Sexualities: Social Theory and the Crisis of Identity

Anthony Elliott. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

In the past few decades, sexuality has become a topic that is increasingly discussed and debated among social theorists. Indeed, sex and desire have become the focus of intense social-theoretical, philosophical and feminist fascination, and it is against this backcloth that social theorists have sought to rethink the constitution and reproduction of sexualities, bodies, pleasures, desires, impulses, sensations and affects. How to think sexuality beyond the constraints of culture is a question that is increasingly crucial to the possibilities of political radicalism today. The cultural prompting for this turn towards sexuality in social theory is not too difficult to discern. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and particularly because of the rise of feminism, sexuality has come to be treated as infusing broad-ranging changes taking place in personal and social life. The politics of identity, sexual diversity, postmodern feminism or post-feminism, gay and lesbian identities, the crisis of personal relationships and family life, AIDS, sexual ethics and the responsibilities of care, respect and love: these are core aspects of our contemporary sexual dilemmas.

This turn to sexuality in social theory, as I have said, is relatively recent. Social theorists, for many years, largely ignored sex. This neglect is perhaps less odd than it first appears, since the pleasures of the flesh were not considered a substantive or proper scientific matter for the social sciences—especially at a time when positivistic or naturalistic philosophies of natural science dominated the methods of the social sciences and humanities. There were, it is true, scattered texts—Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm (1961) or Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body (1966). Yet it was only in the wake of social protests and movements in the 1960s and 1970s that sociologists and social theorists turned their attention to the analysis of sexuality in any detailed fashion.

In this chapter, I shall explore the central discourses of sexuality that dominate contemporary social theory and the social sciences. These approaches can be grouped under five broad headings—psychoanalytic, Foucauldian, feminist, sociological and queer theory. I make no claim in this analysis to discuss all the significant themes raised by these discourses or theories. Rather, I seek to portray the contributions of particular theorists in general terms, in order to suggest some central questions that the analysis of sexuality raises for social theory today.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, initiated a trend in twentieth-century thought which attributed primary place to human sexuality in the organization of culture and society. The theory Freud developed views the mind as racked with conflicting desires and painful repressions; it is a model in which the self, or ego, wrestles with the sexual drives of the unconscious on the one hand, and the demands for restraint and denial arising from the superego on the other. Freud’s account of the complex ways in which the individual is tormented by hidden sources of mental conflict provided a source of inspiration for the undoing of sexual repression in both personal and social life. In our therapeutic culture, constraints on, and denials of, sexuality have been (and, for many, still are) regarded as emotionally and socially harmful. The Freudian insight that personal identity is forged out of the psyche’s encounter with particular experiences, especially those forgotten experiences of childhood, has in turn led to an increasing interest in the secret history of the self (see Elliott, 1998).

Many psychoanalytic critics working in the humanities and social sciences have sought to preserve the radical and critical edge of Freud’s doctrines for analysing the discourse of subjectivity and desire (see Elliott, 1994, 1999). For these theorists, psychoanalysis enjoys a highly privileged position in respect to social critique because of its focus on fantasy and desire, on the ‘inner nature’ or representational aspects of human subjectivity—aspects not reducible to social, political and economic forces. Indeed, social theorists have been drawn to psychoanalytic theory to address a very broad range of issues, ranging from destructiveness (Erich Fromm) to desire (Jean-Franois Lyotard), communication distortions (Jiirgen Habermas) to the rise of narcissistic culture (Christopher Lasch). It is perhaps in terms of sexuality, however, that Freud and psychoanalysis have most obviously contributed to (and some would also say hampered) social and cultural theory. Psychoanalysis has certainly been important as a theoretical resource for comprehending the centrality of specific configurations of desire and power at the level of ‘identity polities,’ ranging from feminist and post-feminist identities to gay and lesbian politics. It is possible to identify three key approaches through which psychoanalytic thought has been connected to the study of sexuality in social theory:

  • As a form of social critique, providing the conceptual terms (repression, unconscious desire, the Oedipus complex and the like) by which society and politics are evaluated;
  • As a form of thought to be challenged, deconstructed and analysed, primarily in terms of its suspect gender, social and cultural assumptions;
  • As a form of thought that contains both insight and blindness, so that the tensions and paradoxes of psychoanalysis are brought to the fore.

While I cannot do justice here to the full range of psychoanalytic-inspired social theories of sexuality, I shall in what follows concentrate on the seminal contributions of Herbert Marcuse and Jacques Lacan.

