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08 March, 2012

Sexuality, Identity, and Category Construction: Part III

Everything In Its Right Place

Via Sex Is Not The Enemy, I read Jessica Mack's piece at the Guardian in favor of representing diversity, arguing "that the concept of non-monogamy will be the biggest relationship issue we will grapple with in our time":

“Young women need to know that intimacy doesn't have to be a casualty of autonomy, and that sometimes it actually develops as a result. Just as young people need scientifically accurate sex education to keep them safe, so we need accurate relationship education to keep us sane. In order to move forward constructively, we need a multiplicity of relationship models to inspire and reassure us. We need trans couples on TV, we need non-monogamy champions, we need people married 40-plus years like my parents, and we need Stevie Nicks who, at 62, is purposefully single so that she can 'always be free'.”

In my last post, I wrote about how the categories we use to discuss sexuality come to us from a specific historical background, rather than being anything like natural categories, and argued that this causes problems.1 The objection one derives from Foucault seems to be that, whenever we accept the categorical terms created by or with reference to the norms of a hegemonic culture, we are allowing that dominant paradigm to dictate the terms in which our would-be radical action takes place. How can we have autonomy when we operate within a framework of internalized norms, such -- to harp on my favorite example -- as the concept that there are two sexes and that genders are necessarily paired with them? Having both acknowledged the importance of representing and speaking to difference and argued that these categories should be tossed out like so many bologna and mayo sandwiches left out in the sun on a summer's afternoon, starting with the idea of "normality", the following post asks a question in the context of

Individual Experience:

That is, where do we go from here? Maybe you see a narrative, a category, that fits you perfectly. Maybe not. Maybe you actually are going through a phase as you read this, and if so, then I hope you're comfortable considering that period of your life as no more or less valid and real than any other part. The world as it is leaves some questions on our doorsteps, though. Hell, right now I'm in a room full of people arguing, "Why do people ask me 'butch or femme', why do people have to ask?" "Like, you gotta pick?" Are you going to embrace an existing label and present yourself to the world that way? Are you going to name a new category and work to win recognition for it? (See, e.g., "polyamory" and notice how well that tactic has actually paid off thus far.) There are concrete advantages to working within an existing system. I'm not here to make you feel bad about making whatever choice you need to make. But, whether you do or don't embrace categorization, essentialism, or the idea that a trait's being natural is somehow a defense -- and against illogical people, it can be -- you have a sexuality or don't. How are you going to relate to that part of yourself, speaking socially? I'd like to argue that, especially if you have a partner or partners who can engage in this with you in the same spirit of inquiry, it might be rewarding to leave your expectations hanging on the doorknob with your tie.

Here's the trick. Having relationships without a script is complicated. Happily, there are some resources; I'm hoping that I fall in that category, too.

It's true, though, that as much as it might seem great to tear up all the scripts, that can leave the actors feeling pretty confused. It creates new problems: suddenly it's not just, "How do I do this right?" but also "What are we even going to do?" So, if one's goal is to explore one's personal sexuality without putting an assumption-shaped cage around it -- and, more importantly by my lights, if one is going to engage in a relationship with another person in a respectful manner that contributes to their self-realization, rather than expecting them to fix with a predetermined set of expectations -- that might take a lot of careful thought and mindful action. For me, it's entailed making frequent and consequential mistakes.

If you've lived inside a group for which standard scripts exist, maybe you've never had to ask these questions before. What does it look like, to try to escape assumptions and rescript our lives? From where I stand, it seems to take a lot of trust in one's partner, some practice at communication, and serious grounding in the knowledge that only you are basically awesome and this work isn't an imposition on your partner: it's just part of becoming an even more fulfilled version of yourself. It's part of deciding who you want to be and letting yourself flourish. So, if that's the work you choose to do ... it means being willing to be surprised, and being willing not to be surprised -- that is, willing to sacrifice some mystery for the sake of self-knowledge and of knowing a partner better, and for the sake of practicing and maintaining the communication itself. By choosing bravely to say, "This is what feels good for me right now," or, "That doesn't work for me right now;" by being willing to ask, "May I?" from a mindset where you can actually accept a "No" and just move on to some other enjoyable thing; and, especially if this is new for them, by communicating to your partner that it's safe for them to do the same; we can assume responsibility for our own sexualities, whatever they happen to be at that moment.

