Sooner than expected! Out in October, my Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play has already been reviewed, not once, but twice — apparently with more to follow. Voilà, Katherine Angel for Times Higher Education (behind paywall) and João Florêncio for Theory, Culture & Society. Always a thrill to be read.
Category Archives: sexuality
Should you be in Amsterdam April 10-12, join us for the ASCA workshop Realities and Fantasies: Relations, Transformations, Discontinuities. A hugely rich 3-day program, including my keynote, “Thinking Sex, Thinking Play”. Fun times ahead!
My introduction to a forum on Tom of Finland us just out with Porn Studies. Here’s the text, with some additional pics.
Tom of Finland comes home, keeps on coming
Tom of Finland, alias Touko Laaksonen (8 May, 1920–7 November, 1991), remains the internationally most known and recognized Finnish visual artist. His homoerotic – and unabashedly pornographic – work has been acknowledged as key influence for the aesthetics of gay male leather cultures and gay pornography (see Lahti 1998; Mercer 2003; Snaith 2003; Kalha 2012, Vänskä in this issue). This Porn Studies forum expands considerations of Tom of Finland’s legacy from gay male cultures to the diverse ways in which it has been made to enter broader cultural circulation and commodity production. Approaching Tom of Finland’s work as cultural objects, this forum is interested in its diverse locations and travels across contexts of production, distribution and consumption, as well as in its entanglement in the circuits of politics, monetization and cultural value.
This introductory essay maps out the fairly recent rise of commodity production drawing on Tom of Finland’s work in his country of origin, and inquires after the paradoxes involved in reframing his iconography as an object of national pride and joy. In her piece, Leena-Maija Rossi maps out Tom of Finland’s gradual entrance into the art world while Annamari Vänskä investigates the circuits of influence between Tom’s visual iconography and the fashioning of the male body. Taken together, these three contributions address both the enduring appeal of Tom of Finland’s work as well as the busy traffic that it engenders across the categories of pornography, art and consumer culture.
In 2011, Turku, one of the European Capitals of Culture, celebrated the occasion with the largest Tom of Finland retrospective ever seen in the country, titled ‘Tom Comes Home!’ (‘Tom palaa kotiin!’). A high-profile occasion, the show was visited by VIP guests ranging from politicians to Sweden’s Crown Princess, Victoria. Six years later, Touko Laaksonen was one of the official themes of the centennial celebration of Finnish independence. It is not extraordinary for a small country to recognise its most internationally known artist, especially when this artist incorporated the name of the said country in question in his alias. Following a decades-long tradition, Finnish media eagerly reports on the international recognition of its citizens, occasionally framing them as builders of, or ambassadors to the country’s national image. The enthusiasm with which Tom of Finland has recently been embraced and celebrated as a public figure is nevertheless exceptional, as well as paradoxical. As I discuss in the following, the commodification and public circulation of Tom of Finland’s work for the purposes of both corporate profit and national brand building is noteworthy, not least given its homoerotic pornographic overtones.
In 2014, the Finnish Post Office released a sheet of three stamps to celebrate Tom of Finland. The designer, Timo Berry, described the stamps as ‘depicting sensuous force of living and pride in oneself’ (Posti 2014). The stamps were a quick success, with presales alone to 178 countries (Matson-Mäkelä 2014). In the aftermath of the stamps’ broad international attention, a range of commodities emerged making use of the Tom of Finland brand. In 2014, the textile manufacturer Finlayson (est. 1820), which had been recently purchased by entrepreneurs with previous careers in advertising – the very field where Laaksonen himself worked – released a series of tote bags, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom textiles in collaboration with the Tom of Finland Foundation overseeing the copyrighted uses of his work. The company has since launched a new line of Tom of Finland products every autumn.