Herbert Marcuse

A member of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse developed a radical political interpretation of Freud that had a significant impact upon those working in the social sciences and humanities, as well as student activists and sexual liberationists. Marcuse added a novel twist to Freud’s theory of sexual repression, primarily because he insisted that the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s did not seriously threaten the established social order, but was rather another form of power and domination. Instead of offering true liberation, the sexual revolution was defused by the advanced capitalist order, through its rechanneling of released desires and passions into alternative, more commercial outlets. The demand for individual and collective freedom was seduced and transfigured by the lure of advertising and glossy commodities, the upshot of which was a defensive and narcissistic adaptation to the wider world. This narcissistic veneer characterizing contemporary social relations, Marcuse argued, was in fact evident in the conservative rendering of Freudian psychoanalysis as ego psychology in the United States—a brand of therapy in which self-mastery and self-control were elevated over and above the unconscious and repressed sexuality.

A range of psychoanalytic concepts—including repression, the division between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, the Oedipus complex, and the like—have proven to be a thorn in the side of political radicals seeking to develop a critical interpretation of Freud. Freud’s theories, many have argued, are politically conservative. Marcuse disagrees. He argues that political and social terms do not have to be grafted onto psychoanalysis, since they are already present in Freud’s work. Rather, social and political categories need to be teased out from the core assumptions of Freudian theory. The core of Marcuse’s radical recasting of Freud’s account of sexuality lies in his division of repression into basic and surplus repression, as well as the connecting of the performance principle to the reality principle. Basic repression refers to that minimum level of psychological renunciation demanded by collective social life, in order for the reproduction of order, security and structure. Repression that is surplus, by contrast, refers to the intensification of self-restraint demanded by asymmetrical relations of power. Marcuse describes the ‘monogamic-patriarchal’ family, for example, as one cultural form in which surplus repression operates. Such a repressive surplus, he says, functions according to the ‘performance principle,’ defined essentially as the culture of capitalism. According to Marcuse, the capitalist performance principle transforms individuals into ‘things’ or ‘objects’; it replaces eroticism with masculinist genital sexuality; and it demands a disciplining of the human body (what Marcuse terms ‘repressive desublimation’) so as to prevent desire from disrupting the established social order.

What chance for personal and social emancipation? Marcuse is surprisingly optimistic about socio-sexual change. He argues that the performance principle, ironically, opens a path for the undoing of sexual repression. The material affluence of the advanced capitalist societies, says Marcuse, is the basis upon which a reconciliation between culture and nature can be undertaken—the ushering in of a stage of social development he calls ‘libidinal rationality.’ Although maddeningly vague about this undoing of sexual repression, Marcuse sees the emergence of emotional communication and mature intimacy issuing from a reconciliation of happiness with reason. ‘Imagination,’ writes Marcuse (1956: 258), ‘envisions the reconciliation of the individual with the whole, of desire with realization, of happiness with reason.’

Jacques Lacan

Perhaps the most influential author who has influenced recent debates about sexuality in social theory is the controversial French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Like Marcuse, Lacan criticizes the conformist tendencies of much psychoanalytic therapy; he was particularly scathing of ego psychology, a school of psychoanalysis that he thought denied the powerful and disturbing dimensions of human sexuality. Also like Marcuse, Lacan privileges the place of the unconscious in human subjectivity and social relations. Unlike Marcuse, however, Lacan was pessimistic about the possibilities for transforming the sexual structure of modern culture and the dynamics of gender relationships.

In an infamous ‘return to Freud,’ Lacan attempts to read psychoanalytic concepts in the light of structuralist and post-structuralist linguistics—especially such core Saussurian concepts as system, difference and the arbitrary relation between signifier and signified. One of the most important features of Lacan’s psychoanalysis is the idea that the unconscious, just like language, is an endless process of difference, lack and absence. For Lacan, as for Saussure, the T is a linguistic shifter that marks difference and division in interpersonal communication; there is always in speech a split between the self which utters T and the word T which is spoken. The individual subject, Lacan says, is structured by and denies this splitting, shifting from one signifier to another in a potentially endless play of desires. Language and the unconscious thus thrive on difference: signs fill-in for the absence of actual objects at the level of the mind and in social exchange. ‘The unconscious,’ Lacan argues, ‘is structured like a language.’ And the language that dominates the psyche is that of sexuality—of fantasies, dreams, desires, pleasures and anxieties.

