Let’s talk about sex

by on 2013-08-15 in Duck- 18 Comments

Disclaimer: This is not an official response from the Duck collective, but my reaction. 

For those of you who have spent any time with me at conferences over the last year, I feel like I have been a little bit of a broken record with this as an academic message – let’s talk about sex. By that I mean sex as an act and sexuality as context for that act, and sexualized power. I’ve seen so many discussions of things that cannot possibly be understood without sex (the act) being taken account of nonetheless explained without it. Want to know who controlled what territory when in early modern Europe? Often, it depended on who was having sex with (/marrying) who. The story of the Reformation? Cannot be told without a story of the meeting of sexual desire and power. Military deployments have often relied on (or believed they relied on) the provision of sexual services in “the war zone.” G. H. W. Bush “penetrated Saddam Hussein’s inner sanctum,” and “it was dirty in there” – perhaps (and hopefully) only metaphorically. It is not unreasonable to posit a link between Bill Clinton getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky and the United States’ bombings in Kenya and Sudan (or at least the timing of them). Who you have sex with (and their sex/gender) can lead to a long laundry list of categorizations, inclusions, and exclusions, socially and legally, in global politics. There is an international politics of fucking, and fucking in international politics that is substantively meaningful. While some queer and feminist work has touched on some of this, often the act of sex remains taboo in studying the politics of global politics.

“Out there” in IR is not the only place that there is a sexual politics. I have argued before that there is a gender politics to the field – by “gender politics” I mean a power politics of masculinities and femininities, masculinization and feminization. Here, I argue that there is a sexual politics to the field, which, while always, cannot be reduced to or held equivalent to gender politics. Sex (the act) substantively impacts the structure, content, and function of the field.

People screw around at conferences, in their departments, in the field – this much is true. And this post certainly is not a case of “let thou who has not sinned throw the first stone” – I will be the first to admit complicity, both literally and in the participation in the use of sexualized power. I argue that, like gendered power, sex and sexualized power is not something it is possible to avoid and/or best avoided – it is something that it is important to talk about/come to terms with/try to make less insidious/try to understand the implications of.

Brian Rathbun’s now-removed post on the Duck inspired me to talk explicitly about sexualized power. While it was arguing for attention to up-and-coming work in the field (something I very much agree with), it did so in terms that wielded sexualized power over that work, and in terms that made light of less-than-voluntary sexual encounters, particularly with children.

That post was far from the most offensive use of sexualized power I have heard in the field, but that reading is not an endorsement of the post – quite the opposite. It is the foundation for an argument that sexualized power in IR is wielded quietly and violently on a regular basis. I’d like to make a broader conversation of it, but here’s a few starting observations:

1) International Relations/Political Science has a sexual history. That sexual history is talked about on the down-low, in gossip, and as a rite of passage to new people in the field. Some people know more of it than others, and parts of it are segmented and segregated to different audiences. It is nonetheless true, and structural in the field. From power couples to bitter rivalries, many (intellectual) relationships in the field have very personal (sexual) content to them. Sometimes, sexual relationships have improved work and bolstered careers; other times they have had the opposite effect. Any honest genealogy of the field, though, can find times that who is fucking who matters to the content of the work that the field produces.

2) There are a number of power relationships in the field that are sexualized. Sure, there’s the traditional way of seeing this: how many times have you seen an old-white-man-dignitary in the field out with female graduate students half or a third of his age, and just winced and hoped that none of them were dumb enough to go home with him? Maybe that’s just me … But even if that is the dynamic that most of us would think of when we thought about sexualized power in the discipline, it is not the only, or even primary, one that exists. First, the sexualized power n the discipline is not just scary men oppressing helpless women. It sometimes is scary men oppressing women who are not in a position to defend themselves – and that is important to pay attention to. But it is often a successful strategy for men and women (of any sexual preference) to wield sexualized power in getting to know people at conferences, in positioning themselves in the field, and in advocating for what they want. Often, I characterize behavior at conferences as “going to flirt with …” because, to be honest, that’s the best characterization of it. In addition to actual conference hookups, much of our socialization is sexualized – be it in meetings or at hotel bars.

3) The sexualization of power relationships is gendered. While “let’s talk about (the act of) sex” is different than “let’s talk about gender” – as I mentioned above, they are not unrelated. Often, expectations of men as men and women as women govern what we think of as acceptable behavior in sexualized power relationships.

