Playing Sex & Safe Sex

The phrase “playing sex” lives at the junctions of class, age, geography, and education. My parents’ generation—those rural to urban pioneers, provincial to cosmopolitan mediators, history makers and consumers—use it. It is also a phrase found among domestic workers, rural to urban migrants, younger children. It conveys the difficulty of translating across life-worlds: from rural languages to urban stutters, from sensation to language, from pleasure to function. It allows for a deceptively simple binary: sex for play and sex not-for-play, a simplistic binary because it cannot quite distinguish between “play” and “not-for-play” and so must retain the term “play.”

I have just started reading Tim Dean’s Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking and, as always, I am provoked and enriched by his writing. I have yet to complete and process the book, at which time I might have something more coherent to write. I will note, though, that I’m thrilled Tim has taken on sexual spaces and practices seriously without sacrificing the sex—queer studies has become far too asexual for my taste. I am, of course, as guilty of this as anyone. There are, of course, questions of time and space: it’s harder to read semen stains in colonial archives. And while the historian’s insistence that “it’s undeniable” or “highly likely” or “logical to assume” sounds nice, it’s not really what interests me. Digression.

Tim’s book is stirring an old Foucauldian-flavored cauldron on what we mean by “safe” sex and how “desirable” such sex might be. It’s a peasant cauldron, chock-full of concepts and ideas, debates I have with myself and other wiser interlocutors. Tim argues, for instance, that we can destigmatize the notion of bareback sex if we think of it as condomless sex, a strategy that allows us to include many heterosexuals who do not use condoms. (I must admit, the hetero-conceit that “pregnancy” is the “only” thing out there continues to drive me nuts.) At the same time, I am not yet convinced that condomless sex or raw sex or sex “kimwili” is necessarily more intimate. It might be “faster” or “more convenient” or might shave a few seconds off an act. But condomless sex can be just as frustrating, a clumsy, as aggravating, as condom sex: that hyper-tight bottom will still need a jar full of lube and 30 minutes to prep.

Safe sex, and here, I admit, I use an outdated term, as these days we talk about safer sex practices, sounds like a more boring proposition. And Tim’s use of psychoanalysis to think about “risk” is welcome. It is all the more welcome because he thinks about the deliberate choice to forgo condoms, and here, there’s a useful bridge to be forged between Tim’s work and Robert Reid-Pharr’s recent thinking on choice for African Americans. (The conceptual labor involves bridging a method between Tim’s anti-psychological, psychoanalytic approach and Reid-Pharr’s political, a-psychoanalytic method, not here, not now.)

Space becomes crucial in registering how “boring” safe sex practices can be. Be it in an ABS or a bathhouse or sex store or in a public park or the porn theaters Samuel Delaney describes so lovingly or even the multiple semi-anonymous hookups some of us prefer (there’s choice) to pursuing relationships: the frisson of meeting, fucking, and leaving is incalculable. And while I’m still skeptical about claims to greater intimacy, the silent invitation to fuck a stranger, an ass pressed up against a gloryhole, for instance, has a certain psychic value. Or the sensation of a blowjob turned into a fuck, the change in texture and wetness, this bears its own thrill.

I am trying to think, here, of how the idea of “playing sex” captures something quintessential that might be put in useful tension with “safe sex.” I am also trying to be disingenuous about “safe sex” by taking it as a metonym for “managing sex.” I think, for instance, about Kenyatta’s claim that sex among the Gikuyu is “orderly” and “organized.” And how this “stance” (pun intended) colors his discussion of a group jerk-off. It is neither messy nor homo, simply young boys “practicing” for married life. Group masturbation among boys trains for married life—like how to join the all-male jerk-off group for married men, limited touching allowed. (Look online to find your local chapter.) Yes, I’m slightly distracted.

On and off over the years, I have thought about how “playing sex” allows us to re-think sexual feel and what we do, and how we do to feel and feel to do. I am no longer as interested as I once was in “contesting” identity categories. I am more interested in how categories bend and flex, accommodate more than we think possible even while creating exclusions at points of bend and flex and bulge and extend. That I return where I “started” many years ago, to “the body” and its movements to provide material and metaphor is both fortuitous and thrilling—the map is not totally strange, though its territories have expanded.

The ever-prescient Essex Hemphill writes, (I misquote) “Now we think as we fuck / this nut might kill me.” My question has always been why the fucking continues given the “risk.” When I dare, I ask how can the fucking not continue.
I have abstained, here, from a set of rhetorical gestures that would “acknowledge” how “dangerous” and “unthinking” and “politically damaging” this post and its implications might be. I abstain because I am interested in pursuing a kind of dangerous honesty, of “daring” an embodied truth-seeking and truth-telling, no matter how partial.

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