Unpacking the Bags: Self-Reflection at the Intersections of Racialized Masculinity, Sex, and Slut Shaming (A Conversation: Part Two)Jonathan Mathias Lassiter I Edited by Johnathan Lay I LGBTQ Rights I Commentary I May 6th, 2014
The following is the second part of a conversation that took place on February 23, 2014 at 3:13pm between three queer members of the Hampton Institute: A Working Class Think Tank. The members are Eyad Alkurabi, Director of Projects and Activism; Mike Perry, Chair of the Race & Ethnicity Department, and Jonathan Mathias Lassiter, Chair of the LGBTQ Rights Department. To read the first part of this ongoing conversation, click here.
Eyad : In communities of color, I'm not saying we have an excuse to be uber-masculine. We don't have a choice. What do you think about this idea that you have to be uber-masculine and that whole "power of identity" when it comes to masculine identity?
Mike : I think that there is a lot of self-shame. I feel like a lot of gay men who are like 'you need to be completely masculine or you need to be a masc man' or any variation of that are striving to be this alpha man who is straight. They are trying to be the jock. I think these [social media] profiles that say 'masc only,' are usually associated with other words like "jock," "gym." A lot of these gay men who are striving for this uber masculine persona or uber masculine boyfriend or fuck buddy, etc, are just trying to emulate heterosexual culture in society. That's unfortunate. I mean, you can definitely be masculine and be gay. I don't think that the two can't be one and the same. But a lot of people associate masculinity with straight, which is why a lot of guys say "straight acting" as opposed to just saying masculine. There is this sort of pedestal that heterosexuality is put on, and anything that does not meet that is criticized or shunned, which is why you have [social media] profiles that say, "no femmes." That also speaks to a society that does not hold femininity and women in the same regard as men. I do think there is a lot of self-hate surrounding people who say things like 'masculine only.' And I get that people can certainly have their preferences but I believe there is a thin line between preference and prejudice for sure.
Jonathan : Eddie, really, men in general are expected to be really masculine even within communities. And, I think your question was, 'why is that?' And I think it's for a lot of different reasons, but there is one in particular that is coming to the forefront of my thoughts right now: when a community is assaulted, their very humanity, their bodies, the desirability of their bodies is assaulted systematically and systemically for so long that one does all one can to fight against it. When one's humanity is questioned, then one goes into this humanity proving campaign, and for a lot of racial groups in America that has definitely played out. Even for groups outside of America things like religion and procreation come into play around what I will call "traditional masculine norms" that are policed and promoted. But going back to the United States and thinking about just general masculine norms, for both heterosexual and queer folk, within the 'gay community' and among men of color, what you're really looking at is, like you said Mike, this self-hatred and sexism. A disregard for all things feminine, it strikes me as a stagnant consciousness and sense of naivety. Whether you identify as male, female, feminine, masculine, wherever you are along that spectrum, we all have both the masculine and feminine within us in varying degrees. I think anytime [people] reject one or the other within the self it calls to a sense of undeveloped consciousness. And people shun one for the other because they deem one more preferable. And in a society that is hetero-patriarchal; where men are privileged, then it makes sense that the masculine would be deemed superior. I think one of the powers of being a queer man is really being able to fully embrace both the masculine and feminine. When one does not do that, it goes back to this naivety and this undeveloped consciousness. It's really a shame. Part of being a queer man is that you are engaging with other men and it can free you, in a way, from those norms. When one is choosing to shun part of one's self then there's a sense of stagnation that one has not evolved. Does that make sense?
Mike : That makes complete sense. I get it.
Eyad : Yes.
Jonathan : I say that because, full disclosure, when I was in college before I even had any experience with any guy, I remember thinking about my 'ideal' type of boyfriend. I was like 'oh, he's got to be masculine. I want him to be almost straight and the only gay thing about him is that he likes me.' I had all these ideas about masculinity. But that's really like a binary, right? This very rigid view about how people can act in relationships. It really goes back to that heteronormative, male and female, masculine male, feminine female. So if I'm in a relationship, then I was going to be the feminine energy and he was going to be the masculine energy. However, once I actually got into a relationship and grew up a little bit, I was like 'this femininity in this guy is really attractive.' He's able to embrace all of those things associated with femininity like sensitivity and being able to talk about emotions and things like this. Also, his masculine energy - security, protection, goal oriented-ness - is very comforting as well. I realized all of these things were within in me. Now, I can appreciate these things in him. Going through that process is about maturation; and some people get stuck and hung up on those binaries.
