I thought I might share some reflections on sexual empowerment vrs objectification. Its something I have had to think about a lot. Before I became more “gay culture positive” in trying to celebrate it and find meaning in navigating it and experiencing it personally I was more critical and uncomfortable with it. I went from being a gay out virgin for three years in high school, to founding an LGBT student org in college after breaking up with my first boyfriend, to doing a senior thesis on gay socialization (which focused on feminist issues such as sexual and body objectification) to finally really exploring the scene more personally like I am now not simply for activism or the gratification of researching issues that impact gay people, but for sake of just experiencing gay culture and getting more personally close to the actual gay experience beyond the work that surrounds it. This has been interesting starting from a perspective that had so much activism and academic research before getting dirty with the personal experience. A friend of mine (one of the guys I met during this process) talked about how in nursing school he learned all the critical thinking and those skills were undeniably essential to being a good nurse, but there are some things you are not quite prepared for in the medical field until you are actually experiencing it first hand. I think my experience with gay culture is the same. Because I have had the background with both activism and academic research I had some tools that helped me more critically consider the issues I have encountered and go a bit deeper than the shallow level of gay culture most people see on the surface (thinking that is all there is too it). Indeed without that background I would not of gone as deep as I feel I have gone thus far, nor would I have been able to navigate gay culture to find the right people I get along with and have generally positive relationships with (both sexually and platonically).
But there are some perspectives I would not be able to understand without first hand experience. We can theorize about gay male objectification all day, seeing the ads, social networking media, and generalizations of gay males we know in our social circles that talk about some of their experiences or suddenly become a muscle jock after getting more sexually mature in their gay identity. But having personal interactions with a larger network of gay men specifically as a gay male will give you a different perspective on these issues when you take the critical tools gleaned from queer theory and feminism and apply them to the personal experience as you navigate gay culture and develop friendships and interact with lovers and skirt the fine lines between the two at times.
From Activism, To Academia, To Personal Experience
Most people that knew me back in my LGBT organizing days would say I use to be rather sexually conservative, in every other aspect of my activism I was very liberal and proactive and outspoken. But I had not really hit a sexual awakening yet, any sexual interaction I had was with guys I had dated in the traditional heternormative model first, and I rejected advances that seemed to strong or fast. In fact most other gay men made me feel uncomfortable because well frankly, they made me face my sexuality. I was comfortable in defining my self as an openly gay man. I was comfortable being the public figure on my college campus representing the spectrum of LGBTQ students on campus and was generally quite popular playing that role. But yet sooooo sexually conservative. When the group wanted to go to the local gay bar after meetings I would just say I would catch up with them later. I would go out to eat with them, but would not go explore gay culture with them, where I might actually would be in the right circumstances to actually explore my homosexuality for once. Not that I didn’t do that in other ways, but it was in more conservative ways. With boys I perceived to be so called “nice guys” that I could date for a while without any sexual expectations and then establish a monogamous relationship with. Then that was the only moment I would open up sexually with a partner. So obviously with that kind of perspective and sexually conservative set of values, I would feel uncomfortable in gay space and would feel antagonizing towards gay culture where boys with their torsos on grindr, and their obsession with masculine beauty would make me feel uncomfortable. Where I would be in a space where flirting was more direct and blunt, I would feel “objectified.”
