Presentation on theme: "The Social Construction of Sexual Identities"— Presentation transcript:
1 The Social Construction of Sexual Identities From Advancing Sexuality Studies: a short course on sexuality theory and research methodologiesThis module introduces critical perspectives on sexual identity from a social constructionist perspective. In particular, these approaches critique common assumptions about ‘natural’, trans-historical or universal sexuality and identify a range of factors at work in the constitution of sexual subjectivities in social and cultural context. The module encourages participants to analyse the range of factors at work in the performance of sexual subjectivities in their social contexts, particularly in relation to transnational flows. The effects of globalisation mean that the character and limits of ‘local cultural contexts’ are increasingly open and uncertain. This has implications for how we think about sexual identity and sexuality more broadly.
2 Schedule Learning activity Time allowed Introduction & aims 10 mins Session 1. Sexual identities and social constructionismSmall group work & brainstormLectureShow objects120 mins5510Session 2. Sexualities in transnational perspectiveLecture & Pre-reading reviewSmall group discussion & feedback55 mins2530Session 3. How is your sexuality socially constructed?Pairs workSmall group work & feedback75 mins50Session 4. Sexual identity and cultural objectsSmall group workLarge group discussion90 mins60Conclusion15Total365 minsThe module schedule does not currently contain tea/coffee or lunch breaks. Insert these as required.
3 Module aimsTo:Introduce participants to social constructionist understandings of sexual identity from anthropology, history and contemporary sociologyExplore contemporary work on sexual cultures and identity in transnational contextsBring together perspectives on culture and sexuality by exploring the ways in which sexuality is symbolised and objectifiedThis module aims to:Introduce participants to social constructionist understandings of sexual identity from anthropology, history and contemporary sociology.Explore contemporary work on sexual cultures and identity in transnational contexts.Bring together perspectives on culture and sexuality by exploring the ways in which sexuality is symbolised and objectified.
4 Participants will:Develop a critical understanding of sexual identity as socially constructed in relations of discourse and powerBe able to assess the strengths and limitations of cultural perspectives on sexuality, especially in transnational contextExamine connections between culture and sexuality through material culture, exploring symbols through which ideas about sexuality are represented and scriptedParticipants will:Explore the relevance of culture to the study of sexuality beyond the sexological paradigm and over and above individualistic perspectives on sexual behaviour.Consider the strengths and limitations of cultural perspectives on sexuality, especially relevant to work in transnational contexts.Examine connections between culture and sexuality through material culture, exploring symbols through which ideas about sexuality are represented and scripted.
5 Session 1. Sexual identities and social constructionism Tell participants that this session begins with a small group exercise and brainstorm encouraging them to reflect on the social construction of sexual identities in their social contexts. The brainstorm is followed by an interactive lecture that introduces social constructionist understandings of sexuality and the regulatory aspects of sexual identity.When we hear the term sexual identity we might be tempted to think that it refers solely to those people who identify themselves as gay or lesbian. Even in those societies that do not have identity positions for gay men or lesbians, there are likely to be words or concepts that identify people on the basis of who they have sex with. This is a common sense understanding of sexual identity, yet if we think about it, there are many other identities that apply to the way people see and name themselves, and others, in relation to sexual desire and behaviour.
6 What is sexual identity? In groups of three or four:Make a list of sexual identities in your social contextTry to think of as many different kinds of sexual identity as you canIf there is more than one term for a particular identity, group these togetherInclude:traditional names, formal scientific or legal terms, more recent terms, slang terms, etcOrganise these identities into a hierarchy that reflects their respective positions within society (20 mins)Feedback (5 mins)Ask participants to form small groups of three or four, and conduct the following exercise (on slide):Make a list of sexual identities in your social context. Try to think of as many different kinds of sexual identity as you can.If there is more than one term for a particular identity, group these together (include traditional names, formal scientific or legal terms, more recent terms, slang terms, etc).Organise these identities into a hierarchy that reflects their respective positions within society.Ask each group in turn to provide an example from their list and write this on the flipchart/whiteboard. Keep going around the small groups until there are no more forthcoming examples.
