Conference 2011 Keynote Address: Educating Desire (Davina Cooper)

Davina’s paper looked at the Toronto Women and Trans Bath House, a venue for sex between women who were often strangers, as an example of an ‘everyday utopia’. The notion of how to institutionalise social change lay behind the argument, but Davina was more focussed on alternatives to an institutionalised ethics which has become embedded in the ‘fetishisation of a colonised future’.

Feminism as a politics of change was established as a route to liberation and transformation, based in an ethical life. However, Davina was concerned with a utopian ethics and how this might be seen to emerge in the context of care in the Bath House. In defining the nature of care in the context of ethics, Davina explained that as humans we are codependent; that feminist constructions of care support this, and also see it as a response to need and vulnerability. Need, however, can be problematised as a pathologising force. Davina posed the question as to whether a feminist care ethic has any potential to shape the future, or instead maintains the present (through the construction of those in need) and, in a related way, acts to conserve the past. The research conducted with volunteer sex workers, organisers and customers at the Toronto Bath House was thus posited as providing traction for thinking about whether practical ethics might not after all depend on imagined futures, but might be generated within the ‘critical proximities’ of alternative spaces in the present.

The Toronto Bath House was seen to educate women into a range of sexual practices,  to enrich queer female culture and transform women’s sexual creativity and confidence. Volunteers offered lap dances and g-spot orgasms, and for some, this presented challenges to considering the organisation’s anti-oppression ethos. The orientation to fucking, porn and lap-dancing presented the Bath House’s implication with the mainstream sex industry, and perhaps more problematically within the duplication of neoliberal technologies of consumer choice and temporary commitment.

However, issues of oppression were negotiated in the Bath House, albeit with varying degrees of ethical success. There was a sense of political mobilising around a series of tensions. For example, there was a commitment to trans inclusivity, and (a less useful) concern with access for participants in wheelchairs. Racism was addressed after a series of incidents whereby women of colour were excluded in various ways with a consciously increased representation of women of colour on committees and specially arranged events. In fact, Davina, explained, ‘racism’s charge brought a whirlwind of care’, although a ‘care sometimes indirect or insufficient’. She questioned the efficacy of ‘attempts to address social inequalities at a bath house’, framing them as a ‘utopian care ethics’ aspiring to ‘a world without oppression’.

However, in considering everyday utopias, Davina saw the Bath House as an example of a ‘minor-stream space’, where it was possible to reframe problems usually dealt with in institutional ethical frameworks, such as choice and property. This resonated with my own experiences of minor-stream spaces such as the Freecycle goods recycling schemes in the UK and new age traveller communities, because I sense that my own interpersonal ethics are largely shaped by these off-grid experiences.

The idea of the Bath House as a hotbed of ethical activity was challenged for some people I spoke to after the paper in terms of the role of the volunteers. These women provided the usual security and cleanup, but they also delivered g-spot orgasms and other sexual services. In this context, Cooper stressed that the care ethic was asymmetrical and client oriented. But more saliently, the volunteers were bound by their own set of ethics. They took responsibility for themselves, and upheld the obligation to be impartial. For example, they discussed not denying women they found ‘unattractive’ a sexual service, treating all customers equally. The Bath House offered plenty of examples of a set of care ethics generated through and focused on intimate relationships. Organisers put a lot of thought into making customers feel comfortable, and supplied them with lube, condoms, and hooking-up workshops and message boards.

Davina suggested that the Bath House could reveal clues as to what generates care. In contrast to the mothering model of women’s’ care ethics, she wondered whether the Bath House, where women encountered new vulnerabilities and sometimes risky or taxing experiences, offered new opportunities for momentary ethical decisions to be made. She explained that ‘the Bath House bases care not on meeting prior needs but on creating them’, ultimately producing community, comfort, self esteem, desire, exploration and adventure in the process. In this way, mainstream ethics – emerging from a top down moral framework – can be illuminated as delivering a model of compliance rather than the thoughtful personal momentary decisions on moral conduct taken by Bath House volunteers.

Institutional ethical frameworks are developed to govern future interactions. So Davina asks, ‘can we imagine change outside the language of the future?’ She offers the Bath House narrative to throw into relief the more conventional view of ethics. So the latter is seen as a call for the future, a ‘temporal colonialisation’, relying on an unequal power relationship with those in need, and thus a commitment to the maintenance of the inequitable status quo. What was offered instead was the potential of ‘critical proximities’: alternative, ‘minor-stream’ spaces, experienced in the now, in order to produce the conditions in which an alternative and more personally relevant set of ethics can be generated and practised. What makes this feel even more relevant is the fact that post-modern criticisms of linear notions of causation mean that the future can not be planned for in any case.

From the point of view of someone interested in resistances in institutional spaces such as schools, I can see how an ethics of the present can work in ‘minor-stream’ spaces of ‘critical proximity’. But in terms of mainstream spaces, where risk is so controlled, I wonder whether it could help to confound hegemonic institutional frameworks and discourses; and as such, whether you could see this way of thinking about ad hoc ethics as an act of resistance or reframing. Could we, then, perhaps consider it an ethical responsibility to immerse ourselves in these kinds of ‘minor-stream’ spaces and take that energy back into institutions with us?

(Anna Carlile, Goldsmiths, University of London)


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