Cities and Sexualities
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Cities and Sexualities

Phil Hubbard

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eBook - ePub

Cities and Sexualities

Phil Hubbard

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About This Book

From the hotspots of commercial sex through to the suburbia of twitching curtains, urban life and sexualities appear inseparable. Cities are the source of our most familiar images of sexual practice, and are the spaces where new understandings of sexuality take shape. In an era of global business and tourism, cities are also the hubs around which a global sex trade is organised and where virtual sex content is obsessively produced and consumed.

Detailing the relationships between sexed bodies, sexual subjectivities and forms of intimacy, Cities and Sexualities explores the role of the city in shaping our sexual lives. At the same time, it describes how the actions of urban governors, city planners, the police and judiciary combine to produce cities in which some sexual proclivities and tastes are normalised and others excluded. In so doing, it maps out the diverse sexual landscapes of the city - from spaces of courtship, coupling and cohabitation through to sites of adult entertainment, prostitution, and pornography. Considering both the normative geographies of heterosexuality and monogamy, as well as urban geographies of radical/queer sex, this book provides a unique perspective on the relationship between sex and the city.

Cities and Sexualities offers a wide overview of the state-of-the-art in geographies and sociologies of sexuality, as well as an empirically-grounded account of the forms of desire that animate the erotic city. It describes the diverse sexual landscapes that characterise both the contemporary Western city as well as cities in the global South. The book features a wide range of boxed case studies as well as suggestions for further reading at the end each chapter. It will appeal to undergraduate students studying Geography, Urban Studies, Gender Studies and Sociology.

