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Tim Dean: Sex researcher, professor

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Tim Dean: sex researcher, professor

photo by Molly Jarobe

Dean, a professor of English and director of the Humanities Institute at UB, teaches queer theory and has spent much of his career writing about gender and sexuality issues. His most recent book, "Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking" (which was featured on Amazon’s Top 10 Gay and Lesbian books of 2009), focused on a controversial and taboo subculture among gay men—men who have sex without protection, an alluring yet risky practice that has stirred debate about safe sex practices among the gay community.

What is queer theory and how does it differ from the study of other subcultures in America?

Queer theory---which I teach at UB---starts from the recognition that it is not only the gender of your partner that can put you at odds with the heterosexual norm. All kinds of sex acts and erotic affiliations are stigmatized by a narrow heterosexual script. Queer politics consists in making alliances across identity groups, in a way that enables heterosexuals to see that they too may have a stake in queer issues. Queer theory suggests that the point is not to discover your true sexual identity, but to challenge identity or escape it.

How would you characterize the gay community in Buffalo? How does Western New York compare to other metros in terms of acceptance?

I love the city of Buffalo, though it can be somewhat provincial, and I notice that provincialism in the gay community. One positive aspect of provincialism is that the local gay community embraces a broader range of body types as desirable. There’s much less body fascism than in LA or New York. I have found people in the city---and at the university---generally very accepting of lesbian, gay, and queer folks. At the same time, I get the impression that there are more men in Buffalo having sex with other men “on the down low” than in cities such as New York or San Francisco.

Has the increasing view of HIV as a treatable disease contributed or encouraged participation in risky practices like barebacking?

Absolutely. But what I try to explain in my book on barebacking, Unlimited Intimacy, is that there are a lot of other factors, besides HIV medications, that have contributed to the rise in unprotected sex. For example, gay men have gotten tired of the crisis mentality around AIDS. It’s psychologically very damaging to try and sustain a crisis mentality for decades. Some of the AIDS organizations still don’t get that.

What are some of the biggest sexual health issues facing the gay community today?

Sexual health---and health in general---needs to be thought about more holistically. Conceiving it in terms of prevention---don’t get pregnant, don’t get infected---is way too limited. If your sexuality is defined by fear of pregnancy or disease, that doesn’t leave much room for exploration or for pleasure. So I think the challenge is to rethink “sexual health” in its entirety.

In comparison to the past, are Americans today less inhibited sexually or are people merely more open about their practices?

It’s hard to know exactly what people in the past got up to because the historical record is incomplete. There’s a great new book, Secret Historian by Justin Spring, which discusses the amazing sex life of Samuel Steward, a very colorful character who kept a meticulous record of his extraordinary activities. But just the fact of his keeping records makes Steward atypical. Today the internet keeps a record of people’s sexual practices and fantasies, so historians of the future will have a lot of data on our sexualities.

bonus: On your list of articles I noticed a yet to be published article on the “Pornography of Disability”. How has the online accessibility of every variety of kink and perversion influenced our behavior in the bedroom?

What’s online shows us that we have a whole range of possibilities for what to do with our bodies. Some porn scenes should come with a disclaimer warning, “Don’t try this at home, it’s not as easy as it looks.” But, in general, it’s good for sexual diversity that young people can see there are more options for pleasure beyond the official story of permissible erotic expression.

bonus: Does having such an academic interest in sex and sexuality ever seem to take the fun out of it?

Are you kidding? I watch a lot of porn and I go to sex clubs all in the name of research.

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