My Travels with Sex (2005 Kessler Lecture)

My travels with sex started in Astoria, Queens. The location was Sunday school. The occasion did not involve small furry mammals, little playmates’ doctor games, or adult bad behavior. The point of origin was Good Friday—the Easter story and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the Sunday school teacher explained it all to my class, I was willing to go along. I was only seven or eight years old, and not at all resistant.
But, I wanted to know, how did it all work? For example, what happened to Jesus’ body inside the tomb? Did it stay the same or did it change? Did it get cold? If he was dead did he stop breathing? When did he start breathing again? Before they took the rock away? Or later, when people woke him up? When he woke up was he hungry? Did he remember what happened? Did he need to go to the bathroom?
Though having nothing to do with sex at all, this moment did have to do with temperament: a certain inclination on my part in mechanics of bodies and social life. The more incomprehensible a situation was, the more interested I was to understand, how did it work? One could only feel sorry for my Sunday school teachers, indeed, all of my teachers, whom I would like to thank on this occasion.
Douglas Crimp, in his introductory remarks, has given a good idea of the nature of the Meese Commission. I read about the Commission in the newspaper and I thought that sounded kind of interesting and wacky, so I went to one of the commission’s hearings on social science in Houston, just on my own.
As I’ve written in one of my articles, their first hearing featured the testimony of a young man. At the age of twelve he said, “I was a typical normal healthy boy, and my life was filled with normal activities and hobbies.”
But all the trouble began a few months later when he found a deck of hard core pornographic playing cards. “These porno cards highly aroused me and gave me a desire I never had before.” Soon after, his behavior changed. He began to masturbate and attempted to catch glimpses of partially dressed neighborhood women and surreptitiously tried to steal playboy magazines from the newsstands. His chronicle went on, ending with his discovery of Jesus Christ and his being saved from this terrible condition.
The audience sat in attentive silence; no one laughed. Only a few cynical reporters sitting next to me elbowed each other and rolled their eyes, although the next day’s paper would contain their respectful accounts of the witnesses’ remarks, and those of his therapist who testified as an ‘expert’ witness. How did this work? Four hundred people sat in the court house and listened to this testimony, and no one laughed?
I thought it was an important question and trying to understand that led me to follow the Meese Commission around to other subsequent hearings. I was especially interested in understanding how the commissioners were able to mobilize shame and sensation, the way in which their telling of secrets was erotic, and indeed the pleasures of condemnation. They too, like feminist anti-pornography advocates, endorsed ways of reading images through totalitarian voice-overs that obscured diversity and individual reception of subjectivity. I was interested in the ways in which attacks on images are the beginnings of attacks on communities and sexual practices.
The Meese Commission marked a very important watershed in the right wing’s effort to reach out to the mainstream public as they tried to pioneer new arguments that would not involve sin and immorality. So, they experimented with arguments drawn from social science that pornography contained violent imagery that caused violence against women. Or they tried the anti-feminist argument that pornography degraded women. They didn’t get too far with the attempt to co-opt social science rhetoric simply because social scientists objected to it. But their cooptation of feminist rhetoric was extremely important. That is the moment where words like ‘degradation’ entered the right wing vocabulary and were used by them in polyvalent ways to mean, of course to their audience, immorality of sex outside reproduction to their audience. But these words were heard by more diverse audiences to mean all sorts of objectionable sexism.
For the first time, too, right wing figures began to embrace the issue of violence against women, which they had previously rejected as fantastical accusations dreamed up by man-hating feminists. They turned on a dime and began to say, “yes, women were subjected to a huge amount of domestic and sexual violence.” But why was that? Because of feminism; feminism had unleashed male desire for reproduction and marriage, and gave unwarded women no protection.
The fallout of the Meese Commission was significant, and continues to this day in the form of federally-coordinated data banks and strategies across states aimed at increasing obscenity convictions; the use of so-called organized crime statutes to increase the penalties for people charged and convicted; and what’s just resurfaced again recently, demands that purveyors of sexual imagery prove that all their models are adults, including images retrospectively taken, which simply, of course, can’t be done.
The morphing of these techniques of visual mobilization, of the use of sensation and shame, of course, was deployed to great effect in the National Endowment for the Arts. Once a sex panic starts, it’s always worth a good ride. In fact, politicians who had attempted to diminish the NEA earlier through attacks on its budget as a waste of tax payers’ money had got nowhere because all sorts of community groups around the country angrily defended their arts organizations that received money from the NEA. The big lesson to me here was that politics that are going nowhere can be moved forward by adding “sex panic” to it. Or, add sex and stir.
When the NEA started to unfold, I recognized tactics that had been used for a number of years both within anti-porn feminism and then within the Meese Commission. Interesting things began to happen in the international arena. Various developments presaged the ways that questions of sexuality were moving around the world. First, efforts to put women’s rights on the agenda of human rights groups used sexual violence as the premier and seemingly universal and very effective exemplar of women’s violation. Important U.N. conferences in Cairo on population and in Beijing on women introduced new ideas of reproductive and sexual rights that had great promise, which of course immediately inspired a tremendous backlash. Gay and lesbian groups were beginning to use the human rights system in courts to make claims about non-discrimination and other policy issues. And of course, HIV and the way it moved around the world pressed both groups and governments to begin to deal with sexuality in different ways.
