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UBC Womens and Gender Studies

Undergraduate Journal
AIDS, Rape, and Your Own Good: Impossible
Encounters in the Motion of Light in Water (Article)
Joanne Farrall

Ignite, Vol 4, Number 1, Spring 2012 pp. 27-39

the Contributors
University of British Columbia, Vancouver

AIDS, Rape, and Your Own Good: Impossible Encounters in the Motion of Light in
Joanne Farrall

In Samuel R. Delany's autobiography The Motion of Light in Water, there are two tales of
orgies that stood out, haunted my mind, and fascinated me. It took time for me to realize this
was because what he was describing was narratively impossible for someone of my subject
position to experience, because the truth of his experience was in conflict with the narratives he
was given about gay men in the 1950's and because the ways in which he described his
relationship to his sexuality in the 1960's are no longer possible after AIDS. Women's sexuality
and our visible sexual expression are regulated, at least narratively, by a fear of sexual and
physical violence and a desire to be seen to be keeping oneself safe. Good women keep
themselves safe. Likewise, gay men's visible sexual expression is regulated, at least narratively
today, by the fear of AIDS and a desire to keep oneself safe. Good gay men are
monogamous. Delany's experiences with public and semi-public anonymous group sex
occurred in a particular time and specific context, but these stories also occupy multiple spaces
of discursive impossibility both past and present, and this illustrates one of the major theoretical
themes that he explores throughout his work: the differences, contradictions and clashes
between what is desired, what is talked about, and what is actually done. These three things, in
a similar triangle to sex, gender and orientation, can seem, and are encouraged to be seen as,
identical. The closer your position to the central normative discourse, the less visible the
differences. But on the edges, the margins, the liminal spaces, they are pulled apart in ways that
render the invisible visible. The various interplay of visible and invisible sexual discourses work
though, and help recreate, what Foucault calls disciplinary powera terminal capillary form of
power...by which political power, finally reaches the levels of bodies and gets hold of them
taking actions behaviours and words into account (2003 40)and can illuminate the ways in
which discourses of difference work to regulate behaviour, how various subjects self-police and
are policed, and how this changes over time. In particular, in this paper, I am going to examine
how Delany's historical descriptions help to explain the ways discourses around personal and
sexual safety work differently and in complementary ways for contemporary gay men and
straight women.
Delany speaks specifically about the clashes between his experiences of group sex both
at the baths and the docks in New York in the early sixties and what he was told about his own
sexuality. He was a teenager in the 1950's and grew up believing that homosexuals were


isolated, lonely perverts; gay bars were a brotherhood of solemn asexual subjects without
objects of desire. Homosexuality was a solitary perversion. (292) Yet, in 1962 he went to his
first New York bath house and arrived in a room with sixty-four beds and three times that many
people...Perhaps a dozen of them were standing. The rest were an undulating mass of naked
male bodies, spread wall to wall. (291) The thing that struck him was the sudden visibility of
gay male desire: ...what this experience said was that there was a populationnot of individual
homosexuals, some of whom now and then encountered, or that those encounters could be
human and fulfilling in their waynot hundreds, not thousands, but rather millions of gay men,
and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions good and
bad to accommodate our sex. (293) Unlike the bathhouse, the docks and the bathrooms in the
subway, according to Delany, all cut up the experiences of male homosexual sex into tiny
portions, and when five, eight or ten men were arrested in these places, everyonethe public,
the gay men, the policecould be assured that a few isolated perverts were apprehended.
These same institutions that historically accommodated gay sex could be used to reify the
stories told about it.
The story that is often still told today, as Foucault points out, is that we are living in the
shadow of Victorian sexual repression, and by stepping out into the light of sexual knowledge
and talking about sexconfessing about sexwe are slowly freeing ourselves from this
repressive past when it was unspeakable and therefore not done. If sex is repressed, that is,
condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking
about it has the appearance of deliberate transgression. (Foucault 1976 6) We are progressing,
we are told, albeit slowly, in a steady line from more regulated and repressive to less, and if this
keeps going we will be totally sexually free. The rhetoric of it gets better that Dan Savage
employs in his campaign of the same name is certainly the story of sex that I grew up hearing
from my parents. From the sixties until today there have been steady gains of sexual freedom,
equality and happiness for all. Yet scratch this story for a second and some of it starts to fall
apart. Rather than getting better things are getting different, in ways that are both good and bad.
Foucault explains that turning sex into discourse, and being compelled to speak about sex,
rather than making us more free, have been, and are, used as part of a larger apparatus of
disciplinary power and as some among many surveillance and regulating techniques.
An illustration of the ways this apparatus of power sometimes works and the ways in
which the 'repressive hypothesis' is at odds with lived realities can be seen by comparing
Delany's experiences at the Christopher Street Pier with the same location today. Current
newspaper articles describe the Christopher Street Pier in Manhattan as a meeting place for


