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The Liberal Sexual Subject: A Conversation with Damon R. Young

Nicholas Baer

From Film Quarterly, Winter 2018, Volume 72, Number 2

In 1998, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner published an essay entitled “Sex in Public,” which now appears as the utopian vision of a bygone era. Drawing from Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault, Berlant and Warner called attention to the public mediation of sexuality in the United States and critiqued the heteronormative ideologies and institutions that hinged on a structural delineation of “personal life.” Where a hegemonic public sphere had been constituted by “a privatization of sex and the sexualization of private personhood,” so they argued, queer culture represented a world-making project involving the development of ephemeral, promiscuous, and often-criminal forms of intimacy—ones “that bear no necessary relation to domestic space, to kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation.”

Twenty years later, Damon R. Young reworks the title of Berlant and Warner’s essay for his first monograph, Making Sex Public, and Other Cinematic Fantasies. Young’s book emerges following a broad expansion of lesbian and gay rights—most notably, the decriminalization of homosexual conduct and the legalization of same-sex marriage—but also the apparent foreclosure of queer culture’s revolutionary aspirations. While taking up the concerns of prior scholarship, Young often questions its tenets and tacit assumptions. “In Berlant and Warner’s account, and in queer theory more generally,” he remarks in one chapter, “it sometimes seems as if anonymous or depersonalized queer sexual practice carries an inherently radical-political valence” (182).

Young’s book adopts a transatlantic historical perspective, tracing the fantasy of “making sex public” as it took shape in U.S. and French culture during the second half of the twentieth century. The privileged figures of this fantasy were women and queers, who became central to the imaginary of what Young calls the “liberal sexual subject”—that is, “a subject for whom sexuality … assumes its significance in relation to concepts of social contract, public sphere, and nation” (4). As Young argues, this modern subject was a highly vexed site of cultural projection and contestation, especially as the extension of liberal political ideals of equality and personal autonomy to the domain of sexuality came into tension with perpetually gendered, heteronormative conceptions of the social order and of public/private division.

Whereas Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990) analyzed the writings of Melville, Wilde, Nietzsche, James, and Proust to address a “turn-of-the-century crisis of homo/heterosexual definition,” Young’s book looks to film as the twentieth century’s dominant cultural form—a form that “mediates and transgresses the boundary between public and private as its constitutive mode of operation” (2). Just as salient, however, are specific historical determinants: the advent of the sexual revolution in the 1960s (including the women’s and gay liberation movements) coincided with the collapse of the Motion Picture Production Code, whereupon sex could become more explicitly represented, displacing the epistemological paradigm of secrecy and disclosure, concealment and revelation.

Divided into three parts of two chapters each, Young’s book revisits films from the midcentury onward that thematized the relationship between sexuality and liberal democracy. Chapter 1 examines the sexual-political significations of woman’s orgasms in two films directed by Roger Vadim: Et Dieu … créa la femme (And God Created Woman, 1956) and Barbarella (1968). The latter film aligns female jouissance with an egalitarian political system, while Catherine Breillat’s debut feature, Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl, 1976)—the focus of his following chapter—rejects the imaginary of the liberal sexual subject in favor of a Sadean and Bataillean view of sexuality. For Breillat, making sex public entails recognizing the antinomy between a woman’s face and her vagina.

Part 2 attends to the increasing visibility of male homosexual desire, often figured as a malignant threat to the social body. In chapter 3, Young concentrates on René Clément’s Plein soleil (Purple Noon, 1960), an early adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) in which queer sexuality comes into view as “a deadly compulsion towards nonreproductive self-replication” (121). William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), made after the Stonewall riots and gay liberation in the United States, nonetheless continued the long tradition of conflating queer desire with a murderous impulse. Reopening the file on this much-contested Hollywood production, Young reads the film as an erotic allegory of the exceptional violence that underlies the social contract, whereby the repressive force of the law is itself a perverse source of pleasure.

