• Sex, Freedom, Cruising, and Consent: A Conversation with Garth Greenwell

    Andrew Sciallo Talks to the Author of What Belongs to You and Cleanness About Queer Spaces (and the Awakenings Therein)

    I sat down with the bestselling author of What Belongs to You and Cleanness, Garth Greenwell last year, after the release of the new anthology of sexy short stories, Kink, which Greenwell co-edited with R.O. Kwon. Since our conversation, which often touched on the importance of queer spaces, an increasing number of those very same spaces are now at risk of disappearing. This painfully and ironically reinforced the argument that Greenwell made throughout our talk: that there is a need and a value for such spaces existing. I would like to thank Garth Greenwell for taking the time to help me transcribe this conversation which has been slightly edited for clarity.


    Andrew Sciallo: In your first book, the main character goes to the National Palace of Culture in Bulgaria to cruise. And I’m just wondering, what kind of research did you embark on, in terms of the historical context of cruising? And what did you learn about cruising in the west, more generally?

    Garth Greenwell: Oh, well, I didn’t do any academic research. Cruising has been part of my life since I was 14, and it was central to how I came into my identity as a queer person. Certainly to how I accessed any of the positive effects available to queerness, like community and pleasure and joy and friendship, all of that came through cruising. And then, I’ve talked before about the fact that one of the sparks for What Belongs to You was discovering that place you mention, the bathrooms underneath the National Palace. It was interesting for me to learn about the history and the context of cruising in Eastern Europe.

    You know, sometimes we talk about Eastern Europe as though it is this homogeneous bloc, but it’s absolutely not. Queer life in Prague, for instance, was radically different from queer life in Soviet times—it’s still radically different, but certainly in Communist times.

    And so, unlike places like East Berlin, in Sofia—this is what gay men have told me who lived in this time—there were no queer spaces, not even underground clubs. And so the only place that gay men could meet each other was in public toilets, and there did develop a kind of community around these public toilets. So that I think is a distinct history from the west.

    But what fascinates me about cruising is thinking of it as both historically situated and specific, and then also, in weird ways, as a kind of transhistorical, transcultural phenomenon. The thing that was so fascinating to me about cruising in Sofia was that it was an experience of fluency in a place where I had no other access to fluency. The codes of cruising were, if not identical, similar enough to those I knew from the States that I could communicate much more fully in this bathroom than I could on the streets.

    AS: Yeah, and you mentioned that it brought out a lot of pleasure and joy for you. But I’m wondering about those times where it brought up the opposite. I’m wondering if there were times you felt like cruising was dangerous, or that this underground system didn’t have the sort of protections and guardrails that straight people have when they go and meet someone at a bar, or somewhere in public. Did the fact that it was hidden create an element of danger, do you think?

    GG: Well, I certainly think it potentially does. I mean, first of all, I think a lot of those handrails and guardrails are illusory, or they don’t bear up to a lot of pressure. I don’t think any experience of Eros is going to be risk-free. Cruising spaces can definitely be dangerous spaces.

    I think that there are certain kinds of lives, certain kinds of sociality, certain kinds of affectivities, certain kinds of pleasure, that are not generated under the banner of safety.

    You know, the way that I discovered the first place I cruised, which was a park in Louisville, was that a man was murdered there. That filled the news for a few days, and that was how I found out that there was a place where men went to have sex. I had no idea about that before. So that specter of violence was there.

    But also, you know, thinking about guardrails, I find that there are guardrails in cruising. Actually there is a pretty firm code, and there are rules that bind your actions. It’s true that they can be criminal spaces—like I was robbed in Sofia at one point in a cruising encounter, and certainly people can be assaulted.

    But I don’t know, I guess maybe also as a queer person growing up in the South in the early 90s, the park felt to me often less dangerous than other spaces, because if there was trouble in the park—I’m thinking especially of the park where I grew up—there were people around you. You know, I was very young, but I would tell people that I was 18. I wonder if anyone believed that I was 18! But as a very young person, I did feel protected.

