The Sexual Spectacle: Making a Public Culture of Sexual Problems

Ken Plummer. Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Editor: George Ritzer. Sage Publication. 2004.

“There are multiple realities because people differ in their situations and their purposes. The reality an impressionist painter constructs respecting a maritime scene is not that of a sailor or that of an atomic physicist. The reality a destitute black person constructs respecting the nature of poverty has little validity for a conservative political candidate … Every construction of the world is a demanding activity. It can be done well or badly and be right or wrong. To understand that multiple realities are prevalent is liberating, but such understanding in no way suggests that every construction is as good as every other … There is typically little correspondence between the measures people take against political enemies and the harm they do.” ~ Murray Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle (1988)

In most societies across time and space, it is possible to find sexual violence and rape, sexual representation and erotica, childhood sexualities and abuse, and masturbation and solitary sexual activities. There is usually a whole array of differing kinds of sexualities outside of the prescribed and conventional penis-vagina/marital/heterosexual intercourse. There will also be sterility and infertility, and many diseases that have their links with sexual activity, from HIV to herpes. Some people will sell their sex, and others will buy it. Some people will change their genders. And some people will be unhappy in their sexual relations, will experience excess desire or little desire, and experiment with sexual fetishes of many kinds. Most societies will have versions of all these: but their meanings, rates, causes, and general “social shape” are likely to differ greatly across time and space. And in only some societies at some times will they ever become “social problems.” Whilst “sexual problems”—sufferings and stigmas, diseases and difficulties, taboos and tribulations, defilements and dangers—have probably existed throughout all societies throughout history, the idea that sexualities are “social problems” may be a relatively new one. The spectacle of private passions and desires moving from the private realm into the public spheres for a proliferation of critical analyses and debate may be new. In the Western world, at least we can trace the gradual emergence of the public cultures of “social problem sexual talk”—what we might call the “Sexual Spectacle”—to the last 200 years or so.

In this chapter, I do not have space to focus on any one “sexual problem” (some, such as AIDS, sex work, gender, the family, and sexual violence, are indeed looked at elsewhere in this handbook). Rather, my concern is to start an appraisal of the wider and changing contexts in which the spectacle of shifting sexual problems starts to appear, providing a few indicative illustrations.

Conceiving the Sexual

Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, the key text on social problems was generally considered to be Merton and Nisbet’s Contemporary Social Problems, and one of the preeminent functionalist theorists of the day, Kingsley Davis, wrote the contributions around sexuality. He worked from a baseline that suggested that sex was composed of “unstable and anarchic drives” that needed to be regulated by sexual norms. He saw the family and economic exchange as rendering heterosexual coitus as obligatory within marriage and suggested that social problems were generated through the violation of such norms. Much of his discussion then turned to the functions of premarital sex, extramarital sex, prostitution, and homosexual behavior, mainly in North America.

Davis wrote, though, at the cusp of a change both in ways of thinking about sexuality and indeed in ways of being sexual. Today, for instance, the phrases “premarital sex” and “extramarital sex” sound faintly quaint in Anglo-American society and are rarely spoken of as major social problems (though they are still major concerns in other parts of the world, and there is an emergent coalition “Chastity Movement” in the United States). He wrote in times that were pre-Madonna, pre-AIDS, pre-cybersex, pre-new reproductive technologies, pre-Viagra, pre-MTV, and before the rise of feminist, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered movements. “Sex work” was still “prostitution,” and “erotica” was still “pornography.” The world of “sexual problems” has moved on. And so have ways of thinking about them.

Indeed, from the 1970s onwards, new ways of thinking about sex started to appear. Sociologists John Gagnon and William Simon made the case that sex was not an anarchic, essential, biological drive, as Davis had argued. They claimed it was profoundly social and had no reality of its own. As Gagnon said in a textbook of the mid-1970s: there are “many ways to become, to be, to act, to feel sexual. There is no one human sexuality, but rather a wide variety of sexualities” (Gagnon 1977, preface). Shortly after this, the French historian of ideas Michel Foucault ([1976] 1978) argued,

[Sexuality] is the name given to a historical construct … a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of knowledge, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of power. (P. 106)

Startlingly challenging conventional wisdom, he attacked the notion that sex had been repressed in the Victorian world and claimed instead that sexuality in this period was a discursive fiction that had actually organized the social problems of the time. New species—such as the homosexual, the pervert, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, the hysterical woman—had literally been invented and come into being as organizing motifs for sexual problems and the spread of surveillance and regulation. The body had become a site for disciplinary practices and new technologies. The Sexual Spectacle has been invented. All this was very far removed from Davis’s functionalist model.

A further development in this period was the advance of feminist thinking about sexuality. Whereas Davis had presumed the dominance of heterosexuality and “male sexual needs,” feminist theories of sexuality challenged this. Linking sexuality to “compulsory heterosexuality” and patriarchy, power came to assume a key role in the organizing of sexuality, and topics such as sexual violence, abuse, pornography, and genital mutilation came firmly to the forefront (topics largely neglected both by Davis and earlier social problems texts). Some feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon claimed that sexuality was organized by men for men and denounced both “heterosexuality” and heterosexual intercourse, whilst others such as Gail Rubin saw the creation of a sex hierarchy as a key organizing feature of society (for samples of all these positions, see Jackson and Scott 1996).

This is not the place to review this vast, varied, and now quite sophisticated “new sexualities” literature (Plummer 2002). What is important to grasp is that there has been a major upheaval intellectually in ways of thinking about sexualities. Despite displaying controversies and divisions, all agree that sexuality is no simple biological urge pressing for release. Human sexualities are always socially produced, organized, and patterned through power relations, and open to historical change. Embedded in political systems, economies, religions, and families, they are contingent upon patriarchies, sex hierarchies, and heterosexism. Historically variable, they are culturally transformable. And this new thinking has immediate consequences for thinking about sexual problems. They can no longer be seen as simply the products of thwarted anarchic sex drives and the breakdown of sexual norms; rather, they are generated through these wider social systems.

