The Challenge of Pleasure: Re-Imagining Sexuality and Sexual Health

Article excerpt


Men have a stake in ending gendered violence but this stake has not yet been widely embraced by men. Thus we must think carefully about our future strategic directions. Taking the case of sexual violence, I suggest that these directions involve re-thinking sexuality and sexual health by considering absences in the scholarly and policy literatures. While young people are constantly exhorted in popular media to be sexual and to undertake sex, young men have not been engaged by 'critical' analyses of sexuality. The critical literatures-which include writings in Gender/Sexuality studies and Preventive Health-aim to offer alternative understandings of heterosexuality which move beyond the imperatives of the popular media. Yet such critical approaches remain undeveloped, largely negative and/or focussed upon danger rather than considering heterosexuality in positive terms that might offer a substantive alternative and encourage young men in particular to embrace the aim of egalitarian sexual practices, including ending sexual violence. Tensions in Gender/Sexuality scholarship, and Preventive Health sex education materials which draw upon that scholarship, produce significant absences with regard to analysis of heterosexuality and heterosexual subjects. In this context, existing research indicates that recognition of pleasure in sexual health has resulted in increased use of condoms by men and greater involvement of women in the negotiation of sexual practices. Such research is not just relevant to prevention of disease, but has implications for strategies regarding sexual violence. Re-imagining the theoretical framing of Gender/ Sexuality studies and Preventative Health to take account of pleasure in sexuality and sexual health is not just a theoretical issue but has some very practical implications.

Received 1 May 2008 Accepted 23 May 2008


Sociology, pleasure, heterosexuality, sex education, gender, masculinity


The paper begins with the question of developing effective strategies in relation to sexual violence and argues that such strategies require a re-thinking of sexuality and sexual health, a re-thinking which attends to significant existing absences in the scholarly and policy literatures. In particular I assert a requirement to re-imagine the theoretical framing of both Gender/Sexuality studies and Preventive Health in the arena of sexuality. Attention to the former is associated with its influential input into the latter.

In discussing strategies with regard to sexual violence, my intention is to take up the work of Masculinity studies scholars such as Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel, who insist that men - along with women - have a stake in ending violence, including sexual violence (Kaufman 2001; Kimmel, Interview). While I agree with Kaufman and Kimmel that theoretically men may well have a stake in ending violence, including sexual violence, this stake has not yet been widely and actively embraced by men. Thus I consider we must think carefully about our future strategic directions for scholarship, activism and public policy. My concern is that existing cultural discourses do not provide much that might encourage men's theoretical stake in ending sexual violence to be actualised in everyday life.

I suggest that while young people are constantly exhorted in popular media to be sexual and to undertake sex, young men have not been engaged by 'critical' voices (scholarly or policy literatures) attending to sexuality. These critical voices - which include writings arising from Gender/Sexuality studies, and from the Preventive Health field such as sex education policy materials - aim to offer alternative understandings of heterosexuality and masculine sexuality to those which are on offer in the popular media. Yet such critical approaches remain undeveloped, largely negative and/or focussed upon danger/risk rather than considering heterosexuality in terms that might encourage young men in particular to be inspired by the possibilities of egalitarian sexual practices and embrace the aim of ending sexual violence.

My aim is to develop this overall analysis by outlining four interconnected arguments:

1. The Foucauldian thesis regarding the modern proliferation of sexualised discourses may well require qualification in relation to 'critical' noncommercial voices arising from Gender/ Sexuality studies and Preventive Health.

2. The Gender/Sexuality field involves approaches which inform Preventive Health with regard to sexual health. Yet this field contains (a) heterogeneous trajectories which have had the effect of (b) leaving heterosexuality stuck in the mire of the old 'sex wars' debates, such that it remains almost exclusively aligned with the second-wave Modernist 'sex-as-danger' camp of the sex wars debates.

3. Preventive Health agendas attending to sexuality - in particular, sex education in schools - draw upon these Gender/Sexuality writings. Despite certain elements of the 'prosex' approach, the crucial focus on prevention/ pre-emption of danger and risk within Preventive Health (including sex education) also predisposes it to fall back upon the primarily negative 'sex-as-danger' orientation with regard to heterosexuality.