By 2016, Tom of Finland wall calendars featuring some of the less sexually explicit imagery came on sale in post offices across the country. Robert’s Coffee launched a Tom of Finland line with two different roasts – ‘Build Bold’ for light and ‘Heavy Duty’ for dark – coming in eight different designs. For Christmas, the company introduced a ‘Spicy Santa’ roast decorated with one of Laaksonen’s hunky, semi-naked Santa images and added to its overall visibility with a street advertising campaign. These coffees were soon made available in supermarkets and, the following year, consumers could also gravitate towards organic Tom of Finland vodka. A biopic directed by Dome Karukoski premiered in 2017, becoming the Finnish Academy Award entry for best foreign-language film. The same year also witnessed the premiere of the Tom of Finland Musical at the Turku City Theatre where his most iconic character, the cartoon protagonist Kake, came to life and a young Tom serenaded a worker’s leather boots. Meanwhile, there were discussions on naming both a square and a street after Laaksonen in Turku and in his native town of Kaarina.
This mundane, commercial and highly visible celebratory presence of Tom of Finland iconography marked a clear departure from the long-term obscurity that his oeuvre had enjoyed within Finland. Laaksonen launched his career in the 1950s, some two decades before homosexuality was decriminalized in 1971, and aimed his work at U.S. print market from the very beginning. Added to his artist name ‘Tom’ as an additional exotic accent by a publisher, the denominator of ‘Finland’ situated Laaksonen’s work geographically and occasionally, as with some of his lumberjack imagery, also culturally. The Tom of Finland brand was nevertheless a markedly transnational and international one, drawing influences from the uniforms of Third Reich soldiers, U.S. street patrol officers and motorcyclists into a fantasy fabric occupied by almost photorealistically rendered, yet physically impossible male bodies exaggerated in their extraordinary physique.
In Finland, a country that had close to no openly out gay male celebrities until the 2000s and where the public visibility of queer cultures remained equally low, Laaksonen’s reputation was long limited to gay male subcultures, as in the case of the fetish club, Motor Sport Club Finland – Tom’s Club (MSC), established in the mid-1970s. It was not until Kaj Kalin’s magazine interview with Tom of Finland in 1990 – the year in which he was given a national award for his achievements as a cartoonist – as well as Ilppo Pohjola’s 1991 documentary film, Daddy and the Muscle Academy, released shortly after Laaksonen’s death, that his persona, work and legacy began to grow familiar to some of the broader public (see Kalha 2012, 53–54). As Rossi discusses in her forum piece, Laaksonen’s drawings gradually entered the art museum scene during the years to follow. Tom of Finland nevertheless remained an underground figure until the enthusiastic commercial embrace of his work in the 2010s.
From the margins to the Moomins
Much of this commodification can be explained through attempted appeals to the pink euro and dollar, yet Tom of Finland has also emerged as a highly desirable, and broadly applicable instrument in liberal brand building both within the corporeal sector and in the context of national PR efforts. While having an artist known for his pornographic oeuvre becoming one of the official themes of centennial independence celebrations may strike some as odd, Laaksonen presents a particular success story made edgy in the contemporary perspective precisely by his pioneering role in gay pornographic cultures. The broad recognisability, upbeat style and erotic appeal of his work all quickly catch the eye while also broadly connoting cosmopolitanism and sexual freedom, qualities that many deem desirable as points of self-identification.
Much of this logic was encapsulated in a 2017 magazine article by the actor and author Antti Holma under the title ‘Moomin of Finland’ inquiring after the queer chains of events and the sets of investments through which Laaksonen’s hyperbolically masculine leather men have become national mascots reproduced on all kinds of commodities, as has long been case with Tove Jansson’s Moomin Trolls. In addition to being another popular Finlayson product line, Moomins, first introduced in books in the 1940s, in comics in the 1950s and as Japanese television animations in the 1980s, have long been printed on coffee mugs, coffee tins and chewing gum packets, to notable commercial success. In order for Tom’s men to achieve public presence comparative, albeit not similar or equal to the Moomins, the sexually explicit had to be cleared away. Hence no erect penises, ass-fucking, cock-sucking or eruptions of cum appear on Finlayson’s printed fabrics, vodka bottles or in the readily available wall calendars that are more focused on his overall aesthetics of male bodily display.