The book’s third part moves from an illicit view of queerness to one based on the notion of ordinary citizenship. Young devotes chapter 5 to Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (Mariposa Film Group, 1977), an activist documentary composed of interviews with twenty-six lesbian and gay subjects. Pushing back against critiques of the film’s “gay liberalism,” Young contends that the subjects’ dual claim to public representation and private domesticity holds disruptive, nonnormative political effects. In the last chapter, Young tracks the cinematic trope of camera movement through the private window in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), illustrating the transition from a psychoanalytic hermeneutics of desire to an electrical model of permeability, connectivity, and unblocked circulation.

The language of free circulation also suggests a switch to the present age of digital dissemination and deterritorialized, neoliberal capital—trends that Young considers in an extended epilogue with reference to two recent films. While Paul Schrader’s Kickstarter-funded The Canyons (2013) reflects a condition of post-cinema and ubiquitous market logics, Alain Guiraudie’s L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake, 2013) returns to a traditional public site of queer sexual culture before its reconfiguration by digital technologies and economic globalization. And although both films present a world of surfaces—one that may seem ideally suited to the methods of “reparative” or “surface” reading—they retain what Young ultimately describes as “some inscrutable negativity that interrupts the free flow of information” (237).

Throughout the book, Young places the films he analyzes in sustained conversation with broader developments in modern thought—political and moral philosophy (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant), Freudo-Marxism (Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse), and feminist and queer theory (Simone de Beauvoir, Guy Hocquenghem)—along with contemporaneous phenomena in cinema and cultural politics. Appearing a full generation after foundational discussions of gender and sexual representation in the discipline of film studies, the monograph pays its dues to key texts and debates while also foregrounding insights that are afforded by a pronounced shift in media-historical perspective. In this way, Young’s book reassesses the legacies of established paradigms for theorizing sexuality and the public sphere amid a new era of structural transformation.

Nicholas Baer: Making Sex Public, and Other Cinematic Fantasies returns to many flash points in the discussions of gender and sexual representation from the mid-/late twentieth century: the critiques of the “male gaze,” gay protests against Cruising, and the feminist sex wars, to name just a few. Some of the key figures in these debates have passed away, and many surviving participants have shifted their focus. Current research on feminist and queer cinema is engaged with trans studies, critical disability studies, global networks, new media, affect, and the environment, among other topics. Could you speak about the process of revisiting earlier debates with a degree of historical distance? How would you position your book in the landscape of film and media scholarship on gender and sexuality?

Damon R. Young: I think you are saying the book has a retro flavor, and that’s true! I did not live through those debates the first time around, and so am approaching them, as you say, from a historical distance. I find myself fascinated by the way the terms of the debates took shape—for example, about the male gaze or, during the sex wars, whether sexuality is inherently oppressive to women. I don’t think those questions have been resolved; to me, the idea of media apparatuses as technologies of gender becomes more, not less, interesting at a time of proliferating queer and trans identities, changing production models, and new textual forms. And sexuality remains a flash point for so many contemporary political debates, from reproductive rights to wedding cakes to immigration. In the book, I seek to understand the prehistory of the fears and fantasies that animate the contemporary political charge around women’s and queer sexualities, which remain battlegrounds in an ongoing culture war.

At the same time, I see these moments differently from how they must have appeared at the time. Instead of approaching Barbarella as simply a sexist exploitation film, I found in it the emergence of a contract-based model of sexuality that emphasizes autonomy, focuses on maximizing pleasures, and sees sexuality as, variously, an individual property and a potential site of injury. My interest in this “liberal sexual subject” led me to Catharine MacKinnon and the radical feminist retort that it is a mistake to see sexuality as individual, volitional, or autonomous, since it is bound up in gendered structures of power; perversely, MacKinnon’s ideas on sex conform more to a Sadean model whose persistence in this unexpected form is fascinating. Also in tension with the liberal—or what Elizabeth Povinelli calls “autological”—sexual subject is a “genealogical” fantasy, the idea that the social is constituted by reproductive bonds across sexual difference—which helps explain some of the controversies over, say, gay marriage in both the French and U.S. contexts.

