Andrea Long Chu On Literally Everything (Part One)
“I loved your essay on sissy porn,” begins my email to Andrea Long Chu, aka @theorygurl, and I suspect it is how many emails she has received over the last few months begin.
Chu is a writer, critic, and doctoral candidate in comparative literature at NYU who is maybe best known for her viral essay On Liking Women. Though she is currently hard at work on her book Females: A Concern (not to mention raising funds for a new body), I reached out hoping she might have time to talk briefly about desire: if it’s queer, when it’s queer, what it means, and the way it relates to identity and our sexual selves. —Sean Santiago
I was recently speaking with a woman who strongly identified as lesbian and hated the word “queer.” She basically called “bullshit” when I said that I considered my queerness to reflect on my gender as much as my sexuality. She then asked if I slept with just men, I guess implying that having technically heterosexual sex as a queer man would make my gender queer-er? So, I guess my question is, how does who we fuck relate to who we are and are those things wholly separate?
ANDREA LONG CHU:
Gosh, ok. So, one place to start is, like, it’s impossible—empirically—to be straight. I say this as someone who used to be straight and was intensely aware of how impossible it was to actually be heterosexual. Like, it’s a thing which one can be oriented by...
SS: Like a north star?
ALC: Right. But no one actually manages to be the ideal. It’s an ideal. So what that means is that straight people aren’t straight.
SS: Everybody’s queer?
ALC: It doesn’t mean that everyone’s queer, that’s the important thing—it doesn’t mean that everyone is queer. It means there are, broadly speaking, two groups of people who have a relationship of ambivalence with the category of heterosexuality. So what that means is that straight people are not straight in a different way than queer people are not straight. But you can’t actually distinguish between them by who manages to be heterosexual.
SS: Manages to be heterosexual?
ALC: Because no one manages to be heterosexual. There are straight men who fuck men, straight women who fuck women, queer men and women who basically just date people of the other gender. And I’m not gainsaying those identities, but at that point what’s being referred to is no longer the sheer fact of who’s fucking who, or even the sheer fact of a kind of habit of desire; what’s being referred to is a kind of aesthetic. A social aesthetic. A certain genre of behavior that’s loosely recognizable in the way that genres are loosely recognizable and that tend to produce certain…
ALC: Certain outcomes, certain… feelings. And so I think the best way to distinguish straight and queer people would be, like, through stylistic analysis. And not just aesthetic as in, straight people dress this way and queer people dress this way—aesthetic with a broad sense of having to do with patterning and form and tone and mood and all of those things.
SS: Interesting. I guess my concern, or the concern being raised in this context, is that when it comes to quote-unquote queer sex my desires are so simple. So simple that they could almost, it seems, be interpreted as straight? Like, the things that are just kind of baseline erotic are so uncomplicated that I don’t really think about them at all. And you can’t beat yourself up over desire, but at the same time I think a lot of people build identities out of these patterns of wanting without really interrogating that desire first, and where it stems from.
ALC: There’s a difference between having a political analysis of desire and having a political program about shaping desire, first of all. So I think it’s very possible to interrogate on the analytic level. I don’t think it’s reliably possible for that interrogation to become the means by which one changes the desire. In some cases that does happen—you do, like, learn. But for the most part, your desires are incorrigible. So I don’t know what to do about that. Analysis about other people’s desires as politically bad is always inevitably going to include you in the analysis. Like, yours is also bad. And you shouldn’t have to change that either. So, it’s thorny.
SS: Because I think we define attraction and desire in very simplistic terms, right? So it’s this idea of fucking or getting fucked. Like, is that all you desire? Is that really the whole of it?
ALC: I think the content of desire can be extremely specific. And in fact it tends to be specific. Because one is often dissatisfied in proportion to the specificity of your desire. Right? Like, if you get what you want, what you realize is it’s not exactly what you wanted; you wanted something else. There is a kind of murderous exactitude, on the one hand. But, because you have read the sissy porn paper you know that I do think on a certain level that everyone is just a bottom, ontologically speaking. Because even if everyone doesn’t necessarily want to get fucked, everyone wants to get fucked by their desire. And the classic problem of the bottom is that, ideally, you should never have to consent to anything. Ideally, it just happens to you the way you want it. You shouldn’t have to ask for it. You don’t have a safeword. You don’t clarify beforehand. You don’t actually want any of that. All of those are safeguards and half-measures. But ideally it would just happen to you. And that is the thing that I think is universal. That I think everyone just wants their desire to just happen to them.
SS: In a perfect world.
ALC: Right. In a perfect world. And then of course it doesn’t. But that has to do with… That’s not about the content of the desire. That’s sort of the basic structure of desire, I think. That has to do with the form of it, irrespective of content. Sex is very rarely about sex. To return to our lesbian friend: the lesbian instead of queer thing is partly about believing that the relevant social fact is not “Is your sexuality normative or not?” or “Is your gender normative or not?” The relevant political fact is “Do you associate with men?”—in the seventies they would say “giving your energy to a man.” It’s essentially a separatist impulse. What’s interesting about that is there’s, like, a logic behind it, which is if you’re still having sex with men and still associating with men, then what’s the point? What’s the point of being a feminist if you’re spending time with men? Which is the problem that feminism never solved. Feminism never solved the problem of heterosexuality. It’s the greatest stain on the feminist escutcheon. We never fixed it. Like, most women stayed with their husbands or boyfriends, kept associating with men, kept having bad sex. Feminism didn’t help.
