Monday, May 7, 2012

The Intelligent White Person's Guide to First Nations Sexuality

I've begun reading Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008), edited by Drew Hayden Taylor, and I have a question about the opening paragraph of the Introduction:
When I told people I was thinking about putting together a book about the world of Native sexuality, the two comments I got back most often were: (1) "That will be a short book" and (2) "Isn't that a contradiction in terms?"  Usually these comments were said with a knowing smile, but I knew there was a grain of social belief buried deep within.  And I thought, "If only they knew..." [1]
Okay, two questions, actually.  One: who are the "people" who made these comments?  Were they "Natives", or were they "whites"?  I think it makes a difference in how to take their comments, since they could be taken as self-mocking humor in the former case.  Two: I'm going to assume that they were white (or "Last Nations," as they're known in Canada), since the book as a whole is directed at a non-Indian audience, a sort of guided tour whose point is that we whites are the ones who are hung up about sex because of our Western binaries and our Christian culture, while Natives are closer to nature and in touch with their bodies and not uptight about sex, but also their sexuality is infused with the spiritual and the Sacred.  This stance puts the book into a double bind, since such stereotypes are also a standard part of white propaganda about non-whites... But I digress.  My second question is: Are people really that clueless, to think that any group of people doesn't have a lot to say about sexuality?  Oh hell, I know they are.

So Me Sexy, which I'm about two-thirds of the way through as I write this, is probably marginally more self-aware than a live sex show for tourists in 1950s Trujillo-era Havana, since the discussion of sexuality in arty and academic sectors of North American Anglophone society has come some little distance in the past sixty years.  The writers included come mostly from those arty and academic sectors, after all, so their discourse is mostly ironic and knowing, and it's also self-conscious and didactic, to let the reader know that the sexy talk is just a come-on for the chalk talk that is to follow, which is for our own good.  But then it's also reminiscent of the medical/social framework that pornography used to use as a defense against prosecution: this is not just a dirty book but a serious educational exploration of problems of sexual adjustment in our society today.  (As I recall, even as late as the early 70s, Deep Throat began with a disclaimer to advise the audience that it was really about an ordinary woman's quest to achieve a healthy sexual adjustment.)  The subtitle of the book underscores the ambiguity, which I'd like to think is intentionally ironic: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality -- so our handsome, hawk-eyed (or proud, beautiful, raven-haired) Native guide and interpreter will lead us into an uncharted wilderness of the human heart and naughty bits.

I checked out Me Sexy after seeing it cited and recommended in several recent books I've read lately by Native American scholars, and I have to say that what bothers me most about it is how Western it is.  I'm not really surprised, since as I say it's clearly written and compiled with a white readership in mind.  The editor remarks that after "a vice-chief from the Assembly of First Nations" asked him, "Have you ever thought about writing about something important, like self-government?" (1) instead of "the dominant culture's perception of Native sexuality", he asked ten people at a powwow "which they would be more interested in reading or thought was more relevant to their lives: an essay on self-government or an essay on Native sexuality.  I don't think I have to tell you which answer I got" (2).  I think that if I were Indian, I'd be interested but disappointed in the writings gathered here, since they were written for the education and titillation of whites, rather than mine.  I dare to say so, though I'm not Indian, because I've seen analogous works "about" gay life but made for a straight audience, such as Philadelphia.  The trouble with such works is that even the intended audience shouldn't trust them, because they're produced with an eye on public relations and Our Image, which is bound to distort the content and the message, so that the target audience believes it has learned more, and come closer to the subject people, than in fact it has.  Does that correct the dominant culture's perception, or reinforce it?

Now, I don't mean that Indians are required to educate, let alone titillate me with the inside dish on their sex lives.  But I do think that any PR exercise such as this has a corrupting effect on the producers as well as on the intended audience, and I speak as one who has been observing and debating this question for decades in my own community.  PR productions by gay people for straight audiences certainly corrupt: the producers and spokespeople may even begin to believe that real Homo-Americans are monogamous, clean and sober, responsible adults -- just like heterosexuals are!  Then they begin to lie, even to themselves, about the less-PR-compliant aspects of their lives -- just as heterosexuals do!  Such PR material lacks a subconscious: it shows selfless, truth-seeking scientists who care only about decoding the secrets of nature and not about Nobel Prizes or fudging data; it shows honest leaders of the Free World intervening humanitarianly to protect human rights in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya (or honest leaders of the Soviet bloc protecting Czechoslovakia and Hungary against the depredations of American imperialism); it shows decent Homo-Americans living in ranch homes with white picket fences, saying the Pledge of Allegiance and clamoring at the recruiting offices to serve and defend their country; it shows spiritual but refreshingly raunchy Natives celebrating their sexuality as an embodiment of the Sacred.  Ambivalence and ambiguity, let alone an underside, are neither depicted nor admitted.

So, what to do?  One dilemma any outsider faces is that his or her good intentions will also be suspect: am I really interested in Native sexuality out of human fellow-feeling and acceptable curiosity, or am I a voyeur in search of exotica and an Other on whom I can project the parts of myself I don't wish to own?  I think such questions can only be dealt with face-to-face, not in print.  The editor tells the reader, "Think of [Me Sexy] as a 'How to make love to a First Nations person without sexually appropriating them' type of book" (3), which I think overreaches just a tad.  One of the contributors promises, "Being an Ally Is Sexy!" and offers "five things you can do" (48).  If only it were so easy, so simple.  But I suppose it's nice to be reassured, even if the promises are still for the tourist, sexual or otherwise, who will soon finish the book and be back at home.

Which returns me to my opening question.  Should I assume that American Indian sexuality is Other?  Me Sexy seems to take for granted that I do, and even that I should.  But I don't think I do, except that every other human being is Other to me (as I am to them), and when I read or listen to their words, or come together with them sexually, I'm being invited into their world to learn about them, not just as an individual but as a member of some larger group.  I don't blame Drew Hayden Taylor and his contributors for wanting to keep me at a distance -- there are very good reasons for them to do so, and no one owes anybody else their soul -- but Me Sexy feels less like an exploration than a theme park, a good-natured and professional 21st-century sideshow performance that promises knowledge but delivers something less.  I've been around the block enough to know that there's a lot more to be learned, not just by me but by these writers.