People say to me – or imply in the frowns and jokey asides which still tend to accompany discussion of the sexual even in the grown-up world of academia – what’s a nice media sociologist like you doing in a dirty sub-sector of the field like this? To which I reply: sex is the most important thing in the world. Or if that seems excessive: sex is one of the three or four most important things in the world. We eat, we excrete, we fuck, we sleep, if not necessarily in that order. In the human journey from birth to death, only those activities are truly essential to the production and reproduction of life. All else – the way we dress, the shapes of the houses in which we live, the work we do, our art and culture – are, to a greater or lesser degree, epiphenomenal decoration and artifice; the socially and culturally mediated product of our precocious species’ ability to advance technology at an ever-accelerating rate, to command and exploit its environment, to reflect on its achievements and failings, to learn (and sometimes not to learn) from its mistakes.
If eating and excreting are essential because they are the means by which we process food, dispose of the waste products, and thus replenish our bodies then sex, the means of genetic reproduction, is the prerequisite of it all. The fundamental human sex act – that which takes place between a male and a female, requiring vaginal penetration by the penis and the ejaculation of male sperm leading to fertilization of the female’s egg – is the only natural biological mechanism for the transmission of genetic information from one person to another, and from one generation to the next. From this clumsy exchange of bodily fluids a new human being can be made, and genes passed on. All other means of reproduction, welcome though they may be to those who are unable to produce children naturally, and with access to the technology which makes assisted conception possible, are the artificially enhanced fruits of scientific progress.
Defining terms: sex and sexuality
Sex in our time is not reducible to reproduction, of course. Its possibilities and permutations are constrained neither by the mechanics of male–female intercourse, nor the immediate survival needs of the gene or species. The biological
imperative to transmit genes through sexual intercourse has over hundreds of millennia evolved
into the psychological
capacity to feel sexual desire and experience orgasm as an especially intense form of physical and emotional pleasure (Figure 1.1
Sex has become sexuality; or rather, sexualities
Figure 1.1 Defining terms: sex, sexuality, gender
The structures around which human sexuality is organized – the persons, behaviours and objects on which it is focused – have diverged from one society to another throughout human history, and from one person to another within any given society at any given time, but the specific shape of our individual desires defines for each one of us, here and now, our own sexuality. In addition to what we might think of as the default mode of male–female attraction, men can feel desire for men, women for women, men and women for inanimate objects, textures, sounds, smells. The biological predisposition to male–female sex has evolved into a social universe of multiple sexualities which, as Michel Foucault observed in his
influential history of the subject (1990), have since the advent of sexology in the mid-nineteenth century been named and categorised in evermore precise medical, moral and pathological terms – heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual; fetishistic, paraphiliac, nymphomaniac; normal, deviant, perverted.
We human beings, it is generally believed, are unique among terrestrial species in being in command of our sexuality. Within the constraints imposed by economics, politics and conventional morality we can experiment with it, refine and manipulate it, enhance it, and (where contraceptive technologies are available) detach it from the reproductive function entirely. We can make art from it, celebrating its pleasures and pains (as Prefab Sprout once put it, ‘when love breaks down, when love breaks down’2
) in literature, painting, and every other medium of cultural expression used by human beings through the ages.
Alongside this proliferation of socially constructed sexualities the biological category of sex has become enmeshed with another, predominantly cultural
category – that of gender. The anatomy of maleness corresponds to something most of us will recognize as ‘masculinity’; a set of behaviours and beliefs which distinguish the masculine from its bipolar opposite, femininity. Although maleness and femaleness can be described in terms of biological characteristics which, if they are not universal, fit the vast majority of individuals well enough (particular configurations of sex organs, certain genetic and hormonal profiles leading to the physiological features associated with male and female), the gender characteristics associated with masculinity and femininity – and routinely displayed in what some theorists would call the ‘performances’ of men and women in society,3
– are to a significant extent learned, ascribed qualities, signified by speech and behaviour patterns, modes of dress, and other markers which are conventional rather than biological, changing over time and across cultures. Although most men are masculine, in other words (as most women are feminine), not all are, and none need be.4
The content of gender roles in any given society will change over time, as they will differ from those prevailing in other societies. If our biological sex is fixed at birth (and, with the possible exception of those transsexuals who embark on sex-change surgery, it probably is) the way that sex is expressed culturally, through gender, is in large part a product of socialization, overlaid and personalized with elements of individual creativity and lifestyle choice.
