Overview of course goals and questions

One of the primary goals of this course is to make the familiar strange when it comes to sex and sexuality. This module will challenge a number of commonplace assumptions about sex and sexuality, including how we define these terms, the notion that sex and sexuality are natural categories best studied by science, the widespread belief that the natural and most common sexual orientation is towards the “opposite sex,” and the idea that sex is as significant as we tend to think it is. The next several modules of the course will approach sex and sexuality from both feminist and historical perspectives, going back as far as Greek and Roman antiquity. Starting with authors such as Plato, Aristotle, and Galen, and then moving into the modern period with Foucault, additional assumptions about sex and sexualities will be challenged, including the ideas that heterosexual sex is the norm, that the sexes are two in number, and that people have always had sexualities. Far from being natural givens or self-evident facts, we will see that sex and sexualities are politically contested and ever shifting categories, and that, in the case of sexualities, they are only a very recent invention.

Video Lecture: “Introduction to Feminist Sexuality Studies” (Click to watch on YouTube)

Introduction to Sexuality Studies

Before taking a deep dive into ancient history and philosophical questions about what sex and sexuality are, this introductory module will introduce you to the field of Sexuality Studies and to the much more recent history of its emergence. Understanding the relationship between influencers such as sexology and Marxism on the contemporary field of Sexuality Studies is an important first step for developing a fuller understanding of the politics of sexuality, identity categories, and sexual acts. This section provides you with a brief overview of different political frameworks that have shaped the field of Sexuality Studies.


The development of a science of sexuality, scientia sexualis or sexology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulted in the naturalization of sexuality in the Western world, and particularly in North America and Europe. By “the naturalization of sexuality” we mean the novel concept that sex acts and what would eventually be understood as “sexual identities” and “sexualities” were an appropriate object of study for the natural sciences. Up until this time, scientists were not the experts on sex. Indeed, far less scholarly attention was paid to sex at all, and in so far as there were authoritative claims being made about sex, these were moral and tended to come from religious or spiritual authorities rather than from scholars of the natural world. In the last two hundred years, however, sexual scientists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Alfred Kinsey produced a body of knowledge that has profoundly influenced and transformed the way many of us think about sex.

Richard von Kraff-Ebing’s 1886 volume, Psychopathia Sexualis, is an early work of sexology

Sexology claims that humans are born with a sexual nature, and that sexuality is part of the biological makeup of all individuals. It also views sexuality as being at the core of what it means to be human: our sexual drive is no less basic than our need to eat or sleep. In other words, sexuality is said to be both natural or innate and fundamental to who we are. This is sometimes referred to as biological essentialism, and will be contrasted with social constructivist perspectives on sexuality later in this module.

According to sexologists, sexuality is a powerful and driving force in our behavior, which influences all aspects of our lives, from the physical to the psychological, and motivates much of human behavior. Nineteenth and twentieth-century sexologists stated that the sexual instinct is, by nature, heterosexual, and that there is a natural attraction between men and women. While few sexologists today believe that the chief purpose of sexuality is to procreate, many continue to think that heterosexuality is the natural and normal form of sexuality, while other forms of sexuality are abnormal and need to be explained (How did it happen?).

Sexologist Havelock Ellis’ “Sexual Inversion” was first published in 1900 and was a psychological study of homosexuality

The goal of early sexologists was to discover the laws of sexuality, championing a vigorously scientific approach. Facts, not beliefs, were to guide this science. The truth of sexuality was to be discovered by means of the “case study” method. We see this, for instance, in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic studies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early sexologists used methods such as interviews and observations to uncover details about human sexual desires, fantasies, and practices. These were then recorded for the purpose of revealing the laws of the sexual instinct. Sexologists developed elaborate classifications of sexual types and detailed the range of normal and abnormal forms of sexuality.

Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) are known as “The Kinsey Reports.” They were based on thousands of interviews conducted across American society and were both bestsellers. One of many controversial ideas introduced by the Kinsey Reports is “the Kinsey scale,” where 0 is exclusively heterosexual and 6 is exclusively homosexual.

