Reflections on the Guelph Sexuality Conference – Part 3 of 3

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

[Courtesy of the SSHRC-funded research project that is responsible for this blog, I had the pleasure of spending a day at the 31st Annual Guelph Sexuality Conference in June. This year’s theme was “Positive approaches to sexuality and sexual health.” I am particularly interested in sex-positive and queer-inclusive approaches to this topic, so I was delighted to attend the plenary panel of sex workers discussing their work, a session of 3 research briefs on erotic photography and pole dancing, and a workshop on a variety of themes tied to sex-positivity. I briefly describe my thoughts on each of these sessions in three separate entries.]

Workshop – “Ask Me About Sex”: Positive sexual health discussions with young women, by Sonja Prakash and Melanie Stafford

This workshop had a lot of potential. It had originally been planned as a whole day of separate sessions, but the presenters were only given a 1.5-hour session to present a full day’s worth of content. In that time, they were able to cram together some brainstorming over what makes a safe, sex-positive space for having discussions about sex; a few examples of activities educators can use when trying to facilitate such discussions with their students; a very brief workshop on making one’s own sex toys; and more.

I was particularly intrigued by the DIY sex toy workshop. I really appreciated the presenters’ fun and silly approach to sex, which was clearly reflected in the workshop’s activities. Participants were able to construct edible floggers out of long, stringy licorice candy; ticklers from chopsticks and feathers; pasties using a bit of stiff felt, paper, or foam and a glue-gun, and more. This sort of crafting, an interesting variation on what has traditionally been understood as “women’s work” or “women’s art,” is another fun way for people to reclaim sex as a potentially very fun and empowering activity and to express their sexuality in creative new ways. For youth who are probably in the earlier stages of their sexual lives, such workshops can provide a non-threatening and inclusive environment to ask questions or express concerns they might otherwise be too intimidated or terrified to address. This activity could certainly have benefited from an entire 1.5-hour (or longer) session to itself!


Cross-Annotation of Utopian Pedagogy and burlesque troupe Sexual Overtones

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

To consult the version of this annotation that excludes the heavy theory, click here.

Last year I was struck by a piece of theory that I think applies to many projects described in this blog, but only now am I able to write coherently about it. I’m referring to the concept of utopian pedagogy as articulated by Coté, Day, and de Peuter in their edited work Utopian Pedagogy: Radical experiments against neoliberal globalization (2007), where utopia is understood “not as a place we might reach but as an ongoing process of becoming” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 13). More specifically, the utopia described “is both a critical attitude towards the present and a political commitment to experiment in transfiguring the coordinates of our historical moment” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 13). That is, this idea of utopia means being critical of how things are while also trying to make things better, all the while acknowledging that there is no singular “correct” vision of what this could look like because we will always be improving upon it. “Thus it might be said that utopian experiments today share a point of departure much more than a point of arrival” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 14, emphasis in original), since there is no actual point of arrival, singular or otherwise, in sight. This also suggests that the “ends” are inconsequential because, wherever we end up, we’ll always still be in the process of making our current situation better. Thus, these utopian experiments are necessarily prefigurative: they involve building now the world we want to see—always in the shell of the old—in order to continuously bring our reality closer to what we want it to be.

These prefigurative projects, as clumsy and imperfect as they may be (or not), are at least ways to imagine, enact, and keep discovering what is possible. “It is those practices which seek to propagate an awareness of the existence and possibilities of the radical outside that we callutopian pedagogy, a pedagogy that is itself contested and without guarantees” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 15). I have already written on this blog about a project that I think embodies particularly well the prefigurative politics of utopian pedagogy. I now describe another alternative sex project that I think equally exemplary.

Sexual Overtones

Part of an ever-growing movement of sex-positive, female-positive, body-positive, and queer-friendly alternative sex projects, Ottawa’s Sexual Overtones is a not-for-profit burlesque troupe that gets naked and silly to raise funds for local community organizations.

Mixing comedy with sexual satire, this refreshing representation of sexuality reminds us of how fun and funny sex is and should be. The troupe’s reclamation, appreciation, and re-valuation of real people with real bodies are wonderfully inclusive and affirming in light of a mainstream context that is constantly relegating us to invisibility.