gay and trans people of colour since the 1970's or 1980's. However, Delany describes his
experiences of anonymous sex at the Christopher Street pier as a young, black, gay man in the
late 50's and early 60's, before the sexual revolution, and from his accountsthe pier, he says,
was one of the institutions set up to accommodate public homosexual sexthis activity had
been going on long before he showed up on the scene. Sometimes his experience consisted of
one or two sexual encounters separated by minutes or hours, and
At other times to step between the waist-high tires...was to invade a space at a libidinal
saturation impossible to describe to someone who has not know it...[such an encounter]
with thirty-five, fifty, a hundred all-but-strangers is hugely ordered, highly social,
attentive, silent and grounded in a certain care, if not community. At those times...cock
passed from mouth to mouth to hand to ass to mouth without ever breaking contact with
other flesh for more than seconds; mouth, hand, ass passed over whatever you held out
to them sans interstice; when one cock left, finding a replacementmouth, rectum,
another cockrequired moving only the head, the hip, the hand no more than an inch,
three inches.(1988 226)
The docks that Delany describes did not have a curfew; the police raided once a month
and five to ten men were arrested, a hundred or two hundred more flying off into the night.
Today, after a gentrification of the docks that began in 2001, the piers are now considered a
public park, subject to park enforcement and closed by 1am, forcing young people, mostly queer
and trans people of colour, out into the neighbourhood beside the docks, much to the upset of
residents and business owners. Police crackdowns and surveillance by both police and
neighbourhood vigilante groups make the area no longer safe for cruising, hook-ups or
unsupervised gathering of queer youth. (Davidson 244) Sexual experiences such as those
Delany describes above were, according to him, rather easy to come by if you were a gay man
in the early sixties and you knew where to go; now because of surveillance they are more rare,
at least in this location. And the supervision is increasing. New stronger police measures termed
a quality-of-life initiative (Anderson 2011) have had increased funding and manpower each
year for the past three years. The initiative includes light towers at two key intersections, a
mobile command post at Greenwich and Christopher Sts. and a unit of mounted police on
weekends to produce omnipresence. (Anderson 2009) Certainly, this is not for the quality of
life of the gay youth that are being frequently harassed and intimidated by the police. Now the
same community groups that agitated for these measures are pushing for a 10pm curfew.
(Anderson, 2011)
The hugely ordered, highly social, attentive, silent and grounded community Delany
talks about is nowhere to seen in the public discourse, nor is the story of the lone homosexual.


The rhetoric around the pier today is that criminal, gay teenagers are plaguing the
neighbourhood, with their noise and lack of manners. This example is used in the Village Voice
to justify the community outrage and the curfew: one teenager, dressed in a G-string and tight
pants, gyrates his hips as he struts up and down Christopher Street on a Friday night. An hour
earlier, he'd stood on the pier pronouncing his desire to eat shit. (Lombardi) His walk, his
clothes, his desire, mark him as a criminal other. Gayle Rubin explains that when it comes to

Small differences in value or behaviour are often experienced as cosmic threats.

Although people can be intolerant, silly, or pushy about what constitutes proper
diet, differences in menu rarely provoke the kinds of rage, anxiety, and sheer
terror that routinely accompany differences in erotic taste. Sexual acts are
burdened with an excess of significance. (Rubin, 150)
According to the Village Voice, the crowd has gotten younger, darker, and more
likely to hail from the boroughs. (Lombardi) The racism in this statement is easily
decoded: the boroughs, everywhere in New York City that is not Manhattan, are where
the less wealthy and people of colour live. Everywhere in the media discussion is the
construction of the good citizen in opposition to the other, who are constructed as not
from here and therefore not legitimate citizens. In Delany's time at the pier the large
groups of gay men desiring and being desired did not exist discursively and so they
could happen. Gay men could not live openly, in terms of having their desires
recognized, in daylight, in society, but in my reading of the text there seems to be a
freedom in living outside the spotlight of micromanaged discursively normal sexual life.
Once one is outside of the pressures to be 'normal' and 'good' because one is already a
'pervert,' a range of possibilities opens up. I do not want to argue that this was ideal, or
without problems. There were different problems.
An irony about the crack down on gay youth at the Christopher St. Pier is that
many of the people and businesses who would like to see the pier closed early are gay
residents and owners of gay bars. A headline proclaims Gay bars and neighbours say,
Anything goes has got to go. (Anderson 2009) There is a clash between respectable
gay people and those whose sexualities are less respectable, such as men who have
anonymous and/or public sex and sex workers. The transformation of the West Village
in the years after Stonewallwith the closing of sex stores and neighbourhoods


