York University professor recognized for work in sexology
January 11, 2018
A York University professor was recently honoured by the oldest professional society dedicated to the advancement of knowledge about sexuality.
Dr. Kamala Kempadoo was the recipient of the Society for Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award that recognizes professionals who have made significant contributions in sexology.
The organization was launched in 1957 to encourage the rigorous systematic study of sexuality.
Kempadoo has made numerous contributions to advancing the understanding of human sexual behaviour and promoting the study of sexuality.
The award was presented at the annual meeting in Atlanta.
“This honour is bestowed on very prominent people in the field, so to be part of that distinguished group is quite an honour,” said Kempadoo who is a professor in the department of social science affiliated with International Development Studies. “…My work is read by scholars, researchers, activists and sex workers as well as by those engaged with questions about human trafficking. Apart from the focus on sexuality, my work connects to the SSSS through its attention to intersectionality and interdisciplinarity which the association also sees as central to its mandate.”
Previous recipients include University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology & women’s studies professor Janet Shibley Hyde who is one of the world’s leading experts on gender sexuality, sociologist Dr. David Finkelhor who is well known for his research into child sexual abuse and related topics, 92-year-old sociologist Dr. Ira Reiss who established his reputation as a major figure in the social science study of human sexuality in his writings on premarital sexuality and the Masters and Johnson human sexuality research team – husband and wife William Masters and Virginia Johnson who are both deceased – who pioneered research into the nature of human sexual response and the diagnosis and treatment of sexual disorders and dysfunctions from 1957 until the 1990s.
A lecturer at York University since 2002, Kempadoo also holds appointments in gender, feminist & women’s studies, political science, social & political thought and development studies graduate programs and is a former director of the graduate program in social & political thought.
“This award is an important acknowledgment of the impact of Professor Kempadoo’s work,” said Sandra Whitworth, York University’s associate dean for graduate studies & research in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. “She’s widely regarded as pre-eminent in her field. Her peers and the many graduate students who have come to work with her have known this for a long time. The opportunity to celebrate her contributions with this award is well-deserved.”
Doctoral candidate Sam Tecle is among hundreds of university students who have benefitted from Kempadoo’s wisdom.
“I encountered Kamala as a first year Master’s student at York where I was very junior and very fresh,” he said. “I took a course titled ‘Black Revolutionary Thought’ with her and it became immediately obvious that I was in a class with more senior students who were more well-read than me. She, however, created a supportive environment which ensured everyone benefitted from the conversations and the very serious thinkers we were engaging.
“She curated a rigorous and challenging syllabus which introduced me to thinkers like CLR James, Aime Cesaire and Claudia Jones. Kamala was one of the first professors I encountered who made me think this ‘life of the mind’ could be somewhere I could live. I have taken that and ran with it and I am and will be, for that, forever grateful.”
During the SSSS’s annual meeting, Kempadoo presented a plenary lecture titled, ‘Researching Sexual Labour: From the Caribbean to Foreign’.
“I talked about my research in the Caribbean where I started, from looking at sexual labour, which includes sex work, transactional sex and sex tourism,” she said. “I have been doing that research since the early 1990s. Having studied sexual labour in the Caribbean, I went global and did a lot more research on sex work, particularly in the Global South and then turned my focus to questions of sex trafficking and how that’s understood. I talked about that trajectory of my research.”
The 2018 SSSS annual conference takes place from November 8-11 in Montreal.
Kempadoo has been a proponent for the decriminalization of prostitution, arguing that it would go a long way towards making work spaces safer for sex trade workers.
“One of the big problems around prostitution or sex work, as I prefer to call it, is that there are laws against it, meaning there are people working in very difficult conditions,” she said. “People in the sex trade are virtually criminals for almost everything they do because of the laws that exist in most countries. If one were to take away those laws, as a few countries and some places have done, it makes it possible for sex workers to legally access police, social and health care services, resident permits and the like.”
The Ontario government recently announced funding for 45 projects to help end human trafficking and support survivors. The government said $18.6 million will be allotted to 44 partners and agencies in the province to support projects up to three years as part of the Strategy to End Human Trafficking.
A former member of the working group on research methodology and global alliance against trafficking in women, Kempadoo feels the funding is misdirected.
“A lot of what is being called human trafficking is forced labour,” she said. “I don’t know which 45 organizations have been identified to get funding, but we see it around the world that when funding is being offered, new organizations pop up that don’t really work with forced labour in the first place. A lot of it is also focussed on going towards so-called rescue of women from prostitution. It’s not an issue of the sex trade. It’s an issue of larger inequalities.”
The second of nine siblings, Kempadoo comes from a family who frowns on social inequality and sympathises with people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“When I see injustice and inequality around me, that angers me,” she said.
Her father, Peter Kempadoo, was born on a Guyanese sugar estate and is still alive at age 91. He was a rural development worker in grassroots communities in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia after moving to England in 1953 where he started a successful media career and published two novels, ‘Guyana Boy’ and ‘Old Thom’s Harvest’. He and his wife of 36 years – Rosemary Read Kempadoo – also co-authored a booklet, ‘A-Z of Guyanese Words’.
An accomplished artist and educator, the family matriarch passed away in England in November 1988 at age 56.
“My father was someone who worked independently and was very much committed to doing development work for Guyana and the Caribbean,” Kempadoo, who was born in England and resided in several Caribbean countries with her family, noted. “Our parents brought us up in this world believing that social injustice is wrong. My father was working on that all the time and our mother homeschooled us much of the time. A lot of their beliefs and passions were passed on through that homeschooling.”
The holder of an undergraduate degree and a doctorandus/Master’s degree in social sciences from the University of Amsterdam, a Master’s in Black Studies from Ohio State University and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Colorado-Boulder, Kempadoo joined York University a few months after the September 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
“I was working in Boulder, Colorado for about 10 years and there wasn’t much happening because I was doing Caribbean Studies,” she said. “When a position in Caribbean Studies opened at York, I thought that was ideal. I also wanted to leave the United States after 9/11. York fits me very well because it’s a progressive university, at least the departments I am in, I have good colleagues and I like the student body which is young, Black and Brown and critical thinking.”