Friday, June 09, 2006

What is So Shameful about Sexuality Studies?

Yesterday's post on objectification has turned out to be quite satisfying. Thank you for your comments, which have surely helped me think more about this question. As my co-author and I drove to the library today, we talked about one aspect of the question of "sex-positive" feminism, namely the squeamishness that we see among our mostly liberal colleagues when we try to introduce to them a course of study in sexuality or an administrator position that deals specifically with helping young people develop healthy attitudes toward sex.

As Lucy (my co-author) pointed out, when lefties talk about sex with students, even the administrators, they tend to design that conversation around sharing statistical or biological information, but shy away from the more complicated questions about how to make sense of their quite powerful urges to delight in sexual activity with others. Most of these conversations seem rather clinical. Why? In part I think this is because the adults given the responsibility to faciliate these discussions are pretty uncomfortable talking about sex. We are a culture that stumbles, turns bright red, talks in silly euphemisms, or just plain avoids the topic. We don't prepare ourselves, let alone our children, for inhabiting our sexual self well.

Our students use alcohol as the great lubricator (heck adults do too!). It enables them to make a move, or to delight in the pleasures of the flesh and then disavow the whole thing the next day. The fact that alcohol is the medium for making sex easier or sex talk less embarrassing is a problem. I don't often see my colleagues helping us out here. In fact, they tend to get quite agitated when some of us want to introduce sex, quite explicitly, into our curriculum. Awhile back I wrote a post about the battles in my Women's Studies department over changing the name to Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. The opponents to the name change were fundamentally disturbed by putting "sex" in the program title.

The more I think about this reaction, the more I am convinced that their discomfort with the word "sexuality" comes from their fear that our curriculum will appear less "scholarly." Sex is too "personal" and therefore does not belong in the Ivory Tower. Somehow, if you want to study sexuality--something which both Lucy and I have done for over 15 years--you aren't doing real work. I think the sense is that you are starting to turn into some sort of self-help guru rather than a serious scholar. And, many Women's Studies folks still fear that they aren't taken seriously as a subject anyway, since, well what they are doing is either too "squishy" or too political, and therefore not "objective."

Unfortunately, living in such fear that others are rejecting your scholarship is not a good way to design your program. I can't think of a more pressing and more important topic for feminists to discuss than sexuality. By ignoring it, we are stunting an essential part of our identity. I have never been disappointed by introducing the topic of sex to my class; my students are dying to talk about it. They want a space where we can get over the silly laughter and the snortles and work through the anxiety, confusion and allure of this kind of human interaction.

In my last post, Metapsychologist pointed out that we need more open discussion on this topic. But where should these types of conversation take place? Conservatives want the family to do it. Liberals want to package this information in safe scientific speak. The churches have their own investment in reserving sex for marriage and pro-creation. Someone has got to help us get over our shame and embarrassment and get talking.

What is so shameful about sexuality studies?