Sex Critical Christmas round-up

tumbleweed-1Through the tumbleweed blowing around this desolate outpost of the blogosphere, I wave belated greetings to you, dear reader. Those of you paying any sort of attention will be aware that I haven’t blogged at all in the second half of this year. This is mainly because I became unwell in early September with a mysterious infective illness and I have been struggling ever since with pain and what appear to be post-viral fatigue symptoms. It has been really difficult to find the requisite energy just to do my paid institutional work without having much mojo left for my own writing projects. I hope I am finally on the mend now and will be in a position to post more frequently in the new year. I’d like to thank all those who continue to promote and recommend this blog and my other writings on Twitter and elsewhere, despite the recent leanness of offerings. I note the term “sex critical” cropping up in a lot of discussions these days and it is ever so encouraging!

As I have so little inspiration of my own to offer at the moment, I want to share with you in this end-of-year post 10 blogular nuggets of wisdom and wonder from 2013, on broadly sex critical themes, that have inspired me. They appear in no particular order.

1) Erotic novelist Jenny Trout has undertaken a careful and brilliant chapter-by-chapter, feminist- and kink-aware take-down of the dreaded Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Jenny suffers through it so you don’t have to. As well as the lovely writing and insightful analysis, the blogger conveys a visceral sense of the emotional difficulty of reading a text as politically problematical as this one in such close detail. The whole gargantuan undertaking can be read here: http://jennytrout.wordpress.com/jenny-reads-50-shades-of-grey/

2) Everyone’s favourite alternative relationship writer Meg Barker has produced a plethora of pithy pearls this year over at Rewriting the Rules. This piece on gender in the workplace stood out for me owing to its breathtaking clarity. The post provides the full transcript of an interview Meg did with a journalist for an article in The Telegraph. It offers a model of how critical thinkers can deal with over-simplistic, “either/or” questions without accepting the false dichotomy implied within them. http://rewritingtherules.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/gender-in-the-workplace/

3) A big part of a sex critical project, for me, involves extending critique to the institutions that have a vested interest in shoring up the status quo of sex and gender, whether it be the church, medicine, the psy sciences, or – perhaps most controversially, it seems – legislation surrounding marriage and the family. 2013 has seen progress in both the USA and the UK towards the rights of same-sex couples to marry – that is, to join an institution that gives tax breaks to the obediently coupled, that protects private property ownership and familial inheritance thereby stymieing the social redistribution of wealth; an institution that historically was the cornerstone of the ownership of women and children by men. That history matters, and that there are certain pies so rotten that we might want to throw them away altogether rather than extend the right to have a piece, are, to my mind, too often overlooked. Many writers in queer studies have discussed in blog posts and newspaper columns this year similar problems to the ones I have briefly raised above (often to indignant protestations from pro-Kinder and Küche, if not always Kirche, LGB groups and individuals). Queer analyses of marriage rights discuss the classism, racism, and othering of non-monogamous, non-coupled queers that are risked by promoting this agenda as true liberation or equality.  My favourite pieces on this topic have been written by fellow Foucault scholar, Lynne Huffer, who works in the US. Here is Lynne’s brilliant piece from the HuffPo blog on “The New Normal”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lynne-huffer/the-new-normal-not-good-enough_b_1895309.html

4) As a fan of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games  (the books; not the Hollywood adaptations), I liked Hannah McCann’s dissection of the overlap between the fictional Dystopia created by Collins and our own interaction with reality TV and social networking over at BinaryThis. This question in particular may ring bells with all conscientious cultural critics: “if we had our very own Hunger Games […] would I spend my time analysing it in terms of the death drive, or the way in which it rendered boys and girls as equals within a killing field? Would I approach it without revolt, without action to break those kids out of that crazy systematic torture?” Well, quite… http://binarythis.com/2013/11/20/revolutionary-eggs-and-the-pop-cult-basket/

5) Still on the subject of pop culture, I very much enjoyed watching the TV comedy-drama series Orange is the New Black this year. As a long-time Prisoner Cell Block H and Bad Girls enthusiast, I found that the themes of female solidarity and desire, systemic abuse and female resistance, endemic to the women-in-prison genre, were being explored again in this series. However, Kimberly Bernita Ross’s post over at Racialicious also made a huge impact on me with its meticulous dissection of the problems inherent in the representation of race in the series. The fact that the show was marketed as the story of a middle-class white girl who, owing to “bad choices” in her past, encounters a world which is utterly alien to her, is a familiar ploy for selling the stories of non-white characters to Hollywood, the author argues. But this does not justify the fact that the crimes of the women of color represented “are ultimately attributed to a cyclical culture of poverty and behavioral deviance rather than a system that strangles options and restricts upward mobility”. The post is compellingly argued and made me re-view the series, and the genres from which it borrows, much more critically. http://www.racialicious.com/2013/11/26/why-orange-is-not-the-new-black/

