Weeks One and Two were mostly spent in bed, first with a cold and then with a sinus infection and also, since the 9th, wrestling with a depressive episode. I did all the reading, took notes, thought too much, wrote something else, refreshed and refreshed my phone to see the newest round of photos of a different white supremacist looking bilious in the gilt glow of the Trump Tower elevators, and didn’t write about learning about sex. Everything feels very pointless, but nihilism is the philosophy of fascism, and I promised I’d write something by today so here I am. I’ll try again tomorrow, tackling the Sexuality Now excerpts and posting those responses first so things feel more manageable.
Weeks One and Two: Take Two. Here are my reflections on the main text, Sexuality Now, Ch. 1: Exploring Human Sexuality Past and Present and Ch. 2: Understanding Human Sexuality: Theory and Research.
I don’t know much about the formal art of education, but I do know this: there are a few things about which it’s better to teach nothing than very little. One of these things is Freudianism, and another is nonwhite foreign cultural mores. Janell L. Carroll briefly touches on— by which I mean, prods and pinches and then impatiently flicks away— both of these things in the first two chapters of Sexuality Now, and she herself should know better. After all, she begins chapter one by assuring us of her expertise.
“I’ve travelled extensively throughout the United States and around the world,” Carroll writes in the chapter introduction, “consulting with sexuality teachers, experts, researchers, and interviewing ordinary people about their sexuality” (xlii). I would’ve delighted in an explanation of the term ‘ordinary people,’ as I’ve diapered at least a dozen of them, smeared peanut butter on the taints of a few more, and kicked, like, fifty of them in the nuts but still have no idea who or what they might be. Alas, ‘ordinary people’ is not one of the highlighted vocabulary terms. But enough about me and what I don’t know. We were talking about Carroll, about how “[her] education, training, and research about the interplay of biology, society and culture gave [her] knowledge, but experiencing other societies and cultures gave [her] understanding [italics in the original]” (xlii). It must have been the academic hubris that gave her the idea she could write informatively about Freudianism in nine simplistic paragraphs. Carroll did her best (I guess? I don’t know, I’m just being nice here) but her intended reader would still come away from the text thinking Freud had discovered something called the ‘Electra complex’, and that ‘thanatos’ is “aggressiveness motivation” (p. 28).
But pretty much everyone gets Freud wrong! Who cares?; he was a jackass. What’s morally repugnant is the collection of microwaved stereotypes Carroll passes off as “Sexuality in Ancient Asia.” It must be her unchallenged white supremacy that allows her to call herself an expert on other cultures while writing racist drivel like, “Chinese and Indian civilizations also had unique views of sexuality. In Indian culture, Hinduism and rebirth give life direction. In Chinese culture, people work to live in harmony with the Tao, which is made up of yin and yang” (7).
Literally no part of that is true. “Ancient Asia” is far greater than the sum of Chinese and Indian cultures. There is not and never was one coherent ‘Indian culture’ or ‘Chinese culture.’ “Indian” does not equal Hindu which does not equal rebirth. “Chinese” does not equal Tao which does not equal yin and yang. And the following paragraphs on karma, patriarchy, female infanticide, the Kama Sutra, and polygamy (all highlighted vocab terms!) are a horrorshow whose only value lies in demonstrating the ways in which white supremacy indoctrinates white students and alienates students of color. If you’re wondering how the fuck America has a President-Elect whose chief strategist is a neo-Nazi propagandist, look right here at the building blocks of our liberal education, in this textbook our public-school-destroying future Secretary of Education would ban for being too progressive. Here is the scaffolding for Trump’s gilt elevators.
White supremacy is not the only oppression that is built up from misinformation; all systemic domination starts with the mythologizing of history. In this process, causality suddenly becomes easy to follow: evil is inevitable and so is the eventual triumph of good; economics is rendered as the afterthought of culture, which is the driverless car of social change; whole classes of perpetrators are invisibilized in passive sentence construction or subsumed into singular historical figures (‘slaves were brought to America’, ‘Hitler killed 11 million people’) and victims are rendered completely without agency. In these chapters on the histories of human sexuality and the study of human sexuality, Carroll performs the same ritual she did with Asian people again with Jews, Muslims, African Americans, women, trans and gender nonconforming people, same-gender attracted people, the working classes and sex workers. The best that I can say of her historical accounts are that, in certain parts, like the history of feminism, you come away feeling like you’ve learned nothing at all instead of several deeply damaging and incorrect things.
