A recommendation and a related random thought on sex and gender

Content warning: potentially NSFW for some values of W.

Today on my commute I listened to a great podcast episode from CBC Radio 1’s Ideas called “Not with the Eyes” (MP3 audio). In this episode, Ideas producer Philip Coulter moderates a discussion at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, between a psychoanalyst and a Shakespeare scholar about gender, and how conceptions of gender differ (or don’t) between our place and time and the Elizabethan England of Shakespeare’s day. All of the participants seem to get confused a bit between gender identity and sexual orientation, but the discussion is very interesting and draws some surprising parallels between our (supposedly “liberal”) time and Shakespeare’s (“repressed”, at least in the popular view). I highly recommend this podcast despite the confusion; Ideas episodes remain online for only a few months at most, so grab it while you can. (And Canadians, please ask your MPs to support the CBC.)

So here’s the “related random thought”: One of the ideas that the panelists bring up is this notion of “performativity” — and in particular, that when an act is understood by the viewer as part of a performance, it is in a sense “defanged”, losing some of its transgressive power. And one of the things that made me think of (because my mind works in strange ways) is the existence of porn stars who present as, even profess to be, totally straight, but are perfectly willing and able to perform in gay porn for money. Some even will admit to enjoying it, all the while insisting that they are “really” straight (“yes, I’ve told my girlfriend, she’s OK with it”). There’s an awful lot of comment that assumes that these are inherently contradictory — and that the actors (we’re talking about male actors here; female porn actors are just assumed to be bisexual) must be somehow “really” gay or bi, and just “in denial” about it. (“As if there were something wrong with that”, one might say, but there’s still more than enough stigma to go around, especially in the places many of the non-American/Western-European porn actors come from.)

But maybe we should take them at their word. Maybe, to put it more generally, the problem is that our society — which is still coming to terms with the concept that not everyone is straight — conflates two different kinds of orientation: physical orientation (who one might desire/be aroused by/be able to perform with sexually) and emotional or relationship orientation (who one might form lasting emotional bonds with, desire a long-term relationship with, or marry). These need not be identical: one can desire to have sex with (some) men and still feel a strong emotional attachment to or preference for (certain) women. While these are usually positively correlated, the correlation isn’t perfect. And we know it isn’t perfect, because there were and are cultures in which sex — particularly gay sex — was/is understood as a different kind of thing entirely from the sex which binds partners in a relationship. Clearly, at least some people, at some historical moments, are able to distinguish sex-as-play or sex-as-ritual from sex-as-procreative-act, and don’t necessarily have the same preferences in every context. (And that’s just talking about humans; let’s not get into the bonobos, OK?)

This is particularly relevant to my own personal experience: I identify as bi, I’m beyond doubt attracted to (and aroused by thoughts of) both men and women, but in terms of the sort of long-term relationship I desire, it’s just as definitely opposite-sex and with at least the potential (perhaps not to be realized) of procreation. (Which is not to suggest that I would be totally averse to more complex relationships — but finding one unicorn is hard enough, finding two or three is ridiculously unlikely, so I leave that to the realm of fantasy where it belongs.)

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