Last month I attended the third biennial Talking Bodies conference, a four-day extravaganza of knowledge, activism and art. I attended the last one in 2015 as my first ever conference, and this time I got to present a paper. I cannot describe how supportive the environment is, the organiser, Emma Rees, creates such a safe and empowering space from the offset. Emma opened the conference by stating that we live in dangerous and turbulent times in which gatherings like Talking Bodies that create a queer space become even more important. Talking Bodies is a pocket of resistance, reframing the world that we’re in. It prepares the intellectual ground for resistance and change. As an international conference with over 110 speakers from 25 countries, there is a lot to learn and tonnes to discuss. Luckily there were plenty of tea breaks where we could all natter. Residential delegates also had time during (delicious vegetarian) meals and the occasional visit to the local pub. Things were learned, perspectives were given and connections were made.
My paper was called ‘Trans Identities: Essentialist and Anti-Essentialist Perspectives’ and I spoke about the ways in which trans and cisnormative conceptions of sex and/or gender may each be read as essentialist/anti-essentialist based on theoretical context and stance. For instance, for people like Janice Raymond in the 80s (boo hiss) gender confirmation surgery was a tool of patriarchal oppression that enforced essentialist gender norms (she also said that trans women were not real women, and a bunch of other awful stuff). However, we could also view surgery as a tool of embodiment, one that contradicts the naturalised notion that biology is destiny, instead foregrounding personal identification as that which is essential. Lal Zimman discusses the potential for language to be a key aspect of embodiment, stating, “conventional associations between gender and the body can be broken, particularly when it comes to the embodiment of trans people, which might lead a speaker to refer to a woman’s penis or a man’s vagina” (Zimman in Zimman, Davis and Raclaw 2014: 15). This is in alignment with Judith Butler’s discussion of both sex and gender being social constructs and that there is no inherent link between the two (1990). Rather, as trans theory states, it is personal identification and lived experience that defines a person’s gender and sex. As I made sure to emphasise, there are a number of differing and sometimes conflicting stances regarding these issues in trans scholarship and politics, however, trans theory’s focus on inclusion and its prioritisation of the personal means that all stances are accepted. I used Elliott DeLine’s 2009 novel Refuse to provide examples of how these varying stances may be witnessed in literature, discussing how the protagonist, Dean, sometimes shows conflicting opinions regarding his own stance on sex/gender and gender confirmation surgery. Basically, it’s all very complicated, everyone has different ideas of what it means and how identity relates to it, but it all comes down to each individual’s personal identification and how they choose, if at all, to relate to it.
I’m going to try to summarise the papers and plenaries I attended. I frantically scribbled many notes, and tweeted tonnes on the talkingbodies2017 hashtag, which is a really useful resource for seeing what was going on in all of the panels – something that was really useful considering how hard it was to pick which ones to attend. Due to the speedy nature of my note taking, there may be the occasional mistake or misunderstanding, if you notice anything, please let me know. So, in no particular order (because my notes very quickly lost any semblance of organisation):
Jodie Clark – The Body as Locus For Social Change
This paper questioned whether we can conceptualise the body as a new way to create the social – retheorise the body as the locus as social change. It asked how we imagine the social structures that we don’t like – whereas the usual discourse is about challenging or subverting these structures, Clark asked if instead we could imagine new ones. Using a range of previous criticism, from Irigaray, Foucault and Butler, Clark offered a discussion of her participant research and how linguistic choices have an impact on the way body and society are conceived of, particularly in times of trauma. She searched for the ways that the body shows up in texts/conversations and how we can understand the interaction between self and body. Ultimately, doing identity differently makes it difficult for people to exist comfortably in a conforming environment.
Karen O’Donnell – False Binaries: The Soul and the Digital
O’Donnell discussed the fallacy of digital dualism, in which the digital = virtual, and the corporeal = real. She spoke about how religion and the digital have come to interact, and the way in which Christianity’s relationship with the body has evolved. In the medieval times, the body was seen as the location of sin, as something that was bad and weak. However, since the rise of the internet, the body is seen as necessary, and online disembodiment as bad. The Cartesian notion of body and soul has seemingly reversed. However, O’Donnell pointed out that there is a history of separating body and identity, or body and soul, discussing Henrietta Lacks, a working class African American woman who, in the 50s, died of cancer. Without permission, doctors took her cancer cells and performed tests. Her cells were the first to survive more than 48 hours outside of a body and as such were a medical anomaly. Those cells have been reproduced ever since, named HeLa cells, and have been used to produce numerous vaccines, in gene mapping, in cancer and AIDS research, in cosmetic testing, etc. all without her identity being acknowledged. They removed her identity and abstracted her body. The distinction of the corporeal and ethereal is not a result of the digital, and in fact, the body is always present online, bodies are what type, move cursors, and provide the ability to be online in the first place. Even online, it is not possibly to be disembodied – but it can make it easier to ignore embodiment.