    I remember once I was approached by a man in a car, and immediately this older man was at my side deflecting me away. And it was because the guy was an undercover cop. So I mean, I did feel a lot of solidarity in those spaces. And then I guess there are other ways we might think that they were unsafe, in the sense that in the early 90s, when I was cruising, the kinds of negotiations that happened were very much not things that we would recognize now as affirmative consent.

    And I was very young. I certainly had experiences that I didn’t particularly enjoy. But I feel like cruising, among all the other things it was, was a kind of training in resilience, and I feel grateful for that. I learned something that I continue to value for myself—and this is not something I would want to say categorically is a social value that everyone should engage with, but for myself, there was a kind of education that could happen in those spaces that was beyond what I could affirmatively consent to.

    AS: And when you say that, how valuable that was to you, you’re talking about specifically the act of cruising? Or the relationship between you being younger and the other person being older?

    GG: Well, the act of cruising, but yes, also the fact that I was there, so that was my sexual education, as opposed to what I think of as a typical heterosexual education, where there are these sort of guardrails that you were talking about. I mean, I don’t know what a typical heterosexual education is, exactly, but I certainly did not have it. I’m grateful for the kind of education I was able to receive outside of those guardrails.

    AS: Right. I mean, we know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that men in our culture at large are not really taught about respecting the boundaries of other people, or learning about the boundaries of themselves. And so I’m wondering, do you believe that gay men are taught adequately about boundaries, as opposed to straight men? Or do you think it’s all the same? Between straight men and gay men?

    GG: I don’t really feel like I have authority to speak to that. Obviously, being gay and 14 today is going to be a very different experience, at least in some places, than it was for me being gay and 14 in Kentucky in 1992. I guess what I would say is—well, this is where I want to be very careful and acknowledge my ambivalence. Because on one hand, there’s what one thinks of as an aspect of what we call toxic masculinity, right? This idea that boundaries aren’t really real, that it’s all a question either of persuasion or of force, you know, to get past boundaries. That is clearly a toxic idea.

    I believe a lot in respecting other people’s sovereignty. And I am not anti-affirmative consent. But at the same time, I think that Eros is something that resists boundaries, and that a lot of what we value in Eros is precisely the way that it resists boundaries.

    If we can take an experimental approach to our own pleasure, we can make discoveries about ourselves and about each other.

    A lot of what I value in my education in cruising was that, as a white kid growing up in a very racist place, my whole life, my whole world was organized to keep me from having intimate and affective encounters with whole classes of people. And cruising disrespected those boundaries in a way that I feel hugely grateful for.

    There is a kind of experience, a kind of education, a kind of sociality, that I think is available when one’s organizing principle is not boundaries, when the fundamental question of how are we going to structure this affective, sexual engagement is not, Where are my boundaries? Where are the lines you cannot cross? There is a kind of affectivity, a kind of sociality, that I experienced, that would have been impossible if my governing sense of myself and my sexuality was that there were boundaries that had to be respected. I discovered so many things that are central to my sense of my own pleasure because people pushed me to do things that, had they said, Do you want this to happen to you?, I would not have said yes.

    There’s obviously a point—like the point of unconsensual violence, the point of coercion—there’s obviously a point where I think we are right to criminalize certain kinds of sexual behavior. But I do feel—and again, I’m talking about my own particular case—I do feel grateful that my sexual education did not happen under the sign of boundaries and under the sign of safety.

    I mean, there was a way that in my erotic education, safety was not on offer. I mean, I assumed that if I had sex, I was going to die of AIDS. That was the bargain: experiencing this kind of sociality, this kind of affectivity meant giving up on a certain idea of futurity. That was built into my experience of desire.

