Penn Humanities Forum on Sex

Topic Director: Heather Love
R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor of English

Sex is a more elusive topic than we tend to imagine. Is it a biological drive or a product of human culture?  Is it the most private aspect of our lives, or is it the basis of our entire social and political system? And, while some consider the real purpose of sex is merely to reproduce the species, others believe it is the gateway to a higher realm of sensual, aesthetic, and affective experiences.

You know it when you see it.
As a name for the division between male and female, a fundamental biological drive, and the activity of reproduction, sex seems to need no explanation: we know it when we see it. But the extent of natural and cultural diversity makes it clear that sex is anything but self-evident. Geneticists, cultural anthropologists, social historians, and queer theorists all agree that sex is complex and variable. Sexual practices that are stigmatized in one context may be celebrated in another; codes of gendered behavior vary substantially across space and time; and new technologies of reproduction, hormone management, and transsexuality have rapidly expanded the definitions of sex, gender, sexuality, and the family.

Birds do it, bees do it.           
Sex as a “fact of life” cuts across the division between humans, animals, plants, and fungi. For some, this shows that certain “traditional” roles and relationships are the most natural and proper: sexual dimorphism, for example, or the role of females in caring for young. Such views ignore evidence of hermaphroditism, asexual reproduction, cloning, and the diversity and rarity of parental behavior in the natural world. From the sexual life of brewer’s yeast to the role of temperature in determining the sex of sea turtles to the pair bonding of female seagulls, the natural world provides examples that challenge rather than bolster human sexual norms. Scientists, social scientists, and humanists alike have shown just how various and unexpected the practices and meanings of sex can be. Artists have bequeathed us indelible images of sex as transcendence and mortification, pleasure and self-shattering, union and alienation.

Give the people what they want.
Sex is often understood as an intensely private experience, the site of our most intimate fantasies as well as our most durable attachments. But sex is also a matter of law, culture, art, and politics. While Freud’s legacy has been debated, his insight that sex and sexuality are crucial to modernity remains foundational. Our most influential writers and artists have often been those who bring hidden or censored aspects of sexuality into public view, or who most strenuously violate presumed sexual norms. Decisive negotiations of freedom and consent have been staged around issues of homosexuality, polygamy, and cross-generational sex. Local, national, and even international politics frequently revolve around debates over pornography, safe sex, birth control, marriage, sexual violence, and child rearing. The emergence today, in online as well as offline spaces, of new sexual communities—asexual, pansexual, otherkin, genderqueer, and more—provides further evidence that changing assumptions about “normal” sex and gender must entail broad shifts of the cultural and political landscape.

Our conversations at the Forum will involve the full range of arts, humanities, and humanistic social sciences, plus aspects of biology, demography, linguistics, engineering, and computer science. We will consider topics from sex and masculinity in the classical world to the pornification of contemporary culture; from the racial and class politics of sexuality to debates about the biological basis of homosexuality; from the organizing strategies of local intersex communities to questions of secularism, sex, and human rights across various countries and cultures; and from public health campaigns around HIV, HPV, and hepatitis C to debates about trafficking, labor, and female vulnerability.

Throughout the year’s discussions, we will challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about what sex is and what it means. We invite scholars, students, and members of the public to join us in a spirit of exploration and discovery for the 2015-16 Penn Humanities Forum on Sex.

March, 2014
Heather Love, Topic Director
James English, Director, Penn Humanities Forum