Chapter 9 Sexual Deviance

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CHAPTER 9 Sexual Deviance

As we’ve repeatedly seen, more than a generation ago, a critic (Liazos, 1972) attacked—indeed, mocked and poked fun of—sociologists of deviance who studied “nuts, sluts, and deviated preverts,” which, in his mind, included the mentally disordered, prostitutes, and homosexuals. He regarded the emphasis by the sociologist of deviance on actors who engage in the violation of society’s sexual norms as a bias, which ignored the truly important and influential forms of deviance—such as the evil and destructive deeds of powerful corporate and government actors. His message seems to be: No more sex in deviance courses and textbooks!—at least, less than in the past.

But the fact is, it is more interpersonally discrediting—and therefore more deviant—to engage in the “nuts, sluts, and preverts” forms of behavior than corporate crime and high-level political malfeasance. In spite of this supposedly misguided and biased emphasis, sociologists of deviance still focus on the study of, and continue to discuss, sexual deviance more than the “big bang” deviant behaviors. Sexually unconventional behavior remains a central topic of discussion in most courses in deviance, and with good reason: It is a prime example of deviance. Sociologists discuss sexual violations as deviance because such behavior tends to be more discrediting and stigmatizing than most other forms of deviance. Indeed, it seems perverse and wrongheaded not to emphasize social deviance in a deviance course. It is Liazos who holds the bias, not the sociologists of deviance.

Critics who claim that sociologists focus too much on sex in their courses on deviance are asking the wrong question. The right questions are these: Why do societies devise and enforce so many norms about sexual behavior? Why are the punishments for violating sexual norms so severe? The ways we violate mainstream society’s norms by engaging in variant sexual acts are almost infinite. And the severity of society’s punishment for many sexual transgressions is substantial. How many husbands or wives divorce their spouses for committing corporate crime? Very few. How many people become the town gossip as a result of cheating on their income tax? A few; not many. In contrast, many sexual acts are off limits or unacceptable to most of the members of this—indeed, almost any—society. The fact is societies pretty much everywhere have set forth and enforced an immense number of norms dictating acceptable and unacceptable sexual behavior. The do’s and don’ts of sex are staggering in their number, variety, and complexity. And these do’s and don’ts usually carry with them interpersonal penalties.

We construct almost uncountable social identities on the basis of what we do, or have done, sexually. We have—and we construct for ourselves—categories for people as a result of the fact that they, or we, engage in, have engaged in, prefer, or want to engage or try to engage or can’t engage, in certain types of sexual acts. Think of these categories: homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, adulterer, cuckold, faithful husband, faithful wife, impotent man, frigid woman, necrophiliac, pedophile, child molester, rapist, rape victim, Liazos’ “prevert” (his way of mocking the sociologist’s interest in sexual perversion), cougar, gigolo, escort, call girl, “dirty old man,” sexual harasser, “slut,” “tramp,” whore, prostitute, pimp, sex fiend, sex addict, pornographer, sadist, masochist, exhibitionist, peeper, lap dancer, stripper, nude dancer, exotic dancer, “tease,” a “lousy lay,” gay, queer, faggot, pansy, Mary Jane, dyke, “butch,” “femme”—the list goes on and on. Obviously, sex plays a very central role in defining who we are in this society. And its importance, so intricately and intimately tied in to social relations, is indicated by the number and strength of the norms attempting to govern it. Clearly, sexual deviance is an important type of deviant behavior. It would represent a bias to ignore or underplay it. Corporate crime is an extremely minor form of deviance since only a small number of people can engage in it, the interpersonal sanctions for transgressions are usually minor, and it is rarely relevant to actors’ identities. Precisely the opposite is true of sexual deviance.

Consider the Bible’s sexual prohibitions. It is true that, for most people, The Holy Bible is not the primary source of sexual norms. In fact, many people ignore most of the injunctions in the Bible as more or less irrelevant for their lives. Still, when we want to understand how sexual norms work, a good place to start is the Old and New Testaments; these texts give us a clue to what’s considered wrong. A perusal of the Bible tells us a great deal about sexual norms. The number of injunctions and prohibitions against sexual acts considered wrong by the ancients, and the severity of the punishments for violating them, is impressive. Consider the fact that the Bible contains 69 different passages that refer to adulterer, adulterers, adulteress, adulteresses, adulteries, adulterous, and adultery, and 44 refer to fornication, fornications, fornicator, and fornicators. In addition, the Holy Book prohibits sex with one’s father’s wife, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, sister, father’s daughter, mother’s daughter, mother’s sister, father’s sister, uncle’s wife, and brother’s wife—not to mention animals, another man, and one’s own wife during menstruation. (It is interesting that these prohibitions are spelled out mainly for men, less often for women; the compliance of women to the norms is more likely to have been taken for granted.) Several of these injunctions carry a penalty of death, in some cases, by stoning. Clearly, the control of sexuality and the punishment of deviant sexuality were major tasks of the prophets. And the fact is the importance of sexual prohibitions remains true to this day.


