I have been meaning to write a post whose working title is “Rolequeerness and Stepping Outside the Charmed Circle,” but I have yet to actually do it. When I read your recent post, “Oppression as the ultimate time consumer,” I was reminded exactly why I have not yet written that post; as you know, I have been forced to spend what time I do have to spare thinking about rolequeerness defending myself from attacks, instead. This is immensely frustrating, and I echo UnquietPirate’s repeated refrain when I say there was so much more I wanted to write about in conversation with you and other rolequeers this week, and I am sad that what ended up happening was, to put it mildly, not that.
So, since the fighting is draining and I really want this idea out there, here is an attempted explanation of it.
Drawing on my earlier post describing rolequeerness as a politic of action, not a politic of identity, I want to re-introduce two old ideas.
Idea 1: Kyriarchical positionality
This visualization of kyriarchy describes characteristics about people that generally position them into one of two distinct demographic groups, either “privileged” or “oppressed.” However, it makes the nuanced point that there are multiple axes of privilege and oppression, but one single person has many different characteristics. Each one of those many different characteristics places that person somewhere else within the circle. Taken in isolation, each characteristic places them on only one side of the privileged/oppressed binary, but such placement depends on the characteristic in question.
For example, a descendant of European ancestry who has pale skin but is also infertile is privileged in some ways but oppressed in others. Or, for instance, a non-native English speaker who is also a heterosexual member of the dominant religious group and has nevertheless been credentialed by prestigious schooling institutions is likewise privileged in some ways, but oppressed in others. Even though these examples are obscenely simplistic, they are still more complex scenarios than popular “social justice” rhetoric tends to acknowledge.
Also, in pragmatic terms, there is a difference between a person and a demographic group to which that person belongs according to some given taxonomy. So the idea of one’s kyriarchical position, while useful, leaves many questions unaddressed.
Idea 2: Gayle Rubin’s “Charmed Circle of Sex”
In her 1984 essay, “Thinking Sex,” Gayle Rubin introduced what she called the “Charmed Circle,” which showed how different social groups with different social values applied those values to sexual behaviors. She makes the point that some sexual behaviors are judged as “good and natural” and others are judged as “bad and unnatural,” thus derided, stigmatized, and even outlawed.
For example, procreative sex is deemed good and natural, but sex with manufactured objects (like sex toys) is not. Likewise, coupled sex is deemed good and natural, but sex in groups of one (masturbation) or more (threesomes, foursomes, moresomes, etc.) are not.
This moral and sometimes literal policing of sex acts means that people who engage in behaviors that are outside of “the Charmed Circle” face social repercussions for their actions, and this is true despite their kyriarchical position. A married heterosexual white man who is revealed to have had sex with another man is still punished like the way a gay man would be punished. That these punishments imposed on straight men who have sex with men are notÂ identical to the punishments imposed on gay men for being gay men (and indeed they are not exactly the same treatment) does not make those social punishments somehow not-punishments or not-oppressive.
The question left unasked by the Charmed Circle, however, is “who judges this sex good and natural and that sex bad and abnormal?”
Rolequeerness: Stepping Outside the Charmed Circle
Both visualizations use the same methodology: the kyriarchical positionality and the Charmed Circle are round charts and implicitly ask you to look at them along one particular axis at a time. Moreover, the act of choosing to look at each circle along a particular axis is also an act that splits the circle into halves, either “this (privileged) side or that (oppressed) side,” or “the inner (Charmed) part and outer (abnormal) part.”
The perspectives of each visualization, however, are different: kyriarchical positionality interrogates the question of “who.” It prompts you to ask, “Who am I?” “What characteristics about me are present and which ones are not?” “Given the characteristics that make up my ‘self,’ which privileges do I have and which oppressions do I face?” Compare this with Rubin’s Charmed Circle, which prompts you to interrogate the “how” or “what,” instead. The Charmed Circle asks, “What acts am I taking?” “What are the likely consequences of my actions?” “How are The Powers That Be likely to interpret my behavior?”