7 What is sexual identity? Take two different sexual identities from the list:How are people with these identities thought about?What meanings are attached to these identities? Does gender inform how these identities are thought about?Where do these ideas come from?Scientific truths about sexual nature?Legal rules about appropriate social conduct?Traditional or contemporary ideas about morality?How are these identities reproduced?Do people take them on by choice, or are they forced upon them?Can people engage in the sexual practices these identities refer to and not be labelled with these identities? (20 mins)Ask the groups to continue with the exercise (on slide):Take two different sexual identities from the list and answer the following questions for each example:How are people with these identities thought about? What meanings are attached to these identities? Does gender inform how these identities are thought about?Where do these ideas come from? Are they based on scientific truths about sexual nature? Legal rules about appropriate social conduct? Traditional or contemporary ideas about morality?How are these identities reproduced? Do people take them on by choice, or are they forced upon them?Can people engage in the sexual practices these identities refer to and not be labelled with these identities?
8 BrainstormWhat is sexual identity and how does it relate to sexuality?(10 mins)In light of their group discussions, and drawing on the examples discussed, ask participants to brainstorm the following question (on slide):What is sexual identity and how does it relate to sexuality?
9 Social construction, sexual identity Identity is not fixed and unchangingIt is dependent on social meaningSexual identities do not simply name sexual practicesThey constitute individuals as particular kinds of peopleAdultererHomosexualThis discussion reveals that sexual identity is not fixed or unchanging, but is a product of social meanings about sexual desire and practice. Some meanings are more authoritative than others, perhaps because they are institutionalised in respected fields of knowledge or moral frameworks. Other meanings are contested and are more likely to shift over time. Importantly, this exercise reveals that sexual identities do not simply name sexual practices or individuals who engage in those practices; they also constitute individuals as particular kinds of people. A woman who sleeps with another man behind her husband’s back may be identified as an adulterer, and may come to be understood as morally deficient and deserving of social scorn. A man who sleeps with other men may be understood as homosexual because this is the dominant social understanding of his behaviour. At different times in history, and in different societies, having sex with a man who is not one’s husband, or sex between men, have been or are understood differently. This is the basis to social constructionist understandings of sexuality.
10 Dominant (Western) ideas about sexuality: Sexual behaviour naturally follows sexual difference (male and female)Sexuality is natural, innate – biological instinct to reproduce; a psychological driveDeviations from the natural or normal indicate immorality, depravity or disorderThis understanding turns conventional understandings of sexuality based in biology and psychology on their heads. Dominant Western ideas about sexuality mean that we usually understand sexuality to reflect a person’s gendered nature, whereby sexual behaviour follows natural sexual difference. This means that men and women have distinct sexual natures that reflect their biology. Sexuality is the expression of an innate, natural sexual instinct or drive to reproduce that men and women are born with. Deviations from accepted categories of natural behaviour indicate immorality, depravity or disorder.
11 Social construction of sexuality Rather than types of persons, sexual behaviours, sexual instincts or drives, this approach focuses on:MeaningsPracticesIdentitiesAnd their relationship to:DiscoursesInstitutionsPower relationsBut a social constructionist position, as we have seen, argues that these understandings are socially produced and support the dominant social hierarchy, rather than simply reflect the true natures of men and women. Rather than a focus on types of persons, sexual behaviours, or sexual instincts or drives, social constructionist approaches to sexuality are instead interested in meanings, practices and identities, and how these are related to discourses, institutions and power relations.
12 DiscoursesInstitutionalised ways of thinking about a possible object that, in turn, limit how that object might be thought aboutMichel Foucault – Knowledge is power (‘power/knowledge’)Power exercised through discourse - it may be difficult to speak about the thing being described in any other wayDiscourses are ‘truth claims’ that support established power relationsWomen are more suited to raising children because they give birthSex education for young people encourages sexual promiscuityHomosexuality is unnatural
13 Social constructionist theory A way of thinking about the worldThe power of culture, language and knowledge to construct ‘reality’There is no prior, objective ‘reality’ beyond our interpretation of itWe all interpret ‘reality’ differently depending on our social position and cultural backgroundImportantly, there is no one social constructionist theory. It might be better to think of social constructionism as an epistemology, or a way of thinking about the world that emphasises the power of culture, language and knowledge to construct what we experience as reality. The term social constructionism became increasingly popularised in social scientific studies of sexuality during the 1980s and 1990s. Constructionist perspectives tend to stress that sexual practices are not the same across time and space, or the same throughout history and across culture. Categories used to conceive, talk about and practise sexuality in one context will not be the same in others.
