Let’s talk about sex… “Contested Privates: Religion and Homosexuality in Public Discourse”

This past year, I have been working on an article and conference presentation together with my dear colleague Jelle Wiering (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen). We are both anthropologists, we found out that we even studied together in the BA cultural anthropology at Utrecht University. Five years later, we are both PhD candidates in universities on different sides of the country, but we have even more in common content-wise. Our research is located at the intersections of religion, gender and sexuality. Both of us noticed a gap in knowledge of sex and sexuality in the study of religion. There is a tendency for scholars of religion and gender tend to shy away from issues of sex and sexuality, even though these topics have much in common. My research in this project is based on Dutch Protestant women who have sex with women; Jelle’s project sheds light on secular/religious accounts of sex in sex education. Bringing together these different cases provided us with a challenge, for sure, and took us to theoretical terrains beyond our comfortzones. We decided to focus on those sides of sexuality that tend to be more difficult to grasp, namely sexual pleasure and bodily practices, the ‘doing’ of sex. How can we understand what is meant by ‘good sex’? Good sex is personal, it refers to the subjective experience of pleasure gained from intimate relations, psychological, spiritual, physical or all of the above. Good sex is also social, it is given meaning by what we consider to be ‘proper’ or ‘improper’ sexual behavior, which can be guided by religious beliefs and texts. In this crossing of the personal and the social, of practice and discourse, we continued our exploration together and ask: How can we talk about sex in the study of religion? A thorough rethinking of sex, religion and secularity problematizes terms as progressive/conservative, or prude/liberal, and broadens our understanding of religious and secular lives in all their complexity.

Many thinking-sessions and draft versions later, our collaboration has come to a climax in the form of a conference presentation and a submitted journal article. Jelle and I will present our research in Utrecht on Friday 27 October 2017 during the conferenceContested Privates: Religion and Homosexuality in Public Discourse“. Keynote speakers are prof. dr. Yvette Taylor, prof. dr. Anne-Marie Korte, dr. Roberto Kulpa and dr. Erin Runions. Everyone interested in the topic of religion and (homo)sexuality is welcome to participate in this exciting conference!

Working on the crossing of religion and sex is very much a thinking-in-process, so if you would like to think along or have any other suggestions, let me know. Jelle and I would like to thank everyone who contributed, and we hope to be able to share more work soon.

Conference abstract

This paper focuses on the triangulation of sexuality, religion and secularity in Dutch society by the analysing two contemporary case studies. We focus on sexual experiences and practices rather than identities, as they provide a starting point to further understand the construction of sexual freedom and proper, or ‘good’, sex, as governed secular/religious space. The empirical research upon which this paper draws is situated in the Netherlands, where the binary of religion and sexual regulation versus secularity and sexual freedom is dominant in both public and political discourse. Exploring sexual practices central to the constitution of religious/secular selves, we however noted these to be fluctuating, inconsistent, subject to dogmas and most importantly, overlapping. Our first case study discusses sexual experiences of non-heterosexual Protestant women, whereas the second deconstructs the often considered ‘neutral’ space of secularity in sexual education. Using insights from both religious studies and queer studies, we bring together the empirical study of sexuality and theoretical debates about the conceptualization of the secular and religion in contemporary western Europe. This comparative approach to sexuality not only undermines the culturally presumed exclusive opposition of the secular and the religious but it also provides new empirical contributions for understanding the interactions between practice and discourse.

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