    So, the question of safety, you know—in some sense, one had to give that up to enter the very space. That is not something I would wish for young people today. But I also think that pernicious things can enter, against our desire or our will, under the banner of safety. I think that there are certain kinds of lives, certain kinds of sociality, certain kinds of affectivities, certain kinds of pleasure, that are not generated under the banner of safety. And again, while I would not want to make the kind of sexual education I had paradigmatic for everyone, and certainly not required for everyone, I do think there are valuable forms of life that are excluded if safety is our primary concern.

    AS: One of the most significant relationships in What Belongs to You is the main character’s relationship to their father, and you paint such a complicated and rich dynamic there that is later reflected back within the romantic relationship of Mitko. I’m wondering how significant you believe our father’s upbringings are when it comes to our own sexual and romantic relationships for gay men.

    GG: I mean, yeah, I think that’s important! You know, some reviewers really slammed the middle section of What Belongs to You and said, Oh, this is just boring Freudianism. And I was like, well, if what you mean by Freudianism is just the idea that our parents have big impacts on our lives, like—I guess I’m guilty.

    I do think that our sense of what is possible is set by the example of our parents. That’s not to say that it’s set in stone, that nothing can change. I think in my case, my sense of what is possible in life is very different now from what it was when I was 10 or 12.

    But of course I think that’s formative. And of course I think that is a part of the conversation one has in sex throughout one’s whole life. And again, I wouldn’t really know how to speak authoritatively to how the dynamics of that are different for gay men, or for straight men, or for straight women or gay women.

    I guess I take it for granted that our first experience of intimacy, our first experience of love—or the potential for love, or the desire for love—involves these parents to whom we are absolutely vulnerable. Like, the condition of our entering into existence is our absolute vulnerability to them. I think, of course that’s going to color and qualify what we desire, what we find pleasurable, what we fear, all of those dynamics that we act out in sex.

    AS: You said recently at a Center for Fiction event that when we start defining what is queer and what isn’t, that we have fallen into straight logic. Can you explain a little bit more about what straight logic means to you?

    GG: Well, you know, I think I was probably being a little flippant. If I’m really thinking in a responsible way, I don’t want to use these categories that I do think fundamentally essentialize. I don’t want to suggest that straight people all think alike! The point I was making was that, like, I’m not interested in defining what queerness is, even as I insist on it as something that is real and deeply important to me, and to the way that I move through the world and exist as a social being, and also maybe especially to the way that I make art. And also that, to me, the defining feature of queerness is its resistance to definitions and its resistance to drawing lines that say in or out.

    Queer culture has always been accommodating of wonderful discontinuity and incongruity of spaces. And so we should celebrate both.

    In part I was playing off Carolyn Dinshaw’s own work, where she thinks about things like what is straight hermeneutics, what is queer hermeneutics, what is reading like a man, what is reading like a woman. And the understanding is that by all of these categories, she does not mean essential facts in the world, but instead cultural constructions. And so, under that cultural construction understanding of what we might think of as the logic of compulsory heterosexuality—so not an essence of people who are attracted to members of the opposite sex, but this kind of cultural regime that understands the world in terms of a kind of heterosexual affective economy—that that world does depend on clear definitions. It does depend on being able to say, with certainty, what is a man, what is a woman, what counts as a sexual relationship. It has a lot invested in how those sexual relationships are organized, and which kinds of sexual relationships are legitimate and which kinds are not legitimate.

    What I want to valorize as exciting in queerness pushes back against all of that. You know, I teach a whole seminar on queer aesthetics. And one of the challenges of that seminar is, how can I teach this in a way that queerness is a meaningful thing to think with, without ever saying, like, the necessary and sufficient definition of queerness are XYZ—without that kind of respectable definition of queerness?

    Because I think the minute we start trying to define queerness, in those terms, we’ve lost the game. There’s a way that we’ve sort of abdicated queerness itself in favor of some value that can be legible, that can be read and recognized by a mainstream culture—by that quote/unquote straight culture.