Out-Maneuvering Foucault

I'm pretty sure that Michel Foucault told me at a party one time (a thousand boiling lies, he died before I was born) that we construct our identities in large part in terms of, or in reaction against, the categories constructed by the people around us. I'm pretty sure that French academic is the very person who argued something along the lines that our experiences of our own identities -- our subjectivities -- are contingent on these externally imposed categories, perhaps moreso than on pure personal expression. Or am I thinking of Lacan? A small misunderstanding.

We can outmaneuver that problem, if we choose to make it a priority (and the consequences of identity politics lead me to argue that we should make it a major priority). What will that mean for us? Schools might need to move away from standardized curricula and include more explicit lessons about adopting others' perspectives, critical thinking, the genealogy of ideas, and mindful emotion regulation. Teaching people reasons to question and learn might also be a better way to nurture our natural curiosity, rather than expecting every student to excel at the same material when it's framed as a requirement. (Funny story: some people resent being told what to do -- children included -- and that's legitimate, especially in schools.) It means stewarding a more complex developmental environment in terms of interpersonal interaction, which means that it might be wise to get used to longer developmental periods. In other words, if our goal is to have a pluralistic world, we might have to let people take a long time to grow up.

In fact, do you know what I'm proud of? I'm not proud of having been born one way or another, but I am damn proud of having worked to figure out what I am, and of having worked to make connections with people who want to share that life with me, even as I do go through phases and make mistakes. I'm proud of the work I'm still doing to grow up.

From Foundational to Developmental

Maybe language labels can serve a developmental, rather than a foundational, purpose. When one is young, the world is a symbolic jungle, and we are not born knowing that there's a disconnect between a sign and what's signified. Having labels helps us to give name to parts of our experience that, otherwise, we might eventually notice -- I am not making a Sapir-Whorf argument, my dear linguists -- but which might happen much more quickly and painlessly if we have these words as tools for thought. I didn't realize that I was in an abusive relationship for years because I didn't have any bruises. I didn't realize that I had a romantic, but not a sexual, attachment to a certain male friend until after I left his company and spent time thinking about the orthogonality of those two categories. Having these categories can afford us the opportunity to recognize and give voice to our own experiences, which can help us to understand them. But you don't have to take my word for it. So, again, these labels are important -- but perhaps they're most important for individuals when we're young, and for societies when the group is in the process of fighting for public recognition.

Once we start to figure out that difference exists, while labels may give an easy shorthand for new acquaintances and for finding community, they may prove not to be necessary in our close relationships. If our circumstances change, we may discover new parts of ourselves, or we may change with the world around us, and letting go of our initial language choices need not mean letting go of ourselves.

Sometimes, it's frightening to speak parts of ourselves that are foreign to ourselves, and I'm well aware that not every person in a relationship has a partner who would be supportive in this kind of exploration. One might be afraid of losing a person one loves. Let's be honest: in a journey of self-discovery, one might discover unpleasant things: insecurities or fears that one would have to overcome in order to follow through on change. Airing those out might get ugly. But is someone who's too selfish to want to help you be you worth your time and attention, when you have so much self-knowledge and self-confidence to gain? Think carefully about your relationships; sometimes it's hard to see whether a relationship is unhealthy from inside it. And, on the brighter side: if you've been too tentative to mention something until now, you might be surprised by how supportive your lovers and friends turn out to be. A loving person will want to help you discover yourself.

All that is your decision, but you can tell how I lean. Thanks for reading, and I hope you're in a position to do your life the way that you think best. Remember: you are never alone, as long as you can reach out to someone who's been where you've been. And, if someone reaches out to you, I hope you'll be in a position to help.

By the way, I'd like to acknowledge how many of the links in this series go to Pervocracy. The author, Holly, is a brilliant person who really knows where her towel is.

1: Or, as I originally wrote that paragraph: "I talked about why valorization of and rigid adherence to constructed categories is a problem and waxed choleric about the hypothesis/historical reality that cultures with conflicting models of authority (e.g. hierarchical/patriarchal vs. communal or individual or matriarchal power, or versus traditions from a source other than the colonizing culture's canonical texts) have clashed in such a way that the colonizing culture marginalizes people who were a threat to their assumption of power, such that the culture's descendent -- e.g., the U.S. government as a descendent of European Christianity and empire -- might have the resulting marginalizing, disempowering identity categories smoothly and stealthily internalized." Because I don't know how to be concise.

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