It’s Valentine’s Day today, though since I outgrew doll teaparties I’ve never been big into the celebrations. But I’ve been mulling over a recent post by Dan Savage on differential desire, sexual identity, and relationships and I thought this was as good a day as any to write a post about how we form affectual bonds and how we think about what I like to call the “realm of possibility” within our intimate sexual relationships.
Hint: I’m a fan of making the realm as wide and deep as possible!
I’m going to begin this post with an admission/disclaimer of where I stand on sex columnist Dan Savage’s professional work and public persona, since I know he’s a figure who tends to excite controversy within the feminist blogosphere. I have an ambivalent relationship with the work of Dan Savage. On the one hand, I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed his books about adoption (The Kid) and marriage (The Commitment). I also think that his “It Gets Better” project, while flawed, has a fairly decent impulse behind it and has encouraged a lot of positive, high-profile discussion about what it means to live life as a queer adult.
On the other hand, his advice on sexual matters in other peoples’ lives leaves a lot to be desired. He can be harshly critical of people who aren’t interested in the same kind of sex, for the same kind of reasons, as he is or thinks they should be. He privileges people with “normal” and strong libidos and disparages folks who either struggle with libido issues or are less interested in sexuality than their partners. He privileges physical appearance and people who conform to our social expectations of beauty and health. He’s suspicious of bisexual and fluid folks and often shows a pretty deep lack of understanding when it comes to lesbian sex or female sexuality in general.
Sometimes I find this irritating. Sometimes it makes me feel a little stabby. Often, I just ignore it. But my friend Minerva sent me a link last week to a recent “Savage Love” letter of the day in which he responds to some responses to a recent column on asexuality. And since I read his response, I’ve been thinking about how his vision of human relationships really just makes me sad.
Like all the bisexuals who write in to complain about how badly they’re treated by straights and gays but never seem to entertain the possibility of dating other bisexuals (which would spare them the grief of dating all those awful, terrible, no good monosexuals), this self-identified minimal hadn’t entertained the possibility of dating other people like him, i.e. other minimals, which would spare him the grief of dating a normal and spare normals the grief of dating him. He said he was a regular reader of my column—and, well, the problems of mix-matched libidos come up in my column all the time. So NSNA’s failure to realize that he could avoid the normal problem entirely by dating someone like him seemed like a bit a willful obtuseness that required slapping out.
So in some ways, this paragraph is just begging to be critiqued on a right-there-on-the-surface level. I mean, “Normals”? “Minimals”? Are we going to have to start wearing stars on our bellies so we can easily keep to our own kind? But there are two observations I want to make about the wrongness of this argument he’s making, both of which run a lot deeper than language choice.
First, let’s consider this: “ bisexuals who write in to complain about how badly they’re treated by straights and gays but never seem to entertain the possibility of dating other bisexuals.” What he’s doing here is arguing that people who write and point out the prejudice of one group (those who identify as either entirely straight or entirely gay) should just … stick to their own kind. This completely evades the question of bigotry toward certain groups of people based on their sexual identity, placing the burden upon those who are speaking up about discrimination to basically lump it or leave. “You’re experiencing suspicion and hostility from people? Well, go hang out with folks who are just like you and all will be well!”
Um … what? Haven’t we established that segregation does not solve issues of inequality or combat harmful group stereotypes? Isn’t blaming the person who’s the subject of hostile stereotypes for hanging out with the wrong people completely missing the point and letting some fairly prejudiced folks off the hook here?
Second, he appears to be arguing that the best way to end relationship suffering is to end relationships in which there is difference. This is basically the flip side of “stick to your own kind.” The basic message of the paragraph I quoted above is this: You want to be happy in your sexual relationships? Well, find someone who is just like you. Maybe he was just trying to say, “find someone with whom you’re sexually compatible,” but if that’s what he meant his definition of “sexually compatible” is pretty damn narrow.
Which is when I start to feel incredibly sad. Because where, in this prescription for satisfaction in one’s sexual relationships, is the encouragement to explore our capacity as human beings to appreciate one anothers’ differences and find inventive, joyful ways of being sexual together. Without being the same. Without being identical … in our sexual identities, sexual styles, sexual pleasures. Because where would that end? Sure, I happen to be partnered with someone who, like me, swings both ways but seems inclined toward women overall … and me in particular (hooray!). But just ’cause we’re both bi doesn’t mean she’s going to be into the exact same flavor of sex I am — or might be on some days and not on other days.
Being bi is no guarantee that you’re not uncomfortable with your sexual identity or anxious about your lover’s identity. Just like marrying someone who’s the same race as you are doesn’t solve all race-related conflicts you could potentially have in your relationship. And being in a relationship with a woman is in no way an innoculation against misogyny and sexist expectations. It’s grossly simplistic to suggest that someone who identifies as [insert sexual identity of choice here] will be most relationally compatible with other people who also identify in the same way.
Which is actually where I find the biggest fucking hole in Savage’s argument: the HUGE glaring reality that we often fall in love with and form affectual bonds with folks who are not from “our tribe” (however we define that). We are, in some measure, drawn toward difference. And sexual identity is not the be-all and end-all of identity. It’s just one piece of it. So his suggestion that folks who “complain” (again: minimizing the actual prejudice against fluid sexuality that exists in our culture!) stick to their own just ignores the fact that we don’t exactly choose with cold rationality the people with whom we fall in love.
If I were in Savage’s position as a sex columnist with a big fucking platform, I’d be doing my best to encourage exploration, empathy, imagination and joy at the myriad varieties of human sexuality … rather than pushing us toward some sort of world made up of insular cells inhabited by folks who associate and form intimate bonds only with others who are exactly like them. Way to hold the bar low, man.