4) The discipline has a sexual order. From its (perhaps-over) appreciation of academic fathers’ parenting contributions to its troublesome position on super-DOMA states to its below-the-surface but very much alive sexualized gossip-mill and slut-shaming, we have standards of sexual order that matter for our standards of intellectual order, both in terms of the provision of opportunities and the judgment of success and/or failure.

This post has not gotten specific, because, let’s be honest, no one wants it to. That said, I think these are very important dynamics to recognize, and that the worst thing we can do for the discipline’s sexuality (and abuses there of) is be quiet about it. Certainly, it was decades ago that feminists argued that keeping sex and sexuality (and by association women and felinity) in the private sphere is subordinating and violent. So … let’s talk about sex. Hopefully in a complicated and productive way.

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  • Mel Gibson

    Don’t get your panties in a twist, sugar tits.

  • Christian Chessman

    Hey look, its proof of the Lewis Law.

    It states, “the comments on any internet post about feminism justify the need for feminism”.

  • Charli Carpenter

    I am surprised that you feel the need for a “disclaimer.” Since we’re a blog and not a magazine there is no such thing as a post “from the Duck collective.” All our posts are ours alone, so I assume that readers will know you are writing on your own behalf and your views do not represent the views of the Duck or your co-bloggers. If not, they certainly should. http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/about/policies

  • MJ

    I think there is a margin of appreciation operating here in which disclaiming is reasonable. There are always newbies who need to be brought up to speed.

  • Colin wight

    In light of what’s gone on over at Twitter with Hugo Schwyzer and the #solidarityisforwhitewomen debate I expect disclaimers are going to be the norm.

  • Mel Gibson

    You’re pretty smart for a girl.

  • W. K. Winecoff

    1. It’s tough to know where this conversation can or should begin if specifics are being avoided. I’m young enough in this discipline that I *don’t* know much of the inter-personal sexual politics of it outside of a few cases. Those of which I am aware mostly involve the difficulties in finding two jobs for those in dual-academic relationships. I’m not especially interested in who-sleeps-with-whom, inside academia or outside of it, but the “nudge nudge say no more” aspect of this post makes it even less interesting as well as virtually impossible for me to benefit from it.

    Paired with this vagueness is borderline-outrageous generality. For example:

    “how many times have you seen an old-white-man-dignitary in the field out with female graduate students half or a third of his age, and just winced and hoped that none of them were dumb enough to go home with him?”

    I’m not sure if I’ve *ever once* seen that — as I said, I’m new — but if all I saw was what you described my first thought wouldn’t be “he’s gonna try to use his seniority to screw her, obviously, because he’s a man and that’s what all men do.” Maybe it should be. But it’s hard for me to know where to enter a conversation that uncontestedly allows both of a) “Senior scholars should purposefully network more, socialize more, and professionalize more with women scholars to help overcome biases against them”; and b) “when an older (male) scholar is seen with a younger (female) scholar he’s obviously just trying to get laid.” Aren’t those two statements in some real tension? And isn’t b) just outright offensive as a generalization of all older males as sexual predators, especially given Steve S.’s multiple posts (inc the one above) on how his experiences mentoring women scholars have been some of the proudest aspects of his career? I wouldn’t assume ‘b)’ any more than I would assume c) “when I see a younger female scholar talking to an older male scholar I think she’s going to try to screw him to advance her career” or any other variation on this theme. It’s hard to see how introducing the conversation in this way is supposed to be productive.

    2. I can certainly understand why you’d choose to edit your claim that Rathbun’s post was “abusive” — I believe “sexually abusive” or something along those lines — but it’s really hard to have “complicated and productive” conversations on this site if the posts keep changing and/or disappearing. Moreover, for many years it has been blog etiquette to add an explanatory update to a post if it has been edited in a substantively-meaningful way.

  • Laura Sjoberg

    I substantively edited this post. I edited out a sentence that I thought was an ad hominem attack on a fellow blogger, while leaving the substance of the post (which was overtly critical) intact.

  • Laura Sjoberg

    Four things:

    1) I was vague because the point is that the discipline has sexual structures that matter, not pointing out the sexual structures that matter and the people in them. That information is not mine to share. It is possible to say “the discipline has sexual histories” without telling you the ones I think matter the most. I drew that line to be tasteful. I can do not-tasteful, I just chose not to.

