Reading time: 12 minutes
Researcher Siobhan Guerrero Mc Manus addresses the issues faced by sex workers during the health contingency, as well as the support networks that were (not) subsequently woven for trans * women, to question the effective scope of feminist utopia.
I once read an essay by Miguel Abensour titled Utopia and Democracy. It argued against Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s assertion that choosing democracy necessarily entails a renunciation of utopia. Abensour did not agree. I still don’t have an opinion, for there are times when I wonder if I haven’t become more conservative with age, more liberal and reformist, and less transgressive: less disposed to utopian thinking. Whatever the case may be, it isn’t that I think that this shift towards the conservative is an unavoidable effect of getting older since there are those who walk on paths contrary to mine. Nor, I confess, is it that I am so old or that I was really all that radical in my twenty-somethings.
What’s happening is that I am beginning to find a certain form of banality which disguises itself as profundity—or worse, which ends up being cynical and indifferent to the actual circumstances and pressing issues of people’s lives—more and more intolerable. I will provide two examples in order to try to illustrate what I am referring to. Above all, I am thinking about how the quarantine, into which the coronavirus pandemic has plunged us all, has interrupted not only the quotidian flow of the world but also its globalization. In a way, it has restored the enormity of the world by cloistering many in their homes. Gone is the global village, come again is the old neighborhood with its beloved strangers.
Of course, there were those whose lives didn’t fall neatly into the shelter of four enclosed walls. There were those who had no choice but to keep working or who didn’t have a place they could call their own—sex workers, for example, who found themselves confronted with the choice of contracting the disease or starving to death. Among them were those who were left homeless and without a place of work when Mexico City’s government decided to close the hotels along the Calzada de Tlalpan—a decision that was heavily criticized by activist Natalia Lane.
We would offer them utopia or nothing. For there in that utopic future, we would all be alright… or almost, because you quite certainly wouldn’t be there and perhaps neither would we. Indeed, perhaps we are forging a utopia for a humanity that doesn’t exist in the present.
Solidarity and social media have made it possible for these women to organize themselves and find ways of surviving the crisis. But there were voices—self-proclaimed feminist voices—who did not stand in solidarity. There was a sector of those advocating for the abolition of sex work—although it must be clarified that this was not true of all abolitionists—that enthusiastically opposed all forms of support for sex workers as well as any kind of donation to sex workers, whether provisions or money. They argued that supporting sex workers was an act equivalent to pimping and asserted that helping them even in a crisis situation was a form of exploitation.
In some sense, this argument comes as no surprise. For it is connected to another, less relevant expression of the same assertion that sex work not only denigrates—attention should be paid to the etymology of this word—all women, but also cannot even truly be considered genuine labor since it doesn’t produce anything, because people don’t choose to do it voluntarily, but come to it only out of necessity, and finally because it damages the affect and eroticism of those who partake in it. These three points are of course easily refutable, although I am not so interested in refuting them here as I am in revealing a pernicious cycle. I will only say that it is not my place nor my ambition to settle this argument. From my point of view these three apparently disqualifying qualities are not exclusive to sex work. The service industry, for example, does not produce tangible goods in the classical sense either and it too gives rise to an economy of affects and gestures which constitute the fundamental part of what is sold. I doubt very much that there exists an objective and convincing criterion of differentiation able of separating sex work from other occupations.
Be that as it may, the pattern I am interested in elucidating here has to do precisely with this kind of reaction, so frequently exhibited when it is suggested that there are other jobs that are more precarious than sex work. On one occasion, I noted that several of my friends had chosen to engage in sex work, at least for a period of time, because their other available options for work would have interfered with their studies or would have offered insufficient compensation to cover their basic needs. When I related this scenario, I was immediately met with the response that I needed to review the logic of capitalist exploitation, of the exploitation of women’s labor, and of the lack of real opportunities for women. It was immediately suggested that we needed to work to forge a utopia, and that we could not cede to the demands of the present nor to the immediate needs of these women. We should not even consider solutions that, though perhaps suboptimal, might help to stem precarity. We would offer them utopia or nothing. For there in that utopic future, we would all be alright…or almost, because you quite certainly wouldn’t be there and perhaps neither would we. Indeed, perhaps we are forging a utopia for a humanity that doesn’t exist in the present. This could be legitimate idea, but it has the curious effect of causing everyone to lapse into a kind of indifferent passivity when it comes to current issues.