Sexualities and their Problems

Sexuality may be seen as a personal, public, or sociological problem. In the first case, it is experienced as personal suffering that needs dealing with: a sexual desire frustrated, a recovery from sexual abuse, or a disease that needs treatment. A public sexual problem by contrast is one that is debated within the public spheres and has been turned into an issue that society must deal with. It is much more visible. This would include safer-sex policies around AIDS (Patton 1996); the concern over the Catholic Church and the disclosures of child sexual abuse (Jenkins 1996; Loseke et al. 2003); the recognition of stalking as a social problem (Kamir 2001); the debates in law around transgendered people’s transformed gender identity (Whittle 2002); or the appearance of the so-called sex addict in the early 1980s (Carnes 1984; Irvine 1995). The issue becomes part of the wider civic culture. To complicate matters further, a sociological problem shows how the workings of society leads to a sexual phenomenon occurring: how gay hate crimes may be linked to homophobia and heterosexism or how rape may be linked to key elements of patriarchies. There is no necessary linkage between these three kinds of problems (a personal problem may not become a public problem, for example), but there often can be. Always waiting in the wings, however, are five potential (or putative) problems linked to sexuality, which can be briefly summarized as follows:

  1. Desire. This is the problem of who and what “turns you on.” The classic problem of the nineteenth century—from Krafft-Ebing to Freud—focused upon the nature of our sexual desires. Who do we wish to have sex with (“sexual orientation,” as it came to be called) and how often (the problems of addiction and lack of desire)? Traditionally, these have been seen as the problems of men.
  2. Relationships. This is the problem of how we integrate (or not) our sexual life into our relationships with others. This ranges all the way from not relating (as in masturbation) to situations where the relation is transitory (as in casual sex, and maybe “promiscuity”) to those held sacred within stable patterns of relationships, such as the family and the couple (monogamy, etc.). Traditionally, religion has played a major role in structuring this.
  3. Coercion and violence. This is the problem of handling sexual acts when they are unwanted and often violently imposed. Here, sexuality is experienced as unwanted and coerced. The patterns move from simply disliking sex with a partner who imposes it upon you to more extreme versions of abuse, pressured sex, rape, and even sexual murder. Again, there is usually a strong gender pattern to this, with men predominantly the aggressors.
  4. Reproduction. This is the problem of sexuality as a means of conceiving children. Here, sexuality is experienced as a means of having children or not; and the problems it brings in its wake are linked to abortion, infertility, impotence, illegitimacy, being single, and family size. The ideology of pronatalism plays a major role in all this (cf. Peck and Senderowitz 1974).
  5. Disease. This is the problem of how diseases may be linked and spread through sexual activities. Here, sexuality is linked to diseases of all kinds. Some have conventionally been called the “venereal diseases” or the “sexually transmitted diseases” (from syphilis to herpes); others such as AIDS have been connected more widely; and still others, such as impotence and frigidity, and sex addiction and low drive, have become the province of sexological experts.

All these “problems,” then, can be found as personal sufferings. They are experienced as frustrations, fears, anger, pain, loneliness, hysteria, and just plain “common unhappiness” linked to emotional and embodied worlds. Yet these problems are only analytically separable. The problems can be compounded through their interconnections. To take some obvious cases, one person’s desires for sex (maybe a sexual turn-on tinged with violence) may coerce another into the sexual experience, during which, through a coital act, a child may be conceived and a disease spread. Prostitution and sex work likewise may act as a “service” to another’s desire but at the same time bring risky relationships, violence, and a potential for both an unwanted child and a disease. Inside a marital relationship, desires may be in conflict, sex may be imposed against someone’s will, children not conceived when they are desired, and impotency and frigidity generated. Clearly, the problems linked to sexuality are multiple.

Some problems—those of desire and coercive behavior—are often distinctly shaped by gender. Men seem to want sex in more complicated ways and feel it is their right to take it. Other problems—those of wanting relationships and avoiding coercive sex and reproduction—tend more to become the problems of women. Women tend to want relationships and children and fear the abuse of men. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but we do know enough about the workings of patriarchy across the world to grasp the broad truth of this.

The patterns are also linked to social divisions and inequalities. Iris Marion Young talks about the five faces of oppression and lists them as exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence (Young 1990). All the problems above are open to such processes. Some sexual problems are drenched in exploitation of others’ bodies (much sex work, some forced and arranged marriages, indeed many relationships). Some desires can be ignored and marginalized (e.g., those of gays, fetishists, or the transgendered). Some people find themselves in sexual acts where they hold no power (the simple consensual sadomasochistic act often means the masochist does indeed hold power; I am talking more about the elements of sex when it has to be done but is really not desired by one of the doers). Cultural imperialism and sexual problems may be found when certain desires and identities (e.g., Western gay identity) are presumed to be universal or when reproductive strategies differ across societies (e.g., cultural versions of abortion, new reproductive technologies, birth control programs). And violence is universally found in sexualities through abuse, rape, hate crimes, and the like.

Finally, the problems are frequently differentiated through stigmas. Some desires are stigmatized, others not. Much of modern medical science has indeed spent much time sorting out the different desires and dysfunctions of desires and arranging them into a kind of sex hierarchy (Rubin 1984). The nineteenth century was a major period for the creation of all kinds of sexual clinical taxonomies and perversions. Today, some remain totally taboo, pedophilia for instance, whilst others, such as homosexuality, have become significantly more acceptable, removed from the list of medical complaints and incorporated into prime television sitcoms like Will and Grace! Likewise, some relationships, such as the family couple, are strongly supported, while others are less accepted (the spinster was long a suspicious character in the past; Jeffreys 1985). Some violence and coercion is accepted: marital rape has only very recently been recognized as a crime in the West, and in many countries throughout the world, all kinds of sexual indignities still seem to be imposed legitimately on women or gays with full approval of the society and its religious leaders. “Having children through coitus” is nearly always the most acceptable reproductive strategy, whilst patterns of sexuality are often condemned. Contraception is often taboo, and indeed, this becomes more and more controversial as we enter the world of new reproductive technologies. Finally, of course, most diseases carry a degree of stigma. There are staggering histories of syphilis that show just how open to social exclusion certain diseases have been in the past; and AIDS is only the most recent instance of this stigma at work.

Creating the Sexual Spectacle: The Public Cultures of “Social Problem Sexual Talk”

Despite the considerable array of problems linked to the sexual, what may or may not be seen as a sexual problem is never automatically announced. A common distinction made in theorizing about social problems is that made between objective problems and constructed problems. The former focuses upon the nature of problems in the social environment: looking for objective indicators. Often, this means examining a condition that is “wrong, widespread, changeable and where a stand is taken that something needs to be done” (Loseke 1999:5-7). The existence of AIDS since 1982 (or earlier) would seem to fit all these criteria. In the past, masturbation, premarital/extramarital sex, and homosexuality may have fit this criterion (indeed, they do regularly feature in social problems textbooks from the past). But what all this makes clear is that in part, social problems also depend upon definitions, categorizations, and judgments. Some people need to say this is a social problem: identify it within a discourse of trouble, animate it into a full-blown language of “trouble,” and institutionalize it into rhetorics and practices that show that “something is being done.” And it does sometimes mean that “serious” problems can be ignored or minimized whilst relatively trivial ones are elevated.

