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The Social Construction of Sexual Identities From Advancing Sexuality Studies: a short course on sexuality theory and research methodologies.

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Presentation on theme: "The Social Construction of Sexual Identities From Advancing Sexuality Studies: a short course on sexuality theory and research methodologies."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Social Construction of Sexual Identities From Advancing Sexuality Studies: a short course on sexuality theory and research methodologies

2 2 Schedule Learning activityTime allowed Introduction & aims 10 mins Session 1. Sexual identities and social constructionism Small group work & brainstorm Lecture Show objects 120 mins Session 2. Sexualities in transnational perspective Lecture & Pre-reading review Small group discussion & feedback 55 mins Session 3. How is your sexuality socially constructed? Pairs work Small group work & feedback 75 mins Session 4. Sexual identity and cultural objects Small group work Large group discussion 90 mins Conclusion15 Total365 mins

3 3 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 4 Develop a critical understanding of sexual identity as socially constructed in relations of discourse and power Be able to assess the strengths and limitations of cultural perspectives on sexuality, especially in transnational context Examine connections between culture and sexuality through material culture, exploring symbols through which ideas about sexuality are represented and scripted Participants will:

5 5 Session 1. Sexual identities and social constructionism

6 6 What is sexual identity? In groups of three or four: –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 (20 mins) Feedback (5 mins)

7 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)

8 8 Brainstorm What is sexual identity and how does it relate to sexuality? (10 mins)

9 9 Social construction, sexual identity Identity is not fixed and unchanging It is dependent on social meaning Sexual identities do not simply name sexual practices They constitute individuals as particular kinds of people – Adulterer – Homosexual

10 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 drive –Deviations from the natural or normal indicate immorality, depravity or disorder

11 11 Social construction of sexuality Rather than types of persons, sexual behaviours, sexual instincts or drives, this approach focuses on: –Meanings –Practices –Identities And their relationship to: –Discourses –Institutions –Power relations

12 12 Discourses –Institutionalised ways of thinking about a possible object that, in turn, limit how that object might be thought about –Michel Foucault – Knowledge is power (power/knowledge) –Power exercised through discourse - it may be difficult to speak about the thing being described in any other way –Discourses are truth claims that support established power relations Women are more suited to raising children because they give birth Sex education for young people encourages sexual promiscuity Homosexuality is unnatural

13 13 Social constructionist theory –A way of thinking about the world –The power of culture, language and knowledge to construct reality –There is no prior, objective reality beyond our interpretation of it We all interpret reality differently depending on our social position and cultural background

14 14 Cross-cultural variability in sexuality –Sambia of New Guinea (Herdt, 1981) –Practices that appear the same have different meanings in different cultures –Same-sex sexual experience before marriage In many cultures, same-sex sexual activity raises personal questions about whether one is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual

15 15 Sexuality Historical scholarship - Foucault (1978); Weeks (1977) Prior to late 19 th 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 19 th century European thought –Rise of professional discourses regulating personal conduct and behaviour –Emergence of specific forms of sexual deviance Sexuality 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-Enlightenment

16 16 Binary thinking Western systems of meaning-making –Oppositional or binary Day – Night White – Black Man – Woman North – South Developed – Underdeveloped, etc Difference is the basis to meaning-making One term is powerful by virtue of defining the other as different The power to classify, define and make knowledge about an Other – contributes to their subjectification and marginalisation

17 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 homosexual –Identity can be a source of power New possibilities for being sexual emerge even in conditions of regulation and repression

18 18 Heterosexuality an unmarked category –Homosexuality is understood to be the deviation from the heterosexual norm Brainstorm –How 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)

19 19 The charmed circle Source: Gayle Rubin (1984) Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality

20 20 Heterosexuality is not a natural category –Favoured practices and norms Individuals are subject to regulations that construct heterosexuality as natural and normal – and individuals who identify as heterosexual as moral citizens Others are constituted as unnatural, sinful, ill, or immoral Heterosexual/homosexual binary sustains unequal sexual and social relations, and constrains the possibilities for sexual expression

21 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)

22 22 Masturbation –A specific social problem in 19 th century Europe (how to stop children from engaging in self-abuse) –Shift from shameful activity to legitimate aspect of personal (private) sexual expression in 20 th century –A normal activity: individuals less likely to think of themselves as deviant or immoral –Enormous shift in meaning over 120 years Debates between experts Political activists and social groups Broader shifts in social values and attitudes

23 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)

24 24 Cultural objects Show your cultural object to the group. You do not need to add significant comment on your cultural object at this stage (10 mins)

25 25 Session 2. Sexualities in transnational perspective

26 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)

27 27 Sexuality is increasingly complicated in the context of globalisation –The range of factors that influence how peoples sense of sexual identity or subjectivity take shape are increasingly difficult to trace or determine Identities are not so easily understood as being shaped by one local culture or another Grewal and Caplan (2001) – a more complicated model of transnational relations might include looking at:

28 28 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). Grewal & Kaplan (2001)

29 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. fashion Ideas 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 movement

30 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)

31 31 Session 3. How is your sexuality socially constructed?

32 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 life –Try to come up with two specific examples for each theme Over time In different contexts In relation to power and other social factors (25 mins)

33 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) Feedback Discussion –Are 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? (25 mins)

34 34 Session 4. Sexual identity and cultural objects

35 35 Small group work Break into groups of 3-4: –Produce a critical sexual history of each cultural object Use 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)

36 36 Group discussion To 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)

37 37 Conclusion Critical perspectives on sexual identity introduced from a social constructionist perspective –Common assumptions about natural, trans-historical or universal sexuality are questioned Range of factors at work in the constitution of sexual subjectivities in local and global contexts –Culture is not stable or fixed The effects of globalisation mean that the character and limits of local contexts are increasingly open & changeable

38 38 Module created by: –Dr Paul Boyce, University of London and Dr Clare Hemmings, London School of Economics and Political Science Short course developed by: –The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia and –The International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS) –With funding from The Ford Foundation Available under an Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike licence from Creative Commons

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