March 13, 2012

Why Sexualilty Studies Matter

[Editor's Note: Earlier this year, we announced that we would be including faculty voices on the blog. We've been fortunate to have Dr. G contribute several posts over the year, and we are thrilled to introduce you to our newest and first "out" faculty blog writer, Dr. Ara Wilson. Stay tuned for more faculty posts before the end of the year!]

Given my position as a faculty member at Duke, not only a queer faculty member but also the director of the program in the study of sexualities, it is my duty to write about knowledge. Often when we talk about sexuality or lgbt issues in the university, we do so without noticing the location, as an institution dedicated to knowledge production. I think this misses out on the particular nature of the university and particularly when that university hosts a free-standing academic program focused on sexuality. Very few colleges can say that.

Duke’s program in the study of sexualities has a longer history, dating to gay and lesbian faculty interest in the 1990s. Somewhere along the way efforts, the program’s title evolved into the current, lower-case form. In 2006, Duke hired a professor to develop a skeletal set-up into a functional certificate program. The program at Duke is for now anchored in the certificate program, the curriculum of six courses that end with a capstone in Queer Theory. But really the program is larger than the institutional form of the certificate program. The SXL program reaches many students through the four or so courses we offer each semester, which range from Primate Sexuality to the Dr. Janie Long’s popular seminar on Clinical Issues for LGBTQ to seminars on race and sexuality. It also offers a regular slate of programming, including a series co-sponsored with the LGBT Center called Profiles in Sexuality Research that showcases Duke faculty research from such fields as Economics, the Medical School, African and African American Studies, and Evolutionary Anthropology. SXL also holds an annual queer theory lecture. This year’s lecture is by Tim Dean, the author of a controversial book on the subculture of barebacking.

Rather than tell you everything the SXL program does, though-–you can find that on our handsome website--I want to invite reflection on the place of all sorts of knowledge that are relevant to non-normative sexual and gender lives. How do we know what we know about sexual orientation? Where does the knowledge come from? The scholarship of faculty working on queer issues, like Antonio Viego, Robyn Wiegman, or Sean Metzger, offers a mode of knowledge that falls under the category of critical theory, which essentially means a knowledge that examines received categories, including the categories used in the LGBT world. Studies in neuropsychology or evolutionary anthropology will emphasize biological dimensions of sexuality. These two domains, of critical queer theory and biological frameworks, hold starkly different views of what human sexuality is. But in truth, most people do not get their everyday working sense of sexuality from coursework even if they were not subject to an abstinence-only education in high school. Most people draw on a kind of folk knowledge of sexuality, an amalgam of popular science, currents in thinking, and the idioms available to frame their own experience.

The point of having a program dedicated to the study of sexuality is not only to provide institutional space to learn about academic scholarship on the issue but also more generally, to recognize the significance of knowledge itself for queer life and sexuality in general. After all, the knowledge of experts in religion or psychiatry were key to shaping Western societies’ view of homosexuality. Of course we may think some knowledge about sexuality is truer or more liberating or politically more effective than other versions (I know I do). But beyond questions of true or false, liberal or conservative, it is worth recognizing that the domain of knowledge has a powerful influence on how we understand our own erotic life and the place of alternative sex/gender expressions in society.


  1. Great post! These topics are particularly interesting, and i hope i have the opportunity to take a class on sexuality in my time here.

    I also want to say thanks for being a blogger. It really means a lot to have queer faculty interact with the undergraduate population. I look forward to reading more from you,

  2. ^^Ditto.

    I personally have always assumed that there were more than a few queer faculty members here at Duke, but it really means a lot to me that you're writing.

    I hope to see you in class someday.

  3. faculty on the blog! female faculty on the blog! this makes me want to take an SXL course...maybe plug a few here so we know what they're about? thanks SO MUCH for writing! it makes us all feel so much more interconnected between students/faculty/staff/etc.

  4. Thanks, Anon. Here's the link for current courses:

    The Fall courses aren't yet up on the feed, but check back soon.