Writing about sex (with footnotes)

Matthew Reisz recalls some memorable examples of academics venturing beneath the sheets

January 15, 2016
Source: iStock
Who let an academic into our bedroom?

Novelists can write about sex in ways that are exciting or disturbing, comic or nostalgic, lyrical or grotesque. None of these options is really open to academics. And just as there is a good deal of academic writing about food, sport or rock ’n’ roll, for example, that manages to drain all the fun and passion out of these topics, the same is certainly true of sex. Fortunately, there are also many academics who manage to be serious and illuminating about sex without being dull.

It probably says something about me, but shortly after I joined Times Higher Education I decided to write a feature investigating some of the research on sex then going on in the UK, given that sexology has never really acquired the status of a proper academic discipline in this country.

I thought back to that article recently when I was reading and then writing about a bold new book titled The Domesticated Penis: How Womanhood Has Shaped Manhood. Here two US associate professors of anthropology, Loretta Cormier and Sharyn Jones, get to grips with (insert alternative double entendre of your choice) the male organ, and set out a striking central thesis: roughly that the human penis has been shaped by female choice over the course of evolution into an organ “geared toward providing sexual pleasure to women”.

The reason that this has not been widely acknowledged, they suggest, is that most evolutionary theory has been written by men and has tended to give females something of a “passive”, bystander’s role in the processes that drive evolution. In particular, earlier researchers have been coy about admitting “the possibility that females actively seek out sexual encounters and choose mates that provide them with enhanced sexual pleasure” and have “typically minimized…the extent to which female sexuality is expressed outside of reproduction”. (This can hardly be news, of course, to anyone who has ever been to a nightclub or heard of contraception, but perhaps some researchers have led very sheltered lives or believe that female animals live by stricter moral codes than their fellow humans.)

I am sure there is something in the claim by Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at the University of Leicester, that: “There hasn’t been enough research about sexuality and class.” One of her own projects explored the phenomenon of “chavinism”, whereby middle-class “gay men buy clothes in order to dress as chavs” or even “seek ‘real’ sex with tracksuit-wearing, baseball-cap-sporting youths”. This can lead to some amusing confusions, with Brewis’ paper citing the case of one couple who tried to pick up “‘Burberry-capped’ Rob” for a threesome and said they “wouldn’t mind going back to his council flat” – only to discover that he was just as affluent as they were.

But while I’m on the subject of academics dealing with sexual themes whose work I have found startling and “educational”, I can hardly omit Dani Ploeger, now senior lecturer in performance arts at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He has written very interestingly about the po-faced way that many artists and critics talk about nudity and sexual themes in “high art”. But he is also a performance artist of a particularly “out there” kind. One piece (see previous link) involved such heroic feats of buttock-clenching that he was acclaimed by a Czech newspaper as “the Jimi Hendrix of the sphincter”.

It was also Ploeger who co-organised a conference I attended on the boundaries between pornography and performance art. This featured a demonstration of Japanese rope bondage (a good deal less exciting than it sounds) as well as presentations by “camgirls” and “submissives”. There was even a video of a sort of girl-meets-octopus erotic encounter, produced by the feminist art collective CUNTemporary.

When I googled them to find out more, the search engine made every effort to spare my blushes: “Are you sure you don’t mean ‘contemporary’?”

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