4. The 'critical' non-commercial voices which are the focus of this paper - far from proliferating sexualised discourses - are not able to attend to hetero-pleasure. Yet, existing research indicates that recognition of pleasure in sexual health education results in increased negotiation of sexual practices. This has ramifications for the theoretical framing of noncommercial voices dealing with sexuality and, in particular, for their anti-violence strategies.

The Foucauldian thesis and its potential limits

Foucault challenges what he called the 'repression hypothesis', the hypothesis which for example Freud outlined in describing social relations as founded upon the repression of sexuality (Foucault 1981). By contrast, Foucault asserts that discourses about sexuality have proliferated and have in the process created new norms of behaviour: he describes this in terms of 'an economic exploitation of eroticisation'. We are told we must behave in certain ways. Now we must be sexual. These new sexual norms, in Foucault's terms, come to 'discipline' us, such that 'we find a new mode of investment no longer in the form of control by repression but that of control by stimulation' (Foucault 1980:57; Rubin 2005).1

It would seem at first sight that Foucault's approach is self-evident: the modern world does appear to be saturated in (hetero)sex. A sexual 'freedom' consisting of insistent cultural exhortations to engage in heterosex appears omnipresent in our modern society. And yet, I am not so sure this is the whole picture. On the one hand, I too have a sense that we are all - and perhaps young people in particular - constantly bombarded with images of sexual identity by a range of cultural forms. This bombardment amounts to provision of sexual education by privatised commercialised sources with sexuality presented in terms of material consumption. Such sources say in essence, 'Buy this, be sexy'. On the other hand, I have a sense of missed opportunity in relation to the possibilities offered by non-commercial voices regarding sexuality.

Commercial and non-commercial representations of sexuality are by no means entirely dichotomous arenas. Commercial popular media may provide socially critical perspectives and, as Kickbusch (2006) notes, health policy discussions are not isolated from market forces. The distinction between popular commercial and critical non-commercial arenas is not straightforward and requires further analysis beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, there are discernable and important differences between them-at least in relation to sexuality- which can provide opportunities and spaces for enhancing diversity in views and practices, including resistance to the hegemony of commercialisation. In this context, mainstream popular cultural discourses are not explicitly shaped, in the way that Gender/Sexuality and Preventive Health writings on sexuality presently are, by socially 'critical' agendas in relation to heterosexuality and masculinity. Yet, despite these agendas, non-commercial voices regarding sexuality seem to me to be offering a decidedly limited alternative to the constant bombardment of sexual imagery from privatised commercial sources.

I suggest in particular that there is a significant gap between the cacophony of popular commercial voices about (hetero)sexuality and the comparatively silent and largely negative critical voices in Gender/Sexuality studies and Preventive Health sex education materials that might be expected to provide a counter-point. Gender/ Sexuality writings and Sexual Health literature, by contrast with the popular media, largely do not attend to hetero-pleasure; they neither proliferate (hetero)sexual discourses in terms of the demand to be sexual nor do they proliferate such sexual discourses in terms of a demand that we not be sexual. Rather heterosex remains unspoken for the most part and, when meagrely acknowledged, is simply cast as a problem. This scarcely fits with Foucault's account of a mode of 'eroticisation' and 'control by stimulation'. Instead the gap between commercial and non-commercial modes leaves heterosexual pleasure to privatised voices and effectively abandons a strategy for alternative visions and social change.

If I am correct about this mismatch between commercial monopoly over heterosexual pleasure as against the paucity and comparatively bare and negative framing of non-commercial voices (both scholarly and policy), then this suggests we may need to re-assess the scope of Foucauldian claims regarding the proliferating expansion of sexualising discourses in modernity. The Foucauldian challenge to the 'repression hypothesis' may at least require some qualification when we consider these non-commercial 'spaces' and publics. Noncommercial discursive spaces may well not offer the same sexualising norms and sexualised identities. In short, the Foucauldian 'sexualisation' thesis (Seidman 1991:67,123) may underestimate the unevenness of the social in modernity.2

To suggest that non-commercial voices might differ somewhat from the proliferation of sexualised discourses in popular media is to suggest that these non-commercial discourses are perhaps maintaining a more repressive treatment of sexuality, which in my view has implications for the way they address and their capacity to address sexual violence. Non-commercial voices regarding sexuality may not be taking up the challenge of providing alternative, potentially more reflective perspectives that move beyond the limits of medicalised discourses and genuinely embrace a more holistic treatment of bodies and desires. I suggest that insofar as these noncommercial voices offer a limited challenge to the increasingly prevalent discourse of sexuality as consumption, they do young people a disfavour, effectively giving them little purchase on the diverse possibilities of fashioning their own sexuality and sexual citizenship. In this setting, reimagining the theoretical framing of Gender/ Sexuality studies and Preventive Health in the arena of sexuality is not just a theoretical issue but has some very practical implications.

