Is There a Democratic Potential of Cruising?

Jack Parlett seems to think so, given his piece in Boston Review on the topic. I do, too—or at least I tried to make the argument in the far fewer words I had in my 2021 piece for the Guardian. In this post, I want to do a few things:

  1. Summarize Parlett’s argument (and my erstwhile one)
  2. Point out its key limitations and shortcomings, bringing in some counterarguments
  3. Address those counterarguments and see about cruising’s role in a healthy democracy.

It’s gonna be a long one.

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1.
Cruising is shorthand for having sex in public with strangers. It happens most often in parks and restrooms. I should say men’s rooms, because most cruising (and most writing about it) is among men who have sex with men (MSM). Cruising among WSW must exist, but I know little of it. Cruising among heterosexuals is common as couples; they like to call it swinging, especially in clubs and parties organized around it, and the Brits call it dogging (a term I’ve always loved) when couples fuck in parks for an audience.

What does this have to do with a healthy democracy? If you don’t have time to go read Parlett’s piece, here’s a hasty summary. Cruising—among men in cities—has a long history of people extolling it, going back at least to Whitman. This history, Parlett writes, shows how cruising’s ‘not only, or even primarily, about hooking up, but about the communal power of eroticized looking, flashes of affinity that may not lead directly to sexual consummation, but are an important way of situating yourself within a shared community.’

So it’s about being out and being seen—not as an enemy, or even just another burden, but as a desirable object. That’s one key thing with cruising: the eroticization of being among others. Which leads to one key problem: not everyone on the streets gets looked at erotically. Flashes of affinity are not equally distributed.

Parlett does what anyone writing about sex in public (esp. in cities) is obligated to do: cite Samuel Delany’s watershed text Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which covers his years cruising porn theaters in the 70s and 80s, and the kinds of encounters and engagements he had with the men who did the same. The central argument in TSRTSB is that infrastructure affects superstructure (i.e., our settings/environments dictate not just how we behave there but our overall values), and that gentrification hurts democracy by promoting networking over contact.

Here’s how I summed it up in the Guardian:

Business and politics as usual promote networking, which is exclusionary and consolidates power within groups, whereas sex and the places we have it – not just bedrooms and sofas, but porn theaters, public toilets, cruising areas – promote contact, which fosters encounters across classes and groups, the writer Samuel R Delany points out. ‘Given the mode of capitalism under which we live,’ Delaney writes, ‘life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of goodwill.’

And what better will than wanting to help somebody come?

They cut that last sentence. They also cut an illustrative bit about my body wanting lots of sex with Dean Cain, an anti-gay conservative who stumps often enough for the NRA that my brain finds him pretty loathsome. But when he shows up in another Hallmark Christmas movie, my body again wants what my mind thinks it shouldn’t have.

This is the heart of the Cruising = Healthy Democracy argument: if we can openly acknowledge our erotic desires for one another, we can create the kind of communal bonds that can counter the divisiveness that online, politicized interactions promote. Or, in Parlett’s words:

[I]mplicit in even the most cursory cruising encounter is, in my experience, the shared admission of a vulnerability, and of loneliness, perhaps, an unspoken basis of the desire to come together. To cruise is, in its most basic sense, to tap into a community whose only logic is desire itself, even if this improvised grouping is far from homogenous, and rarely even harmonious. Like Delany, I have met people cruising whom I’m unlikely to have met otherwise.

Like Parlett, I have done the same. And I have been struck by it long afterward, how I just spent some very intimate time with a person whose politics I’m certain I’d abhor. As an abstraction—a ‘red state’ voter—I felt repelled from them, but as a man physically near me whose desire reflected my own, we two came together.

It’s beautiful, really. But it may not be the cure-all we writers are making it out to be.

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2.
One question is whether coming together (in both senses, but mostly the sexual one) can form the basis for a shared politics, which is similar enough to my third topic in the list at the start of this post that I’ll address it in Section 3. The other major question is whether cruising really is equally available to all.

Much of my thinking about this question came from a Substack post by the queer writer Brandon Taylor, where he writes about some recent essays decrying the popularity of gay novels that tend toward the sad and tragic, that tell stories which seem to twin queerness to loneliness. Taylor’s argument—i.e., these essayists are jealous of their targets’ successes—is witless and not worth reading. And coming as it does from such a titan in the literary world (Taylor interviewed George Saunders at an event in Brooklyn on the latter’s recent book tour, e.g.), the post reads like a lot of punching down. (Taylor’s also friends with Garth Greenwell, another literary titan whose work is often a subject of the essays at hand, which provides some context for why he’s writing.)

At one point, Taylor claims that these critics are writing from some unspoken white privilege:

I sometimes wonder what to make of these critiques from both the so-called TenderQueer squishy gays and the…I don’t know what to call them, but you know, the ones who read Marx and tweet memes online and listen to podcasts. Those ones. I wonder what to make of their alternating charges of too much sex, too little sex, too much drugs, not enough, etc. Particularly because the platonic homosexual experience over which they are scrapping in the representational field is ultimately a white, cis, and abled homosexual experience, no? Like, the mean internet homosexual socialists and the tenderqueer Heartstopper Tumblr goblins are ostensibly arguing over how the cis white gay male should be represented in narrative.

This is not the argument these critics are making, and you can tell because Taylor doesn’t take the time to cite any of them making such an argument. And anyway to believe that writing about joyful sex, queer happiness, queer communality, and so on depicts a cis-white ableist experience belies an ignoring (if not an ignorance) of the work and lived experiences of Delany, José Esteban Muñoz, Alex Espinoza, Brontez Purnell, and other queer writers of color.

