Let's talk about sex: academics keen to turn on, tune in and get down to it

US lecturers eager to tackle taboos and bolster understanding of a vital topic. Jon Marcus writes

February 11, 2010

The anthology Best Sex Writing does not sound like most academic publications. It does not look like them either, with its glimpse of a naked back and thigh on the front cover.

And Diana Joseph's contribution does not read like a typical academic research paper. The assistant professor in creative writing at Minnesota State University Mankato writes about her sexual promiscuity as a young woman - reminiscences sparked by her son referring to a classmate as a "slut".

Her article, "The girl who only sometimes said no", is one of three by academics to have appeared in the last two editions of the sex-writing series.

They share the journal's pages with such eyebrow-raising titles as "Piece of ass", "A cunning linguist" and "Secrets of the phallus: why is the penis shaped like that?"

"If my colleagues are whispering about me behind my back, I don't know about it, but I don't think they are," Ms Joseph said.

"We are living in a culture that allows people to speak more about formerly taboo subjects ... I don't want to generalise or sound ageist, but maybe an earlier generation of academics would have been horrified by this."

Dagmar Herzog, professor of history at the City University of New York, is another contributor.

Her article on sex and religious history, "Soulgasm", appeared in the Best Sex Writing 2009 edition, and she too said that "uncomfortable sniggers" were largely a thing of the past.

"There's a whole new legitimacy to the study of sexuality," Professor Herzog said.

"An entire generation has come of age understanding the importance of the topic."

Rachel Kramer Bussel, editor of the anthology, said sex was "something academics are looking at more in a range of ways - such as sex and politics or sex in popular culture. It is a topic that crosses so many disciplines."

However, Christine Seifert, assistant professor in communications at Westminster College in Utah, said that when she wrote a traditional scholarly piece on sex, "nobody cared".

By contrast, when she wrote an essay for Best Sex Writing describing vampire literature as "abstinence porn" - convincing teenage fans that "self-denial is hot" - interest soared.

At her small liberal-arts university, Dr Seifert said, most of her colleagues and students thought her article, "Bite me! (Or don't)", was "kind of cool".

"No one has said to me: 'This is not academic enough'," she added.

Traditional academic work is perceived as being "dry and boring and removed from daily life", she said, but sex is "something everyone wants to talk about".

Scholars are also using more explicit language in their discussions of sex and sexuality - dropping the clinical and distancing terminology more usually associated with academic writing.

"These are incredibly important, significant topics, and we have to use the words that people use," Professor Herzog said.

Despite her insistence on sex's academic legitimacy, she admitted that when she went to a bookshop in New York to read from her essay in the Best Sex Writing series, senior male colleagues "affectionately rolled their eyes".

"There's more pressure on people who study sex to prove the rigour of their research and the seriousness of the outcomes," she said.

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