Sexuality and Modernity
Sociology & Sexuality


Historically sociology has not viewed sexuality as significant to an understanding of modernity, society and social relations. To a large degree this stems from the legacy of modernity where sexuality has been primarily understood as a "natural" phenomena, intrinsic to an individual’s biological constitution. In this sense sexuality is located within the realm of "nature", of the body or as feminists have pointed out of "woman". Sociology, itself a modern phenomena, emerged as a body of knowledge whose primary object of investigation and intellectual authority comprised the modern "social" and social relations generally. The "social" was seen as sui generis, that is, separate to "natural" phenomena, the disciplinary and intellectual terrain of the natural sciences. Few if any of the classical sociological writers gave any detailed attention to sexuality and the body. Typically, where sociology has addressed sexuality it has been subsumed into areas such as the family and deviance, as either the preserve of the heterosexual conjugal family for reproductive purposes, or arising from some pathological distortion of human instinct. Sexuality conceived as primarily a "natural" and individualistic phenomena was consequently not viewed as relevant to sociological inquiry into the social. For example, Marx discussed sexuality primarily in terms of biological procreation within the private domain of the family. What little else he may have said concerned prostitution, as this represented to him a form of public exchange.

Throughout the modern period sexuality has largely been located within the disciplines of medicine, biology, psychology and curiously enough anthropology. Medicine and biology constitute sexuality primarily in terms of its physiological mechanics. Psychology constitutes sexuality in terms of the individual’s psychic structure. Anthropology, particularly prior to the 1960s saw its object of study the pre-modern or "primitive", where the primitive is allied with nature, emotions and the body. Malinowski (1929) an early twentieth century anthropologist could comfortably title his book The sex lives of savages. He would never had written on The sex lives of civilised Westerners, perhaps it would have made more interesting reading!

The only discipline which takes sexuality as its primary object of investigation is "sexology" which emerged in the nineteenth century with Kraft-Ebings’ (1886) now infamous publication of Psychopathia Sexualis and Havelock Ellis (1897) works titled Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Sexology proliferated throughout the twentieth century encompassing a diverse collection of writers including Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kingsey, Masters & Johnson. Sexology has however, persistently sought to locate itself with respect to the medical, psychological and scientific domains, that is closer to the disciplines presiding over "natural" phenomena rather than social phenomena. Sexology was also instrumental in what might be called the rationalisation of sexuality.

This disciplinisation of sexuality within the "natural sciences", along with its relative absence in sociology and the social sciences generally, arises in part from the conceptual distinction between nature and culture. This distinction, or what has recently been termed binary opposition between nature and culture - individual and society reside at the heart of classical modern sociological cannons. They form part of much wider binary schema which has became enshrined in modern thought, language, concepts and commonsense understandings since the 18 & 19 centuries.

Modern Binary Oppositions

As you can see, this network of concepts is very familiar to Modern Western understanding. Not only are these concepts firmly embedded in modern sociology, but form an integral part of our everyday language, expression and understandings of ourselves and in relation to one and another. Categories like public/private mind/body reason/emotion are used unreflectively in our everyday social exchange. Each of these pairs comprise what is called a binary opposition. They are held to be mutually exclusive and oppositional to each other. One category is held to be privileged with respect to its pair, often viewed as controlling, regulating and dominating its absolute "other".

For example, reason in modern thought is viewed as regulating and controlling the emotions or passions from reigning supreme. Reason is seen as the path to objective, universal truth and social order, ever vigilant against the dangerous biological forces of irrational passion which lead to chaos and anarchy. When placed together like this, we can start to see a pattern which binds them together into a sort of modern conceptual universe. Rational masculine minds produce culture and exchange in public space whereas emotional-feminine-bodies reproduce nature (birth) in private familial space. Put together they tell us a story, painting a clear picture of the modern masculine bourgeois world view of the nineteenth century. Its shadow has not passed beyond us yet.

 


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