SS: But I mean, isn’t that a desire? And if desire is incorrigible, you want the bad sex with the man rather than no sex at all.
ALC: It is. It absolutely is. That’s why feminism is impossible. [Laughs]
SS: [Laughs] So the problem then is you can’t literally get rid of men. And you can’t undo the way that people relate to men and the way that men exist.
ALC: Right. And the problem was not just that men would continue to exist, but that maleness would continue to exist—and what was then called male-identification. So the problem that separatists come up on in the seventies is that when you get a bunch of dykes on a campus or in a forest somewhere and there really are no men… The problem is that you could keep men out—like, empirically men—but you couldn’t actually keep male-identification out. If you go and look at the Lesbian Times there’s all this concern about what is called the bar butch. There’s all this concern about these women who are, like, imitating men and wanna fuck women and are like macho chauvinist types being in the space. And so the problem is that when you get just a bunch of lesbians together, somehow men are still there even if they’re not there. And they’re still there because people wanted that. Because the bar butches wanted to be butches and the femmes wanted to find a butch to fuck them. It wasn’t a thing that was going to get eradicated through consciousness-raising. So yeah, the separatists’ thing is infeasible not just because you can’t, like, genocide a whole bunch of people, but because the aesthetic or the style or the way of being of the to-be-genocided will remain afterward.
SS: The idea of erasing or eradicating the thing—I feel like that’s bad because the thing always just crops back up. But I guess it’s still stronger for feminism with men on your side? [Laughs]
SS: You need allies!
ALC: I have men in my life who I like, I think? But, I don’t know, my baseline is just, like, you have to acknowledge the soundness of the argument that you’re trash and you shouldn’t exist. Like, if you’re a man, you should know that you’re a disease and that you really ought to transition and it’s okay if you don’t but, um, you’re a net loss for the human race.
ALC: So I think if there’s a conclusion to be drawn in response to your initial question, your opening statement, is that… maybe with respect to the lesbian, she’s saying, “I’m a lesbian because I fuck women or because I just date women.” But the wanting to differentiate herself from queer has to do with feeling like she belongs to a different social genre than queer. Like, feeling like the aesthetic doesn’t suit her. And by aesthetic I don’t mean that in a superficial sense. But, like, it doesn’t describe the patterns of desire and attachment and relationality that she either moves in or wants to move in. And that’s totally fair to me.
SS: So can your sexual habits invalidate your claims to your gender identity? I guess we come up on this full-circle moment of like, if I sleep with women, am I straight? Or more to the point, am I straight and a man?
ALC: Again, I think one takeaway is that queer and straight are—whatever they are—non-exclusive terms. There are straight queer people. That doesn’t mean they’re not queer people. But it also doesn’t mean they’re not straight people. Like, the terms are not actually in perfect opposition to each other.
SS: Are you thinking of them in terms of who you sleep with, or no? Is this like a way of relating to another body or a way of identifying yourself? Like, how much does the way you think of yourself really matter if you’re effectively straight because of who you sleep with? Or you’re effectively gay because of who you sleep with? Is that sexual essentialism?
ALC: I mean, your identification is one point of inflection, but it’s not the whole story. And it probably is, like, mostly not the story. It exerts some pressure on the shape of the person that you are, but it isn’t actually the shape. It isn’t actually who you are in terms of, like, an embodied subject living in the world with other people. If we’re talking about gender, I can say for instance that you transition because identification is insufficient. You transition because if I... You know, years ago I’m standing in my apartment in, like, jeans and a button-down with facial hair and an Adam’s apple, and I just think to myself, “I am a woman,” which is a thing that happens and that has happened to every trans woman at some point. That by itself is not sufficient. That by itself is not going to generally change the gender other people give you. And the gender other people give you is real. It’s not like you’re right and they’re not. They’re also right. Which is scary, right? It means it’s possible to be identified as a woman and socially still be a man. And not just socially in terms of, like, your affect is masculine or something. But socially in terms of the way that you’re received in a community, in a shared world. And so you transition because you want that part to change. You transition precisely because there is more to gender than how you identify. Otherwise no one would transition. It wouldn’t happen.
SS: I do think there’s also a lot of rhetoric now that doesn’t grapple with that social element, with existing with other people in the world. If everything were perfect you would not have to do this. But it sets up this false expectation that it’s other people’s problem; that your truth exists in spite of other people when in reality, that’s kind of all there is.
ALC: I mean, you transition because when faced with the choice of changing the world or changing yourself, you choose to change yourself. Right? Even if you could identify as something and then everyone could just acknowledge it immediately and everything was beautiful like that; even under that model, the fact that you would want that means that there is way more to your gender than how you identify. It means that, for the most part, your gender exists in the hands of other people, which is terrifying. I mean, as with most things, you mostly don’t have control over it and it’s just going to happen to you.
SS: And not in the way that you want it.
ALC: And probably not in the way that you want it.—