Works of sexual expression are often considered taboo, in common parlance. In academia, pornography remains a topic of research that while nominally acceptable, can still prompt questions about the personal qualities of the person pursuing the research. In her essay for our “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, Celine Parreñas Shimizu details the history of her experiences as a research expert in boundary-breaking pornographic cinema. She brings our focus onto crucial social science questions, not only analyzing the gaze and production of these works, but also revealing the social biases that may challenge sexuality researchers when their subject itself breaks from the norm.
In the early 1990s, a consensus was emerging among scholars and those foundations invested in social knowledge that sexuality research was vital to understanding the broader landscape of social life. And yet, there remained a “substantial dearth of knowledge which in turn [had] sustained many of the social crises evident” in the United States at that time, in large part because the funding infrastructure for such research was lacking. In an effort to address these lacunae, from 1996 to 2006, the SSRC’s Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP), with generous support from the Ford Foundation, catalyzed a new generation of sexuality scholars. Their work promoted and legitimized the field within a wide range of academic disciplines beyond public health, including anthropology, communications, history, and sociology. The fellows of this ground-breaking program undertook research across a broad range of sexuality-related topics—from sexual harassment policies to adolescent sexuality, from reproductive health technology to gender identity—utilized a variety of research methods and theoretical framings, and helped to create an interdisciplinary network of researchers and mentors that continue to support crucial work in the field today.
Since the close of the program, global society has seen a number of significant shifts—major expansions of trans activism; legalization of same-sex marriage in many countries; resurgent movements to restrict access to reproductive health services and to curb sex and gender-inclusive education. The complexities and social importance of these and related trends call for still more profound understanding of sexuality and gendered experience. Under the heading of “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now,” SRFP fellowship alumni were invited to contribute with the goal of critically engaging with the program’s legacy and impact. In these essays and interviews, the fellows reflect on the trajectories of their past and current research. The series also presents an opportunity to look forward to the future of social science research in sexuality and gender studies by reflecting on how this work influences and challenges other zones of inquiry: the social significance of the natural and built environments; migration and the movement of people; the politics of art and performance; religion and spiritual life; and social justice and inequality, to name a few.
If there is one thing that comes through in all the contributions, it is that social science research on sexuality and gendered experience is vital to understanding human society as a whole, now more than ever. In the coming weeks the series will feature incisive work through the lenses of critical race theory, intersectionality, queer theory, and other analyses that sharpen our understanding of global social experience. In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and in celebration of the contributions of the fellows, we hope you will find these essays and conversations an incitement to intellectual engagement, and consideration of how such engagement informs and is shaped by social action.
Do the words we use matter? Christine Labuski argues they do, in particular the words we use to describe our sexual organs. For our “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, she challenges society’s unwillingness to use the correct terminology when describing women’s sexual body parts, using “vagina” as a catch-all term. Through her research, Labuski calls attention to how detrimental to women it can be to not use the more precise term “vulva.” Additionally, she emphasizes the need for more interdisciplinary research on the vulva—beyond the medical—that critically engages with gender, sexuality, the cultural, and the political aspects of a woman’s body.
Pablo Mitchell illustrates the importance of mentorship in fostering new generations of academics, in particular in emerging fields. As part of the “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, he reflects on the role his mentors played in cultivating his scholarship on the history of Latinx sexuality. Highlighting the importance of researching the history of sexuality of minorities within the broader history of the Americas, Mitchell looks to the future of the field and advocates for increased research on Latinx sexuality.
In her contribution to the “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, Anne Esacove highlights the Trans Literacy Project (TLP) and its work at the University of Pennsylvania. Created by a group of students, activists, and scholars to cultivate and expand conversations on trans and gender inclusivity, the TLP hosted a series of events and workshops to bring to the forefront concerns and issues facing the trans community in academia. Esacove uses this opportunity to bolster the voices of the project’s participants. Six of the TLP conveners, Ava L.J. Kim, Davy Knittle, Kel Kroehle, Aylin Malcolm, Monique Perry, and Brooke Jamieson Stanley, summarize key points learned from the TLP experience, which can be used to enrich academic learning and provide a more inclusive experience for trans students and scholars.
Narratives of abuse and violence that women experience play a crucial role in prosecuting perpetrators. However, as Shonna Trinch explains in her contribution to the “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, the representations of these narratives are susceptible to distortion by legal actors recording stories of said encounters or detail discrepancies on the part of victims. Building from her research on Latinas’ retellings of their abuse, Trinch argues these omissions create stereotypical and androcentric narratives that hurt women’s chances at justice and remove their agency. She concludes by highlighting the Seeing Rape project and class, programs she started alongside playwright Barbara Cassidy, to perform and problematize representations of gendered violence.
Reflecting on her Sexuality Research Fellowship Program experience and how it shaped her career, Lynn Comella explores the evolution of and growth in the feminist sex-toy retail industry since the 1970s. Through ethnographic research across different field sites around the United States, she interrogates how these women-friendly shops and the larger industry around them went from a peripheral phenomenon to mainstream in the span of a few decades, normalizing women’s sex lives and their sexual desires. In her research, she argues that by co-opting consumer culture, sex-positive feminists were able to spread their message of sexual empowerment; however, Comella also highlights potential challenges of “practicing sexual politics through the marketplace.”
Writing for our “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, Dawne Moon analyzes the evolution of views of the LGBTQ+ community among Protestant evangelicals and how LGBTQ+ Christians have started creating a space for themselves within the church. Through her Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP) funding, she first started researching evangelicals’ views on the LGBTQ+ community in the late 1990s, leading to her current work on understanding “sacramental shame” among LGBTQ+ Christians. She concludes with a reflection on how the SRFP impacted her own career.
Writing for the “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, Catherine Fosl reflects on her current work on the queer public history of Kentucky. She traces how she uncovered the state’s LGBTQ history, in particular that of Louisville, and how the Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP), which sponsored research on the oral history of a local LGBTQ organization, led her down this path. Through her work as a public historian, Fosl has shined light on an aspect of this community’s history, culminating in the state’s first LGBTQ historic context statement, coauthored with the Fairness Campaign.
To complement our “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, we revisit this 2000 report by Diane di Mauro, then program director of the SSRC’s Sexuality Research Fellowship Program. Di Mauro summarizes the history of sexuality research in the United States and then explores how sexuality and gender research can address emerging (and still relevant) themes beyond their framing as “health” issues and in ways that engage the public and policymakers.
Combating Sexual Dysfunction through an Intervention Designed to Strengthen Brain-Body Communicationby Lori Brotto
In her contribution to our “Sexuality & Gender Studies Now” series, Lori Brotto examines how a person’s psychological-physical connection influences their sexual desire. She explains how, through her research on cervical cancer survivors, mindfulness meditation—a practice that helps the brain focus on the present moment—can help reconnect the body and brain to stimulate sexual desire. Through this approach, Brotto argues, many other people, from cancer survivors to sexual assault victims, can reconnect with their sexual desires.