Sexology has always foregrounded the importance of its social purpose and some sexologists sought to expand tolerance for different forms of human sexuality by emphasizing that sexuality is natural. This impetus to reveal humanity’s natural sexuality has however been constitutive of hierarchizing the population: certain sexual fantasies, desires, and expressions have been considered healthy and normal and were used in the service of racializing certain groups of people. Some sexologists even discouraged the sexual intermingling of the races.

During the mid and later twentieth century, sexology often aspired to strengthen the institutions of marriage and the family, with heterosexual sex being at the core of love and marriage. Sexologists argued that a stable and happy marriage requires a mutually satisfying sexual relationship and individuals must be sexually knowledgeable and skilled. Sexology aimed to fashion sexually enlightened and skillful citizens who would marry and stay married, in part because of a mutually satisfying sex life.

William Masters and Virginia Johnson were a team of sexologists (and for a time were married) whose most influential works were Human Sexual Response (1966), on what they called the “human sexual response cycle,” and Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), on what they deemed sexual dysfunctions. Like the Kinsey Reports, these books were popular bestsellers.


Freud was convinced that sex is at the core of the self. Sex, he thought, is the drive for erotic pleasure that places the individual in conflict with social norms of respectability and self-control. Sexuality is then a major focus of psychological and social conflict. Too much sexual expression leads to psychological and social instability. Excessive social control results in psychosexual frustration that brings personal unhappiness. If the sexual instinct is somewhat flexible in its purpose, it is society that shapes its form and meaning. In particular, Freud believed that the family is the formative social environment shaping our psyches and sexualities. For Freud, our psychological and sexual selves take shape as we struggle with the conflict between a drive for sexual pleasure and the social expectation to be productive, responsible citizens.

Freud’s “Sexualtheorie” was first published in 1905.


Marxism places a focus on the economy as one of the most important social forces that impact human behavior. It argues that capitalism is oriented toward profit and economic growth through the exploitation of labor and the reinvestment of profits back into an enterprise. Capitalism favors a system of mass production that turns workers into machines, progressively stripping their labour of individual imagination and skill. Think, for example, of the difference between craftspeople who create products from start to finish, versus assembly line workers who perform the same, pre-determined task all day, day after day. Anything that interferes with maximizing production, such as emotional or erotic feelings, is an impediment to efficient production. In a market economy, capitalists are expected to be performance- and success-oriented and exercise tight internal control over emotions and sensual desires. Thus, sexual impulses and desires are seen as potentially disruptive of discipline; sexuality needs to be rigidly controlled. Accordingly, in market economies the pressures of industrial production and discipline shape a sexual culture that values self-control and the avoidance of sensual pleasure.

Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution was first published in German in 1936.

Marxist-Freudians such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse claimed that a sexual culture took shape in the 19th century that was organized around procreation in marriage. Sex that was oriented to pleasure, sex outside marriage, autoerotic sex, sex in public, all non-heterosexual sex, and non-genital sex were viewed as deviant. These sexualities were at odds with capitalism’s need for disciplined, productive workers. In the twentieth century, corporations replaced the small business as the major economic institution and brought commerce into areas of daily life such as leisure, recreation, and entertainment. For example, every aspect of sports, from clothes and equipment to games, has gradually been commercialized. Capitalists also tried to convince individuals to consume more goods. 

First published in 1955, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization is a fusion of Marxist and Freudian theory.

But how does this shift to consumption affect sexuality? Sex is understood as a source of pleasure and used to sell commodities; the public realm is now filled with images and talk of sex. As sex is used to sell goods and sex businesses flourish (porn, sex toys, phone sex), sex is no longer just a procreative or loving act, but a form of self-expression and fulfillment. According to most Marxists, however, this pleasure-oriented sexual culture does not promote real sexual freedom. A culture that celebrates a superficial drive for pleasure leads to an aimless, unhappy search for gratification. Moreover, with its focus on sexual performance, sex has come to resemble work and has lost much of its tender, intimate, and caring qualities. Moreover, Marxists argue that, as we search for personal happiness, the gross inequalities between rich and poor go unchallenged. According to Marxist scholars of sex, there can be no real sexual freedom until there is real individual freedom, which is impossible under capitalism.


