Focus: Looking Critically at Gender and Sexuality

Focus: Looking Critically at Gender and Sexuality

Susan F. Frenk and Mark McCormack

Societies across the world have experienced large-scale social change related to gender and sexuality. For example, despite some intensification of homophobic attitudes and laws in a number of countries, the global trend has been towards increasing legal rights for gay, lesbian and bisexual people (Smith, 2011). Transgender issues continue to be a cultural battleground, but a growing movement, connected through social networks, recognizes the importance of combatting transphobia as a human rights issue. Experiences in other parts of the world are radically diverse but too often marginalised in research in the global north.

When we think about gender and sexuality, we recognize these aspects not just as personal characteristics that individuals maintain but as some of the multiple modes of power that stratify and structure our social relationships. A focus on gender inequality, for example, that examines how men and women interact problematically, must include an analysis of the institutionalized and implicit ways in which some social groups are privileged over others. Similarly, a study of sexuality is not limited to the experiences of sexual minorities but extends to the freedoms people maintain to engage in sexual pleasure, and the ways in which social policy can both protect and harm people, depending on the specific dynamics of sex, sexual desire and sexuality in any society. While binary models of gender persist widely, there are ‘third gender’ exceptions, with long (pre-colonial) histories, surviving in some locations and a contemporary re-assertion of gender fluidity, particularly (but not exclusively) amongst young people.

The interdisciplinary study of gender and sexuality produces a constant flow of critical, innovative and complex ways of thinking about these issues. Scholars from Michel Foucault to Gayle Rubin have questioned how and why formulations and typologies of gender and sexuality exist at specific times and places. This is not to argue for an approach that excludes the value of biological and sexological research into gender and sexuality – such an approach is never truly interdisciplinary, failing to engage with the full scope of human knowledge – but it compels us to appreciate the forcefield that social and cultural norms exert on how we experience and understand gender and sexuality in our everyday lives and throughout the life course.

A key component is theorizing how power is maintained and exerted in society. Much scholarship has used Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to understand the ways in which oppressive practices are reproduced, including by those who suffer from them. Poststructuralists have drawn upon Foucault’s theory of power to contest categorical approaches and seek a queer politics of transgression. There are myriad other ways to approach the issue. Yet regardless of theoretical or disciplinary tradition, one constant was summarised powerfully by Hannah Arendt (1973), who argued that power “is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together”—offering an understanding both of why inequalities can be so hard to contest and the possibilities for radical transformation.

These theoretical explorations are not removed from the tangible effects that oppressions related to gender and sexuality can have on people’s lives. Rubin (2013: 32) reminds us that there are “real material, cultural, and emotional stakes to these intense social conflicts over morals and values.” A fundamental tenet of feminist research is that people’s, and particularly women’s, lives, and experiences, need to be foregrounded in order to understand how gender inequality is lived and felt. Focusing on gender and sexuality together, alongside a broader intersectional approach, produces research that explores diverse lives, develops theorizing about their connections to wider social processes, and contributes to a new understanding of gender and sexuality in society.

In this Special Issue of Discover Society we are delighted to host a broad spectrum of research that, in different ways, enhances our understanding of these issues. The articles were selected from papers presented at our annual Summer School, a centrepiece of the work of the Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities at Durham University. Each year, over two days, we provide a range of training and intellectual activities for postgraduate and early career researchers interested in sex, gender and sexuality in society. The second day takes the form of a conference where people across the career span contribute in a warm and inclusive environment.

We begin with an exciting On The Frontline article by Simon Forrest about his research on sex education and how young people engage with this vital yet undervalued form of learning. Drawing out the historical persistence of adult anxieties around young people’s sexualities and desire, he captures both their own widespread dissatisfaction with current approaches and the extensive evidence that current sex ed. increases the likelihood of unpleasurable, unhealthy, unequal and socially problematic sexual experiences.  Calling for a serious engagement with alternative responses that will shift the focus from polarisation between a liberal model of empowerment that is often ignorant of its own class biases, and a socially conservative moralising model that simultaneously denies and seeks to contain young people’s sexuality, he delineates the dangers inherent in the prescriptive social policy proposed by the Minister for Education and Equalities.

Both in implicit socialisation and in its more recent forms, Sex Ed has played its own role in producing and sustaining binary gender. The impact of gendered identities emerged powerfully at the Summer School, in Sue Scott’s personal history of her experiences in academic sociology, as a female scholar writing on issues of gender and sexualities evoking strong resonances with Ken Plummer’s keynote from the year before on the importance of telling sexual stories. In her Viewpoint she draws on long experience of researching and writing about gender and sexuality to examine key aspects through the lens of consumption. Exploring the ways in which gendered bodies are both consumed and are the terrain over which consumption practices are played out, Sue is particularly interested in the ways in which women’s bodies are utilized – objectified – in the context of gendered power relations.  Focussing on late modern society’s contradictory positioning of childhood as, on the one hand, a special realm in which children should be ‘innocent’ and on the other where children are exposed to the full gamut of consumerism, which can expose them to adult sexual mores that they don’t fully understand, Sue argues that some of the ways in which we seek to protect children and young people from sexualisation and sexual risk can render them more vulnerable.