This interweaving of language and the unconscious is given formal expression in Lacan’s notion of the Symbolic Order. The Symbolic Order, says Lacan, institutes meaning, logic and differentiation; it is a realm in which signs fill-in for lost loves, such as one’s mother or father. Whereas the small child fantasizes that it is at one with the maternal body in its earliest years, the Symbolic Order permits the developing individual to symbolize and express desires and passions in relation to the self, to others and within the wider culture. The key term in Lacan’s theory, which accounts for this division between imaginary unity and symbolic differentiation, is the phallus, a term used by Freud in theorizing the Oedipus complex. For Lacan, as for Freud, the phallus is the prime marker of sexual difference. The phallus functions in the Symbolic Order, according to Lacan, through the enforcement of the Name-of-the-Father (nom-du-pére). This does not mean, absurdly, that each individual father actually forbids the infant/mother union, which Freud said the small child fantasizes. Rather, it means that a ‘paternal metaphor’ intrudes into the child’s narcissistically structured ego to refer her or him to what is outside, to what has the force of law—namely, language. The phallus, says Lacan, is fictitious, illusory and imaginary. Yet it has powerful effects, especially at the level of gender. The phallus functions less in the sense of biology than as fantasy, a fantasy which merges desire with power, omnipotence and mastery.

It is against this complex psychoanalytic backdrop that Lacan develops a global portrait of the relation between the sexes. Males are able to gain phallic prestige, he says, since the image of the penis comes to be symbolically equated with the phallus at the level of sexual difference. ‘It can be said that the phallic signifier,’ comments Lacan (1977: 287), ‘is chosen because it is the most tangible element in the role of sexual copulation … it is the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generation.’ Masculinity is thus forged through appropriation of the sign of the phallus, a sign that confers power, mastery and domination. Femininity, by contrast, is constructed around exclusion from phallic power. Femininity holds a precarious, even fragile, relation to language, rationality and power. ‘There is no woman,’ says Lacan (1975: 221), ‘but excluded from the value of words.’ This viewpoint, as the reader might have already gathered, is hardly likely to win much support from feminists; and, in fact, Lacan has been taken to task by many feminist authors for his perpetuation of patriarchal assumptions within the discourse of psychoanalysis. However, it is perhaps also worth holding in mind that more fluid possibilities for gender transformation are contained within Lacan’s formulation of sexual difference and its cultural consequences. Beyond the bleak Oedipal power of the phallus, Lacan deconstructs sexuality identity as fiction or fraud. Desire, he maintains, lurks beneath the signifiers upon which identity and sex are fabricated. Gender fixity is always open to displacement.

Lacan’s ‘return to Freud’ has exercised an enormous influence upon debates over sexuality in social theory, especially in the area of feminist studies—of which more shortly. However, his work has also been criticized for its structuralist leanings, its failure to attend to the inner complexities of emotion and affect, and its pessimistic account of the possibilities for personal and social change (see Elliott, 1994, 1999; Frosh, 1987).

Foucault on the Discursive Production of Sexuality

For the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, sexuality is intricately bound up with advanced systems of power and domination within our broader culture. Foucault’s major studies in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Madness and Civilization, The Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish, examine the deeper social implications of configurations of knowledge and power in the human sciences—for example, psychiatry, sexology, criminology, penology and demography. Giving a novel twist to Bacon’s dictum that ‘knowledge is power,’ Foucault argues that scientific discourses, while aiming to uncover the truth about ‘the criminal’ or ‘madness’ or ‘sex,’ are in fact used to control individuals. In his genealogies of power/knowledge networks, he argues that scientific disciplines and discourses shape the social structures in which culture defines what is acceptable and unacceptable; of what can be said from a position of authority, and by whom and in what social conditions. In a society such as ours, writes Foucault (1980a: 93):

There are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.

The production of discourses, texts and knowledges is deeply interwoven with the operation of power in society. The individual subject is viewed by Foucault, in this early phase of his career, as an upshot or product of discursive positioning and fixation; the individual is increasingly subjected to new forms of power and control in what Foucault terms our ‘disciplinary society’; in Weberian terms, the Foucauldian subject is caught up in the iron cage of modernity (see O’Neill, 1986; Turner, 1993).

In the later part of this career, Foucault problematized global conceptions of sexuality (such as those portrayed in psychoanalytic, social-constructivist and feminist theories), and developed powerful genealogies of the self and subjectivity. He explained his shift of analytical focus from power and domination to sexuality and the self in the following terms:

If one wants to analyse the genealogy of the subject in Western civilization, one has to take into account not only techniques of domination, but also techniques of the self. One has to show the interaction between these two types of the self. When I was studying asylums, prisons and so on, I perhaps insisted too much on the techniques of domination. What we call discipline is something really important in this kind of institution. But it is only one aspect of the art of governing people in our societies. Having studied the field of power relations taking domination techniques as a point of departure, I should like, in the years to come, to study power relations, especially in the field of sexuality, starting from the techniques of the self. (Foucault 1985: 367)

