- No Sex Please, We’re American
There is an open secret about sex: most queer theorists don’t like it. Three decades after anthropologist Gayle Rubin inaugurated what would become known as Queer studies by announcing “[t]he time has come to think about sex,” the field remains deeply conflicted about its object of study (267). Not just a question of methodological differences and debates (one expects nothing less in an interdisciplinary field), this issue concerns fundamental disagreements over what the basic object of research in Queer studies is or should be. Rubin’s aim in 1984 had been to develop a conceptual framework for thinking critically about erotic practice, without assuming heterosexuality as the paradigm and without relying on the often heterosexualizing lens of feminist analysis. “I want to challenge the assumption that feminism is or should be the privileged site of a theory of sexuality,” she argued. “Feminism is the theory of gender oppression. To automatically assume that this makes it the theory of sexual oppression is to fail to distinguish between gender, on the one hand, and erotic desire, on the other” (307). Coming out of lesbian feminism, with its intensely polarizing debates around pornography and sadomasochism, Rubin yearned for a critical discourse capable of approaching human sexuality, in all its variation, with the customary prejudices and moralisms set aside. Her gambit of differentiating sex and sexuality from wholesale determination by the categories of gender—albeit still controversial among feminists—was a fielddefining gesture that retrospectively conferred upon “Thinking Sex” the status of urtext.
Alas, it turned out to be tougher than we imagined 30 years ago to think critically about sex, rather than about gender, race, ethnicity, transnationality, or any of the other categories with which Queer studies in the US has become considerably more comfortable in the [End Page 614] years since. There is something about sex—understood not as anatomical difference but as erotic practice—that many scholars in Queer studies find oddly aversive. Critics before me have noticed glimmers of this phenomenon and have explained it in various ways.1 What I wish to add to the conversation is a claim that critical squeamishness about sex appears especially pronounced in Queer studies within the US. This essay’s title alludes to the long-running West End stage farce No Sex Please, We’re British (1971), which pictured the dilemmas of a naïve English married couple who become overwhelmed by sexually explicit material sent to them in error from Scandinavia. Here I’m trying to suggest that Queer studies’ diffidence about sex is nationally specific, having to do with the history of the professional-managerial class in the US, with the social sciences’ commitment to identitarianism, with deep legacies of Puritanism and individualism, and with the institutional organization of knowledge.
My claims cannot be developed fully here. But, in the context of academic knowledge production, it is worth considering why the modern research university has no established place outside of the experimental sciences for the study of sex. Our universities offer many venues for the study of gender and various forms of multiculturalism (albeit without the same institutional support as the sciences receive). Every North American university allocates institutional resources for gender, whereas almost none sets aside money or tenure lines for sex-related research. Outside the laboratory, research on sexuality takes shelter ambivalently under the umbrella of gender studies, where its justification tends to be framed in identitarian terms. Sex is deemed worthy of study principally when wedded to identity or personhood. It is now mostly okay to talk about lesbians or gay men or transgendered folk or bisexuals. When attached to the dignity of personhood, sex merits research inasmuch as those it marks are deemed worthy of legal and institutional protection. When detached from the dignity of personhood, however, it becomes much sketchier. The recurring anxiety is that sex will demean personhood; it is assumed to need...