Collective Turn-off

I think human beings are turned off right now. Of course it is tempting to rationalise our turned-off-ness with reference to Covid-19. But it is not – it can never be – the teeming, vaporous, germinating nature of one another’s bodies that shuts down our erotic appetites. To love sex is, necessarily, to enjoy cross-contaminations of human flesh. It is to throw one’s all, for that reason, into the collective tenderness of physical distancing, the technics of covering and disinfecting, the intimate care of masking up and wiping down that is required to keep one another well. And the open-air spaces – piers, fields, quays, woods, docks – where fucking flourished before gentrification remain the spaces where it would be safest to fuck today, if only we wanted to.

No. The truth is that we are too overworked, under capitalism, to be deeply, collectively horny, too overworked even to realise that this is the case. As the porn actor and philosopher Conner Habib retorts when anyone complains that their eight-hour-a-day porn habit is getting in the way of their ability to perform their job, ‘dude, it seems to me that your eight-hour-a-day work habit is getting in the way of your ability to properly enjoy your sexuality.’

Five times better

In 1987, Douglas Crimp published ‘How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,’ the epidemic in question being, of course, not Covid, but another spikily-haloed virus: HIV. The essay expresses the wisdom, epidemiological expertise and hard-fought shamelessness of the countless militant lesbians and gays who refused to be blackmailed by the state into monogamy, abstinence, or a ‘work ethic’ – and who ‘invented safe sex’ as the bedrock of their promiscuous culture long before AIDS. Following Crimp, it is my view that one of the many crimes of capitalism’s terraformers – besides incubating coronaviruses by destroying biodiversity – is their theft of untold proletarian sex hours via the imposition of work, and the concomitant disappearance from history of gigawatts of cumulative erotic bliss. The denial of pleasure to populations is a grave historic harm, and the denial by some leftists of the centrality of pleasure to liberation struggles is a correspondingly serious error.

Sexual freedom used to be a central problem of anticapitalist thought and practice. As the feminist scholar Carole Vance put it in the preface to the infamous 1982 pro-sex Pleasure and Danger anthology: for women (and, I’d add, queers) ‘to experience autonomous desire and act in ways that give them sexual pleasure in a society that would nurture and protect their delights is our culture’s worst nightmare and feminism’s best fantasy.’ In a similar vein, in Towards a Gay Communism, Mario Mieli argued that the liberation of sexuality would change the way that all people love one another, the way all people inhabit their bodies, such that the categories of heterosexual and homosexual become odd and meaningless. But this kind of ‘sex-positivity’ – this stance of optimism, confident that the admittedly risky pursuit of bodily vulnerability might help transform the species and remake humanity – is utterly out of vogue, both on the scholarly left and in culture at large.

It isn’t difficult to see why. Many heterosexual women, deep in the mass grieving process that attends the movement known as #MeToo, are sick to death of heterosexual (indeed, just sexual) optimism. Right now – even when they publish ostensibly optimistic books about how, for example, ‘women have better sex under socialism’ – female leftists sometimes seem unable to envision outright good sex, indeed, unable to dream up anything better than, simply, an absence of domestic abuse. Even in the Marxist novelist Sally Rooney’s wildly successful novel Normal People – serialised this year for television, featuring copious and wonderful-seeming sex between the co-stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal – there is an implicit indictment of kink. Rooney’s narrative contains the deeply pessimistic suggestion that a woman’s trauma is bound to surface in the straight bedroom in the form of BDSM, specifically a masochistic desire for abuse and annihilation, and intrude upon the shared experience of ‘real’ intimacy, thereby destroying it. To be clear, the problem here is Rooney’s hinting that BDSM is fundamentally an expression of self-contempt (rather than how a lot of straight people mis/understand and mis/practice kink).

This stern realism and grim anti-utopianism about what sex with men is and, implicitly, always will be, is nothing if not understandable. The discursive ultra-misandry that was so popular on social media circa 2014 (remember #KillAllMen?) is happily out of fashion, but the anger at men underlying it – which, by the way, was never ironic – has had no material reason to dissipate. With men like Trump and Brett Kavanaugh in the highest offices of the United States government and judiciary, women of all classes right now are righteously filled with rage, disappointment, betrayal and disgust. Nevertheless – as Rooney captures well – the reason that sharing life with men feels like slow violence is ultimately not the men themselves (not in many cases, at least) but, rather, the hierarchies that, flowing through us all, elevate them and suffocate us. The repudiation of ‘sleeping with the enemy’ enacted by some feminists in the 1970s was and remains widely and rightly derided. Rarely, however, do contemporary feminists acknowledge that a lot of sex is experienced as making a gift of oneself to one’s oppressor, despite how nice and love-worthy the guy in question is or isn’t. Rarely do we talk about ‘political lesbianism’ as a poor strategy founded on a factual albeit ‘dramatic’ assessment of heterosex under patriarchy (as perilous for women’s spiritual health). Even more rarely do we seem to grasp that the opposite position – the position of Vance and the women’s movement’s sexual liberationists – shared that same assessment … only, the utopian horizon of post-gender pleasure, in their eyes, made the perils of having sex in the present worth confronting. Thus there are, as Lauren Berlant commented at the 2019 Duke Feminist Theory Workshop, ‘many new sex-negative feminists’ cropping up in our present moment; people who, she suggests, are ‘incompetent about even their own desire’. Whether we are feminist or anti-feminist, most of us are so exhausted, coerced and alienated by capitalism’s work / enjoyment culture that we don’t know how to have really good sex – be it with men or plants or ourselves or the topside of a washing machine.

