Forum discussion

Please answer the following questions:

1.Imagine you’re telling your friend or family member about this class. What do you feel like is the reading or idea that had the biggest impact on you? Explain that reading/idea as if you’re talking to your friend, and why you feel it is important/challenging/meaningful. 

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2. Explain what you think a sexually liberated future looks like, using at least 1 of the readings from this week (core or additional). How is this vision for the future different than the present? What kinds of change need to happen to get there?

When you answer what kind of change needs to happen, please go beyond answers like, “people need to be more accepting/have more open minds.” While true, how do we get there? What structural and interpersonal actions need to be taken to (1) get people to that acceptance and (2) remove structural barriers like racism, patriarchy, ableism, and so on that stifle sexual revolution?

Please use Carol Vance for question 1 and Munoz for question 2



Feeling Utopia

A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth glancing at.
—Oscar Wilde

Q u E E r N E s s I s N o T yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another
way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel
it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have
never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be dis-
tilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s
domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that al-
lows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and
now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s total-
izing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that
all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for
that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures,
other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. Queerness is a
longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling
in the present. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not
enough, that indeed something is missing. Often we can glimpse the worlds
proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic. The aes-
thetic, especially the queer aesthetic, frequently contains blueprints and sche-
mata of a forward-dawning futurity. Both the ornamental and the quotidian
can contain a map of the utopia that is queerness. Turning to the aesthetic in
the case of queerness is nothing like an escape from the social realm, insofar
as queer aesthetics map future social relations. Queerness is also a performa-
tive because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future.
Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insis-
tence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.

2 Introduction

That is the argument I make in Cruising Utopia, significantly influenced
by the thinking and language of the German idealist tradition emanating
from the work of Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. An
aspect of that line of thought is concretized in the critical philosophy as-
sociated with the Frankfurt School, most notably in the work of Theodor
Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. Those three thinkers
within the Marxist tradition have all grappled with the complexities of the
utopian. Yet the voice and logic that most touches me, most animates my
thinking, is that of the philosopher Ernst Bloch.

More loosely associated with the Frankfurt School than the aforemen-
tioned philosophers, Bloch’s work was taken up by both liberation theol-
ogy and the Parisian student movements of 1968. He was born in 1885
to an assimilated Jewish railway employee in Ludwigshafen, Germany.
During World War II, Bloch fled Nazi Germany, eventually settling for a
time in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the war Bloch returned to East
Germany, where his Marxian philosophy was seen as too revisionary. At
the same time he was derided for his various defenses of Stalinism by
left commentators throughout Europe and the United States. He partici-
pated in the intellectual circles of Georg Simmel and, later, Max Weber.
His friendship and sometime rivalries with Adorno, Benjamin, and Georg
Lukács are noted in European left intellectual history.1 Bloch’s political in-
consistencies and style, which has been described as both elliptical and
lyrical, have led Bloch to an odd and uneven reception. Using Bloch for
a project that understands itself as part of queer critique is also a risky
move because it has been rumored that Bloch did not hold very progres-
sive opinions on issues of gender and sexuality.2 These biographical facts
are beside the point because I am using Bloch’s theory not as orthodoxy
but instead to create an opening in queer thought. I am using the occasion
and example of Bloch’s thought, along with that of Adorno, Marcuse, and
other philosophers, as a portal to another mode of queer critique that de-
viates from dominant practices of thought existing within queer critique
today. In my estimation a turn to a certain critical idealism can be an espe-
cially useful hermeneutic.

For some time now I have been working with Bloch’s three-volume
philosophical treatise The Principle of Hope.3 In his exhaustive book Bloch
considers an expanded idea of the utopian that surpasses Thomas More’s
formulation of utopias based in fantasy. The Principle of Hope offers an
encyclopedic approach to the phenomenon of utopia. In that text he dis-
cusses all manner of utopia including, but not limited to, social, literary,

Introduction 3

technological, medical, and geographic utopias. Bloch has had a shakier
reception in the U.S. academy than have some of his friends and acquain-
tances—such as Benjamin. For me, Bloch’s utility has much to do with
the way he theorizes utopia. He makes a critical distinction between ab-
stract utopias and concrete utopias, valuing abstract utopias only insofar
as they pose a critique function that fuels a critical and potentially trans-
formative political imagination.4 Abstract utopias falter for Bloch because
they are untethered from any historical consciousness. Concrete utopias
are relational to historically situated struggles, a collectivity that is actual-
ized or potential. In our everyday life abstract utopias are akin to banal
optimism. (Recent calls for gay or queer optimism seem too close to elite
homosexual evasion of politics.) Concrete utopias can also be daydream-
like, but they are the hopes of a collective, an emergent group, or even the
solitary oddball who is the one who dreams for many. Concrete utopias
are the realm of educated hope. In a 1961 lecture titled “Can Hope Be
Disappointed?” Bloch describes different aspects of educated hope: “Not
only hope’s affect (with its pendant, fear) but even more so, hope’s meth-
odology (with its pendant, memory) dwells in the region of the not-yet, a
place where entrance and, above all, final content are marked by an endur-
ing indeterminacy.”5 This idea of indeterminacy in both affect and meth-
odology speaks to a critical process that is attuned to what Italian phi-
losopher Giorgio Agamben describes as potentiality.6 Hope along with its
other, fear, are affective structures that can be described as anticipatory.

Cruising Utopia’s first move is to describe a modality of queer utopia-
nism that I locate within a historically specific nexus of cultural produc-
tion before, around, and slightly after the Stonewall rebellion of 1969. A
Blochian approach to aesthetic theory is invested in describing the an-
ticipatory illumination of art, which can be characterized as the process
of identifying certain properties that can be detected in representational
practices helping us to see the not-yet-conscious.7 This not-yet-conscious
is knowable, to some extent, as a utopian feeling. When Bloch describes
the anticipatory illumination of art, one can understand this illumination
as a surplus of both affect and meaning within the aesthetic. I track uto-
pian feelings throughout the work of that Stonewall period. I attempt to
counteract the logic of the historical case study by following an associative
mode of analysis that leaps between one historical site and the present. To
that end my writing brings in my own personal experience as another way
to ground historical queer sites with lived queer experience. My intention
in this aspect of the writing is not simply to wax anecdotally but, instead,

4 Introduction

to reach for other modes of associative argumentation and evidencing.
Thus, when considering the work of a contemporary club performer such
as Kevin Aviance, I engage a poem by Elizabeth Bishop and a personal
recollection about movement and gender identity. When looking at Kevin
McCarty’s photographs of contemporary queer and punk bars, I consider
accounts about pre-Stonewall gay bars in Ohio and my personal story
about growing up queer and punk in suburban Miami. Most of this book
is fixated on a cluster of sites in the New York City of the fifties and sixties
that include the New York School of poetry, the Judson Memorial Church’s
dance theater, and Andy Warhol’s Factory. Cruising Utopia looks to figures
from those temporal maps that have been less attended to than O’Hara
and Warhol have been. Yet it seems useful to open this book by briefly
discussing moments in the work of both the poet and the pop artist for
the purposes of illustrating the project’s primary approach to the cultural
and theoretical material it traverses. At the center of Cruising Utopia there
is the idea of hope, which is both a critical affect and a methodology.

Bloch offers us hope as a hermeneutic, and from the point of view of
political struggles today, such a critical optic is nothing short of necessary
in order to combat the force of political pessimism. It is certainly difficult
to argue for hope or critical utopianism at a moment when cultural analy-
sis is dominated by an antiutopianism often functioning as a poor substi-
tute for actual critical intervention. But before addressing the question of
antiutopianism, it is worthwhile to sketch a portrait of a critical mode of
hope that represents the concrete utopianism discussed here.

Jill Dolan offers her own partially Blochian-derived mode of perfor-
mance studies critique in Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the The-
ater.8 Dolan’s admirable book focuses on live theater as a site for “finding
hope.” My approach to hope as a critical methodology can be best de-
scribed as a backward glance that enacts a future vision. I see my proj-
ect as resonating alongside a group of recent texts that have strategically
displaced the live object of performance. Some texts that represent this
aspect of the performance studies project include Gavin Butt’s excellent
analysis of the queer performative force of gossip in the prewar New York
art world,9 Jennifer Doyle’s powerful treatise on the formative and deform-
ing force of “sex objects” in performance and visual studies,10 and Fred
Moten’s beautiful In the Break, with its emphasis on providing a soaring
description of the resistance of the object.11 I invoke those three texts in
an effort to locate my own analysis in relation to the larger interdisciplin-
ary project of performance studies.

Introduction 5

The modern world is a thing of wonder for Bloch, who considers aston-
ishment to be an important philosophical mode of contemplation.12 In a
way, we can see this sense of astonishment in the work of both Warhol and
O’Hara. Warhol was fond of making speech acts such as “wow” and “gee.”
Although this aspect of Warhol’s performance of self is often described as
an insincere performance of naiveté, I instead argue that it is a manifesta-
tion of the utopian feeling that is integral to much of Warhol’s art, speech,
and writing. O’Hara, as even his casual readers know, was irrepressibly up-
beat. What if we think of these modes of being in the world—Warhol’s
liking of things, his “wows” and “gees,” and O’Hara’s poetry being satu-
rated with feelings of fun and appreciation—as a mode of utopian feeling
but also as hope’s methodology? This methodology is manifest in what
Bloch described as a form of “astonished contemplation.”13 Perhaps we
can understand the campy fascination that both men had with celebrity
as being akin to this sense of astonishment. Warhol’s blue Liz Taylors or
O’Hara’s perfect tribute to another starlet, in the poem “Lana Turner Has
Collapsed,” offer, through glamour and astonishment, a kind of transport
or a reprieve from what Bloch called the “darkness of the lived instant.”14
Astonishment helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating present-
ness and allows one to see a different time and place. Much of each art-
ist’s work performs this astonishment in the world. O’Hara is constantly
astonished by the city. He celebrates the city’s beauty and vastness, and
in his work one often finds this sense of astonishment in quotidian things.
O’Hara’s poems display urban landscapes of astonishment. The quotidian
object has this same affective charge in Warhol’s visual work. Bloch theo-
rized that one could detect wish-landscapes in painting and poetry.15 Such
landscapes extend into the territory of futurity.

Let us begin by considering Warhol’s Coke Bottle alongside O’Hara’s
poem “Having a Coke with You”:

Having a Coke with You
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz,

or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St.

partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for

partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches

6 Introduction

partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and

it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as

as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the

except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the

which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together

the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of

just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used

to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the

sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as

as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you

about it16

This poem tells us of a quotidian act, having a Coke with somebody, that
signifies a vast lifeworld of queer relationality, an encrypted sociality, and
a utopian potentiality. The quotidian act of sharing a Coke, consuming a
common commodity with a beloved with whom one shares secret smiles,
trumps fantastic moments in the history of art. Though the poem is clearly
about the present, it is a present that is now squarely the past and in its
queer relationality promises a future. The fun of having a Coke is a mode

Introduction 7

of exhilaration in which one views a restructured sociality. The poem tells
us that mere beauty is insufficient for the aesthete speaker, which echoes
Bloch’s own aesthetic theories concerning the utopian function of art. If
art’s limit were beauty—according to Bloch—it is simply not enough.17
The utopian function is enacted by a certain surplus in the work that
promises a futurity, something that is not quite here. O’Hara first men-
tions being wowed by a high-art object before he describes being wowed
by the lover with whom he shares a Coke. Here, through queer-aesthete
art consumption and queer relationality the writer describes moments im-
bued with a feeling of forward-dawning futurity.

