September 23, 2021
Sexuality: Activism, Anarchism & Academia
Maggie (our student intern), interviews Dr. Ryan Conrad, an activist, artist, and scholar. They discuss activism within academia, issues within queer politics, radical openness, sex work, and more. Dr. Conrad shares insight on his contradicting feelings related to academia, gay marriage, and intersectional versus co-constituted identity.
And of course, Dr. Conrad shares his career story and advice for those looking to work in the field of sexuality. To see more of Dr. Conrad’s work, check out http://www.faggotz.org.
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This is a computer-generated rough transcript, so please excuse any typos. This podcast is an informational conversation and is not a substitute for medical, health or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the services of an appropriate professional should you have individual questions or concerns.
Hi everyone, my name is Maggie, I’m a student at Concordia University in the Simone de Beauvoir institute, and I’ve been working as Dr. Jess’ intern over the summer. I initially started this mini podcast series initially to explore different jobs in the sexuality field, as a resource for people who might be interested in a career in sexuality. However, during my interviews I found that much more interesting topics came up, like sex education, “sexperts,” racial and social justice, sex and disability, activism in academia, sex and substance abuse, sex and cancer, queer and sex worker politics, prison abolition, health care, and a whole range of topics related to sex and sexuality. So in this podcast, I’ll be speaking with Dr. Ryan Conrad, who I know because he was my first professor within the sexuality program. And Dr. Conrad is really interesting because he is both an anarchist and an academic. He’ll be talking about some really important issues like queer politics, activism in academia, sex worker research, and more. Hi, Ryan, thank you for talking to me today. How are you?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (01:10):
Hi, Maggie, I’m doing well.
That’s good to hear. So jumping right in, on your website, you describe yourself as an activist, an artist, and an academic. Can you briefly go over some of the work that you do?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (01:20):
Yeah, so I sort of go by all of those titles, when it’s useful to be one of them, if that makes sense, in terms of making oneself legible in certain situations. So sometimes I’m an activist, sometimes an artist, sometimes a scholar or an academic, and sometimes all three at the same time. But I’m very much by any medium necessary, if that makes sense. So depending on the goal of what I’m doing, I’m more of an activist or an artist or a scholar. And so I work sort of at the intersections of sexual liberation, queer politics, sex worker politics. And I do everything from teaching in sort of more academic settings, to running workshops and stuff in more community based settings, as well as making cultural production or cultural work, whether it’s film or video or performance, sometimes just visual art. So maybe what I’m trying to say is I’m a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary kind of person, and depending on what the goal of a particular event or situation or experiences I engage in, in different forms, different practices, to sort of make things happen, so to speak.
I love that. And I think those three titles, you know, academic, artist, and activist are such an interesting combination together. Could you maybe go over how you got to where you are in your career in terms of training or educational background?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (02:44):
I have three degrees, they’re three degrees that say “interdisciplinary” somewhere on them. So I have my undergraduate degree, an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree, where I was studying political science and performance art. And so I went to a small liberal arts college where you could actually sort of make up your own program. And I was working with a really interesting black performance artist named William Pope.L, who does work about race and whiteness, and sort of Americana, right? The American experience. So I did that when I was in the States, working with William Pope.L. And that was a really formative experience for me, seeing the capacity to make cultural commentary on political things through the work of performance or video, art, or film and video more broadly, I have a masters of Fine Arts from the Maine College of Art. I’m from Maine. So that’s where I went. And it’s an interdisciplinary studio arts degree. From there, I ended up at Concordia in Montreal, where I did a PhD in the interdisciplinary humanities PhD program, that is essentially a cultural studies program. And so at Concordia I was working in film studies, in art history. But while I was at Concordia, what I was essentially doing was a Sexuality Studies PhD, but those don’t really exist. And so you have to go into interdisciplinary programs where you kind of make up your department or make up your program as you go. So I’ve been in Sexuality Studies, but I’ve been in that field through the more sort of cultural side of things, right, I’m interested in art and performance and video and thinking about Sexuality Studies through looking at those types of mediums, as opposed to people that might come from the social sciences, like sociology or anthropology, who would be doing more research with human subjects, right? It would be like doing surveys or qualitative interviews. I’m more interested in cultural detritus, right? The objects that are left behind by social movements like the AIDS activists movement, or the sexual liberation movement. I’m interested in the posters they made and the films they made both documentary and