outdated questions on binaries

August 12, 2007  |  essays

I should be sleeping. And I have too many things to be writing about to be flying off the handle at some random thing, but I just ran across something that has me all … hot under the collar.The lovely Miss Avarice made some comments on my post about active surrender where I wrote about topping & bottoming, and who really has control. Fine, good. Sweet of her to link to me, actually, and I should’ve said that in my comments, but I got distracted, because someone commented by saying: why do lesbians hold true the male ideal of duality? male vs. female…masculine vs. feminine…i mean it is still a ridiculous battle and fight over nothing. still a struggle that is ultimately useless.

And oh my god I don’t even know where to start. Go read my very sloppy comments on the subject if you’d like.

You’re not going to go read the comments, are you? Okay, here’s what I wrote:

The dualisms absolutely can be confining, if you let what they’re “supposed” to be dictate who you are. But many people, and I include myself in this description absolutely, find categories and dualisms also extremely liberating, and celebratory. there is infinity inside of these dualisms, if one wishes to embody them that way.

Also: “the male ideal of duality”? Why would duality that be a male ideal? That makes no sense. Humans categorize, male and female and beyond and in-between.

But – I believe Miss Avarice was discussing topping & bottoming here in this post, which is not male vs female or masculine vs feminine. Which is also, perhaps, a duality, but you missed the point of the post: even when someone is bottoming, they are still in charge. so who is really bottoming? who is really in charge? who is really in control? who is really submitting? those lines are extremely blurry, and difficult to categorize, when you actually examine them.

I have two hundred more words I could say about this “struggle that is ultimately useless” and what is problematic about generalizing all lesbians as holding to dualisms. Makes me want to shake my fist and spit at the ground a little bit.

I have books and books to say about how, to start, the gender expressions of butch and femme are not reproductions of the heteronormative paradigm.Can everybody please just say that five times, out loud, right now? Butch and femme are not reproductions of the heteronormative paradigm. Butch and femme are not reproductions of the heteronormative paradigm. Butch and femme are not reproductions of the heteronormative paradigm. Butch and femme are not reproductions of the heteronormative paradigm. Butch and femme are not reproductions of the heteronormative paradigm.

But beyond actually even addressing this misconception, and further perpetuating this argument about how lesbians are reproducing heterosexual gender roles, there’s another issue here which is really the one irking me: are we really still asking these questions? I mean, really? Have we not addressed this, over and over and OVER?

And maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m just fucken lucky that I’ve been examining gender expression and dynamics and paradigms, and the history of feminism and women’s liberation and sexual liberation, and kink and play and sacred sexuality, and so I take it for granted that I have done this work, and others still haven’t.

But goddammit, why why why haven’t these ideas prevailed? Why haven’t they permeated the general public’s consciousness, just a little more? What a fucken battle we’ve been fighting.

And! – I was at a round-table interview today with seven of the smartest sexbloggers I know (more about that later) and one of the things the interviewer postited was about how a woman’s sex drive is still (perceived) to be lower than a man’s.

I just had to bite my tongue. I mean, really? Are we seriously still believing that in this culture? In 2007? Women still aren’t sexual beings, when compared to men?

What. The. Fuck.

This is why we still need social change, and why writing about sex IS an act of social change and liberation, subversion and joy.

I have so much more to express about this, about my own personal story of coming to and coming to terms with my own gender identity, about my attraction to femmes and to the so-called “gender binary,” about why dualisms are fascinating and important and celebratory instead of limiting.

But.

Two things.

  1. If it doesn’t work for you, fine! If you don’t find a particular binary useful, don’t use it. But do try to understand it before you go around discounting and patronizing other people’s values and choices. (Or maybe that was the anonymous commentor being authentically curious about the reasons behind “the lesbians” supporting as-a-whole these dualisms? To me, it just came across as holier-than-thou aren’t-you-unenlightened belittling.

  2. … And this is a new thing, something I’m trying to remind myself of, and remember. I am under no obligation to educate any random person who comes along and challenges my beliefs. For some reason, I have kind of been operating under the assumption that I should, actually, engage with these questions, and attempt dialogue. I don’t actually have to do that. That feels like a weird thing to be realizing – and it lifts a sort of weight, whereas seeing a random post, on a friend’s blog which discusses some ideas that originated from me, makes me feel very much obligated to discuss and engage and argue and support and defend.And you know what, anonymous? You didn’t even leave your name, blog profile, ID, or email. Why would I discuss this with you when you clearly didn’t really want to engage in a conversation anyway? Why waste my time defending and defining parts of my fundamental identity to someone I don’t even know?

This is the difficulty, that I sometimes very much forget, of occupying space within these binaries. It’s somehow unlesbian, and therefore unfeminist, to be inside of those dualisms because they are supposedly originated from the heteronormative gender roles.Before I go to bed (because it is one am and I had just a weeeee bit too much bourbon tonight), I do want to say briefly (ha!) why it is that butch and femme are not reproductions of the heteronormative paradigm. And that is because of exactly the reason our anonymous misinformed friend over at Avarice’s place was saying that lesbians shouldn’t be adopting these “dualisms”: there is a wide, wide range of human gender expression. And these roles are taking certain organized human traits and playing with them, enhancing them, celebrating them.

This is such a huge topic, I could write (and have written) for hours on it. What is butch, what is femme, anyway? I would probably have to define those things before really examining their liberatory function. Honestly, the closest I’ve come to actually defining them really has to do with formal wear, and underwear: when I dress up, I wear a suit. It is how I feel most comfortable. When I wear briefs, I feel sexy. And that physical gender expression actually makes my actions, hobbies, and interests all the more interesting – I think – because they are not necessarily in conjunction with your perceived idea of who I will be, because of my gender expression. And that, right there, is an act of subversion.