Going forward into college, and transferring out of community college to a university to get my bachelors was where I finally developed the thinking tools refined enough to really start facing my own bias and preconceptions. You can’t study the gay experience wholistically without studying human sexuality as well and being challenged to consider issues like slut shaming, and the normative mold of monogamy as oppressive. You can’t study the gay experience in depth without deconstructing internalized homophobia seeing that both in others and in yourself. I remember one activist I got to interview in my research who actually lived in New York during the early movements of the gay liberation and helped lead and organize it. He was inspiring, it was all about “destroying the mold.” So as my mental skills became honed with concepts like “heteronormativity” and “objectification” that took entire semester long courses to really comprehend and apply at depth, it expanded my awareness of social issues that extended beyond my personal experiences with gay identity (a problem many gay men are not aware of in themselves, when they speak about general gay issues they rely to much on a personal perspective that excludes a wider range of gay people, I certainly use to do that before my more academic exploration of the issues). That is indeed the point of having discussions about identities “I am gay, black, but also a trans male” that unpacks a lot of issues that one must be open to educating themselves on, how can you assume to know what that persons problems, and personal experiences are until you acknowledge their differences and face your ignorance towards it? I may know what it’s like to be gay, but black and trans? Even more so my personal expression of gay identity may not be the same as another’s, Gods forbid I create a normative expectation that my form of gay OUGHT to be how other gay people express themselves. The first step to knowledge is recognizing what you don’t know and perhaps even acknowledging the privileged molds you might fit into to not perpetuate oppression that is already in place.
All this to say I developed tools in this experience to not only empower my personal sense of gay identity, but to understand my personal gay identity and the general gay experience were different things. I had to learn how to look beyond my personal definition of what gay meant to me, and ironically in doing so being gay became a lot more important and meaningful because my identity was not simply my desire to have a romantic relationship with another guy, but it became a shared experience and an identification with a larger community, a common bond of celebration in our similarities, uniqueness, and diversity as well as our solidarity against normative oppression. This process of understanding a larger comprehension of the gay experience also created a mirror to deconstruct my own social conditioning. What in me was authentically me, and what was conditioned by homophobia, abuse, and heteronormativity in my past. A mirror I could only peer into when really focusing on developing connections and relationships with gay men exclusively (hence why I write this blog, hence why I passionately emphasize the need for gay spaces that are exclusive to gay men only, hence why I am strong about contesting even microaggressions that gay people truly do internalize if left unchecked and unchallenged).
Some Examples of Objectification…Just to Name a Few
So how does this all play into the differences of sexual objectification and sexual empowerment? Well we look at gay culture on a shallow surface and see grindr profiles with torsos, media ads with models that are highly sexualized, implications of a normative body image one MUST fit to receive social acceptance from the gay populace. We see gay clubs and bars that seem to center around go-go boys and normalized segregation of age and body types. We see all these things on the surface and think “objectification.” Which yes I agree, a lot of it is objectification. It is an exercise of homonormative molds. Here we have a bear bar which typically has men in there 30s plus, who go there because the twink bar has normalized males 18-29 who get creeped out with older gay men. When a younger gay goes to the older gay bar they feel like a commodity on the meat market the second they walk in the room and the preconception that older gay men are creeps gets perpetuated, then older gay men get frustrated because they feel desexualized by gay culture and stereotyped. While younger gay men become commodified and objectified in their sexualization which happens both consensually and unconsensually. Than older gay men sometimes get commodified by younger gay men because well they want money or if not they do authentically feel attracted to them because the concept of their maturity is a turn on and preferable to guys their own age who they feel bring to much drama and shallowness into their lives. But within all this power play of concepts flying back and forth riddled with molds, stereotypes, and objectification, it’s easy to get tired and frustrated with it all. All this I believe is a surface perception of gay culture, one has to go a bit deeper and look past the noise of the politics on the surface.
Sexual Empowerment is a Journey of Learning how to Navigate
Sometimes being sexually empowered is a good thing. Lets face it, heteroes have their drama too, but they have the privilege of society normalizing that experience into the fabric of their everyday lives, gay people have to put effort into finding exclusive gay socialization spaces to even open up the door to their sexuality. Which means having to learn how to navigate gay culture. Navigation implies that their is a terrain or a “map” if you will. You see different “places” and some of them will carry good experiences and others will not. To navigate that map is to know where you want to go and to know where you don’t. To do that though you have to chart it out, especially if it’s “uncharted” territory. For my fellow geeks think of “the hobbit” how Bilbo had to go on adventures and some of the places he went were magickal and exciting, others filled with danger and not so great experiences. At first in the book he was unsure of what he was being expected to do as dwarfs filled his house and a strange wizard brought news that disrupted the security of a life that was familiar and comfortable to him. But learned to appreciate the adventure in the end. It was an adventure that gave him a map when he was done that could inform the good places to be and the places to avoid and how to navigate that process. When we open up the door to our sexuality as gay people, especially if we are without previous sexual experiences in heteronormative society, and only begin to experience sexuality for the first time when we encounter gay culture, we begin to explore something we never got the chance to in high school. We never got to mature in the process of exploring what it was and how to navigate it…its uncharted territory. So naturally as we chart it out on our adventure, we see things that don’t make us happy sometimes, perhaps even that might be dangerous or harmful, but we might have some vitalizing and positive experiences as well. The more experienced with charting out the map we become, the more we know how to navigate around the boundaries we define and find the right places we want to be.