14 Cross-cultural variability in sexuality Sambia of New Guinea (Herdt, 1981)Practices that appear the same have different meanings in different culturesSame-sex sexual experience before marriageIn many cultures, same-sex sexual activity raises personal questions about whether one is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexualWe can see this when we look at cross-cultural variability in sexuality. For example, evidence from across cultures has revealed that same-sex sexual practices take a number of forms and can have very different meanings. In a famous example, the anthropologist Gil Herdt described a cultural practice among the Sambia people of New Guinea where early-adolescent boys fellate and then consume the semen of older men in their tribe as a way attaining masculinity. The meanings of this practice are entirely different to those in other societies, where such behaviour might be considered indicative of homosexuality, or even paedophilia.Thus, practices that may appear the same, have entirely different meanings, and reveal how the cultural construction of meaning is central to sexual practice and sexual identity in different locales. In some cultures, it is possible for men to engage in same-sex behaviours as adolescents provided they are discreet about their activities, and give up these practices upon marriage. These men are not understood to have an innate sexual identity related to their engagement in these practices, unlike in most Western cultures, where such behaviour will at least raise personal questions about whether one is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual.
15 ‘Sexuality’ Historical scholarship - Foucault (1978); Weeks (1977) Prior to late 19th century:People engaged in sexual acts and behaviours, but were not understood to have distinct sexual identities‘Sexuality’ emerged as a discrete attribute of human experience in 19th century European thoughtRise of professional discourses regulating personal conduct and behaviourEmergence of specific forms of sexual devianceSexuality can no longer be regarded as an intrinsic attribute of ‘self’ or as biologically inherent (Gagnon & Parker, 1995)An outcome of intellectual and social processes bound up in language and knowledge systems of post-EnlightenmentHistorical scholarship, particularly by the scholars Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Weeks, has been especially influential in identifying the social and cultural construction of sexuality. This work emphasised the ways in which sexuality was increasingly defined as a discrete attribute of human experience in 19th-century European thought. Prior to the late 19th century, people engaged in sexual acts and behaviours, but were not understood to have distinct sexual identities on the basis of their sexual practice. However, increasing state concern with the management of urban populations led to a rise of professional and institutional discourses related to the regulation of individual conduct and behaviour. Disciplines such as medicine, psychology, anthropology, sociology and education (to name a few) not only sought to understand sexuality, but helped bring it into being as a social practice. In particular, medical and psychological discourses emerged which described increasingly specific forms of ‘sexual deviance’, designated as pathologies. Sexuality came to be defined as an attribute of a person, an indicator of the true self and over time a key aspect of identity. Homosexuality, and then subsequently, heterosexuality emerged as ways of categorising and differentiating people on the basis of sexual desire and sexual practice.This insight has been at the heart of contemporary social scientific studies of sexuality ever since. Sexuality can no longer be regarded as an intrinsic attribute of ‘self ’ or as biologically inherent (Gagnon and Parker 1995). Rather, sexuality can be seen as the historically specific outcome of intellectual and cultural processes and, as such, an attribute of human experiences intimately bound up with the language and knowledge systems of the post-Enlightenment era.
16 Binary thinking Western systems of meaning-making Oppositional or binaryDay – NightWhite – BlackMan – WomanNorth – SouthDeveloped – Underdeveloped, etcDifference is the basis to meaning-makingOne term is powerful by virtue of defining the other as differentThe power to classify, define and make knowledge about an Other – contributes to their subjectification and marginalisationImportantly, in Western systems of understanding, meaning is often defined in oppositional or binary terms. This means that, in order to make sense of something, we begin by defining what it is not. For example, ‘day’ becomes meaningful in relation to ‘night’; ‘white’ becomes meaningful in relation to ‘black’; ‘man’ makes sense in relation to ‘woman’; ‘North’ in relation to ‘South’; ‘developed’ to ‘underdeveloped’; ‘civilised’ to ‘primitive’, etc. Difference is the basis to meaning-making in binary thinking. This is obviously a crude way of differentiating and making sense of the world, but is very powerful when it is applied to social life. The power of one group of people to differentiate, categorise and identify another group of people often means the identified group has less control over the meanings that shape their identity.
