The historicity of sexual ideology is seen not only in details like the content of heroism, but in its organization on the largest scale. In pre-capitalist and early modern Europe sexual ideology was organized as part of a religious world-view. The issues of sexual politics were framed as moral questions, to be decided by appeal to revelation or to priestly authority. The massive modern secularization of European culture occurred in sexual ideology as much as elsewhere. The production of a natural science of sexuality and a social science of gender were the theoretical faces of this development.
From the viewpoint of mass practice, the key development was not the shift from a religious to a scientific form of abstraction but the shifting basis of authority. Secularization undermined the ability of ministers and bishops to arbitrate questions of gender. It was by no means a foregone conclusion who, if anyone, would succeed to the office. Scientists, bureaucrats, teachers and philosophers all had claims, and have kept some corner of the action. It was doctors, however, whose claims were most effective and who took the hegemonic position in constructing secularized discourses of gender and sexuality.
The medicalization of sexual ideology has now been traced by historians in a number of areas. Jeffrey Weeks documents the application of the ‘medical model’ to homosexuality in Europe; Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English the medicalization of women’s bodies in the United States; Kerreen Reiger the medical take-over of early childcare in Australia. In all these cases, as Foucault also argues for France, the crystallization of a medical theory of sexual life is accompanied by a practice of control. A form of social authority is constructed, which immediately reaches beyond the business of treating physical diseases.
A major consequence was the medicalization of problems of emotional life and interpersonal relations in the form of psychiatry. Under the aegis of psychiatry homosexual relationships were defined as an expression of mental illness. Resistance by women to domestic subordination became ‘housewife’s neurosis’. A host of conflicts in everyday life were reinterpreted as outcomes of unresolved childhood complexes. Medicalization thus had a double effect. It depoliticized gender relations directly, while building a
more mediated power-structure based on the authority of a masculine profession.
Of course the creation of this authority did not put an end to conflict. The new authority is itself challenged, sometimes successfully. Gay activists have forced official psychiatry to abandon the definition of homosexuality as a pathology, though it is evidently still treated as such in some psychiatric practice. Rather than ending conflict, the growth of medical authority highlights the extent to which the dynamic of sexual ideology is a struggle for hegemony. What is at issue is the power to set the terms on which questions of gender are understood and conflicts fought out.
Hegemony, as noted in chapter 8 for relations between masculinities, does not mean total cultural control and obliteration of alternatives. Such a degree of control does not happen in practice. In sexual ideology generally, ascendant definitions of reality must be seen as accomplishments that are always partial and always to some extent contested.
Indeed we must see them as partly defined by the alternatives against which they are asserted. Medicalized ideologies of gender, for instance, are defined partly against alternative forms of authority such as the Church. Hence the need to claim scientific warrant for what are actually judgements of practical morality, like psychiatric interventions in sexual politics. The claim is often made implicitly, by the use of a technical language. Medical ideologies are also defined against attempts to take control of healing into the people’s own hands. Hence the need to assert a strong distinction between the sound judgement of professionals and the ignorance and errors of ‘lay’ people. Here medicine has actually adopted the language of the Church.
Contestation, then, is an integral part of ideology. The forms of symbolic opposition to which it gives rise, for instance in erotica, are intricate and fascinating. Here I will consider only one pattern of contestation, the pattern that follows the lines of crisis tendencies as defined in chapter 7.
Karl Mannheim made a famous distinction between ‘ideologies’, world-views that are integrated with the established order, and ‘Utopias’ which transcend it. This is too neat a package; the argument just made about the contested position of hegemonic sexual ideology complicates the picture. It is still useful to distinguish perspectives and frameworks that are broadly compat-
ible with the existing gender order from those that are not.
Such a distinction is implicit in the argument made in chapter 10 about masculinity therapy, which adapts hegemonic masculinity to changed conditions without risking the institutional bases of men’s power. The anti-sexist men’s movement represented in Jon Snodgrass’s For Men Against Sexism and Andy Metcalfe and Martin Humphries’s The Sexuality of Men is looking for conceptions of masculinity that transcend those power bases. It has clearly had a hard time finding them.
Feminism, by contrast, has generated Utopias both in Mannheim’s broad sense and in the specific sense of imagined ideal worlds. Texts like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), a novel about an all-woman society hidden in the highlands of the Amazon, document in a striking way both the break with hegemonic ideology and the limits of the shift. In the case of Herland the limit of thought is sexuality. Gilman can conceptualize an all-woman government and radical changes in education, but cannot admit mass lesbianism in her imagined world. She has to get around it by doing away with sexual impulses almost completely.
Formal Utopias are the exception, however intriguing; it is an occupational hazard of academics to overemphasize systematic ideology. Most of the cultural politics of gender is much less spectacular. Its field of action is the possibilities that open up in particular milieux and institutions: the curriculum changes possible in a particular school, the repertory possible in a particular theatre and so on.
Taken case by case, the opportunities are likely to seem limited. The objective possibilities in a particular high school, for instance, are constrained by many forces outside it: the bureaucratic organization of the state, the social composition of the school’s catchment, the nature of the credentials market, as well as the strength of various ideologies of gender. Yet possibilities for contestation and movement are there, and some teachers do explore them. This goes beyond clearly labelled issues of gender. As Lyn Yates argues, the mainstream curriculum is a key field of implicit sexual politics in schools and has its possibilities for change. The sense of overwhelming constraints in a single milieu becomes less dampening when the connections between milieux come into view. Grass-roots cultural politics does cumulate, sometimes into social movements. And it provides the base on
which the makers of formal ideologies build.
Recognizing the importance of cultural politics within the sphere of gender raises the reverse question, the impact of gender relations and sexual ideology on culture generally. There is every reason to agree with feminist cultural criticism that this impact is both powerful and largely unacknowledged. The ‘naturalization5 of gender has extended to the making of culture itself. Until recently it has not been a question why most playwrights, physicists or newspaper editors were men. It is still not a question in the majority of theatres, physics departments and media corporate offices.
The view that sexual politics is the structural basis of culture in general – that for instance our culture is patriarchal before it is anything else – is another matter. The overall analysis in this book would suggest that this view is wrong, at least as a transhistorical generalization. The scope of gender relations is historically variable, and their power to determine cultural processes in general must be variable too. But a more limited strategic claim may be right. There are likely to be historical moments where the possibilities of general change in consciousness and culture depend more crucially on the dynamic of gender relations than on any other social force. It can be argued that we are in such a moment now. The case is a long way from being proved but cannot be disregarded. I will come back to related questions in the final chapter.