Constructionist positions, then, look at the groups involved in making the meanings that designate social problems, aware that these meanings change over time and across different groups and that such meanings are always contested. Constructionists look at the ways in which some people and groups—often in social movements, sometimes in governments, frequently in the media—are claims makers and do “social problems work”: they make meaningful labels that simplify the world into typifications and rhetorics, providing evidence and arguments, identifying key types of people (“homosexuals,” “serial killers,” “single mothers,” “people with AIDS,” “pedophiles”), usually against a moral backdrop that helps identify “trouble” and “enemies.” Different claims makers and different moral backgrounds lead to a different sense of what these problems are, and a political language and spectacle emerges (Edelman 1988). Likewise, the success of such claims depends upon the publics and counterpublics (Warner 2002) who can and will hear them. It depends upon the competitions often made amongst claims: probably only a limited number of social problems can be handled at any one time—otherwise society and its members suffer from overload. As Murray Edelman (1988) says,

There is … a competition for attention among the problems that are publicly discussed. As some come to dominate the political news and discussion, others fade from the scene. There seems to be a limit upon the number of issues people notice and worry about regardless of their severity. (P. 20)

It also depends upon the relative power of different members of society to make such claims stick. The Catholic Church, for example, had for a long time enough power to conceal the pedophilia in its midst from public knowledge.

Making Sexual Problems

As we have seen, there is a major difference between “private, personal sexual problems,” and “public sexual problems.” Whilst the former are highly individual and idiosyncratic, the latter depend upon multiple public spheres in which the issues around them can be animated. Contemporary public spheres would include the arguments of groups such as the new social movements (transgender movements, evangelical movements, gay and lesbian movements, women’s movements); the growing mass media (debates on chat shows over sexuality, press scandals, campaigning books and leaflets, “news making”); and educational worlds (debates produced by various public intellectuals and their adversaries). In my book Telling Sexual Stories (1995), I have tried to depict the multiple ways in which we have become increasingly the “sexual story telling society.” We can now find multiple voices speaking of the sexual life through books, in the press, on television, in conferences, in schools and universities, and through cyberspace. Unlike in the past, when the “sexual truth” and the “real problems of the sexual” were proclaimed from on high absolutely by Popes and Science, talk of the sexual has now become a ceaseless “Tower of Babel” for many. A cacophonous proliferation of sexual stories is to be found across the media, therapy, social movements, and the like; and alongside this, whenever the term “sexual problem” is now designated, many voices clamor to ask: sexual problem for whom?

What started to mark out this change in this new culture initially was probably the arrival of a print culture. As Roy Porter and Lesley Hall (1995) comment,

Print culture brought sex books into prominence. Thereafter people (as before) had sex, and people (unlike previously) had sex books. Some had one, some had the other, some had both. The relations between writing sex books, reading sex books, and having sex—sex in the body, sex on the brain, thought and action, use and abuse—are profoundly enigmatic and subject to Shandyesque regressions. (P. 104)

Increasingly, as print culture grew—and more recently, media cultures in all their forms—so sexual talk and sexual stories became more and more widespread.

Elsewhere, in some detail, I have suggested some of the stages through which this process of problem designation moves:

  1. Imagining—visualizing—empathizing
  2. Articulating—vocalizing—announcing
  3. Inventing identities—becoming storytellers
  4. Creating social worlds/communities of support
  5. Creating a culture of public problems

Sociologists have long studied these stages and mechanisms through which social problems are socially constructed. They ask “how the dimensions are carved out, how the number of people drawn into concern about these discussions is increased, how a common pool of knowledge begins to develop for the arena participants, and how all these sub-processes increase the visibility of the problem.” And one of the key features in this process is the way in which “the human interest story” is placed on the agenda. A “good personal story” will advance a public sexual problems agenda significantly. A contested sexual life story is usually to be found at the heart of the culture of sexual problems.

Thus, a key feature in the contemporary creation of a public culture of sexual problems debates has been the emergence (over a long time period) of what I wish to call “sexual public identity narratives.” We regularly encounter them as we watch the news on television, read a newspaper, buy an autobiography, or watch a docudrama. These are moral tales that become attached to the sexualities of concrete individuals and that figure into their commonly perceived identities. When we say “Monica Lewinsky,” “OJ. Simpson,” or even “Roe versus Wade,” we usually evoke symbolically a host of moral issues around sexuality. Such narratives are everywhere, and simply to provide a list of some of the most well-known names is to sense how iconic some have become:

  • “OJ. Simpson” speaks of race, violence towards women, and power (Hunt 1999).
  • “Polly Klass” and “Megan Kanka” (her name is lent to “Megan’s Law”) speak of child sexual murder in the United States; in the United Kingdom, there are similar names, such as “Sarah Payne.”
  • “Mike Tyson” speaks of rape.
  • “Rock Hudson” speaks of AIDS.
  • “Anita Hill” and “Clarence Thomas” speak of harassment, race, power, and gender (Morrison 1992).
  • “Jeffrey Dahmer” speaks of serial murders, cannibalism, and crime victims (Tithecott 1997).
  • “Baby M” speaks of parenting, children, infertility, and the new reproduction (Chessler 1988).
  • “Bill Clinton” and “Monica Lewinsky” speak of sex, power, harassment, solicitation, and gender.
  • “Mary Kaye Latourneau” speaks of underage sex.
  • “Matthew Shepard” speaks of homophobia, “fag baiting,” hate crimes, and teenage gays (Loffreda 2000).
  • “Michael Jackson” speaks of fame and child abuse.
  • “John Profumo,” “Jeremy Thorpe,” and “Edward Kennedy” speak of politics and sexual scandal.
  • “John Wayne Bobbitt” and “Lorena Bobbitt” speak of gender wars, abuse, the “power of the penis,” pornography, and sexual violence (Kane 1994).
  • Pop stars and film stars—such as Elvis Presley, Madonna, Hugh Grant, the Sex Pistols, Eminem, Garry Glitter—all speak to different sexual matters.

To take a most celebrated instance: the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle. Clinton was of course one of the world’s most famed and celebrated people at the time of his “misdemeanors,” so it is not surprising that the accounts became a media event. But they also provided a major occasion for people all around the world to debate the nature of the intimate life. It was variously described as (1) a feminist project about harassment and sex in the workplace and power and sexuality; (2) a moral project about the decline of family, family standards, relationships, and even sex; (3) a culture wars project about how sexual standards have changed; and (4) a postmodern project about whether sex is really sex and what indeed “counts” for sex.

Public identity narratives are often accompanied by scandals, a major feature of modern media. Often serving as entertainment, they occur when private acts that offend the idealized dominant morality of a community are made public, narrated by the media, and productive of a range of effects from cultural retrenchment through disruption to change. Often, these have only a personal concern: Hugh Grant meets a sex worker, Divine Brown; George Michael is arrested on charges linked to homosexual indecency. Sometimes, they tell us how far our moralities have shifted and changed. For example, the singer George Michael survived in his career after being arrested, a phenomenon that would not have been likely 25 years earlier. Homosexual scandals were then acts that marked out the horrors of homosexuality and led to social exclusion (often imprisonment). Now, homosexual scandal is less striking; though, by contrast today, the English pop star Gary Glitter had his career abruptly ended when arrested on charges of possession of child pornography and child abuse.

