Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

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

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

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

Article excerpt


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). …

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