Daniel Nield – Kicking Old Habits in the Habit
Dressed in the drag nun attire of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Nield discussed the feminine as the signifier for penetrability, and Grayson Perry’s idea of ‘the default man’. He noted that the fetishisation of muscles, tight clothes and macho gym culture on the gay scene is seemingly paradoxical because it is the embodiment of ultra-male impenetrability in order to attract penetration. He discussed how once, when a workman came to fix his bath, in spite of being ‘obviously gay’ he retreated into the ‘default man’, he felt guilty about his queer expressions because socialisation has taught us that to not be masculine is to be ‘other’. In retreating to ‘default man’ he was checking himself. He noted that I society now to be passive=bad=penetrable, and that Christianity has forgotten the penetrated God, the Christ who was penetrated with nails and a spear, who calls out for help and in doing so outs self as other. Christianity has made God ‘default man’.
Reisa Klein – Social Media and the Body as Resistance: Online Discourses on Tatting as Self-Care after Breast Cancer
Klein spoke about the regulation and deregulation of female bodies and the ways in which women are becoming increasingly responsible for taking care of their own health and wellbeing. Her research involved a discourse analysis of popular and medical websites, tattoo sites and social media. She looked at the ways that post-mastectomy tattoos are discussed. The medical discourse very much focusses on recreating realistic nipples – this frames the return to health as a return to normative codes, and it reframes a time for healing as a responsibility to erase scars and regulate women’s bodies. However, the tattoo/social media discourse focussed on decorative mastectomy tattoos that subvert social norms and biomedical narratives. These tattoos are still usually very feminine (flowers, etc.) but they rearrange femininity on the body – they reinscribe bodies through chosen scars.
Yekki Song – Performing Femininity in Female Body Building
Song spoke about her ethnographic study describing how during her time as a body builder at competitions she was asked to ‘ham up’ her femininity due to her short hair. Female body building competitions started in 1978 and were judged on the same things as the male competitions. These competitions have been seen as either an act of feminist resistance, or as another way to judge female bodies. In the 90s it began to be seen as potentially gender subversive, in that the muscularity that is traditionally seen as masculine was paired with breast augmentation and highly feminine outfits. However since then a number of different categories have been introduced – ‘body building’, ‘physique’, ‘figure’, and ‘bikini’ – they each judge on different things, with the first two having a focus on muscularity, and the latter two on more ‘hyper sexualised, hyper female’ criteria. During her own competing she had no trouble with the diet and work outs, but did struggle with the ways she was asked to ‘perform femininity’ – she had to train herself to embody femininity through choreography. She was also told that she would stand out because she’s ethnic (which limited which shows she could perform at and have a chance at winning) and was told to leverage her ‘otherness’ and ‘exoticness’. She also discussed the fact that it is a very expensive hobby (training, clothes, makeup, hair, etc.) and that there is not much money in competing. As such, the way in which many BBs make money is through online sponsorship and through endorsing products through their social media, therefore selling a lifestyle and a body that even they don’t maintain all the time – the bodies you see in shows are only maintained for two weeks and involve being v. dehydrated. She spoke about how many competitors are former eating disorder sufferers, and that they have recoded their habits to be socially acceptable. Competitors bond over the shared struggle of being hungry and tired all the time, and the ways in which having no fat padding your body means that your bones press in uncomfortable ways.
Emma Sheppard – Kinked and Crippled: Chronic Pain and BDSM
Sheppard discussed her phenomenological study of how people with chronic pain experience pain in a BDSM context. Chronic pain is described as that which lasts over 8 weeks at a time, however, it can last considerably longer. As such, expressions like ‘no pain, no gain’ have no meaning. Pain is seen as a symptom that has no inherent meaning, and it is typically equated with negativity, suffering and medicine. Sheppard described how people talk about pain, but struggle to hear about it, how people are supposed to hide their pain because pain makes us abject or other. Within BDSM there is an active engagement with pain, there is choice and control about when/where/how/how long pain happens. It is also a space where a person’s reaction to pain can be uncontrolled – you can yell and cry in a way that you can’t elsewhere, sometime that she describes as an active reclaiming of self.
Rosie Hodson – Exploring Symbolic Interactionism Within a BDSM Community
Hodson’s paper spoke about the way in which people choose to act and react based on their perceptions of themselves and others. She carried out an ethnographic study in which she undertook life-history interview with people of numerous ages, genders, relationships, sexualities, and roles. She described how her own identity and presentation became important to the research process; looking, as she described ‘like an innocent 12-year-old’, wasn’t initially conducive to people’s openness. However, because she was a member of the community, she was able to use her contacts as backers, which helped introduce her to new people, allowing people to feel safe to engage in interviews. She spoke about how her involvement on the scene meant that the power divide between researcher and participant was reduced. As interviewee’s perceptions of Hodson changed, so did their response to her.