It bears repeating that much of the sex-negative appraisal of the conjuncture is correct. Capitalist society is centrally predicated on commanding us all, women especially, to unrepress ourselves, to talk about sex constantly as though ‘confessing’ something innate, and, always and ever, to enjoy! It is the next step in the chain of logic that is missing: the observation that this stressful pressurised prurience isn’t remotely conducive to actual, guards-down, polymorphous experimentation. This great sex experience that the market commands every optimised self-managed subject to be consuming isn’t good sex. Yes, porn is now precisely taxonomized and accessible, hooking up is algorithmically managed, being ‘horny on main’ has gained acceptability, yet desire seems elusive. Saying ‘I would prefer not to’ in rejection of this prescribed, coerced regime of sexuality need not necessarily be a rejection of sexuality per se (though of course it can be – and all power to asexuals). Arguably, ‘I would prefer not to’ is the most crucial, ground-zero ingredient of good sex.

But today, in popular feminism, the unfruitfulness of the ‘androcide’ and ‘exodus’ positions has given way not to a revival of the communist dream of sexual liberation but to a widespread stance of misandry-lite characterised by martyred resignation to the dismal quality of heterosex. Indiana Seresin’s viral article about performative anti-heterosexualism provides crucial contexts for this phenomenon. The cultural trend the essay pinpoints is ‘heterofatalism’. Simply put, the heterofatalist subject, who is typically situated within a young white cis female demographic, is a straight one who disavows straightness. Her professing of a helpless, empty wish to ‘be a lesbian’ is certainly part of it. But the main trait of these women, says Seresin, is their emphasis ‘that they are not that kind of heterosexual, that they are, in fact, ashamed of being straight, and that, not to be dramatic, they see heterosexuality as a prison within which they are confined against their will.’

The point here is not that heterofatalists’ gestures of disaffiliation are insincere, rather, that they are ‘performative’ because unaccompanied by collective experiments in abandoning, or even torquing, heterosexuality. Yet their resignation is all the stranger, and all the more depressing, when one considers the rationality, the correctness of complaining about heterosexual life, and the gravity of many of the claims these allegedly wannabe-queer women might marshal in indictment of heterosexual relations. One in every ten women, after all, is raped at some point in her life by a male intimate partner. And the statistical probability that a straight woman’s boyfriend, husband or ex will outright murder her is about 0.0013%. The likelihood, for comparison, that a man will be raped or killed by any woman has too many zeroes in it to count.

It is a risky move, as the author well knows, to pinpoint, in comic paraphrases, the arrogation of delighted victimhood at the heart of straight girl straightness-fatalism, in a world in which straightness, for females, can so often be literally fatal. Yet the diagnosis clears vital ground for what can and will hopefully become a conversation about the all-too-real feelings of dysphoric horror and defensive nihilism many women feel upon learning the scripts of heterosexualism – often feeling them to be embedded in their muscles – and surveying the grimness of the ‘dating’ culture in which, accordingly, their personal tastes dictate they participate. While that conversation is beginning to happen (forthcoming interventions by Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex (2020) and Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again (2021) look very promising), the heterofatalist posture is still serving as yet another method by which white women like me can project outward our own cowardice and machismo – that is to say, our own aversion to vulnerability. Witness the popularity of the ghoulish title How to Date Men When You Hate Men (2019).

By rehearsing the view that ‘men are the worst’ while continuing to pursue romantic and sexual attachments with them, we perform an othering gesture that shores up the purity or innocence of our own identities. We may love men, we declare, but we barely enjoy it, okay?; we are embarrassed; we are not contaminated by them; we are not they. In other words, we get to continue to be ‘women’. Perhaps, semi-unconsciously, we had worried that the very category of ‘women’ had become untenable. If we can only continue to reproduce the category ‘men’ loudly enough, then, we wager, the category ‘women’ might stay safe. (Note, while a majority of heterofatalist misandrists online today seem to think they are trans-affirming, their position not only requires erasing trans men altogether, but also all trace of trans women’s lived experiences as men, regardless of those women’s own self-understanding. Indeed, misandry, as I see it, can never reliably be prevented from collapsing into transphobia.)