I try to get “inside” the logic of the debates I revisit, taking seriously what’s radical about each position. But I do so from a vantage point that reframes them from a contemporary perspective—for example, suggesting that Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze” always concealed a queer latency hidden, as it were, in plain sight. I hope I am not the only person who thinks the psychodynamics of fantasy are still of signal importance to the study of media!

Baer: The continued importance of both liberal and radical feminist thought is certainly signaled by #MeToo, which has sparked the most significant debate about sexuality in film and media culture since you completed your book. The movement has underscored the ongoing urgency of 1970s feminist film theory and has also highlighted disparities between French and U.S. sensibilities, with American society frequently charged with puritanism, undifferentiated discourse, and sex panic. Does your work on the transatlantic history of cinematic sexuality take on new valences against this backdrop? And how would you situate the #MeToo movement in relation to queer sexual politics?

Young: The fantasy of the “liberal sexual subject” expresses our desire for a sexual experience that would be normatively insulated from power, for a fully volitional form of sexuality conceived as the property of an autonomous subject, affirmatively negotiated among equal and self-transparent subjects at every step of the way, free also of the complications of unconscious or perverse drives. Sex becomes very reasonable. (At the same time, contemporary pornography constantly stages the fantasy of extremely polarized roles, in a way that sometimes recalls the most damning of MacKinnon’s pronouncements. If pornography is a yardstick of cultural fantasy, we obviously remain fascinated, in the era of #MeToo, by sexuality as a site or scene at which we are not fully consensual or volitional subjects.) The #MeToo movement is partly premised on this contract-based conception of sexuality, which might be why some French women, including Catherine Deneuve, published a letter in Le Monde challenging its limitations. (Deneuve later apologized.) Even though the liberal sexual subject has a transatlantic genealogy, it ultimately takes root more as an American fantasy than a French one.

There is also a radical dimension to #MeToo: radical feminism taught us how sexuality has functioned as a modality of men’s structural power over women. #MeToo crucially makes public the entrenched, quotidian expressions of patriarchal power that have shaped women’s experiences in many workplaces, and conditioned their possibilities for moving through the world. However, queer scholars such as Lisa Duggan have pointed out some of the neoliberal aspects of #MeToo in its focus on individual actors (on both sides) as well as its faith in corporations and the law as instruments of punitive justice. It also feeds into a scandal culture—speaking of making sex public—whose disavowed forms of jouissance (and gendered and sexualized fantasies of retribution) should be interrogated, especially at those moments when, as a recent New York Times article put it, “a feminist is accused.”

As for queer sexual politics, Guy Hocquenghem remarked in 1972 that the mere presence of a homosexual tends to “spontaneously sexualize” (not through his own desire or actions) the space he occupies; most queers know what it is like to be the object of projections or accusations of sexual intent, which might make queers particularly anxious about straightforward imperatives to always believe the accuser. I think it’s also fair to say that historically, forging queer intimacies often required inventing forms of ethics that did not preclude—and sometimes depended on—the blurring of boundaries between different modes and spaces of intimacy and relationality. Queer history is also full of “deviant” and “improper” attachments, including intergenerational, as Kadji Amin’s excellent Disturbing Attachments points out. My book manifests a queer ambivalence toward the liberal sexual subject—who now turns out, for better or worse, to be having a particularly litigious moment. I hope it is possible to make good on the historically momentous antipatriarchal impetus behind #MeToo while subjecting both its liberal and its neoliberal presumptions to nuanced critique.

Baer: The focus of your monograph is on France and the United States, citing the two countries’ liberal-democratic traditions and their “closely intertwined … circuits of mutual influence and exchange” [215]. How might the book’s argumentative arc differ when you turn to other contexts, where developments in the history of sexuality have been especially complicated, ambivalent, circuitous, or uneven? I’m thinking, for example, of twentieth-century Germany, which Dagmar Herzog has described in terms of the “paradoxes of sexual liberalization.” And could you envisage a study of “making sex public” in world cinema, in the vein of recent books by Patricia White [Women’s Cinema, World Cinema (2015)] and Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt [Queer Cinema in the World (2016)]?