Foucault’s concerns about the culture of sexuality were prompted, in part, by his own homosexuality; in particular, he was troubled by what he saw as the intolerant and repressive heterosexual regime governing sex in French society. He became increasingly fascinated with the sexual liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s, especially the politicization of gay and lesbian identities; he regarded political demands for sexual liberation, as defined by theorists like Marcuse, to be of crucial importance in redefining configurations of normal and pathological desires, acts and identities. However he was suspect of the claims of various sexual liberationists that desire was repressed in Western societies; he was even more troubled by the notion that, if sexuality were released from existing personal and social constraints, society might achieve greater levels of autonomy. Rejecting what he described as ‘the Californian cult of the self—the notion that the scrutinizing of sexuality would reveal the essence of the ‘true self—Foucault sought to develop a radically different approach to analysing the culture of sexuality, desire, and sexual identity.

At the core of Foucault’s approach was a rejection of the modernist assumption that sex should be understood as a natural or biological foundation, upon which an imprinting of ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’ is added. Turning such conventional wisdom on its head, Foucault argues that the idea of sex as origin, as base, or as given to identity and social relations is itself the outcome of a discursive regime of sexuality. As Foucault (1980b: 155) explains:

We must not make the mistake of thinking that sex is an autonomous agency which secondarily produces manifold effects over the entire length of its surface of contact with power. On the contrary, sex is the most speculative, most ideal, and most internal element in a deployment of sexuality organized by power in its grip on bodies and their materiality, their forces, energies, sensations and pleasures.

Pre-existing types of sensual pleasure, says Foucault, become ‘sex’ as the creation of discourses about it—such as medical texts, therapeutic books, self-help manuals and the like—bring about an ordering of ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ sexual practices. The human subject, according to Foucault, is not ‘sexed’ in any meaningful sense prior to its constitution within a discourse through which it becomes a carrier of a natural or essential sex.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault sets out to overturn what he calls ‘the repressive hypothesis.’ According to this hypothesis, the healthy expression of sexuality has been censured, negated, forbidden; at any rate, this is held to be the case in the West. Sexuality as repressed: this theorem has been crucial not only to Freudian and post-Freudian theory, but also to various sexual liberationists. Foucault, however, rejects the thesis of sexual repression. Sex, he says, has not been driven underground in contemporary culture. On the contrary, there has been a widening discussion of sex and sexuality. Sexuality, says Foucault, has flourished. Sexuality for Foucault is an end-effect, a product, of our endless monitoring, discussion, classification, ordering, recording and regulation of sex. As an example, Foucault considers attitudes toward sexuality in the Victorian age of the late nineteenth century. Victorianism, writes Foucault, is usually associated with the emergence of prudishness, the silencing of sexuality, and the rationalization of sex within the domestic sphere, the home, the family. Against such conventional wisdom, though, he argues that the production of sexuality during the Victorian era as a secret, as something forbidden or taboo, created a culture in which sex then had to be administered, regulated and policed. For example, doctors, psychiatrists and others catalogued and classified numerous perversions, from which issues about sex became endlessly tracked and monitored with the growth of social medicine, education, criminology and sexology.

According to Foucault, this fostering of a science of sexuality arose from the connection of confession to the growth of knowledge about sex. The Roman Catholic confessional, Foucault contends, was the principal means of regulating the individual sexuality of believers; the Church was the site in which subjects came to tell the truth about themselves, especially in relation to sexuality, to their priests. The confessional can be regarded as the source of the West’s preoccupation with sex, particularly in terms of the sanctioned inducement to talk of it. Confession became disconnected from its broad religious framework, however, somewhere in the late eighteenth century, and was transformed into a type of investigation or interrogation through the scientific study of sex and the creation of medical discourses about it. Sexes became increasingly bound up with networks of knowledge and power, and in time a matter for increasing self-policing, self-regulation and self-interrogation. In other words, instead of sex being regulated by external forces, it is much more a matter of attitudinal discipline, which is in turn connected to issues of, say, knowledge and education. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, says Foucault, are key instances of such self-policing in the contemporary era. In therapy, the individual does not so much feel coerced into confessing about sexual practices and erotic fantasies; rather the information divulged by the patient is treated as the means to freedom, the realization of a liberation from repression.

Foucault’s writings have been sharply criticized on the grounds of sociological determinism—that is, that his definition of power primarily in terms of its disciplinary consequences on passive bodies denies the active place of human agency (Giddens, 1981; Habermas, 1987). His writings on sexuality and the self have also been criticized for their neglect of gender dynamics (see McNay, 1992). Notwithstanding these criticisms, however, many social theorists, ranging from sociologists to literary critics, have drawn from Foucault’s critique of sexuality to debunk traditional notions of rationality, the unified subject, and sexuality as the foundation of identity.