While Taylor’s argument is a poor one, I cite it at length because his concerns of representation attend in how we talk about (joyful, affirming, empowering) cruising. ‘Cruising is often, though not exclusively, urban and gay,’ Parlett writes, but cruising can’t just be great for urban gay men for cruising to be great. For it to pave the road to a democratic Eden, it has to be equally available and beneficial to everyone. And for those of us writing about its potential, we need to keep in mind that only 27 percent of Americans describe their neighborhood as urban, meaning the majority of the public lives in rural and suburban areas. How does cruising work there, or how can it, given the different relationships rural and suburban folks have to public spaces, public transit, cultural diversity, etc.?

That’s one question—the question of geography—I’d like to see cruising utopians address more directly.

The other question is Taylor’s question of biology, of bodies. While plenty of writers have shown cruising’s not just for white men, to what extent is it available to fat men, or disabled men, or skinny men who don’t go to the gym, or older men? The kinds of bodies you don’t see in underwear ads.

Let’s call that the Capitalist Body, the kind of body engineered to spark arousal (I want that) and fear (What if I can’t have that?), an uneasy mix that itself is made to get you to buy something as a way to quell the unease. Any writing on cruising that focuses on being open to looks and glances will only alienate those non-CB folks whose bodies the cruising public is not looking at, and even actively turning from.

So desire is not meted out equally. But there’s a complication here with the CB. While CBs are popularly desirable, not all desirable bodies are CBs. I’m talking about there being many fish in the sea. I’m talking about whatever floats your boat. If you don’t find yourself with a Capitalist Body, you may have to look harder for that desiring glance from a stranger, but—the theory goes—in time, you’ll find it.

How, though? Short answer = trust. To explore that in more detail, we need to look more closely at the dynamics of a cruising moment, which brings us to part 3.

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3.
The cruising moment has a setting in place and time. Place = the Ramble, Buena Vista Park, what we back in Lincoln called ‘the Fruit Loop’, a stretch of 15th Street south of the Capitol that had a median, where MSM would circle in their cars looking for other interested car-circlers. Every cruising place was made for something other than cruising, but contains certain traits that turn it into a place for cruising. Remoteness. Lack of parents with kids around. A noisy door around the bend of a little hallway that alerts everyone in the restroom that someone is coming in.

Apps and websites may have made cruising places proliferate (you can now just look up where the active ones are in your town), but most of the cruising sites were activated before the Internet, and it’s noteworthy how they’ve persisted. You can’t advertise a cruising site. You can’t market it, or promote it. In this way, cruising sites belong to the commons. We cruisers have formed them together.

Cruising time = now. It’s stating the obvious but it’s important to our discussion. When you are in the cruising site, you’re looking for sex right now. You’re not looking to meet someone for coffee beforehand, or set something up for Friday afternoon when you have a half-day at work. Even when you cruise someone on the sidewalk, the idea is usually to go find a place right now.

There’s, thus, an urgency to the time setting. The cops might show up. Parents might enter this part of the park with their kids, or straight people might come walking their dogs, and start a campaign that’ll land you on the sex offender registry. We need to do this now.

That urgency often comes with a side of serendipity. Cruisers are patient. If you’re hanging out in a Home Depot men’s room stall, surreptitiously tapping your foot every time someone enters the stall next to yours, it could be an hour or two before that toe-tap gets returned. How many semis does the lot lizard loop around before finding one that opens its passenger door? It’s time-consuming, and so when your cruising signal gets returned, it feels a little like winning the lottery. We need to do this now because if we don’t, who knows how long it’ll be before another person shows interest?

Where I’m going with all this is that cruising place + cruising time affect desirability in ways very different from the commercial moment. What’s ‘a commercial moment’? Well, contrast public cruising with the bathhouse or hookup apps. These are (real, virtual) spaces that have been created (by the market) specifically for strangers to fuck each other, and so what you find in those spaces is the ongoing practice of consumerist choice. Which wear and wash of jean is right for your ideal image of yourself? In bathhouses and on the apps, the CB has a great time, and non-CBs have something else.

Indeed, bathhouses and apps re-engineer what its denizens value. When everyone is willing, willingness is no longer sexy. Shared feeling isn’t sexy. Whereas in public cruising, ‘hot’ is less about the visual package of the body in front of you and more about its willingness, its receptiveness to what you’re putting out there. In this way, the pleasure in cruising is often less sexual than … performative? If sex is about engaging with another body (or two or more), playing at being both subject and object during the encounter, then cruising is about engaging with the practice of cruising.

In other words, it’s not so much about I get to be with this person as it is I get to be doing this public-sex thing.

But if that’s the case, how on earth can that be the basis for a shared political understanding?

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4.
I didn’t expect to have a part 4, and I feel my argument is running away from me a little. So let me recap:

  • When cruising is framed as charged glances between (city) people, it’s hard to call it democratic.
  • When cruising is situated in non-urban spaces—i.e., truckstops, parks/trails, Kohl’s mensrooms—the practice becomes if not disinterested in CBs, then at least much more accommodating to other kinds of bodies and people.
  • Cruising’s settings retool desire in a way that makes the practice often impersonal, which is a difficult practice to form as the basis for political solidarity.

Public cruising values eagerness, readiness, willingness. It values the shared desire and luck of finding each other over the way each other looks. In this way, good (maybe we can even call it democratic) cruising practice calls on us to broadcast our availability. Cruising does the opposite of what this T-shirt does:

Cruising is a style or mode of moving through the world and engaging with it. It’s distinct from flirting, or being flirtatious, which carry more active notions of seduction and impressing oneself on others. Cruising puts one in a constant passive mode of open receptivity (it’s so queer/feminist!). In this formulation, you can cruise for anything, not just sex. You can cruise for conversation. You can cruise for help moving that armoire upstairs. Hitchhikers cruise for a ride.

