Social Identities: Multidisciplinary Approaches

By Gary Taylor; Steve Spencer | Go to book overview
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4.

Sexuality

Julia Hirst

Sexuality is one of the prime sites for the expression of identity. Yet, there is little consensus over what it is the term sexuality describes or its significance for the ways in which individuals experience and organise their lives. Nevertheless, there are defining features that unite particular perspectives. Commonplace usage in lay and popular discourse refers (simplistically) both to sexual practice ('having sex') and sexual identity (in making the distinction between hetero-, homo-, and bi-sexuality). Academic perspectives with origins in medicine, psychiatry, psychology, religion and sociobiology focus on the extent to which sexual identity and sexual behaviour are biologically and genetically determined as products of 'normal' and 'natural' instincts and drives. This emphasis on sexuality as a physically determined phenomenon is oft referred to as the essentialist view.

The essentialist approach is problematised by social scientists (in sociology and critical social psychology) who argue that the biological basis of sexual expression is less important than the impact of society and processes of power in constructing particular identities and regulating sexual practices, choices and life chances. Debates in this arena are loosely labelled under the umbrella of social constructionist accounts of sexuality.

By distinguishing the essentialist and social constructionist viewpoint I am not suggesting they occupy single theoretical or political positions. Broad assumptions certainly foreground how each sees the sexual as constituted and expressed but each span various perspectives, agendas and research approaches. Therefore, essentialist and constructionist accounts are best seen as occupying relative positions along a continuum if understanding of sexuality (and its implications for identity) is not to be constrained (Schwartz and Rutter, 1998).

Focusing on biological or evolutionary (genetic) imperatives without acknowledgement of social processes is arguably as reductionist as social constructionist viewpoints (ibid.) that negate the place of the physical body in expressions of sexuality and desire. For instance, compared to previous generations, the average age of puberty begins at a younger age for females and males (Hill, 2000) hence rendering an enhanced potential for earlier sexual activity among young people. Having said this, the inference is not that the process of inscribing a sexual identity begins at puberty or that sexuality only becomes expressible at the onset of puberty. Children have a sexuality and act in sexual ways long before puberty (Jackson, 1982).

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