    This is getting into questions of respectability politics, too. Because what is valuable to me as an artist in queerness, and also as a human being, much of what is valuable requires that that value not be legible to a mainstream culture. It requires a willingness to not be respectable, to not be valued in a certain way by a mainstream culture. And that’s hard. That can be a very painful situation.

    But the minute we try to make that value legible, to say, here are the things that queerness is, that queerness can offer, we are just commodifying ourselves. And of course, in capitalism, being commodified is how you know you’re loved. So it’s very painful, to seek forms of cultural expression that escape commodification or push back against commodification, because it is embracing the abject position of the unloved.

    AS: And do you think, as queer people, we ever really get rid of our straight logic, if we’re growing up in this hetero society? I’m thinking about the top and bottom binary in the gay community, and how we fit into these certain gendered roles? I’m wondering, is that something that is straight logic, something that a queer person can ever fully rid themselves of completely?

    GG: I guess I feel like that shouldn’t be the goal. This is one of the big questions that I that I’ve tried to explore in my work. Because that idea of “getting rid of” suggests there is some state of cleanness, or purity, or originality or like, our “pure selves,” that we could get back to. I think that’s a really dangerous belief, a really destructive belief. Because then you start saying, Oh, what are the parts of me that are tainted by straightness, and how do I burn those parts out? And I think that just leads us into repression, and into this fantasy of purity or originality that just doesn’t exist.

    I mean, as we are making ourselves, as children, we only have access to what surrounds us, and if what surrounds us is homophobia, then that’s what we make ourselves out of. There’s nothing underneath that, you keep peeling back the onion, and, you know, you end up with nothing, you end up with discarded skins. So the question is, instead of saying, can we get rid of it, can we instead ask, what can we do with it that allows it to be productive, and not just something that we feel oppressed or repressed by? And you know, I think queer people are really geniuses at this, that queer culture has a lot of genius in this respect.

    If you are filtering out for a particular body type, a particular age, a particular race, or whatever attribute, you are presuming a kind of knowledge of your own desires that I think is radically damaging.

    So, say your sexual pleasure is bound up with an exclusive identity of being a bottom or being a top. Though you know, I think you said something about those being gendered roles, and I think they can really scramble gender. You can have dom masc bottoms and femme sub tops, and that’s already a way of playing with these categories that I think breaks up that potentially devastating heterosexual logic in a way that can make it playful, make it productive, make it performative.

    The last thing I would ever want is for gay men to increase our anxiety by saying, Oh God, I’m reinforcing the gender binary, because I only want to get fucked. I don’t think anything productive comes from that kind of anxiety or shame or guilt, or sense of false consciousness, or whatever.

    But if we can say, Ok, this pleasure opens up a realm of possibilities, and then I take a kind of experimental approach to my own desire—which again, this is an attitude towards desire that makes consent a difficult concept to think about fully. But if I take an experimental approach to my own pleasure and desire, what possibilities are there?

    This is kind of like Foucault’s late interviews, which I find really inspiring, but what potentially liberating possibilities are available, even within the bounds set by this pleasure that was necessarily constructed along the terms that oppress me? I think this is one of the great gifts sex can give us as a form of thinking, that sort of pleasure. If we can take an experimental approach to our own pleasure, we can make discoveries about ourselves and about each other.

    AS: I’m also wondering what your thoughts are on Grindr? Do you see that as the predominant mode of community that we have in the post AIDS era?

    GG: Well, maybe for some people it is. I mean, I have obviously ambivalent thoughts about Grindr. It didn’t exist when I left for Bulgaria. And when I was in Bulgaria, I was hearing these things about it, or I would see something on the internet and be like, what is that? And I remember the first time I came back to America, I was like, I want to see what this is. And I downloaded it looked at, and I was like, what? [Laughs.]