As Holma (2017, 31) aptly points out, this domestication where Tom’s men are reincarnated as family friend remotely kin to Moomins, domesticates Laaksonen’s work while simultaneously deflating much of its specificity and appeal based on displays of bodies driven by the quest of sexual pleasure. In the range of commodities targeted not only to gay men but perhaps even more centrally to liberal-minded people of various gender and sexual identifications, the sexually explicit becomes implicit, the pornographic turns into homoerotic and the risqué is transformed into a marker of tolerance. On the one hand, this branding operates on the level of individual consumers such as myself who, by shopping for Tom’s coffee, packing their groceries in Tom of Finland tote bags and gifting their friends with Finlayson’s oven mitts, reflectors and napkins, communicate liberal values and degrees of subcultural sensibility. On the other hand, all this is also an issue of national self-fashioning and brand building.
In 2017, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign affairs published a Tom of Finland emoji as part of its line of national emojis encapsulating the specificities of Finnish culture. It was motivated through the artist’s ‘significant contribution to the advancement of human rights, advocating for tolerance, respect and freedom’ (This is Finland 2017). As Tom of Finland has become appropriated as a symbol of ‘Finnish pride’, as a signifier and agent for social justice, or even as a national icon encapsulating commendable values, the framework of pornography has increasingly been effaced, if not plain ignored.
This is not to say that Laaksonen’s work, albeit drawn, circulated and consumed as pornography, would ever have simply been contained within this realm alone, only given its display in spaces of art, or their mass-reproduction as Taschen postcards and books over the years. The scale at which Tom of Finland has been embraced as a posthumous national brand ambassador nevertheless speaks of recuperation where the pornographic, subcultural and indeed transgressive tones of his work become co-opted as edgy fun, and as sources of national pride.
This recuperation draws attention to the pleasure-seeking men in his drawings, as well as to the figure of the artist himself as a means of celebrating Finnish culture while simultaneously turning attention away from the culture’s homophobic patterns, both historical or contemporary. The celebration of hedonistic gay sexual promiscuity then gives way to the valorisation of individual creativity, success and style as a means of communicating progressive politics on personal and national scales.
There is definitely joy to discovering Tom’s coffee in a supermarket by the Russian border, given the neighbouring country’s 2013 ‘gay propaganda’ law, or to spotting a Tom of Finland towel at a public beach full of frolicking children. At the same time, this commodified recuperation requires obscuring the viscerally pornographic that provides these gestures with their force to begin with. These ways of remembering and celebrating Tom’s legacy are also forms of forgetting and effacement.
Holma, Antti. 2017. ‘Munavangin laulu.’ Image 3/2017, 24–31.
Kalha, Harri. 2012. Tom of Finland: Taidetta seksin vuoksi. Helsinki: SKS.
Karukoski, Dome, dir. 2017. Tom of Finland. Finland.
Lahti, Martti. 1998. ‘Dressing Up in Power: Tom of Finland and Gay Male Body Politics.’ The Journal of Homosexuality 35 (3–4): 185–205.
Matson-Mäkelä, Karin. 2014. ‘Tom of Finland -postimerkit suosituimpia Suomen historiassa.’ Yle uutiset, 8 September, https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-7458150.
Mercer, John. 2003. ‘Homosexual Prototypes: Repetition and the Construction of the Generic in the Iconography of Gay Pornography.’ Paragraph 26 (1–2): 280–290.
Pohjola, Ilppo, dir. 1991. Daddy and the Muscle Academy. Finland.
Posti. 2014. ‘Tom of Finland.’ https://verkkokauppa.posti.fi/PublishedService?pageID=9&itemcode=109095.
Snaith, Guy. 2003. ‘Tom’s Men: The Masculinization of Homosexuality and the Homosexualization of Masculinity at the End of the Twentieth Century.’ Paragraph 26 (1–2): 77–88.
This is Finland. 2017. ‘Tom of Finland.’ https://finland.fi/emoji/tom-of-finland/.
