Should you be in Amsterdam April 10-12, join us for the ASCA workshop Realities and Fantasies: Relations, Transformations, Discontinuities. A hugely rich 3-day program, including my keynote, “Thinking Sex, Thinking Play”. Fun times ahead!
Category Archives: cultural studies
Should you be in the UK March 7-8, do join us at The Pleasures of Violence conference at Oxford Brookes University: “This conference aims to consider questions of abuse, misuse of power and aggression in the (post-)digital age from a variety of perspectives and fields, exploring the relationship between violence (physical, psychological, symbolic, et al) and digitality writ large. It also takes seriously the pleasures on offer through such digital violence, whether that is the action cinema’s fight sequence or the trainwreck celebrity. Is “digital violence” a redundant category? How does violence play out in different national contexts and creative industries: cinema, gaming, photography, music, fashion?” My contribution addresses tentacle rape porn and some empirical inquiry into pornographic preferences.
Edited by Anu Koivunen, Katariina Kyrölä & Ingrid Ryberg, The Power of Vulnerability: Mobilizing Affect in Feminist, Queer and Anti-Racist Futures is just out with Manchester Univerity Press, on open access. The volume includes my piece, “Spectacularly wounded: White male vulnerability as heterosexual fantasy” looking into, yes, the Fifty Shades books. And here’s the book description:
The power of vulnerability interrogates the new language of vulnerability that has emerged in feminist, queer and anti-racist debates about the production, use and meanings of media. The book investigates the historical legacies and contemporary forms and effects of this language. In today’s media culture, traumatic first-person or group narratives have popular currency, mobilising affect from compassion to rage to gain cultural visibility and political advantage. In this context, vulnerability becomes a kind of capital, a resource or an asset that can and has been appropriated for various groups and purposes in public discourses, activism as well as cultural institutions. Thus, politics of representation translates into politics of affect, and the question about whose vulnerability counts as socially and culturally legible and acknowledged. The contributors of the book examine how vulnerability has become a battleground; how affect and vulnerability have turned into a politicised language for not only addressing but also obscuring asymmetries of power; and how media activism and state policies address so-called vulnerable groups. While the contributors investigate the political potential as well as the constraints of vulnerability for feminist, queer and antiracist criticism, they also focus on the forms of agency and participation vulnerability can offer.
Our article, “Littles: Affects and Aesthetics in Sexual Age-Play“, co-authored together with the fantastic Katrin Tiidenberg, is just out, on open access, with Sexuality & Culture. And here’s the abstract:
This article explores the experiences and practices of self-identifying female sexual age-players. Based on interviews and observation of the age players’ blogged content, the article suggests that, rather than being fixed in one single position, our study participants move between a range of roles varying across their different scenes. In examining accounts of sexual play, we argue that the notion of play characterizes not only their specific routines of sexual “scening” but also sexual routines, experimentations, and experiences more expansively. Further, we argue that a focus on play as exploration of corporeal possibilities allows for conceptualizing sexual preferences and practices, such as age-play, as irreducible to distinct categories of sexual identity. The notion of play makes it possible to consider sexuality in terms of transformations in affective intensities and attachments, without pigeonholing various preferences, or acts, within a taxonomy of sexual identities. In doing so, it offers an alternative to the still prevalent categorical conceptualizations of sexuality that stigmatize people’s lived experiences and diminish the explanatory power of scholarly and therapeutic narratives about human sexuality.
I’m very happy to announce that the CFP for the 3rd Sexual Cultures Conference: PLAY, University of Turku, 28-29 May, 2019, is now out. Confirmed keynote speakers include Tom Apperley (University of Tampere), Kane Race (University of Sydney) & Katrin Tiidenberg (Tallinn University).
The 3rd Sexual Cultures Conference focuses on the notion of play, understood as autotelic practices of pleasure where the enchantment of the activity is an end in itself. As the game studies scholar Miquel Sicart nevertheless notes, the pleasures of play can be ambivalent indeed: “Play is not necessarily fun. It is pleasurable, but the pleasures it creates are not always submissive to enjoyment, happiness, or positive traits. Play can be pleasurable when it hurts, offends, challenges us and teases us, and even when we are not playing. Let’s not talk about play as fun but as pleasurable, opening us to the immense variations of pleasure in this world.”
Building on this understanding of play, as well as sex, as variations of pleasure, the conference sets out to ask what happens if we consider sexual representation, networked forms of connecting and relating, or the experimentation with sexual likes though this prism? Indeed, what might studies of sexual cultures foregrounding the complexity and centrality of pleasure, look like? This is what we invite you to think with us.
