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26 Jan

This is a guest post by Paul Preciado, Philosopher. Preciado’s piece was first published in French in Liberation on January 15, 2018 under the title “Letter d’un homme trans à l’ancien régime sexuel.” On Jun. 16, 2018 an English and a German version were published in Texte Zur Kunste, the English translation was done by Simon Pleasance. Preciado’s piece responds to the backlash in France to #metoo which was decried by Catherine Deneuve and some other prominent women as “puritanical.”


Caught in the crossfire of sexual harassment politics, I should like to say a word or two as a smuggler between two worlds, the world of “men” and the world of “women” – these two worlds which might very well not exist, were some people not doing their utmost to keep them apart by means of a kind of Berlin gender Wall. I want to give you some news from the “found object” position or rather from that of the “lost subject” – lost during crossing.

I’m not talking here as a man belonging to the ruling class, the class of those who are assigned the male gender at birth, and who have been brought up as members of the governing class, those who are given the right or rather who are required (and this is an interesting analytical key) to exercise male sovereignty. Nor am I talking as a woman, given that I have voluntarily and intentionally abandoned that form of political and social embodiment. I speak as a trans man. And I’m in no way claiming to represent any collective whatsoever. I’m not talking, and cannot talk, as a heterosexual or a homosexual, although I’m acquainted with and occupy both positions, because when someone is trans, these categories become obsolete. I’m talking as a gender renegade, as a gender migrant, as a fugitive from sexuality, as a dissident (sometimes a clumsy one, because there is no trans user’s guide) with regard to the regime of sexual difference. As a self-appointed guinea-pig of sexual politics who is undergoing the as yet unthemed experience of living on both sides of the Wall and who, by dint of crossing it every day, is beginning to be fed up, ladies and gentlemen, with the stubborn rigidity of the codes and desires which the hetero-patriarchal regime dictates. Let me tell you, from the other side of the Wall, that things are far worse than my experience as a lesbian woman let me imagine. Since I’ve been living as-if-I-were-a-man in a man’s world (aware of embodying a political fiction), I’ve had a chance to check that the ruling class ( male and heterosexual) will not give up its privileges just because we send lots of tweets or let out the odd scream. Since the sexual and anti-colonial revolution of the past century shook their world, the hetero-white-patriarchs have embarked on a counter-reformation project—now joined by “female” voices wishing to go on being “importuned and bothered”. This will be a 1000-year war—the longest of all wars, given that it will affect the politics of reproduction and processes through which a human body is socially constituted as a sovereign subject. It will actually be the most important of all wars, because what is at stake is neither territory nor city, but the body, pleasure, and life.


Untitled-Infographic-11What hallmarks the position of men in our techno-patriarchal and heterocentric societies is the fact that male sovereignty is defined by the lawful use of techniques of violence (against women, against children, against non-white men, against animals, and against the planet as a whole). Reading Max Weber with Judith Butler, we could say that masculinity is to society what the State is to the nation: the holder and legitimate user of violence. This violence is expressed socially in the form of domination, economically in the form of privileges, and sexually in the form of aggression and rape. Conversely, female sovereignty in this regime is bound up with women’s capacity to give birth. Women are sexually and socially subordinate. Mothers alone are sovereign. Within this system, masculinity is defined necro-politically (by men’s right to inflict death), while femininity is defined bio-politically (by women’s obligation to have children). We might say with regard to necro-political heterosexuality that it is something akin to the utopia of the copulatory eroticization between Robocop and Alien, if we tell ourselves that, with a bit of luck, one of the two will have a good time…


Heterosexuality is not only a political regime, as the French writer Monique Wittig has shown. It also a politics of desire. The specific feature of this system is that it is incarnated as a process of seduction and romantic dependence between “free” sexual agents. The positions of Robocop and Alien are not chosen individually, and are not conscious. Necro-political heterosexuality is a practice of government which is not imposed by those who govern (men) on the governed (women), but rather an epistemology laying down the respective definitions and positions of men and women by way of an internal regulation. This practice of government does not take the form of a law, but of an unwritten norm, a translation of gestures and codes whose effect is to establish within the practice of sexuality a partition between what can and cannot be done. This form of sexual servitude is based on an aesthetics of seduction, a stylization of desire, and an historically constructed and coded domination which eroticizes the difference of power and perpetuates it. This politics of desire is what keeps the old sex/gender regime alive, despite all the legal process of democratization and empowerment of women. aline1This necro-political heterosexual is as degrading and destructive as vassalage and slavery were during the Enlightenment. The process of denouncing violence and making it possible, which we are currently experiencing, is part and parcel of a sexual revolution, which is as unstoppable as it is slow and winding. Queer feminism has set epistemological transformation as a condition making social change possible. It called binary epistemology and gender naturalization into question by asserting that there is an irreducible multiplicity of different sexes, genders, and sexualities. But we realize, these days, that the libidinal transformation is as important as the epistemological one : desire must be transformed. We must learn how to desire sexual freedom.


For years, queer culture has been a laboratory for inventing new aesthetics of dissident sexualities, in the face of techniques of subjectivation and desires involving hegemonic necro-political heterosexuality. Many of us have long since abandoned the aesthetics of Robocop-Alien sexuality. We have learned from butch-fem and BDSM cultures, with Joan Nestle, Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, with Guillaume Dustan and Virginie Despentes, that sexuality is a political theatre in which desire, and not anatomy, writes the script. Within the theatrical fiction of sexuality it is possible to want to lick the soles of shoes, to want to be penetrated through every orifice, and to chase a lover through a wood as if he were a sexual prey. Two differential factors nevertheless separate the queer aesthetic from that of the straight normativeness of the old regime—the ancient régime: the consent and the non-naturalization of sexual positions. The equivalence of bodies and the redistribution of power. As a trans-man, I disidentify myself from dominant masculinity and its necro-political definition. What is most urgent is not to defend what we are (men or women) but to reject it, to disidentify ourselves from the political coercion which forces us to desire the norm and reproduce it. Our political praxis is to disobey the norms of gender and sexuality. I was a Lesbian for most of my life, then trans for the past five years. I am as far removed from your aesthetics of heterosexuality as a Buddhist monk levitating in Lhassa is from a Carrefour supermarket. Your aesthetics of the sexual ancient régime do not give me pleasure (don’t make me come). It doesn’t excite me to “harass” anyone. It doesn’t interest me to get out of my sexual misery by touching a woman’s ass on public transport. I don’t feel any kind of desire for the erotic and sexual kitsch you’re offering: guys taking advantage of their position of power to get their rocks off and touch backsides. The grotesque and murderous aesthetics of necro-political heterosexuality turns my stomach. An aesthetics which re-naturalizes sexual differences and places men in the position of aggressor and women in that of victim (either painfully grateful or happily harassed).

Extinct Species Heterosexual man,extinct 2042.

Extinct Species Heterosexual man,extinct 2042.



If it’s possible to say that in the queer and trans culture we fuck better and more, this is, on the one hand, because we have removed sexuality from the domain of reproduction, and above all because we have freed ourselves from gender domination. I’m not saying that the queer and trans-feminist culture avoids all forms of violence. There is no sexuality without a shadowy side. But the shadowy side (inequality and violence) does not have to predominate and predetermine all sexuality.

Representatives, women and men, of the old sexual regime, come to grips with your shadowy side and have fun with it, and let us bury our dead. Enjoy your aesthetics of domination, but don’t try to turn your style into a law. And let us fuck with our own politics of desire, without men and without women, without penises and without vaginas, without hatchets, and without guns.



#DemandBetter Straight Sex! By Angela Jones

21 Jan

This is a guest blog by Angela Jones, Associate Professor of Sociology, Farmingdale State College.

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The year is 2018. A cis woman lies beneath her cis male partner. He grabs her naked thighs and thrusts his penis inside of her—in and out—in and out. He grunts and moans and occasionally speaks. “Oh, that pussy is so good!” Her face is cold, and her mind is racing—she lays beneath this troglodyte thinking about piled up laundry and how if he “finishes up” soon, she might just get six hours of sleep that evening. She did not cum, nor will she. After he cums, he excuses himself to the bathroom to clean off his weapon of mass dissatisfaction. She turns onto her side, her back facing the dimly lit bathroom, and she lies there thinking, “sometimes it just feels like he’s raping me. I know he loves me, but why does he have sex with me when he knows I don’t want to?”

This story is not fiction. It is based on a real experience a friend shared with me. I remember thinking to myself, “but why would you consent to sex you do not want?” When the now infamous Grace shared her story about Aziz Ansari, I thought about my friend again. Why do straight women consent to unwanted sex acts with men? If a man, such as Ansari keeps making advances that you don’t want, why do you stay? These questions have been swirling around the Internet, and so, in this piece, I aim to provide some answers that will serve as a new vantage point from which to continue these important discussions.

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Before the Dworkinites come for me with their pitchforks chanting that I’m a rape apologist, I want to share something personal. I have been both sexually assaulted and raped. When I was 11 we lived in the working class black neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens in New York. I was sexually assaulted by a worker in Farm Fried Chicken on Merrick Blvd. The worker pushed me in a corner, gyrated his hips against me while whispering his nasty thoughts in my ear. What hurt most about this was that kids in my neighborhood teased me about the encounter—as if I did something wrong. When I was in my early 20s I was raped in my own apartment in Bayside, Queens.  The guy who raped me thought having sex with my half unconscious body was legitimate because I was too drunk and high to say no and because he probably thought I wouldn’t mind since everyone knew I was a sex positive stripper. I have seen one too many sisters assaulted and harmed by men. So, believe me, I take sexual assault seriously and I know all-to-well the long term wounds that sexual assault can leave on our spirits as well as our bodies.

With this said, please stop calling what happened to Grace sexual assault. Please also stop reductively calling what happened between Grace and Ansari simply “bad sex.” What occurred was far more complex than either social media camp wants to admit. Moreover, this moment poses intriguing questions for those willing to push past binary social media talking points.

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The initial questions this scandal posed for me were:

First, related to the Ansari’s of the world, what social forces produce droves of cis het dudes who have no idea what passionate consent looks like? How can a man shove their fingers in a woman’s mouth or continually make sexual advances and be so ostensibly unaware that she isn’t feelin’ it? Like, seriously, what’s wrong with you bro; how can you not see that she’s disgusted?

Second, related to all the Grace’s out there, why do straight women suck dick and lie there getting fucked when they aren’t interested? If your male lover doesn’t make you cum, why don’t you show him how? Straight ladies, if your male lover wants to fuck you like you are in a porn, and that’s not what you want, why don’t you speak up?

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In this piece I am making a call to women to #demandbetter! I despise the idea that the only way to avoid these scenarios is for men to change. Of course men need to change, but guess what?–Most men won’t! I want to see more women standing up and demanding that the male-centered definition of straight sex be revolutionized into one that includes female pleasure. The reality that many women engage in regular sex that is not pleasurable, and at times violating, is unacceptable. It is time that straight women redefine sex on their own terms and stop waiting for men to do better. So, straight women: start demanding better for yourself and all women!

Sadly, that’s not what the Babe article accomplished. The Babe article did not help to advance the cause of bringing more women in to sex positive feminism at all. In fact, my observation of its aftermath suggests that, instead, the piece has created a victimization narrative that paints Grace, and all women in similar situations, as powerless and helpless. That is the narrative we need to change. While it is important to use political strategies that foster sisterhood among women, we must move past just saying #metoo, in the hopes that women’s pain might appeal to benevolent men. We can stand behind hashtags such as #enoughisenough or we can #demandbetter through action. Women can do that by asserting their voices to insist that their sexual partners respect their bodies and honor their desires. Now, to be clear, this may often be easier said than done.

