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date: 04 October 2022

Sexual Pleasure in Queer Communication Studiesfree

Sexual Pleasure in Queer Communication Studiesfree

  • Michaela FrischherzMichaela FrischherzDepartment of Communication Studies, Towson University

Summary

Both inside and outside of the Communication Studies discipline, the place of sexuality scholarship is unsettled—and that shaky ground materializes especially around the discussion of sexual pleasure in the field and beyond. Candid discussions of sex, pleasure, desire, sexual tastes, fantasies, and bodily responses have long inspired heavy-breathing anxiety inflected by a reach for “propriety.” This anxiety envelopes public discourses of what feels good—especially things that feel really good under less-than-great conditions and things that deviate from what normative structures say should feel good. There are three areas in which pleasure emerges in the field of queer communication studies: analyses of representational pleasure, resistance to normative public discourses, and embodied autoethnographies of pleasure, which trace moments of queer sexual pleasure articulation in communication research despite disciplinary attempts to elide this field of study.

Subjects

  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)

Finding Pleasure Communication

Both inside and outside of the Communication Studies discipline, the place of sexuality scholarship is unsettled—and that shaky ground materializes especially around the discussion of sexual pleasure in the field and beyond. Candid discussions of sex, pleasure, desire, sexual tastes, fantasies, and bodily responses have long inspired heavy-breathing anxiety inflected by a reach for “propriety.” This anxiety envelopes public discourses of what feels good—especially things that feel really good under less than great conditions and things that deviate from what normative structures say should feel good. Sexuality studies, for example, (but also queer/trans/gender studies) have found their way into various pockets of the academic humanities in the wake of the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis (Laumann, 2006). This interdisciplinary field of inquiry centers the intersectional vectors (geographical, bodily, historical, psychological, etc.) that impress upon how we come to understand sex and sexuality. Queer studies, comingled with sexuality studies, allow scholars to access the deconstruction of those normative impressions. As Annemarie Jagose (2013) has remarked, sexuality studies has had “relatively little to say about sex itself” and this observation also extends to Communication Studies. As with most epistemological occlusions, queer communication scholars have taken up space in this void and produced erotically-inclined knowledge and examined the communicative contours of pleasure.

Part cultural erotophobia, and part logocentric disciplinary norm, sexual pleasure primarily lives in the queer corners of Communication Studies. Nearly 20 years ago, feminist scholars posited that “academic writing of the kind published in [communication studies] is regulated by clear norms, usually among them the demand for a refined, ahistorical, smoothly finished univocality” contaminated by a “masculinist disciplinary ideology” (Blair et al., 1994). Just as the feminine was and is disciplined in communication scholarship, so too is the sexual, erotic, and pleasurable—especially when its expression exceeds white cisheteropatriarchal conventions. As a consequence, this encyclopedia entry on sexual pleasure in queer communication studies traces moments of queer sexual pleasure articulation in communication research despite disciplinary attempts to elide this field of study.

An entry on pleasure in a queer communication encyclopedia might entice the reader to expect a history that begins with Greek eros and extends to Georges Bataille’s (2008) work on pleasure and play. Perhaps the reader expects a brief history on Sigmund Freud (2001) and the pleasure principle, or that other guy who wrote about pleasure and called it jouissance (Lacan, 2007). Certainly the reader expects at least a summary of Michel Foucault (1990)—or maybe some Judith Butler (1993)? Like Isaac West (2018) explains, “queer perspectives question the legitimacy of hegemonic assumptions about bodies and sexualities, opting instead for more fluid and porous discourses and norms” (p. 1). Part of the queer project of locating pleasure in the field is also, then, about questioning our origin stories, our points of entry, and our hegemonic canon. Neither Greek history, nor poststructuralist primer is articulated in this entry. Instead, the “story” of pleasure in the field follows a fluid and porous path allowing us to dwell in moments of pleasure in queer places.