Possible themes and topics include, but are not limited to examinations of play and playfulness in relation to:
* hook-up cultures
* sex education
* sex and gaming
* sexual histories
* kink cultures
* sexual identifications
* leisure sex
* sexual harassment
The conference will have a registration fee of 150€ inclusive of coffees and conference dinner. To propose a paper, please send a 300-word abstract and short bio (max. 100 words) to https://www.lyyti.in/sexualCultures_abstractsSubmission by January 31, 2019. Registrations will be made available in late February, 2019. For any practical info, please contact conference services firstname.lastname@example.org. On issues connected to the academic programme, please contact program chair Susanna Paasonen at email@example.com.
The conference is jointly organized by the Academy of Finland research project, Sexuality and Play in Media Culture, The Department of Media Studies and IIPC, the International Institute for Popular Culture, at the University of Turku.
Together with the fabulous Sanna Spišák, we coined this short invited contribution for the 20th anniversary issue of Sexualities on a topic close to our hearts. And here’s the manuscript version:
Malleable identities, leaky taxonomies: The matter of sexual flexibility
In a survey conducted by Sanna Spišák on Finnish adolescents’ approaches to and relations with pornography, the 98 research participants were given the task of defining their own sexual identifications rather than ticking an existing box of one’s choice. The open-ended answers resulted in nine different categorizations: heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, demisexual, asexual, polysexual and non-defined. Despite the care that some respondents took in defining their orientations, they did not necessarily express much affective attachment to the sexual markers used:
I’m straight, or at least I have been so far! (‘Anna’, 15)
I can’t really tell so I keep my options open. I might consider both women and men attractive but I don’t count myself as bisexual. (‘Nora’, 17)
I haven’t actually defined my sexual identity yet, but I guess the most fitting term would be pansexual. (‘Julia’, 13)
I think I’m demisexual. (‘Maria’, 16)
Setting aside the possible interpretation that such a range of definitions owes to the fact that these young people are still in the midst of their identity formation, and hence ‘works in progress’, we would like to take seriously the openness and diversity that they suggest. In what follows, we ask what such a multifaceted range of sexual self-identifications implies about the role and force of sexual norms in the lives of young people, as well as how this flexibility could be accounted for. Rather than presuming for their self-definitions to become at some point fixed along the binary categories of straight versus lesbian/gay/queer, we suggest that the openness evident in the responses disrupts the sense of identity categories that scholars and educators operate with.
Given both its small sample and cultural specificity, the survey affords no generalization. Yet similar findings have recently emerged also elsewhere. In the 2017 nationally representative Finnish school health survey, over 10 per cent of sixth form and vocational school students identified as other than heterosexual (from the available choices of ‘bi,’ ‘gay or lesbian’ and ‘none of the above fits to describe me’). The figures were systematically higher in urban areas and among respondents identifying as female – although closer to 5 per cent identified as non-binary (National Institute for Health and Welfare, 2017). In a 2015 American trend forecast 48 percent of the respondents aged 14 to 20 identified themselves as exclusively heterosexual, compared to the 65 percent in the age group of 21 to 34 (e.g., the ‘Millennials’). Summing up the survey results, journalist Zing Tsjeng (2016) points out that, ‘On a scale of zero to six, where zero signified “completely straight” and six meant “completely homosexual,” more than a third of the young demographic chose a number between one and five’.
Flexibility in perceiving one’s sexual identity and the acts that one may enjoy engaging in has been explored within sex research already for some time. In her extensive analysis of sexual fluidity among women, Lisa M. Diamond (2009) argues that common understandings of sexual identity based on fixity are derived from considerations of male sexuality whereas female sexuality is characterized by fluidity in terms of sexual desires, partners and identifications. It can nevertheless be asked whether the gender binary through which Diamond’s study operates speaks less of what people identifying as men and women do than of how they disclose and describe their sexual acts and attachments. For, as Jane Ward (2015: 7) points out, ‘white straight-identifying men manufacture opportunities for sexual contact with other men in a remarkably wide range of setting’. Such exchanges would be defined as ‘experimentation’, ‘accident’, ‘joke’ and ‘game’, rather than issues of identity (Ward, 2015: 27). Furthermore, as Mark McCormack (2018: 13) points out in his introduction to the recent Sexualities special issue on ‘mostly straights’ and heteroflexibility, ‘heterosexuality is changing, particularly in youth cultures, new ways are needed to understand the diversification of heterosexuality and sexuality more broadly’.
