Thursday, June 15, 2006

Let's Get Clinical: Why Lefty Profs Get Scientific When They Talk About, You Know, Inserting Anatomical Tab A Into Potentially Reproductive Slot B

My dear friend Aspazia at Mad Melancholic Feminista, as she so often does, asked a very interesting question,

"when lefties talk about sex with students, even the administrators, they tend to design that conversation around sharing statistical or biological information, but shy away from the more complicated questions about how to make sense of their quite powerful urges to delight in sexual activity with others. Most of these conversations seem rather clinical. Why?"
She then goes on to propose two possible explanations: (1) These lefty male profs are products of a society that is uneasy about sex and being well-educated and liberal does not necessarily undo the deeply entrenched social baggage connected to sexuality, and (2) By couching questions of sexuality in non-scientific terms, the discussion will appear unscholarly, that is to say, these lefty men want sexuality studies to be firmly based on the bedrock of hard science, not squishy, touchy-feely humanistic approaches.

But I think there is one other piece to the puzzle that gets left out of her story -- the uneasiness of pro-feminist male profs to talk in more human, personal terms about the development of healthy attitudes about sexuality comes in part from the successes of late second wave feminists.

We learn much of what we know about fields other than our own in grad school and even then, we usually get just the highlight footage. When scholars from other disciplines find out that I am a philosopher of science, they begin to converse with me about Thomas Kuhn. Yes, plenty of wonderful, insightful, ground-breaking works have been written in the field since 1952, but not being in the field, of course they haven't read them. In terms of sexuality studies for the last couple of generations of Ph.D.'s that became nominally equivalent to folks like Dworkin and MacKinnon. They made powerful arguments and lefty male profs-to-be came to understand that they were privileged members of a patriarchal society and accepted whole-heartedly that the benefits conferred upon them by this accidental placement in the social power dynamic are not only unfair, but have unintended consequences in the bedroom. Dworkin did not assert, as she is so often lampooned as having said, that all heterosexual intercourse is morally equivalent to rape, but she did clearly assert that in an unequal power structure, relations between those in different social strata would be infected with the inequality and that such relations would help ossify the injustice. And being lefties, i.e., having a predisposition to placing things in this sort of sociological frame, we bought it.

Being a sympathetic member of the oppressive class means that you need to do something. But what? We have granted that the standard male view of sexuality is tainted, but what to replace it with? Like political-economists who could buy into Marx's critiques of capitalism, but were not inclined to follow him down the Hegelian road synthesizing the paths less and more traveled, so too many of these lefty pro-feminist profs would mouth the position espoused by care theorists like Sarah Ruddick, but without really buying in. It was more complicated than that, but they weren't exactly sure in what ways.

But at the same time, they didn't feel that they could strenuously object either because that conversation was one that had to exclude them in parts to avoid potentially abuse of their undeserved patriarchally-derived social powers. They completely understood Mary Daly's need to have female-only upper-level seminars and defended it. But that meant that they weren't up on the part of the conversation that they knew was going on wherein smart, young feminist scholars were no doubt challenging the standing doctrine in interesting, novel ways -- just as happens in every other field, including the ones where these lefty profs are working their tails off to try to get tenure.

So then how would someone who knows they don't know the whole conversation, but realizes that they have a duty to contribute to the conversation, yet is afraid of tripping over a landmine that they don't know is there because they aren't part of the conversation try to contribute to the conversation in such a case? (Five bucks if you can diagram the structure of that sentence.) The safest place to go is to fall back on science where you are so firmly grounded that there is little fear putting your foot in your mouth. Male lefty profs are conflicted. We buy into the existence of male privilege and we want to be supportive of the efforts to move to a fair, just world, but academia is a game that runs on subjecting ideas to harsh scrutiny and refining them accordingly. We want to help, but that help would put us in a position that seems untenable by that view that we are trying to support, so the easiest move to make is to get clinical, the move that Aspazia points out.

She is exactly right that the convesation has to move beyond "safe scientific speak" and I'm glad folks like Aspazia are there because while her male lefty counterparts are necessarily part of it and even a few, like Alan Johnson and Michael Kimmel, are taking prominent roles, much of the leadership will have to be filled by folks with slot B and not tab A. They are the ones who have been on the inside.