17 Heterosexual - homosexual But 1960s onwards: From homosexual, to gay and lesbian – identity politics movements on the basis of identification with ‘master-discourses’Challenged the dominant (institutionalised) meanings that applied to the category homosexualIdentity can be a source of powerNew possibilities for being sexual emerge even in conditions of regulation and repressionWe can see this most clearly in the example of sexual identity, where ‘heterosexual’ makes sense in relation to what it is not: ‘homosexual’. Foucault’s work identified the social and historical processes that constituted homosexuality as a marker of distinct type of person, and which have led to the ongoing stigmatisation and marginalisation of those who came to be identified as homosexual. In the process of identification with those institutional discourses that described homosexuality, gay men and lesbians came to see themselves as specific kinds of people with distinct sexual natures. However, something unpredictable also emerged in the process of categorisation and identification. At least since the 1960s, gay men and lesbians have organised politically to challenge negative understandings of homosexuality based on pathology or deviancy. While gay men and lesbians may have been quite different from each other in terms of class, ethnicity, age, social position, etc, they came together under the identifier homosexual to challenge their marginalisation. In others words, while identifying with the discourses of homosexuality that preceded them, they were able to challenge and shift many of the dominant ideas about what being a homosexual meant.
18 Heterosexuality an ‘unmarked’ category Homosexuality is understood to be the deviation from the heterosexual normBrainstormHow do we know people are heterosexual?How often are people required to identify themselves as heterosexual?How do they do this? (5 mins)Questions? (5 mins)In contrast to homosexuality, heterosexuality is an unmarked category. Because it is understood as the primary category, from which homosexuality is the deviation, heterosexuality is usually understood to be natural and normal. As a result, it is often not necessary to define oneself as heterosexual because heterosexuality is the unremarkable norm. It hardly seems necessary to name oneself as heterosexual when everyone else is supposed to also be heterosexual. Yet, this is an assumption that has powerful social effects, and reveals how sexual identify functions as a regulatory tool.Ask participants about heterosexual identity (on slide):How do we know people are heterosexual?How often are people required to identify themselves as heterosexual?How do they do this?
19 The ‘charmed circle’It only becomes necessary to identify heterosexuality when certain practices cross moral lines of acceptable behaviour. The anthropologist Gayle Rubin (1984) identified a ‘charmed circle’ of sexuality in Western societies whereby married, monogamous, heterosexual coitus involving penetration was understood as the most normal and natural form of sexual conduct. Other forms of sexual practice are less privileged but may be contested and thus their meanings may shift over time. Certainly, cultural attitudes to sex outside of marriage, promiscuous sex, masturbation, and gay and lesbian relationships have changed enormously in the last 40 years in many societies. However, other sexual behaviours are considered wholly abnormal, immoral or sinful. These include sadomasochism, fetishistic sex, sex for money, transvestitism, and cross-generational sex.Source: Gayle Rubin (1984) Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality
20 Heterosexuality is not a natural category Favoured practices and normsIndividuals are subject to regulations that construct heterosexuality as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ – and individuals who identify as heterosexual as moral citizensOthers are constituted as unnatural, sinful, ill, or immoralHeterosexual/homosexual binary sustains unequal sexual and social relations, and constrains the possibilities for sexual expressionThus, we can see that heterosexuality is also an identity category that is highly differentiated in terms of those practices that are favoured (and are thus beyond identification or scrutiny), and those that cross a moral boundary. Yet, simply because one conforms to the heterosexual norm does not mean one is beyond regulation.Because heterosexuality involves normative expectations about sexual conduct, and because the transgression of dominant norms of sexual behaviour invites censure and identification as a sexual Other, we can in fact see that heterosexuality is not natural at all, but a socially prescribed category. Heterosexuality is therefore made ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ through discourses and power-knowledge relations that constitute individuals as either moral citizens, or as unnatural, sinful, ill, or immoral (Warner, 1993; Seidman, 1996; Gamson, 2000). Notice how binary thinking categorises people as either one, or the other. Critical sexuality studies highlight how the heterosexual/homosexual binary functions as an ideology that sustains unequal sexual and social relations, and constrains the possibilities for sexual expression.
