Frequently when desirability gets brought up as a point of conversation, it gets interpreted as boiled down to an individual experience or merely about the frequency with which culturally ugly folks have sex, or the access to sex partners we have which is certainly a part of the conversation but it is not the conversation. This becomes an easy way for folks to shut the conversation down, by framing us as somehow ungrateful or greedy or demanding or entitled and obscuring the larger cultural forces that shape, ingrain and institutionalize our desires.
But our desire and desirability is not just about who we do or want to have sex with, or who or how often people want to have sex with us. It informs how we treat people in the larger world.
I went out with a friend who is a woman and also fat a few weeks ago. The person behind the counter was a very thin gay man who, I felt, was visibly and obviously made uncomfortable or disgusted by my size and actively avoided making eye contact with me, or looking at me at all during our entire transaction. My fatness has trained me to gauge other people’s reactions to my body, to see where their eyes go– whether they make great efforts to avoid mine, or linger a little bit too long as they slowly read my body was silent disapproval. I notice. When we left, my friend commented on how cute and friendly he was to her, and I told her my experience with him. She was offended on my behalf and asked what I thought about his character as a person– as if I thought he was an exceptionally rude or terrible person. I just responded that his actions were totally unremarkable, that they were perfectly common and absolutely in line with social power.
It would be easy to dismiss these encounters as individualistic and down to scenarios, but these are the structures that shape our lives. This is the way we are taught to treat those who we are taught are undesirable (even if we do, in fact, desire them), and we are supported in it by society.
There was a time recently when I was struggling with hearing about my queer male friends’ sex and dating lives. That hearing about their experiences would bring up my feelings of jealousy and resentment that our experiences were so different rather than joy and support for them. I don’t want to struggle with it, and I want to be there for my friends. I have been trying to figure out where these feelings come from and how there can be space for all of our feelings and experiences. What I have realized is that it isn’t just about hearing how many people someone goes home with from a bar, or what kind of attention another gets on sex and dating apps that I don’t. While those things hurt as a stark reminder of our different experiences and the ways that we are differently (and, in my case, less) seen, supported, valued and invited to participate in queer sexual social circles, it is also that they can disappear whenever this becomes a bigger aspect of their lives–even if just for a night. Our relationship remains dependent on the ebb and flow of their sexual capital, while mine remains far more stagnant.
This is a way that desirability politics are replicated in intimate relationships– a phrase I use intentionally to highlight the intimacy of friendships. Where I make efforts (and sometimes, too, fail) at treating my friends like lovers as a political act to disrupt the hierarchy of romance in our lives on principle, in many ways it also because these are the relationships that sustain me where I cannot count on a lover, or even the potential of one, to in the same ways. But this becomes unsustainable when the possibilities of my primary intimate relationships are still facilitated through my own and others’ desirability, both to each other and to others.
I also do not believe that this is specific to queer male relationships and they are not the only context in which I have felt this particular kind of abandonment in the name of sex or love. And to a certain extent I have been guilty of this myself at times, for I am not above replicating these hierarchies, these politics, as much as I try to be conscious of them. The fact remains that these structures of desire inform how we treat even those most valuable to us. I believe that this is the imperative work and, like all healing, it is necessarily cooperative. It requires work on everyone’s end to hold space for our differing and simultaneous experiences.
Regardless of who we are or are wanting to have sex with– or if we want to have sex at all– sexuality remains an undercurrent in how we value and honor people and are treated in the larger world, from strangers to friends. This is where the focal point of conversations about desirability should be.
It remains important to me to interrogate desire– not to then become attracted to everyone, but to be aware of what powers are informing my desire and what I am upholding with my desire– but also so that culturally ugly folks who remain publicly and visibly undesired can still receive the justice of interpersonal value and appreciation, especially in our most intimate relationships.
[Feature Image: A black and white photo of a person’s face. They have short curly hair, their eyes are closed, their mouth is wide open as if they are screaming. Source: MaloMalverde]