Heterogeneous trajectories in the Gender/Sexuality field

The Gender/Sexuality field involves socially critical and theoretically sophisticated approaches which flow into and inform the limits of Preventive Health approaches with regard to sexuality. However, the Gender/Sexuality field (which is a crucial source for alternative understandings of masculine sexuality and anti-violence agendas) contains disparate sub-fields-importantly, the three major sub-fields of Feminist, Sexuality and Masculinity Studies-with distinguishable trajectories. Tensions between heterogeneous trajectories in the Gender/Sexuality field then impact upon analyses of heterosexuality.

I suggest in other works that the three subfields of Feminist, Sexuality and Masculinity Studies are not simply commensurable bits that fit together neatly like pieces of a jigsaw. The subfields contain differing knowledge cultures involving (amongst other things) different theoretical underpinnings and emphases (Beasley 2005; Beasley forthcoming). On this basis I argue that, since the 1960s/70s, the subfields have aligned in shifting ways, and that this is particularly evident in relation to sexuality. Initially Feminist and Masculinity Studies developed closely linked Modernist theoretical paradigms under the rubric of the term 'gender'. However, with the rise of Postmodern approaches Feminism and Sexuality Studies have moved closer to one another in terms of overarching theoretical frameworks. By contrast, Masculinity Studies has increasingly appeared as 'the odd man out'. If the scholarly subfield which is particularly focused on men and masculinity is at something of a distance from other major subfields in the Gender/Sexuality field, this may signal a problem in the context of developing theoretical frameworks and strategies intended to involve men in ending sexual violence.

In brief I would note two points in support of my claims regarding these developments. Whereas Butler's work has become a cornerstone of both Feminist and Sexuality Studies theoretical frameworks,3 major 'gate-keeper' theoreticians in Masculinity Studies such as Connell remain rather resolutely Modernist and highly skeptical concerning Postmodern agendas and Butler's work (Connell 2005:xix, 2002:71, 2000:20-1). Secondly, theorising in both Feminist and Sexuality Studies now largely take as given that gender and sexuality cannot be reduced to one another: a Postmodern perspective strongly associated with Queer Theory (see Richardson 2001). Writings in both Feminist and Sexuality Studies for the most part nowadays do not presume that gender produces sexuality.4 Feminist and Sexuality Studies do not presume that men as a group have a specific and different sexuality from that of women as a group. In contrast, Masculinity Studies thinkers remain aligned with (second-wave) Modernist views which presume that gender does effectively determine sexuality. Michael Kimmel, for example, supports the claim that heterosexual men and gay men are largely alike in terms of their sexuality (Kimmel 2005:16- 21; Kimmel and Plante 2004:xiv). He approves the statement that 'straight men might have as much sex as gay men, if women would only let them' (Kimmel 2005:74). Such a view may be said to reduce sexuality to gender in that men as a gender group are said to have a particular sexuality and women to have another kind of sexuality. Such a view is decidedly at odds with Postmodern and Queer critiques which reject prioritising gender over sexuality and resist stable distinct gender identity categories.

The point here is that the different trajectories of Feminist, Sexuality and Masculinity Studies have shifted in relation to their differential uptake of Postmodern perspectives. Whereas Feminist and Sexuality Studies have taken up Postmodernism with enthusiasm, in Masculinity Studies this is much less evident. This differential uptake has particular resonance around sexuality and sexual violence. It became explicit in the 1980s so-called 'sex wars'.

Feminist/Sexuality/Masculinity studies and the sex wars

Feminist and Masculinity Studies literatures-that is, Gender Studies literatures-have been in an ongoing 'conversation' with Sexuality Studies writings. A crucial theme in this conversation may be summarised as the 'pleasure and danger' 'sex wars'. The 'sex wars' amounted to a debate between on the one side Modernist radical Feminist (Gender studies) thinkers like Catherine Mackinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Susan Griffen and Mary Daly, amongst many others, talking about 'sex as danger' in the 1970s/80s, and on the other side the growing influence from the late 1980s/ 1990s of Postmodern thinkers associated with Sexuality Studies, talking usually from a Foucauldian and Queer Theory perspective about 'sex as pleasure': the 'pro-sex' position. In short, the 'sex-as-danger' stance became aligned with Modernist thinking and the 'pro-sex' stance with Postmodern thought.