21 Brainstorm:What purposes might the classification and differentiation of sexual desires, sexual bodies, or sexual practices actually serve?Who benefits from this organisation of social life? (5 mins)Thus, we can see that the heterosexual/homosexual binary is a socially constructed model of social difference which classifies and organises people on the basis of their sexual desires, sexual bodies, and sexual practices. It has taken shape in a modernist context where such a distinction is seemingly important. Why else would it be necessary to define people on the basis of sexuality?Ask participants to discuss the following question (on slide):What purposes might the classification and differentiation of sexual desires, sexual bodies, or sexual practices actually serve?An important point to remember in this understanding of sexuality, is that sexual practices do not simply have different meanings in different locales. Rather, dominant discourses help bring social practice into being as a regulated aspect of self-identity. In the interests of being a moral citizen, individuals adjust their conduct to adhere to desirable norms. Sexuality then, is not just a core natural impulse that is given different expression in different contexts, in different words or language. Rather sexuality is actually conceived and experienced in and through social categories and discourses that shape the possibilities for sexual expression and personhood. Several recent examples from critical sexuality studies demonstrate this most effectively.
22 MasturbationA specific social problem in 19th century Europe (how to stop children from engaging in ‘self-abuse’)Shift from shameful activity to legitimate aspect of personal (private) sexual expression in 20th centuryA ‘normal’ activity: individuals less likely to think of themselves as deviant or immoralEnormous shift in meaning over 120 yearsDebates between expertsPolitical activists and social groupsBroader shifts in social values and attitudesSocial and historical research has shown how masturbation emerged as a specific social problem in discourses of child-rearing in 19th-century Europe. In the 20th century, meanings around masturbation shifted from it being a shameful activity to a legitimate aspect of personal sexual expression. The more natural and normal masturbation has become, at least in some societies, the less likely people who engage in masturbation are to think of themselves as deviant or immoral. This does not mean that masturbation is accepted equally everywhere. There was recently controversy in the UK when a local men’s health initiative encouraged men to practise masturbation as an important part of a healthy lifestyle. This example shows how the meanings of sexuality can shift over time, as a result of debates between experts, the work of political activists and social groups, and broader shifts in popular social values and beliefs related to the body and sexuality.
23 The social construction of sexual problems in medical discourse: ‘Female sexual disorder’‘Erectile dysfunction’Are these:Biological problems with pharmaceutical solutions (Viagra, Hormone Replacement Therapy)?Or social problems?Unequal gender relations between men and women?Understandings of male sexuality that prioritise the erection and penetration as the definition of sex? (Tiefer, 1995; Marshall, 2006)As another example, contemporary critical sexuality research is exploring the social construction of ‘erectile dysfunction’ and ‘female sexual disorder’ in medical discourses. A number of feminist authors have discussed the implications of these discourses, including the prescription of medical solutions for problems that may have their true origin in social life, such as unequal gender relations. Women who take a greater responsibility than their male partners for housework and childcare may express less interest in sex due to being tired or resentful of their partners. Meanwhile, the emphasis on erections in medical discourse may mean that men place greater emphasis on penetration and personal performance, rather than on those sexual or relational practices that bring their female partners the most satisfaction.These examples demonstrate how ideas and understandings about sexuality may shape people’s sexual experience. Sexuality is not the expression of a true or innate sexual drive – it is shaped by social conditions and dominant discourses. Thus, how sexuality is understood has direct implications for how people see themselves, and how they experience their sexual lives. This is why critical sexuality study is political, and why critical sexuality researchers are engaged in political struggles related to the status of knowledge.Ask if there are any questions.
24 Cultural objectsShow your cultural object to the group. You do not need to add significant comment on your cultural object at this stage(10 mins)Ask participants to show their objects to the class, without significant comment or elaboration at this stage.
25 Session 2. Sexualities in transnational perspective Tell participants that this session explores the relationship between sexual identity and transnational processes of globalisation.
26 Session 2. Pre-reading review Brainstorm:What social, economic and political processes are understood to be central to globalisation?How is globalisation understood to impact upon cultures?(5 mins)Ask students to brainstorm the concept of ‘globalisation’ (on slide):What social processes are understood to be central to globalisation?How is globalisation understood to impact upon cultures?