Of course, social policy is a vital area in the study of gender and sexuality. Policy interventions are necessary to protect vulnerable and marginalized groups, yet so often with gender and sexuality in particular, policy can become divorced from an evidence base and contribute to inequality and oppression. The double-edged nature of policy intervention is particularly pertinent in debates about sex work and its regulation. Maggie O’Neill crystallises her long engagement with the ongoing issues related to the regulation of sex work in the U.K. in this Policy Briefing with Alison Jobe on the history of Sex Work. From the Victorian era to the current globalised trade in sex, sex work is analysed through the shifting and often contradictory representations of sex workers. Highlighting how legislation both regulates and criminalises sex work while simultaneously fixing sex workers in a deviant identity or as objects of moral ‘rescue’, they trace the remarkable persistence of key discourses and social relations into our own time.  Through the voices of sex workers now embedded in participatory research and drawing on troubling evidence of shortcomings in supposedly progressive Scandinavian contexts, decriminalisation emerges as a pressing policy need, framed by a call to recognise and address wider sexual and social inequalities.

Inequalities in healthcare on the other hand are often discussed in relation to socio-economic positioning, with some attention to gender, but may overlook the impact on wellbeing of key cultural factors.  In his study of doctor-patient relationships in health care, Michael Toze examines the importance of coming out. Drawing on 36 interviews with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people, Toze documents a real diversity in relationships of LGBT patients with their doctors. While coming out can be vital for some, it can have little relevance for others. Highlighting the significance of changes in the organization and everyday practice of doctors’ surgeries, Toze argues that the move away from a regular doctor can have a particular impact on LGBT patients, some of whom find it difficult to disclose personal information about their sexuality to strangers. Recognizing how healthcare has become more inclusive for many minority groups, Toze calls for greater recognition of the relationships between patients and practitioners, ensuring that patients both have the opportunity and feel able to discuss aspects of their sexuality and gender identity in the context of their health.

William Potter’s article takes us from work and medicalisation to the possibilities of leisure, focusing on retreats for gay men—periods of time away from everyday routine to provide a space to engage in reflexive introspection and consideration of your place in the world. Potter uses observation and interview data from two gay male retreats to argue that these places do not conform to popular images of “the hedonism of the health spa or the austerity of the monastic cell”. He foregrounds aspects of adult play, and sees play as having a social use that enabled these men to transcend their daily routine while developing strong friendship bonds. Much has been written about the changing nature of gay spaces (e.g. Ghaziani, 2014), and Potter’s research documents one of the ways in which this shifting landscape is influencing behaviour: a landscape where gay men seek a space and a community outside the bonds of the traditional, that are frequently rooted in alcohol consumption or sexual intercourse. Eschewing these pursuits, gay retreats serve as a new way to explore gay identity in society.

The importance of play also emerges in Liam Wignall’s exploration of the emerging kinky practice known as pup play or puppy play. Drawing on interviews with 30 gay and bisexual young men who practice pup play, Wignall charts the social and community aspects of this kink activity. In contrast to Potter’s study, the motivation of many participants was to develop friendships and connections within a sexual context. Yet to focus on the sexual aspects is to miss the ways in which pup play remains deeply social. Indeed, Wignall shows how a subculture has developed related to pup play, moving from a sexual activity between individuals to a much broader community that attends Pride events, sees “pups” communicating semi-publically on sites such as Twitter, and has been commodified by porn studios and kink shops. Wignall situates pup play within broader debates about the emergence of kink communities in a context where the gay scene is radically evolving, and pup play may constitute a community in which young adults find an introduction to gay subcultures beyond the gay bar or the LGBT+ Students Union Society.

Although represented as ‘leisure’, M.F. Ogilvie offers a glimpse into what is actually the highly structured world of competitive sport. Drawing on a year-long ethnography of elite male athletes at a British University, Ogilvie documents the homosocial behaviours of these men from the intimacy of the changing room to the public venues of nights out clubbing. Following other research, he finds high levels of intimacy and tactility between these men, who will cuddle and spoon and dance and kiss each other on a night out. As an openly bisexual player on the team, Ogilvie witnesses the nonchalance of these behaviours for his teammates, even though many were newly arrived from the U.S. He also explores the ways in which his heterosexual teammates appreciate men’s bodies, deploying the ‘homoerotic gaze’ to understand how men view, discuss and compliment each other’s bodies. These positive comments occur in the wider context of bromances common among many young men today.

The complex interplay of bodies in sport and play cannot ignore the commodification of bodies and Charlotte Rhian Jones traces a fascinating comparison between the experiences of wet nurses in the early modern period and their contemporary counterparts in the ‘Body Bazaar’ of late capitalism.  Defying the stigma and, in some cases, health risks attached to the practice, permitted women with limited options to sustain themselves and their own families. Jones argues that they enjoyed a level of control over the use of their body and sometimes also emotional bonds, which are denied to women donating or selling breast milk in the online marketplace today. It seems that they also maintained a positive image of their work, despite the social scripts of the moralists who condemned them.

