Berlant and Warner “Sex in Public” (Shoemaker)

Summary by Lauren

The title of this article is misleading; Berlant and Warner are concerned with sex as it is mediated by publics, how it permeates culture, not necessarily sex acts.  Some of the publics the authors explore are overtly connected to sex while others are not.  Notions of privacy and the depoliticizing of sexuality disguise these publics’ relationship to sex.  Using two examples of sex in public, Berlant and Warner describe the values inherent in national heterosexuality, legislation and institutions that privilege the married couple and parents through the privatization of citizenship.  The first of these examples is the 1993 Time magazine cover that features the image of a girl produced through computer manipulation of several races to represent the new American.  This cover girl was meant to erase American racism and illustrate the optimistic projection that intermarriage will be that prevalent in the future, avoiding a more pointed discussion of exploitation and oppression in America.  The second example of sex in public is the 1995 zoning legislation change in New York City that would radically change the availability and locations of businesses catering to gay men.  The space of Christopher Street, as the authors point out near the end of the article, is a site that benefits queer and non-queer businesses alike because of the “cruisier” nature of the space and the crowds that it draws.  This example of sex in public demonstrates how the guise of family values and the “demonization of any represented sex”  privilege heterosexual norms and delegates sexuality to the realm of the personal (550).

Berlant and Warner state that national heterosexuality is not monolithic, but it achieves hegemony through separating and labeling sex as personal, existing outside of politics or the public sphere.  Ethics and morality have become personal responsibilities, and the rhetoric of privacy acts as a shield to hide how everyday public acts are determined by sexual culture, like paying taxes, disposing of a corpse, and many other increasingly ironic examples provided by the authors.  The public environment that exists around heterosexual intimacy reveals the growing failures of heterosexual ideologies, especially in talk show therapy and political scandal.  Modern public discourse on sex designates it as the most intimate kind of communication between people, yet this norm of sacredness is destructive.  Berlant and Warner discuss queer counterpublics as contexts where personhood is less fragmented.  Constructing a queer world requires kinds of intimacy with no necessary connection to institutions of heterosexual privilege, though the fragility and ephemeral qualities of queer world building make it difficult to concretize.  Berlant and Warner suggest that the queer project isn’t about gaining the privileges of heterosexual culture, but about supporting and creating more accessible erotic forms of living.  The two examples at the end of the article, the hetero couple discussing their use of sex toys and the “Pork” show of erotic vomiting lead to paths of publicity granting access to non-heteronormative cultures.

Discussion Questions:

Berlant and Warner seem critical of Foucault’s concept of the confessional culture in their discussion of talk show therapy.  What is the relationship of public(s) to talk show sex?  What powers and pleasures are at work?  Is talk show sex queer?

In the article, it’s described as a “fantasy” that an urban site is a “community of shared interest” based on property and residence.  Berlant and Warner instead claim that urban space is host space.  How does this concept of host space connect to the authors’ idea of the queer world building project?  Is urban space more ideal for non-heteronormative contexts?

One thought on “Berlant and Warner “Sex in Public” (Shoemaker)

  1. alexislothian

    I like your phrase “more accessible erotic forms of living.” On rereading this article before class, I was struck by the way Berlant and Warner take down Biddy Martin’s critique of queer theory as dismissive of the textures of “ordinary” life; your phrase implies that the erotics of the ordinary is perhaps just what they want to underline as an alternative to national heterosexuality. Yet their erotic vomiting example also feels like a display of just how ordinary their erotic lives are not…!


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