The Power to Define Reality

Sooo…We have this fantastic intersectional queer politics now, right, which takes in perspectives from everyone right?

We’re all living in a liberal fantasy of freedom and happiness and light.

Okay. Okay. Just as an exercise, an exercise in logic and perhaps an exercise in futility, let’s take a brief look at one queer text, just one, and see what sorts of things this author is proposing, what sort of reality it is that he thinks consists of this liberal utopia.

In his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue published in 1999, Black American gay author Samuel R. Delany develops a theory of the sex industry – specifically the gay sex industry centered around Times Square in New York, as an example of positive and liberated cross-class and cross-cultural social interactions.

The clean up of the area, he contends, was not about making the area safer for women and families (and even if that was the reason who cares about them anyway, right?), because the presence or absence of ‘sex workers’ (sic) in his view does not make the streets more or less safe.

Well, okay Mr Delany; I think you’ve rather missed the point here. As a woman, am I afraid of ‘sex workers’? No, not so much, but I am sure as hell afraid of the Johns and Pimps who are also an inevitable part of the equation.

And, as I’m sure Mr Delany would have found out had he taken the time to talk to any actual women, living in an area of high prostitution does indeed make it much more unsafe for all women, regardless of involvement or lack thereof in the prostitution industry.

To give just one example – many years ago, a woman I knew who lived in an area well known for street prostitution was walking with her young child on the street one day – in daylight – and was followed by two men in a car screaming sexual abuse at her. She noted the numberplate of the car and later called the police. Their response was, well, what do you expect for living in that area?

Indeed. The woman should not in any way expect that she has a reasonable right to walk down the street with her child in broad daylight and not be subjected to harassment.

Delany goes on to say – and this is my favourite part:

What I see lurking behind the positive foregrounding of ‘family values’ (along with, in the name of such values, the violent suppression of urban social structures, economic, social and sexual) is a wholly provincial and absolutely small-town terror of cross-class contact

He positions the exchange of sex for money as an example of voluntary, equal and mutually pleasurable ‘cross-class contact’. He is also, of course, a respected author and university professor. The perspectives of the hustlers and prostituted women are  noticeably absent. Indeed, Delany, with his economic, social and institutional power is the one who defines reality here. He is constructing a libertine fantasy of willing sexual slaves who are only too eager to serve the bourgeoisie; an ideal utopia of sex that is threatened by the bad conservative forces that seek to destroy these apparently revolutionary pockets of cross-class contact.

Of course, in Delany’s construct power is completely invisiblised. It does not seem to occur to him that gay hustlers are disproportionately likely to be underage runaways, to be poor, to be of colour, to have more chance of being raped and murdered, to be at great risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. It does not seem to occur to him that the social and economic isolation these young boys face on account of being gay is what drives them into the sex industry in the first place, rather than any desire for cross-class contact.

Indeed, what we are talking about here is not cross-class contact at all, but exploitation that is being rather chillingly justified by a person of relative privilege to enable him to continue in its pursuit.

Is this the intersectional politics I have been hearing so much about? Where are the voices of the oppressed in this narrative? What would happen if young hustlers dared to contradict Mr Delany’s construction of reality?

Moreover, what sort of community is being created here? How is it possible for proponents of equality to, on the one hand, deplore homophobia, point out the problems faced by gay and lesbian youth who are more likely to be homeless etc; but then on the other hand support the gay sex industry whose very existence depends on a continuing supply of young and vulnerable gay youth?

What the fuck sort of dysfunctional politics is this?

Let’s be clear about one final thing. When we are talking about prostitution, we are not talking about the false binary of the good libertines vs. the bad conservatives. From the perspective of a prostituted person, I very much doubt there is any difference in being fucked by liberal or conservative cock. Either way, there is just as much danger of sustaining injury, contracting disease, being beaten and murdered by a John gone off the deep end. Either way, the person in question has been reduced to an object to be bought for money.

And therein lies the key. Reducing a human being to an object who can be bought for money. The system of prostitution is closer to slavery, which also advocates that certain human beings can be bought and sold for money, than to anything else I can think of. To set aside classes of disenfranchised individuals and to view them as being ‘appropriate’ or ‘deserving’ of sexual servitude and abuse is about as far from the dream of freedom and light as I can imagine.

On a final point, I do think Mr Delany was right about one thing. I doubt that the make-over of Time Square had anything to do with making the area safer for women and families (I read ‘families’ as children) since we know that male supremacist governments couldn’t care less about making spaces safer for women and children. But what the make-over did do was to transform Time Square into a money-making tourist mecca. In other words, capitalist greed was responsible for this make-over. Not religious conservatives terrified of cross-class pollination. Not whiny uptight women who just need to learn to loosen up and like that street harassment. And capitalist greed is exactly the same system that drives the prostitution and pornography industries whose demise Delany so bewails. In other words, one capitalist economy was supplanted by a more powerful capitalist economy. There was nothing revolutionary here to begin with.


Afterword: In the 1970s, Samuel Delany was also responsible for writing the one and only issue of Wonder Woman that attempted to cover the subject of ‘women’s lib.’ Of course a manz was asked to write this issue, cos it’s not like us silly wimmins are smart enough to understand our own liberation movement. The plot was about Wonder Woman and her friend getting involved in a women’s collective and challenging a store about not giving equal pay to its women employees. The result being that all the women at the store lost their jobs and the liberation movement was shown to be a failure coz wimmins is too stoopid to do politics.

Thanks for that, Mr Delany, I’ll be sure to keep it in mind.

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