6) I’m a big fan of Kitty Stryker’s “Consent Culture” project and the blog attached to it, and I was delighted to be able to invite her to a 2-day workshop I organized at Birmingham on Consent this year. (Kitty reflects on her participation here and here.)  But it’s Kitty’s July post on sex education in Britain, noting what is taught, and why what is not taught is just as – if not more – important and telling, that has really stayed with me. The author argues that if a consent culture is to be realised, then those who devise school sex education curricula urgently need to include in them domestic violence and sexual abuse understood in the broader context of rape culture. (I would add that asexuality, bisexuality, and non-monogamous relationships are other obvious lacunae that need to be included in a non-judgmental, critically aware fashion. I would certainly have found such a syllabus more edifying than the heteronormative, repronormative, anti-choice, Papist propaganda that passed for sex education at my North-of-England RC high school in the 1980s.) http://www.consentculture.com/2013/07/08/guest-post-sex-education-not-just-what-you-teach-but-what-you-dont/

7) This is one of the most honest discussions of (gender, sex, race, economic class, able-bodied) privilege, and what it means to have lots of it, by a remarkably self-aware, self-confessed “privileged person”, that I’ve ever encountered. Thanks, Paul Bernal. More of this sort of thing in the new year, please! http://paulbernal.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/a-few-words-on-privilege/

8) Cliff Pervocracy’s eponymous blog has some excellent critiques of the ways sex and gender are portrayed in mainstream culture. His “Cosmocking” series (mocking Cosmopolitan magazine) is particularly noteworthy. But it’s a post on the multiple meanings of BDSM that I particularly enjoyed this year. While Cliff is an active BDSM-er, this piece, like most of his writing, manages to avoid being dogmatic or partisan. It makes great points about how the explanatory/ ideological frameworks people bring to bear on BDSM shape what they understand by it, such that it is possible for two people, both arguing in good faith, to talk past each other entirely. (I have seen this happen many times.) Also the notion that context has a defining importance, and that the same practice can mean different things depending on how and why it is done, should be so obvious as to go without saying — but it seems it really isn’t. Which is why I’m glad Cliff said it here: http://pervocracy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/the-meanings-of-bdsm.html

9) An issue I struggle with a lot in writing and academia is the question of the usefulness of self-disclosure. In sexuality studies in particular, there is a tendency to begin papers with a litany of labels describing one’s identifications, orientations, and positions and to use anecdotes about one’s own experience as supporting evidence for a broader argument. I understand that speaking about communities and identities to which one does not belong is ethically fraught, and that the “I” portion of the paper is often a plea for legitimacy, for recognition of the right to be doing the work one is doing, in a hyper-critical (not always in the most productive sense of the word) environment. I also recognize the important historical legacy of the idea that articulating lived experience leads to empowerment, located as it is in the second-wave feminist activist tool of consciousness-raising, which insisted that the personal was also – and ultimately – the political. However, I am uneasy, as someone broadly sympathetic to Foucault’s critique of the power of confessional discourse, about the ways in which some acts of self-disclosure shore up ideas of identity as fixed, authoritative, and the locus of truth. I’m interested, then, in finding the most creative, efficacious and challenging ways of using personal self-disclosure in academic and other types of writing. Because of my ongoing ambivalence around this question, I learned a lot from Nadine Muller’s moving post on the political risks and usefulness of writing about the personal – not, in this case, concerning sexuality, but rather mental illness and money problems. http://www.nadinemuller.org.uk/musings/silences-and-selfishness/

tumblr_lzirj0hQSA1rpby42o1_128010) Finally – just for fun – I love these Foucault “Hey Boy” and “Hey Girl” Tumblrs that have appeared over the past year or so… http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/rsrc/2013/12/11/fun-with-foucault/

Wishing you a perfectly critical Christmas – or any other festival you celebrate/ tolerate for the sake of your family or friends/ shun in curmudgeonly fashion (delete as appropriate) at this time of year.