narrative, and performances and theatre pieces that were made about those things. So that’s my trajectory, was interdisciplinary degrees, kind of all over the place. And yeah, I landed, right now I’m a postdoctoral fellow at York University in Toronto. Working with John Grayson and Janine Marchessault, so in the cinema Media Studies Department. But particularly I’m working on a book about AIDS activist film and video in Canada. With John Grayson, I’m specifically working on a project about Toronto Living With AIDS, which was a cable access television series that was on in 1990,1991. But I also teach, so that’s sort of my research background, is over at York. I’ve been teaching part time at Concordia and the Sexuality Studies program, but I also teach part time at Carleton in Ottawa, where I teach in the Women and Gender Studies program. I teach an introduction to LGBTQ studies course for first year students. So yeah, it’s a lot. It’s a lot everywhere. But what I’m doing is not unique. There’s very few jobs in our field. And there’s a lot of us who are working part time at many places to sort of make a career, as opposed to, what would be much more pleasurable is having one job at one school and just working there, but it’s a condition of academia right? It’s unfortunate there’s very few jobs full time. And yeah, I’ve taught in a bunch of places, I’m doing a bunch of research at different places. And it all feels very overwhelming. But I also love it. I love teaching, I find it really exhilarating and exciting to teach. And I think of teaching as part of my activism. I think teaching young people critical thinking skills around issues of sexuality, is activism for me. I used to not think that, I thought that was a cop out for a really long time. And I felt like I always had to be doing more. But I also, maybe it’s a part of getting older and recognizing that teaching is this really wonderful, exciting and meaningful thing that has an impact on people’s lives. And that’s what I want my activism to be, then that’s great. That’s doing something that feels good in the world.
Right, right. Thank you for going over that. That sounds like such an interesting journey. What made you want to get into the field of sexuality in the first place?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (06:57):
Yeah, it’s a bit self serving. I grew up in the 90s, and didn’t have a lot of access to things about queer history, or queer activism, or even just the history of sexual liberation from the 70s forward. I was born in the early 80s, so I was born at the height of the conservative backlash, and Reaganomics, and the Mulroney government here in Canada, it’s the beginning of the AIDS crisis. And it’s also the beginning of a really conservative shift in gay and lesbian politics, right? From being the inheritors of sort of sexual liberation in the 1970s, to actually having a really conservative political agenda in the 90s and early 2000s. You know, in the states from demanding universal health care to demanding access to health care through partner benefits, right? So the sort of more radical demand that is like, “everyone should have health care,” to “people that get married should be able to share their private insurance.” And to me, that’s like, “oh, how did that happen?” Such a conservative shift that happened, right? And there’s also a large demand for like, “people should be able to get married,” “people should be able to serve in the military openly,” and “both the police and the prison system should be set up to protect queer people from hate crimes,” when I think of the police and the prison system as a hate crime. And so for me, it was going to school and studying the things that I was studying, was in part of figuring out my own life in a particular way, right? I wanted to understand how queer people gave up on the sort of radical vision of sexual liberation and turn it in for like, weddings, and serving in the military. I couldn’t figure it out. I was like, I don’t understand, how A went to B. And so my research, my dissertation, and my desire to go into Sexuality Studies or to study sexuality, was really about trying to figure out what happened, because I saw such radical potential and excitement in the past. And the present was like, abysmal. things I didn’t want to be part of, I felt really contrary and, I felt very alone in that, too. There wasn’t a lot of people that I was connected to in the smaller place that I lived, that had the politics that more lined up with my sort of more, I lean more towards anarchism and towards sort of a radical left politics that’s like, much more inclusive. And, yeah, like, I don’t believe in billionaires, they shouldn’t exist. I don’t believe in prisons, they shouldn’t exist. And so trying to think about sexuality and the sort of radical inheritance of sexual liberation, which did have these demands, that’s like redistributing wealth, and rethinking equity, was all given up. And so yeah, I really, I really wanted to give myself the time to read, write and think through these questions of like, “what propelled this conservative turning gay and lesbian politics?” So I could better understand myself. Why didn’t I follow the larger gay and lesbian community in that direction? And also, what was propelling them in that direction? And so yeah, that’s how I ended up there. And, maybe I’ll share, I’m gonna be really real with you. You know, how did I end up in academia? I was chasing a boyfriend. Yeah, so I applied to a Ph. D. program in Canada, because I had been dating someone in Montreal. It’s interesting to have been your teacher, because I’m also super critical of academia. I think it can be a very terrible place, and it causes harm and does terrible things. And a lot of us in it are trying to figure out what to do with that contradiction. And try to think about, you know, are we changing the institution, or