The fear that we are going to be sexually assaulted can send lead into our legs, and instantaneously quiet our speech. Believe me, I know! Grace seemed caught off guard, and confused by the behavior of Ansari, who claims to be a feminist and a staunch supporter of #timesup. The problem was Ansari was enjoying this encounter while Grace felt attacked. Moving forward, more men need to ask women what they want rather than assume what they want.  And more women need to clearly articulate what they want rather than assume men are getting it. Because clearly, many men are not!

Before we can get to that level of communication, however, we need to understand—and eventually put a stop to—the ideologies at work in the scene that played out between Ansari and Grace. I am getting back to my initial questions: Why is it that men (Ansari) cannot see that their coercive behavior is unacceptable and making their date (Grace) feel uncomfortable and violated? And why do women (Grace) stick around and even perform sex acts that they don’t want to on their eager partners (Ansari)?

There are many ideological culprits contributing to these awful sexual encounters. Western discourses of love and monogamy, patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity, and heterosexual sex itself all contribute to and set the stage for the terrible drama we imagine played out in the Grace/Ansari scandal.

First, Western discourses around love and monogamy declare that love is a sacrifice. Women’s genitals, bodies, and dignity often get sacrificed on the altar of heterosexual monogamous love. Women, like Grace, often put up with sexual coercion in search of love, as my friend allowed herself to feel raped to maintain what she sees as love in her relationship.

Straight women may consent to sex that feels like rape because patriarchal family structures are characterized by a grossly unequal distribution of power. In this system, women are the sexual property of men. The antiquated norms of heterosexual monogamy mean that many women will go along with all sorts of bullshit out of an obligatory sense of devotion and love for another human that doesn’t actually see them as an equal. Also Grace’s story underscores that women often pay a feminine sex tax, both coming and going—that is, if she goes, she’s an uptight prude who led him on, and if she stays, well then she must knowingly consent to unwanted sex and it’s potentially harmful effects.

ansari 4So, my intent here is not to blame women. These discourses that prioritize heterosexual patriarchal monogamous love are ubiquitous. Remember the Disney film The Little Mermaid? As a refresher, Ariel, a mermaid, who is an avid singer is willing to give up her voice as well as her fins and family for the love of a man she had met two minutes ago. Every year, Hollywood spits up several nauseating RomComs featuring the very same themes Disney tried to force down our throats when we were kids. Western society force-feeds individuals an unrealistic and undesirable romantic dream that reifies the overlapping systems of patriarchy, heterosexism, and white supremacy—systems that provide privileges for cis white men and inequalities for everyone else.


ansari 5Under patriarchy, men also engage in the relentless pursuit of masculine validation—acts which men use to (often unconsciously) maintain their privilege. Hegemonic masculinity means that proving that they are a “real man” is often predicated on and facilitated through active misogyny and heterosexism. Tested by neo-liberal capitalism, many men’s ability to demonstrate manhood through property ownership and status proves impossible, and they seek out other modes of masculine validation. The system of global white supremacy means that men of color must also find other modes to acquire masculine validation. These additional strategies or modes of masculine validation often involve their bodies. They build up their muscles to show us—and their cocks play the leading role in their masculine performances. This is why Louis CK wants to show it to you in action, and why men everywhere want to text you unsolicited pictures of it—and every heart emoji sent back validates their internalized sense that their dick gives them power.

Thus, sex—heterosexual sex—is a primary mechanism men use to prove they are real men. Hegemonic masculinity then means that men must be in dominant positions in sexual encounters in order to feel like real men. The more they take charge, the more aggressive they can be—the more manly they feel. Remember, the sexual scripts within heterosexual sex are based on patriarchal norms. So that means, for example, no pegging if you are a real man!

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Under patriarchy, real men are sexual aggressors. They penetrate. They initiate. They dominate. For many men, their manhood is contingent on how many “bad bitches” they fuck and based on the status they achieve by “smashing” as many women as possible. For some men, they are oblivious, like Ansari, because their behavior is normalized by the systems of patriarchy and heterosexism, and the pervasive rape culture that buttresses these systems. Moreover, while dismantling rape culture is vital, I would also love to see far more critical dialogue around how we define rape culture. For example, when rapper Rick Ross said, “let’s get these hoes on the molly,” in the popular rap song Pop That by French Montana—this to me is a legitimate example of rape culture. But on the other hand, for example, anti-porn feminist Gail Dines sees porn as contributing to rape culture. Without necessarily drudging up the Sex Wars, we must deploy the term rape culture with far more precision, and in a way that leaves room for sex positivism.

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Briefly, I’d like to take my example of the Rick Ross lyrics a bit further. It is worthwhile to consider how Ansari’s and Grace’s respective races might have shaped their encounter. This is a missing element in much of the debate about Grace and Ansari. It is important to think about how race shapes our discussions of rape culture and sexual assault because of the negative stereotyping that often results.

In the US, there is a long history of racist cultural imagery that depicts black men as hypersexual and dangerous. So, when Rick Ross says if they get women intoxicated they can have sex with them—he is describing rape, and he is doing so within the context of these existing racialized discourses. While it is impossible for me to unpack here the different complex histories of systematic racism in the US, let alone the world, men of color have too often already been culturally marked as predatory.  “Predator” is also an all too familiar racist trope used in political discourse to criminalize men of color. Therefore, we should be mindful of how we deploy and use the word predator to describe men accused of sexually inappropriate behavior or sexual assault. The word predator is a racially and class marked term that when deployed capriciously may also reify racist stereotypes about men of color.

For centuries, for black women, sexual assault has been a part of racial terror. If a white man rapes a black woman, that crime should not be divorced from the historical legacy of white supremacy, and the centuries of rape that black women have endured at the hands of powerful white men. So, it is important to always racially contextualize sexual assault.

In the case with Ansari, he has said he is not religious but was raised Muslim, and he is an Indian American. By all accounts, Grace is white. There is ample research in the social sciences that empirically show that institutionalized white supremacy creates cognitive biases in individuals, and so it is crucial that we ask how these cognitive biases shape sexual encounters. For example, when white women accuse men of color of sexual assault, we must consider if and how these racist cognitive biases might be shaping perceptions of these encounters. We should use this an invitation to think through how race is affecting our conversation about sexual assault at the present moment.

Now, the accounts I have read about the Grace and Ansari case are missing one more thing—I have saved the best for last! I am convinced that part of the issue we are grappling with relates directly to how heterosexual or “straight sex” has been discursively produced. For many straight folks sex is defined solely as penile-vaginal penetration. In the Babe article, it said, “She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. ‘It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.’” Here, Grace, doesn’t see the oral sex they engaged in as “actual sex.” By ignoring the oral sex she received (even if unwanted) and the oral sex she gave, her definition of “actual sex” echoes so many people. The problem with this commonly employed definition of sex is that it places male pleasure at the center of sexual encounters.  Therefore, defining sex as penile-vaginal intercourse renders all other acts—which many women find pleasurable (e.g., cunnilingus)—not as sex but as some kinda added bonus (if it happens at all). Straight sex by this limited definition ensures male pleasure, and relegates all other female desires as unimportant.

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So, again, I’m left thinking that part of the problem is with the way many people define straight sex. The horn-dog, male centered, pushy Ansari is a manifestation of this definition of straight sex. Perhaps, then, what many women are pushing back against in this moment is straight sex (as it’s currently and commonly defined).


Now, generalizations suck! I am aware that people may read this piece and criticize me for generalizing straight sex, and by default, romanticizing queer sex. So, let me address this. Of course, there are straight couples who regularly have mind-blowing, mutually pleasurable, wake the neighbors up kinda sex. My feeling is, this good sex is occurring because they are actively doing the work of writing their own sexual scripts, and disrupting gendered sexual mores. This pleasurable, well negotiated, and more egalitarian sex is occurring precisely because many straight women do embrace and live by sex-positivism and because their male partners are actually feminists.

I also have no doubt that sexual scripts regularly map themselves onto queer sex. Yep, I’ve had enough queer sex to know. So, no, my suggestion is not that straight sex = bad sex and queer sex = good sex. Yet, straight folks could learn a lot from queer communities! For example, many straight people could learn a lot from BDSM communities and their emphasis on safe, sane, and consensual sex. Polyqueer communities emphasize the importance of regular and open negotiation between sexual partners. In my thinking about Grace, and women like her, I am saying that more straight women need to make sex with men conditional on meaningful discussion of her desires.

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So, yes, not all straight sex is bad, and not all queer sex is good. But straight sex, as it is currently defined, was not equally designed around’s women’s pleasure as it is around men’s pleasure. There needs to be a collective push to redefine straight sex through progressive sex education and other cultural institutional transformation.

In conclusion, I am hoping we can move past Ansari and continue to unpack all the complexities that this moment presents. I’m hoping we can push forward in a more productive direction—towards a future, where women #demandbetter straight sex! Where we don’t just #demandbetter of individual men, but we #demandbetter from our government and its agencies; where we #demandbetter of the institutions that perpetuate patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, and cisgenderism; where we #demandbetter of ourselves, for ourselves, and for everyone.

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Bad Girls: On Being the Accused

21 Dec

By Jane Ward

Jane Ward is a guest blogger from the University of California Riverside and the author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (2015).

18817dlaqr49qpngAll these mother fucking men. These men who grope and threaten and assault girls, boys, and women. They are finally going down. We are celebrating, so the commentators say. We are enraged, they say. Every pundit has something to say about what has happened to us—the “survivors” of rape culture.

 We, it seems, are also being careful, strategic. We are whispering to one another, please don’t muddy the waters by talking about false equivalences right now. We are admonishing each other out of fear, please, I beg you not to distract from this powerful wellspring of feminist truths, this unstoppable testimony of violation and survival, by attending to gray areas and complexities. Not now. The stakes are too high. This is finally working! In trusted company we acknowledge these complexities, but we ask that they not be spoken outside our carefully guarded feminist chambers, where we trust they will be handled with great care.


But these complexities are not theoretical. And they are not private. Nor are they evidenced only by the starkest historical examples, such as Carolyn Bryant’s lies about Emmett Till, or the day-care satanic sexual abuse panic of the 1980s and 90s, or the lesbians now known as the San Antonio Four, falsely accused of sexual abuse in the mid 1990s (A case I’ll discuss further in a moment). The complexity—by which I mean the fact that seemingly feminist, zero-tolerance responses to sexual assault are often animated by racism, sexism, and heteronormativity rather than any kind of substantive feminist intervention—is the key fact for many of us, absolutely impossible to compartmentalize or put off for discussion until a more convenient time.


My partner and I—like many queer people—are included in this group of people for whom the complexities are often the real story, not the marginal notes. Three weeks ago, just as the #metoo campaign gained momentum, my partner—a genderqueer teacher at a public high school in Southern California, received a formal reprimand from the principal at her school. It seems a girl at the high school had been giving a boy, one of my partner’s art students, regular blowjobs in an art classroom during lunchtime. Having heard from another student that this was happening, the principal confiscated the students’ cell phones and found evidence in black and white: the girl had texted the boy expressing her excitement about the blowjobs she was planning to give him. Needing an adult to take the blame for these blowjobs, the principal explained that the school district considered placing my partner on a disciplinary leave, but ultimately decided a reprimand letter would be sufficient. In the reprimand they placed in my partner’s employment file, they described how she had “enabled obscene acts” by not supervising the students who had told her they were doing their homework in the classroom during lunch. The principal confessed that the whole thing was “sort of a cover-your-ass situation,” in case the school was subject to legal action initiated by the girls’ parents. The boy was given the choice to withdraw from school or be suspended for the remainder of the semester; he chose the latter. The girl was suspended for one week, cast largely as a “victim” of the boy’s sexuality. And my partner, she was asked to produce a response letter explaining why and how she had “failed to create a safe learning environment.”