27 Sexuality is increasingly complicated in the context of globalisation The range of factors that influence how people’s sense of sexual identity or subjectivity take shape are increasingly difficult to trace or determineIdentities are not so easily understood as being shaped by one local culture or anotherGrewal and Caplan (2001) – a more complicated model of transnational relations might include looking at:In post-colonial and transnational contexts, perspectives on the relationship between state, power and sexuality have become increasingly complicated in the context of globalisation. The nature of globalisation is such that the contexts within which contemporary identities are shaped are increasingly diverse and indistinct. The relation between the state and the individual, for example, is increasingly complex and diffuse. One consequence is that theories about the cultural construction of sexuality have become more complicated. In the context of neo-liberal markets, globalising internet use and so forth, identities are not so easily understood as being shaped by one local culture or another. The range of factors that influence how people’s sense of sexual identity or subjectivity takes shape are increasingly difficult to trace or determine. This is discussed by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan (2001) in your optional pre-reading, who have proposed that we must think in other ways about the tension between the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ in constructionist understandings of sexual identity. They advocate an approach to researching sexuality in transnational sites that explores the complex intersections of the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ , and the new possibilities for sexual subjectivity that emerge. For example, they argue:
28 Grewal & Kaplan (2001)‘the way social and political movements are cosmopolitan and class-based, generating new sites of power rather than simply forms of resistance. We could also investigate the empowering practices of consumption and engagements with media and new technologies that create new subjects that trouble the model of rights and citizenship. Above all, there should be much more attention to the power relations of travel – contacts and transactions of all kinds – that are part of the knowledge production through which subjects are constituted’ (2001: 761).‘…we could look at the way social and political movements are cosmopolitan and class-based, generating new sites of power rather than simply forms of resistance. We could also investigate the empowering practices of consumption and engagements with media and new technologies that create new subjects that trouble the model of rights and citizenship. Above all, there should be much more attention to the power relations of travel – contacts and transactions of all kinds – that are part of the knowledge production through which subjects are constituted’ (2001: 761).
29 Need for research that unpacks the ‘local’-’global’, ‘powerless’-‘powerful’ binary Contemporary sexualities take shape in relation to traditional and transnational sources, e.g. fashionIdeas about lifestyle, freedom and individualism can affect changes in cultural and political attitudes toward the sexual, not necessarily because of a coherent sexuality politics or rights-based movementGrewal and Kaplan suggest a disruption to the idea of local, culturally specific sexuality, or the idea that sexualities now take shape within the transnational processes of globalisation alone. Rather, they call for research that takes account of the global within the local, and the local within the global. Such research disrupts binary ideas of power or resistance, because the processes within which sexualities take shape are not simply linear or oppositional. Rather, in many places around the world, contemporary sexualities take shape in relation to traditional or familiar ideas and practices, and a range of influences from cross-national sources, such as the internet, or though consumption of innovative forms of fashion.This does not mean that such global influences supplant local perspectives and engagements; but, rather, they signal complex interactions in the formation of contemporary sexualities – both contextually specific and transnationally expansive. Pardis Mahdavi’s (2007) research in contemporary Iran, for example, has revealed that some young people’s sexual practices are more promiscuous than the chaste, socially conservative values of the Islamic state admit. Mahdavi found that in urban areas young people often have sex outside of marriage, involving multiple sexual partners and homosexual as well as heterosexual sex. In part, this was a consequence of the privatisation of sexual contact. Restriction on socio-sexual activities in public intensified the desires of Mahdavi’s informants, adding urgency to sexual activity.The heightened political context of such practices is such that many young Iranians conceive their sexualities and/or associated appropriation of nominally Western styles of dress, as a means to make political statements – resisting aspects of the current regime. While not all the young people in Mahdavi’s study understood their sexual lives in these terms, many were conscious of using their embodied sexualities as political discourse. In this context, sexuality was seen to be driving social change, as sex outside marriage and the adoption of putatively ‘modern’ Westernised sexual lifestyles coalesce in political discourse and action. In such scenarios, it may be sexualities and associated ideas about lifestyle, freedom and individualism that affect changes in cultural and political attitudes toward the sexual, rather than a more coherent sexuality politics or rights-based movement.