In contemporary society, what are the ways in which sex may be considered deviant? With sex norms, as with laws governing sexual acts, there are the who, what, how, where, and when questions. Who one’s partner is, is clearly an important source of prohibition; “what” one’s partner is, likewise, determines right and wrong in the sexual arena; how the sex act takes place also can determine its inappropriateness; and where and when sex is performed, too, can be a source of right and wrong. What makes a sexual act illegal—and deviant—is an inappropriateness along one or another of the following dimensions: (1) the degree of consent, one aspect of the how question; (2) the nature of the sexual object, the who and what question; (3) the nature of the sex act, another aspect of the “how” question; and (4) the setting in which the sex act occurs, the where question (Wheeler, 1960).

Rape, which is regarded by most observers as more an act of violence than a type of sexual behavior, and which is discussed in Chapter 6, is deviant along dimension (1)—consent on the part of the woman is lacking; force, violence, or the threat of violence is used to obtain sexual intercourse.

All societies on earth proscribe certain sex partners as unacceptable, and sex with them as deviant—dimension (2), or nature of the sex partner. The number of sex partners who are regarded as inappropriate for all members of societies around the world is enormous. In addition, all societies deem certain partners for designated persons off-limits, while those partners may be acceptable for other persons. In our society, close relatives may not have sex with one another (again, the “who” question); if they do, it is automatically an instance of deviance. The same applies to members of the same sex, strangers, anyone except our spouse if we are married, and so on. Adults may not have sex with underage minors; Catholic priests may not have sex with anyone; psychiatrists may not have sex with their patients; on most university campuses, professors should not have sex with students; and so on. Many of these restrictions pertain to the relationship we have (or don’t have) with certain persons—brothers and sisters, strangers, and so on. Dimension (2), the nature of the sexual partner, also includes non-human sex objects, such as animals or sex dolls. (This is a “what” rather than a “who” question.)

“Kinky” sex, encompassing dimension (3)—the nature of the sex act, or the “how” question—is made up of sexual behavior that is bizarre to many people, constituting what used to be referred to as perversions. Some people receive a sexual charge out of receiving an enema; this is regarded as kinky. Others like to be tied up when they have sex, or to tie their partner up; this too may be referred to as kinky. Sadomasochistic practices (giving or receiving pain during the sex act) likewise fall under the “how” umbrella of dimension (3). Some acts that were once considered perverted are more likely to be accepted and considered normal today—for instance, oral and anal sex. Kinky sex is considered deviant specifically because what is done—the nature of the act—is considered weird, unwholesome, and worthy of condemnation. Sex with a partner of the same gender is condemned and therefore deviant in most social circles of Western society. Another widely controlled sex act in this society—by custom, if not by law—is masturbation. Adolescent boys and girls are admonished not to touch themselves, and adults are rarely willing to discuss their participation in it, even to their close friends.

And lastly, some people find sex in public and semipublic places exciting and practice it because they have a certain chance of being discovered by others. Pushed to its extreme form, this is referred to as exhibitionism, and it is regarded as deviance because of dimension (4), the “where” question—sex in an inappropriate setting. Sexual fantasies (of many men, at least) indicate that sex in an inappropriate setting excites the imagination of many people.