Everything about this story is right out of the sex panic playbook.  Consensual sex cast as abuse, girls’ sexual desire rendered invisible, boys’ sexual receptivity cast as aggression, teenagers imagined to be simultaneously sexless and obscene, safety and sex framed as mutually exclusive, the school imagined to be a sex-free environment, a queer teacher to blame for all of it, and the whole episode driven largely by instrumental concerns about liability. Even as school administrators invoked concepts like “safety” and “obscenity” in their formal communications, they made clear during less formal, in-person discussions with my partner that they did not “personally” believe she had behaved inappropriately. They just needed to follow the rules.

 What my partner’s experience confirmed for me, as I simultaneously followed the public disavowals of sexual misconduct by Miramax, NBC, Netflix and so on, is that the answer to rape culture is not, and can never be, liability culture. Rape culture—and the use of sex as a weapon of power and discipline more broadly—is not undone by compliance with institutional policies that attempt to manage people’s unpredictable behavior, create sex-free institutional environments, and protect the institution from profit-disruption or lawsuits. What that kind of liability culture accomplishes is similar to what a parent spanking a child accomplishes: it trains people to avoid certain behaviors out of fear of punishment, and to develop an unreconciled split between what they actually think or want (e.g., the principal who did not really believe my partner was to blame for Blowjob Gate) and what they must publically say and do (e.g., blame a teacher so as to appear tough on anything resembling sexual misconduct).


Queer women have long been the scapegoats during times of mass fear about sexual victimization. Lesbians who interact with children, in particular, are always already embedded in histories of sexual suspicion and fear of predation. Four decades ago, Anita Bryant’s Save the Children campaign overturned employment discrimination protections across multiple states so as to ban lesbians and gay men—and in some cases, anyone friendly to gay men and lesbians—from working as teachers in public schools. Only twenty years ago, in the late 1990s, four Latina lesbians in San Antonio were falsely accused of gang-raping a little girl and spent 15 years in prison before being exonerated. Prosecutors used the women’s queerness as a motive, but their case was also bolstered by the satanic sex abuse panic that swept through the country in the years just prior. In 2001, queer comedian and foster mother Paula Poundstone was accused of lewd acts on a minor and her children were removed from her custody. Poundstone has consistently denied sexually touching her children (though she acknowledged that her alcoholism affected her parenting) and prosecutors ultimately dropped the lewd conduct charges.


Many queers, including queer women, are aware that queer life means risking accusations of having made other people uncomfortable, perhaps even making them feel violated, with our sexual excess or illegibility or unpredictability or boldness. It is for this reason that some of us cannot so immediately vilify the accused and “believe all women,” because we have been the accused, we have loved the accused, and we have watched institutions manufacture and take down the accused to protect their own interests.  We have watched as liability concerns have posed as feminism (such as when university administrators have implemented “robust” sexual assault policies without seeming to have consulted a single feminist student or faculty member).  We have witnessed people and institutions, unwilling to acknowledge that sex is part of institutional life (because humans are part of institutional life), attempt to train, report, discipline and sue their way out of dealing with the presence of sexual desires that make them uncomfortable (see Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security) . Rather than grapple with a teenage girl excited to give a blowjob, they have cast their environment as unsafe.


I, for one, have long been a sexual problem. I grew up in a sex-talking house. I recall my father chasing my mom around the house, his arms outstretched, yelling “boobs! boobs!”—my mother running away laughing. I recall my brother, upon entering puberty, coming down the stairs and proudly announce the presence of a new “pube.” My mother, the most reserved of our bunch, laughed heartily at every ridiculous, juvenile sex joke on her favorite show, South Park. And for my part, I took my sex interests to school. In kindergarten, I organized a consensual butt-rubbing clinic in the girls’ bathroom, which was met with a severe spanking and public shaming by my teacher. In high school, I was sent to detention for noticing aloud that my friend Ashley’s boobs had grown, not finding out until later that the school had called a meeting with my mother in which they earnestly inquired whether I had been molested—because what else could explain such a brazen, sex-talking girl?

 By high school I had learned that despite all efforts to cast me as a sexual victim, adults were worried I may be one of those girls who was a sexual problem. I was perhaps one of those girls from whom other girls needed protection.

text-bad-girl-rose-temporary-tattooMy partner, too, was sometimes cast as one of these bad girls—accused and not accuser; perpetrator and not victim. Once, while she was in her elementary school, administrators found pages from a Playboy magazine in the trash can of the girls’ bathroom and subsequently launched a McCarthyesque investigation in which they asked all of the students to write down the name of someone they thought might have brought Playboy to school. While it turns out that my partner had not brought the magazine to school, she had, on earlier occasions, proudly shown three friends who had visited her house that her dad had a collection of this intriguing magazine. Hence, her name was written down three times, and she was subsequently subjected to an intense interrogation by several sex-panicked adults. Amazingly, when it was discovered several years later that she was on campus again (her brother was now a student at this elementary school and my partner walked there from her high school to be picked up along with her brother), she was told she was not allowed to enter the school because the Playboy images had continued to appear on campus. She remained their number one suspect. A few years later, when she came out as queer, the news about her lesbianism spread through her family and she was banned from interacting with some of her younger cousins. Cast, yet again, as a sexual threat.

 9781563410864These are common dyke stories: being the first suspect when sexual misbehavior is (or is imagined to be) afoot; being told to stay away from the children in one’s extended family; keeping your distance in locker rooms and bathrooms and other places where straight women presume the absence of same-sex desire and panic when they realize it could present. Dykes know what it means to be the accused.

 And these experiences, too, are the context that shape queer people’s unyielding attention to the complexities and to the dangers of zero tolerance approaches “where rough justice stands in place of careful analysis, nuance and due process,” to quote Andrea Ramsey, the democratic candidate for Congress from Kansas, who dropped out of the race this week following a resurfacing of sexual harassment charges she has long denied.

We celebrate as the Weinstein monster is, we hope, blocked from wielding his shockingly unchecked power over not one more woman and her career. Let this, too, be the fate of President Trump, Russell Simmons, and anyone else who may be proven to have used their power to rape, assault, and repeatedly harass.


web_Harvey Weinstein

And yet in many other cases, truly different kinds of cases, we demand a deeper, historically-informed, intersectional analysis of the problem and its solutions. These include cases involving consensual sex between employees or students, unwanted kisses or touches that ended as soon as the uninterested party said no, sexual propositions deemed inappropriate or unprofessional by institutions but not by the people actually involved, the presence of sex or desire in places that some people would rather it was not present or between people disciplined into believing they are not supposed to desire one another (cross-racial desire, queer desire, cross-generational desire, etc.), and messy conflicts between people that may have a sexual element.

Queer people have good reason to fear any cultural turn in which these sorts of situations are collapsed under the same zero-tolerance umbrella as rape and sexual assault. Because while they are coming for Al Franken now, we recall that they have come for us, and we know they may come again.

The Predator and the Jokester

13 Dec

guest post by Lauren Berlant


Al Franken has said he’ll resign.  If so, he will be gone from the Senate not because he was a vicious predator but because there was a bad chemical reaction between his sexual immaturity, his just “having fun” with women’s bodies, and this moment of improvisatory boundary-drawing that likens the jokester to the predator. What’s going on?

Lots of people are worrying about this.  Some are using the language of the “witch hunt,” which is a term people use when they feel women coming after men as though the worst guy is the typical one. Some queers are reviving the language of the “moral panic,” in fear that this moment justifies and amplifies erotophobia, an already pervasive hatred of sex that ends up harming women, LGBTQ-identified people—anyone whose sexuality or body or appetites have been historically disparaged by the state, the hygienic bourgeoisie and the religious.

Everyone has appetites: yet many people think their own aversion to sex or ways of managing desire are evidence of moral virtue. Nowhere is this more evident than in how they process the casual pleasures.

Here’s the thing about the jokester and the predator. Power shows its ugliest tentacles most clearly in these figures, yet they seem at opposite extremes. Where the predator creates a situation they can exploit, it is often cushioned by a menacing sense that they control the interactive space and that they’re unavoidable. When a goof performs a joke, which is mostly spontaneous and casual, it is shaped by the play of surprise and hard to process in the moment. Time and fresh awkwardness provide the jokester’s cushion, however slight. In both cases the target suddenly feels baffled or overwhelmed.

It is hard for people to get their minds around this.  It can seem like a false equivalence between the predator and the jokester.  Like all analogies, it’s partial. But now it’s powerful to link them, because both are clearly protected by privilege: by control over time and space and the framing of consequences in domains of capital, labor, institutional belonging, and speech situations where the structurally vulnerable are forced to “choose their battles” or just act like a good sport.

It’s not just women who must feel compelled to take it and eat it: it’s anyone institutionally less powerful, including men when they are. Structural power is expressed in such incidents.  Incidents add up to environments, toxic atmospheres: often people lower in the pecking order find ways to live in them by imitating some habits of the powerful while honing varieties of defensive stealth like sarcasm, gossip, self-harm, or dissociating. Usually they keep quiet about the cost of staying in the game by appearing to be game. This is why keeping things “in scale” is not possible: many forces converge in the intimate encounter with structural power, and they’re often not fully equivalent at the level of event.

But if everyone is vulnerable to harassment and teasing, the world of humiliation and dings, sexualized, racialized, and lower-rank workers are way more vulnerable. It’s not unusual to undergo these encounters as a predictable kind of unwanted overcloseness, whether or not it’s darkly predatory, jokey, or both.  It’s often both.

So, the predator has control of situations; the jokester induces one on the spot. Even the professional comedian, whom you seek out in order to be both surprised and confirmed, is there to jolt you with a pleasure you didn’t specifically ask for.  No one asks to be the predator’s audience: that is why we call their acts violence. We often do enjoy the comedian’s: but there are conventions for what kinds of surprise we’re in for, warm conventions of the inside joke to which comedians usually submit themselves. Spontaneous jokesters, in contrast, make the scene happen just by playing around with you. It’s a different risk, offering different joys too.

I liked Al Franken: I thought he could take Trump in the general election. Both entertainers, they’d argue policy by way of showman putdowns and sarcastic arguments. But Franken got caught on camera treating women as toys, and lost the high ground that protected his self-pleasuring casual power from seeming insensitive or exploitative. Here is how I learned to notice this.


“He toyed with my body.”  This was said to me by someone who needed my help.  It was 1975, the year Against Our Will came out, when I was 18.[1] There was no “mandatory reporting” then, no public world for turning around the horrible privacy sexual violence pushes you into. People were mainly stuck living lonely with the consequences of other people’s predation at that time: as they largely still are.

I think of it often.  “He toyed with my body.”  I knew even then that “toy” was a complicated verb.  She meant, I wasn’t raped. She meant, I’m already bargaining and I might not be telling you the truth. She meant, I might have been raped. She meant, I might just be using the only verb I have to make the incident utterable. “He toyed with my body.” She meant, he just did enough to enjoy himself without breaking the law as he understood it. She meant, he didn’t know what he was doing either, because he was pretty young, though significantly older.  She meant, he had deniability. She meant, not much happened. “He toyed.” She meant, we were playing around and it got weird. What did he know and when did he know it?  It was clear that whatever he knew thwarted her confidence in whatever she knew.

I don’t know what she meant.  Out of love and care and rapid-firing fear I didn’t ask. I said, “what should I do?”  She told me what she wanted me to do and I did it. Occasionally we talk about it, when she wants to. She doesn’t regret the way we handled it. By avoiding going public she got not to be defined by the toying, giving it a shot at being a thing that happened rather than THE thing that happened.[2]

The conversation completely changed me, shaping different events over time. “He toyed with my body.” As it happens, now I study comedy. I take seriously the relation between aggression and pleasure. I don’t think it only means aggression. But I pay a lot of attention. Not just to jokes, but to the innumerable double-takes that ordinary encounters generate when people are trying to stay in relation. It’s not just in gestures and moments that casual power wields its force. In Chicago at Christmas women come to the city wearing their perfume and mink coats. I ask myself, how much does your pleasure cost, and who pays for it? I think the same thing when I imagine who stayed poor so I could buy a can of cheap cooked beans. Our pleasures can be very expensive when they’re protected by wealth, law and norm; our pleasures can add up when they are casual, too.


art by Frances Stark

The next time you hear your voice bleat, “It was just a joke,” ask yourself: who made you the boss of genre? And when something affronts you, slow things down: who made you the boss of genre? This should be a genuine question: not a rhetorical one. I don’t mean to diminish your visceral response, just to ask what else. Things happen after the trigger and its flood or the bargaining that makes someone laugh it off or plunder language for words like “toy.”

