On (queer) casual sex, (racialized) love, and the (political) space between
Ryan Kai Cheng Thom | Fulcrum Contributor
“At fourteen, my sister sailed away from me into a place I’d never been. In the walls of my sex, there was horror and blood; in the walls of hers, there were windows.”
—Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
Some time ago, I fell in love with a boy I was casually boning. I didn’t mean to; it just sort of happened. One night, we were having communicative, consensual, open-ended sex like good modern queers; the next, I was obsessing over the grammatical construction of his text messages and writing hysterical poetry while waiting desperately for him to call.
Needless to say, he picked up on my feelings, was a little (to put it nicely) overwhelmed, and ended things. At first, I was tempted to perceive this as a painful but ordinary learning experience—a universal trial in the tender court of love. But my mind would not let the matter rest and kept pursuing difficult questions: How could an ostensibly casual encounter arouse such great and terrible feelings in me and not in him? Why does this seem to happen to me every time I have a decent sexual partner? And what do our identities—mine as transgender, femme, Asian, and his as white and cisgender—have to do with it?
There is an unspoken assumption in contemporary hook-up culture that the realm of consensual sex is one in which all bodies are rendered equal. That is, if two adults of sound mind mutually agree to get naked and touch each other, the issues of power and oppression in sex are adequately dealt with and may be put to bed, so to speak. Yet the truth is that the body is never stripped of politics; we bring our gendered selves, our coloured skins, our colonial histories, and our traumatized pasts into the bedroom as much as we do to any other space. These inequalities haunt our sexual lives; they determine who is dominant and who is submissive, who is desirable and who is not, who is loved and who is simply fucked. Neither sex nor love is free from colour-blindness or gender-blindness, no matter how much we might wish otherwise.
With this in mind, it becomes easier for me to understand the maelstrom of emotions, attachments, inequalities, and misunderstandings that surround the act of sex. The marginalized body—be it feminine or racialized, transgender or disabled, or any intersection of oppressed identities—experiences disempowerment in sex and love and is trained through sexualized violence to know itself as Other—as subordinate to and dependent on a more powerful partner. Seminal feminist Simone de Beauvoir writes of the experience of a woman in love as total consumption by devotion to a man; radical feminist Andrea Dworkin writes that heterosexual sex is always akin to rape.
Now I see more clearly why my younger self was so easily exploited by older, white men in positions of authority—for years, I believed that sex was something I should desire but never enjoy, that painful sex was the inevitable price I had to pay for intimacy. Of course I fell in love with this boy, who made me feel safe and was committed to our mutual pleasure in sex—how could I not? And how could either of us have anticipated that what for me was a rare and extraordinary experience, was for him just a common courtesy?
There is a great deal of stigma around attachment and vulnerability in hook-up culture. We should not, we are told, be “clingy” or “needy” or “crazy.” Yet the reality is that we do have needs on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels; these needs are informed by our experiences and political selves. Sex is a powerful, political act—it can shatter us or transform us. What I propose is a sex-positivity that is also love-positive; that is responsible; that is patient and understanding and self-reflexive. I want a politic of sexual liberation that honours our pasts, our differences, our selves, and our capacity to love and fuck freely, even through the tissue of our scars.
“It matters how we treat the people we love / But I’m starting to worry / It matters how we treat the people we nail, too.”
—Joey Comeau, A Softer World
Ryan Kai Cheng Thom is a writer and performing artist based in Montreal who writes a biweekly column, Memoirs of a Gaysian, for the McGill Daily.