Sexualities Project at Northwestern SPANs Disciplines, Campuses

Human sexuality is a matter of bodies, behaviors, and beliefs. To study this confluence, SPAN researchers traverse the (always artificial) divide between nature and culture

By Roger AndersonApril 16, 2018

Widespread adoption of color in television wasn’t an innovation of the 1960s, contends Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian, communication studies.

The nation did begin to move away from black and white broadcasts, but there still lacked a diversity of perspectives.

“While corporate TV is motivated by sameness, it’s been the decentralized Internet that has allowed space for all forms of cultural expression,” says Christian, whose research explores the history of broadcast innovation in the digital age.

As a way to capitalize on that decentralization and address the lack of diversity on commercial airwaves, Christian launched Open TV (beta) in 2015. The product of a 2008 research project, Open TV has since evolved to become OTV | Open Television, a successful platform for the development and distribution of television by and for queer, trans and cis-women, and artists of color, or what Christian calls intersectional TV. His first book, Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television, argues the web brought innovation to television by opening development to independent producers.

As a fellow at the Peabody Media Center and a faculty member of Northwestern’s School of Communication, Christian has researched queer TV distribution for more than a decade. The scholarship has garnered national recognition and dozens of grants, including a pair of awards from the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN).

“SPAN support was instrumental in development, community building, and in making sure I was collecting as much of the relevant data generated from my project as possible,” says Christian. “Tracking how indie TV flows across platforms is essential to answering my core question: how does intersectional television develop? We've never had a truly intersectional television distribution, so this study is building a new base of knowledge on the limits and possibilities of such a platform.”

Research Funding Growth

Throughout its eight-year history, SPAN has funded a diverse set of research projects, including studies of black lesbians in the South by E. Patrick Johnson; Jeremy Birnholtz’s studies of Grindr and other “hookup” apps; Mary Weismantel’s study of pre-Columbian Moche sex pots in Peru; Michael Newcomb’s research of same-sex couples; and Jillana Enteen’s studies of the sex-change industry in Thailand.

More recent additions to the project include Jennifer Nash, whose scholarship focuses on black feminist theories; black sexual politics; race, gender, and law; race, gender, and visual culture; and women's/gender/sexuality studies' institutional histories and politics. Nash will study the links between black women’s mothering practices and their sexualities as part of a SPAN-funded project next year.

“Gender and sexuality are centrally important forces that shape every aspect of our lives,” says Héctor Carrillo, SPAN co-director. “SPAN has explicitly fostered collaboration between researchers on the Evanston and Chicago campuses and we are actively forging an important and growing collaboration with the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH).”

SPAN has supported research on sexuality and sexual identities by faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows in 37 departments and programs across Northwestern, and in fields as diverse as African American studies, anthropology, communication studies, gender and sexuality studies, history, medical social sciences, performance studies, political science, psychology, and sociology.

SPAN’s launch in 2010 eventually fostered  the impetus to change the name of Northwestern’s gender studies program to “gender and sexuality studies,” creating a recognized hub for interdisciplinary sexuality studies.

The Sexualities Project is located within the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program but operates in conjunction with Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health at the Institute for Policy Research as well as the Science in Human Culture Program (SHC).

“By creating a highly coveted postdoctoral fellowship, SPAN put Northwestern on the map as a University that is now recognized nationally and internationally as a good place to be for those who have a central interest in sexuality studies,” says Carrillo, a professor of sociology and gender and sexuality studies, who published his most recent book, Pathways to Desire, in 2017. “With the creation of other centers that focus on sexuality, LGBTQ issues, and/or sexual health — including ISGMH and the Third Coast Center for AIDS Research — new opportunities have emerged for further collaboration across the Evanston and Chicago campuses.”

Mitali Thakor has been a postdoctoral fellow at SPAN since 2016. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the global policing of child pornography. The writing is based on ethnographic fieldwork with law enforcement, technology companies, and activists in the Netherlands, Thailand, and the United States.

“Being at Northwestern was such a unique venture. There are no other interdisciplinary fellowship programs that combine sexuality studies and social science research in this way,” says Thakor, who will join the faculty at Wesleyan University in fall. “The fellowship was the perfect launch pad in terms of mentorship, community building, and developing as a teacher.”

This year, 112 candidates vied for two SPAN postdoctoral fellowships.

“The availability of postdoc positions has really captured attention and has elevated Northwestern as a leader in sexuality studies; it also has brought some stellar scholars to our campus,” says Steven Epstein, sociology and SPAN co-director. “Along with conducting research, postdocs teach two courses a year, and they have added to our undergraduate curriculum brand new courses like ‘Race, Sexuality, and the Politics of Protest,’ ‘Queer Robotics (taught by Thakor),’ ‘Sexuality, Science, and LGBT Rights,’ and ‘Gender, Sexuality, and Islam.’”

Epstein notes that as SPAN’s visibility has increased among prospective graduate students, its national reputation has led to robust applicant cohorts.

Epstein is currently completing his book, Catching Sexual Health, funded in part by SPAN. The book examines the rise of new conceptions and formal definitions of sexual health in the 1970s; the remarkable proliferation and diversification of sexual health meanings and projects beginning in the 1990s; and the implications of these new ways of conjoining sexuality and health for science, politics, and selfhood.

“My own scholarly approach — drawn as much from science studies as from sexuality studies and, of course, my own discipline of sociology — traces the complicated connections between biomedical and cultural worlds, across expert and lay domains,” says Epstein. “Human sexuality is a matter of bodies, behaviors, and beliefs, and to study sexuality we need to traverse the (always artificial) divide between nature and culture. That’s why a truly interdisciplinary perspective is so important.”