Sexuality and power
Recent controversies around sexuality thus further illustrate the intricate links between sexuality and the social relations of power flowing from gender, social class, and ‘race’ that have, historically, shaped it. As Michel Foucault put it, sexuality constitutes
an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, young people and old people, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, an administration and a population.
Contrary to the sexual liberation paradigm, sexuality cannot, in this view, simply be pitted against power. As we have seen,
Freudian Marxists such as Marcuse, Reich, or Fromm argued in the 1960s that sex is a positive force which is repressed by modern civilization and capitalism, and that sexual liberation will transform the social order. Such hopes that the sexual revolution would not only liberate sexuality but also subvert wider repressive structures of power have faded since.
But the connections between sexuality and power are all the more important because our relation to ourselves as sexual beings constitutes such a central component of modern identity, as Foucault emphasized. A similar point is made by the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who argues: ‘Somehow… sexuality functions as a malleable feature of self, a prime connecting point between body, self-identity, and social norms.’ The two authors disagree, however, on the political implications of the centrality of sexuality to modern self-identity. Whereas for Foucault, sexuality is a prime target of modern relations of power and fundamental to processes of societal disciplinarization of ‘disorderly’ populations, Giddens identifies the spread of the ‘pure’ relationship over the past few decades as a positive phenomenon; by ‘pure’ relationships, he means to denote a type of relationship which, in a social context where women’s economic dependency towards men has lessened and exit options such as divorce have become accessible on demand, exists for its own sake. Though more fragile than traditional marriage, which was propped up more firmly by wider social institutions, the pure relationship involves transformations of intimacy that contribute towards a democratization of the private as well as the public sphere. Concentrating on heterosexual relationships, Giddens, as well as the German sociologists Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, see women as the vanguard of more equal understandings of sexuality and intimacy. In their view, transformations of male sexuality are largely a result of women’s struggles to change their lives. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim put it: ‘men’s liberation is a passive affair’. Men, they add, ‘seem to engage in self-liberation as spectators’.
Certainly, relations of power between men and women have shifted dramatically over the past few decades, as have normative models of femininity and masculinity. Whereas male sexuality has been theorized as inherently violent, alternative accounts have emphasized the passivity and vulnerability of male (hetero-)sexual experience, against the backdrop of a wider ‘crisis of masculinity’ to which groups such as the Promise Keepers provide a fundamentalist answer. Similarly, recent controversies over the potency drug Viagra could be read in different ways: the speed of its availability on the market could be seen as a sign of the triumph of male wishes or, alternatively, as further contributing to the myth (and psychological pressure) of unproblematic male sexual performance. In terms of intersections between gender and sexuality, analyses have currently come full circle, from the pathologization of female sexuality and taken-for-grantedness of male heterosexuality as the norm within sexual science and medicine, to greater problematization of male sexual experience, reminding us, in the words of the political theorist Terrell Carver, that ‘gender is not a synonym for women’.
Since the late 1980s, sexuality has figured prominently on Western political agendas, covering national as well as international issues. Controversies around teenage pregnancy rates, prevention of sexually transmitted disease, regulation of prostitution, sexual exploitation of children, Internet porn, gays and lesbians in the military, gay ‘marriage’ and adoption, hate crimes, new reproductive technologies, and the ‘private’ morality of politicians are the topic of intense public debate, and older issues such as access to abortion are currently subjected to renewed contestation. Issues such as Aids, sex tourism, international trafficking of women, and Internet networks of paedophiles illustrate the global nature of politics of sexuality, as well as the resurgence of moral purity discourses and their political influence. Against the backdrop of the politics of sexuality, as well as wider social and technological developments, sexuality has undergone profound changes over the past few decades. Modern sexual science has
documented the impact of such changes on individual practices. Somewhat ironically, the primary agents in the transformation of sexual truths and relations of power are those that medicine and sexology had constructed as marginal in relation to hegemonic male heterosexuality, namely women and homosexuals of both sexes, as we have seen throughout this volume.
In the process, social understandings of sexuality have opened up to a plurality of meanings. Whereas liberation theorists saw sexual pleasure as crucial for the fulfilment of full human potential and happiness, competing understandings have portrayed sexuality as the site of risk, death, moral decay, commercial exploitation, male violence, political self-affirmation, and destabilization of identities.