You can know something at high speeds; you can learn something at slow ones. The joke might be, as Ralph Ellison wrote, a yoke.[3] But there could also be a difference among a disturbance, a tweak, a good surprise, and a harm. Sometimes, like now, a whole set of various “we’s” are tired of being better in the situation than the person or community that fouls us is. Sometimes, like now, revenge is the only efficient justice people feel they have, after all the gossip and HR fails. But reflexive revenge will surely not solve the problem of scaling social jostling, casual play, violence, intimacy: or sex. It’s a time to organize social ways of derailing toxic environments, along with the thrilled aha, scorn and whatever else continues to see sex as a dirty appetite that other people have.

Good play involves trust, but how do you build it at the same time as you’re saying NO! to a world that coddles the toying bully and the aggro one?  Maybe trust’s not a high priority now. It’s a problem. I’m not kidding.


Thanks to Joshua Clover, Joe Fischel, Dana Luciano, and Tavia Nyong’o for helping me write to the tenth draft.


[1] Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will:  Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

[2] I learned to notice this from Elspeth Probyn’s argument that the minimizing rescaling of assaultive events has been a powerful strategy in queer autobiography—and, clearly, not just queer. See Outside Belonging  (London: Routledge, 1996), 98.

[3] Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” in Shadow and Act (1958; New York: Random House, 1964): 45-59.

Wieners, Whiners, Weinsteins and Worse by Jack Halberstam

23 Oct



Reading over the dirty details of the exploits of scumbag of the month, Harvey Weinstein, one thought occurred to me over and over: something is rotten in the state of heterosexuality. And yet, in all the masses of media coverage on Weinstein’s disgusting behaviors, I barely remember seeing the word! Believe me that I am not one to argue that gays are innocent by comparison, only that the “#me too” twitter campaigns and the national discussion of enforced blowjobs and massages seems, for the moment to be focused upon powerful men forcing young women into compromising positions. Shouldn’t this be the beginning of a widespread conversation about men, women and sex? And should we be all thumbing through our old copies of Catherine MacKinnon and wondering whether in fact she was on to something when she wrote: “male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting”? While we might want to hesitate before tarring all men with the same brush of sexual harassment, nonetheless, the exposure of widespread instances of harassment accompanied by extensive cover-ups, facilitation and pay offs has certainly raised again questions about male power and female victimization.



So, how would a national conversation on heterosexuality need to begin? Well, for once, we would need to name a power dynamic for what it is. Just as the popular press has tended, until very recently, to shy away from calling the racial context in which police officers beat and shoot Black men white supremacy, so they hesitate to call the sexual context in which powerful and famous men cajole, nudge, push, shove, forcibly manipulate often young and inexperienced women to sexually please them, hetero-patriarchy. But this is what it is and this is the atmosphere in which many young men are trained to understand themselves as extremely desirable while young women struggle with their self-image. Rather than wagging our collective fingers at a Wiener, a Weinstein, a wanker or worse, we need to turn to the way we raise young men to believe that if they want it, she does too…or even, if they want it, it does not matter what she wants. But we should also be thinking about how we raise young women to comply and about what happens when women say enough is enough.


The climate on college campuses recently is representative of the confusion some young women and men have about the meaning of heterosexuality, its rituals and its rules. Many express confusion mixed with outrage, fear, paranoia and anger. Students and professors launch sexual harassment charges at one another, and while some big name professors who are serial abusers have been caught pressuring their students and face charges, the latitude of the Title IX regulations have also been used for homophobic purposes. And so, in at least three cases that I know of personally, queer and trans faculty have been accused of “improper conduct,” or “inappropriate boundaries” with students. In one case, a queer/trans couple of color have been suspended with a reduction in pay! Perhaps on account of our reluctance to have a national conversation about heterosexuality and its abuses,  Title IX regulations designed to protect students from quid pro quo scenarios have led instead to increased surveillance of queer and trans faculty.


heterosexual.ed.WEBAs shocked as we all may be about the stories about Weinstein, in their sheer repetitiveness and consistency, they must be read as totally normal. Weinstein, obviously, is only the tip of a very large and very nasty Hollywood iceberg. Despite Hollywood’s own thematization of the sexual casting couch – how many films are about feisty women who are asked to sexually compromise their integrity for a job but refuse to? – it is a theme in Hollywood films because it is obviously one actual route to visibility and jobs. In fact, there is a kind of tautology to Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie coming out, long after the fact, and saying “me too.” Of course they were victims of the casting couch, their fame may tell us as much! And I am not saying that successful female stars only got where they are today because they succumbed to Weinstein or his equivalent at other studios, but I am saying that there are probably countless other actresses who never made it big precisely because they did say no. Weinstein implies as much in case after case reported by The New Yorker. When women pushed back or refused him what he felt was his sexual due, they were told, as Lupita Nyong’o bravely reported, that this would cost them in their careers.


Newton’s third law states: for every action, there is an equal and opposition reaction. So, a bird can fly because its wing motions force air down and are met by the force of the air pushing it up – flight depends upon the relations between actions and reactions. For every lewd guy who sidles up to a woman and whispers inane nothings in her ear in the hopes of seducing or forcing her into bed, there must be among all the women he approaches at least one who hears his spiel as seductive. If only every woman who ever came into contact with the bulk and force of Weinstein’s body said, as Lupita Nyong’o did: “With all due respect, I would not be able to sleep at night if I did what you are asking, so I must pass.”

Sex is like Newton’s third law – it depends upon actions and reactions. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This could be a definition of heterosexuality.

opposites_attract___paula_abdul__fanmade_artwork_by_musicownsmysoul-d4o0w7jThis is certainly one of the ways in which we have thought about heterosexuality – as in “opposites attract,” or “women are from Venus and men are from Mar,” or, in the immortal words of Paula Abdul: “Baby seems we never ever agree/You like the movies/And I like T.V./I take things serious/And you take ’em light/I go to bed early/And you party all night.” You say potato and I say potarto, let’s call the whole thing off. Heterosexuality has been cast in art and in science, for better or for worse, as a détente between different species. She wants monogamy and stability, he wants to spread his seed far and wide. He wants quantity, she wants quality. And so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. But, here’s the rub for heterosexuality – for a culture invested in the idea of men and women as “opposites,” it takes a major and continuous PR campaign to make heterosexuality seem natural, normal and even appealing.


In her engaging book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (2012), Hanna Blank explains how heterosexuality became synonymous with sexual normativity. She writes: “Early in the history of the term, it was even used interchangeably with the term “normal-sexual.” Over time, of course, norms shift and change but in this day and at this moment we should be clear about what norm heterosexuality names: what is normal apparently between particularly white men and women is for white men to see women as toys, accessories, playmates and trophies. What is normal for women is to react to a range of behaviors from boyfriends, fathers, uncles and family friends that slide back and forth between flirtation, seduction and abuse. The “me too” hashtag that went viral on twitter recently suggests that much of the attention directed at women by powerful white men slides quickly from seduction into abuse and that this has been so normalized that women have accepted that slide as part and parcel of heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is the normalization of abuse.


Obviously not all heterosexual relations are abusive. Not all powerful white men are abusers. Not all women have been sexually assaulted. And so on. But, as Jenny Holzer 8c61069802bea760691abdfe18ecd2a7--heather-chandler-red-aesthetic.jpgonce wrote with admirable and characteristic economy, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.” We live in a world, as Sara Ahmed reminds us in Living A Feminist Life, built by and for white men. For this reason, she proposes, white men fit well in the world they have built and all other bodies have to struggle to find their place. The winner takes all mentality of white supremacy has organized the expectations of generations of young men and women such that white men expect the world and women are expected to deliver it to them. When those deliveries halt or slow down or are interrupted, the white man feels that he has been deprived of something he was promised. In the world that the white man built, a world where he has authorized his own violent reactions to disappointments, he now legally buys a gun and legally walks through the streets with that gun and waits for the moment within which he will use that gun to remind everyone around him that this is his world and we will live and die in it.


It is time to confront the normalization of abuse under the heading of heterosexuality. It is time to think about the violence of the norm, the way in which norms are self-perpetuating and the possibility that white male violence continues because some (white) women succumb to it, consent to it, extend it. Trump after all, after decades of Wiener/Weinstein/wanker like behavior, after extended publicity on his violent rhetoric and actions towards women, was elected with considerable help from white women voters. And for every Lupita Nyong’o who says unequivocally no to a pig like Weinstein, there are 10 others who either felt they could not say no or decided it was easier and more beneficial to their careers to say yes. Heterosexuality is a candle burning at both ends. For the casual violence that it masks to be confronted in a structural way and not in the piecemeal and potentially homophobic ways that Title IX regulations currently oversee, we need to confront heterosexuality head on. Heterosexuality promotes, depends upon and perpetuates gendered hierarchies, sexual assault and the suppression of feminine people. Heterosexuality, indeed, is not the other to homosexuality, it is the other to social justice, a politics of pleasure, a funky and open relation to sex in which we care whether our partners are awake and responsive versus drunk and inert, ready and willing versus resigned and submissive, excited and aroused versus disgusted and fleeing.


To all the Wieners, Weinsteins and Wankers out there: your days are numbered, your gig is up. Your disdain for women, people of color and the many who work for you is building towards an inevitable reversal in which you will no longer be the predator out on the prowl; in the immortal words of Grace Jones, we are approaching the moment when the hunter gets captured by the game. Get ready!


Necrocapitalism, Or, THE VALUE OF BLACK DEATH by Kwame Holmes

24 Jul

Kwame Holmes is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado-Boulder. He reads the history of modern cities and social movements through a black queer studies frame. His work has appeared in Radical History Review, Occasion and No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies. He is at work revising a book manuscript entitled, Queer Removal: Liberalism and Displacement in the Nation’s Capital. Follow him at @KwameHolmes



If there is any axiom for home buying, it is that location is everything. Home prices flair up or down subject to factors that range from the convenience of mass transit in urban areas, one’s distance from highways in suburban ones, the availability of high-performing schools, access to natural beauty, cultural amenities, broadband service, a high-rise view and more. Because consumer demand drives land value in the residential market, the real estate industry translates visceral human response –“I love (or hate) this place”– into an “objective” home price (1).


And few factors influence home price more than a listing’s proximity to violence. Given this, indulge me in a small bit of storytelling. On a hot July afternoon, along the major thoroughfare between a small, well-heeled suburb and a large Metropolitan area; a latino man in his 30’s becomes agitated at the sight of a black driver. The former closely tails the later, eventually forcing both cars from the road. The aggressor leaps from his vehicle and walks towards his target on foot. Adrenaline and cortisol course through his veins. He pays glancing attention to the shadow of a 4-year-old girl in a safety seat, strapped into the back of the black driver’s car. His hand hovers over the handle of a firearm, ready to draw and fire at a moment’s notice. Still behind the wheel, the black driver attempts to ease the tension, telling the aggressor of the gun in his glove compartment and warning against a violent encounter. But his pleas for sanity fall on deaf ears. Taking position at the front of the black driver’s car, the aggressor opens fire into the driver side window, shooting his victim in front of an adult woman passenger and her no-longer-innocent child. The wild and unprovoked shooting garners national media attention, and the once anonymous suburb finds itself infamous for a mounting trend in road-side homicide.