Modernist radical feminist writers such as Catherine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin in the 1970s/80s drew attention to the ways in which sexuality was socially constructed along gendered lines to uphold men's social dominance. They noted the links between normative heterosexuality and displays of men's power over women such as rape, and were rather courageously critical of penis-centred conceptions of sexuality. They were consequently inclined to depict women as a group as vulnerable and men as a group as predatory. Such a perspective dovetailed with 'womencentred' radical feminist viewpoints such as those of Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly which gained considerable force in the 1980s. In these forms of radical feminism men and women were categorically divided. The emphasis was on gendered power and in this context men's sexual power over women.

The Modernist radical feminist approach was, in short, focussed on the 'danger' of heterosex, and the evils of prostitution, pornography and rape. In brief, in this account men were all 'hegemonically abusive' (Heise 1997:423). Though they had access to pleasure, it was nasty oppressive sexual fun. Lesbians, by contrast, engaged in gentle womanly forms of sexual pleasure. Heterosexual women, owing to foolishly consorting with men, appeared predominately as passive victims who had no fun at all (Kanneh 1996:173). Importantly, this 'sex as danger' position remains the most common viewpoint in Masculinity Studies today since-along with feminist work on violence-it remains one of the last bastions of support for Modernist radical feminist agendas. However, such a position increasingly came under fire from the 1980s onwards and reached a head at a conference at Barnard College, NY, in 1982 titled 'Pleasure and Danger'. At this conference a so-called 'pro-sex' position was put forward which rejected that all women were as one, that all women had the same sexuality, and that all women liked gentle 'vanilla sex' (Echols 1983, 1984; Rubin 1994; Califia 1996; Sullivan 1997; Epstein and Renold 2005).

The 'pro-sex' stance was increasingly critical of Feminism which was cast as 'mumsy' and sexually repressive (Beasley 2005:158-170). The pro-sex position set itself in opposition to radical feminism in particular and was strongly associated with the rise of Foucauldian Sexuality Studies and Queer theory developed by theorists like Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin and Steven Seidman. Sex in this approach was precisely about embracing danger, power and even consensual violence. The 'pro-sex' position was however primarily, even almost exclusively about queer sexualities. In the related literature on sexual citizenship, the focus remained firmly on queer minorities, particularly gay men (Bell and Binnie 2000; Evans 1993). In such pro-sex theorising, queer minorities were discriminated against, but at least they now all had access to sexual pleasure. Heterosexual men were still sexual and still nasty. Heterosexual women largely disappeared from sight (Beasley 2005:122-3; Jackson 1999:13-15).

The upshot of theoretical tensions and shifts in the Gender/Sexuality field expressed in the 'sex wars' debates is that heterosexuality is simply rarely examined nowadays in Gender/Sexuality studies writings. There are, for example, very few current (post 1998) books on heterosexuality.5 Heterosexuality is largely taken to be of little critical interest, as simply to be equated with heteronormativity, and remains mired in the old 'sex wars' divide.6 In that debate heterosexuality is cast by the 'sex as danger' perspective as immured in gendered inequality with an emphasis on its nasty and normative features. More recently, the combined Feminist/Queer 'pro-sex' perspective has become prevalent in analyses of sexuality, but in this approach queer becomes the site of subversive, transgressive, exciting and pleasurable sex, while heterosex continues to be locked into its earlier constitution as problematic. Insofar as heterosex is mentioned at all in such pro-sex theorising, the emphasis only shifts somewhat from nasty and normative to its boring and normative features. These existing accounts of heterosex as either primarily nasty or boring, but in any case normatively exclusionary, do not provide much room for manoeuvre.