This project is a great example of utopian pedagogy, for me, because it presents a way of performing sexuality that is very different from the traditional context of public sex and sexual representation. Aside from the transgressive content of its performances, the troupe’s structural organization is worth noting. To begin, the troupe operates as a collective so all decisions are made by the participants together rather than by an unconcerned team of managers or owners. Also, in comparison with many exotic dance clubs, for example, which prioritize meeting the clients’ needs in order to maximize the clubs’ income, this troupe instead puts its performers’ best interests at the forefront and prioritizes their safety and enjoyment. The performers participate voluntarily and design their own acts and costumes according to their own tastes, desires, boundaries, and degrees of comfort. The audience members, of course, are expected to be respectful of performers and of one another— a standard that appeals to common sense but that often goes unenforced in traditional clubs.

Again in comparison with many exotic dance clubs, which place far more emphasis on for-profit commercial activity, Sexual Overtones channels the profits from its performances back into the local community, in particular toward other sex-positive projects. This, for me, poses an interesting challenge to what has heretofore been understood as the sex “industry,” because this group performs and represents sexual entertainment without the explicit focus on economic production. Taking the emphasis off money also means that a given performance is not limited or dictated by the performer’s preoccupation with generating income. This freedom allows more room for creative experimentation and political and personal expression in the performances. Finally, de-emphasizing income also means a low degree of competition between performers and thus a strong potential for friendship and solidarity—features sorely lacking from many traditional clubs.

Additionally, unlike many participants in the sex industry who prefer to distance themselves from more stigmatized occupations, Sexual Overtones proudly aligns itself with sex worker rights activist groups, namely Ottawa’s POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate & Resist). This show of solidarity is surprisingly rare within the sex industry, as legal issues and social stigma often make such alliances difficult.

If it is not yet clear why I consider this to be a project of utopian pedagogy, I’ll specify the utopian and pedagogical connections separately. This project is utopian in that it is building the sex projects its members want to see, as much as they different from industry norms, and it is doing it right now, in the shell of a sex industry that places little value in its workers and that is often indifferent about who its content misrepresents or excludes. This project is also pedagogical for almost the same reasons, in that it is teaching (by example) a different way of “doing” sexual entertainment. It is also teaching about sex-positivity and other kinds of inclusiveness. The “doing” essentially IS the “teaching” because it is unashamedly showing how another world (and/or sex industry?) is possible.

Of course this pedagogy is contestable—not everyone will agree that there is a direct connection between sex work and education. It is also without guarantees (regarding its effectiveness, longevity, etc), and this model cannot yet be effectively translated to a context where performers rely on their performance income for subsistence. Nonetheless, this is an interesting project that is taking steps toward creating a world where sex and sex work are valued and respected.


Coté, Mark, Richard J. F. Day, & Greg de Peuter (Eds). 2007. Utopian Pedagogy: Radical experiments against neoliberal globalization. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press.


Reflections on the Guelph Sexuality Conference – Part 1  of 3

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

[Courtesy of the SSHRC-funded research project that is responsible for this blog, I had the pleasure of spending a day at the 31st Annual Guelph Sexuality Conference in June. This year’s theme was “Positive approaches to sexuality and sexual health.” I am particularly interested in sex-positive and queer-inclusive approaches to this topic, so I was delighted to attend the plenary panel of sex workers discussing their work, a session of 3 research briefs on erotic photography and pole dancing, and a workshop on a variety of themes tied to sex-positivity. I briefly describe my thoughts on each of these sessions in three separate entries.]

Plenary Panel – “Sex Work and Sexual Health: Insights from the sex trade,” moderated by Fran Shaver

The first panelist was the most interesting to me, so I’ll briefly focus on her. She made a couple of references to the educational role she plays in her capacity as a sex worker, in this case about respectfully teaching some clients about proper hygiene and sexual health, at various points throughout her career. Since sex workers—people who engage in sexual activity professionally—are informally recognized as experts when it comes to sexual health and safe sex practices, it seems fairly obvious to me that sex workers ought to be recognized for their expertise in this area. I think this point about sex workers as educators is often underemphasized in a lot of the literature, so I was happy that the entire roomful of people could hear it first-hand.

That said, however, I think this point goes beyond just teaching about sexual health. Many personal accounts of sex work that I have read make references to “teaching” clients how to touch a woman properly, how to give her pleasure, and how to take her needs into account. Some talk about setting a client straight when he makes an oppressive comment—be it sexist, racist, or homophobic, etc. Many accounts detail the sex workers’ efforts to make even the most emotionally damaged and socially awkward clients feel good about themselves, love themselves and accept themselves as they are. This is by no means a theme common to all writings I’ve come across, but it has certainly stood out as significant for me. The panelist I described made vague references to some of these other forms of teaching, but I would have loved to see an entire paper or panel devoted solely to this topic!

