Patrick Keilty, A Call for Sexual Autonomy [2017 C4eJ 21] (Forum)

Patrick Keilty
University of Toronto

Heteronormative coupling has long been the privileged example of sexual intimacy in our culture, often associated with privatization, familialism, and sexual reproduction. The police crackdown in Marie Curtis Park relies on heteronormative bias as a way to justify a politics of shame.  Over the past week and a half, we have heard from police and some residents about the need to protect families against rampant lewd behavior of deviant sexual intimacy between men. Their complaints tap into the vast power of sexual shame, disgust, and moralism in the name of heteronormative intimacy. They make sex seem irrelevant or merely personal, and privilege heteronormative conventions of intimacy in order to diminish the existence the non-normative and explicit public sexual cultures. Yet for gay male culture, many principle scenes of intimacy have been public spaces: tearooms, streets, bathhouses, public toilets, and parks – sites, according to Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, of “counter-intimacies” that have long provided scenes of queer world-making and counter-publics.

Whereas heteronormative forms of intimacy have been supported by cultures of representation, legal structures, institutional support, domestic architecture, and the zoning of work and politics, and whereas queer intimacy has long been stigmatized, subject to social opprobrium, and criminal sanction, queer culture has found it necessary to cultivate counterpublics that support forms of affective, erotic, and personal living that are public in the sense that they are accessible, available to memory, circulate knowledge, and sustained through collective activity. Because heteronormative cultures of intimacy leave queer cultures especially dependent on ephemeral world-makings in public space, queer cultures are particularly vulnerable to municipal regulations that aim to restrict counterpublic sexual culture. While the mobility of these sites makes them possible, it also renders them hard to recognize as world-making because they are so fragile and ephemeral, or trivialized as “lifestyle.” “To understand them only as self-expression or as a demand for recognition would be to misrecognize the fundamental unequal material conditions whereby the institutions of social reproduction are coupled to the forms of dominant understandings of [intimacy]” (Berlant and Warner 1998, 561).

The separation of public and private spheres characteristic of modern liberal societies does not limit the field of power over sexuality but instead functions strategically to extend the reach of power and to multiply techniques of social control. The effect of sexual liberation has been not (or not only) to free us to participate in counterintimacies but to require us to express intimacy in ways that count as “sexual freedom” according to dominant heteronotmative understandings of intimacy as private, delimiting where and when to draw the distinction between sexual and nonsexual expression. Sexual freedom in the name of liberty imposes on us a brand of liberty that constructs freedom as a privilege that “we must, on pain of forfeiting, use responsibly and never abuse” (Halperin 1995). That “respectable” gay men occasionally pander to popular prejudices and uphold normalizing standards in matters of sex reveals the strength of cultural imperatives to maintain public respectability. They also assume they owe nothing to the sexual subculture they think of as sleazy, even though their success, their way of living, and their political rights would not have been possible but for the existence of the queer world-making they now despise.

I hope that part of the response to “Project Marie” might be to take up Michael Warner’s call for an ethics of sexual autonomy. Aware of the limits of the autonomous subject, Warner asks us to rethink the ethics of controlling someone else’s sex (when it’s not harmful or coercive), imposing one’s own way of living as a moral standard for others. “It would be nice,” Warner writes, “if the burden of proof in such questions of sexual morality lay on those who want to impose their standard on someone else” (1999, 5). For Warner, failure to recognize when sexual regulation comes down to a politics of sexual shame leaves policies pious and disingenuous about sex, cows individuals out of sexual dignity, involves silent inequalities, unintended effects of isolation, and a lack of public access. Sexual autonomy is more than freedom of choice, tolerance, and liberalization of sex laws. “It requires access to pleasures and possibilities, since people do not know their desires until they find them” (7). Moralism, on the other hand, can only produce complacent satisfaction in others’ shame by taking for granted dominant forms of intimacy that privatize and isolate sexual pleasure.

Finally, it’s telling that residents say they want to “take back” the park, a rhetoric that currently aligns with Donald Trump’s (and now, Kellie Leitch’s) message of taking back a nation from people they deem deviant and criminal. I see in this rhetoric an amplification of the inhumanity that has sadly taken hold just south of our border. Our obligation in the wake of Trump’s election is to refuse that amplification here.


Berlant, Lauren and Warner, Michael. “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry v. 24, no. 2, 1998, pp. 647-566.

Halperin, David. Saint Foucault: Toward a Gay Hagiography. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.