Should you be in the UK March 7-8, do join us at The Pleasures of Violence conference at Oxford Brookes University: “This conference aims to consider questions of abuse, misuse of power and aggression in the (post-)digital age from a variety of perspectives and fields, exploring the relationship between violence (physical, psychological, symbolic, et al) and digitality writ large. It also takes seriously the pleasures on offer through such digital violence, whether that is the action cinema’s fight sequence or the trainwreck celebrity. Is “digital violence” a redundant category? How does violence play out in different national contexts and creative industries: cinema, gaming, photography, music, fashion?” My contribution addresses tentacle rape porn and some empirical inquiry into pornographic preferences.
Edited by Anu Koivunen, Katariina Kyrölä & Ingrid Ryberg, The Power of Vulnerability: Mobilizing Affect in Feminist, Queer and Anti-Racist Futures is just out with Manchester Univerity Press, on open access. The volume includes my piece, “Spectacularly wounded: White male vulnerability as heterosexual fantasy” looking into, yes, the Fifty Shades books. And here’s the book description:
The power of vulnerability interrogates the new language of vulnerability that has emerged in feminist, queer and anti-racist debates about the production, use and meanings of media. The book investigates the historical legacies and contemporary forms and effects of this language. In today’s media culture, traumatic first-person or group narratives have popular currency, mobilising affect from compassion to rage to gain cultural visibility and political advantage. In this context, vulnerability becomes a kind of capital, a resource or an asset that can and has been appropriated for various groups and purposes in public discourses, activism as well as cultural institutions. Thus, politics of representation translates into politics of affect, and the question about whose vulnerability counts as socially and culturally legible and acknowledged. The contributors of the book examine how vulnerability has become a battleground; how affect and vulnerability have turned into a politicised language for not only addressing but also obscuring asymmetries of power; and how media activism and state policies address so-called vulnerable groups. While the contributors investigate the political potential as well as the constraints of vulnerability for feminist, queer and antiracist criticism, they also focus on the forms of agency and participation vulnerability can offer.
Abstract: Pornography has played a crucial, albeit often neglected role in the development of Web solutions and e-commerce. Gaming and online shopping, for example, picked up towards the end of the 1990s while pornography remained, virtually from the launch of the first graphic browsers, one of the few forms of content that users were willing to pay for. Consequently, safe credit card processing systems, streaming video technologies, hosting services, as well as practices such as banner advertisement and pop-ups, were first developed for the needs of, and used on porn sites. Pornographic continues to quickly migrate to new media platforms and formats, yet its position is crucially different in the context of social media than it was in the Web cultures of the 1990s. The role of porn as a driving force in dot.com enterprise has clearly passed. Pornographic content is actively weeded out from most social media platforms and targeted advertising while broad diagnoses on the pornification of media culture continue to abound. According to these, pornographic aesthetics have grown ubiquitous enough to infiltrate diverse visual practices from social media profiles to selfies.
This chapter examines the development of web pornography from homegrown enterprises of the early 1990s to the increasing visibility of sexual subcultures and the presence of established studios and companies on online platforms, the shift from gonzo and reality pornography to the ubiquity of amateur productions and the centralization of porn distribution on video aggregator sites, notably many of which are run by the same company. Addressing independent, amateur and commercial enterprises as well as the complexities and paradoxes that such categorizations involve, the article explains how Web technologies and the centrality of search functions in particular have affected the development and uses of pornographic content, what kinds of sexual taste cultures have emerged, how the public visibility of pornography as a media genre has been altered in the course of its online distribution, as well as how all this connects to media policy and practices of regulation. All this necessitates understanding the production of web pornography, as well as the notion of the porn industry that it involves, as characterized by inner distinctions and constant fragmentation.