Feminism and Sexuality

There are many different approaches that feminists have adopted in exploring the theme of sexuality and gender. Some feminists have offered perspectives on the social role of women from the viewpoint of our patriarchal society, in which women are the targets of sexual oppression, abuse, harassment and denigration. Other feminists have concentrated on, say, the regimes of beautification or modes of self-presentation to which women submit in adopting ‘masks of femininity,’ in order to function as objects of men’s sexual desire. Still other feminists have examined the broader influences of economics and public policy in the reduction of women’s sexuality to the tasks of child rearing and household duties. In these contrasting approaches, the issues of sexual difference, gender hierarchy, social marginalization and the politics of identity achieve different levels of prominence. For the purposes of this brief discussion here, I will explore the crucial links between sexual subjectivity and gender practices as elaborated in contemporary feminist thought, cultural analysis and psychoanalysis.

The interlocking relations of subjectivity, gender and society were powerfully theorized in the late 1970s by the American feminist sociologist Nancy Chodorow. In The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), which is now considered a classic feminist statement on sexuality and gender, Chodorow combines sociological and psychoanalytic approaches to study the reproduction of gender asymmetries in modern societies. Her idea was to focus on the emotional, social and political ramifications of exclusive female mothering, giving special attention to the construction of masculinity and femininity. Against the tide of various socialization theories, Chodorow contends that gender is not so much a matter of ‘role’ as a consequence of the ways in which mothers emotionally relate to their children.

In explaining the sex roles to which women and men are expected to conform, Chodorow argues that the developing infant acquires a core gender identity that functions as a psychological force in the perpetuation of patriarchy. The core of her argument concerns gender difference. Mothers, she says, experience their daughters as doubles of themselves, through a narcissistic projection of sameness. The mother emotionally relates to her daughter as an extension of herself, not as an independent person; the daughter, as a consequence, finds it extremely difficult to emotionally disengage from her mother, and to create a sense of independence and individuality. Chodorow sees gains and losses here. Empathy, sensitivity and intimacy are the gains that flow from this narcissistic merging of mother and daughter. Daughters, she argues, are likely to grow up with a core sense of emotional continuity with their mother, a continuity that provides for strong relational connections in adult life. In this account, girls become mothers since their mothers’ feminine selves are deeply inscribed within their psyche. However the losses are that, because daughters are not perceived as separate others, women consequently lack a strong sense of self and agency. Feelings of inadequacy, lack of self-control and a fear of merging with others arise as core emotional problems for women.

By contrast, Chodorow sees masculine sexual identity as based upon a firm repression of maternal love. Boys, she says, must deny their primary bond to maternal love—thus repressing femininity permanently into the unconscious. This is not a psychic task that boys complete by themselves, however. Mothers, according to Chodorow, assist boys in this painful process of psychic repression through their own tacit understanding of gender difference. That is to say, because mothers experience sons as other, mothers in turn propel their sons towards individuation, differentiation and autonomy. Mothers thus lead their sons to emotionally disengage from intimacy. The mother, in effect, prepares her son for an instrumental, abstract relation to the self, to other people and to the wider society; and this, of course, is a relation that males will be expected to maintain in the public world of work, social relations and politics.

Chodorow’s work is an important contribution to feminist scholarship; her psychoanalytically orientated sociology has influenced many feminists researching gender identity in the wider frame of families and communities. Her general claim that women mother in order to recapture an intensity of feeling originally experienced in the mother/daughter relation has been especially fruitful. For such a claim connects in Chodorow’s work to a wider social explanation of gender alienation and oppression. Women’s emotional lives are drained and empty since men are cut off from interpersonal communication and sexual intimacy. From this angle, the desire to have a child is, in part, rooted in the repression and distortion of the current gender system. Against this backdrop, Chodorow argues for shared parenting as a means of transforming the current gender regime.

A similar focus on the mother/daughter relationship is to be found in the writings of the French philosopher Luce Irigaray. Like Chodorow, Irigaray is out to analyse the deeper symbolic forces that limit or constrain women’s autonomy and power. Unlike Chodorow, however, Irigaray proposes a more formalistic or structuralist thesis. Taking her cue from Lacan, Irigaray contends that woman is, by definition, excluded from the Symbolic Order. On this view, the feminine cannot be adequately symbolized under patriarchal conditions. As Irigaray (1985: 143) argues: ‘there is no possibility whatsoever, within the current logic of sociocultural operations, for a daughter to situate herself with respect to her mother: because, strictly speaking, they make neither one nor two, neither has a name, meaning, sex of her own, neither can be “identified” with respect to the other.’ Similarly, the French psychoanalytic feminist Julia Kristeva (1984) argues against the patriarchal bent of the Lacanian Symbolic Order, to which she contrasts the ‘semiotic’—a realm of pre-oedipal prolinguistic experience, consisting of drives, affects, rhythms, tonalities. According to Kristeva, semiotic drives circle around the loss of the pre-oedipal mother, and make themselves felt in the breakup of language—in slips, silences, tonal rhythms. These semiotic drives, she suggests, are subversive of the symbolic Law of the Father since they are rooted in a pre-oedipal connection with the maternal body. The subversive potential of the semiotic is thus closely tied to femininity, and Kristeva devotes much of her psychoanalytic work to the analysis of motherhood and its psychical consequences.