The anticipatory illumination of certain objects is a kind of potential-
ity that is open, indeterminate, like the affective contours of hope itself.
This illumination seems to radiate from Warhol’s own depiction of Coke
bottles. Those silk screens, which I discuss in chapter 7, emphasize the
product’s stylish design line. Potentiality for Bloch is often located in
the ornamental. The ornament can be seen as a proto-pop phenomenon.
Bloch warns us that mechanical reproduction, at first glance, voids the or-
namental. But he then suggests that the ornamental and the potentiality
he associates with it cannot be seen as directly oppositional to technology
or mass production.18 The philosopher proposes the example of a modern
bathroom as this age’s exemplary site to see a utopian potentiality, the site
where nonfunctionality and total functionality merge.19 Part of what War-
hol’s study of the Coke bottle and other mass-produced objects helps one
to see is this particular tension between functionality and nonfunction-
ality, the promise and potentiality of the ornament. In the Philosophy of
Andy Warhol the artist muses on the radically democratic potentiality he
detects in Coca-Cola.

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition
where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the
poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know
that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think,
you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money
can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drink-
ing. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor
knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.20

This is the point where Warhol’s particular version of the queer utopian
impulse crosses over with O’Hara’s. The Coke bottle is the everyday


Drawings, 1950s, Still-Life (Flowers), ballpoint ink on Manila paper, 16 3/4 × 13 7/8 in.
(42.5 × 35.2 cm), Andy Warhol (artist), The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding
Collection, Contribution, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., © 2008
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York.

Introduction 9

material that is represented in a different frame, laying bare its aesthetic
dimension and the potentiality that it represents. In its everyday manifes-
tation such an object would represent alienated production and consump-
tion. But Warhol and O’Hara both detect something else in the object of
a Coke bottle and in the act of drinking a Coke with someone. What we
glean from Warhol’s philosophy is the understanding that utopia exists
in the quotidian. Both queer cultural workers are able to detect an open-
ing and indeterminacy in what for many people is a locked-down dead

Agamben’s reading of Aristotle’s De Anima makes the crucial point that
the opposition between potentiality and actuality is a structuring binarism
in Western metaphysics.21 Unlike a possibility, a thing that simply might
happen, a potentiality is a certain mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a
thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense. Looking
at a poem written in the 1960s, I see a certain potentiality, which at that
point had not been fully manifested, a relational field where men could
love each other outside the institutions of heterosexuality and share a
world through the act of drinking a beverage with each other. Using War-
hol’s musing on Coca-Cola in tandem with O’Hara’s words, I see the past
and the potentiality imbued within an object, the ways it might represent
a mode of being and feeling that was then not quite there but nonetheless
an opening. Bloch would posit that such utopian feelings can and regu-
larly will be disappointed.22 They are nonetheless indispensable to the act
of imaging transformation.

This fear of both hope and utopia, as affective structures and ap-
proaches to challenges within the social, has been prone to disappoint-
ment, making this critical approach difficult. As Bloch would insist, hope
can be disappointed. But such disappointment needs to be risked if cer-
tain impasses are to be resisted. A certain affective reanimation needs to
transpire if a disabling political pessimism is to be displaced. Another way
of understanding Bloch’s notion of hope is briefly to invoke the work of
J. L. Austin. In How to Do Things with Words Austin displaces the true/
false dichotomy that structures Western metaphysics with the much more
conceptually supple distinction between the felicitous and infelicitous.23
Austin’s terms are derived from understanding the everyday speech act.
Felicitous speech acts are linguistic articulations that do something as well
as say something. But as Austin maps out the life of the felicitous speech
act we see all the things that eventually go wrong and the failure or infelic-
ity that is built into the speech act. Bloch’s hope resonates with Austin’s

10 Introduction

notion of the felicitous insofar as it is always eventually disappointed. The
eventual disappointment of hope is not a reason to forsake it as a critical
thought process, in the same way that even though we can know in ad-
vance that felicity of language ultimately falters, it is nonetheless essential.

The moment in which I write this book the critical imagination is in
peril. The dominant academic climate into which this book is attempt-
ing to intervene is dominated by a dismissal of political idealism. Shout-
ing down utopia is an easy move. It is perhaps even easier than smearing
psychoanalytic or deconstructive reading practices with the charge of ni-
hilism. The antiutopian critic of today has a well-worn war chest of post-
structuralism pieties at her or his disposal to shut down lines of thought
that delineate the concept of critical utopianism. Social theory that in-
vokes the concept of utopia has always been vulnerable to charges of na-
iveté, impracticality, or lack of rigor. While participating on the Modern
Language Association panel titled “The Anti-Social Thesis in Queer The-
ory,” I argued for replacing a faltering antirelational mode of queer theory
with a queer utopianism that highlights a renewed investment in social
theory (one that calls on not only relationality but also futurity). One of
my co-panelists responded to my argument by exclaiming that there was
nothing new or radical about utopia. To some degree that is true, inso-
far as I am calling on a well-established tradition of critical idealism. I am
also not interested in a notion of the radical that merely connotes some
notion of extremity, righteousness, or affirmation of newness. My invest-
ment in utopia and hope is my response to queer thinking that embraces
a politics of the here and now that is underlined by what I consider to
be today’s hamstrung pragmatic gay agenda. Some critics would call this
cryptopragmatic approach tarrying with the negative. I would not. To
some degree this book’s argument is a response to the polemic of the “an-
tirelation.” Although the antirelational approach assisted in dismantling
an anticritical understanding of queer community, it nonetheless quickly
replaced the romance of community with the romance of singularity and
negativity. The version of queer social relations that this book attempts to
envision is critical of the communitarian as an absolute value and of its
negation as an alternative all-encompassing value. In this sense the work
of contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and his notion of
“being singular plural”24 seems especially important. For Nancy the post-
phenomenological category of being singular plural addresses the way in
which the singularity that marks a singular existence is always cotermi-
nously plural—which is to say that an entity registers as both particular

Introduction 11

in its difference but at the same time always relational to other singulari-
ties. Thus, if one attempts to render the ontological signature of queerness
through Nancy’s critical apparatus, it needs to be grasped as both antirela-
tional and relational.

Antisocial queer theories are inspired by Leo Bersani’s book Homos, in
which he first theorized the so-called thesis of antirelationality.25 I have
long believed that the antirelational turn in queer studies was a partial re-
sponse to critical approaches to a mode of queer studies that argued for
the relational and contingent value of sexuality as a category. Many critics
have followed Bersani’s antirelational turn, but arguably none as success-
fully as Lee Edelman in his book No Future.26 I have great respect for No
Future, and Edelman’s earlier book offers an adroit reading of James Bald-
win’s Just Above My Head.27 No Future is a brilliant and nothing short of
inspiring polemic. Edelman clearly announces his mode of argumentation
as being in the realm of the ethical, and this introduction is an anticipation
of a reanimated political critique and should be read as an idiosyncratic al-
legiance to the polemical force of his argument and nothing like an easy
dismissal. His argument and the seductive sway of the antirelational thesis
energizes my argument in key ways.

Yet I nonetheless contend that most of the work with which I disagree
under the provisional title of “antirelational thesis” moves to imagine an
escape or denouncement of relationality as first and foremost a distanc-
ing of queerness from what some theorists seem to think of as the con-
tamination of race, gender, or other particularities that taint the purity of
sexuality as a singular trope of difference. In other words, antirelational
approaches to queer theory are romances of the negative, wishful think-
ing, and investments in deferring various dreams of difference.

To some extent Cruising Utopia is a polemic that argues against anti-
relationality by insisting on the essential need for an understanding of
queerness as collectivity. I respond to Edelman’s assertion that the future
is the province of the child and therefore not for the queers by arguing
that queerness is primarily about futurity and hope. That is to say that
queerness is always in the horizon. I contend that if queerness is to have
any value whatsoever, it must be viewed as being visible only in the hori-
zon. My argument is therefore interested in critiquing the ontological cer-
titude that I understand to be partnered with the politics of presentist and
pragmatic contemporary gay identity. This mode of ontological certitude
is often represented through a narration of disappearance and negativity
that boils down to another game of fort-da.

12 Introduction

What then does a Blochian approach offer instead of a powerful criti-
cal impulse toward negation? Bloch found solid grounds for a critique of
a totalizing and naturalizing idea of the present in his concept of the no-
longer-conscious.28 A turn to the no-longer-conscious enabled a critical
hermeneutics attuned to comprehending the not-yet-here. This temporal
calculus performed and utilized the past and the future as armaments to
combat the devastating logic of the world of the here and now, a notion
of nothing existing outside the sphere of the current moment, a version
of reality that naturalizes cultural logics such as capitalism and heteronor-
mativity. Concomitantly, Bloch also sharpens our critical imagination with
his emphasis on hope. An antiutopian might understand himself as be-
ing critical in rejecting hope, but in the rush to denounce it, he would be
missing the point that hope is spawned of a critical investment in utopia,
which is nothing like naive but, instead, profoundly resistant to the stulti-
fying temporal logic of a broken-down present. My turn to Bloch, hope,
and utopia is a challenge to theoretical insights that have been stunted by
the lull of presentness and various romances of negativity and have thus
become routine and resoundingly anticritical. This antiutopian theoretical
faltering is often nothing more than rote invocation of poststructuralist pi-
eties. The critical practices often summarized as poststructuralism inform
my analysis as much as any other source from which I draw. The corrective
I wish to make by turning to utopia is attuned to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s
critique of the way in which paranoid reading practices have become so
nearly automatic in queer studies that they have, in many ways, ceased to
be critical.29 Antiutopianism in queer studies, which is more often than
not intertwined with antirelationality, has led many scholars to an impasse
wherein they cannot see futurity for the life of them.30 Utopian readings
are aligned with what Sedgwick would call reparative hermeneutics.31

Although Cruising Utopia routinely rejects what I describe as a “certain
romance of negativity,” I do not want to dismiss the negative tout court. In-
deed I find some theories of the negative to be important resources for the
thinking of a critical utopianism. For example, Paolo Virno elegantly de-
scribes the negation of the negation in Multitude: Between Innovation and
Negation. Virno resists an oppositional logic that clouds certain deploy-
ments of negativity32 and instead speaks to what he calls a negation that
functions as a “modality of the possible,” “a regression to the infinite.”33
Virno sees a potentiality in negative affects that can be reshaped by nega-
tion and made to work in the service of enacting a mode of critical pos-
sibility. Virno’s theory of the negation of negation productively lines up

Introduction 13

with Shoshana Felman’s theory of radical negativity: “Radical negativity
(or saying ‘no’) belongs neither to negation, nor to opposition nor to cor-
rection (‘normalization’), nor to contradiction (of positive and negative,
normal and abnormal, ‘serious’ and ‘unserious,’ ‘clarity’ and ‘obscurity’)—
it belongs precisely to scandal: to the scandal of their nonopposition.”34
Again, my argument with the celebration of negation in antirelational
queer critique is its participation in what can only be seen as a binary logic
of opposition. Radical negativity, like the negation of negation, offers us a
mode of understanding negativity that is starkly different from the version
of the negative proposed by the queer antirelationist. Here the negative
becomes the resource for a certain mode of queer utopianism.

Once again I turn to a literary example with the hope of describing the
performative force of that particular queer utopian writing project. A para-
graph from Eileen Myles’s extraordinary memoir of coming into queer
consciousness in the 1960s and ’70s is especially salient for my purposes.
Chelsea Girls is a ribald text full of fucking, drinking, and other modes of
potentially lyrical self-destruction. Near the end of this testament to the
aching madness of lesbian desire, a powerful yet diminished figure briefly
enters the frame. At this point the young poet has become the part-time
caretaker for the great queer voice of the New York School of poetry—
James Schuyler. Myles attended to the old and infirmed Schuyler in his
residential room at the legendary Chelsea Hotel.

