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Harnessing the political potential of women’s pleasure

Why not stir up your sexuality?

SEXUAL CITIZENS. Rejecting expectations opens up a world of possibilities.

Since its inception, the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Committee has been committed to giving women and trans people a chance to let loose, to challenge the tired old myth that good girls don’t like sex. Making women’s and trans sexuality something other than respectable has included having more frequent bathhouses, strip shows in what are traditionally men-only spaces and the continuous effort to make divergent pleasures political.

It hasn’t been easy. Reactions to the increasing sexualized spaces and opportunities for queer women and trans people often receives criticism. There’s the sense that women just aren’t that sexual or that they won’t be interested in more frequent bathhouses because it’s really a gay guy thing, etc. These attitudes are evident in the lack of interest from businesses in establishing at least one permanent bathhouse for women, partially because of the perception that it’ll take business away from existing gay male establishments.

Toronto isn’t the only city with a predominantly gay male presence, furthering the stereotype that it’s only the boys who like to play, or that they’re the only ones who choose promiscuity without shame. Survey gay ghettos around the world and you quickly find that corporate interest is tied to the pleasure of men. There is a randomness to women’s public pleasure that comes and goes, and the lack of permanence is a consequence of business rhetoric promoted by male proprietors and women/trans communities that are either convinced by that rhetoric, or have fewer economic privileges to attend sexy events or to set up their own venues. Ultimately, the acceptance of creative queer spaces are mostly achieved through the granting of permission by established businesses.

Opening up queer spaces for experimentation will inevitably be met with some resistance. I think it is imperative to continue to labour hard and steady for something other than what we are told we can have and hopefully build toward something else: a radical sexual democracy that challenges normative sites of pleasure.

Hopefully as restrictive expectations diminish, sexual citizens can emerge. Pleasure and experimentation have a political charge, especially because we keep fighting for our right to have and keep sexual spaces and sexual freedom, most often against the tide of moral conservatism and those voices that claim to protect or keep us safe. Just think of the ridiculous protection of 17-year-old “children” by denying them sensual connection or the protection of sex workers by denying them agency to make choices about their bodies and livelihood and of course the protection of women by keeping them respectable.

I admit that for some time I have cringed at the designation given to seemingly progressive spaces for women; the idea of designating spaces women-only closes down the imaginings of other, perhaps more contested spaces, like the ones we move in and out of everyday.

Women-only designations most often mean women who are clearly women without question, forcing trans people to feel they have to “pass,” whether they want to or not. Women-only events are problematic for this reason and shut down the possibility of experimenting in sexuality. The Pussy Palace bathhouse, now in its seventh year, has broken away from that idea by making trans inclusion an integral part of what the bathhouse events are all about.

There is a potential to make queer spaces the only spaces imaginable. Imagine a world where public sex would no longer be just about acts between clearly defined genders, but about all kinds of intimacy that exists outside of conservative regimes that cherish marriage, monogamy and biology as the only acceptable grounds for sexual intimacy.

This conservatism needs to be seriously challenged if queer spaces are to be permanently formed. We need to challenge the fantasy of the traditional monogamous couple that’s been held up for far too long as the most socially desired option, or in some cases the only intimate option.

This particular brand of monogamy is generally expressed in homophobic terms, where the state/religious-approved couple is rendered desirable and (for reasons that continue to baffle me) exclusively heterosexual. Where the same-sex couple is incorporated into the equation it is to point to the dangers of promiscuity and the salvation of finally having the legal right to settle down and reap the benefits of societal acceptance. Both these cases express restrictive expectations about what people should do with their bodies and minds. I concur instead with cultural theorist Laura Kipnis who writes, in her book Against Love: A Polemic, that monogamy as an optimistic state of affairs is really only “emotional anaesthesia.” This may sound harsh for all those who are in “good relationships,” including myself, but that’s another story.

This story is about feeling, about intensity, about queer pleasure in places where the respectable folk will at last tremble at the sight or thought of it all, and yes, even for monogamous couples who have queered domesticity and abandoned the fantasy of coupled bliss. In this story, queer spaces are contested because the rules keep changing, contrary to nostalgic narratives of good girl/bad girl, good feminist/bad feminist, women and trans folks can push gender boundaries further by not succumbing to biological and cultural absolutes and terrorizing those who might disregard their potential for sensual experimentation.