John Paul Ricco: Sex Lives Matter

SEX LIVES MATTER*
John Paul Ricco
Comparative Literature, Art History, Visual Culture
University of Toronto

Yesterday (Nov. 25, 2016) I was one of four invited speakers for a roundtable discussion on policing sexuality, cruising and anonymous public sex, and police entrapment. This flash event, “Project Marie: Policing Sexuality in Law, Ethics, Policy,” was organized and sponsored bythe Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, moderated by Mariana Valverde (Criminology, U of T), and featuring comments by Patrick Keilty (iSchool U of T), Simon Stern (School of Law, U of T) and Kyle Kirkup (School of Law, U of Ottawa).

It was a public forum organized in response to a recent two-month operation by the Toronto Police Service, called “Project Marie,” in which undercover police officers charged 72 individuals with 89 separate infractions for indecent exposure and sexual solicitation, in Marie Curtis Park, in Etobicoke, Ontario. Approximately 40-50 people attended, and many voices and perspectives were heard. It was an extremely successful event; one of those rare occasions when the university community and the non-academic community meet in order to talk about the relations between sex, ethics and publics.

Here are the remarks that I presented at the opening of the panel:

In today’s urban political climate, in which the stranger, the foreigner, the one who lingers, the solitary walker, the workless or out-of-work someone—and not least of all, the one who is simply curious—when each of these someones in the singularity of their anonymity, itinerancy, promiscuity, and clandestinity—and thus in their essential illegitimacy—are increasingly targets of suspicion and surveillance, bodies to be taunted, beaten, entrapped, and at times permanently marked as illegal, the cruising ground remains more necessary than ever, given that it is an ethical training ground.

A cruising ground is an ethical ground in the precise sense that it is a place where being together with others does not rely upon the law of identity and the logic of the name. Instead, it is a place consecrated to the joys and pleasures of the passing encounter, and the liberating fact that, as Tim Dean has intimated: strangers can be lovers and yet remain strangers. Meaning: sharing an erotic and perhaps sexual bond that is less structured in terms of attachment than separation, and that thus affirms that a mutual intimate experience can be had that does not require or ask for the assimilation of oneself into an other, but instead remains open to the outside.

But of course the cruising ground is also where such pleasures find a place in the world that in so many ways and in so many instances have pushed them out of the sanctioned spaces of domesticity and the family; the school and the church. That have relegated them to zones of the unthinkable by normative relations of sexuality (including those which go by such names as sexual relationship, monogamy, and marriage), and that have been expropriated by the gentrification of minds and bodies, no less than the gentrification of city neighbourhoods (as Sarah Schulman has recently argued). It is precisely those spaces, those norms, and those processes of gentrification that create conditions that are unsafe for some of us: the adolescent queer, the closeted, the exhibitionist, the spouse, the homeless. As Samuel Delany has argued, “if every sexual encounter involves bringing someone back to your house, the general sexual activity in a city becomes anxiety-filled, class-bound, and choosy. This is precisely why public restrooms, peep shows, sex movies, bars with grope rooms, and parks with enough greenery are necessary for a relaxed and friendly sexual atmosphere in a democratic metropolis” (Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, 127).

Lest you think that I am only arguing for the more practical political importance of the cruising ground, allow me to close by noting that the logic of the lure is not only driven by the need to escape the normalizing and criminalizing logic of the law, but that it is also an attraction to that which is imperceptible, un-nameable, transitory, and even unconsummated. But all of this also means that cruising offers us a sense of the ways in which erotic pleasure is not only sexual, but spatial, and that for some of us, where we do it, is just as important as who or what we do. Cruising eroticizes the essential anonymity of the common and urban intimacy, and so, to the extent that there are cities, there will be cruising, because in the cruising ground persist some of the essential truths of a city. Today we are faced with nothing less than the question of how to ethically create a city. In doing so, we must insist on the fact that “sex lives matter.”

*Thanks to Etienne Turpin for this phrasing.