On Sexuality and Power

On Sexuality and Power

On Sexuality and Power

On Sexuality and Power


It is widely supposed that the most suitable partner will be someone very much like oneself; gay fiction and cinema are often organized around this assumption. Nonetheless, power differentials are remarkably persistent -- as well as sexy. What are the personal and political implications of this insight?

Sinfield argues that hierarchies in interpersonal relations are continuous with the main power differentials of our social and political life (gender, class, age, and race); therefore it is not surprising that they govern our psychic lives. Recent writing enables an exploration of their positive potential, especially in fantasy, as well as their danger.

On Sexuality and Power focuses on the writing of the last thirty years, revisiting also Whitman, Wilde, Mann, Forster, and Genet, and reassessing the very idea of a gay canon.


Reginald Shepherd is, he says, the person no one wants to know about: a black (African American) gay man with an unappeasable attraction to white men. “I am in love with the image and idea of white manhood, which is everything I am not and want to be.” Why is this such a fearful condition? Because of the historic oppression of blacks by whites. Shepherd is under no illusion about the role of power in his attraction: “I think many gay men worship the power that oppresses them; I think too that all sexual relations in our society are about power over another or the submission to the power of another.”

Shepherd's sexual desire is hinged on to racial difference, the most fraught political, economic, social, and cultural issue in the United States and Britain, and in many other countries. At this juncture, unavoidably, the psychic meets the social, fantasy meets history, desire meets politics. No wonder our societies find the subject hot to handle. We experience a marked unease about all hierarchical liaisons—not only of race but also of age, gender, and class. in metropolitan contexts today, it is often said, gay people favor egalitarian relations. Shepherd himself seeks commonality in everything but racial difference: his dream lover is “some beautiful cultured blond named Troy with whom I'd have everything in common, everything but that” (56).

Yet power differentials are remarkably persistent, in gay fantasies and in the stories about gayness that circulate. I discern three reasons for this. One is that, while we may like to think of fantasy as free-ranging, in fact it often shows astonishing fixity. Shepherd's desire is by no means comfortable, but it appears ineluctable. “So I hate him and desire him, fearing him . . .

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