Skip to main content

Four sexuality researchers talk shop

Northwestern fosters an interdisciplinary approach to studying and understanding sexuality

Gathered around a table in the corner of Deering Library’s Reading Room, their laughter and enthusiasm bounced off each wall. Medical social sciences professor Kathryn Macapagal arrived first, recent research poster and soaking wet umbrella in hand. All smiles, sociology professor Héctor Carrillo entered with a small suitcase — after this meeting, he would be leading a discussion on graduate student research funding. As Carrillo and Macapagal chatted and the rain abated, communication studies professor Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian and African American studies professor Jennifer Nash made their way to the table.

“You should speak first because…” Christian said, once everyone had taken their seats.

“…you’re the leader,” Macapagal finished, ceding the floor to Carrillo, who kicked off the discussion.

Carrillo founded the the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN) eight years ago with fellow sociology professor Steve Epstein. The group has grown since then, and faculty across the university now regard SPAN as a hub for discussing and exploring the ways in which their disciplines approach sexuality.

“For some reason, sexuality is one of the most charged human behaviors,” Carrillo said. “It’s been invested with all kinds of meanings beyond sexual behavior itself, with a lot of consequences for people’s lives. And it’s important for us to address those meanings, and in the process, think about how people’s lives can be better.”

Personal anecdotes and follow-up questions flew across the table on this rainy afternoon, as Carrillo, Macapagal, Nash and Christian discussed their current projects, the value of SPAN, and their hopes for the future of sexuality studies.

Héctor Carrillo

Héctor Carrillo, professor of sociology and gender and sexuality studies 

Héctor Carrillo: In so many places — even in this day and age — people fear that if they propose a study related to sexuality, it will be set aside as not serious enough to merit funding.

Kathryn Macapagal: Even though sexuality touches everybody’s lives somehow. In many academic spaces, people doing sexuality-related research don’t talk to each other. SPAN brings people of different disciplines together so we can do just that. SPAN is a hub for folks in public health to talk to the people in psychology, sociology and other disciplines.

Aymar Jean (AJ) Christian: SPAN is really unique in that there aren’t very many programs out there for sexuality research that allow researchers to look at sexuality from lots of different perspectives and fund a wide range of work related to sexuality.

Jennifer Nash: I really appreciate SPAN’s attention to current political debates, from #MeToo to the resurgence of feminism on college campuses.

Aymar Jean (AJ) Christian

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian, assistant professor of communication studies

Carrillo: AJ, I’d be very interested in hearing what’s happened with your SPAN funding and where your project is headed. 

Christian: I run what I originally called a queer television network. For me, sexuality is a very important mode of relationship that structures how people relate to each other. We can’t think of sexuality outside of race or gender or any other category. I help artists who are exploring those categories make TV shows and explore their identities in complex film narratives. I’ve been doing this for three years, and we’ve released almost 40 projects. I’m now meeting with major production companies and thinking about what it would mean to create an incubator for intersectional television so that we can help the industry with their diversity issues. Hopefully, we can actually help people make diverse shows and prove the value of these stories.

Carrillo: I wish my research was so glamorous. I recently started a new project, looking at men who identify as straight but have sex with both men and women. I’m also looking now at gay-identified men who have sex with men and women — by choice, not because of social pressure.

Macapagal: What are you finding about men who label themselves as straight?

Carrillo: Their choice to define themselves as straight has less to do with secrecy and more to do with issues about their own masculinity and the way they were socialized.

Macapagal: As a public health researcher, I would categorize those men’s behavior as bisexual. I wonder how they would feel about that.


Jennifer Nash

Jennifer Nash, associate professor of African American studies and gender and sexuality studies

Nash: Before SPAN, I had never done qualitative research. My training is in African American studies, and my first book was about representations of black women in pornography. But now, with SPAN funding, I’m working on a book about tethering black maternity to ideas of crisis.

In the course of doing that research, I’ve become really interested in certain groups of doulas — largely women of color — who see themselves as advocates of birth justice and reproductive justice.

Carrillo: One thing that I really like about your project is way you connect breastfeeding to a sensual embodiment of black women’s sexuality.

Nash: And in all of the interviews I conducted with black mothers, breastfeeding and eroticism were linked. Some women were surprised that breastfeeding felt like an erotic practice, whereas for others, breastfeeding felt like a loss of their sensual selves.

Christian: Has Serena Williams come up in your work?

Nash: Totally. There’s a portion of the project that’s about the aesthetics of black motherhood, taking into consideration Serena, Beyoncé, and this new aesthetic of sensual, erotic black motherhood that’s happening alongside this image of black motherhood as a space of death and crisis. I’m also looking at mothers of the movement like Trayvon Martin’s mom, Michael Brown’s mom, and trying to think about these varied, competing images of black motherhood.

Kathryn Macapagal

Kathryn Macapagal, research assistant professor of medical social sciences and psychiatry and behavioral sciences

Macapagal: I started as a pure sex researcher, but my work now is really focused on HIV prevention and sexual health in LGBT adolescents and young adults. One of the things I’m looking at specifically is hook-up and dating app use among adolescent gay, bisexual and queer guys.

Carrillo: Sexuality occupies such a huge amount of our media, our discussions and our thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that when it comes to researching what is a very fundamental aspect of the human experience, our society tends to be very shy about exploring how people want to live their sexual lives, and how they can incorporate their sexualities in beneficial, fulfilling ways.

Christian: As I work in the artistic community, I realize people lead very interdisciplinary lives. They’re going through multiple systems, ways of thinking and forms of oppression — racism, sexism, transphobia, misogyny, et cetera. And I think it will take researchers a lot more time to really get at those nuances. I think it also requires interdisciplinary spaces like SPAN, and talking to people who are thinking about sexuality in different ways.

Macapagal: SPAN has provided a place to study everyday sexuality and everyday experiences, including those not necessarily associated with health, like how young gay, bisexual and queer men find community online. I hope the sexuality studies field increasingly focuses on wellbeing, and people’s regular sex lives and everyday experiences. I understand the importance of the disease-focused lens — common in public health spaces — but there are also other ways that sexuality affects your life. SPAN encourages us to explore those areas, which is very cool.

  • Héctor Carrillo is a professor of sociology and gender and sexuality studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
  • Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication studies in the School of Communication. 
  • Kathryn Macapagal is a research assistant professor of medical social sciences and psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the Feinberg School of Medicine. She is a faculty member in the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH).
  • Jennifer Nash is an associate professor of African American studies and gender and sexuality studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Journalists: View press materials for Héctor Carrillo here

Published: November 13, 2018. Updated: January 25, 2019.

Back to top