30 Small group discussion In your society:What are among the most prevalent influences on the way people think about and practise sexuality?In what ways are contemporary sexualities influenced by the state or other forms of national power such as the law?Do you see changes in sexual attitudes and practices that might be associated with transnational processes?(20 mins)Feedback (10 mins)Ask participants to form groups of three or four and appoint a rapporteur.In groups, ask participants to discuss the following questions (on slide):In your society, what are among the most prevalent influences on the way people think about and practice sexuality?In what ways are contemporary sexualities influenced by the state or other forms of national power such as the law?In your society, do you see changes in sexual attitudes and practices that might be associated with transnational processes?Ask rapporteur’s from each group to respond to a question each, until there are no more questions. For each response, ask if other participants agree.
31 Session 3. How is your sexuality socially constructed? The broad field of critical sexuality studies has produced a range of arguments and analyses relating to how sexualities are conceived within cultures. This exercise asks you to reflect critically upon your own understandings and experiences within your culture to gain insight into some of the key analytical trajectories of critical sexuality studies over time, in different contexts, and in relation to power and other social factors. Each of these themes is outlined below, with some specific questions. In addressing these questions, aim to come up with specific examples from either your own life or things that are happening in your society and culture. It is not necessary to answer all of the questions; rather, the questions are included to help you think about each of the three themes. Try to come up with 1 or 2 examples relevant to each theme.
32 Pairs discussion In pairs: Use the questions in Handout A to help you reflect upon the relationship between sexuality and culture in your own lifeTry to come up with two specific examples for each themeOver timeIn different contextsIn relation to power and other social factors(25 mins)Tell participants that this should be treated as an exploratory exercise that evolves into a preliminary critical analysis composed by the whole group.Clarify that participants are being asked to critically reflect upon their subjective relationship to categories of identity and the cultural influences bearing upon them. They are not being asked to divulge or ‘confess’ information that would make them feel uncomfortable.Break the participants up into pairs and provide each with a copy of Handout A.Pairs should consider the following focus questions (on Handout A):Over time:Consider how your views on sexuality have changed over your own lifespan. What factors were relevant to how you felt and thought about sexuality at different times in your life? For instance, what did you think about sex and sexuality when you were a child or young adult? How do these views differ from your present understanding?Consider the same questions in relation to your family. For instance, what are the views of an older generation as measured against your parents’ views and/or your own? What social and cultural issues were being negotiated between different generations?Consider changing institutional or national views and ideas about sexuality. What specifically has shifted? What is constant? Have views about sexuality changed in your society or culture with respect to transnational sources of information, or changes in popular culture that come from outside, for example the internet and other media?In different contexts:Where is sexuality practised? This could mean both in terms of actual sexual acts and in reference to other practices that we might think of as sexual.If the family is a site of sexuality, where does this take place? Which expressions of sexuality are permissible within families and which are marginalised or not allowed?Consider schools and/or the workplace. What kinds of sexual expression are supported in such contexts and what is considered unacceptable? Where do peer groups exercise definitions of sexuality and do they help to determine what does and does not count as legitimate sexuality?Are the spaces for sexuality physical and/or virtual? Do the media and internet constitute sites for the expression and exploration of sexuality in your culture and society? Can you think of any specific examples of how transnational media or websites might interact with cultural views of sexuality in your own society?Is sexuality the same in all sites and spaces, or is it different in different social contexts?In relation to power and other social factorsHow does power affect sexuality? In what ways might sexuality be conceived in reference to regional cultures and/or the nation-state or (transnational) political-economies?Where and how do ideas of sexuality gain purchase in society? Why do different ideas fade or fail to take hold? What are the stakes in behaving one way or another?Is it possible to rank different factors that inform how sexuality is social constructed?How do social factors influence differently across groups? How do other social/cultural hierarchies serve to categorise sexuality?
33 Small group work In groups of 4-6, compare & contrast your findings On a flipchart, attempt to hierarchically organise the cultural influences on sexuality(25 mins)FeedbackDiscussionAre the influences identified conceived as bearing down on an already existing sexuality, or do they constitute sexuality in social interaction?Does it make sense to think of sexuality in terms of discrete local or global domains, or are these closely interrelated?Ask the pairs to now form groups of four or six and compare and contrast their answers from the first part of the exercise.Ask each group to construct a provisional hierarchy of the social and cultural influences that inform sexuality in their social contexts. Groups should be able to present their hierarchies on a board or flipchart so that each hierarchy can be viewed and discussed by the larger group.
