Other Worlds Already Exist
Samuel R Delany, Jackie Wang, and Huw Lemmy discuss technology and public sex during Arika's Episode 9.
Do our erotic contacts shape the city? Could cruising be the basis for an ethically organized society? Is Google Street View a kind of pornography? What socialities are enabled and/or precluded by Grindr? Do you pursue public sex?
The following conversation was brought together by Arika, a group of organisers who plan events around media, art and radical politics in Glasgow, Scotland. Each year Arika hosts one “Episode” – a convening of artists, thinkers, writers, and activists brought together over a few days in the name of investigation, collective assembly, and discussion.
For Episode 9: Other Worlds Already Exist in November 2017, Arika chose to work in collaboration with the legendary writer and sex radical Samuel R. Delany, taking inspiration from the unique intersection of ideas in his work across science fiction, urban studies, pornography, and memoir. Almost twenty years after the publication of Delany’s groundbreaking exploration of public sex and gentrification, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Arika invited abolitionist, scholar and poet Jackie Wang and cultural critic and novelist Huw Lemmey to sit down with the legendary author to discuss their views on the state of public space, contact, sexuality and forms of social control.
Jackie Wang’s recently published book Carceral Capitalism discusses how new police technologies like predictive analytics and data mining are transforming public space into zones of “potential” or “yet to be realized” guilt. The question of how algorithms, data, and social communication platforms are altering our experiences of embodiment and public life is also of interest to Huw Lemmey, whose work as a writer explores queer sexual spaces and the ways in which new chemical and technological practices/techniques are transforming those spaces.
Jackie Wang (JW): Chip, in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, you talk about contact. Chance meetings are a part of that, meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise meet in your everyday life. But today, who we come into contact with is often mediated by apps, and social media. Does that keep us in atomized bubbles, or do you think technology can actually enable contact?
Samuel R. Delany (SD): I think various and sundry institutions are what enabled contact. At Stonewall, I was 27 years old, so I spent the first 27 years of my life prior to Stonewall, and computers were not a big part of what was going on.
JW: Earlier you were talking about posting a classified ad, where you were seeking out hard to find men, like nail biters. Can you tell us more about what you were seeking out?
SD: The thing is, there are things that you like. There are physical things that you like about people. Mine were a little different. When computers sort of got going, I remember I thought, let’s try the computer, you know? So I dialed up a computer. I was looking for people who were older than I was, looking for people who were heavier than I was. For guys who bite their nails. And they said, gosh, we don’t have that. Everybody else is looking for people who are younger than they are! And skinny. We can’t deal with you. So I said, okay, obviously, the thing to do is go back out on the street where I can find what I’m looking for, you know. So I went right back to the movie theatre where there were all sorts of people, and I could find what I was looking for. I found a number of them.
JW: So you found a lot of nail-biters?
SD: Yes, I certainly did. Now I’m living with one for 27 years!
JW: Huw, maybe this is a good moment to bring you in, because this anecdote about, classified [ads], and being told there’s no-one for you out there, [makes me think] about technology and the proliferation of fetishes, positions, sexualities, gender identities. Do you think that technology provides more outlets for the variety of sexual preferences that exist?
Huw Lemmey (HL): Yes, of course, and the infrastructure of the technology or the design of it helps proliferate that as well. There is a dual nature to apps like Grindr, they also offer an instant real-life pornography, so although they are designed for people to meet and chat, it provides a masturbatory function, and I think that can be a real frustration within the design of the app, because it hasn’t figured a way to split those two camps. If you’re in a park or down by the docks, for example, you’ve made an investment to go out. You’re not there just to look, necessarily.
JW: Chip, how does it feel when you think about the experiences you wrote about in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and thinking about finding people on the internet?
SD: One of the things that happened in the last few years is that the number of contacts has gone way the fuck down. And I kind of miss it. I seem to be more or less okay with it.
JW: I wonder is it related to seeking out sex on the internet, or where you live in Philadelphia? Maybe you could talk a little bit about the things that affect the rhythm of our sexual desires, [whether it’s] ageing, it could be illness, it could be taking medications – all of these things.
SD: May I propose something: I would much rather hear about what affects the rhythm of your sexual desire. You’re on this panel too, come on! [Laughs] We’re all supposed to be having a conversation. I think it should be equal! [Laughter]
JW: [Laughter] Yes, mental health, I don’t know. Sometimes there’s conflict that can turn me on – sometimes.
SD: Do you pursue public sex?
