ASPP Spotlight: Vicarious Kinks, by Ummni Khan

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Professor Ummni Khan, Associate Professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University, is not one to shy away from “taboo” research topics. Her latest book, Vicarious Kinks: SM in the Socio-Legal Imaginary (University of Toronto Press), takes a closer look at the claims made about sadomasochism and its practitioners, and what this in turn says about the institutions making those claims. This ASPP-funded title certainly caught our attention, and so we turned to Professor Khan with the question: Are some topics too taboo to tackle for a researcher?

Here is Professor Khan’s response:

“Academic freedom dictates the answer to this question must be a resounding, “No.” And yet one of the most surprising things I discovered in the course of my research was the discouragement and suspicion I received from some scholars when they learned about my focus on SM. I was not prepared for this.

I began research on the legal and cultural treatment of SM during my PhD, and received strong support from my supervisor and committee. However, when other academics learned about my research, I encountered raised eyebrows. People often wanted to know why I was drawn to this topic. While some were simply curious, others implied that I must be harboring prurient reasons. Other naysayers suggested the research was trivial and did not engage core human rights or social justice questions.

Conversely, from a well-intentioned place, certain mentors recommended that early in one’s academic career, one should not court controversy.  It was suggested that getting published and getting jobs would be harder, and that I should wait until I had secured a position, and ideally tenure, before I began to associate myself with such a touchy area. There is something to this advice. In the popular imagination, SM is often depicted as perverted, pathological and dangerous. Authoring a book on the topic -- even from the safe distance of the ivory tower – involves some risk. The stigma associated with SM can rub off on those analyzing the phenomenon.

Despite the resistance and the advice (or perhaps even because of it), I have doggedly stuck with this subject area. I am a firm believer in obeying your academic muse, and mine had a whip in her hand. And while some doors may have been closed to me because of my research area -- let’s face it, sex also sells.  So I should admit that the taboo nature of my topic has probably also helped to promote the book.”

Image: University of Toronto Press

In this series, we highlight books that have received funding from The Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP). ASPP is a competitive funding program run by the Federation that assists with the publication of scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences. Since 1941, the ASPP has funded more than 6,000 works, contributing directly to the creation of a distinctly Canadian body of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences. Read more about the ASPP here.


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