Defining queer perspectives on pleasure in the field comes with its own set of challenges given the slippery nature of “queer” as a concept and as a lived experience. Queer, as a concept, has carried with it many meanings. From eccentric and oblique, to powerful and deviant, queer took its German etymological roots towards its multiple “cross-wise” and “diagonal” horizons—in criticism, in identity formation, and in political organizing. In this present entry, queer refers to the deconstruction of the normative linkages between gender, sex, sociality, and the relationships between them. Although scholars have noted how the field’s orthodoxies have limited queer inquiry, “a substantial body of research exists across the subfields of communication studies to challenge naturalized assumptions about our bodies, genders, relationships, and desires” (West, 2018, p. 11). That body of research, like Jimmie Manning (2020) notes, isn’t always immediately visible. Queer pleasure scholarship often exists in lesser-known journals and cross-disciplinary journals (Manning et al., 2020). With this queer road(treasure)map in mind, this entry outlines three areas in which pleasure emerges in the field of queer communication studies: analyses of representational pleasure, resistance to normative public discourses, and performative writing and authoethnographies of pleasure.

Representations of Pleasure

From the investigation of normative representations to the politics of queer visibility, queer communication scholars have troubled the representational meanings of pleasure. In their analysis of representations of “man-on-man” kissing, for example, Charles Morris and John Sloop (2006) move beyond the simple demand for more visibility, acceptance, and openness of queer kissing. Instead, they emphasize the queer world making potential embedded in “mass-mediated representations [that] articulate sexuality differently, queering readings of all forms of intimacy and their public connections.” For them, a “critical mass” of “man-on-man” kissing holds the potential to build more hospitable futures for queer pleasures. As Erin Rand (2013) notes, moving the needle on this critical mass also requires an attention to how femininities and femme-ness are disciplined by the male patriarchal gaze. A little over ten years later, Morris and Sloop (2017) revisited their queer kissing essay and its silence on white supremacy and racism in the wake of the mass murder of queer Latinx life at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. They write, “nonheteronormative public kissing remains a cultural and political fault line; and we still can imagine a worldmaking project propelled in part by a ‘critical visual mass’ of same-sex public kissing” (p. 183). That critical mass, however, must account for the “specific bodies-in-pleasure gathered on Latinx Night at Pulse before they were cut down, brown bodies in pleasurable excess affectively interconnected, who in their racial and ethnic specificity were subsequently and unsurprisingly erased in large measure by mainstream public discourse” (p. 184). Morris and Sloop’s work on representations of queer kissing calls for an explosion of variegated representations which, they argue, have the capacity to shift the capacious promise of intersectional approaches to visibility and recognition.

Communication scholars have also examined representations of pleasure that emerge despite or because of the relations of power that create barriers for imagining expressions of pleasure beyond toxic, hegemonic conceptions. Kelly Wilz (2019), for example, offers various popular culture examples which illustrate productive models of women’s pleasure amidst a violent, patriarchal landscape. For her, the lack of attention to women’s pleasure creates the conditions for the long history of violence against women. Reflecting on her own sexual assault she writes, “If women’s pleasure and orgasms mattered, in general, as much as men’s in each and every sexual encounter, forcible sex simply wouldn’t have made sense.” Her analysis of the movie Blockers, in particular, demonstrates how crucial the theory of intimate justice is for a less-violent, pleasure-centered future—especially for queer young women navigating their bodies and desires perhaps for the first time. Borrowed from critical psychology, a theory of intimate justice emphasizes how the structures of power impact sexual satisfaction and sexual experiences (McClelland, 2014). Similarly, Michaela Frischherz (2018a, 2020) reads against the normative grain in her analysis of Cosmopolitan magazine and Fifty Shades of Grey to locate moments of pleasure articulation amidst the most normative products of popular culture. Pleasure, found in strange or unexpected places, emerges queerly and against convention. Kyra Pearson and Nina Maria Lozano-Reich (2009) also locate the possibility for erotic pleasure in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy despite predictable critiques of the show as an assimilationist project.