I think recognizing the multidimensionality of sex work is a small but crucial step in re-humanizing and re-valuing people who perform such important yet underappreciated roles in our world.


Reflections on the Guelph Sexuality Conference – Part 2 of 3

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

[Courtesy of the SSHRC-funded research project that is responsible for this blog, I had the pleasure of spending a day at the 31st Annual Guelph Sexuality Conference in June. This year’s theme was “Positive approaches to sexuality and sexual health.” I am particularly interested in sex-positive and queer-inclusive approaches to this topic, so I was delighted to attend the plenary panel of sex workers discussing their work, a session of 3 research briefs on erotic photography and pole dancing, and a workshop on a variety of themes tied to sex-positivity. I briefly describe my thoughts on each of these sessions in three separate entries.]

Research Briefs

The session of research briefs I attended featured two papers on erotic photography and one on pole dancing, and here I am going to focus solely on the former.

I will first briefly discuss “Behind the Lens: A qualitative analysis of erotic photographers,” by Jocelyn Wentland and Amy Muise of the University of Ottawa and the University of Guelph respectively. This paper was an account of the experiences of photographers who offer boudoir or erotic photography among their services. What I found particularly interesting about the study’s results was how the photographers consistently drew very clear descriptive/definitional boundaries to distinguish their work from pornography. When I probed the presenter, Wentland, on why this distinction was so important for photographers, she said that she hadn’t investigated this point. She guessed, based on their responses, that the photographers’ desire to avoid stigma and maintain a family-friendly image was probably the root motivation for most respondents.

In light of my own research regarding the intentions behind the production of alternative pornographies, I was also interested in learning why photographers decided to include this genre of photography among their services. In most cases, Wentland responded, it was because there was such a high demand for it from their clients! After receiving many requests, the photographers realized they were losing potential business by not offering this service. I found this response particularly surprising in light of many women’s motivations for having the photos taken—described in more detail below.

This brings me to the second paper, “Bare’ing it All for the Camera: Exploring women’s experiences of having erotic photographs taken,” by Amy Muise, Ed Herold, Melanie Gillis, and Robin Milhausen. In this case I was interested in the motivations of the women clients: why did women want to have lingerie, semi-nude, and nude photos taken of them? Muise’s presentation explored this in detail. Many clients reported what I would classify as “political” motivations: the desire for empowerment, to reclaim their sexuality and their bodies (in relation to pornography made for men), and to teach their own children about real beauty and self-confidence. I found these responses really interesting to contrast with the photographers’ own motivations for doing this work. I guess I had an assumption that the photographers would be motivated by more than just money, by some sort of feminist politics, and my assumption was blown wide open!

Another set of client motivations also really interested me; I’ve categorized these as “autobiographical.” This refers to the women who wanted to document their bodies at different points in time for their own memory and, in some cases, to someday show their children. Examples of this include: one woman went in once every year to get erotic photos taken; another woman wanted the erotic photos to be displayed at her funeral rather than the usual photosets; a woman with breast cancer wanted erotic photographs of herself pre- and post-surgery, with and without the scars; and yet another woman wanted to record a moment in time so she could look back a herself 30 years down the road, “like telling a story” about herself.


Everlasting Moments, a Den/Swe/Fin/Nor/Ger film, 2009

Everlasting Moments Cinema Ad in Time Out

Everlasting Moments Contessa Camera

(Annotated by Dorothy Lander)

We went to see the film Everlasting Moments, billed as a Den/Fin/Nor/Swe/Ger production, at the Soho Curzon on Shaftesbury Avenue last night (May 26, 2009) — the Monday of the bank holiday — £12 each, and worth every haepenny.

I agree with the David Jenkins’ review in Time Out that the film avoids the cliché of conventional paths to women’s empowerment through self-expression, in this case photography. The protagonist, Maria Larsson, a stay-at-home mom with seven kids  and an abusive husband in turn-of-the century working class Swedish city Malmö, takes up photography at the urging of Mr. Pedersen, the proprieter of the pawn shop where she tries to sell the Contessa camera she won in a local lottery.  Following an unconventional path, Maria does embody feminist principles of empowerment and women’s solidarity throughout the film. The subtle shifts from the blurred sepia of this era of photography to today’s technicolour, signal Marla Helskanen, playing Maria Larsson, making soul-searching choices in her life, without inclining to martyrdom. Indeed, she finds independence as a working photographer, becoming the breadwinner for her brood of seven children, by taking family portraits, first when Sigge is jailed for a crime that he did not commit, and later when is off at war.  Maria does not leave her drunkard and lecher husband Sigge, as the  English subtitles translate him, but she does stand up to him. When Sigge returns home and demands that the queue of women and children in his home get out, she and they refuse. As they continue with the process, Sigge stomps out defeated.

