Mind Caviar

"There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved."

~ George Sand (1862)

Mind Caviar, Vol. 4 Annual Issue, 2003

Fencesitter Blues: An Intimate Essay

by Chris Hall

In listing my dominant personality traits, my inability to make up my mind would sit someplace above social ineptitude in large groups and just below procrastination as an art form.  The difference, though, is that my indecisiveness has a tangible effect in shaping my take on the world, maybe even definitively so.   For instance, it explains why, when forced to finally choose a major in college, I picked Liberal Arts: it just wasn’t in me to set my sights on a single field, and chose the major that allowed me to study as many different things as possible.

In terms of religion, I call myself an atheist for convenience’s sake, but “agnostic” is the more accurate term.  In my heart of hearts, I think that the likelihood of finding out that there’s any kind of God, Goddess, Great Spirit, or Holy Bureaucrat sitting up there and running the show is about equal to the chances of George Dubya publicly supporting the making of an all-anal video starring the twins, Saddam Hussein, and a herd of goats.  But I have to admit to myself that that belief is just as much a leap of faith as any believer’s.  In the end, I don’t know.

Being an agnostic and being bisexual are very similar: believers think that agnostics and atheists are going to wind up in the same circle of Hell, regardless of any so-called subtle distinctions between the two; atheists in the Madalyn Murray O’Hair model think that those calling themselves agnostics are just atheists without the ‘nads to admit it.  The old, sad, true joke that “Being bisexual means everyone thinks you’re a pervert,” resonates in every semi-non-believer’s life.

If anything, describing your sexuality in clear and honest terms is more difficult than speaking of your spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof); although gods are mysterious and abstract by definition, to this day we’ve managed to maintain a running dialogue about their natures, their wishes, their reality, and their moral codes that encompasses six thousand years, billions of human beings, and countless cultures.  The result is a complex and nuanced vocabulary about spirituality that is wide open to anyone seeking to ask questions about their soul and the moral choices they make in their life.

Such a nuanced vocabulary doesn’t exist to help us speak about our erotic selves.  There is a bitter irony to this, since we have far better proof of our eroticism than our spirituality.  One can plausibly argue either that after you die, your soul goes off to eternal bliss or punishment, or that you simply dissolve into the dirt.  No one could sanely argue that our bodies don’t stir and sweat when we see someone attractive, or that the yearning for erotic touch and feeling isn’t one of the most ever-present parts of the human psyche, constantly affecting how we see the world around us.  Acknowledging this may cause pleasure, shame, or disgust, but even the most devoted puritan can’t deny it.  The fact is that the material evidence for the existence of sex far outweighs that for the existence of God.

And yet, we have few ways of naming the evidence that sits before us and inside us; the discussion of who and what we are sexually has been stifled to the best of our society’s ability; until very recently, the cultural dialogue about sex has been restricted to reaffirmations of St. Paul’s grudging acknowledgement: “It is better to marry than to burn.”  The extent to which Paul’s words still grasp our minds and bodies can be seen in modern “abstinence only” sex-ed programs which quite literally strive to forge a link between sex and death in the minds of teenagers.  At the very moment their bodies begin to cry out for sensuality, we refuse them the knowledge they need to name what’s inside them.  It remains a shapeless, mysterious thing as horrifying as it is enticing.

The feminist and queer liberation movements of the last twenty years have put a lot of emphasis on naming desire.   We owe them much for that; even in the face of official attempts to suppress and narrow our conceptions of our sexuality, we now have many more ways of speaking about our sexual selves than we did before.  We have words for things that previously seemed very alien, all the more so because they were part of ourselves.

But the perpetual tragedy of revolutionary ideas is that given time, they come back around and bite you on the ass.  And, the specific tragedy of the politics of sexual identity is that, even while they have given us permission to think of our desires in terms beyond “normal” and “sick,” they also underscore what a mercurial task speaking about our sexual selves really is.  It seems sometimes that the tangle of hets, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals, bois of either sex, straight dykes, butches, femmes, drag queens, drag kings,  and lesbian- gay- or hetero-identified variations on any of the above, provides a new obstacle to talking about sex.  After a few turns through the mill of political theory, whether on the street or in academia, each of those words becomes more and more distant from actual sex – from passion, from physical yearning, from the carnal joys of fucking.  In the case of well-funded national groups like the Human Rights Campaign, the elimination of sexual pleasure from gay politics seems to be almost as cherished a goal as abstinence-only sex ed is to the Heritage Foundation.  As numerous and diverse as all these terms are, they remain inadequate to the task of describing what people want and enjoy.  They seem more suited for checkboxes on a survey than for describing the intricacies of pleasure.