Scholars have also analyzed the limits and possibilities of “appropriate” public representations of pleasure. In her treatment of sex museums, Jennifer Tyburczy (2016) suggests representations—especially sexually coded representations—have the capacity to interrupt “the naturalized order of normalcy” (p. xvi). Where and how representations of pleasure and sex might bring to the fore “hidden or censored aspects of sexuality,” sits at the center of her work. Tyburczy (2016) illustrates how display functions as a technique for disciplining sexuality and pleasure. Similarly, Michele Hammers’ (2010) analysis of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues illustrates how the representation of women’s sexual pleasure and women’s bodies demarcates where representations become taboo and therefore “preferably private” rather than enjoying a “properly public” social location. Hammers (2010) suggests art productions like the Vagina Monologues make “female sexual pleasure and orgasm both visible and speakable” (p. 221). Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner (2005) have long reminded communication scholars of the importance of public representations of intimacy and their queer worldmaking capacities. Through their work, we have learned how publics come to matter for the elaboration of sexual pleasure. Understanding publics through this lens expands what counts as public (like sex, desire, and pleasure), and in turn, what counts as an object of communication analysis. As Berlant and Warner (2005) write, “although the intimate relations of private personhood appear to be the realm of sexuality itself, allowing ‘sex in public’ to appear like matter out of place, intimacy is itself publicly mediated” (p. 193). When sex and pleasure spill into the public, the normative cultural response is one of aversion and recoil, “even as contemporary consumer and media cultures increasingly trope toiletward, splattering the matter of intimate life at the highest levels of national culture” (p. 201). This tension tells the story of the paradox of sexually charged, potentially pleasurable representations in public.

Feminist media scholars have also interrogated the contours of pleasure’s mediation and pleasure’s attached meanings in various public domains. For example, in their analysis of mediated sex advice, Meg-John Barker et al. (2018), note how “pleasure has a contradictory place in contemporary mediated sex advice” (p. 132). On the one hand, pleasure is coded as liberatory and a source of empowerment and on the other hand, variegated discussions of pleasure are largely absent in sex advice mediums. As Barker et al. remind us, “representations of sexual pleasure continue to be marked by and articulated through structural inequalities” (p. 132). Similarly, Hilton-Morrow and Battles (2015) note, “images of sexual intimacy are a pervasive facet of contemporary media. Issues around intimate acts always center around ideas of what is normal and what is deviant, what is private and what is public, and, more specifically, around the unstable intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability” (p. 228). Representations of pleasure often center white, straight, cis, able-bodied, young, thin, and PIV sex. And when they do not, communication scholars illustrate how the relations of power press against the rhetoricity of pleasure. In their analysis of Cruising and Interior: Leather Bar, Braddy and Huff (2018) astutely ask, “what happens to political possibilities when pleasure depends upon stigmatization?” (p. 103). C. Riley Snorton (2014) similarly troubles the representational politics emergent from attempts to describe the racialized “down-low.” Those representations, Snorton suggests, perpetuate white supremacist notions of Black sexual subjectivities.