The narrative perspective of the eldest daughter Maya and her struggle with split loyalties to her mother and father makes a powerful commentary on girls learning gender relations in their formative years. Maya is witness to her father’s amorous advances with a woman she does not know,  and makes the most of a “teachable moment” when her father asks her if she learned the ten Commandments, to say “Yes, Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  We see her father chastened and silenced.

The most poignant moment for me of women’s solidarity through art happens at the clothesline when Maria and her friend are folding sheets.  I recently read Fine Lines: A Celebration of Clothesline Culture, by Nova Scotia author Cindy Etter-Turnbull (a.k.a Mrs. Clothesline), who draws attention to the the clothesline as a human universal found in every culture.  The film demonstrates the “snapping” technique that Etter-Turnbull describes — “firmly grasping each piece and giving it a quick sharp shake, hard enough to create a ‘snap’ sound. This shakes off any loose debris and reduces wrinkling” (p.  66). Based on the film, I have to believe that collaborative snapping is not only more effective but amplifies the sound.  All the while at the clothesline, Maria is bewailing that her son Erik, the consequence of marital rape, has polio and blaming herself because she had tried to abort him by jumping from table to floor — a method that she had heard about from her friend. Her friend insists that it was not Maria’s fault and without a word spoken, they (and we who are watching the film) hearken back to Maria asking this same friend if she could photograph her child Elsa who has Downs Syndrome.  This is another subtle subtext: just as Maria found worth and beauty in her friend’s child, which in turn allowed the mother to see this too, Maria is being challenged to find worth and beauty in her son Erik. For another friend, Maria photographed her drowned child Ingeborg in the coffin. Through Maya’s eyes — Maya says this was the most difficult event of her childhood — her mother, and by extension, Maya herself, are given solace through art, through the “everlasting moments” of photography.

Because of my own research and exposure to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (Lander, 2007), I was also taken with the temperance references, and the clear connection between drunkenness and family violence. In Time Out, David Jenkins has Sigge “teetering on the cusp of redemption” and this is manifest in his last of many blue-collar jobs of haulage with horses, including bringing supplies to a temperance picnic. The causal link between consumption of alcohol and violence against women was clear in temperance representations in North America and Sweden, where the women’s temperance movement was particularly active in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The temperance backlash seems to have infected this film with the culture of silence, which could have more directly made the causal link between alcohol and the abuse of power in the marital rape episode, which is not named as such.  In this case, subtlety is disempowering, reinforcing today’s gentrified language of “dually affected families” (Daily & Hodgson, 1988) and “diminished capacity” (Weinstock, Leong, & Silva, 1996), and the “abuse of power within relationships” (Health Canada). What happened to “battered women” and “marital rape.”

Works Cited

Daily, B.,& Hodgson, M. (1988). Dually affected families: Substance abuse and people abuse. In T. Martens (Ed.), The spirit weeps (Characteristics and dynamics of incest and child sexual abuse with a Native perspective) (pp. 188-222). Edmonton, AB:  Nechi  Institute.

Etter-Turnbull, C. (2006). Fine lines: A celebration of clothesline culture. Lawrencetown Beach, NS: Pottersfield Press.

Lander, D. (2007). Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In G. L. Anderson & K. G. Herr (Eds.), Encyclopedia of activism and social justice (Vol. 3, pp. 1474-1477). London: Sage.

Weinstock, R., Leong, G. B., & Silva, J. A. (1996). California’s diminished capacity defense: Evolution and transformation.  Bulletin American Academy Psychiatry Law, 24(3), 347-366.



“Made in Secret: The Story of the East Van Porn Collective.” 2005. DVD. One Tiny Whale.

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

It essentially began with a couple of people wanting to make a documentary about an anarcha-feminist porn collective. Since they knew of no such group, these folks eventually became the collective they set out to document. What unfolded was a part-documentary, part-fictional account of what it might look like for a group of people to collectively make pornography by, for, and about one another according to feminist principles. Regardless of whether the film documents a “real” group or project, I find it particularly interesting because of the possibilities it presents—because of what it envisions.

