Angela Davis said, “I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy.” Psychiatric texts deploy the term ‘cultural sensitivity’ in a similar way. Ostensibly it’s a claim of inclusion, but functionally it serves to increase profits by extending the market (in this case, of psychiatric services) to People of Color. If the goal is to allow People of Color full access to care, including psychiatric sex therapies, we’d have to radically change what psychiatry means, not ask therapists trained in a white supremacist discipline to attend a workshop on ‘cultural sensitivity’.
A real starting point would be reworking the common understanding of the relationship between race, gender, and sexuality. They aren’t intersections that appear only when therapists map out the psyches of racialized patients. They are mutually constitutive categories of social control. In other words, you cannot understand gender or sexuality– as abstract concepts or as they are embodied in any individual– if you don’t understand race.
This is obvious if you’ve heard or read anything of the actual histories racialized peoples. Historical systems of white domination (historical meaning invented and implemented years ago but still in operation today) like chattel slavery and colonialism were justified through hegemonic ideas about the deviant genders and sexualities of racialized peoples. White supremacy pretty much invented gender oppression and sexual oppression, yet very many white sex educators give no more than lip service to race in their work. This tells you they’ve neither read nor thought much about anything other than their own sexualities.
I know because I was once such a white person. I am, obviously, still a white person, and so I’m still able to enact racial oppression and will always benefit from the racial oppression that other white individuals enact and the structure of white supremacy as a whole. It’s my responsibility as a decent human being to constantly work to understand and undermine this structure. Even if I had no ambitions to be decent, I would still need to understand white supremacy and racialized constructions of gender and sexuality to understand my own white gender and sexuality. The same goes for all white sex educators out there: we gotta stop being know-nothing assholes. That’s where this week’s supplementary readings come in.
They include four chapters from academic nonfiction books and two journal articles, and they’re only diving-off points. I hadn’t originally included Morgensen’s, Puri’s and Mann’s writing in the syllabus, because the point of this endeavor was to learn what the major texts had say about sexuality and only supplement that a little where necessary. But after reading the textbooks in weeks 1 + 2, the words of more People of Color and scholars of racialized histories felt not just morally imperative but intellectually necessary; there was SO much missing that the supplementary text couldn’t just be one work by Patricia Hill Collins. Otherwise? Reading all these shitty textbooks might just rot my brain, and I’d end up a know-nothing asshole again.
I don’t want any of us to wind up that way, so I chose texts that are all available for free online (see the reading list for sources). However, if you can afford to pay for these works or other works by these authors, you should. (That’s the principle on which I construct my alternate reading list, too.) And if you’re short on time as well as cash? Hang on, kid, this summary’s got you covered! You can also skip ahead to ‘The Fantastic Parts’ section of the notes below.
In Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins explores the interrelated processes of racialization and sexualization. Both of these are inflicted ON Black bodies, from the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade through to what Collins identifies as the post-Civil Rights era . Collins argues that in order to understand ‘the new racism’ (racism not explicitly encoded in the law) we must understand these historical processes and the ways they continue to play out today. Her major contention is that Black genders and sexualities are always classified as deviant under white supremacist hegemony: “African Americans have been evaluated within the context of a sex role theory that by its very nature disadvantages Black people,” she writes on page 44. Collins goes on to write against a ‘politics of respectability’ as useless to dismantling these white supremacist norms.
In the second chapter of her book, Collins gives a detailed history of Black sexual politics in the United States, and I’d make it required reading for anyone with an interest in sex education (or racial justice, or gender justice, or economic justice, or, or, or…) From “the political economy of chattel slavery” (55) which relied on commodifying Black sexuality, to “racial segregation and the rural south” (61) which justified segregation and vigilante violence through the pathologization of Black sexuality, to”racial segregation and urban ghettoization” (69) and “the post- civil rights era” (75) which are defined by gendered economic disenfranchisement and control of the surplus population through the expansion of the prison industrial complex, this whole chapter is illuminating and vital.
The history of Black sexual politics is of course present in all other racialized histories, but the exact process of white supremacist domination is never repeated exactly for other racialized groups. I chose Scott Lauria Morgensen’s article on gender, sexuality, and settler colonial studies as an introduction to this issue as it relates to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Because he is writing for an academic journal, Morgensen’s prose is denser than Collins’s, but it also offers more obvious summaries of its points. These main points are that “colonialism is produced, extended, and illuminated by gendered and sexual power” (3) and “colonialism has sexualised indigenous lands and peoples as violable, subjugated indigenous kin ties as perverse, attacked familial ties and traditional gender roles, and all to transform indigenous peoples for assimilation within or excision from the political and economic structures of white settler societies” (4). Morgensen takes care to note the limitations of his academic knowledge production and acknowledges marginalized experience as a site of knowledge production that can “displace the epistemic frame of settlers” (3).
