Saturday, July 29, 2017

SAA: Sex is history

Tilikum Crossing as seen from the west side of the Willamette River, Portland, Oregon, 29 July 2017. This cable-stayed bridge opened in September 2015 and was the first American bridge of its kind that doesn't allow for the passage of automobiles; traffic is limited to light rail, streetcars, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
The final day of the 2017 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists consisted of the Liberated Archive Forum, a series of sessions and presentations that sought to empower activists seeking to document their own communities and enable professional archivists to ensure that we assemble a truly comprehensive documentary record. I stayed for part of the forum, and I was particularly impressed by an hour-long discussion on "Sex, History, and Controversy" led by author and activist Susie Bright and Cornell University Human Sexuality Collection curator Brenda Marston. I've long argued that archivists committed to creating a comprehensive historical record must grapple with issues of sexuality, and today's session led me to focus anew upon this issue.

Key takeways:

1. Sexuality is a vast, varied, and integral component of the human experience, and failing to document adult sexuality in all of its complexity and messiness means that we are failing to create a comprehensive historical record. At the same time, documenting sexuality poses numerous internal and external challenges for archivists. Archivists are embedded within the culture they seek to document, and our culture privileges some forms of sexual expression, condemns others, and often wants to sweep sexuality under the rug altogether. Archivists need to grapple with these cultural impulses when they come to the fore -- either from without or from within, and the process of doing so is likely going to be a lifelong one.

2. Several people expressed concern about the possibility that consent given at the time a given record was created might not extend to permanent preservation of that record. For example, there's a distinct possibility that at least some of the people who appear in sexually explicit photographs that were taken in the 1980s might now regret their decision to be photographed and would be appalled to learn that an archives had acquired the images and planned to share them with researchers. Bright responded that in such cases, closing such materials to researchers for a fixed period of time should minimize the risk of privacy violations. She also emphasized that, in many instances, materials documenting activities such as prostitution and pornography help to capture the lives of poor and working-class people and sexual minorities. If we discard materials that document their involvement in sex work or communities centered around sexual expression, their lives might otherwise be completely undocumented.

3. Archives are filled with records that document all manner of truly horrible things. Why do people who object to archival materials that contain sexually explicit words or images think it's acceptable for archives to document war or genocide? In our culture, pleasure -- and in particular sexual pleasure -- is surrounded by stigma in a way that widely condemned phenomena such as slavery are not. We need to be aware of and push back against this stigma in order to do our jobs effectively.

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