In 2013, I had a conversation with legendary author and theorist, Samuel “Chip” Delany, as part of my online course How To Start A (Sexual) Revolution. Chip is one of the most respected science fiction writers of all time; the winner of four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, and author of classics like Dhalgren, Babel 17, and Nova. He’s also written about race (notably in his essay about science fiction and racism), critical theory, the art of writing, and sex.
Or maybe instead of saying Chip writes about sex, stating that he writes with sex would be better, since sex pulses through and is a central concern of his creation. Many of his novels – including Tides of Lust, Phallos, and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders – are pornographic and potently erotic. His landmark nonfiction work, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue explored the disappearance of sex shops, porn arcades, and gay cruising spaces in New York as the city became Disneyfied under the Giuliani administration. It’s a work of resistance, longing, and vision.
I’d met Chip once before, at a Marxism conference at the University of Massachusetts where I was a student. It was a brief encounter; we sat next to each other before one of the panels, talking about theory. During a break, I got up to use the bathroom, and he cautioned me, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” If you know anything about Chip, you know that this left me a lot of options.
In the conversation below*, Chip and I go all over the place, but we stay close to intercourse and discourse, trying to understand just what’s going on with desire anyway, in culture as well as in our personal lives. I’m honored to have spoken with him.
CONNER HABIB: Something you write about and consider a lot is the concept of discourse; there’s no quick definition of it, but I’m going to attempt to give one anyway: it’s the structure of our consciousness and concepts in the social context of our time. It’s our inherited metaphors, the stuff surrounding our ideas and conversations. You write about discourse a lot and you also write about sex a lot. Those two things intertwine deeply; for me, sex has been the greatest teacher about all the metaphors we’ve inherited, about who we are and how we speak to each other. So I want to know how you see those things as bound together.
SAMUEL DELANY: That’s a very interesting question. I think one of the things that makes sex fascinating is that it’s an appetite, and I think appetites in general are fascinating. I think the appetite for food is just as fascinating as the appetite for sex, the appetite for entertainment and art are just as fascinating.
Discourse goes back to the notion of understanding; the way we use language to understand things. It’s hard to understand anything without thinking about it in terms of words, and it’s very hard to use words without calling into play our understanding of various situations, terms, and subjects. So we talk about the discourse of sex, we mean the way we understand sex. The way we understand appetites.
All sexual relations are power relations, but all relations are power relations. You walk down the street and you’re in a power relation with everyone you pass on the street, whether you’re thinking about it or not. The policeman who walks by you has one set of potential power relations and vectors to you, the homeless person on the other side occupies another set, and everybody in between, as you identify them and think, “oh that’s that kind of person,” or don’t even bother to think, “oh that’s that kind of person” and just fail to see them. All of these have a subtext of the power relations there. So sometimes, talking about the power relations is like talking about the air, because it’s our complete surround. I think it was Whitman who said, I’m not interested in God because God is everywhere and who’s interested in something that’s everywhere.
On the one hand, taking a small part of the world and looking at the power relations can be useful, but most of the time we don’t. Most of the time it’s when something goes wrong that we begin to analyze, and we find ourselves facing off agains the police, or we find ourselves with a homeless person yelling loudly at us because they don’t like what we’re doing for some reason. That’s when the power relations have to be interrogated.
One of the things you said when you told me you were interested in having this conversation was that you were interested in how to start a sexual revolution. I can only come up with one strategy, which is to be brutally honest about what you do and what you want, and to be willing to interrogate the distance between the two.
What’s the distance between what you do do and what you want to do? Some of us get them much closer than others, and some of us don’t. Some of us have our fantasy lives right here and what we actually do over there, and why is there that distance between them? I don’t think they ever join one hundred percent, nor that there’s a reason for them to join one hundred percent, nevertheless you can try to get them closer than many people do. And when you do bring them closer, that’s your revolution.
CH: Yes, the idea of bringing them closer: What do you do, and what do you want to do? And also: How do we know what it is that we want to do, and how do we know what it is we don’t want to do sexually.
To bring that to the point you made: it’s hard to understand our lives or anything without words, but sexually, there’s a difference between what we want to do and what we do that is related to words and not thinking in words. When I feel a draw to someone or something I have sexual desire for, a lot of times it occurs to me in image, it occurs pictorially. My thoughts evade my words. On the other hand, I know when I feel guilty about something, words arise more readily than image. Is there a way to investigate what we want sexually and what we do sexually, by navigating whether or not it comes to us in feeling and image or whether or not it’s words or language?
