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The Telos-Paul Piccone Institute
New York, NY

Gender and Sexuality: Beyond Liberation and Repression


In a world where we are threatened with ecological apocalypse, global pandemics, massive economic inequality, mounting tensions between a new class of "great powers," and a vast populist backlash against globalization, we might well wonder whether the issues of sex, gender, and sexuality should be the last thing on our minds.

However, these topics are apparently unavoidable in modern discourse, dominating everything from teenagers' social media, to public forums of debate, to political campaigns and corporate boardrooms. Changes in our gender attitudes and practices have profound effects on our most intimate and meaningful relationships, patterns of child-rearing, and most deeply held personal values. Consequently, any changes face immense resistance, whatever those changes might be.

But even the advocates of change cannot escape the dynamics of taboo and repression that have dominated the debates about gender and sexuality. While modernization is thought to bring with it a general loosening of attitudes to allow practices such as premarital sex or same-sex marriage previously thought taboo, modernization does not simply lead to more freedom but necessarily introduces new prohibitions. In the first place, practices such as veiling and female circumcision clearly become suspect, if not criminal, from a modern perspective. Other practices such as male circumcision and polygamy are banned. Consequently, the ordering of gender and sexual relations cannot be understood as an issue of freedom vs. repression but is rather about the way the broader issues of human order manifest themselves in the prohibitions and obligations that structure the profoundest areas of our lives. Far from being marginal issues, gender and sexuality are central to who we are as human beings, forming basic components of our existential and ontological nature and status.

Moreover, decisions about what to mandate and what to prohibit do not generally come from political authorities but emanate from individuals and their attitudes about what is right and wrong, indicating the degree to which such attitudes are inseparable from how we see ourselves as moral agents as well as the deep incompatibilities across cultures and within cultures. Gender relations are not only the stuff of everyday life. They form the context for the expression of our deepest moral convictions.

Yet, in spite of the high stakes of such issues and decisions, the vast and often radical shifts in social attitudes, norms, and institutional rules about gender and sexuality taking place today are, in spite of their ubiquity, paradoxically unmentionable. One can celebrate progressive changes but scarcely analyze or question them without considerable risk. Why is it that issues of life and death—those that involve families going to food banks, minorities threatened with genocide, countries at risk of being swallowed by the waves—are "up for debate," but matters of who you sleep with, what you wear, and what pronouns you employ should be taboo subjects, unavailable to intellectual scrutiny? As modern as the current changes in Western societies seem to be, they tend to be shrouded within the same taboos that have protected the older practices that are being overturned.

Given this bizarre state of affairs, one can venture that the unfolding frontier of gender and sexuality, with all its fractures, ructions, absences, and contradictions, is a veritable interior landscape, a perhaps curiously refracted reflection of the human soul's response to the forces and tensions that are imposed upon it by modern society. Paradoxically, new attitudes and practices that are seen to be rational and liberating are being enforced with the same kinds of social shaming, taboos, and repressions that have always characterized the area of gender and sexuality. Consequently, the decision-making in this area does not come from established authorities such as legislatures or courts but arises through waves of social media publicity and protest based on emotional impulses rather than considered reflection and debate.

For a special issue on this topic, Telos invites writers across academic disciplines to reflect on this new interior reflection, refraction, or diversion, and to ask the unaskable, say the unsayable, about matters too important to go undebated. We are interested in papers considering topics that fall under the broad rubric of "Gender and Sexuality," with a particular focus on the following issues and questions:

  • Gender and biological sex, particularly looking to questions about gender fluidity, nature versus culture
  • The teaching about gay sex and transsexuality to children
  • The debate about transgenderism, including the feminist debate
  • Feminism, including the question of the modern family, its relationship to employment
  • LGB issues, including same-sex marriage, within a broader discussion of the social and political consequences of various structures of gender and kinship, such as monogamy and polygamy.
  • New considerations as to whether there is now an assault upon heterosexuality, the family and gender difference.
  • Adoption and surrogacy, by both gay and straight couples
  • The contestation of the legitimacy of sex work
  • The revived debate about pornography, censorship, and the requirement of actors to perform in sex scenes
  • Cultural conflicts between communities with different norms and practices, such as the clashes between Islamic and Western attitudes in Europe

We are looking for a wide diversity of approaches and perspectives from across the humanities, but are especially asking for papers that go beneath the surface of familiar discussions and controversies, advancing the argument beyond them rather than simply reproducing them. In reflecting on these various issues, we especially welcome papers that explore the relationship between them, taking, for example, note of the "intersectional" approaches that now dominate academic and journalistic work on these topics. Potential authors should try to locate particular issues in a wider cultural and philosophical context, and to search for the perhaps deeper and hidden causes of contemporary obsessions and disagreements.

Paper Submissions

Please consult the Submissions page at the Telos Press website for formatting guidelines. Papers should be a maximum of 8,500 words, including notes, and should be submitted to by no later than November 1, 2021. Please place "Gender and Sexuality paper submission" in the email's subject line.

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