Values, Fears, and Moral Regulation

Although sexuality may be seen as a set of practices around the erotic, it also serves major symbolic functions: it is a litmus for many moral panics, public identity narratives, and discourses that tap into a wide range of social anxieties. The ways in which sexual matters become social problems, then, can often provide a guide to the workings of particular cultures. For example, it is now well documented that whilst campaigns against commercialized prostitution in the nineteenth century certainly had real consequences in shifting public health and strengthening women’s lives, they also symbolized the controversies over purity, immigration, “dirty women,” and “the age of consent” (Walkowitz 1980, 1992). Likewise, attacks on and anxieties on the “slum sex code” and upon young men at “taxi dance halls” in the early twentieth century were often a way of attacking lower-class men and raising social class issues (White 1993). “Perverts” of all kinds seem to have stalked the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, symbolizing an anarchic, nonreproductive, “sick” and dangerous kind of sex. Race often became an issue in battles over rape and lynching. Controversies over pre- and extramarital sex reinforced patterns of the “normal family.” In the late twentieth century, AIDS rapidly became the symbol not only of death, but of promiscuity, permissiveness, and perversions: it marked out the good and the bad. And at the start of the twenty-first century, as I write this, a major concern over “pedophile priests in the Catholic Church” has energized controversies around religion, sexuality, homosexuality, and child abuse (Loseke et al. 2003). Hence, whilst instrumentally, these campaigns try to stop a behavior, symbolically, they reassert existing moral orders. Over and over again, we find “sexualities” being used in this way. Paraphrasing Mary Douglas’s (1966) terms, we may say that sex often equals dirt and disorder or stuff out of place, and a society needs to purify itself of all this. Sexual problems emerge when there is a perceived threat to social values, be they religious, familial, feminist, or medical. Behind every sexual problem, there is almost certainly a perceived threat to aspects of the moral order and a group of crusaders struggling to define boundaries. It is rendered a spectacle.

John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman’s account of the history of sex in the United States in the last three and a half centuries can also be read as a history of these threats and as a perpetual reworking of the moral order. Cogently, if rapidly, they suggest several key changes and concerns:

From a family-centered, reproductive sexual system in the colonial era; to a romantic, intimate, yet conflicted sexuality in nineteenth century marriage; to a commercialized sexuality in the modern period, when sexual relations are expected to provide personal identity and individual happiness apart from reproduction. (D’Emilio and Freedman 1988:xii)

The shifts signpost the centrality of the reproductive, then the relational, and finally the recreational values in the sexual order of the United States over time. What is important is that as each of these shifts in meanings change, so the social problems linked to sexualities may change. Thus, the preindustrial colonial era in the United States saw reproduction as key: it held “a central place within the constellation of meanings associated with sexuality” (D’Emilio and Freedman 1988:52). Courtship and marriage were then taken for granted, and whatever went on outside of this had the potential to be identified as social problems. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, as falling reproduction rates were much resisted, we see more and more campaigns against the scourge of birth control. The family remained an unquestioned pivot throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries and led to anxieties about all kinds of sexualities that could happen outside of it: in Utopian communities, extramarital and premarital sex, in “prostitution,” and, of course, through “the homosexual.” Wider issues of sexual health also started to be raised as sexual authority started to move from priest to doctor: to the likes of Benjamin Rush, Sylvester Graham, and John Kellogg, who were concerned about the desires of young men along with the problems of masturbation. A new chastity message became prominent with “health” as its organizing theme. Advice literature for women grew alongside marriage manuals for all.

Some Western Sexual Problems from the Past

This is not the space to consider the full range of sexual problems from the past, but a few may be indicative.


Masturbation was at the heart of many moral campaigns in the past. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, for example, there was a rising concern over masturbation, with a great deal of public hysteria (what today may well be identified as a moral panic and a social problem). In the United Kingdom, key texts of the time were Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (1710) and Tissot’s Onanism, or a Treatise upon the Disorders Produced by Masturbation (1760). They warned of the major dangers of self-abuse, both on religious grounds and in medical terms (the dangers of losing the seed and the ways in which this weakened the body). The fear over masturbation seems to have grown and grown, with the strong support of quacks, doctors, and clergy. It was nonreproductive sex (Laqueur 2003).

Periodically, there were major fears and panics over masturbation. Alan Hunt (1998), for example, suggests it became a major target to regulate middle-class boys, often in boarding schools and public schools, in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain. And yet, by the twentieth century, the fears over masturbation had gone rapidly into decline. We now know that most boys and many girls masturbate regularly (and often throughout life), and few would now claim it as a social problem. We no longer hear of masturbation panics and masturbation scandals that were the stuff of social problems in the past. Indeed, in some contemporary sexological works, an almost opposite view has been taken: masturbation now becomes a liberation, a quest for self-pleasuring, a way of functioning well (indeed, if one does not masturbate, a person may be seen to suffer from “masturbatory organic inadequacy”!). In some quarters, it may still remain fairly taboo, and it may not be discussed a great deal, but in general, it is no longer seen as the social problem of “masturbatory insanity,” once a rampant social problem in the Western world requiring social interventions from castration to treatment.


As already suggested, prostitution too has served as a tool for illuminating the wider culture of a society: how it comes under attack, the values put forward, the notions of men and women, the links between reformers and prostitutes, and the meanings of vice. As a cultural symbol, it touches on all the evils of the modern world and often is seen to create a contradictory tension between the exploitation of women and the lust of men. Thus, for example, the feminist values of nineteenth-century women led to movements that were for moral reform, chastity, and temperance (Jeffreys 1987). During this first wave of feminism, many women clearly saw their battleground as targeted on male lust. They waged war over prostitution, the age of consent, contraception, and the moral debauchery of men through drink. The evangelical moral reform societies of the nineteenth century gathered power (and were often co-opted by more conservative forces) as women became organized to resist these “sexual problems of men.” Indeed, the debates we witnessed in the latter parts of the twentieth century around pornography and sexual violence were largely repeats of debates that were present at the turn of the century: in those days, it was essentially a contest between the social purity movements and the antivice groups who waged war against prostitution, child slavery, pornography, and the double standard and the sex reformers. As Judith Walkowitz (1984), a leading feminist commentator on prostitution in the nineteenth century, commented,

Begun as a libertarian sanction against the state sanction of male vice, the repeal campaign helped to spawn a hydra-headed assault against sexual deviation of all kinds. The struggle against state regulation evolved into a movement that used the instrument of the state for repressive purposes … they extended the meaning of sexuality. By ferreting out new areas of illicit sexual activity and defining them into existence, a new “technology of power” was created that facilitated control over an ever-widening circle of human activity. (P. 56)

As she comments, in the beginning, women had some control; but as the movements grew, they lost this power, and the movements came to be used for wider ends.

