Decolonization Means Being in Process

On Sex and Embodied History

Image by Elizabeth Rosenbloom.

Editor’s Note: The following article appears in the latest issue of Tikkun magazine. To read all the other wonderful articles, purchase the issue here.

In the culture I grew up in, the erotic object is a white woman in the role of victim. Woman is what I once expected myself to someday become, and which is still, most of the time, how I am treated—and at those times, my victimhood is often presumed. Because of my skin in this culture, whiteness binds itself to me. I have only ever been called beautiful when so thin that I was dying: first from anorexia, then ten years later from e. coli. I lived through both diseases, and no one has called me beautiful since.

When examining my emaciated body in the mirror,[1] I thought often of the photos I’d seen in textbooks: Ashkenazi Jews like me, shriveled in bunks at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. They were the other acceptable kind of victim: firmly in the past, their descendants ostensibly assimilated into whiteness. Demanding no contemporary reckoning.

But it wasn’t that way for an ex-partner of mine, now a dear friend, whose grandfather had been a Nazi, one who joined the party on purpose in 1943. Once, in 2016, the two of us were undressing in the bathroom and took to teasing, forgetting the water that had already started to run. Not wanting to waste, getting impatient, they urged me: “Get in the shower!” then turned a deep shade of pink. I laughed but it wasn’t funny to them: the image of Jews in gas chambers loomed suddenly between us. For me the gruesome nature of the scene was absurd, unrelated to the gentle person I loved who stood in front of me. But they were frozen by the shame of Nazi blood in their veins, their present thick with that history.

Easier for me to laugh because the Holocaust operates as a discursive trump card, because while antisemitism is alive and alarming it also operates by its invisibility. (My partner at the time was both German and Puerto Rican, and we talked a lot about the ways my whiteness impacted them, about how the two of us carried reciprocal and particular histories of violence inside us, how differently our races determined our treatment on the street, but also how they had been taught as a German to reckon with Germany’s history. I had been taught, as a Jew born into white womanhood, to see myself only as a victim, and not the way whiteness implicated me.) One-on-one I am white, although the white nationalists don’t think so, and my whiteness mostly protects me. Protects even that Anne Frank was the root of my desires: she wrote of wanting to touch her friends’ breasts[2] and at nine, reading her diary for the first time, I recognized my own wantings—once again, inside of history, a cathartic and intimate answer to the violence of the Nazis about which I was learning. Which is to name what I began to recognize: desire all around me, shot through with the promise of violence, and the violence of history.[3]

*

Earlier this year, at the Leather Archives in Chicago, I came across an essay published in the early 1990s in a special Spirituality & S/M issue of Prometheus, the legendary BDSM magazine. In “Talmudic Laws for the Acquisition of a Slave,” Master Alan writes “What was Hagar’s relationship to Sarah? Was it an oppressive relationship based on terror—the kind of slavery that existed in the American South: slavery based on the whip? Or did Sarah and Hagar love each other? They spent their lives together.” With barely a line, Master Alan, who, I presume by his failure to mention race or to locate himself in a racial matrix, is at least white passing, skims past the history of violent chattel slavery that made the country in which my body and therefore my desires live, this place that made me. It is so easy and violent, desiring sex, to overlook history—yet the Jewish texts which give rise to Master Alan’s Talmudic interpretation were also used to justify the Atlantic slave trade[4]; reckoning with the erotics of enslavement means telling this story—and it also means not staying in it, not reifying it, not suggesting that this story is the story as it always must be. It means asking who is most pressed to bear the weight of history.

In “Consent, Control, Compassion, and Why I am Fucking Tired of Explaining Why ‘Race Play’ is Different From Racism,” Mollena Lee Williams-Haas, of the blog The Perverted Negress, writes, regarding Ciara’s music video for “Love Sex Magic,”

Black women […] are often expected to carry the weight of history such that even expressing our sexuality must be an act scrubbed clean of anything that might resemble non-consensuality. Furthermore, the idea that we are aware of and deliberately choosing to express ourselves as sexually liberated is fraught because we can’t possibly escape the crushing jaws of institutionalised racism. Any Black Woman who would agree to submit, as fantasy or even for a few minutes in a music video, must be a self-hating Negro who needs to have her Mama sit her down right now and talk some damn sense into her.