Most recently, the development of a social theory of sexuality has been transformed by the writings of the American feminist post-structuralist Judith Butler. Butler seeks to debunk the work of theorists, such as Chodorow, who appeal to women as a foundation or basis for feminist theory andpolitics. She argues thatnotions of ‘identity’or ‘core gender identity’ serve to reinforce a binary gender order that maintains women’s oppression. Like Kristeva and Irigaray, Butler sees sexual identity as shot through with desire, fantasy, emotion, symbol, conflict and ambivalence. Unlike Kristeva and Irigaray, however, Butler argues that desire is not so much some inner psychic force as a result of the internaliza ti on of gender images upon the surface of our bodies. Drawing upon the work of Foucault, Butler contends that the link between sex and gender power is produced, not through nature, biology or reason, but through the deployment of knowledge, discourses and forms of power, actualized through acting bodies and sexual practices.

In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), Butler argues that sex and sexuality are constituted and reproduced through the body that performs—the production of masculine and feminine bodies, lesbian and gay bodies, the sexy body, the fit and healthy body, the anorexic body, the body beautiful. Gender, says Butler, is not the outcome of the ‘true self or ‘core sex identity,’ but rather a matter of performance, the performance of a corporeal style. Individuals for Butler model their gender performances after fantasies, imitations and idealizations of what we think it means to be a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ within the range of cultural representations of sex in the current gender regime. Butler’s notion of performance, of the body that performs, encompasses the copying, imitation and repetition of cultural stereotypes, linguistic conventions and symbolic forms governing the production of masculinity and femininity.

The Sociology of Sex

Among changes now pervading our culture, sociologists argue that few are more profound than those transforming the texture of family life. In many advanced societies, we are moving to a situation in which nearly half of first marriages end in divorce, and the statistics are even worse for second and subsequent marriages. Among conservatives, this decline is often cast as a sign of society’s moral decay; the lament is attributed to several sources. From sexual permissiveness to feminism, from new parenting arrangements to the spread of overt homosexuality: our new era, so many conservatives argue, is one that spells the end of family ties that bind.

A key reference point here is a recent study of American families, A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval. Paul Amato and Alan Booth, the authors of the study, argue that the costs of our separating and divorcing society are simply too high. Divorce might suit adults, but not children. For it is children that suffer the painful and destructive long-term impact of divorce in their own sense of self, sexuality and intimate relationships. Based on an analysis of couples married for over 15 years, the authors of A Generation at Risk suggest that unhappy parents should try to stay together for the sake of their children. It is acknowledged that children can suffer if they remain with parents in what is termed a ‘high-conflict marriage,’ but the authors argue that in most ‘low-conflict marriages’ couples ought to make certain sacrifices in order to fulfil their parental and societal responsibilities.

There are some rather obvious criticisms that might be made of this argument. For one thing, it pays little or no attention to the emotional damage sustained by children living in family contexts of disrespect, to say nothing about lack of love. For another, it seems excessively prescriptive and moralistic. Who, exactly, is to say whether conflicts experienced in marriage are to count as ‘low-level’ or ‘high-level’? Emotions, after all, are not exactly skilled workers. On a deeper sociological level, there is something awry with arguments about ‘the breakdown of the family.’ Certainly the rise of one-parent families, as well as the dramatic increase of births outside of marriage, indicates that broad-ranging changes are sweeping through society. And divorce undeniably looms as a feature of family and domestic arrangements. Yet liberal and conservative critics do not readily acknowledge the fact that people very often remarry. The implications of this are far-reaching, and some sociologists are now suggesting that, rather than family breakdown, the family is undergoing a constructive renewal.

Sexual relationships today, conducted inside and outside of marriage, embrace what has been called the movement toward ‘individualization.’ Individualization refers principally to self-construction and self-design, in which the forging of identity and sexuality becomes less dependent on social traditions and customs and organized instead around personal decision-making and choice. The self-staging of individualization is inevitably undertaken through a host of traditional social, economic, political and cultural constraints. However, individualization, as the German sociologist Ulrich Beck argues, is a paradoxical compulsion that takes the individual into a post-traditional social setting, a setting where the person must live as an individual agent and designer of her or his biography. There is a new contingency at the level of the self, identity and sexuality, says Beck. What this means as far as families and domestic arrangements are concerned is that the stress today on choice and individual autonomy provides a radicalizing dynamic that, in turn, alters the interpersonal realm in which relationships are rooted.

