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Sexual Cultures conference proves the vitality of important fields of researchLatest News ->

Mon 23 Apr, 2012.

A major conference, “Sexual Cultures: Theory, Practice, Research”, hosted by Brunel University, London, over the three days Friday to Sunday 20–22 April, succeeded in enriching debate in a great many interrelated fields of vital social, political and cultural importance.

The conference investigated sexual cultures in relation to four key themes: technology, regulation, work, and everyday sex lives. Delegates from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad took part in 25 parallel sessions over the three days.

Brunel’s pro-vice-chancellor for strategy, development and external relations, Professor Dany Nobus, opened the conference with an address that set an appropriately relaxed but relevant tone – he said Brunel University was a fittingly innovative venue for such a conference although his own work on necrophilia and bestiality, he assured the audience, were not necessarily the deciding factor in promotion to his current position in January.

The opening keynote address was delivered by Jack Halberstam, professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and gender studies at the University of Southern California. A specialist in the fields of popular, visual and queer culture with an emphasis on subcultures, Halberstam presented her theory of “Gaga feminism”, and “low” theory – which is more about lived experience and autonomous/self-directed learning than hierarchies of knowledge – as an antidote to the increasing inaccessibility and irrelevance of “high” or elitist theory as traditionally taught in universities.

Halberstam said 51 percent of American marriages now end in divorce, and suggested this trend is a motivation behind Western states’ new willingness to invite gay and lesbian couples into what is the “bankrupt institution” of marriage. From this point, Halberstam presented queer families as a potentially safe haven for children released from the “suffocating” environment of the traditional nuclear family through parental divorce, which is in contrast to the inadequate results of current social scientific research that begins with the assumption that the traditional family unit is the best environment in which children can be raised. She said that, considering heteronormative monogamy is facing decline and crisis, society should be searching for alternatives rather than clinging to traditional social arrangements. To this end, she said that queer modes of relationships – including serial monogamy, polyamory, and heteroflexibility – are already infusing into society.

Halberstam concluded her keynote address with a brief exposition of her theory of “Gaga feminism”, which explores modes of power invested in and emanating from the female rather than the male and that she sees as symbolised in the personas and gender theatrics presented by the pop music star Lady Gaga. Halberstam sees Lady Gaga as “a sign of a new world disorder, and a loud voice for different arrangements of gender, sexuality, visibility and desire”. Halberstam’s latest book, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal, will be published in September by Beacon Press (Boston, MA).

One of the Sexual Cultures conference’s strengths, not usually seen at such academic events, was the key participation of figures from outside academia. Probably the highest-profile of the non-academic delegates was Fiona Patten, founder and convenor of The Australian Sex Party. Patten was a keynote speaker on the first day; she delivered a highly entertaining but also fascinating if disturbing insight into Australian sociopolitics that highlighted the growing influence of a US-style religious right in the country. Together with rising nationalist sentiment, which she also suggested was imported from the United States, and a “Swedish-style” left-wing political correctness, Patten said the progressive social reforms of recent years are threatened with reversal. She also drew attention to a new alliance of young, anti-abortion and anti-sex work, self-proclaimed “progressive” feminists and the Christian right. It is “a frightening time in Australia”, Patten declared, although she expressed the hope that more moderate and modern sociopolitical currents would prevail.

SomethingDark editor Daryl Champion presented his paper, “Is there too much ‘freedom of the press’, or not enough?” in the opening round of sessions on Friday as part of parallel session 2, “Sex and Moral Panic”. The presentation placed British press culture in the context of the UK security state and asserted that the mainstream press is in large measure squandering or abdicating its considerable freedom, and, in the case of the tabloid press, grossly abusing that freedom through the systemic violation of privacy. In this, tabloid culture reinforces the state’s violations of privacy and conditions the population for acquiescence, while on the other hand, through law and other means, the state is repressing progressive forces of cultural development including representations of transgressive creative material: a predicament described as “a crisis of culture”.

“Sexual Cultures: Theory, Practice, Research” was organised by Brunel University’s School of Arts and the Onscenity research network. The conference represented the culmination of two years’ UK Arts and Humanities Research Council funding for the Onscenity project, which draws together international specialists to respond to the new visibility or “onscenity” of sex in commerce, culture and everyday life. Drawing on the work of leading scholars from around the world, the Onscenity project is working to map a transformed landscape of sexual practices and to coordinate a new wave of research in relevant fields. For more information, visit the Onscenity website.

This SDk Latest News item is a synopsis of the first day of the Sexual Cultures conference. For reports on all presentations and keynote addresses delivered over the three days of the conference, see the Onscenity website’s Conference News Bulletin; information on all delegates and presentation abstracts are available to download from the site’s Programme page. An extended version of Daryl Champion’s presentation will appear in SomethingDark no. 3 as a feature article in the Nonfiction section.

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