Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence

Sex Diss Stories

"I think Sex Diss is really important. It's a bit like when women’s studies courses began. They catalysed changes across academia. This is what Sex Diss has done with queer studies. It provided a hub where like-minded people could develop as individuals and in their thinking and they have gone on to have a real influence."
- Jenny Bourne Taylor, Professor of English Literature

We have interviewed many people that have worked with us over the years. Here, you can explore the stories of people that have taken the MA in Sexual Dissidence; get the perspectives of faculty that teach on the MA in Sexual Dissidence; see how our events and community enrich the research of current PhD students at Sussex; and learn a bit about our history from people that were there at the time.

Jenny Bourne Taylor (Professor of English Literature)

Jenny Bourne Taylor is a Professor in the School of English at the University of Sussex. She is interested in interdisciplinary approaches to nineteenth century literature and culture, in particular in how emerging debates in psychology - on identity, consciousness and unconscious mental activity - were appropriated and transformed in fictional narratives. Jenny was working at Sussex when Sex Diss was founded, and here she offers her reflections on on the early days of Sex Diss and its ongoing influence.

“It’s great to capture some of the history and back-story of the Centre as these things are often forgotten and that is a shame. We think of queer studies as part of the landscape now, but it wasn’t always the case.

I wasn’t directly involved in setting up the Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence but I was around when it first started. I was Chair of Graduate Studies at Sussex from about 1990–1994 and had oversight of graduate studies across the English Subject Group.

Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield were the real instigators of Sex Diss. Much of the thinking for the Centre grew out of Jonathan’s book Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault, which became a key text in queer studies. They had the kind of international profiles that gave Sex Diss real visibility when it first started. They’d been teaching gay and queer studies for many years and Sex Diss brought work like this from across the university together and gave it a home.

Maybe queer studies is mainstream now and less of a big thing. In those days there were some queer studies centres in the States but it was quite unusual for England. Although Sex Diss was almost ahead of its time, I never sensed any resistance to Sex Diss or homophobia within the university. Brighton was, and still is, renowned as a gay-friendly city and maybe that helped. Most people who came wanted an MA, of course. But Sex Diss was also a space for consciousness raising and political discussion. It was a safe space for people who couldn’t necessarily find this elsewhere in academia.

It was a small programme at first and Alan and Jonathan decided to make its scope broader than gay and lesbian studies. They wanted a historical approach as well as the study of more modern texts and phenomena. I remember work on molly houses and that sort of thing. It was eclectic. I also remember that they were keen to avoid creating a very male-dominated space that only focussed on gay men. So the links to feminist thought and women’s studies were very prominent and there were modules on contemporary women’s writing and lesbian studies that students could take.

Because of the School system that we had in the university at the time it was also interdisciplinary – Alan and Jonathan were from Cultural and Community Studies and English and American Studies. So from the outset this interdisciplinary approach was important to Sex Diss.

I think Jonathan left the Centre about fifteen years ago now, and Alan retired more recently. Vincent Quinn took over the Directorship and played a crucial role in keeping Sex Diss alive. Later, William Spurlin was appointed and I think he did a really good job of making international links and raising issues of race and ethnicity. Now we have Rachel, and we are very lucky to get her. The appointment was very competitive, and she is doing a great job of revitalising the Centre once again.

I think Sex Diss is really important. It's a bit like when women’s studies courses began. They catalysed changes across academia. This is what Sex Diss has done with queer studies. It provided a hub where like-minded people could develop as individuals and in their thinking and they have gone on to have a real influence.”

Read more about Jenny on her Sussex University page.

Beatrice Chateauvert-Gagnon (PhD Student in International Relations)

Béatrice is currently working on her PhD in International Relations, building on years of feminist and gender studies. Her research focuses on the logics of protection and representations of female protectors as part of feminist security studies. In her personal life she has been involved in feminist and queer activism. She is an active member of the Centre and attends events, the reading group and Queory. She finds Sex Diss a useful way of improving her personal and academic life.

“Queer theory is just starting to get integrated into International Relations and even feminist theory is quite young. So the activities organised by Sex Diss are a good way of meeting people who are sympathetic to queer theory and engaged in the kind of debates that it is difficult to find elsewhere. When you are doing your PhD it is easy to stop learning and focus on your own work. But being part of Sex Diss means that I get to read new texts and have impressive, intelligent people to discuss them with.

I’ve already read many of the core texts in queer theory but the group gives me an interdisciplinary perspective that I really value. I’ve been to reading groups in the past where people spend their time name-dropping, trying to impress and talking in a way that others in the group find impenetrable. But the general spirit in Sex Diss is not like that at all – nobody is arrogant, nobody knows it all – everybody can be part of the conversation. The people are really cool, open minded and different.