The analysis of hegemonic representations also extend to pornographies. Pornography has long been at the center of representational critiques of pleasure and its production. In fact, the consideration of pornography has been so central to the conversation that some scholars mark it as the flashpoint shift between the second wave of feminism and the third wave. That flashpoint shift culminated around the discussion of public representations of sex (sex work, pornography, group sex, leather, and kink) among feminists, which some have called the “feminist sex wars” (Comella, 2017; Duggan & Hunter, 1996; Rubin, 2011; Vance, 1984; Wilson, 1981). More contemporarily, a collective of feminist and queer porn thinkers, doers, and makers interrogate the politics of producing pleasure in The Feminist Porn Book (Taormino et al., 2013). In the collection, they leave behind the tired assertion that pornography is always a source of gendered subjugation and a lack of pleasure; instead, they explore “the significance of sex in intimate and social relations, and of not presuming what sex means for specific people” (p. 15). Finding those glimmers of pleasure amongst the normative, hegemonic terrain is also at the center of Sara Warner’s (2012) work. Warner aims to find the celebratory, the transformative, the gaiety, the pleasure, and the productive in lesbian feminist activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Warner illustrates how the activist performance work of Valerie Solanas and Jill Johnston amplifies the “liveliness” of resistive representations. In these activist performances, Warner (2012) locates “acts of gaiety,” which function as “playful methods . . . [and] comical and cunning interventions that make a mockery out of social exclusion” (p. xi). Finally, Shaka McGlotten (2012) responds to long-time critiques of online virtual spaces of queer intimate pleasure as “inauthentic.” Analyzing public sex scandals, online cruising, and DIY porn, McGlotten theorizes the concept of “browsing” as a way to understand queer (virtual) pleasures and their worldmaking capacities. McGlotten writes, “browsing possesses a power that is also an invitation”—and that invitation beckons us to imagine “what forms our intimacies with ourselves or others might take” (p. 136). In addition to scholarship that analyzes representations of pleasure and the limits and possibilities of public representations and their worlding potential, queer communication scholars have also interrogated the broader public discourses that enable and constrain pleasure.

Resisting Normative Public Discourses

The broader public discourses that shape and maintain articulations of pleasure are at the center of much of the scholarship which seeks to locate the possibility of pleasure despite the duress of it all. Often, those public discourses are draped in normative expectations, circulate widely and violently, and create unlivable conditions for minoritized subjects. And yet, queer communication scholars have mined this dangerous public discursive terrain to strategize resistance, power, and transformation. Within interdisciplinary queer studies, pleasure is polyvalent and includes forms of feeling good, satisfaction, contentment, elation, and enjoyment; scholars have unearthed how people creatively communicate pleasure within and alongside the discursive norms of rhetorical culture. The polyvalence of pleasure not only highlights its rhetorically contingent purchase when it is expressed communally, publicly, and relationally, but it also illustrates that pleasure means different things to different people. Because pleasure is experienced on a continuum of difference in everyday life, the present entry neither definitively answers the question, “what is pleasure” nor does the entry seek to index different forms of pleasure. Neither critical aim is possible (or, for that matter, all that interesting) because examining sexual pleasure in queer communication studies is not a matter of categorization, but a matter of pleasure’s circulation in the field.

Scholars have long worked against public discourses that expect bodies and pleasures to conform to biologically determined and innate explanatory logics. Some of this work follows in the footsteps of Gayle Rubin’s (2011) rejection of sex and pleasure as an essential bodily drive beholden to a natural, biologically-determined, innateness that stands apart from history and culture. Central to this radical theory is the rejection of sexual essentialism, which is “the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions” (p. 146). Similarly, Weeks (1985) suggests we must challenge the idea that sexuality embodies the working out of an “immanent truth” (p. 56). Indeed, like all forms of knowledge, “the sexual only exists in and through the modes of its organization and representation” (Weeks, 1985, p. 10). This vein of scholarship contributes to analyzing how the processes that form discourses come to signify emergent ways of being in and making sense of the world. After all, like Jimmie Manning (2009) notes, queer theory is about “changing perceptions of what it means to love, connect, pleasure, and perform.” Queer communication studies scholars, therefore, emphasize how the accompanying context of particular discourses enable and constrain the ability of individuals to make meaning in a particular time, place, and audience.

