- When Is a Clitoris Like a Lesbian? A “Sociologist” Considers Thinking Sex
When is a clitoris like a lesbian? Sounds like the start of a joke, right? But as I read Valerie Traub’s new book, I reflected on the challenges of researching sexuality both historically and today. The clitoris and the lesbian—one of Traub’s subjects, one of my own—are “boundary objects” (Star and Griesemer 1989; Star 2010), existing at the junctures of social worlds and animated by intense controversy and competition to define them. For sexuality scholars, the trick has often been to simultaneously recognize the material realities of bodies, acts, affects, identities, performances, engorgements, and resolutions while accounting for our own “situated knowledges” bounded by time, location, geography, and discipline (Haraway 1988).
In studying the clitoris, I call it into being—but not as a stable and singular entity to be discovered (Moore and Clarke 1995; 2001). I cannot simply and correctly calibrate my tools/techniques/methods to “find” lesbians or clitorises because these objects are always both becoming and confounding. Traub explains that the ontological and epistemological instability of these objects is indeed part of what queer methods should uncover—these opaque processes of becoming knowable and known is what our queer methods reveal. And it is the elusive, contested, and controversial problematics around defining these objects that is the actual “data.” Traub implores queer methodologists to wallow in the actual troubles of researching sexual objects, rather than thinking we can figure our way out of them. Feminist methodologist Patti Lather (2007) calls this methodological tactic “getting lost.”
As a feminist medical sociologist trained in grounded theory in the early 1990s by Adele Clarke, I occupy a strange position between empirical sociology and cultural studies. On the one hand, my research on female [End Page 328] genital anatomy, human sperm, and honeybees can be deemed not quite empirical or sociological enough by certain standards. On the other hand, my work has rarely been considered part of queer studies, though I see myself as queering sociology. I suspect that my work is too empirically grounded and too reliant on methods. In certain circles, the palpable hostility to empiricism has sometimes inspired me to keep my mouth shut and silence my critiques. Since my methods act toward the world as if it exists, no matter how it is constructed, I start my projects with what I consider to be material realities—contested, political, and heterogeneously represented realities, and yet still material realities.
Honeybees die, clitorises disappear in genital anatomy textbooks and reappear in pornography, and human global sperm counts decline. Understanding how we coproduce the conditions of these material realities, and then work to interpret them, is my job as I understand it. Like Traub, I suggest that our work must interrogate “how categories . . . came to be” (81). Her historical analysis uses literary sources to recursively think with and about sex and at the same time reveals inconsistencies, frictions, and ambiguities of sexual objects.
My feeling of being a misfit is why Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns is so affirming for me as a queer empiricist. Though I am not a literary scholar, Traub’s acknowledgment of the need for methodological commitments among historical, literary, and queer studies scholars was refreshing. “Queer’s free-floating, endlessly mobile, and infinitely subversive capacities may be one of its strengths—accomplishing strategic maneuvers that no other concept does—but its principled imprecision poses considerable analytic limitations” (76). I like to flirt with queer studies scholarship, and I have promiscuously used theoretical concepts to illuminate my data. Understanding the anatomical renderings of the clitoris as disciplinary (à la Michel Foucault), sea level rise as a hyperobject (à la Timothy Morton), or leaking breast milk as an interruption of phallocentrism (à la Judith Butler), enables me to know my fieldwork differently. And still, I am committed to grounding my suppositions in the data.
Traub’s promotion of tactics for scholarly engagement with sexual identity, disciplinarity, and temporality cleave closely to my training and collaboration with Clarke. At its core, Clarke’s methodology as situational...