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sex, sociological studies of

sex, sociological studies of The study of sexuality was not a major concern in sociology until late in the twentieth century. None of the major figures in the discipline seems to have attached any importance to the topic as an area for research or analysis. Instead, a number of disciplines other than sociology made it a particular focus, and from these sociologists simply borrowed relevant materials.

Three traditions seem particularly important in this context. The first is the bio-medical, culminating in the laboratory tradition of Masters' and Johnson's sex laboratories. A second tradition is the psychoanalytic. Some of this writing has involved a sociological dimension, notably when considering the links between sexual drives, repression, and social order. Thus, in the works of Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Norman O. Brown—loosely described as the ‘Freudian Left’—sexuality has been seen as a major foundation for social order. A third tradition is that of the social survey, associated with the work of Kinsey. Here, wide-ranging surveys are conducted of people's sexual behaviour, or of ‘who does what with whom, when and where’. This particular tradition has been very important for sociology: using survey techniques the frequencies of various sexual behaviours have been estimated; class, region, age, and gender correlations examined; and shifting patterns of sexuality throughout the latter part of the twentieth century suggested. These three ‘sexological’ traditions have been intelligently discussed and analysed in Paul Robinson's The Modernization of Sex (1976) and Janice M. Irvine's Disorders of Desire (1990).

Whilst sociology has often drawn upon these external traditions it was not until the 1960s that the discipline as such began to develop a stance of its own. A major contribution will be found in the writings of John Gagnon and William Simon (Sexual Conduct, 1973), and in similar studies contributing to the emergence of a new perspective on sexualities, a perspective that may be referred to as the constructionist view of sexuality. Gagnon and Simon both worked at the Kinsey Institute from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, but whilst conducting work in the survey tradition (primarily on sex offenders and homosexuality), they became increasingly disillusioned with the behavioural, biological, and atheoretical accounts of sexuality that dominated sexology. Starting to build the elements of a theory of sexuality that was sociological, they suggested that biology was no more important in the sexual sphere than any other, that the idea of powerful sex drives may well be a myth, and that human sexuality was open to a wide range of sociocultural variation. They argued for a move away from a language dominated by biological metaphor to one which could see sexuality as symbolic and scripted.

In recent writings on sexuality, the influence of Michel Foucault, feminism, and social constructionism is obvious. Each of these is critical of the notion of ‘sex as natural’ and they have highlighted the ways in which sexuality and gender are socially organized. See also HETEROSEXISM; HOMOSEXUALITY.

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