Scott Sundvall, University of Memphis
Published July 5, 2023
“I know what boys like / I know what guys want” –The Waitresses
Considering all the static and bad noise concerning ChatGPT and the ostensible automation of writing, one might wonder why we are not concerned with the seemingly automated codification of our libidinal economy and sexual desire. If we are so effectively persuaded that students can write better persuasive papers using a machine than their own words, then what do we think algorithms have been doing to us, relative to pornography consumption, for years and years? For our intents and purposes, if coding (see: algorithms) is to write (see: to mark), then our sexuality has been effaced. And if you don’t know (that ideology—and for that matter hegemony—work best when unrecognized), now you know.
Alexander Monea’s The Digital Closet asks not only what is happening when our sexual desire is codified into a boring, homogenized, hetero-diluted jar of mayonnaise via online porn, but what happens to our understanding of sexuality writ large when various desires (and identities) are, via the same digital institution, manipulatively marginalized? For these reasons, Monea’s book would be a valuable resource to anybody pursuing work in media studies, rhetoric, queer studies, or being a human being. Silicon Valley bros appear as confident as The Waitresses in knowing what boys like, what guys want, as Monea notes, but they are probably wrong—and who cares (about those guys), anyway?
When I attended John Waters Camp 2021, Waters presented the penultimate version of what would become his new traveling spoken word show. His primary point of departure: on the heels of HIV/AIDS, COVID-19 provided the logical conclusion to sex and sexuality these days—antiseptic, boring, and just no fun.
The very question of queerness is predicated upon the hegemony of heteronormativity, or normativity in general: the margin in/of difference. The ubiquity of the digital institution (the internet, or ubicomp, for short) only reproduces and compounds such differential marginalization. Various platforms and services attempt to justify their internal censorship, as Monea makes clear, by gesturing to blue morality. And as wide as blue morality can be, it only means infinite opportunity for the same people to make the same decisions in terms of content.
What do we do when we look at porn? Or, what do we talk about when we talk about porn? We, consumers of porn, cannot universalize such, nor should we; yet, those producing and providing such content (or limiting access to such content) clearly attempt to do so. The common denominator logic of Judeo-Christian essentialism and fear-mongering appeals to “the myth of childhood innocence” (111) makes Jack a dull boy.
Figure1: Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver reminding us that it's about "the kids"
Monea’s book notes that America’s contemporary, puritanical, neo-Victorian approach to sex has less to do with sex and sexuality and much more to do with (hetero-)normative apprehensions of sex and sexuality. Children, of course, have nothing to do with it. For example, my own governor, Tennessee’s Bill Lee, would surely consider this book and this review as exemplary of leftist, intellectual elite indoctrination, as he recently tried to sign into law a ban on drag shows in public before such legislation was stayed by a reasonable judge without a fear of men in red flannel shirts. Louisiana and other states now make you register in order to view major porn sites. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whom every kid wants at their birthday party, wants to rat-trap Mickey because of one issue or another and turn the “happiest place on Earth” into something as happy for the kids as porn is for adults.
Figure2: Electrate Mickey giving the finger to Florida
The comparison between HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 was perhaps-too-easy and not-entirely-fair, but Waters noted that both effective in one thing: getting people to not fuck.
Monea shows “how evangelical conservatives, anti-porn feminists, and the alt-right have become unlikely bedfellows in the war on pornography” (11), which is quite similar to what Donna Haraway notes in “A Manifesto for Cyborgs”: “such reasoning will be unmasked as irrational, and ironically corporate executives reading Playboy and anti-porn feminists will make strange bedfellows in jointly unmasking the irrationalism” (204). The difference between Monea’s approach and Haraway’s might rest in their contradistinguished apprehension of how identity and identity politics function relative to sex and sexuality: whereas Monea finds meaning and value in the fulfillment of divergent sexual identities, Haraway wants to dissolve those identity boundaries altogether. At least Skynet and/or Genisys does not control our porn—yet.
Likewise, Monea prudently raises the question of intersex individuals, which complicates any discussion on transsexuality, especially viz-a-viz the assumption that sex is naturally given in some biunivocal fashion, while gender is socially constructed (36). Anne Fausto-Sterling renders visible the slipperiness of sex, particularly when it comes to intersex individuals, which itself disrupts otherwise hegemonic notions of sexuality and gender identity. To this end, while recent and repressive legislation concerning even drag performers reflects in and of itself a cultural resistance to transsexuality writ large, there is little reason why such sexuality should not be more abundantly available online, as Monea writes.