The first in a 3-part series of films on anarcha-feminist decision-making and collective process, Made in Secret is less about porn and more about the process of making it according to feminist principles—though the porn it describes is nonetheless sex-positive, queer-friendly, respectful, validating, and empowering.

The process developed by this group presents a real and radical challenge to mainstream approaches to porn production, and even to other self-described feminist porn producers! For example, the collective process, at base, is egalitarian and democratic rather than hierarchical or coercive. Roles within the porn collective rotate every few months to balance power dynamics and workload responsibilities. Participants in the project—whether appearing on screen or not—have an equal say in how the film is used, and, true to consensus-based processes, no decision passes unless everyone affected by the decision is comfortable with it. All of these guidelines and more foreground the group’s porn-making, and thus help maintain the trust that makes it possible for the group to continue operating as it does.

Even though this film is not wholly based on a “real” project, I think what it describes is very real in its possibilities. Imagining porn projects that so defy industry norms in both content and production process is a small step toward creating a world where people are treated more fairly in all aspects of our lives, and where cultural production is held to a much higher ethical standard.


Voice = Power = Change = Revolution

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

“For us [writers from oppressed, colonized groups], true speaking is not solely an expression of creative power; it is an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges politics of domination that would render us nameless and voiceless” (hooks, 1989: 8).

Stand-up comedian and queer activist Margaret Cho’s CHO Revolution tour performance exemplifies bell hooks’s (1989) notion of “coming to voice” as she challenges what hooks refers to as the “right speech” of silence imposed upon and embodied by members of minority communities in North America.

Overall, Cho’s performance style is loudly vocal and physical, in contradiction to the silence and invisibility ascribed to her minority status as a queer woman born into a Korean immigrant family. As a white Canadian woman of European ancestry, I find certain elements of Cho’s comedic routine discomfiting as she assumes and exaggerates common American (and Canadian) stereotypes of Asian people. Watching her performance, I became aware that my own laughter at Cho’s sometimes-racist jokes plays a colluding role in the silencing process. Perhaps Cho uses her comedy to make the stereotypes and silences clear in order to then tear them down with her loud presence.

The content of her liberated speech is equally powerful. Amidst the humourous anecdotes and reflections, Cho delivers a scathing critique of American culture, targeting in particular the racism, sexism, and homophobia embedded in popular culture and media and the effects this has on women’s self-esteem and body image. I was particularly touched by a part near the end of Cho’s performance when she stated the following:

I’m very inappropriate, which makes me a problem dinner guest. Because at some point during the evening someone eventually says: ‘Ok, yeah, yeah, ok [mimics silly laughing] too much information! Don’t go there!’ I live there. I bought a house there. I’m gonna take you there! Because when something hurts me, I have to say something, ‘cause if I don’t it’ll just burn me up, and I feel like living as a minority in America feels like dying of a thousand papercuts, and I ain’t goin’ out like that. So I have to speak my herstory! (Cho, 2004)

A little bit later in the performance Cho describes the slogan of her favourite activist group, the 1960s-era ACT-UP: “Silence = Death. It meant, if we don’t talk about AIDS we will die of AIDS.” She adds, “And I adopt a similar slogan. For me, Silence = Nonexistence. If I don’t give ‘too much information’ and if I ‘don’t go there’ it’s like I was never there in the first place” (Cho, 2004).


Cho, Margaret (Writer) & Lorene Machado (Dir). CHO Revolution. (2004). DVD. Los Angeles: Cho Taussig Productions.

hooks, bell. (1989). Talking Back: Thinking feminist, thinking black. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.


1 Sleeve X 1000

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point – a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.
– Virginia Woolf, 1929, pp. 7-8

Woolf, Virginia (1929). A room of one’s own. London: Hogarth Press.

Re-cited by Canadian popular educator Kathryn Church, 2003, p. 156

Church, Kathryn, & Church, Lorraine (2003). Needles and pins: Dialogue on a mother/daughter journey. Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 5(1), 148-156.

An entry on this blog’s Hand me downs page cites a hand-me-down of Virginia Woolf by Kathryn Church, and I’d like to contribute a link to an article that refers to one of Church’s projects, as well as comment on a theme in this article.