Rosie Nelson – Monosexist Perceptions of the Bisexual Body
Speaking about the ways in which bisexuality is invisible, considered to be a phase, or ignored entirely in the media, Nelson described the difficulty of engaging with a physicality of bisexuality. Whilst there are different levels of privilege within monosexuality, with heterosexuals having more than gay men and lesbians, bisexuals are typically entirely excluded. She described the difficulty of portraying bisexuality – one study (Hayfield?) found that heterosexuals and bisexuals can each identify what a straight or gay woman may look like, but not what a bisexual person may look like. Bisexuals may try to mix gay and straight markers, but as yet there is not easy visible identity, and consequently bisexuals experience a lack of cultural intelligibility that can be damaging to their mental health (suicide rates are considerably higher for bisexuals than any other sexuality). Cultural intelligibility may be achieved through the discussion and reinforcement of bisexual identity, adequate bisexual recognition in TV and film, establishing better bi-scholarship outside of lesbian and gay studies, and starting bisexual health outreach initiatives. In her closing comments Nelson spoke about the common exhaustion of having to continuously reinforce identity rather than just having it accepted.
Jez Dolan – Queering Abstraction: Extracts from the Golden Field
Dolan is an artist who investigates queer identity, language, and secrets. His paper spoke about how reliance on depiction of figurative sexual embodiment might be selling queer identities short in art, something that abstractionism may be the answer for. During his presentation, he showcased some of his own art alongside pieces by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. He noted that a lot of ‘gay’ art focussed on explicit m/m relationships, and that they were usually white and European. Alternately, he suggested, queer art is that which doesn’t have sexuality as the gravitational centre. Working with Sedgewick’s ideas on gaps on resonances, things that don’t/can’t signify monolithically. Dolan spoke about queer art as being a mesh of possibilities, as being art that doesn’t automatically present information to the viewer, and as such they must spend time with it. He stated that we must fight hate with the effective use of history and fact, and that we all have a duty not to be silent.
David Griffiths – Peeing Standing Up and the Surgical Search for a ‘Normal’ Penis
Speaking about the contemporary history of intersex in the UK, Griffiths specifically addressed the variation of hypospadias, in which the urinary opening is not at the tip of the penis, something that occurs in 1 in 250 boys. This is fundamentally a cosmetic difference that is medicalised and then ‘fixed’. Griffiths described three norms that drive surgery: ‘The performative penis’ – (19c) in which the importance of peeing standing to male experience was foregrounded, linked to the importance of social performances of masculinity. ‘The psychological penis’ – (20c) wherein sex became identity and a rhetoric of psychological wellbeing was foregrounded with emphasis on restoring ‘normal’ masculinity. And, ‘the perfect penis’, wherein in order to be ‘normal’ the penis has to be ‘perfect’ in both look and function, something that is largely judged on the ability to perform heterosexual sex, and, of course, pee standing up. Surgery is often recommended very soon after birth and is framed as something that is inevitable. These surgeries have no standard technique and concentrate on the urethra, ignoring things like glans sensitivity, among other complications. As such, these ‘corrective’ surgeries are geared towards creating a penis that can shoot semen straight, and ignores anything other than the ability to perform hetero sex.
Daisy Butcher – ‘Vagina dentata ain’t no passing craze!’: Manifestations of Vagina Dentata in Ancient Mythology and Contemporary Monsters
Traditionally, vagina dentata has been used to represent the witch/whore/terrible mother. It is a space where the phallus enters alive and leaves dead. The vagina is inverted from a pleasure and birth, and becomes dangerous for the phallus and babies. In mythology, the ‘hero’ is usually the one who knocks out the teeth and returns woman to femininity, as such it centres around the male invasion of the female body. With vagina dentata it is the women who have the ability to damage male power, they victimise the phallus and reverse sexual violence. Female genitalia is reinvented as a vice or trap. The entrapping feminine (rather than the penetrated) kills off men’s heirs rather than nurturing them. Vagina dentata has the ability to penetrate and emasculate. Traditionally this may be seen in the figure of the vampire, with her red lips and pointy white teeth. However, a more recent example is the killer plant, or the Demogorgon in in Stranger Things, something that poses a particular threat to teens and children. Vagina dentata is scary and dangerous to men, but she always loses, she’s always killed.
Mariana Fernandes – The Possibility of Integrating Queer Pedagogy in a Fine Art Curriculum
Fernandes undertook practice based research in which they looked at queer pedagogy and the impact that mainstream education has on student identity formation. They foregrounded the importance of affirmative ethics from within the institution wherein there is a demystification of the majority in order to better include minorities. Whereas feminism was classically shaped by a more dictatorial solidarity that required no questioning, Fernandes argued that queer theory is more based in respect, equality and broader negotiations between groups. Regarding fine art pedagogy, Fernandes noted that art is a visual representation of identity and self-expression, as such it was crucial to equip students with a broad curriculum and to emphasise the importance of dialogue. During the first month of teaching Fernandes set up introductory tasks such as writing exercises in which anonymous secrets were made into a poem, a space was created in which assumptions and privilege could be questioned, they found out about student interests, building the rest of the curriculum upon this, and they taught students how to give good constructive feedback and how not to hurt others. Current social politics leaves minorities vulnerable, and as such we must activate strategies of ethical change.
