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Constructing Sexualities: Readings in Sexuality, Gender, and Cultureby Suzanne Lafont
The average person, if there is such an animal, will probably have 100s, if not 1,000s, of sexual encounters in the course of his or her life. All of that sexual activity will result, on average, in two children. The point is that most human sexual behavior is not about reproducing, and in fact, most of us will spend a considerable amount of time and energy making sure that our sexual encounters do not lead to children. Despite this, until recently most discussions about gender and sexualities focused on reproduction. No one is denying that there is a link between sex and reproduction, yet social and physical scientists are still struggling with its role as the motivation for. gender roles and sex acts. Explanations put forth by biologists, psychologists, sociologist, sexologists, and anthropologists differ and even pit one discipline against the other. Hence, questions about the roles of sexuality and gender have generated some of the most contested hypotheses in the sciences.
On one side of the debate, some sociobiologists reduce human sexuality to reproduction, looking for the sexual "whys" in how a behavior increases our reproductive success. Their views are very seductive and support the widely held belief that reproduction is the "true" purpose of sex and that gender has been "naturally" shaped to complement reproductive roles. Working under these assumptions, forms of sexual behavior that fall outside of what could be reproductive (even if reproduction is not desired) are then ipso facto unnatural.
On the other side of the debate, social construction theorists call for a revision in some of the evolutionary theories that make claims about gender behavior and sexuality. They question the widely held assumptions about an innate sexual drive (libido) and innate programming channeling sexual desire towards members of the opposite sex (sexual orientation). They suggest that beliefs about sexualities should be understood as hypotheses, not scientific truths. These "facts" have not, after all, been proven through the scientific method. Social constructionists argue that understanding precultural human sexualities may not be possible because of the intensive cultural intervention that begins at birth. The book is not closed on these debates, rather, the most exciting work has probably yet to be done, advances in research continuously add to our knowledge.
Both schools of thought agree that no culture in the world treats sex as a physical act without meaning. Unlike other animals who mate and engage in sex acts without societal, parental, ideological, and legal influences, humans experience socialization that comes with a host of messages about sex, gender, and sexualities. That is why dog sex is more or less dog sex. It does not matter whether it involves Poodles or Great Danes (or a coupling of the two), basically the same thing is going to happen. Among humans, on the other hand, we find an immense amount of variation. The range of human sexual potentialities is best discerned by the ethnographic records, but even that data does not give us the whole story.
To fully understand what sex and gender mean to humans, a three part investigation is necessary. Primate modeling is useful because of our close connection with primates. They are used extensively in evolutionary studies as prehominid prototypes. Primates, unlike us, do not mind being observed. They lack the moral/privacy/honest issues that interfere with sexuality and gender research among humans. Secondly, history is important to sexuality/ gender research because it demonstrates how ideas about sexualities have changed over time. Changes in sexual and gender behavior support the idea that there is a fixed, biological basis for such behavior. Finally, cross-cultural studies of sexualities suggest that we cannot really talk about much sexual behavior in terms of human universals. For example, in some societies women should be virgins when they marry, while in others they need to prove their fertility prior to marriage by having children. Such ethnographic data supports the idea that sexualities and gender are plastic and can be shaped through the socialization process.
Today, gay rights, transgendered movements, intersexed awareness, female genital mutilation, male circumcision, AIDS, sex tourism, and the sex.com explosion on the Internet have forced sexualities and gender into the forefront of popular and academic discourse. The goal of the collection of readings presented in Constructing Sexualities is to introduce students to these issues, encourage critical thinking on a variety of sexuality and gender topics, and reveal how ideas, beliefs, and ideals of gender and sexualities are constructed by culture. The reader is a collection of articles, classic and current, with topics including variations in sexual and gender ideologies, expressions of sexualities, gender diversity, and global issues. It adopts an interdisciplinary approach, including works by anthropologists, psychologists, activists, biologists, physicians, historians, and sociologists.
I have tried to choose readings that are student-friendly, light on technical language, and understandable to nonspecialists. Some readings were chosen because they are classics and/or the author was/is an important scholar in the field of Sexuality, Gender, and Culture (SGC). Still other articles were included because they or their theoretical perspective has played/plays an important role in the study of SGC.
One of the difficulties I encountered while organizing the articles was the task of dividing the readings into topic sections. While some articles fit fairly neatly into the section's "subject," others transcend subject sections and defy compartmentalization. In making subject division decisions, I tried to arrange the material in a way that would be best suited for students and teachers alike.
This reader is about critical thought. It is about deconstructing our ideas about facts, scientific objectivity, and neutrality. I am committed to providing students with a broad range of topics. Doing this enhanced the reader, but it also made my job much more difficult. Consequently, some important readings and web sites have unintentionally been omitted.
Ultimately the purpose of the readings is to provide students with materials that will aid them in formulating their own thoughts of sexualities, gender, and culture. It is more about asking the questions than providing the answers.
In class or while talking to friends or family, take the gender, sexualities, culture challenge:
Thoughts and discussions relating to this simple (actually not so simple) exercise can serve as a good start on students' exploration of this immensely important aspect of their lives.
NOTE ON RESEARCHING SEXUALITIES ON THE INTERNET
Throughout the reader, web site addresses have been provided to aid students who are interested in exploring a subject in more depth than is possible in a general reader. Anyone who searches the net for just about anything will stumble across sites with sex-related material. In particular, when searching for web sites relating to sexuality and gender, you are likely to encounter pornographic pop-ups and/or links to pornographic web sites. Simply modifying a search, for example, adding an "academic" word such as gender or culture, tends to minimize the "porn" effect. Students should be made aware of the sexual content they may encounter on the internet, and they should be instructed on how to avoid the bulk of it. If such exposure makes them uncomfortable, their assignments should be changed to meet their personal, moral, religious, or psychological needs.
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