    2) I did use an overplayed example. And if I’d described the circumstances under which I’ve (often) winced at that situation well (and spent enough time writing the post), I would have added “drunk, at 2am, with a faculty member who has a reputation for seducing graduate students.” I used the overplayed example because its vague, and because I could be talking about a lot of people. Less overplayed examples risk people’s anonymity. But certainly, dynamics of sexual power are not one-dimensional, and the overplayed example is not the only one. It was just the easiest one. I mention in the original post that it isn’t the primary example of sexualized power in the field. I also did not say that when we look at that dynamic we see it as sexual – I said that when we think of sexual power, we might think of that.

    3) I was not saying that older men in the discipline are predators. An overwhelming majority of them are not. Many of them are great mentors, and great allies to women. There are some older men in the discipline who are predators. There are also some older women who are. The discipline’s sexual history is not one-directional, or heteronormative. It is not all scandalous.

    4) Autocorrect corrected “femininity” to “felinity” in the last line of the post.

  • W. K. Winecoff

    Hi Laura,

    Thanks for receiving my comments in the spirit they were intended! I’ll try to respond in kind. Sorry it’s long.

    1. I don’t think anyone involved in this discussion has failed to acknowledge that there are meaningful structures that exist and that are worth talking about much more than we presently do, and your goal of moving the discussion toward sexual structures rather than more general gender-relationship structures could be helpful. But on the other hand, restricting the discussion to “structures” in the abstract keeps the discussion far enough away that it’s hard to know what exactly we’re discussing much less what can/should be done about it or even where the problem is. I thought this was part of your original point (altho, upon re-reading, I’m not as sure now). So sure, let’s talk about sex. But what is it we’re talking about when we’re talking about sex? The fact that sex occurs within our particular social clique and, indeed, elsewhere in the world? Okay… but we’re not going to get an “honest genealogy” unless those who know what that genealogy is speak publicly about it, which involves moving beyond a conversation about structures. (As for Clinton and monarchies, those sexual relationships have been studied so I don’t think it’s such a taboo.)

    2. Your refinement seems to have narrowed the field substantially, but I’m still not satisfied. At conferences I make it a point of hanging out late with folks (of whatever gender), if I can, because that tends to build collegiality and friendship in a way that having a coffee at 3 p.m. doesn’t. It is also a good way to meet folks (including but definitely not limited to older faculty) that I otherwise might not encounter. But I’ve never slept with anyone at a conference nor have I been aware of being around a situation in which that was likely to happen with others. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen… I know it does, just like I know people all over the world develop sexual relationships in all kinds of social settings. I am saying that not all or even most of these types of outings are sexual, so a presumption that they are is, well, presumptuous. To the extent that such a generalization might dissuade some from participating in a positive form of interaction it might also be damaging.

    As for reputations… almost everyone I’ve come to know with a “reputation” in this discipline (and many outside it) has not lived up to it. I’m sure some reputations are deserved but plenty are not. I also know (personally) several people (men and women) whose careers have been damaged by innuendo, and like all cliques ours seems to enjoy exaggerated gossip. Without care this can lead to slander. So a reputation is not enough for me to go on absent further information. The “everybody knows he’s a creep/ she’s loose” mode of discourse is a bit too reminiscent of high school for me anyway. But as your refined statement comes off much differently than your original one, perhaps you are talking about a very small subset about which you have quite reliable information. If so then I think it *is* appropriate to speak up, particularly since these events you observed have happened in public. I can’t speak to that since I have no idea what you have in mind, but it leads me to:

    3. I think you *absolutely were* implying that older men in the discipline — at least the prestigious ones — are predatory, as a generality. Read what you wrote again: “how many times have you seen an old-white-man-dignitary in the field out with female graduate students half or a third of his age, and just winced and hoped that none of them were dumb enough to go home with him?” It’s hard for me to read that and not think that you meant it to be understood that this is a frequent enough occurrence that you feel comfortable using very general terms. You say in your comment that you “could be talking about a lot of people” as if that were a virtue; I say you *were* talking about a lot of people, a specific group of people, in a very derogatory way. I’m sure some of them deserve that kind of language, but I’m equally sure that most of them do not. Perhaps, like the phrase you deleted, this came across somewhat differently than you originally intended. I’ve had the same experience while blogging, so I would be very sympathetic if that were the case, but I still think it was a counter-productive way to put things. An “overplayed example” is a stereotype, and I doubt you would countenance similar “overplayed examples” being said about other groups, e.g. my ‘c)’ above.