In the post-gender utopia, as we have seen, there will be no trans* people just as there will be no sex workers in the post-putismo utopia; these utopias will be free of whores and fags and we will have finally arrived at post-putismo, the conservative but nonetheless still utopic brother of all the other post-whatever.
Second example. Other abolitionists—in this case those who wish to abolish gender—have insisted that recognizing trans* identities is wrong. They tell us that it would be not only misogynistic to do so, but that it would also contribute to the delusion of those who do not accept their bodies and who take it badly when they are told that they should love themselves as they are. Trans* identities are dangerous, they reiterate, because they reify gender roles and because they are based in stereotypes that they reproduce ad nauseum. These identities, they add, contribute to the propagation of gendered and oppressive corporeal practices. Nonetheless, these beneficent souls don’t seem to care that trans* people don’t really live as corseted as they suppose we do or that our friends feel like they are the prey of a gender police every time we bump into each other.
In some of their more generous statements, these abolitionists also argue that trans* people are a sort of perverse result of gender oppression. They maintain that what we really want—even though we can’t see it for ourselves—is to escape from the oppression of gender roles and stereotypes; we are fleeing, they say, from the normalizing functionalism that radical feminism denounces, but we are seeking a false refuge in our trans* identities. They promise us that when there is no gender—again in a utopia that is always awaiting us just over the horizon—we will all be happy and complete: we will all be men and women with sexes that are clearly defined but that won’t translate into a specific role or appearance. Abolishing gender will liberate us from the social disfunction that has been transformed into our delirium. In this utopia we will be alright—her, him, them, everyone. But for now, nothing. Nothing for that person who can’t find work because their papers have rendered them undocumented in their own country; we must tell them that all will be resolved when we achieve a utopia, but that for now nothing can be done.
This is the pattern that worries me. In the post-gender utopia, as we have seen, there will be no trans* people just as there will be no sex workers in the post-putismo utopia; these utopias will be free of whores and fags and we will have finally arrived at post-putismo, the conservative but nonetheless still utopic brother of all the other post-whatever. That will be a real accomplishment for humanity even though it means that we must live in a cynical and passive present where nothing is done for fear of not being utopic. Afterall, what we want is a utopia and not a hodge-podge justice, made up of some ugly scraps.
This banality of the profound makes me lose hope a little. Or a lot. Honestly, it drives me crazy. I am surprised, however, by how seductive an idea it is and by its ability to be celebrated as a revolutionary notion, as an unyielding critical commitment to the cause and the revolution, even if it doesn’t seem to matter much what that revolution is. In the banality of the profound, the promise of utopia becomes the excuse for inaction or, worse still, for cynical complicity in the injustice of the present.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should abandon the idea of utopia and embrace bland reformism. Albensour didn’t want that either. My despair has more to do with the ease with which we invoke our favorite -isms (feminism, environmentalism, Marxism, postcolonialism, etc.) in order to justify our lack of interest in learning about the often tedious and confusing ins and outs of the economy, civil rights, public policy, or the administration of justice. All of that suddenly seems to have been deemed irrelevant, of interest only to liberal reformists and aspirational conformists. We invoke utopia to disconnect from the present and to be able to ignore subtlety. We invoke utopia to mobilize ideological purity, which would work well if we were a cohesive group, but which does little for a plurality.
