This topic shares many of the same concerns as the discussion on violence, including a view that there are going to be no easy solutions to the main question -- how and whether the State should intervene to regulate this kind of behaviour. The topic of sexuality raises some specific problems, however. Sexual activity seems to be a peculiarly private matter, and it might be difficult to justify State intervention of any kind at all -- in what sense can sexual activity lead to social harm, for example? On the other hand, some people think there is an easy solution to this question after all, since 'Nature' seems to give us a clue -- any sexual behaviour that is natural and normal should be left to flourish, while the State has the right to regulate any sexual behaviour that is unnatural, perverted, or deviant. Let us approach these specifics in turn.
Sex and Politics
It can be argued that sexuality is far more than just a private matter negotiated between consenting adults. Indeed, it is a public matter, and it raises wider issues of the greatest importance. We can see this argued best by starting with the work of Foucault.
Foucault's work on the history of sexuality (Foucault 1985) (and see Morris's article on Foucault in Brake (1982)) makes the observation that there is a great deal of public discussion of sexuality these days. It is not that we are more liberated and able to express our views, however. This amount of public talk simply shows how important sexuality is as a political topic, in the broadest sense. This is so because sexuality serves as a common theme to introduce all sorts of other important topics -- the social control of children, relationships between adults, family life, population growth, health, and, of course, leisure and recreation. We can see these links when there is a big public outcry about sexual behaviour (as there frequently is)-- we get close to the notion of a 'moral panic' here, to use the Marxist term -- the ways in which themes of public or social concern get articulated together.
There is another way in which we can get to see the public importance of sexuality. They have been a number of political movements in recent years stressing the right to particular sexual identities -- Gay Liberation, for example. Sexual identity here becomes an important source or core identity, affecting all sorts of other issues such as equality of opportunity in job markets, the right to get married or adopt children and so on. For those involved, sexuality, and notions of normal and deviant sexuality in particular, lies at the very heart of public life. You only need to think back to the work of JS Mill on the State to realise how important it is to discuss the relations between majorities and minorities in political terms, and sexual politics, above all feminism, has revitalised this whole discussion in recent years.
Finally, of course, there is the strange capacity of exposure of sexual preferences to affect political careers, especially in the USA. President Clinton's predilections were the stuff of open debate about his reliability and honesty, and, for some commentators, sufficient grounds for his impeachment. Here in the UK, there have been persistent rumours that the private sexual lives of politicians, and fear that they might be publicly exposed, have affected their willingness to assume high office. In some ways, sexual behaviour is still seen as the key to personal character and to political credibility.
Sexual Behaviour -- Natural or Social?
This is a theme that runs throughout some of the political discussions listed above -- sexual preferences and behaviour are seen as the key to a person's whole 'nature'. Similarly, attitudes towards the acceptance of the rights of sexual minorities are often affected by whether one sees these activities as 'natural' or 'unnatural'. Sexual activists of various kinds seem to disagree among themselves, of course, on this matter -- some want to justify their activities on the grounds that they have not chosen them but that they reflect their 'nature'. Others begin their political actions by denying that heterosexual activity between consenting adults is 'natural', while other forms are 'unnatural'.
Plummer's account, also in Brake (1982), begins by denying that there is anything natural about human sexuality. For him, the defining characteristic of human sexuality is that it is steeped in cultural matters -- it involves the emotions, sentiments, memory and fantasy. He argues this point in a particularly spectacular manner. For Plummer, any activity can be sexualised, and, for that matter, any activity can be de-sexualised. To take one of his own examples, a young man looking at a football match on television might be seen to be engaged in anything but sexual activity, but, Plummer points out, that young man might be fantasising about having sex with the players. To take the opposite example, a photograph of a man touching a naked woman on a couch might be recording a sexual act, or it might be recording a medical examination. I am reminded here of some work on the medical examination, or some involving nudism, which shows how the participants try very hard, and generally very effectively, to ignore and manage the obvious sexual possibilities of their encounters. Sexuality is therefore a particularly flexible kind of 'script', and there is no objective definition available irrespective of the meanings which the participants attach to their action (sociologists might recognise this as a classic example of 'interactionism', of course, and Plummer has a general interest in symbolic interactionism -- and has written on labelling theory, for example -- I have a file of his on my CD).
Plummer uses this analysis to denaturalise heterosexual activity, and thus to open the path to the liberation of other sexual minorities. Heterosexuals have always used arguments from nature to justify their position, but they are dominant simply because they have been able to mobilise power to represent, their tastes as natural and normal -- we're on familiar territory here, of course, and we have seen this argument made before. Of course, there are difficulties here too -- is any kind of sexual fantasy or behaviour acceptable? Are there no common or agreed standards in this area? Moral nihilism beckons, and we risk the company of an undesirable set of fellow-travellers (like rapists who argue that the protests of their victims should really be 'read' as signs of enjoyment, or, at least, that is how they interpreted them).