Young: France and the United States participate in a shared mythology of being the twin inventors of cinema (with a lot of cinematic traffic between the two), and they also claim to be the inventors of modern liberal democracy; the Declaration of Independence resembles the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. At the same time, there is a different guiding emphasis in each context: in the United States, on personal liberty; and in France, as Camille Robcis has shown, on responsibility toward the social defined as (symbolically) heterosexual and reproductive. The parallels and divergences in their respective political imaginaries become particularly interesting when played out through the lens of nonnormative sexuality (which includes women’s sexuality outside the home).

In any research project, there’s a struggle between specificity and generality. I am very interested in work that explores the collision of American, or Western, sexual categories with forms of sexual knowledge and practice forged in non-Western contexts—for example, Joseph A. Massad’s Desiring Arabs or Eng-Beng Lim’s Brown Boys and Rice Queens. Schoonover and Galt’s recent book is brilliant in its expansion of the concept of queerness beyond its original Eurocentric determination and in demonstrating a protean queerness at work, aesthetically and politically, around the globe. Queer cinema can be defined expansively, but Making Sex Public is less about queer cinema than it is about a specific set of national (and narrowly transnational) mythologies of freedom, equality, and fraternity, in their encounter with increasingly public forms of sexuality. It has more in common with Klaus Theweleit’s earlier Male Fantasies. I did a year of research in Germany, and Herzog’s work on sexuality and fascism was formative to my thinking, but the specificity of its narrative is the very thing that troubled my originally pan-European framing.

Baer: I wonder if you might say a word or two about your selection of films, and especially the issue of historical representativeness. It seems that some of the works you analyze were milestones that changed the public discourse of their time, others were barometers of contemporaneous trends, and others still were untimely or unwanted. Are there films that are notable outliers to the transformation you examine, or ones you would have liked to include? And can you explain your decision to concentrate more on narrative and documentary cinema than on avant-garde and pornography—genres with alternative, more sustained histories of bringing sex “on/scene,” to use Linda Williams’s term?

Young: There are many other films I could have included and would have liked to include; I didn’t touch, notably, on black cinema (the L.A. Rebellion or Blaxploitation movements) or much on experimental cinema, though the work of Ara Osterweil, Juan A. Suárez, Nguyen Tan Hoang, and others on sex and the avant-garde was crucial to my thinking. And obviously pornography in this period plays a key role in making sex public: Boys in the Sand [Wakefield Poole, 1971] and Deep Throat [Gerard Damiano, 1972] were huge public events. The emergence of pornography into public visibility forms the backdrop to the story I tell.

I focused on narratives about the family, the nation, and gender that circulate across domains, with an emphasis on the popular (in commercial films like And God Created Woman and Cruising) but also in minoritarian and specifically political contexts, such as activist documentary in the 1970s. I chose films that have been at the center of critical debates whose positions I also interrogate, or films that represent a “first” of some kind (first female orgasm, first coming out, and so forth). My methodological predilection for close reading precludes comprehensive coverage, so I selected films that allowed me to flesh out the key tensions I saw forming around women’s and queer sexualities—this tension between a liberal sexual subject and its impossibility. I would have liked to look more at the fantasies of male (hetero)sexuality as a site of redress for a history of racial oppression in films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song [Melvin Van Peebles, 1971] and Shaft [Gordon Parks, 1971]. I think hetero male sexuality becomes much more interesting in the context of black radicalism than it is in films where race is ostensibly bracketed (because everyone is white). But for better or worse, I kept the narrative focused on women’s and queer sexualities.

Baer: At various points in the book, you explore the political ambiguities of making sex public—a fantasy, in your words, that “has generated real political gains for women and queers and has oriented important strands of queer theory” but that also “has occasioned its own occlusions, and even generated its own hegemony” [17]. Questioning aspects of Berlant and Warner’s “Sex in Public,” you contend that public sex is not inherently radical and requires translation from the erotic sphere into the political. Can you elaborate on the contemporary stakes of troubling Berlant and Warner’s “utopian fantasy” [172]?

