DAC Black Geographies Discussion

For this week’s discussion post, connect either black geographies or queer geographies to place-making. How does music, direct actions, congregations, literature, art, metaphors, historical trajectories, drag, or other examples we discussed for these past two weeks relate to place, place-making, or a sense of place? How are you understanding the significance of “place” in the study of geography?

Sex in Public
Author(s): Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner
Source: Critical Inquiry , Winter, 1998, Vol. 24, No. 2, Intimacy (Winter, 1998), pp. 547566
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1344178
Linked references are available on JSTOR for this article:
You may need to log in to JSTOR to access the linked references.
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide
range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and
facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

Terms and Conditions of Use

The University of Chicago Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend
access to Critical Inquiry
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Sex in Public
Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner
1. There Is Nothing More Public Than Privacy
A paper titled “Sex in Public” teases with the obscurity of its object
the twisted aim of its narrative. In this paper we will be talking not a
the sex people already have clarity about, nor identities and acts, n
wildness in need of derepression; but rather about sex as it is media
by publics.’ Some of these publics have an obvious relation to sex: por
graphic cinema, phone sex, “adult” markets for print, lap dancing.
ers are organized around sex, but not necessarily sex acts in the usu
sense: queer zones and other worlds estranged from heterosexual
ture, but also more tacit scenes of sexuality like official national cult
which depends on a notion of privacy to cloak its sexualization of n
tional membership.
1. On public sex in the standard sense, see Pat Califia, Public Sex: The Culture of Ra
Sex (Pittsburgh, 1994). On acts and identities, see Janet E. Halley, “The Status/Co
Distinction in the 1993 Revisions to Military Antigay Policy: A Legal Archaeology,” G
(1996): 159-252. The classic political argument for sexual derepression as a conditi
freedom is put forth in Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquir
Freud (Boston, 1966). In contemporary prosex thought inspired by volume 1 of Miche
cault’s The History of Sexuality, the denunciation of “erotic injustice and sexual oppressi
situated less in the freedom of individuals than in analyses of the normative and coe
relations between specific “populations” and the institutions created to manage
(Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality
Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance [Boston, 1984], p
See also Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. I of The History of S
ality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1978).
Critical Inquiry 24 (Winter 1998)
? 1998 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/98/2402-0002$02.00. All rights reserved.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
548 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
The aim of this paper is to describe what we want to promote as
radical aspirations of queer culture building: not just a safe zon
queer sex but the changed possibilities of identity, intelligibility, pu
culture, and sex that appear when the heterosexual couple is no lon
the referent or the privileged example of sexual culture. Queer soc
practices like sex and theory try to unsettle the garbled but power
norms supporting that privilege-including the project of normaliz
that has made heterosexuality hegemonic-as well as those mat
practices that, though not explicitly sexual, are implicated in the hi
chies of property and propriety that we will describe as heteronorma
We open with two scenes of sex in public.
Scene 1
In 1993 Time magazine published a special issue about immigrat
called “The New Face of America.”3 The cover girl of this issue
2. By heteronormativity we mean the institutions, structures of understanding
practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent-that is, org
as a sexuality-but also privileged. Its coherence is always provisional, and its privile
take several (sometimes contradictory) forms: unmarked, as the basic idiom of the p
and the social; or marked as a natural state; or projected as an ideal or moral accom
ment. It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine tha
sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations-often unconscious, imm
to practice or to institutions. Contexts that have little visible relation to sex practice
as life narrative and generational identity, can be heteronormative in this sense, wh
other contexts forms of sex between men and women might not be heteronormative. H
normativity is thus a concept distinct from heterosexuality. One of the most consp
differences is that it has no parallel, unlike heterosexuality, which organizes homose
as its opposite. Because homosexuality can never have the invisible, tacit, society-fou
rightness that heterosexuality has, it would not be possible to speak of”homonormativit
the same sense. See Michael Warner, “Fear of a Queer Planet,” Social Text, no. 29 (1991):
3. See Time, special issue, “The New Face of America,” Fall 1993. This analysis rew
materials in Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on S
Citizenship (Durham, N.C., 1997), pp. 200-208.
Lauren Berlant, a coeditor of Critical Inquiry, teaches English at
University of Chicago. She is the author of The Queen of America Go
Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997) and The Anatomy of
tional Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (1991). Michael War
is professor of English at Rutgers University. He is the author of Th
ters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Cen
America (1990), editor of Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social
ory (1993), and has written for, among other publications, Village V
The Nation, and The Advocate. He is currently editing a volume to be call
American Sermons.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Critical Inquiry Winter 1998 549
morphed via computer from head shots representing a range of U.S. immigrant groups: an amalgam of “Middle Eastern,” “Italian,” “African,”
“Vietnamese,” “Anglo-Saxon,” “Chinese,” and “Hispanic” faces. The new
face of America is supposed to represent what the modal citizen will look
like when, in the year 2004, it is projected, there is no longer a white
statistical majority in the United States. Naked, smiling, and just offwhite, Time’s divine Frankenstein aims to organize hegemonic optimism
about citizenship and the national future. Time’s theory is that by the
twenty-first century interracial reproductive sex will have taken place in
the United States on such a mass scale that racial difference itself will be
finally replaced by a kind of family feeling based on blood relations. In
the twenty-first century, Time imagines, hundreds of millions of hybrid
faces will erase American racism altogether: the nation will become a
happy racial monoculture made up of “one (mixed) blood.”4
The publication of this special issue caused a brief flurry of interest
but had no important effects; its very banality calls us to understand the
technologies that produce its ordinariness. The fantasy banalized by the
image is one that reverberates in the law and in the most intimate crevices
of everyday life. Its explicit aim is to help its public process the threat
to “normal” or “core” national culture that is currently phrased as “the
problem of immigration.”5 But this crisis image of immigrants is also a
racial mirage generated by a white-dominated society, supplying a specific
phobia to organize its public so that a more substantial discussion of exploitation in the United States can be avoided and then remaindered to
the part of collective memory sanctified not by nostalgia but by mass aversion. Let’s call this the amnesia archive. The motto above the door is
Memory Is the Amnesia You Like.