From his bed he ran the show. It’s a talent a few people I know have,
mostly Scorpios which he was. You’d be hesitatingly starting your
story, or like a cartoon character running right in when you realized
the long wharf you were taking a short run on, his attention was not
there. It was hopeless. The yellow in his room became brighter, the air
became crinkly your throat became parched—you felt you had simply
become a jerk. The presence of his attention was so strong, so deeply
passive—such a thing to bathe your tiny desperate words in that when
it was gone you had to stop and hover in silence again. Then he might
begin, or perhaps you could come up with something else once the
brittleness, the void passed. You had to stay silent for a very long time
somedays. He was like music, Jimmy was, and you had to be like music
too to be with him, but understand in his room he was conductor. He
directed the yellow air in room 625. It was marvelous to be around.
It was huge and impassive. What emerged in the silence was a strong
picture, more akin to a child or a beautiful animal.35

14 Introduction

In the spirit of the counterpolemical swerve that this introduction has
been taking I want to suggest that this passage could be seen as represent-
ing an anti-antirelationality that is both weirdly reparative and a prime
example of the queer utopianism for which I am arguing. Anti-antiuto-
pianism is a phrase that I borrow from Fredric Jameson and index when
marking this passage in Myles as anti-antirelational.36 Anti-antiutopianism
is not about a merely affirmative or positive investment in utopia. Gay and
lesbian studies can too easily snap into the basically reactionary posture
of denouncing a critical imagination that is not locked down by a short-
sighted denial of anything but the here and now of this moment. This is
the antiutopian stance that characterizes the antirelational turn. The prime
examples of queer antirelationality in Bersani’s Homos, Edelman’s No Fu-
ture, and all the other proponents of this turn in queer criticism are scenes
of jouissance, which are always described as shattering orgasmic ruptures
often associated with gay male sexual abandon or self-styled risky behav-
ior. Maybe the best example of an anti-antirelational scene that I could in-
voke would be another spectacular instance of sexual transgression. The
moments of pornographic communal rapture in Samuel Delany’s work
come most immediately to mind.37 But instead I choose to focus on this
relational line between a young white lesbian and an older gay white man
because it does the kind of crossing that antirelational theorists are so
keen on eschewing or ignoring.

Myles is paid to take care of Schuyler. On the level of political economy
this relationship is easy to account for. But if we think of Delany’s champi-
oning of interclass contact within a service economy and the affective sur-
plus it offers, the passage opens up quite beautifully.38 The younger poet
notes a sense of “hopelessness” and feeling like a jerk as she works to take
care of the older man, whose attention waxes and wanes. The relationality
is not about simple positivity or affirmation. It is filled with all sorts of
bad feelings, moments of silence and brittleness. But beyond the void that
stands between the two poets, there is something else, a surplus that is
manifest in the complexity of their moments of contact. Through quotid-
ian service-economy interactions of care and simple conversation the soli-
tary scene of an old man and his young assistant is transformed. A rhythm
that is not simple relationality or routine antirelationality is established.
This is the music that is Jimmy, this is the music of Eileen, this is the hum
of their contact. This is Jimmy directing “the yellow air in room 625.” It is
Eileen watching, listening. It is the sense of contemplative awe that I have
identified in Warhol’s “wows” and O’Hara manic upbeat poetic cadence.

Introduction 15

It is the mood of reception in which Bloch asks us to participate. It is the
being singular plural of queerness. It is like the radical negativity that Sho-
shana Felman invokes when trying to describe the failure that is intrinsic
in J. L. Austin’s mapping of the performative. There is a becoming both
animal and child that Myles ultimately glimpses in an infirmed Schuyler.
In this passage we see the anticipatory illumination of the utopian can-
celing the relentless shadow play of absence and presence on which the
antirelational thesis rests. The affective tone of this passage lights the way
to the reparative.

This book has been written in nothing like a vacuum. I have written
beside many beloved collaborators, interlocutors, and comrades. And
while these friends have been a source of propulsion for me, they have
expressed qualms about some of the theoretical moves I make in Cruising
Utopia. For example, some friends have asked me why I have chosen to
work with the more eccentric corpus of Bloch and not Benjamin’s more
familiar takes on time, history, or loss. I have also been asked how I could
turn to a text such as Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization after Michel Foucault
famously critiqued that work in History of Sexuality, Volume 1. One reader
of an earlier draft expressed concern that I take time to talk about Bloch
in the context of Marxian thought but do not contextualize Heidegger in
relation to Nazism. I have not had any simple or direct answers for these
thoughtful readers. Their concerns have made me aware of a need to fur-
ther situate this project. I have resisted Foucault and Benjamin because
their thought has been well mined in the field of queer critique, so much so
that these two thinkers’ paradigms now feel almost tailor-made for queer
studies. I have wanted to look to other sites of theoretical traction. Bloch
was noted as not being especially progressive about gender and sexuality,
Heidegger’s eventual political turn was of course horrific, and Marcuse’s
insistence on avowedly liberationist rhetoric may seem like something of
a throwback. A fairly obvious reading of Foucault’s writing on the repres-
sive hypothesis39 would perceive it as a direct response to Eros and Civili-
zation. Although Marcuse’s version of surplus repression may potentially
make reprehension the basic constitutive element for thinking about sex,
it nonetheless offers a liberationist and critically utopian take on subjuga-
tion. Marcuse and Heidegger were not radical homosexuals like Foucault
or romantic melancholics like Benjamin, with whom queers today can
easily identify, but my turn to a certain modality of Marxian and phenom-
enological thought is calibrated to offer new thought images for queer cri-
tique, different paths to queerness.

16 Introduction

Let me momentarily leave Bloch aside and instead look to the prob-
lematic figures of Marcuse and his onetime mentor Heidegger. My interest
in their work (and Bloch’s, for that matter) pivots from their relationship
to the tradition of German idealism. Marcuse’s Marxism sought out a phil-
osophical concreteness that, in a provisional fashion, resonated with phe-
nomenology and specifically with the interest of the Heidegger of Being
and Time in pursuing a concrete philosophy. Both strains of thought re-
jected German idealism’s turn to abstraction and inwardness. Both craved
a practical philosophy that described the world in historically salient
fashion. Marcuse turned to Heidegger as a philosophical influence and a
source during what was described as the crisis in Marxism in Germany
during the 1920s. At that point a mode of scientism dominated Marxism
and led to an antiphilosophical and mechanistic approach to Marx. Mar-
cuse and Heidegger’s relationship famously faltered as Marcuse joined the
Frankfurt School and Heidegger eventually joined the Nazi Party on May
1, 1933. Although we can now look at 1928’s Being and Time and locate
philosophical models that were perhaps even then politically right-wing,
it is precisely this relational and political failure on which I nonetheless
want to dwell. Marcuse saw in Heidegger’s ontology a new route to bet-
ter describe human existence. He was taken with his mentor’s notion of
historicity and what it could potentially do for what was then a Marxism
in duress. Much later, Marx’s 1844 manuscripts were discovered, and the
concrete philosophical approach understood as historical materialism be-
came fully manifest. Marcuse looked back and realized that the phenom-
enological version of historicity was not necessary. Although I too have a
great disdain for what Heidegger’s writing became, I nonetheless look on
it as failure worth knowing, a potential that faltered but can be nonethe-
less reworked in the service of a different politics and understanding of
the world. The queer utopianism I am espousing would even look back
on Heidegger’s notion of futurity in Being and Time and attach itself to
aspects of that theory of temporality. In Heidegger’s version of historic-
ity, historical existence in the past allowed for subjects to act with a mind
toward “future possibilities.” Thus, futurity becomes history’s dominant
principle. In a similar fashion I think of queerness as a temporal arrange-
ment in which the past is a field of possibility in which subjects can act
in the present in the service of a new futurity. Is my thesis ultimately cor-
rupted because it finds some kind of historical resonance with the now
politically reprehensible Heidegger? Readers can clearly glimpse the
trace of Marcuse’s renounced mentor in his later writing, and indeed that

Introduction 17

problematic influence is part of the theoretical force of his left philosophy.
To draw from such sources and ultimately make them serve another proj-
ect, one that the author himself would have quickly denounced, serves as
a critical engagement—critique as willful disloyalty to the master. Heide-
gger is therefore not the theoretical protagonist of my argument; more
nearly, he is an opportunity and occasion to think queerness or queerly.
Heidegger is then philosophical master and abject political failure. Thus,
we see the thematic of virtuosity and failure that I describe in chapter 10
as queerness’s way.

Thinking beyond the moment and against static historicisms is a proj-
ect that is deeply sympathetic to Judith Halberstam’s work on queer tem-
porality’s relation to spatiality, most immediately the notion of straight
time. It also draws on Carla Freccero’s notion of fantasmatic historiogra-
phy, Elizabeth Freeman’s theory of temporal drag, Carolyn Dinshaw’s ap-
proach to “touching the past,” Gayatri Gopinath’s theorizing of the time
and place of queer diaspora as an “impossible desire,” and Jill Dolan’s work
on the utopian in performance.40 Along those lines, although this writ-
ing project is not always explicitly about race, it does share much politi-
cal urgency with a vibrant list of scholars working on the particularities of
queers of color and their politics.41 I have spent some time arguing against
the antirelational move in queer theory. Queer feminist and queer of color
critiques are the powerful counterweight to the antirelational. I situate my
work squarely in those quarters.

Certainly Lauren Berlant’s work on the politics of affect in public life
has had a structuring influence on this project. In a 1994 essay, titled “’68
or Something,” Berlant explained the article’s project in a way that reso-
nates with much of the powerful writing that has followed it: “This essay
is written in favor of refusing to learn the lessons of history, of refusing
to relinquish utopian practice, of refusing the apparently inevitable move-
ment from tragedy to farce that has marked so much of the analysis of
social movements generated post ’68.”42 The refusal of empiricist histori-
ography and its denouncement of utopian longing has been an important
cue for this project. Berlant’s insistence on the refusal of normative affect
reminds me of the Great Refusal for which Marcuse called years earlier.
Cruising Utopia is a critical move that has been forged in relation to the
work of Berlant and other scholars with whom I have had the luxury to
work under the banner of the Public Feelings Group.43 That theoretical
project has had an important activist component thanks to the inspired
work of the Chicago Feel Tank.44 The very idea that we can even venture

18 Introduction

to feel utopian in the here and now has been nourished through my fortu-
nate association with this collegial cohort.

Ultimately, this book offers a theory of queer futurity that is attentive
to the past for the purposes of critiquing a present. This mode of queer
critique depends on critical practices that stave off the failures of imagina-
tion that I understand as antirelationality and antiutopianism in queer cri-
tique. The mode of “cruising” for which this book calls is not only or even
primarily “cruising for sex.” I do see an unlimited potentiality in actual
queer sex, but books of criticism that simply glamorize the ontology of
gay male cruising are more often than not simply boring. In this book I do
nonetheless distill some real theoretical energy from historical accounts
of fucking and utopia, such as John Giorno’s journals (chapter 2) and
Samuel Delany’s memoir, The Motion of Light and Water (chapter 3). That
may have something to with the historical texture those texts provide. In-
deed this book asks one to cruise the fields of the visual and not so visual
in an effort to see in the anticipatory illumination of the utopian. If, as
indicated by the famous quotation from Oscar Wilde that appears in the
epigraph, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth
glancing at,” then affective and cognitive maps45 of the world that a criti-
cally queer utopianism can create, maps that do include utopia, need to be
attended to in a fashion that indeed resembles a kind of politicized cruis-
ing. In the place of various exhausted theoretical stances Cruising Utopia
not only asks readers to reconsider ideas such as hope and utopia but also
challenges them to feel hope and to feel utopia, which is to say challenges
them to approach the queer critique from a renewed and newly animated
sense of the social, carefully cruising for the varied potentialities that may
abound within that field.

Pleasure a nd Da nger :
Towa rd a Po l it i cs of
Sexua l ity

Caro l e S. Van ce

The tension between sexual danger and sexual pleasure is a
powerful one in women’s lives. Sexuality is simultaneously a
domain of restriction, repression, and danger as well as a domain
of exploration, pleasure, and agency. To focus only on pleasure
and gratification ignores the patriarchal structure in which
women act, yet to speak only of sexual violence and oppression
ignores women’s experience with sexual agency and choice and
unwittingly increases the sexual terror and despair in which
women live.

The juxtaposition of pleasure and danger has engaged the
attention of feminist theorists and activists in both the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, just as it has been an ongoing subject in
the lives of individual women who must weigh the pleasures of
sexuality against its cost in their daily calculations, choices, and
acts. For some, the dangers of sexuality – violence, brutality, and
coercion, in the form of rape, forcible incest, and exploitation, as
well as everyday cruelty and humiliation – make the pleasures
pale by comparison. For others, the positive possibilities of
sexuality – explorations of the body, curiosity, intimacy, sens­
uality, adventure, excitement, human connection, basking in the
infantile and non-rational – are not only worthwhile but provide
sustaining energy. Nor are these positions fixed, since a woman
might chose one perspective or the other at different points in
her life in response to external and internal events.

Since the nineteenth century, feminist theorists have disagreed
on how to improve women’s sexual situation and, even more
basically, on what women want sexually. Some have been
broadly protectionist, attempting to secure some measure of
safety from male lust and aggression, assuming either that
women’s sexuality is intrinsically muted or at least that it cannot
flower until greater safety is established. Others, more often in
the twentieth century than the nineteenth, have been expansionist
and exploratory, believing that women could venture to be sexual
in more visible and daring ways, especially as material changes
which favored women’s autonomy in general (wage labor,
urbanization, contraception, and abortion) also supported sexual


2 Carole S. Vance

autonomy. 1 Throughout one hundred years of intermittent but
intense dialogue among theorists, organizers, and activists run a
host of questions to which we do not fully know the answers,
despite the progress we have made:

– Are male and female sexual natures essentially different, or the
product of specific historical and cultural conditions?

– Has women’s sexuality been muted by repression, or is it
wholly different from men’s?

– Does the source of sexual danger to women lie in an
intrinsically aggressive or violent male nature, or in the
patriarchal conditions that socialize male sexuality to aggres­
sion and female sexuality to compliance and submission?

– How can male sexual violence be reduced or eliminated?
– How does the procreative possibility of sex enter into women’s

experience of sexuality?
– Should feminism be promoting maximum or minimum differ­

entiation in the sexual sphere, and what shape should either
vision take?

Behind these questions are changes in material conditions and
social organization wrought by capitalist transformations and the
women’s movement itself, most notably in the weakening of the
traditional bargain women were forced to make with men: if
women were “good” (sexually circumspect), men would protect
them; if they were not, men could violate and punish them. As
parties to this system, “good” women had an interest in
restraining male sexual impulses, a source of danger to women,
as well as their own sexuality which might incite men to act.
Nineteenth-century feminists elaborated asexuality as an option
for respectable women, using female passionlessness and male
sexual restraint to challenge male sexual prerogatives. The
second wave of feminism demanded and won increased sexual
autonomy for women and decreasing male “protection,” still
within a patriarchal framework. Amid this flux, many women have
come to feel more visible and sexually vulnerable. Despite the
breakdown in the old bargain, which placed sexual safety and
sexual freedom in opposition, women’s fear of reprisal and
punishment for sexual activity has not abated.

This sense of vulnerability has been played on by the Right.
The conservative attack on feminist gains has taken the form of a
moral crusade. In its campaign against the evils of abortion,
lesbian and gay rights, contraceptive education and services, and
women’s economic independence, the Right is attempting to
reinstate traditional sexual arrangements and the formerly

3 Pleasure and Danger

inexorable link between reproduction and sexuality. In this, the
Right offers a comprehensive plan for sexual practice which
resonates in part with women’s apprehension about immorality
and sexual danger. 2 To respond convincingly as feminists, we
cannot abandon our radical insights into sexual theory and
practice. Instead, we must deepen and expand them, so that
more women are encouraged to identify and act in their sexual

The papers, poems, and images collected in this book are a
move in this direction. They originated at the Scholar and the
Feminist IX conference, “Towards a Politics of Sexuality,” held at
Barnard College on April 24, 1982. The conference attempted to
explore the ambiguous and complex relationship between sexual
pleasure and danger in women’s lives and in feminist theory. The
intent of conference planners was not to weaken the critique of
danger. Rather, we wished to expand the analysis of pleasure,
and to draw on women’s energy to create a movement that
speaks as powerfully in favor of sexual pleasure as it does
against sexual danger. As feminists, we need to draw on women’s
experience of pleasure in imagining the textures and contours
that would unfurl and proliferate in a safer space. What we want
is not a mystery, not a blank. The clues to it are found in our daily
experience already.

One clue lies in an obvious form of danger – the sexual violence
committed by men against women: rape, sexual harassment, incest.
As women began to speak out, it became clear that these
apparently taboo acts were far from uncommon, and their damage
to women was great. Beyond the actual physical or psychological
harm done to victims of sexual violence, the threat of sexual attack
served as a powerful reminder of male privilege, constraining
women’s movement and behavior. The cultural mythology sur­
rounding sexual violence provided a unique and powerful route for
it to work its way into the heart of female desire. A rag-bag of myths
and folk knowledge that the contemporary feminist movement
opposed depicted male lust as intrinsic, uncontrollable, and
easily aroused by any show of female sexuality and desire. The
main features of this ideology have been roundly critiqued by
feminists, primarily for blaming the female victim while letting
men off the hook, but its corollaries are equally pernicious. If
female sexual desire triggers male attack, it cannot be freely or
spontaneously shown, either in public or in private.

Instead, female desire should be restricted to zones protected
and privileged in the culture: traditional marriage and the nuclear
family. Although the boundaries of the safe zone have been
somewhat renegotiated since the nineteenth century to include
relatively respectable forms of unmarried and non-procreative

4 Carole S. Vance

heterosexuality, gross and public departures from “good” woman
status, such as lesbianism, promiscuity, or non-traditional hetero­
sexuality, still invite – and are thought to justify – violation.

Many women think that this ideology is unjust, illogical, and
misogynous. Nevertheless, they believe it is widespread and
potent, although to what degree can never be known with certainty.
Better safe than sorry is still a dominant caution. Women – social­
ized by mothers to keep their dresses down, their pants up, and
their bodies away from strangers – come to experience their own
sexual impulses as dangerous, causing them to venture outside
the protected sphere. Sexual abandon and impulsiveness acquire
a high price, since women must think not only about the
consequences of their sexual actions for themselves, but also
about the consequences for men, whose sexual “natures” are
supposedly lustful, aggressive, and unpredictable. Through a
culturally dictated chain of reasoning, women become the moral
custodians of male behavior, which they are perceived as
instigating and eliciting. Women inherit a substantial task: the
management of their own sexual desire and its public expression.
Self-control and watchfulness become major and necessary
female virtues. As a result, female desire is suspect from its first
tingle, questionable until proven safe, and frequently too
expensive when evaluated within the larger cultural framework
which poses the question: is it really worth it? When unwanted
pregnancy, street harassment, stigma, unemployment, queer­
bashing, rape, and arrest are arrayed on the side of caution and
inaction, passion often doesn’t have a chance.

The second wave of feminism mounted a major critique of
male sexual violence, indicting the complicity of state institutions
and the cultural ideologies that justify it. However, feminism is
newly beginning to appreciate the intra-psychic effects of a
gender system that places pleasure and safety in opposition for
women. Sexual constriction, invisibility, timidity, and uncuriosity
are less the signs of an intrinsic and specific female sexual nature
and more the signs of thoroughgoing damage. The resulting
polarization of male and female sexuality is a likely product of the
prevailing gender system, which is used to justify women’s need
for a restricted, but supposedly safe space and highly controlled
sexual expression. The horrific effects of gender inequality may
include not only brute violence, but the internalized control of
women’s impulses, poisoning desire at its very root with self­
doubt and anxiety. The subtle connection between how patri­
archy interferes with female desire and how women experience
their own passion as dangerous is emerging as a critical issue to
be explored.

The threat of male violence is, however, not the only source of

5 Pleasure and Danger

sexual danger. Sexuality activates a host of intra-psychic
anxieties: fear of merging with another, the blurring of body
boundaries and the sense of self that occurs in the tangle of parts
and sensations, with attendant fears of dissolution and self­
annihilation. In sex, people experience earlier substrates,
irrational connections, infantile memories, and a range of rich
sensations.3 We fear dependency and possible loss of control, as
well as our own greedy aggression, our wishes to incorporate
body parts, even entire persons. Having been told that pleasure
threatens civilization, we wonder: what if there is no end to

Sexuality also raises t”le fear of competition, as we recognize
our own wishes to compete for attention and for loved objects.
Whether women are lesbian or heterosexual, the competitors are
other women, an unsisterly prospect. Finally, to the extent that
women’s experience of desire signals the giving up of vigilance
and control – the responsibility of a proper woman – it causes
profound unease about violating the bounds of traditional
femininity. 4 Trangressing gender raises the specter of separation
from other women – both the mother and literal and metaphorical
sisters – leaving one isolated and vulnerable to attack. These
subterranean pulls on women are no less powerful by remaining
unnamed. Our unspoken fears are added to the sum of sexual
terror. Without a better language to excavate and delineate these
other sources of danger, everything is attributed to men, thereby
inflating male power and impoverishing ourselves. Moreover, we
leave the irrationality and volatility of sex open to manipulation by
others, easily mobilized in campaigns against sexual deviance,
degeneration, and pollution.

The hallmark of sexuality is its complexity: its multiple
meanings, sensations, and connections. It is all too easy to cast
sexual experience as either wholly pleasurable or dangerous; our
culture encourages us to do so. Women are encouraged to assent
that all male sexuality done to them is pleasurable and liberatory:
women really enjoy being raped but can’t admit it, and the often
horrid cartoons in Hustler are just a lighthearted joke. In a
counter-move, the feminist critique emphasized the ubiquity of
sexual danger and humiliation in a patriarchal surround. Initially
useful as an ideological interruption, this critique now shares the
same undialectical and simplistic focus as its opposition.
Women’s actual sexual experience is more complicated, more
difficult to grasp, more unsettling. Just as agreeing not to mention
danger requires that one’s sexual autobiography be recast,
agreeing not to speak about pleasure requires a similar dishonest
alchemy, the transmutation of sexuality into unmitigated danger
and unremitting victimization.

6 Carole S. Vance

The truth is that the rich brew of our experience contains
elements of pleasure and oppression, happiness and humiliation.
Rather than regard this ambiguity as confusion or false
consciousness, we should use it as a source-book to examine
how women experience sexual desire, fantasy, and action. We
need to sort out individually and together what the elements of
our pleasure and displeasure are. What, for instance, is powerful,
enlivening, interesting in our experience? Our task is to identify
what is pleasurable and under what conditions, and to control
experience so that it occurs more frequently. To begin, we need
to know our sexual histories, which are surely greater than our
own individual experience, surely more diverse than we know,
both incredible and instructive. To learn these histories, we must
speak about them to each other. And for speech to flourish, there
must be tolerance for diversity and curiosity, which Joan Nestle
calls “the respect that one life pays to another.”5 Without
women’s speech, we fall back on texts and myths, prescriptive
and overgeneralized.