Black and Brown feminist scholars also produce knowledge about how the flows of power create expectations for the expression of pleasure. Audre Lorde (1984) reminds us of the power of the erotic—a firm call to honor the “replenishing and provocative force” of the erotic beyond patriarchal and weaponized notions of pleasure (which is not pleasure at all). The “fullness” derived from the shared erotic exists not in moments of performative sensuality or “external directives” but in “how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing” (Lorde, 1984, pp. 54, 58). For Lorde (1984), the erotic describes the power embedded in sharing deeply with others. And while not always about sex and pleasure, Lorde’s conception of the erotic reminds readers of the possibility of pleasure beyond or in resistance to patriarchal standards of erotic sexy-ness—of gendered oppression. Following Lorde, adrienne maree brown’s (2019) New York Times bestseller Pleasure Activism bursts at the seams with gentle and righteous demands for imagining a politics of healing and politics of pleasure in the pursuit of social justice. She writes, “Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves form the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy” (brown, 2019, p. 13). brown (2019) encourages us to imagine what it might feel, sound, and taste like if we imagined justice and liberation as the “most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet” (p. 13). Similarly in her interview with Joan Morgan, the collection amplifies the long-standing commitment Black feminist thought communicates to “claim pleasure and a healthy erotic as fundamental rights” (brown, 2019, pp. 81–97). Since 2013, Morgan’s Black feminist collective—the Pleasure Ninjas—has aimed “to push forward Black women’s pleasure as a feminist ideal,” despite the constraints of white cisheteropatriarchy (Barner, 2019, p. 66).

Communication scholars have also examined how normative discourses of pleasure enable and constrain material access to enjoyment. Lynn Comella (2017), for example, offers readers a history of feminist sex-toy stores to illustrate how the conjuncture of capitalism, feminist politics, and the industry of pleasure products congeal to form a complex web of transformative possibilities—sometimes in line with founder goals and visions and sometimes not. Frischherz’s (2018b) analysis of normative orgasmic imperative discourses illustrates where and how women find openings for expressions of pleasure despite the pressures to perform sex and pleasure in expected ways. She writes, “without multiple venues within which women can share and build their own reservoirs of knowledge about what feels good, about what causes anxiety and shame, and about what is sexually important to them, the orgasm, and women’s pleasure more generally, will continue to function as a vector of control and sexuality” (Frischherz, 2018b, p. 283). Listening for alternative, resistive, and improvisational modes of pleasure in public discourse, against the backdrop of all the normativities that encase sexual shoulds is, therefore, at the center of some of this queer communication scholarship on pleasure.

Resisting normative pleasure discourses does not, of course, always leave us in a place of total satisfaction. Pointing to the generative force of power, Tim Dean (2012) notes how “the mobility and diffusion of modern power relations do not circumscribe but instead proliferate pleasures” (p. 481). And it is this proliferation that is not only elided in scholarship but it is also often marked as less politically serious than other topics for criticism (Dean, 2012, p. 477). Dean (2012) writes, “pleasure has been a perennial target of the hermeneutics of suspicion” (p. 482). When pleasure becomes a target for paranoid criticism, critics often mark the expression of pleasure as “false pleasure” and these critical observations become the “unexamined cognate of false consciousness,” which transforms pleasure-seekers (often historically minoritized folks) into dupes of culture rather than active negotiators of their lived realities (Dean, 2012, p. 482). Like Jennifer Nash (2014) notes, “the very structures we critique and seek to dismantle can also thrill” (p. 150). And being thrilled by normative power structures need not always portend a failure of transformation. Similarly, Cathy Cohen (1997) writes, “in the roots of a lived ‘queer’ existence are experiences with domination and in particular heteronormativity that form the basis for genuine transformational politics” (p. 444). And those glimmers, amongst dangerous and power-laden, discourses, echo the transformative and resistive power of sharing in pleasure. Centering the communicative contours of pleasure discourses illustrates how public expressions of pleasure highlight the joy, gaiety, and well-being of people—especially those impacted by several vectors of power at once. Those vectors induce bodily shame, the policing of “having a say” when it comes to one’s sexuality, high-culture indictments of what constitutes a “guilty pleasure,” and dominant discourses that unjustly pathologize and medicalize minoritized genders, Black and Brown people, and non-normative sexualities.