A large body of literature within criminology tells us that home prices in the well-heeled suburb should react to this tragedy with a sharp downward turn. In a 2006 article published in Quantitative Criminology, George E Teta (et al.) assert that homicide, unlike other types of crime, most directly correlates with declines in home prices (2). Other studies indicate that homicide is particularly impactful in high-end neighborhoods where the rarity of violent crime draws an outsized media response (3).


Nonetheless, in the year since officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in Falcon Heights Minnesota, under nearly identical circumstances as I describe above, home prices in the St. Paul suburb rose at an impressive clip of 13%; the area’s most robust bull market since the sub-prime speculative bubble (4). Obviously, the fact that Yanez was a member of the St. Anthony police department at the time of the shooting differentiates my story from the sad reality of Castile’s death. But there’s a strong case that the real estate market should have put the brakes on Falcon Heights home prices. Diamond Reynolds’ widely viewed Facebook live video did not only make Philando Castile a globally trending hashtag, it brought unexpected infamy to Falcon Heights and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests threatened to further deteriorate the area’s desirability.

Falcon H

Indeed, corporate actors across multiple industries often fret that recent attention to police violence and anti-brutality protest negatively impacts their bottom line. Earlier this year, “pro-business” legislatures in a dozen states debated versions of law that would charge activists with a crime should public protest drive revenue away from local business. Liability insurers are also concerned. Risk Management Inc. cancelled the Sorrento Louisiana police department’s liability policy after a series of pricey racial discrimination lawsuits made them too much of an insurance risk. Recently, a close friend who works in non-profit advocacy shared with me (on condition of anonymity) that insurers were unwilling to provide their organization liability coverage because of the “consequences” of “political involvement.” As one insurer put it, “you see on the news what’s going on.” Outside of concerns for personal safety, crime rates drive consumers away from a housing market because they place upward pressure on homeowner’s insurance rates and, undoubtedly, proximity to protest has the potential to do the same. And yet, in defiance of market logic and actuarial science, home prices in Falcon Heights only continue to rise. Why?

I argue that Castile’s death is not a failure of policing or a constituent of crime anxiety. Rather, Philando Castile was killed by our obsession with growth, and in particular, the middle class’ reliance upon property values for economic security. His killing sent current and potential homeowners in Falcon Heights a clear message: The state, via the police, will protect the long-term value of your home against the stain of blackness. Rather than counterintuitive, the market response to this tragedy becomes predictable when contextualized within the history of blackness’ forced association with value depreciation.

FH Market

Blackness, Visibility and Value

9780520242012Interest in the many tentacles of the carceral state has driven the lion’s share of recent academic scholarship on the outsized power capitalism wields over black life (5). In her foundational book Golden Gulag, Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes how deindustrialization left populous states like California with surpluses of finance capital, land and manpower amidst a political turn away from redistributionist welfare policy. Rather than pursue universal basic income or full employment, California built prisons; and expanded the punitive power of the criminal justice system in order to fill them (6). The militarization of municipal police departments—so powerfully on display during the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings—has strengthened the bottom line of private defense contractors at the expense of black suffering (7).

Still, the disposal of black lives into the carceral machine is an adjacent, but different, historical phenomenon from the deep association between black visibility and property value loss. Prior to emancipation, black “hands,” as they were counted, functioned as both units of currency and unmatched labor power. Under the control of white masters, enslaved people increased the value of their families’ property portfolio. However, as Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes, after emancipation, sociological and actuarial expertise collaborated to frame black people as congenitally defective–destined for early death and eventual extinction. However methodologically unsound, this new knowledge donned the shroud of objectivity and was incorporated into the first private life insurance offered to black families. Needless to say, this early means of quantifying human potential consistently paid less capital to black families less than non-black ones (8).

As American progressives brought scientific positivism to bear upon urban development, the earliest zoning professionals and planners mapped any neighborhood friendly to black people as a “blighted” habitat that threatened property values across an entire city’s “ecosystem” (9). The establishment of the Federal Housing Authority during the New Deal nationalized the production of risk-assessment maps—a mortgage lender’s guidebook to redlining—and put federal muscle behind the racial biases of urban planning science. Postwar federal urban renewal policy only made individual homeownership near black neighborhoods a riskier gambit, as local governments aggressively deployed eminent domain authority to acquire and demolish neighborhoods that stood in the way of “progress” (10). White homeowners took note, and took advantage of federal mortgage financing to escape into communities like Falcon Heights. These suburban safe havens were far removed from poor African Americans who found themselves without options; hemmed into subsidized housing within Metropolitan America’s most inaccessible geographies. So many of the black people who have lost their lives at the hand of the police—Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling—lost their lives in those same neighborhoods, because police have been empowered to treat poverty with deadly force (11).


Philando Castile, though, was killed in the suburbs and as I mentioned at the start of this essay, location is everything. To apply the “broken windows policing” frame onto his death is to over-privilege the American inner city within our conception of a global relationship between blackness and value that manifests differently in each local context. More accurately, Philando Castile was killed at a number of crossroads. He was killed in transit, on Larpenture Avenue, a crossroads between St. Paul and a number of suburbs in Ramsey county Minnesota, including Falcon Heights. According to an NPR analysis of the geography of his arrests, he was traveling between St. Paul and Ramsey county suburbs during many of the dozens of times law enforcement saw and stopped him in the Chevrolet that would become his tomb. He was also killed in one of the most well-watched communities in the state. A 2011 Falcon Heights community brochure tells readers, their town was the first community in Minnesota to boast a member of the neighborhood crime watch on every block. In that regard, Castile’s death echoes Trayvon Martin’s; who was killed by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Most pressingly, he was killed at a major crossroads in American history; a moment defined in part by the middle class’ mounting reliance upon the whims of the real estate market for their own survival.

Broken Glass Rally

If there is any utility in distinguishing between neoliberalism and capitalism, it is that the former term highlights the cultural and cognitive shifts produced by privatization over time. For example, as deunionization and governmental negligence has left more Americans without access to public or private pension programs, those same workers have been forced to rely upon home equity to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Many working and middle-class workers have a fiscal interest in land value as most 401ks allow employees to funnel their contributions into Wall street’s real estate index. White collar employers, like the University of Minnesota, have their own stake in metropolitan land markets as recruiters dangle the prospect of long term real estate investment in front of potential employees. Much in the same way that taxation, welfare and military service produce (however coerced) citizenship and national belonging, the real estate market demands its own form of tribute as a condition of the distribution of equity and retirement income. In that sense, the housing market wields a kind of sovereignty over American life, assigning positive value and the right to live to those populations who contribute to its strength and longevity, and demanding the expulsion–to the point of death to those who threaten the same. What we face, in short, is necrocapitalism.

Necropolitics vs. Necrocapitalism

1399478464_4da5d1f5abThe Movement for Black Lives has generated the nation’s first popular conversation about the value of black life. Still, movement advocates tend to describe the police’s devaluation of black life as the state’s failure to recognize African American’s citizenship. Both the left and right’s focus on state agents’ behavior towards African Americans necessarily frames these debates in terms of citizenship. Police boosters claim that #bluelives engage and defeat “the thugs” bent on robbing us of our constitutionally guaranteed right to private property. Critics point out that programs like Stop and Frisk deny black and brown citizens’ due process and suspends their freedom from unlawful search and seizure. To ask if black lives matter, forces the state to account for its failure to protect the “natural right” to “life” black people are promised in the nation’s founding documents. Indeed, one could describe racially biased policing in the United States as an iteration of Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics. The ubiquity of police killings, the impunity which greets anti-black police violence, and the utter predictability of both reveal how often the American state rehearses its power to expose black people to death.

But we must expand beyond Mbembe and the Movement’s concern with the unfulfilled promises of the nation and position Castile’s death as signpost of a necrocapitalist order. Necrocapitalism refers to a powerful contradiction churning at the heart of post-World War II capitalism. On one hand, decolonization, racial liberalism and globalization have produced, quite literally, a narrow pathway out of poverty for once subjugated populations. Here, the ascendency of integrationism in American jurisprudence, professional codes of conduct and popular culture has encouraged black people to attend schools and search for jobs in majority white territory. In turn, across post-colonial Europe, African, Arab, Persian and South Asian migrants flooded into cities built by their natural resources and in search of lifestyles made possible by their labor. In London, these economic refugees were often forced into illicit “hidden homes” (black market rentals carved out of abandoned commercial buildings) or publicly subsidized tower blocks.

On the other hand, while multiculturalism has demanded more diverse Western labor markets, anti-blackness is still central to value assessment in global land markets. This means that liberalization drags black people into the very line of fire, figurative and literal. The 80 identified victims of the Grenfell blaze were not profiled by a police officer blinded by America’s unique history of anti-black racialization. But they, by proxy of their residency in a south London tower block, were similarly targeted for removal from public view. As Hip-Hop activist Akala told the BBC, the tenant management organization purchased highly flammable cladding for Grenfell as part of an aesthetic upgrade. For years, residents lobbied tenant management for funds to repair their building’s faulty electrical systems, and were met with a polite but firm stonewall. Those repairs would have had almost no impact on the building’s exterior—and by extension—the appearance of the surrounding neighborhood. Since the Tony Blair years, borough councils have strategized to remove the “eye sores” of tower blocks, as well as “hidden homes” from the urban landscape. More research needs to be conducted on south London’s hidden homes project, but a preliminary scan of media reports reveal that urban reformers hoped to help tenants “escape” exploitation by bringing them “out of the shadows” and “into the light of day.” These “regeneration” projects function similarly to urban renewal policy in the United States, displacing poor Londoners into various states of housing insecurity, including permanent homelessness. Once displaced, they are more vulnerable to attack from white supremacists, ill-health, street crime and police harassment.


Though differently produced, Philando Castile’s death and the Grenfell tower tragedy were animated by the same economic order, one that requires black people to cross metropolitan and national borders to survive and countenances the removal of black life in tribute to value. In the wake of tragedy, pushes for reform have found new life. The English parliament is as focused on enforcing safety regulations in tower blocks as American city councils have been on forcing officers to wear body cameras while on patrol. Yet, as police killings continue and Grenfell survivors find themselves unable to trade sympathy in for permanent housing, a reform agenda feels like little more than wallpaper applied to rotting dry wall.

What then, can we do? We must grapple, simultaneously and at a cognitive level, with how we understand blackness and how we assess value. There may have been a time when we could say that markets quantify our desires and reflect them back to us. But our coevolution with capitalism has progressed beyond that sort of linear, direct relationship. Now to oppose the devaluation of blackness is to oppose how markets assess value itself. Perhaps then, the only way to break free from a necrocapitalist order is to demand a society that rejects any coherent system of value assessment. One that makes space for diverse and multiple modes of living; rather than demanding market territory for each identity category. Doing so may allow black people to choose whether or not it’s worth the risk to travel through any geography where the free market’s deadly logics are so densely concentrated.



  1. Here I am in conversation with Eva Hageman’s dissertation, “The Lifestyle: Economies of Culture and Race in Reality Television,” NYU 2016.
  2. George E. Tita, Tricia L. Petras, Robert T. Greenbaum, “Crime and Residential Choice: A Neighborhood Level Analysis of the Impact of Crime on Housing Prices” Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
  3. Joel Best, Random Violence: How We Talk About New Crimes and New Victims (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1999).
  4. Data drawn from on June 29, 2017.
  5. Recent exceptions include, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016); David P. Stein “This Nation Has Never Honestly Dealt with the Question of a Peacetime Economy”: Coretta Scott King and the Struggle for a Nonviolent Economy in the 1970s” Souls 18, 1 (2016); N.D.B Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (University of Chicago Press, 2014); Devin Fergus, “The Ghetto Tax: Auto Insurance, Postal Code Profiling and the Hidden History of Wealth Transfer,” Beyond Discrimination: Racial Inequality in a Postracist Era (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 2013).
  6. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2007).
  7. Elizabeth Kai Hinton From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2016).
  8. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  9. David Freund, Colored Property (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  10. I refer here to a significant literature in urban studies, but on the psychic trauma’s left behind by urban renewal. I most recommend Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: Ballantine, 2004). Whether or not one endorsed urban renewal policy, everyone was left with the impression that black communities could be leveled to the ground at a moment’s notice.
  11. Here I am referencing broken windows policing. For an excellent review of recent scholarship on broken windows see, Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton ed. Policing the Planet, Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (London: Verso Books, 2017).