Our article, “Littles: Affects and Aesthetics in Sexual Age-Play“, co-authored together with the fantastic Katrin Tiidenberg, is just out, on open access, with Sexuality & Culture. And here’s the abstract:
This article explores the experiences and practices of self-identifying female sexual age-players. Based on interviews and observation of the age players’ blogged content, the article suggests that, rather than being fixed in one single position, our study participants move between a range of roles varying across their different scenes. In examining accounts of sexual play, we argue that the notion of play characterizes not only their specific routines of sexual “scening” but also sexual routines, experimentations, and experiences more expansively. Further, we argue that a focus on play as exploration of corporeal possibilities allows for conceptualizing sexual preferences and practices, such as age-play, as irreducible to distinct categories of sexual identity. The notion of play makes it possible to consider sexuality in terms of transformations in affective intensities and attachments, without pigeonholing various preferences, or acts, within a taxonomy of sexual identities. In doing so, it offers an alternative to the still prevalent categorical conceptualizations of sexuality that stigmatize people’s lived experiences and diminish the explanatory power of scholarly and therapeutic narratives about human sexuality.
I’m very happy to announce that the CFP for the 3rd Sexual Cultures Conference: PLAY, University of Turku, 28-29 May, 2019, is now out. Confirmed keynote speakers include Tom Apperley (University of Tampere), Kane Race (University of Sydney) & Katrin Tiidenberg (Tallinn University).
The 3rd Sexual Cultures Conference focuses on the notion of play, understood as autotelic practices of pleasure where the enchantment of the activity is an end in itself. As the game studies scholar Miquel Sicart nevertheless notes, the pleasures of play can be ambivalent indeed: “Play is not necessarily fun. It is pleasurable, but the pleasures it creates are not always submissive to enjoyment, happiness, or positive traits. Play can be pleasurable when it hurts, offends, challenges us and teases us, and even when we are not playing. Let’s not talk about play as fun but as pleasurable, opening us to the immense variations of pleasure in this world.”
Building on this understanding of play, as well as sex, as variations of pleasure, the conference sets out to ask what happens if we consider sexual representation, networked forms of connecting and relating, or the experimentation with sexual likes though this prism? Indeed, what might studies of sexual cultures foregrounding the complexity and centrality of pleasure, look like? This is what we invite you to think with us.
Possible themes and topics include, but are not limited to examinations of play and playfulness in relation to:
* hook-up cultures
* sex education
* sex and gaming
* sexual histories
* kink cultures
* sexual identifications
* leisure sex
* sexual harassment
The conference will have a registration fee of 150€ inclusive of coffees and conference dinner. To propose a paper, please send a 300-word abstract and short bio (max. 100 words) to https://www.lyyti.in/sexualCultures_abstractsSubmission by January 31, 2019. Registrations will be made available in late February, 2019. For any practical info, please contact conference services firstname.lastname@example.org. On issues connected to the academic programme, please contact program chair Susanna Paasonen at email@example.com.
The conference is jointly organized by the Academy of Finland research project, Sexuality and Play in Media Culture, The Department of Media Studies and IIPC, the International Institute for Popular Culture, at the University of Turku.
Together with the fabulous Sanna Spišák, we coined this short invited contribution for the 20th anniversary issue of Sexualities on a topic close to our hearts. And here’s the manuscript version:
Malleable identities, leaky taxonomies: The matter of sexual flexibility
In a survey conducted by Sanna Spišák on Finnish adolescents’ approaches to and relations with pornography, the 98 research participants were given the task of defining their own sexual identifications rather than ticking an existing box of one’s choice. The open-ended answers resulted in nine different categorizations: heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, demisexual, asexual, polysexual and non-defined. Despite the care that some respondents took in defining their orientations, they did not necessarily express much affective attachment to the sexual markers used:
I’m straight, or at least I have been so far! (‘Anna’, 15)
I can’t really tell so I keep my options open. I might consider both women and men attractive but I don’t count myself as bisexual. (‘Nora’, 17)
I haven’t actually defined my sexual identity yet, but I guess the most fitting term would be pansexual. (‘Julia’, 13)
I think I’m demisexual. (‘Maria’, 16)
Setting aside the possible interpretation that such a range of definitions owes to the fact that these young people are still in the midst of their identity formation, and hence ‘works in progress’, we would like to take seriously the openness and diversity that they suggest. In what follows, we ask what such a multifaceted range of sexual self-identifications implies about the role and force of sexual norms in the lives of young people, as well as how this flexibility could be accounted for. Rather than presuming for their self-definitions to become at some point fixed along the binary categories of straight versus lesbian/gay/queer, we suggest that the openness evident in the responses disrupts the sense of identity categories that scholars and educators operate with.