Often as a queer, or a person interested in queer theory, you can feel a little isolated intellectually and socially. When you move to Brighton you have heard that it is a queer city. But then many people have already settled in their own daily lives and it can be hard to find a social circle. Sex Diss gave me a ready-made group of like-minded people who were interested in going out and having fun as well as studying. I really value that.”

Béatrice’s Biography

Béatrice Châteauvert-Gagnon is a PhD student in International Relations, in the school of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Her research is supervised by Cynthia Weber and Louiza Odysseos. Her work is situated mostly in Feminist Security Studies (FSS), looking at the logics of protection and popular representations of female protectors. Her research interests also include queer and feminist theories in general, and international security in particular. She recently completed her MA in International Relations and Feminist Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal, in Québec, Canada.

Beyond academia, Beatrice is a committed queer and feminist activist who has been teaching feminist self-defence and assault prevention workshops for women both in Montreal and in numerous cities in France for the past 5 years. She sees a direct connection between these experiences and her work in Feminist Security Studies.

Read more about Béatrice on her Sussex University page.

He Xiao Pei (activist and researcher, former Sex Diss MA student)

He Xiao Pei is the founder and Director of Pink Space Sexuality Research Centre, an organisation in Beijing that is working with women who are marginalised because of their sexuality to foster mutual respect and support and build networks. You can trace a direct path between He’s experiences on the Sexual Dissidence MA and her decision to dedicate her time to sexuality-related campaigning, advocacy and storytelling.

He studied with Sex Diss in 2000. She came to the course straight off the back of an MA in Gender. She’d decided to take a sabbatical from her work for the Chinese Government where she worked in a senior job in the State Council Health Care Reform Office.

“When I was studying gender nobody ever talked about sexuality and we only talked about developing countries in terms of problems. There was a victim narrative about women and it didn’t excite me at all. I heard about Sex Diss through my partner who had taken some of the courses and thought that it would be far more helpful to my job – working on HIV in China.”

Studying on the MA brought together many of the issues He was interested in: lesbian theory, film, and queer studies. She liked it so much that when her employer demanded she return home she gave up her job rather than leave the MA.

“The students, the teachers and the politics were excellent. It is not only about sexuality. I was taught about race, about class – I learned what power really is. I liked to be challenged by my supervisor. The academics connected to this course are very knowledgeable, political and critical.”

After her MA He got a scholarship to do a PhD in London. She believes that without Sex Diss she would never have got the funding. Studying with Sex Diss allowed her to understand what she wanted to do with her life and work at a much deeper level.

“I was so much surer about my ideas. The PhD was structured around cultural studies of HIV and looked at how HIV is lived by people in China through analysis of official discourse, cultural discourse and how real people navigate this. In gender studies people mainly wanted to learn to get a job, and of course this is important. But the sexual dissidence people want to learn for the purposes of critical thinking.”

He watched a lot of films on the course – because of Sex Diss's links to the School of Media, Film and Music – and found film to be a very powerful medium. It was one of the reasons she is now a documentary maker. Her latest film looks at lesbians who marry gay men in order to ease the pressure of marriage normativity that mainstream Chinese society places upon their parents. Previous films have looked at issues such as sexuality and disability.

“The MA taught me a lot about desire. I also learned that sexuality is not only about LGBT issues, that it is about norms and how people live around them and challenge them. I now work with people who are even more marginalised than the LGBT community - people with disabilities, women living with HIV, sex workers and women who have found out their husbands are gay. When I did my Gender MA I didn’t come out. But doing Sex Diss I came out to myself, because I found myself, and I gained a much better understanding of the world around me and my place within it.”

He’s biography

The hills trained me to be a professional shepherd and the Himalayas turned me into a full time mountaineer. A government job made me an economist while the women's movement and gender studies converted me into a feminist. Participating in LBGTQ organising in China helped me to realise there are many people who are also oppressed due to their gender and sexuality, especially people with disabilities, HIV positive women, bisexual women, and sex workers. This is why I set up the Pink Space Sexuality Research Centre to promote sexual rights and sexual pleasure among people who are oppressed.

Joseph Ronan (Phd Student in English)

Joe did the Sexual Dissidence MA in 2009 and has maintained a relationship with the Centre since that time. He is currently working on a PhD on bisexual theory.

“I did an undergraduate degree in English and Drama and towards the end I had more of a focus on gender and sexuality. That’s when I became aware of Sex Diss and it seemed a natural place to go to for post-graduate study. After completing the Sex Diss MA I carried on engaging with Sex Diss as part of its larger community.

