Although I will come to the defense of gender studies against the sorriest excuse for a hoax I have ever seen, I don’t like gender studies that much. I would never claim that the whole field is pathological–that is not in evidence. But I have read some gender studies papers, and have not been generally impressed with them.
Yes, I have, as a physicist, read gender studies papers. And I didn’t select papers by following right-wing news sources that intentionally cherry-pick the most ridiculous examples. No, I read gender studies papers as part of my work as an asexuality activist. Back in the day, my other blog hosted a journal club on academic asexual studies. Asexual studies are very cross-disciplinary, including psychology, sociology, history, linguistics, law, and… gender studies!
The short version: Gender studies papers often say stuff that activists already know, or already know is wrong. I am not sure what advantage gender studies provides over, say, blogs.
(I should say upfront that I’m not going to back up my impressions with evidence. It would take a lot of time to look back through the papers and extract quotes, and I would rather that some readers just think I’m full of shit.)
Overall, reading academic papers on asexuality was a very validating experience. No, it wasn’t just that my views were confirmed by people with academic authority. The more validating aspect were all the little flaws we found in these papers. We could see flaws! We could critically engage with the literature! We were already experts by virtue of being educated participants in asexual communities.
What sort of flaws did we find? Several things:
- Academics would ignore many subgroups of asexuals. For example, a survey question might be poorly designed for certain subgroups.
- Sometimes academics failed to consult any asexual people, who would have immediately set them straight. For example, Anthony Bogaert is great, but there was that time he speculated at length whether asexuals would enjoy sexual humor, and it was kind of embarrassing.
- Academics are often unaware of the socially constructed and political aspects of asexuality. For example, many academics are interested in demonstrating that asexuality is not a disorder, but rarely is it discussed how both “asexuality” and “disorder” are socially constructed categories.
Contra Boghossian, the gender studies papers were not gibberish. In fact, sometimes they were quite perceptive. They were the best at recognizing the political aspects of asexuality, critically examining common rhetorical strategies and the ideologies underlying them.
But occasionally, they would say things that were just off-base. They’d say things that indicated that they didn’t consult any asexuals, or read any asexual discourse beyond the bare minimum.
One of the last ones I remember was about interpreting historical figures as asexual. The paper framed asexual communities as being opposed to these interpretations because the communities are too essentialist. In my experience, asexual communities are divided on the issue, and essentialism matters but in the opposite direction. Also, the authors attempted to construct a more anti-essentialist view of asexuality, but in doing so, they neglected the long-established (and superior) community discussion about romantic orientations and grays/demis.
At this point, I was wondering, what does gender studies have to offer that us bloggers don’t? You might say, blogs have poor quality control, and you have to sift through them. But it seems gender studies has the same problem, with a further problem on top: it takes a long time to produce and hardly anyone reads it.
The academic studies I appreciated most were the quantitative ones. Because for all their flaws, they were digging up information that I otherwise never could have known. We have our community-run survey, which I volunteer for, but we don’t have the resources to measure everything, and I really appreciate what academic researchers bring to the table.
But gender studies, at best it was telling me stuff I already knew, and had to play catch-up to get there. Gender studies isn’t broken by any means, but I think many queer/feminist/etc. activists who already know their stuff would find it disappointing.