Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Question of Progress

This post was contributed by Dr Tara Atluri, visit research fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH) and the Department of Geography, Environment, and Development Studies.

Here Dr Atluri gives an insight into her approaching BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop on sexual politics (February 18,  1.30pm-3.30pm, room 402, Malet Street Main Building)

Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Wei Wei states that, “The internet is a wild land with its own games, languages, and gestures through which we are starting to share common feelings.”

And yet, how can one access cyber-utopias of meritocratic dreams on street corners and back alleys, in the traffic of cities, with no place from which to revel in blissful platitudes?

The “It gets better” campaign is predominantly a viral media campaign that began as a response to the suicides of queer youth in North America. The campaign involves online videos staging inspirational narratives of those who have overcome adversity. It is undoubtedly a tool of support for those who experience oppression.

However, one can consider how this viral media campaign exists in cyberspace, apart from the politics and economics of material space. ‘Betterment’ can describe individual embodiment. And yet, “betterment” can also describe “development” in ways that assume that economic wealth and the gentrification of cities are improvements. (Watch Guardian video: Anthony Gormley: “London is bought, developed and abandoned”)

We are told that cities “get better” with more expensive coffee bars where one can access Wi-Fi, and yet rising prices in rent and the disillusion of the commons can spell suicide for sexual politics in the streets.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner state, “There is nothing more public than privacy”(547) They further discuss `sex publics’ stating that,

Some of these publics have an obvious relation to sex: pornographic cinema, phone sex, “adult” markets for print, lap dancing. Others are organized around sex, but not necessarily sex acts in the usual sense: queer zones and other worlds estranged from heterosexual culture, but also more tacit scenes of sexuality like official national culture, which depends on a notion of privacy to cloak its sexualization of national membership. (547) (Read more here)

The authors discuss zoning laws that came into place in New York which lead to the closure of many gay bars on St. Christopher Street, once a well-known queer area. They state,

Now, gay men who want sexual materials or who want to meet other men for sex will have two choices: they can cathect the privatized virtual public of phone sex and the internet; or they can travel to small, inaccessible, little-trafficked, badly lit areas, re- mote from public transportation and from any residences, mostly on the waterfront, where heterosexual porn users will also be relocated and where the risk of violence will consequently be higher. (551)

Similarly, one can consider recent closures of many queer spaces in London such as the bar, The Joiners Arms in East London. While “betterment” within neoliberal discourse involves images of financially successful queers working overtime, the doors of the after hours that once housed alternative sex publics are slammed shut.

Far from being endemic to the West, questions of space, sex, and “betterment” cross borders. As Mayur Suresh writes,`

One of the first documented protests against police harassment of queer men in India was held in response to police raids targeting gay cruising in Central Park, Connaught Place in New Delhi. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

In the traffic of Mumbai, in the traffic of Delhi, flamboyant sari clad dancers strut between rows of cars asking tourists en route to airports, businessmen en route to offices, and middle class families in SUVs for change. Hijras, often referred to in secular English language discourse as male to female transgender persons are often found in contemporary neoliberal India, begging in the traffic of cities. The genealogy of the Hijra is connected to mythologies pre-dating colonial rule. Hijras originary religious role lay in blessing children.

In the space of neoliberal urban India, the Hijra body has not necessarily gotten “better” with Victorian colonial moralities and laws policing sex, or with capitalist models of “development.”

Suresh discusses a 2004 case of a Hijra who was gang raped and subject to police harassment,

Kokila told the police about the gang rape, but instead of registering a case and sending her for a medical examination, they harassed her with offensive language and took her along with the two men to the Byappanahalli Police Station. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

Beyond the tempo of Google there are bodies in the streets, beaten and harassed, living and loving in the streets. Solipsistic urban publics stare into cell phones, ignoring those whom they encounter in shared space. Privacy exists for the privileged few. Fear is fuelled by gated communities and an infinite array of private passwords. In the meantime, cities of wealth turn citizenship into a question of capital, dividing insiders from outsiders, with the colonizing spirit of settlers extending to the gentrification of dark corners of cities.

If we are to envision inspirational sexual politics today, we should perhaps avert our eyes momentarily from the glare of mall lighting and MacBooks. Before it can ever get better, perhaps it should get critical.

Tara Atluri will be giving a BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop (titled “Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Temporal Maps of International Development”) on 18 February (13.30 -15.30), Room 402, Malet Street Main Building. Book your place here.

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