Mike : I certainly have had my own process I had to unpack. I was playing into the hands of patriarchy, body policing, masculinity policing, and etc. I felt the same way. Like, 'the guy I'm going to be with has got to be super manly, whatever that's supposed to mean, and he's got to be a jock. I did not appreciate my more feminine brothers within the gay community because of that. It took a lot of unpacking my own issues and my own prejudice to step away from that. I finally got to a point where I was, at least, masculinity policing a lot less, and I was embracing my more effeminate brothers within the gay community. I don't necessarily need to be with someone who is uber masculine. I also wondered if it's because I didn't appreciate women and femininity as much. I guess I really was playing into the hands of patriarchy. It's interesting now looking back on it. There is definitely an issue in the gay community and I was part of it at one point. It took me a little while to unpack it.
Jonathan : I think, unfortunately, that most people don't engage in the type of self-reflection. You just shared your experience, Mike, and having lived my own it does take courage, and the ability to step back and look into these things. I think most people just don't do that. Their mind is on fitting in or being able to have this sex partner or whatever it might be. That self-reflection doesn't take place without being able to look at yourself and say 'hold on, what's going on here?" [If that doesn't happen] we won't be able to evolve past these issues.
Mike : I think this goes back to when you mentioned about the gay black men who gets upset when the white guy is not into black guys. I think there also needs to be some unpacking about that too. I mean I certainly dated my fair share of white men up until most recently, December. I find this to be really troubling and I'm not necessarily saying that there is anything wrong with it, but I find that a lot of gay black men with whom I interact have a tendency to be into white men. What is that? It is what it is. But for me, it took a lot of digging deep down. I'm assuming that there must have been a level of self-hate present for me to always be attracted to white men; for me to get upset if a white guy said 'well, I'm not into black guys." After you work through those issues and you start to unpack things you become less obsessed with having to be with someone who is white (chuckle). I feel like I have been set free because I have done that sort of self-reflection. I have no issues at this point-at least not to my knowledge-and I can fully embrace my fellow gay black men. I don't need to be with a white man, you know what I mean. And as I get older, I'm actually moving away from that. I prefer to be with someone who is a queer person of color because I feel like we have other shared experiences that I feel like sometimes white men don't always get. Obviously, that's not across the board, but from my own personal experiences I have developed more intimate, more genuine, just closer relationships with other gay black men than with white men. People don't have that self-reflection, and they don't unpack their own prejudice. We get stuck in this loop like 'oh, I need to be with this white guy. I need to be with someone who is masculine. And oh, my god, I need to be with someone who has big muscles.' And again, just across the board, this can be applied to race policing, ethnicity policing, body policing, masculinity policing, etc. A lot of people just get wrapped up in this. They don't do the self-reflection to break these things down. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with dating someone who is white, masculine, or who has a so-called nice muscular body. But [sometimes] when we start doing this we also start fetishizing race, masculinity, and the body. You dehumanize people when you do that.
Eyad : I had this conversation with this guy who was super masculine to the point where I just wanted to vomit. It was just over-the-top. He was like, "yo, why do you hook up with femme guys?' and I was like, 'well, why not?' I told him, jokingly, 'masc guys can't take as much, femme guys take it all and want more.' You know, I was trying to be blunt. If you want to break patriarchy, get the frank out. Sometimes you've got to be unapologetic and frank. I'm getting at this deep-rooted issue of masculinity and femininity. At a couple of conferences I've been to, we've had conversations about power and sex. I take the initiative to be really frank and unapologetic when talking about sex and power and masculinity and femininity. …The whole top and bottom thing, the whole masculine- feminine thing…race and gender identity places a lot into topping and bottoming.
Mike : I think that's testament to what a lot of gay men see in heteronormative culture. People associated feminine with being a bottom because they associate it with women getting fucked. They think masculine equals top because you know a straight man fucks the woman. People make that connection. I think part of the beauty of being gay is that you don't have to adhere to heteronormative values. …
Jonathan : I think Mike hit it right on the head.
