By Catherine M. Orr
Last month, Jammie Price, Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State University, was placed on administrative leave for her “inappropriate speech and conduct in the classroom” for showing “The Price of Pleasure,” a film about pornography produced by Media Education Foundation which she checked out from the University’s library. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week, according to the Vice President for Faculty Affairs, “at least three students complained to administrators that the content was ‘really inappropriate.’” Not surprisingly, as word of ASU’s response has spread, the comments elicited on both WMST-L (a listserv for WGS scholars and teachers) and from CHE readers focus mainly on issues of academic freedom. According to Merri Lisa Johnson, Director for the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at University of South Carolina, Upstate, and author of the RWGS chapter, “Sexuality,” this is a missed opportunity.
Catherine M. Orr: So Lisa, in your chapter, you speak about how the field’s framing of sexuality is too often “left wanting” on the ideological level. This might seem pretty counter intuitive to a lot of WGS veterans, most of whom probably either tell stories about WGS’s beginnings as deeply embedded in radical feminism’s interrogation of normative sexualities and/or embrace the influence of queer theorizing in the field. But your perspective seems really appropriate given what’s going on at Appalachian State. Can you talk about how you would respond to folks who might not get what you’re saying here?
Merri Lisa Johnson:
The key issue here is the difference between the way the field understands itself as having interrogating normative sexualities and the way the field describes itself to the public. What was “left wanting” in feminist responses to the App State suspension or, as I explain in my RWGS chapter, in similar responses to the attack on sexuality studies by the Georgia legislature, is a viable and well-rounded public articulation of the place of sexuality in the WGS classroom. Gail Dines has made a smart intervention by reorienting the conversation about teaching pornography from a matter of graphic sexuality in the classroom to a critique of economic exploitation, but there are definite limitations in the ways this argument is playing out so far: (1) Dines mobilizes the danger narrative of sexuality, arguing that the exploitation of women in pornography must be exposed in order to be critiqued and curbed, and (2) the sociology profs mobilize the intellectual go-to of academic freedom. I agree with both arguments. Yet there is still no vocabulary for resisting the conservative moral framework that says graphic sexual material is inappropriate for the classroom, and no public statement of feminist pedagogy that says our notions of what is deemed proper in the classroom are part of the very status quo that WGS generally interrogates.
In packing up my research materials for the RWGS chapter on “Sexuality,” I ran across an article by Deborah P. Britzman called “Is There a Queer Pedagogy? Or, Stop Thinking Straight” that I had at one time intended to include in my argument. In encouraging attention to “the unmarked criteria that work to dismiss as irrelevant or valorize as relevant a particular mode of thought,” and “[t]o engage the limit of thought–where thought stops, what it cannot bear to know, what it must shut out to think as it does” (216), Britzman provided one of the starting places for my own thinking about what has not yet been accomplished around discourses of sexuality in WGS.
Since the publication of my first book, Jane Sexes It Up, I have been working in various ways on this problem of limited academic feminist discourse about sexuality. Ideas grouped under the admittedly problematic categories of “pro-sex” or “pro-pleasure” feminism (the more accurate terms would probably be libertarian, sex radical, and queer feminisms) have not been clearly or widely disseminated to the general public in the same way that cultural consciousness has been raised around issues of sexual assault or violent representations of sexuality in pornography. The feeling I have is that some of us have agreed internally that the study of sex work, pornography, oral sex, role play, sadomasochism, masturbation, fisting, faked orgasms, and the like are worthy of study and appropriate content for WGS courses, but that we introduce these topics in the seeming privacy of our classrooms, hoping never to be discovered by our conservative administrators, legislators, and constituents. This sensation that what we do must be done under the radar marks the work with an affect of shame, or vulnerability, and positions us to return to the same problem every few years as another professor or course falls under public scrutiny.
Something is missing here. Something is (still) left wanting.
CMO: In one of your four propositions for reclaiming a more radical approach to teaching sexuality in WGS, you say: “Stop Saying ‘Sex Wars’.” Can you talk a bit about how WGS pedagogies that emphasize that framing of the field’s history as one of “battles” about sexuality have affected the field? What do you want us to do differently?
MLJ: This semester I titled that section of my Feminist Theory & Methods course, “The Feminist Debate Formerly Known as the ‘Sex Wars’,” to both acknowledge that commonplace term and trouble it at the same time. The textbook I selected, The Feminist Philosophy Reader, gave me some interesting pieces to use in the service of this pedagogical approach, including Ann Ferguson’s critique of radical and libertarian feminist theories of sexuality and Chris Cuomo’s queer reframing of liberal gay rights debates. My goal in this section of the course was to introduce the usual perception of feminist sexuality debates as polarized and then to show the many nuances of each “side,” and even more interestingly, to take the conversation in other directions altogether. So we moved from Catharine MacKinnon’s critique of pornography as a representation of male pleasure and female masochism to a complex mixed genre piece by the Canadian lesbian sadomasochistic feminist collective, Kiss and Tell, to an article by Evelynn Hammonds that racializes this scholarly inquiry through the lens of black feminist theory, and on to the methodological intervention of Nancy Tuana in her piece on “epistemologies of ignorance” and the deliberate reproduction of biased and incomplete knowledge formations about female sexual anatomy. In other words, we ranged widely, departing from what the RWGS experience conditioned me to think of as “the usual suspects.” In short, my recommendation is to renounce the convenience of a polarized argument in the classroom and to demonstrate the incredible proliferation of ideas about sexual pleasure, sexual agency, sexual desire, sexual practices, sexual orientation, and sexual representation.