Gender trouble in the academy

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Painting of a Woman. Source: Alami

When lunching in London a few weeks ago with an American colleague over here on a research trip, I found myself without a good answer when she asked me, “What has happened to all the women’s studies programmes in this country?” It is true that there are few remaining named programmes of this kind, yet gender, sexuality and feminist studies are still widely taught under the auspices of more traditional degree programmes throughout UK higher education. But I have been wondering ever since that conversation about the effects of the erosion of their distinct academic identity on students and researchers in these areas.

Widespread in US academia since the 1970s, numerous women’s studies programmes were later established in UK universities, the first named programme being the MA in Women’s Studies, established in 1980 at the University of Kent at Canterbury. In the 1990s, the concept of “women’s studies” was criticized by some post-structuralist academics as being too narrowly concerned with female identity, and therefore ignoring broader issues that impact on, and intersect with, sexism (such as cultural expectations of masculinity and the stigmatization of non‑heterosexual, non-monogamous, disabled and trans* people).

The discipline then underwent the partial transition to “gender studies”, aided by the widespread influence of the work of US-based feminists such as Judith Butler and trans studies scholars such as Susan Stryker. In a parallel way, the academic study of sexuality moved from a focus on “lesbian and gay studies” towards “queer” (the branch of theory that, after French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality, views identity categories as socially constructed fictions). Within both the academic fields of sexuality/gender studies, and the activist communities concerned with similar issues, rigorous debate has centred on the ways in which identity politics might be balanced with analysis of how different types of oppression intersect with each other. As a result, the lines between women’s studies, gender studies and sexuality studies are far from clear-cut, and all three encompass many methodological and theoretical differences.

Today, variations of all of these branches of study are taught within UK universities. But, as my lunch companion’s query suggested, very few institutions offer undergraduate degrees in them, or have departments with an undergraduate population named after them. And, at postgraduate level, the struggle to ensure the survival of such programmes can be intense, stressful, and seemingly never-ending for those who convene them. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn from a colleague the other day that the University of Hull has a named BA programme in gender studies. Yet the “find your course” application on Hull’s website made no mention of it; I only found it later within the department of sociology’s pages. The common practice of incorporating taught elements of women’s, gender or sexuality studies within a traditional discipline means that the flavour of the subject will differ vastly from university to university, depending on the (humanities or social sciences) department within which it is housed. Thus, it is not easy to define quite what women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in the UK context currently is or are (or indeed to determine whether one should properly use a plural or a singular verb).

And this identity crisis exists too for those of us who research and teach in these areas. My degrees were in modern languages and continental philosophy and, throughout my academic career, I have always had a modern languages department code on my payslip. But when people ask what my academic specialism is, I usually answer “sexuality and gender studies”. And when I was promoted to a readership within the French department at Queen Mary, University of London in 2005, I chose the wording “Reader in French Discourses of Sexuality” to describe my specialism (a “brand” I have carried with me to my subsequent chairs at the universities of Exeter and Birmingham). My academic title, then, reflects the very hybrid identity many sexuality and gender studies scholars have, by necessity, to adopt. I feel I need the “French” in there to show where I come from and where I “belong” in disciplinary terms, but the part of the title I care about is the second half. Indeed, beyond being methodologically influenced in my research by the work of Foucault, much of my published work has nothing to do with French per se.

So, is this dual or multiple identity that many scholars of women’s, gender and sexuality studies feel forced to adopt an advantage or a burden in the academic marketplace and workplace? Jason Hartford, a doctoral graduate from the University of Oxford, who also works on queer theory from a modern languages perspective and who is currently seeking his first permanent post, opines that: “there being no structural recognition of the subject to speak of among university departments, it remains very difficult to market yourself as an emerging sexuality studies scholar unless you have another specialism (or two or three) that does have a department named after it.”

Where programmes and modules in sexuality and gender are not contained within more traditional departments, they are instead often affiliated to staff research networks or centres that (nominally) straddle disciplines, schools and colleges. In such organizational situations, the delivery of provision often relies on the goodwill and personal passion of colleagues whose teaching for the cross-departmental MA or MRes may not be recognized in department-based workload allocation models (especially if they are not from the department – usually that of the centre’s director – that bureaucratically “owns” the programme and centre). Senior managers are often keener on the idea of interdisciplinarity, as the buzzword du jour, than on ensuring that those whose research and teaching is properly interdisciplinary are enabled to pursue it straightforwardly within the institutional infrastructure. Similarly, many colleagues report that, while such networks and centres are encouraged, there is seldom any financial investment from institutions to help them flourish; centres are typically expected to generate their own income – and to make a profit for the university – from the outset.

