Constructing a Critical/Feminist/Queer Social Psychology of Sexualities

An important legacy sown by non-biological accounts is the dismissal of sexuality as something that is innate or biologically determined. Indeed this critique provides the foundation on which contemporary definitions of sexuality as socially constructed and negotiated have emerged from within (critical) social psychology. Gagnon and Simon’s (1973) classic text Sexual Conduct and, more specifically, Sexual Script Theory provides a fitting starting point to explore social and constructed aspects of sexuality. Central to this theory is an understanding of sexuality as a dynamic and diverse collection of identities and practices; the product of a complex interplay between cultural, interpersonal and intra-psychic representations and lived experiences of ‘sex’. In a similar vein, the alternative reading of sexuality theorised in Foucault’s (1978) The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 further denaturalises and demystifies constructions of sexuality as the product of an inner essence.

Rather sexuality is presented as an historical concept, constructed through a number of discourses within legal, religious, medical and scientific contexts. The crux of Foucault’s theoretical argument was the rejection of sexual identities and practices as resulting from an inner essence (anatomical, psychological or biological): ‘sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries to uncover’ (Foucault, 1978: 105). Indeed in Foucault’s thesis, the social meanings and functions of sexualities are made explicit through his assertion that sexuality provided a means of controlling the body through legislation on birth control and homosexuality, as well as a means of policing the population as a whole with campaigns against immorality, prostitution and venereal disease. He argued that from the eighteenth century onwards, sexuality increasingly provided the central focus around which social bodies, relationships, positions and practices were organised (for a fuller discussion of Foucault’s work, see Gough et al., 2013).

1980 saw the production of psychologist Adrienne Rich’s now classic text Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Within this work, Rich (1980) presents a robust challenge to essentialist representations of male and female heterosexuality as complementary identities and of penetrative sex and marriage as the most natural expression of sexuality for women (and by implication men). Rich dismantles the naturalness of heterosexuality for women through two interrelated arguments: the first relating to her exploration of the socially manufactured and coercive nature of heterosexuality, and second, through her dismissal of restrictive clinical definitions of lesbianism in favour of a broader understanding based on the notions of lesbian continuum and lesbian existence. Like Foucault (1978), a key consideration for Rich (1980) was the sexual and social policing of women that essentialist definitions of sexualities promoted and enforced.

More recently, the naturalness of heterosexual orientations and activities has been further challenged by contemporary writings that emphasis the fluidity of sexual identities, orientations and practices across the lifespan of many individuals (Baumeister, 2000; Diamond, 2008; Dickinson, Paul, & Herbison, 2003). Studies by Mock and Eibach (2012) and Peplau (2001) document varying rates of sexual fluidity among sexual minority women and men as well as heterosexual women with changing patterns of sexual identity (homo/hetero/bisexual, unlabelled, etc.) attraction and behaviours linked to a specific relationship, person or life stage. Whilst current evidence suggests greater sexuality stability among heterosexual and homosexual men than their bisexual counterparts, the absence of specific research on male sexual fluidity prevents a more detailed discussion.

Detailed analysis of the relationship between sexuality, language and social practice remains a key tenet for many scholars researching contemporary male and female sexualities within critical social psychology. Explicitly adopting the view that sexuality is the product of social, cultural and historical discourses, many feminist scholars have analysed the complex and at times, contradictory impact of these linguistically based representations on contemporary female and male sexual orientations, identities and practices. Feminist such as Lees (1993), Thomson and Scott (1991) and Fine (1988) have continued to critique the operation of traditional discourses in shaping female sexualities, noting that within the context of school and home, sexuality for many young women has been discussed largely in relation to their bodies as objects of male sexual desires and fears, with (married) heterosexuality presented as the most natural type of sexuality. Indeed more recently, feminist analysis has turned its attention to what is sometimes described as ‘postfeminist’ culture, where since the late 1990s, largely mediated constructions of female sexuality have changed to include the celebration of difference, individual choice, the exploration of sexual subjectivity and agency (Gill, 2007, 2008b, 2012). There is an assumption that the goals of feminism have been achieved, and that it is legitimate, indeed desirable, for women to embrace and celebrate sexualised practices previously (and to some extent still) rejected by feminism (McRobbie, 2009). However, many scholars note the irony in the consumption of such identities and practices, as some women and men depart from the goals of feminism and rather (re)produce fragmented, unsafe and unattainable sexual identities and practices that are governed by often contradictory and conflicting discourses. These include traditional hegemonic discourses that emphasis male sexual agency and female vulnerability, knowing and empowered sexy woman discourses as well as the ever present regulatory spectre of ‘the slut’ (Jackson, Vares, & Gill, 2013; Griffin, Szmigin, Bengry- Howell, Hackley & Mistral, 2012; Holland, Ramazanoglu, Scott, Sharpe & Thomson, 2004; Tolman, 2002). More specifically, the illusory nature of postfeminist sexual empowerment and freedom was explored in Griffin et al. (2012) study of young women’s alcohol consumption within the UK’s increasingly sexualised recreational cultures. A discourse analysis of focus group data obtained from participants aged 18-25 participating in ‘The Young People and Alcohol’ study highlighted a number of contradictory discourses emerging from their talk. On the one hand, as illustrated below, postfeminist constructions of alcohol consumption as a normative non- gendered cultural practice that provided a social space within which young women could throw off the shackles of respectable sexuality/femininity and be sassy sexual agents was presented:

It's just fantastically fun: Getting drunk and the joys of losing all your inhibitions

Laura: you just lose your inhibitions (.) you’re confident (.) it’s fun (.) you

just have fun and you’re not bothered what anyone else thinks of you

Maria: you don’t have to be completely drunk to be like that

Laura: oh I do

Sara: yeah I do [...]