Those forms of cruising involve looking to see what strangers can do for you. Cruising for sex is no different, except you’re also doing something for a stranger. Here’s Delany again, this time from his memoir The Motion of Light on Water, on what struck him the first time we beheld an orgy at the baths:

Whether male, female, working or middle class, the first direct sense of political power comes from the apprehension of massed bodies. That I’d felt it and was frightened by it means that others had felt it too. The myth said we, as isolated perverts, were only beings of desire…. But what this experience said was that there was a population … not of hundreds, not of thousands, but rather of millions of gay men, and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions, good and bad, to accommodate our sex.

There are more of us than we individually thought. The theory goes that this recognition is the beginning of shared politics. And more so: This thing I find essential in me, I also share with that stranger.

Now: heterosexuals move through the world assuming both of those statements are true. Heterosexuals know they outnumber everyone else. And they presume, barring overt signs to the contrary, that any member of ‘the opposite sex’ is likewise interested in hetero sex.

The only way I can see cruising being of use, then, to heteros is in countering the proud identitarian ways we try to form our desire around our politics: i.e., I’d never fuck a man who voted for D. Trump and so on. This of course is a lie. There are plenty of such voters out there that, without knowing their voting history, you’d want to have sex with.

It was the writer Conner Habib who first calibrated my thinking on this dichotomy, in a tweet years ago I can’t find. To paraphrase: Forming your sexual desires based on your partisan politics is a dead end; instead, form your politics from your desire and you’ll live a happier and more authentic life.

There are some problems with this formulation it’ll take another post to get into. (In brief: What happens when you’re aroused by authoritarian/domination imagery? What if your kink is race play? Desire and politics don’t sit on such a one-way street.) But it does intersect with the argument for the democratic potential for cruising.

Your sexual desire impels you toward people your mind might prefer to keep you away from. The sex-positive way to see this is to listen to and honor what the body wants. You don’t always have to obey the body, but I want to give my body equal if not more attention than I give my mind. The mind is a factor of so many influences and variables—shame is a big one. Is the body free from such influences?

Likely that’s another another post. But if we want a democracy from the bottom-up, We the people, then engaging with one another on terms—sexual or otherwise—we’ve come to on our own seems like the right first step on making that happen.

You Can’t Sexualize Children

In sixth grade, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, which is about a young boy in the Ozarks with two dogs. In the story, he gets in a fight with a neighbor, who falls on an axe and is killed on the spot. Later he watches a mountain lion kill one of his dogs. The other dog dies of grief. I remember WTRFG as being a Good and Important book, and I think I felt this because it was one of the first books that led me through grim deaths and how it felt to grieve somebody.

It was also the first violent book I remember reading. I was 11 years old, the sort of kid who avoided any fight I saw coming on the horizon. You could say, then, that WTRFG violentized me—if, that is, we had a word for such a process. But we don’t, because we don’t believe such a process exists, because we understand that since Cain slew Abel, the capacity for violence lives in every human body.

We don’t believe the same about sex, and children are worse off for it.

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As you may know, I’m on Substack now. The platform has an app for reading-on-the-go-toilet, and in looking for good Substackers I browsed last night around the Faith & Spirituality category, because I wanted some new ideas and there’s only so much I can read about books and literature. There, I found ‘Unashamed with Phil Robertson’, with a pic of one of the guys very carefully groomed a decade ago to make a lot of money on TV as part of the ‘Duck Dynasty’ franchise.

The post I tapped on had an irresistible title: ‘There’s Nothing Progressive About Sexualizing Children’. Phil talks about a public school teacher fired for showing her students ways to access books online which had been banned by their school district:

[F]rom what I’ve been able to determine, some of the e-books she made available for her high school kids to read were far from harmless. For example, a book entitled Gender Queer graphically depicts a character performing oral sex on what I will politely call a prosthetic male sex organ. […] Truthfully, I’m not shocked that we’re talking about some public-school teachers encouraging our kids to fill their pliable minds with moral filth. But I am saddened by it. I can’t think of a single good thing that could come out of hypersexualizing people who are only just beginning to blindly navigate their own sexuality.

My emphasis there. Gender Queer is a memoir-in-comics about a nonbinary adolescent. Phil is correct about there being a scene of a teenager going down on another’s strap-on dildo. What’s fun about the Gender Queer controversy is that it began in my home county of Fairfax County Public Schools, which initially banned the book after one mother got enraged in a meeting, but then reinstated it after reviewing the book’s contents.

To break down Phil’s argument, children are born asexual, and then in adolescence they begin—blindly, note—to become sexual (like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis I guess is the metaphor). This is a ‘natural’ process that happens booklessly, on their own. If a child reads a book that depicts other children ‘navigating their own sexuality’, that book has somehow adulterated this natural process of a child finding their own sexuality. The book has, thus, ‘sexualized’ what was not yet (ready to be) sexual.

Of course the argument can’t stand on its own, specious at every point. But the counterargument I need to stress here is that when Phil imagines children blindly navigating their own sexuality, he’s only imagining cis-hetero kids. Those kids are never blind to what has surrounded them: a culture of stories that repeat and affirm cis-hetero sexuality.

When Cinderella or Star Wars or Genesis fail to tell you stories about who you are, when even the story of your family is false to your lived experience, you grow up feeling shitty, wrong, and suicidal. Phil and the millions of parents caught in these false moral crusades have no fucking clue what this kind of adolescence feels like. If you can survive that adolescence, and if you’re a creative person, you feel impelled to make art that might fill the void you grew up in and help others feel less shitty, wrong, and suicidal.

That’s the progressive identitarian argument for queer books in schools. But I’m here to write about ‘hypersexualization’. You can’t sexualize a child anymore than you can sterilize rubbing alcohol. It’s already done.

