Queering the Visual History of the Sexual Revolution

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 11:10 AM
Gramercy West (New York Hilton)
Jennifer Evans, Carleton University
This paper charts the ebb and flow of erotic photography across time and borders, to challenge normative assumptions about the role of images and image making in creating new forms of sexual self-expression during a moment of liberalization that we have come to associate with the “Sexual Revolution.” I wish to make three points. First, is the matter of periodization, that the Sexual Revolution as we have come to understand it is largely a 1970s, or perhaps post 1968 phenomenon. Drawing on the tradition of photobooks and gay men’s magazines, I will show examples of how the pre-1970s avant-garde shaped the 1970s pornographic imagination. Second, and related to this, is the question of image construction and migration. It is largely assumed that the long and rich tradition of sex reform and LGBTQ subcultures explained why Europe’s capitals and perhaps New York were the most significant sites of experimentation and flouting of convention during the Sexual Revolution. While this is to some extent true, it is also the case that the emergence of queer erotics was a translocal phenomenon, where the mixing and mingling of images, imagery, and artists might draw Tokyo into Amsterdam’s orbit and vice versa. With examples of artist collaboration and aesthetic transfers across borders, I will suggest at the very least more nuance is needed for how we think about the optics of sex during the Sexual Revolution from a transnational viewpoint. Finally, and with this last point, I will endeavor to challenge the identity-driven, siloed nature of much of our thinking about 1970s sexuality by showcasing moments when visual culture disrupted established or fixed sexualities, when straight and queer gazes and experiences rubbed up against each other in interesting, though in today’s world, difficult to imagine ways.