'Thinking Sex' Symposium to explore origins of sexuality studies

By Cosmo Pappas, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 30, 2014

It’s a common refrain in philosophy that any analysis worth its weight begins by defining its terms. Without that preliminary investigation, it’s hard – some might argue impossible or at least not very worthwhile – to reach any further understanding.

“Thirty Years of ‘Thinking Sex’” Symposium with afterparty at \aut\ bar


Thursday, October 2, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery
Free (register here)


Gayle Rubin, a professor of Women’s Studies and Anthropology here at the University of Michigan, has produced work acclaimed in all corners of the sexuality studies field for its well-informed historical and theoretical interrogation of the categories of gender and sexuality, among various other and related subjects. Thursday, a symposium entitled “Thirty Years of ‘Thinking Sex,’” taking its name from Rubin’s landmark 1984 essay of the same name, will gather Rubin and five other scholars to celebrate and reflect on her impact on the field.

It doesn’t get us very far to say that humans are sexual beings: first we need definitions of sex and sexuality. Dating the beginnings of sexuality studies as a discipline is complicated in all sorts of ways, as the work of scholars from disparate fields and traditions — feminism and psychoanalytic theory, just to name two historically uneasy bedfellows, but medical pathology, history and anthropology as well — converged to form what is now institutionally recognized in numerous university departments.

For instance, the Gender and Sexuality Studies concentration at Brown University states that it “encourages students to examine the complex ways that ‘differences’ are produced culturally, politically, and epistemologically: sexual and gender differences in concert with differences that are fundamental to the categories of ‘race’ and ethnicity, nationality, class, religion, and so forth.”

Generally, however, one can point to the 1970s and 1980s as a time when scholarly output came to articulate some of the central problems of human sexuality on the discursive level and as it materially intersects with other political, social and historical forces.

“There are certain things you can get at thinking about gender, but it’s not the only lens through which to see the world. I don’t think there’s a single set of categories that works for everything,” Rubin said, describing what motivated her as a scholar to broaden the scope of inquiry beyond the then-available tools and categories of feminism, the medical field or “high theory,” to use her phrase.

“There wasn’t much in the way of social science or humanities scholarship on sex. It was an area that seemed to me very important, but you had to look around to find tools to get at it,” Rubin discussed further.

In this sense, Rubin’s scholarship was genuinely formative in the study of sexuality as an academic discipline and is continually relevant within the academic world of sexuality studies and without.

To give an example of Rubin’s enduring relevance, in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Laurie Essig, a professor of Sociology and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Middlebury College, cites “Thinking Sex” in her discussion of legislation concerning sexual assault, consent and the concessions that some feminists have made to the racist and sexist criminal justice system in the effort to stamp out sexual violence.

The historical account of sexual studies put forward here is skeletal at best and does no justice to the richness of the field in all its concern with real-world problems of oppression and its commitment to a world free of gender- and sexuality-based violences. This is not to say, however, that its function is purely critical; Rubin herself sees her work as part of the effort to ensure the heritage of vibrant communities whose histories would otherwise be lost. In a review of Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader in the Times of Higher Education, Rubin is cited as saying, “Queer life is full of examples of fabulous explosions that left little or no detectable trace... (Those) who fail to secure the transmission of their histories are doomed to forget them.”

To hear a more extensive and more illuminating discussion of this exciting area of scholarship, then, all are invited to attend this Thursday’s symposium in honor of Professor Rubin’s foundational contributions to the study of sexuality. (And after the event there will be an afterparty at \aut\ bar, featuring Professor Rubin as DJ).