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Not by porn, that is. A counterargument you hear often is that porn / the internet are sexualizing children far earlier than library books can. It’s (a) not necessarily the case with all kids and (b) just providing additional fodder for Puritans on censorship crusades. And it leads me to want to make a distinction between two notions of ‘sexualization’:

Sexualizing1 = turning a child into a sexual object legible as such by an adult
Sexualizing2 = initiating in a child a desire for sexual activity (i.e., ‘turning them into’ a sexual subject)

S1 is what right-wing folks are talking about when they use the word ‘grooming’—though as many have pointed out, what is posing as a warning about pedophilia and child trafficking is actually just old-fashioned anti-queer hate.[1] I’d argue that more grooming goes on in the apparel industry with the advent of the child-size bikini, or in the fashion photography industry. Shutterstock.com has 14,917 photos of ‘young child bikini royalty free images’ you would not want to be caught scrolling through at work.

S2 is what, I imagine, Phil et al. believe happens ‘naturally’ around the time that children start to discover masturbating to orgasm. Or maybe it’s even as specific as when cis-male children start to want to put their penises inside vaginas. Or likely it’s more innocent, as when cis-children want to hold hands and go on a date and maybe kiss a child of the ‘opposite’ sex.

S2 is hormonal and biological, goes I think the argument and the fact. But two things happen when we take a narrow view of what constitutes ‘sexual activity’:

  1. We fuck up the health and well-being of queer and trans kids.
  2. We blind ourselves to sex enough to create the ‘blind navigation’ Phil et al. understand.

If that’s what ‘sexualizing’ means, then what does ‘hypersexualizing’ mean? It means queer sex practices. That’s all. Queer sex in the duck-dynastic imagination is not another form of sex—with its own values, shapes, procedures, and paraphernalia—but something beyond sex, something outside it. A perversion. ‘Hypersexualizing’ is anti-gay bigotry as old as the fucking hills.

Which brings me back to violentizing kids. It becomes a foolish concept the moment you see a 2-year-old push another kid out of the way to get what they want. We can see that violence as being not just different in degree from shooting an AR-15 into a crowd, but different in kind and still categorize it as violence. Violence inheres in us, and we do our best to teach its proper place and time.

Sex inheres in us exactly the same way. When I played doctor with little girls, or dared boys to show their wieners, or rubbed the cup of my athletic supporter for a while before pulling up my baseball pants, or humped my dick on the mattress, or put little objects up my butthole and pulled them back out again—all before the age of 13—I was doing things with my body solely to make my body feel good, while also making my heart feel good about how my body felt good.

That’s being sexual. Your kids are doing it the way you did it. The fear of sexualizing kids is a Puritan ignorance of what sex is. If we don’t want our kids to enter adulthood blindly, learning what sex is from porn, let them have the tools they need to see.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. For further understanding of how conservatives stoke pedophilia fears to persecute gay men, read my series of posts on the Active Pedophile phantasy.

What Compassionate Hedonism Looks Like

The other night, a friend and I were heading to a happy hour hangout at one of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco—a detail I open with because this post is trying to understand some things about gluttony, restraint, money, pleasure, and virtue. We were equally wary and excited. ‘For the record, I’m dressed like I’m about to go mow the lawn,’ I texted her beforehand, and she said, ‘For what they charge they should give us clothes to eat in.’

They did not give us such clothes, but nor did they seem to sneer at my raglan T advertising a vintage jockstrap company. We ordered cocktails and talked of hedonism, my friend telling a story of someone at a writers conference who announced, amid a group discussion about bars and favorite drinks, that she felt ‘Othered’ as a person in sobriety. My friend wondered about the rise, lately, in sobriety / restraint / asceticism pleasures in the U.S. A related question: how much of the war against smoking cigarettes in the last few decades has been about public health, and how much about another victory for puritanism—defined loosely as the belief that the purpose of having a body is to keep it ‘clean’ and ‘holy’?

I imagine all of us have our own answers to that question. I’ve got a number of friends and former students who are sober, and I have every reason to believe they’re happier. I’m not any kind of authority on the reasons behind that form of doing without, but I am curious about some things that I’m here to try to work out. Namely:

  • What was the exact nature of the conflict between those people at the writers conference?
  • At what point do your habits, behaviors, and commitments become an identity you hold up alongside or against others?
  • In making heroes out of hedonists, in siding every time to the pursuit of pleasure and excess over restraint, am I indicating something of my overall values, or is it just because pleasure is easy and I can’t handle difficult feelings?

More nights than not, I drink more than the doctor-recommended 3oz of spirits. Am I drinking too much, or am I allowing myself a pleasure for its own sake? That seems to be the basis of hedonism, an ethos that seeks to maximize pleasure in its isolated form, meaning that the pleasures we get from donating our time or money to a cause we believe in, or the mild euphoria I feel after swimming a mile first thing in the morning—these are not the pleasures of the hedonist. These are ancillary pleasures.

Sometimes I feel this is the point of life: to ever increase one’s ongoing pleasure without causing increased pain in others. But pleasure has a cost. Booze at a certain amount does things to my digestive system I pay for later. All drugs and consumable vices carve themselves on the body in some fashion, and so we have the motto of temperancers everywhere: All Things In Moderation.

Temperance and moderation have its own pleasures, I imagine. But don’t feel. That is, when I provide myself temperate pleasures—when I say no to a(nother) vicious thing I enjoy—that pleasure is tinged with Good Boy status. I feel like I’m in school hoping for the gold star on my ditto. What I still, in my 40s, have not yet found a way to do is undertake and enjoy temperate pleasures for myself, and not for the approval of some (ghostly, but pressing) judge.

Hedonistic pleasures likewise carry a naughtiness to them. Oh this is really gonna piss my parents off.

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Let me change gears here.

