[Conference] Five Questions from Researching Sex and Sexualities

I think the five questions format works quite well for conference write-ups and reflections so I’m going to stick with it for now. I spent the last couple of days at Researching Sex and Sexualities at Sussex University, and my brain is absolutely exploding with thoughts and questions.

What is the researcher’s relationship with discourses of resistance?

This is a question I brought with me to the conference. It surfaced for me at Theorizing the Web and has only gained prominence in my mind since. I’ve been doing a lot of work on my research methodology recently and reading a lot about Critical Discourse Analysis and Foucauldian Discourse Analysis. When one of my supervisors suggestsed I use discourse analysis in my research about six months ago I felt very uncomfortable with it, for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. It was only in the last couple of weeks that I finally realised what was bothering me. Both Critical and Foucauldian Discourse Analysis are methods of reading for power. You analyse a text to understand how it constructs certain concepts, how it legitimises some ways of thinking while undermining others. And both methods are more often than not very explicitly and deliberately applied to texts of power, political speeches being the classic example. They very rarely engage with the texts and discourses of the marginalised, and for good reason. The couple of cases where I’ve seen discourse analysis and similar methods applied to marginalised texts and communities, they have tended to question some of the tools these communities use simply to survive, generally with little overt awareness of the potential harm involved in that.

The other issue with discourses of resistance is how quickly they get co-opted and assimilated into the neo-liberal order. You like yarn bombing things? Here, knit some hats for our smoothie bottles and we’ll donate some money to charity! You’re a woman trying to work out and navigate her sexuality in our culture? Have a prettily designed sex shop! So as we analyse discourses of resistance, and as we potentially drag them out of obscurity and into the public eye, what is our responsibility as researchers to the communities we research? How do we become facilitators serving those communities rather than unwelcome prying eyes?

How do we respectfully engage with non-academic knowledge production?

Again, this is a question I brought with me and I am grateful to other conference participants for helping me further tease out some of the complexities here. When I embarked on my PhD research I had a certain expectation that there would be a huge and thorough body of feminist theoretical work on sexual consent, that I could then take and apply to my case study of erotic fanfiction. This has turned out not to be the case, and I have come to realise that knowledges on consent produced in the fanfiction community are both more extensive and more nuanced than feminist academic work. These knowledges are not in a format that academia would necessarily recognise, and there is considerable potential value in finding ways to disseminate them beyond their current context (though, as evidenced by the previous question, there are also significant risks).

This raises huge questions about the role of the researcher in this space, and about the researcher’s relationship with the material and the community producing it. A lot of this material is theoretically rich and robust despite its unconventional (for academia) format. It feels wrong to simply treat it as “data”, to take it and put my own stamp on it. On the other hand, I believe it would also be wrong to treat this material and its authors as equal to theory and analysis published in a peer-reviewed journal and engage with it on that level. I have seen fandom scholars do this and it results in work which ignores the huge power imbalance between academia and the fandom community and holds fans’ work to impossible standards, while also giving it possibly unwanted publicity without the right to reply on an equal platform. A “researcher as curator” approach may have some merit here but is also mired in questions of ethics, co-authorship and what exactly the researcher’s own original contribution is. So how do we reconcile these tensions, and how do we engage with other knowledges?

What happens when we reach the limits of words?

There were a couple of really thought-provoking papers at the conference that have made me question the terminology I am using in my own research. What we choose to call things has immense power: it can open certain avenues of thought and shut down others. Mercedes Poell’s work on “relationships without sex” – which encompasses people who claim the asexual identity for themselves, those who don’t but may not be having sex for other reasons, and the huge grey area in between – is a fantastic example of opening up a space through word choice. Tanya Palmer’s work on sex and sexual violation, and particularly her decision not to use the word “rape” because in a legal context is has a very precise and limited definition, is another. In both cases the word choice opens up a space for experiences not traditionally considered as part of the same category and thereby allows for new questions to be asked.

The word “consent”, which is central to my own research, is a palimpsest of legal, social, cultural and individual meanings layered upon one another, and there is a strong case to be made for kicking it out and starting afresh. I am at this point inclined to stick with it though. While we may not have a single, common definition of consent (and to an extent if we did there would be no point in me conducting this research), it is nonetheless a recognisable cultural placeholder for something. I think it’s worthwhile attempting to tease out the different things it is a placeholder for while also being very aware that in many ways I’m already up against the limits of the meanings of that word. How do I reconcile those two positions, and where do I go when I break through the limits of the word?

How do concepts travel in a globalised environment?

There was a delegation of Chinese scholars at the conference who provided some fascinating perspectives on doing sexualities research in China. I was struck by how well or badly certain concepts travel across cultural contexts. The classic example is the word “queer” which has a very specific geographic and historical origin in the UK and US as a slur which was later reclaimed. I have met a number of older gay men in particular who do not feel comfortable with that word because it was hurled at them in the streets, and I try not to use the word as an umbrella term for the LBGTQIA+ community, and I don’t use it of anyone who doesn’t use it of themselves first. At the same time, through processes of globalisation, cultural imperialism and neo-colonialism (but also to an extent through a pull from the non-English-speaking world), the word “queer” has now crossed national, linguistic and cultural borders. Chinese scholars use it, as do LGBTQIA+ communities in many other countries, often without awareness of the origin and context out of which it arose. And while this original context may be lost when the word travels, it acquires new layers of contexts and meanings.

This is very much a half-formed thought for me at this point, but I do think it’s something worth being mindful of. What contexts and meanings are lost as concepts travel? What new ones are gained? Are we still speaking of the same thing?

How do we salvage academic conferences?

There was a somewhat snarky though some ways useful piece in the New York Times recently complaining about all the shortcomings of the traditional academic conference format. And while I am rather partial to a good game of conference bingo myself, I also found the tone of the piece deeply unhelpful. I can see how young early-career researcher may be put off by it because so many of the behaviours it criticises are born from inexperience (although the reason a fair chunk of them persist is that established academics perpetuate them and this make them acceptable). In many ways, that piece puts even more pressure on researchers to avoid risks and appear perfect.

This stands in sharp contrast to the format of Researching Sex and Sexualities. We were asked to submit short papers in advance and these were circulated to all participants a few weeks before the conference. (If you’re worried about finding the time for pre-reading, in my experience it takes a minimum of four hours to travel from anywhere in the UK to anywhere else for a conference. I guess the woeful state of infrastructure and public transport in this country does have some uses.) We were then split into discussion groups and used a round robin format (everyone speaks in turn and only speaks when it’s their turn) to pick up on common themes and issues, ask and answer questions, and share thoughts. Combined with the overall theme of the conference, which was very much about the process of researching rather than the results of our research, this created a space where conference participants felt safe enough to be vulnerable, to take risks, to talk about the challenges we were facing, and to admit that there were things we simply didn’t know. There is something incredibly powerful about showing vulnerability. It changes the quality of the discussion, opens up new avenues, and can give people confidence.

This format may not necessarily be appropriate for all conferences. One limitation of it is that it closes off the space to outsiders who are not contributing a paper. Other academics, or even members of the public can’t just drop in to listen. It may also be less suited to conferences which have a strong focus on research results rather than processes. But the approach also has a lot of strengths, and academic conferences really are in dire need of revamping. As I’m about to embark on a conference organising adventure of my very own, how do I challenge traditional formats? How do I encourage participants (and particularly postgraduates and early-career researchers) to take risks, experiment, and still feel safe rather than judged?

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