organizing against sex workers and queer and trans youth of colouris part of a larger
project of mainstreaming gay/lesbian people and the movement. (Davidson, 244) In an
effort to be seen as respectable and normal, Davidson claims that many LGBTQ groups
have focused on integrating into mainstream society and distancing themselves from
bad or dangerous sexualities and sexual practices. Gayle Rubin, in her now famous
1984 essay Thinking Sex, claimed that we live in a highly sex negative culture, with a
clear hierarchy of acceptable sex with married, heterosexual reproductive sex at the top,
followed by unmarried straight couples, followed by monogamous, long-term, gay
couples, with bar dykes and promiscuous gay men are hovering just above the groups
at the very bottom of the pyramid. The most despised sexual castes currently include
transsexuals, transvestites, fetishists, sadomasochists, sex workers such as prostitutes
and porn models... (151) She claims that society draws an imaginary line, with all those
on the good side of the line afforded statuses like 'natural', 'legal', 'mentally healthy and
positive', 'presumed to have moral complexity' and 'offered material benefits', while
those on the bad side of the line [are subject to the] presumption of mental illness,
disreputability, criminality, restricted social and physical mobility, loss of institutional
support, and economic sanctions. (151) The line can move, but the implications for
those who find themselves on the bad side remain the same, and the line must be
policedboth self-policed and policed from the outsideso as to define and redefine
those of us who benefit from being on the good side. Those on the good side must
know what could happen if they found themselves suddenly on the wrong side.
In 1984 Delany wrote Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, which, among
many topics, explores the arbitrary nature of our sexual prohibitions. One of the
characters in this novel, Rat Korga, comes from a deeply misogynistic world, not unlike
ours, where homosexuality is illegal until the age of twenty-seven but the major
prohibition is between people of varying heights, regardless of their gender. The short
people were the privileged group and to even imagine doing it with someone tall was to
be disgusting. Korga, a tall man, has always wanted men shorter than himself. Yet, in
this world there are still places where people can satisfy their illegal kinks. ...[M]oving
through dark rooms, he had sex seven times, twice with unexpected satisfaction, four
times after that with indifferent adequacy...The last time with a man taller than himself


a partner he'd never considered when he was a child. (50) Marq, our other protagonist,
comes from one of a series of worlds where all people are considered women unless
they are an object of desire and then they are referred to as 'he' for as long as the
speaker desires them. As a diplomat, he travels easily between alien worlds,
experiences anonymous sex with a variety of aliens and has learned to accommodate
different desires and aliens who are generally want to satisfy his. Sometimes sexas it
so often turns out from folks from newly and intensely populated worlds, was a
hopelessly complicated affair involving so much equipment (70) that by the time they
were ready he was more frustrated that excited. On another occasion an interstellar
assassin offers politely, and graphically, to torture Marq for days or weeks and then
murder him. (90) Marq politely declines but seems generally unphased by this peculiar
consent conversation.
When Korga and Marq meet they are one another's perfect erotic objects. (166)
Yet each of them has a different relationship to their desires. Marq as a privileged
diplomat has never had to feel shame for his desires (his desires, while not standard,
were never illegal), whereas Rat Korga was a slave for several years and came of age
sexually in a world where his desires were abject. Rat explains to Marq, You didn't
spend your childhood and make your transition to maturity on a world where bestiality
and homosexuality were legally prescribed. So you do not possess the funds of those
feelings to draw on. I do. (303) This novel was intended as the first part of a two part
series that explored his ideas about sexual utopia, but Delany abandoned the second
book after the extent of AIDS became known. (Anders) By the time he finished this
novel, what was discursively possible, what was imaginablein short, realityhad
AIDS is a reality and a change that has drastically altered the world from the one
that existed in the 1960's piers and bathhouses. As someone raised after the coming of
AIDS (I was 8 when Rock Hudson died of it), the scenes of unprotected sex Delany
described in his memoir shocked me and seemed as dangerous to me as playing
russian roulette. He says,
Now AIDS has marked an area in the social market where language, desire and
lived experience have all functioned in opposition. In the market of AIDS, whether
it be the gay man trying to negotiate his pleasures, or the government official


