Let’s start with an anthropological classic: Geertz’s thick description of the Balinese cock fight which sometimes reads like a dick description (“uninventive obscenities” anticipated by Geertz 1973, 417–19):
But the intimacy of men with their cocks is more than metaphorical. Balinese men, or anyway a large majority of Balinese men, spend an enormous amount of time with their favorites, grooming them, feeding them, discussing them, trying them out against one another, or just gazing at them with a mixture of rapt admiration and dreamy self-absorption.
I’ll come back to Geertz later. From Balinese cocks to Berlin-Friedrichshain: Felix, the owner of Mastercut, the hairdressing salon where I carried out my fieldwork, had decided to add a new product line to the salon’s range. I found him in the kitchen, when he opened the box with the samples. He looked at the flyer and with a big smile in his face he showed me the name of the product, saying: “Opus Magnum. That’s how I want people to call my cock from now on.” This is not an unusual instance. Dicks, sex, and sexuality were topics at Mastercut that were (made) present quite often during my six months of fieldwork. Felix’s penis and its supposedly enormous size were addressed more than once – both by Felix himself and by his employees.
“I’ve seen it cumming”, Felix once commented, when I asked him about the burst blood vessels in one of his eyes. Hours later, when I finally caught the sexual joke (was it only a joke, though?), I was quite embarrassed about my slowness in detecting the double meaning of “cumming” and “coming”. At Mastercut, sexuality wasn’t always “in your face” as this joke was supposed to be or the talk about Felix’s penis or the penis-shaped bottle opener hanging from the kitchen lamp. More often sexuality was “there” and “not there yet” at the same time and in very subtle ways: Florian’s strategy to touch the customer a little bit more than needed while helping him into the kimono in order to check out his build; playful jokes and gestures among the hairdressers – sometimes behind customers’ backs, sometimes with them.
This blog post asks two sets of questions (without attempting to give a definite answer to either of them). The first is concerned with sexuality: What is “it”? And – if “it” can be identified – how is sexuality at play at Mastercut? The second is concerned with representation: How to both write and not explicitly write about sexuality? Or more concretely: How to make use of the sexual playfulness that I encountered in my field without making it the topic of my work?
Sexuality is a topic that philosophers and social scientists engaged with extensively. It has been conceptualized as an orientation towards and being oriented by some-thing(s) (Ahmed 2006), an identity produced in socio-historical configurations (Foucault 1998), subjectivities shaped by bodily sensations and practices (Spronk 2014), sex practices and their categorization (Boellsforff 2011). At Mastercut I could see these different versions of what sexuality is in their intermingled ways. Most of the employees of Mastercut, myself included, identified as gay men. This identity as part of the LGBT+ community was visible in the rainbow flag at Matsercut’s entrance door and on Cedric’s rainbow-colored head. Sexuality, and being gay in particular, was also a practice of fucking and being fucked. Oliver once complained that everybody calls him “the little one” (Kleiner). “Is it because I am childish or a bottom? Because actually I am 1,90 tall”, he wondered. Here, being anally penetrated not only made him gay, but served as an explanation why people infantilized him.
But most importantly, sexuality (i.e. gayness) became a way of relating to the world – thereby most likely resembling Ahmed’s phenomenological approach to sexuality as a way of being oriented towards: “Orientations are about the directions we take that put some things and not others in our reach” (2006, 552). Gayness became a way of sexing the world:
In the kitchen, Franci tells Florian and me that her boyfriend wants to leave her because she doesn’t want to commit to a monogamous relationship. Her reluctance was mostly because of one of Cedric’s customers, a famous DJ whom she wanted “to screw”. The attraction is mutual as his dick pics on Franci’s phone will prove a few months later during the Christmas celebration. Franci gets up, leans against the wall next to the water dispenser and spreads her legs by lifting one of them. She stages an imagined dialogue between the customer and herself. “What are you doing, Franci?”, she asks with her deep voice in the role of the customer. Moaning she replies: “I don’t know. What are we going to do?” Then suddenly, she stops the performance and makes her way out of the kitchen back to work. Nearly out of the room, she turns around and comments on her boyfriend’s attitude: “Well, his fault, when he gets involved with a gay woman.”