In essence, critical scholarly voices in the Gender/Sexuality field have almost frozen and remain largely undeveloped regarding heterosexuality. To the extent that it is discussed, these voices effectively confine heterosexuality to the abandoned backblocks of theoretical history by leaving it stuck in the predominately negative 'sex-as-danger' camp. For example, it is almost impossible to find any account of heterosexual men's pleasure in Masculinity Studies that does not presume desire=damage. Only gay men's desire involves permissible pleasure. Similarly, if we look at International Studies writings attending to sexuality it would seem that predatory penises and vulnerable vulvas abound (Peterson and Runyan 1999; Bayliss and Smith 2001; Tickner 1992, 2001). More specifically, most of the limited debate on sexuality in a global context has been fashioned by themes of trafficking, slavery and rape in war, themes largely dominated by gendered representations of male victimisers and feminine victims (Sabo 2005; Re-public: reimagining democracy 2008; Women's Worlds Congress 2008).

Such themes are unquestionably crucially significant. However, I do want to challenge heterosexuality's comparative absence in contemporary Gender/Sexuality thinking and challenge its continuing restrictive constitution as unremitting cruelty and pain in the service of oppressive normativity. Heterosexuality is a majority orientation but, relative to other sexualities, is under-theorised as a potential source of pleasure, interest and transgression, and over-determined as a source of domination.7 Such a stance offers little in the way of strategic directions for positively engaging young men in the development of an egalitarian heterosexuality. This failure regarding strategies relevant to young men is perhaps particularly ironic in the case of Masculinity Studies.8 It is here that the intriguing status of Masculinity Studies as 'the odd man out' in Gender/Sexuality thinking-as at a distance from the now more thoroughly 'pro-sex' agendas of Feminist and Sexuality frameworks-comes home to roost, since Masculinity Studies' general advocacy of a 'sex-as-danger' stance has implications for its capacity to re-conceptualise heterosexuality and sexual violence strategies.

The problematic analysis of heterosexuality in Gender/Sexuality theorising reoccurs in odd ways in the Preventive Health field and thus in sex education materials.

Preventive health, sexual health

Preventive health has constituted itself as a field of thinking which moves beyond the narrowly instrumentalist medical model of health emphasising disease and illness, and the rationalist scientific calculation of the body as in need of fixing or management. This medical model focuses on what is awry and how the mutinous body can be brought to heel. It is a model in which doctors save us from the failings of our bodies. Preventive health asserts its difference from this negative framing of our embodiment by emphasising a more holistic engagement with the body, by attempting to expand the meaning of the field of 'health' beyond what is wrong with the body (cf: The Medical Institute for Sexual Health).

The way in which the more expansive Preventive Health theoretical framework is expressed in sexual health is evident in the definition of the World Health Organization (WHO 2002). This definition states:

... [s]exual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.

In the Preventive Health framework sexual health not only has physical and mental aspects, but is also defined within a social framework. Sexual health is further defined in an affirmative way, stressing well-being and not just stating the absence of negative qualities. In other words, there are important links here with the pleasure oriented 'pro-sex' position I outlined in the 'sex wars' debate previously. This association is evident in the WHO definition of sexuality:

... [s]exuality is a central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships.

WHO's definitions of sexual health and sexuality have a utopian cast. Given the worldwide prevalence of heteronormative sexual prejudice, most, if not all, sexual minorities face discrimination. Moreover, phenomena such as sexual violence and sex-trafficking, and also more generally the construction of women as sexually passive, form serious limitations to the sexual health of women. The Preventive Health framing of sexual health as defined by the WHO may be seen as offering a worthwhile goal to aim for, rather than a representation of most people's current condition. However, what it indicates is an expansive account of the field of 'health' exceeding any medicalised model: sexual health within this Preventive Health framing is construed as a prerequisite for people's (sexual) quality of life and as linked to conceptions of (sexual) justice and full citizenship.

Yet while Preventive Health sometimes has a rhetorically expansive 'pro-sex' framing, it frequently fails to live up to its promise, often falling back into more traditional models of health. This is because Preventive Health as a field - at least in relation to sexuality - draws upon a dual legacy: the influence of Gender/Sexuality theorising (evident in its attention to gender/ sexuality justice) and a concern with health as management of risk. Broom (2007, 2008) and Diprose (2007,2008) amongst others, have outlined and problematised the crucial focus on prevention/pre-emption of danger and risk within Preventive Health.9 However, such a focus in Preventive Health, when associated with sexual health, induces a predisposition to fall back upon the primarily negative 'sex-as-danger' orientation with regard to heterosexuality. In many, if not most, accounts of sexual health the 'sex-as-danger' feminist position I discussed earlier is reborn as populations and individuals being exposed to health 'risk'. More affirmative and expansive accounts of (hetero)sexuality, which enable consideration of hetero-pleasure, become sidelined.