Looking to the Talmud, Master Alan explores the parameters of “consensual slavery”: “One does not acquire a slave simply by paying for her or, as in our society, by collaring her. According to the Talmud Kiddushin (Tractate on Marriages), a slave must perform a servile act such as removing the master’s shoe […].” Master Alan then goes on to explain that, according to the Talmud, in traditional heterosexual marriage, itself a form of property acquisition, the marriage is only made official if the penetrative sex that codifies it is consensual—and it may be either vaginal or anal.

Despite my disappointment in his writing on race and history, reading Master Alan’s explication of this process was exciting to me because it highlighted choice. It framed marriage as a practice of made, rather than imposed, meaning between two people choosing to bond to one another, but only if they agree on that bond, and on the sex that makes it.

*

Colonization is inherently non-consensual, which means colonization has no place in sex. And yet: here it is. Because colonization is everywhere, and sex exists (persists, resists) inside the culture that made it. Colonization reshapes borders and takes control of land, of the bodies of the people who live on that land, imposes its own narrative. A map can make official those nonconsensual borders and the violence they do, or it can show the contours of the land exactly as it is, with specificity and no judgement—perhaps even with care.

As Cavanaugh Quick put it at a workshop I attended recently,[5] I acknowledge the inherent contradiction in me, a non-Native person,[6] writing about decolonization from the stolen land on which I live, and where Haudenosaunee, Shawnee, Erie, Ponca, Osage, Seneca, and Susquehannock people (among others) were living long before my ancestors arrived on this continent. I do this work on stolen land to help do some healing in response to colonial violence in the place where I live, in the communities where I live; so much of colonization is tied up with sexual violence and nonconsent. Decolonizing sex means acknowledging that the history of colonization is ongoing into this long present.

The only colony I can liberate is my own body,[7] and my body is everywhere. I feel in myself a stranger’s heart across the street, the keening of a cut tree, the energy left behind by whoever was in this room before me. Borders are already false, but recognition of my particularity protects me.

Though I’m porous, I don’t mean that another’s touch defines me, or my sex. But it’s true that nearly all touch undoes me, I am that impacted—and that impactful, though I have trouble believing that my touch can do the same. Yet I fear my own capacity for accidental violence, for the way the culture expresses itself through my body.

Colonization is not just border-crossing, which can be generative and even life-saving; colonization is control by an ‘other,’ an exertion of power rather than simply a startling intimacy. So how do I avoid an internal colony, trying to control and deny myself—and that denial leaking across my borders to harm some other? In “Despisals,” Muriel Rukeyser demands: “Look at your own building. / You are the city.” Body as land, body as geography. So many cities have been my lovers, held me better than I could hold myself.

But it’s easy for me to be held by a city; I’m white.[8] Whiteness too maps on the city of my body. Dorothy Allison writes: “Maybe they have red-lined their erotic imaginations since growing up, but what made them breathe hard when they were girls?”

When I was little I called myself a girl, and a ballet about slavery made me breathe that kind of hard.

A production of Le Corsair on PBS, the free TV channel which made accessible the pretensions of the bourgeoisie. Adapted from a Byron poem, I learned just recently on the internet. At the time I didn’t desire to know history, or context. I only desired. And unknowingly, I desired history.

The plot goes this way: A pirate saves an enslaved maiden and in doing so redeems his lawlessness. All I remember, really, is the shackles and how my wrists ached for them, the derivative script I wrote on looseleaf paper and recruited my friends to rehearse with me at recess. I loved to exercise direction, but when the scarf wrapped around my wrist I lost not just the desire for control but the capacity for speech. As being bound affects me still.

Director and actor: the pirate and the maiden. White femininity lets me play the victim while running the show behind the scenes. This is still true even though I’ll never be a woman, something I already suspected as a girl.

White womanhood is the fear of being colonized and overtaken. White womanhood is that fear so loud and strong that those of us who marinated in it forget our power and blame an ‘other,’ not realizing the harm we do. Decolonization is recognizing that unilateral power and refusing it, building something relational and particular instead.