“The Asian was told to leave. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted. So he had to be carried out on a stretcher.”

16 Apr

On Compliance, Complicity, and Beating Up Asian America.

By Eng-Beng Lim


For Asian Americans and other professional elites of color who think their class privilege or “whiteness” protects them from the racialized brunt of U.S.-America’s corporate-nationalist wrath, the bloody “re-accommodation” of 69-year-old Vietnamese American doctor, David Dao, on an allegedly overbooked United Airlines (UA) flight might be their “get woke” moment. Just to be clear, it involves police and neoliberal capitalist terror, corporate bullying, and Asian shaming. Dr Dao sustained “a broken nose, a concussion, two knocked out teeth and sinus problems that may require reconstructive surgery.” All for refusing to vacate his seat to accommodate UA’s administrative inefficiency.

But “getting woke” may depend on your level of subscription in the club of denial and complicity. Those with premier benefits might find it hard to relinquish their bad love. For denial has its own rewards, and complicity its wanton rationalization and even perfume.

Membership, afterall, has its privileges. What exactly is the cost of your membership’s privileges? Who is paying the price for your preferred status and clubby jaunt?

“Re-accommodation” is a term used by UA CEO, Oscar Munoz to characterize the forced extraction of seated passengers “randomly” selected by the computer to make space for four crew members. They had to catch a connecting flight that would otherwise be understaffed, delayed or canceled. The flight in question was not overbooked or oversold, as airlines officials originally claimed. That few if anyone is picking on this lie only shows our level of compliance with the fungible language of bureaucratic corporate procedure. We are so inured to gaslighting and alternative truth that a white lie is a just white lie (switch the color and you are most definitely a liar). Let’s give companies and the men who run them the benefit of doubt, and beat the crap out of consumers who do not comply.

Dr Dao was illegally ejected from the plane in violation of 14 CFR 250.2a. that prohibits giving preference to airlines employees over paying customers, especially if they have already been seated. Part of the dispute will hang on whether the employees who are considered “must-ride passengers” can unseat paying customers on a full flight. But it does not get to the spectacular violence against the doctor, and the seemingly inexplicable assault on the American consumer and Asian America. To sort out this mess, let’s start with a quick recap of the world we live in, and an earnest question:

Could it be that the corporatization of the Senate and the vindictiveness of male-centered egos exemplified by conservative and rightwing ideologues like Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and their cabal of mediocre apparatchiks, naysayers, white supremacists, 1 percenters and security thugs now go hand in hand with the thuggery of state-sanctioned oligopolies like UA that operate as their armed, air travel functionary disguised as service?

A nation’s divisions, arrogance and toxicity do not just spring out of nowhere. Their escalation has been facilitated by ultraconservative white supremacist rancor and gaslighting running the spectrum of racism/xenophobia, anti-gay/misogyny, anti-refugee/Islamaphobia. It’s almost mechanical at this point. But that we should entertain the idea that gaslighters are outraged that their crimes are “leaked” to the press rather than being outraged at their crimes is a real kicker. It is a rich ethical perversion that gives perversion a bad name. The vacuous shorthand, “a nation divided,” only compresses the deniability of those who start wars and fires by demagoguery or political poison. Enter the Bully-in-Chief with explicit instructions for his devotees and initiads, which include white nationalist groups:

“Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously.”

“I’d like to punch them in the face, I tell you, would you?”

“I love the old days. Do you know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

More than just Trump’s expressive nastiness at his rallies, these opportunistic incitements to violence have a long history in U.S-American nationalist bravura, machismo, belligerence, imperialism and gun culture. But as corporate performatives, it is virtually unheard of unless we examine the violent deeds of corporations as the very enactment of these words.

Yes, those are exactly the words that UA is saying to Dr. Dao who is carried out on a stretcher, and by extension to Asian/America. You know, the time when Asian exceptionalism means you can be legally discriminated against because the law does not apply to you – the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese incarceration camp, just to name two – or, clobbered to death with impunity (Vincent Chin RIP).

Regarding Trump’s incitement to violence, multiple lawsuits filed against him state how “black residents were brutally attacked by a white mob,” including a plaintiff who was “kicked, choked, shoved, punched, scratched and referred to as nearly every racial slur known.” Though the racial violence is specific and contextual, the abuse is also generalizable of Trump’s treatment of African Americans, especially powerful black women like Susan Rice, Maxine Waters and April Ryan. The intersection of race, violence and corporations that has fueled Trump’s business empire and the rise of his despicable Presidential persona is also at the heart of UA’s treatment of Dr Dao.

To put it plainly, it’s about corporations punching people in their faces, sometimes without them knowing because it’s in the gut so to speak, and sometimes in the flesh, knocking them out senseless. The continuing fetishization of choice in this regard is laughable to say the least. Trump’s response to the incident is for airlines to increase the compensation for bumping passengers off the aircraft as if that would create more access and equality for air travel. And lo and behold, United has quickly announced an upper ceiling of 10k for those bumped out of their seats in the future. That is the solution? Some people are excited about how this is an enticing option to game the system. Who do you think will benefit from? The Dr Daos of the world or those “in the club”?

Let’s put it this way, you may think you are choosing or benefiting freely as a consumer but you have no say about the options from which you choose, and how you are treated in practice. When the options are lousy, they are lousier for those at the bottom whether it is U.S. air travel, healthcare or the school system. They are about creating insufferable conditions for the majority so that the super-privileged who can afford Platinum-level service can take up ever more space and resources just because they can. Because corporate entities love revenues more than anything else. Does this sound like a bloviating cheeto-maniac sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and making everyone parse his gibberish just because he can? That’s the kind of treatment we’re being trained to accept from POTUS Inc. which hails from the neoliberal business world where such disciplinary technique, from Walmart to Wall Street, is justified in the name of financializing everything. Cheap prices and ruthless profits rule the day.

Dr Gao’s plea, “I want to go home, I want to go home” resonates in this echo chamber of hell like a desperate, lonely cry in the woods. Like a bad Hollywood movie where a hero played by Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson/Tom Cruise enters an altered realm of reality where he is met by violence and punishment disguised as law enforcement, Dr. Dao found himself stranded in the limbo of the oversold flight. But while the white Alpha male Hollywood hero is always right and always vindicated, Dr. Dao was knocked unconscious for his efforts on behalf of righteousness and dragged unceremoniously from his seat.


He was told to leave “politely” but he refused as a consumer who paid for his seat. He was given an explanation about how “we [United] have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.” No explanation was given as to why he was not one of the customers that UA wants to get to “their destination on time and safely.”


Nevertheless, the Asian doctor persisted in defiance of his extraordinary exclusion from the airline’s articulated customer base. So the airlines summoned the full force of airport security, including the Chicago Department of Aviation and Chicago Police Department whose officer promptly smashed his face, rendered him senseless, and eventually carried him out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth. All the doctor could say in the end was, “Just kill me now.”


Now imagine Senator Elizabeth Warren being carried out on a stretcher for refusing to abide by Mitch McConnell’s controversial rebuke to silence her during the nomination debate about Jeff Session as U.S Attorney General. Or, for that matter, citizen Warren being dragged out like a rag doll through the aisle, her hair disheveled, and her glasses askew on her face as she is rendered incoherent. All because she refused to shut up or give up her seat. Not so long ago, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”?


For those who missed this political theater, Warren had sought to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter regarding Sessions’s discrimination against black voters. The meme that went viral encapsulated the public’s response to the blatant sexism of the Senate that voted 49-43 along party lines to shut her up. Degrees of indignity aside, the different scales of violence tell a story of how gender and race are inflected by notions of privilege and proprietary that shape our political and social sympathies. It would be unacceptable for Senator or even Citizen Warren to be taken out the way the body of the limp and anonymous Asian doctor was treated. In fact, the discomfort of witnessing the Asian American doctor’s infantilization and breakdown struck such a raw nerve that reports have eschewed the racial spectacle unfolding before our eyes. He was some Asian man, maybe a doctor, no one was sure, and many commentators cast doubt about him being a doctor at all based, presumably on the way he looks.


In a sign of the times, a doctor standing his ground on a humanitarian appeal (he had patients to meet the next day) was of no consequence to UA in Trump’s nation where self-serving corporate prerogatives come first. There is a lot more to be said about the terrible entanglements of corporate personhood, profit, policing, and biopolitical regulation. Suffice to say, Dr. Dao’s treatment is not exceptional in the context of ubiquitous bullying and killing across the country. They are only intensifying under the toxic charge of Trump’s administration. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those being bullied or killed are folks with names like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Danny Chen, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Isabella Cornell and David Dao.

We might return to take a closer look at the scene where Dr Dao is carried out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth, and notice this time a different set of actors laughing in the fuzzy background: Team Agent Orange oligarchs, politicos and airlines executives feasting on their bloodied meat. We might add Dr Dao to the names of those who are targeted for harassment and even gunned down because they refuse (or are perceived to be refusing) to comply with bogus rules, corporate prerogatives, heteronormative policing, and white nationalism. The violence produced at the systemic level between colluding regimes and corporations are enduring and far-reaching.

To what extent is complicity – “the state of being an accomplice; partnership or involvement in wrongdoing” – and especially the complicity of cluelessness, detachment or apathy an alibi of colluding forces? Now more than ever, raising questions about complicity’s new faces is also a crucial inquiry about our moral and ethical coordinates as an American, witness, neighbor, ally and friend not only in the U.S. but around the world.

The satirical jokesters at Saturday Night Live suggest that in Trump Nation, complicity is a political pathology for sale in a seductive package. Their metaphor is a bottle of perfume. In an episode that indicts Ivanka Trump for her foxy agendas, Scarlett Johansson’s hyperbolic portrayal of Ivanka vamping it up for a line of perfume makes clear the businesswoman’s product placement comes before the public office she holds (to everyone’s incredulity). One can only wish the public’s wishful projection for Ivanka to be the progressive women’s voice ought to have ended in a recent television interview where she declared, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”

Complicity Perfume

Complicity’s feminine two-face (Johansson is herself accused of being complicit in Israeli settler colonialism for defending Sodastream’s factory as legitimate in the illegal settlement on the West Bank) blurs the good and the bad with no commentary on women’s participation in compulsory whiteness, colonial violence and clueless privilege. What looks good and desirable, like Ivanka or the perfume, might help to obfuscate what is making the lives of the disenfranchised even more miserable.

It is nonetheless a club that draws many members, including bourgeois apologists of color, other white liberal allies, and the pinkwashing homo-matrimonial types who want to smell nice. Everyone in this club is trained to love an arsenal of amnesia-inducing denials and blindspots: “I cannot see what you see,” “It doesn’t rise up to that,” “I need more information,” “They did nothing wrong,” “He was belligerent,” “He’s an illegal,” “Who cares?”

To be complicit is to approve the collusion of corrupt power, money, and imperial projects. It is to give your tacit approval of using violence, harassment and assault on people to protect corporate mandates and personhoods, the belligerent police-military state, and colonial whiteness at all cost. The stakes are higher as bombs matching the egos of a bumbling and bloviating team in the White House are being detonated in Syria and Afghanistan to legitimize their violent and morally bankrupt worldview. To speak out as many did on the plane where Dr Dao was assaulted is to reject the normalization of complicity as our moral code.