trying to negotiate a grant, what we say we door say we should dois often
hugely at odds with what we do do. Likewise, what we wish and what were
compelled to do have often been in equal tension. Indeed, in many respect AIDS
has acted as a microscope in which the ordinarily ignorable tensions between the
threelanguage, desire, and experiencehave been magnified to frightening
size. (1989 159)
He claims as well that in light of the startling differences between scientific
studies and the discourses around safety and risk, with some behaviours being
considered 'high risk' and some considered 'low risk' and no behaviours being coded as
'no risk,' all, claims Delany, were working along with the rhetoric of 'repeated sexual
contact' that for several years has accompanied itnot as responsible caution but
rather as a discourse as murderous, pernicious and irresponsible as the various antiSemitic and racist pronouncements from Germany before World War II. (1989 160)
The studies, says Delany, which come from sexual diaries of gay men show that for
many men, 8%, who had unprotected passive anal sex one time with an infected man
the single encounter was enough to get infected; so much for repeated contact. Of the
men who only engaged in oral sex, none were infected. I looked for studies to back up
Delany's claim; many speak of a hypothetical risk of four one-hundredths of one percent
infection rate from receptive oral sex (Rates of HIV infection), an exceedingly low risk,
although there are arguments about how low. What Delany says that gay men should
have been told is that AIDS is spread sexually ... though anal intercourse (1989 160,
emphasis in original) and all other infections are relatively rare. Men were told that the
best choice was total abstinence, and thinking in gradients of risk made them feel that
anal sex and oral sex had relatively equal risks. He feels 95% of those who died of AIDS
would have been alive had this warning been given. He also feels that the fact that no
similar sexual diary studies have been done for women shows the depth of misogyny
and denial of female sexual agency our society still has.
One of the justifications for legislating against sex workers and forcing them out
of communities is that prostitutes have been traditionally been seen as a vector of
disease. The same type of language was employed against homosexual men,
especially with the coming of AIDS. These discourses are used to regulate behaviours.
According to the Center for Disease Control, poor, gay, black men are at the highest risk


for HIV infection and Racism, poverty, and lack of access to health care are barriers to
HIV prevention services, particularly for MSM [men who have sex with men] from racial
or ethnic minority communities. (HIV among Gay, Bisexual and Other Men Who Have
Sex with Men) There is no mention of AIDS in the newspaper articles about the
Christopher St. Pier. But there is talk of an amorphous and undefined risk and drug
use. I can't imagine it not being on the minds of the people who want them expelled
from the pier for their own good. There is a distancing of the respectable gay men in
the neighbourhood from the irresponsible kids on the pier. The youth are abject in a
number of ways: through their class, through their race, and through their behaviour,
real and imagined. The city closed the pier for two years, scrubbed clean and newly
refurbished it, turned it into a National Park, but the unwanted kids returned. The youth
have permeated the expanded imagined boundaries of the good, legal, neighbourhood
and are imagined to be criminal, as Sara Ahmed explains that others, those marked as
different and not belonging to the community, often are. The city has focused a lot of
resources on criminal justice for the displaced youth. (Campaigns)
At the same time community advocacy groups for young people of colour like
FIERCE are focusing on incorporating queer youth into the community rather than
having them expelled from it. They have fought to have the curfew extended and have
won the right to provide free queer programming to youth age 13 to 24 during the
summer that include, art nights, movie nights, Wellness Wednesdays, spa days and
classes on how to buy groceries, be healthy and exercise. (Wellness Wednesdays)
While these seem like fine activities one wonders about the appeal of spa days for the
imagined homeless and poor gay youth. It could be seen as a way of policing people
back into expressing their gender with understandable, normative, middle-class
Like gay straight alliances in school the focus of these events is on positive role
models. The young people need to learn ways of keeping themselves safe, be
educated about dangers, and learn to be healthy. The kids who go to the events and
the advocates can be seen as a manifestation of the well adapted sexual minority
youth. The mythos of the positive role model creates a homogeneous and successful
gay/lesbian ideal juxtaposed to which there can only be a failed queer body. Thus, it is


against the positive role model that closeted, queer, ambiguous, and other
nonconforming and resistant bodies are measured and disciplined. (Macintosh, 38)
Both Delany and Foucault claim that institutions are set up to deal with sex, to stop it or
accommodate it, without ever talking about sex. We find this with the need to organize
for gay youth at risk. If there are activities going on (movies, dances, Wellness
Wednesdays) at the pier, and if there are also police, vigilante groups, lights, cameras,
and dogs, there is not going to be sex on the pier. Yet no one is speaking about sex at
all. While there is nothing wrong with providing gay movie nights, one wonders how they
would have fit in to Delany's pier and the community of youth who had sex there. The
discourses around safety are everywhere. Safety for the neighbourhood with the need
for police and floodlights. Safety for the teens with their need for education and planned
activities, such as spa nights, reiki classes, meditation, and lessons in grocery shopping
and 'safer sex'. The policing and the activities are in some ways are two sides of the
same coin. They are attempting, via disciplinary power, to get people to change their
behaviours, self-regulate, become more pleasing and acceptable; or, failing that, to
move away from our sight and disappear into corners mainstream society cannot yet
see or imagine.
Discourses of safety work differently depending on where and when you are
the possibility of personal safety involve forms of self-governance that
differentiate between subjects... Safety for women is often constructed in terms of
not entering public spaces or staying within the home. Safety for men also
involves forms of self-governance, not in terms of refusing to enter the public
space but in terms of how one enters that space. (Ahmed 33)
The scene that struck me the most in The Motion of Light and Water was one where
Delany is about to leave the pier at early dawn. A man who looks exhausted comes over
to him and starts to perform fellatio on him. The man stops and apologizes but says he
is too tired to continue. Delany tells him to stand and he will reciprocate instead. He
does and moments later the man stops Delany says he is too tired and both men go
separately home, happy if exhausted from a series of sexual events that occurred
earlier in the night. I could not tell at first what it was about the passage that affected
me so much. I went back to it several times. Then it hit me. There was no fear of rape.


The discourse of rape was missing. I grew up hearing that if a girl ever stopped in the
middle of a sexual act she was begging to be raped. Female friends who are in their
twenties have told me that this discourse was more prevalent for them than for me. This
story, in my limited imagination and by this narrative I'd learned, could not ever have
happened if there was a woman involved. Had she started to go down on a man and
then admitted she were tired she would have done a horrible thingleading a man on,
starting what she was not prepared to finish. In popular discourse a woman going to the
pier would be one who did not care about her safety; one arriving in any of these scenes
of group sex is going to be raped. If she was raped it would prove she was rapable; if
she wasn't it would prove she was a slut. The narratives I was given, even as I reject
them, limit the imaginable.
Rape is used to define good and bad women, and this affects women differently
depending on where they are located. Because Indian bodies are 'dirty', there are
considered sexually violable and 'rapable', and the rape of bodies that are considered
inherently impure or dirty simply does not count. For instance, prostitutes are almost
never believed when they say they have been raped because the dominant society
considered the bodies of sex workers undeserving of integrity and violable at all times.
(Smith, 10) When women are raped they are considered to have failed to keep
themselves safe. Women's movements are regulated by a desire for 'safe-keeping':
respectability becomes measured by the visible signs of a desire to 'stay-safe.'
(Ahmed, 33) Likewise, many public discussions on AIDS and STI's speak to men who
did not keep themselves safe. It was only by reading accounts in The Motion of Light in
Water of this particular manifestation of public gay sexuality prior to the advent of AIDS,
and free of the discourse of rape that is present in straight sexual discourse, that I saw
how the fear of AIDS and the discourse around disease, with its hidden normalizing
pressure, and the fear of rape each work to regulate sexualities, and blame victims, in
startlingly similar ways. Both discourses speak of sexual irresponsibility; of keeping
oneself safe, avoiding drinking and risk-taking. Both warn against promiscuity, and
define safe sexualities as monogamous sexualities. Both claim that you are safer with
people you know than with strangers. Of course AIDS is a real disease that no one
wants to get; I am not doubting the seriousness of it. Men can be raped and women can


and do get AIDS. However, I feel that the strikingly similar discourses that focus on gay
men and AIDS prevention and raped women's irresponsibility do parallel Foucauldian
self-regulating, self policing work. They currently help define good behaviour against the
bad person in a shifting landscape.


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