Sex Addicts Anonymous has this phrase they use: Keep working your circles. It refers to the central understanding of sobriety in SAA. Sex is part of being alive, and so abstinence can’t look the way it does in AA, say. Much of the early work a new SAA initiate goes through with their sponsor involves sorting their sex practices and behaviors into two circles: the Inner Circle, which holds all the things they did that brought them to SAA, all the stuff they feel bad about after; and the Outer Circle, which holds all the sex stuff that makes them feel good.

This is a psychosis, and here’s why: Everyone’s circles in SAA are different. Hiring sex workers can be in one person’s inner circle, because it’s what brought them to SAA, while it’s in another person’s outer circle, because they feel ‘addicted’ to masturbating alone to porn, and hiring sex workers is a great way to engage their sexuality with another person. Sex with sex workers, then, is neither good nor bad, it’s something in SAA that causes some of its members shame.

AA has the chemical process of addiction to base its work around. SAA has the emotional process of shame. If shame marks the boundary between the sex you feel good about and bad about, your troubled relationship to sex will not be improved by stuffing that shame into a closet. Sorting your circles accepts that shame is an augur, a useful tool. Let me accept and trust my shame to better have the sex I want, says the temperate SAAer.

But why not accept the sex you want to have to better understand shame and its effects?

When I asked that question and saw in its answer a far deeper understanding and acceptance of myself, I left SAA.

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Another way of relating the above to the topic at hand: What does it take for someone to put every sex practice under the sun in their outer circle? (That’s the good one, confusingly; let’s just move on from the fact that SAA makes one’s ‘Inner Circle’ a thing to be avoided, bucking all idiom trends.) What happens to your identity after you dissolve the boundary, vis-a-vis your vice, between yes and no, have and have-not?

I said earlier that the point of life seemed to be increasing pleasure without increasing pain, and yes I see in that balancing act sneaky temperance waving at me, but I’m noting here the pain and harm side of all this. What makes hedonists chiefly gross figures in our myths? I’m thinking here of Des Esseintes, or Midas, or even Hedonismbot:

It’s likely a failure of my imagination this morning, forgetting some hedonists of humble means, but the key factor seems to be money. As I said before, hedonism costs—and more than the health and well-being of the hedonist’s hungover body. Vices aren’t free, and so the lesson we teach over and over again is that hedonism will lead to corruption as absolutely as absolute power. Decadence. Human trafficking. Hunting ‘the most dangerous game’.

A more everyday example is the city I live in. San Francisco—at least in terms of climate and landscapes, but also in terms of employment levels and social services—is a pleasureful place to live. For some. Creating and maintaining that pleasure requires a workforce too underpaid to afford to live among it, especially since San Francisco opted in on becoming a bedroom community for tech workers employed elsewhere. So when you go out to eat, there’s always the question of what has it cost the person who made your food for you to eat it at this price you’re willing to pay?

Which is why I was happy to pay the high prices at Che Fico, which recently added a 10% service charge to every dine-in check—paid in addition to, not in lieu of, the standard tip. Tips get distributed among the whole kitchen staff. Line cooks there reportedly make $72,000 a year.

Maybe there’s a thing called Compassionate Hedonism that continues to seek as its core ethos the increase of pleasure, but does so in a way that understands the sources of that pleasure and simultaneously minimizes any ancillary pain or harm. In this formulation, we can bring hedonism in among the other virtues, which—if you believe Montaigne—are found only through some form of pain:

[V]irtue presupposes difficulty and opposition, and cannot be exercised without a struggle. That is doubtless why we can call God good, mighty, bountiful, and just, but we cannot call him virtuous: his works are his properties and cost him no struggle.

from ‘On Cruelty’

So maybe hedonism is just another way we chase after holiness.

How Shame Works (& Doesn’t Work) on the Internet

When you feel that who you are as a person is not okay, shame is that feeling. Shame is the whole affect comprising the thoughts surrounding the feeling (e.g. ‘I just wish I could be less ____’), as well as the behaviors and habits that come as a result. Shame makes a person lie when the truth threatens to reveal values, beliefs, or attributes they find (or worry are) unacceptable in themselves.

Guilt does this, too. When asked, ‘Did you sleep with that person?’ the guilty adulterer says no. The ashamed adulterer, however, says no to the question, ‘Do you want to sleep with other people?’ Desires cleave to identity in the ashamed self.

This Shame 101 recap is helping me get at some thoughts I had while catching up on old New Yorkers and reading two pieces that addressed the ways shame works online. The articles covered the facts and events of episodes of online shaming, and they began to explore why they happened and what they meant, but something in their analysis felt off, or missing. I’m here trying to fill in the gaps.

But before I do that, let’s go back to that ‘okay’ in the opening sentence. A very good way to work through shame is to clearly define that ‘okay’ from your perspective, and then sniff out who defined it that way for you. Who or what set the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? Our society and its culture do this at all times (e.g., ‘Thou shalt not have a limp dick during sex’, ‘Thy BMI shall not be above this number’), and because we believe in the necessity of morals and ethics in maintaining that society, the question is what we do when someone crosses a boundary.

Too often, we shame. It’s a verb, too, unhelpfully. Shaming comprises everything we do (to others and ourselves) to induce the feeling of being not okay. Shaming goes beyond ‘you crossed a boundary’ to assert ‘you are bad at heart for having crossed the boundary.’

Here’s Dr. Zoidberg to illustrate:

*

Let’s look first at Becca Rothfeld’s review of two recent books on online shaming, one of which is written by a philosophy professor named Owen Flanagan. From Rothfeld’s review (my emphasis):

Because shame is a means of enforcing whatever values are operative in a given society, whether it proves salutary hinges on the merits of the moral system in which it is deployed, at least according to Flanagan. He admits that shame has too often been conscripted as a weapon against the oppressed—as when women and queer people have been encouraged to suppress their sexual impulses. Nonetheless, he calls for shame to be enlisted in the service of social justice, as it was when a concerted social-media campaign ejected the Hollywood producer and serial rapist Harvey Weinstein from power.