Given both its small sample and cultural specificity, the survey affords no generalization. Yet similar findings have recently emerged also elsewhere. In the 2017 nationally representative Finnish school health survey, over 10 per cent of sixth form and vocational school students identified as other than heterosexual (from the available choices of ‘bi,’ ‘gay or lesbian’ and ‘none of the above fits to describe me’). The figures were systematically higher in urban areas and among respondents identifying as female – although closer to 5 per cent identified as non-binary (National Institute for Health and Welfare, 2017). In a 2015 American trend forecast 48 percent of the respondents aged 14 to 20 identified themselves as exclusively heterosexual, compared to the 65 percent in the age group of 21 to 34 (e.g., the ‘Millennials’). Summing up the survey results, journalist Zing Tsjeng (2016) points out that, ‘On a scale of zero to six, where zero signified “completely straight” and six meant “completely homosexual,” more than a third of the young demographic chose a number between one and five’.
Flexibility in perceiving one’s sexual identity and the acts that one may enjoy engaging in has been explored within sex research already for some time. In her extensive analysis of sexual fluidity among women, Lisa M. Diamond (2009) argues that common understandings of sexual identity based on fixity are derived from considerations of male sexuality whereas female sexuality is characterized by fluidity in terms of sexual desires, partners and identifications. It can nevertheless be asked whether the gender binary through which Diamond’s study operates speaks less of what people identifying as men and women do than of how they disclose and describe their sexual acts and attachments. For, as Jane Ward (2015: 7) points out, ‘white straight-identifying men manufacture opportunities for sexual contact with other men in a remarkably wide range of setting’. Such exchanges would be defined as ‘experimentation’, ‘accident’, ‘joke’ and ‘game’, rather than issues of identity (Ward, 2015: 27). Furthermore, as Mark McCormack (2018: 13) points out in his introduction to the recent Sexualities special issue on ‘mostly straights’ and heteroflexibility, ‘heterosexuality is changing, particularly in youth cultures, new ways are needed to understand the diversification of heterosexuality and sexuality more broadly’.
There would be nothing particularly novel to the flexibility of sexual practices or interests as such, yet there seems to be newness to how younger people approach and disclose their non-binary palates outside the framings of either humour or shame (also Ward, 2015: 10–12). What might then be the cause for young people in different Western countries defining their sexual selves in diverse ways, and by emphasizing contingency and openness in how their preferences may evolve or play out in the future? It would hardly be apt to claim that heteronormativity has suddenly lost its firm grip as an organizing principle of intimacies and social arrangements, yet it seems that its coercive appeal as the default choice that young people should accommodate to is not altogether overpowering. In other words, the young people responding to the surveys addressed above did not seem to coherently register heterosexuality – or normative heterosexuality in particular (Rossi, 2011) – as the compulsory framework for their ways of being and engaging with other people.
Possible reasons for this are multiple, and open to speculation. There have clearly been notable transformations in sexual publics, namely in the general increased visibility of all kinds of sexual orientations, attachments and cultures, as well as in the broad availability of media narratives covering them. Queer and trans YouTube vloggers, sexually experimental Instagram celebrities and confessional autobiographers all expand the sexual mediasphere in the images that they show and the stories they tell (Duguay, 2015; Hall, 2016; McAlister, 2017; Raun, 2016). Online pornography, catered in carefully indexed subcategories and with a plethora of tags indicating distinctions between different preferences and styles, would be only one example of the easily available resources, albeit a vast one, for testing out the possible range of sexual tastes and interests.