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Introducing Cities and Sexualities
Learning Objectives
  • To understand that sexuality is simultaneously biological, psychological and social.
  • To appreciate why place matters in an understanding of sexualities.
  • To gain an understanding of some of the key processes that serve to sexualize the city.
Traditionally, sexuality has been of relatively little interest to urban researchers, who have appeared remarkably reluctant to explore the way that people’s sexuality shapes, or is shaped by, their urban experiences. There are a number of possible explanations for this, aside from the general prudishness that is often evident about sex. One possible explanation is that sexuality, if conceived in its narrowest biological sense, can be seen to concern our sexual behaviour and the physiological and psychological basis of our sexuality. Viewed in this way, sex might be understood as a solely biological imperative, worthy of investigation by the clinician, the medical professional or the sex therapist, but something that seems to be little influenced by a person’s surroundings. Whether one is born, or lives, in a sprawling metropolis or tiny rural hamlet seems to have little bearing on the materiality of the body, or the sexual desires that we possess, given we are born into bodies that determine our subsequent sexual development.
However, if viewed from an alternative, sociological perspective, sex can be regarded as the product of social forces that need to be explained, with people’s sexuality shaped by their gender, age, class and ethnicity, as well as the cultural influences to which they are exposed in their everyday lives. A sociological perspective hence views sex as not something dictated by our physical needs and urges, but embedded in multiple institutions, networks and organizations that shape our desire. This does not mean that social science approaches ignore the biology or physicality of the body. Far from it. Sex itself is always embodied and visceral, involving fleshy, desiring bodies, touches, looks, tastes, smells, bodily fluids, sperm, saliva, sweat. But sociologists argue that the embodied experience of sex can never transcend the social, with sex always being informed by the images of eroticism that circulate in the media, the conversations we have about sex and the guidance we are given about what sex is supposed to be. When we have sex, or claim a sexual identity, we are thus positioned within the social.
While not discounting ideas about the science of sex, this book is hence grounded in social science literatures that explore the social construction of sex. Such literatures suggest that while sex is always a matter of biology (i.e. embodied acts and physical processes), the fact that specific bodily actions and performances are understood as ‘sexual’ or ‘erotic’ means they take on a meaning that ripples out to encompass all dimensions of our identities and practices. To take an example: virginity might be understood biologically as having not had penetrative sex with another person, but socially it is surrounded by a complex range of assumptions and understandings of purity, cleanliness and innocence. Moreover, there are seen to be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ages at which to start having sex, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways to lose one’s virginity. These social myths and meanings have important consequences for what it means to be a virgin, and what it feels like to be a virgin. Moreover, they also have an important influence on decisions to ‘lose’ one’s virginity, or perhaps to perform a celibate identity that celebrates the decision to remain a virgin in the face of social pressures to the contrary (Abbott 2000).
This type of example suggests that not all sexual acts or identities are regarded as equivalent in contemporary society. As Gayle Rubin (1984) argued in her essay ‘Thinking Sex’, some sexualities are socially privileged, others marginalized. As such, it is possible to speak of ‘good sex’ – that which the state, media and law suggests is normal, natural and healthy – as well as ‘bad sex’ – that which is depicted as ‘utterly repulsive and devoid of all emotional nuance’ (Rubin 1984, 117). Writing in the context of the mid 1980s, Rubin (1984, 117) argued that the latter encompassed the ‘most despised sexual castes … transsexuals, transvestites, fetishists, sadomasochists, sex workers such as prostitutes and porn models, and the lowliest of all, those whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries’.
In situating particular acts and identities as immoral, and thus on the ‘margins’ of acceptability, the moral ‘centre’ is defined. The boundaries between moral/immoral and good/bad sex are never clear cut, however, with changing understandings of sex being circulated, and contested, via social representations of different sexual practices and lifestyles. Some sexualities have shifted from being ‘bad’ to ‘good’: for example, while Rubin spoke of homosexuality’s marginal and even criminalized status in the 1980s, this has been transformed by the efforts of homophile and, later, queer activist groups since that time, with many nations now recognizing same-sex civil partnerships and offering lesbian and gay identified individuals protection from homophobic discrimination and abuse (McGhee 2004). By the same token, however, sexualities can move from the centre to the margins of society: for example, in classical times, it appears that Athenian society revolved around maledominated and homosocial notions of bonding that encouraged older men to take younger boys – of between twelve and eighteen – as lovers (Halperin 2002; Clark 2008). Today, as Rubin notes, such behaviour would be widely condemned as paedophilia.
Rubin (1984, 116) hence argued that ‘all erotic behaviour is considered bad unless a specific reason to exempt it has been established, with the most acceptable excuses [being] marriage, reproduction, and love’. This argument has subsequently been developed by researchers exploring how a particular, coupled, form of heterosexuality is made to appear natural and normal, something captured in the concept of heteronormativity:
