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Conceptualizing Sexuality

A brief history of the concept in English shows how meanings of sexuality continue to evolve. The earliest usage of the term sex in the sixteenth century referred to the division of humanity into the male section and the female section; and the quality of being male or female. The subsequent meaning, however, and one current since the early eighteenth century, refers to physical relations between the sexes, "to have sex." What we know as masculinity and femininity, and what came to be labeled from the late nineteenth century as heterosexuality, with homosexuality as the aberrant "other," are thus inscribed into the meanings of sex from the start. Sexual, a word that can be traced back to the mid-seventeenth century, carries similar connotations—pertaining to sex, or the attributes of being male or female, is one given meaning. Sexuality as a term meaning "the quality of being sexual" emerged early in the nineteenth century, and it is this meaning that is carried forward and developed by the sexologists, sexual theorists, and researchers who emerged as a distinct category of specialists in the late nineteenth century, and became increasingly influential in the twentieth century. Luminaries included not only Freud, who is now best remembered, but also the Austrian pioneer, Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), who can lay claim to being the founding father of sexology; the Briton, Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), and the German, Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), who was also a pioneer of homosexual rights, among many others.

Sexologists sought to discover the "laws of nature," the true meaning of sexuality, by exploring its various guises and manifestations. They often disagreed with one another; they frequently contradicted themselves. But all concurred that sexuality was in some way a quality or essence that underlay a range of activities and psychic dispensations. Thus Krafft-Ebing became a pioneer in seeing sexuality as something that differentiated different categories of beings—so opening the way to theorizing sexual identities. Dozens of individuals wrote to him with their case histories, and in the process of studying them Krafft-Ebing came to understand that there were many types of sexualities that could not easily be reduced to the traditional assumption of heterosexual, reproductive sex. Freud went further. His Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) began with a discussion of homosexuality, thus severing the expected connections between sexuality and heterosexual object choice, and continued with a discussion of the perversions, so breaking the expected link between pleasure and genital activity. In the psychoanalytic tradition, sexuality was seen as central to the workings of the unconscious. More broadly, sexuality was becoming a distinct continent of knowledge, with its own specialist explorers. When people spoke of "my sexuality," they increasingly meant those desires and behaviors that shaped their sexual (and social) identities, as male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, and so forth.

The result of all this classifying and definitional zeal was startling. The pioneering explorers of sexuality thought they were simply mapping and giving names to what was already there. It is to this generation that we owe concepts and terms such as homosexuality and heterosexuality, transvestism and sadomasochism, coprophilia and necrophilia, and a thousand more terms in the ever growing lexicon of the erotic. Later researchers such as Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956) and his colleagues sought to demonstrate that in biology there was little concept of what was right or wrong, normal and abnormal; and the sexual lives of our fellow citizens (or at least the twenty thousand or so American men and women from whom Kinsey obtained his information in the 1940s) displayed a spectrum of behaviors and desires that was far from the culture's self-image of respectability. Whole armies, it has been well said, began to march out of the pages of the sexologists' learned tomes and onto the stage of social history.

However, late-twentieth-and twenty-first-century theorists have questioned the naturalness and inevitability of the sexual categories and assumptions we have inherited. They suggest that the sexologists did not so much discover or map the world of sexuality as help create and constitute it. The concept of sexuality, they argue, unifies a host of activities that have no necessary or intrinsic connection: discourses, institutions, laws, regulations, administrative arrangements, scientific theories, medical practices, household organization, subcultural patterns, ethical and moral practices, the arrangements of everyday life. The idea of sex, which seems so foundational to the very notion of sexuality, is itself a product of the discourses. Nothing is sexual, as Ken Plummer (1975) suggests, but naming makes it so. So sexuality can be seen as a narrative, a complexity of the different stories we tell each other about the body; a series of scripts through which we enact erotic life; or an intricate set of performances through which the sexual is invented, ritualized, and embodied.

In other words, "sexuality" was a social construction, a "fictional unity" that once did not exist and that at some time in the future may cease to exist. John H. Gagnon and William Simon have discussed the need at an unspecified point in human history to invent an importance for sexuality. Michel Foucault queried the very category of "sexuality" itself: "It is the name that can be given to a historical construct (p. 105)." Foucault's work particularly has had a huge impact on our thinking about the sexual. But he was building on new forms of sexual knowledge already in development. These were in turn being heavily influenced by radical social movements including second-wave feminism and the gay liberation movement, which emerged from the late 1960s.

The work of young scholars inspired by these movements began to develop critical social-scientific approaches to sexuality. Already by the mid-1970s feminists were questioning the basic categories of sexuality, and a number of pioneering lesbian and gay historians were interrogating the fixity of the heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy to show that this apparently fundamental binary divide had a relatively recent history. If the homosexual identities we took for granted were indeed a historical construction, then so could the norm of heterosexuality be seen as something that was invented. In a similar way the sharp distinction that some of the pioneering writers on sexuality had drawn between "civilized" and "uncivilized" patterns of behavior could also be challenged, and instead could be seen as products of Western cultural—and racist—assumptions in the age of empire. In other words, sexuality, far from being the domain of the given, the natural, the biological, was preeminently historical and social, and moreover was shaped in relations of power. This has profound implications.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Semiotics to SmeltingSexuality - Conceptualizing Sexuality, Questioning The Concept Of Sexuality, Gendering Sexualities, New Subjectivities, Globalization, Conflict Of Values