Jennifer Dyer – Understanding Parental Advocacy of Gender Creative Youth
Dyer spoke about the importance of advocacy for gender creative kids (defined in this research as 3-23), as strong parental support dramatically reduces the risk of self-harm and suicide. Whilst there has been research on trans identity, there has been no national research (until now) on advocacy for trans kids. Dyer’s project with nine other parents of gender creative youth is looking at which advocacy methods work and how they may be used in this context. The study uses both participatory action research with parent advocates and key allies, and critical media analysis of representations of transgender youth. Some of the key issues that have been found so far are the erasure of non-binary/gender creative identities, wherein the pathologisation of trans identities and the notion of a ‘medical fix’ reinforce the binary. Another issue is that of ‘mother blame’, where a child’s identity is blamed on the mother, something that furthers the stigma of both raising a gender non-conforming child, and of womanhood more generally. Through the ‘Gender Creative Kids Canada’ facebook group, Dyer et al advocate for trans and gender diverse children and families. Dyer discussed the parental need for help with the constant negotiation with power structure, such as schools and drs, etc. This group allows people to share information between families. Parental advocacy can be framed through the lens of children needing protection and children’s vulnerability. Allyship means affirming childhood autonomy, asserting a child’s right to know their own gender. Children, parents and allies need information, education, support (from family, school, peers, etc.), and contact with other trans people.
Helen Mitchell – When you’re lost for words … get a tattoo! [Plenary]
Mitchell spoke about tattoo renaissance narratives and cultural exchange of tattoos in New Zealand. NZ has a specific cultural history of tattooing which colours the discussion in ways that it may not in other countries. What are the specific function a tattoo may fill? Is it the appropriation of a surface decoration, or, the appropriation of culture? Some may get one to reclaim the self (e.g. over mastectomy scars to reclaim the feminine self). Mitchell looked at what motivates people to get tattoos, especially women, and specifically in NZ where 22% of women and 17% of men have them. She noted that academic literature on tattoos tended to be gender blind, that there was little relation between tattoo and wearer, and little investigation into the reasons people get them. She looked at the tattoo community, tattoo narratives, and codes of language. She questioned how tattoos relate to certain cultural groups, and looked at tattoos of emotional and cultural meaning. Mitchell also investigated the change in status of tattooists – they are now generally more educated, have art and design backgrounds and have portfolios of work. This was held in contrast to previous associations of tattooing with gangs and in the branding of criminals (Japan, Russia, etc.). She mentioned that apprenticeships are seen as a way of not only learning, but paying your dues and showing respect to tattooing community. The new tattoo culture has transitioned from back streets to high streets, and whilst it is more popular, very few people get tattoos for no reason – most people have both profound and impulsive reasons. Mitchell spoke about the development of a cross cultural blend as the globalisation of tattoos has developed, and the cultural exchanges that happen at tattoo conventions. However, she also mentioned how in NZ, the moko, a sacred tattoo that Maori women wear on their chin, is exempt from this exchange – it is specifically cultural, and most non-Maori tattoo artists will refuse to do them. Mitchell’s research included photographing and interviewing people about the meanings of their tattoos.
Debalina Banerjee – Of Cognition, Erotica and Cerebral Palsy: Body, Beauty and Disability in Margarita with a Straw
Speaking about the Hindi film, Margarita with a Straw, Banerjee discussed its depictions of femininity, sexuality, disability, and sensuality. She asked, if woman is already ‘other’, what becomes of the disabled body? In society physical attractiveness has become standard, and as such the disabled body is even more othered for not upholding the aesthetic. Whereas a disabled man = the ‘wounded male’, disabled women are seen to suffer a lack of womanhood, as being unable to care for family or be sexual. It is also commonly assumed that disabled people are also mentally/intellectually inferior, all of which leads to the infantilisation of disabled people. This film, which Banerjee showed some illustrative clips from, rejects all of this, it shows vibrant women who defy assumptions of disability, gender and sexuality. [On a side note, I’ve bought the DVD].
Esther De Dauw – Wonder Woman and the Female Combatant
De Dauw discussed ideas of doing gender and femininity in superhero narratives. She noted that female heroes usually have different powers to male heroes. Males usually have lots of musculature, even when it isn’t part of their powers (e.g. Magneto), with the implication that men, no matter what their power, have an additional strength. Female superheroes, on the other hand, are slim with no muscles, they tend to have point and shoot powers that allow them to pose like a photoshoot. Discussing the evolution of Wonder Woman, De Dauw noted that during WW2, Wonder Woman said that her power came from her womanhood and encouraged women to exercise and get involved in the war effort. During this time WW was in the army, but as a secretary – she fought Nazis, but not on the front. After WW2, Wonder Woman returned home, and we rarely saw her at work. In 1968-1973 she lost her powers, and instead owned a boutique and worked as a private eye. Furthermore, in the first 30 years WW was very thin, her strength was assigned to her because of her Amazon heritage, however, in the 80s, when body building became popular, she got muscles. De Dauw also showed some examples of how WW changed according to head writer in recent years, particularly the difference between Gail Simone’s 2010 beefcake WW who mixed fem and masc signifiers (confident, front-on poses), and the 2011 slim-line WW with uncertainty on her face, breasts at the centre of the image and ass highlighted by placement of lasso.
