Conference Report: Sexual Cultures 2: Academia Meets Activism

In 2014 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the first time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support. 

By Rose Holyoak

With the generous support of the Sociological Review Trust, in April 2015 I was able to attend the Sexual Cultures 2 conference in London, co-hosted by the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural studies, University of Sunderland and the Onscenity Research Network. Organised by Clarissa Smith, Feona Attwood and Meg John Barker, the conference’s focus was broad, incorporating sex and disability, trans and non-binary activism, sex work and stripper activism, and youth, race and sexuality, and was emphasised as a forum for interactions between and engagements with academia and activism. As such it attracted a breadth of contributions, encompassing researchers from the fields of anthropology, sociology, social work, youth work, psychology, media studies, cultural studies, education, literature, as well as activists from the Sex Worker Open University, Outsiders, Gendered Intelligence, All About Trans, and the Allsorts Youth Project. In addition to academics and activists, the conference benefited greatly from the contributions of artists, practitioners and educators, producing a lively and collegiate atmosphere, which served as a welcome change to some of the more dry, and disciplinary-bounded, conferences I have attended.

The conference was streamed into 4 key themes: intersecting sex, advising/educating sex, sex and technology, working sex, and the diversity of contributors was testament to the organisers’ engagement in the field and their commitment to making accessible the world of academic research, as well as emphasising the voices and experiences of the activists working on the front-line of sexual and gender equality. The activist panel on the first day, addressing trans and non-binary activism, with contributions from Jay Stewart, Kat Gupta, Ruth Pearce and Jade Fernandez, was a valuable contribution that served to connect our academic work directly to the lived experiences of those we are researching. While many of us present would consider ourselves activist academics, such an identity is at times difficult to embody at conferences that are more concertedly focused on the performatives aspects of academia that enforce an institutional norm of objectivity and distance, in spite of our methodological aims. But the panel didn’t shy away from asking difficult questions about the financial inaccessibility of such academic forums for those outside, or on the margins of, academia, or about how the pressurised research culture of UK universities may potentially harm those we study.

Similar questions around the responsibilities of academic researchers were raised in the final plenary session on ‘Sex Work and Stripper Activism’. With contributions from representatives of the Sex Worker Open University and the East London Stripper Collective, as well as reports from Ntokozo Yingwana on Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) in South Africa, and Dr Kate Hardy on sex workers’ trade union organising in Argentina, the panel presented a transnational analysis of academic and activist perspectives. Under particular scrutiny was the continued polarisation of sex work into victim/worker and oppressive/empowering binaries which too frequently ignore the nuances such experiences, and fail to foreground the voices of sex workers themselves. On this last point, Hardy called for much wider representation of sex workers on conference panels and proposed that academics should question the wisdom of appearing on panels that lack sex worker representation. Yet it was demonstrated that it is not just academia, but also some activist forums, that exclude sex workers. Yingwana detailed how sex workers in South Africa had been rebuffed from participating in feminist groups, leading to the creation of new spaces and organisations, such as ‘AWAKE! Women of Africa’, a feminist sex workers’ empowerment group. As a social movements scholar I find forms of autonomous organising such as this, and the Sex Worker Open University, particularly interesting as they so often arise not only from a particular community need, but also from their exclusion from the very liberation movements they should be at the heart of. Thus resilience breeds new forms of organising, but raises questions about the possibility of feminist solidarity.

With Joseph De Lappe and Mark Carrigan my panel presented a range of social movement analyses of sexuality and sexual cultures. Drawing on our doctoral research of asexual, feminist, environmental and anarchist activism, we considered theorisations and empirical observations of these movements in an attempt to bridge the divide between gender and sexuality studies and social movement theory. As an auto-ethnographic account of studying and participating in social movements, my own paper explored the contributions both activist and academic cultures have made to conceptualising and labelling sexual identity. As a forum for feedback on our proposed special issue on sex and gender social movements, the panel proved productive in receiving the type of initial commentary and critique that these sorts of conferences are so valuable for. And having submitted my thesis for examination just days earlier, it provided a reassuring sense that there is life beyond the viva.

As always with conferences of this size, there were far more papers and workshops that I wanted to see than I was practically able to get to. However, thanks to the live tweeting efforts of many attendees under the #oncenity2015 hashtag, I was able to engage with debates that were happening across the conference without needing to be physically present at all of the panels. It’s a sign of the times, but a conference is nothing without its own dedicated hashtag.

Originally posted 13th November 2015.

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