I want to use work like this to make another point, though. Again this is one I have made before: if it is true, that sexuality always involves subjective meanings, how could it be possible for the State to decide which ones to regulate? Of course, some sexual activities at the margins might present obvious cases for regulation -- sadistic sexual murders, for example, or the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people who might be considered to be incapable of informed consent. But that still leaves a very large range of sexual activities in between. The case studies we consider below offer some good examples of the tremendous ambiguity in this area.
Before we get to them, however, we might consider how this inherent ambiguity has been exploited by various commercial interests in order to get past the various codes and regulations imposed by the State. In recent years, for example, we have seen in Britain the emergence of what might be called the 'sex documentary'. Indeed, in the last year this has been almost daily fare on British television -- documentaries about sex workers, sexual minorities, publishers of sexual material, painters of sexually explicit work and so on. You do not have to be a Freudian to see that part of the pleasure offered to the viewing audience turns on being presented with sexually stimulating material in the guise of a 'serious' documentary treatment. These programmes restored the audience for the less popular channels such as BBC2 and Channel 4. The sex-education or health-education video is another example of a deeply ambiguous genre.
Even the recent Starr Report offered some classic ambiguities for the reader: ostensibly, it offered a cool legal account of the sexual indiscretions of President Clinton, but it presented these indiscretions in such detail that it was almost impossible to avoid suspicion that a much more vulgar purpose was being served by making this document widely available on the Internet. On a possibly lighter note, there are a number of anecdotes about the unintended consequences of Net censorship software: some designed to obstruct the downloading of material with offending words managed to black out the wholly innocuous website of the English town of Scunthorpe, while others designed to block the downloading of images with large areas of pink managed to keep Mr Blobby (a once-popular British children's entertainer, dressed in a large pink suit) off the air.
There are some quite amusing examples of well-meaning censors attempting to draw up definitive lists of offensive material. One in operation at the BBC in the 1950s had a list of taboo items and terms, including jokes -- these apparently included jokes about 'winter draws/drawers on', for example. Such lists simply reveal the petty and Pooterish world of those who make them, of course, as well as a certain megalomania -- how on earth can anyone possibly legislate finally on matters like this? Serious pornographers manage to evade these crude attempts pretty easily anyway, often simply by using the old device of thinking of yet another euphemism for sexual activity -- in one spectacular and unpleasant example, child pornography was apparently redesignated as 'family' material. In another, a female student of mine had an astonishing capacity to find a sexual innuendo in almost anything, and would amuse herself ( and me) by responding to the most innocent remarks as if they were positively lewd -- 'Oh, you are inviting me to "tea", are you?' or 'You want to look at my "file"?' or 'Oh yes, I am a "fresher" all right' and so on. Of course, the widespread use of the Net makes effective censorship almost impossible anyway.
There have been a number of recent examples which place the central issue of ambiguity in the spotlight:
(a) A year or two ago, police from a vice squad raided a university library (the University of Central England) and took away a certain material that they thought might contravene the Obscene Publications Act. The material in question was a collection of photographs by the controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe: these featured male nudity, often with explicitly homosexual erotic undertones. The highly respectable Vice-Chancellor, no less, was warned that he might face prosecution as a result (which I must confess was mildly enjoyable). A small campaign got underway to defend the rights of universities to hold such material: universities in particular, it was argued, might be one of those important minorities whose rights were to be particularly defended even against majority opinion. Given that all those with access to the university library (including the general public, in theory) were likely to be above the age of majority, it was difficult to see who might be harmed by coming across these photographs. Another argument reminded us that Mapplethorpe's collection had been on display in the Hayward Gallery in London for some months, without attracting any police attention -- was the public in Birmingham more vulnerable in some way than the public in London?. Eventually, the police decided not to prosecute in this case, probably because they realised that they would never get a conviction. To take the view of the police, for a moment, they are placed in a very difficult position by the Obscene Publications Act, which does not attempt to define obscenity in any objective way, but merely invites the police and juries to decide if the material is likely to 'deprave and corrupt' -- how on earth is a working policeman to know in advance? It is not surprising that policemen tend to reinterpret that provision in terms of whether or not they are likely to get a conviction from a jury, as a more practical and immediate test.
Brake M ( ed) (1982) Human
Sexual Relations: a reader, Harmondsworth: Penguin