Young: Berlant and Warner’s amazing essay was one of the texts that got me interested in the topic. In that essay, they channel the utopian energy of queer experimental communities, even as they show how the construction of the private sphere in the United States, and in liberal societies more generally, embeds the normative force of heterosexuality. Queer theory in general has been wary of the private, the personal, the psychological subject, for reasons other than a commitment to Marxism. For example, scholars I admire such as Leo Bersani, Tim Dean, John Paul Ricco, and David Halperin pursue, in their diverse projects, variously aesthetic, impersonal, nonpsychological, or anonymous modes of affiliation, transmission, and eroticism.

From this point of view, a film like Word Is Out appears retrograde in that it’s very invested in the person and the human, in the dignity of the talking head and of storytelling. It’s a traditional humanism, which Greg Youmans correctly describes as supporting a “bourgeois” form of politics based on individual claims to rights. And yet, I see something utterly radical in Word Is Out‘s insistence, in 1977, on the dignity of the domestically situated, psychological individual as queer. The film claims the traditional spaces of privacy (the home, the family, the bedroom) and makes them appear, via the mass media of cinema and television, under the sign of queerness. In so doing, the film subjects liberal categories to the force of their own contradictions (allegedly “universal” but actually heterosexual).

Such an appropriation of the key sites of heteronormativity arguably does more to challenge norms than having covert sex in public (or semipublic) spaces does. I’m in favor of the latter, too, but this is what I mean by a “translation” from the erotic sphere into the political (a term I took from Teresa de Lauretis, in an essay reflecting on the relation between theory and politics): actual sex in a public space might be erotically thrilling, but it doesn’t affect the political domain, and might be fully concordant with the system that defines the private sphere in terms of heterosexuality. Whereas coming out in movie theaters and on public television in the 1970s and showing your lesbian family, your lesbian living room—that’s a political act. It transforms the public sphere, it enacts a transformative violence on the symbolic order, which is why it shocked people so much.

Baer: Word Is Out appeared around the same time as the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality [1976] and yet is strikingly at odds with it: a talking-head documentary that upholds or even hinges on the idea, famously critiqued by Foucault, that “an irruption of speech” can serve as a means of defying power and achieving greater sexual freedom, including negative freedom. Is your defense of the documentary partly a challenge to Foucault? How do you conceive the emergent imaginary of the “liberal sexual subject” in relation to Foucault’s effort to debunk the “repressive hypothesis”?

Young: Word Is Out, if I can put it this way, is more of a Habermasian than a sexual-liberationist text. Its interest is in what speech (the “word” of the title) can do in the public sphere—not in, say, Reich’s idea that overcoming sexual repression will liberate society. It’s the Reichian narrative of sexual liberation that Foucault was challenging. At the same time, Foucault was himself interested in “bodies and pleasures” as something that escapes the disciplinary regime of sex-desire—that is, that escapes desire in a psychoanalytic sense. A film like Barbarella shares with Foucault the fantasy of a domain of pleasure not defined in relation to psychoanalytic categories or identities, on the surface and devoid of psychic depth. (“There is no ‘pathology’ of pleasure,” he once said in an interview.) So from one (admittedly perverse) angle, there is also a kind of liberation fantasy in Foucault, especially in what he finds in the gay and S/M dungeons during his time in the Bay Area in the 1970s: a domain of bodies and pleasures not defined in relation to the existing dispositif of sexuality.

I am a Foucauldian through and through, and follow him in his analysis of the productive (rather than top-down) nature of power, but I don’t share his fantasy of being liberated from opaque, complex, psychic desire, a desire inextricable from the signifier. I’m more of a Lacanian when it comes to this question, and so I’m navigating between those two things, which is why my position on Foucault shifts around in the book. Again: these might not sound like hip or contemporary theoretical positions, but I have yet to discover a human being whose desire functions outside of signification!