Thank fuck the historical accounts come to an end halfway through chapter two. At this point Carroll tackles contemporary sexuality research, and her overview of various theoretical approaches and methodologies, their strengths and weaknesses, is decent enough. Almost all of the interesting and useful information in the first two chapters is in these last thirteen pages.
THE PROFOUNDLY QUESTIONABLE PARTS
- Ancient Egyptians are grouped under “Sexuality in the Ancient Mediterranean” along with Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans (5). The idea of “Mediterranean societies” is a social construct designed by white supremacist historians to allow Black African history to be subsumed into whiteness.
- Carroll claims “Greece was one of the few major civilizations in Western history to institutionalize homosexuality successfully” (6). She goes on to describe the practice of pederasty. The conflation of homosexuality with pederasty is a classic homophobic tactic designed to paint same-gender attracted people as predatory and is used to justify all kinds of discrimination and violence.
- The entire “Sexuality in Ancient Asia” section
- The claim that “Between about the 8th and 12th centuries, Islamic society was the most advanced in the world.” Although this is ostensibly proffered as an argument against Islamophobia, the idea that anyone can measure the overall ‘most advanced’ society is white supremacist fiction invented to justify colonization, including of Muslim peoples and Islamic lands.
- The assertion that witchcraft trials were “symbols of the fears that men still held of women’s sexuality” (13). Whether or not you agree with the historical materialist analysis of Caliban and the Witch (Carroll clearly does not), the claim that burning women alive is primarily a symbolic act is pretty fucking outrageous.
- The statement that the Victorian era “was a time of great prosperity in England” (14) The idea that places or time periods are prosperous is some of the most obvious capitalist bullshit there is.
- The claim that the “New World” “suffered from a lack of women” in the 1600s (16). Mmmmm bizarre syntax aside, this is still some racist colonialist nonsense.
- The painful syntactical gymnastics Carroll does to avoid blaming white people for chattel slavery in phrases such as “slave influx from Africa”(16), and “restrictions put on [slaves regarding] contact with members of the other sex” (17).
- The repeated, unsupported and completely inane assertions that prostitution is primarily an expression of sexual desire and not economic need. See the second paragraph on page 17 under “The Liberalization of Sex,” the second paragraph under “Sexual Crusaders and Sexologists” on page 19, and, most offensively, this (passively worded!) sentence under “Slavery”: “The myth of slave sexual looseness is disproved by the lack of prostitution and very low venereal disease (STIs) rates among slaves” (18).
- “In fact, the Black Civil Rights movement and the growing student protests against the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s proved that people could organize and stand up for what they believed in” (20). A professor would cut this kind of blather from any undergraduate paper, so where the fuck is the editor of this text?
- The entire section, “Feminism (Beginning in Early 1900s)”
- “For example, in 1973, strong gay lobbying caused the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) […]” (23). I mean, this isn’t really wrong, I just can’t get over the phrase ‘strong gay lobbying.’ STRONG! GAY! LOBBYING!
- It should be noted here, since it was not noted anywhere in the” Gay Liberation” section, that bisexuals exist.
- Under the section, “What Questions Would They [Various Sexuality Theorists] Ask?“, we get a few whoppers of examples of how NOT to phrase your research questions, like, “What are the attractions, and hesitancies around the decision to lose one’s virginity?” (33) I don’t know, what are the attractions around the decision to use the phrase, ‘lose one’s virginity’ in place of ‘sexual debut’? There’s also, “How does the threat of HIV/ AIDS affect society?” (33), to which I’d respond, “How does construing HIV/ AIDS as a threat affect society, and people with HIV/ AIDS in particular?”
- “As a result of all the negative reactions and problems with sexuality research in Europe, it gradually moved from Germany to the United States…” (34) ‘Negative reactions’ is a weird way to refer to the ascendency of fascism, genocide, and two world wars.
- “Funding for sexuality research was minimal. It took philanthropy from the fortunes of men such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie for researchers to afford to implement large-scale, interdisciplinary projects” (34). It would be worth noting here that the only reasons Rockefeller and Carnegie could engage in philanthropy is because their fortunes were violently expropriated from the labor of the working classes on lands acquired through genocide.
- “Magnus Hirschfeld (1868- 1935) was a German physician, whose work with patients inspired him and convinced him that negative attitudes toward homosexuals were inhumane and unfounded. Because Hirschfeld was independently wealthy—“ (37) *hits buzzer* ‘Independently wealthy’ is the least amusing oxymoron since ‘jumbo shrimp.’