Shame can punch up, is the book in question’s basic argument. And shame sure can, but it should not expect results, which is how Rothman seems to conclude (again, my emphasis):

Shame, as Flanagan sometimes appears to forget, is an effective weapon only when it’s brandished against those who already inhabit a shared ethical universe. If politicians on the other side of the aisle strike Flanagan as shameless, that’s not because of any shame shortage but because they are not bound by the norms he favors. When Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, remarked that ‘anyone who denies the truth of what happened on January 6th ought to be ashamed of themselves,’ the Fox New commentator Tucker Carlson countered that she was the one who ‘should be ashamed.’ A mere increase in the total volume of shame in circulation would not result in the social betterment that [Flanagan] envisions; big feelings do not guarantee big changes.

She’s right, but I don’t think for the right reasons. Is shame an effective weapon to bring about change, even when brandished against those sharing our ethical universe? Spoiler alert: this writer says no way.

*

I, as versed in shame as anything in this world, can think of three ways one responds to shaming, self- or otherwise.

One: You shut down. Shame is very good at lying affirmatively about the self, such that when you feel bad about, say, how much you enjoy sweets, it feels like something as deeply innate and intractable as the shape of your genitals or smell of your armpits. Shame doesn’t allow for the fact that you’ve made (and can unmake) certain choices, or fallen into certain habits (and can climb out of them): shame convinces you that this is who you are. And it’s even more scarily good at convincing you that who you are is also easily ashamed, making you ashamed, again, of feeling ashamed, angry and disgusted at yourself for once again shutting down in shame, and thus begins a shame spiral. Down and down and down. It happens especially when you share the values of the people who are shaming you. They’re right about me. Jesus Christ they’ve found me out. Shaming is thus a very effective way to prevent even the possibility of change ever happening.

Two: You act out. There’s something that often feels deeply unfair about being a bad person, when you assume (falsely) that everyone around you is a good, or at least better, person. Like: why me? Why can’t I etc.? Compound this with the notion of intractableness above, and you start saying Fuck it. If I’m bad, let’s be B A D. Or, similarly, you fight back against the shaming with the assumption (again, false) that the opposite of acting shamefully is acting shamelessly. Like that ‘cash me outside’ girl. Or perhaps a more useful example is owning the libs. When you hear that who you are (i.e., poor, rural, conservative, etc.) is not okay, there is so much joy and liberation (often false, but the feeling is real) to be had in doing things that would piss off the people you believe have set the standard. ‘It’s really fun to see the other side lose,’ is how professor Khadijah White puts it, in this NY Times article about D. Trump’s fans being less in support of him than aligned against his critics. White is speaking about the pleasure in doing things that don’t help you, and may even harm you, as long as they trigger the outrage of those you feel are trying to shame you.[1] This is a trap just like the spiral above; in acting out, you double-down on the thing you’ve been shamed for (or felt ashamed of), and so good luck effecting change.

Three is where you understand you’ve been shamed, and little if anything true about you has been said, so you move on.

(Three is like a superpower I’m writing a whole book to try to acquire.)

*

Let’s look next at this profile of Orna Guralnik, the star of Couples Therapy, a show I’ve never seen before and would personally only ever want to watch the homosexual segments of. Toward the end, the article mentions one couple, Annie and Mau, the latter of whom became something of a villain:

[Mau] insisted that his needs were not merely straightforward but rational, normative. He considered sex to be a daily necessity. He had been displeased with a birthday orgy that Annie had planned for him and, after Annie said that he disrespected her, responded with sophistic, “I’m sorry if you feel that way” reasoning, resisting Guralnik’s interventions at every turn.

Here we have a shameless man, or a man about whom many would say he oughta be ashamed. Whether Mau has worked through shame toward self-understanding and -acceptance—or whether he’s just a dick—I can’t say. My guess is he’s a dick, but I was surprised and then somewhat enlightened when the reporter asked Guralnik about him:

‘I actually enjoyed working with him a lot, even though he wouldn’t enter my field,’ Guralnik said. ‘I really respected him. People became kind of obsessed with ragging on him. It was a little upsetting, actually.’

I’m trying to get at the place where her respect is coming from. I think it lies somewhere between stubbornness and self-esteem, or between assertiveness and arrogance. Maybe it has something to do with being a clear communicator about your needs, no matter how outrageous or unfair they may seem to your partner. Or to Reddit, which the article reports went apeshit over Mau and started a thread called ‘Somebody smack Mau please’. They called him a dick. They diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder. They shame-hated on him so much that Mau appeared on the thread in an attempt to explain himself, which you can imagine how that went.

Well you don’t have to. Mau wrote that he’d wanted, on the show, ‘to express complex and interconnected dynamics’ and Reddit called him a dick. Mau then deleted his post and moved on. In the moment of his online shaming, he took option no. 3. And nothing, in anybody involved, changed.

*

The most useful metaphor I’ve come to in trying to express what shame feels like is a hall of mirrors. (I’ve written about this before, in a post about shame spirals and how to get out of them.) Well it’s like a hall of those warped, distorted funhouse mirrors that make your body look funny. In shame, all you can see is various distortions of your self. You’re too fat. Too slutty. Not smart enough to publish with the intellectual big dogs. Not enough of ‘an alpha’ to pull off’ that jacket. Too lazy etc. etc. You turn away from one image and another is there to lie to you again about who you are. Key thing: that’s all you can see. There’s nothing else in a shame spiral but ‘You’ ‘You’ ‘You’ ‘You’.

The way out of there is Somebody Else Somebody Else Somebody Else Somebody Else.

Acting shamelessly is not the way out, because you’re still bound by shame’s grip—the way wearing an HRC ‘Make America Gay Again’ hat [JPG] is not a form of #resistance because you’re still agreeing to use the tyrant’s language. People who act shamelessly often have fun, but rarely have the best perspective on their actions, and those actions’ consequences. Shaming them usually just adds more fuel to that fire.

