Spindelman on “Sexual Freedom’s Shadows”

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Marc Spindelman (Ohio State) has published his essay Sexual Freedom’s Shadows, 23 Yale J.L. & Feminism 179 (2011).  It is both review of a book by Tim Dean called Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (UChicago Press, 2009), as well as a substantial think-piece.  Here is the abstract of Professor Spindelman’s essay:

Tim Dean’s book-length reflections on barebacking subculture, an event in themselves, also supply an occasion for examining same-sex sexuality as it is lived by a number of men who have sex with men. This review essay begins with some of Dean’s foundational claims, in particular, the argument that an “elaborate subculture” organized “around men who fuck without protection precisely in order to become infected” exists and is flourishing on the sexual and social scene. In addition to assessing the claim on its own terms, the essay situates it alongside the ideology of sexual freedom, an outlook on sexual life that, in important ways, has long shaped and animated gay male sexuality as thought and practice. After introducing the ideology of sexual freedom, barebacking subculture’s norms, described by Dean, are catalogued in its light, and revealed as continuous with it. Far from being a wholly novel chapter in the history of same-sex sexuality, barebacking subculture is exposed as a variation on a much older, and darker, sexual theme, retooled and keyed to possibilities specially available in the age of HIV/AIDS. Having noted that Dean’s account of barebacking subculture effectively documents a lived experiment of and in the ideology of sexual freedom, the essay then turns to Dean’s own normative stance on barebacking subculture. His “ethics of cruising,” in which promiscuity—including sexual promiscuity—is heralded, is closely examined. Despite Dean’s recommendations, this ethical stance is ultimately challenged for the ways that it, like some dimensions of barebacking subculture, themselves in line with the ideology of sexual freedom, affirmatively promotes the social, hence legal, erasure and invisibility of injuries that are sexually produced, including through same-sex sex. The essay ends with a question about how to respond.

The full piece is available here.  Over here at Jotwell, Robin West calls Professor Spindelman’s essay Sexuality’s Law, 20 Colum. J. Gender & L (forthcoming 2011) “one of the most extraordinary pieces of legal writing on the interrelations of law, culture and sexuality to appear in a law journal in well over a decade, perhaps much longer.”  Sexual Freedom’s Shadows takes up many of the same issues covered in Sexuality’s Law.  Robin West says of the two pieces together:

[T]he accomplishments of these two pieces taken together are collectively breathtaking.  The reading of the law and the culture of the time period is deeply intellectual and a stunning example of the best of cultural legal studies; Spindelman takes on hundreds of cultural sources and a library of legal scholarship in mounting his argument.


-Bridget Crawford

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