I’m now in the third year of a PhD looking at bisexual theory in contemporary literature and culture and this interest came out of one of the term papers from the MA. It wasn’t something I had paid much academic attention to previously but during the course of my study it became noticeable by its absence. Bisexuality seemed to get short shrift in many of the core texts and very often gets rewritten as gay or queer. I think one of the problems with queer is that it becomes so inclusive as to lose any specificity and gets rewritten as gay, white male. In my work I am keen to bring back bisexuality as a critical standpoint and experiential position.

I now I co-run the Sex Diss reading group which happens once a month during term time. The main driving force behind the group was that we felt we needed to make a concerted effort to keep abreast of developments in the field. Especially at post-graduate level you can be very knowledgeable about your specific area but miss what is going on more generally in sexuality-related theory. The reading group brings together people from other schools in the university, people from the Sex Diss MA, and undergraduates who have become interested in the topics we focus on. We also have people like me who are doing PhDs and people from the local community, usually feminist or queer activists. It is a broad-based group and inclusive but very intellectually focussed.

Exposure to different people and different ideas is one of the main things I have got out of my involvement with Sex Diss. The constant conversations and the dialogue that keeps bubbling along. This is one of the things that encouraged me to stay at Sussex for the PhD. You have really enriching interactions with faculty and visiting speakers and I felt my academic work was valued too. It’s very natural to want to continue this; it’s a very welcoming and egalitarian environment.

Also I like the fact it is the Centre for Sexual Dissidence rather than for queer theory or queer studies. It gives the work a different bent, so to speak! It keeps open the possibility that there are other ways of engaging with dissident sexualities beyond mainstream queer studies.”

Read more about Joe on his Sussex University page.

Michael Rowland (Phd Student in English)

Michael is a PhD student at the University of Sussex, in the School of English. He began his PhD in September 2012. He studied for a BA in English and American Literature at the University of Kent and then qualified as an English teacher. He spent four years working in a secondary school with a wide variety of students and found working with troubled adolescent boys really interesting. The process of growing up seemed to be difficult for them and a lot of their problems seemed to revolve around perceptions of gender, for example, were they "manly" enough? This sparked an interest for Michael in masculinity, which stayed with him when he came to Sussex to do an MA in English Literature in 2011. He is now doing a PhD that combines his interest in masculinity with research in affect theory (looking at shame in particular) and in eighteenth-century literature. Michael regularly participates in Sex Diss events in order to develop his work on gender and sexuality, particularly masculinity.

“I tend to come at things from several different angles at once - which is pretty queer in some ways! I initially applied for two different MA courses at Sussex - one of which was the Sex Diss MA. I actually opted for an MA in Literature & Culture 1700-1900, but I took one course from Sex Diss, "Critical Issues in Queer Theory." This course was a bit of a revelation for me, and opened up a lot of possibilities in my thinking and research. My PhD combines both the historical and theoretical, and although I'm not writing about queer men (I'm writing more about how shame helps construct normative male identity in the eighteenth century), a lot of the theoretical tools I use come from feminism and queer theory. I'm kind of on the periphery of Sex Diss in that I don't address queer issues directly in my work, but the events organised by the Centre are a hugely important resource for my general thinking about my thesis.

The big thing about queer theory is that when it's done right, there's no excuse for lazy thinking. Nothing can be assumed. I like the fact, too, that the personal is the political. I'm someone who has to feel an emotional connection to what I'm studying, and queer theory (especially at Sussex) seems to be the field that encourages that more than any other. I guess Sex Diss has taught me to take nothing for granted, and to always be open to reassessing what I believe to be true - both intellectually and in my daily life. It's made me open - and that's something that's influenced my life in a positive way.”

Michael’s experience is a good example of the many ways that people can interact with Sex Diss other than formally studying on the MA and of the value that PhD students place on their engagement with the Centre. 

“Sex Diss is a fairly rare beast really - a queer studies centre that has heritage and a lot of reach within the academic community here at Sussex. There are those people for whom it's the primary focus of their academic engagement, but for others like me, who have loose connections to more than one field of inquiry, it's great to have Sex Diss as a welcoming base. It's a very warm, nurturing and friendly space, which is partly down to Rachel’s hard work keeping it all running and partly just because we seem to have a really wonderful group of people involved. I've made some very good, close friends through the Centre because it seems to attract incredibly intelligent people, both academically and emotionally.