From this marginzalized knowledge production comes definitive answers to questions that White Feminism cannot stop arguing over, such as the validity of transgender identities. Guess what? They’re valid! When we understand that the cissupremacist gender binary is a Western construct that is violently imposed on indigenous societies, there’s no debate as to whether denying trans women’s identities is violent; it is a function of settler colonialism and cultural genocide, so of course it is. Morgenson helps us understand how this violence was operationalized. He explains that this Western gender binary was not incidental to settler colonialism. Rather, “the targeting of persons who today might be called Two-Spirit for violent elimination instantiated colonial heteropatriarchy and a sex/ gender binary as a precursor to establishing a new economic and legal system” (14) (italics in the original). Cissupremacism is a central aspect of white supremacist violence, and it is only now undeniable to white people because of the work of Two-Spirit activists and queer indigenous scholars.
I chose Morgenson’s and Collins’s writing to fill in general gaps in knowledge about race and gender, but I chose Susan Mann’s and Jyoti Puri’s pieces directly in response to the first round of readings. Remember the Sexuality Now account of ‘Sexuality in Ancient Asia‘ that amounted to no more than brief list of stereotypes? Puri’s “Concerning Kamasutras” and Mann’s Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese History are here to put them to rest. First, Puri’s blistering account of how Victorian-era British colonists essentially invented the Kamasutra as part of their orientalist colonial project and how 20th-Century Indian nationalists attempted and failed at reclaiming it because they were working from “androcentric nationalist impulses that sought to establish a compatibility between a select national tradition and Western, colonial modernity” (621). Puri’s article is a particularly focused and illuminating account of how white supremacist patriarchy exoticizes and pathologizes the sexuality of racialized peoples to subjugate and control both colonial subjects and white women. Puri also explains how this process instills or strengthens forms of structural subjugation within colonized societies, in this case casteism and Islamophobia in India. Sexuality Now! couldn’t even acknowledge the existence of Muslim peoples within India, because acknowledging pluralism in racialized nations would complicate one-dimensional stereotypes.
The preface and introduction of Susan Mann’s book-length history of modern (19th + 20th Century) Chinese gender roles also includes a necessary discussion of pluralism and subjugation within China. Mann gives an account of the Manchu conquest of the majority Han ethnic population that begat the Qing dynasty. She also hints at the great regional cultural variation within China, mentioning all-female households in the Canton delta and sisterhoods of women in southern Hunan province (12), and cites the various influences of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism on Chinese gender idiologies– a welcome correction to Sexuality Now!‘s inane ‘yin and yang’ summary.
Sexuality Now! also failed to offer an insightful analysis of the practice of footbinding, but Mann illuminates the history of the practice in her discussion of the subjugation that followed the Manchu conquest. After Manchus banned the practice, Han women began to engage in it as form of anti-colonial resistance; what had started as patriarchal paradoxically became a way to defy hegemonic control, as Han women used it to express ethnic pride and affirm their marginalized gender performance (17). Mann explicitly offers at the end of her introduction that this historical understanding of “sexuality and gender relations in a different cultural context … challenges the universalizing claims of Western modernity” (23).
Imagine a DSM-5 that captured any of these histories in the Sexual Dysfunction, Paraphilic and Gender Identity Disorder categories. You can’t, really, because then these three sections would mostly cease to exist. The American Psychiatric Association has been forced over decades to acknowledge cultural difference in constructions of pathologies, but they mostly do so where it opens up possibilities for further pathologization. For example, the DSM-5 includes a section on Cultural Formulation, which explores how culture affects “key aspects of an individual’s clinical presentation and care” but it never questions whether that care (or ‘care’) is even necessary within other cultural understandings (750). And of course it doesn’t, because if ‘the individual’ is already in the room, the clinician can’t just let her leave; he has to bill her. Ultimately, culture may affect someone’s diagnosis or treatment protocols but it won’t be allowed to interfere with continued insurance payments.
Like their unwavering guide, the DSM, the sex therapy textbooks also must address (minoritized) cultures. Each contains one chapter on ‘cultural sensitivity,’ and neither attempts to impart any historical understanding of how white supremacy operates on sexuality or through the field of psychotherapy. Instead, they both offer liberal blandishments about being open and understanding (how one can understand without the prerequisit background knowledge is anyone’s guess).
At the beginning of New Directions‘s cultural sensitivity chapter — after the author has made a tasteless joke about the differences between Christian, Jewish and Muslim women’s sexuality in order to illustrate how wrong it is to make such tasteless jokes!– the reader is confronted with a quote from ‘Pope and Vasquez’ that “‘Therapists who ignore cultural values, attitudes and behaviors different from their own deprive themselves of crucial information and may tend to impose their own worldview and assumptions on clients in a misguided and harmful approach’ (p. 227)” (161) (italics mine). Here is the underlying philosophy of sex therapy, the classic liberal fallacy that neutrality is not only a possibility but a virtue. A radical approach– a decolonial approach, which decenters Western enlightenment notions of scientific neutrality– would not seek to do the impossible and eliminate personal bias but to expand personal viewpoints through education while acknowledging their constructions and limitations. This may be the major difference between sex therapy and sex education: the former is a necessarily liberal project and the latter can be approached from any ideological standpoint. In order for sex education to be radical, the understanding and destruction of white supremacist philosophy must be a foundational aspect of the project.
The Profoundly Questionable Parts