There would be nothing particularly novel to the flexibility of sexual practices or interests as such, yet there seems to be newness to how younger people approach and disclose their non-binary palates outside the framings of either humour or shame (also Ward, 2015: 10–12). What might then be the cause for young people in different Western countries defining their sexual selves in diverse ways, and by emphasizing contingency and openness in how their preferences may evolve or play out in the future? It would hardly be apt to claim that heteronormativity has suddenly lost its firm grip as an organizing principle of intimacies and social arrangements, yet it seems that its coercive appeal as the default choice that young people should accommodate to is not altogether overpowering. In other words, the young people responding to the surveys addressed above did not seem to coherently register heterosexuality – or normative heterosexuality in particular (Rossi, 2011) – as the compulsory framework for their ways of being and engaging with other people.
Possible reasons for this are multiple, and open to speculation. There have clearly been notable transformations in sexual publics, namely in the general increased visibility of all kinds of sexual orientations, attachments and cultures, as well as in the broad availability of media narratives covering them. Queer and trans YouTube vloggers, sexually experimental Instagram celebrities and confessional autobiographers all expand the sexual mediasphere in the images that they show and the stories they tell (Duguay, 2015; Hall, 2016; McAlister, 2017; Raun, 2016). Online pornography, catered in carefully indexed subcategories and with a plethora of tags indicating distinctions between different preferences and styles, would be only one example of the easily available resources, albeit a vast one, for testing out the possible range of sexual tastes and interests.
Feona Attwood (2011: 86–87) identifies the contemporary flexibility and playfulnesss of sexual identities with how sex as such is increasingly framed as a leisure activity and an arena of consumption accommodating ‘hedonistic lads and ladettes, bi-curious girls and just-gay-enough boys, characterised by “heteroflexibility” … and “metrosexuality”, a term coined by Mark Simpson … to describe the emergence of a figure for whom sexual identity is forged, not through sex acts or sexual orientation, but through mediation, consumerism and the development of lifestyle.’ These leisure markets figure sex in terms of taste cultures, which, similarly to taste more generally, develop and vary across people’s lifespans (Attwood, 2007). Figured in terms of constant accumulation of experiences, commodities and pleasures, sexuality, like any other taste or preference, entails the perpetual promise of novel sensations and experiences. One’s horizons of possibility in terms of sexual likes and bents remain perpetually open, as one can always feel like shopping for something different. (Attwood and Smith, 2013: 326.)
An understanding of the sexual self as a work in progress that may be fickle or even unpredictable in its desires implies something of a profound shift in the notion of identity. Rather than figuring sexual identity as a firm sense of who one is that people come to understand and know as they age, the survey responses point to identity categories as working definitions that are descriptive of the present moment, and possibly something of the recent past, yet remain detached from the aim of pinning or closing down the possibilities that tomorrow may bring. Such malleable understanding of the sexual self is at odds with the framing of identity through mutually exclusive or opposing categories, given the default space left for figuring things out in an alternative way. It would equally be at odds with identity politics that allow for personal trajectories of desire and attachment to be ‘wedded to the public construction of a group identity and to a political strategy for social change’ (Epstein, 1994: 192).
Yet rather than eroding the premises of LGBTQI activism as such, the redefinition that the survey responses gesture toward would primarily seem to involve an unravelling of heterosexuality as a clear orientation excluding other attachments. For some young people, heterosexuality is something that one may do exclusively, or then not, move in and out from, and perform with all sorts of trimmings and flexibilities. This may be seen as one more example of the privileges that heteronormativity allows for subjects considered appropriately straight to negotiate its boundaries while nevertheless reaping the benefits of their privileged location within the sexual hierarchy. Those whose preferences are situated at the hierarchy’s outer edges may find more purpose in sticking to, and articulating their specific identifications for political ends. In other words, the malleability and flexibility of the sexual self across pre-given categories is connected to the operations of the sexual norm as that which does not need to define itself, and that therefore offers the privilege of accommodating degrees of unruliness without becoming ruptured or undone.
Considered from yet another angle, the issue of malleability can be connected to conceptualizing sexuality less as differences in kind than those in degree – that is, as variations, or as diverse patterns within a broader fabric (Bergson, 2007: 299). When conceptualizing differences in kind in the realm of sexuality, the task becomes one of charting out taxonomies, be these binary ones, such as queer versus straight; broad ones, such as those separating the heterosexual from the homosexual, bisexual or asexual; or much more nuanced ones, such as the categories of abrosexuality based on fluidity, ceterosexuality involving attraction to nonbinary people, placiosexuality centred on performing rather than being the recipient of sexual acts or quoisexuality averse to any extant labels. As a strategy of classification, sexual taxonomy functions through distinctions drawn between separate categories. Alternatively, if one approaches the spectrum of sexual fantasies, desires and orientations in terms of differences in degree, the issue is one of intensities and gradations that necessitate no pigeonholes to separate them, to turn towards or away from. Contra the taxonomical principles of sexual normativity, desire, as fields of variation, remains resistant to such forms of capture.