As a consequence, when pleasure is elaborated—especially in public under the weight of its normative expectations—we are given a glimmer of things as otherwise. That is, despite or perhaps even because of cultural codes that limit what we can or cannot say in public, folks still creatively “make do” and find openings to express their pleasures. Far from simply a faddish interest in sex, the consideration of pleasure offers us an opportunity to understand how people communicate matters of private concern, build intimate social ties with partners, and render shareable their sexual experiences with loved (or lusted) ones. As such, when communication studies recognizes pleasure’s place in the field, we are better able to account for those moments wherein folks express themselves and their visions of the pleasure despite theoretical and historical assumptions of our incapacities for feeling good. This commitment in queer communication studies is especially visible in autoethnographic accounts of pleasure, desire, and sensation.

Performative Writing and Autoethnographies of Pleasure

This final section offers a snapshot of pleasure’s place in queer communication studies by tracing how scholars have interrogated embodied, personal narratives of sexual pleasure within the cultural contexts that so often challenge queer bodies in their expression of pleasure. Scholars have long debated “the evidence of experience” in knowledge production. Joan Scott (1991), for example, suggests attending to experience authorizes us to explore “how difference is established, how it operates, how and in what ways it constitutes subjects who see and act in the world,” rather than simply establish “the fact of difference” (Scott, 1991, p. 777). And this insight is especially important because, “the evidence of experience, whether conceived through a metaphor of visibility or in any other way that takes meaning as transparent, reproduces rather than contests given ideological systems” (Scott, 1991, p. 778). And as Scott (1991) reminds us, “What counts as experience is neither self-evident not straightforward; it is always contested, and always therefore political” (p. 797). The body of autoethnographic and performative pleasure work discussed in this entry illustrates how resisting ideological systems is not only possible, but central to elaborating oneself in contexts that do not always nurture sexual expression. Different things turn different people on, and the rhetoricity of pleasure demonstrates both the thesis of benign sexual difference (Rubin) and how multifarious pleasure articulations build reservoirs of knowledge from which folks can draw. And while Ott (2004) boldly claimed, “Most communication and media critics are, of course, not very skilled at reading/writing bodily desires, or even recognizing them when they occur” (with the exception of, according to Ott, Sextext), tides have shifted since then (p. 204).

The controversy spurred by Thomas Nakayama and Frederick Corey’s (1997) essay Sextext is a strong reminder of how sex scholarship—especially the kind that emphasizes pleasure and queer sexual practices—occupies a frenzied place in the communication studies discipline. At its core, Sextext tells a story of the cruisy interplay between theories, bodies, and sexual pleasure; its description reads: “a fictional account of text and body as fields of pleasure” (Corey & Nakayama, 1997). The introduction teases the reader by asking, “How is it possible to write in the fulcrum between the language of the academic and the language of sex” (Corey & Nakayama, 1997). Part tease and part promise of what is to come, the essay moves from Barthes to Foucault to scenes of pleasurable penetration and moments of ecstatic exploration amongst gay men. In a letter to the editor of a 1997 edition of Spectra, Donald Smith (1997) lambasts Sextext as “faddish.” He writes,

It is further faddish as an entry into the current enthusiasm of many universities to establish programs of “queer,” or “gay and lesbian studies,” not because of a demonstrable need for advancing knowledge through scholarly inquiry, but in order to bring comfort to yet another group allegedly suffering from historical victimage. . . . “Sextext” is performance, not scholarship. (p. 8)

The scandal in the field, as Benson (2012) names it, highlights both the desire to protect disciplinary boundaries and the pearl-clutching resistance to pleasure-centered forms of knowledge production marked as “pornographic.” Similarly, responding to the “pornographic” marker the article received, Carole Blair remarked, “I’m not sure . . . how different it is for one’s work to have been labeled ‘communist’ in the 1950s than for her/his [sic] work to be categorized as ‘pornographic’ in the 1990s . . . It reinforces hostility to difference” (Benson, 2012). This debate in the field highlights not only the disciplining of pleasure’s place but also autoethnographic and performative writing scholarship that has significantly contributed to embodied pleasure-knowledge. Like Elizabeth Bell (1995) writes, “Pleasure has always been the bedrock of performance studies, even if buried under edifices of literary criticisms, pedagogical practices, and text-centered performance cannons” (p. 99). By doubling down on pleasure in performance studies, Bell reminds readers to attune themselves to the “material pleasures of performance” (p. 100). Those pleasures are explored in queer storytelling which seek to theorize experiences in their articulation to broader flows of culture.