By heteronormativity we mean the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent – that is, organized as a sexuality – but also privileged … It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine than of a sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations – often unconscious, immanent to practice or to institutions. Contexts that have little visible relation to sex practice, such as life narrative and generational identity, can be heteronormative in this sense, while in other contexts forms of sex between men and women might not be heteronormative. Heteronormativity is thus a concept distinct from heterosexuality.
(Berlant and Warner 1998, 178)
This concept of heteronormativity has proved important given it develops Rubin’s idea of a hierarchy of sexualities and explores the normalization not of heterosexuality per se, but a form of heterosexuality based on coupling, reproduction, consensual sex and love. This is also the form of sexuality privileged by the state, with most nations granting certain rights of citizenship to coupled, reproductive individuals which are denied to ‘bad’ sexual subjects (Richardson 2000).
Exploring shifts in social understandings of what is sexually ‘normal’ is important in any examination of sex and the city, for it underlines that understandings of what sexuality is – and which sexualities are ‘normal’ – can vary across both time and space. Despite the fact that we live a global world, where there is some degree of cultural homogenization, it is obvious that there are different understandings of ‘appropriate’ sexual comportment and manners between East and West, and between the global South and the global North, with significant variations apparent within these broadly defined areas (see Hastings and Magowan 2010). This suggests that although it is possible to make generalizations about the sexual life of cities, there are certain dangers in imagining that all cities promote the same sort of sexualities (see Brown et al. 2010 on urban sexualities beyond the West). Bearing this in mind, this chapter will begin to trace the connections between sex and the city by exploring how nineteenth-century European urbanization triggered new understandings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sexuality. The first section hence explores how the emergence of large, modern cities (such as London, Berlin and Paris) prompted anxieties about the sex lives of their citizens. A key idea in the second section of this chapter is that these anxieties fuelled attempts to order the city via acts of planning, environmental modification and health reform which were ultimately about disciplining the city’s diverse sexualities. Acknowledging that such acts have tended to produce heteronormative cities, the final section of this chapter stresses that the city nonetheless remains a site where sexual norms can be questioned or exceeded, offering diverse spaces for the performance of alternative, residual or ‘queer’ sexualities. Urban space is hence shown to be highly significant in shaping the sexual life of its citizens, distributing bodies and desires to produce cities where particular forms of sexual conduct dominate: as Mitchell (2000, 35) notes, ‘like any social relationship, sexuality is inherently spatial – it depends on particular spaces for its construction and in turn produces and reproduces the spaces in which sexuality can be, and was, forged’.
Diversity and Danger: Urbanization and Sexual Anxiety
While the first cities emerged thousands of years ago, it was only in the nineteenth century that the city began to be taken seriously as a distinctive and important academic object of study. One of the main reasons for this was that, until that time, the overall share of the global population living in cities was small in both absolute and relative terms. The rapid urbanization of the nineteenth century changed this, evident first and foremost in the economically dominant states of Europe and then in the cities of the so-called ‘New World’, notably the US. What was particularly significant about this process of urbanization was that it produced cities that contemporary commentators struggled to describe using existing language: their size, appearance and apparent complexity rendered them a new species that demanded to be classified, catalogued and ultimately, diagnosed.
In its nascent form, urban studies was concerned with describing the distinctive social, economic and political life of these cities, noting they were more crowded, diverse and individualized than rural settlements. The idea that the city represented the antithesis of traditional ruralism became particularly associated with Ferdinand Tonnies’ (1887) distinction between gemeinschaft communities – characterized by people working together for the common good, united by ties of family (kinship), language and folklore – and gesellschaft societies, characterized by rampant individualism and a concomitant lack of community cohesion. Though Tonnies couched the distinction between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft in terms of a pre-industrial/industrial divide rather than an urban/rural one, his description of gesellschaft societies was deemed appropriate for industrial cities where the extended family unit was supplanted by ‘nuclear’ households in which individuals were concerned with their own problems, and seldom those of others, remaining indifferent even to those in their immediate neighbourhood.
Though caricatured, the idea that urban settlements were less cohesive than their rural counterparts was a persuasive one, and resonated with discourses that figured the modern city as cold, calculating and anonymous. Friedrich Engels’ (1844) work is of particular note in this respect given it documented the inhuman living conditions experienced by workers in cities that increasingly served the interests of industrial production and the property-owning classes. In a more general sense, Georg Simmel (1858–1918) described the impacts of urbanism on social psychology, suggesting that the city demanded human adaptation to cope with its size and complexity. In his essay ‘The metropolis and mental life’, Simmel (1903) argued that the unique trait of the modern city was the intensification of nervous stimuli with which the city dweller must cope. Describing the contrast between the rural, where the rhythm of life and sensory imagery was slow, and the city, with its ‘swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli’, Simmel detailed how individuals psychologically adapted to urban life. Most famously, he spoke of the development of a blasé attitude – the attitude of indifference which urban dwellers adapt as they go about their day-to-day business (something that remains evident in the etiquette of urban life, where adopting modes of ‘civil inattention’ enables the pedestrian to negotiate encounters with the innumerable strangers passed in the street) (Smith and Davidson 2008).
