In October of this year, Ariane Cruz’s first book The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM, and Pornography (NYU) was released and is poised to alter conversations about race, sex, technology, and gender. On the eve of the publication of “Race, Desire, and Pornography: A TBS Roundtable” (Issue 46.4) in which Cruz joins Jennifer C. Nash, LaMonda Horton Stallings, and Amber Musser in a provocative conversation for The Black Scholar, she took time to discuss some of the most compelling aspects of her book, and considers why we are now ready to receive it.
KWG: Your book is groundbreaking in its in-depth engagement with under-studied, transgressive issues of race, sex, and power, and black feminist studies, critical race studies, and gender and sexuality studies are overdue for such in-depth engagement. We know (and you discuss in your book) the many historical reasons why such material has long been considered taboo and has therefore been ignored, censored, or condemned. Why then, culturally/politically speaking, is now the right time for your book to be published and critically received?
AC: I think that there are a number of current factors and circumstances around issues of violence, race, sexuality, and pleasure that carve a space for the book’s reading now. First, we are in a moment (and this is not a new or a “now” thing) of high visibility of anti-black violence—the techno-spectacle of corporeal state violence against the black body. I discuss this in the roundtable but I believe that one thing that this visibility has done is to also make visible the connections between anti-black violence and pleasure. That is, the audio-visual technologies that make this violence visible and audible to millions globally, might also make visible the simultaneity of pleasure and anti-black violence. The “unspeakable pleasures “of black abjection, the perverse contemporaneity of pleasure and pain, are very much central to my manuscript. As I gesture in my answer to another question, I am interested in the ways that we consume this violence and possibly consent to this violence—as victims, as perpetrators, as spectators, etc. As violence embodies new technologically-enabled shapes, sites, and sounds in visual culture, what are our affective relationships and reading practices with these texts?
Another thing I see as influencing the critical reception of my book is recent academic scholarship (particularly in the field of black feminist and queer of color theory), and a renewed interest in the question of pleasure as it intersects with race. For example, work from scholars like Mireille Miller-Young, Jennifer Nash, and my own has been attentive to black female pleasure in and of pornography in ways that not so much challenge or reject a black feminist scholarly tradition but extend it. And I think this scholarly interest in the question of pleasure in pornography is linked to larger academic interest around the question of pleasure in critical race theory and queer theory and the continued expansion in research on racialized sexualities more broadly (LaMonda Horton Stallings, Joan Morgan, Siobhan Brooks, Shane Lee, Lisa Thompson, Riley Snorton, Xavier Livermon, Amber Musser, and many others).
KWG: Absolutely, in both scholarly and pop cultural realms we are seeing increasing engagement with pleasure as it overlaps with race, often in ways that upset established critical stances and cultural taboos. What can readers look forward to in our “Race, Desire, and Pornography: A TBS Roundtable” that brings together you and some of the scholars you mention above: Jennifer C. Nash, Amber Musser, and LaMonda Horton Stallings? In what ways do your voices compliment and extend one another on these issues?
AC: I think that there is a lot of interesting overlap around issues of the discipline and policing of blackness and womanhood. Such issues not only affect the objects and subjects of our study (the racial, gender, sexual, and class politics of the production of knowledge), but also the various ways that we embody our work as scholars of pornography and the ways in which others view us as embodying this work. As scholars of pornography we are furthering a theory and practice of the erotic that builds on a Lordian tradition while simultaneously recognizing pornography’s “rightful” (for lack of a better word), yet of course vexed, place in this kind of legacy. And there is overlap in the ways we discuss the relationship between black sexuality and not only pleasure and violence, and but also power and the (im)possibility of liberation (a relationship which is highlighted in this current moment of visible black state violence and death).
KWG: I’m glad you mention the concept of liberation and its (im)possibility. Your guiding theoretical principal in this study is what you term “the politics of perversion” which you use to frame your readings. At times you seem to embrace this theory as liberatory, however, at other times, you are careful to trouble utopian and/or “therapeutic” considerations of BDSM. Do you understand the politics of perversion to be a utopian or liberatory theory of race and sex? Why/why not? And what, ultimately, can/does it offer us, particularly if it is not a liberatory framework?
AC: The politics of perversion is a tool, a kind of theoretical anchor to the manuscript, that I employ to disrupt, unsettle, and ultimately pervert black female sexuality, while turning its attention to the purportedly perverse in black female sexuality as sites where we may see the workings of black female sexuality and power. By pervert I mean enacting what I call a critical kink in our reading of race, gender, and sexuality to look beyond accepted and standard practices and to see the many bends in “straightnesss.” By perverse I mean sexuality that is purportedly abnormal, unacceptable, freakish or freaky. So to some extent I see it as in opposition and resistant to a politics of respectability but it simultaneously functions as a kind of strategy of sexuality that gestures the ways that black female sexuality in particular continues to negotiate the racial sexual legacies of history.
I am wary of presenting the politics of perversion as liberatory or as some kind of path toward some kind of freedom because I think that liberation is unrealized and at the very least uncertain. With the politics of perversion, it’s less a matter of liberation and more a matter of transformation. That is, I am invested in the ways that the politics of perversion can change our both our thinking (about the relationships between sex, race, bodies, pleasure, and power) but also our doing (everything from our scholarship, to our relationships, to our labor, to our fucking etc.). I see perversion as useful in illuminating sexuality’s vast deployment as a technique of power.
