Thinking some more about Tim Dean’s “Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking” I keep trying to think if the more heterosexual hook up culture would fit Dean’s definition of public sex culture, or does it rather expose the realities of power relations that Dean dismisses a little too easily. Dean clearly considers “barebacking” a near universal practice if it is just considered as sex without protection. In this case heterosexual couplings could engage in barebacking as often as homosexual couplings. However, in terms of the specific practice of “barebacking” that Dean mainly focuses on, that is with the intention of being infected with HIV, he does not make any analogies to specifically heterosexual/genital acts. Though again this gets tricky when one considers there’s no real limitations when it comes to gender or acts in “barebacking” or hook up culture, so some of these thoughts will be unfortunately reductionist. As with any writing about gender/sexuality I’ll apologize ahead of time for any gross generalities or mistakes I make, and that I am not able to consider all kinds of sexual cultures in this necessarily short analysis.
Now, out of his analysis of “barebacking” culture Dean valorizes gay cruising and public sex culture as a possible ethics open to the strangeness of alterity. Dean is hardly the first queer theorist to valorize gay public sex culture, as Michael Warner and Leo Bersani have also written on this. All of them see in gay public sex culture a certain openness to the world, a means for strangers of all classes and races to come together in brief yet intimate encounters. As these public sex cultures have been destroyed, through urban redevelopment and homonormativity, then sex itself has become more privatized, less open to the strangeness of others. Drawing on Samuel Delaney, Dean makes the paradoxical yet fascinating claim that a society with more public sex is probably a safer, closer one.
For me it is interesting to think of this long writing on gay public sex culture and connect it to contemporary debates on the hook up culture, another topic vociferously written about though I have never seen any direct connection made between the two. A definition of hook up culture is itself very difficult, though in my own experience I will tentatively say it is a culture where people come together with the expectation of fleeting sexual encounters, often facilitated by alcohol and other drugs. For the purpose of this comparison I will also assume that hook up cultures are predominately heterosexual in nature, though I’m sure that people of all genders can participate or have their own subcultural practices that would fit this definition. In order to understand if the hook up culture could lead to a similar kind of ethics of contact as gay cruising we first need to consider if they are similar at all. The questions are: is hook up culture a kind of public sex, does its predominately heterosexual participants make it significantly different from gay cruising, is it intimate, and does it encourage an ethics of contact?
1. Is hook up culture public sex? On the one hand yes. The people hooking up often come together in public-like places - parties, concerts, large events, etc. However, this is not the same as the old bath houses, gay bars, and theaters that Dean defines as public. For him any limitation or exclusion of a certain class of people, such as through cost of tickets or membership, starts to privatize a space. In hook up culture the sexual acts are also not often done in a public space. One of the main intentions of participants in hook up culture is often to get another person somewhere else in order to engage in sex. Sometimes this can be a public venue but that doesn’t appear to be a dominant characteristic. In the end hook up culture does not appear to be a kind of public sex culture then, more a kind of liberalized search for private sex that dominates certain populations, like college students, and sexualizes the whole space without actual sexual acts taking place.
2. In the case of hook up cultures predominately heterosexual participation I would say this has to make a difference. As many feminists have noted women seem to often be at a disadvantage in hook up culture, whether in the risks of sexual violence or public shaming. This is not to say women shouldn’t have access to the possibilities of casual sexual encounters, but that hook up culture often does not seem the place for that. It appears to often work instead for the benefit of men, as a way for them to easily obtain sex with women or compete with their friends over sexual conquests. Indeed hook up culture could be said to be an exclusively masculinist affair, with a competition between men facilitated by the exchange of women’s sexual favors (ala Gayle Rubin’s “Traffic in Women”).
3. Hook up culture could also be said to not be intimate in the same ways Dean characterizes “barebacking.” One of the dominant values of hook up culture is the denial of emotional intimacy. It is expected that the participants only seek pleasure physically (even though psychoanalytically pleasure can never be dissociated from our emotions and unconscious) and are not interested in intimacy. This would be the opposite of Dean’s interpretation of “barebacking,” which he sees as a wholly intimate act with strangers that destroys the boundaries of individuals. It is not meant to instrumentalize the other. However, with hook up culture the goal does appear to be to instrumentalize the other for your own pleasure, often from men using women.
4. does hook up culture encourage an ethics of contact then? Perhaps for some participants they can bring their own individual ethics to hook up culture, values of consent and an openess to the other, but these do not appear to be values embraced by the culture as a whole. Hook up culture does not structurally encourage an ethical participation with the other. Indeed when it comes to men relating to women it often appears to encourage unethical behavior. But the same could be said that Dean never fully describes if the “barebacking” subculture encourages ethical behavior, only that one can derive a model of ethical behavior from it. Perhaps the same is possible with hook up culture but it appears to be a much more difficult task.
Here then there are clear power relations that determine the shape of hook up culture. Power is something Dean often dismisses in his analysis. He briefly notes the possible dangers of gay cruising and public sex, but says the pleasures are worth the risk and as long as it is done with an ethics of contact in mind then the participants will be safer. However, in a patriarchal culture it is not clear how women could relate to men on the kind of equal plain that Dean presupposes for the ethical encounter. an entire shift in how men see women would be necessary in order for women to fully enjoy the pleasures of casual sex with men. Or perhaps it is the risk inherent in current relations that Dean thinks makes casual sex worth it. In this case Dean would be reducing the possible risks different genders/sexualities face when it comes to a casual sex culture, not recognizing the specificity of risk that power relations create.
Unfortunately then the dominant values of hook up culture do not appear to be ethical, even though individual participants can certainly bring a sense of ethics to their encounters. This comparison highlights the degree to which Dean does not consider power relations when it comes to cultures of casual sex. I don’t think this disproves his idea of an ethics of contact - an idea I wholly support and want all genders/sexualities to be able to participate in - but that in a patriarchal/heteronormative world the actual casual sex people are having may not yet fit this ethics of contact. This should not stop us from elaborating new ways of being and relating - a task Foucault first gave us that has been taken up by both Tim Dean and Leo Bersani - but that we should still recognize the degree to which practices are enmeshed in power relations and that not all practices can be universalized. Indeed, perhaps the strongest, most ethical practices will be those developed for specific situations and cultures.