Feminists argue for the central role that gender plays in our personal and social lives; gender is a social identity and a set of norms that guide behavior and, for many feminist theorists, must be distinguished from sex. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir famously argued that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” emphasizing that while we may be born male or female, we acquire gender identities such as masculine or feminine, boy or girl, man or woman through a social process of learning and sometimes coercion. Following de Beauvoir, feminists believe that our sexual desires, feelings, and preferences are imprinted by gender.

The “male gaze”

De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex also had a profound influence on feminism in so far as it provided a theoretically sophisticated account of sexual objectification. Feminists have often been critical of the ways in which women are objectified or treated like objects for male, sexual consumption, for instance when they are ogled in public, cat called, or harassed in the workplace. In each case, they are being treated in ways that reduce them to their sexuality or to the physical attractiveness of their bodies, rather than being recognized as subjects and agents and minded beings. De Beauvoir explains this treatment of women as resulting from the construction of women as man’s permanent Other and as “the second sex.” While man has been conceptualized in Western thought as the Subject, woman comes second and is man’s Other and an object for his consumption.

The second video lecture for this module introduces the sex/gender distinction, the idea of woman as the “second sex,” and the notion of “sexual objectification” in Simone de Beauvoir’s canonical feminist work, The Second Sex.

Video Lecture: “Sex, Gender, Objectification and Subjectivity in Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex” (50:19)

While The Second Sex provides an account of the relationship between sex and gender, what exactly is the relationship between gender and sexuality?

Nancy Chodorow’s 1978 book, The Reproduction of Mothering, was a feminist engagement with psychoanalysis and a bestseller.

In The Reproduction of Mothering, Nancy Chodorow argues that when women do the chief parenting work, gender patterns of sexual and individual development are different. While girls sustain an intimacy with their mothers throughout their maturation, boys separate from them at an early age. The extended and intense intimacy between mothers and daughters results in girls developing a psyche that is relationship-oriented. Accordingly, Chodorow contends that girls tend to connect sex with intimacy and communication rather than erotic pleasure. Conversely, boys’ sexuality tends to be more performance- and body-oriented. Boys can be intimate, but they will likely express sexual love in terms of the giving and receiving of erotic pleasure. Chodorow’s perspective is important because she holds that the family plays a crucial role in the making of the sexual self and that boys and girls develop different sexual values and orientations.

Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” was first published in 1980 and was a key text in the radical feminism of the 1980s and 90s.

Adrienne Rich also believes that socially constructed gender dynamics create sexual differences between men and women. In the first of two assigned readings for this module, Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” she argues that we are all taught and coerced into adopting conventional gender identities and that our society is organized around heterosexuality as norm. The belief that heterosexuality is normal and natural plays a key role in creating a natural order composed of two complementary sexes.

Catharine MacKinnon’s Sexual Harassment of Working Women was first published in 1976. It introduced what was then the newly coined feminist term “sexual harassment,” demonstrated the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace, and argued that it was a form of sex discrimination.

Feminist lawyer and legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon insists on the role of male dominance in shaping women’s sexuality. She views sexuality as a product of men’s power; sex is a means by which men control women. Men are able to exert their power to define what desires, feelings, and behaviors are sexual. For example, a male-dominated, heterosexual understanding of sexuality is oriented around vaginal intercourse in marriage with the ultimate aim of procreation. An excellent summary of MacKinnon work can be found here.