This capacity to question and re-frame oppressive gender scripts written onto and into our bodies emerges movingly in Elham Amini’s work with menopausal women in Iran. While some of the responses suggest social reward – ‘being taken care of’ – can lead some women to accept the limitations their society places on them, others expressed bitter disappointment. Their stories of key events in both their ‘gender discovery’ and the framing of female desire and sexuality as ‘risky’ and ‘polluted’ reveal the ways in which language can shape and contain lived experience. Yet these accounts are often complex and ambivalent, recalling the thrill of desire and bodily freedom and moving from sadness to anger at the constraints. For some, their initial desire to have a male child, because of the possibilities he would enjoy, shifts to an emphasis on educating their daughters and enabling them to flourish, although the cycle is not yet broken as one respondent repeats her own mother’s history of wishing she were a boy. Amini’s article provides an important insight into a group of people about whom many assumptions are made but with whom there is little academic research.

Social narratives of gender difference can play out as powerfully in social policy as in individual experience, as Kate Butterworth notes in the policing of partner abuse in same-sex relationships in the UK. While the types of crime recorded for men and women are broadly similar, which challenges the notion that men are ‘naturally’ more violent than women, the outcomes suggest that this idea persists, despite the counter-evidence, and underlies how police assess who is most at risk of further violence or harassment. Equally, the notion that women are ‘naturally’ more vulnerable, may influence police assessments of risk for both men and women, even as the criminal justice system seeks to improve its standing amongst LGBT+ individuals and communities.

Janet Weston takes us ‘inside’, as she uncovers the history of male same-sex activity, from 19th century anxiety about ‘unnatural acts’, through the legalisation of homosexuality, but the denial of the right to sex in the supposedly ‘public’ space of the prison.  Ironically, the then deadly new disease of HIV in the 1980s enabled some access to condoms and a tacit acknowledgement that same-sex activity was and would occur in prisons. However, Weston shows how this medical model sidestepped key questions of human rights while the ‘prescribing’ of condoms varied widely according to the personal decisions of individual doctors and sex continued to be prohibited by some prison governors. The paper concludes by highlighting, through the lens of healthcare, the contradictions that permeate our broader approach to criminal justice.

This is echoed in Emily Setty’s research into sexting. She shows how policy responses risk criminalising large numbers of young people, without regard for their rights to sexual expression and to privacy, under the banner of preventing moral and physical harm. Setty’s subtle analysis takes us into a much more complex reality, where young people often debate the ethics of sexting in different contexts and critique breaches of consent and trust even where their attempts to navigating oppressive social norms can lead to ‘victim blaming’. She calls for a social conversation with young people about empowered consent and responsibility towards others, to counter the pressure from some quarters to withdraw from the digital world and their own sexual exploration, rather than re-shaping their engagement with it.

Finally, Valeria Quaglia reminds us that social change around sexual identities is still uneven across Europe as she explores the experiences of LGBQ parents and heterosexual parents of LGBQ people, in Italy. Negotiating complex paths of visibility and invisibility, disclosure and silence, the persistence of stigma and powerful generational obligations, requires constant reflection and reframing by all the parents who speak to us here. However, the many moving personal narratives, such as the father of a gay son who shifts from disappointment and rejection to activism, renew the urgency and optimism with which Quaglia invites us all to continue the quest for inclusive societies.

This thread runs through the work of all our authors, creating a rich, colourful, tapestry of shifting, complex patterns.  Movement towards a greater ease with more fluid and plural identities, an ethic of sexual knowledge, empowerment and shared responsibility, and a focus on social justice, requires acknowledging the persistence of powerful counter-narratives and understanding the anxieties of those who inhabit them. In an increasingly polarised global political landscape the importance of having these conversations around policy and everyday life is more pressing than ever.


Susan Frenk is Principal of St. Aidan’s College, Durham University, Co-Director of the Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities and a member of the Steering Group of the Centre for the Study of Jewish Culture, Society and Politics

With a background in Latin American Studies, she previously taught and researched on gender and sexualities across a range of contexts in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham, following her BA, MPhil and PhD at Cambridge University, with periods of research in Berkeley (California) and Sussex Universities.    

Mark McCormack is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Durham University, and Co-Director of its Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities. His research examine how social trends related to decreasing homophobia influence the gender and sexual identities and the everyday practices of young people in the UK and the US. He has published on these themes in many leading journals, including Sociology, British Journal of Sociology, Archives of Sexual Behavior and Sex Roles. See also his books: McCormack, M. (2012). The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality. New York: Oxford University Press and Anderson, E. & McCormack, M. (2016). The Changing Dynamics of Bisexual Men’s Experiences: Social Research Perspectives. New York: Springer.