CMO: Your chapter is very much located–in many senses of that word–in a Southern U.S. context, in which you speak of a generalized discomfort with talking about sexuality, proposed legislation to defund state institutions teaching queer theory, as well as a kind of constant threat of anti-gay violence? Do you think teaching WGS is different in the US South as opposed to other places? If so, how?
MLJ: I couldn’t say for sure, since so much of my teaching (and living) has been done in this region. I taught in Ohio and upstate New York during my years as a graduate instructor, and I probably met with about the same mixture of students who yearn to speak openly about sexuality in the classroom and students who are shocked by such activity. In Spring 2011, after having completed the RWGS chapter, I read Lisa Duggan’s Twilight of Equality? (I was late to that party!) and learned about the politically motivated attack on WGS at SUNY New Paltz in the late 1990s through the vulnerable opening of a conference held by the WGS program on sexuality. Much earlier in my research for RWGS, I read Miranda Joseph’s discussion of politically motivated attacks on WGS at the University of Arizona through the vulnerability created by the institutional links between WGS and LGBT Studies. And then of course, there is the currently unfolding conflict at Appalachian State. With these cases in mind, along with Arlene Stein’s sociological study on gay rights in Oregon, I would suggest that my analysis of sexuality in WGS is located in a conservative and rural context, and that these traits—not its Southernness—link my experience here to similar experiences in other conservative and rural contexts across the U.S. that produce pressures and taboos around this academic subject matter.
CMO: Last year, you published Girl in Need of a Tourniquet, a memoir that focuses on your diagnosis with borderline personality disorder. This seems incredibly brave, especially for an academic. We are supposed to embrace this very narrow understanding of rationality and de-emphasize things like emotions and even our own personal struggles. So, what are the good things that have come with that decision? And how has the memoir and being out with your diagnosis affected your current research and writing projects?
MLJ: Feminist literary nonfiction has schooled me in fearless self-revelation. “Because the machine will grind you into dust anyway,” Audre Lorde says, “whether or not we speak.” I operate most of the time as if the feminist methodological revolutions of standpoint epistemology and first-person narrative as a form of theory are generally accepted by academics. This deliberate self-deception gives me a lot of freedom to write and publish what strikes me as true and meaningful despite the risks of introducing the personal and the emotional into my professional academic work. What has been pleasant and wonderful is how little negative response I have received. The ones who admire my forthrightness tell me so. If there are others who are shocked or put off or who see my work as less rigorous as a result, they have kept it to themselves. Two recent theoretical fronts have been useful, I think, in shoring up the freedom to publish this kind of work and the credibility assigned to it. The first is the incredible surge right now around Disability Studies and the related area of “crip theory.” The second is the sustained attention to theories of emotion and affect or what Ann Cvetkovich and others have been calling “public feelings.” Between these two critical edges, my attention to states of emotional dysregulation and strategic negotiations with a particular diagnostic category finds a comfortable intellectual home. I didn’t really know much about either of these fields before I published Girl in Need of a Tourniquet. As a result of speaking and writing the experience, these communities of scholars suddenly became visible to me and offered me spaces to think collectively about issues that previously felt unique, private, and kind of embarrassing. I can see now that those feelings were culturally constructed to mystify the ways my experience is part of a shared social condition—shared by other borderlines, by other people with psychiatric and physical disabilities, and by the general population, all of whom experience overwhelming emotions at one point or another in life. The personal is political, again and again.
CMO: So what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
MLJ: I’ve had two books in mind for the past two years. One is a scholarly monograph on cultural representations of borderline personality disorder that use the lens of crip feminism to unsettle popular misconceptions of the borderline personality and to demonstrate that discourses of emotional dysregulation absolutely saturate what we typically consider the “normal” cultural environment—in films, on television, and in just about every love song on the radio—and I am torn in this project between wanting to do the work of asserting and claiming the widely stigmatized cultural identity of borderline personality disorder, on one hand, and wanting to point out that this category is faulty and porous, on the other, to say that it overlaps with the life experience of people who do not have this diagnosis and do not identify as psychiatrically disabled, that “borderline” becomes a space where the disavowed realities of emotional dysregulation gets projected. That “borderline” is one version of what feminist disability studies scholar Susan Wendell calls “the rejected body.” The other project is a sequel to Girl in Need of a Tourniquet, and it will shift the focus from abandonment issues to the opposite and far less frequently discussed issue of engulfment reactions, or what happens when a borderline personality gets married and goes up for tenure. In the immediate short-term, I’m planning to write a sabbatical proposal over the summer in hopes of securing reassigned time for turning these ideas into manuscripts.
MERRI LISA JOHNSON is Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate. She has edited or co-edited: On the Literary Nonfiction of Nancy Mairs (2011); Third Wave Feminism and Television (2007); Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance(2006); and Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire (2002). She has also published a memoir, Girl in Need of a Tourniquet (2010) and just completed her term as president of the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association.