Interview by Sarah Brown, Concordia University
The SHiFT Lab (Sexuality Hub: Integrating Feminist Theory) is affiliated with the Department of Psychology in Ryerson University, and focuses on integrating feminist poststructuralist and discursive practices into the study of sexual practices, technologies, and messages. Their current research spans a wide spectrum of topics: examples include research into the sexuopharmaceutical industry, discourses of gender transgression, and analysis of mainstream pornography in a postfeminist context.
While I haven’t visited their space in person, I found out about the lab through a quick search on Google. Though their website is still under construction, it showed up within the first results for “sexuality studies lab canada” for me, with their mandate and team of researchers highlighted. The website also outlines many of their current research projects and publications.
I had a chance to ask the lab director, Dr. Maria Gurevich, a few questions over email regarding the practices of the lab. While the SHiFT lab is not a media lab in the traditional sense, Dr. Gurevich defined it as “a critical sexuality scholarship lab. We study many influences on sexuality, including the role of media as a purveyor of messages.” The lab is affiliated with the Psychology Department, and the influence of media is apparent in much of their work — examples of media studied include sex blogs, contemporary queer magazines, pornography and erotica, and sexuopharmaceutical marketing.
In terms of physical space, Dr. Gurevich explained, “Our lab is not defined by a physical space but is rather a community of researchers. We have a couple of rooms where grad students and RAs share study space — that’s what most psych labs look like, unless they are conducting experiments.” (The SHiFT lab does not perform experimental work, but rather qualitative research.) The heterogeneous nature of their research assistants and graduate/undergraduate students is apparent — as the site notes, the team comes from “a variety of backgrounds in addition to psychology, including journalism, art and music theory and practice, film studies, philosophy, sociology, history, and sexual diversity studies.” This lends to the “multi-disciplinary approach” fostered by the lab, and I think indicates that the relationship between media and sexuality is an omnipresent research interest within a wide spectrum of the humanities.
The questions below were tailored to highlight the driving philosophies behind the lab, as well as the process of integrating technologies, discursive analysis, and various forms of media into research.
You mention a feminist discursive approach as one of your central analytic tools in research. Could you briefly touch on how/why you decided to shape your process this way?
We rely on feminist discursive approaches to analyze our data because this epistemic lens acknowledges that knowledge is perpetually negotiated in social interactions and institutional contexts. This approach also questions binarized gendered and sexed categorizations that structure personal and cultural narratives, and calls attention to dominant discourses that construct and constrict available subjectivities. In other words, this epistemic lens questions what is considered legitimate and ‘normal’ based on privilege, power, and access, which may be afforded or barred to specific individuals or groups based on their gender and sexuality markers.
Discourse analysis (DA) is part of a long tradition of discursive psychology, wherein language is viewed as central to identity production and practices. DA treats talk as a type of situated action, acknowledging that language is not a transparent or value-free vehicle for conveying meaning; rather, meaning is created and transmitted through language itself.
It’s interesting the way language is evolving around sexual technologies in particular, with sexnologies, teledildonics, etc. becoming ubiquitous terms. As a researcher in this field, do you participate in “coining” new jargon to talk about these technologies or their effects?
Yes, the language is rapidly developing and shifting. Given the lab’s emphasis on identities as historically contingent forms organized through talk, and our view that gender is a ‘practical accomplishment’ (West & Zimmerman, 2009) that is navigated and negotiated under specific cultural conditions, we are very cognisant of how we contribute to the formation of new terminology. One of my chief intellectual and aesthetic pleasures (and they are inseparable for me) is crafting new linguistic structures to describe emerging sexual phenomena. I would not refer to these as jargon, however, as this has a pejorative and/or elitist tinge in some circles. Rather, I think of this as an inevitable part of developing a mobile lexicon for describing shifting body regulation and modification practices, sexual scripts and intimacy norms.
On that note, what’s your process in terms of the sexual technologies you choose to study? With newer models, modifications etc. developing so quickly and constantly, how does a longer research project sustain an understanding of technologies which are somewhat in perpetual “update?”
Because we consider sexual technologies to be broader than physical or virtual platforms, that include modalities like pornography, sexual expert advice and, sexuopharmaceuticals, we are not so interested in capturing the very latest X.0 version of a specific technology. Rather, we focus on how ubiquitous some technologies are becoming and how they function to shape gendered subjectivities as situated practices, or ways of ‘doing’ gender. This permits us to focus on meaning making and practices shaped by emerging technologies, rather than the technologies qua technologies.
Your project “Intimate Interfaces for People with Disabilities” is developing a working technological prototype to support sexual experimentation for persons with disabilities. Can you talk a bit about the process of moving from research into the realm of creation?
I can’t speak to this one, as I am co-investigator on this project and my role in not on technological prototype development. The PI is an engineer, so she is responsible for the actual model building. My focus is on the psychological aspects, such as user experiences.
Currently, it looks like you’re researching STAXYN, which is noted to be a “growing but empirically virtually ignored sexual practice” in your abstract. What contributed to your decision to delve into a relatively unresearched phenomenon — and, as I’m guessing there are many such practices out there, what interested you most in this one?
This is part of a larger project on recreational use of sexuopharmaceuticals, with Staxyn and Stendra being the most recently approved drugs. STAXYN is particularly interesting because its marketing explicitly emphasizes its safety and suitability for younger men without erectile dysfunction (ED), for whom stress is cited as contributing to occasional erectile difficulty (Canada Newswire, 2011). The benefits of STAXYN promoted by both physicians and Bayer Healthcare/GlaxoSmithKline (its manufacturer) for younger men are: low cost, efficacy unaffected by alcohol consumption and sleek packaging. As sexuopharmaceutical marketing expands the definition of ED and its intended users, these drugs are being touted both as performance enhancers and as a preventative measure against sexual failures among younger and younger men. The therapeutic claims of these drugs extend beyond rectifying failing erections, to assertions about enhancing sexual desire and pleasure, repairing relationships, enhancing self-esteem, and bolstering masculinities. These promises are being taken up by an increasingly broader spectrum of users. Recreational use is now steadily growing among those without ED, such as young men between the ages of 17-30.
Thanks again to Dr. Gurevich for participating in this interview. To learn more about the upcoming initiatives of the SHiFT lab, you can visit their current projects page here.