I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard Carole Vance lecture. Nearly twenty years ago, the occasion was one of a series of lectures organized by the artist Barbara Kruger and the editor Phil Mariani given at the Dia Art Foundation space on Mercer Street in Soho. Carole spoke about the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, which was convened by Edwin Meese and was clearly mandated, in advance of its own hearings, to recommend the sort of clamping down on sexual freedom that has been both a goal and an instrument of the fundamentalist Right from that time up to the present.
One of Carole’s crucial contributions throughout her career has been to identify, analyze, and combat these repressive governmental strategies centered on sex.
I remember one moment of Carole’s lecture at Dia particularly. The talk was, appropriately enough given the art-world context, about the use of images by the Meese Commission in its hearings, staged at six locations around the country, hearings that Carole attended and covered for The Nation. The moment I remember is itself an image—the image of a ship capsizing. Let me share this passage from Carole’s talk, in which she discusses the contradictory “show and tell” deployment of porn images by the Meese Commission for what she called the “pleasures of condemnation.” “These pleasures,” she said, “were intense.”
The atmosphere throughout the hearings was one of excited repression: witnesses alternated between chronicling the negative effects of pornography and making sensationalized presentations of “it.” Taking a lead from feminist anti-pornography groups, everyone had a slide show: The FBI, the US Customs Service, the US Postal Service, and sundry vice squads. At every “lights out,” spectators would rush to one side of the room to see the screen, which was angled toward the commissioners. Were the hearing room a ship, we would have capsized many times.
This was one of the numerous moments in Carole’s talk that cracked up her audience, and it’s the one that I love to recount. But what is my point in recounting it? That Carole Vance can be delightfully funny when she talks about sex and its enemies? Yes, of course, that’s part of my point. But I would not be the follower of Michel Foucault that I am if I were to leave it at that. Foucault’s analysis of what he called the “repressive hypothesis” has made it impossible to feel smug any longer about being unafraid of sex, to think of oneself as liberated and enlightened while all those others are pathetically repressed.
And Carole’s insight is much more complex than that. The image of the capsizing ship that stays in my mind about the Meese Commission, created so economically and comically by Carole, is an image of the sinister manipulation of sex—the sinister manipulation of the excitements, fears, and conflicts associated with sex—for the purposes of increasing the state’s interference in our lives, and not merely in matters of sex, and of decreasing the state’s responsibilities for social well being and justice. Carole created that image, and the complexity and urgency of its meaning with the patience of her research, the alertness of her investigative journalism, the sharpness and dry wit of her prose style, the modesty and dignity of her stage presence, and a genuine respect for her audience.
Carole’s rigorous scholarship and teaching about sexuality, and her generous work as a facilitator of discussions about sexual rights, have reverberated across the globe. For five years, she has co-directed and taught in the Summer Institute on Sexuality, Culture, and Society at the International School of the University of Amsterdam, where her students—academics and human rights workers—come from every continent. Two of her students there eventually founded their own Institute on Sexuality and Rights in India in 2002, and they have invited Carole each year to be a visiting professor. In just the past decade, Carole has participated in international sexuality and rights conferences held in Brazil, Cuba, Sweden, Thailand, Vietnam, and Italy, as well as throughout the U.S. and Canada. Carole Vance gets around. It is a pleasure to introduce her “Travels With Sex.”
Douglas Crimp is the Fanny Knapp Allen Professor of
Art History at the University of Rochester.