Sexual Health becomes aligned with danger and 'risk' with regard to sexuality in the first instance by lapsing into an instrumental medicalised account of sexuality, reinforcing a focus on sexual 'problems' conceived in biomedical terms. For an example of this, consider the first World Congress for Sexual Health in April 2007, with a classic Preventive Health conference theme of 'Achieving Health, Pleasure and Respect'. The main topics were as follows: Sexual Health, Basic Science on Sexual Function, Desire Disorders, Arousal Disorders, Orgasm Disorders, Sexual Pain Disorders, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Cultural Studies on Sexuality, Sexuality Education, Endocrine Disorders, Gender Dysphoria, Sexual Paraphilias, Sexual Violence, Issues in Reproductive Health, Sexuality in Special Populations, Studies in Human Sexuality, Sexual Orientation, Ethics. This rather grim and decidedly medical looking list contains rather a lot of disorders, infections and dysfunctions [www.sexsydney-]. The list reveals the tendency in Preventive Health to discard its more expansive claims in favour of returning to medical management.

Secondly, even when Preventive health models of sexuality do not lapse into miserable medicalisation, more socialised versions of 'risk' frequently still dominate. For example, in the 4th Edition of The Puberty Book (Darvill and Powell 2007:127) a book recommended by a doyen of Preventive Health in the arena of sexuality, Family Planning Australia, in answer to the question 'can sex be fun?' the answer is:

Sex can be lots of fun it depends on the circumstances. If both partners want to have sex together and are protected against unwanted pregnancy or catching an STI, it is more likely to be enjoyable.

A pro-sex agenda quickly becomes, 'avoid pregnancy and don't get STIs'. Tellingly the clitoris gets four lines in this book, while vaginas get over 20. This is, I should add, one of the better Australian books for adolescents.

Non-consensual heterosexual sex and sexual violence is undoubtedly a world-wide concern. For example the Australian Study of Health and Relationships (ASHR 2003) and the National Survey of Australian Secondary Students (NSASS 2003) both show a significant pattern of forced sexual activity (Combes and Hinton 2005). The first study showed 21% of women in the broad population and the second indicated 26% of 15 - 17 year old secondary students reported unwanted sex. The latter study showed 13% of secondary students reporting unwanted sex under pressure from their partner. In this context, as Kimmel notes, it is evident that rape, for instance, is not perpetrated by a lunatic fringe but rather is a crime marked by its ordinariness (2005:189). Relatedly, there is research evidence from a range of locations that young men face considerable peer pressure from other young men to engage in heterosex (Schubotz et al 2004).

Yet sex education is not compulsory in Australian schools and there is no nationallyconsistent curriculum for teaching teenagers about relationships or sexual and reproductive health. This is not a problem in Australia alone. Furthermore, most sexual health education programmes remain restrictively focussed upon biomedical information. As the 2003 Australian Study of Health and Relationships-the largest and most comprehensive survey of sexuality undertaken in the country-has revealed, sex education in schools gained 'top marks' from young people in terms of learning about technical 'mechanics', but apparently gave little clue about the interactive including pleasurable aspects of the enterprise (Powell 2007; ARCSHS 2003). SHine SA (Sexual Health Information Networking and Education), a sexual health agency in South Australia, also reports that 80% of young people regard sex education in schools as useless or fairly useless [sexual_health_statistics_2008.pdf]. Similarly, a joint report to the British government on sexual health in 2005, fuelled by the 'risk' of teenage pregnancy rates, stated that sex education in schools provides basic factual biological information but beyond that was extremely limited and even confused (Campbell 2005). Sex education of even this meager sort is of course under threat in the USA (Irvine 2000).

