Sociology of Sexuality

What’s sex got to do with society? Or with
sociology? In this lecture, I’ll raise a number of questions
about how sexuality’s been thought about in
sociology, to draw attention to some neglected aspects of
the role of sexuality in society and in social
change. There’s a common view in sociology, that
sociologists have ignored the study of sexuality
throughout most of their discipline’s history. In this account, a sociology of sexuality first
developed only in the post-war period, from the
1960s onwards. The usual explanation for this is that sexual
repression discouraged or prevented sociologists
from studying human sexuality. Sexuality was supposedly a taboo topic, and
strong social sanctions against its use were said to have discouraged sociologists from studying
sexuality, and reduced their opportunities for
doing so. In this view, the sociology of sexuality finally
developed in the 1960s because society had
become less repressive. The loosening of sexual mores in the 1950s, and
sexual rebellion in the 1960s, is said to have
sparked sociologists’ interest in studying and writing about sexuality, and to have
made it easier for them to do so. The reality, though, is that sexuality was very
much part of what people in Western societies
from the eighteenth century onwards thought and argued about, including in sociology. Early figures associated with the development of
sociology, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich
Engels, Auguste Comte, and Herbert Spencer, all addressed themselves, in part, and in varying
ways, to topics of a sexual nature. Marx, for example, wrote about the alienated
sexuality of bourgeois marriage, and the way that sex, as what he called a
‘natural species power’, could become
humanised and socialised. Comte wrote that the main goal of marriage was
to morally educate people towards universal love, and that marriage was the place to discipline and
satisfy the sexual instinct. Spencer sought to analyse the irresistible power
of ‘the passion which unites the sexes’. These early sociological figures were writing
about sex in the mid-nineteenth century or earlier, well before it was supposed to have been
‘liberated’ in the 1960s. The insitutionalisation of sociology in the
universities in Europe and the US mainly occurred
in the period from 1880-1910. This was also a period of major European and US
imperial expansion. Raewyn Connell argues that his broader context
profoundly affected sociology as a discipline, giving it its main theoretical frameworks, methods,
problems, and data. She argues that imperialism gave European and
North American sociologists access to a vast
range of information about their countries’ colonies, and this encouraged
them to think about society in terms of comparing
and contrasting different societies and cultures. Sociologists became focused on how the
differences between these societies could be
explained. The dominant theoretical framework for doing this
between the 1860s and the 1920s was
organized around the concept of ‘evolution’. Sociologists wanted to understand the
differences between their own ‘civilised’
societies, and other ‘primitive’ societies, and also how ‘primitive’ societies became more
‘advanced’. Debate centred on whether evolution from
‘primitive’ societies could be explained in terms of
physical, mental, or institutional evolution. In this context, many sociologists in Europe and
the US wrote about sexuality in the period
between the 1880s and the 1920s. Connell argues that at this time in the discipline’s
history, race, gender and sexuality were all
central concerns, under the broader conceptual umbrella of
‘evolution’. But, the brutality of the First World War
*undermined* notions of constant progress, and of a continual increase in rational conduct
and civilisation, and in turn the concept of
evolution itself. In the US, an alternative form of academic
sociology emerged around the 1920s. Instead of engaging with the question of
comparison, US sociologists became committed to studying
social problems in the sociologists’ own societies
via quantitative methods, supported by generous government and
corporate research funding. When sociologists did study sexuality in this
period, they tended towards using social
surveys, and with understanding and solving ‘problems’ of
sexuality. Such problems included the increasing premarital
sexual activity of young people, and the ‘problems’ of couples sexually adjusting
to each other in marriage. Members of the Chicago School of sociology also
wrote about sexuality in their studies of urban
social problems. W. I. Thomas, for example, wrote about female
prostitution in The Unadjusted Girl, and Graham Taylor wrote about how the lack of
sex education made young people vulnerable to
the temptations of illicit sexuality. Another change took place in the 1930s, when
the atheoretical nature of much US sociology
was seen as a weakness of the discipline. There were cuts to research funding, and bitter in-fighting at the American Sociological Association. The solution to this problem was seen as a
reconstruction of the discipline around a ‘canon’: a set of privileged texts which embodied
‘classical sociology’, and whose interpretation
and reinterpretation would define the discipline. The development of a mass higher education
system in the United States after the Second
World War facilitated the spread and influence of the
classical canon. However, those core theorists were interpreted
in a very particular way, so as to exclude or severely constrain the
analysis of sexuality in human social relations. In the post-war period in the US, two main
sociological traditions were initially prominent. The FIRST was the continuation of the social
survey tradition, which was concerned with who
has sex with who, when, where and how. This included the famous reports on US sexual
behaviour by Alfred Kinsey and colleagues in
1948 and 1953. The SECOND tradition which emerged alongside
the sex survey was that of functionalism, which often drew on psychoanalytic theory to
explain sexuality. The latter examined sexuality within the context
of the nuclear family. This tradition focused on the *function* of sex for
society, such as reproduction, and the function of
the social control of sexuality for society, such as avoiding social disorder from the
unregulated competition for sexual favours. But, by the early 1970s, mounting criticisms
against functionalism meant that it was being
replaced by a new approach to the sociology of sexuality, based on a broad theoretical
perspective that came to be known as ‘social
constructionism.’ By paying attention to these background steps in
the development of sociological approaches to
sexuality, it becomes possible to throw light on some
important aspects of how sexuality should be
understood sociologically. FIRST, the way in which the canonical view of
the discipline’s history ignores how sociology
developed within the social relations of imperialism, means that the role of sexuality in
imperialism and colonialism is also overlooked. As the discourse of imperialism was deleted from
sociology, so were the core issues of gender,
race and sexuality which were once central topics to evolutionary sociology. Indeed, if the early sociological writers discussed
these topics in their texts, then these texts were the least likely to be canonised or used in
teaching students. SECOND, the classical canon altered sociologists’
conceptions of sociology. Before the rise of the classical canon there were
many different kinds of sociology. However, with the rise of the canon, a narrower
conception of sociology and sociological theory
developed. Work which was once regarded as sociological,
such as that done by early sociologists, such as
W. I. Thomas, Edward Westermarck, and William Graham Sumner, was redefined as
belonging to other disciplines, such as
anthropology and psychology. This redefinition of earlier sociological work by
later sociologists, using the canon as their
touchstone, makes the history of the sociology of sexuality seem much more meagre and
homogeneous than it actually was. THIRD, the rise of the classical canon affected
many sociologists’ conceptions of the kind of
topics or problems that sociology should be concerned with as a
discipline. When the classical canon gave sociology a new
history and conception of the discipline, it led sociologists to believe that topics like
gender, race and sexuality were not important, or
not worthy of study, because they appeared to be missing from the
canonical texts. By the 1960s, when the canon had become
hegemonic in US and British sociology, there is clear evidence that few sociologists in
those countries were researching or showing
much interest in sexuality as a topic. As late as 1994, a supposedly authoritative
source on sociology, The Penguin Dictionary of
Sociology, claiming to be a ‘statement of what the discipline
is,’ did not even have a major entry on ‘sex’ or
‘sexuality’ within its pages. Things have changed a lot since then!