Two people were ahead of me in line.  I watched as the cashier told one customer (a young white man), “you’re coming back later?  Oh, you can pay for this then.”  Such trust.  And, sadly, my first thought was, “there is no way this white cashier would trust me to pay for something later, no matter how many times he sees me as a customer here.”  It is what it is in this racist country.

Then, another customer (a white woman) cut in front of me in line.  I thought many things in that moment: maybe she hasn’t seen me yet; maybe she is planning to get behind me once we move forward; maybe she is with this other (white woman) customer.  Maybe there is some logical reason for her otherwise rude behavior.  The other customer began checking out.  The person who cut in line did not check out with her.  She did not move behind me upon seeing me.  I became angry.  “Should I tell her, politely, that I was next in line?”  I decided to let it go, albeit unsuccessfully.  My anger started to beat out my logic.  I moved closer, attempting to rely on her presumed fear of me as a large brown man to get her attention.  Nothing.  With her purse on the counter, partially open, I rested my hand close to it, trying harder to make her uncomfortable.  Nothing.  She checked out.  I checked out.

Outside, I noticed the two white women were together, though they did not check out their purchases within the same transaction.  I walked out toward the street, putting my headphones back on.  I noticed the two women pull up behind me in their van.  An opportunity for revenge!  I stood in the way of their exit.  I looked both ways before crossing the street: once, twice, three times.  When it was obvious that the street was safe to cross, and had been for more time than presumably necessary, I looked back at the woman who cut in front of me in line.  Then, I looked her up and down, and proceeded to cross the street.

The entire event disappointed me.  Can’t I go one day — even Christmas day — without being forced to think about racism?  And, my own (constrained) actions disappointed me.  Wasn’t there a better way to handle the situation?  But, unfortunately, people of color are constantly placed in these situations to process, to weigh appropriate courses of action (or inaction).  We are placed in situations in which we are forced to ask, “was that about race?”  And, no matter our response, we are left thinking about it days, months, or years later, while it never develops into a significant memory in the minds of our privileged counterparts.

The insult to the injury of these events of everyday racism are the responses that belittle our experiences: “are you sure that was about race?”; “maybe you’re overreacting”; “maybe…” [some other “logical” explanation]; “just try to forget about it.”  Upon facing some subtle, minor, and presumably “innocent” incident, we are then told by a group who are not faced with such a burden that our reaction, how we feel, think, or act, is inappropriate or excessive.  Figuratively speaking, you are punched in the gut and then asked why you are curled over and groaning.

I suppose I could avoid these daily disappointments by assuming the worst in people.  But, disappointed or not, I am inclined to continue to see the potential for good and kindness in every person.  I can’t imagine that great leaders of yesterday and today would be as strong in their conviction if they had little hope for humanity.

The Importance Of Representation: Voice, Visibility, And Validation In America

For one obvious reason, disadvantaged groups are often called “minorities” — the groups are smaller in size than another group.  In this sense, people of color (or racial and ethnic minorities) and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (or sexual minorities) are numerical minorities.  However, these groups, as well as women, are also minorities by virtue of having less power in society than their majority counterparts: whites, heterosexuals, and men.  Unfortunately, this latter point is often forgotten; look, for example, at the hope that racial equality will be realized once people of color outnumber whites in the US.  Indeed, the history of Apartheid in South Africa serves as evidence that a group’s minority status in terms of power is not the mere product of being a numerical minority.

Minority Status: The Roles Of Size And Power

The size of a minority group is an important component that plays a role in shaping the experiences of minority group members.  In particular, by virtue being a member of a smaller group, minority group members theoretically have a lower chance of seeing other minority group members across various contexts.  Whereas non-Hispanic whites make up two-thirds of the US population, white people have the greatest chance of any racial or ethnic group of seeing other white individuals at work, the grocery store, church, on the street, at the doctor’s office, and so forth.  In these terms, women and men have roughly the same chance of seeing other women and men, respectively.

However, the unequal allocation of power, resources, and opportunities also plays a role in shaping minority and majority group members’ experiences.  In terms of gender, despite slightly outnumbering men in the US, women are often underrepresented in many contexts.  Take as a very important example the US Congress: there are 76 congress women in the US House of Representatives (compared to 362 men), and 17 in the US Senate (compared to 83 men).  Do the math.  Women make up roughly 50 percent of the US population, yet only 17 percent of congresspeople are women!  Though 10 percent of congresspeople in the House are Black, not a single member of the US Senate is Black.  Indeed, other factors play roles in the outcomes of elections, including — I add emphatically — prejudice and discrimination.  But, it is safe to say that something other than a numbers game is at play when there is such a stark underrepresentation of women and people of color in one of the most important institutions in this country.