SD: What do you fantasize about when you masturbate? That’s a very good entrance into what you want to do. In what way does what you fantasize about, when you’re providing yourself with sexual pleasure, differ from what you do when you’ve got another person there? What are some of the differences? I think that’s a good place to start.
CH: I want to pick that up. In much of my adult and teenage life, I identified with “gay” but the older I get, the more attracted I am to women. Women show up when I masturbate more and more, which was of course a surprise for me. But there’s this whole thing about “gay,” which I’ve heard from other gay men as well, that we’re not supposed to talk about that. Don’t think about it. Don’t get into that. I’ve already done my sexual crisis, I can’t do another one! As if trying something new needs to be a crisis and shattering of identity! That’s so interesting, because…
SD: It’s interesting for me because it’s just the opposite! When I was younger I used to fantasize about threesomes, with one woman and two guys, and of course I’d be one of the guys. That went on and on until the women were there less and less, and now they’ve almost entirely vanished. Of course like many gay men most of my best friends are women.
I think it has something to do with the standard Freudian explanation of the difference between perversion and neurosis. Freud specified that perversion and neurosis were the opposite of one another. As you go through your early life, you come to these contradictory situations and you have a choice, you can either incorporate it into your personality as a neurosis, at which point it really screws you up for the rest of your life, or you can turn it into a perversion. Freud was quite clear on it: sexualizing it was much more healthy than making it part of a character neurosis. One of the big problems with the misogyny of a lot of heterosexual guys is, in the Freudian explanation, that their relationship with women is often neurotic rather than sexual. Whereas gay guys, because we often don’t sexualize women – I mean there’s the Kinsey Scale of course, which has been around since 1947 – but because we don’t often sexualize women, gay men often have less neurotically fraught relationships with women.
CH: I want to talk about that scale a bit. People bring it up a lot. The scale is about behavior. And now people talk about that scale as if it’s based on identity.
SD: Yes! And it’s mobile. Because everybody changes. Some things stay and some things don’t.
One thing that’s been part of my sexuality since I was five or six years old if not younger: men who bite their nails. And bite them badly. To the point that some people would find this anti-erotic. I think anti-erotic is a clue that it does have some erotic appeal for everybody, but anyway. This started with me when I was five or six years old. And still, it’s as large a part of my sexuality as it ever is. My partner of the last 24 years is a committed nail-biter and I don’t think we would be together if he wasn’t.
One has got to be honest and willing to talk about this sort of thing. I don’t reduce myself in any way by talking about this. I don’t lose any of my dignity. My dignity is something I carry with me. It’s not something that comes because I have or don’t have something people would call a sexual kink. It’s not a kink to me because it’s something I’ve been living with for sixty, onto seventy years.
CH: Do you bite their nails too? Or is that you’re watching?
SD: Sometimes I’ve been known to fantasize about it. But I’ve never done it. I’ve never particularly found myself wanting to do it.
CH: Something you’re making me think about is the intensity of certain sexual images. For me, maybe the equivalent is ears that stick out. They drive me crazy. The cars doors open on the side. It’s not like I’m going to fuck someone in the ear. I’m not going to do anything with it. There’s just something visual about it that’s so erotic to me.
Another example: When I was 15, the moment I realized I was very sexually attracted to
men, I went to Ocean City, Maryland with my family. And my older stepbrother brought his friend; they had their own condo. His friend was in the shower and he called out to me in the other room to say, “I don’t have a towel, bring me a towel.” I got him a towel and it was one of those shower doors with clouded glass, I could see the vague blurred outline of his body. I could see the flesh color, I could see the shapes. It was like sparks flying out of bolts in my neck. I was going berserk. I still, now, over 20 years later, masturbate to that image.
Something that’s so interesting, whether it’s nail biting, or big ears, or the shower glass is the intensity of those images. What did Freud say? That desire is repetition.
SD: Repetition is desire.
CH: There’s something about the patterning, the repetition, that reveals how intense the desire is. I know we can’t come to a definitive answer, but I want to talk around that.
SD: I think it’s nothing terribly more complicated than the fact that what turns you on, you return to again and again. Show me an image that comes up twice in a writer’s book, and then again in other books, and I will show you something that that writer likes. The repetition is an acknowledgment.
CH: I’m trying to get to a metaphysical level. A spiritual answer would be that there’s some sort of karmic philosophy, there’s something going on in your etheric body or your growth principle.
