I am occasionally seized with fear that someone will find it “inappropriate” that I talk and blog and write about sexuality as much as I do. While recently reading Mary Roach’s book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, it struck me how many sex researchers have been vilified as perverted freaks for being interested in what is, in the end, a near-universal human bodily and social phenomenon.
However, upon further inspection, I believe that “inappropriateness” complaints can be filed into one of two categories, which can tell us something about what is actually being criticized or covered up. The first reason someone might call something sexual “inappropriate” is due to a belief about what the “appropriate” context for sexual stuff might be. So, they might not want their kids to see nudity in a movie, or be exposed to words that describe sexual acts or body parts. I was raised in a household where seeing nudity or sex in movies was preferred to seeing depictions of violence, because the former is often an expression of love whereas the latter is instead an expression of hate… so we might have to agree to disagree on what is appropriate for kids of different ages.
The second kind of concern/complaint about inappropriateness, though, veils power relations at work. Somebody who complains that it’s inappropriate for a gay couple to kiss or hold hands in public, but doesn’t make the same complaint about a straight couple? Is homophobic. Someone who claims that it’s inappropriate to teach young adults about how their bodies work as they go through puberty and become sexually mature? Is misguided at best… but is, objectively, misusing their power as an adult in a way that can and often will harm the young adults (as studies contrasting sex education and the rates of teen pregnancies and abortions in the US have proven).
Additionally, historically oppressed groups such as women, people of color, and alternative sexualities have often been told that their desires – desires for liberty, for knowledge, to be acknowledged as valid human beings – are inappropriate. It’s not the right time yet; other issues are too politically sensitive; the public isn’t ready for you. So I call bullshit. Anybody who is going to make the “inappropriateness” argument had better have a very clearly articulated and nuanced explanation of precisely why the exploration or expression of sexuality in a specific context should be reconsidered. And that explanation had better not be sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic.
So, there it is. As a scholar in the humanities and social sciences, I study people. I see no reason to leave out sexuality as it is something common to practically all people, every culture, each individual. As a folklorist, I study people doing creative things – and you can bet that how people think about and respond to cultural norms about sex and gender qualifies as creative behavior. As a feminist, I study gender roles, with which sexuality is inextricably intertwined. I’m still a young scholar, so maybe I haven’t made the Next Big Contribution to understanding sexuality yet. That’s okay, there’s still plenty of time.
But the next person who tells me that what I do is “inappropriate”? Is getting redirected to this post, and politely told that that’s their problem, not mine.