Modern individuals can in principle adopt sexual identities at will, but they do not do so in conditions of their own choosing. The social and political context of modernity sets the stage for sexual possibilities. For example, new communication technologies such as the Internet provide new sexual options, including the adoption of ‘virtual’ identities in cyberspace as well as greater access to potential partners. The modern world, as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues in his book Liquid Love, is characterized by fluidity in social relations generally, encouraging a reluctance towards long-term commitments since a ‘better product’ might be just around the corner. The fragmentation of sexual subcultures is mirrored in the specialization of the commodities on offer.
Gay men’s dating websites such as Gaydar have become global phenomena, with users including men from countries such as Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. More specialized dating agencies cater for ‘heterosexual, gentile (non-Jewish), whites only’, ‘gay black females’, or the ‘unhappily married/attached’, while the now defunct Safe Love International, which included prominent sexologists such as
Theresa Crenshaw on its advisory council, promised that its members were ‘Aids-free’.
Citizens of the modern sexual world make sense of their personal identities and problems in new ways, as reflected in a recent dilemma submitted to the popular internationally syndicated Internet relationship and sex advice column ‘Savage Love’, run by American gay author of Skipping Towards Gomorrah (2002) Dan Savage:
For the past 15 years, I’ve identified as bisexual: I’ve been in monogamous relationships with men and women. I married a wonderful guy a few years ago. However, I recently realised that I identify as gay. I’ve talked to my husband about this, and he’s okay with it. I decided to stay with him and remain monogamous.
We have a great relationship – and great sex. We left open the possibility of me taking a female lover in the future, if needed. For now, I’m happy with him. I flirt with girls, we talk openly about my preferences, but I haven’t had sex with a woman since before I married him. And I’m okay with that. So, here’s my dilemma: Is it right to call myself a lesbian if I’m married to (and sexually involved with) a man? I hesitate to stay with the ‘bi’ label, since I have no interest in other men. Can I call myself a lesbian even though I’m not sleeping with women?
Advice columns, agony aunts, therapists, support groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous, self-help books, and sex manuals can be drawn upon to offer advice on relationship rules, sexual etiquette, and sexual mechanics in the liquid world of modern sex. Titles such as Women Who Love Too Much, Relationship Rescue, How to Fall Out of Love, or If It Hurts, It Isn’t Love guide readers through the minefield of intimacy and emotions. Other works privilege a more practical angle, such as Sexercise (‘will help you get fit while you’re having fun!’), This Book Will Get You Laid (‘the bonking bible no bloke should be without’), or American sexologist Dr Ruth’s Sex for Dummies. Specific subgroups are catered for by
works such as The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex, The Gay Joy of Sex, Sex: A Man’s Guide, The New Love and Sex After 60, The Lesbian Sex Book, or Enabling Romance: A Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships for People with Disabilities (and for the People Who Care About Them).
Best-selling self-help books such as The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right (1995) reproduce traditional norms of female and male sexual behaviour and needs, based upon the claim that men and women are biologically different creatures. ‘In a relationship, the man must take charge. He must propose. We are not making this up – biologically, he’s the aggressor’, as the Rules, such as ‘don’t talk to a man first (and don’t ask him to dance)’, formulate it.
Attempts to break away from dominant norms frequently involve the formulation of new normativities, however, as illustrated by Shere Hite’s emphasis on the necessity for women to experience sexual pleasure:
If you can’t orgasm, you could also read books on sex therapy, feminist literature, and try to talk to friends about how they have orgasms. You could also try a local women’s self-help group, perhaps a sex-therapist, or a lover who was sensitive enough to help. Don’t give up. Many women have learned to orgasm after years of not knowing how, and it is never too late to discover what works for you.
The current transformations and politics of sexuality have started to problematize the hegemony as well as the forms of ‘normality’. Feminist critiques of sexuality have encouraged wider understandings of sexuality, less centred on penetrative intercourse alone, while gay and lesbian communities of choice and attendant political activism have publicly demonstrated the profound transformations of both the sexual order and the gender order of the West in recent decades.
In their radical experiments with intersections between gender and sexuality, the ‘queers’ queers’ are perhaps the sexual revolutionaries of our time. Just as self-castrating early Christians, anarchist free-lovers, 1960s swingers, Reichian sexual liberationists, and political lesbians came from the periphery of the continent of sex to invent new meanings and practices, so the pomosexual ‘lesbian separatist who becomes a professional dominatrix, then falls in love with a male-to-female transsexual grrl, decides to go through with a sex change, becomes a guy, and realizes he’s a gay man’ questions our most basic assumptions about gender and sexual identity, and illustrates the possibilities for greater fluidity that the (post)modern world offers.
Does that mean that, in future, we will all think of ourselves as pomosexuals? Are we currently witnessing the final death throes of heterosexuality and homosexuality? As we have seen, current sexual ‘truths’ and identities are relatively recent historical constructs, produced by sexual science and medicine. The future of sex may well involve leaving behind the constraints of 19th-century ‘sexuality’. Theorists of sexuality have thus called for collective ‘un-sexualization’. At the same time, there is little in the current state of the politics of sexuality to lead us to conclude that an ‘unsexual’ future is anywhere near, given the renewed propping up of traditional understandings of sex by the fundamentalist backlash, as well as by scientific discourses. What is certain, however, is that alternative futures of sex based on moral pluralism cannot escape new normativities, new relations of power, and new state policies. No culture can have ‘full’ sexual freedom. As the sociologist Ken Plummer puts it:
However neutral and objective talk about sexual diversity appears to be, it is also talk about power. Every culture has to establish – through both formal and informal political processes – the range and scope of the diversities that will be outlawed or banned.
As this volume has argued, sexual needs, values, and emotions are the products of specific historical contexts. Current practices may contribute to undermining concepts of ‘sexuality’, but, whatever changes scientific and technological developments will bring to our bodies and relationships, future meanings of sex will be shaped by society and politics.