Representation: Why Group Composition Matters

There are a host of reasons why the extent to which a subgroup is represented matters.  Continuing with the example of the gender and racial and ethnic composition of the US Congress, it is important to note that the House and Senate, with their underrepresentation of women and people of color, is making important decisions that impact the lives of every person in the US.  So, two groups that consists primarily of white middle-class heterosexual men — many whom are only interested in the needs and desires of other white wealthy heterosexual men — are making decisions right at this moment on behalf of people of color, working-class and poor people, LGBT people, women, and other disadvantaged groups.  In fact, the leadership of every organization and institution in the US — most which are also dominated by white heterosexual middle-class men — is making decisions as I write this post that impacts the lives of every person of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class-standing.  Indeed, the decisions these individuals are making has great influence in guaranteeing that the next generation of leaders will also be white middle-class heterosexual men.

So, in a big way, what a group produces is shaped by the composition of the group.  Since individuals can only truly speak from their own experiences, the contributions of women and people of color systematically excluded from important decision-making processes.  But, the composition of a group also shapes the interactions among the groups’ members.  For example, a recent study on the gender composition of small groups found that the presence of fewer women is associated with less contribution from women group members:

When voting by majority decision, women deferred speaking if outnumbered by men in a group.  However, when voting unanimously, the researchers found that women were much more vocal , suggesting that consensus building was empowering for outnumbered women. The researchers also found that groups arrived at different decisions when women did participate. These findings, however, are not simply limited to business settings.

In this case, when women are underrepresented in a group, especially where reaching a consensus is the primary goal of the group, they are less likely to contribute to group decision-making.  And, the group loses out on what could be a unique contribution and voice not offered by male group members.  Because so many important, powerful groups include few or no women, the contribution of women is systematically excluded in important decision-making.  I would say the most shameful of these exclusions is the absence of women in important conversations about women’s health (e.g., contraception for women!).

Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges that arise from being a member of a minority group are sometimes exacerbated when one is also in the numerical minority in a group.  I would suggest one factor that contributes to women’s underparticipation in groups that are dominated by men is the stress associated with being the token woman. Social scientists, including professors Cate Taylor , Pamela Braboy Jackson, and Peggy Thoits, in Sociology at Indiana University, have examined the stressfulness (and resultant problems for health) of being “the only X” or token in groups and organizations that are heavily white and/or male.  The uneasiness one may experience as the token woman, token Latino person, or token lesbian, can contain so many different concerns and feelings, ranging from the discomfort of always being evaluated as a woman, Latina, or lesbian, to the discomfort of feeling that one is perceived as speaking on behalf of their entire group, to feeling that one has to contribute the perspective of a member of one’s group.  I can think of many discussions where I have been overwhelmed by anxiety that stemmed from being the only person of color or queer person present or, more often, from feeling the urgent need to interject that the group has systematically overlooked the importance of race, sexuality, and/or gender.

Seeing Yourself

The importance of representation extends beyond small groups and decision-making processes.  The visibility of minorities in the media is an extremely important arena of representation, one that has been extensively studied and debated.  For example, each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) analyzes the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in film and television each year.  The positive portrayal of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, same-gender couples, interracial couples, working-class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so on is crucial so that people are aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity.

Specifically for the members of minority groups, seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions.  In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem damaging effects for white girls, black girls, and black boys.  One primary reason?  White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch.  And, not just that, but they regularly see these characters and actors in positive, powerful, and central roles.  This is less so the case for other kids.

Though less frequent for members of minority groups, to see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being.  I can think of the range of emotions I saw or heard about in people of color, especially Black Americans, when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008.  Some had tears streaming down their faces simply because they were overwhelmed with joy, hope, and likely some sense of relief.  I am not ashamed to admit that I get this feeling in terms of race and ethnicity in the media, but also sexuality.  To not only see LGBT people on my television screen — again, I emphasize positive portrayals — but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me.  I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.

Though things have changed, and are continuing to change, there is still much work to be done until we stop seeing systematic underrepresentation and hearing about “the First African-American X” or “the First Woman to Y.”