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  • The Time Has Come to [Re]Think Sex
  • Jennifer Tyburczy
Conference Review: "Rethinking Sex: A State of the Field Conference in Gender and Sexuality Studies," University of Pennsylvania, 4–6 March 2009

With the aim of celebrating the life and work of Gayle Rubin and commemorating the 1984 publication of her essay "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," Heather Love and her conference committee expertly curated a conference lineup of "thirty scholars working within a range of disciplines about the most significant and pressing questions in gender and sexuality studies." In so doing, "Rethinking Sex" suggested the current scheme for the discipline in unexpected ways that will, especially at a time of global movements and migrations, neoliberal ideologies, and negative affects, inspire a return to the archives, the tracing of realist genealogies, the reconfiguration of modes and methods for knowledge transmission, the reinvigoration of theoretical and pedagogical choreographies (not forward, but sideways or, even, spiral), and the recognition, as Gayle Rubin said twenty-five years ago, of "the political dimensions of erotic life" (35).1

The conference organization was reflective of Heather Love's own philosophy (as articulated in her 2007 book Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History) that the field needs to critique simplistically celebratory accounts of the queer past in order to create a queer future more in line with ever-diversifying queer constituencies. It seemed a consensus at the conference that in order for "queer" to open up intellectual, political, [End Page 355] and sexual possibilities we need to relinquish nostalgia for what was, is, and will be, always and everywhere, a intrapolitically fraught sexual community. Particularly in today's global economic crisis and the vicious competition for resources, security, and a financial leg to stand on, we must recognize that we feel "bad" and analyze and use these energies to reinvigorate sexuality studies to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. "Rethinking Sex" was just as much a conference about conducting sexuality research as it was a conference that suggested ways for undoing particular epistemological frameworks for understanding sexuality.

For Love, "Rethinking Sex" mobilized a fantasy to actualize those "storied conferences of the past," such as "Pleasure and Danger" at Barnard College in 1982, where Rubin first delivered "Thinking Sex" as a talk.2 In the midst of what Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter have named the "sex wars" and during one of the most volatile decades in the history of sex education in the United States, the conference was, to make an understatement, controversial. Antipornography and antisadomasochism feminists targeted the conference and tried to shut it down. Calls came in claiming that harm would befall the women at Barnard because of the conference. Barnard President Ellen V. Futter, whose suspicion was apparently aroused by these phone calls, confiscated the conference handbook. Leaflets circulated by Women Against Pornography called the conference participants "deviants." The Helena Rubenstein Foundation dropped its funding for the event. Still, eight hundred people gathered to attend, and the conference was sold out.

Thus, Rubin devoted a significant portion of her keynote address at "Rethinking Sex" to the emergence of academic work on sexuality, of which, she humbly noted, she only played a part (e.g., she mentioned other trailblazers such as Alan Bérubé, Joan Nestle, Jonathan Katz, Jeffrey Weeks, Marjorie Garber, Esther Newton, and George Chauncey). Entitled "Blood Under the Bridge: Reflections on 'Thinking Sex,'" Rubin's keynote was a graphically rich and historically dense journey backward in time to revisit the context out of which "Thinking Sex" emerged in an academic and political landscape that was hostile to sexuality scholarship. Rubin reminded us how her controversial presence at conferences such as "Pleasure and Danger" accompanied a larger struggle in the academy at the time. Namely, according to Rubin, conducting research on sex and sexuality issues was the equivalent of "academic suicide."

On an optimistic note, Rubin assessed the current academic environment as one of "sea change" and commented that pursuing [End Page 356] queer scholarship is no longer a "death sentence" for university research careers. Perhaps the relative calm and quiet with which "Rethinking Sex" proceeded (one Penn graduate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 355-366
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-28
Open Access
No
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