Words’ Worlds: A Queer And Pleasant Danger and Testo Junkie

To describe Preciado and Bornstein’s works with one word, it would be: irreverent. Their literature represents cornerstones of queer literature, sexual liberation and philosophy.

May 2, 2021

When picking up either of these books, you’ll likely get the same impression from the subheadings and first chapters: Kate Bornstein and Paul B. Preciado won’t hold anything back. A Queer And Pleasant Danger summarizes itself perfectly on the cover: “the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today.” It opens with Bornstein recounting a failed attempt to contact her daughter — who was still a Scientologist — and a subsequent act of self-harm.
Preciado’s book, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, begins with the untimely death of his friend and his response of filming an explicit video in his memory. These books are insightful and fascinating, but they are not for the faint of heart.
If I could describe both of these authors in one word, it would be: irreverent. Bornstein has been an icon for many years and for many reasons, from her speaking out against Scientology, as an ex-member to her other works such as Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook. You get a sense of honesty about Bornstein’s identity throughout A Queer And Pleasant Danger, because she shows her internal state rather than simply telling it. For example, the turning point that convinced her to join Scientology was when a recruiter explained that “thetans” — the spirits Scientologists believe are the essences of individuals — have no gender and are continuously reincarnated into multiple bodies of multiple sexes. This idea was what Bornstein clung to as she rose through the ranks of Scientology, even as she was pushed into a traditionally masculine role, which shows how gender dysphoria can influence every aspect of your choices and personality.
She also doesn’t seem to fear what people think of her in general. She uses a lot of language that would be considered offensive to the transgender and lesbian community. This is not because she is trying to provoke people, but because she comes from a generation where that vocabulary was used — that’s just the way that she talks. She discusses her struggles with various mental illnesses — including borderline personality disorder — and how a BDSM community helped her develop. Many transgender women would be hesitant to address such topics for fear of playing into stereotypes about trans women being predatory sexual deviants. But Bornstein has enough trust in her audience to talk about these things and know that they will take her as she is.
Preciado is more famous within Spanish and French philosophy circles since he is from Spain and predominantly writes in French. However, he has a place in modern European philosophy for a reason and Testo Junkie is certainly not a typical autobiography. The best way I can describe it is half Foucauldian philosophy and half memoir, which is itself half pornographic. Preciado calls it a “body essay,” mainly because it catalogues his experiences with taking black market testosterone for a year and having many sexual encounters along the way.
It also describes what he calls the “pharmacopornographic regime,” building on and refashioning Michel Foucault’s theory of how society polices bodies and sexualities. There is a lot going on and the philosophical parts are quite dense, but it’s never boring. Although he has his moments of wit, Preciado’s maverick nature comes through in the ideas rather than his tone. He views himself as a “gender hacker” and treats his body as something to be experimented with. Reading how he talks about himself is sometimes like reading a lab rat’s thoughts as it runs through a maze.
As you may have gathered from these summaries, these books manage to be subversive in different ways and for different reasons. Bornstein’s book is structured like a typical autobiography. Her voice throughout her autobiography is sarcastic and witty, but it perfectly balances infectious humor with a constant sense of struggle. One chapter describes an incident from her adolescence where her father hired a prostitute for her to lose her virginity with. We have already seen Bornstein’s constant sense of dysphoria and self-hatred, so the build-up to meeting the prostitute is terrifying. Fortunately, once they do meet, the prostitute senses that Bornstein doesn’t want to lose her virginity and for the first time Bornstein confesses that she is a girl.
This scene is crafted in a way that endears it to both cisgender and transgender audiences; cisgender readers have seen in previous chapters how constant and uncomfortable gender dysphoria is, so they have the foundation to sympathize with this moment. Whereas the scenario is nightmarish – transgender people are able to imagine the horror of the situation, but also feel the euphoria that comes with finally revealing your true self to somebody. Bornstein not only manages to provoke empathy from cisgender readers, but does so without falling into tropes such as “being born in the wrong body.”
In contrast, Testo Junkie isn’t a comfortable read for anyone – I don’t even think Preciado was comfortable while writing it. This is largely because Preciado doesn’t paint himself in a flattering light. In fact, there are certain passages that are flagrantly misogynistic. Just as he is hyper-focused on his own body as a site of pleasure and biological experimentation, he doesn’t see much in his lovers outside of their physical features.
More explicit and insidious generalizations about women are also made, from treating them purely as sexual conquests to comparing women getting manicures to men receiving sexual favors. I completely understand how moments like these may turn readers off, and I was uncomfortable when I first read them too. However, the more I thought about them, the more reasons I came up with for why Preciado would portray himself in this way. Internalized misogyny is an issue faced not only by cisgender women but also transgender men, so perhaps acknowledging and expressing that resentment is Preciado’s way of working through those emotions. Besides, given his analysis on how the pharmacopornographic era is characterized by controlling female bodies’ sexualities and male sexual satisfaction, his unfiltered misogyny could be seen as an acknowledgement that he is not immune to that control. The narrator of Testo Junkie is confusing and unsavory at times, but it makes for an amazing character study.
A Queer And Pleasant Danger ends somewhat conclusively, as Bornstein is now living happily with her partner and several pets. The book is framed as a letter to Bornstein’s daughter, who was born into Scientology and will most likely not read the book. However, Bornstein says that she and her story are available if her daughter needs them.
Testo Junkie doesn’t end conclusively because there is no conclusive end. Gender binaries are still rigidly enforced, transgender and non-binary people still struggle for basic recognition and rights and Preciado wasn’t even close to finished with his transition. In fact, the book was originally published under the name Beatriz Preciado and he used general neutral pronouns. The fact that the book itself was a work in progress is one of the best demonstrations of the lengthy yet liberating process of transitioning.
Oscar Bray is a Columnist, Staff Writer and Staff Illustrator. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.org
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