'Tricks of the Trade'

SAN FRANCISCO -- Here’s a shocker: The one-night stand may be being replaced by long-term monogamous relationships when it comes to sex at academic conferences. That was among the revelations Tuesday at a panel of the Modern Language Association devoted to conference sex. Well, actually it was devoted to theorizing and analyzing conference sex, although it was probably the only session at the MLA this year in which a panelist appeared in a bathrobe.

January 2, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- Here’s a shocker: The one-night stand may be being replaced by long-term monogamous relationships when it comes to sex at academic conferences. That was among the revelations Tuesday at a panel of the Modern Language Association devoted to conference sex. Well, actually it was devoted to theorizing and analyzing conference sex, although it was probably the only session at the MLA this year in which a panelist appeared in a bathrobe.

The annual meeting of the MLA has long been known (and frequently satirized) for the sexual puns and imagery of paper titles -- even if many of the papers themselves are in fact more staid than their names would suggest. As the MLA meeting concluded on Tuesday, however, one session sought to put sex at academic conferences center stage. Drawing on literature, theory and experience, panelists considered not only the role of sex at conferences, but talked about identity, love and (perhaps more timely to many MLA attendees) the dismal academic job market.

Many presenters at the MLA use categorization to make their points, and this session was no exception. Jennifer Drouin, an assistant professor of English and women's studies at Allegheny College, argued that there are eight forms of conference sex (although she noted that some may count additional forms for each of the eight when the partners cross disciplinary, institutional or tenure-track/non-tenure track, or superstar/average academic boundaries).

The categories:

  1. “Conference quickies” for gay male scholars to meet gay men at local bars.
  2. “Down low” sex by closeted academics taking advantage of being away from home and in a big city.
  3. “Bi-curious” experimentation by “nerdy academics trying to be more hip” (at least at the MLA, where queer studies is hip). This “increases one’s subversiveness” without much risk, she said.
  4. The “conference sex get out of jail free” card that attendees (figuratively) trade with academic partners, permitting each to be free at their respective meetings. This freedom tends to take place at large conferences like the MLA, which are “more conducive” to anonymous encounters, Drouin said.
  5. “Ongoing flirtations over a series of conferences, possibly over several years” that turn into conference sex. Drouin said this is more common in sub-field conferences, where academics are more certain of seeing one another from year to year if their meetings are “must attend” conferences.
  6. “Conference sex as social networking,” where academics are introduced to other academics at receptions and one thing leads to another.
  7. “Career building sex,” which generally crosses lines of academic rank. While Drouin said that this form of sex “may be ethically questionable,” she quipped that this type of sex "can lead to increased publication possibilities” or simply a higher profile as the less famous partner tags along to receptions.
  8. And last but not least -- and this was the surprise of the list: “monogamous sex among academic couples.” Drouin noted that the academic job market is so tight these days that many academics can’t live in the same cities with their partners. While many colleges try to help dual career couples, this isn’t always possible, and is particularly difficult for gay and lesbian couples, since not every college will even take their couple status seriously enough to try to find jobs for partners. So these long distance academic couples, gay and straight, tenured and adjuncts, must take the best academic positions they can, and unite at academic conferences. “The very fucked-upness of the profession leads to conference fucking,” Drouin said.

The idea that many academic couples have so little time together that they need academic conferences to see one another suggests a broader comparison, she said. “Conference sex is a metaphor for life in the academy: One takes what one can get when one can get it.”

Ann Pellegrini, associate professor of performance studies and religious studies at New York University, was the panelist who presented while in a bathrobe (although it should be noted in fairness that she wore it over her clothes). While Pellegrini was playful in her attire, her serious talk -- which brought knowing nods in the audience -- was about how literature scholars’ infatuation with books and ideas is, for many of them, the first love that dare not speak its name. “For many of us, books were our first love object.”

What is “the passion that compels us to a specific author,” she asked, or the genre that “makes us hot?”

For many academics, part of growing up was getting strange looks from friends or family members who couldn’t understand all that time reading, and who continue to not understand as a graduate student devotes years to analyzing passages or an author’s story.

These kinds of passions lead to books that are in some ways “annotated mash notes.” But however much passion academics feel for the works they study, their devotion doesn’t fit into the categories of “recognized intimacy” society endorses. At the MLA conference, with its sessions and parties devoted to this or that subfield, such passions are to be expected, but not elsewhere.

And Pellegrini noted that this separateness from society extends beyond the initial connection between budding scholars and some book or set of ideas. Academics are regularly “accused of speaking only about ourselves,” she said. “But when we venture out into public square,” and try to share both their knowledge and beliefs, “we are accused of being narcissistic” and of speaking only in “impenetrable jargon.”

Milton Wendland of the University of Kansas linked the jargon and exchanges of academic papers to academic conference sex. The best papers, he said, “shock us, piss us off, connect two things” that haven’t previously been connected. “We mess around with ideas. We present work that is still germinating,” he said. So too, he said, a conference is “a place to fuck around physically,” and “not as a side activity, but as a form of work making within the space of the conference.”

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.”

For gay men like himself, Wendland said, conference sex is particularly important as an affirmation of elements of gay sexuality that some seem to want to disappear. As many gay leaders embrace gay marriage and “heteronormative values,” he said, it is important to preserve other options and other values.

“Conference sex encounters become more than mere dalliance and physical release,” he said. It is a stand against the “divorcing physicality from being human, much less queer,” he said.

Of course, not every sexual exchange at an academic conference ends with both parties happy. Israel Reyes, an associate professor of Spanish at Dartmouth College, noted that some of the sex (or attempts to get sex) at academic conferences is sexual harassment.

Reyes devoted most of his paper to a critique of Jane Gallop’s 1997 book, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (Duke University Press), which recounts accusations that Gallop harassed two graduate students. Gallop has written frankly of her sexual relations with her professors and students. The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where she teaches, cleared her of the harassment charges, but found that in one case, her relationship with a graduate student was inappropriate.

The charges against Gallop, Reyes noted, came out of an incident that included banter and kissing at … an academic conference, and this is no coincidence, he argued. Generally, Reyes praised Gallop for questioning some widely accepted definitions of harassment, but he said she was “less perceptive” when writing about herself, and the reasons that may have led the graduate students to complain about her.

One irony of the panel was that participants (and others at the MLA) said that the meeting has become less outrageous over time, and that there are far fewer of the sexually suggestive paper titles than used to be the case. And this year, there can be no doubt that the sex panel was not the norm -- what with lots of discussion of classroom reforms, faculty life, the latest research, the job market, and so forth.

But at the panel on conference sex, Daniel Contreras of Fordham University lamented the lack of excitement at the MLA of late, recounting how two meetings ago, he was at a session where one of the speakers scolded audience members who had been talking during the session. The scolding was “the most exciting moment I had had at the MLA in years,” he said. “Did eight years of Bush drain away any energy we might have had for intellectual exploration?” he said.

To show how dull things have become, Contreras quoted from a Junot Diaz novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which a character is being beaten up by two goons. Describing the senseless pain and savagery, Diaz offers a comparison: “It was like one of those nightmarish 8 a.m. MLA panels: endless.”

Contreras asked, "How did it come to this?” And he suggested that some freedom and outrageousness is a good thing for the MLA. “It seems evident to me that there has been a lull at our conference,” he said. “My experience in the profession has been that there was always something we could gawk or at least giggle about while reading through the catalog: they are doing a panel on that?”

Now, he added sadly, “not so much.”

The panel was simply called "Conference Sex" in the MLA program, not--as an organizer quipped it might have been named--"Tricks of the Trade."


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