Even some feminist analysis runs the risk of overemphasizing
sexual danger, following the lead of the larger culture. The anti­
pornography movement in a sense restates the main premises of
the old gender system: the dominant cultural ideology elaborates
the threat of sexual danger, so the anti-pornography movement
responds by pushing for sexual safety via the control of public
expression of male sexuality.6 Although this would seem in
certain respects a decisive break with an oppressive system –
sexual danger is being directly challenged – in other respects the
focus continues unchanged in that sexual pleasure for women is
still minimized and the exploration of women’s pleasurable
experience remains slight. Feminism has succeeded in making
public previously unmentionable activities like rape and incest.
But the anti-pornography movement often interprets this as
an indicator of rising violence against women and a sign of
backlash against feminism. The net effect has been to suggest
that women are less sexually safe than ever and that discus­
sions and explorations of pleasure are better deferred to a safer

Women are vulnerable to being shamed about sex, and the
anti-pornography ideology makes new forms of shaming pos­
sible. Traditional objections that women’s concern with sex is
unimportant are restated in suggestions that sexuality is trivial,
diversionary, or not political. If sexual desire is coded as male,
women begin to wonder if they are really ever sexual. Do we
distrust our passion, thinking it perhaps not our own, but the
construction of patriarchal culture? Can women be sexual actors?
Can we act on our own behalf? Or are we purely victims, whose

7 Pleasure and Danger

efforts must be directed at resisting male depredations in a
patriarchal culture? Must our passion await expression for a safer
time? When will that time come? Will any of us remember what
her passion was? Does exceeding the bounds of femininity –
passivity, helplessness, and victimization – make us deeply
uncomfortable? Do we fear that if we act on our most deeply felt
sexual passion that we will no longer be women? Do we wish,
instead, to bind ourselves together into a sisterhood which seeks
to curb male lust but does little to promote female pleasure? Sex
is always guilty before proven innocent, an expensive under­
taking considering the negative sanctions it easily evokes.

The overemphasis on danger runs the risk of making speech
about sexual pleasure taboo. Feminists are easily intimidated by
the charge that their own pleasure is selfish, as in political
rhetoric which suggests that no woman is entitled to talk about
sexual pleasure while any woman remains in danger – that is –
never. Some also believe that sexuality is a privileged topic,
important only to affluent groups, so to talk of it betrays bad
manners and bad politics on the part of sexual betters toward the
deprived, who reputedly are only interested in issues that are
concrete, material, and life-saving, as if sexuality were not all of
these. The result is that sexual pleasure in whatever form has
become a great guilty secret among feminists.

Hiding pleasure and its sources in feminist discussion does not
make the world safe for women, any more than women’s
acceding to the system of male protection made the world safe
for them. When pleasure occupies a smaller and smaller public
space and a more guilty private space, individuals do not
become empowered; they are merely cut off from the source of
their own strength and energy. If women increasingly view
themselves entirely as victims through the lens of the oppressor
and allow themselves to be viewed that way by others, they
become enfeebled and miserable. The taboo on investigating
pleasure led to an abstract sexual theory which bears little
relationship to daily life. If theory is to have any valid relationship
to experience, we need to acknowledge that sexuality is worth
talking about seriously. We cannot create a body of knowledge
that is true to women’s lives, if sexual pleasure cannot be spoken
about safely, honestly, and completely.

Much feminist work on sexuality starts from the premise that
sex is a social construction, articulated at many points with the
economic, social, and political structures of the material world.
Sex is not simply a “natural” fact, as earlier, essentialist theories
would suggest. Although sexuality, like all human cultural activity,
is grounded in the body, the body’s structure, physiology, and
functioning do not directly or simply determine the configuration

8 Carole S. Vance

or meaning of sexuality; were this so, w·e would expect to find
great uniformity across the world’s cu.ltures. Yet the sexual
diversity we see is startling: activities COI’l.demned in one society
are encouraged in another, and ideas ab(.)ut what is attractive or
erotic or sexually satisfying or even se.xually possible vary a
great deal.

Nor is the role of culture confined to chDosing some sexual acts
(by praise, encouragement, or reward) al:1d rejecting others (by
scorn, ridicule, or condemnation), as if s-electing from a sexual
buffet. The social construction of sexualit�’ is far more thorough­
going, encompassing the very way s�x is conceptualized,
defined, labeled, and described from time to time and from
culture to culture.7 Although we can specific physical
actions like anal sex, heterosexual intercourse, kissing, fellatio, or
masturbation, it is clear that the social and personal meanings
attached to each of these acts in terms of sexual identity and
sexual community have varied historically. Without denying the
body, we note that the body and its a�tions are understood
according to prevailing codes of meaning. Recent work on the
history of male homosexuality shows, for instance, that although
sodomy occurred and was punished in earlier periods in Europe
and America, it was viewed as the result ()f carnal lust to which
any mortal could fall prey, not as an act con\mitted by a particular
type of individual, the “homosexual.” The classification of sexual
types awaited the late nineteenth century, when capitalism and
urban development made it possible for individuals to exist
beyond the sphere of the extended family as a productive and
reproductive unit.8 Historians have also traced the outlines of
changing definitions of women’s intimacy. In the nineteenth
century, two women who shared the same household and bed
were usually perceived as close friends; by the twentieth century,
such women were increasingly viewed as lesbians.9 Doubtless,
modern forms of heterosexuality have a history to be written as

One might expect that feminists would be especially receptive
to a social construction approach to sexuality, since in many ways
it is analogous to social construction theories about gender: that
the body is the agent of human activity, but the body’s
configuration does not literally determine it. Scientific “know­
ledge” or folklore suggesting that the dominant cultural arrange­
ments are the result of biology – and therefc>re intrinsic, eternal,
and unchanging – are usually ideologies st1pporting prevailing
power relations. Deeply felt personal identities – for example,
masculinity/femininity or heterosexuality/homosexuality – are not
private or solely the product of biology, but ‘lre created through
the intersection of political, social, and ecor1omic forces, which

9 Pleasure and Danger

vary over time.
Yet social construction theory remains a radical view of

sexuality which poses a range of unsettling questions for
feminists and other thinkers brought up on an essentialist view of
sexuality. What is the nature of the relationship between the
arbitrariness of social construction and the immediacy of our
bodily sensations and functions? Is sexuality not a unitary,
ongoing phenomenon with an essential core, but something
created differently at each time and place? If sexuality is not a
transhistorical, transcultural essence whose manifestations are
mildly shaped by cultural factors, must we then consider the
possibility that desire is not intrinsic but itself constituted or
constructed, and if so, by what mechanisms?

Social construction theory has run into some misguided
interpretations. Some suggest that if sexuality is constructed at
the cultural level, then it can be easily reconstructed or
deconstructed at the social or personal level. Not necessarily.
The cultural analogue is useful here, for although human cultures
are arbitrary in that behavior is learned and not intrinsic,
anthropologists do not believe that entire cultures can transform
themselves overnight, or that individuals socialized in one cultural
tradition can acculturate at whim. The mutability of sexuality in an
individual lifetime is an interesting and important question,
however. Clearly, there are examples of both persistence and
fluidity in sexual desire: for example, individuals who “knew”
they were gay at an early age and remained so despite aversion
therapy and incarceration, and others who “become” gay or
lesbian at different stages in the life cycle in a manner suggesting
internal change, rather than belated expression of “repressed”
desire. Although questions about fluidity of sexuality often focus
on sexual orientation and object choice, there are many other
areas where similar questions could be asked: fantasy, masturba­
tion, or non-monogamy. The question of the stability and flexibility
of sexual behavior within and across individuals remains
intriguing and poorly understood.

The parallels between social constructionist approaches to
gender (the cultural marking of biological sex) and sexuality
(desire and erotic pleasure) make it possible to see that although
both may be socially constructed, sexuality and gender are
separate but overlapping domains or, as Gayle Rubin calls them,
“vectors of oppression.” Of particular interest is the articulation
between specific features of each system, namely how the
configurations of the sexual system bear on the experience of
being female and, conversely, how the definitions of gender
resonate with and are reflected in sexuality. Despite the many
interrelationships of sexuality and gender, sexuality is not a

10 Carole S. Vance

residual category, a subcategory of gender; nor are theories of
gender fully adequate to account for sexuality. 11 The task is to
describe and analyze how cultural connections are made
between female bodies and what comes to be understood as
“women” and “female sexuality.”

Social construction, then, requires a more detailed investigation
of how categories acquire meaning and change over time, how
objects and acts become eroticized, how external symbols
acquire internal, psychic meaning. If sexuality is con­
structed, what is the site of the construction? Recent work has
attended not only to the larger social formations that organize
sexuality – the political economy, religion, the educational
system, the criminal code, public and mental health systems –
but also to how these forces are mediated through “private”
life: marriage, the family, child nurturing, the household, inti­
macy, and effect.

Information about sexuality comes from multiple sources, as
well as from many disciplines. A survey of the literature reveals
information, partial though it may be, on sexual behavior and acts,
along with their physiological and biological dimensions; fantasy
and inner, psychological experience; the public presentation of
our sexual selves; visual images and representations available in
the culture; sexual styles; the place of sexuality in the discourse of
the political community to which we belong; sexual ideologies,
both scientific and religious. Yet when we examine a specific
group of women, we often find that a full range of information
covering all these realms is not available. Nevertheless, rather
than restrict our comments to the domains for which we have
information, we often formulate large-scale generalizations, with
varying degrees of plausibility. Unfortunately, one of the most
interesting questions – the relationship between these sexual
domains – are they consistent, or inconsistent? – can never be
examined as long as data are lacking and, worse, we have a
dulled sense of what is missing. These informational gaps have
several consequences.

First, understudied groups are often victims of the most far­
flung generalizations, spun on the basis of some lyric, poem, or
piece of art. One cannot, for instance, assume to be knowledge­
able about lesbianism in the twentieth century simply because
one has read Colette’s The Pure and the Impure. Second, it
remains impossible to compare sexual domains among groups of
women – to ask, for example, what is the content of fantasy for
white, black, and Hispanic women? Third, attempts to gauge the
overall situation of specific groups usually end up relying on not
only incomplete but usually non-comparable domains: for
example, images of women’s sexuality in the oral literature of an

1 1 Pleasure and Danger

ethnic minority may be held up against Kinsey’s data on the
incidence of premarital sex among white, college-educated
females in the 1950s. When we compare the sexual situation
between and within groups of women, it is important to
remember that no conclusions can be drawn by looking at only
one layer of sexual information without considering the others.

The information we have – social science surveys, literary
analyses, fiction, poetry, visual art, biomedical observations,
biographies and autobiographies – raises serious questions of
interpretation. None is the straightforward report about women’s
sexual reality that we wish, and sometimes imagine, we had. If
sex is a cultural product, all the representations, descriptions, and
depictions of that sexuality are too. Just as our own bodily
experience is mediated through culture, so reports or descrip­
tions of others’ experience are mediated through cultural forms,
conventions, and codes of meaning. 12 We understand more
readily that visual representations – movies, paintings, even
photographs – are not literal or realistic; they betray a style, an
emphasis, a perspective, raising questions for the viewer about
the relationship between what is depicted and what is. The
presence of the artist destroys the illusion of objectivity. Scientific
reports, fiction, diaries, letters, social science surveys, humanistic
accounts are also, to varying degrees, cultural products. Even the
most empirically oriented form requires a cultural frame of
organization, a code of meaning, a language that classifies
feelings and the body. Since the 1890s, for example, sex
researchers’ attempts to define female pleasure and sexual
gratification have undergone dramatic shifts, from vague euphe­
misms about marital harmony to Masters and Johnson’s measure­
ment of the strength and number of vaginal contractions during
orgasm. For the viewer or reader, the question remains the same:
what is the relationship between what is written in the text or
shown in the image, and what is? We are most aware of
embedded assumptions when reading material from another time
or place, which may appear incongruous or disjunctive. Yet we
must admit that contemporary work by both men and women has
embedded meanings too. These embedded assumptions are
especially significant, because so much of the literature on female
sexuality has been written by men, suggesting the need for
critical reading.

Whether scientific, religious, or political, prescriptive texts that
aim to tell people what to do or what is normal pose a number of
questions. Are they a self-assured restatement of prevailing
norms, safely read as literal indicators of behavior? Or are they
anxious attempts to resocialize renegade readers to norms they
are flouting? To what degree do prescriptive texts reach a mass

1 2 Carole S. Vance

audience, and did they in the past, and with what effect?
Historical examination of even the most seemingly objective
“scientific” prescriptive material reveals that its messages have
not been homogeneous and static, but have changed over time.
These fluctuations are traceable to the emergence of different
scientific groups; changes in theories about workable solutions to
social problems; battles and competition for ideology, profes­
sional turf, patients, and money; and the rise and fall of particular
scientific paradigms.