As we bear witness to the return of an angry U.S. police-military state and the increasingly swampy topography of corporate malfeasance and assault, how many of us will turn a blind eye or do nothing at all?. How many of us will be caught in the victim-blaming, smear campaign against the next “Dr Dao,” or be bought off by the new 10k reward for bumping off passengers?

Do people care? Over 240,000 comments and 550 million views are recorded a day after Dr Dao’s assault on China’s Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter), not counting the millions of views on related YouTube videos. United Airlines’s share price has dropped, and calls to boycott the airline are stronger than ever. So, yes, people do care and they make a difference.

The centrality of the question of complicity tells us we are desperately, urgently needing a salvageable moral and ethical position to live and to flourish in Trump’s America. This is an America where witnessing violence against a neighbor seems to have become a sport, where apathy and cluelessness are quickly becoming the new alibis of complicity. It gives new meaning to sitting tight with privilege in the face of trouble, and sometimes a face says it all:

Calm Guy As Asian Doctor Screams

Screenshot of a widely circulated video of an unidentified man sitting calmly as Dr. Dao screamed in the background.


22 Feb

White Men Behaving Sadly


Sad white men

At the end of a year in which men behaved badly, madly, and even gladly, how appropriate that an Oscar contending film appears in which men behave, yup, sadly. Indeed all the ladly behaviors that make up the repertoire of white masculinity have culminated in this – a film where we finally understand why the white man is sad, why everyone else is bad and why despite being sad because everyone else is bad, he learns to be a dad.

Manchester by The Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan) is a self-indulgent but pretty picture in which Affleck the Younger, Casey that is, mopes around for a full hour onscreen before we understand that something terrible has happened to him. His brother dies but that barely merits a tear from our sad sack chap. So could it be that he has a really bad job as a handy man that puts him in the way of verbal abuse from women and people or color and even an episode that comes close to sexual harassment from a woman of color? No, the sad white man mostly just takes the abuse and keeps on keeping on. He soldiers on because he is a white man behaving sadly and that is what white men do. So what is the terrible thing that has happened to Casey Affleck to make him move around in the world like a zombie, silent and brooding, angry and resentful. Well, spoiler alert, let me explain. Lee Chandler (played by Affleck the Younger), we find out in flashbacks, once had a wife and some kids. And he was a good man. And he behaved gladly and sometimes even a little badly. Like, one night he had his buddies over and they made too much noise. So his wife broke up the party and made them go home. Sulking, Lee makes a fire in the living room and then steps out into the night to get some more beer. By the time he gets home, his house has burned down with his children in it and only his wife escapes.


After an episode in the police station where you think that maybe he might be charged with something, manslaughter perhaps, he finally wigs out about what has happened and tries to grab a police officer’s gun, presumably to kill himself. The police politely restrain him and he is released to his brother’s care. Well, wow. So he burned his own house down and waved a gun around in a police station and lived to tell the tale because…sad white men’s lives matter and so accidently burning your kids and waving a gun at cops is not a big deal and just requires a little TLC! Don’t you get it? He is hurting and we are expected to cry for him because it is all so sad…for him! Not for his wife, not for those kids, not for his brother, but for him. All the bad things that happen around him, are his bad things.

Why are white men so sad? Well, in this film, they are sad because women are fucked up shrews and alcoholics who drag them down, give them heart attacks and, for god’s sake, try to talk to them and offer them food. They are also sad because they work for very little money and do the worst jobs in the world. They clean other peoples’ toilets, fix their showers and live in small garrets alone and with very bad furniture. Poor sad white men. This sad white man also has to take on the burden of parenthood after his brother’s death. His brother left his only son in Lee’s care and Lee and the boy tussle about girls, sex and authority until Lee learns to see the boy as his heir, as another white man who should enjoy his adolescence because soon everything will be taken from him too.


Yes, reader, this is a film made to measure for the coming Trump era, a time when white men can stop being sad, feel very glad and grab lots of pussy with impunity. Like Trump’s entire campaign, this film does not need to trumpet its white supremacy because this doctrine is embedded in every scene, it saturates every shot, it controls the camera and it lives in every hangdog moment that Lee Chandler spends staring silently off into space. Whiteness, the film tells us, is part of the frayed beauty of America and its power hangs in the balance in a world where bad things can and do happen to white men…even when they themselves cause those bad things to happen! Indeed, off screen Casey Affleck has been cast as a serial sexual abuser and while accusations of sexual harassment brought Black director Nate Parker’s Oscar hopes to a sordid conclusion, Affleck’s history with sexual harassment suits barely merits a mention. This film gives us a clue as to how powerful white men see the world, women, love, loss and violence – it is all one tragic narrative about how hurt and misunderstood they really are.


The world of “Manchester by the Sea” is the world imagined by white men in an era when a Black man was in the white house and women held public offices at many levels. It is a world where the white working class man has no power – he dies young (Lee’s brother), he lives alone (Lee), he cannot even enjoy spending time in his basement with other white men. His wife treats him badly and then later, after the tragic event (that he himself caused) his Black boss and his female customers abuse him. The white world of Manchester by the Sea is elegiac, brimming with a sense of tragedy that exceeds the events on the screen and asks us, begs us even to find a reason for why things should be this way.


There are great tragedies written about women who have killed or been forced to kill their children – think of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who takes a hatchet to her baby rather than relinquish her back to slavery. Think of Medea who kills her children to take revenge on her husband and their father, Jason, for leaving them. Think of Sophie in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice who must choose to let one child live and the other die upon entering Auschwitz. These stories show infanticide as a deliberate action taken as part of a sacrifice or to prevent something worse than death from happening. No such logic underwrites Manchester by the Sea – the death of the children is almost gratuitous, it means nothing in the film except as its function as the source of irreducible melancholia for the white man. This same melancholia does not affect his wife (played by Michelle Williams) who quickly marries and has another child. There is no set up in the film to show us the bond between Lee and his children; there is little that explains the melancholia – is it guilt? Anger?


While critics fall over themselves to give this film an Oscar, we should ask what the film is really about. If this film is an allegory then it is a perfect symbolic landscape of the territory that ushered Trump into office – the film sees the world only through the eyes of working class white men. It sees such men as tragic and heroic, as stoic and moral, as stern but good. The film knows that the tragedy from which the white man suffers is of his own making but nonetheless the film believes that the tragedies that they have created happen to them and not to other people. This is the same logic by which Dylan Roof took the lives of nine African American church-goers in South Carolina while claiming to be defending white people from Black criminality and it is the logic by which Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded fourteen others in Isla Vista near UC Santa Barbara in 2014. Rodger left a manifesto behind that represented him as a victim of women who had sexually rejected him. It is the logic of every lone white gunman in America and while the media depicts these killers as mad and marginal, American cinema romanticizes them as sad and solitary. Obviously, Manchester by the Sea is not about a serial killer who turns a gun on innocents and yet innocents do die by his hand and rather than seeing this as a tragic narrative about white male narcissism or about the dangers of centering one group in a complex society, we are asked to read the film as just another story about white men behaving sadly.


And now, in Oscar season, we prepare to watch the films that celebrate white families, white song and dance, white grief, white music go up against films about Black families (Fences), Black grief (Moonlight), disaporic displacement (Lion), and win or lose, we can hear the storm troopers outside on the streets. Films that a few months ago just seemed to be about sad things or happy things, now appear in a new light and become part of our national tragedy in which all attempts to make diversity mean something, to resist systems that criminalize communities of color while representing white crime as law and order, to rethink sex, are quickly dismissed as identity politics, political correctness or authoritarian feminism. It is time, apparently to make America great again, to cater to the sad white man, to feel his pain, to lift him up and dry his tears. White men have been sad for too long apparently, now it is our turn.

“Hiding the Tears in My Eyes – BOYS DON’T CRY – A Legacy” by Jack Halberstam

7 Dec

Boys Don’t Cry, 1999

In 1999, just six years after the rape and murder of a young gender variant person, Brandon Teena, and two friends in a small town in Nebraska, Kim Peirce released her first film, a dramatic account of the incident. The film, Boys Don’t Cry, which took years to research, write, fund, cast and shoot, was released to superb reviews and went on to garner awards and praise for the lead actor, Hilary Swank, and the young director, Kim Peirce, not to mention the film’s production team led by Christine Vachon. The film was hard hitting, visually innovative and marked a massive breakthrough in the representation of gender variant bodies. While there were certainly debates about decisions that Peirce made within the film’s narrative arc (the omission of the murder of an African American friend, Philip DeVine, at the same time that Brandon was killed), Boys Don’t Cry was received by audiences at the time as a magnificent film honoring the life of a gender queer youth and bringing a sense of the jeopardy of gender variant experiences to the screen. It was also seen as a sensitive depiction of life in small town USA. Kim Peirce spoke widely about the film in public venues and explained her relationship to the subject matter of gender variance, working class life and gender based violence.

In recent screenings of the film, some accompanied by Peirce as a speaker, others just programmed as part of a class or a film series, younger audiences have taken offence to the film and have accused the filmmaker of making money off the representation of violence against trans people. This at least was the charge made against Kim Peirce when she showed up to speak alongside a special screening of the film at Reed College in Oregon, just days after the Presidential election. Unbeknownst to the organizers, student protestors had removed posters from all around campus that advertised the screening and lecture and they formed a protest group and arrived early to the cinema on the night of the screening to hang up posters.


Posters at Reed College Protesting the Screening of Boys Don’t Cry, November 2016

These posters voiced a range of responses to the film including: “You don’t fucking get it!” and “Fuck Your Transphobia!” as well as “Trans Lives Do Not Equal $$” and to cap it all, the sign hung on the podium read: “Fuck this cis white bitch”!! The protestors waited until after the film had screened at Peirce’s request and then entered the auditorium while shouting “Fuck your respectability politics” and yelling over her commentary until Peirce left the room. After establishing some ground rules for a discussion, Peirce came back into the room but the conversation again got out of hand and finally a student yelled at Peirce: “Fuck you scared bitch.” At which point the protestors filed out and Peirce left campus.

82e7d16be887d89692c1dfd6efd0aca5This is an astonishing set of events to reckon with for those of us who remember the events surrounding Brandon Teena’s murder, the debates in the months that followed about Brandon Teena’s identity and, later, the reception of the film. Early transgender activism was spurred into action by the murder of Brandon Teena and many activists showed up at the trial of his killers. There were lots of debates at the time about whether Brandon was “butch” or “transgender” but queer and transgender audiences were mostly satisfied with the depiction of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. The film appealed to many audiences, queer and straight, and it continues to play around the world.


Director, Kimberly Peirce

The accounts given of these recent protests at Reed College give evidence of enormous vitriol, much of it blatantly misogynist (the repeated use of the word “bitch” for example) directed at a queer, butch film maker and they leave us with an enormous number of questions to face about representational dynamics, clashes between different historical paradigms of queer and transgender life and the expression of queer anger that, instead of being directed at murderous enemies in the mainstream of American political life, has been turned onto independent film makers within the queer and LGBT communities. Since this incident at Reed, I have heard from other students that they too felt “uncomfortable” with the representations of transgender life and death in Boys Don’t Cry. These students raise the following objections to the film some fifteen years after its release:

  • First, younger trans oriented audiences want to know if Peirce herself is trans. And they understand her as a non-trans person who is making money from the representation of violence against transgender bodies.
  •  Second, they ask about the casting of a non-trans identified actor in the role of Brandon and wonder why a transgender man was not cast to play Brandon.
  • Third, students in particular have objected to the graphic depiction of rape in the film and feel that the scene is poorly orchestrated and the film is too mired in the pathologization and violation and punishment of transgender bodies.

These are interesting critiques and queries and worthy of conversation in their own right as well as within a clear understanding of the film’s visual grammar and representational strategies. It is not, however, a worthy activist goal to try to suppress the film, to cast it as transphobic and to target Kim Peirce herself as someone who has profited from the exploitation of transgender narratives. The film after all cost only 2 million to make and returned almost nothing to Peirce in profits.