Both Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” and MacKinnon’s feminist scholarship focus on the ways in which women are harmed through sexual acts such as harassment, rape, the purchasing of sex, and the production and consumption of pornography, and both authors argue that these sexual harms are constitutive of heterosexual femininity. Because of this emphasis on sex as harmful to women and these authors’ lack of attention to the ways in which sex may also be a source of pleasure for women, Rich and MacKinnon have been described as a “sex negative” feminists. “Sex negative” feminism is contrasted with “pro-sex” or “sex positive” feminism. In the second assigned reading for this module, Gayle Rubin’s 1984 essay, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of a Politics of Sexuality,” we see a queer and “pro-sex” or “sex positive” challenge to feminism such as Rich’s and MacKinnon’s. Rubin’s pro-sex stance in this canonical essay has not been uncontroversial however, particularly in its embrace of all “deviant” sexualities, including intergenerational sex and sex between kin. Later in the course we will read Rubin’s 2012 essay, “Blood under the Bridge: Reflections on Thinking Sex,” where she looks back at the intellectual and political climate in which she wrote this article.

Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex” is included in the Gayle Rubin Reader: Deviations.

Gay and Lesbian Studies

Paralleling the rise of a gay movement, many advocates argued that some people are just born homosexual. If homosexuals have always existed, it is a natural orientation and therefore homosexuality should not be punished. However, this view has been challenged by the new gay/lesbian studies, which assume that while homosexual behavior is a natural part of the human condition, the appearance of a homosexual identity is a recent historical event. This leads us to ask: when and why did a homosexual identity emerge, and how has the meaning of homosexuality changed historically?

Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History was first published in 1976, the same year as Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality.

Jonathan Katz has argued that, between colonial times and the 1970s, homosexuality in the US changed from indicating a behavior (sodomy), to an abnormal personality (the homosexual), and finally to an affirmative social identity (gay/lesbian). Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has showed that Victorian women often formed close ties with each other that at times blurred the line between friendship and romance and were complementary to marriage. Similarly, Lillian Faderman wrote the first history of lesbianism in the United States, in which she documents changes in the meaning of same-sex behavior and in the social organization of lesbianism. Both Smith-Rosenberg and Faderman make the provocative argument that tolerance for intimacy between women diminished in the first decades of the twentieth century. As women started to attend college, work outside the home, and demand equal rights, their close ties to one another were often viewed as threatening and the women were stigmatized as lesbians.

Surpassing the Love of Men and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers are two of Lillian Faderman’s historical studies of lesbianism

Building on this growing body of historical scholarship on sexuality, John D’Emilio offered the first detailed analysis of those social forces that shaped homosexuality into an identity, community, and social movement. D’Emilio argued that the Second World War played a key role in shaping an awareness of homosexuality and homosexual bonds. The intense closeness among the men and women in the military encouraged homosexual experimentation. After the war, many of these men and women with homosexual feelings settled in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was in these cities that the first major gay and lesbian political organizations began to take shape in the 1950s.

John D’Emilio’s Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities was published in 1983.

Historians have continued to refine their conceptions of the sexual past. One significant revision is in George Chauncey’s Gay New York. Whereas historians and sociologists had come to believe that the modern homosexual emerged in the early twentieth century and was immediately stuffed into the closet, Chauncey argues that, in working-class New York, individuals were not classified as either homosexual or heterosexual, but as either “normal men” (masculine) or “fairies” (effeminate). In other words, the homosexual indicated a type of gender deviance and gender expression, not sexual preference, and defined being a homosexual. Moreover, rather than being isolated and closeted, an open public gay life flourished in bars, taverns, speakeasies, restaurants, ballrooms, and parks.

George Chauncey’s Gay New York was published in 1994.

Queer Studies

Queer studies emerged out of gay and lesbian studies and centers on two key ideas: 1) the notion that human sexuality is socio-culturally constructed and not a biological truth and 2) the argument that we need to shift away from the normal/abnormal binary and understand sexuality as a form of social control. Why did a discourse of sexuality appear and what was its social importance?

Michel Foucault is an influential figure for queer studies because of how he challenged the idea that sex was biological and natural. He proposed that it was the very idea or the discourse of sexuality that created what we know as sex. We are not born sexual, but learn to be sexual beings. Stated differently, Foucault is not saying that the feelings and behaviors associated with the body were created by these discourses. Rather, these discourses compelled us to view these bodily experiences as expressions of human sexuality. 