It is fun to feel empowered to embrace your homosexuality, to flirt some, to empower yourself to just go out and meet people…maybe even mess around some if you haven’t done that before. And there is more to gay culture then bars and what you see on grindr, there is an underground network of guys who know each other through navigating the scene themselves and social circles that form. Before you know it the more guys you meet the more guys you know, those guys know other guys and a social experience begins to form where you become more and more connected and more and more familiar with the network. You have more opportunities to navigate at greater depth. Some in that network are not without issues, but you learn the line between toxic social interactions and human beings that are good people with a few problems. If you are confident enough with how you define your boundaries and define what you consent to and what you don’t, than navigating aspects of gay culture can be sexually empowering. Because you create a network….a community of people that have compatible sexuality around you. It opens up the door to exploring things you don’t get the opportunity to do anywhere else, nearly as often. The really empowering thing is when you realize YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING YOU DON’T WANT TO!!!!! You are empowered with opportunities to explore your sexuality when you do want to when a “mutual interest” opportunity arises. I have had to define my boundaries with people before, yet that was also empowering, to discover the queer warrior in me that could say “no” confidently. I am personally responsible for myself and have the divine right to shape my own destiny so do others. I can define my own rules and my own experiences without relying on a mold or what others say to shape my fate. I also have the right to contest injustice when it happens, which it inevitably will. You can’t have a community or social experiences without drama and interpersonal conflict, I challenge anyone to show me a relationship that has endured a long period of time without SOME drama or conflict involved. Some may have less toxic and harmful drama than others, but conflict is there.
Sexual Relationships Involve Drama Sometimes…That too is Empowering
It’s empowering to be exposed to your sexuality and actually have to deal with that conflict with others who carry a compatible sexuality. Because now you have to learn how to communicate with someone you are interested in. You have to learn how to consider their perspective and be respectful so they might actually consensually WANT to spend time with you, while also being confident and secure enough to handle rejection well when it does happen. You have to explore different levels of relationships, some relationships are worth it, but they drain so much of your energy you can only handle them in small doses at a time and you have to learn how to negotiate that. Some relationships work so well naturally you can be around someone all the time and not get exhausted. Sometimes you may have more interest in someone than they have in you or vise versa and you have to learn how to navigate those boundaries respectfully. Sometimes you have to learn how to cut ties to someone because you realize they are toxic or simply just don’t work well with you and that too is something you have to learn….all these things become intensified when sexual politics are involved. I truly believe its empowering to engage that process and learn and grow from it rather than to stay at home watching netflix about people having that drama instead of actually experiencing it yourself. As a friend of mine said on my BlogTalkRadio show “queer spirits empowering the tribe”…”Drama is everywhere…you can meet someone just walking on the street who pisses you off….but if you let shit get to you…you become a hermit and never do anything.” Not that there is anything wrong with being a hermit, I go through hermit phases myself its perfectly natural and healthy to be a loner for periods of time. But to cut ALL people out of your life and never grow from navigating human relationships….is that what you really want? Especially never grow from actually having to engage your sexuality with people who are compatible with it.