Queer pleasure storytelling in queer communication studies explores the elaboration of identities, desires, and contextual atmospheres. Like Carrillo Rowe (2007) asks, “what is at stake when the erotic is at stake?” (p. 270). For her, like so many others, the erotic calls up the “boundaries between self and other . . . the commingling of the sacred and the profane. In a word: everything” (Carrillo Rowe, 2007, p. 207). Lore/tta LeMaster’s (2020b) Critical Intervention forum draws on Audre Lorde’s ideas on the erotic, discussed above, to advance a narrative approach to “theorizing and performing lived and envisioned sexual experience and desire” (p. 105). This approach, which she calls “critical erotic/a,” is especially important for elaborating desire in the face of “structural constraints delimiting sexual potentiality” (p. 106). This communicative elaboration is made impossible when sex and desire detours away from imposed and compulsory sexual identities (LeMaster, 2020b, p. 108). Their own piece in the forum, “End(eu/u)ring,” theorizes the “cosmic dust” of fleeting recognition moments in pleasure. The story is sexy and painful and attuned to the messiness of identity (LeMaster, 2020a, 2020b, p. 131).

LeMaster’s edited forum is filled with narratives of pleasure, pain, desire, fantasy, and visions of queer worlding despite structural constraints. Huff (2020) explores the communicative terrain of pleasure beyond an orgasm and posits renewed starting points for feeling bodily pleasure. Zariñana’s (2020) poem “R U Latin?” resists the call of identity’s interpellation by writing performatively to interrupt normative ideas of subject-coherence. Gamboa’s (2020) piece “A Gape” calls for a praxis of sensuality that resists the hegemony of the visual—where the emphasis on the visual (or visibility) risks both the surveillance of the queer body and the amelioration of embodied feeling. Rudnick (2020) explores where sex can inspire a sense of belonging and where sex creates the conditions of exclusion created by “normative categorizations of queer male desire” (p. 120). Tumazi’s (2020) poem “Academic Slut” asks how to center the minoritized self in a cishet structure—and takes the reader through a story of trans feminine preoccupations in both pleasure and labor. Finally, in their coda to the forum, Johnson (2020) asks how we might “melt into pleasure” despite normative, structural constraints. They highlight how, taken together, the forum asks “us to think reflexively about our own desires and pleasures apart from the fetishizing and controlling culture of labels” (p. 138). The collection sits at the cutting-edge of autoethnographic and performative writing about queer pleasure in the field.

Some of the queer storytelling in the field centers the capacities for stories to be told and heard in the first place. Indeed, as Kristen Blinne (2012) notes in her auto(erotic)ethnography, “the inherent danger in sexual stories is not that they are told, but instead, which stories should be told, for whom, and for what purpose?” (p. 965). E. Patrick Johnson (2019) similarly focuses on the importance of reflexivity, voice, and power in Honeypot: Black Southern Women Who Love Women. Part oral history, part magical realism, and quite simply pure poetry, Honeypot is “where the dreams of bees are kept . . . patiently listening to my sisters’ stories as I continue to harvest honey for the honeypot” (p. 221). Here, the “honey” drips with complex meanings—sex, bodies, intimacy, and sweet encounter. LeMaster and Johnson’s (2020) collection on gender futurity and autoethnographic modes of knowing is, also, rooted in the elaboration of pleasure. For them, pleasure functions as a horizon of possibility despite the structures of power that build “dysphoria, pain, shame, and terrifying experiences of trans and non-binary people” (Johnson & LeMaster, 2020, p. 257). Getting at the intensely variable epistemologies emergent from narratives linked to broader cultural flows helps to reinvigorate the radical potential of queer storying telling. Like Lore/tta Manning et al. (2020) writes of the tamed radical potential of “queer” in communication studies, “We can see this in communication research that lazily collapses intracultural differences among queer and trans subjects such that one is to assume all lesbian, all gay, all bisexual, and all trans subjects experience and navigate the same oppression in the same way” (Manning et al., 2020). Performative writing and autoethnographies of pleasure not only render complex pleasure’s possibilities, they also create the place of sexual pleasure in field where those very places where previously unspeakable, invisible, and constrained.