JW: I have had a little bit. Gosh, I’m in the hot seat. [Laughter]
SD: One of the things I’ve certainly been aware of since the very beginning is that the way this affects women is very, very different.
JW: I used to go yearly to Idapalooza, a queer festival that happens in the woods in Tennessee. Everybody hooking up all the time. There are a few people who don’t, but I was like oh, really nervous.
SD: May I ask a couple of specific questions? This is something I know nothing about. Huw and I are talking about essentially gay stuff. Is this basically heterosexual?
JW: No, this is a queer commune.
SD: Is it queer female, men?
JW: All genders.
SD: But it is all queer.
JW: Yes, they don’t like straight people at the queer commune. [Laughs].
SD: Some of my best blow jobs have been by straight guys. [Laughs].
JW: That’s true. There is like a generational tension, too, in terms of how definitions are used, how people identify.
SD: So, what do you do?
JW: What do I do?
SD: Do in such a thing. I want to know what is done. Don’t talk about it, describe it!
JW: From my anthropological perspective, because I was like, “Wait a minute, why do I have less casual sex than everyone else?” I decided to observe what would happen on the commune, and it always involved alcohol, so I would observe how orgies would get started. There would be a bunch of drunk people who started dancing, and they would be like, let’s go in the barn now with all the people.
HL: In the UK there’s a big culture of straight public sex which is “dogging.”
SD: I don’t know whether – I don’t know whether I’ve done it or not! [Laughter]. I don’t know what the term refers to.
HL: It is called dogging because I think, traditionally, the sort of excuse you made was you were taking the dog for a walk.
SD: I call that cruising!
HL: They drive their car to a sort of car park in the forest, or in a nature reserve, or something, women and men, and they have sex in the car, guys look in, guys get in the car, women get out – I don’t know. You’re asking the wrong person for the details! [Laughter] I guess there’s two aspects – one which is necessity, like you go cruising because you can’t have sex in your own house, perhaps your landlady might live with you for example, so you have to have sex in the woods, and another that fixes on the actual anonymity, or the fresh air, the smell of molding leaves, it’s all part of what gets you off.
HL: With dogging, it is a paraphilia, or a sexual fetish in itself. They choose the risk, I suppose in the fresh air.
SD: In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, I argue that places for that to happen make for a more interesting city. It attracts people from outside the city to come to it because they know you can get laid here, and you don’t have to go to somebody’s house. Which I think is good – it’s taking the Jane Jacobs model one step further to include the sexual. [To Jackie:] You giggle as though you’re embarrassed. I don’t think it is an embarrassing thing. I think it’s something that makes for a more interesting urban landscape; but I don’t have the vaguest idea of how this might pertain to Glasgow.
JW: This used to be a port town – docks and sailors.
SD: Does the technology inhibit it here?
JW: This is a question: is the technology crushing these [sexual] spaces? In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, you talk about urban renewal, and also policing – police focusing on criminalizing vice, and policing vice. Can you talk about why the public sex gets pushed out of spaces?
SD: Usually it comes in because it is making someone money, and it’s pushed out because they will make more money when they push it out.
JW: You think all the moral stuff is just the justification for it?
HL: This is just one aspect of multiple different things that have been totally affected by a changing attitude towards private space – privatization of public space, and, with it, the privatization of a public sphere. For example, in London, the City Hall is located in a new estate that is built. I used to walk through it every day to get to work. There’s a park. It’s privately owned, and there are security guards, and you can’t protest there without a licence outside the City Hall. That’s another aspect. The changing attitudes that came around in the 1990s in the UK, of a neo-liberal attitude towards public space and neo-liberal attitude towards anti-social behavior.
JW: In the US, the post-war sex panic queers were called Communists – that was one way.
HL: The lavender scare.
JW: Gays are reds. Okay, I will take it!
HL: Which is ironic, though, because most of the leading figures in the FBI and – McCarthy, probably gay; Hoover, probably gay.
SD: People like Cohen, definitely. [Laughter]
HL: There’s a great book by Matt Houlbrook called Queer London which is a history of anti-gay repression and public space in London in the 1920s and 1930s, and, in that, he says, prior to the Second World War, if you walk through Victoria Park in East London in late evening, it would be full of people having sex – mostly heterosexual because the area was full of tenements, people lived with their parents until they were married, and so, if you wanted to have sex, the only place you could have it was outside.
