“I realized that if I wanted to truly be radical in the world...truly see white and skinny as one way people are born as opposed to the physical supreme, which pours over into every other aspect of life, I had to decolonize my desire. I had to learn to desire myself, my body, my skin, my rhythms, my pleasure.” – adrienne maree brown, Pleasure Activism (2009)
Over multiple lockdowns, the above excerpt from adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism has become my grounding manifesto. In the book, brown invites the reader to map their pleasure lineage – to recognise the people, places and experiences that introduced you to pleasure, however you define it.
So I started archiving this for myself:
I found Christina Aguilera in 2003. The music video for ‘Dirrty’ was an eye-opener… I’d skip through music TV channels; from Kiss TVand Kerrang TV! to MTV and The Box, searching for flashes of sweat and side-boob. As a pre-teen, I felt a welcome, tingly sensation, watching Britney Spears in ‘Toxic’. This trove of masturbation material was my pleasure-defining secret, routinely refreshed with scenes from new music videos and adverts.
I was obsessed.
For years, in my childhood bedroom, I had a three-foot poster of Britney in a ripped white vest, blu-tacked to my wall. And before I discovered that the song lyrics were in the sleeve of the CD case, I had played, paused, and written down every lyric to her ‘Oops!... I Did It Again’ album.
No shade to my younger self, but critically mapping my pleasure lineage uncovers some behaviours worth unpacking.
As a brown, baby-queer, who had no notion of the joy my (political) queerness and brownness could bring, I leaned into whiteness... hard. As Jeremy O. Harris describes, “to find my way socially [...] I became rich in white culture, while it, in turn, seemed to enrich me.” I did this through my speech, my musical choices, my clothes, and the imaginary, English-speaking, ‘professional’ family I invented to better-match the cultural norms of my white peers. In practicing and performing my proximity to whiteness, I found a form of acceptance.
Until I didn’t.
One day, towards the end of Year 6, I had a conversation with a white boy in my year group, which put into words the inevitable heartbreak that so many of us experience upon realising we are ‘not norm’ in a white-normative world.
It went like this:
Boy: I’m ranking girls in our class in order of how much I would go out with them.
Boy: You wanna hear it?
Me: Yeah, okay.
Boy: So, Becky, Laura, Alice, Amy, Zoe, Beth… (trails off as he sees me shift around awkwardly).
Boy: You’re not in it… cos you know… I just wouldn’t.
Me: Yeah, no... I get you.
This is the first time I’ve written about this encounter. And it’s heart-breaking. I have so much to say to this boy, and so much more to say to younger me. Primarily, “Fuck. That. Noise.”
As young people, our minds and cultures are shaped by such violent whiteness. We are taught to defend the thing which destroys us. At 11, my reaction to being completely erased was “Yeah, no… I get you.”
My priority was to protect whiteness. To empathise with the white boy’s revulsion at my possible sexuality and being.
It’s important to note that acknowledging young peoples’ sexuality (here meaning experiences of attraction, relationships, gender, and sexual health) means we recognise their realities. And significantly, the need for comprehensive, inclusive and decolonising education.
In her 2019 paper ‘The arts are in The Sunken Place – how do we Get Out?’, Jemma Desai points to the arts and culture sector’s prioritising of ‘diversity’ and says, “The sector is [...] upholding the same power structures it always has, whilst performing a liberal set of behaviours that have become valuable, not because of their meaning, but because of their cultural and marketable capital.”
This observation is deeply relevant, beyond arts and culture, to all sectors. It applies to the way in which our ‘queerness’ and ‘of-colourness’ is commodified. In other words, we’re sexy right now. But everything sell-able has a sell-by-date.
In response to this, I’ve come to the conclusion that I categorically will not put myself up for judgment, (personally or professionally), when the judging criteria is built upon colonial, white, cis-het fuckery.
It’s taken me until my late 20s to prioritise decentering colonial knowledge and to meet my queer-self through a queer worldview. ‘Queer’ in this sense, is as bell hooks states, “not about who you’re having sex with (though that can be a dimension of it); but queer as being the self that is at odds with everything around it and that has to invent a place to thrive and to live.”
As an adult, I’m hyper-protective over who I invite into my spaces – physically, sensually and sexually. Through sharing memories of white-washed desires with friends from a South-Asian writers’ group, I’ve finally recognised how deeply my experience of self-worth and pleasure have been defined by coloniality. As Dalia Gebrial writes, ‘love’ and ‘attraction’ are “represented as [...] apolitical [but are] deeply politicized, and linked to broader structural violences faced particularly by women of colour globally.”
So how can we start decolonising our desire?
Over lockdown, I’ve been more selective about what I consume. What I’ve consumed has become my culture, and in turn, this has shaped my desires. And the difference is liberating.
Below are resources from thinkers that have been absolutely pivotal in my journey so far. Starting to decolonise my worldview (and therefore my desire) has been life-affirming – literally affirming of my life. And I’m fully here for this lifelong practice.
– Challenging the Gender Binary, Alok Vaid-Menon (video clip)
– Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown (non-fiction)
– All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks (non-fiction)
– Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (fiction)
– The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke Emezi (fiction)
A reminder that this evening (Wednesday 17 March, 19:30–20:45 GMT) Almaz will be running a workshop called ‘Writing Romance’, where participants will be encouraged to think back on their erotic lives to create realistic and engaging narratives.
Gayathiri attended this workshop in July 2020 and said: “This workshop enabled me to tap into an erotic creativity that I’ve not experimented with before. Almaz was an energising and shame-free workshop leader, and I felt safe to explore new areas of writing!”
Today’s essay was written by Gayathiri (she/they), a sex and relationships education facilitator and writer, working with the School of Sexuality Education and Decolonising Contraception. Gayathiri is also the founder of Inclusive Tamil Arts, an online community space for people of all sexualities and genders, to create and celebrate Tamil arts and culture. Find them on instagram. Currently available for commissions. If you’d like to, you can make a one-off contribution via their PayPal.
‘She Dares to Say’ is an email newsletter by Almaz Ohene, a Creative Copywriter, Freelance Journalist and Accidental Sexpert. If you would like to support Almaz, please consider becoming a paid subscriber of ‘She Dares to Say’. If you would prefer to make a one-off donation, you can also send a contribution via PayPal.
Follow Almaz on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.