Free Range Research

Is this porn or public health education? And what does it have to do with a book about radical feminism? Discuss (1990  photo by Steven Meisel)

One of my talents as a researcher is also one of my flaws. I reach far beyond the main focus of a given project to try to raise new questions and make connections that all allow me to understand it better. This has seemed particularly important in my current project, in which the history of feminism criss-crosses LGBTQ history. The intersections are very obvious, but the scholarship has been written as parallel tracks. What I mean by this is that the written history of feminism (the demise of ERA, conservative attacks on reproductive choice, affirmative action and the struggle among feminists over pornography) very rarely touches on the dominant themes in queer history (the 1970s party, the explosion of a media industry catering to gay men’s sexual liberation, the AIDS epidemic, and ACT-UP.)  Some of these connections, particularly between Women Against Pornography’s decision to target Times Square by establishing an outpost there in 1979, have been inferred from Samuel Delaney’s account of the elimination of sexual subcultures from midtown in the 1980s and 1990s, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (NYU Press, 2001).

But the absence of deep connection between two such important phenomena in the current literature troubles me, and causes me to seek complexity. It also points to an aspect of history as a narrative genre that we rarely talk about: the tendency to narrow our research in such a way that phenomena that are contemporary to the object of study are seen as mere context. This can lead to generalizations that rely on evidence that seems to naturally adhere to the researcher’s common sense assumptions. For example, we know that some gay men were deeply concerned about the effects of feminist anti-pornography campaigns on the rising homophobia that Reaganism and heterosexual fears about AIDS provoked. This makes sense, and we have significant circumstantial evidence to support this argument. What is less well understood is that some gay men took feminism, and feminist anti-pornography politics, seriously as a critique of public urban sexual cultures that they also found distressing, violent and exploitative. Leaving this latter group out of the story leads to the assumption that the interests of gay men and anti-pornography feminists were antagonistic by nature when, in fact, there is ample evidence to prove a much more nuanced argument.

In addition, we have to ask the question: did national organizations advocating for LGBT civil rights, and queer social movements like ACT-UP, see feminist anti-pornography activism as a threat equivalent to that posed by political conservatives and the Reagan Administration? If so, why? If not, why not? This strikes me as a particularly important question in relation to AIDS activisms since, as we know, there were numerous discussions and disagreements within the movement about how erotic safe-sex materials and conversations about disease transmissions worked differently across, and within, racial and gendered communities.

This is what took me to the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University, where I used several collections, one of which was the voluminous National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Collection. What concerns did the NGLTF have about feminist anti-pornography campaigns? Almost none. Why? I’m not quite sure, and I speculate on that in the video below, done by Cornell Curator and Head of Research Brenda Marston. I also found a folder on Playboy that I use as an opportunity to discuss how one archive leads the researcher to information that might be difficult, or impossible, to get from another source.


The researcher who did get into the Playboy corporate archives is Carrie Pitzulo’s Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy (University of Chicago Press, 2011), a history that take Playboy’s view of itself as feminist seriously because of that magazine’s support for women’s sexual freedom, but evades a serious discussion about the basis for feminist critiques of Playboy.

What’s the down side of this capacious approach? There is often too much research on the table to easily make sense of; writing proceeds far more slowly; creating a chronology for my book between a dozen or more archival collections is a serious logistical issue; and my attempts to bring contradictory points of view into alignments leads to a constant re-thinking of the central questions that brought me to the research in the first place.

(For other videos done to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell, go to Tenured Radical.)

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