Sex Crimes and Child Molesters

“Sex crimes” are another social problem with an interesting history of anxiety and panic. Sometimes they enter public consciousness and reach levels of mass hysteria; sometimes we are hardly aware of them. And there are of course competing accounts of when and how they start to be noted and taken more seriously. Over half a century ago, the leading criminologist Edwin Sutherland (1950) summarized the passage of sex offence laws. It still cannot be bettered:

The diffusion of sexual psychopath laws has followed this course: a community is thrown into panic by a few serious sex crimes, which are given nation wide publicity; the community acts in an agitated manner; and all sorts of proposals are made; a committee is then appointed to study the facts and to make recommendations. The committee recommends a sexual psychopath law as the scientific procedure for the control of sex crime. The recommendation is consistent with the trend toward treatment policies in criminal justice in preference to policies of punishment. (P. 142)

Sutherland was writing about the diffusion of such laws around 1937 in the United States. Today, much of his analysis is seen as one possible (and possibly even cyclical) response. Punitive and rehabilitative models come and go: there are periods of silence and periods when it is a great issue.

The feminist writer Jane Caputi, for example, has argued that sex crime starts to appear as a phenomenon with the famous and widely cited “Jack the Ripper” case in the later nineteenth century. It not only generated huge moral anxiety in its day but also signaled “the age of sex crime,” when serial killers and mass murderers became more and more common—in reality and in the mythology of the times. For instance, she suggests there were 644 serial sex killings in the United States in 1966, but 4,118 by 1982 (Caputi 1998:1-2). She cites many examples, the “Boston Strangler,” “Son of Sam,” the “Hillside Strangler,” and the “Yorkshire Ripper,” as well as films that play to these fears: from the classics of “M” and Psycho to the more widespread teen slasher films such as the Halloween series. Her work outlines the creation of these fiends in the public mind but at the same time examines how this is part of a wider issue of gender violence and aggression.

By contrast, sociologist Philip Jenkins has traced the differential responses to 100 sex crimes from the late nineteenth century to current times. To summarize his argument, he suggests,

Originating in the Progressive era, the imagery of the malignant sex fiend reached new heights in the decade after World War II, only to be succeeded by a liberal model over the next quarter of a century. More recently, the pendulum has swung back to the predator model: sex offenders are now viewed as being little removed from the worst multiple killers and torturers. And in each era, the prevailing opinion was supported by what appeared at the time to be convincing research. One reality prevailed until it was succeeded by another. (Jenkins 1998:2)

He does not see these stages as evolutionary and necessarily objective: rather, they “have ebbed and flowed—we forget as well as learn” (p. 3). “The nature of sexual threats to children was perceived quite differently in 1915 than in 1930, and the child abuse issue was framed quite differently in 1984 than in 1994” (p. 215). At the heart of his analysis lies vigorous campaigning groups: child savers, feminists, psychiatrists and therapists, religious and moralistic groups, and of course, politicians.

Jenkins (1998) claims that children are at very low risk from homicide, making nonsense of the claims aired frequently in the 1980s, that “many thousands were killed each year by serial murders, pomographers or pedophile rings” (p. 10). Looking at figures in the United States between 1980 and 1994, he concludes that despite the claims made, strangers killed about 54 children per year and about 5 of these victims were involved as part of sexual assaults.

Social Anxieties, Moral Panics, and Culture Wars

In summary, then, sexuality appears to be a major device used to tap into all sorts of social anxieties, to generate panic, and to demarcate boundaries. Studies point to many different sources of these anxieties and boundary mapping, but they include anxieties over gender roles, heterosexuality, and the family; the importance of reproduction and prona-talism; concerns over the role of youth and childhood; race and racialized categories; the divisions between classes and “class fears”; declines in status; fears over the nation-state itself; an overarching sense of moral progress with accompanying fears of decline; the very nature of ethical and religious systems; end-of-century/millennium fears; and even connections to the fear of death (for examples, see Bayer 1981; Bristow 1977; Boyer 1968; Foldy 1997; Friedman 1990; Gamson 1998; Hunt 1998; McClaren 1997; Plummer 1981; Showalter 1990; Stein 2001; Vass 1986; Walkowitz 1992; White 1993; Zurcher 1976).

A major recent way of understanding these anxieties and fears has been through the idea of “moral panics.” Many sexual issues have become “moral panics” whereby in Stanley Cohen’s (1972) classic formulation,

A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests: its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right thinking people. (P. 9)

Moral panics have traditionally been short-lived and focused: a riot, a drug overdose, a violent crime, a pedophile murder. Yet, and maybe starting with AIDS, such isolated panics became almost pervasive and commonplace. Spreading out and generating higher levels of anxiety, society has become constantly on edge about “problems” (McRobbie and Thornton 1995:560). Moral panics start to signpost persistent ideological struggles over problems constructed on an almost daily basis. There is an “endless overhead narrative of such phenomenon as one panic gives way to another, or one anxiety is displaced across different panics” (Watney 1997:412).

Yet as a strong sense of core values becomes less and less apparent, so the recognition of social problems becomes harder to define even as a more general social anxiety increases. Arguably, in postmodern times, social problems have to become more extreme—or spoken about in extreme language—if they are to be noticed.

The most general level of attack on sexualities is discussed in Murray Davis’s intriguing study Smut (1983). For him, the world is peopled by Jehovanists (after the Old Testament God) and Gnostics. Jehovanists are the sexophobes who fear all sex whilst dividing it into two main types: “normal,” which is bad enough; and “abnormal,” which is terrifyingly worse. They live in a dangerous cosmos populated by horrifying sex, and it more or less has dominated the Western world over the past three centuries. In contrast stand the Gnostics, who sanctify sex “as much as Jehovanists condemn them.” Nearly all forms of erotica will be condemned by Jehovanists and celebrated by Gnostics (Davis 1983:95, 173).

At an even broader level is the presence in most societies of a wider sense of moral decline, of which sex is a key part: things are getting worse. It is the “decline and fall theory.” There is nothing new about this: each generation seems to be able to find this tension at work. Drawing from Adam Smith, Gertrude Himmelfarb (2001) remarks that there always seem to be two systems at work:

The liberal or loose system is prone to the “vices of levity”—“luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity, at least in one of the two sexes, etc.” Amongst the people of fashion these vices are treated indulgently. The “common people,” on the other hand, committed to the strict or austere system, regard such vices … “with the utmost abhorrence” because they—or at least “the wiser and better sort of them”—know that these vices are almost always ruinous to them … A single week’s dissipation can undo a poor workman forever. This is why, Smith explained, religious sects generally arise and flourish among the common people, for those sects preach that morality on which their welfare depends. (Pp. 3-4)

More focused, in the early 1990s, James Davison Hunter (1991) presented these clashes in historically more specific terms as a “culture war.” Talking exclusively of U.S. culture (though much of it does have broader applicability), he suggests that whereas in the past, the battlegrounds were drawn up between religions—Protestant versus Catholic, Catholic versus Jew—now the battlegrounds are being drawn up between those of different moral and political visions, which cut across past schisms, suggesting new alignments. On one side are those of religious orthodoxy—Protestant, Jew, Catholic, Buddhist, and Islamic alike—who continue to seek the truth in a fixed authority, usually through a canonical scripture. On the other side are those who look more pragmatically to the shifts in the modern world for clues as to how to live the new moral life. It is a divide between cultural conservatives/moral traditionalists and liberals or cultural progressives.

