Yes, Your Pleasure! Yes, Self-Love! And Don't Forget, Settler Sex is a Structure

Keynote lecture, Second Annual International Solo Polyamory Conference

  
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This talk text was originally posted on The Critical Polyamorist, my largely dormant blog. This platform is mostly for new writing, but I will occasionally migrate previously published work to this site. I’ve edited this post for Substack length restrictions. Portions of this 2018 talk were later published in “Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family” (TallBear in Clarke and Haraway 2018) and in “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming” (TallBear 2019).


Keynote lecture given at the Second Annual International Solo Polyamory Conference (SoloPolyCon18), Seattle, WA, USA, April 14, 2018

During the weekend of April 7-8, 2018, I attended Converge Con in Vancouver, a conference “that originated with a desire to build sex positive communities, and start a dialogue around sexuality, relationships and activism.”[1] I had the honor of being on the closing panel, #MeToo in the Age of Consent, with Erin Tillman, author of The Consent Guidebook, and sex educator, Jimanekia Eborn—both from L.A. The final question posed to our panel was: 

If there was one thing you wanted people to take away this weekend about autonomy, agency, power, and creating a culture of consent, what would that be?

I responded, “Remember your structural analysis.” Settler sexuality—this hetero- and increasingly homonormative compulsory monogamy society tied to settler-colonial ownership of property and Indigenous dispossession—is a structure.

Converge Con was refreshing with so many people comfortably talking unabashedly about sex. There was a separate social space for between-session gabbing; in 2017 there were complaints from “normies” at the hotel about all the sex talk happening in the lobby. At Converge Con, sessions included “Group Sex Demystified,” “Sex Positive Parenting,” “Masturbation for Healing and Creation,” “How Society’s Representation of Beauty…Impacts Sexual Self Expression,” and how to manage sex and relationships when coping with depression. There were many sessions that teach us as individuals, couples, triads, polycules, families, and communities about techniques for liberating ourselves from sex negative and shaming thoughts and behaviors.

I found less emphasis on averting our gazes from our own bodies, individual, family, or community histories to look hard at the settler state and its structures. Those structures not only indoctrinate us with settler ideals, but they have legally and economically enforced certain forms of sex and relationships throughout the existence of these nation states. It is necessary to throw off shame, love one’s self and one’s body, rejuvenate, and practice self-care. Yet a focus on sex positive bodies and relationships vs. a focus on sex negative bodies and relationships is not in and of itself a structural analysis. Focusing on sex and body positivity helps us cultivate the energy to fight systemically. Personal transformation cannot fully occur without societal transformation. The two are co-constitutive—meaning individual and societal change help produce one another. The heteropatriarchal state would prefer we focus our eagle eye on our own shortcomings exclusively, and not its extractive and oppressive structures. 

A Note on Terminology: Settler and Settler Sexuality

Queens University queer theorist, Scott Morgensen, has popularized in academic circles—and this bleeds into Indigenous sexual health circles—the term “settler sexuality.” He defines this succinctly as:

The heteropatriarchal and sexual modernity exemplary of white settler civilization.[2]

If that is too succinct, he has also explained settler sexuality as:

A white national heteronormativity [and increasingly also homonormativity] that regulates Indigenous sexuality and gender by supplanting them with the sexual modernity of settler subjects.[3]

Morgensen’s work and the work of other anthropologists and historians of Euro-American settlement, marriage and monogamy in the US and Canada, show how it was not only Indigenous people that were forced into monogamy and state sanctioned marriage.[4] Those relationship forms were intimately tied to the appropriation of Indigenous collectively held land and its division into individual allotments to be held privately. Men as heads of households qualified for a certain acreage. They obtained more if they had a wife and children. Women were tied to men economically. Accordingly, compulsory monogamy and marriage have been forced on other non-monogamous and sometimes non-Christian communities as well. Thus, settler sexuality can be translated more straightforwardly as both heteronormative and homonormative forms of “love,” “sex,” and marriage that are produced along with private property holding in the US and Canada.

Therefore, when I use the term “settler,” I am not interested in nitpicking who is and is not a “settler” on an individual level. Americans often find the term odd, too polite. On the other hand, Canadians are a bit more accustomed to “settler” and don’t often find it so polite. Some of them seem to have the same reaction to “settler” as they do to being called “white.” But I also know many academics, both white and “visible minorities” who self-identify as settlers. When they do, it is with explicit recognition that their lives in Canada are made possible by settler-colonialism.