I have told many guys. Drama is in any community you are a part of and the gay community is no different. The question you have to ask yourself is with any given drama or interpersonal conflict in a situation: does this cross the threshold of being toxic to well being? Is this something worth working with or not? Sometimes it is toxic and not just a human insecurity that the other person takes personal responsibility for, sometimes they become toxically codependent on you and suck you into something that simply is not worth it. Sometimes you do have to say “no this is not acceptable” and walk away. But sometimes it’s just a matter of learning how to negotiate your boundaries and learning how to communicate with someone. I truly feel that having to navigate gay culture and having a larger circle of people who carry a compatible sexuality has forced me to refine my social skills and become more confident in general. To be stronger with where I place my boundaries and learning how to negotiate that in human relationships better. Frankly until I had to face my sexuality with other gay people specifically I was a push over and not nearly as confident as I am now. That quality of greater strength and confidence gleaned from socializing with other gay men has carried over into other aspects of my life. With work, with public speaking, with other relationships I have in general. That’s not to say I am without insecurities, and anyone that is honest with themselves would acknowledge they are insecure about something in their lives…but in general I am much more confident as an individual for navigating gay culture because it put me in the correct circumstance to face parts of myself I would of never had the opportunity to in heteronormative society or with my very sweet and open minded but still very heterosexual (and not sexually compatible) friends.
Don’t Let the Reality of Objectification Stop You from Putting Yourself Out There
So while I agree objectification is bad, and we ought to call it out and have honest discussions about it. We also shouldn’t deny ourselves the uncomfortable but empowering experience of facing our sexuality. Go out and meet some boys, learn the nuances of sexual relationships. Learn how to be confident in your sexuality and how to navigate it as you learn your boundaries and define what you consent to. Also learn how to respect someone else, to learn how to negotiate building different levels of sexual relationships and how to respect the boundaries of the other and how they might define a sexual experience differently than you. Perhaps a one night stand is a good thing for those that deny themselves the experience of that, maybe a casual sexual relationship can be a healthy way to learn the process of respecting someone else’s boundaries and defining your own. Existing outside the normative mold of monogamy to see how sexual relationships can still be meaningful and rewarding without expectations or long term commitments is a perfectly valid and healthy thing to do. Not to say exploring outside of monogamy would imply you give up on it, or that monogamy is inherently bad, so much as to say its normative conditioning within us, bars us off from truly sexually developing in a healthy manor, negotiating and learning from sexual relationships organically without expectations or normative conditioning telling us what is right and wrong before we experience it first hand through a fluid process letting a connection grow organically to be authentically what it is. Sometimes a guy you go out with a few times and mess around with some is a perfectly healthy thing even if no long term commitment comes out of it. You grow, learn more nuances involving sexuality and relationships, and you might learn more about life by sharing an intimate experience with another person for a little while, and you ideally have fun too…what’s wrong with that?
At the end of the day our sexuality is sensitive, its wrapped in shame, normative social conditioning, opens up the doors to complex issues, and sometimes carries traumatizing wounds because of how common people silently suffer rape experiences. Objectification plays into the cause of many of these negative things, but lacking in a healthy sense of sexual empowerment is also a root cause of many of these things. We are in a broken world for many reasons, not the least of which is our unhealthy relationship with human sexuality. But I truly feel my socialization in gay culture ultimately has been very positive, I see the objectification for what it is and for that reason I have tools to define my boundaries and more confidently navigate gay space in a healthy manor. I also feel that having a space to face my sexuality with people that are compatible with it, to navigate having platonic friends and lovers and sometimes the grey areas in-between, was a very important personal experience I lacked for many years in my gay experience. Sure we all know there are things we don’t like about gay culture for thousands of reasons, I have refined that critique through academia down to finite points…I get that…and its important to point it out. Not to avoid gay culture, but to improve upon the social experience of it when we interact with each other. But in all seriousness we needn’t erase a sex positive experience that operates within a frame work of respect and consent, if you navigate gay culture the correct way, that is accessible and it can be a very healthy thing. It’s just a matter of learning how to find it and define that experience in how you “navigate.”