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Very Short Introduction: Sexuality

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Today I am delighted to be able to bring you another VSI column. This month Véronique Mottier has kindly answered a few questions for OUPblog about her latest book Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction. Véronique Mottier is Fellow and Director of Studies in Social and Political Sciences at Jesus College since 1999, and part-time Professor in Sociology at the University of Lausanne since 2006.

OUP: Have sexuality and politics always been as closely aligned as they seem to be today?

VÉRONIQUE MOTTIER: In antiquity already, sex was important to political life, but in different ways from the present. For example, in ancient Athens, it was perfectly acceptable for free men to have sex with women, slaves, or young men. However, men who prostituted themselves were seen to lower themselves to the level of women and slaves by accepting the role of sexual object, and could be stripped of their political citizenship rights. Accusations of sexual impropriety were frequently used weapons against political opponents in public debate in the ancient world and could have devastating consequences. It is difficult to think of any society where the sexual was not political, though how the political and sexual spheres were understood has varied enormously throughout history. What is different today is the pervasive role of the modern state, which intervenes in the sex lives of its citizens through education, legislation, and healthcare. Another important change is that modern citizens demand political rights based on their sexual orientation. In the classical world, the idea of classifying people according to the gender of the person they have sex with would have seemed downright bizarre!

OUP: You talk about the impact of HIV/AIDS in your book. With the rate of new infections still rising in the Western world, what do you think governments need to do to help slow the epidemic?

MOTTIER: There is certainly no room for complacency. While anti-viral drugs have been highly successful in extending the lives of people living with AIDS, the battle has by no means won. Campaigns promoting sexual abstinence have been largely unsuccessful in reducing unsafe sex, while prevention strategies which focused primarily on providing information and condoms have implicitly assumed that citizens are rational beings who will abandon their risky practices once they’ve been informed of the risks. Continuing new infections demonstrate that the provision of information and condoms continues to be crucial; however, it is not enough. Sex does not constitute the most rational area of most individuals’ lives. Today, Western governments are increasingly aware that prevention campaigns need to try to take into account the emotional and irrational aspects of people’s sex lives.

OUP: You say in the book that sexuality has been an issue that has deeply divided feminists over the years. Could you briefly explain to the OUPblog readers in what ways this has happened?

MOTTIER: Many feminists initially embraced the sexual revolution of the 1960s with great enthusiasm, seeing sexual liberation as crucial for women’s liberation generally. Pretty rapidly however, feminist critiques emerged which rejected sexual liberation rhetoric for mainly serving the sexual interests of men while continuing to exploit women. Separatist lesbian groups argued that women who slept with men were ‘collaborating with the enemy’, a stance which hardly endeared them to heterosexual feminists at the time and created great controversy within the women’s movement. Further deep splits over the links between sexuality and women’s oppression occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when prominent voices such as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin argued that pornography and prostitution were forms of violence against women, and that sexual violence was the foundation of male domination over women generally. In contrast, feminists such as Lynne Segal or Carol Queen began to define themselves as ‘sex-positive’, rejecting the ‘depressing’ views of sexuality that reduce female sexual pleasure from intercourse to the effects of male brainwashing.

OUP: With so much controversy over sex education, when do you think is the optimum age to start sex education in schools, and why?

MOTTIER: Perhaps we should less worry about the age at which sex education should start (since different cultures have such different ideas about sexual adulthood this that a general reply would make little sense), and more about its contents. It strikes me that much sex education today aims to inform children of the mechanics of sex, as well as of its risks and dangers such as unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmissible diseases. These are extremely important matters; what gets a bit lost in the process is the issue of sexual pleasure. If we want to produce citizens who are able to express and negotiate their sexual needs, and to respect partners’ personal boundaries, sex education needs to address issues of communication and consent perhaps more explicitly than it has done in the past.

OUP: Once people have read your VSI, which five books would you recommend them for further reading?

MOTTIER: Jeffrey Weeks’ Sexuality is an excellent and well-written general introduction (Routledge, 2003). David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (Routledge, 1990) is a scholarly analysis revealing the enormous gap that separates modern understandings of sexuality from those of the ancient world. The series of reports by Shere Hite, in particular her Hite Report on Female Sexuality, first published in 1976 (Dell Books), remain fascinating, both in terms of offering insights into people’s everyday experiences of sexuality in 1970s America, and as prominent contributions to the feminist critiques of sexuality which followed the sexual revolution. Angus McLaren’s Impotence: A Cultural History (2007) on the cultural consequences of male sexual ‘failure’ is riveting. The influential History of Sexuality (especially Volume 1: an introduction) by the French philosopher Michel Foucault (Penguin 1990) transformed current thinking about sex when it first came out in 1976.

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