Beck claims there are many patterns of family development which suggest that traditional expectations (‘till-death-us-do-part’) are being put aside, and instead that domestic relationships are increasingly based upon the growth of the individual as well as the care of others. The individualized individual, says Beck, engages in relationships in which trust is the key anchor. If trust evaporates so too does the relationship; traditional ties no longer bind in the way they once did. Beck connects this redesign of family living to the changing ways in which individuals experience sex, sexuality, relationships and intimacy. ‘The traditions of marriage and the family,’ writes Beck (1997: 96), ‘are becoming dependent on decision-making, and with all their contradictions must be experienced as personal risks.’

Beck’s social theory permits the illumination of very broad transformations at the level of personal and social relationships. Many parents are now step-parents as well as biological parents, and the clear trend is toward new commitments to others across family boundaries. This can be viewed positively for children, in so far as it involves an ‘opening out’ of childhood to relationships in the deepest sense of the term. As Beck notes, there are many social forces at work here, including more flexible employment options, recent gains in autonomy for women, newly emerging definitions of masculinity, as well as rising experimentation across diverse heterosexual and homosexual lifestyles. Add to this the variety of options in the area of reproductive technologies—such as in vitro fertilization and embryo freezing—and changes in human attitudes to sexual reproduction become increasingly transparent. These developments usher in a world of new possibilities and risks for people.

The British sociologist Anthony Giddens also sees the modern social world as unleashing positive and negative developments at the level of the self, sexuality and intimacy. Like Beck, Giddens argues that the self is increasingly individualized today—the self becomes something that is reflected upon, reworked, altered, even reshaped. ‘The self, writes Giddens (1991: 32), ‘becomes a reflexive project.’ By reflexivity, Giddens means to underscore a disposition of continuous self-monitoring, in which social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of new information and fresh developments about those very practices. Again, marriage is a key example. According to Giddens, statistics about marriage and divorce do not exist in a separate realm from the flesh-and-blood human agents that comprise those statistics. On the contrary, Giddens’ sociology emphasizes the knowledgeability of social agents, and in particular the manner in which social transformations affect the reflexive organization of the self. The coming of a divorcing society, says Giddens, penetrates to the core of our personal lives, such that it is virtually impossible to equate romantic love with the ‘forever’ or permanence of the marriage contract. When people marry today, they do so against a backdrop of high divorce statistics—knowledge that, in turn, alters their conception and understanding of the permanence of relationships. ‘In struggling with intimate problems,’ writes Giddens (1991:12), ‘individuals help actively to reconstruct the universe of social activity around them.’

In The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies (1992), Giddens speaks of ‘the pure relationship,’ a relationship created and maintained through the mutual trust of partners. As Giddens (1992: 58) explains:

A pure relationship has nothing to do with sexual purity, and is a limiting concept rather than only a descriptive one. It refers to a situation where a social relation is entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another; and which is continued only in so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it.

At the heart of this account of contemporary, postmodern intimacy and lifestyle there lies a radicalization of gender and sex. For if relationships are indeed designed and maintained through personal commitment, trust and emotional satisfaction, then it follows that contemporary men and women are demanding equality in order to provide ongoing consent to the post-traditional world of intimacy in which they find themselves. Feminism and the women’s movement, says Giddens, are crucial to this process of democratization in the sphere of gender, sexuality and intimacy.

A related emphasis upon reflexivity in the construction and deconstruction of sexuality is to be found in the work of the British social theorist and cultural historian leffrey Weeks. In a series of publications (1977, 1985, 1995), Weeks developed a social constructivist approach to the study of sexuality, in which sex is less a matter of inner desires and personal behavior than a site where ideologies, cultural norms and institutions interweave. Weeks contends that the notion that homosexual practices reveal a distinct identity—‘the homosexual’—did not arise in the West until the late nineteenth century. Prior to this, the policing of homosexuality were undertaken not through the monitoring of deviant persons, but through the punishing of particular acts, organized under the general category of sodomy. By drawing attention to the ways in which homosexuality was socially fashioned in relation to specific identity traits, psychological dispositions and cultural markers, Weeks attempts to underscore the patterns of social fabrication underpinning modernity’s regimes of sexuality.