Laura: no but you can say things that you wouldn’t say walking down the

street to some random guy when you’re drunk [,..]cos you can blame it on the fact that you were drunk (.) if you needed to (laughter)

However, the authors note that these aspects were counterbalanced with discourses of (sexual) respectability that were used by young female participants to distance their activities from negative perceptions of ‘sluttish’ behaviour or being perceived as loose or easy:

Holding the figure of the ‘drunken slut1 at bay: Claiming respectability

DC: Do you ever (.) or would you ever consider going out on your own?

Caz: I wouldn’t consider going anywhere on my own (.) I spose it’s

because it’s (yeah) like umm well (.) one cos I’m a lady (yeah) and like you’ve obviously gotta be careful about going out on ya own (.)

The use of the term ‘lady’, Griffin et al. (2012) suggest, allows Caz to present herself as a responsible, respectable consumer of alcohol and in doing so to distance herself from traditional negative images of lone female drinkers as loose and/or prostitutes.

To conclude, the authors noted that whilst these young women managed to negotiate the dilemmas and contradictions associated with drinking within sexualised UK social spaces, this was far from a straightforward task. Rather, representations of sexiness that offered empowerment and the ability to subvert gender norms were simultaneously regulated by anxieties relating to reputation and respectability. Similar depictions of postfeminist female sexuality as empowering and at the same time fragile and insecure are reproduced within studies exploring the negotiation of female sexuality within diverse aspects of neoliberal sexualised cultures, including pole dancing (Donaghue, Whitehead, & Kurz, 2011), digitalised sexual identity (Ringrose & Barajas, 2011) and slut shaming (Ringrose & Renold, 2012).

The last two decades have seen an increased critique of discourses of male sexuality that construct it as hedonistic, misogynist and homophobic, with the plural, contested and contradictory nature of male sexual identity and practices explored (McCormack & Anderson, 2014; McCormack, 2013; Anderson, 2013; Hall & Gough, 2011). Research in both the USA and UK suggests that while continuity persists in relation to the dominance of a ‘heterosexual machismo’ discourse (Measor et al., 1996), changing social and economic climates are providing some men with new opportunities for ‘doing’ sexuality. These new ways of being a man include the use of grooming techniques (traditionally associated with women) to enhance their (hetero) sexual success as well as the opportunities for emotional and physical closeness with male peers without fear of being labelled ‘gay’.

In his recent book The Declining Significance of Homophobia, McCormack (2013) argues that some male teenagers in the UK and USA are challenging understandings of male gender and sexuality as fixed and oppositional to that of gay men and women. Rather, these young men are actively redefining male sexuality as fluid, emotionally involved and not exclusively heterosexual. Set against the backdrop of increasingly positive attitudes to homosexuality in parts of the USA, this author presents evidence of young men challenging once strong codes of (hetero) sexuality built on the ‘othering’ of gay men and feminine attributes/practices, and replacing these with homosocial relationships that enable them to understand and express their sexual identity and desires differently. More specifically, McCormack describes young heterosexual men expanding the boundaries of heterosexuality to include friendships with gay peers, the adoption of appearance-related activities such as waxing, wearing make-up, and enjoying increased emotional intimacy and physical tactility with same-sex peers. In addition, for some young men, same- gender sexual acts are not socially perceived as indicators of homosexuality or non-heterosexuality.

Whilst the author notes that lived experiences may be mediated by social factors such as class, ethnicity and geographical location, other scholars researching sexuality do not replicate such representations of ‘inclusive masculinities’ (Anderson, 2013) and rather highlight the ways in which rebranded versions of traditional misogynistic masculinities mediate the sexual politics and practices of some men. For example, in their recent work on female student’s social and sexual experiences with some male counterparts within higher education, Phipps and Young (2015) depict the dominance of a particular brand of ‘traditional’ masculinity—‘laddism’—enacted through misogynistic ‘banter’, the objectification/sexual availability of women and pressure/competition around sexual prowess and status. Similar homosocial bonding over drinking, football and sex by male university students is also depicted in research by Dempster (2011) and Gough and Edwards (1998).

However, this is not to suggest that within critical social psychology, individuals are perceived as passive recipients of social practices. On the contrary, individuals are understood as actively working towards various social positions and representations. For example, many of the female students in the Phipps and Young (2015) study critically engaged with the ‘lad culture’ on campus by refusing to ‘flirt on demand’, and verbally challenged sexist remarks. Indeed, the diverse strategies that women use to resist dominant representations of female sexuality are well documented within critical social psychology literature. For example, studies by McFadden (1995), Holland et al. (1994), Fine (1988) highlight a range of resistances among young heterosexual women, including choosing to be celibate, delaying marriage and motherhood until they have ‘had some fun’, as well as reclaiming terms such as ‘slut’ and ‘slag’ to represent sexual empowerment and agency. More recently, the complex and fluid ways in which young women from different classes and ethnic backgrounds negotiated and disrupted contemporary discourses of sexual knowingness and sexual innocence (e.g. the rap-king-girl woman or slut-child) is illustrated in Renold and Ringrose’s (2011) concept of ‘schizoid subjectivities’. Furthermore, in their work with lesbian women, Ussher (2005) and Dancey (1994) noted similar resistance among the women interviewed to what they perceived as negative representations of lesbianism. These strategies included emphasising the positive benefits associated with a lesbian lifestyle, including the removal of the perceived necessity to conform to role expectations and the solidarity and companionship they experienced living as lesbian women (for a fuller discussion, see Clark, Ellis, Peel & Riggs, 2010; Clarke & Peel, 2007).

 
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