Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs just received the Lionel Trilling Award. In The Guide, a brief interview:
The Guide: Your work focuses on how radically different erotic desire is conceived in different cultures. But people seem remarkably able to adapt. You hear about men from the more overtly repressive parts of the Middle East Saudi Arabia coming to the West saying they feel like they’re in a candy store. Or Westerners travel to the Middle East and find that there’s a different way same-sex desires happen, but in short order it often all seems to make sense. Or people get sent to prison, and fall into a new sexual roles they wouldn’t have imagined playing before. Doesn’t this ready adaptability call into question the idea of irreconcilable, radical cultural differences when it comes to sexuality? Or that the way language is used around desire determines people’s experiences?
Joseph Massad: It’s not just language and discourse, but also structures such as law and the state more generally. But it seems to me that when Arabs who have same-sex desires or those who have different sex desires come to the US, they find their desires, which were not beholden to the hetero-homo binary, as intelligible only as “gay” or “straight.” This is on account of the closure of possibilities in the West, especially since the 1950s, for the multiple ways in which sexuality is organized outside the hetero-homo binary. The last opening for these multiple ways of understanding sexual desires to exist was the Kinsey reports, which were ultimately overthrown.