How might we respond to these objections then in ways that do not completely dismiss the feelings of the students but that ask for different relations to protest, to the reading of complex texts and to the directing of anger about transphobic and homophobic texts onto queer cultural producers?

Here are a few thoughts:

1. We need to situate this film properly within the history of the representation of transgender characters. At the time that Peirce made this film, most films featured transgender people only as monsters, killers, sociopaths or isolated misfits.


Dressed To Kill, 1980

Few treated transgender people with even a modicum of comprehension and even fewer dealt with the transphobic environments that were part of heteronormative family life. There were very few films prior to Boys that focused upon transgender masculinity and when transgender male characters did appear in film, they were often depicted as women who passed as men for pragmatic reasons (for example The Ballad of Little Joe, 1993) or androgynous figures of whimsy (for example Orlando, 1992).

Boys Don’t Cry is literally the first film in history to build a credible story line around the credible masculinity of a credible trans-masculine figure. Period.


2. We cannot always demand a perfect match between directors, actors and the material in any given narrative. As a masculine person from a working class background who had experienced her own sexual abuse, Peirce identified strongly with the life and struggles of Brandon Teena. Peirce is not a transgender man, but is gender variant. The film she produced was sensitive to Brandon Teena’s social environment, his gender identity, his hard upbringing and his struggle to understand himself and to be understood by others. If Peirce told a story in which the transgender body was punished, she did not do so in order to participate in that punishment, she did it because that was what had actually happened to Brandon Teena and it would have been dishonest to tell the story any other way. The violence he suffered stood, at the time, as emblematic of the many forms of violence that transgender people suffered and it called upon the audiences for the film to rebuke the world in which such violence was common place.


Hilary Swank in her break through performance in Boys Don’t Cry

3. Transgender actors should play transgender roles but that is not always possible and certainly was a long shot at the time that Peirce made the film. Furthermore, it would be more effective to argue that transgender actors should not be limited to transgender roles. Peirce conducted a national search for a trans masculine actor for Boys Don’t Cry. She did screen tests with many trans identified people and she ultimately gave the role to the best actor available who was credible as a young female-bodied person passing for male. That actor was Hilary Swank, known in some circles at the time for her role in The Karate Kid and occasional appearances on Buffy the Vampire. Given the dependence of the success of the film on the acting ability of the main actor, it was vital to have a strong performer in this role and Swank was cast accordingly. Also why should a transgender actor only play a transgender role – shouldn’t we be asking cis-gendered male directors to cast transgender men and women as romantic leads, protagonists, super heroes?


4. We should not be asking for films to make detours around scenes of sexual violence instead we should be asking about what we actually mean by violence in any given context. In Boys Don’t Cry, the rape scene was brutal, hard to shoot, hard to act in and generally a difficult and emotionally draining piece of filmmaking. But it is also a deeply important part of the film and a way of representing faithfully the brutal violence that was meted out at the time to gender non-conforming bodies and it was true to the specific fate of Brandon Teena. The brutality of the rape also cuts in and out of scenes in the police station when Brandon Teena reports the rape. The police treat Brandon as a “girl” who must have been pleased by the attention from young men and they see the young men as normal, sexual subjects. 23Thus, the rape scene damns the police, highlights the role of violence in the enforcement of normativity and draws the audience’s sympathies to Brandon in a way that makes transphobia morally reprehensible. When we target scenes of rape and sexual violence in independent films about historical characters and call them unwatchable, we are making it difficult to grapple with all kinds of historical material that involves systemic violence and oppression.

But, we are also limiting the meaning of “violence” to physical assault. As so many theorists have shown, violence can also appear in the form of civility, empathy, absence, indifference and non-appearance. Violence is the glue of contemporary representation – we regularly watch films in which cars are blown up (every film with a chase scene), planes are shot down (many films with Tom Cruise or James Bond in them), superheroes sweep the streets of evil taking out hundreds of people at a time (Iron Man but also Ghost Busters), tidal waves sweep through entire cities (The Fifth Wave), colonies of fish are swallowed up by marauding sharks (Finding Nemo), a female deer is shot in front of her child (Bambi), aliens land and eliminate buildings (The War of the Worlds), zombie mobs chase humans and eat them slowly (The Walking Dead) and so on. To focus solely upon sexual violence and to ignore the more general context of cinematic violence and to take complaints only to queer directors who are struggling to represent queer life rather than to straight directors ignoring queer and trans life betrays a limited vision of representational systems and ideologies and ultimately leaves those systems and their biases completely intact.



At a time of political terror, at a moment when Fascists are in highest offices in the land, when white men are ready and well positioned to mete out punishment to women, queers and undocumented laborers, we have to pick our enemies very carefully. Spending time and energy protesting the work of an extremely important queer filmmaker is not only wasteful, it is morally bankrupt and misses the true danger of our historical moment. 



Winter in America by Jack Halberstam

10 Nov


“And now it’s winter

Winter in America

And all of the healers done been killed or sent away

Yeah, and the people know, people know

It’s winter Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting

Cause nobody knows what to save.”

Gil Scott Heron, “Winter in America” 1974


“Winter is Coming.”

Game of Thrones, 2011


We do not know what to say or do. We who are usually so full of words, ideas, programs and plans of action, we too fall silent in the face of such devastating news. Donald J. Trump, the clownish buffoon who has been caught on tape berating people of color, women and even babies, for God’s sake, will be the next president of the United States of America. If we thought George W. was bad, wait until we see what a government stacked with right wing Republicans and led by an egotistical fool might do to all semblances of intellectual exchange, economic redistribution and racial justice.




Is this how the Fascism starts, as a creeping, insidious mood of hatred slipping into everyday conversation? Does it begin with the eschewing of complex explanations in favor of simplistic ‘us against them’ accounting? Does Fascism begin when white supremacy is courted, relied upon, solicited but never named as such? Or did this particular political disaster begin when Donald Trump’s outrageous, sexist, misogynist, racist comments were played for the whole nation…and many people did not care because they hear worse everyday, in their homes, at their work places, in public? How about when FBI Director, James Comey, decided to revive the inquiry into Hilary Clinton’s email despite no new evidence compelling him to do so? Has this all been a coup initiated by the FBI, ratified by law and carried out by a rabid group of white men, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, cheered on by David Duke and involving millions of mostly white voters, including a majority of white women, who happily, cheerily cast their vote for a liar, an avowed racist and a failed businessman who has cheated, shouted and shoved his way into the spotlight?


We are in checkmate because we turned our backs for a moment and when we did Donald J. Trump moved chess pieces at will, taking the queen and cornering the king. We are down for the count, lost in translation, behind, bewildered, frustrated and legitimately scared. Trump’s election is bad for women, bad for all people of color, bad for business, bad for immigrants, bad for the environment, bad for the economy, bad for babies, bad and getting worse. Donald Trump is good for himself, good for his scary and much more ideologically extreme running mate, Mike Pence, good for angry white men, good for tax dodgers, global warming deniers, corporate elites, unrepentant white supremacists, good for nothing.


As we near the end of the first day of the new order of Trumpocracy, we better ask ourselves what is to be done. We better meet and sound our outrage, we better establish a plan of action. We need to find better leaders – Hilary Clinton was not the leader many of us wanted even as we felt she would be a capable and reasonable presence in the White House. Where are the young, impassioned, visionary leaders who can, unlike Hilary, outline a detailed opposition to Trumpocracy, give people the argument for universal health care coverage, arm people with not statistics but a critical way of thinking? We need a representative who will actively assuage working class resentment without stirring up racial antipathy; someone who will explain why we pay taxes rather than boast about not doing so. We need someone who does not feel entitled to win office but who rides to victory on a coalition of explicitly leftist platforms. We need a smart, informed speaker who understands the history of race in America, who opposes prisons and demands gun reform and who refuses to apologize for working on behalf of the most vulnerable populations and in opposition to the most entitled.

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s Rally in Mobile Alabama

There have been many shocks this week, shocks that reminded us that “we” are not at all united and “we” will often be defeated. For example, Five Thirty Eight reports today that while Hilary Clinton won women’s votes by 12 points, she lost the votes of white women overall. This is a devastating reminder of how effective compulsory heteronormativity is in this country. Heterosexual white women, despite being regaled by audio tapes of Trump boasting about “grabbing pussy,” despite numerous women stepping forward to give accounts of being molested or harassed by Trump, despite his public and open contempt for women he dates, women he rejects and women he would not even consider, many of these women voted willingly for boorish, violent, contemptuous masculinity. They voted with their men; they voted their racial investments in whiteness, they voted against the security of Roe v. Wade, they voted to continue being helpmates rather than agents, they voted to be cheerleaders and mascots rather than players in the game, they voted against the first female president of the United States. They voted to continue being what Simone De Beauvoir called “the second sex.”


We have faced political winters before and winter will come again. In 1974 in the wake of a horrifying series of political murders in the US, after the deaths of Martin Luther King, JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X, Gil Scott Heron penned, “Winter in America,” an anthem for dark times. Shana Redmond’s book, Anthem, provides a rich account of the adoption of anthems by Black groups in the diaspora. In the history that Redmond provides, the anthem is wrenched out of its role as a universal statement of belonging and national aspiration and transformed into a rallying cry for a disenfranchised group and a spiritual call to action. We need an anthem now and “Winter in America,” unfortunately, has become relevant again. In the liner notes for his album, Gil Scott-Heron explained his title and connected his music to the political climate around him:

Winter is a metaphor: a term not only used to describe the season of ice, but the period of our lives through which we are traveling…Western iceman have attempted to distort time. Extra months on the calendar and daylight saved what was Eastern Standard. We approach winter the most depressing period in the history of this industrial empire, with threats of oil shortages and energy crises. But we, as Black people, have been a source of endless energy, endless beauty and endless determination. I have many things to tell you about tomorrow’s love and light. We will see you in Spring.

We are now facing our own winter; we too have just put the clocks back to save Eastern Standard time; we too approach a deeply depressing season run by snowmen buoyed by a “whitelash” (Van Jones); we too want to believe that Spring will come but fear that only more winter lies ahead. In this our own “most depressing period,” we watch bankers and realtors and politicians convince working class people that callous disregard for the public good, outrageous extravagance and corrupt racially skewed economic practices will “make America great again.” They will not. They will confirm us as a confederacy of rogues, a global bully, a white supremacist nation committed to rewarding the rich, locking up the poor and handing everything to the clowns, the snowmen, the would-be kings, the small minded men with small hands, big wallets, self-centered dreams and willowy, empty women on their arms. Gil Scott-Heron looked to Black community for hope and termed Black people as a “source of endless energy, endless beauty, and endless determination.” He promised “love and light” in the potentiality of tomorrow even as he mourned the experience of “living in a nation that just can’t stand much more.” Now that democracy is once more “ragtime on the corner,” now that peace is out of reach, now that white men have their fingers on the scales of justice, now that white heterosexual women are standing by their men, now that we know that many gay people and some people of color must have voted for Trump, we better find some coalitions that will still offer the possibility of “energy, beauty and determination.”


As Game of Thrones warned us in season one, episode one, 2011, “Winter is Coming.” For the House of Stark, this was a warning that political peace is fleeting and unreliable. For us it is a terrifying future that we now confront. In Game of Thrones, winter came and went, men were slaughtered, spirits raised the dead, and women rulers rose up as fighters, witches, as young queens, as rape avengers. Even in this most patriarchal of medieval fantasy worlds, there is space to imagine female sovereignty and a better world forged out of a coalition of the very old, the very young, women, queers, native peoples, people of color, trans people, disabled people, wildings, wolves and dragons. We need to tap into our utopian fantasies now, our freedom dreams (Robin Kelley) to find small channels of potential running through the political architectures in which we are currently imprisoned. I am worried we will not find a way out, and I know you are too; but I also know that we are all ready for the fight of our lives.