By being unhappily straight, those of us who are not men are off the hook for our complicities with men. We are off the hook for the many women who become men, the men who become women, and the many people more who are simply neither or both; for the fact that, to quote Sophia Giovannitti’s essay in the online journal Majuscule, ‘gender is never fixed; gender is always broken’. Worse, we are off the hook for creating deep care and nourishment for ourselves and others within the world as we find it. We are collectively turned off, in my assessment, and part of us does not want this to change because, were it to change, we wouldn’t get to be women anymore in the classic sense of wishing collectively we were turned on. To radically transform heterosexuality, in contrast, might begin, as Seresin says, ‘with honest accounts of which elements of heterosexuality are actually appealing.’ Giovannitti’s essay, titled ‘In Defense of Men’, invokes one such account, within a critical response to the heterofatalism thesis.

Turn the winding handle

On my part, I feel encouraged by the call for a ‘politically urgent hedonism’ recently articulated in Invert journal. ‘What would it mean,’ asks the author, Kay Gabriel, ‘for gender to function as a source of disalienated pleasure rather than an accumulation strategy?’ Alongside Gabriel’s poems and essays there is a powerful salvo of committedly horny books appearing in print at the moment that offer answers to this question: take for instance Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, and Huw Lemmey’s Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell. These texts make strides in the development of communal erotic consciousness. They are narratives that involve promiscuous queers sinking 18th-century merchants’ ships and blowing up colonial sexology labs; anti-heroes whose sexuate anatomy shape-shifts at will, the better to cruise, play, and fall in love; and acid-communists dumping an orgiastic molecule into the water supply of a mégapole. Through books like these I envision the conditions of possibility for the collective turn-on.

The way to best to enact them is not known to me. Axiomatically, a basic condition of possibility for the collective turn-on would be communal luxury, which is to say, the manifestation of the principle ‘everything for everyone’: prison abolition, universal leisure, free abortion on demand, no borders, liberation from the wage relation, and ecological abundance. This idea of luxury communism – before it became hijacked by accelerationist visions of hi-tech automation – was a term invented by a utopian vegan in Manchester named Judy Thorne, on her Tumblr, evoking forested post-proletarian cityscapes and vast free people’s baths. Bath time has always been identified as a node of particular promise in gay and sexual liberation struggle. Whereas now we have the private spa, historically, public bath houses and beaches are where the temporal discipline of getting clean has been rejected entirely in favour of the capacious anti-functional temporality of bathing: bathing all day, bathing for bathing’s sake, bathing with and in other bodies, playing all day on the Moebius strip between cleansing and contamination; that knife-edge between soaking and dehydration, oceanic bliss and drowning.

Fighting against the policing and regulation of what Jordy Rosenberg calls ‘our constitutive porosity’ means figuring out how we will manifest, architecturally and ecologically, biomes conducive to bathing aimlessly and celebrating our collective permeability on a mass scale. The vapour-containing techniques of masking up and keeping a six-foot distance from one another’s bodies might paradoxically prove to be wonderful popular primers not only in solidarity and epidemiological consciousness, but also therefore tenderness. And as we abolish the capitalist logic of work and obligatory enjoyment, we will instantiate the conditions of possibility for the collective turn-on. We will, as survivors of the old regime of sexual violence, design whole cities full of erotic biotic infrastructure; whole continents adorned from coast to coast with spaces of thrilling safety; mushroom glades, therapy marquees, doula grottoes, patient-led free clinics, swimming holes, napping palaces, drop-in centres, temples for public weeping, bath-houses, multigenerational creches, polymorphously perverse aquifers, people’s banquet-halls, multispecies library-sensoriums, train compartments that can get you off, laundrettes that offer to fist you, collective houses that promote wellbeing, dance halls that promote bliss, massage coliseums, and pleasure pavilions. We shall all have become creatures well-versed in saying ‘I would prefer not to’ and ‘no’. The lustlessness of the pre-Covid era will become shockingly obvious to us in retrospect. We will hardly believe the historians when they tell us about the old days of #MeToo and heterofatalism.

Sophie Lewis is a writer and translator living in Philadelphia where she is a Visiting Scholar at Penn and faculty at the Brooklyn institute for Social Research. She has written cultural theory and critique for The New York Times, Boston Review, Blind Field and others and is the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso Books 2019).

Sex Negative

August, 2020

On sexual pessimism in two essays, two stories and four poems. Featuring illustrations by John Slade/HYT Studio. The print edition includes contributions by Stoya, Sasha Bonét, Sam Riviere, Lara Mimosa Montes and Wayne Koestenbaum.


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