SD: I lived in London for two years. My daughter was born there. What was the place? Was it Golders Green in the early 1970s – 1973 and 1974 – after time, that place was just covered with male bodies, and many of them having sex with one another. Some people would actually bother to go and hook up in the loo and come out to have sex on the grass, but many wouldn’t even get that far.
HL: You were talking about this earlier with migrant laborers generally.
SD: Yes. And there was a class element. This was back when, as I described it a couple of times, when drunken Irish laborer was one word, and it was not a very pretty word. But I do remember looking out of a Camden Town flat at a vacant lot one – I guess it was a Saturday morning – and seeing it covered, again, in the same way as Golders Green was with male bodies who are had all fallen out together. I realized something as a black man from the United States, I had seen large groups of black people in this state. I had never seen that many white people in that state. It was a new experience for me.
JW: I think maybe we can open our discussion up to questions from the audience now.
Audience Member: Hi. Shon Faye, the incredible journalist, on Twitter has been putting up her conversations with men on Grindr, and it’s quite revealing that, for straight men, they don’t often know how to talk about the sex that they want; also Reddit posts with gay men who are annoyed about the presence of trans women and the straight men who seek them on Grindr. For me it brings up the designation of gendered sexual space – that it is really important to talk about where these places are so that people can find them, you know? Like, Epping Forest is a really big dogging area, and there is also fabswingers.com where you can actually review each other. The funny thing is when women are reviewing men, it is always, “Great cock. You don’t want to miss out on this one, girls!” [Laughter]
Moving into the future, for public sexual space and online, is there still going to be a need for us to separate ourselves according to gender and sexuality, and, if not, is that liberalization and us sharing sexual space, is that going to be positive for us all, or are we going to lose something in there not being separate designated gay male sexual space, heterosexual space, et cetera?
HL: Funny you mention Shon, actually. She’s great. For those who don’t know how Grindr works, there’s a profile page to which you can add information about yourself like stats, height, et cetera, and then a very strange one which I think they call “tribes” – twink, bear, rugged, otter, Poz, and trans. But it never says whether tribes is who you are or what you’re looking for, which I think is an interesting dynamic. Grindr is clearly a space that’s being used by a lot of straight men who are looking for trans women. Shon talks about that a lot, and there is no other infrastructure for that. I don’t know in terms of the divisions. I think there will always be a narrowing-down.
SD: There’s a quote that I lifted from [Alfred] Kinsey I wish I could remember it exactly; basically, in terms of what goes on sexually: “Pretty much everything has happened at one time or another that you can imagine, and a lot more that you can’t.” That is the situation. People always have different parameters that they are looking for, and its very hard to place them all in one set, to organize them in one way that will cover everybody. You know? As I said, I have my own things that– When I published an autobiography back in 1988, I went on a book tour and I talked about it; people would come up to me afterwards, and I noticed that the majority of people who came up to me were basically straight men. What does that mean? It means that they were men. One guy who said, “Hey, look, I’m really queer for…” – he didn’t use the word. He said, “What turns me on is heavy women with glasses.” Why was it always the straight men who would come up to tell me about what it was that they wanted? Because they still have all the fucking power. They are used to getting what they want, and asking for what they want, and we often just aren’t used to articulating what it is we want. Sometimes, we have to learn to articulate what it is we want because that itself is seizing power.
HL: Also to listen. The other thing that Shon has really showed me is that, yes, there might be 300, 400 guys that want to get in touch with her and hook up with her, but 299 of them don’t know how to talk to somebody and explain themselves in a polite way which isn’t de-humanizing.
HL: Do you feel like urban spaces are defining the whole conversation so far? I don’t know how you imagine sexuality if you live in, like, a less populated space? We talked about this earlier. I grew up in Cumbria, in a really rural spot. It was pre-Grindr. I think even pre-Gaydar. I didn’t have a computer, or a personal computer. I knew five gay men my age and I spent most weekends with them, and had sex with all of them. This was at age 15 or 16.
SD: In approximately what year, ballpark?
HL: 2001, 2002, maybe. And now, when I go back to my dad’s house and go online, it is obviously a lifesaver, creating huge numbers of connections for people. When you look at people’s profiles in rural areas, or this has been my experience, it recreates some scene dynamics. There are clearly people referencing each other, or you talk to somebody and they are like, “Have you seen this guy three squares along on the Grindr grid.” They’re sharing that information, which I think is a real issue with Grindr. I used to use other sort of websites where there were forums, infrastructural space for discourse, where political ideas can be shared, where people could call each other out on stuff that was a bit fucked up, or develop discussions.