Alex Tankard – Rebuilding Disabled Bodies: Captain America Films and Fanworks
Tankard addressed the social model of disability within the Captain America films, looking at how society places bodies that don’t fit the mould defined by the power structure. Steve Rogers (Captain America) is introduced as a valuable person trapped in a ‘defective’ boy – one that his transformation into CA frees him from. Steve’s original body is deemed worthless by the military, he is constantly 4F-ed out of enlistment, however, once he has a superhuman body, he uses it to fight facism. Tankard discussed how, although Steve consented to the body modification that made him CA, this was in an oppressive context – we constantly see Steve being bullied and rejected. The film highlights the ableism that led to Steve giving his consent. This is particularly important with the narrative context of WW2 as it shows eugenics happening in the USA, not just Nazi Germany. Looking at actual information from WW2, we can see that disability is often constructed in context – Tankard noted how one man was rejected from WW2 enlistment for being too tall, wherein height restrictions were based on trench warfare – as such, we see how society constructs which bodies are viable, and which don’t belong. In contrast, the Winter Soldier is an example of what might have happened to Steve if he had been transformed in the Soviet regime rather than the ‘land of the free’. Tankard highlighted the similarities between the WS’s narrative, and Frankenstein’s monster, wherein first we are introduced to the terrifying monster, and then the monster’s POV shows them to be a victim, humanising them. Both are the result of forced modification, have a lack of autonomy and are not allowed personal bonds. Furthermore, the Winter Soldier’s identity is kept separate to his pre-modification identity (Bucky Barnes, Steve’s childhood friend), there is a separation of the disabled and able Bucky, and we see him trying to return his able-bodied self by being put back into cryogenic storage until he can be magically fixed. Tankard also noted the ways in which fan works explore much more nuanced takes on this narrative, showing a breadth of identities, exploring autism, eugenics, PTSD, and ongoing life with impairment in a way that the canon does not.
Carolyn Hunter & Nina Kivinen – Becoming an Author: Bodies, Gender and the Multiplicity of Selves [Plenary]
Focussing on children’s authors, Hunter and Kivinen spoke about how authors deal with the profession of writing. One thing that was raised during the research was authors questioning if they could define themselves as such if they didn’t make enough money to earn a living. They also found that some writers want to separate themselves from the text, don’t want people to know anything about them, use a pseudonym, and don’t want self to affect readings of their work. Others, however, perform the author, self-marketing, using social media and attending festivals, primarily because marketing isn’t done as much by publishers any more. They discussed how writing for children is often seen as women’s work, as historically it was a form of income when no others were available, and now means that you are able to work from home and around childcare. However, first a book must be written, and only then can it be sold, which has no guarantees and is therefore not a certain income. Furthermore, writing is often seen as a hobby and therefore people are asked to do thing (like festivals) for free. This also often reinforces gender issues and ideas of ‘women’s work’. Something crucial that they noted is that often there are ‘books for children’ and ‘books for boys’, a separation of genders. Also, they noted that there is constant negotiation with editors/agents to fight for visibility and diversity, as it is not seen to be ‘sellable’.
Garjan Sterk – National Identities, Academia and Not Having a Vocabulary
This was an account of Sterk’s personal experience of her research when there isn’t necessary language available in Dutch to discuss the topic. In the Netherlands, there isn’t a concept of ‘race’ in language, and as such there is no concept of racism. Race in NL is not a scientific concept; therefore it doesn’t exist and no words are needed (it isn’t science, therefore it’s unnecessary). Instead of ‘race’, NL used ‘ethnicity’, when ended up covering everything that was a bit different, it was always the ‘other’, as the dominant group didn’t have ethnicity. There are the terms ‘autochtonen’, which means ‘from here’, and ‘allochtonen’, which means ‘not from here’. Allochtonen started as a neutral concept based on place of birth, but became politicised. Initially it was a divide between Western and Eastern origins, with people from developed countries being considered able to look after selves without benefits. However, it became an issue of visibility, to be allochthonous became synonymous with everyone who is of colour, with a different accent, etc. Without having the language available to discuss the more nuanced issues of race, identity, etc. it becomes impossible to fight oppression.
Treena Orchard – Invoking Multiple Voices, Using the ‘Axial Embodiment’ Approach to Explore Layers of Lived Experience in HIV-Positive Women and Men’s Body Maps [Plenary]
Orchard’s research seeks to mine visual data of self-drawn body maps with greater vigour and considers the role of art in the production of health/healing. This project questioned how gender and people’s ideas about their bodies affected their adherence to HIV med. She used critical medical anthropology, art therapy, postcolonialsm, and body politics. Body mapping is an art based approach to research that combines visual arts, narratives, and the therapeutic process. It began in South Africa as a reaction against the high HIV death rate, particularly of women, and was used in order to remember the people and to shame the government into making the medication available. Many of Orchard’s participants were from marginalised backgrounds (sex-work, structural violence, addiction). Orchard mentioned the ritualization of taking medication (at specific times, before/after meals), the constant monitoring by drs (blood), and how patients are often dehumanised, spoken about as viral loads and how their health varies from the ‘norm’. Body maps are created in very specific ways to include particular types of information, such as a person’s history, identity, personal slogan, journey map, etc. Using axial embodiment to analyse these means considering horizontal and vertical analytical levels, considering ideas of movement and relativity. It destabilises the idea that there is a singular normative and complete corporeality, and is instead based in lived experience. This study ultimately aimed to be therapeutic.
