- Itinerant Sex
I have just four very broad comments to make. I’ve ambitiously called my comments “Itinerant Sex,” and I’ll say why in a minute. First, I want to situate my remarks within the current controversy/political debates around sexual harassment that are happening not just with Harvey Weinstein, but of course within the field of South Asian studies. I know many of you are well aware of what I am invoking here. I’m not interested in rehashing the gory details of what transpired or what will transpire, in the aftermath of the reportage and social media exposure of South Asian male academics accused of sexual harassment. I do, however, want to speak directly to our local contexts, because some of us—Mrinalini Sinha, myself, Indrani Chatterjee, Raka Ray, and Priti Ramamurthy—about three years ago, worked with Lalita and several other people to institute a policy around sexual harassment at the conference, because we had encountered several similar complaints, situations, and we wanted to develop some language to speak to that problem. And what we foregrounded then—and what I talked about last year at a large gathering on sexual harassment—is that we need to theorize sexual harassment within the context of area studies and within the context of feminist theory. That is, why does area studies (particularly if the “area” in question is in the Global South, and in our case, South Asia), inevitably get produced alongside questions of sexuality in some errant or itinerant form, a form that doesn’t conform to our sense of how we think of the idea of geopolitics and/or area. So, the fact that the letter in Huffington Post accusing a senior scholar in South Asian studies, and the complainant in the infamous Farooqui episode in Delhi, were both white feminist scholars working on South Asia is something we need to engage with, and think through carefully, beyond simple nativist indignation. [End Page 148]
First, even as much of this debate has invoked and provoked a lot of important discussions that should have happened long ago, I want to say something more polemic and therefore perhaps more predictable: The queers and/or those of us who work on/and in sexuality studies will always remain the improper subjects/objects of study. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is that the language of hailing that is working now, is a language that at least some of us in my generation, the generation before and the generations now, have already encountered in some way. Let me explain what I mean. I teach in the University of California system where there has been a marked rise in the number of cases and complaints filed under Title IX. Even if a fraction of these complaints are found to be true, that is still an alarmingly large number. What interests me is that from what we know about the content of these matters, many of the complaints have to do with queer subjects in a complicated way.
So, one example would be of someone (and I can talk about this now because this is public terrain), of a young queer (I should say “gay man,” because he identifies as gay) who was watching gay pornography during his lunch break in his office—not advisable but definitely not punitive or punishable! And, a young student walked into his office when he was watching this pornography and claimed sexual harassment, and said he felt threatened and triggered by the encounter. And now the person has been put on leave without pay and his computer has been seized because the institution is worried it may contain child pornography, etc. This is obviously an extreme example, but it does help us attend to the errancy of sex or sexuality as an intellectual project that often gets domesticated within debates and reform around issues of sexual harassment. How do we sustain the disruption of sex/sexuality that we fought so hard for, even as we politicize—and I’m vested in that politicization—around questions of sexual harassment. Such questions have become even more pressing for me because I...