In some institutions, programmes may not even be harnessed to existing research centres with a hub of staff. One graduate, who asked to remain anonymous, told me: “I did a master’s in women’s studies at [an elite UK institution] in 2009-10, and although the cohort and many of the teachers were inspirational, the university’s support for the programme was dreadful. There were no permanent or full-time members of staff devoted to it: everyone involved managed it by carving out a space from their other jobs.” She also commented that: “the curriculum seemed to only reach up to 1995, when the course had been founded, with no mention at all of anything happening since then […] and was very much white-Western-middle-class focused — little content on the developing world, or intersectionality, or on any kind of activism other than through a historical lens.”

While the organization of some programmes may be less than ideal, the national reality is that many programmes and modules in the field are being withdrawn altogether. And, whereas the graduate cited above complains about the absence of intersectionality (the consideration of how axes of oppression such as sexism, racism, classism, homophobia etc., interact) in the white-women-centric curriculum of the programme she studied, elsewhere it is feminism itself that is perceived to be missing from the study of social institutions and justice. Phil Hubbard, Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Kent, told me that: “Sociology at University of Kent used to be one of the leading centres of women’s studies thanks to Mary Evans, Jan Pahl and others. But we’ve cut our gender and women’s studies PhD programmes, as well as undergraduate modules, so we teach class, race, embodiment and health in our sociology and social sciences undergraduate programmes with little formal teaching provision in gender or sexuality. It’s very sad.”

Despite the problems of institutional organization that can impact upon the student experience of learning women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in the UK, graduates of these subjects are vocal about the significance of the subject matter and the value of their studies. I issued an invitation on Twitter, when preparing this article, for graduates to send me their impressions of their degrees, and many of the responses I received focused on the benefits of the critical-thinking skills taught within such fields both for their own sake and for their application in activist and professional spheres.

Linnea Sandström Lange, an alumna of the London School of Economics’ MSc in Gender, Policy and Inequalities, said her degree equipped her with “a whole different layer of analysis and understanding, without which you cannot work against injustice”. And Laura Theobald, who read a BA in Women’s Studies at the University of Redlands in the US and is currently a student on the MA in Women’s and Gender History at the University of Nottingham, agreed that her training made her “critical of the world”. She finds this critical faculty useful in her role as a postgraduate officer at Nottingham, which partly involves advocating from an equality and diversity perspective on behalf of students. Where comments on these programmes were less favorable, two criticisms were raised numerous times. One was the lack of space given to masculinity studies in the curricula of “gender” (rather than specifically “women’s”) studies programmes. The other was the insufficient attention paid to the fraught relationship between women of colour and Western feminism. The overwhelming consensus from my informal Twitter poll, however, is that current and past students are calling for more comprehensive, up-to-date, relevant, and properly funded provision in areas of study that they perceive to be of great value — and that are instead being underfunded and cut.

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Painting of a Woman. Source: Alami

So is the picture the same in other anglophone countries? Expert in the history of sexuality, Ivan Crozier, a Senior Lecturer in the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh, and currently seconded to the University of Sydney, Australia, reports that, although provision in sexuality and gender studies is being cut in Edinburgh, his history department at Sydney has an honors course and a graduate seminar on the history of sexuality, while several other undergraduate courses have sexuality and gender-specific lectures. “It’s a very different climate for that kind of study here,” he says.

And Susan Knabe, an Assistant Professor jointly in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, reports that while gender studies programmes at Guelph and McMaster have recently been closed, her own institution’s programmes continue to recruit well. “The introduction of a gender studies component in high schools this year [in the province of Ontario] will be very helpful in making folks more aware of gender/women’s studies before they arrive at university,” she adds.

Given education secretary Michael Gove’s reputation for conservatism – exemplified by the new history curriculum he has developed with Simon Schama that all but eliminates the study of contributions made by anyone other than titled, white, British men and a handful of noble-born women – it is extremely difficult to imagine such an addition being made to UK school curricula. But it is precisely because we are witness to an increase in social divisiveness in education, as in many social policies, that young people in the UK more urgently than ever need to be taught to think critically about how power works with regard to categories of sex, gender, multiculturalism, race, (dis)ability and socio-economic class.