- “In 1886, [Krafft-Ebing] published an update of a book titled Psychopathia Sexualis, which explored approximately 200 case histories of individuals who had experienced sexual pathology [vocab term!], including homosexuals and people who engaged in sex with children (pedophiles.)” (38) This is at least the second time Carroll has equated homosexuality with pedophilia and it really needs to stop.
- “Foreplay is usually initiated by males in heterosexual couples. Heterosexuals engage in sexual intercourse most commonly at night before falling asleep” (54). It’s unclear whether Carroll is using the word ‘heterosexual’ to describe an orientation, male-female couplings, or both. She should pick one way (preferably the first), declare it, and stick with it.
THE BLATANT LIES
- “[T]he breasts are sexual organs only in humans” (5) Breasts are not sexual organs. I am baffled as to how this made it into Carroll’s head, onto her word processor, past her editors and into a published textbook.
- “Sexual contact with, and even rape of, female indentured servants was fairly common” (17). There is no such thing as sexual contact with an indentured servant that is not violently coercive. Carroll is obviously using a modern definition of ‘rape’ here (as opposed to a contemporaneous one, which would have held that it was nigh impossible for a master to rape an indentured servant), so there is no ‘historical relativism’ excuse.
- “At the end of the 1960s, the gay and lesbian civil rights movement officially started with the Stonewall riots (we discuss this more later in the chapter)” (21). There is not actually such a thing as an official start to a movement (which Carroll takes care to note later in the chapter), but if we’re going to pick one moment, the Compton Cafeteria riots—also started by trans women of color who were street-based sex workers, ahem—came first.
- “According to the Muslim bible, the Koran, marital sexual intercourse was a good religious deed, and men were encouraged to engage frequently in such behavior. All forms of sexuality were permissible” (24). ALL forms? I don’t have any evidence to the contrary on hand, but there is just literally no way this is true.
- “Compare and contrast both the role of women and the views of sexuality in modern society and in Islam” (25). Islam is a part of modern society so this request makes no sense, byeeeee.
- “The economy also influences the societal view of sexuality. (32)” YES, YES, GO ON! “The U.S. economy is based on capitalism—” Well, I mean, the global economy is based on capitalism, but keep going. “— which involves an exchange of services for money.” That’s…. that’s not what capitalism means. That is nobody’s definition of capitalism. How— “This influences the availability of sex-related services such as prostitution, pornography, and sex shops. These services exist because they are profitable.” Prostitution is really the only profitable one of the three, and that’s not even close to a proper economic explanation for why it exists.
THE ACTUALLY USEFUL BITS
- Sexuality is defined as “a general term for the feelings and behaviors of human beings concerning sex” and includes “ideas, laws, customs, fantasies, and art” (2).
- Celibacy vs. chastity: Celibacy is “the state of remaining unmarried; often used today to refer to abstaining from sex” whereas chastity is “the quality of being sexually pure,” possibly by abstaining from sex, but not necessarily (11).
- This is the first I’d heard of the Middle Ages custom of the ‘entremetteuse’, an older woman who “procured young women (prostitutes) for the men and were said to know the secrets of restoring potency, restoring virginity, and concocting potions” (11). I’m taking all of Carroll’s historical accounts with a full cup of salt, but this would be worth looking into further.
- Theories of sexuality include: psychoanalytic, behavioral, social learning, cognitive, humanistic, biological, evolutionary, sociological, feminist, and queer (28- 33).
- Validity vs. reliability: Reliability is “the consistency of the measure” whereas validity is “whether a question or other method actually measures what it’s designed to measure” (48).
- Sex research methods include case studies, interviews, questionnaires and surveys, direct observation, and participant observation (49).
- Problems that arise in sex research include ethical issues, volunteer bias, sampling problems, and reliability (51).
WHAT TO READ INSTEAD
- For a fairly concise, incredibly thorough and very accessible look at the Western intellectual history of sexuality, read Joseph Bristow’s Sexuality from Routledge’s New Critical Idiom series. It covers the early German sexologists, the psychoanalysts (including Freud and his actual factual theories), poststructuralists, postmodernists, the feminist ‘sex wars’, and even a bit of queer theory.
- For an overview of non-Western approaches to sexuality—both lived and theorized— I’ve added some supplementary texts to the syllabus for weeks three and four, which will be available as soon as I finish part two of this post.
- For an actual economic explanation of why prostitution exists, read the first three chapters of Leopoldina Fortunati’s The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital. It is some of the densest shit you will ever suffer through this side of Judith Butler, but if you’re interested in this sort of thing, it’s well worth it at only 33 pages.