(Un)Safe: WLA Young Academics Fund Winner Attends Philadelphia Conference

50 Shades WLA YAFBrooke Willig, Class of 2014,  shares her experience as the WLA Young Academics Fund recipient. 

Thanks to the WLA, I got to start my reading week talking about Fifty Shades of Grey instead of the Federal Rules of Evidence.

As an ex-English major with a focus in women’s fiction, I had avidly followed the rather troubling discussions about “mommy porn” and women’s “secret, antifeminist desires” taking place throughout mainstream media following the publication of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.  While rifling through one such critique, my eyes were caught by a lengthy discussion of something that seemed far more appropriate to my 1L classes than to a work of erotica: contracts.

Namely, it seemed that E.L. James’s characters spent a large part of the novel drafting, negotiating, and revising a BDSM contract, which set out acceptable types of sexual play and limits to the relationship and even reprinted in full for the reader the exact sets of terms at issue.  As the characters themselves acknowledged, such a sexual contract would never be enforced in a court of law.  That knowledge, however, did not stop either the characters or James from turning again and again to the contract’s terms and forms, insisting it be treated with full legal formality, or from treating it as essential to their sexual and romantic relationship.

What followed were weeks of procrastination on Westlaw and daydreaming through contracts class, as I tried to determine just what these BDSM contracts constituted, who was using them, and why on earth a writer of erotica would repeatedly choose to stop talking about sex and start talking about the (honestly, less-than-sexy) subject of contract formation.  During the course of this procrastination, I happened across a call for proposals for a (Un)Safe, a graduate student conference at the University of Pennsylvania on notions of safety in relation to sex and gender.  Realizing that my research had focused largely on whether BDSM contracts served to make sex more conventional or more dangerous, I quickly jumbled together some of my thoughts and questions about BDSM contracts and sent them off.  Several weeks later, I was thrilled to hear that my proposal had been accepted and that I would be able to join a dozen other academics in conversations about gendered conceptions of safety.

Thus it was that I found myself spending reading week in Philadelphia, listening to speakers talk about women’s rights, queer aesthetics, and gender recognition.  The two-day conference took its interdisciplinary title seriously, featuring speakers from fields as diverse as law, public health, early modern literature, and contemporary film studies.  Whether in discussing the rhetoric of safe sex and women’s choice, the questions posed by female boxers and female virtuosity, or the intersection of genre and female identity in post-nuclear fiction, every speaker returned again and again to the ways in which gender and sexuality shape our construction of identity, safety, and normalcy.  The interdisciplinary nature of the conference also highlighted the ways in which genres and fields themselves are indisputably subject to gendering: one could easily perceive the differing extents to which issues of feminism, gender, and queerness were or were not commonplace within various departments.

Lauren BerlantAn unquestionable highlight of the conference was the presence and participation of the keynote speaker, Lauren Berlant.  Berlant, the George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago and a pioneer in the study of affect and collective attachment, not only delivered a fascinating keynote on “Structures of Unfeeling: Mysterious Skin” (entirely while standing in a yoga tree pose, no less), but listened diligently to the student presentations and offered insights and advice to help each student further develop her piece.  I was particularly gratified when she came up to me after my presentation to congratulate me on my delivery and to offer to provide syllabi and notes that might be of future help to my research.

Above all, the conference provided a unique opportunity to take part in stimulating and diverse conversations about the ways in which gender shapes our everyday lives—indeed our very conception of “the everyday”—and I look forward to continuing those conversations with both the conference’s presenters and with the WLA and students here at HLS


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