    But now of course, it’s super popular in Bulgaria, like it’s popular everywhere. And in a place like Bulgaria, internet sociality more generally, and Grindr in particular, these are extraordinarily helpful resources. Even in places like New York, I think they are potentially extraordinarily helpful. Like, HIV disclosure is so much easier on Grindr than it sometimes is in real life. All of those things are positives. For queers in rural spaces, the fact that you can see a bunch of gay guys in a 50-mile radius or whatever, that’s an extraordinary resource to have for sociality. So big thumbs up to that.

    On the other hand, I do think that there are real dangers in Grindr—and not just Grindr, but any kind of internet cruising—in large part because of search filters. If you are filtering out for a particular body type, a particular age, a particular race, or whatever attribute, you are presuming a kind of knowledge of your own desires that I think is radically damaging to the educative potential of desire. I think it is very hard to be surprised by your own desire if you have put 20 search filters on to only show you a very minor sliver of possible humanness.

    Something that I really value in physical cruising, and I’ve talked and written about this, is the way in which someone who maybe I would have filtered out of my Grindr profiles—for being too short or too old or too effeminate or too whatever—the way that the sound of their voice, or the way that they smell or the way that they move, any of those things might spark desire for me in actual physical space. That I think is thrilling, to find pleasure in unexpected places. That is one of the great ways that desire can educate us.

    I feel grateful that so much of my education happened in spaces of that kind of permissiveness, where the value of unexpected pleasure was seen as greater then the danger of non-catastrophic, unpleasant experience.

    And this gets back again to what for me is the potentially troubling aspect of organizing our sexualities around boundaries. Because if our primary concern is not to have an unpleasant experience—and again, nonconsensual violence is obviously a line that should not be crossed, that should not be on the table as something that might just happen to you… So I’m not talking about that. But an experience that is unpleasant, an experience that makes you uncomfortable, an experience that you don’t enjoy—you know, a bad sexual experience. If avoiding that is our governing rubric, then I just worry we are closing ourselves off to an awful lot of possibility, an awful lot of the world.

    Like, you know, if you go to a backroom, if you go to a physical cruising space, then this question of consent is really complicated. Because if you go into a backroom of a bar and someone grabs your crotch, I would not immediately—and again, I don’t want to invalidate anyone else’s experience, but to me, while I might not have wanted that to happen, in the sense of that particular person grabbing my crotch at that particular moment, it would not make sense to me to think of that as a violation, because you are in a space of permissiveness.

    Now, if somebody punched me in the face, or penetrated me while I was telling them to stop, that, I think, would be a real violation, and should have consequences. But the kind of exploratory sociality that is part of backrooms, like being touched… Again, I feel grateful that so much of my education happened in spaces of that kind of permissiveness, where the value of unexpected pleasure was seen as greater then the danger of non-catastrophic, unpleasant experience. That space of permissiveness allows for a kind of discovery.

    Again, clearly there are lines and boundaries, but the idea that non-catastrophic, unpleasant experience is a price that we’re willing to pay for the kind of pleasure and education and sociality that can occur in spaces of permissiveness. I would just like to see more of an argument being made for the value of such spaces existing. Not that everyone should live in them, not that our workplaces should be like that. But that there should be that there is value to such places being available to us when we want to.

    AS: It baffles me, because I totally see what you’re saying, I just feel like we’re on a completely different page from the mainstream straight world, in which the #MeToo movement has dominated everything and we’re looking at straight men’s behavior towards women. I’m puzzled by the paradox of like, if a woman was walking in a bar and somebody grabbed her crotch or her breast, that’s a violation. But for gay men, it seems like that those kinds of boundary crossings are a part of the world that you decide to enter. It’s interesting to see how radically different the two are, you know what I mean?

    GG: I think they are genuinely, radically different. I don’t think there’s millennia of structural gendered violence at work in an all-male context. I guess what I would really want to argue for is the desirability of heterogeneous places. I think there are plenty of gay bars, that if you walked into them it is clearly understood that it would be radically inappropriate for anybody to grab anyone’s crotch without permission, or to grab someone’s crotch in public; I think there are lots of gay spaces where those kinds of social rules adhere. And I think it’s great that there are those places.