Sex Diss is genuinely one of the friendliest, most accessible elements of the university. People involved in the centre aren't just intellectually interested in this stuff, they're actually living it a lot of the time. That means that none of it is flat - it's all dynamically alive. It's really well organised, it gives people opportunities to get involved at all stages of study, and the events it organises are always really enjoyable. I've honestly never been to a dull talk or drab reading group.”

Read more about Michael on his Sussex University page.

Ashton Spacey (writer and researcher, former Sex Diss MA student)

Ashton completed the MA in Sexual Dissidence in 2013. She is currently in talks with a publisher about an edited volume on fan fiction, fan culture and the role of the internet, and is publishing her work in preparation for applying to do a PhD.

“I came to the MA in Sexual Dissidence from a creative writing background, looking at fan fiction as a cultural phenomenon. I am particularly interested in slash fiction (that is, romance/erotic fiction, usually depicting two male characters from famous shows or books, often written by straight-identifying women of a surprisingly broad age range).

I stumbled upon the Sex Diss MA during my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and Drama at the University of Portsmouth, based on a recommendation from one of the researchers with a similar interest in fan fiction. I decided to study at Sussex when I realised how easily students could tailor the course modules to both focus on their research interests and to glean a better understanding of a diverse range of theoretical perspectives on sexual dissidence.

What excited me about Sex Diss is that it continually produces new research ideas, informed by academic contacts from all over the world. The students, alumni and staff that interact with the centre are all from diverse theoretical backgrounds – such as gender studies, psychoanalysis and media – making for challenging and interesting debates. People are always interested in what you have to say, but you need to be prepared to fight your corner - not because they don’t agree, but simply because they want to help you develop your theories.

Doing this MA taught me that I need to constantly keep reading, re-reading and revising my theories – and ultimately, I came out of it with a much better idea of what I wanted to do with myself, and more faith in my academic convictions.

MA courses are very hard, but they are also very satisfying. The tutors on the MA in Sexual Dissidence cannot help you enough; they really engage with you and offer support whenever and wherever it is needed. Even now that I have graduated, my tutor still sends me interesting papers and publishing opportunities. In fact, it was thanks to her suggestions that I now regularly present papers at the NineWorlds GeekFest convention in London.

Why get involved with Sex Diss? Why not? You’ll be part of an evolving research centre, network with interesting academics, listen to excellent guest speakers and meet new friends who share your love of academia. The Centre is an excellent resource – not just for those interested in studying Queer Theory, but also those people who are fascinated by sexual dissidence in all of its forms – theoretical, visual, cultural and literary.”

Cynthia Weber (Professor of International Relations, teacher on Sex Diss MA)

Cynthia Weber is a Professor of International Relations and teaches "Global Queer," the Spring Term core module of the MA in Sexual Dissidence.

“The Sexual Dissidence MA is a jointly convened course that is organised by the Schools of English and Global Studies. I teach the "Global Queer" module, which is a fairly new addition to the course that has been integrated into the curriculum in the last few years.

It’s clear that queer studies have always traced gender and sexual variance and how they undo fixed categories. But until the last decade or so this work was very often pursued on a personal or national scale. Now queer studies have become global. Issues like human rights and gay identities, neo-liberalism, globalisation, border security and immigration, international development and war, particularly the war on terror, have become more prominent. We have reached a point where it is not possible to think queer without thinking global queer. The module uses the lenses of the under-developed, the gay rights holder, the immigrant, the terrorist, the gay patriot, the international hegemon and the protestor to look at how queer is used to deny rights and heteronormatise and the push back against this.

The first module of the MA trains students in the concepts of queer; then we apply and extend this globally in the second. A huge mix of students take the course and they have backgrounds in English, History, Gender Studies, International Relations, Conflict and Security, Development, Human Geography, Political Economy, Anthropology and Media. The course I teach is intended to be interdisciplinary; it allows students to conduct research in their area of interest or across disciplines as long as it addresses global queer.

We often attract students with an interest in activism and international organisation. They go on to apply the skills they learn in a range of arenas. The MA is a good pathway into a PhD and some students go on to work for non governmental or human rights organisations. You learn the same bundle of skills you would get on any kind of global degree. It allows you to hone your critical thinking. The training you get on the MA would be ideal for a position in the civil service or a government agency.

The MA is a pivotal element of the Centre for Sexual Dissidence. Sex Diss is extremely supportive. There are always loads of interesting activities, films, and speakers. It provides a sense of community, in the best sense of that word, for students who are interested in these issues. Students really utilise Sex Diss as a resource, and the interesting conversations that they have continue outside of the classroom.”

Read more about Cindy on her Sussex University page.