Raising the issue of inter- and trans-sexual (in)visibility cannot be overstated, and such should be of central concern to readers of enculturation. Monea’s acknowledgement that, for better or worse, many if not most of us learn about sex through pornography, then we can imagine what the absence of queer sexualities does in terms of enculturating a socius. Discussing sex, sexuality, and sexual difference should be boilerplate fodder these days—but explain that to the upper-class, white, hetero-but-sexually-insecure tech bros. If America cannot handle even normative sexuality, then they don’t deserve us at our queerest.
Monea also notes that intersectionality matters just as much as intersexuality. For example, “Black women face the intersectional marginalization of being both marginalized as women and as Black people” (57). Specific to the fetishization, exoticization, and hyper-sexualization of Black bodies, bell hooks’s “Selling Hot Pussy” relays with cringeworthy detail how casually we commodify and consume the Black mythos (as constructed by the white imaginary). Monea highlights the fact that most porn is now delivered via Silicon Valley, which almost always means the following: white, hetero, male, wealthy, cis. As bell hooks notes in Where We Stand, American culture must bring into soft focus the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, class, and wealth—especially when discussing pornography.
Waters also noted the degree to which latent identity politics might be stifling the actualization of a potentially more liberating sexual spectrum without taxonomic categorization or over-coding. If everybody has to occupy a box these days, he noted, then fuck the box (literally and figuratively): straight cats should try it with gay cats; prudes should try group sex; gay cats should try it with straight cats; trans folx should just get all up in the mix …
We are still not entirely clear on what constitutes “heteronormativity” in any definitive sense in Monea’s book, but he does provide a clear definition of “queerness”: anything outside of heteronormativity (20). We would thus perhaps add that heteronormativity, much like “queerness,” is fluid and flows according to the logic of late capital, insofar as the codification of desire has as much to do with sexual programming as otherwise isolated identity markers. We might even argue that the axiomatic emphasis placed on identity politics by various circuits of capital (and branding of commodities, such as porn) would push back on Monea’s claims. But Monea recursively shows how, despite however counterintuitive it might seem, agendas above and beyond mere ledger sheets are clearly at play here.
This is nonetheless where the concept and definition of “queer” becomes a bit complicated, even if “queerness” inherently defies biunivocal defining: if “queer” indicates desires, tendencies, or practices outside of heteronormativity, then an undefined heteronormativity stands in only as a straw man. After all, Silicon Valley bros, who surely helped bring us films like Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), quite possibly have queer tendencies themselves—or at least we’d like to think so (50-85). Truly, though, they are just silisexual wet dreams: boring, hetero, white men with as much sexual insecurity as capital to flex. Monea definitely touches on all of this, and he does so with the kind of subtlety that one must exercise when making an obvious but dangerous indictment—the kind of indictment that always comes with the same annoying noise of plausible deniability, broadly understood.
We also wonder if an inversion of Michel Foucault’s archaeological analysis of sexuality and Victorianism actually holds. Monea writes, “[C]ontrary to popular opinion that the Victorian Era was a sexually repressive era, beneath the surface, people could not stop talking about sex,” while “today we are experiencing the opposite,” wherein we are ostensibly sexually liberated but confined by repressions of desire (177). While the discursive formation of sexuality might have changed vis-a-vis everyday sexual practices since the Victorian era, we actually find Monea’s book to be a rather loud and critical echo of the Victorian problematic, which still yet renders us as neo-Victorians.
While Waters’ suggestion was not entirely well-received by many of the campers, the general exigence of his call remains: much of the onus of responsibility for changing sexual dynamics in this neo-Victorian climate rests on the shoulders of all of us, collectively. Get weird, funky; try something new; and at the very least, maintain a sense of open-mindedness and tolerance. After all, if we’re still sexually boring after quite some time, then it’s for a reason.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Basic Books, 2000.
Garland, Alex, director. Ex Machina. A24, 2014.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda J. Nicholson, Routledge, 1990, pp. 190-233.
hooks, bell. “Selling Black Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace.” Black Looks: Race and Representation, Routledge, 1992, pp. 61-77.
---. Where We Stand: Class Matters. Routledge, 2000.
Jonze, Spike, director. Her. Annapurna, 2013.
Monea, Alex. The Digital Closet: How the Internet Became Straight. MIT P, 2022.