Evelyn Torton Beck wrote in an article on the role of feminist education in 1990 that “women’s studies is at the centre of a revolution whose aim is nothing less than the transformation of the university”. But, as a scholar who believes that teaching is a form of activism, I would agree with the graduates quoted above and argue that what is taught and written in the academy can lead to social transformation. And this is why the disappearance of so many programmes in women’s, gender and sexuality studies should be a cause of concern to us all.

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A slightly shorter version of this piece first appeared in the Times Higher Education on 20 June 2013. (Link here). It is republished here with their kind permission.

A curmudgeon’s 5-point guide to the horrors of Valentine’s Day

538021_10152176360145995_418958348_nThe reasons to despise this day are probably too numerous to list in a short post, and the web is already awash with critical analyses of the problems of Saint V (I agree with everything Priyamvada Gopal says in the Guardian, for example), so I shall confine myself here to drawing attention to a mere sample of the most egregious:

1)   It is a meaningless, arbitrary, commercial junket designed to persuade people to part with their cash in celebration of a faux, cliché-ridden, romantic “holiday”. It is Hallmark’s dream and the critical thinker’s nightmare. Restaurants are packed to bursting with grinning, hand-holding sheep, gazing into each other’s eyes over stubby candles and trying to forget how much they despise each other the rest of the year – for the good of the children and the mortgage. Food-shopping also becomes a nightmare on this date, as one desperate, manic-eyed couple wrestles viciously with another for the last dressed lobster or bottle of special-offer champagne. (I witnessed this in Waitrose last year. I was tempted to distribute mogadons to all present.) In short, those who do not engage in this circus are not safe to eat out or buy food to cook at home on 14 February.

2)   Valentine’s day marginalizes those who, through determined choice or otherwise, are not part of a couple and encourages people to locate their self-worth in their desirability to another person. The cultural effects of this, especially on the insecure, non-normative young, are invidious. Quoting Rae Earl’s My Mad, Fat Teenage Diary, which I was moved to read having watched the TV adaptation on 4OD, re: Valentine’s Day cards: “Mum got three. Loads of people at school got one. One cow got flowers. […] I’m just so jealous I could cry. Of course I didn’t get any. You get home and all the way back you are hoping – but no. Not a chance. I hate Valentine’s Day. It’s like a distorting mirror. It makes you feel even fatter than you already are”. The discourse of romantic love is traditionally aimed at and, in high capitalism, marketed to, young, heterosexual women. It promises a huge lie. It promises that being desired, and measuring oneself in terms of patriarchy-compliant fuckability, will materially and emotionally improve one’s life. Probably, the very opposite is true.

3)   It 418233_10150661065115979_953643242_nis heteronormative and mono-normative in design, even if individuals choose to adapt or creatively deform the way in which they celebrate it. While I am all in favour of queer inversions and subversions in general, some institutions/ customs are, to my mind, so full of rot that they are not worth the effort of recuperation. I’m afraid marriage comes under that heading for me too. If a system is built on dubious historical foundations (the ownership of women) and fosters ideological iniquities (tax breaks and unmerited social approbation for those who enter that state), then what is queer about grabbing a piece of the pie for yourselves, while leaving others (the single; those in non-standard, non-paired, non-mongomous relationships; the asexual) out in the cold? How is this even vaguely radical?

4)   Loving somebody or several somebodies is great. Structuring your understanding of love around a set of culturally dictated norms borrowed from the outmoded, misogynistic discourse of  “romance” or “courtly love” is not. And expressing that highly codified idea of love on one day of the year only is, frankly, ridiculous.

44ff711f60dfa448e16aa4594ce08aee255)   If there is a holiday to celebrate happy, smug, conformist coupledom, why is there no holiday to celebrate how much one loves oneself? The answer is obvious. Hetero-repro-patriarchy does not want us being happy and at peace on our own (or in our friendship groups, or with our networks of lovers). In particular, hegemonic culture aggressively discourages primary narcissism, especially for women. Heteropatriarchy is threatened by asexuality, by alternative relationship structures, and by sexual dissidence. It wants us all to be obedient citizens: coupling up, paying taxes, buying houses, feeding the economy, and engaging in the ultimate secondary narcissism of producing children.