Aysegul Sah Bozdogan – The Asexual Body and its Meanings
Bozdogan argued that asexuality is a subversive tool to rethink social concepts. It is commonly assumed that sex is the only way to connect to people. Asexuality is an absence of sexual desire, as such asexuality is constituted outside of the sexual subject, heterosexual or not. People are assigned identity according to their sexual organs and who they are sexually attracted to (het, bi, gay), but this does not consider the asexual body. Society is unable to give any meaning to a lack of link between body and desire, and as such the asexual body is considered not to function at all. In considering the invisibility of the asexual body and why it has been invisible for so long, Bozdogan spoke about Foucault and Butler. Foucault’s notion of subjectification constructs the subject as ‘doer’, however, the asexual subject is an ‘undoer’. Butler questions what is considered human/not human, a binary of inside and outside of constructs of humanity, where asexuality is ‘outside’ to all sexual identities. Subjects are constructed through the states of ‘to desire’ and ‘to act’, meaning that it is difficult to perceive a subject without these. Therefore, asexuals cannot become intelligible, because they are not yet a subject. Asexuals subvert subject/object dualism, as there is no object of desire. Bozdogan notes that asexuality may be used as a tool for struggle, freedom of sexuality is usually seen as a freedom to act, however, currently it ignores the freedom to not do. She discussed whether asexuality has a place in queer theory, with inclusion being based on it still being about sexuality and freedom of expression. The argument that there is no place is based on queer theory being ‘sex positive’ [by which I think she meant, ‘sex active’], and as such there is no sense in working together. However, the freedom of not doing is still doing something. Asexuality faces the struggle of ‘not doing’ and how society perceives this, and as such, asexuality can meet queer theory in struggle.
Katie Meyerscough – The Woman Who ‘Pretended’ to be Black
Noting that race is ascribed and changes over time, Meyerscough entered this research asking: who gets to define race? And, who gets to assign race? Scientifically, race doesn’t factor into anything, however, socially, it has a huge impact. She noted that indentured servitude eventually became race and the USA adopted the hypodescentist ‘one drop rule’, wherein anyone of mixed race was considered to be black. She noted that race is constantly being recreated, for example, America made ‘Hispanic’ a racial group on the census. Meyerscroft stated that if Dolezal hadn’t been exposed, she would have continued to be accepted as black. However, the question of white privilege and whether Dolezal could just become white again [yes], means that she doesn’t share the same oppression that black people do.
Nick Cherryman – ‘Ugly As Fuck’. The Martha Stewart Lifestyle: Or, how Does Tranimalism Drag Sashay away from Gender?
Tranimal drag has no guiding aesthetic voice other than ‘it works’, and, according to Matthew Anderson, epitomises the ‘dirty, vicious, available drag queen’. Unlike other drag, tranimalism has even more ironic distance, it creates a visual shock of non-recognition, the viewer is not immediately sure what they’re looking at. Butler’s work on drag makes both sex and gender integral to drag performance. However, Cherryman notes, tranimal drag ignores gender altogether, whilst simultaneously embracing gender by its refusal to engage with it in traditional ways. It rewrites the rules of drag performance. By not drawing attention to gender, it draws attention to a lack of gender, and therefore to gender through the lack thereof. Cherryman describes it as performative poststructuralism. Tranimal acts are so distorted that you often cannot tell the performer’s physical assignment, and therefore gender stops mattering, it’s reduced to pure performance – social concepts of reading gender are removed. Ultimately, it renders the reading of gender impossible and useless.
Zsófia Anna Toth – Mae West, the Great Female Impersonator and Comic Giant
Women are not seen as producers of humour, and if they are, they’re not seen as feminine, it is more a comic performativity of such. Comedy is seen as appealing to the intellect, therefore denying women comedy is denying their access to intellect – they are there to be looked at, not listened to. Mae West was seen as a strong phallic presence, not viewed as masculine, but she was never actually very feminine. Her sexuality was questioned throughout her career, and her sensuality became a source of power. She rejected passivity, and used aggressive femininity to cover her masculinity. She was seen as sexual, but not sexy, a comedy exaggeration of womanhood. A comic exaggeration of the vamps of the time like Garbo. Toth noted that femme fatales are usually considered to be phallic women, and in comedy, female comedians are separated into good girls vs. gargoyles.