JW: So at the queer commune that I spent a lot of time on, Ida, there was the fairy community, Short Mountain. Ida started after Short Mountain, a lot of people started with Act Up! They started the intentional communities. They’re into the rural homesteading lifestyle. My friend Clutch built their house. And, you know, they’re into developing relationships with the neighbours in rural Tennessee – they strongly identified as being queers living in the South in a rural setting.
Audience Member: Hello. You were talking about the proliferation of desires. One thing that has always struck me about Grindr specifically is how narrow and spectacular some desires are, so while I had always imagined the internet as this space within which there’s a proliferation of desires, when you come to apps like Grindr there’s a real narrowing of desire where, often, it is quite racialized, that whiteness is desired, and skinniness, muscularity, masculine – muscularity as masculinity – and it’s totalizing. I’ve seen that shift in recent years. I was amazed by the technology which could be expansive and diverse but somehow that is this level of publicity where more niche desires don’t get representation. Do you have any views or opinions on that?
HL: It reflects wider social trends, right? All those dynamics existed and exist outside of Grindr – it magnifies them in some ways. People can get away with saying horrendous stuff. If someone pulls them up on it, they just block it, they don’t care. I think the technology structures some of those desires as well, so the focus is constantly on the image, obviously, and also the technology in terms of the algorithms – not on Grindr, the thing about that is it doesn’t have much algorithmic design. The drop-down menu where you can have twink, bear, whatever, encourages people to think of themselves in those strange social cultural categories. When I was growing up, I had no idea what a twink was until I left that rural space. If I was 14 and living in the countryside, I would think I’ve got to choose one of these. Which one am I?
SD: I’m an African-American, you know, 75 years old. I am looking for people who are comfortable using these kinds of terms. But it’s about the relationship of sex and language. I’m interested in people who use them, but don’t use them in – or with a deprecating intention.
HL: Maybe it’s one of the differences again between the world that you describe and a sort of formulation of desire you described in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which is – what is the word that you used earlier? Aleatory – chance or serendipity. Sometimes, you don’t know until you’ve tried it. Sometimes when you’re cruising, you might end up with somebody who doesn’t necessarily match you – it turns out, yes, that’s what I’m into.
Audience Member: Hi. When we are speaking about technology and how technology shapes sexuality, I think another part of technology is drugs, and drug use, and how drug use shapes sexuality. Can you talk about that? How, from your experience, drug use shapes sexuality?
HL: My new novel is based on – the press will tell you in an extreme tabloid sort of terror, scare, that this is the new craze… chemsex, and there’s definitely been an uptake in chemsex groups where I live in London. Personally, for me, it sounds like a complete nightmare. They call it “high and horny.” I can do high and horny, but together? [Laughs] So many neuroses involved. That’s part of it, because it gets rid of neuroses for a lot of people and the anxieties around it, frees up the inhibitions. What would be more interesting going forward, and this is a theme in my new novel, is to develop politically a new summer of love in the UK. We had the summer of love in the 1960s, and we had another one in the 1990s. It really shut down the sort of football hooligan movement, and a resurgent far-right in the early 1990s. I think we need a sex-based Summer of Love which is based around hallucinogens.
JW: I’m all for it!
SD: I thought we had one already, but ...! No, I think – probably, it wouldn’t do any major harm to have another one!
Audience Member: How much do you think that the societal taboo of talking about sex, and also public sex, of having sex in public, and having sex in public in front of people you might know, how much do you feel that kind of dampens an individual sexuality, and how much does it fuel it, that taboo?
JW: Chip, in your interview with bell hooks, you mention that sexual transgressiveness is about seeing the boundary and then crossing it.
JW: But when you narrate your experiences, it’s so matter-of-fact, not with this bad-boy attitude of crossing the boundary, and ... I don’t know. I think for me, personally, despite having these opinions, my own experience, I’m extremely anxious and a neurotic person a lot of time, and it scares me. That’s part of the thrill when I do do it, but I’m not actually massively adventurous in those sort of terms. Sexualizing anxiety is a really nice way to deal with it.
SD: That line that you were talking about, Jackie. You see that line, and what happens with me, usually in the past, I have just wandered – I thought about what’s on the other side of it. Rarely do I find I’m the only person who has crossed it. I find that there are a whole lot of people who have already crossed it and doing something interesting that the people on the other side don’t know anything about. That’s what most interests me. Yes.
The video and audio of this transcript will soon be available on the Arika Archive. In the meantime, check out other talks and performances that Arika have organized here: arika.org.uk/archive