However, perhaps an even more important limitation of sex education programs is the insistent use of fear and risk of disease to try to motivate people to practice 'safer' sex (Philpott et al 2006). In this setting it is no wonder that there is considerable evidence that 'the "official" discourse of sex education [does] not relate to teenage lives' (Chambers et al 2004). Specifically, the sex education curriculum all too often neglects the complicated process of choices regarding sexual behaviour, and is de-eroticised. While sex education almost entirely evades queer sexualities, it also neglects heterosexual female sexual pleasure and characteristically denies heterosexual young men a positive and legitimate sexual subjectivity (Harrison and Hillier 1999; Allen 2006). This is a serious problem for sexual health strategies intending to promote egalitarian sexual practices including ending sexual violence. As both Broom (2007, 2008) and Diprose (2007, 2008) point out, the inadvertent consequence of employing 'scare' tactics associated with preventing risky behaviours may well be increasing resistance to Preventive Health approaches. This analysis is also relevant to sex education. My point here is that a proudly pro-sex agenda in sexual health agendas can still involve a heavy dosage of regulatory imperatives and does not necessarily produce attention to pleasure, even to hetero-pleasure. Sexual health education programs remain dominated by a framing of sex as risk and danger-by assumptions which reflect the Modernist feminist 'sex-asdanger' position I outlined earlier-often depicting women/girls as vulnerable and men/ boys as culpable. This Preventive Health focus on fear and danger with regard to heterosex is problematic precisely because it is likely to be counter-productive.

Even programs which we would rightly judge to be at the forefront of a Preventive Health sex education are constrained by 'the already minimal cultural space afforded sexual pleasure', as Janice Irvine (2000) puts it. For example, the SHARE Project (a sexual health program for upper level high school students in South Australia which ran between 2003 to 2005 under the auspices of SHine SA) strongly emphasised its holistic Preventive Health framing, presented itself as having a healthy, 'neutral', non-moralistic approach to sexuality and implicitly therefore as not about suppressive regulation of sexuality (SHine SA 2003:8-9). Yet SHARE was explicitly shaped by concerns about risk and danger. For instance, SHARE was highly attentive to teenage pregnancy and STIs, stressing rational knowledge-based choice, 'safety', and service usage. The program did stress being positive about sex, but, at the same time, the program could barely mention pleasure. This is not a criticism of SHARE, which faced vitriolic attack by Christian Right-Wing lobbyists precisely for its 'pro-sex' stance (Gibson 2007), but simply to point out, that Preventive Health in sexuality-even in its more progressive manifestations-is rarely in practice about sexuality. It is rarely about doing sex, let alone about experiencing or giving pleasure, and much more about health as regulatory management of social risk.

Debra Lupton (1995; Petersen and Lupton 1996) argues that rational calculation and managing risk associated with social inequities and 'lifestyle' choices is the mainstay of the Preventive Health agenda (including sex education), which ties it into regulatory governance. I would add, in common with the perspectives of Hage (2003), Burke (2007) and Diprose (2007, 2008), that it is also strongly associated with the present dominance of public discourses throughout the Western world prioritising 'security'. Debra Lupton, along with many others who offer critical perspectives on Preventive Health, employs Foucault's work on the modern surveillance of bodies to discuss its risk/danger orientation (Lupton 1994:20-40). Is this the answer? Should we simply turn away from the Modernist 'sex-as-danger' approach and adopt a Postmodern Foucauldian 'pro-sex' stance? While I see advantages in the latter perspective, I am not sure this analysis is sufficient either.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this paper, in the first instance there is reason to qualify Foucault's thesis regarding the proliferating sexualisation of the modern public realm at least when considering the non-commercial arenas of Gender/Sexuality scholarship and Preventive Health. The Foucauldian critique may be a problematic framework for assessing the treatment of heterosex in non-commercial arenas. Secondly, Lupton's Foucauldian analysis casts the Preventive Health framework as still mired in the 'sex-asdanger' camp. In other words, she reiterates in many ways the binary enunciated in the 'sex wars' debate. We are faced here in her view either with sex as danger and risk OR with Foucault's embrace of bodies as pleasure. The Foucauldian 'pro-sex' camp does at least bring Queer sexualities into view. However, it is inclined to equate pleasure almost exclusively with Queer sexualities, while heterosexuality=heteronormative and heterosexual women simply disappear from view. The Foucauldian pro-sex stance may not be the answer. Indeed, as I have noted in relation to sex education programs such as SHARE, a 'pro-sex' framework, affirming sex is 'healthy', does not get us very far.

