Friday 21 March 2008

Sexing Up Sociology

Sue Scott, Dean of Keele's faculty for Humanities and the Social Sciences recently gave a paper on sex and sociology. Her contention is that the sociology of sex, sexuality and sexual behaviour has been submerged in recent decades. The continuing popularity of (post-Freudian) forms of psychoanalysis and the poststructuralist turn in the humanities has eclipsed sociological accounts. Instead of treating sex as a social phenomenon, in the hands of these perspectives it has been reduced to either a naturalist compulsion or something completely unyielding to sociological analysis. Scott's project is to bring the social back in by way of symbolic interactionism.

The starting point of her argument is John H. Gagnon and William Simon's 1973 book, Sexual Conduct. This is generally regarded as the foundational work for the sociology of sex and remains key for its critique of naturalist/metaphysical sexual essentialisms. In their view the sex drive is not repressed by the social as was argued by Freud. Instead social relations are the precondition and producers of sexual behaviour - what is held up as the most natural is in fact representative of humanity at its most social. Gagnon and Simon argue sex is commonplace, everyday and mundane. Far from being the driver of human behaviour, sex is as amenable to conscious and reflexive action as anything else. For example, sex can be used as a means to non-sexual ends in much the same way non-sexual behaviours can be deployed as the seductive path to the bedroom.

To reinforce their argument and account for variations in behaviours across cultures, sexual identities only become possible when a child has sustained access to social-sexual 'scripts'. Instead of overdetermining psychic processes Gagnon and Simon lay stress on three levels of the social. The first is (intersubjective) culture. This is where the "borders" of the sexual are defined and with it the dominant signifiers, tropes, scenarios, values and expectations. The next level down are interpersonal relations, the point where we make sense, act on and modify sexual behaviour through our relationships with others. This ranges from the intimacy of the encounter to everyday sex talk. Finally, the micro level is the domain of intrapsychic scripting, or one's sexual subjectivity, the domain of preference, desires and fetishes. This is the most private and individuated level of the analysis of sex, but nevertheless an interior mental life that is socially based and is where one's sexual behaviour is reflexively monitored. All three levels mutually condition and make possible each other.

This is the model informing Scott's interest in women's experience of heterosexual sex, and particularly the social performativity of the female orgasm. As we know normative heterosexuality is heavily scripted along gendered lines up to and including social definitions of sexual pleasure and the climax. Generally speaking the male orgasm is uncomplicated in heterosexual discourse. Not only is it visible, physically speaking, it is also the unstated/assumed objective of sexual activity. Sex normatively ends with the man's orgasm and this is reinforced by countless mainstream and pornographic depictions of sex. On the other hand women's orgasms are not so physically obvious, but are nevertheless prized within a sexual culture that has the visible climax at its heart. The male performance ethic central to masculine heterosexuality (and thereby a key marker of masculinity itself) therefore demands women affirm their pleasure through display. If a woman does not perform - regardless of whether she has an orgasm or not - the absence of orgasmic cues partially devalues the symbolic capital of the man's and can challenge his esteem, self-worth, and self-perception of sexual competence. There are rules governing the performance. Above all it has to convincingly communicate her pleasure to her partner - if one is too theatrical or unenthusiastic she is open to accusations of faking. Again the degree of pleasure she actually experiences is irrelevant. Therefore the performativity of the female orgasm involves real emotional labour.

Just as 'canonical orgasmic signatures' are an accomplishment, one needs the competence to recognise and interpret them. Scott illustrated this point by referencing Howard Becker's famous study of marijuana use. That the drug elicits a physiological response is a given, but we can only define the effects as pleasurable through mastery of the rituals and behaviours associated with it. The same is true of the orgasm. Short of bluntly asking if she came, he has to draw on his sexual experience and knowledge to read her display and perform the rituals he thinks are necessary to bring her to climax.

Because sex is experiential and always socially mediated, sexual scripts are dynamic and fluid. What is individually and collectively scripted as the norm are open to rapid changes over short periods of time. For example, it has been noted how the passage of (mainly female) pubic hair removal from fetish to norm, and retention of the "natural" look from normal to fetish only took place very quickly. Another contemporary change is the increased currency of 'bi-curious' as a sort of aspirational sexual preference. Alongside this can be reckoned moves away from the male orgasm as the be-all and end-all of heterosexual sex. This state of flux rules out mechanically determinist accounts of sex, but what is ruled in is understanding sexual behaviour as an embodied and corporeal experience that is simultaneously meaningful and symbolic.

What Scott managed to show in her brief presentation was how a sociology of sex is possible. It reinforces the trends within feminism that already are or working back toward materialist social analysis and explanation. I think the bare bones sketched out here could be fleshed out in a number of ways to encompass all spheres of sexual activity, from the most mundane to the extreme. But also it opens the road to understanding how other social processes play a role in the regulation and production of sexuality. For Marxists and feminists it holds out the promise of investigating the intimate chain linking commodity production, commodification of sex, gender relations, capital accumulation and class in mutually constitutive relationships, while avoiding a rerun of sterile debates about whether patriarchy or capital has analytical primacy. A flourishing materialist scholarship in this area could go a long way to challenge the hegemony of poststructuralist/postmodern thinking in the social sciences, and put the humanities on a more radical political footing.

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