*

On Instagram, on Valentine’s Day, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha[9] reposted Dawn Serra’s words:

What if sex could be anything we wanted it to be that felt sexual and yummy? What if we could create sexual exchanges that honored our bodies and what we most wanted in that moment? […] Solo sex, partnered sex, group sex, sex without genital touching, sex without penetration, sex with toys, sex with pillows and ramps and supports […] sex over distance, sex in our minds, sex across time and space—none of this relies on a certain kind of body or a certain level of desirability […] We can use sex to connect, to heal, to move through pain, to ground us, to play, to have fun, to process stress, to experience touch, and we can also get alllll those things met without ever engaging in sex. That’s the beauty of what’s possible when we toss out the script.

A map can enforce violent borders, but it can also simply render the nuances of the landscape underneath. How do we find one another without defining each other, but by making something new between (including that sex which I make only with myself)?

This work doesn’t require the rejection of sex, but rather the rejection of scripts and imposition, and the choosing—or not—of sex with intention. It requires the decentering of certain acts as more sexual, or more legitimate, than any other—the decentering of any body, or combination of bodies, as more legitimate than any other. Williams-Haas writes “I absolutely understand that people perceive [race and consensual nonconsent play] as a dangerous slippery slope. I cannot help but wonder at how much more slippery it is for us to step out of authenticity. Is it preferable that we deny our core sexual desires for the sole reason that it ‘looks bad?’ How slippery is it when we, the casual observer, make assumptions about the self-esteem of the players involved in the exchanges we witness?”

*

Last summer the cisgender man I was dating[10] called me “the most cis” of my trans friends when I told him a story about an uncomfortably gendered encounter with a waiter at a Czech restaurant in Northern Ohio. His words hurt me, but I didn’t figure out how to say so until after the night was over, after I had swung my thighs over his and pooled wet in my underwear as his fingers teased the seams, melting with pleasure even as I feared that his mind might be calling me woman. And though it hurt, the truth was he had, partly, clumsily, named something real that I’m loath to admit: the shape of my body with its long hair and large chest looks like what the culture calls woman, and I keep being read that way no matter what else I change. But instead of rejecting him for failing to understand completely (and for telling a hard truth in the language he knew), I refused the colonial attitude that rendered him, as a cisgender man, absolutely oppressive or powerful over me, rejected the victim politics my learned white womanhood suggested, and instead opted for intimacy. When I told him how his words made me feel he heard me, apologized, and recognized my masculinity and the messy desire of my body; it was delicious. We talked late into the night on a low retaining wall about the pleasure we give and limits to the desires we ourselves permit.

Days later, I asked him if he might be willing to receive, despite his fear of monopolizing or claiming pleasure, and he wanted it as much as I did. I crawled down the bed, then his voice stayed the movement of my body: “Please—” he said. “Not that you’ve used any words for me, but they all feel terrible. What about just—between my legs?” “Between your legs,” I repeated, nodded, asked: “Can I use my mouth?” Mouth a body-word so much less fraught, one that for me means only and exactly itself. Unlike all the entrapping terms for genitals around which we moved together, this discourse of relation (mouth between legs) felt true and kind, not an objectification (a colonization) by naming, but a mapping in relation: yes, between. A relief: I was not alone in semantic discomfort simply because of my nonbinary gender. He knew language was a trap too, and by rejecting it he made clear that the specific want of his specific body was particularly, and reciprocally (not scriptedly), for me.

*

Recently, to make my borders stronger, I decided only to have sex with myself—not for good, and I still desire sex with others, more often than I can manage. But someone I’m sweet on asked me to have a conversation about making out after eight months of mutual crushing and long dreamy dates, and in opening to one another our fears about the way sex can create unmeetable expectations, can throw off kilter the most grounded and intentional relationship, I saw clearly the ways I have allowed sex to acquire unintended meaning and expectation between my partner and me.

I was treating sex as the barometer for the emotional health of our relationship, expecting it to operate at a constant, staking my social worth on the amount of sex I was having—which pressures my partners to want a certain amount of sex, or kind of sex, in order to legitimate me. And so we talked on the phone, and my partner listened, and I felt relieved: they wanted this pause too—not because they don’t want me, but because they want to be having sex because we both want sex, and not to prove some other thing. Which means I get to practice trusting that they want me and this relationship even when we’re not fucking, and by looking right at the ways I’ve used sex to make meaning, I am asking myself, too, to be gentle with the jealousy that arises in me when they have sex with other people, to trust that that sex does not say anything about how or whether they want sex and connection with me.