Recognition of pleasure in sexual health and strategies for gender equity

What if we refused the sex wars binary of danger versus pleasure and took a different direction? What if a concern with risk-with making sex safe-and a concern with pleasurable sex are not mutually exclusive. In this context, existing research indicates that recognition of pleasure in sexual health has resulted in greater safety, in increased use of condoms by men and greater involvement of women in negotiation of sexual practices. (Philpott et al 2006; Ingham 2005; 'The Power of Pleasure' undated; Holland et al 1992).

Recognition of pleasure paradoxically appears to produce more egalitarian rather than non-consensual sexual relations between men and women. This research information is not just relevant to prevention of disease, but has implications for strategies regarding sexual violence. Recognition of hetero-pleasure can in other words inform a shift towards positively reconstructing men's identities in ways that exclude violence against women (White 2000; Jenkins 1990).

I have attempted here to indicate the limits of a primarily negative (an always already punitive) orientation which emphasises danger and warnings. I have suggested that both Gender/Sexuality scholarly writings and Preventive Health sex education materials remain captured by precisely such a narrow agenda. Yet it is possible, even likely, that young heterosexual men's sense of entitlement about non-consensual sex cannot be effectively reconfigured if anti-violence discourses continue to constitute heterosexuality in ways that do not pay attention to pleasure. Moreover, without engaging young men such anti-violence discourses run the risk of continuing by default to leave young women with the task of being responsible for 'risk management' of sexuality and sexual violence (Carmody 2005). We must face growing evidence that promoting pleasure when discussing sex is likely to encourage forms of sexuality that are safer and more egalitarian. Talking about pleasure is not necessarily at odds with safety but instead may well produce it.


I suggest we may need to move away from the standard binary thinking of the old sex wars. Both Gender/Sexuality writings and Preventive Health in the form of the sexual health literature tend to be populated by vulnerable wombs and vaginas and troublesome penises. Perhaps we could instead learn from aspects of the HIV/AIDS work and refuse to accept the established binary of pleasure versus danger, such that 'safe sex' can also be hot sex. My concern here is that, to the extent that critical non-commercial voices do not attend to hetero-pleasure and the libidinal body, they are unable to provide an enticing alternative to the seductive barrage of consumerist messages about (hetero)sexuality and, relatedly, fail to engage young men in particular. Indeed they may inadvertently produce a counter-productive resistance amongst young men to sexual health strategies, including those which aim to promote gender equity.

Strategies to encourage egalitarian (hetero)sexuality, and hence to end sexual violence, must move beyond conceptions of heterosexuality simply as a problem and instead generate positive identification with forms of heterosexual masculinity attuned to egalitarian sexual practices. Though I have suggested some difficulties with current directions in Masculinity Studies scholarship in this regard, in common with Michael Kimmel I too see the aim as refashioning our sexualities 'away from control, aggression and violence and toward mutuality and equality-a loving lust that is equal parts heat and heart' (2005:xiv). As Moira Carmody (2005) puts it, we need an 'ethical erotics'.

Making safe sex hot may well provide a more attractive counter-discourse than the existing emphasis on heterosexuality as monolithically normative, inequitable and risky. But how do we do this without also energising conservative and/ or religious forces? Putting hetero-pleasure back into Gender/Sexuality studies and into sex education is not just a question of getting out the aromatic oils and an exotic massage book, but is a deeply political question.


1. My thanks to Carol Bacchi for discussions which helped clarify my thinking on aspects of the Foucauldian sexualisation thesis.

2. McNay and Bland, amongst other commentators, offer related observations regarding the difficulties attached to an account of disciplinary power as monolithic and uniform, though their particular concern is to indicate the gendered limitations of this account (McNay 1992:38-47; Bland 1981:58-9).

3. The telling exception here is feminist work on violence, which largely retains a second wave Modernist framing.

4. As noted above, the exception is feminist work on violence.

5. See, for example, Jackson 1999; Holland et al 1998; Johnson 2005; Scott and Jackson 2007; Hockey et al 2007; Ingraham 2008.

6. This problematic equation of heterosexuality with heteronormativity will be the subject of more extensive analysis in a forthcoming co-authored book, titled Adventures in Heterosexuality.

7. I am indebted to Heather Brook for this way of expressing the problem.

8. The comment is also relevant to feminist work on violence.

9. The limits of a risk orientation have associations and implications for related 'protective' vocabularies including 'care' and social capital' (see Beasley and Bacchi 2007).



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[Author Affiliation]

Chris Beasley

School of History and Politics

University of Adelaide