Somehow it’s turned out that I am both a researcher of sexuality and higher education. This is, as I am sometimes reminded, an unusual combination of scholarly attachments. Yet one of the benefits of dabbling in two fields simultaneously is the opportunity to bring unexpected ideas into contact. In today’s post I am drawing together perspectives from higher education research and sexuality studies to sketch out what it might mean to speak about conferences as sexual spaces.
In selecting this topic I’m not necessarily calling for conference designers to suddenly reconceive academic gatherings along the lines of the cruising spot or sex dungeon (but I am not not saying that either!). Instead, my query is more geared toward thinking about how our everyday conference spaces are always-already inflected with sexual meanings and practices.
Perhaps it is easiest to begin thinking of conferences as sexual in an identity politics sense. We can all accept that conferences bring together a range of people, some of whom will be queer, bisexual, lesbian or gay, others of whom may be straight.
For me, sexual identity is something I’m often thinking about during conferences. I think about it when I get dressed in the morning. These thoughts produce actions: the putting on and taking off of jewellery, the careful selection of perfume or a scarf, the use of a wet wipe to remove too much bronzer.
Sexuality is present in the chitchat of morning tea as I select whether or not to reveal details about my sexuality research projects or the gender of my partner. The fear of encountering homophobia (whether subtle or overt) as I mix and mingle with a large group of strangers is often in the back of my mind. I don’t leave my sexual identity at home. It travels with me at the conference. It might reveal itself in the clothes I wear, the phonetic characteristics of my speech, or the ordinary movements of my body.
Sexuality researchers might connect my description above to the heteronormative environments that tend to be reproduced at most academic conferences. Heteronormativity is a social practice which sees heterosexuality centered as normal, natural, and superior, instead of being just one of many possible ways to arrange our sexual lives. It associates itself with lots of other social ideals like monogamy, cohabitation, reproductivity, and binary gender roles. Heteronormativity manifests in assumptions about who I may have sex with or feel kinship with, whether I’m up for a beer after the next session, or the kinds of theory I’m into. It once popped up in the form of a comment during morning tea: ‘I guess real men do eat quiche’.
The operation of heteronormativity does not only cause minor discomfort. It can have an important role in shaping career opportunities for academics who may not be straight. In an important piece published in 2016, Kieran Fenby-Hulse explores his decision not to submit a paper to an international conference that was held in Ghana, a country where sex between men is criminalized. Fenby-Hulse came to the decision not to submit a paper because to do so may put him at risk:
there are signs, mannerisms, culture; it’s part of my identity and who I am – not something I can easily hide, or wish to for that matter.
While an international conference being held in Ghana presented a barrier for the safe and open participation of LGBTI participants, as Fenby-Hulse noted this was not his first experience of encountering heteronormativity at academic conferences. Instead, encountering heteronormativity is an ordinary occurrence for many LGBTI conference delegates:
I find myself continually “coming out”, small talk forcing me to make the conscious decision of whether to correct someone when they assume I have a “wife”. Having been married to my husband for five years now, I am not comfortable with concealing this aspect of my life and neither should I even feel I have to.
I am sure many people will recognise this conversation. For some of us the correction is well-practiced and may have become instinctual. “Husband” we say quickly, and bat away awkwardness or apologies. Others of us might wait the conversation out, hoping the topic of partners won’t surface again, and then move on. The casualness of heteronormativity, and the fact that those who reproduce it usually intend no offence (and often have no idea they are causing it) makes it all the more challenging to negotiate.
While my framing of heteronormativity as a ‘microagression’ might make it sound small and manageable, Fenby-Hulse explains how it all adds up:
The silences on my CV; the conferences I didn’t attend, the funding opportunities I was unable to apply for, the jobs that were closed off to me. All possibly affecting the advancement of my career….More importantly, though, is that when it comes to job applications and promotion, these missed opportunities are unheard. They are silences; they are papers and grants unwritten. And while taken on their own they may not seem significant, they can mount up over a career.
In Fenby-Hulse’s account, heteronormativity forecloses opportunities and results in the concealment of the factors leading to such foreclosures. His writing calls conference organisers and participants to think again about the ways location and ordinary conference behaviours might impact on the accessibility of conferences for delegates who may deviate from prevailing sexual norms.
The micro moments of sexuality
Identity isn’t the end of sexuality and conferences though. I see sexuality operating across micro-practices of the wider conference world. It is there in moments of flirtation, where frissons of erotic desire spark and travel somewhere, or peter out. It is there when we shave our legs, put on our favourite frock, or shake our butt at the conference disco.
These ordinary erotic dimensions of conferences have been touched on by Ara Wilson in a 2010 chapter. Wilson reflects on her experience as a rapporteur for an international conference in Thailand on trafficking in women. While the conference by day was full of:
Technical and emotional reports about various dimensions of trafficking… [which] placed the sexual and economic exploration of women in a context of migrant labor issues, women’s rights, policing and enforcement issues (p. 86)
The same conference was rather different by night:
The flirtatious energy was so thick in some corners you could cut it with a knife. A young American working on trafficking in Asia (then heterosexual) offered other women massages and suggestive banter. The former sex worker fielded her own admirers. A Thai activist demonstrated something called a Thai kiss to a married woman from Eastern Europe, igniting a long-term relationship, that, in turn, sparked interesting cross-region organizing between women who love women in the global South and transitional societies like the former Soviet Union (p. 86)
Clearly, exchanges of erotic energy at conferences can be productive intellectually and politically.