The French edition of the first volume of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, published in 1976

Foucault thought that the modern state and other social institutions (e.g. the church and confessions, the clinic and doctors) wanted to control people’s sexuality. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, Europe experienced massive waves of people migrating to cities, which results in a growing need for mass literacy and schooling, intense economic competition between nations, and the growing dependence of national power on economic prosperity. These developments created a strong political interest in gaining detailed and useful information about human bodies – how they reproduce, stay healthy, react to different external stimulation, and can be made more productive, efficient, and cooperative. This growing need to know and control bodies helped to create the idea of sexuality. To control sex is to exercise great control over the individual and whole populations. 

Did Foucault give up the notion of sexual freedom? He wrote during a period of sexual rebellion. Sexual liberationists of all types declared that today we are more enlightened; the present is pregnant with possibilities for sexual freedom. Sexual liberation was understood as freedom from unnecessary control and the right to express one’s true sexual nature and identity. Foucault agreed that expanding individual choice is a good thing. He supported the fight for gay rights, but gay rights cannot be equated with liberation. Although important for removing the stigma of being abnormal from people and acknowledging their status as a person, the gay rights movement has reinforced a system that forces individuals to declare themselves either straight or gay, and reinforces the deviant status of bisexuality and other non-conventional sexualities. Moreover, a gay movement has its own ideal of how a gay person is supposed to look and act. 

If sexuality is today a system of social control, then ironically sexual liberation might involve freeing ourselves from the idea of sexuality. This would mean approaching our erotic desires and acts not as expressions of sexuality but as simply feelings and acts that give pleasure, create social ties, or are a source of cultural creativity. Foucault advocated a politics of desexualization, or resistance to a society that sexualizes selves, identities, and acts. Thus, by not assigning a moral meaning (either normal or abnormal) to adult, consensual sexual desires and behaviours, individuals would be subject to less social regulation. You will learn more about Foucault, discourse, and power in later modules.

Published in 1990, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is, along with Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality, one of the two foundational texts in queer theory.

Feminist philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler has drawn from Foucault in order to offer a new social point of view on gender and sexuality. Butler thinks that societies that believe in a natural gender order are also organized around the norm of heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is the basis of a culture of romance, marriage, and the family, and is enforced by our laws, government, churches, schools, and military. Viewing men and women as naturally complementary makes heterosexuality seem like the natural, normal, and right way of living.

A system of compulsory heterosexuality may help to explain why societies divide individuals into two gender types, but it does not explain how gender – and sexual – identities are sustained daily. Growing up in a society that classifies feelings, behaviors, and social roles as appropriate either for men or for women, we learn how to act in gender-correct ways. We come to know, almost without thinking, what gestures, styles of dress and grooming, and ways of walking and talking are considered “normal” for men and women. As we conform to gender norms, so Butler argues, others will likely interpret our behavior as expressing a core gender identity. 

However, Butler suggests that there is no core gender identity that drives our behaviour. Rather than viewing our gender performances as expressing an inner gender identity, she contends that these behaviors are modeled after images of what it means to be a woman or man that are culturally constructed. The illusion of core feminine and masculine gender identities conceals the social and political forces that shape humans into gendered selves. Similarly, the ideology of a natural gender order conceals the role of gender in the perpetuation of heterosexual dominance.

Butler’s ideas encourage us to view sexual identity as a process wherein we project a sexual identity through our actions, which she calls performative. This approach does not claim that sex identities are not real because they are produced through a performance. They are quite real as we experience them and in terms of their personal and social consequences. Moreover, while they may be performances, they are hardly chosen; a system of compulsory heterosexuality exerts enormous social pressure on each of us to “perform” the appropriate gender and sexual identities. Deviance from gender or sexual norms carries serious dangers, from being denied respect to being made the target of harassment or violence.