In a later book, Hunter (1994) takes his worries further. He sees the United States as being torn apart by a series of moral conflicts, step by step, escalating so that they are not simply culture wars, but “shooting wars.” The “debates” become so acrimonious and bitter, with sides talking only at or way past each other, that the next step can only become bloodshed. Most of these conflicts center over the body, as a key symbol of the wider social order; and the “abortion wars” must be seen as their prime exemplar. Here, indeed, are matters of life and death: the notorious abortion clinic bombings vividly demonstrate how culture wars may indeed become shooting wars. He finds advocates on all sides as culpable of seriously debasing public and democratic discussion; even those who claim to be neutral are in fact duplicitous and have their own axes to grind.

New Problems in the Making? Signs of Sexual Problems in a Late-Modern World?

One thrust of the constructionist approach is to suggest that there are plural ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Every way of constructing a social problem is also a way of not constructing it. And so whilst it is possible to trot out a list of commonly regarded social problems of our time—pedophilia, sexual violence, teenage sexuality, family decline, sexual addiction, and AIDS would be some—it is also now possible to think afresh about other issues that have not yet been so constructed but may become so in the future. Are there signs of new social problems of sexuality in the making? This is not to deny the importance of the problems already constructed, but it is to suggest alternatives and wider visions as we move into a somewhat different social order, a late-modern or postmodern world.

Whilst there is a continuing debate amongst scholars over the nature of the modern/late-modern/postmodern world, there is very considerable agreement that life in the twenty-first century is not the same as that in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. Even though there are many continuities, the pace of change has speeded up, and new processes such as digitalization, cybernetics, and the new reproductive technologies have evolved so rapidly that for many the world has taken on distinctively new forms. These changes and their speed have had a major impact on the ways in which sexualities are organized and the kinds of problems they are generating. Again, there is no space here for a comprehensive analysis, but consider just five of the following processes and their impact upon sexualities.

First, the commodification of sexualities. Of course, sex has always been sold; but it would seem that advanced capitalism brings with it the tendency to drive nearly all aspects of sexuality through a market economy. This applies to something as simple as the cost of a wedding to the multiple developments of new billion-dollar markets: a pink economy for the gay world; hostess and massage parlors for the lonely man; and pop music that shrieks sex objects to a youth market, suggesting what they should wear, what they should dance, what drugs to take, how they should do their hair, and even how they should move. Billboards and advertising routinely sell sex, creating an environment that many now refer to as sexualized and pornographic. We live in a commodified environment where sex is sold for everything. Like all commodities, it is rendered more transient and more objectificatory; people own it and possess it. Likewise, major markets develop that make money from sexual accessories, from pornography toViagra (Marshall 2000; Tiefer 2000). Is this a sign of a new social problem in the making?

Second, the mediazation of sexualities. Sex now inhabits the world of the media: it is found in videos, CDs, newspapers, magazines, books, films, and television. As the various media have come to reorganize our sense of place and break down restricted zones of social life, so all ages, genders, and groups have greater accessibility to sexual imagery through which life can be lived. And the imagery is generally much more “extreme” than was permitted in the past: boundaries are constantly being pushed. In the 1940s, censors objected to Jane Russell showing her cleavage (in the film The Outlaw, 1943). In the 1950s, Elvis Presley’s famous wiggle meant he had to be filmed from the waist up for the Ed Sullivan Show; and a little later, the Rolling Stones were forced to change their lyric “Let’s spend the night together” to “Let’s spend some time together” on that same show. By the 1970s, we had the Doors and the Sex Pistols. The 1980s brought Madonna with her “Girlie Show” (1993), her record Erotica, and her book Sex. Effectively, Madonna broke all the seeming taboos of the day, masturbating on popular video, engaging in sadomasochism, and always mixing a raunchy sexuality with religious blasphemy. And as PCs, Walkmen, and mobiles entered the lives of the young, they gained more and more access to sexualities that were formerly forbidden. Sometimes, this went far beyond the boundaries in terms of violence and misogyny that even the most liberal commentators of the past would have accepted (Gamson 1998). Is this a sign of a new social problem in the making?

Closely linked is the process of the digitalization of sexualities. More and more sex is to be found not in real life, but in “virtual life” (which could also include the growth of “telephone sex”). Nowadays, many people live much of their sexual lives on-line. A definitive study of this is still awaited, but we do know that large numbers of people use e-mail to make sexual contacts and buy sexual wares; they go into chat rooms to talk about sex, reinvent their sexual personas, and eventually meet others; they pursue all kinds of Web sites that are saturated with every kind of sexual image you are ever likely to want (and not want) to see. And all kinds of new problems have emerged as a result: cyberstalkers, cyber-rape, childhood security, pedophile abductions, the silent spread of masturbation, and multiple new forms of sex: sex chat rooms, tele-operated compu-sex, sex news groups and bulletin boards, e-mail discussion groups, camcorder sex, new forms of pornography and ways of accessing it, cyborg sex, teledildonics, and virtual sex, along with new approaches to the body and emergent “techno-identities” and “techno-cultures.” Here, we have a new language that perhaps mirrors new forms of sexualities: cyberporn, cyberqueer, cyberstalking, cyber-rape, cybervictim, cybersex. Although such new forms can result in people meeting in real space for “real sex,” there must be vast amounts of what can only be called “virtual sex” taking place in these virtual spaces, and much of this must be linked to masturbatory worlds. Sadie Plant (2000) hints at the worlds before us:

Technical cyberspace is well advanced: the hardware is fetishized, the software is porn, and vast proportions of the telecommunications system are consumed by erotica. But these are merely the most overt—and perhaps the least interesting—examples of a degeneration of “natural” sex. As hard and wetwares collapse onto soft, far stranger mutations wrack the sexual scene. The simulation of sex converges with the deregulation of the entire sexual economy, the corrosion of its links with reproduction, and the collapse of its specificity: sex disperses into drugs, trance and dance possession; androgyny, hermaphroditism and transexualism become increasingly perceptible; paraphilia, body engineering, queer sex, and what Foucault calls “the slow motions of pleasure and pain” of SM—already high technology sex—proliferate. (P. 461)

Again, we can ask: is this a sign of a new social problem in the making?