There are vibrant conversations in Canada and in the US (although more so among academics in the US) that debate the applicability of the term “settler” and suggest different terms for non-racially privileged, non-Indigenous groups, e.g. African-Americans or non-white or non-Christian immigrants who enter the US or Canada due to conditions of war and violence often due to settler state imperialism abroad. There are no untroubled definitions of “settler” so I focus on settler state power, including its cultural power, which all of its citizens are capable of shoring up. I see non-Indigenous racially disadvantaged citizens as potentially complicit in settler-colonial appropriations of Indigenous (re)sources. And many of us across racial and religious lines have been made complicit in helping uphold settler forms of sex.

Kyle Powys Whyte, a Potawatomi environmental philosopher and activist who teaches at Michigan State explains pithily how the citizenry broadly is involved in ongoing settler-colonialism. In a 2018 article in Yes! Magazine, he wrote:

Whether one participates in settler colonialism is not entirely a matter of when or how one’s ancestors came to the U.S. Having settler privilege means that some combination of one’s economic security, U.S. citizenship, sense of relationship to the land, mental and physical health, cultural integrity, family values, career aspirations, and spiritual lives are not possible—literally!—without the territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples.[5]

Are Non-normative Sexualities also “Settler Sexuality”?

So-called non-normative sexualities and relationship practices, such as polyamory— especially solo polyamory within that—do challenge important settler state cultural restrictions, but they also tend to assume the inevitability of settler-colonial cultural norms and governance structures. They do not sufficiently interrogate Indigenous dispossession for the rise of a private property state. They often simply want to redeem the settler state into a more multicultural and inclusive entity, without asking how even alternative practices of intimate relation uphold settler colonialism.

Margot Weiss, an anthropologist who wrote a book Techniques of Pleasure that examines kink communities in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, shows how they consume expensive sex toys and “play” experiences on their way to personal self-actualization. Weiss highlights gender and race dynamics and power relations in kink communities that are sometimes not so different from mainstream settler sexuality. These patterns of individual identity-making via capitalist consumption, and fairly normative race and gender dynamics rose in concert with settler-colonial nation-building. Weiss also delves a bit into the very interesting history of old guard leather communities in San Francisco that have had more oppositional politics historically, but the focus is on newer more economically privileged kink communities, including tech sector workers.

Scott Morgensen, in his anthropological work in a community of radical faeries and their predominantly white back-to-the-land communities, also shows how even queer sex, including non-monogamy and kink are also often enacted as forms of settler sexuality. Morgensen’s work shows how radical faeries in a rural Oregon community remain conditioned by race hierarchy, and their back-to-the-land ideology is predicated on Indigenous dispossession historically and erasure of Indigenous presence today.

Morgensen discusses how queer claims too are conditioned by settler colonialism. He also pays close attention to Indigenous two-spirit activism and theorizing and their focus on People or tribal-specific knowledges about sexualities, relations, and relationships. The term “two-Spirit" gestures toward precolonial gender systems not based on the European sex/gender binary that concerned colonizers and which now concerns queer thinkers. If you don’t know the history of the term two-spirit, which is in wide use today, it came into common use in 1990 in Winnipeg at the International Gathering of American Indian and First Nations Gays and Lesbians.[6] As opposed to “coming out,” an important aspect of two-spirit thought is the idea of “coming in” to community to take up special roles designated for gender diverse individuals within the extended kinship webs of Indigenous communities historically. Or at least that is the ideal. Two-spirit people have struggled in Indigenous communities too with homophobia produced of colonial violence.  

In my Critical Polyamorist blog, I’ve written about the disproportionate influence that heteronormative couple privilege and associated hierarchies have in polynormative communities. My frustration with that mode of polyamory is explained in my critiques of how it remains very much a form of settler sexuality. More rule-bound and couple-centric forms of polyamory privilege the married, cohabiting, child-sharing couple as “primary,” with additional relationships being “secondary.” This replicates key conditions of monogamy that I find politically and ethically difficult. In short, it is not only vanilla monogamists who uphold settler-colonialism with their intimate practices linked to property, consumption, couple and marriage privilege.

Within open nonmonogamy, I push for analyses that help us envision ways of relating beyond such normative arrangements and also beyond Western notions of romantic “love” conditioned—whether we know it or not—by capitalism’s coercive power. I don’t want Hallmark and Nestlé telling me when and how I need to show my love while also giving those companies my money to evangelize normative relations and unsustainably extract resources.

