Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Queering abstinence

Supposedly, statistical studies of areas that have introduced abstinence-only sex education show that one of the most consistent effects is a marked increase in the numbers of teenagers having anal sex. I don’t know if this is true, but I hope it is, because it would be a great instance of the heteronormativity of these abstinence programs rebounding on itself. These programs involve saying “no” to a sex which is cast as necessarily involving a penis and a vagina, but the result of this obsessive negative focus on a heteronormative conception of sex might not be a rejection of sex, but a rejection of heteronormativity; a diffusion of sex into diverse and queerer forms.

If explicit abstinence indoctrination can go awry, how much more subject to potential failure or détournement is culture which carries an implicit abstinence message? But this possibility tends to be ignored when people discuss works in which abstinence features, with the message taken to be straightforwardly pro-abstinence, and criticized because of it. Though such criticisms are usually framed as sex-positive, this reductivism is more sex-positivist, in that it posits sex as a straightforward and unified thing, which one can be unproblematically for or against. In this kind of positivist position, any  complexity or ambivalence in ones understanding of sex is interpreted as an attempt to constrain this natural sexuality.

What does a position which naturalizes sex have to say to people for whom sex is not experienced as simple or natural, but as a site of ambivalence and difficulty? Positing a natural sex is necessarily normative, and what happens to people who do not fit within this norm? It’s hard to see how sex-positivism can avoid erasing queer people, or, indeed, what Janet Halley calls “‘queer’ revelations of the strangeness and unknowability of social and sexual life” (Split Decisions, 15). We could follow Halley in emphasizing sex as a site of ambivalence and struggle, and adopt as our slogan, “Sex is fucked up and bullshit.”

This strangeness of sex is the theme of the Twilight films. Twilight has often been interpreted, and criticized, as pro-abstinence propaganda, but while the abstinence theme is clearly presented in the films, it is wrapped up in a set of supernatural metaphors which are, frankly, crazy, and the metaphor becomes unmoored. Bella and Edward spend a lot of time not having sex, but this not having sex serves to foreground sex, to eroticise the absence of sex. The films’ circling around sex, that is, their avoidance of it which is also an obsessive return to the heteronormative relation between Edward and Bella, allows them to represent some of the diverse queerness of sex.

This is perhaps most clear in New Moon, which begins with Edward leaving, and so for most of the film is defined by the absence of the heterosexual object of desire. Bella discovers that when she is in danger she sees visions of Edward, and becomes increasingly invested in the intense experience of danger, which she finds first in motorbikes and then in jumping off cliffs. That is, we see a de-eroticisation of Edward combined with a re-eroticisation of the entire external world. This process is central to Deleuze’s analysis of masochism, in which a suspension of sexuality is transformed into the sexualisation of suspension. According to Deleuze, this is a particular way of apprehending the death drive which proceeds through myth and the imagination. The death drive is the drive towards the destruction of the self, and in the masochistic imagination described by Deleuze, this takes the form of a dispersal of the self into the external world through a mythologized and eroticized immersion in that world.

This theme of affective immersion in the world is repeated at the beginning of Breaking Dawn II. Here, Bella has just become a vampire, and her supernatural senses and agility remove the barriers of perception and action that separate her from the world. But the price of this connection with the world is the loss of humanity. This is made clear in what might be my favourite scene in the series, in which the other vampires teach Bella to pretend to be human, a process she sums up as “move around, blink, slouch.”

This connection between eroticism and the dispersal of the self, or, to put it another way, the anti-humanism of sex, is the theme of Leo Bersani’s essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” Bersani writes against what he calls “the pastoral impulse” to posit a particular type of sexuality as good, just, or liberatory (like the “sex positivism” I describe above). Against this “pastoralizing, idealizing, redemptive project,” Bersani wants to focus on how sexuality can function as “a self-shattering and solipsistic jouissance.” Rather than sexuality being justified by appeals to humanist values, for Bersani the value of sex lies in the way it undermines this humanism. In the Twilight films this critical purchase of sex is presented through erotically saturated abstinence which, to adopt Bersani’s words, “proposes and dangerously represents jouissance as a mode of ascesis.”


“Is the Rectum a Grave?” was an early work in what’s now called the “anti-relational” or “anti-social” turn in queer theory. One of the more recent developments of this turn is Lee Edelmen’s No Future, which locates the kind of sociality that queerness opposes in the future understood in reproductive terms; in Edelman’s memorable phrase, “the fascism of the baby’s face.” The ideology of sexual abstinence is usually bound up with reproductive futurism, in that it encourages abstaining from sex except for its proper purpose, the production of children. So it’s interesting that the horror metaphorics of the Twilight films twist this relationship between abstinence and reproduction in odd ways. In Eclipse Rosalie tries to dissuade Bella from becoming a vampire, and the film presents vampirism as a rejection of the future, construed explicitly in reproductive terms. As Rosalie puts it, “what I miss the most is possibilities … sitting on a porch somewhere, surrounded by grandchildren.” Bella (and, implicitly, the films) reject this reproductively-oriented vision of the future.

But the story doesn’t stop there, as, in the most grand-guignol moment of the series’ horror metaphors, Bella becomes pregnant with a vampire baby. However, this procreation is not simply a moment of reproduction of the same, but a moment of self-shattering, in an excruciating, bone-breaking way licensed by the films’ horror lineage. This makes visible a distinction between the anti-sociality of Bersani and that of Edelman. Edelman’s rejection of sociality is a rejection that maintains the sovereign individual; indeed, Edelman’s hero, the sinthomosexual, is supposed to trouble heteronormative sociality because the sinthomosexual is excessively self-contained. Bersani’s account of anti-sociality is the opposite: Bersani praises the anti-sociality of sexuality precisely because it involves the death of “the masculine idea … of proud subjectivity.” It is this negativity of self-shattering sexuality that the Twilight films, queerly, explore.