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Conceptualizing Sexuality, Questioning The Concept Of Sexuality, Gendering Sexualities, New Subjectivities, Globalization, Conflict Of Values

When we think of sexuality, we think of many different things. We think of reproduction and the different bodies and reproductive capacities of men and women. We think of pleasure, the pleasures of the body, but also the pains, mental and physical, that can wrack the body. We think of love, and the joys of human involvement, but we might also remember the fear and hate that sexuality can evoke—through discrimination, prejudice, abuse, violence, rape. We think of potential diseases, of which HIV/AIDS has become the most potent symbol, and the possibility of death, which has always dogged sexual activity, from the perils of childbirth to the great artistic traditions that link love, sex, and death. Sexuality is about both pleasures and dangers, and that link gives it its ambiguity and its power.

This multiplicity of meanings can often confuse as much as clarify. At the most basic and popular level, sexuality refers to what most regard as one of the most basic features of human life, "our sexuality," the "most natural thing about us," the "truth of our being," in Michel Foucault's well-known phrase. When people say something like "this is my sexuality," they are referring to something that they see as essential to their needs, desire, identity, and social position. Yet even as we agree on its importance to individuals and cultures (at least in their Western, metropolitan forms) the term has become a highly contested one. Even those modern researchers who claim to have put our understanding of the body and its desires on a solidly scientific basis—like the sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists who claim to be able to trace the roots of human sexuality to the first human steps on the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago—express puzzlement as to why sexuality should have evolved. For historians, anthropologists, and other social scientists alert to the different interpretations given to sexuality at different times in different cultures, the concept is a deeply problematic one.

The concept is so cloaked in historical myths and social ambivalence, and obscured by heterogeneous meanings and elaborate taboos, that sexuality often appears more a product of the mind than of the body. Perhaps, as the social anthropologist Carole Vance once suggested, the most important human sexual organ is located between the ears. Yet, of course, it is through the body that sexual desires are expressed, and the body is the site for marking gender differences, which continue to shape culturally important differences and sexual beliefs and behaviors. The body, and its biology, cannot simply be ignored. So the safest way of putting it is that sexuality as a concept is perilously stretched between the biological, the social, and the psychic. Even Sigmund Freud, usually accused of putting sex into everything, confessed to the difficulty of agreeing on "any generally recognized criterion of the sexual nature of a process" (p. 323). Since then, despite our ever growing knowledge about the varieties of patterns, values, norms, lifestyles, and fantasies around the erotic, a certain ambiguity continues to cloak the meanings of sexuality.

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