What, then, follows from all this? One obvious implication is a need to allow for openness in how both gender and sexual identities are mapped out, not least when working with young people. If the familiar and ubiquitous binary framing of sexuality fails to capture the experiences and self-understandings of young people, then scholars and educators should not start from such models, operate within them, or try to mould people’s sexual selves into fitting them. A focus on variation – on differences in degree – makes it possible to consider how individual sexual tastes shift and alter, as well as to conceptualize sexuality less in terms of taxonomies than becomings through which bodies and selves move from one state to another and become altered in the process.
Attwood F (2007) No money shot? Commerce, pornography and new sex taste cultures. Sexualities 10 (4): 441–456.
Attwood, F (2011) Sex and the citizens: Erotic play and the new leisure culture. In:
Bramham, P and Wagg, S (eds) The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure. Berlin: Springer, pp. 82–96.
Attwood, F and Smith C (2013) More sex! Better sex! Sex is fucking brilliant! Sex, sex, Sex, SEX. In: Blackshaw T (ed) Routledge Handbook of Leisure Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 325–342.
Bergson, H (2007). Matter and Memory. Palmer. New York: Cosimo.
Diamond, L M (2009) Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Duguay, S (2016) Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer visibility through selfies: Comparing platform mediators across Ruby Rose’s Instagram and Vine presence. Social Media + Society 2(2): 1–12. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2056305116641975.
Epstein, S (1994) A queer encounter: Sociology and the study of sexuality. Sociological Theory 12 (2): 188–202.
Hall, K (2016) Selfies and self-writing: Cue card confessions as social media technologies of the self. Television & New Media 17(3): 228–242.
McAlister, J (2017) True tales of the first time: Sexual storytelling in the virginity loss confessional genre. Sexualities 20 (1–2): 105–120.
McCormack, M (2018) Mostly straights and the study of sexuality: An introduction to special issue. Sexualities 21 (1–2): 3–15.
National Institute for Health and Welfare. 2017. Kouluterveyskyselyn tulokset nuorilla (‘Results of the school health survey among young people’), https://sampo.thl.fi/pivot/prod/fi/ktk/ktk1/summary_perustulokset.
Raun, T (2016) Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. London: Routledge.
Rossi, L-M (2011) ‘Happy’ and ‘unhappy’ performatives: Images and norms of heterosexuality. Australian Feminist Studies 26 (67): 9–23.
Tsjeng, Z (2016) Teens these days are queer AF, new study says. Broadly, March 10, https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/kb4dvz/teens-these-days-are-queer-af-new-study-says.
Ward, J (2015) Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. New York: New York University Press.
My book, Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play, with Goldsmiths Press, has the due-date of October 1. Hardcover, yet pretty affordable thanks to the publisher’s policy of avoiding “the exploitation of authors as well as readers, creators as well as users“. I remain in awe of the cover design and since this is a pet project if there ever was one, it’s all much more exciting than academic publishing tends to be.
For most of the past week spent at the MAGIS FilmForum Spring School (section: Porn Studies – Pornography. Margins and Extremes) I have, besides learning new things and meeting excellent people, spent marvelling at this cover design for my book, Many Splendored Things, forthcoming from Goldsmiths Press next Autumn. The final subtitle is Thinking Sex and Play, I am doing the very last fixes and this, indeed, is the cover. A friend said that it looks like subspace feels, which I figure is the highest of compliments to pay a designer asked to translate some of the intensity and fleshy pleasure of sexual play into visual format. As someone who all too keenly judges books by their covers, I find this very gratifying.
Anyone around in Toronto in March? If so, I’m lucky enough to contribute to the MsUnderstanding Media: The Extensions of Woman talk series at University of Toronto’s McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology on Monday the 19th. And what’s more, it’s a double feature with the fabulous Wendy Chun discussing sexuality, gendered online shaming and much more, under the title, “Shame, shame, shame (refresh)”. The series sets out to “foreground how a feminist focus on ‘the extensions of woman’ renews McLuhan’s concern with the politics of pace, pattern and scale in our everyday technological objects”. Faithful to the theme, my contribution explores dick pics as extensions of man, building on the #NSFW book project I’m currently finishing together with Kylie Jarrett and Ben Light for MIT Press.