Sexual Ideology and Sexual Physiology in the Discourses of Sex Advice Literature

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper explores the connection between changing knowledge of sexual physiology and normative prescriptions about gendered roles within sexual relations. An analysis of marital/sexual advice literature reveals a profoundly gendered construction of male and female roles within heterosexual relations. Texts from the opening years of the twentieth century stressed the duty of the husband to court and woo his wife and fulfill two distinct responsibilities: first, to arouse his wife and second, to control his climax. This gendered model of male as initiator and tutor and female as responding student has proved remarkably persistent throughout the twentieth century. The period between the two World Wars was decisive for the formation of modern heterosexuality. Shifts in the prevailing sexual knowledge induced significant changes in the normative prescriptions which responsibilized husbands for ensuring the sexual pleasure of their wives. The "sexual revolution" of the 1960s weakened the link between sex and marriage as demonstrated, for example, in the shift from "marriage" manuals to "sex manuals" and the increasingly hedonistic quest for mutual sexual pleasure through an emphasis on technique and the relocation of sex into the realm of consumption. In addition, the new sexology of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson insisted on the existence of strong female sexual desire equal to that of men. However, the underlying discourse emphasized polar differences between the sexes. The HIV/AIDS crisis has continued to advance themes of responsibilization, normalization and moralization where the new pattern of sexual advice moved decisively toward themes of "risk" and "safety" through the discourse of safer sex.

Key words: sexual ideology, sex advice literature, responsibilization, history of sexuality.


One key theme in late 20th-century social science literature in the field of sex and sexuality has been to challenge the idea that human sex is "natural," that sex has some stable and unchanging core. This contention lies at the heart of the claim captured by Michel Foucault's (1978) title, The History of Sexuality, that sexuality itself has a history. This history involves assemblages of different sorts of knowledge, including physiology, gynecology and psychiatry, which interact with normative prescriptions about the behaviour of males and females in heterosexual activity.

This article seeks to contribute to this tradition by exploring the connection between changing knowledge of sexual physiology and normative prescriptions about gendered roles within sexual relations. The many and varied discourses, whether religious, moral, medical, psychological, sexological or others, which frame the ways in which people come to think about how they conduct their sexual lives, have been preoccupied with forming understandings of the place of sex in the lives of individuals and their relations with others within a vision of what is natural and normal in human sexual life. The concern with the "natural" and the "normal" has long occupied a central place in discourses about sex because this link seems to provide a ready-made, even automatic, legitimation and justification of conduct in the sense that what is natural is normal, and what is normal is natural. Thus, as changes occur in knowledge of sexual physiology, these are reflected in discourses that inform people about what is natural and normal in the practices in which they engage. It is important to avoid any assumption that conduct necessarily conforms to these discourses; the relations between discourses and practices are always contingent. The interaction of knowledge and advice exemplifies what Hacking (1995) calls "practical causality" (p. 360) about the kinds of behaviour that flow from the way things are (or, more accurately, the way they are taken to be). Thus, for example, if sexual physiology holds that males have a stronger sex drive than females, then it follows that males may not only initiate sexual activity, but indeed that they should do so since this is not only natural and thus normal, it is also quite simply, "how things should be". …