It is fair to say that no one has conclusively explained how, and for what reason, the biological necessity of human sex became the complex emotional and psychological minefield that is sexuality as we live it today, nor how the act of procreation became the vehicle for such a diversity of pleasures and pains as are now associated with it. And for the purposes of this book it doesn’t really matter whether the explanations for that transformation lie in evolutionary biology, Freudian psychoanalysis, structural anthropology or divine intervention.5
I prefer to start from the simple observation, made without any statement of personal preference or moral
judgement, that we inhabit a world of plural sexualities and polymorphous perversities, and that this diversity of sexual identities exists alongside many other elements of modern life which are far removed from the ‘natural’ human state as it may have been in some distant prehistorical past, but which we value and preserve nonetheless as taken for granted elements of contemporary life. Whether or not any of our sexualities can be defined as ‘natural’, in other words, is less important to my argument than the fact that they exist at all, and that there is no reason why freedom of sexual expression should not, in the advanced capitalist societies of the twenty-first century, be considered a human right6
(I exclude from this generalization any form of sexuality – paedophilia, for example, or non-consensual sexual activity of any kind – which involves the violation or abuse of other’s human rights).
Sex and power
Sex is about reproduction, then, and it is also about power (Figure 1.2
). Because of the centrality of sex to social, as well as biological reproduction (through the role of bloodlines in the cross-generational transfer of property, for example; or the role of the patriarchal family in the reliable supply of well-disciplined and properly nourished labour power to industry) – roles which are always threatened by the anarchic, disruptive effects of the desires which sex inspires – sexuality and its representation have tended to be subject to state and church control, and thus politically charged. Throughout human history and in every form of society the state has, with varying degrees of severity, regulated sexuality and policed desire through legal controls on marriage, ages of sexual consent, and prohibitions on sexual practices of various kinds. These laws have functioned to maintain social discipline and order, almost always on behalf of what feminist theory and historiography have accurately characterized as a patriarchal ruling class. Sex and the control of it (who has it; what they can do with it; and to whom) has been the basis, for at least the seven millenia of recorded history, in virtually all civilizations across the world, of systems of social stratification dominated by men, in which women, homosexuals and those defined as sexual deviants have been oppressed and persecuted.7
Figure 1.2 Sex matters
Power is never exercised without challenge, however, and for some time now the power of, first the churches, then the state, to regulate sexuality and police desire has been echoed by the efforts of once-subordinate sexual communities – women in the first instance, followed closely by homosexuals and other groups whose sexual identities and lifestyles deviate in some way from the patriarchal heterosexist norm – to assert their socio-sexual rights. Anthony Giddens has correctly observed that ‘sexuality is a terrain of fundamental political struggle and also a medium of emancipation’ (1993, p. 181). Despite the private, intimate nature of sexuality, these struggles have taken place in the public domain, often through the channels of the mainstream, commercialized media, making the sexual social, the personal political, and both more than marginally profitable. The post-World War II period, characterized by the decline of class-based ideological polarity, has been one of especially intense campaigning around issues of sexual identity, and for what sociologist David Evans has called sexual citizenship
This has been one consequence of an environment where groups defined by their sexuality have become consumers wielding significant economic power. Between the 1950s and the 1970s the number of female wage labourers doubled, and their presence in the wage economy has increased steadily since then (see Chapter 2
) with obvious implications for their spending power. As of 2000 it was estimated that the gay community in the United Kingdom earned collectively £95 billion, of which £10 billion was available for them to spend as disposable income. This earning power was reflected in an expanding culture of sexual consumerism focused on ‘gay villages’ and services, and facilitated through e-commerce websites like queer.com
Where there’s muck there’s brass: sex sells
The phenomenon of the ‘pink pound’ is one manifestation of the fact that the pleasurable, recreational dimensions of sexuality have long made it the lucrative object of capitalist entrepreneurship, based on the transformation of desire and the promise of sexual pleasure into various types of commodity (pornographic books and films, sex aids, fashion and appearance enhancers of various kinds, and all the
sex-saturated products of art and popular culture. Sex sells indirectly, too, routinely used in advertising and pop video as a powerful promotional tool to sell other commodities in the marketplace). In all these ways sex is about money, and never more so than in the capitalist societies of today, which have nurtured sex industries to rank in size and profitability, if not yet respectability, with the more established and institutionalized sectors of the culture economy such as Hollywood cinema and pop music. Precise figures for the size of the sex industries are hard to come by (see Chapter 3
for some estimates of the size of the porn business in the United States and Britain) and those which do surface from time to time should always be treated with caution, given the political motivations which so often underpin their use by journalists and lobbyists. But that commodified sex in all its forms, targeted at most sexual communities with the resources to indulge their preferences, is of major economic significance in the cultural capitalism of the twenty-first century, is indisputable.