Pleasure’s Queer Communicative Contours

Taken together, what this body of literature reminds us to consider is this: if we think sex and sexual pleasure merely happens we miss tapping into the communicative contours of pleasure—and queer communication studies have worked to trace, reimagine, amplify, and draw into relief those contours. Recognizing pleasure’s rhetoricity means giving up on the idea that pleasure is one, definitive affect, emotion, or feeling. And because pleasure’s public enactment and its place in queer communication studies carries with it this multiplicity of struggled for articulations, this entry illustrates how these multiplicities create capacities for navigating a better tomorrow in the face of a troubled today.

As many of these scholars, performers, and activists illustrate, if we begin with a critical position whereby we orient ourselves toward pleasure as inherently communicative, we may be poised to finally infiltrate some sex and pleasure back into communication studies. Although there is a significant body of literature that investigates queer sexualities culturally, medically, and philosophically, we too often overlook the communication-based scholarly investigation of queer pleasures. And what this body of scholarship illustrates is a matter of starting points. What does the place of pleasure in the field look like when it begins with elation and satisfaction rather than danger and harm? What does the place of pleasure in the field look like when it makes room for elation and satisfaction despite or because of danger and harm? What if pleasure scholarship didn’t center whiteness? Or men? Or heterosexuality? What if our journals were more capacious and celebrated transnational and indigenous pleasure work? What if we made space for pleasures that don’t please everyone? This entry suggests that one of the way we may be able to go on theorizing and understanding queer pleasures is by taking ideologies and their complex effectivities more seriously in our criticisms.

The place of pleasure-based sexual scholarship is still unsettled in humanistic inquiry—especially in communication studies. It is, of course, difficult to decide if this oversight stems from a simple inattention or if it is derivative of a more pernicious judgment of pleasure and sex as merely bodily or arhetorical. Regardless of this oversight’s origin, this entry illustrates how the multiplicity of pleasure in public—and its recognition—authorizes people to view and feel in excess of our normative imaginaries of discipline and regulation. To be sure, dangerous ideologies constantly circulate and the relations of power are felt most intensely by those who are historically disenfranchised, but sexuality scholarship that makes this insight the conclusion leaves us with nothing. If we can, instead, mine the reverberations of cisheteropatriarchy and capitalism for moments in which people actively negotiate their own well-being in relation to the flows of culture, then we are given an opportunity to strategize how those moments can be redeployed (more collectively, more politically) for future queer/feminist discussions about the sociocultural place of pleasure. That opportunity means we have to give up on the idea that pleasure can only happen in one way or that pleasure means only one thing to all people. Given these tides, pleasure is not just a small glimmer of possibility. Instead, the search for pleasure’s capacity to serve as a rhetorical resource for negotiating those vulnerabilities is crucial. When the norms of sex are so impressive they leave us passive and pathologized, the complex ways pleasure emerges in queer communication studies serves as a reminder of how we can build reservoirs of knowledge on the fulcrum of that which feels good—despite or because of our shared, and differing, vulnerabilities.

Further Reading

  • Barker, M., & Hancock, J. (2017). Enjoy sex (how, when and IF you want to). Icon Books.
  • Califia, P. (1994). Public sex: The culture of radical sex. Cleis Press.
  • Comella, L., & Tarrant, S. (Eds.). (2015). New views on pornography: Sexuality, politics, and the law. ABC-CLIO, LLC.
  • Cooke-Jackson, A., & Rubinsky, V. (Eds.). (2021). Communicating intimate health. Lexington Books.
  • Delaney, S. R. (1999). Times square red times square blue. New York University Press.
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