A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
The 1960s Frost Report contained a memorable sketch satirising class. It featured John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett depicting British attitudes to social class. In the unlikely event you’ve not seen it, check it out on the BBC website here.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that sketch the last few weeks, and particularly over the New Year break when I was able to take some time out from the madness of daily academic life to think and reflect. On a personal level, I was reflecting on becoming a Professor in 2013, and feeling slightly amazed at obtaining a Chair. I was the first person in my family to stay on at school to obtain a qualification, and thus the first to go on and study A-levels, the first to go to University. This makes me firmly rooted in a working class culture, but as I’ve made the move to academia, I am increasingly middle class. My background and my story – this isn’t the place for all of that – inevitably shapes who I am and how I see the world.
When I look at my research – whether in the field of legal duration or sexuality more generally – I see the world through my lived experience. Arguably, all researchers have this ‘bias’, and although we try and mitigate our subjectivity, it inevitably drives our areas of interest and our choice of theoretical framework. When I look to legal education, I am driven by a need to consider access to Law Schools and Higher Education (HE), and engagement with students – particularly through the use of technology. This is because I look at Law Schools today and I wonder whether I would have ‘made it’. I understand that it’s not enough to get a place in HE (the approach the UK Government and many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) take) but rather you have to look at the type of HEI, and the type of experience that is obtained. It’s not enough to look at whether people can gain access to the legal profession, you have to look at the ‘type’ of legal practice that someone is entering (again, something the legal profession and the regulators seem uninterested in).
So, when I then look at my peers and particularly academics researching and teaching the subject of sexuality, I find myself feeling increasingly depressed. I observe the amazingly talented scholars out there, coming through the ranks, the PhD students, and the research assistants, and I see brilliant lovely people. I should be thrilled. But I also see a remarkably privileged bunch. I see people who talk – earnestly and movingly – about issues but who construct the issues through their own lived experience and that experience is not representative of everyone. Of course, this is hardly the fault – if that’s the right word – of the individuals concerned but I have been trying to think these last few weeks and I can’t bring to mind any working class scholars coming through the ranks (in a UK context) exploring the field of law and sexuality (or those aspects of sexuality scholarship more generally that I come into contact with).
Of course, this assumes I know the social background of everyone and I don’t. Instead, I have to judge – and I think that’s the right word, we do ‘judge’ social class – people from outward appearances, clothes, accent, cultural references. I remain a man for whom humus is a mystery and a meat and potato pie a thing of joy. Where are my fellow northern working class scholars? I know of some who similarly appear more middle class than their roots, but they are all older than me. So, perhaps people are there, hiding, cloaking themselves in middle class accoutrements. If so, the question becomes one of ‘visibility’ and ‘revelation’. When – and how – do academics choose to drop that cloak and how does that inform their approach to research.
Until quite recently, law was a pretty unusual discipline in that it didn’t require a PhD in order to take up an academic post. People moved through the ranks, ultimately supervising PhD students themselves having published and acquired academic research skills ‘on the job’. I am one of those people. Law typically requires people to have a PhD starting out today – and increasingly for promotion.
So, let’s say I was a student once more. Twenty-one again. Considering that move into academia because a tutor has suggested I might be good at it. First of all, it takes someone to make that suggestion – my family, and my friends have no concept of academia. They can neither encourage or discourage. How on earth would I know if it’s for me? Even as a student, I saw little of the reality of academic life. How many of our students ever do? So, I was privileged – lucky if you will – to have someone who chose to have that conversation with me. An amazing moment of sheer chance.
Now here’s the point in the story that changes. My former University – my alma mater- is a post 1992 UK University. Although an academic success in relative terms, I didn’t get 3 A’s at A-level and the sector was much smaller in 2001. I couldn’t have obtained a place at an elite Russell Group institution (although I subsequently discovered I could have done that year if I’d known about clearing and how to play the system). This is a University with limited research funding – and today thanks to the approach the UK research councils have taken to funding PhDs – it is highly unlikely to have any external funding for PhD studentships. There is unlikely to be any University funding for such opportunities. I do not have the means to fund a Masters course, let alone a PhD. At this moment, any hopes for a University career die. My outlook – informed by my experiences – are never brought to bear on the field of sexuality. The world may sigh in collective relief. You’d be spared this blog for a start. MP Gerald Howarth would not have been able to talk of ‘militant homosexuals’ in the same way during the passing of the same-sex marriage Bill, and countless students would have been spared my approach to law. All would arguably be fine and forgivable if this was just about me, but it isn’t.
How many others are no longer able to ‘get on’? Knowledge is still generally shaped by cis gendered white posh boys, and a few – still too few – posh girls. Even Marxism owes it all to a couple of wealthy guys who had the means to potter around Europe. Yet the 60s – the era of that Frost Report sketch – ushered in a different approach. When I grew up in the 1980s – my parents who were of that 60s generation – repeatedly told me that you could be whatever you wanted to be, if you were determined and grafted hard. They had been a generation toe experience amazing economic growth, consumerism, choice and freedom. They wanted to see their children achieve even more. Can we honestly say that such ambitions are rooted in reality today?
Stonewall described the Same-Sex Marriage Act as ‘the final piece in the jigsaw’, suggesting the end of a journey. At the start of this week, they launched a new campaign addressing work place conditions. Their work is informed by, supported or criticised by academics. Thinking about sexuality, and the question so many now ask – “where next? – is a question that academics can and should lead on. Yet, if those same academics are from an increasingly narrow and privileged pool, their outlook will be similarly narrow and privileged. Academics are increasingly removed from the lives of the people that they seek to influence.
So I look at the talented, beautiful, amazing individuals coming through in the field of sexuality and I am impressed at a field clearly growing, but I worry, and I worry that I’m the only one worrying. A generation of thinkers in the field of sexuality are getting old, they’re retiring, they are ceasing to think about new ideas, and reflect instead on their ideas from thirty years ago. If we are to find new ideas that will take is forward in the field of sexuality studies – in identity politics, law, internationalisation, pornography, censorship, the regulation of sexual acts, and social attitudes, we need a diverse field. How many great thinkers of tomorrow are already finding themselves barred from being part of that future?