Lea Sophie Schiel – The Subversive Potential of Sexual Performances
This ethnographic research aimed to discover whether sex performances performed live on stage have subversive potential. Having attended shows, Schiel opened this paper with a descriptive narrative of one of her visits to the Moulin Rouge in Amsterdam. As the only woman there, people stared at her, her body was not read as an audience member, she became a part of the show for the male audience. Schiel asked whether live sex is more obscene than porn, noting that attending means becoming a part of the scene, the public sphere becomes an obscene space. Mainstream sex shows are a space created for men; they are commercial and act as a form of entertainment rather than sexual titillation. It raises intersectional issues of ‘perversity’, rich white male ‘perverts’ are more accepted than black female ‘perverts’. When sex is performed live in public, each audience member may react differently, this becomes a part of the performance. The different reactions show different frames of reference of what sexuality means (e.g. teens laughing, vs. men masturbating). Whilst these shows have subversive potential, most of them cater for the male gaze, reinforcing heterosexual and patriarchal norms.
Vrushali Deole – Indian Rituals and Mythical Representation: Powerful Media to Articulate Sexual Identity
Deole noted that there are endless possibilities of gender in Indian myths. Gods and goddesses sometimes change gender for sexual or erotic reasons, sometimes gods go through gender deviance as a form of punishment, sometimes through divine blessing. Within these myths there are numerous variations of gender configuration. Deole argued that myths are a key to change ideology and cultural mind sets, highlighting how Hindu gods each have varying forms and therefore there is a cultural basis for altering bodies. However, she noted, Hinduism also believes in rebirth and karma, and as such, having a queer son is often attributed to having bad karma. She described India’s Sakhi-Bekhi Sect, a group of people who are ‘born in the wrong gender’, and the third gender Hijras, highlighting the stark comparison between a historical awareness of alternative identifications in mythology and culture, and the current harsh reality afforded to those who identify as such today, wherein they are ostracised and denied work and education.
Krystina Osbourne – “My Mode of Reading is Masturbatory”: Towards a Genre of Autoerotic Fiction
Autofiction is a blend of autobiography and fiction that places importance on the relationship between private and public, citing Chris Kraus, Osbourne noted that ‘the process of fictionalisation is selection’. She highlighted the fact that simply addressing the topic of masturbation in a text doesn’t make it autoerotic, and that there has been a dominant narrative of female masturbation in texts. Autoeroticism allows women to subvert phallocentrism and foreground the subjectivity of female experience. The common narrative usually addresses a narrator’s first experience of masturbation, trapping it in adolescence and making it sound like it’s no longer done. Sexual fantasies that fuel masturbation are often seen as more subversive than sexual acts [because there is no performance of sexuality, just personal gain?]. Osbourne argues that there is a need to engage with the feminist potential of autoerotic fiction, that female authors should write themselves into a text, that self-expression is an art. She quoted Charlotte Roche in Wetlands – ‘us women still don’t have a language for our lust’.
Melissa Tanti – ‘How to Get Away with Rape’: Early Research Findings in the Making of a Documentary Film [Plenary]
Despite witnesses and victim impact statements, rape prosecution is still lacking. Tanti’s study looked at how rape cases in Canada are tried, how they are processed differently to other violent crimes and how this upholds rape culture. She noted that the women are often put on trial, and that sentencing reflects a system that validates violence against women. Sexual assault is the most under-reported crime, although 27,000 are reported in Canada a year, this is estimated to only account for about 6% of occurrences, of which 0.3% of perpetrators are held accountable. In her research, Tanti listened to how 911 calls are processed, noting a level of hesitation that doesn’t exist in other crimes. It was often the case that police were not dispatched straight away and that the victim would have to convince the operator that it was an act of violence (because rape is seen as a type of sex). There was a level of scepticism that the victim had to overcome first in order to receive help. In Canda, only 16/18% of police officers are women, there is an overall lack of visible minorities, and there is a high attrition rate of female colleagues. Not only does this indicate that there is something going wrong in the culture of the police force, but it also means that the first people on the scene of a crime are usually a group of white men, something that likely affects rape reporting. Crime scenes themselves are often not treated in the same way that other violent crimes are, there is usually little collection of evidence, some reports show that women have been sent home immediately after and aren’t asked for evidence until the next day. Furthermore, all physical evidence is collected from the victim, not the attacker, putting the burden of proof on them. The responsibility is always placed with the woman – ‘don’t get raped’, and as a result there is no outrage about sexual violence. Procedures for investigating rape are not mandatory, and investigators rarely search for links. This is a particular problem because most rapists are repeat offenders – normally at least six times. If it does make it to court, the victim must deal with the male gaze of the courtroom, with courts being lines with photos of old white judges, the power dynamics of the gown and wigs, and the basic and degrading fact that witness boxes don’t even have seats. Increasingly it is the case that survivors are suing rapists for damages in civil court – the benefit of this is that there is a larger chance of the defendant being found liable because you only have to prove a balance of probability, not ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. In civil court, the defendant has to defend themselves, but in the criminal court they have the right to remain silent. However, this essentially decriminalises sexual violence. The overall aim of this research, and the resulting documentary, is to make sure that rape is viewed as a violent crime, not a sex act.
