Delany at Dartmouth: The Dirt

On Monday, I heard Samuel R. Delany deliver the annual Stonewall Lecture at Dartmouth College. I've been reading Delany's work since I was in grade school, and since college I've been familiar with both his critical writings and his occasional pornography, so I wasn't at all surprised when his lecture, titled either "Queer Thoughts on the Politics of Sex" (official title) or "The Gamble" (Delany's title), veered from the medical and scientific rhetoric of its beginning into an explicit and autobiographical discussion of sex. Not everyone in the audience was familiar with Delany's writings, or his predilections, and so there were a couple of palpable moments of shock. Most people seemed to find the lecture engaging and compelling, but a few people did leave. I don't expect they walked out because they were bored.

The student newspaper has published a fairly accurate report of the event. Being a newspaper that does not seek to scandalize its audience, The Dartmouth was not able to include some much of what Delany said. Since I had a notebook with me, and am perfectly happy to scandalize just about any audience, I will now add a couple of quotes to the otherwise adequate report. You have been warned.

One of the main points Delany reiterated is that, in his view, most studies of AIDS are based more on hearsay than evidence. This was his central thesis, and he tried to illustrate ways that hearsay is both attractive and misleading. He acknowledged that we let hearsay rule our lives most of the time (Most of our critical judgments, he said, are based on hearsay, most consumerism, and "the entire field of politics"), but it is a mistake to confuse hearsay with empirical knowledge. Evidence is science, and it is the sort of thing that allows planes to fly and lightbulbs to work. When we fall out of the grid of knowledge, hearsay takes over.

So far so good. But this is where he got personal, and stated that between 1982 and 1988 he had about 300-500 oral encounters a year, and that the numbers have fluctuated since then, depending on where he lived, but he estimated he's had roughly 5,000-7,000 moments of oral sex since 1982. He remains HIV negative. Then he told the story of meeting a porn star/prostitute who was sure that he'd gotten AIDS from oral sex. He said they'd talked for a while, that the other man was well informed, but that he (Delany) should have asked him a question he thought of shortly afterward. He should have asked, he said, whether before the man seroconverted if he had been in an orgy situation where someone who had come in his mouth had then licked his ass (Delany's terminology). "This is not the sort of question," he said, "that straight researchers think to ask."

He then said something like, "I have myself recently begun barebacking again with a fuckbuddy in upstate New York. While this may seem insane, it does need to be factored in."

Behind me, a fairly well-known American/Cultural Studies scholar burst into some of the wildest laughter I have ever heard from him (and having taking a course with him, I've heard plenty).

"I enjoy a certain kind of pleasure," Delany said, "and I gamble on getting it." We do not know enough about AIDS, he maintained, because the right sorts of tests are so seldom conducted, and the amount of true evidence, rather than hearsay, is so small, and drawn from such small samples of people. This is particularly the case in terms of women, where the lack of information and testing is, he said, "genocidal".

Then came questions. At first, nobody spoke, but soon enough there were some strong challenges. Delany vehemently denied that he was suggesting oral sex can't lead to AIDS -- he said his point is that there is hearsay evidence of multiple sorts, but there haven't been enough studies to say definitively one way or another, which is why he said his own behaviors are a gamble. Someone else said that he sounded like the tobacco company CEOs who deny that there is enough evidence that cigarettes cause cancer. Delany seemed to say that he believed there was good evidence there -- my notes are incomplete -- and then said, "We do know that oral sex doesn't cause cancer. That's one of the things it's got going for it."

The woman who introduced Delany, Susan Ackerman (of the Department of Religion), had said that he wrote 9 novels by the age of 25. Delany laid out an average day in his life at that time, saying that in between making breakfast and dinner for his wife (Marilyn Hacker) and writing his books, he would have sex with about 20 people on a normal day, and that he could never have been as productive a writer if he hadn't had that outlet. (At this point, someone near me whispered, "He's a superman!") "Sex is an appetite," he said. "If you don't have gourmet food, you eat out of the garbage can."

A student said she found his candor and frank terminology refreshing, and wondered if he thought more people should talk that openly about sex. He said he didn't want to tell anybody else how to talk about sex, but that we should talk about it however we are comfortable talking about it, using whatever words we are comfortable with.

Finally, a student suggested that his remarks could be used against gay people as proof that gay men are promiscuous, that they are just asking for AIDS, that they deserve to be marginalized and oppressed. Delany said he did not want to be taken as a representative example. "I'm not going to play the role of the Good Gay Man," he said. "I'm not the Good Gay Man. Maybe I'm the Bad Gay Man. Other people will be other things and say other things. Other people can speak for other ways of living. A whole range of things need to be said, and we need to work together." [some of that was paraphrased, because I can't write quite as fast as he talked]


  1. Evidence-based medicine is a growing movement, and we definitely need it (in all areas, not just AIDS research), but the remark about "the sort of question that straight researchers think to ask" is really a separate issue. Straight people have relied on hearsay about straight sex, too, and gay people aren't automatically evidence-based.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Matt.

  3. You're entirely right, Ted, about the "straight researchers" comment, which got a good laugh and defused some of the tension that had built up -- half of his intention for it, I'm sure -- but it's definitely unfair. A sex researcher of any type is more likely to think of what Delany did than your average gay, straight, or whatever person, I expect.

  4. Thanks so much for posting this, Matt. It sounds like a fascinating lecture.
    Ellen Datlow

  5. The text of "The Gamble" has just been published (in English and Spanish) in the Fall 2005 issue of "Corpus", a journal from APLA (AIDS Project Los Angeles) available in PDF.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I'm always fascinated by what Delaney has to say, particularly about sexuality.

    He taught at a workshop I went to a few years ago, most of which was filled with stay at home moms. Delaney read some selections from his memoir, and the reactions were very similar to what you saw. At the time I thought he did it for shock value, but in retrospect I think he's really just trying to present his way of seeing the world as honestly as he can.

  7. Thanks for posting this, very interesting.

  8. Belated comment:

    Thanks for posting this; sounds like a great talk.

    The first time I encountered Delany's argument that the right kind of research on seroconversion isn't being done was in his foreword (or maybe introduction?) to his 1994
    more-or-less-non-sf novel The Mad Man. I saw that as a sort of call to arms; interesting (and kind of sad) that over ten years later, the research on the topic is still too sparse.

  9. neat. thanks for that.

    here's a question, though: was delany using his sexual lifestyle to illustrate the point of heresay ruling our lives? cause it would make an interesting game with the topic if it was so.

  10. Ben -- I'm not sure whether Delany was suggesting that hearsay rules our lives (he could have been -- I'm just not willing to put those words into his mouth), but he was using his own experience to show that were people such as himself the ones being interviewed for the sorts of scientific studies he's skeptical of, then the results would be entirely different from what has become the received wisdom. He was not trying to say, I don't think, that his life and experiences disprove anything, but that they stand as strong cause for doubt and, more than that, for the need for more careful study. (Of course, this is my view of what he was saying; I'm sure he would want to add some qualifications and/or clarifications, so don't perceive this as "Delany said" so much as "Matt Cheney heard Delany to, he thought, say....")


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