In other words, kyriarchical positionality is about identity, whereas the Charmed Circle is about actions. To think about and criticize power and powerful structures effectively, we must first deeply internalize the difference between these two things and apply them both at the same time in any analysis of a given situation. This two-pronged approach is important because, for starters, “power” is not merely some abstract idea, but the application of force placed in time and space.
Most current discourse about sex and power has been totally overwhelmed by these ultimately unhelpful questions: Are you what you do? Are you only what you do? More crudely: Are you gay because you have gay sex? Or are you having gay sex because you are gay? Is it a choice? Or were you born that way? While politically expedient, I believe these questions dissecting the justifications for a given act are derailing distractions from the real issue: in what ways do our identities or actions threaten the ability of The Powers That Be to define our boundaries on our behalf?
Rolequeerness is a mental tool (that is, it is an idea) enabling us to more easily merge the two interrogatory approaches outlined in intersectional feminist analysis (kyriarchy, queer theory, etc.) described above in order to help us focus on actions whose impacts actually undermine power. To use UnquietPirate’s words:
Rolequeerness provides a methodological framework for â€œdownward mobilityâ€ inside the power gradient of oppression culture. As such, rolequeers refuse to accept cultural capital as a consolation prize for victimization. We maintain that, in a culture in which power corrupts, choosing vulnerability is a move toward freedom.
“Downward mobility” can be interpreted to mean “doing a thing that makes one vulnerable but by the doing also makes powerful institutions and oppressive systems less able to effectively police people’s thoughts and actions.” There are many examples of this. For instance, in 1957,Â when Masters and Johnson first began their scientific research of sexual physiology, they manufactured a device that was both a camera and a vibrator (lovingly dubbed “Ulyses” in the Showtime dramatization of their work) to assist in their research efforts. Here is a respected white cishet man and medical authority irreverently using their trove of social and financial capital to encourage a sex act that was certainly not within the Charmed Circle of its time or arguably even our time.
Some relevant questions to ask about “downward mobility” would be: What kyriarchical positions were they (e.g., Dr. Masters and Virginia Johnson) in? What focus did they place on their actions? How did they react to others’ responses to their actions?
Another example from the same historical period would be married couples who, for the first time in history, were able to turn to science rather than or in addition to prayer to successfully procreate. Imagine, if you can, the dilemma faced by women of that era who engaged in fertility treatments: procreative sex engaged in by couples using manufactured devices. Is that “charmed” sex or not?
Even today, the inclusion of “manufactured devices” in sex might taint the act in the eyes of more zealous religious sects and authorities. But such an act is certainly more acceptable to society at largeâ€”and, notably, comes with far fewer imposed punishments as a consequenceâ€”than it used to. What actions, taken by whom, and in what ways, are responsible for that change?
Although it may be difficult for some of us to sympathize with married upper-class white women in the 60’s, in practical terms, were the early adopters of “fertility treatments”â€”despite all the ingrained classism and racism and god knows what other horrors they consciously or unconsciously reproducedâ€”acting in ways that undermined the perceived deviousness of using “manufactured devices” as a part of sex?
I believe this is part of what UnquietPirate means when she writes, “rolequeers refuse to accept cultural capital as a consolation prize for victimization.” If a woman in the 1960’s wanted to conceive but had trouble doing so, she faced a horrible dilemma: face the considerable wrath of the men of the cloth and turn to the men of science (and they were almost always men), or accept the “consolation prize” of moral purity and suffer the unnecessary victimization of self-imposed sterility. What would today’s world look like if everyone always accepted consolation prizes?
My goal in this post is not to propose answers for whether these behaviors or people “are rolequeer” or whatever. My goal is simply to more clearly describe a way of thinking about power and domination that has, at least for me, proven itself capable of inspiring acts and desires that reliably frighten powerful people. Regardless of your position in oppressive systems, you can still take liberatory acts; what matters is the focus of your action, what story you’re telling yourself and others about it, and how you respond to others who react to the acts you take.
No gods, no masters, no Dominants,