is the institution changing us? Which is a question I’m always asking myself. But I’m a bit of an accidental academic. I applied to school in Canada for immigration purposes, so I could live with my boyfriend and not be dependent upon him or be forced into getting gay married, because that would be the only other way that I could move across the border. And so people end up in academia for all sorts of reasons, that’s maybe what I’m trying to say. And not all of us have the sort of standard trajectory of, you know, going to undergrad then immediately going to grad school. You know, I didn’t do that I, after finishing my undergrad, I started a queer punk house with my friends and lived in a queer punk house for five years. And then I went back to school and you know, took time off in between. And I also find people that don’t do the “go to school, go to grad school, then get a job,” people that have just been out in the world and living and working crappy jobs, and living in the real world actually have a lot to share and to teach. I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s a lot of people in academia who’ve never done anything else. And I think they’re worse off for that. They don’t have real world experience, of living in a bad neighbourhood, because it’s the only place you can afford to live. And having to make decisions about money that aren’t great. And yeah, having to compromise on your values, because you need to pay rent or pay your student debts right? And so you take jobs that you maybe wouldn’t necessarily want to take, because you have bills to pay. So I think people that have had that more dynamic, not just a life in academia, but a life in the real world are better teachers for it. And so I’m glad I accidentally got to where I am, because I think I have valuable things to share. But yeah, people’s people’s trajectory into academia can be very different. Right?
That’s really interesting. Those are some really important questions and ideas that you’re working through there. And what would you say the most rewarding part of your career is at the moment?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (12:24):
Maybe one thing is like, academia itself is a very unrewarding place most of the time. But I’ve met some really amazing researchers, some really amazing people, that really inspire me and challenge me and get me to think about things in more complex ways that I mean, again, it sounds narcissistic, but it’s like personal growth. I have grown as a person, I feel like I have better critical thinking skills, I’m more empathetic by meeting people and, reading work that comes from people that have different life experiences, right? Understanding that marginalized people often have a better reading of how power works within institutions, because of their status as an oppressed or marginalized person. And, you know, I’m marginalized in a pretty limited way, as a non trans, white, gay dude, with a PhD, right? I’m not being oppressed in most ways. But my queerness has really been what’s opened me up to having more empathy and understanding how other people’s lives are different than mine, and have had different struggles. And being able to connect with those people, read their work, engage with their work. So I guess maybe the most exciting and rewarding part for me is that I get to keep learning, which I think can be true outside of academia, but structure is really good for me. I really respond well to structure, despite being an anarchist, I love some structure. And so yeah, being part of academia has allowed for, sort of a structured interaction with people that I find really inspiring. So yeah, the most rewarding part is the ability to keep growing and learning.
I agree. And especially within the sexuality field, the conversations that you have with others are always so interesting. On the other side of that, what are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in your career?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (14:05):
I think there’s lots of challenges. But maybe some of the bigger ones are the sort of structuring of academia, it’s a very hierarchical pace. One of the challenges is the place of Sexuality Studies within the university is very small. And it’s not particularly well supported. Also, sort of at the federal level, in terms of funding bodies, they don’t actually think of Sexuality Studies as as a discipline, right? It really lacks the necessary resources for it to blossom and bloom in a way that I think would be really wonderful to have, you know, more Sexuality Studies, scholars and universities. And a lot of people in Sexuality Studies are queer, a lot of people doing gender diversity studies are trans, and it would be a way to actually include in a meaningful way more queer and trans faculty, which they’re pretty limited, if you haven’t noticed. Yeah, the distribution of resources are not towards things like Sexuality Studies. And I think there’s many reasons for that. But one is that it’s seen as not a real subfield, not an important thing. Or it’s like, oh, thinking about sexuality as “extra,” when we should really be thinking about these more important things. And yeah, I will say just like, straight up homophobia. Like, “Oh, your research isn’t that important, it’s just about queer people. And that’s like, 3% of the population. So like, your research isn’t really that important.” Even within the field, when there is a Sexuality Studies Program, or department or what have you, it’s still within the hierarchical structure of academia, which pits people against each other right? So your colleagues actually become competitors, for grants or for prestige or for advancement. And I hate all of that stuff. It’s so repulsive to me, and it’s maybe part of why I don’t have a full time job. But yeah, those are all real things that happen in academia that are unpleasant.