So much about our sexuality changes. I used to be attracted to certain types of guys when I was younger, and now I’m attracted to other types of guys. Okay, but there are these little things along the way that are actually a revolution – meaning they come around, and around, and around. So whereas everything else is changing, these things remain. They’re there as a sort of formative principle that the rest branches off of somehow. I don’t exactly know why that’s so.
SD: We seem to look at it and see that it happens again and again. It goes into the way the brain is put together or neurologically, about which one can speculate, but one would have to have tools a lot finer than any I’ve ever been able to get my hands on. I think we sexualize what’s different from us. That starts with the genitals as children. We look at our own; we look at the genitals of our parents and compare them to ours. There are enough differences in the genitals of an adult male and a male child, so that you can easily say, “Oh, what my father has is different than what I have. His has hair and veins, whereas I just have this little thing.” So sexualization – for ten to twenty percent of boys – of the same sex begins. It’s probably easier for a boy to sexualize the genitals of a woman. Because the difference is more marked. So you have the phallic other. The little boy wondering, “What happened to mommy’s penis?” This is a kid who’s going to be heterosexual, because the female genital place has been marked as, “Oh this is different than mine.” And I think women can do the same thing.
Something that nobody ever points out is that this has been around for millions and millions of years. All the animals we know of. There are no mammals that don’t have the same sorts of sexualities as we do. It’s got to have some real use. Things that are useless do not last or persist for millions of years. We don’t know why it’s important, but when someone figures out why it’s so important to persist in all species, we’ll all think, “Oh yeah, that’s so obvious!”
CH: Something not present in other animal species is monogamy. Even the animals that we thought were monogamous, we’ve learned are not. Maybe monogamy is so human that we’ve had to become preoccupied with it. It’s an invention that we have so much art about, so much frustration and fear around: monogamy and adultery.
SD: And of course the fact that something that happens with another species doesn’t determine what we do.
CH: We’re emerging from a period when people took certain cues from nature, and now we’re taking different ones. Without talking about natural and unnatural, when we need to question those terms anyway, let’s talk about it personally. In a personal context, my question for monogamy is, can we be intentional? Can we be intentionally monogamous or intentionally open, rather than just living out of insecurity of losing a partner (monogamy) or fear of commitment (openness). And is there something else at work? I mostly have open relationships, but there is a part of me that has a longing for, not monogamy, not possession, but sacrifice. I almost view this feeling of monogamy (which you can have without having monogamy itself) as religious sacrifice. We sacrifice sex at the religious altar of the relationship. That’s supposed to mean something. But why is it sex that has to be sacrificed? Why is that the only thing that’s supposed to work?
SD: I think one of things about having a satisfying open relationship is to be aware of
the need of your main partner and to be able to reassure that partner that they’re Number One. If your main partner walks in while you’re actually in bed with someone else, you have to think about, what do you do?
Well, one of the things you can do is get out of bed and say, “Hi, I’m happy to see you!”You don’t sit there [makes blubbering noises].
You say, “Hey I’m glad to see you! Are you okay with this?” And if they show the least bit of uncomfortableness you have to be able to turn to the other partner, the casual partner, and say, “I’m sorry, you have to go now. Number One has come home, it’s his or her or our place, and you have to go now.” You do it politely but firmly, and then you go back to your Number One and you give them a hug. If you do this two or three times, they realize, hey, I’m Number One. If you don’t, if you blather, then yeah, they’ll be upset. And they have every right to be.
CH: Because repetition is desire! The repeated behavior will reveal the desire you have for your partner.
SD: I have a scene in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which is like that. And it works for the character. And I know it works because I’ve had to do it myself. A few times, not a lot! You should be aware that that’s what you have to do. And the other person should know as well.
CH: And make that move not just in the interruption, but in all sorts of situations.
CH: Before we open this up to questions, one place I want to move to is sex in public places. Because you and I have both written about it. And I’ve had sex in public places, I wrote an essay about sex at rest areas. And you’ve written about sexualized public spaces in New York and how they were zoned and that sort of thing. And here’s where my mind is with this: It’s the question of why confine sex to certain areas? Why cover it up, so it has to be behind closed doors? Of course right now, if everyone were fucking in the streets, there would be questions of consent, so I don’t want to take it there exactly. But why is it that this part of human life is totally concealed?