Charlotte Jones – Risks, Exposure and the Struggle to be Heard: Speaking Out about Sexual Violence in HE
Jones is working on a sponsored project that aims to enhance staff ability to support victims of sexual violence. The relationship between speaker and audience is disclosure, however, disclosure can be exposure and the opening of self to further danger. Once something is disclosed it is ‘out there’ and no longer able to be contained. As such, reciprocity is key, wherein the speaker and listener understand the message that is meant to be received. The fear of a lack of reciprocity can lead to self-silencing. As such, it is important that the audience must be both willing and capable, that listening is not passive but affirming, that they are aware of how to listen to the silences, absences and body-language, that they know how to meet the speaker’s efforts half way, that they are not an observer, but a participant in the exchange. Intentionality and agency are foregrounded, Victims are often ‘responsibilised’ for speaking out and then surviving/healing. Within Higher Education, this support can take place within student services, stuff must be ready and equipped to receive a disclosure. Marginalised groups need to be at the centre of this change. Jones spoke about a double-bind that universities face, in that, in order to properly support victims and combat rape culture they need to research the figures and encourage victims to come forward, but in doing so, they open themselves to accusations of high rates of campus violence – having a reported low rate of campus violence doesn’t necessarily mean that the figure is low, it may just mean that people do not come forward and are therefore not supported.
Hanna Etholén – Bodies Without Desire: Unpicking Heterosexual Scripts in Women’s Erotic Autofiction
Etholén aimed to unpick how female sexual desire is described or expressed in autoerotic fiction. Autofiction is a hybrid genre between fact and fiction, so she aimed to look at how women describe their own sexualities, particularly in light of how some forms of sex/romance are privileged. She looked at books written by women, narrated by female characters and that discuss sexuality. In discussing heterodoxy, Etholén noted that normative scripts of heterosexual relationships hinder female sexual desire, expressions of female desire come to represent what men want of them, something also seen in porn. She noted that female narrator’s expressions of desire usually only happen when they are alone, however then they learn to funnel it into the male’s desires [this links to Osbourne’s discussion of masturbation narratives being framed as something that occurs in teen years only]. Narrators are often unable to articulate their desire, what they want and why, until they engage with ‘the right way to desire’, i.e. for a man. Whilst there are sites for expressing female desire in culture, there doesn’t seem to be in autoerotic fiction.
Esther Raventós-Pons – Beya and the Imprint of Trauma in the Body
Beya is a graphic novel about a girl who is kidnapped and forced into sex work. It was based on the stories of 100 women who were saved from sexual slavery. In the course of this narrative, the victim, Beya, alienates herself from her body to survive, something that is reflected in the comic’s composition, the fragmented 2nd person narrative and use of repetition. Rape, in the same way of torture, leads someone to experience the body in a new way that alienates self from body, creates a duality of self. Disassociation, therefore, is a mental escape when no other form of escape is possible. The genre is able to capture trauma of body in a way that traditional novels cannot. The graphic panels fracture time and space, they create a rhythm of unconnected moments, images represent the trauma, and emotional impact is delivered through imagery clues like frame size and colour, etc.
Bethan Archer – (Un)Dressing Rape Culture in Young Adult Fiction
Discourses of rape may be both productive and determinative in the rewriting of rape myths. Archer notes that clothes and make up often build a part of these myths, and that women are held responsible for their own appearance, speech, thoughts AND how other people may perceive her. She highlighted that most popular television dramas not include rape, even if it’s just in the back story to justify a character’s response to something. There is a rape glut in current popular culture. She notes that over half of YA books are read by adults, and that these texts are a key way of transmitting norms. They aim to get young people reading, and authors are often trying to ‘lend a hand’ to adolescents who may experience such things. Referencing a number of key themes she found in the novels she studies, Archer spoke about the paradoxical nature of red as a colour of both love and danger, life and death. She tracks the use of red lipstick and nail-varnish through the texts, analysing their impact. She found that make-up can be often be used as armour in these texts, something that disrupts the traditional associations of softness.
Sian Lewis – Sexual Harassment on the London Underground
Lewis found that public transport is often missed out of discussions of street harassment, and noted its state as an intermediary space between the public and the private. Figures show that one in ten women experience sexual harassment on the underground, but it is estimated that only 10% of women actually report it, meaning the figures are much higher. The current focus on getting people to report harassment puts the onus on the victim, whereas it should be that the services build protection in. In her study, Lewis spent a year on the circle line collecting data, and did participant interviews. She researched the flaneur, a predominantly male figure, and the female prostitute in the city, noting that in the 19c, any woman who was alone on the street was seen as a sex worker, a narrative that is still seen in victim blaming. The flaneur is unobserved, but the flaneuse, the female counterpart, is subject to the male gaze, as all women are observed. Lewis noted that the underground is a social space, but with very little interaction. It is a space in which a newspaper/book/phone/headphones become signifiers that you are not looking to interact. Lewis’ study also looks at how this understanding of the underground as a social space may impact or aid harassment.
So, that is a summary for all of the talks that I had legible notes for. As you can see, it was a fascinating, diverse and ultimately important conference. I can’t wait for Talking Bodies 2019!
P.s. As I say, these summaries are from my hastily scribbled notes at the time, if you notice any errors, please let me know and I’ll sort them immediately.