There are other dimensions that are not covered by the law or are less strongly governed by law than by custom that, nonetheless, dictate the inappropriateness of certain sexual behaviors. There is, to begin with, the how often question: The desire for sex that is widely deemed too often may court the charge of being a “sex addict” (Carnes, 1983) or being “sexually compulsive” (Levine and Troiden, 1988). On the other hand, desiring or having sex not often enough may result in being labeled “impotent” or “frigid.” Generally, sex at too young an age, even if the partners are of the same age, generates condemnation and punishment among conventional others, parents especially. Not uncommonly, persons who are deemed too old will experience some negative, often condescending, reactions from others—often their own children! Sex with too many partners (a pattern that is conventionally referred to as “promiscuity,” a loaded and sexist term) will attract chastisement, although more often for women than men, and more often homosexual men than heterosexuals. Exposing one’s sex organs to an unwilling, coerced audience (exhibitionism), too, qualifies as an unconventional sex act, and is illegal as well. Selling, acting in or posing for, making, or, in some quarters, purchasing and consuming material that is widely regarded as pornographic is widely regarded as deviant. Selling and buying sexual favors is a clear-cut instance of sexual deviance in most people’s eyes; prostitution is one of the more widely known and condemned forms of sexual deviance.


As I’ve said, positivism—or the application of the strict scientific method to the social world—is related to a perspective that, in philosophy, is referred to as “essentialism.” There is perhaps no arena of human life in which a contrast between essentialism and constructionism is sharper than with sexual behavior. The essentialist position sees sexuality as “real,” as something that exists, in more or less standard form, everywhere and for all time. Sex is a “thing,” a pregiven entity, a concretely real phenomenon, much like an oxygen molecule, an apple or an orange, or gravitation. To the essentialististic perspective, sex is an immanent, indwelling inherent force, it is there; it exists prior to the human consciousness. “Everyone knows” what sex is; sex is sex is sex. Essentialists recognize that sex norms and sexual custom, and behavior, vary the world over and throughout recorded time. But the sexual conservative would say that certain variations are a perversion of our “true” or legitimate sexual expression, while the libertine would say that sexual repression is a perversion of our true or legitimate sexual expression. Both agree, however, that the essence of sexuality is a thing that can be characterized in a more or less standard fashion. In other words, both are essentialists.

A completely different view of sex is offered by constructionism. This perspective asks questions about the construction and imputation of meaning (Gagnon and Simon, 1973, 2005; Plummer, 1975, 1982). Instead of assuming beforehand that a phenomenon bears an automatic sexual meaning, the constructionist asks the following: How is sexuality itself constructed? What is sexuality? How is the category put together? What is included in it, what’s excluded? What are the meanings that are attached to it? How is sex thought about? Talked about? What rules do societies construct for appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior? Constructionists argue that sexual meanings vary from person to person, setting to setting, social circle to social circle, and society to society.

Constructionists insist that behaviors or phenomena that are superficially, mechanically, and outwardly the same—that might seem formally the same to an external observer—can have radically different meanings to the participants. And the opposite is true as well: Social phenomena that, if examined from the outside, are objectively radically different can actually bear very similar meanings to observers or participants. What is sexual to one person may be totally lacking in sexual content or meaning to another.

For instance, is being strangled with a nylon cord sexually exciting? Very few of us would feel that way, but sexual asphyxia—strangling oneself to achieve sexual excitation—is common enough to be well known to every coroner and medical examiner in the country. Does wearing rubber and leather arouse our passion? What about engaging in dominance and submission games with your partner? Are children your sexual cup of tea? Do strippers become sexually aroused when they perform? Many members of their audiences certainly do; in contrast, these performers are usually going through the motions, utterly unmoved by their act. Receiving an enema or watching an entire family playing volleyball at a nudist colony may be sexual to one observer or participant and totally asexual to another. Is a vaginal examination by a gynecologist sexual in meaning? An act that sickens one person leaves another cold and causes a third to become aroused to orgasm.

Consider same-gender sexual behavior in ancient Greece. In this case, same-gender sexual behavior was accepted, even expected, if one male is older and the other is an adolescent and the older male continues to have sex with women as well. Now consider same-gender sexual behavior in the contemporary United States where homosexual contact is more likely to be stigmatized, the partners tend to be age peers, and it is not typically accompanied by heterosexual activity. Can we equate the two? Are they the same sort of behavior? Can we refer to both as “homosexuality”? To do so would make many constructionists extremely uncomfortable. In Inuit society, a custom exists of husbands offering their wives sexually to male guests; in the contemporary

United States, in some social circles, married couples “swap” or “swing” or engage in comarital sex. Are these two practices similar to, or very different from, one another? They are likely to serve entirely different functions and be experienced by the relevant parties in radically different ways. Hence, to the constructionist, they are different acts; their similarities are likely to be more superficial than meaningful.
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