Let’s talk about sex

Aug 15, 2013

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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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.