Eyad : There's so much taboo going on. There's so much slut shaming, body shaming, so much policing in our culture.
Mike : Did you say slut shaming?
Eyad : Yeah.
Mike : Interesting.
Jonathan : Why is that interesting?
Mike : When you said slut shaming, I was like 'oh my gosh, that's such a loaded phrase.'
Eyad : I've been the victim of slut shaming on Grindr. Someone called me scummy and proceeded to insult me because I like to have sex. And a couple of days ago this person sent me a picture of [his] open hole. It's just interesting the magnitude to how much words have power. To insult someone because they enjoy having sex can be traumatizing. It's such an interesting phenomenon to witness, be the victim, and sometimes unwittingly do it.
Mike : That expression is so new to me. I'm still trying to take it in.
Eyad : Slut shaming is…
Mike : No, I got it. As you're talking I'm doing a lot of thinking about that expression. Go ahead.
Jonathan : Mike, unpack it out loud.
Mike : [chuckle] I think when people use the word 'slut' their reference is to sex workers and all that stuff. So for me, it just caught me off guard a little bit. It also made me, like you said, Eyad, the power of words. I started to think to myself, 'well, do you consider yourself a slut? What are the ramifications of you considering yourself a slut? And then what are the ramifications of other people considering you a slut?' There is just a lot going on in my head, but these are the initial questions I started to ask as you were talking.
Jonathan : Eddie, can you answer those questions Mike just posed?
Eyad : I don't consider myself…I have slept with lots of people…
Mike : I'm sorry to cut you off. I just want to make it clear. I'm not saying that there is necessarily anything wrong with you considering yourself a slut. I don't want you to feel like I'm shaming you for any of that if that's how you identify. So when you explain it, I don't want you to feel like you need to be on the defense because I'm certainly not judging you by any means.
Eyad : I'm not being defensive; I'm not being defensive. I have hooked up with a lot of people. I've had my share. I don't understand why would people take the time to hurt other people because they like to have sex.
Jonathan : Hurt people hurt people. I want to go back to this slut shaming. First of all, slut shaming has been going on forever. Number two, the term slut shaming, at least to my knowledge has caught fire recently. I've seen it pop up a lot in blogs I've been reading. Like 'Don't slut shame her. Slut shame this, slut shame that." I think it's interesting because women have been slut shamed for ages. But when a man has the same behavior, he is a stud. I think it's interesting that you are saying that you are encountering this within the queer community, especially on Grindr where the whole purpose there is to have sex. So it's like, 'excuse you. Do you not know where you are? You're not in the Catholic Church right now. You're on Grindr. Like, what's wrong with you?' However, I've never been slut shamed so I can't speak to that. Slut shaming is about what we've been talking about, insecurity. So, you want to make other people feel insecure. What I have experienced is the opposite of slut shaming. …I have experienced people saying, 'oh, I can't believe you've only had sex with this number of people. Are you even gay? What do you mean you waited a month to have sex with him?' So, that's been my experience. I mean it's very anecdotal but in the groups that I've been in the people who have a lot of sex get all the accolades, they get all the props. But the people who don't have a lot of sex, it's like, 'what's wrong with you?' So I've actually experienced that opposite end of that spectrum.
Mike : I think I'm more aligned with Jonathan on this one. I've never been the victim of slut shaming so I can't really speak on it. But I have been in the same place as Jonathan has been like, 'oh, so you don't sleep with so many people, huh? What's wrong with you.' So it's really interesting. I guess I never really thought about it.
Jonathan : It's interesting that men are shaming other men for having sex. In general, the more sex a man has, the more status he has so I think that's interesting that that's now occurring.
Eyad : I think the slut shaming goes back to the policing people around sex.
Jonathan : Unfortunately, I don't see, at least in my lifetime, any eradication of that. I think it will get better. The younger generations are becoming a lot more fluid and more open. But people police sex because it provides them comfort. People want to put things into categories. And there's good reason for that. As human beings, we're genetically wired to put things into categories. It keeps us safe. It keeps us organized. It allows us to be able to act quickly. There are real cognitive and evolutionary reasons why it's beneficial for us to put things in categories. However, that categorization, if applied rigidly, restricts us. Categories will be around and hopefully they can be applied less rigidly. And people will become more comfortable with others expressing their truths and living their truths in ways that they see fit for themselves.