Sex and death
The evolution of sexual culture and politics took a new turn in the 1980s with the emergence of a disease which confirmed what had always been known, but largely forgotten in the relatively liberal, often hedonistic atmosphere which followed on the sexual revolution. Sex is important, we were reminded then, because all too often it turns out to be about sickness and death, as well as pleasure and money. Sex is the transmitter of genes, and the source of life, but also of viruses and bacteria which can cause life to be damaged and extinguished. There have been many catastrophic sexual epidemics in human history, but none so panic-inducing for our present-day societies as that of HIV and the many life-threatening illnesses it causes (collectively known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS). Between the discovery of the hetero-immuno deficiency virus in the early 1980s and the turn of the century some 29 million people are estimated to have died from AIDS throughout the world, and a further 30 million were believed to be infected with the virus.
The discovery of HIV in the early 1980s required as a matter of public safety that the explicit representation and discussion of sexual behaviour become part of mainstream health education. In that process the traditional boundaries which had separated the private practice of sex from the public display and discussion of it were subjected to unprecedented stresses. Already breaking down in the wake of the sexual revolution HIV and AIDS exposed those censorial practices as positively harmful to the health of billions of people – a process which even the moral conservatives who dominated the US and British governments in the 1980s were unable to resist.8
And when it finally came, anti-HIV education for both gay and straight audiences necessarily broke taboos in the public discussion of sexuality and sexual behaviour, provoking widespread awareness of and interest in the subjects.
For all of these reasons – the high stakes surrounding the politics and business of sex; its biological and emotional centrality to our individual lives and collective
survival; the threats to public health which certain kinds of sexual activity had come to pose – the late twentieth century saw the development of a cultural environment pervaded by sexuality and its representation. Today, across the range of artistic, promotional and journalistic media we are likely to view, discuss and think about sex with greater frequency and attention to detail than at any previous stage in history. What was significant about the Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998–9 was not, after all, the revelation that US presidents have messy and potentially scandalous sex lives (we have known that for a long time), but that we got to hear so much about this particular president’s intimate moments, and were then encouraged to form a view as to whether oral sex is or is not ‘sexual relations’; on the forensic significance of semen stains on blue dresses; on the erotic possibilities of unlit cigars.9
Taking offence: critical perspectives on cultural sexualisation
All of this has been recognized and commented on for some time now, generating a relentless talking about sex and the sexualisation of culture which shows no signs of exhaustion. Barely a day goes by without someone, somewhere in the public sphere adding further fuel to the debate about the perils of mediated sex. Usually, and regardless of whether the author is a religiously inspired moral conservative, a Marxist sociologist, an anti-porn feminist, or a freedom-loving liberal, these commentaries are couched in the critical tones of cultural pessimism. Melanie Phillips, for example, warns us with the apocalyptic certainty typical of the journalistic commentator that ‘it’s in the interests of everyone to confront the sexualisation of our culture which is leading us all, gay and straight, into a spiritual and emotional desert’.10
The essayist Bryan Appleyard complains that ‘the new sexual revolution is all about flattening sex until it becomes just one more product on the counter of consumer choice’.11
A recent essay by Tom Wolfe is cynical about what he sees, speaking of the United States in particular, as ‘the lurid carnival taking place in the mightiest country on earth’.12
Wolfe’s compatriot Roger Kimball has complained that ‘anywhere a...