Fourth, we have the individualization of sexualities. At the heart of many contemporary sexualities is the idea that we are autonomous human beings who can choose the kind of sexual life we are to lead and with whom (be it bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual, polysexual, or monosexual). Sexualities in the late-modern Western world have been shaped within the framework of an individualist ideology. Late-modern sex reflects the death of the one “Grand Narrative of the Personal Life.” As Jeffrey Weeks (2000) remarks,

This is the real mark of what is different about the late twentieth century: those who used to be spoken of are now struggling in various ways, using different, often hesitant or incoherent languages to speak for themselves. The result is inevitably confusing, but enormously significant. We are here in a world where the imperatives of history, nature and science are being displaced by the norm of sexual choice, and where a master narrative is being displaced by a multiplication of new narratives, each claiming its own truth. (P. 238)

This is a time of increasing sexual “risk” for all society’s members, largely because all the old sexual verities have ceased to be. It is a time of growing self-reflexivity, when the very knowledge produced in the world about sexuality helps shape the emergence of that world as people reflect more on who they want to be sexually. As Ulrich Beck (2000) has powerfully put it,

We live in an age in which the social order of the national state, class, ethnicity and the traditional family is in decline. The ethics of individual self-fulfillment and achievement is the most powerful current in modern society. The choosing, deciding, shaping human being who aspires to be the author of his or her own life, the creator of an individual identity, is the central character of our time. It is the fundamental cause behind changes in the family and the global gender revolution in relation to work and politics. Any attempt to create a new sense of social cohesion has to start from the recognition that individualism, diversity and scepticism are written into Western Culture. (P. 165)

This is not all good news. Indeed, it brings with it the pain of uncertainty and risk, what Zygmunt Bauman (1999) has called Unsicherheit (p. 5). More and more people become wary in their intimate lives: they become cautious, do not know what to do, feel trapped in their anxieties and insecurities and incapable of planning their lives, with decisions taken that are drenched in risk. Along with sexual individualism comes “Sexual Unsicherheit.” Is this a sign of a new social problem in the making?

A fifth and final example must also be the shifts being brought about by the technologization of sex. Since a major way of approaching sexualities is through their reproductive potential, we now seem to have reached an ironic stage in history when much sexuality has no reproductive potential whatsoever (from the wide use of contraception to masturbation and fetishism; from sadomasochism to AIDS education advocacy of “outercourse”) at the very same time as much reproductive behavior can be conducted with little or no “sex.” Problems of infertility are resolved (partially) through the new reproductive technologies, whilst problems of desire can now lead to any kind of sexual desire being met without the need for reproductive intercourse. Is this a sign of a new social problem in the making?

The Autonomy and Diffusion of Social Problems: Different Cultures and Globalization

I have been suggesting that whilst all societies have personal problems linked to sexuality, only some of these may become part of the multiple public spheres of social problems. My focus so far has been Anglo-American cultures, where there is a full apparatus at work concerned with identifying, animating, and attempting to resolve sexual social problems. Indeed, in these “sexual story-telling cultures,” there is a proliferation of such talk and problems. Implicitly, I have also suggested that such problems may not necessarily be connected to the seriousness or gravity of the personal problems, that they are subject to constant change, and that they are bound up with matters of gender and power. I have lightly hinted that the old world of social problems around sexuality may be changing and that new ones—linked to the arrival of a new late modernity—may be in the making.

What of other cultures? Initially, I think it is very important to recognize the relative autonomy of different cultures in their sexual practices, their sexual cultures, and their sexual problems. (Whilst I will later suggest a certain amount of globalization, it is dangerous to presume too much similarity initially.) To briefly sketch some illustrations, we know that in some strongly religious Moslem societies (and Iran seems a central, if changing, case), the degree of surveillance over the lives of children and women on a day-to-day basis makes the possibility of any “norm violations” (from masturbation to homosexuality) difficult indeed. Penalties are severe, and executions are not uncommon for homosexuality. In many countries, there is little or no choice over who can be a sexual partner. We know that in many very poor countries (those in sub-Saharan Africa are strong cases), the existence of poverty makes talk of some of the sexual issues aired on Westernized television chat shows (“women who love too much,” “sexual addiction,” the need for Viagra) seem almost obscene. Yet at the same time, there are indeed many issues in these countries—from AIDS to birth control—in which public issues around sexuality are important in saving lives. In cultures torn by civil war, there also seems to be a widespread culture of rape (it is estimated that some 40,000 women were raped in the Bosnian conflict), and in these desperate situations, the whole culture is permeated by a violence that may also shape its sexualities (Allen 1996).

Everywhere, special issues appear. In China, there is the regulation of one-child families (with attendant problems of concealing children and selecting which gender the child should be). In Latin American societies, there is the widespread prominence of machismo shaping sexual worlds, and indeed in some countries, such as Brazil, a seemingly intense eroticization of everyday life. In some African cultures, women’s sexual capacities are truly downplayed. In many societies, such as the Sambia studied by Gilbert Herdt, ritualized forms of sexualities and gender focused upon religion or tradition play prominent roles. Many cultures have special roles for cross-gendering sexualities, such as the “lady boys” in Thailand and the berdache in Indian cultures (Bolin 1996; Williams 1986). Japan is an interesting case, too. Standing midway between a very strong traditionalism—where sexuality is highly formalized, “wrapped,” and controlled—and a new modern Western “freedom” has resulted in recent years in many new social problems, some arriving on television, others being written about in the Western press. Pornography is more commonplace in comics and books, whilst sexuality has become a prominent feature of everyday Internet encounters (Jenkins 2001). Then there are the “honor killings” in some Islamic societies, where women may be punished by death (or raped) for actual (or even perceived) sexual (mis)conducts. Across the world, sexualities take on different forms and generate different problems.

Yet we are also now starting to sense the globalization and glocalization of sexualities, in which the world becomes smaller and more interconnected: a major reordering of time and space in sexual relations may be taking place. Talk about “sexual problems” moves across the globe, in the process often becoming transformed and modified by local cultures. Traditional sexual customs become subject to rapid social change. Media and digitalization generate an information age haunted by the spectres of sexuality, from cybersex to cyber-rape. Postmodern values seem to be on the ascendant, giving priorities to ideas of sexual differences and sexual choices. Global capital turns local sex markets into international ones. World sexual cultures become more and more interconnected. “Global chains” connect emigrating mothers, families, children, and workers across the globe. With all this, it should not be surprising to find that long-standing patterns of sexualities become increasingly disturbed and disrupted (Airman 2001; Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2002).

There starts to be a diffusion of social problems across cultures. Joel Best (2001) has written how sociologists have tended to study social problems in a specific culture based on case studies and hence in isolation from their “geographic spread,” with little concern for the ways that problems may diffuse across cultures. Yet whereas once problems may have been generated in isolation, increasingly, globalization—not just through world markets but also through media such as film, television, press, and cyberspace—means that they have global repercussions. There are many “potential” global social problems around sexuality, from AIDS to sex trafficking. Slowly, more and more “problems” come to be identified and diffused on a global scale.

The Case of Same-Sex Relations

One issue that has figured prominently in past discussions of social problems is that of homosexuality (or same-sex relations). Since the 1970s, lesbian/gay politics has been firmly placed on the Western agenda. And with the advance of a strong (and increasingly international) lesbian and gay movement, new issues have appeared on the international agenda (Adam, Duyvendak, and Krouwel 1999). Thus, universal lesbian and gay rights, including a universal age of consent and the inclusion of “sexual orientation” in charters of human rights and antidiscrimination laws, along with mandatory training in “multiculturalism” and “gay affirmative action,” have become common in many Western contexts. “Registered partnerships,” and sometimes marriages, for lesbians and gays, along with the right of lesbians and gays to adopt and have children have become key foci of a growing international lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement. New antigay crimes such as “hate crimes” have been created and turned into social problems. A major reworking of the claims being made about homosexuality has been happening over the past 30 years: it can no longer be placed easily in a Western list of “problems” or “deviances” (Smith and Wendes 2000).