    Other groups are not similarly privileged as old white men in political science, and that does make a difference. But I harp on this point for the reason I hinted at in my initial comment: there is an active and growing movement to encourage senior mentorship of younger women scholars, and younger scholars from other under-represented groups. Because of the historical gender disparity in the discipline, most senior faculty are men. Because of the racial disparity, most are white. If we want to encourage mentorship of traditionally under-represented groups — and we do! and should! — then we can’t at the same time treat senior white males with such suspicion that we’d comfortable making such general statements about them. Not doing so involves some trust. When that trust is violated it should be denounced and punished appropriately. If it is violated in public — e.g. lecherous behavior towards a graduate student at a bar — then it should be denounced and punished publicly. But part of this process, surely, must be working with senior white male colleagues to improve the deficiencies in the discipline. After all, if most of them are so bad why in the hell would we want them to be mentors?

    4. I wondered about that. Thought maybe “felinity” (which I immediately understood despite being previously unaware) was a new term suddenly in vogue. :)

    P.S. I still maintain that substantive edits should include an update to the main post. It’s a courtesy to the readers if nothing else, but it’s also a pretty strong norm in the blogosphere (going back many blog-years) for purposes of transparency. I don’t think it’s just me, anyway.

  • Stuart Kaufman

    I think WK Winecoff has identified an important problem. On the one hand, it’s hard to have a useful conversation without specifics. On the other hand, it’s even harder to have a useful conversation about something like sex and professionalism because reputations are at stake. I suspect that the thousands of years of recorded history of NOT talking about this stuff may not be just gender bias (covering up the misdeeds of powerful males) but may also reflect some wisdom. Laura Sjoberg was respecting this same wisdom in choosing not to get specific.

    Here are some reasons for the sensitivity:
    –Evolutionary biology says that the reproductive drive is about the most powerful human drive. So, inevitably, it’s both omnipresent and contentious/competitive.
    –Neuroscience says that infatuation has basically the same effect on the brain as drugs. Being in love, or thinking you are, is a drug. That’s why it’s simultaneously the best feeling in the world, and the cause of people doing stupid things.
    –Research on ethics and desire shows, unsurprisingly, that lust clouds judgment and impairs ethics. Ask calm young men about sexual ethics and they sound ethical. Give them a “Playboy” magazine, some privacy, and an online survey, and you can watch their standards drop (actual study).

    In sum, we’re talking about basic human frailty here. Just add sexual tension to the long list of biases everyone fights in themselves and in others’ reactions to them, all of which act on our unconscious in ways that we don’t realize: racial bias, gender bias, bias toward our own political views, methodological views, theoretical views–and the potential to overcorrect on any of them.

    The only way to get at any of this is one specific type of behavior at a time. So, once we know that lust clouds judgment, even more so when mixed with fatigue, alcohol, an available hotel room, and a decent professional reason for having that late-night coed conversation — then what? What new ground rules should we set?

  • Laura Sjoberg

    I never vilified sex – I just said I think that it is important to think of it in terms of sexual power. That said, I think the account that uses evolutionary biology has heterosexuality problems.

  • NK

    evolutionary biology’s account of sex might only have heterosexuality problems if one sets the end goal at an atavistic “reproductive success” rather than a more contemporary “sexual success” or “lust”. Doing so possibly opens a lot of interesting conservations with more “emancipatory” thinkers, particularly in feminist and continental disciplines (past or present).

    Back on the issue, I wonder how much interest you would have in an article like Morgenthau’s little-read “Love and Power”. It is cast in a conservative and classical light but it gets to the heart of the issue of desire and power particularly early in the field.

  • Charli Carpenter

    “In addition to actual conference hookups, much of our socialization is sexualized – be it in meetings or at hotel bars.”

    I like the honesty in this post and like that we have opened up a serious conversation about sex and power in the discipline. But I would argue the assumption embedded in this not-untrue remark is part of the problem that needs to be interrogated. I’m not sure how you define “sexualized” but (again not getting into specifics) I think it’s important to add that even people who have never once “hooked up” at a conference can and do find themselves on the butt end of speculation, rumors, gossip and assumptions they are doing so should they develop close cross-gender friendships with colleagues, and this gossip while sometimes harmless can also be wielded as a form of sexualized power itself that can be damaging. In other words, socializaton may not be sexualized per se, but it may be assumed to be sexualized by others in ways that can damage reputations and complicate carefully-non-sexual-yet-emotionally-intimate cross-gender professional relationships. So part of the sexual politics here we should be discussing here – perhaps the most important part – is not about actual sex but about social assumptions people make about the nature of relationships that can be in fact simultaneously professional and personal, intimate and platonic.

