Discovering My Place in the History of Sexual Liberation Movements

“To be born at all is to be situated in a network of relations with other people, and furthermore to find oneself forcibly inserted into linguistic categories that might seem natural and inevitable but are socially constructed and rigorously policed. We’re all stuck in our bodies, meaning stuck inside a grid of conflicting ideas about what those bodies mean, what they’re capable of, and what they’re allowed or forbidden to do. We’re not just individuals, hungry and mortal, but also representative types subject to expectations, demands, prohibitions, and punishments that vary enormously according to the kind of body we find ourselves inhabiting. Freedom isn’t simply a matter of indulging all material cravings, Sade-style. It’s also about finding ways to live without being hampered, hobbled, damaged, or actively destroyed by a constant reinforcement of ideas about what is permitted for the category of body to which you’ve been assigned.” Olivia Laing

I became aware of Olivia Laing’s new book, Everybody, through a Guardian review. Since I claim transgression is my way to liberation, I was intrigued by a book that looks at various liberatory movements of the 20th century through the lens of the body. Laing’s primary subject is Wilhelm Reich, who was a student of Freud’s, a sexual liberationist in 1920s Berlin, a proponent of reproductive rights for women (because he was the first psychoanalyst to recognize there are social determinants that impact mental health), and a persecuted visionary who believed embracing our sexual selves could lead to societal transformation. Laing weaves a beautiful tapestry on the topic of liberation by linking Reich to a variety of historical figures who wrestled with various forms of bodily freedom: Susan Sontag’s relationship to illness, Malcom X’s experience of incarceration, the Marquis de Sade’s writings on hedonistic freedom, Andrea Dworkin’s contributions to second wave feminism, Eisenhower’s political condemnation of homosexuality, Bayard Rustin’s hidden contributions to the civil rights movement (he taught MLK non-violence but was erased because he was gay), and more. It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. 

I was surprised to discover a deeply personal link due to Laing giving a lot of attention to sexual liberation movements. Learning about the history of sexual liberation in the 20th century inspires me to consider how my work with The Impropriety Society* exists within a historical context. Consider this: we were highly visible in local newspaper articles, on local radio, on a national public radio show, and in an article for Vice magazine. My production partners and I were named in these venues. Two of the three of us were open about our endeavors at our regular jobs. Not one of us experienced persecution, hurt, or harm for our public involvement in sexual liberation. This was only possible because of the people throughout the last century who worked to normalize alternative sexualities and sex for pleasure. 

I always knew our freedom and safety was not possible in decades past, but Laing made that reality explicit. I learned that the Nazis destroyed the research collections of the Berlin sexual liberationists in the first book burnings and people had to renounce their liberationist beliefs or flee the country in fear of persecution and arrest. In the early 1950s The Lavender Scare took place under Eisenhower’s leadership because he believed homosexuality was a threat to national security (due to the possibility of blackmail since people couldn’t be out). During the same time period Wilhelm Reich was targeted by the FDA and six tons of his research journals and published books were burned (Reich went mad after having his work destroyed twice in his lifetime - first by the Nazis and then by the US government). 

As I read I remembered how in the early 1990s photographer Robert Maplethorpe was targeted by the Federal government as a threat to culture because his photographs blatantly portrayed queerness, eroticism, and BDSM (anyone else remember the big controversy around the sorts of art the National Endowment for the Arts would financially support?). And that it's only as recently as 2013 that consensual and risk aware BDSM was delineated from paraphiliac disorders in the DSM, making it so kinky parents are considerably less likely to lose custody of their children. And yet there are people today who celebrate Pride who argue kinky expression shouldn't be visible at events, despite its deep ties to queer history (it breaks my heart that marginalized people will try to erase differently marginalized people in hopes of assimilating to dominant culture).

"Unlike Martin {Luther King Jr.}, Barnard Rustin had no desire for a life of secrecy or self-confinement, and nor was he interested in monogamy. As his colleague Rachelle Horowitz once observed, 'he never knew there was a closet to go into.'" Olivia Laing

Despite growing up indoctrinated in Christianity, I didn’t know there was a closet I was supposed to hide in either. When I did discover repressing myself was the expectation, I refused. I’m a woman who has always been shameless about my sexual desires and unapologetic about my reach for ecstatic connection. By dominant culture's standards I’m a pervert, a deviant, and a hussy/trollop/harlot/nymphomaniac/slut. I'm a pansexual who had more than 70 cis, trans, and non-binary lovers. I openly celebrate all forms of consensual sex. I’ve had sex in semi public spaces and created spaces for other people to do the same. I’m a submissive masochist who bows at the feet of a dominant sadist. I’m sometimes polyamorous. I had children by two different Black men. A century ago I would've been institutionalized, had my children taken away, or worse if I lived in my authenticity. Instead I've been able to live a life of total freedom despite my transgression of dominant culture's persistent rules about women and sex. And I get to write a book about it. I don't take for granted that my freedom came at great cost to countless transgressors before me, like Rustin.  

It brings tears to my eyes again and again to recognize that I’m the embodiment of liberation unattainable to millions of people before me. And to recognize that my own work and shameless visibility helped to normalize sexual liberation for a few thousand people. Now that I’m disabled and unable to do the demanding work of event organization, I hope that my writing about the work I did will inspire more people toward normalizing sexual liberation and creating spaces where all kinds of freedom to be oneself can be safely experienced (much of what we put into place for safety could be applied to every sort of community gathering).

Toward that end I’ve identified a few books on the history of sexual liberation and I’m beginning an essay on The Impropriety Society (and the group Club Risque that preceded it) as it relates to the sexual liberation movements of the 20th century. I also plan to write a piece on how to produce radically inclusive and safe sex parties, because I imagine there are a lot of folk out there who would be delighted to have a taste of that freedom, but don’t know that it's possible. 

People don’t tend to think of sexual liberation in the same way they think of BIPOC, queer, or trans liberation. But sex is one aspect of life that impacts every single one of us and oppression through restricting sexuality harms every one of us. Even embracing asexuality as a valid form of self expression in a world that expects all adults to be sexual is a form of sexual liberation. While I don’t believe, as Reich did, that we will achieve world peace if we are all sexually liberated, I do believe the activism I’ve done around sexual liberation is as important a contribution as all the other forms of activism I’ve practiced in my life. Christianity continues to tell children that anything beyond sex for procreation is a sin and Evangelicals in our government continue to try to force their beliefs on the rest of us by limiting sex education. Sex is also tied to the horrors of capitalism, including the ceaseless sexualization of women, sex trafficking among the elite, and the dehumanization of people who choose to be sex workers. Sexual freedom is as necessary to claiming and living our full humanity safely as any other form of freedom.

*The Impropriety Society, located in the rural community of Humboldt County, California (2008-2012), produced radically inclusive sex parties for up to 350 people where attendees felt safe and free to express their authentic selves. The events were not orgies (our rules/waiver explicitly stated that there was no guarantee of getting laid), they were themed events where one could wear a costume, eat catered food, dance, watch performances, cuddle on a couch, have sex on a mattress (with a clean sheet!), play on dungeon equipment, and/or watch other people play. We also provided educational workshops on a variety of topics and nurtured a vibrant community that connected beyond the events we produced. 

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