‘Sex and the Marketplace: What’s Love got to do with it?’ – reflections from a recent conference

By Kate Hawkins

This year’s International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS) conference took place in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. I was lucky enough to go along and hear some fascinating papers which responded to the conference theme ‘Sex and the Marketplace: What’s Love got to do with it?’ The IDS Sexuality and Development Programme were well represented at the conference: organising trainings, as a discussant in one of the plenaries, running a stall handing out publications and in their own parallel sessions. These biennial conferences helped to create and strengthen sexuality networks and coalitions across disciplines, professions and regions.

It would be difficult to do justice to the richness of the conversations at IASSCS or to communicate the happiness that I felt in meeting up with friends, old and new. So to give you a flavour of proceedings I have put together a list of my top three moments. Those who want more detail should check out the conference website.

Poetry by alok vaid-menon
Quite by accident I stumbled upon a performance by alok vaid-menon which wasn’t on the formal conference agenda but which had a powerful impact on me. This spoken word artist was able to touch me in a way that no other presentation did. I was moved to tears by his poem about his aunt’s breast cancer, I was not alone. He reminded me of the importance of performance and art as a form of research but also to bring issues alive and provoke an emotional response in the listener. Luckily for us his poetry is available on the blog Return the Gayze. I strongly suggest that you read it all! But if you are pressed for time check out ‘my summer in cape town: or, i am sorry for using you’ which is an eloquent exploration of research ethics and how formal processes fail to do justice to the complexity of the power dynamics and relationships between researchers and their ‘subjects’

Conversations with Professor Pei Yuxin (Sun Yat-sen University)
I have met Prof Pei before, at a meeting in Beijing organised by the Ford Foundation, and it was a delight to catch up with her on the other side of the world. I was impressed by how charming, energetic and sparkling she was considering her 32 hour journey to get there! Prof Pei and I talked about a project she has been running which is soliciting young people’s views on masturbation by encouraging them to create artistic representations of their observations and experiences. The research aims to dispel myths about masturbation and provide evidence based advice on sexual health and wellbeing. It is hoped that frank discussion about masturbation will help break taboos and foster more acceptance. Prof Pei started the project by soliciting opinions through Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter). Interest in the project has grown to the extent that she has received private messages from more than 10,000 people and received more than 100 videos, paintings and cartoons on the issue. The competition has attracted media attention and been covered in newspapers and magazines. Some reporting has been positive but others have sensationalised the issue. People have criticised, cursed her and called her a ‘slut’. On the positive-side some people said that she saved their lives because they masturbated and thought it was abnormal or wrong. It’s a brave and fun project, I wonder if it could be replicated elsewhere and what we might learn. We hope that Prof Pei will submit a paper to our upcoming special issue on pleasure and women’s empowerment – so watch this space.

Read more: Gender, self and pleasure: young women’s discourse on masturbation in contemporary Shanghai

Hearing about how sexuality relates to other development policies
I am already pretty immersed in the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme on this theme. The purpose of the project is to understand the links between sexuality, gender plurality and poverty with the aim of improving economic policy and programming to support people marginalised because of their sexuality. It was great to see final presentations from the Philippines (on social protection policies), from China (on disability policy), from Brazil (on homophobia in education policy and programmes) and from India (on sexuality and schooling).

The links between sexuality and broader public policy were well made elsewhere in the conference. It was interesting to hear more about migration policy and its effects on Mexican migrants in the plenary by Jennifer Hirsh. She explained how the erosion of social safety nets, poor health and safety practices, under-investments in transportation infrastructure, and the impoverishment of non-commercial public spaces created sexual health risks for migrant men living in the US. Lack of health insurance limits their access to health care; the significant levels of risk that they experience when travelling to and working in the US make them less concerned with the risks involved in unsafe sex and; ‘recreation-deserts’ and poor public transport make sex one of the few diversions available to migrant men. Hirsh suggested that consumers in the global North should be encouraged to consider the sexual vulnerabilities created by the products that they consume which are created on the back of migrant labour. It is an interesting way of counting the cost of public policy which does not take sexuality into account and may provide new avenues for looking at a whole host of other sexuality and poverty related issues.

The ISASSCS conference provided a fantastic opportunity to hear more about state of the art sexuality research from around the world. Check out their website for further information.

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group. She is the Director of Pamoja Communications and recently co-edited Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure.