Sexual Practice

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Sexual Practice

Organized by: Gloria Gadsden, New Mexico Highlands University
Updated by: Lacey Story, Oakland University

This section offers educators a chance to explore sexual practices as they relate to notions of gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, age and, more broadly, power. Many assume sexual practice is governed by free will and notions of “love.” But most research demonstrates, like many other social behaviors, sexual practice is ‘controlled’ by norms and values in a particular society. Rules and regulations dictate sexual partners, especially with respect to gender, race, and age, the social context in which one is ‘allowed’ to engage in sexual relations, and even the time of day one ‘should’ have sex. Foucault related that there is a “policing of sex…[through] public discourses” (1978, 25). Specifically, “good” sex is represented by the practices of heterosexual, white, middle or upper class couples. These individuals are able to experience sexual pleasure if they are married (or at least monogamous), if they fall between the appropriate ages, if the sex is ‘private,’ and if their sexual relations produce children who can reproduce the system. This collection of articles, spanning more than a decade, transforms these assumptions, providing instructors with inventive opportunities to discuss sexual practice in the context of power.

Foucault, M. 1978. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 – An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Diefendorf, Sarah.  2015. After the Wedding Night: Sexual Abstinence and Masculinities Over the Life Course. Gender & Society 29 (5): 647-669.

This article explores how men use sexual practice before marriage to negotiate and assert notions of masculinity before and after marriage. The author examines how men who pledge abstinence until marriage negotiate a tension between both “sacred” and “beastly” discourses surrounding (hetero)sexuality.   She argues that a decision to pledge sexual abstinence until marriage is an example of a hybrid masculinity and that such practices are not challenging current gendered systems of power and inequality.

Trautner, Mary Nell. 2005. Doing Gender, Doing Class: The Performance of Sexuality in Exotic Dance Clubs. Gender & Society 19 (6): 771-788.

This article pursues the idea of organizations as gendered and classed by means of a comparative ethnographic analysis of the performance of sexuality in four exotic dance clubs in the Southwestern United States. Strip clubs construct sexuality to be consistent with client class norms and assumptions and with how the clubs and dancers think working-class or middle-class sexuality should be expressed. Class differences are represented as sexual differences in very concrete ways: the appearance of dancers and other staff, dancing and performance styles, and interactions that take place between dancers and customers.

Wolkomir, Michelle. 2009. Making Heteronormative Reconciliations: The Story of Romantic Love, Sexuality, and Gender in Mixed-Orientation Marriages. Gender & Society 23 (4): 494-519.

According to this article, marriage presents an idealized package for socio-sexual relations that reproduces and intertwines gender power dynamics and heterosexual desire. This package is sustained, in part, by the ideology of romantic love—a set of beliefs that constructs only a particular configuration of sexual and gender practices as natural, normal, and right. Drawing on interviews with 45 people, this study examines how people negotiate marital relationships that do not fit into this normative configuration— mixed-orientation (e.g., straight and gay) marriages. Participants’ resolutions to these situations, whether they divorced or created asexual or sexual non-monogamous marriages, were heavily shaped by their belief in the ideology of romantic love, illustrating how heteronormative relations can be held in place by normalizing ideologies.

Schalet, Amy. 2010. Sexual Subjectivity Revisited: The Significance of Relationships in Dutch and American Girls’ Experiences of Sexuality. Gender & Society 24(3): 304-329.

This research suggests important differences in institutionalized forms of heterosexuality. It also suggests the significance of girls’ relationships, and the cultural perceptions and processes that shape those relationships, for their sexual subjectivity. In-depth interviews with white middle-class Dutch and American girls demonstrate two important differences in the cultural beliefs and processes that shape their negotiation of heterosexuality. First, Dutch girls are able to integrate their sexual selves into their relationships with their parents, while reconciling sexuality with daughterhood is difficult for the American girls. Second, American girls face adult and peer cultures skeptical about whether teenagers can sustain the feelings and relationships that legitimate sexual activity, while Dutch girls are assumed to be able to fall in love and form steady sexual relationships.

Ronen, Shelly. 2010. Grinding On the Dance Floor: Gendered Scripts and Sexualized Dancing at College Parties. Gender & Society 24 (3): 355-377.

In this article, the author explores the gendered dynamics of “grinding,” sexualized dancing common at college parties. Drawing on the observations of student participant observers, the author describes the common script for initiating this behavior. At these parties, men initiated more often and more directly than women, whose behaviors were shaped by a sexual double standard and (hetero-) relational imperative. The heterosexual grinding script enacts a gendered dynamic that reproduces systematic gender inequality by limiting women’s access to sexual agency and pleasure, privileging men’s pleasure and confirming their higher status.

Reid, Julie A., Sinikka Elliott and Gretchen R. Webber. 2011. Casual Hookups to Formal Dates: Refining the Boundaries of the Sexual Double Standard. Gender & Society 25 (5): 545-568.

According to this article, and in contrast to the sexual script which holds that women want relationships more than sex and men care about sex more than relationships, students generally accorded women sexual agency and desire in the “hookup” and validated men’s post-hookup relationship interest. However, students typically reasoned that women were being chaste and withholding sex to redeem their reputations whereas they often characterized men’s abstinence in terms of a pity date. The findings underscore the tenacity of gendered sexual scripts around heterosexual dates and hookups, but also reveal fissures and contradictions that suggest some changes to the sexual double standard.

Mann, Emily S. 2013. Regulating Latina Youth Sexualities through Community Health Centers: Discourses and Practices of Sexual Citizenship. Gender & Society 27 (5): 681-703.

This article examines the regulation of Latina youth sexualities in the context of sexual and reproductive health care provision. In-depth interviews with health care providers working in two Latino-serving community health centers are analyzed for how they interpret and respond to the sexual and reproductive practices of their low-income Latina teen patients. The author finds that providers emphasize teenage pregnancy as a social problem among this population to the exclusion of other dimensions of youth sexualities and encourage Latina girls’ adherence to a life course trajectory that conforms to middle-class, heteronormative ideals as a solution to this problem.

Currier, Danielle M. 2013. Strategic Ambiguity: Protecting Emphasized Femininity and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Hookup Culture. Gender & Society 2013 27 (5): 704-727.

Hooking up is a term commonly used in contemporary American society to refer to sexual activity between two people who are not in a committed romantic relationship. This article addresses the normative character and the myriad definitions of hookups; addresses the underlying heterosexist bias in the definitions of hookups; and analyzes how the ambiguity of the term “hookup” serves women and men in different ways, both reinforcing and challenging the current gender order, allowing men to conform to and preserve components of hegemonic masculinity and women to conform to and preserve components of emphasized femininity.

Wilkins, Amy C. and Cristen Dalessandro. 2013. Monogamy Lite: Cheating, College, and Women. Gender & Society 27 (5): 728-751.

Studies of collegiate sexuality have not examined infidelity. This article investigates the meanings and practices of “monogamy” and “cheating” for college women. College women use ideas about age, class, and gender to construct collegiate sexuality as a kind of “monogamy lite” exempt from the “rules” of adult sexuality. Many have cheated themselves. Simultaneously, they define “real” relationships as exclusive and condemn “cheaters” as bad people. We employ an intersectional analysis to analyze these discrepancies, arguing that the multiple meanings women use reconcile contradictions between expectations for women’s sexuality and expectations about collegiate behavior, allowing women to sustain a commitment to relationships while also participating in collegiate sexual culture. Moreover, by providing a socially legible, gender-appropriate way to end unwanted relationships, these meanings allow women to use cheating to solve dilemmas in their intimate lives. In this case, college women use middle-class ideas about the transition to adulthood to resist gendered imperatives.

Bridges, Tristan. 2014. A Very “Gay” Straight?: Hybrid Masculinities, Sexual Aesthetics, and the Changing Relationship between Masculinity and Homophobia. Gender & Society 28(1): 58-82.

Bears comprise a subculture of gay men who valorize the larger, hirsute body. This research interrogates Bear culture as a gendered strategy for repudiating effeminacy that simultaneously challenges and reproduces norms of hegemonic masculinity. The author concludes that through a process of embodied agency, Bear culture yields a number of sexually innovative practices that disperse pleasure across the body and disrupt genitally centered, phallus and receptacle interpretations of sex. However, the subversive potential of these practices is significantly undermined by an attendant set of practices that reflect heteronormative and hegemonically masculine interpretations of sex.

Rupp, Leila J., Verta Taylor, Shiri Regev-Messalem, Alison C.K. Fogarty and Paula England. 2014. Queer Women in the Hookup Scene: Beyond the Closet? Gender & Society 28 (2): 212-235.

In this article the authors argue that the hookup scene serves as an opportunity structure to explore same-sex attractions and, at least for some women, to later verify bisexual, lesbian, or queer sexual identities. The college hookup scene is a profoundly gendered and heteronormative sexual field. Yet the party and bar scene that gives rise to hookups also fosters the practice of women kissing other women in public, generally to the enjoyment of male onlookers, and sometimes facilitates threesomes involving same-sex sexual behavior between women. These authors offer a new interpretation of women’s same-sex practices in the hookup culture. Their analysis contributes to gender theory by demonstrating the utility of identity theory for understanding how non-normative gender and sexual identities are negotiated within heteronormatively structured fields.

Hoang, Kimberly Kay. 2014. Competing Technologies of Embodiment Pan-Asian Modernity and Third World Dependency in Vietnam’s Contemporary Sex Industry. Gender & Society 28 (4): 513-536.

This article illustrates how the circulation of capital and culture in Asia produces divergent embodied gendered ideals of national belonging through the case of Vietnam’s global sex industry. Introducing the concept of competing technologies of embodiment, the author shows how sex workers’ surgical and cosmetic bodily projects represent different perceptions of an emerging nation’s divergent trajectories in the global economy. In a high-end niche market that caters to local elite Vietnamese businessmen, sex workers project a new pan-Asian modernity highlighting emergent Asian ideals of beauty in a project of progress that signals the rise of Asia. Women who cater to Western men, in contrast, embody Third World dependency, portraying Vietnam as a poverty-stricken country in need of Western charity. By comparing multiple markets, the author illustrates how individual agents in the developing world actively re-imagine their nation’s place in the global economy through their embodied practices.