The article, “1 Sleeve X 1000” by Nikko Snyder (published in good girl magazine, no.1, 2001, and also available at, is a reflection by a young woman on the significance of sewing as a valuable part of women’s art and women’s history. She was moved by “Fabrications: Stitching Ourselves Together,” Church’s exhibit of the homemade wedding dresses that her mother sewed for family and friends over the course of 45 years.

After having taken sewing for granted for most of her life, Snyder notes, ‘”What I suddenly clearly saw was this: sewing is a complicated part of my history and a profound symbol, not just for the women that sew, but for women’s history.” She adds, “I want to understand how the erasure of creativity from this symbol has come to pass, and I want to challenge the idea that the rejection of this aspect of women’s history has gone largely unnoticed and unquestioned. In fact, many women are starting to reassess sewing as a potentially creative practice, redefine our own assumptions, and reclaim it on our own terms.”

This reference to women’s reclamation of such stigmatized arts and crafts is evident in the international popularity of such projects as Stitch’n Bitch ( Speaking from personal experience, I’d say sewing is also being reclaimed and redefined in more radical ways, where young women are encouraged to play an active role in their menstrual health by sewing their own reusable menstrual pads. Not only this, but some women make them for friends and family and sell or trade them at local feminist-friendly and grassroots shops and crafts sales, thereby also playing an important role in the re-circulation of resources within a community at the local level.

I only recently came to the realization, myself, that this tactical reclamation, this DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic, has long and strong roots in the mundane activities of our foremothers and -sisters, in the social reproduction of labour. We have and likely will continue to often take these activities for granted in the face of marketing efforts to “facilitate” our lives, unless we actively seek out their voices and publicly recognize the value of their work.


Blood, Bread, and Roses

(Annotated by Sarah Lawrance)

Though this book is intended as an alternative creation myth with an emphasis on menstruation as the historical root of all social and cultural life, I am touched by its relevance to some contemporary articulations of feminist pedagogy. Grahn understands menstruation as playing a pedagogical function as it teaches of birth, death, and everything in between. Early menstrual rites and rituals also served as pedagogical tools — what Grahn calls metaforms — and were used by women of prelinguistic eras to remember and communicate their newfound consciousness as taught by menstruation. Grahn describes metaforms as physical embodiments of metaphors, or “an act or form of instruction that makes a connection between menstruation and a mental principle” (p. 20). According to Grahn, contemporary pedagogies embodied in the visual and performing arts can thus be traced back hundreds of thousands of years and are deeply rooted in the menstrual consciousness of pre-linguistic humans. This perspective provides interesting insights into the pedagogical potential of such contemporary art forms as popular music, street theatre, tattooing and piercing, and other forms of expression. It also suggests that adornment as commonplace as makeup, clothing, and haircare products and accessories can be similarly meaningful. Elsewhere I have written of “tactics of resistance” used by women as “processes of negotiating between competing truth discourses” (Lawrance 2007: p. 1). If we understand the conflicting North American standards of health and beauty that are imposed on women at this specific cultural and historical moment as examples of such truth discourses, then perhaps contemporary women’s engagements with the afore-mentioned aspects of material culture can be understood as tactics of resistance, since, while not appearing transgressive on the surface, these processes nonetheless produce new spaces within which women are continuously (re)positioning themselves. These tactics of resistance, then, can also be understood as potentially radical pedagogical tools for subverting the strategic elements of what Grahn describes as the (relatively) recently imposed patriarchal culture.


Grahn, Judy. 1994. Blood, bread, and roses: How menstruation created the world. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lawrance, Sarah. 2007. Seeing red: Meaning-making and resistance in menstrual
Lignes de fuite: La revue élétronique du cinéma. Available


hooks, bell. The Oppositional Gaze. In The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. Amelia Jones, ed. London: Routledge. (2003). (pp. 94-105).

(Annotated by Paula Cameron)

“There is power in looking,” bell hooks tells us. She fixes her sights on “The Oppositional Gaze”, elaborating viewing as resistance within systems of racialized power relations. You see, slaves were denied the right to look; for black men in particular, visual encounters with white women were enough to risk death. Hooks weaves their stories into her own: “Since I knew as a child that the dominating power adults exercised over me and my gaze was never so absolute that I did not dare to look, (…) I knew that the slaves had looked. That all attempts to repress our/black peoples’ right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze” (94). Here viewing becomes an act of agency, a creative act of interpretation in which humanness (or human subjectivity) is forged. hooks draws a distinction between the black female and male gaze, the former an “absent presence” within film theory. Faced with violent images of themselves in most films, black women either “shut out the image”, or engage in a complicity required to keep intact their interrupted (viewing) pleasure. but hooks reminds us that we can “come home to ourselves” in the struggle with the important tensions at the heart of black women’s representations on film (98). Black women’s art can be a powerful form of popular education in this struggle, a “counter memory” in a visual history marred by both real and symbolic violence.


