Buying In And Selling Out: A Piece on Sexual and Social Capital
“I feel like you want to be seen with me at parties because I increase your sexual capital”.
He said it without any hint of irony or self awareness. My ex lover looked genuinely concerned that I only wanted him to come with me to events in order to make other people want to fuck me. Like he was bait.
Frankly, I was taken aback by this worry of his, that I was using him to make myself look more attractive. I wanted to laugh out loud incredulously. As a fat queer woman, moving in supposedly sex radical spaces with him by my side often felt like a detriment, a way to increase my invisibility. People never believed we were dating in the one and a half years we were together. People would flirt with him like I didn’t exist. On the rare occasions they did notice me, I was an afterthought, an oddity, a barrier.
He never introduced me as his girlfriend that I recall. Never posted a photo of us together. He said he was just very “private” but I wonder if he was ashamed of me subconsciously.
I often felt invisible in his company, not so much in his eyes, but in everyone else’s. I wondered if I had to choose between being seen as a queer femme and being seen as his partner. At best I felt guilty, like I was betraying my queer femmeness by dating, not only a guy, but someone who was pretty damn close to “The Man”.
At worst when we kissed in public, people looked at him with pity, like I had tricked him.
He was a well-educated, fit, white cis man who embodies the Bay Area ideal: a nerd, a techie, and a porn star wrapped into a smartly-dressed package. No tattoos, no piercings, just an All-American boy who even used to play sports back in the day.
He would have been a trophy boyfriend, I suppose, if I took up more space, if I was afforded more space with him next to me. But despite being sort of famous and a porn performer in my own right, when we were out at a party, the way people treated us made me feel small. If he was a trophy, he was a trophy that was used to repeatedly beat me down… and one I was often expected in these spaces to compete for. It’s not the kind of game I like to play.
There was a lot that went unsaid between us, about how interesting it is that it never occurred to him that I might be a trophy, too, a symbol of how openminded and progressive he is. Look, he’s dating a fat woman, how kind! How generous!
My friends tried to embrace him as one of their own, inviting him to events, chatting with him at parties. He shied away from them, seemed distant when he came to my readings or performances. I don’t doubt he was proud of me, but I wished he would be more enthusiastic about my work, the way I was about his interests and performances. I wonder if he ever really thought about the fact that in these spaces he often benefitted from my social capital as well as his own sexual capital. And I, the femme, was expected to bear the burden of that imbalance, as we so often are.
I guess I thought being queer and dating someone queer would aid in disrupting the cliches of heteronormativity, but that’s one big ol’ nope, folks!
Back then I joked, perhaps a bit sharply, that the grass was always greener. While good genetics afforded him the sexual capital, my writing, my performances, my art work and my activism has afforded me some social capital. I often struggled with jealousy at how little he had to work to be validated as a desirable person, while he was envious of how many social connections I had. What he didn’t seem to notice was that his sexual capital was awarded to him, not just by our local communities, but society at large, without him having to acknowledge it or work for it. My social capital, meanwhile, has always felt very reliant on the emotional labour I give away — I have to constantly maintain it or I will lose it. I am not enough on my own.
It’s hard to explain to a partner who has privilege over you just how much easier the world is for them to move through. There’s a lot of patience and tears and heartbreak involved in that, and it can bleed you dry until you have nothing left. But I tried again that day, because I loved him, and because I thought maybe if I phrased it differently, repeated it, this time it would sink in for real.
I tried to tell him that I didn’t care about being seen together at parties so much as I wanted him to acknowledge me as his partner in front of other people. I needed him to see me when other people didn’t, to prove to me that I wasn’t a secret, that I wasn’t invisible. I needed him to hold my hand in solidarity, not for the sake of my possessiveness. And I really, really needed him to understand that partnership with him involved dealing with a lot of bullshit — that I did it because it was worth it to me, he was worth it, we were worth it, but it was still bullshit.
I explained all that, and he said he understood. I believed him, because it hurt less than to dig deeper to be sure.
In the days that passed, though, I found the more I reached for reassurance, the more distant he became, until he was like smoke between my fingertips.
So I picked up cigarettes instead, and I dumped him. I didn’t know what else to do.
When I broke up with him, he was shocked. He had “no idea”, he said, of how much this relationship was hurting me… even though I felt like we discussed it at least twice a month. The sacrifices he saw were all his, the only pain he seemed to witness his own, while I felt I was screaming for help. He talked about how his fears about our relationship were confirmed, while I felt like my fear at stating boundaries were similarly confirmed as being dealbreakers. It was all so familiar, how his hurts were something we tackled together, or were communicated so as to be laid on the table, but mine I was expected to manage alone, to keep quiet, to manage with other people. Our whole relationship had that dynamic. I was invisible even at the end, so I faded away into myself.
I used to think a lot about how maybe I was holding my ex back in these hedonist spaces, with my fatness and my queerness and my politics. We both made a lot of space for worrying about him and his needs. Now I’m beginning to realize just how much he held me back from who I am, who I could have been, who I could yet be. Whether he did it consciously or unconsciously, by being a narcissist or just being privileged, that’s not really my emotional labour to sift through.
My heart sank, in that moment when he asked me if I was using him to make myself look bigger, as I realized that he didn’t see me, not really, not the tender me, the raw me, the me that felt small.
He just saw his own reflection, his own pain. And that was that.
I expect he’s going to read this eventually. And his feelings will be hurt, he’ll resent me for it, feel like I’m attacking him. He will be defensive because that will be easier than admitting he caused me pain, and he will dismiss me because that’s easier than working through this shit together. It breaks my heart, because I know he’s not a bad guy, just a privileged one. I miss him terribly, but I couldn’t stay silent anymore. Something had to give- for too long, it had been me, and I had given everything.
I hope that maybe, one day, I can be more than just a broken mirror. That maybe one day, he, or someone else, will look into my eyes and see me, not just themselves.
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