Pleasure and risk: researching television and sexuality
Before we go any further, I need to clarify my conceptual approach to these questions and the ‘disciplinary discourses’ from which they are derived. This is a complex task because of the diversity of disciplinary influences on the study of television (see Miller 2002 for discussion of this fact). Moreover, there is an equally diverse literature on sexuality on which I also draw (Bristow 1997; Segal 1997; Bell and Binnie 2000; Bhattacharyya 2002; Weeks 2003 for overviews). Inevitably, then, this account will be highly selective.
To begin, I want to clarify my use of ‘sexuality’ as a term. To what exactly does it refer and how is it to be distinguished from the related terms of ‘sex’ and the adjective ‘sexual’ when used in phrases such as sexual difference, sexual identity, sexual desire, sexual orientation or sexual relations? In my usage ‘sexuality’ is taken as a more general term that encompasses these other terms. It refers to the cultural expression of the sexual in specific contexts and as such its meanings are discursively produced. Different contexts produce different meanings because terms are defined in use and might overlap or extend into new areas as practices change. ‘Sex’, for instance, is used in some contexts to mean erotic encounters that may or may not involve sexual intercourse. What kinds of behaviour are included in this definition are open to debate and can even be a matter of legal dispute in, for example, sexual abuse cases of various kinds. In feminist sociology, on the other hand, ‘sex’ refers to the biological differences between men and women, as compared to the cultural differences that are denoted by ‘gender’. A distinction that was established to counteract the assumption that male and female behaviour is biologically determined was itself overturned in ‘queer theory’. ‘Sex’ became problematic as a biological term when it was argued that these biological binaries are as socially constructed as any other aspect of gender.
This complexity is indicative of the extent to which ‘sexuality’ is the focus of intense social and political struggles over meaning. The stakes are high in that these struggles determine not only what we ‘know’ about ‘sexuality’ but also the legitimacy of the identities and behaviours to which it refers. This approach to sexual ‘discourse’ as a form of ‘regulation’ is drawn from Michel Foucault, whose influence on the study of sexuality in cultural and media studies cannot be overstated. His History of Sexuality, Volume 1, An Introduction, first published in 1976, but widely available in translation from the beginning of the 1980s, was responsible for the subsequent proliferation of work on the discursive construction of sexuality, and is an important influence on the form of this book. In the space available here, I want to sketch in some main conceptual ideas, then signal the key discursive influences on the regulation of sexuality on television.
‘Discourses’ are ways of talking, thinking or representing a topic that produce meaningful knowledge about it. In this perspective it is not the case that discourse about sexuality merely describes a pre-existing thing; instead, it is constructed through the very discourses that seek to study, describe and regulate it. The production of discourse is something we do; it is a practice that has effects in the real world, on our behaviour. The knowledge that a discourse produces is a kind of power over those who are known, who are ‘subjected’ to the discourse. Since the Enlightenment, discursive power has depended on the accumulation of evidence through the scientific methods of observation, investigation, classification, labelling. The population is thus divided according to the documenting of the normal against which deviance and abnormality is measured. Every society has ways of regulating sexuality, of determining what is normal and abnormal, legitimate and illegitimate; these fall into ‘who’ restrictions and ‘how’ restrictions but the details and contents of these regulations differ widely. Hugely powerful institutions have developed out of these ‘discursive practices’. The knowledge they produce has the power to define what is true as well as what is normal. Together they constitute the ‘discursive formation’; that is to say, the combined network of discourses that characterize a particular historical period.
One of the characteristics of Foucault’s work has been its very broad historical sweep in his tracing of the discursive shifts that instituted the modern period. Subsequent writers have developed his account of the dispersed and pluralistic forms of power in modern cultures to examine the localized interplay of power and resistance that regulates sexuality in very particular historical times and institutionalized places (this book included). Ken Plummer (1996), for example, seeks to explain why specific ‘sexual stories’, as he terms them, have specific times, while others do not. In Plummer’s view the post-war period is deserving of special attention in that it was a period in which the sexualization of modern capitalist societies and a growing ‘democratization’ in intimate relationships gathered momentum. The growth of the mass media is one of the main reasons for these changes, alongside the expansion of an affluent, consumer society. Various responses to these conditions have emerged, some very critical of the increasingly individualistic, narcissistic and confessional culture they have encouraged. These negative responses have had the effect, Plummer argues, of amplifying the amount of sexual discourse in circulation. The process of regulating sexuality, as Foucault noted, has the opposite effect from that which is usually assumed. Rather than the amount and range of sexual expression being restricted, it proliferates instead. Condemnation of deviance has the effect of being an incitement to perversity, and everyone involved can partake in the pleasures of examination and confession. This process is explored in more depth in Chapter 4, which considers the way that media scandals work simultaneously to reinstate and exceed sexual boundaries.
Foucault also argues, in contradiction of the beliefs held by many sexual radicals, that this proliferation of discursive practices cannot be conceptualized as a ‘liberation’ of sexuality; instead it is a more precise means by which to regulate sexual behaviour through the creation of new forms of sexual ‘subjectivity’. All discourses produce subject positions for us to inhabit that are embedded in power relations of domination and subordination. Thus the feminist, gay and lesbian liberation movements that have challenged the previously dominant discourses of liberal and conservative regulation have in their turn been criticized for ‘policing’ the boundaries of desire by subsequent ‘queer’ movements. Although queer arguments for indeterminate and fluid identities might appear to have arrived at the point where sexuality finally escapes the disciplinary effects of discourse, some critics, who regard them instead as complicit with the requirements of capitalist markets, regard this as illusory. A never-ending process of division into diverse and changing niche markets ties these seeming outsiders into the heart of ideological regulation of consumerism (Bourdieu 1984: 370; Hennessy 1995; Seidman 1995). It was the puritan restraint of old that offered the greatest obstacle to this capitalist ‘exploitation’.
Although Foucauldian cultural studies have been criticized for prioritizing discursive power over economic forces, in my view this is a false dichotomy. Powerful legitimating discourses enable the economic and technological developments in the television industry that constitute the material conditions within which programmes are made. The most powerful in the current context is the discourse of neo-liberalism, in which it is argued that the diverse tastes of individual consumers will be best catered for by a ‘free market’ in television.