Working at the crossroads of pleasure and danger: Feminist perspectives on doing critical sexuality studies

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For those entering the field of sexuality studies, there is often little advice or guidance on the many facets of the work, some of which are pleasurable and some of which are dangerous. Drawing from our personal and professional conflicts surrounding our work as feminist psychologists and sociologists studying women’s sexuality, we extend Carole Vance’s (1984) claims about pleasure and danger by arguing that, for the sex researcher, pleasure and danger are in fact inverted. That which should give us pleasure (e.g. having our work promoted to the public; teaching critical material about sexuality; thinking deeply about our personal relationships) ends up feeling dangerous, and that which should feel dangerous (e.g. saying and doing and working on taboo things; calling out homophobia, racism, classism, and sexism) ends up giving us pleasure. We examine several areas where we experience personal and professional costs and benefits of doing feminist sex research, including relationships with partners, communication with research participants, pedagogical challenges and conflicts, the interface between the sex-researcher identity and university/institutional practices, and, finally, our interface with the public world and the mass media. In doing so, we aim to use our personal experiences to highlight just a few of the areas that emerging sexuality researchers may encounter. In addition, we extend Vance’s framework of pleasure and danger beyond the experiences of women having sex and into the realm of those seeking to understand, research, write about, theorize, and assess the complicated terrain of women’s sexuality.

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