Some of these points are obviously tongue-in-cheek, while others suggest issues we might genuinely want to think about more seriously. Most fundamentally, we need to change the cultural script so that people no longer ask: “What’s wrong with me because I’m alone on Valentine’s Day?”, but rather: “What’s wrong with a culture that encourages me to ask that sort of question?”.

Some thoughts on words and power, prompted by recent debates in print and social media

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, […] how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Writing is an inherently ethically charged act. Words are never neutral. Each time we exercise the force of our polemic and employ rhetoric to argue, persuade, or provoke, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves: what are the effects of our words likely to be, and who will be served by them? Of course there can be unintended outcomes. People read and interpret differently. Someone will always be offended. The meaning of words does not reside wholly with their producer. And yet, some effects are wholly predictable, aren’t they?

It is all too easy to use words against the marginalized and vulnerable (even if we occupy the position of the marginalized and vulnerable ourselves). The fact is that we all internalize the prejudices of the world in which we live. Slurs can be unthinkingly repeated by those of us who would rationally challenge the beliefs upon which they rest.* But the effects of slurs, whether intended or not, whether explicitly and maliciously written or carelessly and casually insinuated, can only be to perpetuate the status quo. Unless we are really happy with the system in which we live—a late-capitalistic hetero-patriarchy—we might want to think very carefully about any words we put out into the world that can have the net effect of shoring it up while pitting potential allies in discontent against each other. Context matters too. When a profit-making publication is paying a person to produce words, and when more money will be made out of perceived outrages committed, the onus on the critical writer to act ethically and deliver a message of social commentary without repeating society’s bigotry is all the more urgent. Yet even on our own blogs, on Twitter, in the free media that is the World Wide Web, how much more efficacious activism would be if we applied these ethical considerations to all our words.

Too often, sight of a potential common political goal is lost. Groups, self-defining along the lines of identity politics, engage in the much-discussed “oppression Olympics”, misdirecting righteous anger at each other rather than at the systems that produce and maintain the conditions of their shared oppression. A concerted effort on the part of a marginalized group, motivated by the passion of injustice felt, can be tremendously potent and have effects that are devastating. But what a waste of effort if such resistant, transformative zeal is misdirected, not at the institutions that perpetuate iniquity, but rather at a member of another group also urging change but using unwise words carelessly or angrily.

Writers interested in social justice need to think about strategies for promoting resistance and commonality. We need to avoid further dividing those who share an investment in challenging normativity, but whose approaches issue from (at once entrenched and precarious) exclusionary identitarian positions. A question to ask ourselves, before putting down words on paper or a screen, has to be: am I speaking truth to power or am I attacking those who are already disadvantaged by the system? This is not a matter of “political correctness”. It is, rather, both an expedient political strategy and a commitment to the ethic of avoiding causing harm to others. For, make no mistake, words can do harm.

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*In cases where we are unintentional mouthpieces for a bigotry we do not believe in, but that is so prevalent in our culture that we soak in it and unwittingly reproduce it, we can respond responsibly and graciously when criticized. And we can learn from such criticisms in order to become better writers and readers. I try to do this. I will go on trying to do this.

What is “Sex Critical” and why should we care about it?

The title of this blog — Sex Critical — is taken from a term I used (I don’t know if I could legitimately go so far as to say “coined”, though I hadn’t heard or read it previously) in a paper I recently wrote on the ubiquitous (and ever so tedious) Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James. One of the aims of my paper was to show how most existing commentary on the books is a bit limited and frustrating because it pursues rigidly dichotomous lines of response. The nature of these will be all too familiar to anyone who regularly reads academic, journalistic, and feminist writing on sexuality and gender. On the one hand, liberal or “sex-positive” feminists and activists criticized the book’s gender stereotyping and the (in)accuracy of its portrayal of BDSM, but defended strongly its exploration of sexual practices and behaviours and promoted the beneficent effects on female readers of exposure to erotic material — any erotic material. On the other hand, certain members of the radical feminist, anti-BDSM fringe used Fifty Shades as something of a pretext for furthering an agenda which holds that there is no difference between BDSM and domestic abuse, both being versions of the heteronormative patriarchal archiplot.

