I had to smile. We were toward the end of the conference, seminar, event – “Critical Sexology: Sex on Trial“, which focussed on consent and the policing of sexuality – and wandering off in search of sandwiches i chanced upon an academic acquaintance looking quite bemused.
Not how its done
“Is it just me?”, she asked as i sat down beside her: and i assured her it wasn’t. Because i knew exactly what she meant.
A session had just begun on discuss what sex could look like in our ideal society and whether sexual pleasure can have a political role. A succession of quickfire contributors were attacking questions like “sex after the revolution” and an anarchist perspective on sexuality.
It was, i am sure, easy stuff for a certain sort of popular satirist, as well as the Daily Mail “political-correctness gone mad” brigade, and my academic friend, like myself at that point, was finding the format of the event quite daunting. It wasn’t that she disputed the sense or interest of what was being discussed: rather, the (un)structure of some of the academic contributions and, as she complained, half seriously, half tongue in cheek: “I can’t help thinking: how could i mark this?”
And there, in a nutshell, is the strength and weakness of what seems to be a burgeoning tendency in getting to grips with issues of and around sexuality.
A breath of fresh air
Before anyone switches off – decides that this is just an old fogey putting the boot in (because in part, this IS an age thing) – let me say i loved the event. I loved its energy, diversity, sheer challenge. And that was as evident in the poetry, for which we paused shortly after tea as in its more formal sessions.
I loved that it brought together individuals from every academic discipline – and from none.
I loved the way it illustrated two strands i have increasingly been aware of in respect of conferences on sex and sexuality: and while i think these may be problematic for some, still, i think that the positives in terms of result outweigh most of the difficulties.
The importance of intersectinoality
First off is the growing alliance between groups representing different interests: the consciousness of “intersectionality” – the idea that analyses and issues that affect a variety of different groups, from sex workers to disabled people, from young people with issues over their personal sexuality to women and the lgbt community, have much in common.
How an understanding of the attitudes and structures of power and control that oppress one group is relevant in different ways to the others. That is important and increasingly evident in the way that events of this sort range widely across topics. Very evident, too, in the way that groups are starting to coalesce, co-operate and generally wrok together and understand.
So, where a year or two back there might have been a conference on sex work, another on lgbt rights, and so on, now the cross-fertilisation of issues and ideas is made explicit.
The joys of a multi-disciplinary approach
The second tendency lies in style and approach. If academic study is about publishing papers that fit neatly into peer-reviewed academic journals and tick all the research funding boxes, then a fair-sized chunk of academia is now headed off the rails.
But if, as i believe it is, academic inquiry is about original thinking and insight backed with independent stufy, then Critical Sexology, for all that it was never intended to be just an academic event – was absolutely on the money.
At a recent seminar organised by the ONscenity academic forum, i was both impressed and moved to tears by a memoir that may, at some future point, be presented as PhD: it tackled, from a very personal perspective one individual’s struggle to achieve a balance between different conformities – a childhood push towards being the “good girl”, and an adult pressure to be a good feminist – with her own personal desires that took her in another direction entirely.
How would one mark such a work? I don’t know: but it was a thouand times more insightful and thought-provoking than dozens of doctoral papers it has been by misfortune to review over the last few years.
So, too, with this event, which draws much of its inspiration for the current format from its close association with Mutiny. If you wanted something that fit neatly within expected academic boundaries, chances are you would be disappointed. But if you wanted to learn from the experiences of different groups, to gain insight, and didn’t much care whether that insight came from carefully crafted paper – or radical crochet – this was an incredibly valuable event.
As, in the end, i found it.
More write-up of individual sessions to follow.