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What is Sexuality?

Sexuality is a major theme in contemporary identity informed through the help of feminism and other major groups. The term is related to but distinct from “sex” (used to refer both to the physical distinction between men and women and sexual intercourse) and “gender” (the social and cultural distinctions between men and women). Sexuality is used to refer to “erotic desires, practices and identities” or “aspects of personal and social life which have erotic significance” (Weeks, 1985). Debates on sexuality in the recent period are marked above all by an increased awareness of this tension; between an acceptance or affirmation of diversity on the one hand and a defence of the established norms on the other. This discussion has been shaped by the continuing issue of whether sexual identity is a biological given, determined by genes or anatomy, or is completely constructed in society and culture. These alternatives define “essentialist” and “social-constructionist” positions. Fairly evidently, in viewing sexuality as given by nature and thus fixed and unalterable, an essentialist view will reinforce heterosexual norms such that an aggressive masculine sexuality is accepted as “the way things are”. Nevertheless, essentialist arguments have been evoked by feminists who feel it necessary to argue for the autonomy and fundamental difference of women from men or by lesbian feminists who wish to mark their difference from both heterosexual men and women (Weeks, 1985).

The essentialist position argues that there are basic differences in male and female nature deriving from sex differences in biology interacting with the very early experiences of childhood. Freud placed a great emphasis on sexuality as a wellspring of human behaviour. Sexuality was mediated through an energising force he called libido. This is felt as birth and from then throughout the human life span, this energy needs to be discharged in some manner. Freud held the possibility that a contributing factor to an individual’s sexuality might be constitutional (Ruse, 1988); he regarded the Oedipal stage as most important in the determination of sexual orientation. However he believed events later in life could also influence sexuality. For example in an analysis of a girl with lesbian tendencies, he regarded the birth of a sibling when the girl was 16 as particularly leading to her rejection of men because he believed the girl saw the baby’s birth as evidence of her father’s betrayal of her, showing that he loved her mother more (Freud, 1955).

Further, gay and lesbian activists have sought to lay claim to an essentialised view of homosexuality in order to lay claim to a “natural” constituency, rather than one that gains entrance by a temporary performativity. Of central importance to critical considerations of sexuality has been the work of Michel Foucault. This has brought a historical understanding to constructions of sexuality and thus persistent social and theoretical norms. Foucault adopted a thoroughly anti- essentialist notion of sexual drives and identity and saw sexuality as being organized along the binaries of 'normal' and 'deviant' behaviours through the regulative discourses of modern societies. His belief that 'sexuality ... is a name that can be given to a historical construct' (1979: 105) encouraged in some the view that sexuality can be redefined or re-constructed.

Sexuality is conceived primarily as a ‘natural’ and individualistic phenomena but this was not viewed 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. Throughout the modern period sexuality has largely been located within the discipline of medicine, biology and psychology and also anthropology. The only discipline, which takes sexuality as its primary object of investigation, is ‘sexology’ which emerged in the nineteenth century with...
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