Those are the moments in the binaries and dualities that are the whole purpose, to me. When two seemingly mutually exclusive things occupy the same space: boy and girl. Love and violence. Power and surrender. That is how things feel made whole, balanced, right.

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9 Comments


  1. I'm responding to this thread because you specifically stated here the question about "who's in control?". That wasn't a stated point in the last post. So there's my reasoning for putting it here.It's not so easy to just say that bottom is in control. We aren't always in control. Absence of control is sometimes the whole point of being on bottom. Yes…in the end…we have the ability to say stop..BUT!….The person on top may not stop. I'm not discussing abuse. I'm discussing control. Another issue…"who's in control" is the entire reason I dislike "safewords". When you have a submissive or a bottom who lives to please or does not want to dissapoint their top/dom a safe word may be entirely useless. It has been in the past for me. There have been times where I've wanted nothing more then to say "stop" but I couldn't bring myself to do it. It's why tops/doms need to be aware of what's going on with the bottom/sub. You can not always count on the sub to know when or actually act to stop.The topic is huge and I'm happy to discuss any part of it. But I wanted to directly respond to "who's in control really."

  2. I. Love. Duality/Binaries. Of course, I'm a big fan of archetypes and patterns and repeated motifs and mythology anyway…but I love dualities. I do find them celebratory, freeing, interesting ways to look at aspects of our lives. Now, granted, I am (in practice, at least) pretty well straight, so I don't have to worry about duplicating the hetero-normative – I am part of it. I am not part of repressive, male-dominant heterosexual culture, but I'm still part of the most culturally accepted group. (And I don't know why these good things you talk about haven't penetrated society's psyche, Sinclair. I am baffled too.). Even so, even though I really can't speak for a butch/femme duality or a dom/sub duality, I feel very strongly that these are not simple replications of the male power-female submission paradigm. As you said, there are as many ways to handle gender and power as there are people.

  3. yay! good comments, both! thanks for making me feel less frustrated & more understood. @kimi: you are definitely right that there the person on top may not stop, and obviously the top has a lot of control. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I see it as a really equal approach, where both parties have a lot of control, both perspectives are important and valued, not just one more than the other.your comment disliking safewords is interesting too. subs who are so into pleasing their dom that they are unable/unwilling to stop the scene really scare me, actually. I like to be pleased, don't get me wrong, but that indicates a power imbalance, which makes me uncomfortable.@joy: thank you! I like what you're saying about archetypes and patterns and how they can be interesting ways to deepen the understandings of our lives. well put! I feel like I'm having a lot of trouble articulating this, which is frustrating because I believe in it so strongly and it is, in many ways, such the core of my identity. so thanks for the continuing conversation, it helps get my head clearer about it.

  4. Right on.But i do want to toss in the difference betwen dualities and binaries. Binaries i really don't hold with, because i think they are what we use to eliminate shades of grey, and just not thinking about them doesn't make those shades go away. The best example i can think of is the idea that gender is binary: male and female. Well, that's fine except it's not true. You have trans, but even if you don't hold with that (as 'choice', etc., etc…and that's a whole other discussion), you can't dismiss intersexed people in the same way.Duality, on the other hand, is much more fluid, and therefore applicable to the real world. I think this is where butch/femme, masculine/femminine, top/bottom, etc. come in, because all of these dualisms have a very wide range of meanings. But in each one the two parts play off of each other.

  5. Argh. The comment on that post completely set me off as well. I am glad you were able to articulate something much better than what I had to spew in the wee hours of the morning. Uuuuugh!

  6. lady brett: interesting distinction. I see your point, that a duality may be a sliding scale whereas a binary is two distinct parts, but I think they are much closer in definition than that – at least, according to the dictionary. so I'm not sure I agree, it seems they both mean, basically, "consisting of two parts".(although if that's true, then why the two different words for the same thing in our language? there must be a subtle difference. which is perhaps your point. interesting – I will keep thinking about that.)also, when you say "The best example i can think of is the idea that gender is binary: male and female." I am a bit confused – I think you mean sex here, and not gender? biology? but as you point out in the next sentence, sex isn't binary – there is a wider variety of biological sex than just 100% male and 100% female. Intersexuals (as one big lumped category) are exactly the "proof" … so, you're saying that biological sex is binary, but social constructions of gender (butch/femme, masculine/feminine) or various orientations (top/bottom) are a duality?

  7. This is such a huge topic and I'm so interested in reading more. Sinclair, you always have such brilliant things to say. And if people are going to leave "comments" like that, then hve the guts to at least give yourself a name!!!

  8. Sorry, i don't think i was quite clear.Yes, i did mean sex, like biology. But what i was trying to point out is that it's not binary; people just like to simplify it, and talk about it as though it were. (much like common conception is that people are gay or straight, and that's it).And, i think the distinction i was trying to make was that there are these pair identities(butch/femme…), where you choose the two parts that play off of each other. I think it is admitting that it is a choice from amid the spectrum that makes it valid to pair them off.I'm not certain that made it any more clear, but it's the best i can figure out right now.Oh, and the distinction between the words could very well be all in my head =)

  9. The ironic thing is, most women in this culture embody conflicted identity structures. They are constantly bombarded by opposing identity representations, which reflect both entrenched and new social realities. So it's logical to assume that they would internalize two or more seemingly opposed ways of being and yet these experiences are seemingly authentic to them. Seeing a masculine woman, a sexualized masculine woman, must be threatening because it implies a synthesis that they haven't yet achieved for themselves.This is a fascinating conversation, thank you.

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