Some many weeks later, after a long pause from sex and a lot of conversation, my partner and I spent a strange and emotional night in a motel in western Maryland. I woke up to them holding me, and my body ached for their hands. They felt my wanting, but asked anyway, again and again. Like this? Is this okay? And moved their fingers so slow across my skin, caught up my mouth with their mouth. Was it sex? Not as I’d been taught to understand it. But I was present for all of it, and every moment, in that moment, felt true.

Decolonization means being in process. This is work unfinished and unfinishable because it means making specific meaning; it means being present to moments and dynamics and desires as they arise. It means taking account of history and not glossing over it. Whether done by people who shared our identities or not, violence permeates, and its symptoms express differently in the different bodies it occupies, with their different histories; some landscapes flood, and others turn arid. Decolonizing sex means not just undoing the redlines in our minds, but learning how they got there and making reparation according to the harm from which we benefit (and which also harms us in that benefit). Decolonizing sex means recognizing socially imposed meaning (what a body or a gesture symbolizes), and the mutual making instead of particular meaning between.

Further Reading:

The Revolution Begins at Home, ed. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions, eds.

Sandeep Bakshi, Suhraiya Jivraj, Silvia Posocco

Black People Kink podcast

The Perverted Negress by Mollena Lee Williams-Haas www.mollena.com, including this

list of Race Play Resources

Fucking Trans Women, Mira Bellweather

Trans Sex Zine Vol. 1 and Vol. 2

Learning Good Consent, Cindy Crabb

Fucking Magic zines, Clementine Morrigan

Linked: A Polyamory Zine, @daemonumx

The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, Larry Mitchell

Mistress Syndrome by Amanda Gross, www.misstresssyndrome.com

Notes

[1] Which is the way that disease looked on me; the poison of this culture is that only the eating disorders of skinny white women are believed; a person can be ill and starving at any size.

[2] This was excised from the original 1947 printing, and only later, and occasionally, put back in. From page 139 of the 1992 edition of Anne Frank; The Diary of a Young Girl: “I asked her whether, as proof of our friendship, we should feel one another’s breasts, but she refused. I go to ecstasies every time I see the naked figure of a woman, such as Venus, for example.”

[3] It was no surprise to me, but a tremendous relief simply because it’s so logical, to learn that, in Israel in the 1960s, there was an explosion of pornographic literature set in concentration camps and featuring Nazis in dominant roles; see Ari Libsker’s documentary Stalags or Michael J. Hoffman and Andrew S. Gross’ “Holocaust Pornography: Obscene Films and Other Narratives” for more.

[4] The descriptions of slavery in Exodus and elsewhere throughout the Torah were used by slaveholders in the Americas to legitimate their violence. For more see “The Bible, Slavery, and the Problem of Authority” by Sylvester A. Johnson in Beyond Slavery: Overcoming its Religious and Sexual Legacies (2010), edited by Bernadette J. Brooten and Jacqueline L. Hazelton and published by Palgrave MacMillan.

[5] Persistent Survival: On Transness, Non-Conformity, and Sexual Violence, hosted by the Fair Moans Collective with a grant from SisTers PGH at the Persad Center in Pittsburgh, PA, April 6 2019.

[6] And in my case particularly, as a white person and a settler.

[7] As much as my being or even my flesh is separate from any other’s. I am all virus and microbiome, all my speech a reworking of and reckoning with the poems others have planted in me.

[8] My Jewish ancestors became white by performing anti-Blackness, and I am whitest when (their) anti-Blackness benefits me. Whiteness, many have written, constitutes itself in opposition to Blackness, and then disappears.

[9] Whose writing on care, intimacy, disability, relationships, decolonization, identity, and sexuality have influenced me profoundly—especially CARE WORK, The Revolution Begins at Home, and Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home.

[10]I only mention his gender specifically because our respective genders were particularly relevant to the dynamic I’m describing in the essay. For me there’s often something a bit freer initially in sex with other trans people because we have to let go of certain social narratives just to get to a place of naming transness in ourselves at all (I am by no means the only person to write or say this), and I don’t want to objectify/unnecessarily categorize partners if it’s not relevant—especially because of the cultural fetish of speculating about what is happening between trans people’s legs.

More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *