Asking for It: Critiquing Sexual Rhetoric on the Political Left and Moving Beyond the Sex-Positive/Negative Binary

Kai Cheng Thom

*Presented at the Study In Action Panel: Whose Body is It Anyway? A Panel on Access, Sexuality, and Self-determination March 23 2013

   I would like to start with a warning that this presentation contains discussion of sexual assault. Those of you for whom such stories are painful, traumatically resonant, or overwhelming — please be warned and know that I honour your choices to listen, to leave, or otherwise take care of yourselves. Know also that this is not a trigger warning per se — as a friend of mine likes to say, triggers are for guns, and I am not a gun. My body is not a gun. Our stories of truth are not weapons. Rather, truth and the pain it sometimes causes are instruments of healing. And just as bones that have broken and re-connected in the wrong way must be re-broken in order to heal once more, I believe we must use the truth of our painful stories to break open the silence around sex, rape, trauma, and desire in activist communities in order to find a greater, more connected way of being. So let us begin:

   Let us take a moment to breathe. Let me hear the sound, the song, the swell of your lungs. Let us take a moment to remember our bodies, our beating hearts, and our ancestors. Let’s remember all of those people who cannot be here today because of illness or work or barriers to access. Remember those who worked and continue to work so hard, often in situations of exploitation, so that we can sit here in this university building with all its amenities. So that I could sit and write this (scintillating, of course) presentation in the comfort of my home and present it to you here today, on unceded Kanienkehaka territory. Breathe and remember the bloodshed that created this city, the ongoing violence that maintain the university and nation-state. Breathe and remember our spirit, our strength, our many different stories and experiences, our diverse and conflicting truths.

   It is from the place of remembrance and conflicting truths that I would like to issue a challenge to you students and community members here in the room, to the organizers of this panel and QPIRG, to all of us who do radical, anti-oppressive work in the area of bodily sovereignty and sexuality: I think that we have failed. We have failed to talk about sex and sexual assault within our circles, and we have failed to bring to light the hypocrisy and violence that lies hidden in the difference between the ways we talk about sex, sexuality, and sexual violence; and the way we practice and experience (or don’t practice and experience) sex.

   It is difficult for me to say this, but I think I must, because the truth is that when I first fled my Chinese-Canadian family home on traditional Musqueam land for what I imagined were the rainbow-paved streets of the gay and queer community, it was in the arms of that community — that so-called safer space, that sex-positive, feminist, leftist community — that my body was violated for the first time. It is difficult for me to say this, because I so deeply love all of my communities, and especially the politically radical ones so deeply — but here I would like to share some words from that great poet and Black lesbian writer, Audre Lorde:

I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you….What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? (Lorde 4-5)

   My communities had not protected me. The Chinese community in Vancouver did not protect me from internalized racism and shame, nor from the homophobia and gender-based violence at school that left me unable to turn to anyone in my family or neighbourhood to talk about my burgeoning sexuality and gender dysphoria. The gay and queer community did not protect me from being raped by our own people at seventeen — or nineteen, or twenty-one. The radical leftist community in Montreal, who praised and benefited from my writing and performance art and the volunteer labour I did as an event organizer and support worker, did not protect me from sexual fetishism and exploitation from well-loved activists who were instrumental in organizing the student strike in 2012. You did not protect me from seeing my rapists at the anarchist bookfair or at queer art vernissages or at Prisoner Correspondence Project fundraisers or events like this one.  And those of you for whom these words strike a chord that resonates to the tune of your own experiences — I did not protect you.

   How could this happen? How could it be that, for all our leftist rhetoric around consent, bodily sovereignty, anti-ableism, queer positivity, fat positivity, sex-positivity, we have somehow managed to perpetuate a culture of rape, silence, and shame? There is more than one answer, more than one truth, but one of them is, I think, that progressive rhetoric around sexuality itself is fundamentally flawed. The popular frameworks used in community work: bodily sovereignty, the consent model, and sex-positivity are insufficient to encompass the complexities that inform the lived experience of sexuality in a context also informed by racism, ableism, and colonization.

   The concept of bodily sovereignty is often used in com-munity dialogue around sexual assault and abortion — it is the notion that each individual has the right to decide what happens to their body and when. That we are, or should be, sovereign over our physical experiences with other humans. Yet bodily sovereignty cannot not be divorced from the current context of colonization and white supremacy. The spirits and bodies of racialized and Indigenous peoples were colonized in concert with our lands — we have been subjugated to an ideal of sexual experience and physical beauty that locks us outside of our own ideals of beauty and pleasure. Ideals that are, of course, white. As the activist and writer Alok Vaid-Menon writes:

How to explain to a body that it is Brown? How to explain white fetish in a country which has been fucked for years? To a city whose most famous landmarks are the cum stains left from the British? To a city with a commercial street where you can buy Adidas sneakers and watch Hollywood movies in 3D (Vaid-Menon 22).

   How indeed? How to conceptualize and speak about my own experience of assault when the boy who violently penetrated me until I bled in my own home was also the most “conventionally” attractive (read: white, non-disabled, masculine presenting) that I had slept with? How to resolve my own sense of pride that at last one of those beautiful radical queer boys had chosen the feminine, Asian me with the memory that he refused to stop when I told him it hurt, that he pinned me down on the bed when I tried to get up, that he forced himself inside me from behind not once but six time over the course of the night? How to claim my right to bodily sovereignty when I did not scream, did not tell, did not just leave when I had the chance?

   The Fillipina poet/activist Ninotchka Rosca said in a radio interview 1999 that consent is only possible all things being equal. White supremacy renders bodies of colour less than equal in the colonized landscape of sexuality — silences us by creating the illusion for people of colour that the violation of our bodies is identical to our liberation and promises that we might become beautiful only if we allow ourselves to be fucked by, to be fucked into, whiteness. The kinds of sexual assault, abuse, and rape enabled by this is most often invisible to the models of consent and bodily sovereignty invented by white feminism, the models used in community work and rad organizing and allow whiteness, heteronormativity, and ableism to dominate sexuality in organizing spaces.

   White feminist concepts — bodily sovereignty and sex-positivity — are the tools that I used when I first began community work. They were the foundation of my understanding about what happened to me.  And yet they left no room for an experience of violence beyond and between positive and negative, beyond and between the words yes and no. Worse, they are often employed in a way that regulates the access of racialized and disabled bodies to the language of sexuality.

   The rhetoric of bodily sovereignty and consent was first articulated to me during a sexual assault support centre volunteer training session in the form of a catch phrase: “No one is entitled to sex.” A white, able-bodied gay man told me this in all earnest — told me that I was not entitled to sex! As if I didn’t already know that. As if white gay men hadn’t made abundantly clear to me with and without words that I did not deserve desire, pleasure, beauty, or respect — but that I was, on the other hand, entitled to rape. I continue to hear this phrase echoed in workshops and by community organizations in Montreal and abroad.

   At the same time, the concept of sex-positivity is often employed in the understanding that “consensual sex is a pleasurable experience taking place between two consenting adults.” Where does that leave those of us for whom giving consent is rarely or never an option?  For whom sex is fraught with the implications of colonization and/or ableism? For whom sex is rarely or never wholly pleasurable yet still a deeply ingrained, socialized desire? For those whose bodies, psyches, and experiences do not allow for pleasure without pain? And for those who would rarely or never be chosen as sexual partners except as objects of fetishism or rape?

   I think that we must move away from a politic of safety for some bodies but not others, of comfort for some people at the expense of others; away from a middle-class and ableist and white supremacist understanding of which kinds of sexuality are appropriate and positive, and which kinds of bodies are appropriate and positive. Away from catch phrases such as “no one is entitled to sex” and toward embracing the terrible and magnificent complexity of bodies that survive neglect, violence and abuse in the most intimate places yet still find a way to burn like flames with a desire that will not yield. Toward the understanding that we are, in fact, all entitled to sexuality — to feel and to want and to dream erotically — and also to respect and protection from violence. I want to move outside of a sex-positive/negative binary to a place of sex affirmativity — a place of deep listening and belief in our truths and stories. Toward an affirmation that sex and sexuality are complicated, ever-transforming processes that span a vast universe of pain, pleasure, and power that is so much more than positive or negative.

   This is the challenge I present to you, to this community, today: I challenge us to break the silence. I challenge us to believe and to affirm each other. I challenge us to see our own hypocrisy. I challenge us to protect each other. I challenge us to speak, to listen, and to believe.




Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” The Cancer Journals. Spinsters Ink, San Francisco, 1980.

Vaid-Menon, Alok. “Confessions of A Snow Queen.” Thought Catalog.  March 3, 2014.

Rosca, Ninotchka. “Transcript: #23-99 Limited Choices: Women and Global Sex Trafficking.” Making Contact, National Radio Project,  June 9, 1999.