Utopia, understood in this way, is an obstacle that Rousseau wishes to push aside. For this impossible dream can sabotage possible democracy. But utopia can also set us a course to follow, even though all of us may not share the same North—and indeed many of us look to the South. When the horizon is not a fixed entity but arises out of encounters between many different people, it is then that a new idea of utopia will reveal itself, one that is more elusive but perhaps also more productive for it will no longer be the dream of only a few at the expense of many others. Utopia will then be a goal, but also a trajectory of multiple pathways along which everyone may walk beginning from their present—for each person, a singular route that converges on a collective horizon. And each of these must in turn be accessible to others, for if we have to reject others in order to arrive at our goal then we will have already lost our way.
This understanding of utopia requires worldly knowledge, and not just a mastery of the astronomy of dreams. It requires knowing how to construct paths in the mud and how to erect bridges in rugged landscapes with full knowledge that the way forward won’t always be a long straight line through an open plain. This is what Abensour wagered when he sought to disprove Rousseau’s argument.
However, following this path is not an easy task and I myself am not sure if I haven’t lost myself among its twists and turns. There are times when I don’t recognize myself and find myself torn between two discourses that seem completely unreconcilable. If you were to ask me if I wanted a post-capitalist, feminist world, I would say yes. But it is also clear to me that innumerable critical discourses succumb to the challenges of reality and are ineffective because we have actual means of putting them into practice. It is not enough to declare that we have put our greatest shames behind us. What reveals to us the banality of the profound and post-putismo is the fact that it is easy to confuse the exile of others with the idea of utopia. It is easy to believe you are entering into a better future when in fact you are really drowning in the mud of passivity or in one of the many swamps plagued by dead promises.
It is here of course that I stop being able to recognize myself. Do I keep going or have I lost myself in the quagmire of indifference? Have my values become empty, or am I just more patient and humble? Wondering this also makes me worry about critical thought, or, at least makes me worry about those lines of thought closest to my heart. “Whither feminism, whither queer theory, whither ecocriticism, whither trans*?” we might say, evoking that play on words which calls into question the future of a kind of thinking that may indeed be withering.
The thing is, I learned to seriously consider the need for reformist methods and radical objectives from a certain distinguished Mexican academic, who is no longer much liked today. I aspire, for example, to a sustainable and inclusive environmental future, and a trans*feminist future would be exactly this. I take very seriously Donna Haraway’s assertion that we must attend to the three boundary breakdowns of the human: the animal, the artificial, and the subhuman (in which she includes the abject and the artificial). I take these boundaries seriously because I myself am a little animal, a little abject, and a little artificial. But beyond me, it is true that these boundaries have been used to dehumanize us, trans* people, jettisoning us beyond the bounds of the human and reducing utopias in the process to profound, narcissistic banalities. I fear them.
With her “storytelling,” Haraway herself sought to create bridges that would avoid this, but there are times when I am not sure that Haraway’s tales are enough—that her bag of itinerant tales is sufficient to connect worlds and distinct cultures in such a way that they are not only intelligible to one another, but that they can also become participants in a shared utopia. Suddenly Haraway’s tale and Rosa Braidotti’s nomad seem too reminiscent of Zapaturismo, activist tourism that trivializes the political complexity of the Zapatista’s cause and renders it frivolous. Here, the banal is considered profound. Here, the well-known “Beautiful Soul Syndrome”—the do-gooders who romanticize themselves, boasting of their authenticity and commitment—runs rampant.
To close this essay, I should perhaps confess that I do romanticize myself: I believe that my impatience with the idea of utopia is authentic, or maybe it really is just conservativism after all. Perhaps I am merely a technocrat who wants to be effective. Perhaps. But I will remain suspicious of my suspicion and of utopia.
This text was translated from Spanish to English by Chloe Wilcox.
The word “denigrate” comes from the Latin verb denigrare, meaning “to stain someone’s reputation,” in other words to “blacken,” a word that associates darkness with negative qualities. The habitual use of this word is just one example of how deeply intertwined a racist structure is in our contemporary culture.