Similar questions can be raised about depictions of women’s
sexuality in the dominant culture, both in the privileged forms of
high culture and in popular culture. Although different in formal
intent from the prescriptive text and so nominally differentiated
from it, mainstream representations of sexuality may perform a
similar educative or socializing function. Such representations are
complex, to varying degrees both depicting and distorting actual
behavior, as well as influencing it. Yet the material being
analyzed – for example, popular fiction in women’s magazines,
1950s movies, or radio jingles – suggests that dominant culture is
not cranked out by an unseen hand, but that each cultural product
bears a relationship to a particular genre and its conventions, as
well as to other objects of its kind, and to the creator’s purpose
and intended audience. Thus, within the dominant culture, there
is inconsistency, contradiction, and tension, especially in relation
to social change, as well as uniformity and pattern.

How do we understand such popular sexual images and
representations? Are they overt restatements of conservative
ideology; conspiratorial attempts to prevent cultural change;
efforts to smooth over cultural contradictions and tensions; or a
mixed bag containing both interruptions as well as continuities?
For example, the proliferation of information about clitoral
orgasm and oral sex in contemporary women’s magazines and
popular sex manuals can be read in a variety of ways. It can be
seen as a liberating expansion beyond the bounds of procreative
heterosexuality, enabling women to learn about and experience a
type of pleasure not connected to reproduction or even to the
penis. Male concern that their partners experience orgasm may
signal the development of more egalitarian and reciprocal sexual
standards. On the other hand, the anxious question, “Did you
come?” may demarcate a new area of women’s behavior men are
expected to master and control – female orgasm. In this light, the
marital literature may be seen as an attempt to capture and
contain the potentially radical implications of clitoral orgasm,
which challenges both the form that heterosexual practice usually
takes and the notion that heterosexuality is superior.

The dominant culture and its symbolic system reflect the class

13 Pleasure and Danger

arrangements of that society, and are not mirror reflections of
ongoing social reality. The cultural assumptions of higher-status
groups receive a privileged position, with lower status groups
consigned to varying degrees of cultural invisibility. Mainstream
culture is white, male, heterosexual, upper and middle class in its
point of view and assumptions. Appearing in mainstream culture
either rarely (literal invisibility) or inaccurately through caricature
or other distortion, members of lower-status groups become
culturally invisible. Dominant culture often does not reflect the
lived social reality of subordinate groups, although these groups
by necessity must be familiar with it. Members of dominant
groups not only participate freely and comfortably in mainstream
culture, which reflects their own world-view, but they are also
allowed the conceit that lower-status groups share their assump­
tions and that other perspectives or points of view don’t exist. 13

It is clear that non-dominant groups, to the extent that their
social lives are different from those in the mainstream, have
different sensibilities and consciousness which are expressed in
a variety of cultural forms – lyrics and music, oral tradition, humor
as well as in fiction and art. Because the printed word is often the
enclave of dominant culture, used to enforce cultural invisibility,
the voices of lower-status groups are relatively absent from
dominant texts. But these groups have not been silent; they have
created rival cultural and symbolic systems, requiring methods
which tap oral tradition in order to describe them. Thus, the
minimal appearance of black women in dominant cultural forms
is no guide to the way women’s sexuality was represented by
black people to each other. Such an investigation requires
examination of jokes, songs, and oral narratives, important as
sources of information, socialization, and transmission of know­
ledge across generations within the black community. 14 Lesbian
subcultures are similarly absent from the written record, although
they vigorously responded to a partial and distorting depiction of
lesbians in dominant culture, which found the acknowledgment of
love between women at once ridiculous and threatening.
Although mainstream culture has a vested interest in keeping
alternative cultures out of the printed record and invisible,
stigmatized groups also have their own motives for keeping their
cultural products and conventions hidden: for self-protection, to
prevent cooptation, and to create a safe cultural space, a world
over which they have some control. The description of alternative
cultures makes it possible to entertain important questions: How
powerful and vigorous are alternative cultural forms regarding
sexuality? What competition do they offer to dominant forms, or
what contradictions do they mediate or resolve?

Another interesting issue is the way in which political and

14 Carole S. Vance

social movements position sexuality in theory, discourse, and
action. For participants in social movements, whether ethnic,
racial, or religious, the conventions of sexual discourse may not
mirror literal behavior. Nevertheless, they constitute an important
arena in which topics are consigned to importance or oblivion.
The nineteenth-century feminist discourse about women’s sex­
uality and sexual reform, for instance, remained largely hetero­
sexual and marital, despite evidence of women’s actual
experience with romantic female friendships that offered
physical and emotional intensity. The public, political discussions
did not introduce “lesbians” or “lesbianism” as named categories
for women’s choices and experiences. Such a historical contrast
between lived experience and constructed social reality is
obvious to feminists now, raising questions about what other
unnamed realms lurk silently in our own discussions.

We also need to look at how sexual information, instruction,
and experience are transmitted across and between generations.
Our understanding of the development of sexuality in infancy and
childhood is only beginning. 15 The family, obviously important for
infants and children, may remain an important socializing site for
adult sexuality as well. Large social shifts often appear as
generational contrasts that are observable within families. The
shift, for example, from the nineteenth-century pattern of
separate spheres for the sexes and female passionlessness to the
modern pattern of companionate marriage with a modicum of
female sexual pleasure is reflected in generational contrasts
between mothers and daughters. Although some age cohorts
provide a sharp contrast between old and new, other transitional
ones provide clues to how, through what processes, and at what
cost large-scale social change moved through individual lives.
The notion of sexual transformation and change occurring within
an individual lifetime is a crucial one, because it forces us to give
up the static picture of an unchanging sexual order depending on
infant and child socialization that is impermeable and rigid. It
suggests that childhood experience, though perhaps not totally
mutable, may be later shaped in various directions, and raises
questions about individual perception of and reactions to sexual
change and the degree to which individuals feel that their sexual
expression is an intrinsic given or a choice. Examples include
“frigid” women who did not reach orgasm in heterosexual
penetration during the 1950s who became merely “preorgasmic”
by the 1960s or “multiply orgasmic” in the face of a modern
technological advance, the vibrator; and women whose close and
lifelong intimacy with other women might have caused them to be
labeled celibates or spinsters who are now called, or call
themselves, lesbians.

15 Pleasure and Danger

In examining these domains in which women’s sexuality is
described or represented – and these are only a few – the
observer, interpreter, or scholar is striving to understand what
the various representations mean – that is, what their relationship
is to women’s thought and experience at the time of their
creation. To answer this question, the analyst applies an
interpretive frame, through which meaning can be detected and
inferred. Do we assume that all women share this interpretive
frame? That it is universal? This assumption may be especially
risky if there is a social disjunction between the observer and the
observed, if the interpretive frame of mainstream culture is
applied to invisible groups, or if the analysis concentrates on
implicit meanings and deep structure written at the level of the
unconscious. In each case, the assumption about the universality
of sexual meaning obscures one of the other questions we should
be asking: how does the audience perceive sexual representa­
tions? The assumption of a universal meaning is economical and
efficient, but it may be mistaken.

If we want to study sexuality, we need more information about
individual responses to symbol and image. We need to know
what the viewer brings with her to make an interpretation: a
cultural frame, resonances, connections, and personal exper­
ience. The question of context is important too, since viewers
read symbols differently depending on the material they are
embedded in and the relationship they have to other symbols, as
well as individual interpretive frames which are somewhat

To assume that symbols have a unitary meaning, the one
dominant culture assigns them, is to fail to investigate the
individuals’ experience and cognition of symbols, as well as
individual ability to transform and manipulate symbols in a
complex way which draws on play, creativity, humor, and
intelligence. This assumption grants mainstream culture a hege­
mony it claims, but rarely achieves. To ignore the potential for
variation is to inadvertently place women outside of culture
except as passive recipients of official symbol systems. It
continues to deny what mainstream culture has always tried to
make invisible – the complex struggles of disenfranchised groups
to grapple with oppression using symbolic, as well as economic
and political, resistance. Mainstream symbols may be used to
both reveal and mock dominant culture.

The symbolic transformations presented by some butch/femme
couples as they manipulate gender symbols, for example, are
stunning. 16 To the dominant, heterosexual culture, the butch!
femme couple appears to be a pitiful imitation by inferiors, who
mimic the semiotics of gender distinctions while violating

16 Carole S. Vance

fundamental rules of gender: that women do not have access to
women, do not take sexual initiative, and cannot be sexual
without men. Lesbians, depending on their historical and political
positioning, may interpret the butch/femme couple as presenting
a defiant statement to dominant culture about female power,
visibility, and resistance, a refusal to be invisible and conform, or
as replicating heterosexual patterns for want of a more original
model or for lack of feminist consciousness. The relevance of
context and individual aptitude at cultural transformation and play
points to the speed and subtlety with which symbolic slippage
occurs, and calls for much more intensive attempts to describe
and understand the history and meaning of sexual symbols to
both actors and viewers.

It is no accident that recent feminist sexual controversies about
pornography, S/M, and butch/femme all demonstrate a need for a
more developed analysis of symbolic context and transformation,
especially difficult in regard to visual material where our
education, vocabulary, and sophistication are far less developed
than in regard to literary texts. Our visual illiteracy renders the
image overpowering. The emotion aroused by an image
is easily attached to rhetorical arguments, overwhelming
more subtle analysis and response, and the audience as well, by
manipulative imagery, as in polemical slide shows mounted by
Right to Life groups or some feminist anti-pornography groups. In
each case, the shock induced by the image of a fetus in a bottle
or a woman in chains is effectively used to propel viewers to the
desired conclusion.

Sexuality poses a challenge to feminist inquiry, since it is an
intersection of the political, social, economic, historical, personal,
and experiential, linking behavior and thought, fantasy and
action. That these domains intersect does not mean that they are
identical. Feminists need sophisticated methodologies and
analyses that permit the recognition of each discrete domain as
well as their multiple intersections. Recognizing these layers of
sexual information, we form and adopt generalizations about even
one apparently homogeneous group, white middle-class women,
for example, more cautiously. Popular sex manuals, content
analysis of women’s fiction magazines, vibrator sales, number of
contraceptive prescriptions registered, clothing styles – each
provides a clue, but even for well-studied groups there are many
lacunae. We recognize these lacunae only if we stop extrapolat­
ing from one domain to the other. This recognition spurs inquiry
into missing areas, and ultimately makes possible the comparison
of one domain to another.