SoloPolyamory and Being in “Good Relation”

I am here with all of you at SoloPolyCon because I see more potential in solo polyamory for challenging the assumptions of settler states. I’ve considered too the potential for my focus on being in good relation—my particular Indigenous standpoint—to be in conflict with the ethic of autonomy and non-hierarchy that is a mark of solo polyamory. But then I remembered a photo that one of you posted on Facebook during last year’s conference. (I was sick and had to Skype in from Edmonton.) The photo showed a half dozen SoloPolyCon attendees hanging out at the beach. They were each standing apart, scattered along the beach like differently contoured and colored stones. And I remember the photo was captioned “Alone together.” The image looked so appealing, just the kind of community that would understand me and that might be able to be articulated with the idea of being in good relation that is taken up with renewed commitment by Indigenous peoples across North America these days. I cannot emphasize how much Indigenous thinkers inside and outside the academy are focusing on “Indigenous relationality,” an umbrella term used to help us think beyond race, the nation state, biology, and other settler conceptual impositions.

Taking the “solo polyamory” explanation from our Facebook page:

People who practice solo polyamory have lots of kinds of honest, mutually consensual nonexclusive relationships (from casual and brief to long-lasting and deeply committed). But generally, what makes us solo is the way we value and prioritize our autonomy. We do not have (and many of us don't want or aren't actively seeking) a conventional primary/nesting-style relationship: sharing a household & finances, identifying strongly as a couple/triad, etc.[7]

How do I see that as being articulated with the idea of Indigenous relationality? Autonomy from compulsory monogamy or even the nonmonogamous hierarchical couple need not be defined as “single.” Solo polyamory for me is a de-escalation from the couple. For me and others it is a refusal to get on the escalator (again). But it can simultaneously also lend itself to living in extended relation and disrupting commonly accepted relationship categories. Many of us work to build networks of made kin as essential support systems, and with more fluid boundaries. And many of us do this under settler structural duress. It’s just that most solopoly people probably don’t name the challenges they face as settler-colonialism.

I’ve written and talked elsewhere about my Dakota ancestors’ practices of relating and their “sexualities” as we call it today (TallBear 2018). Before settler-imposed monogamy, marriage helped to forge important Dakota kinship alliances, but divorce for both men and women was possible. Women also owned household property. They were not tied to men economically in the harsh way of settler marriage. More than two genders were recognized, and there was an element of flexibility in gender identification. People we might call “genderqueer” today also entered into “traditional” Dakota marriages with partners who might be what we today consider “cisgendered.” In a world before settler colonialism—outside of the particular biosocial assemblages that now structure settler notions of “gender,” “sex,” and “sexuality,” persons and the intimacies between them were no doubt worked quite differently. In thinking about “sex,” how did my ancestors share touch as a form of care, relating, and connection before the imposition of settler structures of sexuality and family? There is much that has been lost due to forced conversions to Christianity and the sexual shaming that came with that. And so much of settler sexuality has been imposed onto Indigenous peoples in place of our ancestors’ practices, both heteronormative and now also “queer” settler sexuality. But in a world before settler colonialism and its notions of “gender,” “sex,” and “sexuality,” persons and the intimacies between them were no doubt worked quite differently.

Yet we Dakota continue to live in a way that embodies in our 21st-century loves, long-held kinship structures. Many of us continue to live in extended family where the legally married couple is not central, where children are raised in community, and where households often spill over beyond nuclear family and across generations. Can we not then also imagine sexual intimacies outside of settler family structures? I know we already have them. Can we name and measure them without using settler sex and family forms as reference points?

It is also important in unsettling settler sex and family to mine historical and language archives in order to know more about what kinds of relations were possible before settler-colonial impositions, including nonmonogamous relationships that were common in Dakota and other Indigenous cultures. This suggestion will be met with resistance by some Indigenous people. Our sexual shaming and victimization has been extreme at the hands of missionaries, in residential schools, and by government agents who all wielded violent control over Indigenous lives. There are still many of us unrecovered from the shaming of Christian sexual mores, and supposedly secular state institutions that continue to monitor, measure, and pathologize our bodies and our peoples.

That said, I am beginning to hear from younger Indigenous people either via comments on my blog or when I give lectures at universities, that they would like to embrace open and honest nonmonogamy. But in addition to a shortage of willing Indigenous partners, they worry about the judgement of their elders who are still immersed in values that younger people see as a holdover of residential schools and the church. One Indigenous undergraduate asked me what my elders think of my nonmonogamy. I remember exactly how I responded:

I don’t know what they think. They don’t say anything to me, and I’m pretty open on Facebook, and on my Critical Polyamorist blog. But I’m almost 50, and at 55 I'll get a senior discount at businesses on my reservation. I’m almost an elder myself! I also earn my own money and I’m an academic. With that comes more freedom than most people have. So I’m not really worried about what people think. But I know you do have to worry. I try to make space for others so someday they will have the choices that I have.

Writing and speaking this talk is to make just a little more space.

Yet in our lives as Indigenous people, we already unsettle settler relations in courageous ways. Think about work that Indigenous people do to defend the earth in order to have a chance at (re)constituting good relations with our other-than-human relatives. I think of the resistance to resource extraction that particularly Indigenous women and two-spirit people have organized via #IdleNoMore and #NoDAPL, sometimes at great personal risk. These are both movements that link the defense of Indigenous treaty rights to defense of the planet, which is a way of also caring for our human descendants to come. In terms of that idea of being in good relation, I consistently compare “environmental” caretaking to caretaking human relations. Accordingly, decolonizing sex is one way of re-constituting good relations with some of our human relatives. Of course I use “relative” broadly since “we are all related.” 

I will be paying close attention the rest of the weekend at this conference to notice potential articulations between solo polyamory and forms of Indigenous thought and practice related to sex and relationships.

Disaggregating “Sex,” Reaggregating Relations: The Example of Moreakamem

I want to dig just a bit deeper into the theory behind being in good relation by providing one more example of “non-normative sexuality” (by settler standards) among an Indigenous people in Sonora, Mexico. My friend, David Shorter, an Indigenous Studies scholar at UCLA, wrote an essay entitled simply, “Sexuality.”[8] That essay resulted from time Shorter spent with moreakamem—healers or seers among the Yoeme. Being also a religious studies scholar, he had originally set out to understand the “spiritual” aspects of moreakamem as healers. But his analysis came to entangle “sexuality” with “spirituality.”

Among the southern Yoeme in Sonora, an elder told Shorter that individuals who engage in nonmonogamous and/or non-heterosexual relationships are often also moreakamem. In fact, in northern Yoeme communities in Arizona, moreakame has come to be conflated with terms such as “gay,” “lesbian,” or “two-spirit,” and other less positive terms. The healer aspect of the word has been lost for US-based Yoeme who have much ethnic overlap with “Catholic Mexican American” communities. 

Among southern Yoeme, Shorter found that he could not understand the powerful “spiritual” roles in community of moreakamem without also understanding their so-called sexuality. He explains that in many Indigenous contexts, there is an “interconnectedness in all aspects of life.” Following the connections between sex and spirit among the Yoeme was akin to “following a strand of a spider’s web.” Shorter sees both sexuality and spirituality as sets of relations through which power is acquired and exchanged between persons or entities. So when he writes about moreakamem, he emphasizes their focus on relating and their relational sharing of power with those who seek healing, with deities and spirits, etc. The moreakamem have reciprocity with and receive power in their encounters with spirits, ancestors, dreams, animals. And also in the human realm when they use their power to see for and heal other humans suffering from love or money problems, addictions, and other afflictions of mind and body.

But moreakamem refuse to accentuate their personal characteristics and capacities. They do not focus on their own so-called sexuality or even their power to heal. Rather, they focus on their work in community. Shorter explains that these healers work tirelessly and selflessly to maintain right relations.”[9] And he too refuses to classify Moreakamem as gay or nonmonogamous.

Shorter also encourages his readers to de-objectify. That is, we should try not to think of sexuality, spirituality (and nature too) as things at all. This is difficult: In a settler framework—whether in bed or in ceremony—relations get appropriated if you will and made into “things.” They get named or objectified as “sex” or “spirituality.” David Shorter asks us to see that what settler culture turns into objects are actually sets of relations in which power (and sustenance?) circulate.

I would add that our relations then become resources for the settler state to measure, monitor, and exploit to in complex ways build settler knowledge and national identity. This is why I think we can decolonize and restore better relations if we de-objectify them. A practical outcome of this shift in thought is that if we resist hardening relations between persons (human, nonhuman, or spirit) into objects, we might be better attuned to relating justly in practice, and we might reclaim our relational “resources.” We might attend to being in good relation and what that requires; we might resist having our relating both stifled and remade by less flexible “natures” and hierarchies. Therefore, It is not only for moreakamem, but for all of us that “sexuality” can be understood as a form of reciprocity and power exchange”—a way of being that “mediates social relations across the family, clan, pueblo, tribe,” etc. We exist not simply in nature, but we exist in relation to one another. With this understanding of sexuality, it begins to look as Shorter writes, “more like a type of power, particularly one capable of healing” and transforming.”[10]

Think of that co-constitution and re-constitution of our sexualities if we are polyamorous—the multiple, diverse sets of relations, power exchange, and subjectivities that result from multiple relating. I leave you with a powerful quote by David Shorter (2015, 487):

Sexuality is not “like” power…sexuality is a form of power: and, of the forms of power, sexuality in particular might prove uniquely efficacious in both individual and collective healing. Further, I will suggest that sexuality’s power might be forceful enough to soothe the pains of colonization and the scars of internal colonization.