SD: I think that there’s nothing wrong with having certain spaces for certain things. You have restaurants to eat in. One of the reasons why gay men do as well sexually as we do, is that there are all these places where you go, where the moment you walk in, you know everyone is looking for sex. One of the things that happens a lot in bars – and because of this my heart goes out to our poor heterosexual brethren – you go to a bar, you talk to three to five different women and get rejected. And you have to go home alone. Maybe once a week if you’re lucky it’ll happen. This is not something we have to go through when we go somewhere to cruise. First of all we’ll go through approaching people at a much faster rate. And we may get the same number of rejections. But we get them five to ten minutes apart and we get an acceptance. So the rejections mean a lot less, because they’re offset by the acceptances. And you can get two or three acceptances a night. But this is only possible because they are limited social spaces. If it happened throughout society you couldn’t do that. We’d be in worse shape than straight guys.
CH: Also it’s unavailable to straight people is because there’s so much sexual violence between straight men and women. So sex continues to have a much more threatening element. Part of the price of all the bullshit men have done to women is that sexuality becomes pulled out of the realm of what’s available. So part of the enclosure is the space, but the gender.
People ask me, “When you put your dick through a gloryhole, aren’t you scared someone will bite your dick off?” And of course you don’t ever think of that. But you might be afraid of the police coming in to the rest room or porn store or wherever it is that the gloryhole is located. Because that’s when the heterosexual power model is brought into the space. And so they’re likely to “break it up.” There’s something about violence being kept at bay in all of this.
I think all of this is also why one grouping of heterosexuals that has any sort of cruising culture is BDSM culture, because they’ve ritualized aggression and pain and even violence, and they’re able to engage with each other in a ritualized way.
SD: One reason why most of us aren’t afraid of having our dicks bitten off in the gloryhole is that we’re very much aware that the person on the other side has one too. And so if you’re fellating someone, that’s a huge act of identification. Just to do it, just to suck someone (as a gay man) is identifying with their pleasure. You have the pleasure as a surrogate for them. If you’re aware of this, whether you articulate it or not, you know the biting isn’t likely to happen for the same reason they won’t bite their own off. Sucking becomes their dick in a funny way. At least it does for me when I’m sucking dick, which I enjoy very much.
CH: Me too! All right, now that we’ve both agreed we like sucking dick, let’s open it up to questions.
QUESTION. Why do you think gay male culture isn’t comfortable talking about attraction to occasional or persistent attraction to women?
CH: So why are gay men not welcoming to women, It’s a weird commonality with heterosexual men who are just totally repulsed by gay sex. But gay men say, “Oh vaginas are disgusting,” vehemently and violently. And of course you have suspicions about anything that comes up so violently like that.
SD: A lot of that comes from the consumerization behind gay culture. Nobody feels they’ll make money from the sexual attraction that gay men have for women.
CH: It’s easy to sell to people who have concrete identities. You only have to keep reinforcing “gay men are gay men and they should only be around gay men,” and then it’s pretty easy to sell a TV show or some dumb bric-a-brac at a gay store. There’s a whole economy that thrives on identity.
Q. How does sexuality and sex relate to creativity, specifically in terms of lack? If sex is as you say, intertwined with creativity, if you’re only attracted to men or to women, is there a lack there, if you’re only engaging in a single practice?
SD: Well I certainly don’t identify as a single practice kind of guy! What one does most of the time doesn’t necessarily mean what one does all the time. And I still enjoy getting sucked, I enjoy getting fucked, I enjoy fucking. So I don’t think of myself as someone limited to one kind of sex. I do have patterns, and I do have things that I do more of than other things. Largely because those are the opportunities the world presents me. Right now, I don’t find myself particularly missing anything. I have a couple of fuck buddies as well as my major relationship. I feel pretty satisfied. And anything I need? Well, there’s always imagination and masturbation. You know the joke, you meet a better class of people there.
CH: The imaginative landscape is part of my life. My thoughts are as real as objects to me. So my fantasy world is a real world as well. So if you’re asking if anything limits my access to creativity? I sometimes resent the human form and my materiality. But we are bound to certain laws, whether it’s being in a material body, being a man, being a gay man.
Being whole and being whole in our creativity is a move we make with all our enthusiasm and our integrity. It’s not something that can be given to us by external factors. It’s something we do inwardly.
SD: And I’d like to add: I feel I’m doing pretty well creatively!
I find myself very interested in sex as a topic, and in the last decade, that’s where a lot of my energies have gone in fiction. There’s one book called Dark Reflections, which is about a guy who basically has no sex. It’s a gay man who is celibate, who is not partnered, who does not have an active sex life. He kind of wants one, but he doesn’t, also, for all sorts of reasons. Whereas …Nest of Spiders and Phallos are basically about having as much sex as you could possibly want.