In my own sexual identity, as with my religious identity, I take a position of agnosticism.  I sometimes refer to myself wryly as “The Fencesitter’s Fencesitter,” because of my inability to wholeheartedly accept any of the labels proffered.  I have traditionally even been unable to comfortably wear “bisexual,” although that’s probably the most accurate of the choices.  In a strictly historical sense, all of my sexual encounters have been heterosexual.  But once you factor in my fantasies and aspirations, things get murkier.   Although the bulk of my fantasies focus on women, I also have too many cocksucking fantasies for “straight” to be an appropriate description.  My homo fantasy life goes through alternating phases of activity and dormance, but it’s always there.  The idea of acting on those fantasies frightens me as much as it excites me, of course.  Things that are truly new are like that.  And that gives it a specially enticing quality, an opportunity to learn about myself, my body, and other men.  To view the male body as a sensual thing is a radical idea that transgresses all our ideas about masculinity, and aside from the opportunity to have an orgasm, the idea of learning more about such things is seductive to me.  Sex, after all, is an ideal place to learn things that simple words are inadequate for.

Intellectually, I have to admit that “bisexual” is probably the perfect word to describe me, at least in the sense that the dictionary definition fits.  Since I have a marked preference for women, in the vocabulary of sexual identity politics I would probably qualify as a “heterosexually-identified bisexual male,” which frankly makes me sound about as sexy and fuckable as a two-day-old plate of herring.  I suppose that there are people who fantasize about having a heterosexually-identified bisexual male go down on them in a dark alley, but I assume that these are the same ones who masturbate passionately to thick books of semiotic theory.

My basic problem with all of the words used to describe sexual orientation is that they almost automatically proceed from one premise: that your sexuality can be described as a single, static thing.  They each carry a certain absolutist implication that this is what you are and always shall be, and always have been, whether you realized it or not.  I find that a rather condescending and limiting way of looking at sexuality, whether it’s your own or another’s.  I not only maintain the same agnosticism about my own sexuality that I do about the existence of god, I demand it.  The thing that keeps me interested in sex, both on the physical level and the intellectual is that after 34 years, it still contains so many places that are secret to me, parts of myself that have yet to be explored or even created.  It’s the potential that fascinates me.  If the Christian God that I was raised with is a patriach, the libido is a trickster, so capricious as to seem almost random.  Desire changes faces constantly, mocking the conscious mind’s attempts to map it or control it.  Within sex is everything that makes us what we are: history, biology, mythology, ethics, philosophy, psychology, race, class, gender, art, religion, politics, imagination, nature, nurture, and more.  Seen in this context, it’s easy to understand our culture’s history of erotophobia: Christianity is virtually the only religion in the world to have so completely vilified its trickster figure.  We do not, as a culture, deal well with abstractions and uncertainty, and sex is a web spun of these very things.

I demand the right to be agnostic about my sexuality because sex is only worthwhile as a dynamic, growing thing.  My sexual identity changes every time I fuck, every time I masturbate, every time I fantasize.  My libido is like the tectonic forces that push continental plates back and forth: sometimes easy and slow, sometimes turbulent, but always moving.

Of course there are very good reasons why the tangle of sexual identities has evolved.  For centuries, we’ve strangled on a vision of sexuality that was strictly binary: just as Satan’s opposition to God is irredeemably evil, any desire that strayed out of the narrow bonds of married heterosexuality represented a venture into moral corruption.  People have died because of this constrictive view of sexuality, whether by their own hand or by others’.  The old ACT-UP slogan “Silence = Death” was never a metaphor, not even before AIDS.  It is, in fact, a statement of cold, hard reality, as is its counterpart: “Action = Life.”

But I think that sexual identities work best if you acknowledge them as steps in a process, rather than an end in themselves.  The people who cling hardest to the importance of a sexual identity are those who see themselves as having finished the journey, come to a resting place where they can now be assured of comfort and ease, knowing exactly where they are.  Somewhere in that certainty, the politics become more important than pleasure, or even your own personhood.  While politics, or even simple humanity, demands that we look to other people and bond with them through the things that we hold in common, each of us must also keep one small space within ourselves that is entirely our own, not ruled not by the concerns of politics or philosophy, but solely by our own desires and needs.  If we give up that one last inch of ourselves, whether to a cause, a lover, or an advertising image, then the struggle has already become irrelevant.