At that moment, increasingly international organizations of all kinds were being asked to enter the arena of sexuality. But it seemed to me, what might be a positive development was also fraught with peril for many reasons. For example, groups that work on human rights, health, and women’s issues, had very underdeveloped tools to think about sexuality so they often fell back on folk knowledge—their naturalized and unexamined ideas of what sexuality was and how it worked.
The state level organizations and agreements involved in human rights conventions and instruments have long histories of regulating sexuality largely on principles of morality promoting reproduction andpublic order. The involvement of state level organizations
raised many questions about the repressive potential for how these developments would pan out. As well as the way the idea of rights potentially could be appropriated and used in many different ways.
These were many of the topics about which the terrific people involved in the Rockefeller Foundation’s Program for the Study of Sexuality conversed for eight years. We hoped to use the new deconstructive tools and work on sexuality to think more deeply about all of the assumptions we use in doing this work. We also thought a lot about what came to be called the ‘nooks and crannies.’ All the different groups, identity-based groups, working in different locations, national locations, institutional locations, in many different ways on many different topics.
The diversity of this group was terrific, but slightly troubling was the fact that frequently each nook had no awareness of the other nooks and crannies; groups sometimes developed theoretical tools without thought to how did that play out with the other groups. I don’t mean to suggest that there needs to be a unified program or that all groups need to negotiate about what are appropriate ways to deal with sexual rights, but the cross-cutting connections between different groups—some who have identity- based names and many who don’t—is an important way to think about how sexual rights could be going forward. We also realized that all projects of sexual rights have a big stake in understanding new forms of heterosexuality or heterosexualities.
We frequently came back to this troubling question of sexual representation. In the case of the Program for the Study of Sexuality we came back to this question in a different way largely because of the tradition in human rights work of documenting violations. That is, in human rights, the goal is to show that violations occurred, and therefore, that the claims of human rights groups were trustworthy and not exaggerations.
All projects of documenting human rights violations raise a lot of questions, but add sex to it, and we are entering even more difficult terrain. When it comes to sexuality what can be shown? What’s too graphic? What’s too sexual? What violates various kinds of taboos? Who makes a good victim through whom to illustrate a sexual abuse? Does that person have to be blameless or innocent? And how does that narrowed depiction affect the way sexual rights can be understood? Finally, in the way that human rights claims are put forward in regard to sexuality? In what ways might they unwittingly embrace preexisting systems of sexual hierarchy? In the choice of innocent victims? In the choice of people from highly ranked class, race, gender groups to show the horror of different kinds of sexual violation? These conversations went on in many dimensions and many ways. The most recent and interesting place they’ve fallen on is this question of trafficking which I would like to say a little about.
Trafficking would seemingly have little to do with gay and lesbian issues, but I would like to argue that it has a huge relationship. First, trafficking, according to U.S. law and UN regulation, is “the forced, coerced movement of people into any different kinds of work.” That definition would seem unobjectionable. Surely, we would all agree that forced or coerced movement into exploitative conditions of work is reprehensible and should be stopped. Yet, in the way the trafficking issue has been embraced, especially by this administration, and especially by what amounts to anti-pornography feminists who have gone into anti-trafficking work, trafficking clusters around women, and it clusters around sexual exploitation. Trafficking comes to mean sex trafficking. Interestingly, the campaign against sex trafficking, and by extension, prostitution, has now come to be the Bush administration’s chief sexual issue, and one of the main women’s issues of the Christian right.
We return in many ways to figures of the late nineteenth century, where a young and innocent victim needs to be rescued from terrible exploitation. The remedy for these harms is to control male lust, and to keep young women at home.
Migration is dangerous.
The outside world is a liability.
Sex is dangerous.
The family offers protection.
From a rights based point of view, the remedies offered for these very real harms are never rights based remedies. The affected people have no opportunity to participate, in describing or discussing what these remedies should be. There is no imagined range of people with all sorts of different experiences, no one who can’t benefit from a one-size-fits-all intervention. The motives of the rescuers are never given any consideration, and the interventions are never examined as to how they really worked, or what impact did they have on the people who were allegedly helped by them.
It would be perhaps a sarcastic comment on my part, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate to say that through a complex series of travels and movements, the feminist anti-pornography movement in its worst form has now become institutionalized in the Bush administration. And indeed, many individual figures active in that anti-porn movement now have important positions in the current government. That illustrates the complex interconnections of these efforts to claim sexual rights, the ways in which these efforts can go wrong, and the ways in which remedies can be thoughtlessly proposed without adequate consultation to the affected people.
Let me leave you with a couple of questions that I think sum up some important issues we still need to deal with. How do we recognize abuses and discrimination, and then document them, without making the person described abject? Without effacing that person and their needs specificities? How do we not reduce that person to simply the violation they’ve experienced? As Ali Miller has pointed out, how do we address all ranges of sexual violations and rights abuses without inadvertently reasserting for women that purity is the most valuable thing they have? And without forgetting the need of the violated to have all sorts and kinds of agencies acknowledged and expanded? Finally, how do we expand the range of people considered worthy of rights protection to all people—those with and without identities and working in all sorts of spheres? How do we think of sexual rights nesting in expression in political association in the so called private and public and in a whole realm of health protections and in a whole way of imagining sexual rights as quite crucial to the project of democracy and citizenship? I still have the question, how would that work?

Carole Vance delivered the Annual David R. Kessler Lecture in Lesbian and
Gay Studies at CLAGS in December of 2005. Dr. Vance teaches at Columbia University, in public health, anthropology, and law. She was introduced with
testimonials from Douglas Crimp and Ann Snitow.