Sexuality Researcher Tops in Nation
This fall Janice M. Irvine (sociology), internationally known for sexuality research, will present the inaugural John H. Gagnon Distinguished Lecture, cosponsored by the program in Human Sexuality Studies and the Institute for Sexuality, Inequality and Health at San Francisco State University. “I’m extremely honored,” Irvine says. “The lecture helps make visible the institutionalization of sexuality studies within the academy.”
Sexuality studies is an interdisciplinary field that includes social scientists, historians and literary and cultural theorists. Irvine is a pioneer, having begun her academic work in the field in 1974, long before it had a name. When she wrote her master’s thesis in 1975 on transsexualism, “practically no one even knew what it was,” Irvine recalls. At Brandeis University for her PhD, study in the area was nonexistent. “Only a few of us around the country, in different disciplines, were working on this. But now sexuality studies is more established in the social sciences, and the Sociology of Sexualities is an official ASA section with over 300 members.”
Sexuality research has a history of stigma. Historically, those who study sex have been subject to public speculation about—even attack upon—their own sexuality “It’s hard,” says Irvine, “in this post-Sex in the City era, to remember how much silence and anxiety surrounded the topic, even in the academy. The subject is controversial, even disreputable to many, and researchers have been repeatedly warned against studying sexuality.”
In 1954, for example, the Rockefeller Foundation terminated funding of Alfred Kinsey after a Congressional investigation prompted by public outrage over the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Masters and Johnson, authors of the landmark study Human Sexual Response (1966), had their laboratory sabotaged. Mary Calderone, founder of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, was denounced as a communist and a pervert.
And political attacks on sexuality research haven’t stopped. Irvine points to several. In May 2003, for example, the New York Times reported that Health and Human Services might apply “unusual scrutiny” to grants with key words such as “gay, sex worker, anal sex” and “men who sleep with men.” The same year the National Institutes of Health launched a review of 160 academic studies, most of them peer-reviewed projects involving HIV/AIDS and sexuality research, after the Traditional Values Coalition and a few Republican Congressmen complained that the research was a waste of taxpayers’ money. “These initiatives prompted anger and opposition from many scientists, politicians and activists,” says Irvine. “Henry Waxman (D-CA), as ranking member of the Committee on Government Reform, called the NIH investigation ‘scientific McCarthyism.’”
A historical and cultural sociologist, Irvine is interested in the relationship between power and the production of various sorts of sexual knowledge. She has shaped her work with feminist theories, queer studies, and interdisciplinary critical theories of culture, language, emotion and representation. Currently Irvine is working on the role of emotions in political battles, especially those over sexual issues. She is on the board of directors of Advocates for Youth and recently did a workshop in Washington, D.C., for policymakers, funders and health professionals from national organizations like Planned Parenthood.
Irvine explains: “Religious conservatives have successfully dominated the public conversation about sexuality education, abortion and gay rights by using strategies that provoke volatile emotions such as anger, hatred, fear and disgust. We explored how emotions work in the political realm, viewed specific examples of how provocative sexual language and symbols are used to trigger volatile public reaction. And we brainstormed how progressives can counter this. In many ways this new work takes me full circle to advocacy activities I was engaged in before coming to UMass Amherst in 1993.”
Irvine entered graduate school in the mid-1970s with a long history of political activism in the anti-Vietnam movement, feminism and the early gay liberation movement. For years she wrote for the Boston-based national publications Gay Community News and Sojourner: The Women’s Forum.
When Irvine finished her dissertation Disorders of Desire: Sex and Gender in Modern American Sexology in 1984 (which also became her first book, recently revised, expanded and reissued), President Reagan “had yet to utter his first word about the epidemic that was decimating communities. But after I received my degree, I launched myself into AIDS work.” Irvine co-founded one of the first programs for women and AIDS in the county at the AIDS Action Committee in Boston.
“I was happy to learn then that UMass Amherst values the kind of work I do, although at times I have encountered individuals who trivialize sexuality studies, who think it is all about political advocacy for sexual and gender minorities rather than serious scholarship,” says Irvine. “Fortunately, those views are no longer common here, especially in sociology. In fact, one of the exciting things about the department is that with the arrival of Amy Schalet, we now have two faculty members who specialize in the sociology of sexuality. This makes us THE place to study for rigorous sociological training in sexuality studies. That’s exciting!”
January 9, 2007