There’s a post on SexIs today from Roland Hulme, in which he shows that he almost gets how his privilege works. In his piece, he discusses the responses to a previous post of his, in which he wrote that (at the time), he was of the opinion that transgender people shouldn’t be able to change the designated sex on their birth certificates. And as he wrote:
It drew a lot of comments — many of them angry and frustrated — and opened my eyes to a lot of different perspectives on the issue. Ultimately, the debate revealed that something I thought was cut-and-dried turned out to be a lot more complex than I’d imagined. My opinion was challenged and my attitudes changed by the experience.
But he then goes on to write about how the sex-positive world isn’t living up to its stated goals when it doesn’t make room for straight, white, cisgender men (hereafter referred to as SWCM) to talk about various topics. Now, on that point, I fully agree with him- I think it’s not only appropriate but also important for SWCM to talk about these issues because the world isn’t going to change until they get on board with it. I think that men need to talk about sexism, white folks need to talk about racism, cisgender people need to talk about transphobia, and straight people need to talk about homophobia.
At the same time, I think that Hulme misses the point. If he wanted to actually model sex-positivity while both recognizing and responding to his privilege as a SWCM, he would have done better to have learned about the topic BEFORE sharing his opinion with the world. I’m glad that he was open to hearing other perspectives and that he was willing to shift his ideas. And I also feel anger that he felt qualified to share his opinions without having done that research first.
The world tells queers, people of color, transgender people, and women (and all of the people in the intersections of those overlapping categories) that their opinions and experiences don’t count. And the world tells SWCM that their ideas, beliefs, and experiences are important and that they deserve to share them with everyone else. So when he writes that “when we signed up to be a part of the sex-positive community, we were supposed to leave our skin color, sexuality and gender at the door. What matters here are words and opinions; not what continent your ancestors were from, or what is swinging (or not) between your legs,” he gets it exactly wrong.
He gets it wrong because sex-positivity doesn’t exist separately from race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or anything else. In a world in which some people of color are labeled as sexually out of control (and need to be contained), in which people with disabilities are seen as non-sexual and childlike, in which women are cast as sluts or virgins, in which queers are labeled as sexual predators when they do the same things that SWCM do, in which transgender and genderqueer people are called freaks, there is no way to talk about sex-positivity without understanding how it connects to every other form of oppression that exists. The idea that we can leave those things at the door is emblematic of the very privileged position that only someone whose identity is labeled as the norm can take.
What Hulme needs to do before he writes is to talk with the people whose experiences he wants to discuss. And when I say “talk with,” what I mean is “ask questions about what they experience and then listen to what they say.” Or he could do some research and learn about the issues. There’s no shortage of articles, blogs, and books about all of these topics. The ability to speak about other people from a place of ignorance is the problem, and he has a responsibility to learn about what he’s talking about first.
As I said, I’m glad that he’s clearly open to hearing different perspectives and changing his mind. Hulme could be an amazing ally for folks who aren’t SWCM if he started modeling that for other SWCM. He could support SWCM by helping them understand how these issues work. And he could show that it is possible for SWCM to learn to deal with their privilege more constructively.
I really understand his frustration since, while I’m queer, I am white and cisgender and male. I understand how difficult it is to have anger around being seen as the enemy. I get why he said this:
The refusal to recognize me as an individual and instead judge me as nothing more than a tick in some demographic survey box. These people act like I don’t have thoughts, emotions and experiences of my own — that I’m controlled by some giant remote tuned into the frequency of my skin color, sexuality and gender.
But the way to respond to that is to show people that you understand how race, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, etc. work. You need to unpack the white privilege knapsack, the heterosexual privilege knapsack, the cisgender privilege knapsack, the male privilege knapsack, and come to recognize that while you had no choice about whether you were handed these things, you also have the privilege of getting to choose to deal with them. Folks who aren’t SWCM don’t have that choice. Ever. So when he suggests leaving these issues at the door, he’s recreating and reinforcing the problem because he’s a member of the only group that gets to set them aside.
I fully support Hulme in continuing to talk about issues of sexuality and gender. And I challenge him to learn how to do it from a place of understanding instead of privilege. I challenge him to take the time to talk with people before talking about them. And I challenge him to understand that while he’s frustrated that people “judge [him] because [he’s] white, straight and cisgender male”, that is so much smaller than the ways that people who aren’t SWCM are judged. I challenge him to see that the fact that talking about these topics runs the risk of triggering people who have been hurt, rendered invisible, and shamed. I challenge him to learn how to speak on these issues with a gentle touch because of that.
Sex-positivity needs SWCM as part of the conversation. We need everyone’s perspective and experience. And the only way that can happen is if SWCM learn how to deal with the intersections of social inequities, privilege, and sexuality.