Nelson, Lisa S. (2007). Inquiry, empathy and art in the social sciences: Thinking and feeling like a social artist. The Social Science Journal, 44, 3-9.

Nelson, Lise (1999). Bodies (and spaces) do matter: The limits of performativity. Gender, Place, and Culture, 6(4), 331-353.

(Annotated by Paula Cameron)

Methodologically, we need more work that addresses the possible and the how rather than our usual focus on the existing and the why, because taking a freeze-frame shot of what exists does not always reveal the seeds of what may come (Nelson, 2007, p.4).

Popular education, as it spills outside institutional contexts, challenges academic feminists to reimagine traditional methodologies and philosophies. In her 2005 Western Social Science Association Presidential Address, feminist political scientist Lisa Nelson re-imagines social science as compassionate and artful engagement with “the possible and the how”. As academic authority undergoes a sea change, Nelson calls for a humanistic recapturing of the relevance of her field, situated within wider concerns with war, globalization, and other social issues. She envisions human potential, positivity, and creativity as central tenets of this re-invention, summoning Jean Houston’s four levels of human potential (physical/sensory, psychological/historical, mythic/cultural, and unitive/spiritual) to meet (or, ideally, surpass) UN Millenium Development Goals. Nelson nests this framework within a humanist commitment to truth and freedom.

A letter apart from her feminist colleague, Lise Nelson aims to recuperate a productive poststructuralist agency without which such reimaginings of social science would be futile. Lise critiques feminist geographers’ tendency to uncritically incorporate Judith Butler’s theories of performativity within work on space and social context. Lise engages and resists poststructuralism’s indeterminacy and linguistic orientation, and her interpretation of performativity as ethical paralysis. Her article, situated as it is within the social science discourse, is a hybrid consideration of poststructural place: an engagement with Butler’s infamous fluidity via language saturated with humanist investment in “capturing” (and therefore transforming) the material. She largely attributes Butler’s failure to articulate an alternative agency to Butler’s fracturing of linear time and her conceptualization of an abstracted subject. Nelson warns that this collapse of an embodied narrative self constructs an ivory tower authority that prevents poststructuralist feminists from engaging with the fundamental material conditions upon which social change depends.

Both writers link the possible to the how—through respective lenses of humanism and poststructuralism, Lisa and Lise challenge academics to engage with popular education’s commitment to improving the lives of those bodies and spaces beyond an abstracted ivory tower.


Pierson, Ruth R. (2008). The personal is pedagogical/The pedagogical is personal. In Dissonant Disabilities: Women with Chronic Illnesses Explore Their Lives. Diane Driedger & Michelle Owen, Eds. Toronto: Women’s Press.

(Annotated by Paula Cameron)
In “The personal is pedagogical/The pedagogical is personal”, Ruth Roach Pierson transgresses traditional academic authority as she draws back the curtain on the embodied work of a feminist academic. Here Pierson documents her shadow cv, a time of illness that interrupted the “business-as-usual” workload and career trajectory dictated by the dominant narrative of academic success. Much of this chapter is devoted to the details of her illness, her subsequent path to wellness, and the critical consciousness arising from this bodily breakdown. She outlines how her illness challenged her role as academic researcher, teacher, administrator, and den mother to a multitude of graduate students, and links her physical imbalance to the gendered division of labour in academic institutions. Specifically, Pierson identifies “a naïve and insufficiently examined embrace of feminism” as a possible reason for her workaholism that in turn led to her body’s betrayal (115). Believing fervently in feminist ideals, she had taken on inhuman workloads in the name of service to academic rigour, feminist commitments, student needs (both academic and emotional), and tenuous employment within the growing trend of contractual work. Ruth Roach Pierson underwent psychotherapy, a radical change in diet, exercise, relaxation, and reduced her workload as she took on the work of healing. But most germane to her journey, she believes, was her return to poetry, and the commitment to time, process, and intricate inner worlds wrought by the poetic imagination. Pierson awoke to new ways of seeing and living when her body interrupted the demands of her professional trajectory, and her story indicates the embodied artfulness of healing, as we reinvent our daily rituals in service to a new sense of authority—one grounded in wholeness, in the integrity of our hearts and minds, as we teach and learn. She also reminds us of art’s healing potential, directing our minds and hands away from the conveyor belt of academic success, to the ineffable knowledge that rational language and conventional curricula could only hope to imagine.


