See, this is why sexuality studies can’t have nice things

One of the most consistently annoying things about being in graduate school was how pervy the conversations were. I don’t mean that the people were pervy; actually, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more unadventurous, conservative bunch of worryworts anywhere. The scholarly conversations, on the other hand, were constantly about fetishes, and desire, and the erotic possibilities disclosed by texts.

The chart (above) is a perfect example of why academic sexuality studies are currently so awkward and useless. Look at it. At first glance, it seems both impressively detailed and vaguely progressive, as though it’s covertly making the argument that we’re all just human beings with our different things that we’re into, and everybody in this world deserves understanding.

It’s not impressive at all, upon closer inspection. It’s a mess. First of all, human sexuality does not map into a series of basically discrete Venn diagrams. Everything intersects with everything else, a fact that the cartographer tries to represent with those little black lines snaking around everywhere. This fails, because little black lines do not carry anything like the same weight as huge colorful “continents” of sexuality overlapping with each other.

Second, it makes a hash of the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable sexual acts. Pedophilia is there, right alongside werewolf fetishes and lollipops. This undermines any theory of learning tolerance by studying the map, since there are mapped fetishes that are not tolerable. Nor is this a comprehensive survey of non-consensual or dangerous fetishes — for starters, there is no mention of rape fantasies at all, on the part of men or women, aside from “drunk women/sleeping women.”

Last and most important, many of the biggest fetishes in Western culture are completely missing here. Normalcy itself — the white picket fence, the two kids, the missionary position — is just as much of a fantasy and a fetish as anything else, and it’s not represented. Angora sweaters are mentioned, but there’s no mention of laundry, or blue jeans, or bikinis. There’s no mention of place fetishes: what about sex on the beach? Under a waterfall? In ice and snow? There’s no mention of colors: black, pink, white, red, purple. There’s no mention of flowers, which is really amazing, or any other vegetal fantasies (trees, grass, dryads, etc.). There’s only haphazard mention of the supernatural: no witches, no gods/goddesses, etc. There’s no mention of jewels, or other kinds of wealth.

Occupational fetishes — artists, cheerleaders, doctors, teachers, gangsters, models, surfers, secretaries — are missing.

In short, this is nothing but a not-very-reflective guide to what one person (Katharine Gates, presumably) has studied and/or fetishized and/or heard about. That’s all this field ever manages to be. Why is “classic S&M” described as “classic” and shoved way over on the left-hand side? Because it’s been studied and written about, and so now Gates finds it “uninteresting.”

Not only does Gates skip over every aesthetic fetish (music, sculpture, etc.), she skips over her own biggest fetish, the erotic thrill of mastery that we derive from learning about and classifying things. The very fetish that creates the map is (as if through some Godelian principle) not on the map. You can learn more about what gets people hot by going to a movie theater and watching The Great Gatsby, and it’s not even a good movie. In fact, you can learn more about what gets people hot by asking what’s not listed here than you can by studying what is.

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