    And then I think there are certain kinds of bars, or certain kinds of backrooms in bars—and usually, they are places that do have some kind of boundary or border you have to cross to enter. Today, there might be a few places in America where this isn’t true, but usually, I think it would be much more likely in a backroom than in the main room of a gay bar, where a stranger would grab your crotch.

    AS: Right, right.

    GG: But I want to argue for the value of those spaces existing as well. I would want to argue—again, with the understanding that there are lots of places for gay men to meet gay men, where nobody’s going to grab anyone’s crotch—that the kind of sociality that is possible in that atmosphere of permissiveness is really valuable. I would want to argue for places like that being able to exist.

    And again, no one should be constrained to go there. It should not be a condition of employment, it should not be a condition of membership in an institution or being a student somewhere, it absolutely should not be constrained. But that it should be possible, and so should the forms of life that flourish in that kind of permissiveness.

    We should not pretend that it is only progress, or only gain, to create a world in which nobody is in danger of having their crotch grabbed. It is not only gain, it is not only progress, and we should be able to hold both things in mind: both that there are important values that are affirmed in a kind of sociality that makes it impossible to grab the crotch of a stranger, and also that there are kinds of values that are rendered impossible in such spaces. And again, we don’t have to choose.

    Queer culture has always been accommodating of wonderful discontinuity and incongruity of spaces. And so we should celebrate both—but we shouldn’t pretend that there was nothing of value in these spaces that now have become difficult to defend, or in things like cross-generational relationships in gay male contexts. Even as it’s important that we acknowledge the dangers of those relationships, the potential for abuse within those relationships, we should not pretend that they did not have value, or that we are not losing something of real value if we make them impossible.

    AS: Yeah, I definitely see the value there. I guess I can’t help but think it’s the larger culture thinking that, you know, men are always horny, so men always want it, that kind of thing. Whereas with women, there’s this sanctity and protection we assign to them.

    And I feel like when it comes to those kinds of older and younger gay male relationships, as we see in Call Me By Your Name, or Edinburgh, where, you know, somebody is under 18, it gets praised. But then, on the other hand, I wonder if that was a woman who was 17, would it be celebrated the same way in this era? I’m fascinated by that distinction in our culture.

    GG: Yeah, well, I think it also depends on where and when you are, you know. Because there are plenty of places in the world—and also plenty of places in the United States, certainly until very recently—where 17-year-olds are seen as being able to fully consent.

    AS: Right, right.

    GG: And we also need to recognize that age of consent laws are really problematic things. We need to be able to recognize that, and the ways in which they have been weaponized against queer people and against people of color, especially Black men.

    We need to recognize at once the necessity of them—because I do think it makes sense to enshrine in law a point below which we think people are not able to consent—and also to recognize the arbitrariness and absurdity of saying something magical happens on the day that someone turns whatever the arbitrary age is, that there is something magical that happens that allows them to consent.

    But then, I guess I would also say that both sides of the sort of heterosexual equation you’ve just articulated—that men are these constantly horny sex fiends and women are these infinitely fragile things waiting to be violated that have to be protected—both of those attitudes are horrible! Both of those attitudes are utterly unaccommodating of the reality of human complexity. I don’t want either of those attitudes to govern my life.

    So I guess I would say I don’t want to think about what kinds of social forms I should value in the light of these ideas that I think are fundamentally homophobic and misogynistic, and that are wrong about human beings. I just don’t want them to have any bearing on the kinds of sociality that are possible in the worlds in which I exist.

    Andrew Sciallo
    Andrew Sciallo
    Andrew Sciallo has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from The New School, and now works as freelance journalist and content creator. His writing has appeared in Dumbo Living, where he served as editor in chief, Backstage, Ruxwood Journal, and Greenpointers.

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