Second session—Science and Sexual Politics
Afternoon – August 24, 2009
The overview paper presented in the afternoon section, Science, Gender and Sexuality, was written by Kenneth Camargo, member of Sexuality Policy Watch Advisory Group and associate professor at the Institute of Social Medicine at the Rio de Janeiro State University (IMS/UERJ), Carlos Caceres, also a member of Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW) Advisory Group and professor of Public Health at the Cayetano Heredia University, Lima, Peru and Fabiola Rohden, assistant professor also at IMS/UERJ. Richard Parker coordinated the session and the comments were made by Paula Machado, assistant professor in the Post-graduate Program of Public Health at the University of the Vale of Rio dos Sinos (UNISINOS).
The paper retraces the historical construction of scientific thought, highlighting conceptions and applications of science in relation to gender and sexuality from the theoretical perspective of Thomas Kuhn and what is currently known as science studies. The analysis also mapped how in Western thought, since the Renaissance, scientific conceptions gradually became normative parameters to define what is or not acceptable in the realm of gender and sexuality, to a large extent assuming the prescriptive role originally assigned to religious doctrines.
Specifically, in regard to the relationship between science, politics and gender, the analysis revisits feminist studies from the 1970’s on, both those produced by academics engaged with “women and science” and the production developed under the rubric “gender and science.” In respect to the critiques of scientific discourse on sexuality, it recaptured Foucault and Jeffrey Weeks, two thinkers who remain fundamental to comprehend the history, complexity and depth of intersections between science, sexuality and politics in the contemporary era. Among others their work is a main source of theoretical contestation of sex essentialism that informs our investigations and debates.
Camargo also underlined the various connections, not exempt of tensions, social science theory and research on sexuality and the biomedical research agenda on HIV /AIDS and related policies. He concluded by emphasizing that it remains strategic to systematically examine the connections, not always transparent, between science, sexuality and politics:
“ ….it is possible to identify various moments in history of the scientific disciplines that are relevant for questions related to sexuality and gender, in which ideological concepts about what is ‘natural,’ ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ became ‘sacred’ in scientific discourse, contributing to the oppression and stigmatization of divergent forms of sexuality, including repression in various forms, as well as the subjugation of women, through ‘scientific’ definitions of the specific limits attributed to them in society. The perspective of science studies in revealing the limitations of knowledge production in science is an important political tool to destabilize these marginalizing and stigmatizing discourses. This does not mean, however, that all science is to be seen as a perennial exercise of reification of prejudices as instruments of control and oppression; critiques that allow for the deconstruction of such discourses have emerged within from the field itself. Science as praxis encompasses critical reflexivity; from this critical perspective it is possible to devise alliances that will allow for scientific studies and practices to pursue the goal devised by Boaventura de Souza Santos: ‘ the production of prudential knowledge for a decent life’.”
:: COMMENTS ::
Paula Machado in her comments raised a range of questions, in particular, related to the placement of bodies in scientific discourse and practice. In addition, she reminded us that science produces “passports for reality,” which are deeply associated with long established ideas of progress, development and well-being, and have great symbolic and practical appeals. She also underlined problems observed in the use of scientific categories by ordinary people, in other words the constant appropriation of scientific discourse in common sense debates and arguments and their affects in terms of creating social orders, hierarchies, exclusions, taxonomies and stigma. Finally, she pointed towards the urgent need to analytically articulate the production of scientific journalism and the deployment of gender and sexuality in cultures as well as understand the connections between science, media and the economy. In her view, the mainstream press, television and the internet are crucial spaces to examine the relationship between sexuality, public policies, the market and human rights today.