    I have not always known whether to be frustrated or amused by the assumption some people make, at conferences as in high school, that any sustained, openly affectionate cross-gender relationship must be a sexual one or have sexual implications. Amused tends to be my default setting: it has often been a source of entertainment to me to observe people spending their energy, or expecting me to do so, speculating about whether two people are hooking up at conferences rather than thinking about the value of their research or their behavior as colleagues. But then I tend to laugh off a lot of things that others would find uncomfortable and offensive, so it’s worth pointing out that other people might find that same dynamic more on the frustrating side especially if they are the target of it or if it puts ideas in the heads of their colleagues/friends with whom they are trying to maintain carefully platonic professional friendships, or results in people dismissing the results of their intellectually collaborative relationships with people of the opposite sex, or if they have to spend energy wondering what people are saying about them and their colleagues and if this will affect their colleagues’ desire to hang out with or publish with them (or their or their colleagues’ spouse’s comfort level with that friendship) or if they just find the whole discussion distracting. To the extent that fruitful professional collaborations are then foregone or complicated, then both the individuals in question and the discipline writ large thus lose out from the “sexual politics” of disciplinary gossip-mongering.

    So, while I do agree we should think about sex and power in the profession, I worry there might be something slightly unhealthy about a discussion that elevates that kind of unproductive gossip to a focus of interdisciplinary navel-gazing as part of the wider discussion. I think rather it makes more sense to assume that consenting adults will have and have the right to have any number of professionally intimate relationships at conferences, fewer of them than is assumed will include sexuality of any kind (though some will), that it is natural to wonder but that gossiping should be frowned upon both because it is likeliest to disproportionately impact women negatively and because frankly it can border on slander in professional settings whether women or men are the target.

    In my view, the appropriate focus of concern for the discipline is in making sure that normal adult social currents do not adversely affect the safety or professional opportunities for members of the discipline. (So one useful point of discussion might be whether it would be helpful to promote a norm in the discipline of non-sexual-fraternization across ranks, which as far as I can tell doesn’t exist, because here is a situation where sexuality could be intertwined with power and promotion dynamics.) But as to provoking speculation about which interaction in bars or meetings is sexually flirtatious (as opposed to intellectually flirtatious) and what it all means, I worry a little about legitimizing that kind of thinking that can itself do more harm than good, and I actually think it’s one of the behaviors we should be targeting in this discussion.

  • anthony

    eh, it was an excellent post, don’t sweat the (non-)edits.

  • W. K. Winecoff

    No worries. Just glad someone else is thinking similarly to me on this. And your post is better-written than mine anyway.

  • Laura Sjoberg


    Thanks for the engagement. I think that there’s a lot of potential nuance in this conversation. For example, I think that rumor and innuendo actually are forms of sexualized power. Often, the impacts of those rumors are gender- and sex- disaggregated, with men being considered casanovas and women being considered … well, Brian used those words and I don’t need to. The impacts also are often felt different across ages (particularly for young women, and, as my flippant comment showed, older men). But they aren’t “outside” of the realm of sexualized power and sexualized power structures in the discipline – they are a part of them. Who is fucking who matters; so does who is claiming to/pretending to/rumored to; and sexualization cannot be reduced to fucking.

    And, yes, I’m using the word fucking in part to make us think about the base side of this and in part to be sensational, but I’m curious why/how it gets scare quotes above. Certainly, I’m oversimplifying it. Its not just who is fucking who; its who is “making love” and who is flirting and who is flattering, and what people are wearing and what their body language says. I know that’s a terrible sentence, but its as complicated as sexualized power. While “fucking” isn’t the total of it, it certainly is a part of it.

    I guess that what I’m saying is that I don’t think that the dichotomies personal/professional and intimate/platonic are actual dichotomies. I think that there are degrees, levels, and directions, but I think that sexualized power structures of some sort are always operational – and that even the attempt to separate “normal adult relations” from “the professional” is itself a sexual order (and perhaps a more insidious one because it appears to reject sexual ordering).

  • ConceptTinkerer

    I’m always a big fan of subjecting squishy, emotional topics to methodical, steely analysis.