Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Theory - Gender - Sex(uality) - Practice

In many ways, this blog represents my attempt to reconcile the personal with the professional (professorial?). This will come as a surprise to none of you. But what I've failed to do in any substantive way is to try to explain/explore why these things are simultaneously linked and at odds for me. I have failed to lay all of my cards on the table, even as I've put a lot out there about both my personal and professional anxieties.

For whatever reason, I feel like it's high time for me to try to articulate some of my musings and motivations about how the personal and professorial relate to one another for me, although I don't promise that I will arrive at any conclusions or that this post will clarify anything. Instead, I guess it would be best for you to think of this as a meditation, and maybe through meditating on the relationships between theory, gender, sexuality, and practice, some of what has driven the blog will come into sharper focus - for me, if not for you.

I'm really interested in how the kinds of sex that people have affects not only their constitution of self-identity (e.g., I have sex with a man, and thus I characterize myself as heterosexual) but also the way that others decide what their identity is (e.g., I have sex with men I don't know, and thus others characterize me as a slut). These issues then become further problematized if in the act of sex these identity categories can be broken down or dissolved in some way, which would mean that any identity we associate with sex or claim to acquire from it is always a provisional identity that might be revised with each new sexual act and/or partner (e.g., I have characterized myself as heterosexual in the past because I have only had sex with men, but now I am having sex with a woman, so does that make me homosexual, bisexual, or something else? And what does desire have to do with all of this?). In other words, what does the performance of sex have to do with the performance of identity? Why is sex so central to the way in which we think about personal identity?

Theorizing the relationship between sex (the kind we have with other people, not anatomical) and identity is then inflected by gender norms. We gender different kinds of sex as feminine or masculine (e.g., "tender" sex or "making love" is often gendered feminine while "casual" sex is often gendered masculine), and we judge our sexual behavior based upon gendered criteria (e.g., the old stud vs. slut double-standard is the most obvious such judgment). Furthermore, gender roles - and the discourses that produce those roles - influence the kind of sex that we desire (e.g., the kind of sex that I might desire as a girl whose "porn" consists of boddice-ripper romance novels would, theoretically, differ from the kind of sex that a boy would desire if his "porn" consists of videos of people having anal sex). In spite of any awareness that we might have that gender is not "essential" or "natural," we nevertheless cannot get outside of its effects or escape its reach. Thus, our task becomes one not of liberating ourselves but rather of negotiating within networks of power, and in that case, we may be complicit in the very structures and institutions that regulate the kinds of sex that we have/desire.

As academics, we expect everybody to have a sexuality. The fact that people have one of these comes as no shock to us. But there is a weird disruption between sexuality and the reality of people actually, physically fucking. In other words, we want to construct identity in relation to a sexuality but once real-life fucking enters the picture, it compromises our identities as scholars. This, I think, is especially true for female academics, but I also think that it is true to a lesser degree for male academics. For example, let's say I identify myself on this blog as a lesbian. Nobody cares, right? But let's say I define myself, as I often have on the blog, not through a sexuality but through sex itself - the fact that I had it this weekend or didn't, the partners with whom I choose to have it or not, or the relative quality of the sex or skill level of the partner or my skill level in relation to the partner's skill level (not something I've done really on the blog because even I have a little bit of a conscience but which I have done in conversations with friends). That's not as ok. If I define myself through sex - the actual, physical act of fucking - then that somehow outs me (in this Oprah-ized world) as 1) having low self-esteem, 2) as lacking self-control, 3) as being, somehow, stupid. Finally, we break the rules about being politically correct because in order to define oneself through sex acts one has to objectify sex acts - and, by extension, one's sexual partners. Sex is no longer something special that two people share and through which they become emotionally intimate but rather the physical intimacy of sex becomes an objective lens through which one might see oneself in a particular way, regardless of one's feelings for one's partner. And at the end of the day, using sexual acts as a lens through which to see oneself does not necessarily relate to the sexuality with which we identify ourselves. In other words, if I kiss a girl, and I look at that experience, the way that I define myself through that experience doesn't necessarily refer to my hetero- or homosexuality. Sex might not help us find our "true" identity, but rather it might complicate our ability to locate our identity in one "true" set of characteristics.

So, I've got this sexuality (hetero) and I'm a woman and I've got this background in gender/sexuality theory. Where does this leave me?

As much as I think about sex for work, and as much as I think about sex in my personal life, the theory and the practice remain, for me, at odds. On the one hand, thinking about sex in a theoretical way has allowed me to step back from my experiences and to analyze them in relation to broader cultural/social/aesthetic trends. I've been able to deal with sex as something I do and not something that "means" something else (although, of course, sometimes it can). That said, what works in theory does not necessarily work in practice. As much as I feel capable of "freely" determining my sexual subjectivity (as always, within the constraints of the social world), it is still possible for that sexual subjectivity to be challenged and even compromised by those with whom I interact or even by the residual effects of the morals/values with which I was raised. It still matters to me - in spite of the fact that I know it's stupid - that I not be characterized as a slut, for example. And, in spite of the ways in which my attitudes about sex are "liberated" by theory, I still play old-fashioned games with my sexual conquests - the not calling them, the waiting for them to initiate sex, etc. - and part of that is related to 1) wanting to be chased and 2) not wanting to appear to chase them, which could be construed either as desperation or sluttiness or both.

In the end, I don't believe that the theory can be supported in practice. Theoretically, this is not a problem. There is no reason why theory should have to be applied to anything to make the theory itself valid. That said, if the theoretical problems that I address as a scholar have no application in the real world, and if I continue to have problems related to those theoretical issues in my personal life, wouldn't my time be better spent working on a practical solution or solutions? Similarly, if the theoretical solutions at which I arrive have no applicability, then perhaps the solutions have little merit, and the work that I am doing is really just a kind of intellectual masturbation that further inspires my idiotic obsessions in my real life sex life (much in the way that physical masturbation can further inspire the desire for sex with a partner).

Yeah, so it's all connected. Even when I frivolously post about Stupid Freud, it actually relates to fucking complicated theoretical shit. (And, by extension, I think that when I post about the work stuff it somehow connects back to Freud.) You know what? It just sucks.

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