By Kartikey Tripathi
It was a rainy August day when I turned to Audre Lorde’s essay ‘The Uses of Erotic”. While raindrops were leaving track marks on the windows of the Delhi metro, the grey gloom of the skies and the metallic compartment started to permeate my skin. I had been miserably floating through life, which mostly meant the everyday drudgery of pursuing an engineering degree that I didn’t want. But by the time I finished the short path-breaking essay, something had moved in me.
Lorde starts her essay by establishing the erotic as a source of power. Its power stems from a personal, non-rational source within us. And it is completely divorced with violent structuring forces of society. That’s what makes the erotic an instinctive force. This must not be confused with desire, which is a socially constructed and sanctioned phenomenon. We aren’t born with an innate desire for marriage or monogamy. Society and the pleasures that conformity brings with it make us desire them.
Second-wave feminism had a very inimical relationship with pornography. Many feminists of the time were deeply troubled by the sexualisation of women and sought a very ascetic form of feminist existence that rejected male pleasure and male gaze entirely. However, this also meant that women who chose to dress sexy were deemed bad feminists or not feminists at all. Many feminists dismissed the erotic as pornography or an extension of patriarchal conditioning. This is where Lorde reigns in and argues that this repression of the erotic is one of the primary ways in which a capitalist patriarchal state practices control on its subjects.
To understand this control, we need to understand why is the erotic so dangerous to patriarchy. Engagement with the erotic can give immense, boundless pleasure to us. And once we realise how much pleasure we can experience in this life through our own bodies and on our own devices, we would automatically start questioning the oppressive structures that surround us. That’s because we will strive towards an existence that remains the truest to the pleasure and fulfilment we experience through the erotic.
But within heteronormative patriarchy, the cis-het male desire will always be privileged over the others. Thus, entire systems of legality, policing and morality have developed to shield this desire (not the erotic). This also meant punishment for playing out erotic phantasies that disturb this hierarchy. Think about how women, queer, trans and gender non-conforming people have been punished for engaging in a ‘forbidden’ kind of sex. The recent Trans Bill (2019) is another such addition to the obstruction for attaining a closer relationship with the erotic. The denial of a self-identified gender identity coupled with a positivist obsession with physical genitalia, are ways to limit the erotic potential of trans and gender non-conforming folx. The rape of a trans woman would land a convicted perpetrator a maximum prison sentence of two years while that of a cis woman would fetch a minimum of seven years. Thus, to violate the bodily autonomy of trans women does not deserve the same punishment in the eyes of the state. An admission that trans women aren’t truly considered citizens of the state, in a way punishing them for breaking the gender binary.
Within a patriarchal hegemony, men would find a larger space to connect with their erotic energy, but this will also have caveats of monogamy, acceptable sexual practices, masculinity and assumed heterosexuality placed on them. Thus, the distinction between desire and erotic becomes important. Sexual desire is socially constructed and sanctioned. Only a hegemonic and masculine desire is cut out to be appropriate for cis-gendered straight males. This works against the grain of the erotic, which is emanating from within. It forces men to identify and locate within reigning discourses of desire while rejecting authorship over their own erotic destinies.
Lorde extends this discourse on the erotic by relating it to work. She argues that capitalism tricks us into distancing ourselves from our labour by placing a price tag on commodities we produce or the services we provide. This distances us from our work, which can be a fruitful way to channel the erotic. However, providing your labour in exchange for wages is necessary to survive under capitalism, regardless of how much one hates their work. People are sold the idea that ‘hard work’ is the only road to success, a cruel joke that has become all too real after seeing the horrific images of the exodus of migrant labourers from our urban centres. These are the migrants who have engaged in nothing but plain hard work, but therein lies no safety net for them from the state. Thus, the correlation between hard work and success is a farce, which hides the limited access to social mobility to certain classes.
At the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism, we see how sex work is continuously diminished and sex workers are always presented as victims of their circumstances. Perhaps sex workers are often subjected to violent regimes of policing because their work displaces the narrative of a respectable woman and competes with male desire. Sex work involves sexual and emotional labour, a field theoretically rife with possibilities of exploring the erotic. Thus, it must not come as a surprise when women who are sexually liberated are called ‘whores’ in almost all languages. There is an unconscious threat to an established order that a woman in touch with her erotic side poses. This threat is subverted by regimes of shame which ascribe sex work as shameful and immoral and tangentially transfer this shame onto women who are or just appear to be sexually liberated. The erotic, however, is also free from the violent shackles of language, which is used and weaponised to put down the erotic selves of women and queer folx. The binary, racist, casteist and heteronormative structure of most languages unleashes an assault on the subjecthood of marginalised identities.
One also needs to locate this essay in terms of the debates that were happening in feminist theory at that time. In the essay, Lorde calls herself a black lesbian. She hints at the hierarchies within female subjectivity. Second-wave feminism was heavily critiqued by Black Feminists like Lorde and her contemporaries for centring the concerns of white womanhood. The difference was fundamental, white feminists were arguing for freedom from and within kinship and family structures, black feminists were asking for a right to form families in a state that heavily incarcerated and institutionally murdered black men. This difference eventually transformed into the third wave of feminism or intersectional feminism.
Even though, Lorde argues that the erotic flows out from a source of deep knowledge, we need to keep in mind that not everyone can access the erotic in the same way. As a Black Feminist, she reminds us that within womanhood there is, still, a hierarchy. And she found herself on the lowest rung as a black lesbian woman. If we problematise the erotic in the Indian context, we see that there is still a hegemonic upper-caste Hindu construction of a woman. Caste, which is built on endogamy, works by controlling female subjectivity and erotic desires. It also works by denying access to hegemonic masculinity and erotic pleasures to lower caste men. While all women are subjects of caste patriarchy, Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi women are subject to sexualisation and exploitation. Devadasi system, dance bars, brothels are built on this neo-feudal exploitation of sexual labour of lower caste and Adivasi women. This complicates our gaze onto sex work, where we have to locate and question whose sexual labour is banished into brothels.
The essay also carries a warning. Lorde argues that pornography is a deceitful distortion of the erotic. It is not only a projection of male desire onto female bodies, but it is also treating women and/or men as objects. However, the creative force of the erotic lies in its transcendental nature: the pleasure we feel can be shared by another human being. And to fully experience the erotic power we need to dive into our deepest feelings and experience something beyond the confines of our body. This merging of consciousness with our partners is where the deep nourishing source of eroticism lies. Reducing our partners into objects of pleasure is denying them their subjectivity and also a misuse/abuse of the erotic.
However, this merging of consciousness doesn't always have to be with other people. Even the smallest things like washing the dishes, cooking your favourite snack or writing a poem can be erotic in nature. Anything, where we can invest our deepest feelings into, can be an erotic task. The erotic is a portal that can lead us towards feelings of satisfaction and fulfilment every day in our lives, similar to what some people experience after orgasm.
Lorde collapses all erotic differences between sexualities and genders by positing the erotic as something deeply personal. She moves towards a profoundly radical politics that centres erotic pleasure as the source of our strength and power. Then, the erotic is a state of boundless empathy where we can find love, acceptance and joy. And it doesn’t have to be misnamed as marriage. It can lead to a visceral understanding of ourselves and the oppression that surrounds us. And once armed with the knowledge of the pleasures that our body is capable of, we will question the existence of pain and suffering in the world. When we finally find our erotic selves, we can finally reclaim our subject positions and, also, find boundless freedom in a lover’s embrace.