Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, Feminist Press, New York, £16.99 (Amazon Kindle edition £6.47)
Testo Junkie addresses its theme – sex, drugs and biopolitics – in two ways. The first is autobiographical, Preciado’s account of her life as she takes testosterone, in the form of a gel applied to the skin. This she does without medical supervision, since she isn’t interested in transitioning, in going through what she sees as a medically defined process through which she rejects her female identity. So the doses of testosterone are low – not enough to cause “masculinisation” such as facial hair. This is an experiment, to test or play with her identity as a woman, to examine its boundaries. She is, in her phrase, a “gender hacker”. She writes:
I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it.
Rather, she is:
the future common artificial ancestor for the elaboration of new species in the perpetually random processes of mutation and genetic drift.
This is then about sex – as in a category of human being, for example male or female – but it’s also about sex as in having sex, sexual desire. The book begins with Preciado’s account of penetrating both her vagina and her anus with dildos, as she records the scene on video. She tests the edge of her femininity, experimenting with masculinity, an identity as a drag king, or as a gay man.
Only a small number of people live a life like this – though the numbers who do, sometimes identifying as genderqueer, is increasing – so those of us who don’t have something to learn here. It’s striking that Preciado feels able to describe her life as she does, to abandon privacy and a certain distanced status which attaches to an “author” – or in her case, Professor of Political History of the Body, Gender Theory, and History of Performance at Université Paris VIII. On the other hand, the life she describes is a pretty glamorous one – self-medication, queer sex, shifting from Paris to Barcelona to Los Angeles changing languages as we go, never running out of toothpaste or getting caught in the rain. In fact, through her autobiographical writing you suspect that Preciado is commodifying herself, merging together her “professional” and her “personal” personas into one, well, commodity.
Preciado’s second approach to her theme, which intercuts the autobiography, is an analysis of the “pharmacopornographic era” in which, she asserts, we now live. One of her most convincing claims here is that cisgender heterosexuality, identities and behaviours typically described as “natural”, are in fact increasingly shaped by means of pharmaceuticals. The way that many cisgender women now experience their sexuality, for example, depends on the pill, which had only been around since the 1960s. As regards cisgender men, Viagra is one of the most profitable drugs of recent times. Heterosexuality is then socially constructed and keeps changing – modern heterosexuality and Victorian heterosexuality are quite different things. Modern heterosexuality depends increasingly on an interaction between sex and medicine, especially big pharma.
This is not, it’s worth noting, a book in which everything is dealt with in terms of ideology, of discourse. You start off reading what seems like a postmodern text – and the neologisms and references to the Benthamite panopticon are all in place – but its assertions are relentlessly material, biological. Nor is it a book which deals only with the experience of some monolithic category of women, or of trans people. It deals with globalisation, with race – the Pill was tested on Puerto Rican women, many of them illiterate, to check that the dosage cycle was simple enough for American women to follow(!) It aims to bring together a coherent, global account.
In this praiseworthy aim, I have to say, I think it fails. Preciado has certainly detected important trends. But then she over-generalises, makes them explain everything. For example:
the crux of work has become sexual, spermatic, masturbatory, toxicological; if you’re expecting any economic benefit from work, it must produce the effect of a fix… in a porn economy, there is no work that isn’t destined to cause a hard-on, to keep the global cock erect… Our current form of capitalism or production could be defined as an economy of ejaculation. The only authentic surplus value is the index of the cock’s elevation, its hardness and rigidity, the volume of its spermatic ejaculations.
we’re swimming in nuclear semen in which we are learning to breathe like mutant beasts…
This is visionary, hallucinatory, rhapsodic stuff, and there’s a certain kind of pleasure to that – but still, it doesn’t actually mean anything. Constructing an overall picture of the world, now and in the past, requires a coherent intellectual framework and a certain humility before the facts, both of which are regrettably absent here. So we have an eclectic approach which cites Weber, Judith Butler, Foucault, Marx and many more authors without constructing any overall synthesis of their widely differing views of the world. We come across the assertion that feminism grew in the 1950s, when it only did so in the 1960s, or that medieval women were able to use substances derived from plants to control their own fertility, for which there is no evidence at all.
All in all, there are many striking perceptions here, much interesting recent history, a fascinating account of a life embodying something new. In the end, I’m sorry to say that its claims for the pharmacopornographic era are unproven, its analysis incoherent. But it’s an exhilarating ride.