Queer Theory

The history of the label ‘queer theory’ is set against a backdrop of the radical sexual politics of the 1970s, in particular the assumption that homosexuality is a foundation or identity of minority sexual experience in the sociocultural order. The development of this theoretical approach to sexuality arose not only from emerging social divisions around the meaning of homosexuality throughout the 1980s, but also from new attempts to avoid exclusionist and separatist strategies of political opposition to the masculinist, heterosexual dynamic of Western culture. If the first generation of gay, lesbian and feminist activists and theorists sought to analyse homosexuality as a minority experience, then the focus of queer theorists has been to contest the binary divide between majority and minority experience, as well as the social dynamics of heterosexuality and homosexuality.

The theoretical grounding of queer theory lies in post-structuralism and literary deconstructionism, and the influence of social theorists such as Foucault, Lacan and Derrida looms large. Less a unitary coherent body of thought than an assemblage of conceptual tools and political strategies, queer theory attempts to subvert the cultural stereotypes used to understand gays, lesbians, or bisexuals—in order to bring into focus the ‘queer knowledges’ which modernity has unleashed in its framing of sexual identities and differences. As Teresa de Lauretis (1991: v) explains this transgressive edge of queer theory:

Today we have, on the one hand, the term ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ to designate distinct kinds of lifestyles, sexualities, sexual practices, communities, issues, publications, and discourses; on the other hand, the phrase ‘gay and lesbian,’ or more and more frequently, ‘lesbian and gay’ (ladies first), has become standard currency … In a sense, the term ‘Queer Theory’ was arrived at in an effort to avoid all of these fine distinctions in our discursive protocols, not to adhere to any one of the given terms, not to assume their ideological liabilities, but instead to both transgress and transcend them—or at the very least problematize them.

So queer theory embraces not only lesbians, gays and bisexuals, but also sadists, fetishists, voyeurs, drag queens, transsexuals, transvestites, butches, gender benders, and all other practices that attract the label ‘deviant sexualities’ within the asymmetrical power relations of patriarchy.

In Essentially Speaking (989), Diana Fuss develops a post-structuralist critique of the homosexual/heterosexual binarism. Heterosexuality, says Fuss, derives meaning in relation to its opposite, homosexuality; the sexual foundation of the former is framed upon an exclusion and repression of the latter; the production of hetero/homosexual divisions and differences is crucial to the workings of sexual oppression. This carries radical implications for understanding sexual identity, and especially the construction of gay and lesbian identities. Fuss argues that the hetero/homosexual opposition constitutes a fixed normativity for sexual identities, a rigid cultural order in which sexual differences are forever displaced and denied. Thus, the assertion of identity-based gay and lesbian communities has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing heterosexuality and homophobia as the key dynamics of socio-sexual organization. In contrast to the politics of identity, Fuss (1991) urges sexual radicals to contest, and hence destabilize, the hetero/homosexual hierarchy. She urges, in short, a politics of relational identities.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, sometimes dubbed ‘the mother of queer theory,’ goes one step further. In The Epistemology of the Closet she argues that the hetero/homosexual binarism not only shapes and structures sexual identities and differences, but informs key categories of Western thought and culture. For Sedgwick, the hetero/homosexual binarism organizes people’s experience and knowledge of the world, particularly forms of self-knowledge, self-disclosure and self-revelation. ‘Coming out’ and the ‘closet’ are key terms for understanding the experiences of gay and lesbian people; but these broad categories of self-definition also deeply affect heterosexuals, who situate their own identities and practices in relation to homosexuality, especially the power of homosexuality to disturb and displace. The contemporary crisis of homo/heterosexual definition is at root a desire for certainty at the level of sexual knowledge. Following Foucault, Sedgwick argues that the secrecy surrounding knowledge of the closet is both maintained and frustrated because of the risk of the secret’s disclosure. Somewhat akin to Lacan’s description of the phallus as a ‘master signifier,’ Sedgwick describes the hetero/homosexual division as pivotal to the cultural logic of the advanced societies. Knowledge of the closet and its secrets, Sedgwick says, is invested with much energy and anxiety, a set of fears and fantasies, which underwrites spacings between appearance and reality, norm and pathology, power and powerlessness.

Sedgwick’s work has been very influential in queer theory, primarily since she has moved debate beyond narrow definitions of the politics of identity, as well as the basic oppositions of oppression and resistance. Refusing to accept that the world can be easily divided between homosexuals and heterosexuals, Sedgwick seeks to underline (a) that knowledge is the consequence of bodies, (b) that sex is not the center or foundation of the human subject, (c) that sexual identities are fundamentally provisional, mobile and fractured, and (d) that the instability of the hetero/homosexual binary opposition holds out possibilities for the reinvention of identities, desires, practices, communities, knowledges and social structures.