Yeah, I can see how a lot of those conditions would be frustrating to work with. And what about your intersectional identities? How do you think that they’ve affected your career?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (16:05):
Yeah, that’s a great question. And I sort of alluded to it a little bit earlier, just in terms of being a queer person in the world, who otherwise has lots of privileges and benefits greatly from things like white supremacy or misogyny. I benefit from those things, simply by existing as a white guy in the world. But being queer was my opening to understanding that people experience the world different. Straight people get a lot in the world, in terms of benefits and privileges. We can even think about, yeah, how the state is set up to support families that reproduce, which used to be exclusively the realm of straight people. But there’s many gays and lesbians that are doing this now, too, of course. But yeah, it was it was my queerness that really opened me up to understanding that people experience the world differently. And it’s why I work really hard to work in solidarity with other people who are from other marginalized groups. Identity isn’t necessarily intersectional, which I know is the language we often use, but identity is actually co-constituted, right? They’re actually not overlapping or intersecting. They’re all squished together, and they are dependent on one another, right? My queerness, despite it being my part of my marginal status, my queerness is inseparable from my whiteness and maleness, right? So I experienced queerness in a way that, like, a racialized queer person would experience their queerness differently than me. Their queerness wouldn’t necessarily open them up to the world and the oppression of other people in the same way I would because, they’re also dealing with the oppression of being a racialized person. So their queerness isn’t the door that opens for them. But it was for me, because I’m otherwise a very privileged person. And then yeah, I would add that I’ve run into other people, other faculty, other funding people who have dismissed my research, because it’s about queer stuff. And also, I don’t know for a fact, because you never know in these things, because they never tell you why you don’t get the advancement or the grant or the research money, but I have no doubt that I’ve missed opportunities, because I do stuff on HIV and AIDS, where people are like, “Oh, that was the thing in the 90s. Why are people still doing research on that?” And that’s been particularly important to me, my research has largely revolved around HIV and AIDS. So yeah, there’s all those questions, in terms of how we move through places and spaces and institutions, with our co-constituted identities, and what doors that opens, and what doors that close, and sort of affinities and collaborations and solidarities can exist within the institution.
I love that. And those questions are so great and important for everyone to consider. So you mentioned that you do a lot of activist work around HIV and AIDS, amongst other things. How would you say that your role as an activist and an academic intertwine? You know a lot of people say that activism shouldn’t have a place in universities or other academic institutions, because the focus should be on academic integrity and academia and whatnot, and not “politics”. How do you feel about that?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (19:06):
Yeah, I mean, there’s lots of ways to think about an answer to this question. But one important thing is, there’s no outside of politics, everything’s political. You know, if someone has a syllabus, and every single person on the syllabus is white, that’s political, right? The same way, if they’re all straight, that’s political. And so this idea that there’s something called like, “objectivity”, or “academic integrity”, that’s somehow outside of the political, and is just the pursuit of knowledge, this is a very dated way of thinking. So I would say that everything’s always political, all the time, whether you’re actively doing something or not. By not doing something, you’re also making a political decision. And I think Eve Sedgwick, actually, a very important scholar in Sexuality Studies, makes a really interesting argument about what she calls “the paranoid position”, when you approach something — whether it’s research or relationship — and you already know in advance what you’re going to find. And Sedgwick was saying, everyone has a hypothesis, and then their research proves it. And that’s a problem, right? Like, we should actually be wrong sometimes. And having sort of this radical openness to being surprised by our research or being surprised by our findings, because it would actually get to a more truthful conclusion about what we’re thinking about or what questions we’re asking. So one example of this and how sort of activism might cloud one’s ability to do good research, a research project I’m working on now with another postdoctoral fellow Dr. Emma McKenna, who’s at University of Ottawa in the criminology program, she and I teamed up with the Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate, and Resist, aka POWER. And we were really interested in the claims being made about sex workers and their ability to access social safety net programs during the COVID pandemic. And the sort of activist claim was that sex workers were de facto excluded from the social safety programs because sex workers work is illegal, or demi-criminal, and that they don’t file taxes. So therefore they’re not eligible for these things. And so I understand why this argument might be made, but I was suspect of the claim. And so my colleague