An activist perspective on gender studies

Another note on that “Sokal-style hoax” on gender studies (see my post, or School of Doubt)…

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.


  1. sennkestra says

    I have….a lot of thoughts about gender studies (and the related queer studies) as a field and why even classifying things as “gender studies” or “queer studies” (as opposed to say, “sociological studies of gender” or “historical studies of gender”etc.) can be less-than-useful sometimes. (I’m coming from the background of someone who majored in linguistics, another weirdly defined field, and almost minored in gender studies before I realized that while I enjoy the topics of gender and sexuality, I am frustrated by almost everything about “gender studies” and “queer studies” as a field).

    When it comes to actual papers, I think one of the most widespread problems with current works under the “gender studies” and “queer studies” labels is that there’s a lot of work coming from people who may know a lot about certain methods of gender analysis and certain critical or queer theory approaches (think Judith Butler on gender performativity and Foucault on power)…who then apply those analyses to subjects they often have only passing familiarity with (or in some cases, no familiarity at all). In the context of asexual research, this often shows in bibliographies that have like, 20+ references to Butler, Foucalt, etc. and maybe only 2-5 references to actual asexuality related sources, of which one is usually a vague and unhelpful reference to “AVEN forums”, which is the equivalent of using “the entire New York Times archives” or “The Lancet” as a source in it’s unspecificity.

    The idea behind things like gender studies and queer studies as a unique field (as I understand it) is is about sort of layering on new levels of analysis to existing approaches or findings from other fields – with the hope being that their analyses through lenses of gender/sexuality/power/queer theory etc. can reveal hidden biases or new insights that “traditional” approaches might not. It’s concerned more with overall theory and approaches to analyzing data, rather than about actually gathering data in the first place. In theory, the advantage of gender studies writers over bloggers is that they have more knowledge of these specific structural theories of power and gender, which allow them to perform analysis that lay persons might not think of, and articulate it more precisely. (I disagree, but that’s another gripe).

    However, the problem with queer and gender studies – and other “critical theory” type fields – is that your critique is only as good as your knowledge of the thing you’re critiquing. No matter how good your analysis is, if it’s performed on insufficient and incorrect data, any conclusions it results in will be junk. And unfortunately, gender studies research (in my experience) tends to neglect that “familiarize yourself with the thing you are critiquing” step.

    To be fair, bad background research is not an uncommon problem. But in gender studies, I think it’s aggravated by a tendency to write off established research, to the point that it is almost seen as an advantage rather than a flaw, and then further compounded by the fact that the umbrella “gender studies” can include critiques of literally anything as long as gender/sexuality is vaguely involved in some way – so it’s harder for editors to find peer reviewers with shared knowledge on the topic and weed out papers that contain basic factual errors and other major problems. An obsession with being “radical” (especially if you want to get published) means always having to put a radical new spin on things, even that spin makes no actual sense (which also leads to neglect, I think, of community-generated analysis – “these people have been saying this same thing for 10 years and it makes sense” is just not as “radical”. I think there may also just be a maturity issue – while fields like linguistics have had decades to look back and be like, “our field has a history of doing stupid things and we need to watch out for these common errors”, I didn’t get that same level of retrospection in gender studies classes (though I would hope there may be more at higher levels?) Instead, gender studies classes always had a tinge of “here’s why other fields are wrong and how we do it better” – a lot of focus on critiquing other fields but less attention to reflecting on the core gender studies canon.

    tl;dr: I think gender theory and queer theory could maybe be useful as a sort of interdisciplinary approach, applied by experts in various fields to their existing knowledge about their own field. But right now it’s mostly gender studies researchers applying it to other fields they know nothing about, resulting in predictably unhelpful results that contain a lot of ignorance and misinformation.

  2. says

    There’s one place where I think asexual discourse is indebted to gender studies: hermeneutical injustice. (Technically the author of the concept, Miranda Fricker, is an analytic feminist philosopher, but close enough.) But I don’t know of any scholarly work that specifically makes the connection between asexuality and hermeneutical injustice–instead, the connection was made by an ace blogger.

    So in this case, the theory and analytical approach is provided by gender studies, but the asexual-specific knowledge is supplied by an ace blogger. I think that illustrates some of your point, Sennkestra.

  3. sennkestra says

    Yeah, I think that’s a good example of successful application of broader theoretical concepts to a subject that the writer was already knowledgeable about. (And in general, it reflect my personal thoughts that the best results tend to come from people with deep expertise in some specific subject – like asexuality – plus some (maybe shallower) additional experience in gender studies/queer studies/etc, rather than the other way around).

    I think Miranda Fricker is an interesting example, in that they don’t seem to present themselves or be presented as a “gender studies” or “feminist studies” researcher, but rather seem to be trained as and present themselves as a philospher first – (with a strong feminist / gender studies bent and contributions to the intersectional pool of what could be considered gender studies type research), rather than as a “gender studies” or “feminist studies”-first researcher who also includes some philosophy.

    Which, IMO, goes in hand with where feminist/queer/gender studies have their greatest potential – as an interdisciplinary field of study, but backed by a solid grounding in some other discipline (like philosophy) or area of expertise (like asexual communities). I feel like gender studies alone sometimes has a “jack of all trades, master of none” problem – the gender studies courses I took had interesting interdisciplinary introductions to a wide variety of topics, including philosophy, linguistics, history, etc. The problem was that the history was always a bit lacking in important context, the linguistic analysis was oversimplified and lacking nuance, etc. On the other hand, the “gender and sexuality studies” offered by specific departments – like the history department, or the classics department – tended to be much better about providing things like context, contrasting research and opinions, techniques and problems specific to that kind of research, etc. that an interdisciplinary professor with no specific training or knowledge in that field just couldn’t provide.

    (For example, when it comes to things like identifying trends in ace communities, I feel like a digital historian or digital anthropologist might have a lot better luck)


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