The idea that the urban experience is essentially ‘managed’ through a transformation of individual consciousness that involves a filtering out of the detail and minutiae of city existence remains an important foundation for urban theory. So too does the idea that city life debases human relations, and renders contact between urban dwellers essentially superficial, self-centred and shallow, based on surface appearance. For Simmel, the impersonality and depthlessness of urban life was related to the fact that the industrial city served the calculative imperatives of money. Simmel essentially suggested this encouraged relations based purely on exchange value and productivity (and thus dissolved bonds constructed on the basis of blood, kinship or loyalty). This, he argued, encouraged a purely logical way of thinking which valued punctuality, calculability and exactness. The corollary was a city that moved to the rhythms of industrial capitalism, and was marked by a ceaseless transformation (Berman 1983). This was to have important consequences for the sex life of modern cities, as Brown and Browne summarize:
These new forms of urban life and the anonymity and freedom afforded by large, concentrated populations enabled unorthodox sexual practices and the development of new subcultures based around minority sexualities … [with] sexual adventure to be found in the circulation of the crowd, the comingling of different classes in public space, and the spectacle of the electrified city at night.
(Brown and Browne 2009, 697)
Despite an evident reticence to situate sexuality within the realm of the social, the pioneers of urban sociology began to note that the great metropolitan centres were characterized by distinctive sexualities (Heap 2003). This led to the development of numerous theories linking sexual ‘perversion’ to the social turbulence and disorganization of the modern city (see Case Study 1.1).
Case Study 1.1
Sex in the metropolis: Weimar Berlin
The third largest city in the world after London and New York, Berlin transformed dramatically in the boom years of the ‘Golden Twenties’ between the inflation crisis of November 1923 and the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. One symptom of this was the emergence of an extensive night-life district centred on a diverse range of theatres, opera and, most famously, cabaret clubs. Another was creativity and experimentation in art, literature, design and architecture: the outward appearance of the city betrayed this, being characterized by a new ‘objective’ style of architecture – pioneered by Gropius, Taut, Mendelsohn and Mies van der Rohe – which made a virtue of structural integrity, functional, clean appearance and lack of ornament. Berlin thus became known as a truly modern metropolis, thoroughly of the moment: in the words of journalist and social commentator Siegfried Kracauer (1932, cited in Frisby 2001, 64), ‘it appears as if the city had control of the magic means of eradicating memories. It is present day and makes a point of honour of being absolutely present day.’
Summarizing the socio-spatial transformation of 1920s Berlin, Ward (2001) comments on its evident ‘surface culture’, suggesting that the new objectivity hid nothing. All was on display, so to speak. From its department stores to the streets themselves, the city offered an excess of commodities that were fashioned, packaged and displayed in an aesthetic manner to increase their ‘external appeal’, and Ward suggests that this extended to the body itself. In its commodified form, the body took on the attributes of the city, with bodies culturally – and economically – valued for their efficient, modern, stylish appearance. This was most evident in the emergence of new fashions for men and women, particularly those associated with the Neue Frau (‘New Woman’) whose short bobbed hair, penchant for smoking and relaxed, almost masculine clothes, emphasized the new-found freedoms of the modern city and the sexual liberation this implied. Indelibly associated with the Berlin cabaret scene – captured in Christopher Isherwood’s (1939) Goodbye to Berlin, and the film it inspired (Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, 1972) – the New Woman was located imaginatively in the decadent all-night clubs that satirized dominant political mores and often flouted normal conventions around nudity and dress. In such settings, the Neue Frau was presented as an object to be visually and sexually consumed by men, despite her education and evident mobility.
The idea that the modern city accentuated the visible and the visual through an exaggerated and intense emphasis on surface form suggests Berlin was a stage where new sexualities were not just performed, but produced. Writing in 1903 on the processes of commodification and spectacularization associated with the rise of modern urban culture, Berlin-based sociologist Georg Simmel argued that human emotion was being reduced to a sexual and economic exchange, with the traditional ties of kinship being subsumed by a more individualized culture that allowed for sexualities that transcended traditional gender, racial and class boundaries. One obvious symptom in Weimar Berlin was the development of well-known ‘sex zones’ where as many as 30,000 prostitutes worked after the decriminalization of sex work in 1927. The most infamous ‘red light area’ was that around Alexanderplatz, which contained upwards of 300 brothels, but throughout the city streetwalkers signified they were for sale through provocative modes of dressing. Overlapping these sites of prostitution, Berlin was also host to some of the first openly gay and lesbian bars (with the foundation of gay rights organization Berliner Freundesbund in 1919) (Evans 2003; B. Smith 2010).
Internationally, Berlin hence became known for its sexual experimentation and lib...

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