I wanted in my paper to try to talk about the trilogy in a way that avoided this polarization, a way that challenged those rather tired binaries of positive/ negative; good/ bad; healthy/ harmful. (My training in continental philosophy, the fact that I imbibed Derrida with my Alma Mater’s milk, makes the urge to challenge binaries almost an involuntary reflex.) And, more fundamentally — and reaching beyond that paper’s concern with Fifty Shades I wanted to question the value of the sex-positive/ anti-sex dichotomy altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see the benefits of a sex-positive agenda and I admire the writing of some sex-positive academics and bloggers. (I particularly like some of the more recent writings of Cliff [formerly Holly] Pervocracy.) Women’s sexual possibilities have been historically limited and regulated, with iniquitous double standards being applied to our desires and behaviour. It is a legitimate feminist endeavour to think about how the relationship between gender, sex, and shame needs to be put into question. But a fair bit of so-called third-wave feminism or (heinous term coming up) “post-feminism” is less concerned with critical interrogation and more with celebrating a “liberation” that is only arguably won, and with arguing for the liberating nature of sex per se (a premise that, as a Foucault-sympathizer, I cannot totally accept). Moreover, the championing of forms of sex that look pretty identical to hetero-patriarchal ideals, rebranded as ironic, postmodern, and thereby “empowering” (a word I also loathe), troubles me.

A recent post by a blogger I admire enormously offered a spirited response to precisely these tendencies in sex positivism. A Radical Transfeminist proposed rehabilitating and adopting the term “sex-negative”, usually flung around in the guise of a slur, as a proud badge of resistance to the worst excesses of knee-jerk, neo-liberal, individualistic choice feminism and the worrying tendency of some of its adherents to adopt rhetoric that strongly resembles compulsory sexuality for women. What of asexuality? What of the fact that many women’s (indeed people’s) experiences of sex are traumatic, abusive or simply indifferent? Why should a whole social justice movement devote itself to the pursuit of orgasm? These are valid questions. While I very much liked the strategic thrust of A Radical Transfeminist’s post, I prefer to eschew altogether the either/ or logic that the lexicon of “positive”/ “negative” presupposes. I also dislike the way in which such language silences the questions that to me seem key: positive for whom? Negative in terms of whose ideological agenda and interests? The very notion that “positive”/ “negative” can ever be universal qualities, that anything can ever be equally “good” or “bad” for all groups and classes, strikes me as ultimately wrongheaded.

The following may be a few starting points:

  • All forms of sexuality and all sexual representations should be equally susceptible to critical thinking and interrogation about the normative or otherwise ideologies they uphold.
  •  The discursive trappings of heterosexual relationships, intercourse, and reproduction deserve just as much critical scrutiny as non-normative identities/ behaviours/ presentations and “extreme” bodily practices (if not more, given the historical lack of critical attention brought to bear on what is perceived to be the norm, leading to unquestioning acceptance of potential inequalities and harm).
  • To what extent do we need to question the usefulness of the term “sexuality” and its reach as an umbrella? Foucault advocated in his 1976 work La volonté de savoir (The Will to Knowledge) replacing “sex-desire” with “bodies and pleasures”. He believed that the reification of “sexuality”, in all its discursive forms, contributed to the constraints on social subjects to perform assigned identities, and to invest in the medical, psychological and ontological meaningfulness of those identities. We have not moved very far in the direction of Foucault’s declassification of sex in the 30-odd years since he wrote those words. If anything, we are proliferating ever more discourses about it and believing more ardently that it is the truth of who we are. It might be time to become altogether more critical about “sex” qua classificatory field.

Since delivering that paper on Fifty Shades at a session of the Onscenity network, I’ve become aware of folks using the term “sex critical” (and kindly name-checking me) in academic seminars, on Twitter, and elsewhere on the WWW. It seemed both appropriate and timely, then, to give that name to the blog I have been threatening to set up for so long, and to attempt to develop here, over the coming weeks and months, a viable sex-critical methodology for analyzing cultural phenomena pertaining to sexuality and gender.

[Disclaimer: I am an unapologetic professional academic, working from a critical humanities perspective, and with a broadly constructionist worldview. Although I intend to write here in a less formal style than I would deploy in, for example, an article for New Formations, I will use academic terminology. There is no obligation to read here if academese offends you or is otherwise not your “thang”. All opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the official views of my employing institution. Sometimes I might post about things entirely unrelated to sexuality and gender, just because I feel like it.]

[Edit: 1 January 2013: My paper on Fifty Shades of Grey discussed in this post is now published as an article in Psychology and Sexuality, available here.]