A sophisticated analysis of sexual symbols requires that we

1 7 Pleasure and Danger

look beyond easy generalization. Feminist scholarship has
delivered a scathing critique of an androcentric and falsely
universalizing history in which the historical Everyman, like his
authors, was male, white, heterosexual, and affluent. Such
accounts omitted women as both subjects of inquiry and as self­
conscious historical actors. Corrective research indicates that
social characteristics modify the perception and experience of
historical events, with gender a significant social marker. Despite
its critique of false universals, feminist scholarship and inquiry
has not escaped the same sin. Until recently challenged, feminist
descriptions and analyses have often assumed that women are
white, middle- or upper-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and
moderately youthful, or that the experiences and perspectives of
these women are shared by all. The term “woman” used in
feminist discourse often substituted part of women’s experience
for the whole, a “deadly metonymy” in Hortense Spillers’s words,
relegating the experience of some women to silence. 17 The
experience of those standing outside both mainstream culture
and “women’s culture” has been excluded from the feminist
canon as well. Self-criticism of feminist parochialism has
proliferated in recent years 18 and has been persuasive in
showing why feminist analysis must attempt to include the
experience of diverse groups of women, with conclusions
specific to particular groups identified as such. 19

This development, when applied to female sexuality, suggests
that sexuality may be thought about, experienced, and acted on
differently according to age, class, ethnicity, physical ability,
sexual orientation and preference, religion, and region. Confron­
tation with the complex intersection of social identities leads us
away from simple dichotomies (black/white, lesbian/heterosexual,
working-class/middle-class) toward recognizing the multiple inter­
section of categories and the resulting complexity of women’s
lived experience.20

This insight leads to a scholarship increasingly self-conscious
about omissions, gaps, and silences, which is willing to qualify
and specify findings, if they apply to particular groups only, and
to take more aggressive efforts in researching areas and topics
up to now ignored. The simple recognition that little is known
about Asian lesbians, Jewish working-class prostitutes, or
Catholic women who patronize singles bars does not in itself
produce the needed information, although it is certainly a
necessary step in its production. Additional steps include: better
use of available material, which requires more funding, freer
access to papers and diaries held in private collections, and a
willingness to ask more imaginative questions about the sexual
aspects of women’s lives; further work by scholars who . are

18 Carole S. Vance

members of the groups under study as those most attentive to
and attuned to nuances in the material; and an effort to generate
more data, especially about contemporary life. A great deal of
interesting research is being conducted outside the formal
boundaries of academe by community projects and groups that
have been imaginative and resourceful in locating and develop­
ing unusual kinds of material.2 1

But if careless overgeneralization about women’s experience is
dangerous and mystifying, so too is the avoidance of generaliza­
tion in the belief that each woman’s experience is so unique and
conditioned by multiple social intersections that larger patterns
are impossible to discern, and that to attempt generalization is to
do violence to individual experience: the anarchy of sexual
idiosyncrasy. Feminist work on sexuality must confront the
dialectic between specificity and generalization, and endure its
ongoing tension. Theory can only be developed through
reference to an ever-expanding body of information, made
possible through more intensive use of historical material and
through eliciting women’s current experience in a comfortable
climate. 22 Specific data about one group of women may then
acquire more meaning through comparison and contrast with
those for other groups. It is important to simultaneously examine
women’s similarities and differences, questioning whether the
acquisition of femininity and the conditions for its reproduction
affect all women in similar ways, cutting across sexual prefer­
ence, sexual object, and specific behavior. Since feminism, for
political even more than intellectual reasons, is unlikely to
abandon using the term “woman” until all of women’s experience
has been adequately described, its provocative overgeneraliza­
tions might be most positively viewed as an invitation to test the
hypotheses proposed: to object, qualify, and correct.

Although a portion of feminist reluctance to acknowledge
differences among women derives from arrogance on the part of
mainstream feminists, a significant part derives from another
source: the fear of difference among women. If women organize
around their oppression by and through differentiation from men,
should they not maintain a united front, stressing their shared and
unifying characteristic, femaleness? Does the admission of
women’s cross-cutting allegiances and links to groups containing
men weaken the universal sisterhood? Once differences are
admitted, what is to prevent them from becoming bitter and
divisive, fracturing the base for shared political action? In a
society that structures and maintains group antagonisms, what
model do we have for acknowledging difference and working
together? Exploration of differences has, in fact, been a painful
experience, beginning with lesbian and heterosexual differences

19 Pleasure and Danger

in the early stages of the women’s movement and continuing in
recent years to differences involving class, religion, ethnicity, and
race. Although some have retreated to doctrines which empha­
size women’s commonality on the one hand, or women’s total
separation by factors of race and class on the other, many
feminists see the importance of dealing with difference, while
they remain wary and uncertain of how to do so.

Our discomfort with difference is especially evident around
questions of sexual variation, which have expanded beyond the
topic of lesbian and heterosexual difference to include all the
ways women can obtain pleasure. Sexual orientation is not the
only, and may not be the most significant, sexual difference
among women. 23 Our ability to think about sexual difference is
limited, however, by a cultural system that organizes sexual
differences in a hierarchy in which some acts and partners are
privileged and others are punished. Privileged forms of sexuality,
for example, heterosexuality, marriage, and procreation, are
protected and rewarded by the state and subsidized through
social and economic incentives. Those engaging in privileged
acts, or pretending to do so, enjoy good name and good fortune.
Less privileged forms of sexuality are regulated and interdicted
by the state, religion, medicine, and public opinion. Those
practicing less privileged forms of sexuality – what Rubin calls
members of the sexual “lower orders” – suffer from stigma and
invisibility, although they also resist.24

The system of sexual hierarchy functions smoothly only if sexual
nonconformity is kept invisible, hence the interpersonal tension
when sexual difference surfaces. For dominant sexual groups, the
appearance of the sexual lower orders produces anxiety,
discomfort, the threat of pollution, and a challenge to their
hegemony. Sexual liberals are caught between a reluctance to
lose the privileges attendant upon being members of the majority
and a fear of losing their claims to political savvy if they do not
side with the newly vocal, emerging minorities. The women’s
movement has already experienced a similar scenario with the
“lavender menace” panic – a consequence of more visible
lesbian participation in the movement. Some feminists may still
feel that it would be easier to attain their goals without the liability
of perceived “sexual deviance” of any sort. In the current sex
debates, some fear that the women’s movement will come to be
identified with issues even more stigmatized and threatening than
female homosexuality. Thus, feminists’ fear of sexual difference
manifests itself as a concern with public relations, an attempt to
keep the women’s movement respectable and free of pollution.

The appearance of any sexual difference thus raises a question
about its positioning in the sexual hierarchy: Is it normal? Sinful?

20 Carole S. Vance

Deranged? Given this backdrop, feminists, like all members of
the culture, find it difficult to think about sexual difference with
equanimity. The concept of benign sexual variation is a relatively
new one, as Rubin suggests, and for most of us, differences in
sexual taste carry great significance, whether explained in terms
of sin, pathology, or bad politics. Our relative ignorance about the
actual range of sexual behavior and fantasy makes us into latter­
day sexual ethnocentrists; the observer is convinced that her own
sex life is normal, understandable, and tasteful, while the
observed’s preferences may be frightening, strange, and disgust­
ing. The external system of sexual hierarchy is replicated within
each of us, and herein lies its power. Internalized cultural norms
enforce the status quo. As each of us hesitates to admit deviations
from the system of sexual hierarchy, nonconformity remains
hidden, invisible, and apparently rare. The prevailing system
retains hegemony and power, appearing to be descriptive as
well as prescriptive, a statement of what is as well as what should
be. Individuals who deviate appear to themselves to be few and
isolated; they resolve anew to hide their nonconformity.

Underlying reactions of shock, disgust, and startle lurk other,
more complex reactions. Our own insecurity and sexual depriva­
tion make us wonder about what other women are doing.25 Could
I do that too? Is it better? Are they getting more pleasure? Do I
come out unfavorably in the sexual sweepstakes? Are they pathetic
and sick? Am I? Our state of sexual insecurity, fueled by
ignorance and mystification, turns any meeting with sexual
difference into an occasion for passing harsh judgment on
ourselves as well as others. Stigmatized acts or preferences are
devalued according to the rules of sexual hierarchy, yet
paradoxically we judge our own behavior second-rate and
unsatisfying, resenting those whose mere existence makes us
doubtful and deprived. Thus, the presentation of sexual differ­
ence, whether intended or not, is often interpreted as a
chauvinistic statement of superiority, if not an exhortation to
experiment or an attempt to prescribe a new sexual norm.

An enduring slogan in the women’s movement has been “the
personal is the political,” born from the initial discovery that
personal life as lived and experienced is not totally private and
individual, devoid of cultural and social shaping. Discussing
personal life in consciousness-raising groups provided a way for
women who participated to see commonalities in their lives, to
realize that they were not crazy or alone in their dissatisfaction,
and to begin to trace the economic, political, and social forces
that articulated with domains previously thought of as private: the
family, relationships, the self. Examination of women’s lives also
affirmed that they were important and instructive, in fact, in Joan

2 1 Pleasure and Danger

Nestle’s words, “our deepest text” in a society which marginal­
ized and ignored female experience.26 Not only did personal life
have social and political dimensions, but personal pain and
unhappiness often suggested possible targets for political action
and organizing.

The ubiquity of the slogan, however, led toward unintended
and problematic extremes which proved particularly damaging
for sexuality. If personal life had a political dimension, did that
mean that sexual life was singularly and entirely political? If so, it
was perhaps logical to expect that feminists who shared the same
politics should have identical or highly similar sexual lives, and
that there should be a close conformity between political goals
and personal behavior. If the personal was political, then perhaps
the political was personal, converting efforts to change and
reform sexual life and ··elations into substitutes for political action
and organizing. If so, scrutiny, criticism, and policing of peers’
sexual lives, if not fantasies, may become a necessary political
obligation. 27

The quest for politically appropriate sexual behavior has led to
what Alice Echols calls prescriptivism, the tendency to transform
broad, general principles like equality, autonomy, and self­
determination into fairly specific and rigid standards to which all
feminists are expected to conform. There is a very fine line
between talking about sex and setting norms; we err very easily
given our ignorance of diversity, our fear of difference, and our
naive expectation that all like the same sexual food as we.
Although we need open discussion to expand theory, we are
especially vulnerable to transforming statements of personal
preference that inevitably appear in honest discussion (“I like
oral sex”) into statements that may be probabalistically true
(“Women like clitoral stimulation more than penetration”) into
statements that are truly prescriptive (“Women should avoid
penetration”). Certainly, there are intentional efforts at chauvin­
ism. But even mere statements of individual, personal preference
are often heard as statements of superiority, criticisms of the
listener’s practice, or an exhortation to try something new.
Women’s insecurity, deprivation, and guilt make it difficult to hear
a description of personal practice as anything but a prescription.

All political movements, feminism included, espouse social and
ethical ideals as they articulate their vision of the good life or
more just society. Such movements attempt to analyze and
change current behavior, as well as the prevailing social
institutions that shape such behavior. Beginning as radical
renegades, visionaries, and outsiders, their political success
exposes them to the danger of becoming the orthodoxy, if only to
their own members, with their own structure of deadening

22 Carole S. Vance

conformity. The dangers of political analysis transmuted from
illuminating vision to stale dogma loom especially large in regard
to sexuality. Our vast ignorance, our reliance on overgeneraliza­
tion, and the invisibility of so many groups suggest that we are in
a particularly resourceless position to determine which sexual
paths will lead to heaven. Although declaring opposition to
patriarchal culture, some recent feminist pronouncements about
politically desirable and undesirable forms of sexuality bear a
striking resemblance to those of the dominant culture, with one
possible exception: the repositioning of certain varieties of
lesbianism. Within feminism, lesbianism has been rehabilitated,
undergoing a transition from the realm of bad sex to the realm of
good sex, and within some sectors of the movement, given
a privileged position as the most egalitarian and feminist
sexual identity. With this exception, new feminist punishments
are still meted out to the denizens of the same old sexual lower

Quite apart from our ignorance and prejudice, sexuality may
be a particularly unpromising domain for regulation. As Muriel
Dimen argues, sexuality remains fluid and everchanging, evolving
through adult life in response to internal and external vicissitudes:
flexible, anarchic, ambiguous, layered with multiple meanings,
offering doors that open to unexpected experience. The connec­
tion of both sexual behavior and fantasy to infancy, the irrational,
the unconscious is a source of both surprise and pleasure. We
impose simplistic and literal standards congruent with political
goals at our own peril, ultimately undermining the search for
pleasure and expansiveness that motivates visions of political
change and human connection. 28

A serious effort to examine the relationship between sexual
fantasy and behavior and agendas for social change is circum­
vented by the enormity of what we do not know: silences,
oppressions, repressions, invisibility, denials, omissions, lies.
Paradoxically, the effort to rein in sexual behavior and fantasy
according to political dogma guarantees that the silence will
continue and that information challenging it is unlikely to emerge.

Following the path of older political movements, the prevailing
feminist ideology has the power to punish non-conformists by
exclusion and personal attack. If adult sexuality is not so mutable
– an interesting question that remains to be answered – how do
we regard someone whose sexual practice or thought falls short
of current standards: the detritus of patriarchy whose sexual acts
are stigmata of oppression; a fossil, soon to be replaced by a
younger generation free of such taint; or a victim, entitled to
special consideration as long as she laments her unhappy state?
If patriarchal socialization makes the achievement of the sexual

23 Pleasure and Danger

ideal impossible, we may charitably continue to love the sinner,
while hating the sin.