Franci used the expression “schwule Frau” to describe herself, with the German adjective “schwul” being used exclusively for gay men. Here, Franci was referring neither to her gender nor sexual orientation – she identified as a woman and had sexual relationships with men and women. Schwul therefore, much more described a way of engaging with her world, an orientation – by openly showing and playfully using her sexual desires. “Somehow, it’s a gay mode of being [‘ne schwule Art]: certain jokes that we make and the freedom to talk about sex”, Franci explained it herself during an interview. Franci together with Mavi, the salon’s apprentice and only other woman, explained to me that for them being schwule Mädchen, gay girls, also was a way to describe what they are not. Mavi and Franci are schwule Mädchen, a reference to a song by a German hip-hop group, and therefore they are not girly girls with their “competitiveness” and “endless catfights”, which Mavi described for her previous workplace, a hair extension studio. Thus, being schwul does not only describe an identity (represented by a rainbow), a sexual practice (of bottoming) or a desire for male bodies (and penises in particular). Being schwul, as presented here, points to sexuality as a way of sexing worlds.
My research is not about sexuality. It does not attempt to say something about gay hairdressers. It is not even about hairdressers – whether they are gay, straight, or queer – but about their practices. And yet, sexuality was constantly “there” and “not there yet” in my field. Sexuality never only stood there alone as an “it”; an object to be described and known in the form of a practice, a desire, or an identity. Instead, sexuality always became an in-between: a relation, an encounter, a way of engaging with the world. Always volatile, never fixed as one thing.
The question is: How to deal with sexuality as an overtly present, but never stable, part of my fieldwork? Making sexuality a topic of my research could easily fall prey to making it a matter of fact – a stable and discernable “it”. Thus, I opted for another way. Similar to how sexuality as an in-between was my interlocutors’ way of engaging with the world, I want to use their sexual playfulness in my writing. Writing sexy. Once again sexuality becomes a volatile in-between. This time, between the ethnographer-writer (me) and his material. In so doing, I draw inspiration from Law’s claim that method (and writing as one significant part of ethnographic methodology; Clifford 1986) never only describes reality out-there but enacts ontologies in-here (Law 2004). He proposes an allegorical mode of discovery that “softens and plays with the boundaries between what is Othered and what is made manifest” (2004, 93).
In my case, writing allegorically attempts to write sexy by making use of my interlocutors’ sexually playful way of engaging with their worlds. This translates into description of sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit encounters at Mastercut in which sexuality becomes an in-between. Between hairdressers and customers, but also between ethnographer and interlocutors. Writing sexy, therefore, requires three things. One, not shying away from sexual explicitness, when necessary. Sometimes, one needs not only thick, but also dick descriptions to convey the ephemeral and sublime. Two, walking the thin line between sexual playfulness and “in your face”-vulgarity. This opens up the question of how to present sexuality as a playful in-betweenness without fixating my interlocutors in the position of the vulgar sexual subject. This leads to three, writing myself in. By actively engaging with my own feelings of joy, embarrassment, or stress, I want to show that sexing worlds is an activity that we all engage in – whether hairdresser or not.
 Thanks to Yoren Lausberg, Sherilyn Deen, and Christopher Zraunig for their queer reading of Geertz.
Ahmed, S. 2006. “Orientations: Toward a queer phenomenology.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12 (4): 543–74.
Boellstorff, T. 2011. “But do not identify as gay: A proleptic genealogy of the MSM category.” Cultural Anthropology 26 (2): 287–312.
Clifford, J. 1986. “Introduction: Partial truths.” In Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography, edited by J. Clifford, and G. Marcus, 1–28. Berkley: University of California Press.
Foucault, M. 1998 (1984). The history of sexuality: The will to knowledge. London: Penguin.
Geertz, C. 1973. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.
Law, J. 2004. After method: Mess in social science research. New York: Routledge.
Spronk, R. 2014. “Sexuality and subjectivity: Erotic practices and the question of bodily sensations.” Social Anthropology 22 (1): 3–21.