Swan, Susan. The Biggest Modern Woman of the World. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1983.

(Annotated by Paula Cameron)

Figuratively speaking, Anna Haining Swan has loomed over me since childhood. Featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as one half of the World’s Tallest Couple, Anna was a towering woman, seven foot six in a time when people were small and few. Her embodiment of something greater, something other, was rooted in her deviation from the norm. Her uneasy disruption of feminine norms was relegated to the sideshow, a carnival corralling exceptional human beings into one grotesque parenthetical community. Where they could be held up to (reaffirm) the normative gaze.

Visiting the Sunrise Trail Museum in her hometown Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, as a young girl, I looked at photographs depicting “normal” women wearing Anna’s bloomers, one woman in each leg. I saw her wedding dress, the hyperbolic shroud that marked the inevitable conclusion to her training as a respectable Victorian woman, the narrative force of heterosexuality structuring her extraordinary life as leading up to that normative moment. Rescued from a rustic agricultural existence, historical accounts of Anna’s travels with Barnum and Bailey’s Circus emphasize her ladylike manners and artistic cultivation. “Throughout history, man has felt safer with the obscure and the mediocre and resented the brilliant, the exotic, and the spectacular, a category to which giants belong” (118). Like any other extraordinary woman of her time, Anna shouldered the burden of others’ discomfort. Her performance conveyed that she was no monster; she too, could conform to the standards of moral respectability and cultural refinement. The whiteness of her skin made this possibility possible, thus avoiding a triple deviation from the dominant culture (gender, race and size).

In The Biggest Modern Woman in the World, Susan Swan reimagines Anna’s story, playfully twisting history further in its already-fictional direction. Swan revises the scarce third-person accounts of Anna’s life, infusing the voices of Anna and her family and associates into a carnivalesque novel about a woman whose body and its various appetites grew beyond her inherited confines. But more than this, Swan elaborates a tale of colonialism, consumerism, and metropolitanism, using her larger-than-life heroine as a commentator on Canadian-American relations, and the dominant culture that privileges masculinity and material ambition at the expense of time, relationships, and communion with nature. As Anna herself notes, “My relationship with my audience has always been an uneven one” (50). She occupies a liminal space, vacillating between special and freakish, and with one giant foot in bucolic Nova Scotia, and another in the “gumption, get-up-and-go” of New York (107). The mutual disruption of these settings provides her with a critical perspective on the invisible boundaries that cause growing pains in both worlds—growing pains that belie the physical and emotional toll of performing normative gender, and the creative possibilities for engaging in popular education at the seams of dominant culture.


Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind. In The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. Amelia Jones, ed. London: Routledge. (1978/2003). (pp. 130-5).

(Annotated by Paula Cameron)

In 1978, French novelist Monique Wittig delivered a talk at the Modern Language Association Convention in New York City. In this text, The Straight Mind, Wittig relates psychoanalytic theories, sexual difference, and heterosexual dominance within a radical lesbian framework. In her scathing critique of traditional social science, she elaborates on the ways mythologies of the unconscious naturalize gender difference and enable the exploitation of women and gay men. Monique Wittig attributes the “confusing static of the oppressed” (130) to the chorus of discourses that ahistoricize the material conditions forming this oppression. Specifically, psychoanalytic theories such as the name-of-the-father, the Oedipus complex, castration, the murder-or-death-of-the-father, and the exchange of women, are used to shore up patriarchal mythologies that create difference for the purposes of exploitation. As Wittig states, difference “has nothing ontological [or real] about it. It is only the way that the masters interpret a historical situation of domination. The function of difference is to mask at every level the conflicts of interest, including ideological ones” (133). Her solution, a “political semiology” (or science of symbols) that abolishes gender categories altogether, raises important questions about the relationship between language and material reality, and the subsequent role of feminist popular educators in changing this reality. Wittig points to the value of genealogical work in decentering heterosexual mythologies: “It is from this science that we must track down the ‘what-goes-without-saying’ heterosexual (…) we must not bear ‘seeing Nature and History confused at every turn’” (134). This unsettling of the seemingly natural via history is one of the many ways feminist artists and educators unsettle the straight mind in their lives and work.

One Response to “Annotations”

  1. very interesting


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