Academia and Its Sexual Malcontents

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In my first year of graduate school, I spoke to an undergraduate class about life pursuing a Master’s in Sexuality Studies alongside an alumni from my program.

While we waited for the professor to introduce us, she leaned over to me and whispered, “Are they still teaching sexuality but not sex in that department?”

My eyes went wide and I only managed to utter a small “Yes” before the professor called the class to attention. Sitting next to that polished, astute woman, all I could think was, “Holy Shit. Sex is taboo in sexuality studies.”

I often feel straddled between two worlds.

On one planet, populated by the smart kids from high school, everyone talks about structural violence, theory, race, sexual identities, gender and queer politics.  The denizens of this planet worship ideas.

On the other planet, populated  by the weird kids from high school, everyone talks about cock rings, lube, blow jobs, anal sex, genital sores and Pedobear. The denizens of this planet worship acts.

I want these two worlds to collide but only if they fit together post-collision. Why can’t we talk about cock-ring use as a part of sexual identity? Lube access as a structural impediment to sexual happiness? Anal sex as it relates to gender?

Academia shies away from sex. We only talk about sexuality, not because academics in this field are prudes, but because we want funding for research. People with lots of money are prudes. They will sponsor HIV/AIDS prevention research but not studies on women’s attitudes towards blow jobs or condom use in the porn industry.

In a rather testy final essay for a professor, I wrote the following on academia and sex:

One major thing I have learned, in general, is that many academics like to skirt around the topic of sex as if the act were something crass, best left to the plebes. I am now absolutely certain that change cannot come from an institution so bent on removing its hive mind from that of the general population. Wherever I have seen organizations doing great change to make people feel comfortable with their own and others’ sexualities, academia is suspiciously absent.

On the flipside, community organizations struggle for funding because they seem unprofessional. Part of this is due to the heavy sex talk but the other part is because they don’t do the polished professional dance practiced by academics. I wonder if this is unconscious distancing.

So I sit in both worlds, always feeling a bit on the outside. Too sex-minded for academia, too theory-minded for grassroots sex ed.

Ideas and action must come together to be effective. Sexual theory and sexual bodies must be understood as inherently linked. I am one of the only people in my cohort with a good grasp on physiological and biological aspects of sexuality.

Go ask someone from my department how an erection works. I would expect an incredulous blank stare for that kind of question. Go ask someone in the streets about queer theory and you will get the same weird stare. Bodies matter when talking about sex. For most people sex = physical.

You can’t spit sexual theory to the general population without relating thoughts to their visceral experiences. And mental masturbation does not count as a sex act.

12 thoughts on “Academia and Its Sexual Malcontents”

  1. i find this is true for *every* academic pursuit. i studied music and cognitive science and there is a very strong divide between the ivory tower and the “low class”, “popular” and “folk”. academia is all about exclusion and academics must enforce the idea that academic pursuits are far more valuable and therefore valued than what the proletariat are after. in my four and a half years studying music at an institution of higher learning (see, the language we use even connotes loftiness) we never talked about pop music. once, a professor taught a single class on rock as a treat/break from studying traditional western harmony (bach, mozart, etc), but those ideas were not included in the official curriculum.

    i think the problem goes far beyond sex…

  2. I’m studying human sexuality in undergrad (looking to continue in a masters or PhD program next semester, and I love reading your impressions of SFSU) and I feel the same way constantly. Be the change in the system. (:

  3. Welcome to the real world. Academics tend to teach what can be taught, life skills are something else. Scarce and valuable knowledge rarely gets broadcast. FWIW, coincidence (in the sense of the application of several different skill sets) is _really_ important – and valuable. I think you are about there.

  4. Thanks for this post. It’s funny how this thought is echoed across disciplines. What is high art or low art? High culture or low culture? Is it just as important to analyze a temple as it is to examine a park bench designed to keep the homeless from sleeping on it? That’s why it’s important that you’re here and you are a needed person.

  5. Gayle Rubin pointed out the value in a new archaeology of sex based on acts rather than the less revealing category of identity in “Thinkin Sex,” and addressed this issue of academia’s aversion to the act as well. There’s been some very good work done around this conceptualization, much of it on everyday culture and sex. I’m not sure it’s as blank a slate as you’re suggesting. But if you’re arguing for a de-radicalization of the work—which it sounds like to me—then fuck off of course.

    1. Thank you for bringing up an excellent theorist and her classic text on sexuality. I have to correct your misreading of it though: she critiqued how groups privilege certain sexual behaviors over others and how we reward those engaging in the top-tiers of this sex hierarchy, as well as disputes and struggles over the boundaries between good and bad sex. Look around for a link to her “Charmed Circle” diagram.

      What she advocates for is assessing sexual relationships based on “the way partners treat each one another, the level of mutual consideration, the presence of absence of coercion, and the quantity and quality of the pleasure they provide.” (page 283). After “Thinking Sex” very little theoretical work has emerged in academia discussing specific sexual acts and pleasure instead of identities. And I believe you meant “paradigm” not “archeology”.

      Also: Congratulations The Other Gardener! You are the first banned commenter! If you suggest anyone fuck off for their ideas you will be blocked, of course.

  6. Interesting post and comments, though I don’t see the point of some of the classist terms (‘plebes’ and ‘proletariat’). Academics generally don’t belong to an upper class. Increasingly, they don’t even belong to an upper middle class — many are more like seasonal laborers working on short-term contracts.

    For an academic program to meet the objectives you have in mind, it would have to include a strong contingent from the life sciences. But there are institutional barriers that make it difficult for that to happen, esp. since the relevant humanities and social-science faculty are likely to be post-modernists who denigrate science. You see this, e.g., in discussions of sexual orientation, where faculty from the life sciences will take seriously and evaluate hypotheses about a genetic component playing a role here, only to find themselves being labeled as reactionaries by the humanities and social-science types.

    It’s ironic, given all the fashionable Descartes bashing among the po-mo’s, but their approach is itself a Cartesian hangover. Like Descartes, they set up a strict dichotomy between body and mind, as evidenced in their insistence on a rigid distinction between Gender and Sex. For instance, Gender lives in the mind — it’s freely constructed as an expression of the real ME — while Sex (as male or female or ambiguous) reeks of the icky brute given body, a genetically shaped creature largely impervious to constructionist and deconstrucionist whimsy (of the humanist variety). This Cartesian flight from the body results, eventually, in an academic program devoted to SEXUALITY, conceived as being safely within the lofty life of the mind, which has little if anything to do with filthy, bodily sex.

  7. Yup, this happens across the board. When I was still a professor, I practically had to apologize for teaching Aristophanes and Martial because they used words that were properly translated as “fucking.” It was ridiculous! And yeah, I have to agree that this is the result of a system still run by out-of-touch richies. That’s why I got out, though.

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