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Critical Theory at the Sex Party

Queer people are marginalized, fetishized, and most recently, tokenized by mainstream society. Queer people, especially queer Disabled people and queer people of color, are among the most vulnerable to the ills created by late-stage capitalism. Liberation must start from the needs of the most vulnerable. Queer liberation must therefore be a critique of social structures that alienate people from agency in their lives.

Sexual desire as a critical faculty

Queer people don’t want monogamous lovers, nuclear families, gendered sex — we don’t want what society tells us are appropriate ways to live, love, and fuck, and we are margnalized because of these differences. Opting out of, and being barred from, standard social narratives means that queer identity simply is a challenge to those narratives. Queer sexuality and identity gives us space to question what kinds of desires and relationships are natural and valuable, and about what success means.

Exploring desires and ways of relating that are not part of the standard heteronormative and homonormative is a way to illuminate a better future for ourselves. More valuable still is demonstrating these pleasures and being vectors for queer values; offering a glimpse into a liberated society.

In a world that marginalizes us, promotes violence against us, and creates narratives of success and happiness that exclude us, taking pleasure is a radical act. Queer sex parties are places where radical expressions of pleasure and joy can happen not despite our societal alienation, but because of it. They are also places where we can find out what the practical implications of our values really are, and how it feels for us to live in accordance with them.

Red Queens

In biology, the Red Queen hypothesis is about maintaining a steady predator-prey balance by both predators and prey constantly adapting to the other. For us, we are in constant danger of being consumed too.

If we want our bodies and lives to offer critical alternative to the standard straight world, we have to avoid the recuperating vortex of consumer lifestyle capitalism. To avoid being turned into a lifestyle and reduced to a series of product purchase choices, we have to constantly move away from the “cutting edge” of mainstream culture. One way to do this is to move towards ever more disturbing, shocking, queer territory in our lives and the way we organize our communities. The right way for a person in straight society to react to the shock of the queer is laughter or disgust, not affirmations of our bravery or attempts to appropriate the signifiers of queer identity and culture. Otherwise, we’re simply not doing our jobs.

So much of our rhetoric is about protecting ourselves, caring for ourselves, nurturing ourselves. We increasingly arrange our spaces to minimize potential for harm, not maximize potential for joy. This is understandable, life is hard, and being on the outside of normality takes a toll. But self-care and fluffiness isn’t going to save us from being digested by the mainstream. We must seek out and embrace discomfort in ourselves if we want to remain not just visibly queer, but radically queer. We have to experiment, to fail, to leave ourselves open to the newest and the worst of queer experience as well as the safest and most affirming. Radical queerness should be something normal people shudder at, something so far outside the straight neoliberal rhetoric of successful life that it evokes a fascinated kind of horror, a confusion, like being faced with an absurdist painting. Only then will the borders between the straight world and our sites of critique be maintained, and we can avoid being undermined by a system that seeks to convert our cultural and political histories into new marketing opportunities.

Sex parties are an ideal place to do this work of seeking new ways of relating, new hedonisms and intimacies. Sex parties are bounded, bordered, still largely hidden from straight society and therefore not ripe for recuperation in the near future. They’re places where people do the kinds of things that “good gays and lesbians” (read, married, materially successful, monogamous) take great care to distance themselves from. When we gather in these places we can make them temporary autonomous zones where we can test the limits of ourselves and also of our community. This is really important work, it’s protective against being identified as a demographic just like any other, and it offers an “anticipatory glimpse” into a potential queer future.

The vast majority of queer sex parties in the Bay Area are not seen in this way, they’re not created with the intention of challenging people so much as affirming them and making them feel safe and loved. This is why opening circles have gotten so long, and started to creep.

Sex parties are about making space to try new things, otherwise people would just fuck whoever they came to the party with. If new connections and new experiences are at the center of a sex party then we’re already in a place where people are going to be experiencing discomfort because they’re not sure how something new is going to feel, or maybe even whether they really want to do it. If it’s a place for queer community, then it’s already a good place to practice community care and mutual accountability, for looking after each others’ wellbeing as queers together. We should be having sex parties where people feel safe enough to explore themselves, question their preconceptions, and do scary things knowing that if they do end up experiencing excessive discomfort, they can access support from the community.

We should be focusing on the abundance of care and support we can create in this economy of pleasure, and looking at how we can distribute this excess of love and intimacy in an equitable way.

For example, we can discover how the critical theory concept of access, most thoroughly developed in disability theory, places demands on us as attendees and organizers of sex parties. These parties give us the opportunity to interrogate our own desires and think about how we can distribute abundant goods like sexual pleasure and intimacy more equitably in our community so that everyone has access to them. Should we try to ensure that less conventionally attractive people have access to these experiences in our community, because being different from statistical average beauty norms through sheer chance should not lead to a life of deprivation and frustration? What would that look like, if we tried to implement this value? Sex parties highlight the inequalities in our community and give us the chance to develop methods of redress.

Bad feelings

Sex parties are places where communities can practice caring for each other. Not by imposing a list of rules of good moral behavior, though, or of having a strong authority figure to impose sanctions and exile, but of being able to hold each other accountable.

The bad feelings that queer people struggle with — failure, anxiety, depression, disappointment, self-loathing — are symptoms of a disconnect between society and the individual. Therefore, they are best understood as a community problem and should be used to motivate solidarity and illuminate the path to new ways of being in the world and living together.

It is not enough for queer communities to exist as spaces where we can retreat from the hardships of the world and cultivate individual wellbeing so that they can ease the friction between ourselves and the rest of society. This meek and uninspiring kind of resilience will change nothing. If we are struggling with trauma and sadness, we need to interrogate the world around us and figure out how we can give an example of how things could be different. Capitalist notions of self-care are based on concepts that reinforce capitalism — if we’re feeling low on energy, we’re encouraged to cancel our plans, and prioritize a short term, ephemeral, consumable pleasure. In short, we’re told to stay home and buy stuff. Queer communities shouldn’t buy into this bullshit. Community care is the strongest form of self-care.

Sex parties are also places where individuals can explore the depths of pleasure. Although we often focus on our trauma around sex, our social marginalization, and our need for self-care, in truth we are queer for the sake of pleasure. Our pleasures — the things that move the depths of us, the things that whisper “this is authentically you,” are not normal, and can’t easily fit into the life of a successful American citizen. Being on the outside of these narratives motivates us to radical thinking about how the world should be organized, so there’s a conversation between our pleasures and our politics.

Whether you take an anti-relational turn and focus on the latter, or you prefer to see queerness as more relational, sex parties allow a direct experience of the core of queerness for yourself and your community. Exploring this inner core of pleasure, this jouissance, that all of us feel inside ourselves, is exploring the internal landscape of our personal queer utopia. Exploring with other people in places like sex parties gives us the experience of being together in relationship, as we are interacting with each other, playing, fucking, and so on, and also makes us feel completely self-absorbed. Sex parties help us understand how we can relate to each other from a shared queerness of pleasure, and show us that we are both not alone in our queerness, and completely alone in our joiussance.

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