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Porous Boarders: Fetishism, perversion and the Gay Identity

Rebecca Mao

The contemporary Euro-American idea of identity as coherent, seamless, bounded and whole is indeed an illusion. On the contrary, the self carries many internal contradictions and nuances as a reflection of the many roles that a person plays in various social circles. Identity is partially post-social and socially constructed though rituals and disciplinary acts. In turn Delany challenges the concept of a Gay Identity, an entity of being that could be defined as referential. "The point to the notion of Gay Identity is that, in terms of a transcendent reality concerned with sexuality per se (a universal similarity, a shared necessary condition, a defining aspect, a generalizable and inescapable essence common to all men and women called 'gay'), I believe Gay Identity has no more existence than a single, essential, transcendental sexual difference" (Delany 1991:131). The meaning of Gay Identity does not carry over across all time, sharing itself in a congruent way to every gay community to encompass an irreducible gayness. In fact, the very notion of the existence of any gay properties characterizing the Gay Identity is seriously questioned and refuted, as is the concept of a universal, timeless sexual difference (Delany 1991).

According to Sedgwick, even the language used to identify the gay identity "queer" is non-referential. Queer describes the gay identity in as many uncharacteristic ways that fail to overlap certain individual homosexual experiences as it does in describing characteristic ways that overlap other homosexual experiences. Queerness is not always translatable just as being queer means different things to different gays. "'Queer' seems to hinge much more radically and explicitly on a person's undertaking particular, performative acts of experimental self-perception and filiation" (Sedgwick 1993:9). Sedgwick contends that there always exists a performative aspect of the self in all the roles that people play, including the queer role. Thus queer is not outside of the performance. This description of performance as identity suggests that the retrospective act of interpreting performance constructs personhood. During moments of cultural misunderstanding and differences that cause personal stress and strains in individual access to self-representation of identity, a social actor has the ability to alter identity. By experimenting with who they are through sexual performance, people shape their sexual identities (Sedgwick 1993).

Building critically upon Delany, I call into question the accuracy of perversion belonging in marginal spaces. I specifically seek to analyze fetishism as a kind of perversion. If fetishism is understood as a fascination with a part of an object, which becomes superseded and defined by that part, then fetishism lives among the population of practicing heterosexuals performing conventional sexuality. Delany describes the perversion of the heterosexual desire. "It seems to me that when one begins to consider the range of diversities throughout the sexual landscape, then even the unquestioned 'normalcy' of the heterosexual male, whose sexual fantasies are almost wholly circumscribed by photographs of female movie stars! Suddenly looksówell, I will not say, 'less normal.' But I will say that it takes on a mode of sexual and social specificity that marks it . . . as perverse" (Delany) We are given a mental image of all (namely contemporary American) heterosexual males desiring the bodies of actresses, the hegemonic females. Applying the definition of fetishism, I interpret the males as fetishists and the female movie stars as fetish in the fetishistic relationship. The actress' collective hegemonic qualities: long legs, large breasts and thinness overwhelm their individual meanings as distinct, whole women and take on meanings in and of themselves. Long legs, large breasts and thinness act as parts, superseding the wholeness of the woman who owns and lives in these parts. The lunacy of this picture challenges both heterosexual male desire as normal and its identity's performance as conventional. The author uses the unquestionable normalcy of heterosexuality's category to cast into doubt the normalcy of heterosexual's particular behaviors as anything but perverse (Delany 1991).

Under the misunderstanding of fetishism's perverse status, convention assumes the non-reciprocal nature of fetishistic pleasure. Conventional contemporary Americans view that in a relation based on fetishism, only the fetishist experiences pleasure. The assigned unidirectionality of pleasurable fetishism suggests to it a violent nature, since one partner inevitably cannot partake in the enjoyment. This violence reflects not fetishism's nature, but the conventional definition's limitations. If the pleasure is mutual, then it is no longer categorized as derived from fetishism but S/M. In extension, convention conceives the possibility of mutual fetishistic pleasure to be limited to the area of S/M. The logic that convention uses in distinguishing fetishism from S/M is based on the directionality of pleasure: fetishism is unidirectional while S/M is bi-directional. This logic draws the borders between fetishism and S/M. I argue that the conventional logic is flawed, since it destines pleasurable fetishism to be violent, by relegating all mutually pleasurable fetishism into the category of S/M, which is violent, though consensual (Delany 1991).

Delany contests through personal experience, that within the artificial borders drawn by these conventional understandings lives a fetishism based on mutual pleasure, not limited to the specificity of S/M. Mike fetishizes Delany's running sneakers while Delany experiences pleasure from Mike's fetishization. In this fetishism, each person performs in a way that's complementary to the other. I interpret Delany's personal accounts as evidence pointing to the porous quality of the conventional border drawn. The pleasure that is supposedly belonging to S/M seeps into the area of fetishism. The pleasure from being fetishized can be explained by a Lacanian concept of the desire to be desired. The source of desire for one partner is the realization of being the fetish (Delany 1991).

If fetishism does not accurately belong to a marginal space, reserved for perversion, then gays, straights, women and men can all experience fetishes. The idea that women experience fetishism is opposed by psychoanalytics who deny ever having seen a female fetishist. Delany traces the notion of the absence of female fetishists to Freud. "The Freudian dimorphism in the psychoanalytic discussion of fetishism is one of the empirical disaster areas in the generally brilliant superstructure of Freudian insight: men can be fetishist but women are kleptomaniacs" (Delany 1991:129). Delany contends that the theoretical dimorphism does not apply to the actual sexual world in which women do experience fetishes. He describes a revealing personal experience to highlight the truthful identity of the fetishistic clientele. After meeting a husband and his wife, Delany discovers that she is sexually fascinated by her husband's dirty, work soiled hands. Considering his own sexual fascination with men's dirty, work soiled hands, the author argues that this particular sexual fascination is common to a heterosexual woman and a homosexual man. Both men and women experience fetishism and make various interpretations of it in retrospect. Their shared sexual fascination with men's dirty hands is congruent, though not completely translatable. The fetishists' roles differ but their performances are similar. If this specific sexual fascination can be called a gay man's fetish, then it is certainly also a straight woman's fetish. In turn, fetishism is an experience with congruent properties that seeps across the boundaries separating the sexes. Women can be fetishists (Delany 1991).

If the Gay Identity is non-referential and perversion and fetishism extend to spaces beyond their assigned conventional categories, then the boundaries separating them from convention are porous. Performance is identity with fluidity. Though not transcendental, the Gay Identity is marked. The Gay Identity, perversion and fetishism exists as objects in a contextualized world. Gay Identity's non-transcendental nature enables sexual experiences to be analyzed, understood, and empathized within a language-based and non-language based arena in which the meanings of the Gay Identity are contested (Delany 1991).

Works Cited

1. Delany, Samuel R. 1996. Longer Views. Aversion/ Perversion/ Diversion. Hanover: University Press of New England.

2. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1993. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke Universithy Press. .


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