Like religious orthodoxy, political ideology about sexual
behavior contrasts lofty goals with gritty, or fleshy, reality,
exhorting individuals to strive against the odds for perfection.
Falls from grace may be tolerated for those who continue to
believe; thus, actual practice can become quite discrepant from
theoretically desired behavior, without posing any challenge to
the empirical or logical foundations of sexual ideology. The
ideology functions to set up new social categories and maintain
strict boundaries between them: the good and the bad, believers
and infidels.

In its first stage, this wave of feminism moved women by
speaking about what lay below the surface of daily convention
and acknowledged social reality. The excitement of feminism, its
ability to propel women into extraordinary changes in their lives
which were as joyful and exhilarating as they were unexpected
and terrifying came from breaking silence and from naming the
unspoken. This revelation, along with the thought and analysis it
inspired, was radical and revolutionary: it changed women’s lives.

In the course of any social movement, the passage of time and
its very success renders the radical insight routine, as formerly
exciting discoveries become natural and familiar features of the
landscape. At this point, feminism needs to excavate new levels
of women’s experience. The fear and hesitation we feel are akin
to what we felt fifteen years ago: where will this take us? This is a
terrifying undertaking. To overcome our anxiety, we need to
remind ourselves of what excited us: pleasure in discovery, the
enjoyment of complexity, delight in each other.

What directions might a feminist politics on sex take in the
future? Above all, feminism must be a movement that speaks to
sexuality, that does not forfeit the field to reactionary groups who
are more than willing to speak. We cannot be cowardly,
pretending that feminism is not sexually radical. Being a sex
radical at this time, as at most, is less a matter of what you do,
and more a matter of what you are willing to think, entertain, and

Feminism must, of course, continue to work for material
changes that support women’s autonomy, including social justice,
economic equality, and reproductive choice. At the same time,
feminism must speak to sexuality as a site of oppression, not only
the oppression of male violence, brutality, and coercion which it
has already spoken about eloquently and effectively, but also the
repression of female desire that comes from ignorance, invisi­
bility, and fear. Feminism must put forward a politics that resists
deprivation and supports pleasure. It must understand pleasure

24 Carole S. Vance

as life-affirming, empowering, desirous of human connection and
the future, and not fear it as destructive, enfeebling, or corrupt.
Feminism must speak to sexual pleasure as a fundamental right,
which cannot be put off to a better or easier time. It must
understand that the women to whom it speaks, and those it hopes
to reach, care deeply about sexual pleasure and displeasure in
their daily lives; that sexuality is a site of struggle – visceral,
engaging, riveting – and not a domain of interest only to a
narrow, small, and privileged group.

Feminism should encourage women to resist not only coercion
and victimization, but also sexual ignorance, deprivation and fear
of difference. Feminism should support women’s experiments
and analyses, encouraging the acquisition of knowledge. We can
begin by examining our own experience, sharing it with each
other, knowing that in sexuality as in the rest of social life, our
adventures, risks, impulses, and terrors provide clues to the
future. Feminism must insist that women are sexual subjects,
sexual actors, sexual agents; that our histories are complex and
instructive; that our experience is not a blank, nor a mere
repetition of what has been said about us, and that the pleasure
we have experienced is as much a guide to future action as the

In doing so, we admit that it is not safe to be a woman, and it
never has been. Female attempts to claim pleasure are especially
dangerous, attacked not only by men, but by women as well. But
to wait until a zone of safety is established to begin to explore
and organize for pleasure is to cede it as an arena, to give it up,
and to admit that we are weaker and more frightened than our
enemies ever imagined.

Social movements, feminism included, move toward a vision;
they cannot operate solely on fear. It is not enough to move
women away from danger and oppression; it is necessary to
move toward something: toward pleasure, agency, self-definition.
Feminism must increase women’s pleasure and joy, not just
decrease our misery. It is difficult for political movements to
speak for any extended time to the ambiguities, ambivalences,
and complexities that undersccre human experience. Yet move­
ments remain vital and vigorous to the extent that they are able to
tap this wellspring of human experience. Without it, they become
dogmatic, dry, compulsive, and ineffective. To persist amid
frustrations and obstacles, feminism must reach deeply into
women’s pleasure and draw on this energy.

25 Pleasure and Danger


My thinking about sex has been very much influenced by
ongoing discussions with members of the Scholar and the
Feminist IX study group: Julie Abraham, Hannah Alderfer, Jan
Boney, Frances Doughty, Kate Ellis, Faye Ginsburg, Diane
Harriford, Beth Jaker, Barbara Kerr, Mary Clare Lennon,
Marybeth Nelson, Ann Snitow, Paula Webster, and Ellen Willis. I
know that the many refinements and insights proposed during
two years of discussion have become part of my own thinking,
but their density and number make specific acknowledgment a
daunting task. My admiration for members’ intelligence, ability,
and wit is exceeded only by gratitude for their intellectual
generosity and friendship.

I am indebted to Frances Doughty and Paula Webster who
read tender, early drafts with care, patience, and tact. Thanks to
Frances Doughty for unstinting encouragement, feisty counsel
against the demons, innumerable conversations from which I
learned much, and “suddenly possible shifts of meaning.”29
Thanks to Paula Webster for rich discussions spanning many
years, loyal and steady support, a haven in a hard time, and her
generosity and friendship.

I am also indebted to conversations with many other indi­
viduals. Though despairing of thanking all by name, I am
particularly grateful to Dorothy Allison, Pat Califia, Deborah Edel,
Amber Hollibaugh, Joan Nestle, Esther Newton, and Gayle Rubin.
Thanks also to members of my sex and history study group for
conversations, questions, and encouragement over the years:
John D’Emilio, Jonathan Katz, Ann Snitow, Paula Webster, and
Jeffrey Weinstein.

I am grateful to Julie Abraham, Meryl Altman, Jan Boney, Pat
Califia, Frances Doughty, Faye Ginsburg, Jonathan Katz, Barbara
Kerr, Ann Snitow, Paula Webster, and Jeffrey Weinstein for
reading and commenting on intermediate drafts of this essay,
though infelicities and errors remain mine.


1 Ellen Carol DuBois and Linda Gordon, “Seeking Ecstasy on the
Battlefield: Danger and Pleasure in Nineteenth-century Feminist
Sexual Thought”, in this volume.

2 Faye Ginsburg, “The Body Politic: The Defense of Sexual Restriction
by Anti-Abortion Activists”, in this volume.

3 Muriel Dimen, “Politically Correct, Politically Incorrect?”, in this

4 Lucy Gilbert and Paula Webster, Bound By Love, Boston, Beacon,

26 Carole S. Vance

5 Joan Nestle, “The Fern Question”, in this volume, p. 234.
6 Alice Echols, “The Taming of the Id: Feminist Sexual Politics, 1968-

1983″, in this volume.
7 Social construction texts include: Michel Foucault, A History of

Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, New York,
Pantheon, 1978; Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in
Britain, London, Quartet, 1977; Jonathan Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A
New Documentary, New York, Harper & Row, 1983, pp. 138-74.

8 Jonathan Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the
USA, New York, Crowell, 1976.

9 Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, New York, Morrow,
198 1 ; Nancy Sahli, “Smashing: Women’s Relationships Before the
Fall”, Chrysalis, no. 8, 1979, pp. 1 7-27.

10 Jonathan Katz, “The Invention of Heterosexuality”, unpublished
manuscript, 1983.

1 1 See Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex”, in this volume, for a fuller
development of this argument.

12 For varied approaches to the question of representation, see: Meryl
Altman, “Everything They Always Wanted You to Know: The
Ideology of Popular Sex Literature”; Bette Gordon, “Variety : The
Pleasure in Looking”; Barbara Kruger, “No Progress in Pleasure”; and
Kaja Silverman, “Histoire d’O : The Construction of a Female Subject”,
all in this volume.

13 I am indebted to Frances Doughty for many conversations about
representation and the question of invisibility. See Francis Doughty,
“Lesbian Biography, Biography of Lesbians” in Margaret Cruikshank
(ed.), Lesbian Studies, Old Westbury, Feminist Press, 1982, pp. 1 22-7.

14 Hortense J. Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words”, in this
volume, pp. 73- 100.

15 Mary Calderone, “Above and Beyond Politics: The Sexual Socializa­
tion of Children”; Kate Millett, “Beyond Politics? Children and
Sexuality”; and Sharon Thompson, “Search for Tomorrow: On
Feminism and the Reconstruction of Teen Romance”, all in this

16 See Joan Nestle, op. cit.; Esther Newton and Shirley Walton, “The
Misunderstanding: Toward a More Precise Sexual Vocabulary”, in
this volume.

17 Spillers, op. cit.
18 See, for example, Margaret Cruikshank (ed.), Lesbian Studies, op. cit.;

Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith (eds), Conditions Five: “The Black
Women’s Issue”, 1979; Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (eds),
This Bridge Called My Back, Massachusetts, Persephone Press, 198 1 ;
Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith (eds), But Some of
Us Are Brave, New York, Feminist Press, 1982.

19 Self-consciousness about the limitations of one’s data and the specific
category of women to whom conclusions apply raise interesting
questions of style. How and when should such qualifications be
made? At the beginning of a report or article, after which one
resumes the word “women” in describing one’s subjects? Or should
the article doggedly and probably awkwardly continue to specify the
subjects, for example, “white, middle-class, heterosexual Bohemians

27 Pleasure and Danger

in the 1920s” or “urban, working-class Hispanic single mothers”?
Although the awkwardness in the second form is evident, use of the
first results in unintended illogical statements. Consider, for example,
an article noting that post-World War I feminist thinkers on sexuality
included both heterosexual and lesbian women. It then goes on, a
mere paragraph later, to characterize these women’s thought:

Even when it contradicted their own experience, they continued to accept a
male and heterosexual definition of the “sex act.” They were, so to speak,

upwardly mobile, and they wanted integration into the sexual world as defined
by men. The man’s orgasm remained the central event, although now it was
preferable if a woman had one at the same time. (Ellen Carol DuBois and

Linda Gordon, op. cit., p. 99.)

It seems unlikely, without further evidence, that lesbians of the time
defined sex in this way. Yet the problem is linguistic, as well as
conceptual and political: do we have the words or an available
apparatus that can simply and elegantly specify the subjects of study?

This essay in no way escaped a struggle with the use of words like
“women,” “feminists,” and even “we,” reminiscent of the issues
raised by Lorraine Bethel in her poem, “What Chou Mean We, White
Girl?” in Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith (eds), op. cit., pp. 86-92.

20 Frances Doughty, “Introduction: The Daily Life of Lesbian Sexuality”,
unpublished paper, National Women’s Studies Association,
Columbus, Ohio, June 1983; and Oliva M. Espin, “Cultural and
Historical Influences on Sexuality in Hispanic/Latin Women: Implica­
tions for Psychotherapy”; Roberta Galler, “The Myth of the Perfect
Body”; Carol Munter, “Fat and the Fantasy of Perfection”, in this

2 1 For example, the Buffalo Lesbian Oral History Project (Liz Kenneday
and Madeline Davis) and the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Men’s
History Project.

22 Frances Doughty, “Introduction”, op. cit.
23 Pat Califia, “Doing It Together: Gay Men, Lesbians, and Sex”,

Advocate, July 7, 1983, pp. 24-7.
24 Rubin, op. cit.
25 Paula Webster, “The Forbidden: Eroticism and Taboo”, in this

26 Joan Nestle, op. cit.
27 See Alice Echols, op. cit., for a fuller discussion.
28 Dimen, op. cit.
29 Olga Broumas, “Artemis”, in Beginning with 0, New Haven, Yale

University Press, 1977, p. 24.

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