Very recently in the USA, a student at Rutgers University committed suicide after a video of him having sex with another man was posted on the internet. I do not want to speculate on the motivations of either Tyler Clementi or his tormentors, but many of my students took part in the day against bullying on October 20, 2010, joining many others who wore purple to signify their opposition to homophobic bullying. As a gay man, I felt heartbroken when I heard this story and, I have to say, angry that we live in such a world. However, as an academic working on issues of gender and sexuality, I was also struck by how this and other suicides of young gay people illustrated the contradictions of where we are around issues of sexual diversity in the ‘West’.
We are often told that gay rights have become normalized in the West, and indeed that women’s rights have also become an accepted part of our contemporary western societies. In our recent book, my colleague Stevi Jackson and I detail the history of how various political movements of women’s and lesbian and gay liberation achieved such change, and how sociological analyses of gender and sexual inequalities contributed to political change over the last 40 years or so. However, we are also skeptical of those arguments that assume the job is done. Think, for example, about a classic and pioneering analysis from the sociologist Mary McIntosh on “The Homosexual Role” in which she argued that the ‘specialized, despised and punished’ social identity of homosexuality served to reinforce traditional gender identities. This was written over 40 years ago, before all the political and social changes we have seen around sexual diversity, but can one really doubt that elements of this analysis remain acutely relevant when some feel that homosexual behaviour is remarkable enough, and perhaps shameful enough, to be used to stigmatize others? Whilst we have no doubt made real social progress in the acceptance of sexual diversity, we cannot be complacent that this progress is comprehensive. We argue throughout our book that we must understand issues of sexuality in the context of gender hierarchies – could we understand why homosexuality is still stigmatized unless we recognize that people are expected to be – assumed to be – heterosexual in both their gender identification and their sexual orientation?
Indeed, in discussing the contradictions of contemporary social worlds, it is clear that gender inequalities remain widespread and complex. For example, in a recent judgement from the Ontario Provincial Superior Court in Canada, a Judge struck down some aspects of the criminal code that regulates prostitution, arguing that they contradicted the rights of sex workers to be free from danger by forcing the trade onto the street rather than within homes. Some sex-workers had brought the case, arguing that legalizing home-based sex-work provides them with some protection against violent and abusive clients, but some government bodies and women’s groups resist such change, arguing that the issue of sex-work itself is the problem and should not be encouraged, echoing second-wave feminist analysis of prostitution as an exemplar of male social power. How do we negotiate such tensions? We think it is important to have a sound theoretical understanding of the social construction of sex-work and thus understand that it is a reflection of male economic, political and cultural power, but also to recognize that there is women’s agency within these contexts, and therefore that lived experience is often more complex than broad theoretical analysis.
The controversies around sexuality, both sexual diversity and sexual behaviours, remain a central part of our social worlds, and we hope our contribution will help readers to understand the complexities of these issues and the continuing significance of them to our current lives and societies.
Momin Rahman is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Trent University in Canada. His recent book, co-authored with Stevi Jackson at the University of York, has just published: Gender and Sexuality: Sociological Approaches. The book seeks to provide fresh insight into our rapidly changing attitudes towards sex and gender, “providing the intellectual resources to navigate the complex terrain of contemporary sexual and gender politics” (Steven Seidman, SUNY).