Feona Attwood (2011: 86–87) identifies the contemporary flexibility and playfulnesss of sexual identities with how sex as such is increasingly framed as a leisure activity and an arena of consumption accommodating ‘hedonistic lads and ladettes, bi-curious girls and just-gay-enough boys, characterised by “heteroflexibility” … and “metrosexuality”, a term coined by Mark Simpson … to describe the emergence of a figure for whom sexual identity is forged, not through sex acts or sexual orientation, but through mediation, consumerism and the development of lifestyle.’ These leisure markets figure sex in terms of taste cultures, which, similarly to taste more generally, develop and vary across people’s lifespans (Attwood, 2007). Figured in terms of constant accumulation of experiences, commodities and pleasures, sexuality, like any other taste or preference, entails the perpetual promise of novel sensations and experiences. One’s horizons of possibility in terms of sexual likes and bents remain perpetually open, as one can always feel like shopping for something different. (Attwood and Smith, 2013: 326.)
An understanding of the sexual self as a work in progress that may be fickle or even unpredictable in its desires implies something of a profound shift in the notion of identity. Rather than figuring sexual identity as a firm sense of who one is that people come to understand and know as they age, the survey responses point to identity categories as working definitions that are descriptive of the present moment, and possibly something of the recent past, yet remain detached from the aim of pinning or closing down the possibilities that tomorrow may bring. Such malleable understanding of the sexual self is at odds with the framing of identity through mutually exclusive or opposing categories, given the default space left for figuring things out in an alternative way. It would equally be at odds with identity politics that allow for personal trajectories of desire and attachment to be ‘wedded to the public construction of a group identity and to a political strategy for social change’ (Epstein, 1994: 192).
Yet rather than eroding the premises of LGBTQI activism as such, the redefinition that the survey responses gesture toward would primarily seem to involve an unravelling of heterosexuality as a clear orientation excluding other attachments. For some young people, heterosexuality is something that one may do exclusively, or then not, move in and out from, and perform with all sorts of trimmings and flexibilities. This may be seen as one more example of the privileges that heteronormativity allows for subjects considered appropriately straight to negotiate its boundaries while nevertheless reaping the benefits of their privileged location within the sexual hierarchy. Those whose preferences are situated at the hierarchy’s outer edges may find more purpose in sticking to, and articulating their specific identifications for political ends. In other words, the malleability and flexibility of the sexual self across pre-given categories is connected to the operations of the sexual norm as that which does not need to define itself, and that therefore offers the privilege of accommodating degrees of unruliness without becoming ruptured or undone.
Considered from yet another angle, the issue of malleability can be connected to conceptualizing sexuality less as differences in kind than those in degree – that is, as variations, or as diverse patterns within a broader fabric (Bergson, 2007: 299). When conceptualizing differences in kind in the realm of sexuality, the task becomes one of charting out taxonomies, be these binary ones, such as queer versus straight; broad ones, such as those separating the heterosexual from the homosexual, bisexual or asexual; or much more nuanced ones, such as the categories of abrosexuality based on fluidity, ceterosexuality involving attraction to nonbinary people, placiosexuality centred on performing rather than being the recipient of sexual acts or quoisexuality averse to any extant labels. As a strategy of classification, sexual taxonomy functions through distinctions drawn between separate categories. Alternatively, if one approaches the spectrum of sexual fantasies, desires and orientations in terms of differences in degree, the issue is one of intensities and gradations that necessitate no pigeonholes to separate them, to turn towards or away from. Contra the taxonomical principles of sexual normativity, desire, as fields of variation, remains resistant to such forms of capture.
What, then, follows from all this? One obvious implication is a need to allow for openness in how both gender and sexual identities are mapped out, not least when working with young people. If the familiar and ubiquitous binary framing of sexuality fails to capture the experiences and self-understandings of young people, then scholars and educators should not start from such models, operate within them, or try to mould people’s sexual selves into fitting them. A focus on variation – on differences in degree – makes it possible to consider how individual sexual tastes shift and alter, as well as to conceptualize sexuality less in terms of taxonomies than becomings through which bodies and selves move from one state to another and become altered in the process.
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