Within the realm of sexuality politics, where does the rolequeer perspective on sex lie with relation to other ideologies? I was thinking about this the other morning and, when I broke various common ideological frameworks down into component parts, I realized something interesting. In order to sketch it out quickly, I’m going to reference some extremely oversimplified binaries here (for example: the two strains of feminism I describe are largely a polarity within white feminism only; my sense is that there’s a much broader and more complex conversation going on among feminist Women of Color), so feel free to blur these categories as is appropriate to your experience and context. Obviously, this is only one narrow subset of the variables we can use to analyze the landscape of sexuality politics.
Since we started developing some nascent ideas around rolequeerness, consent as a felt sense, and other positions that fall under the umbrella of an emerging third-wave of queer theory, we’ve received flak from surprisingly diverse quarters. So-called “Men’s Rights Activists” hate our work because they view it as a threatening extension of feminism. Meanwhile, both sex-positive feminists and radical feminists also hate our work, in spite of its explicitly feminist roots and, most curiously, in spite of the fact that they typically hate each other.
In short: Nobody loves us, everybody hates us. But before I go eat worms, I wanted to think a little bit about why — and, more specifically, about who hates what.
What is it that a rolequeer sexual politic suggests? We argue that, regardless of their origins, our erotic desires and behaviors are inextricably intertwined with our complicity in oppression culture. That’s the descriptive aspect of our position. The prescriptive side of rolequeerness is an exhortation to engage that tangled relationship between oppression and eroticism in a deeply critical and fiercely compassionate way. In short, when it comes to sexuality, rolequeers want people to own their shit — in all its beautiful and challenging and liberating and disturbing complexity. This return to agency is a core component of rolequeer theory.
When I look at the landscape of sexual politics, two axes stand out to me. The first is the emotional axis: At one end, the idea that our erotic desires (whatever they might be) are shameful, ugly, dirty, wrong, and ought to be rejected or stuffed under the rug. At the other end, the belief that our erotic desires are nothing to be ashamed of and ought to be embraced, engaged with, and shared. The second axis is the political axis: One extreme of this axis says that what we do “in the bedroom” is inherently apolitical and that received wisdom about sexuality should be immune to political critique; on the other end, the argument that our sexual behavior is a subset of our behavior as political actors, and that we should be willing to analyze the ethics of what we do “in the bedroom” through whatever critical lens we also analyze our actions outside of it.
Rolequeer’s position on this graph is obvious: As I described above, we believe that we should be unashamed yet critically engaged with our erotic behavior. We are positive on critical engagement and negative on shame.
Radical feminism has a deep critical engagement with the politics of eroticism, and also a famously strident sex-negative moralism about what kinds of sex are “good” (lesbian, vanilla, not for profit, possibly no kinds of sex at all) and what kinds are “bad” (heterosexual, kinky, part of the sex industry, possibly any kind of sex that ever occurs in rape culture). They share one axis point with rolequeerness: Critical engagement with sexuality. But they are opposite us in their emotional response to politically problematic sex. They are positive for critical analysis and positive for shame.
Sex-positive aka liberal feminism, on the other hand, is a double negative: They advocate no shame about our sexual behaviors and desires and, also, no political analysis of them. Liberal feminism, with its shmoopy uncritical embracing of anything and everything you can slap a “sexy” label on, is summed up by the BDSM mantra “Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is Okay.” They share rolequeer’s compassionate embracing of complicated, messy, weird, inexplicable, unpredictable, diverse human sexual desire, but they oppose our willingness to look at that desire through a politically or ethically discriminating lens.
So, neither radical sex-negative nor liberal sex-positive feminism is the clear opposite of rolequeer theory. Instead, they are opposites of each other, but their opposition exists in a space between rolequeerness and its true cultural opposite. What sexual politic is negative on critical engagement and positive on shame? What sexual politic claims that you should feel bad about your sexuality but that you shouldn’t think too hard about it? Welp, stock-standard conservative religious puritanism comes to mind.
Rolequeers aren’t here to fight with sex-pozi’s or radfems. Each of those feminisms, along with its attendant strain of queer theory, was an attempt to reject religious puritanism around sexuality — and each, in taking one step out of that abusive relationship, rejected equally important but different aspects of it. Sex-positive feminism rejected the shame and closetedness of puritanical sexuality, while radical feminism kept the purity politics but rejected the claim women should just do what they’re told and not think too hard. Rolequeer theory has deep roots in both these resistance movements and we wouldn’t be where we are today, theoretically or personally, without them. But, while they will continue to fight each other into Tumblr oblivion, we have bigger fish to fry.
Rolequeer’s actual “enemy” in the sexuality culture war is a mindlessly moralizing sex-negative white conservative religious puritanism around sex. The kind of sexuality politics that, right now today, is still sending queer children to “conversion therapy” and telling young women that their “modesty” is their premier selling point on the marriage market. The same oppressive, rape-loving, life-destroying bullshit we’ve all been fighting all along, except that rolequeers are determined to work against it harder and better and with more strategic and embodied clarity than our queer and feminist predecessors have so far. And the rolequeer return to agency is a key component of our ability to dismantle a society whose sexuality, even edgy-feminist-variant sexuality, is still ultimately rooted in the cultural worship of a totalizing authoritarian God.
More on that to come…