I first started talking to Carole Vance about—among other things—sexuality, around 1980 or 1981. At that time, Sharon Thompson, Christine Stansell and I were just beginning the process of editing the collection of essays that became Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality.
One of my early conversations with Carole was certainly a key moment in the evolution of that book. I was telling Carole how skeptical our publisher was that serious and good essays could be found on the heretofore sleazy subject of sexuality. Carole replied with more than her usual heat, “Well, I hope you won’t fill up the whole thing with articles about menstruation, menopause, and breast feeding.”
Hum. Certainly we weren’t planning for our book to be about such things, but Carole’s irritation about the very idea focused the mind. La Vance thought that articles about maternal health or tampons would be evasions. She was forcing a blank space to open up. We had to ask the question of how to write about sexuality. What bounded this subject, giving it shape?
And we couldn’t just turn to feminism for answers. As Gayle Rubin was later to argue, feminism wasn’t then a particularly privileged starting point for developing an open discourse about sexuality. Nor, of course, was Carole herself about to offer a declarative sentence beginning with the words: “Sexuality is . . . .” Her interest was in the questions, and in the reasons why they were so rarely asked. Rather than taking it for granted, she found the prevailing ignorance and silence about sexuality constantly surprising; this ignorance, this silence had already become part of her subject when we started talking.
This subject—of what has and has not been speakable about sexuality brings me to the world historical event, “The Barnard Scholar and Feminist Conference #9: Towards a Politics of Sexuality,” which Carole in her role as coordinator conceptualized, starting with the evocative phrase in her conference proposal describing women’s sexuality in our society as caught in a contradiction between “pleasure and danger.” This phrase has entered the language so completely that many have no idea it originated with her.
On the Barnard Planning Committee, I was an early witness to a mysterious and wonderful process which, over these almost 25 years, I’ve watched Carole initiate again and again. She makes it possible for a group to think. And out of this thinking, she makes it possible for the group to act. In a group led by Carole, precise and careful intellectual work fuses with the political need to change the terms of public conversation. Out of a concentrated collective effort, words in common use get regrouped or evolve in meaning; and new words appear to discuss sexuality, words which simply weren’t available before. Indeed, Carole is the most effective discourse warrior I have ever encountered.
When Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin proposed their Minneapolis ordinance against pornography, Carole had no trouble in calling us all back together again. F.A.C.T., the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, came into existence over-night—not to offer our own definitions of good or bad sex or good or bad images—but to resist what we saw as a fundamental change in the tactics, values and goals of our political movement for women’s liberation. I remember our shared dismay as we met night after night and through the weekends to craft a response that would not attack other feminists, nor take their fears of sexual oppression lightly, but which would critique their definitions and strategies. Yes, friends, the “pro-sex faction” was very active on Saturday nights. We heated up into a veritable fever of leaflet writing.
One part of Carole’s story—and perhaps of the story of many here this evening at CLAGS—is the story of facing backlash at first hand. To many of our colleagues and friends our involvement in this turn in feminist politics seemed slimy, unprofessional, tainted, irrelevant—why, somehow, like sex itself. In intellectual circles some of this distain and disrespect has eased off now, for among other reasons because of Carole’s relentless resistance to any denigration of sex as subject. Due to the work of so many—some of them directly inspired by Carole—social construction theory is now accepted not as an orthodoxy but as a starting point for raising questions about the complexity and variety of sexual experience.
Yet, it’s amazing how much the stigma lingers. I believe it has been difficult, but Carole has continued to be shameless. She has refused to change the subject. She keeps asking about how people understand sexuality, how they are often manipulated by their sexual ignorance and fears, how they resist taboos on pleasure.
People are always grabbing Carole’s ideas—because they need them; her thought reframes our understanding and suggests ways forward. But—have I made this deeper point clear? Her talent is so novel that I fear I have not: Carole influences the course of public debates not only through her original thinking and writing but also through joining with others in this process. The group she fosters makes history beyond any one individual’s capability.
So, I’ll stop here with an assertion of Carole’s rarity. She is not only brilliant in herself but the cause of brilliance in others. All those who “work on sex,” as the short-hand is, are in her debt. She has been making room for us and putting our names and words into history, tirelessly, for thirty years. Our rare Carole, whom it feels so right to be celebrating tonight.
Ann Snitow is the founder and chair of the Network of East-West Women
and a professor at the New School.