Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Conference sex “explained”

Inside Higher Education reports on a Modern Language Association (MLA) conference panel on conference sex.  Conference sex is, of course, sex which occurs at academic conferences.  Actually there was no sex of any kind at the conference sex panel although at least one panelist seemed prepared for such an eventuality since she was dressed in a bathrobe.  Of course, being dressed in a bathrobe can also indicate that one is about to go to sleep; such might very well represent a practical wardrobe since many presentations at academic conferences do facilitate sleeping behavior.

So what was this panel all about? 

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:

“Conference quickies” for gay male scholars to meet gay men at local bars.
“Down low” sex by closeted academics taking advantage of being away from home and in a big city.
“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.
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.
“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.
“Conference sex as social networking,” where academics are introduced to other academics at receptions and one thing leads to another.
“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.
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.

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.”

And Israel Reyes, of Dartmouth College

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.

OK, here’s the rub according to the dankprofessor.  Academic conferences are one of the few places left where the sexual harassment advocates have not made a play.  The MLA and the myriad of other academic associations have no sexual harassment policy.  This is fertile ground for the sexual harassment industry.  All it will take is for one sexual harassment lawyer to get one conference attendee to testify that she was subject to repeated unwanted sexual attention or was offended by some sexually tinged remarks made at a panel presentation, and we will have a whole new ballgame.  If such ends up being the case, then academic conferences will become boring ad nauseam.

And then there is the matter of student professor sexual dalliances and alliances at academic conferences.  No mention of this at the MLA panel.  Academic meetings are one of the few remaining places that student/professor couples can come out of the closet to some degree.  They have a little breathing room.  I can testify that such is not the product of a dank imagination.  When will the campus sexual puritans become the conference anti-sexual zealots and crack down on this space?

I guess I should also note that the MLA meeting was in San Francisco.

January 2, 2009 - Posted by | conference sex, consensual relationships, ethics, higher education, MLA, sex, sexual harassment, sexual politics, student professor dating, the closet

2 Comments »

  1. :) This entry provided endless entertainment for me. Especially your introduction to the panel and the woman in the bathrobe. Perfect.

    I also appreciate the follow-up re: the sexual harassment policy, but… really, this is more fun. :)

    Comment by PauvrePlume | January 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. The MLA does have a sexual harrassment policy. In fact, the MLA’s policy was the subject of one of the panel presentations. I was in the audience – I can’t remember which of the panelists discussed it — Reyes, I think.

    Comment by Wes | February 21, 2009 | Reply


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