Radical Hope

Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz expresses two powerful ideas that have been helpful to me. In a September 14, 2017 interview with Krista Tippett of the On Being podcast, Díaz explained that in this moment of crisis—and always—it is imperative that critical thinkers be “misaligned with the emotional baseline” of mainstream society. He also explained his notion of “radical hope,” his trust that “from the bottom [meaning those not in power] will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible.”

I see that emotional baseline as dreaming of a progressive settler state. Tippet, the interviewer, recounted Díaz ’s idea that “all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also have…radical hope. Talk about what that is…” she said. Díaz responded:

I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.

I have radical hope that settler relations based on violent hierarchies and concepts of property do not have to be all there is. This crisis or transition time in the US and globally, offers an opportunity to cease cultivating a misplaced love for the state that insists on dreams of progress toward a never-arriving future of tolerance and good that paradoxically requires ongoing genocidal violence. The path toward the supposed democratic promised land of settler mythology is in everyday life a nightmare for many around the globe. We require another narrative path to guide us. Indigenous people are proposing a relational web framework that is more about here and now, not about when. We have an opportunity, if we choose to see it that way, to be misaligned with the emotional, intellectual, and (un)ethical baseline and narrative of those who hold power. We can have radical hope in a narrative that entails not redeeming the state, but caring for one another as relations. How do we live well here together? The state has and will continue to fail to help us do that.

I leave you with an inspirational quote from an Indigenous thinker who is misaligned with the emotional baseline of settler sexuality. At Converge Con, I interviewed Janet Rogers for the Media Indigena podcast I do every other week. Rogers is a poet and performance artist who is Mohawk and wrote the book Red Erotic (2010). I mentioned to her at Converge Con that I felt like non-Indigenous people there were more respectful and less invasive with their questions and assumptions about my Indigenous perspective than is usually the case when I am in largely non-Indigenous space. I thought their focus on consent culture might have a lot to do with their respectful behavior.

Here is what she had to say:

I’m … coming to the realization that the sensitivity, the consideration, the education, the awareness, the “awokeness”—if you will—within the sex positive community overflows into that awareness, sensitivity…into how those communities are relating to Indigenous people….Your practice and understanding of your own sexuality overflows into the rest of your life. That’s where it begins!...If you’ve got that resolved in the bedroom…all of that empowerment, all of that positivity is going to overflow in other areas of your life.

I take her advice to heart. I am trying to get it right in the bedroom so I can get it right in the rest of my life. I think you are too.
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Acknowledgement: Thanks to all of the people at Converge Con 2018 in Vancouver who I had the pleasure of thinking with over the weekend of April 7-8, 2018. Their sex positivity work fertilized this keynote that I gave the following weekend in Seattle.

Notes
[1]http://www.convergecon.ca/about/.
[2] Scott L. Morgensen . The Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011: 23.
[3] Scott Lauria Morgensen. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16(1-2) (2010), 106
[4] Katherine Franke. Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Inequality (New York: NYU Press, 2015). Also see Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) and Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press 2008).
[5] http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/decolonize/white-allies-lets-be-honest-about-decolonization-20180403.
[6] Morgensen 2011, 81.
[7] For more on solo polyamory, check out these two-oft read articles. Aggiesez. “What is Solo Polyamory? My Take.” SOLOPOLY: Life, Relationships, and Dating as a Free Agent. December 5, 2014. Available at: https://solopoly.net/2014/12/05/what-is-solo-polyamory-my-take/. And Elisabeth A. Sheff. “Solo Polyamory, Singleish, Single & Poly.” Pyschology Today. October 14, 2013. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/201310/solo-polyamory-singleish-single-poly
[8] David Delgado Shorter (2015). Sexuality. In The World of Indigenous North America. Robert Warrior (ed.). New York and London: Routledge: 487-505.
[9] Shorter 2015, 490 and 497.
[10] Shorter 2015, 497-8.

Additional Sources

Kim TallBear. “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming.” Kalfou, Vol. 6(1), 2019: 24-41.

Kim TallBear. “Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family.” In Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway, eds. Making Kin, Not Population. Toward Feminist STS Pro-Kin and Non-Natalist Politics of Population and Environment. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2018.