Emma and I applied for some research money to do research, on actually talking to sex workers and asking them if they access the social safety nets and whether or not they file taxes. And it turns out, the majority of them do file taxes, and the majority of them did access serve CERB, CESB, or EI. And that’s not to say some people weren’t excluded, because our data clearly shows that many people did miss out, but about two thirds of them did collect some sort of social benefit. We actually need to be more thoughtful in our framing of these questions about sex workers exclusions from society and from social programs and what stigmas we might reify by making the claim that sex workers are excluded from these things, and therefore sort of outside of the social world or outside of society, and they’re just pitiful creatures that need some sort of support. When in reality, sex workers are extremely organized, and basically run independent businesses. So there are ways in which people’s ideology or political vision can cloud their research or actually make their findings questionable right, or questionable things they do with their outcomes, or with their data set. And this is a problem across disciplines. It’s not just Sexuality Studies. So yeah, I think the like “academia should be academic, we should just pursue knowledge”, that’s all ridiculous. I don’t listen to those people. But I do think there are legitimate concerns within academia around how ideology might influence how one conducts their research and what one does with their results. I think Sedgwick was really prescient in asking this question of us, as researchers very early on to say, “hey, actually, we need to figure out ways of being radically open to finding something that wasn’t what we were looking for, and being responsible to it.” And yeah, for me, that’s a much more interesting question, than the sort of weird appeal to not be “political”, as if that’s a possibility in the world. We all have a subject position, we all come from a place. So that’s not possible, sorry.
Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s very, very true. So I’m going to pivot a little bit here. And I’m going to ask you, what is it that you still want to accomplish in your career?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (23:26):
Well, getting a full time job would be wonderful. Just in terms of my own, yeah, I’m getting old. I’m almost 40. And I don’t have a full time job. And I’ve been paying off my student debt forever. And so yeah, I would love to have a bit more stability in my life in terms of a career. And that might actually mean leaving academia. As a researcher or as an artist or as an activist, yeah, I mean, the sky’s the limit. Let’s abolish prisons, and abolish borders, and decriminalize sex work, and make sure that everyone has access to all the things they need to survive and thrive. Not based on, you know, whether they have citizenship or whether they are an able bodied person, or whether they’re married, you know, all these things that we’ve decided are like, whether or not people get to live or die, right? They’re arbitrary, arbitrary. So yeah, I mean, I hope my career so to speak can contribute to those goals, of making this world a less awful place for everyone. Yeah. So sky’s the limit.
I love that, sky’s the limit. And the last question I have for you, is do you have any advice for students currently studying sexuality or people who want to get into the sexuality field?
Dr. Ryan Conrad (24:44):
I guess a broad general piece of advice is to know that academia is not an equitable place. It is not, like academia is part of the problem, maybe is what I want to say in terms of, if you have a vision for a more just, a better world, part of that actually means rethinking the academy as it exists, in terms of its hierarchy, in terms of its cultural capital, to very few people. There’s lots of part time faculty or contract instructors or whatever, working for little pay and no job security. It’s a very challenging place, and it has lots of problems. I came into university thinking I was going to pursue knowledge and it was gonna be awesome. And there’s gonna be all these other students there that wanted to be there. And then I got to university and no one cared. It was a bunch of people whose parents made them go. Yeah, no one cared about the pursuit of knowledge. And I was so disheartened by that, and really saddened and bummed out, and I was like, “Oh, this isn’t what I thought it was going to be.” I would wish other professors, other people in the field, would be really upfront with students about the limitations of academia as a place to do things. I wouldn’t say that in a way to discourage people from participating, but to participate in a way where you understand how academia can also cause harm or it can be limiting. It actually allows you to exist in that place in a way that is healthier, and in a way that is self preserving.
That’s really good advice, not just for anyone in the sexuality field, but anyone in academia in general. So thank you for sharing that. And thank you so much for chatting with me today and answering all my questions Ryan, this conversation is definitely going to give me, and hopefully others, something to think about. So again, thank you.
Dr. Ryan Conrad (26:27):
Yeah, well, thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.
Again, everyone that was Dr. Ryan Conrad, who’s an activist, academic and artist. If you’re interested in learning more about his past or current projects, especially his activism in his art, go to http://www.faggots.org. Thank you everyone for listening today, and as Dr. Jess would say, wherever you’re at folks, have a good one.