In “Learning To Love the Rain,” a speech she gave as the keynote address at a bisexuality conference, Hanne Blank spoke about her own use of the term “fencesitter,” to describe herself.   Blank explains that she used “fencesitter” for a long time, partly because of a mischievous glee in pissing off people, and partly because it seemed to embody the flexibility of her own sexuality.  But in time, the metaphor of a fence seemed too limiting, because after all, a fence only has two sides.  She says instead that she has decided that her sexual identity is “sovereign”:

[B]eing sovereign means that I have absolute power to determine the boundaries of my own sexual self, without question or appeal, at all times. It means I have not only the right, but the obligation, to defend my boundaries – boundaries are not pre-existing natural features like mountain ranges or oceans, they are lines we draw in the sand. (When you travel from Canada to the USA, nothing about the land itself changes; it isn’t like the way it goes from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz. The border is there because we say it’s there.) It means that I may choose to form allegiances and alliances with other sovereign entities based on their willingness to enter into a contract of mutual support of one another’s sovereignty. It means that I may characterize my sovereignty in whatever manner seems most appropriate, using any and all of the words and names that seem to fit: bisexual, pansexual, queer, kinky, polyamorous, femme, right-handed, female, feminist, whatever. It means that while I may, from time to time, share an umbrella with an ally, I also undertake the responsibility for opening my own...or not. Because to me, part of being sovereign means learning to love the rain.[i]
Hanne Blank puts it far more eloquently than I ever could.  One of the things that I love about this speech, other than the raw solidity of the ideas, is that as a whole, it’s just so damned sexy.  Blank talks about her own sexuality and the idea of standing out in the rain, unprotected by another person’s definitions, in such a passionate and sensual way that I could almost masturbate to the idea of stripping my clothes off and letting the most vicious storm ever lash at my body until I ache.

How many essays or speeches about sexual identity can you say that about?  How often does listening to someone talk about how they identify make you hot and want to fuck?  More often than not, sexual politics sounds like sex is something that other people want to do, more an exercise in interpersonal praxis than something sweet, powerful, and uncontrollable.

The difference, I think, is that Blank is inherently a trickster, and we already know how quickly those get banished in our society.  She doesn’t try to eliminate the carnal sloppiness of sex in favor of its intellectual, political, or spiritual value, but instead hugs it close to her.

I like the idea of my sexuality remaining enigmatic.  I don’t know where it will go in the future, just as I could not have imagined the places that it has gone.  I know that I’m feeling more and more comfortable with the idea of being “bisexual,” even as I acknowledge that it frightens me somewhat.  But fear has been a part of every step in my sexual evolution, from masturbation to losing my virginity to going to my first sex party.

Despite common wisdom, doubt is more liberating than faith.  Doubt is what gives you that one inch of freedom, where you are able to ask any question or think anything about who you are or what you will become.  It implies that there is more to you that can be defined by any theory of theology or politics.   The problem with both politics and religion is that far too often, people look at them for answers rather than questions.  And as sources of questions, they are both rich and valuable.  While we are asking questions and learning how to ask new ones, we grow and flourish.  It is only when we pretend that we have found the definitive answers that we stagnate and wither.

I use my agnosticism, both religiously and sexually, as a way to keep speaking to myself, to keep a  constant dialogue about the universes inside and outside of my body going on within my head.  And yes, the unknown is frightening sometimes.  But also, the thrill of all the possibilities is exhilarating, and I love it.  I can’t wait to see what comes next.

[i] Blank, Hanne. “Learning to Love the Rain: The Queer Vitality of Sexuality Beyond Identity”; Keynote speech, BECAUSE 2002 conference, Milwaukee, WI. Reprinted in Scarlet Letters online ‘zine: June 1, 2002

Copyright © 2002 - 2003 Chris Hall. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or post in whole or in part. 

Chris Hall Chris Hall is a self-described cynic who lives in San Francisco, the perfect city for anyone in love with sex. He writes and edits book reviews for Maximum RockNRoll, and has been published in the anthologies Male Lust and Young Blood. He's  worked as a volunteer at the California AIDS Hotline, trying to promote sexual health. Hall is a skeptic and a godless atheist, but in the right circumstances he can display a sentimentality that would give Frank Capra diabetes. His girlfriend is a zaftig sex goddess with very large breasts with whom he  lives in New York. He is a regular features contributor to Mind Caviar. Email Chris Hall.

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