But more than exploitation and racism are forgotten in this whirl
projection and suppression. Central to the transfiguration of the im
grant into a nostalgic image to shore up core national culture and all
white fears of minoritization is something that cannot speak its nam
though its signature is everywhere: national heterosexuality. Nationa
heterosexuality is the mechanism by which a core national culture c
be imagined as a sanitized space of sentimental feeling and immacula
behavior, a space of pure citizenship. A familial model of society displ
the recognition of structural racism and other systemic inequalities. T
is not entirely new: the family form has functioned as a mediator a
metaphor of national existence in the United States since the eighteen
4. For a treatment of the centrality of “blood” to U.S. nationalist discourse, see Bon
Honig, No Place Like Home: Democracy and the Politics of Foreignness (forthcoming).
5. See, for example, William J. Bennett, The De- Valuing of America: The Fight for O
Culture and Our Children (New York, 1992); Peter Brimelow, Alien Nation: Common Sense a
America’s Immigration Disaster (New York, 1995); and William A. Henry III, In Defense of
ism (New York, 1994).
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
550 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
century.6 We are arguing that its contemporary deployment increasi
supports the governmentality of the welfare state by separating the
rations of national belonging from the critical culture of the public sphe
and from political citizenship.’ Immigration crises have also previo
produced feminine icons that function as prostheses for the statefamously, the Statue of Liberty, which symbolized seamless immigra
similation to the metaculture of the United States. In Time’s face it is not
symbolic femininity but practical heterosexuality that guarantees the
monocultural nation.
The nostalgic family values covenant of contemporary American politics stipulates a privatization of citizenship and sex in a number of ways.
In law and political ideology, for example, the fetus and the child have
been spectacularly elevated to the place of sanctified nationality. The
state now sponsors stings and legislation to purify the internet on behalf
of children. New welfare and tax “reforms” passed under the cooperation
between the Contract with America and Clintonian familialism seek to
increase the legal and economic privileges of married couples and parents. Vouchers and privatization rezone education as the domain of parents rather than citizens. Meanwhile, senators such as Ted Kennedy and
Jesse Helms support amendments that refuse federal funds to organizations that “promote, disseminate, or produce materials that are obscene
or that depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual or excretory
activities or organs, including but not limited to obscene depictions of
sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or
individuals engaged in sexual intercourse.”8 These developments, though
distinct, are linked in the way they organize a hegemonic national public
around sex. But because this sex public officially claims to act only in
order to protect the zone of heterosexual privacy, the institutions of economic privilege and social reproduction informing its practices and organizing its ideal world are protected by the spectacular demonization of
any represented sex.
6. On the family form in national rhetoric, see Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims:
The American Revolution against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800 (Cambridge, 1982), and Shirley Samuels, Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early
American Nation (New York, 1996). On fantasies of genetic assimilation, see Robert S. Tilton,
Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 9-33, and Elise
Lemire, “Making Miscegenation” (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 1996).
7. The concept of welfare state governmentality has a growing literature. For a concise
statement, see Jtirgen Habermas, “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and
the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,” The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Histori-
ans’ Debate, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), pp. 48-70. Michael
Warner has discussed the relation between this analysis and queer culture in his “Something Queer about the Nation-State,” in After Political Correctness: The Humanities and Society
in the 1990s, ed. Christopher Newfield and Ronald Strickland (Boulder, Colo., 1995), pp.
8. Congressional Record, 101st Cong., 1st. sess., 1989, 135, pt. 134:12967.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Critical Inquiry Winter 1998 551
Scene 2
In October 1995, the New York City Council passed a new zoning
law by a forty-one to nine vote. The Zoning Text Amendment covers adult
book and video stores, eating and drinking establishments, theaters, and
other businesses. It allows these businesses only in certain areas zoned as
nonresidential, most of which turn out to be on the waterfront. Within
the new reserved districts, adult businesses are disallowed within five
hundred feet of another adult establishment or within five hundred feet
of a house of worship, school, or day-care center. They are limited to one
per lot and in size to ten thousand square feet. Signs are limited in size,
placement, and illumination. All other adult businesses are required to
close within a year. Of the estimated 177 adult businesses in the city, all
but 28 may have to close under this law. Enforcement of the bill is entrusted to building inspectors.
A court challenge against the bill was brought by a coalition that also
fought it in the political process, formed by anticensorship groups such
as the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Feminists for Free Ex-
pression, People for the American Way, and the National Coalition
Against Censorship as well as gay and lesbian organizations such as the
Lambda Legal Defense Fund, the Empire State Pride Agenda, and the
AIDS Prevention Action League. (An appeal was still pending as of July
1997.) These latter groups joined the anticensorship groups for a simple
reason: the impact of rezoning on businesses catering to queers, especially to gay men, will be devastating. All five of the adult businesses on
Christopher Street will be shut down, along with the principal venues
where men meet men for sex. None of these businesses have been targets
of local complaints. Gay men have come to take for granted the availability of explicit sexual materials, theaters, and clubs. That is how they have
learned to find each other; to map a commonly accessible world; to construct the architecture of queer space in a homophobic environment;
and, for the last fifteen years, to cultivate a collective ethos of safer sex.
All of that is about to change. Now, gay men who want sexual materials
or who want to meet other men for sex will have two choices: they can
cathect the privatized virtual public of phone sex and the internet; or
they can travel to small, inaccessible, little-trafficked, badly lit areas, remote from public transportation and from any residences, mostly on the
waterfront, where heterosexual porn users will also be relocated and
where the risk of violence will consequently be higher.9 In either case, the
9. Political geography in this way produces systematic effects of violence. Queers are
forced to find each other in untrafficked areas because of the combined pressures of propriety, stigma, the closet, and state regulation such as laws against public lewdness. The same
areas are known to gay-bashers and other criminals. And they are disregarded by police.
The effect is to make both violence and police neglect seem like natural hazards, voluntarily
courted by queers. As the 1997 documentary film Licensed to Kill illustrates, antigay violence
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
552 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
result will be a sense of isolation and diminished expectations for q
life, as well as an attenuated capacity for political community. The na
lesbian sexual culture, including the Clit Club and the only video r
club catering to lesbians, will also disappear. The impact of the sex
purification of New York will fall unequally on those who already
fewest publicly accessible resources.
2. Normativity and Sexual Culture
Heterosexuality is not a thing. We speak of heterosexual cul
rather than heterosexuality because that culture never has more th
provisional unity.1′ It is neither a single Symbolic nor a single ideo
nor a unified set of shared beliefs.” The conflicts between these strands
are seldom more than dimly perceived in practice, where the givenness
of male-female sexual relations is part of the ordinary rightness of the
world, its fragility masked in shows of solemn rectitude. Such conflicts
have also gone unrecognized in theory, partly because of the metacultural
work of the very category of heterosexuality, which consolidates as a sexu-
ality widely differing practices, norms, and institutions; and partly because the sciences of social knowledge are themselves so deeply anchored
has been difficult to combat by legal means: victims are reluctant to come forward in any
public and prosecutorial framework, while bashers can appeal to the geographic circumstances to implicate the victims themselves. The legal system has helped to produce the
violence it is called upon to remedy.
10. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley, 1992).
11. Gay and lesbian theory, especially in the humanities, frequently emphasizes psychoanalytic or psychoanalytic-style models of subject-formation, the differences among
which are significant and yet all of which tend to elide the difference between the categories
male/female and the process and project of heteronormativity. Three propositional paradigms are relevant here: those that propose that human identity itself is fundamentally
organized by gender identifications that are hardwired into infants; those that equate the
clarities of gender identity with the domination of a relatively coherent and vertically stable
“straight” ideology; and those that focus on a phallocentric Symbolic order that produces
gendered subjects who live out the destiny of their positioning in it. The psychoanalytic
and philosophical insights and limits of these models (which, we feel, underdescribe the
practices, institutions, and incongruities of heteronormativity) require further engagement.
For the time being, these works stand in as the most challenging relevant archive: Judith
Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York, 1993); Luce Irigaray,
Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985) and This Sex Which Is
Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985); Teresa de
Lauretis, The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (Bloomington, Ind., 1994);
Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York, 1992); and Monique Wittig, The
Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston, 1992). Psychoanalytic work on sexuality does not
always latch acts and inclinations to natural or constructed “identity”: see, for example, Leo
Bersani, Homos (Cambridge, Mass., 1995) and “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in AIDS: Cultural
Analysis/Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas Crimp (Cambridge, Mass., 1988).
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Critical Inquiry Winter 1998 553
in the process of normalization to which Foucault attributes so much of
modern sexuality.”2 Thus when we say that the contemporary United
States is saturated by the project of constructing national heterosexuality,
we do not mean that national heterosexuality is anything like a simple
monoculture. Hegemonies are nothing if not elastic alliances, involving
dispersed and contradictory strategies for self-maintenance and reproduction.
Heterosexual culture achieves much of its metacultural intelligibility
through the ideologies and institutions of intimacy. We want to argue
here that although the intimate relations of private personhood appear
to be the realm of sexuality itself, allowing “sex in public” to appear like
matter out of place, intimacy is itself publicly mediated, in several senses.
First, its conventional spaces presuppose a structural differentiation of
“personal life” from work, politics, and the public sphere.13 Second, the
normativity of heterosexual culture links intimacy only to the institutions
of personal life, making them the privileged institutions of social reproduction, the accumulation and transfer of capital, and self-development.
Third, by making sex seem irrelevant or merely personal, heteronormative conventions of intimacy block the building of nonnormative or explicit public sexual cultures. Finally, those conventions conjure a mirage:
a home base of prepolitical humanity from which citizens are thought to
come into political discourse and to which they are expected to return in
the (always imaginary) future after political conflict. Intimate life is the
endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse, a promised haven
that distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and
economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society,
and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate
sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood.
Ideologies and institutions of intimacy are increasingly offered as a
vision of the good life for the destabilized and struggling citizenry of the
United States, the only (fantasy) zone in which a future might be thought
and willed, the only (imaginary) place where good citizens might be produced away from the confusing and unsettling distractions and contradictions of capitalism and politics. Indeed, one of the unforeseen paradoxes
of national-capitalist privatization has been that citizens have been led
12. The notion of metaculture we borrow from Greg Urban. See Greg Urban, A
Discourse-Centered Approach to Culture: Native South American Myths and Rituals (Austin, Tex.,
199 1) and Noumenal Community: Myth and Reality in an Amerindian Brazilian Society (Austin, Tex.,
1996). On normalization, see Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan
Sheridan (New York, 1979), pp. 184-85 and The History of Sexuality, p. 144. Foucault derives
his argument here from the revised version of Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett and Robert S. Cohen (New York, 1991).
13. Here we are influenced by Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life (New
York, 1986), and Stephanie Coontz, The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American
Families, 1600-1900 (London, 1988), though heteronormativity is a problem not often made
visible in Coontz’s work.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
554 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
through heterosexual culture to identify both themselves and their polit
with privacy. In the official public, this involves making sex private;
tensifying blood as a psychic base for identification; replacing state
dates for social justice with a privatized ethics of responsibility, cha
atonement, and “values”; and enforcing boundaries between moral p
sons and economic ones.14
A complex cluster of sexual practices gets confused, in heterosexual
culture, with the love plot of intimacy and familialism that signifies belonging to society in a deep and normal way. Community is imagined
through scenes of intimacy, coupling, and kinship; a historical relation to
futurity is restricted to generational narrative and reproduction.’5 A
whole field of social relations becomes intelligible as heterosexuality, and
this privatized sexual culture bestows on its sexual practices a tacit sense
of rightness and normalcy. This sense of rightness-embedded in things
and not just in sex-is what we call heteronormativity. Heteronormativity
is more than ideology, or prejudice, or phobia against gays and lesbians;
it is produced in almost every aspect of the forms and arrangements of
social life: nationality, the state, and the law; commerce; medicine; and
education; as well as in the conventions and affects of narrativity, ro-
14. On privatization and intimacy politics, see Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to
Washington City, pp. 1-24 and “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy,” in The Politics of
Research, ed. E. Ann Kaplan and George Levine (New Brunswick, N.J., 1997), pp. 143-61;
Honig, No Place Like Home; and Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, “The Body as Property: A Feminist Re-vision,” in Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, ed. Faye
D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp (Berkeley, 1995), pp. 387-406. On privatization and nationalcapitalism, see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford, 1989), and Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles
(New York, 1992).
15. This language for community is a problem for gay historiography. In otherwise
fine and important studies such as Esther Newton’s Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in
America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town (Boston, 1993), or Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and
Madeline D. Davis’s Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (New
York, 1993), or even George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings
of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York, 1994), community is imagined as wholeperson, face-to-face relations-local, experiential, proximate, and saturating. But queer
worlds seldom manifest themselves in such forms. Cherry Grove-a seasonal resort depending heavily on weekend visits by New Yorkers-may be typical less of a “gay and lesbian town” than of the way queer sites are specialized spaces in which transits can project
alternative worlds. John D’Emilio’s Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homo-
sexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 is an especially interesting example of the
imaginative power of the idealization of local community for queers: the book charts the
separate tracks of political organizing and local scenes such as bar life, showing that when
the “movement” and the “subculture” began to converge in San Francisco, the result was a
new formation with a new utopian appeal: “A ‘community,”‘ D’Emilio writes, “was in fact
forming around a shared sexual orientation” (John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 [Chicago, 1983], p.
195). D’Emilio (wisely) keeps scare quotes around “community” in the very sentence declaring it to exist in fact.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Critical Inquiry Winter 1998 555
mance, and other protected spaces of culture. It is hard to see these fields
as heteronormative because the sexual culture straight people inhabit is
so diffuse, a mix of languages they are just developing with premodern
notions of sexuality so ancient that their material conditions feel hardwired into personhood.
But intimacy has not always had the meaning it has for contemporary heteronormative culture. Along with Foucault and other historians,
the classicist David Halperin, for example, has shown that in ancient Athens sex was a transitive act rather than a fundamental dimension of personhood or an expression of intimacy. The verb for having sex appears
on a late antique list of things that are not done in regard to or through
others: “namely, speaking, singing, dancing, fist-fighting, competing,
hanging oneself, dying, being crucified, diving, finding a treasure, having
sex, vomiting, moving one’s bowels, sleeping, laughing, crying, talking to
the gods, and the like.”’16 Halperin points out that the inclusion of fucking
on this list shows that sex is not here “knit up in a web of mutuality.”‘7
In contrast, modern heterosexuality is supposed to refer to relations of
intimacy and identification with other persons, and sex acts are supposed
to be the most intimate communication of them all. 1 The sex act shielded
by the zone of privacy is the affectional nimbus that heterosexual culture
protects and from which it abstracts its model of ethics, but this utopia of
social belonging is also supported and extended by acts less commonly
recognized as part of sexual culture: paying taxes, being disgusted, philandering, bequeathing, celebrating a holiday, investing for the future,
teaching, disposing of a corpse, carrying wallet photos, buying economy
size, being nepotistic, running for president, divorcing, or owning anything “His” and “Hers.”
The elaboration of this list is a project for further study. Meanwhile,
to make it and to laugh at it is not immediately to label any practice
as oppressive, uncool, or definitive. We are describing a constellation of
practices that everywhere disperses heterosexual privilege as a tacit but
central organizing index of social membership. Exposing it inevitably
16. Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 1.2, quoted in David M. Halperin, “Sex before Sexuality: Pederasty, Politics, and Power in Classical Athens,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the
Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and Chauncey (New
York, 1989), p. 49.
17. Halperin, “Sex before Sexuality,” p. 49.
18. Studies of intimacy that do not assume this “web of mutuality,” either as the self-
evident nature of intimacy or as a human value, are rare. Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1978), and Niklas Luhmann’s Love as
Passion, trans. Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones (Cambridge, Mass., 1986) both try, in very
different ways, to describe analytically the production of intimacy. More typical is Anthony
Giddens’s attempt to theorize intimacy as “pure relationship” in The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies (Cambridge, 1992). There, ironically, it
is “the gays who are the pioneers” in separating the “pure relationship” of love from extra-
neous institutions and contexts such as marriage and reproduction.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
556 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
produces what we have elsewhere called a “wrenching sense of recon
tualization,” as its subjects, even its gay and lesbian subjects, begin
piece together how it is that social and economic discourses, institut
and practices that don’t feel especially sexual or familial collaborat
produce as a social norm and ideal an extremely narrow context fo
ing.19 Heterosexual culture cannot recognize, validate, sustain, inco
rate, or remember much of what people know and experience abou
cruelty of normal culture even to the people who identify with it.
But that cruelty does not go unregistered. Intimacy, for example
a whole public environment of therapeutic genres dedicated to
nessing the constant failure of heterosexual ideologies and institut
Every day, in many countries now, people testify to their failure to sust
or be sustained by institutions of privacy on talk shows, in scandal
nalism, even in the ordinary course of mainstream journalism addre
to middlebrow culture. We can learn a lot from these stories of love
that have gone astray: about the ways quotidian violence is linked to
plex pressures from money, racism, histories of sexual violence, cr
generational tensions. We can learn a lot from listening to the incre
demands on love to deliver the good life it promises. And we can le
from the extremely punitive responses that tend to emerge when p
seem not to suffer enough for their transgressions and failures.
Maybe we would learn too much. Recently, the proliferation of
dence for heterosexuality’s failings has produced a backlash against t
show therapy. It has even brought William Bennett to the podium;
rather than confessing his transgressions or making a complaint ab
someone else’s, we find him calling for boycotts and for the suppression
heterosexual therapy culture altogether. Recognition of heterosexual
daily failures agitates him as much as queerness. “We’ve forgotten
civilization depends on keeping some of this stuff under wraps,” he
“This is a tropism toward the toilet.”20
But does civilization need to cover its ass? Or does heterosexual cul-
ture actually secure itself through banalizing intimacy? Does belief tha
normal life is actually possible require amnesia and the ludicrous stereotyping of a bottom-feeding culture apparently inadequate to intimacy?
On these shows no one ever blames the ideology and institutions of heterosexuality. Every day, even the talk-show hosts are newly astonished to
find that people who are committed to hetero intimacy are nevertheless
unhappy. After all is said and done, the prospects and promises of heterosexual culture still represent the optimism for optimism, a hope to which
people apparently have already pledged their consent-at least in public.
Recently, Biddy Martin has written that some queer social theorists
19. Berlant and Warner, “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?” PMLA 110
(May 1995): 345.
20. Bennett, quoted in Maureen Dowd, “Talk Is Cheap,” New York Times, 26 Oct. 1995,
p. A25.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Critical Inquiry Winter 1998 557
have produced a reductive and pseudoradical antinormativity by actively
repudiating the institutions of heterosexuality that have come to oversaturate the social imaginary. She shows that the kinds of arguments that
crop up in the writings of people like Andrew Sullivan are not just rightwing fantasies. “In some queer work,” she writes, “the very fact of attach-
ment has been cast as only punitive and constraining because already
socially constructed. … Radical anti-normativity throws out a lot of ba-
bies with a lot of bathwater…. An enormous fear of ordinariness or nor-
malcy results in superficial accounts of the complex imbrication of
sexuality with other aspects of social and psychic life, and in far too little
attention to the dilemmas of the average people that we also are.”21
We think our friend Biddy might be referring to us, although in
this segment she cites no one in particular. We would like to clarify the
argument. To be against heteronormativity is not to be against norms. To
be against the processes of normalization is not to be afraid of ordinariness. Nor is it to advocate the “existence without limit” she sees as pro-
duced by bad Foucauldians (“EH,” p. 123). Nor is it to decide that
sentimental identifications with family and children are waste or garbage,
or make people into waste or garbage. Nor is it to say that any sex called
“lovemaking” isn’t lovemaking; whatever the ideological or historical bur-
dens of sexuality have been, they have not excluded, and indeed may
have entailed, the ability of sex to count as intimacy and care. What we
have been arguing here is that the space of sexual culture has become
obnoxiously cramped from doing the work of maintaining a normal
metaculture. When Biddy Martin calls us to recognize ourselves as “average people,” to relax from an artificially stimulated “fear of normalcy,”
the image of average personhood appears to be simply descriptive (“EH,”
p. 123). But its averageness is also normative, in exactly the sense that
Foucault meant by “normalization”: not the imposition of an alien will,
but a distribution around a statistically imagined norm. This deceptive
appeal of the average remains heteronormative, measuring deviance
from the mass. It can also be consoling, an expression of a utopian desire
for unconflicted personhood. But this desire cannot be satisfied in the
current conditions of privacy. People feel that the price they must pay for
social membership and a relation to the future is identification with the
heterosexual life narrative; that they are individually responsible for the
rages, instabilities, ambivalences, and failures they experience in their
intimate lives, while the fractures of the contemporary United States
shame and sabotage them everywhere. Heterosexuality involves so many
practices that are not sex that a world in which this hegemonic cluster
would not be dominant is, at this point, unimaginable. We are trying to
bring that world into being.
21. Biddy Martin, “Extraordinary Homosexuals and the Fear of Being Ordinary,” Differences 6 (Summer-Fall 1994): 123; hereafter abbreviated “EH.”
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
558 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
3. Queer Counterpublics
By queer culture we mean a world-making project, where “world,
like “public,” differs from community or group because it necessarily i
cludes more people than can be identified, more spaces than can
mapped beyond a few reference points, modes of feeling that can
learned rather than experienced as a birthright. The queer world i
space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, project
horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommen
rate geographies.22 World making, as much in the mode of dirty talk
of print-mediated representation, is dispersed through incommensur
registers, by definition unrealizable as community or identity. Every c
tural form, be it a novel or an after-hours club or an academic lecture
indexes a virtual social world, in ways that range from a repertoire o
styles and speech genres to referential metaculture. A novel like Andr
Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance relies much more heavily on referent
metaculture than does an after-hours club that survives on word of
mouth and may be a major scene because it is only barely coherent
scene. Yet for all their differences, both allow for the concretization
queer counterpublic. We are trying to promote this world-making
ect, and a first step in doing so is to recognize that queer culture co
tutes itself in many ways other than through the official publics of opin
culture and the state, or through the privatized forms normally asso
with sexuality. Queer and other insurgents have long striven, often
gerously or scandalously, to cultivate what good folks used to call cri
intimacies. We have developed relations and narratives that are only
ognized as intimate in queer culture: girlfriends, gal pals, fuckbud
tricks. Queer culture has learned not only how to sexualize thes
other relations, but also to use them as a context for witnessing int
and personal affect while elaborating a public world of belonging a
transformation. Making a queer world has required the developmen
kinds of intimacy that bear no necessary relation to domestic spac
kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation. These in
cies do bear a necessary relation to a counterpublic-an indefinitely a
sible world conscious of its subordinate relation. They are typical bo
the inventiveness of queer world making and of the queer world’s fragili
22. In some traditions of social theory, the process of world making as we descr
here is seen as common to all social actors. See, for example, Alfred Schutz’s empha
the practices of typification and projects of action involved in ordinary knowledge
social in The Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. George Walsh and Frederick Le
(Evanston, Ill., 1967). Yet in most contexts the social world is understood, not as
structed by reference to types or projects, but as instantiated whole in a form cap
reproducing itself. The family, the state, a neighborhood, the human species, or institu
such as school and church-such images of social being share an appearance of ple
seldom approached in contexts of queer world making. However much the latter
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Critical Inquiry Winter 1998 559
Nonstandard intimacies would seem less criminal and less fleeting if,
as used to be the case, normal intimacies included everything from consorts to courtiers, friends, amours, associates, and coconspirators.23 Along
with the sex it legitimates, intimacy has been privatized; the discourse
contexts that narrate true personhood have been segregated from those
that represent citizens, workers, or professionals.
This transformation in the cultural forms of intimacy is related both
to the history of the modern public sphere and to the modern discourse
of sexuality as a fundamental human capacity. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas shows that the institutions and forms
of domestic intimacy made private people private, members of the public
sphere of private society rather than the market or the state. Intimacy
grounded abstract, disembodied citizens in a sense of universal humanity.
In The History of Sexuality, Foucault describes the personalization of sex
from the other direction: the confessional and expert discourses of civil
society continually posit an inner personal essence, equating this true
personhood with sex and surrounding that sex with dramas of secrecy
and disclosure. There is an instructive convergence here in two thinkers
who otherwise seem to be describing different planets.24 Habermas overlooks the administrative and normalizing dimensions of privatized sex in
sciences of social knowledge because he is interested in the norm of a
critical relation between state and civil society. Foucault overlooks the
critical culture that might enable transformation of sex and other private
relations; he wants to show that modern epistemologies of sexual personhood, far from bringing sexual publics into being, are techniques of
isolation; they identify persons as normal or perverse, for the purpose
of medicalizing or otherwise administering them as individuals. Yet
both Habermas and Foucault point to the way a hegemonic public has
founded itself by a privatization of sex and the sexualization of private
personhood. Both identify the conditions in which sexuality seems like a
property of subjectivity rather than a publicly or counterpublicly accessi-
ble culture.
Like most ideologies, that of normal intimacy may never have been
an accurate description of how people actually live. It was from the beginning mediated not only by a structural separation of economic and do-
mestic space but also by opinion culture, correspondence, novels, and
resemble the process of world construction in ordinary contexts, queer worlds do not have
the power to represent a taken-for-granted social existence.
23. See, for example, Alan Bray, “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in
Elizabethan England,” History Workshop 29 (Spring 1990): 1-19; Laurie J. Shannon, “Emilia’s
Argument: Friendship and ‘Human Title’ in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” ELH 64 (Fall 1997);
and Passions of the Renaissance, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, ed. Roger Chartier, vol. 3 of A
History of Private Life, ed. Philippe Aries and Georges Duby (Cambridge, Mass., 1989).
24. On the relation between Foucault and Habermas, we take inspiration from Tom
McCarthy, Ideals and Illusions (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), pp. 43-75.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
560 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
romances; Rousseau’s Confessions is typical both of the ideology and
reliance on mediation by print and by new, hybrid forms of life narrat
Habermas notes that “subjectivity, as the innermost core of the pri
was always oriented to an audience,”25 adding that the structure of
intimacy includes a fundamentally contradictory relation to the econ
To the autonomy of property owners in the market correspon
self-presentation of human beings in the family. The latter’s intimac
apparently set free from the constraint of society, was the seal on t
truth of a private autonomy exercised in competition. Thus it w
private autonomy denying its economic origins … that provided
bourgeois family with its consciousness of itself.26
This structural relation is no less normative for being imperfect in
tice. Its force is to prevent the recognition, memory, elaboration, or
tutionalization of all the nonstandard intimacies that people ha
everyday life. Affective life slops over onto work and political life; p
have key self-constitutive relations with strangers and acquaintance
they have eroticism, if not sex, outside of the couple form. These b
intimacies give people tremendous pleasure. But when that pleasur
called sexuality, the spillage of eroticism into everyday social life
transgressive in a way that provokes normal aversion, a hygienic r
even as contemporary consumer and media cultures increasingly tr
toiletward, splattering the matter of intimate life at the highest lev
national culture.
In gay male culture, the principal scenes of criminal intimacy have
been tearooms, streets, sex clubs, and parks-a tropism toward the public
toilet.27 Promiscuity is so heavily stigmatized as nonintimate that it is often
called anonymous, whether names are used or not. One of the most commonly forgotten lessons of AIDS is that this promiscuous intimacy turned
out to be a lifesaving public resource. Unbidden by experts, gay people
invented safer sex; and, as Douglas Crimp wrote in 1987
we were able to invent safe sex because we have always known that
sex is not, in an epidemic or not, limited to penetrative sex. Our
promiscuity taught us many things, not only about the pleasures of
25. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category
of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.,
1991), p. 49.
26. Ibid., p. 46.
27. On the centrality of semipublic spaces like tearooms, bathrooms, and bathhouses
to gay male life, see Chauncey, Gay New York, and Lee Edelman, “Tearooms and Sympathy,
or, Epistemology of the Water Closet,” in Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Andrew Parker et
al. (New York, 1992), pp. 263-84. The spaces of both gay and lesbian semipublic sexual
practices are investigated in Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities, ed. David Bell and Gill
Valentine (New York, 1995).
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Critical Inquiry Winter 1998 561
sex, but about the great multiplicity of those pleasures. It is that psychic preparation, that experimentation, that conscious work on our
own sexualities that has allowed many of us to change our sexual
behaviors-something that brutal “behavioral therapies” tried unsuccessfully for over a century to force us to do-very quickly and
very dramatically…. All those who contend that gay male promiscuity is merely sexual compulsion resulting from fear of intimacy are
now faced with very strong evidence against their prejudices. … Gay
male promiscuity should be seen instead as a positive model of how
sexual pleasures might be pursued by and granted to everyone if
those pleasures were not confined within the narrow limits of institu-
tionalized sexuality.28
AIDS is a special case, and this model of sexual culture has been typically
male. But sexual practice is only one kind of counterintimacy. More important is the critical practical knowledge that allows such relations to
count as intimate, to be not empty release or transgression but a common
language of self-cultivation, shared knowledge, and the exchange of inwardness.
Queer culture has found it necessary to develop this knowledge in
mobile sites of drag, youth culture, music, dance, parades, flaunting, and
cruising-sites whose mobility makes them possible but also renders
them hard to recognize as world making because they are so fragile and
ephemeral. They are paradigmatically trivialized as “lifestyle.” But to understand them only as self-expression or as a demand for recognition
would be to misrecognize the fundamentally unequal material conditions
whereby the institutions of social reproduction are coupled to the forms
of hetero culture.29 Contexts of queer world making depend on parasitic
and fugitive elaboration through gossip, dance clubs, softball leagues,
and the phone-sex ads that increasingly are the commercial support for
print-mediated left culture in general.”3 Queer is difficult to entextualize
as culture.
28. Douglas Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” October, no. 43 (Winter 1987): 253.
29. The notion of a demand for recognition has been recently advanced by a number
of thinkers as a way of understanding multicultural politics. See, for example, Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, trans. Joel Anderson
(Cambridge, 1995), or Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Amy Gut-
mann (Princeton, N.J., 1994). We are suggesting that although queer politics does contest
the terrain of recognition, it cannot be conceived as a politics of recognition as opposed to
an issue of distributive justice; this is the distinction proposed in Nancy Fraser’s “From
Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas ofJustice in a ‘Postsocialist’ Age,” New Left Review,
no. 212 (July-Aug. 1995): 68-93; rept. in her Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the
“Postsocialist” Condition (New York, 1997).
30. See Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, and Yvonne Zipter, Diamonds Are a Dyke’s
Best Friend: Reflections, Reminiscences, and Reports from the Field on the Lesbian National Pastime
(Ithaca, N.Y., 1988).
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
562 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
This is particularly true of intimate culture. Heteronormative form
of intimacy are supported, as we have argued, not only by overt referen
tial discourse such as love plots and sentimentality but materially, in ma
riage and family law, in the architecture of the domestic, in the zoning
work and politics. Queer culture, by contrast, has almost no institution
matrix for its counterintimacies. In the absence of marriage and the rit
als that organize life around matrimony, improvisation is always necessar
for the speech act of pledging, or the narrative practice of dating, or fo
such apparently noneconomic economies as joint checking. The heteronormativity in such practices may seem weak and indirect. After all, same-
sex couples have sometimes been able to invent versions of such practice
But they have done so only by betrothing themselves to the couple for
and its language of personal significance, leaving untransformed the m
terial and ideological conditions that divide intimacy from history, poli
tics, and publics. The queer project we imagine is not just to destigmati
those average intimacies, not just to give access to the sentimentality o
the couple for persons of the same sex, and definitely not to certify
properly private the personal lives of gays and lesbians.3″ Rather, it is
support forms of affective, erotic, and personal living that are public i
the sense of accessible, available to memory, and sustained through colle
tive activity.
Because the heteronormative culture of intimacy leaves queer culture especially dependent on ephemeral elaborations in urban space and
print culture, queer publics are also peculiarly vulnerable to initiatives
such as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s new zoning law. The law aims to restrict
any counterpublic sexual culture by regulating its economic conditions;
its effects will reach far beyond the adult businesses it explicitly controls.
The gay bars on Christopher Street draw customers from people who
come there because of its sex trade. The street is cruisier because of the
sex shops. The boutiques that sell freedom rings and “Don’t Panic”
T-shirts do more business for the same reasons. Not all of the thousands
who migrate or make pilgrimages to Christopher Street use the porn
shops, but all benefit from the fact that some do. After a certain point, a
quantitative change is a qualitative change. A critical mass develops. The
street becomes queer. It develops a dense, publicly accessible sexual culture. It therefore becomes a base for nonporn businesses, like the Oscar
31. Such a politics is increasingly recommended within the gay movement. See, for
example, Andrew Sullivan, Same-Sex Marriage, Pro and Con (New York, 1997); Michelangelo
Signorile, Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men, Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of
Life (New York, 1997); Gabriel Rotello, Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men (New
York, 1997); William N. Eskridge, Jr., The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to
Civilized Commitment (New York, 1996); Same-Sex Marriage: The Moral and Legal Debate, ed.
Robert M. Baird and Stuart E. Rosenbaum (Amherst, N.Y., 1996); and Mark Strasser, Legally Wed: Same-Sex Marriage and the Constitution (Ithaca, N.Y., 1997).
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Critical Inquiry Winter 1998 563
Wilde Bookshop. And it becomes a political base from which to pressure
politicians with a gay voting bloc.
No group is more dependent on this kind of pattern in urban space
than queers. If we could not concentrate a publicly accessible culture
somewhere, we would always be outnumbered and overwhelmed. And
because what brings us together is sexual culture, there are very few
places in the world that have assembled much of a queer population without a base in sex commerce, and even those that do exist, such as the
lesbian culture in Northampton, Massachusetts, are stronger because of
their ties to places like the West Village, Dupont Circle, West Hollywood,
and the Castro. Respectable gays like to think that they owe nothing to
the sexual subculture they think of as sleazy. But their success, their way
of living, their political rights, and their very identities would never have
been possible but for the existence of the public sexual culture they now
despise. Extinguish it, and almost all out gay or queer culture will wither
on the vine. No one knows this connection better than the right. Conservatives would not so flagrantly contradict their stated belief in a market
free from government interference if they did not see this kind of hyper-
regulation as an important victory.
The point here is not that queer politics needs more free-market
ideology, but that heteronormative forms, so central to the accumulation
and reproduction of capital, also depend on heavy interventions in the
regulation of capital. One of the most disturbing fantasies in the zoning
scheme, for example, is the idea that an urban locale is a community
of shared interest based on residence and property. The ideology of the
neighborhood is politically unchallengeable in the current debate, which
is dominated by a fantasy that sexual subjects only reside, that the space
relevant to sexual politics is the neighborhood. But a district like Christopher Street is not just a neighborhood affair. The local character of the
neighborhood depends on the daily presence of thousands of nonresidents. Those who actually live in the West Village should not forget their
debt to these mostly queer pilgrims. And we should not make the mistake
of confusing the class of citizens with the class of property owners. Many
of those who hang out on Christopher Street–typically young, queer,
and African American-couldn’t possibly afford to live there. Urban
space is always a host space. The right to the city extends to those who
use the city.32 It is not limited to property owners. It is not because of a
fluke in the politics of zoning that urban space is so deeply misrecognized; normal sexuality requires such misrecognitions, including their
32. The phrase “the right to the city” is Henri Lefebvre’s, from his Le Droit a’ la ville
(Paris, 1968); trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, under the title “The Right to
the City,” Writings on Cities (Oxford, 1996), pp. 147-59. See also Manuel Castells, The City
and the Grassroots (Berkeley, 1983).
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
564 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
economic and legal enforcement, in order to sustain its illusion of
4. Tweaking and Thwacking
Queer social theory is committed to sexuality as an inescapable category of analysis, agitation, and refunctioning. Like class relations, which
in this moment are mainly visible in the polarized embodiments of identity forms, heteronormativity is a fundamental motor of social orga-
nization in the United States, a founding condition of unequal and
exploitative relations throughout even straight society. Any social theory
that miscomprehends this participates in their reproduction.
The project of thinking about sex in public does not only engage sex
when it is disavowed or suppressed. Even if sex practice is not the object
domain of queer studies, sex is everywhere present. But where is the
tweaking, thwacking, thumping, sliming, and rubbing you might have
expected-or dreaded-in a paper on sex? We close with two scenes that
might have happened on the same day in our wanderings around the
city. One afternoon, we were riding with a young straight couple we know,
in their station wagon. Gingerly, after much circumlocution, they
brought the conversation around to vibrators. These are people whose
reproductivity governs their lives, their aspirations, and their relations to
money and entailment, mediating their relations to everyone and everything else. But the woman in this couple had recently read an article in a
women’s magazine about sex toys and other forms of nonreproductive
eroticism. She and her husband did some mail-order shopping and have
become increasingly involved in what from most points of view would
count as queer sex practices; their bodies have become disorganized and
exciting to them. They said to us: you’re the only people we can talk to
about this; to all of our straight friends this would make us perverts. In
order not to feel like perverts, they had to make us into a kind of sex
Later, the question of aversion and perversion came up again. This
time we were in a bar that on most nights is a garden-variety leather
bar, but that, on Wednesday nights, hosts a sex performance event called
“Pork.” Shows typically include spanking, flagellation, shaving, branding,
laceration, bondage, humiliation, wrestling-you know, the usual: amateur, everyday practitioners strutting for everyone else’s gratification, not
unlike an academic conference. This night, word was circulating that the
performance was to be erotic vomiting. This sounded like an appetite
spoiler, and the thought of leaving early occurred to us but was overcome
by a simple curiosity: what would the foreplay be like? Let’s stay until it
gets messy. Then we can leave.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
Critical Inquiry Winter 1998 565
A boy, twentyish, very skateboard, comes on the low stage at one end
of the bar, wearing lycra shorts and a dog collar. He sits loosely in a restraining chair. His partner comes out and tilts the bottom’s head up to
the ceiling, stretching out his throat. Behind them is an array of foods.
The top begins pouring milk down the boy’s throat, then food, then more
milk. It spills over, down his chest and onto the floor. A dynamic is established between them in which they carefully keep at the threshold of gagging. The bottom struggles to keep taking in more than he really can.
The top is careful to give him just enough to stretch his capacities. From
time to time a baby bottle is offered as a respite, but soon the rhythm
intensifies. The boy’s stomach is beginning to rise and pulse, almost convulsively.
It is at this point that we realize we cannot leave, cannot even look
away. No one can. The crowd is transfixed by the scene of intimacy and
display, control and abandon, ferocity and abjection. People are moaning
softly with admiration, then whistling, stomping, screaming encouragements. They have pressed forward in a compact and intimate group. Finally, as the top inserts two, then three fingers in the bottom’s throat,
insistently offering his own stomach for the repeated climaxes, we realize
that we have never seen such a display of trust and violation. We are
breathless. But, good academics that we are, we also have some questions
to ask. Word has gone around that the boy is straight. We want to know:
What does that mean in this context? How did you discover that this is
what you want to do? How did you find a male top to do it with? How
did you come to do it in a leather bar? Where else do you do this? How
do you feel about your new partners, this audience?
We did not get to ask these questions, but we have others that we
can pose now, about these scenes where sex appears more sublime than
narration itself, neither redemptive nor transgressive, moral nor immoral, hetero nor homo, nor sutured to any axis of social legitimation.
We have been arguing that sex opens a wedge to the transformation of
those social norms that require only its static intelligibility or its deadness
as a source of meaning.33 In these cases, though, paths through publicity
led to the production of nonheteronormative bodily contexts. They intended nonheteronormative worlds because they refused to pretend that
privacy was their ground; because they were forms of sociability that unlinked money and family from the scene of the good life; because they
made sex the consequence of public mediations and collective self-activity
in a way that made for unpredicted pleasures; because, in turn, they attempted to make a context of support for their practices; because their
33. On deadness as an affect and aspiration of normative social membership, see Berlant, “Live Sex Acts (Parental Advisory: Explicit Material),” The Queen of America Goes to Wash-
ington City, pp. 59-60, 79-81.
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
566 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner Sex in Public
pleasures were not purchased by a redemptive pastoralism of sex, no
mandatory amnesia about failure, shame, and aversion.34
We are used to thinking about sexuality as a form of intimacy
subjectivity, and we have just demonstrated how limited that repres
tion is. But the heteronormativity of U.S. culture is not something
can be easily rezoned or disavowed by individual acts of will, by a su
siveness imagined only as personal rather than as the basis of pu
formation, nor even by the lyric moments that interrupt the hostil
tural narrative that we have been staging here. Remembering the ut
wish behind normal intimate life, we also want to remember that we are
married to it.
34. The classic argument against the redemptive sex pastoralism of normative sexual
ideology is made in Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”; on redemptive visions more generally, see his The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, Mass., 1990).
This content downloaded from on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 16:41:01 UTC
All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms

Calculate your order
Pages (275 words)
Standard price: $0.00
Client Reviews
Our Guarantees
100% Confidentiality
Information about customers is confidential and never disclosed to third parties.
Original Writing
We complete all papers from scratch. You can get a plagiarism report.
Timely Delivery
No missed deadlines – 97% of assignments are completed in time.
Money Back
If you're confident that a writer didn't follow your order details, ask for a refund.

Calculate the price of your order

You will get a personal manager and a discount.
We'll send you the first draft for approval by at
Total price:
Power up Your Academic Success with the
Team of Professionals. We’ve Got Your Back.
Power up Your Study Success with Experts We’ve Got Your Back.
WeCreativez WhatsApp Support
Our customer support team is here to answer your questions. Ask us anything!
👋 Hi, how can I help?