Consider instead being a flat mirror, a more accurate mirror, reflecting what the other person is doing. This is Psychobabble 101: When you do X, I feel Y. A cliche because it works. Or doesn’t: Mau on Couples Therapy likely heard a lot of mirroring statements, if Guralnik is as good as the profile said. He likely clearly heard her and Annie, didn’t get defensive or act out shamelessly, and he likely didn’t care enough to change or do anything about it. The shock of that may hurt deeply, especially if you love the person, but you’ll also be getting a clear message of your own: I don’t share your values. Best to understand that’s often going to be the case on this overstuffed planet, and move on.

Maybe a better construction is When you do X, you hurt mostly yourself in this way. Take it from a person who nearly lost everything at his most shameless: being shown how your actions actively impede your goals and dreams is highly effective in starting the path toward change. There’s nothing kicky or fun about this kind of talk. You get no points in ‘owning’ anybody. But of course we know that. Shaming is always less about effecting positive change in the shamed than in helping the shaming self feel better. Another funny trap.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. And when you, on the ‘other side’, perform the intended outrage, this is Feeding The Trolls 101. You don’t feed the trolls. You should not expect positive results from anybody when you get on Twitter and feed the trolls.

On Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl

I’m late to this book. I was early to it, having picked it up in 2018 (in the original printing!), but I couldn’t finish. The novel, as I wrote in a blog post on abandoning books, was ‘about 80 percent “hanging out at bars” and I couldn’t get engaged in the book as anything other than a remarkable tour de force.’

I don’t know what I was thinking.

Andrea Lawlor’s novel—about a boy named Paul who can transform his body’s size, shape, and even sex organs—is the queer narrative I’ve been looking for for ages. I want to try to figure out what changed, within me as a queer and/or a reader, that made me so grateful to be reading a book I had very little patience with 4 years ago. I always knew I would return to it (the reviews alone, from friends and the literati, suggested it was better than I was seeing), but I figured I’d do so as a bit of homework, housekeeping. Okay, I read it and I get why everyone loves it.

Instead, I’ve now read it and I need everyone to understand why it’s great.

*

‘Paul was never very good at having friends. If he liked someone enough to get to know them, he’d want to suck their cocks or even just make out after weeks of prolonged staring. That might be his favorite.’

Paul Polydoris is full of doubts about who he is and who he should be, who he should be with, what he should be doing with his life, etc.. He’s a very classic post-teen except when it comes to sex, about which he has few if any doubts. Paul is ‘good at sex’ in ways that have nothing to do with prowess or maneuvers in bed, and everything to do with knowing himself and what he likes or wants to try and not feeling ashamed about it. Here’s a passage from when Paul takes the titular form of Polly at Michfest:

Paul was naturally curious about girls; he didn’t know how to find a boyfriend; and sex was sex, he thought. Later, other gay men would find this remarkable; they would make their endless fish jokes, or confess proudly their inability to get hard with some cheerleader. Paul didn’t understand that. What was sex but newness? And sensation and conquest and intrigue and desire and romance and fantasy, and specific people sometimes, sure, but not always. Having sex with Heather Federson had been hotter than sucking off the fourth guy he’d ever gone down on. Not as hot as the first three, the newness there trumping their less-appealing qualities. Fucking Heather Federson had been scary and dangerous and even humiliating, and he’d felt brave to do it and protective of her and scared of her and all of that was fun, right? […] She didn’t love him either, and wouldn’t. She was proving something on him too. Boys were harder, easier, more dangerous, and mostly Paul just wanted them more, but something was better than nothing, when it came to sex, and always, always he was curious.

Note the line ‘other gay men’—one of Paul’s many gifts is his ability to stay himself (a gay man) even when he’s fucking his girlfriend with his girl genitals. In Paul, the bounty of queerness multiplies and shifts as his body does, or his whimful desires do. He’s a total hero to me in this way—not in that I wish I could also have female genitals to explore lesbian sex with, but because Paul doesn’t let any categorical identity dictate his choices and desires.[1]

I can’t tell you how good it feels to read a novel about a queer character who just likes sex, and in liking sex acknowledges the reality of HIV (this story is set in 1993, by the way), but for whom sex doesn’t become a question of identity, destiny, or self-worth. It feels revolutionary, but maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong novels lately….

*

Another of Paul’s gifts is having grown up in thickly queer circles, which has given him sharply hewn opinions on art and aesthetics. Before I get to some examples, and why I love that the novel makes room for them, I want to first point out how remarkable this is. There are plenty of novels about gay men—going all the way back to Giovanni’s Room at least—that stick their protagonists in relative isolation. These novels tend to be tragedies, and even humorless ones,[2] which I’ve always found strange given how funny gay people are. When you yourself are a queer kid in isolation—no queer friends, no clubs at your school, etc.—these novels seem to affirm the lies you can’t help tell yourself (well, you’ve picked them up from the air around you): your difference is going to be painful, and likely leave you loveless, if you don’t commit suicide by the end of your short narrative.

Here are some representative passages I marked:

[Paul] crossed the street and used all the change in his pockets to buy two Boston cremes. He leaned on the counter, eating his donuts out of the bag. Paul liked any food that exploded into his mouth: grapes, Freshen-Up gum, soup dumplings. There was something pleasing, something orderly, about swallowing a mess.

[Paul’s friend] Jane was alternately drawn to and horrified by Darwinism, and often found herself attributing phenomena to the unseeable (hormones, pheromones) despite her strict identification as a social constructionist. This was one of her sore places. Was biology destiny, in fact? That might really fuck up not only her identity but her dissertation.