Yet whilst all of this is going on, there continues to be massive resistance in many countries. For in most countries of Africa, Asia, or Latin America, same-sex relations remain taboo: largely invisible, rarely discussed, officially nonexistent, and embedded in religions, laws, and beliefs that are deeply inimical to it. Even today, homosexuality is illegal in approximately 70 states in the world as well as being subject to the death penalty in 7 (an estimated 200 homosexuals are executed yearly in Iran; Baird 2001:13). Indeed, the partial acceptance of homosexuality in parts of the West is often used as a major example of the West’s decadence. And yet at the same time, new “claims” from the West are being increasingly diffused globally. South Africa and then Ecuador became among the first countries to develop antidiscrimination provisions to lesbians and gays in their national constitutions (Baird 2001:12). Issues such as gay and lesbian “registered partnerships,” “families of choice,” or even “marriages” are issues now being confronted in more and more countries. All the Scandinavian countries now have such partnership laws in place, as do France, Germany, and South Africa. But perhaps most significantly, countries as different as Mexico and Vietnam are now also calling for legal partnerships (Baird 2001:12). Here then, is a prime example of the diffusion (and transformation) of “sexual social problems talk.”

The Case of Child Pornography on the Internet

Another instance of globalization at work is the relatively recent arrival of a complex network of worlds linked through the Internet that cater to interests in child pornography and pedophile abuse. By most accounts, this is widespread and much condemned but quite hard to regulate, and has generated extensive public talk as being a problem in much of the Western media.

In his study of child pornography on the Internet, Philip Jenkins shows just how difficult it is to regulate a fragmented global network such as this. Although there are laws in many Western countries (which make possession of pictures of anyone under 18 years of age an imprisonable offence), other, often poorer, countries have much less stringent laws, and at times it seems that the use of young children for prostitution and pornography is almost condoned. Certainly, many of the images found on the Internet have originated in poorer “bandit” countries (the former communist world, Asia, Latin America, and oddly, also Japan), where regulations are minimal. It may be hard to regulate in countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom, but it is almost impossible in other countries. And as Jenkins (2001) comments, “Lacking a global moral consensus, there will always be areas of unevenness, fault lines in moral enforcement, and the child pornographers are likely to survive in these cracks” (p. 203). Here is an instance where the global public sexual social problem talk around these abuses remains very uneven.

Sexual Citizens, Human Rights, and the Global Culture of Sexual Problems Talk

Both the issues of global Internet child pornography and global same-sex relations start to point in the same direction: to the increasingly popular and widespread talk of global human rights, which, along with linked ideas of citizenship, have become the global lingua franca of politics, including sexual politics. In these examples, we have both the rights of the child and the rights of lesbians and gays to help frame the public sexual problems talk. Both sets of rights are instances of a newly emerging language that sets out much broader claims about our global sexualities and intimacies, which elsewhere I have suggested could be designated as “intimate citizenship.” Here is a developing global culture of sexual problems talk, which gives prominence to ideas of human sexual rights and the sexual citizen (cf. Bell and Binnie 2000; Nussbaum 1999; Petchesky 2000; Plummer 2001b, 2003; Richardson 2000; Weeks 1998).

Claims about sexual problems and their resolutions are increasingly spread by major international groupings such as the United Nations, International Human Rights Courts, and internationally sponsored conferences, which often become “missionaries abroad.” But in the study of the global cultures of sexual problems, “sexual rights” is, as Rosalind Petchesky (2000) notes, “the newest kid on the block.” Petchesky was one many academic activists at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995 who struggled for a language of sexual rights. Significantly, she says that “prior to 1993 sexuality of any sort or manifestation is absent from international human rights discourse” (p. 82). Sexuality was too dangerous a topic to even consider. When it appeared, it was (and still is) always counterargued by those who always connect sexuality to immorality and dangerous activities: homosexuality, lesbianism, prostitution, pedophilia, incest, and adultery. The full panoply of the “sexual fringe” is evoked over and over again to have their rights denied in general. The Pope, for example, condemns both reproductive and sexual rights by linking them to a “hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality” and “a self centered concept of freedom” (Petchesky 2000:87). Yet hammered out at the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) in Beijing in 1995 as a massive compromise were the following words:

The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between men and women in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences. (Cited in Petchesky 2000:85)

Tucked away in this statement is a new language of respect for sexual differences. New claims, then, are spreading. But as we would expect, new claims bring new enemies and a language of counterattacks, what may be seen as a kind of counterdiffusion. Far from accepting the West’s definitions, many countries come to see “the West” as standing for a whole series of problems linked to it. This is the “sexualized society,” the “secularized society,” the “decadent society.” The “bad West” comes increasingly to signify homosexuality, unwanted babies, delinquency and rising crime, unsupervised children and independent women, explicit sexual imagery, pornographication, pop music and MTV, marriage breakdown, and the decline of religious order. We can see this in every area of controversy: from debates around the family (from forced marriages in much of the world to same-sex marriages as a developing argument); from the concern over AIDS to the international worry over sex tourism and prostitution; from the arrival of worldwide “cyberspace” and “cybersex” to the trading in body parts; from the pervasiveness of global media (film, television, video, music, etc.), with their images of the new intimate lifestyles, to the arrival of global social movements (women, gay, transgender, etc.). It is hard for any of these debates to be conducted any longer within splendid national isolation.

Moving Ahead

I have suggested that whilst human sexual problems must be diverse and universal, as societies have (post)modernized, not only have the range and scale of these problems developed, so too has talk about them. The Sexual Spectacle has emerged to embrace a public culture of sexual problems talk linked to social anxieties around gender, family, status, change, and morality. The culture of public talk about sexual problems tells us a great deal not just about sexualities but also about the moral fears and crises of the time. This chapter has not attempted to review any one sexual problem in-depth—or the anxieties it provokes—but instead has tried to provide a sense of the mechanisms in which these problems are identified, turned into public issues, and ultimately may become globalized.

At the start of the twenty-first century, there are a lot of putative sexual problems appearing. The worlds of cybersex, mediated sex, individuated choices, new reproductive technologies, and the like bring all kinds of as yet unanticipated problems. At the same time, on a global level, a new language of international human sexual rights is starting to appear. New worlds of sexual problems and their resolutions seem to be in the making; and these will probably run in parallel with older ones. How these problems are “framed” into rhetorics and argumentations will matter a great deal, for such “claims” are not independent of the problems they purport to comment upon. And sometimes the claims themselves may be more of a problem than the very sexualities they analyze.