A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
This Summer marks ten years since this blog began. My first post appeared on July 9 2007, and was a brief reflection on the Canadian Law and Society Conference. Later that day, I also posted a short reflection on the Wolfenden 50 conference held at Kings College, London. Both posts were designed as pedagogic tools, introducing themes for a Law and Sexuality module that would soon be starting at my then institution (Sunderland University) and trying to open up ‘the private life’ of the Law School/Academy. It was a new and innovative course at a time when there were few modules on law programmes in the UK that engaged with these themes.
It’s a tribute to the freedom and support that I had that I was able to create such a module and that it was a success. I know of others in those early years who couldn’t launch similar modules at other institutions or who had their content censored by University managers. I only faced one such challenge from the then Faculty Dean who wondered at the module validation whether the module might be uncomfortable for international students. I replied that I welcomed any such discomfort as intrinsic to the cultural experience of a UK law degree and wanted the module to be a space where such differences of views could be shared and explored. No further questions were asked. Year after year, the module proved a prompt for students to come out, for students to understand one another and for them to think in new and radical ways about sex, sexuality and gender both as abstract concepts and in terms of their own lives. I still get messages out of the blue from students who talk about how the module changed them and thanking me for what it enabled them to do. Some were international students.
We talked on the course about public sex, bareback sex, queer theory and feminism, intergenerational-sex, trans issues, sex work and kinky sex. We went on field trips to local queer spaces and further afield to Manchester and San Francisco. I’ve never had so much fun teaching, and I have never taught anything else that I know – with certainty – has changed and (re)shaped lives, including my own.
In the years that have followed, there has been a significant growth in gender and sexuality courses but that’s based on anecdotal evidence. In truth, we don’t know. There hasn’t been a large-scale law subject survey for some time. In the last three years, I was for a time part of a steering group from the learned societies to fund a new survey but sadly that never quite got off the ground. The urgent agenda of change from the SRA and BSB to pathways to qualification in law has pushed aside other discipline imperatives in recent years.
Leaving aside a large-scale survey, we don’t have a module/subject survey for sexuality and law. This is the type of thing the old UK Centre for Legal Education (then funded by the Higher Education Academy) would have done. The slash in funding by David Cameron’s Coalition Government led to the Academy closing down their subject centres and then their lone leads. So, there’s no support or funding there. It’s little wonder that such a study hasn’t yet been done.
Anecdotally, some courses seem to include gender (the course I joined at Northumbria does and the sexuality course I designed at Sunderland did include trans issues). The course content seems individual to each institution and the course content reflective of the research interests of those who teach on it. The amount of theory varies. The criminal/civil law split varies. But I’m guessing. I’m extrapolating from discussions over the last ten years with academics across the world who teach these courses.
So whilst I think the number of these courses has grown, I don’t know. I don’t know how these courses led into shaping/influencing the legal battles that have taken place, and continue to take place. I suspect they did, particularly in the States. I suspect these modules as a safe space for those who taught on courses and those who’s studied them created a space in Law Schools that has supported the growth in PGR students studying gender, sexuality and law. But I don’t know.
Ten years on from a blog which sought to bring together research and teaching, there’s still much we don’t know in this area. I tried to set up some of these issues in a Liverpool Law Review extended editorial (available open access) back in 2010 which also served as a special issue on Gender, Sexuality and Law. That was seven years ago! Since then we’ve seen significant growth in the number of monographs and research texts in the field. I’m working on editing such a text at the moment with the wonderful Alexander Maine, who is also one of my current PhD students and all-round name to watch. The book with Edward Elgar Publishing should go to press next year. Shameless plugging will follow.
Yet these books are not principally designed as undergraduate pedagogic tools. Interestingly, my suspicion is that these modules rely far more on research materials than other modules because no textbook exists. Yet I wonder what sources students disproportionately rely on for studying this module (irrespective of the signposting of tutors). As Fiona Cownie has previously noted, the textbook can be significant for developing and shaping law as s discipline, and so one must conclude that the lack of a textbook in this area is significant. I’ve talked to publishers at various points over the ten years but I’ve had to concede that there probably isn’t sufficient student numbers or consensus on what should be in a module. I suspect that is changing.
The blog started over on Blogger but the whole archive was moved over to this platform a few years back. You can access everything by selecting Archives on the side menu. In that first month, there were reflections on politics in the UK, States, the media and broader culture. It arguably set the pattern for posts that would follow over the next ten years. In recent years, my blogging has dropped off a cliff, largely due to the lack of time I’ve had to write, and more importantly, to reflect and think. Blogging requires much more time and space than Twitter which probably suggests why so many academics now tweet but not as many regularly blog. The blog is as much an accidental chronicle of broader changes in academia and my career.
Much has a changed in the last decade, but much stays the same. One of the early posts I shared was this post featuring the video for the French track Toi T’en Reves from Narcys. It’s their picture at the head of the post. I felt it was preferable to predictable picture of ten candles/a birthday cake etc. It’s my blog’s birthday and the blog gets what the blog wants. The blog wanted half-naked French loveliness. It told me in a dream. Narcys has changed significantly from his earlier more emo-esque incarnation over the last ten years, but appropriately enough, can now be found on Twitter. That this music video still has defiant power suggests the journey we still have to take, and the dreams we still need to make.