The Science of Sex "Itself"

deadline for submissions: 
June 1, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Benjamin Kahan and Greta LaFleur

Over the past two decades, queer, transgender, and sexuality studies have moved away from the medical model, turning away, as Regina Kunzel puts it, “from the clinic, the couch, and the psychiatric hospital to look instead at histories of sociality, of citizenship, community, culture, politics, the state.” In this special issue, however, we want to return to the sciences of sex, including and beyond the couch, to consider how the surveying and hierarchizing energies of “science” have been put toward the production of understandings of both sexual practice and binary sexual difference, in all of their gendered and racialized dimensions. Building on work like Jennifer Terry’s An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (1999), Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture, Melissa Stein’s Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity (2015),Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (2018), Kyla Schuller’s The Biopolitics of Feeling (2017), and Jules Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child (2018) that draws out the deep complicities between the science of sex, on the one hand, and eugenics, on the other, this special issue takes as a point of departure the role that the sciences of sex have played in articulating and enforcing racial hierarchies, and in girding tactics of colonial jurisprudence. It proposes to explore forms of both state and institutional violence that are related to and support the architectures of medicalization used to distinguish between viable and inviable, violable and inviolable forms of embodiment to this day. We invite article-length submissions that examine the legacies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sexual sciences, including but not limited to sexology; endocrinology; demography and population science; occult sciences; eugenics; race science and pseudoscience; anthropology; zoology; social work; and other disciplines and professional bodies that took seriously questions of sexual practice, sexual difference, and sex as a category of human and/or animal experience, and deployed them toward a wide range of different ends. 


By exploring the problem of sex “itself,” we hope to underscore a critical and counterintuitive absence in gender and sexuality studies surrounding the study of sex. Sexual cultures, communities, practices, performances, and resonances have all received sustained attention from queer, transgender, and gender and sexuality studies writ large. Yet the question of what sex is, and how those meanings have changed over the course of the last two centuries, has garnered less attention by gender and sexuality studies scholars. This special issue thus hopes to build on the important scholarship in queer and transgender studies, critical ethnic studies, feminist science studies, disability studies, and animal studies that has tried to think with specificity about how sex has come to be understood as sex, and the many sciences that have endowed it with those meanings. For the meaning-making work attached to sex, as scholars in disability studies, transgender studies, and postcolonial studies (among others) have so effectively demonstrated, has never been incidental to the material conditions of everyday life for many, many people; indeed, the significance of sex and theories of sexual difference have girded the hierarchization of peoples, bodies, and cultures, and both initiated and justified racial, colonial, and broadly epistemological violences. We intend for this special issue to pay particular attention to the problem of science—a term perhaps matched only by sex in how broadly and ambiguously it can be defined—in how it has come to make sex. This special issue thus proceeds from the assumption that there is much left to be done with sexology, the sexological sciences, and the intellectual and cultural wake of the kinds of knowledges, practices, and frameworks that these fields promulgated. Some of the questions that we would be especially excited to see addressed in this special issue include: 


How can we account for the critical role of race/racist sciences in the genealogy of the idea of binary sexual differences that have structured a whole range of human and otherwise biological sciences (especially, but not limited to, endocrinology, gynecology, and various eugenic frameworks)? 


How can we account for the longue durée histories of what Sharon Holland has termed “the erotic life of racism,” and what influence might the sciences of sex and gender (including, but not limited to, Freudian or Fanonian psychoanalytic accounts of desire) have on these histories?


How has sex—as a term broadly gesturing to ideas as entrenched as sexual difference, to behaviors as hazily defined as hooking up, or messing around—changed, in terms of the way that it has been questioned, investigated, studied, and made? Which sciences have made sex—and which sciences are absent in the genealogy of sex and so-called sexual difference?


How have eugenic theories and practices such as sterilization or birth control in turn shaped how binary (or nonbinary) understandings of sex and gender have evolved in particular times, places, and cultural contexts? If all gender is racialized, how might we think about the role of racialization in binary understandings of gender that are, themselves, also a form of discipline and control? Relatedly, what are the racial politics of calls from transgender and nonbinary scholars and communities for gender abolition? Is abolition of the binary gender system a white project? 


What ideas, people, institutions, disciplinary efforts, etc., made sex? What histories, logics, or frameworks have been constitutive to these investigations? 


How have sexological logics, frameworks, and conceits persisted into our present moment, and where do we find them today? When and where are their racial logics most visible?


How has the deployment of sexological sciences or other scientific approaches to sexual and gendered experience in state violence—colonization, incarceration, genocide, or other forms of violence— rendered the genealogies of sex itself diverse, variegated, or contested across time and place?


Are there new iterations of the scientific study of sex that are in method or in approach similar to nineteenth- and twentieth-century sexology? If so, are these sexologies? If they are, how do we think about the continuities between these newer kinds of science and the old ones? 


Is feminist science studies a descendant of “sexology”? What distinguishes the sexological sciences from other studies of sexuality, or from other sciences—if anything?


Is there something about the focus on the body, or the particular way that the sexological sciences have historically treated the body, that is different or distinct from other modes of studying sexuality? Do we see iterations of this body-focused approach in any arms of queer theory, which has historically been critiqued for ignoring the body?


This issue will be coedited by Benjamin Kahan (Louisiana State University) and Greta LaFleur (Yale University). Prospective contributors should submit 500-word abstracts by June 1, 2020. Please email abstracts to with “GLQ proposal” in the subject line. Prospective contributors invited to submit a full article based on an abstract will be asked to submit a draft by January 3, 2021. The full issue is expected to be published in June 2022. (Prospective authors should feel free to email general inquiries about the issue as well.)