CH: It’s important to remember all the romantics, too. That period of art was about longing, about restriction. And then there’s the Oulipo who gave each other restrictions to create new works. Creativity courses through limitation.
Q. Can we ever move beyond the paradigm of pairs?
SD: I would hope. I think that would be a very good idea. As far as I’m concerned, I’m all for it. One of my earliest books was called Babel 17. In that book, there is a tendency in society for people to hook up in threes. Those threeway relationships I told you before I was so interested in? I wrote about in that book. After that was published and was being considered for a Nebula Award, I was at a convention, just sort of standing against a wall and a young man came up to me and said, “Mr. Delaney? You’re the guy that wrote Babel 17?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “The people who get together in threes, is that possible?” And I said yes. And he gave a huge sigh of relief and walked away! I thought, okay, I’ve done something good. And the most recent book, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, although the main relationship is a pair of guys, one of the things that happens is that people are doing political work to get the government to accept group marriages. All sorts of sexual associations. So in some sense I seem to have come full circle. I hope that’s a good sign!
CH: I love this question, I’ve been thinking about it so much lately. When I broke up with my last boyfriend, something I thought about before that moment of breaking up was, what’s the purpose of this sort of relationship? Why does everyone have to do it?
I’m not some sort of spiritual monist who thinks we’re all One. That’s interesting to me, but it’s much more interesting to me to engage with multiplicity and total individuality. So when I see another person and acknowledge them as totally separate from me, that’s when I’m the kindest. The more I recognize separateness, the less I feel like pairing off is necessary. The more I individuate, the more I see others and think I can let others in to include them in my life.
SD: When my daughter was born in 1973, I was living in London.My wife at the time had a bookstore, and she had to go in every day. I was a stay-at-home dad. I had to go and visit a friend of mine who lived in a commune, a sort of free-flowing commune. In the commons room, at the back of the room, there was a sign that said “MOTHER IS A JOB.” It was around that time, too, that’d I’d read an article about how the average father spends less than 37 seconds a day with his less-than-one-year-old child. You know what happens when a person interacts with someone for that little? They die.
So I’d stay home with my daughter and we’d dance. I’d dance with her. And I think of that as our dancing lessons. We still like to dance and we also like to see horror movies together. But anyway, Mother is a Job. Not a gender, it’s something anyone can do if they figure out how to do it. So that opens up for me the notion that a bunch of people can get together. Not a pair. And form a group. Some will having the job of mother.
CH: In lots of cultures, more than a pair bring up the child.
SD: Right, the whole “it takes a village to raise a child” thing. Obviously that rings true.
Q. I’ve recently started being attracted to older men, so my question is about intergenerational relationships. What are the benefits and the challenges?
CH: Taken on a personal front, when I was younger, I was always attracted to older men, and nobody my age was attracted to me. Now that I’m older, guys who are 18, 19, are attracted to me. The first time someone calls you “Daddy” it’s shocking. Not in an unpleasant way, but it has a feeling for sure. My thought on daddies is that something happening in our relationships is that we’re becoming more individuated and personalized rather than just having a uniform or conforming idea of what we want. What could present more of a special regard than having a Dad? A regard for you as an individual. Of course, I’m attracted to daddies, although I am now open to younger guys as well…
SD: There are benefits of getting older!
CH: Exactly! But then one bad thing about it is that there are less and less people who are older than me. The daddy is eventually going to disappear from availability.
I just had a foursome with a group of guys in their early twenties, and we were talking during the act and I kept thinking, my gosh these guys are so smart! So much smarter than my generation. There’s a chance that people in their twenties are more intelligent than people in their thirties and forties in this moment in time. So I think there’s an interesting bridge because of connectivity, in part because of access to information via globalization and the internet. So I think some of the challenges are changing.
SD: Something Goethe said:“A man of 50 knows no more than a man of 20, they just know different things.” I was a pretty bright kid. I had an impressive IQ. I don’t anymore, the last ten points have filtered away along with an inch of my height! But when I was about 21 or 22, I suddenly realized that what I was interested in was not the people who knew the same things I did. How boring! I was interested in people who knew things that were different. And as soon as I became interested in that, all the stupid people in the world vanished. There were no stupid people, just people who knew things I didn’t know.
Attraction to older men is precisely that. A sexual predilection. Or liking younger men. I was always interested in older men, I still am, but as you say, there are less and less people who are older than I.
CH: Well don’t worry, Chip, Daddy is a job!
*This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.