Why the Academy Hates Talking About Sex


Several years out of the closet and into the ivory tower has taught me at least one thing.

The academy hates talking about sex.

For all of the hysteria surrounding a supposed left-wing agenda corrupting the minds of youth and poisoning them with thoughts of libertinism and women’s and gender studies, academic departments across most universities tend to be very uncomfortable, regressive, and even prudish about sex. Sure, it comes up as a political topic. It arises in the study of cultural artifacts. But in the actual topics of analysis and dissemination, sex is conspicuously absent, suppressed even, as those who dare to broach the topic risk being devalued as “unprofessional,” “erratic,” “prurient,” or, perhaps most damaging of all, “unobjective.”

Right now, sex cannot arise as a genuine phenomenon of inquiry because the discourse of academic culture precludes it on the basis of its extreme personalism. Very few people can speak about sex merely objectively – our very bodies and the passions they house make that impossible. Thus, in order to discuss sex, we discuss sex-uality (the concept itself an abstraction), and invent ways to talk about sex while making sex itself – fucking, sucking, touching, tasting, writhing, convulsing, sweating, heaving, breathing, pulsing, thrusting, throbbing, flushing, nudity, genitals, pleasure, orgasms – invisible. But we run into a paradox with this censuring. By striving to shield our objectivity from the passions these issues stir, we become staunchly un-objective. Jean Baudrillard once noted that what we call “obscenity” – that which polite and civilized academic culture attempts to suppress – is itself actually an objectivity, in the visible. [1] Abstractions shield us from the visible, and let us pretend to be objective in the invisible.

This bothers me, not because of some pedantic concern about epistemology or some prurient desire to raunch up the classroom. It bothers me because this invisibility literally kills people, and the people it kills the most are women, queer people, and vulnerable minorities across the board.

It kills women daily when invisibility about the “visible” features of women’s sex lives, physiological realities, etc. takes over policy making decisions, leaving the public only abstract ways to deal with questions of women’s reproductive health, access to family planning, and abortion services.

It kills LGBTQ persons daily, even as it did in the 80’s, when forced invisibility about the sex lives of gay men led to silence, inaction, and the intense stigmatization of those dying from AIDS by the thousands. Even today, efforts to combat the spread of HIV through community outreach, PrEP, and educational programs find themselves stymied by social stigma, indecision, apathy, and even malice by those in government.

I could go on.

There’s this “gap” between sex as a topic and sex as a phenomenon. Sex as a topic talks about the biological and neurological aspects of sex, and gets into how sex forms identities, impacts communities, and even how it influences the way we relate to people. It even tells us how it affects the way we read a book. But what sex as a topic does not do is point us, teach us, and guide us into fuller ways of knowing – and experiencing – the realities that underwrite and give meaning to sex. This gap is the source of the endless disconnect between the theoretical, moral, and academic dimensions of sex, and the “real” dimensions of sex. This is why theology, philosophy, and the greater portion of the constructive humanities can only address “sexuality,” and rarely if ever the actual sex lives of actual people, and even more rarely, doing that well.

A 2002 documentary film about the late philosopher* Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, featured a seemingly mundane (in my opinion, inane) question concerning past philosophers: “If you were to watch a documentary about a philosopher – Heidegger, or Kant, or Hegel – what would you like to see in it?”

His response is revealing.

Their sex lives. Pourquoi? I’d love to hear about something they refuse to talk about. Why do these philosophers present themselves asexually in their work? Why have they erased their private lives from their work or never talked about anything personal? There is nothing more important in their private life than love. I’m not talking about making a porno film about Hegel or Heidegger. I want them to speak about the part that love plays in their lives. [2]

Derrida Hegel Heidegger

I don’t think anyone is, Jacques. I don’t think anyone is at all.

I may have gone into the ivory tower straight out of the closet, but in reality, the ivory tower is itself a form of closet. I cannot exist in the academy if I am visible in my reality. I must strive to appear (to simulate) an asexual frame of mind, placing the queerness of my own sex life – along with the queerness of actual asexual individuals – under erasure for the sake of “objectivity” that is really not an “objectivity” toward anything visible or real. This is what philosophers have done for centuries, and what philosophers do, so too will the rest of the academy follow.

What I seek to do is to do theory as a sexual person. I seek to embrace the so-called “obscenity” of the visible and real and totally fuck up the pretense between the distinction between objective and subjective. I want to talk about actual sex and the knowledge that it discloses. I want to begin a foundation for an actual sexual phenomenology that queers, that fucks, that shocks the so-called phenomenologies of straight white men and their so-called sex lives (and conspicuous lacks thereof).

I came out of the closet too many times to trap myself in the ivory tower.

Heidegger Hegel

The porno pairing that Jacques Derrida was allegedly not talking about

  • I have serious doubts that Derrida himself would have been comfortable or accepting of the title of “philosopher.” He has noted on several occasions the impossibility of doing philosophy, and the way that the term itself relates specifically to the tradition of metaphysics in the Western tradition. One may argue that he’s a Socratic anti-philosopher. In any case, one cannot do any semblance of justice to Derrida without making such a disclaimer.

Sources:

[1] Mike Gane, ed. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. New York: Routledge, 1993. 60, 62.

[2] Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. Derrida. Zeitgeist Films, 2002.

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