On Thursday evening, the Barnard Center for Research on Women, in collaboration with the Dartmouth Consortium of Studies in Race, Migration, and Sexuality, hosted a discussion with Professor Janet R. Jakobsen to promote her new book, The Sex Obsession: Perversity and Possibility in American Politics. Professor Jakobsen and NYU Professor Ann Pellegrini explored the inextricable link between sex and politics, deconstructed the notion of liberal secularism, and offered solutions to breaking open divisive discourse in order to achieve new political possibilities.

Janet R. Jakobsen is Chair and Claire Tow Professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, a distinguished Dartmouth alumna, and the former director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, a position she held proudly for fifteen years. During her time as the director of BCRW, Jakobsen spearheaded multiple activist and creative projects, including the webjournal Scholar & Feminist Online and the New Feminist Solutions series. Jakobsen spoke about her new book with NYU Professor of Performance Studies and Social and Cultural Analysis Ann Pelligrini. 

The virtual event was streamed live on YouTube through BCRW’s account, with viewers tuning in from all across the country and globe to listen to Janet and Ann speak. Although the event was set to begin at 7:00 PM, technical difficulties delayed the start time by about fifteen minutes. The participants did not seem to mind the wait, as many were still trickling in by the time the livestream began and others were flooding the chat with overwhelming enthusiasm and greetings from *insert location here.* One user exclaimed, “Janet’s worth the wait!” to which others quickly agreed. Despite the impersonal and often awkward nature of virtual events, YouTube’s live comment section served as a tool for community building and almost made it feel as though I was sitting in a bustling lecture hall as opposed to my quiet childhood bedroom. 

After resolving the technical issues, Elizabeth Castelli, the current director of BCRW, appeared on the screen to briefly introduce the event and its cosponsors, as well as encourage audience members to buy the night’s featured book from Word Up, a community bookshop. Castelli then discussed upcoming events with BCRW, touched on her personal and professional connection to Janet, and again urged us to “buy from local booksellers and not from ‘you-know-who,’” to which I offered a knowing smirk and could only assume my fellow audience members did the same. Finally, Elizabeth welcomed Professor Jakobsen “if not to the stage, to the screen.”

Janet announced that the event would be split into three parts, starting with her personal introduction and an overview of her contributions to BCRW, followed by a discussion and critical analysis of her new book with Ann Pelligrini, and ending with excerpts from current BCRW initiatives and works of activism and art. In many ways, the night served as a celebration of BCRW and its mission of pooling scholarly knowledge and research to create multimedia projects, foster productive political dialogue, and inspire social change. As the former director, Jakobsen’s steadfast dedication to the research center and its many facets did not go unnoticed; she even described The Sex Obsession as “a love letter to BCRW.” Jakobsen deliberately formatted the event in a way that illustrated the crossovers between her own research and that of BCRW; the structure of the event itself promoted intersectionality and interdisciplinary learning, both of which are important aspects of Jakobsen’s core argument regarding sexual politics.  

Following her introduction, Professor Jakobsen welcomed Ann Pelligrini, her colleague and friend, to the screen to discuss her book. Ann began the conversation with a simple yet essential question: “Why sex?” Jakobsen chuckled and responded with: “Because religion, because sex, because everything.” She continued to define sexual politics as “an entire complex of issues surrounding gender and sexuality,” explicitly including reproductive rights and gender activism and implicitly including economic policy, immigration, healthcare, and climate change. Jakobsen alluded to the pervasiveness of sex in all policymaking and urged viewers to reevaluate their understanding of religion and sexuality as they pertain to politics. Instead of adhering to traditional narratives surrounding religion and sex, we should, according to Jakobsen, think about the ways in which many types of religious commitments vary in how they understand sexual relationships. Breaking open these religious-sexual narratives and discourses will lead to new and redemptive political possibilities. This introductory question alone revealed the crux of Jakobsen’s argument, which is that sex and religion influence and are influenced by politics. Thus, social transformation can occur only when oppositional binaries, like sex/religion or religion/secularism, are deconstructed in political contexts.

Pelligrini followed up by asking Jakobsen about her stance on liberal secularism, to which she responded: “Making a distinction between religion and secularism is no longer the key to ending violence.” Speaking in binary oppositions and grand political narratives, religion is believed to be the site of violence, whereas secularism is the gateway to freedom. Jakobsen again warned against such divisive ideologies and urged audience members to examine the ways in which religion has influenced politics during both Republican and Democratic presidencies, a topic she delves deeper into in her book.

Professor Pelligrini and Jakobsen then finished their discussion with a brief exploration of incoherence and the kaleidoscope metaphor. Incoherence is often cited as a problem in mainstream politics, but Jakobsen argues that it can be transformed into a productive tool for unearthing the root of racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. and detecting patterns in how prejudice reproduces and shifts throughout history. It is rarely effective to simply point out incoherence, which is, as Jakobsen argues in her book, usually the case in modern politics. In order to understand how power dynamics function in sexual politics, Jakobsen employs the kaleidoscope metaphor. Each day, a new political issue (ex. reproductive health or economic justice) moves to the forefront of political discourse, and the power lies in trying to get one issue to be the center of the political constituency—which issue is most important and should be discussed first? The kaleidoscope shows how political issues shift around one another and cycle through patterns without actually being effectively addressed and resolved.

“If change is happening, why does it also feel like change is not happening? Because we move around relations without actually being able to break open the kaleidoscopic relations.” Only by deconstructing harmful binaries and breaking open political discourse can we move forward as a society.

You can learn about Pam Phillip’s housing project, Changing the Narrative, here. You can watch Sydney Mosley’s piece, PURPLE, here. Finally, you can watch the full BCRW event here.

Photo via The Barnard Center for Research on Women