Baer: The ongoing relevance of a Lacanian model of desire is indeed a recurring issue in your text. While positing the “historical dwindling of a hermeneutic model of sexuality” [17], you defend the practice of symptomatic analysis in the face of Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s recent call for “surface reading.” Could you say something on the status of psychoanalysis and interpretive close reading in our moment? Has queer criticism relied in particular on a hermeneutic method—teasing out latent, hidden, and repressed meanings—that is increasingly passé at a time when significant truths are readily apparent, as Best and Marcus argue? Does “surface reading” correspond to a cultural shift from connotation to denotation, or subtext to text, in the thematization of queer sexuality?

Young: I would question the idea that “significant truths are readily apparent” in the digital era. (I am currently writing an essay on the forms of ambiguity specific to the online/texting culture of LOL and JK.) In the book, I narrate the transition from what I call a hermeneutic to a transactional model of sexuality. In films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [Richard Brooks, 1958], women’s sexuality is both excessive and repressed, displaced, symptomatic, not “fully” expressible.

The Production Code offered the external conditions that supported a hermeneutic method of reading: fireworks for an orgasm, cigarette as a phallic signifier, et cetera. The emergent fantasy of making sex public accompanies the demise of the Production Code, but it is also a fantasy of making sexuality more transparent, more akin to simple pleasure. This was a fantasy articulated in the domain of popular culture but also in various domains of politics and theory. Paralleling this shift would be the demise of the clinical dominance of psychoanalysis and the rise over the past few decades of cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT], which for all its virtues advances a model of the psyche as a means–end instrument. CBT follows an economic logic in its investment in the strategic maximization of good affect; it embraces a performance model of the individual as a producer and manager of herself. I think the idea of a transparent or rational self is probably a dangerous fantasy, which is why I remain interested in the hermeneutics of desire, even as I recognize the apparent anachronism of that notion.

Baer: In the book’s epilogue, you consider how new media have reconfigured the relation between sexuality and publicness, whether in creating a “pornified world” [229] or in rendering the traditional practices and sites of queer sexuality an object of nostalgic contemplation. At the same time, digital technologies provide a primary ideological platform for neoliberalism, and scholars like Fred Turner have questioned whether there was already a certain compatibility between the countercultural demand for personal freedom and the deregulated flexibility of neoliberal capital, between Haight-Ashbury and Silicon Valley, between free love and the free market. Can you speak to the ways in which new media and neoliberalism have challenged the paradigm of the “liberal sexual subject”?

Young: Yes, I think Turner is right about that. The epilogue cancels any lingering utopianism that might have survived through the chapter on Shortbus. (Although I suggest that that film’s fantasy of free circulation—under the signs of “permeability” and “connectivity”—already reimagines queerness in terms of neoliberal notions of choice, network, and flow.) The epilogue looks at two contemporary texts that are much more dystopian—The Canyons and Stranger by the Lake. Both reflect on (by hyperbolizing and by negating, respectively) the transformation of social and sexual life by digital technologies, and both associate deprivatized sexuality (from different angles—one straight, one queer) with a murderous drive. The liberal sexual subject here is a quaint fantasy, relegated to a never-existent past. Just as liberalism slides into neoliberalism, the model of the “liberal sexual subject,” which brought real gains to women and queers, easily morphs into something far less liberatory, bound up in the quantification and monetization of all aspects of experience. With the dissolution of the closet (not evenly or everywhere, of course) and the further transformation (some say erosion) of privacy, I think we are witnessing the rise of a new paradigm, quite different from the one Foucault described or Sedgwick analyzed. The way digital media practices are shaping new systems of subjectivity is the topic of my next book project, “After the Private Self.”


Damon R. Young, Making Sex Public, and Other Cinematic Fantasies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. $99.95 cloth, $26.95 paper. 320 pages.

Read the introduction to Making Sex Public, and Other Cinematic Fantasies here.

© 2018 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

Header Image: Sook-Yin Lee in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006)