34 Session 4. Sexual identity and cultural objects The aim of this session is to analyse the manner in which sexuality can be understood as socially produced through cultural objects.This discussion will provide a concrete and tangible way for participants to reflect upon the theory and issues covered in the module in relation to their own experience.
35 Small group work Break into groups of 3-4: Produce a ‘critical sexual history’ of each cultural objectUse the questions in Handout B to guide your discussion:Does the object evoke personal meanings from your own experiences or those of friends and family?What does the object reveal about social and cultural context?Does the object evoke ideas regarding social, political and/or economic changes and their relationship to contemporary sexualities?(60 mins)Arrange participants in a circle or around a table so that they are facing each other. Ask participants to introduce their objects, and pass them around the group if appropriate.Then, ask participants to form groups of 3-4 (different groups from the earlier session should be encouraged). Distribute Handout B.Read (on Handout B):Sexuality studies are increasingly interested in the material conditions through which sexualities are conceived and practised. Sexualities are represented in symbols and objects, some of which may readily be associated with culturally specific ideas regarding sexuality, and some which may be more readily imagined as transnational in scope and scale. Taking the object you have selected for the class discussion, your task is to explore the interaction between sexual symbols and practices and the implications for understanding sexual cultures and identities.Working within your group, place each object in a position where it can be seen, explored, touched and discussed by everyone in the group. The task is for group members to consider the ideas and emotions that these objects evoke regarding sexuality, culture and identities.Explain that discussion of objects can be guided by the following questions (on slide and on Handout B):Does the object evoke personal meanings from participants’ own experiences or those of friends and family?What does the object reveal about social and cultural context?Does the object evoke ideas regarding social, political and/or economic changes and their relationship to contemporary sexualities?Tell participants to record the different views of the group.Approximately one hour should be given to the discussion of objects (10-15 minutes per object).
36 Group discussionTo what extent do the objects belong to the particular social and cultural contexts within which you live?Do the objects evoke ideas of ‘traditional’ sexualities or ideas more strongly associated with modernity?Can sexuality be easily categorised as ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’?Do the objects suggest ideas about contemporary changes in social context and political-economies?How do these changes relate to sexual identity and culture?What, if anything, do the objects imply about globalisation and cultural change?Are the objects regionally specific or culturally specific, or linked to broader flows of information globally?Are such distinctions between global and local meaningful when we look at actual cultural objects and the ideas about sexuality that they may represent? (30 mins)Once the objects have been discussed, the whole group should consider the following questions (on Handout B and on slide):To what extent do the objects belong to the particular social and cultural context within which you live?Do the objects evoke ideas of ‘traditional’ sexualities or ideas more strongly associated with modernity? Can sexuality be easily categorised as ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’?Do the objects suggest ideas about contemporary changes in social context and political-economies? How do these changes relate to sexual identity and culture?What, if anything, do the objects imply about globalisation and cultural change? Are the objects regionally specific or culturally specific, or linked to broader flows of information globally? Are such distinctions between global and local meaningful when we look at actual cultural objects and the ideas about sexuality that they may represent?
37 ConclusionCritical perspectives on sexual identity introduced from a social constructionist perspectiveCommon assumptions about ‘natural’, trans-historical or universal sexuality are questionedRange of factors at work in the constitution of sexual subjectivities in local and global contexts‘Culture’ is not stable or fixedThe effects of globalisation mean that the character and limits of ‘local contexts’ are increasingly open & changeableThis module has introduced critical perspectives on sexual identity from a social constructionist perspective. In particular, we have questioned common assumptions about ‘natural’, trans-historical or universal sexuality. We have identified a range of factors at work in the constitution of sexual subjectivities in their local and global contexts.We have also considered the ways in which ‘culture’ is not stable or fixed, such that its inherence within sexuality is difficult to determine. Such complexities are especially pertinent in transnational contexts where the effects of globalisation mean that the character and limits of ‘local cultural contexts’ are increasingly seen to be open and changeable.Review some of the key outputs from group work carried out during the module.
38 Short course developed by: Module created by:Dr Paul Boyce, University of London and Dr Clare Hemmings, London School of Economics and Political ScienceShort course developed by:The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne, AustraliaandThe International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS)With funding from The Ford FoundationAvailable under an Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike licence from Creative Commons