They can also lead to sex.
Sex can happen with existing partners. It is common for conference-goers travel with their significant others whether as bag carriers, moral support, or using it as an occasion for a romantic getaway. Sex might also happen in less anticipated ways. Let’s be real: it’s not unheard of for academics to meet at conferences and to make use of the convenience of staying at the same hotel for more erotic forms of congress (see for example Ellen L.R.’s story ‘Conference Sex’ in the collection Close, too Close). I’m sure this happens for those academics who are single and searching for a connection, as well as folks who may be partnered and hooking up with or without the knowledge of their darling(s).
Indeed, a sexual experience that began with an encounter at a conference is the focus of a paper written by Julie Cosenza called Once Upon A Time: Looking to the Ecstatic Past for Queer Futurity. In this performance piece Cosenza begins with her own experience as an audience-member attending a presentation on devoteeism – or sexual attraction to disabled people. The performance outlines particular movements: from the presentation room, to conversation in the elevator, to drinks at the bar; from flirtation, to kissing, to sex in a hotel room, and then back again the next morning to conference panels, the final plenary and taking the train home. The performance is an honest account of what Cosenza calls an ‘identity shattering’ sexual experience – her own experience of having sex with a woman, who was possibly attracted to Cosenza due to her cognitive disability.
Yet the piece also shatters some of the norms that circulate around professional conference behavior – is it OK to meet someone at a conference and have sex? Is it ethical to talk about it afterwards? And what about seeking to perform and publish a graphic account of conference sex? These questions lift a veil of polite avoidance that seems to enclose the intersecting space of sexuality and the conference.
Although it seems others have been lifting this veil too.
MLA panel on conference sex
In a fantastic piece for Inside Higher Education Scott Jaschik reported on a 2009 panel at the Modern Language Association (MLA) that was also devoted to the topic of conference sex. The panelists approached sexuality from multiple angles. Jennifer Drouin, for example, identified at least eight categories of conference sex – including “conference quickies”, “career building sex” and “monogamous sex among academic couples.” Drouin connected this final category to the state of the academic job market, observing that in today’s university many academic couples pursue love long distance. This makes conferences an even more important space to be physically present with an academic lover.
Another panelist, Ann Pellegrini appeared at the panel dressed in a bathrobe. Her presentation focused on the passion scholars often have for ideas. Despite the love that many academics feel for books and authors this is not a form of intimacy that is widely recognized or accepted in broader society.
A third panelist Milton Wendland, illustrated how a love for ideas can transition to other kinds of loving:
At a conference, he said, “a collegial discussion of methodology becomes foreplay,” and the finger that may be moved in the air to illuminate a point during a panel presentation (he demonstrated while talking) can later become the finger touching another’s skin for the first time in the hotel room, “where we lose our cap and gown.”
Love and lust; intimacies and touch – clearly the professional world of academic conferences is not hygienically sealed from sexuality. But it is important to point out that sexuality and the conference isn’t only a neutral or positive force. There are dangers too.
As many feminist commentators have taught us, universities are riven with sexual harassment and abuse. The conference presents a space where academic bodies come into proximity, which too often produces climates of sexual harassment and abuse.
A number of stories have emerged across blogs that feature the conference as the scene of sexual harassment. See for example, Dr Rebecca Rogers Ackermann’s post on Tenure, She Wrote, which details experiences of unwanted touching (e.g. a supervisor touching her buttocks at a conference event) and sexual banter (e.g. a senior male colleague saying she was “too good looking” for her own good). Or read Helen Shen’s piece in Nature on sexual harassment at scientific conferences, which outlines an incidence of stalking at an American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in 2014, and the subsequent creation of Astronomy Allies, a volunteer group that aids people who experience harassment at AAS conferences.
As growing numbers of stories have come to public attention more conferences have begun to create anti-harassment policies too. For example, Shen (2015) reports that the American Association of Physical Anthropologists introduced a statement on unacceptable conference behaviour, including sexual harassment, to its registration process in 2016, and in 2013 the Entomological Society of America also created a code of conduct for its annual conference.
So there’s a beginning at least. In this post I’ve explored some of sexuality’s connections to conferences – foregrounding a scene of pleasures and potentials, risks, and strangeness. Clearly, (and happily for this researcher) there is much more thinking to be done here. Hopefully, in future posts we can consider some other connections including conferences that focus on sexuality related content, or the interesting potentials that hookup apps like Grindr, Jack’d or Scruff offer for conference ‘networking’.
I’d really love to hear your thoughts. What connections can you see?
If anyone is interested in further work on conferences and sex – take a look at the following:
Jessica Burstein’s “Sex and the conference” in The Chronicle of Higher Education
Joanne Rendell’s “Conference Sex, or What Professors Get Up to at Holiday Time” in The Huffington Post.