KWG: Thank you for clarifying how you’re theorizing perversion and what it might allow us to recognize/acknowledge. Along those same lines, can you say a bit more about how you’re theorizing consent for black women? And, more specifically, can you discuss the relationship these concepts have to the “fantasy/reality” binary that motivates BDSM? In other words, does consent, performed and obtained through “play” translate to “reality” for black women?
AC: Consent is both incredibly important and complicated. Reflecting the motto of the kink community, SSC (safe sane consensual), and its more recent acronym, RACK (risk aware consensual kink) many scholars have argued that consent operates as a principal feature of BDSM. Consent is a critical part of BDSM’s artful negotiation of the mercurial fantasy/reality “divide” that is so salient to black women’s performance of race play—facilitating a critical demarcation and delineating of one “world” (fantasy) from the other (reality). Like consent the fantasy/reality divide is critical but complex. This separation has, of course, long been challenged by opponents of BDSM. I am interested in the ways that blackness further complicates this split and the dynamics of consent itself. As I argue in the context of race play, the imagined split between fantasy and reality obscures the materialities of sexual fantasy and our own personal stakes in and responsibilities for both our sexual fantasies and practices. Race poses a fundamental challenge to the fantasy/reality divide that buttresses consent. In some ways, it makes it harder (if not impossible) for us to make this divide, though it can also make the need for such demarcation more pressing. That is, blackness illuminates the ways in which our reality and our fantasies are indissociable despite the often-heavy reliance on the threshold between fantasy and reality in (racial) BDSM.
Hence, I don’t think we can understand consent as the magical alchemy that it sometimes painted in within the context of BDSM (and elsewhere for that matter). Consent can obscure some types of violence and it is not a kind of universal, i.e consent does not have equal valence for everyone. As I have suggested with the fantasy/reality binary so urgent to consent, race profoundly nuances consent. In the book I am interested in how black female sexuality and the legacy of black female sexual violence complicates consent and its already complex dynamics of power. Historically black feminist BDSM opponents such as Audre Lorde and Alice Walker question whether black women can indeed consent to racialized sexual play; however, black women BDSMers suggest that this consent is not only possible but also pleasurable and affectively empowering. As black women BDSMers convey, consent can function to transform the quotidian physical and psychic pain of black abjection into the realm of rapture and affective agency within the “safe” playground of kink. Race play demands that we consider how black women’s legacies of racial sexual violence further complicate consent while shedding light on the multiple ways that we “consent” to violence. Christina Sharpe for example, brings attention to how desire and consent serve to encode the history of violent domination, or that which consent veils, and the fraught site of sexual consent for post-slavery subjects. Saidiya Hartman has also written about the consent and its simulation for the captive black body. Therefore, I see black female sexuality as kind of raising the theoretical stakes of both consent and its praxis. I am very much interested in questions such as: How is the labor of consent nuanced by race? And how does consent shed light the labor of race? By this I mean a host of things encompassing but not bound by/to the quotidian experiences of being in a black body in an anti-black world?
Finally, we must be cautious about adopting consent as our primary determinant of sexual freedom. Consent often buttresses normative sexualities and sexual hierarchies. For example Gayle Rubin has long revealed how consent fails to protect those at the bottom of the “erotic pyramid.” Consent fails to intervene in the criminalization (legal and social) of sexual minorities and “perverts” whose sexual acts, like sodomy or BDSM, cannot be understood as autonomous but rather further substantiation of a kind of inherent lechery (e.g. Regina v. Brown (1993), the so-called Spanner case). Sexual consent can, as Joseph Fischel more recently illuminates, function as a political tool of morality and state regulation, manipulation, policing, and violence that can actually impede sexual justice.
KWG: Thank you, Ariane, for pushing these conversations forward, and for helping to create critical space for those of us grappling with related, complex questions in our own art, activism, and academic work.
For a limited time, read “Race, Desire, and Pornography: A TBS Roundtable” for free.
Ariane Cruz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in African Diaspora Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. New York University Press published her book The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM, and Pornography in 2016. Her other publications appear in journals such as Camera Obscura, Hypatia, Women & Performance, and The Journal of American Studies and are forthcoming in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. Her writing also appears books like The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure (The Feminist Press at CUNY), Black Female Sexualities (Rutgers), The Philosophy of Pornography: Contemporary Perspectives (Roman & Littlefield), and Black Sexual Economies: Race and Sex in a Culture of Capital (forthcoming with The University of Illinois Press). She is the recipient of various fellowships including the UC Berkeley Regents Intern Fellowship and Dean’s Normative Time Fellowship, the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Sexual Culture Dissertation Grant, the Penn State Africana Research Center Postdoctoral Fellowship, and the Penn State Institute for Arts and Humanities Resident Scholars and Artists Fellowship. Her research interests lie at the intersections between black female sexuality and black visual culture.
Kirin Wachter-Grene is a fulltime Lecturer at New York University. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington with a focus in 19th-21st century African American literature and gender and sexuality studies. Currently, she is working on her manuscript Into the Scorpion Garden: Samuel R. Delany and Transgressive African American Literature that both argues for Delany’s importance to the history of African American literature and applies what she calls “Delanyian theory” to his African American literary contemporaries. She has articles and reviews published in African American Review, The Black Scholar, Callaloo, The International Journal of Diverse Identities, and InVisible Culture, and a book chapter on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower published in Apocalyptic Projections (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2015).