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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Reflections on the Plane after SSSS

On the plane, reading about feminist methodology and reflexivity, I am pushed to reframe the past five days. The SSSS conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico needs contextualized; pulling out one photograph of an entire experience, without any indication of the life history of a person critiquing it for a larger audience rather unfamiliar with said person, is limiting in its relevance and unfair to the object of the critique.
I had joked, before leaving, that the conference would be indelibly marked by the results of the Presidential election. It was indeed marked, not only by the results for President, but also several state issues that would, at a glance, appear to be of high interest to a sexuality researcher. In particular, Proposition 8’s passage in CA, AZ, and one other state, as well as the defeat of controversial personhood amendments in South Dakota and CO. As an African American feminist researcher learning the rules of sociological inquiry, the election was a mixed bag of elation and crushing disappointment. And on reflection, for me, that was the lens with which I entered the airspace of San Juan, a land which I consider in the United States, but not of it.

First, in not speaking Spanish, I was uncomfortable with just being there. I remarked in a phone call to my mother soon after arriving that I felt like an “Ugly American,” expecting people who look a lot like me, and who share a similar history, to cater to me even at the level of language. I was also aware of my positionality as a mainlander, and painfully aware that part of the appeal of having a sexuality conference in the Caribbean was in the discourse of tourism, the Latin world, warm weather, and sexual promise. As sex researchers, we are often assumed to be as active in our activities as we are in our inquiry. Put a bunch of over-sexed academics in the tropics, away from the prying eyes of the institutions that may attempt to marginalize and judge us, add a little rum, some “spicy” and provocative music, and brown bodies that stand as markers for sexual promise, and you get, theoretically, a playground where anything is game, everything is available, and no one around you will judge. I am sure there has been work done on tourism and sexuality, moral holidays, and the like, so I won’t attempt to speak authoritatively on these issues at the moment.
Between the feeling of mainlander guilt I possessed, and my (hyper-?) awareness of how our presence as conference-goers could be read, and after hearing, ad nauseam, the new discourse of “America’s progress” in electing a “Black president” (especially when citizens in PR cannot even vote in the general election), I probably took a stance that policed the behavior of the conference goers. My “data” of unscientific participant-observation was combined with a seeming focus on brown and black (male) bodies as vectors for disease, with race as just another variable. Many of the presentations I chose not to attend were about investigating and intervening with black and Latino MSM for HIV prevention, from a public health discourse. In particular, many presentations called for a widening of the research past a disease model, and yet, very few of them attempted to interrogate that space within their work, so the calls rang slightly false. A notable exception was Dr. Lisa Bowleg’s Winer plenary, which I found to be brilliant, nuanced, and challenging to hegemonic discourse in interesting ways.
Additionally, I found the roles people of color played in the conference to be troublesome. I highly doubt that on the mainland, presenters with doctorates who all happened to be brown, would be serving fellow participants (who happened to be overwhelmingly white) appetizers. Maybe I am wrong- it was my first SSSS. In that the presenters who were engaged in this type of service all seemed to be local, it highlighted an appearance of consumption on the part of the mainlanders, a drive-by experience of “authentic” Puerto Rican food, dance, and culture. Again, I admit to being hyper aware of my difference and my tourism, but seeing a Dean plate up plantanos for the rest of us, made me want to cry.
On the positive, it was amazing to be in a setting where you could discuss methodological and epistemological differences in approaches to sexuality research. I especially appreciated the sessions that focused on what anthropology could say to and about sexuality and sexuality research. It was bit quantitatively biased, but what “scientific” conference is not? And yes, there was an overwhelming cry for research that takes sexuality out of the shame place, out of the “risky bodies” and “risky behavior” discourses. Of course, none of us knows how to get money for that kind of research, so we will probably show up next year, in Mexico, with variations on the same theme, but…there was a call, an at least tacit acknowledgement that this work is necessary to getting a full picture of our society’s sexual lives. And even with all my misgivings about consumption and tourism, San Juan in November was a balm to my Colorado-situated soul, and not being able to speak or read Spanish provided a much-needed transition from election to post-election. I also came away with a personal call to action, to encourage submission of papers to SSSS that reflect my particular discipline, and that look at how multi-disciplinary work can be configured, and funded.
In reflection, I know that no event can ever be perfect, and that many people worked very hard to put together an enjoyable and useful experience. And I appreciate any organization that makes a reach, and fails, rather than remains insular and close-minded. My first SSSS, while slightly jarring in some parts, gives me many personal and disciplinary observations, which will help me to conduct and envision better research in the year ahead. Sometimes, it is by learning what we are averse to, that lead us towards where we would like to go. My heartfelt thanks to the National Sexuality Resource Center for allowing me, not only to attend SSSS, but also for letting me be me even when I ride my horse of righteous indignation. I look forward to working with them in future, and can’t wait to see what the students of San Francisco State University and the College Consortium on Sexual Literacy, produce for next year’s SSSS.
--Tamara Williams

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