He ostentatiously returned [Patti Smith’s] Radio Ethiopia to the rack…. He made it to the shop on time, took the key from Madge, the owner, who was off to scout rural Salvation Armies. Paul settled into the big leather chair to think, because no one bought expensive snap shirts before noon.
Patti Smith—why was she such a genius? The cover of Horses was tacked to the shop wall. He tried to imagine the day Mapplethorpe took that picture, what Patti Smith had been thinking. He wished he had a cigarette. He thought about the smell of piss baking on the August streets of the East Village. he imagined drinking Patti Smith’s piss, then Robert Mapplethorpe’s. Then Jean Genet’s. Then River Phoenix’s.

This was the stuff that I think originally made me put the book away. Nothing was happening. Paul didn’t want anything specific, and there was then no clear obstacle to get in the way of that pursuit. Etc. Etc. But lately I’ve been looking for queer narratives that are queer in form and not just in the characters involved—which, when they perpetuate ancient narratives about queer sex as tragic or disease-bringing, or even worse, when they mirror Austen-style love & marriage plots but with gays!, makes me think of the inevitable season of The Bachelor that’s the exact same show but just with men.[3]

I think I’m done with queer representation inside hetero forms. Lawlor’s consistent trust in association, digression, and tangents (best illustrated in the Patti Smith passage above), delivers a narrative as fluid and shifting as Paul’s body. The engine that drives whatever plot is here involves moods and ideas, and in this way it reminded me of maybe the queerest novel I’ve ever read: Huysmans’s À Rebours.

If you’re looking for a good story in the classic sense of plot and pacing and resolution, PTTFOAMG will disappoint you—as it did the me I was in 2018. But if what you want in a novel is to transport you into a body and a mind you can live inside for a while, and read their world through that perspective, this novel is for you. It’s for everyone. I’m so glad I returned to it.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I know I’m not getting very deeply into the explorations and arguments about gender this novel pursues, mostly because it’s not exactly my beat and others have already written more smartly about this than I could. But here I do want to point you toward a really smart essay Lawlor has in Mutha on becoming a parent and seeking a new term for themselves.
  2. I’m thinking here of Lie with Me, A Little Life, most of Garth Greenwell, likely other renowned novels I as a gay man do not need any more of (but which I’m also not sure I’m the intended audience for, which is a post for another time.)
  3. Oh wait, Logo already did this, alas.

I Woke Up in Santa Monica Feeling Depressed

I woke up in Santa Monica feeing depressed because I read that my fellow San Franciscans elected to recall progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, after millions of dollars from fearful white conservatives told them to do so. Those of you who don’t live in the Bay Area who are reading this, when you hear a conservative lament ‘liberal San Francisco’ or however my city gets used to scare the base, they are trolling you.[*] San Francisco is to our conservative country what Mardi Gras is to shoring up the Catholic Church’s authority: a sanctioned, boundaried exception that proves the rule.[†]

Readers of this blog will likely be tired now of my complaints against recall elections. Twice this year, ultra-wealthy people bought recalls to remove progressive public officials the people of San Francisco elected. And twice now they’ve won. I fear a field day is going to commence; the same 60 percent of voters who recalled Boudin also refused to pass Proposition C, which would make undemocratic recall elections more difficult in the future.

San Francisco might be America’s brokenest city, and in true American fashion, most of us have been led to believe that the free market will fix things. And any time we try to vote in a progressive, the money will come storming in to remove them as swiftly as possible.

*

I’m now drinking my coffee and trying glad to be out of there. I don’t know how well Santa Monica works as a city. My assumption is that plenty of people who need to work here can’t also live here. Of the top 15 cities with a greatest income inequality gaps, California holds 7, which indicates we need to have broader conversations about the extent to which my state is a progressive one. We have some pretty good laws, mostly that protect liberties, but given the enormous numbers of rich people in this state, we’ve got a ton of laws that protect property and wealth. California can’t pass statewide rent control. We can’t pass single-payer healthcare. We struggle to maintain a ban on assault rifles. I’m proud that we openly present ourselves as a sanctuary—to migrants and refugees, to women in terrorism states seeking safe abortions—but what kind of haven can we offer such people once they’ve come here?

At any rate, I’m here for 3 weeks, and then for the Fourth I fly to Omaha (like its Rust Belt/Midwest neighbors, one of the least unequal cities in America), and between then and now I have a chapter of my book to finish. In a whole book that fills me with shame at every page, this chapter might be my shamefulest. It’s a time that calls for something of a retreat from the world, from the disappointments of my fellow voters, and from the (imagined, I know) chorus of judgemental, right-thinking upright literary citizens who will be disgusted and dismissive of this memoir I’m compelled to write. (Or worse: silent and uncaring.)

Today I put them all away. If you’re reading this blog, I imagine you might want to read another book from me, and I know you’re real and out there. This month, I’m writing to you, and I thank you for being there for me.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Kinda. San Francisco is as neo-liberal as they come, given the priority put on money, not taxing corporations, and maintaining the status quo. And let’s not forget this city is represented—still, for God’s sake still—by Nancy Pelosi.
  2. This idea is Lewis Hyde’s, from Trickster Makes This World: ‘The stock anthropological and literary understanding is that carnival celebrations, despite their actual bawdiness and filth, are profoundly conservative…. Mocking but not changing the order of things, ritual dirt-work [i.e. Folsom, ‘In This House’ signs, anti-Trump candidates, etc.] operates as a kind of safety valve, allowing internal conflicts and nagging anomalies to be expressed without serious consequence. If everyone secretly knows the Pope is not perfect the secret can harmlessly endure if once a year, for a limited time only, the people make a fool of the Pope.’ Whereas Mardi Gras is a temporal carnival, San Francisco is a spatial/cultural one that helps mask the country’s deep conservatism. Las Vegas (‘What happens there stays there’) does similar work on the notion of everyday greed and gluttony.