The social dimension of sexuality

In 1973, sociologists John Gagnon and William Simon presented for the first time their social study of sexuality in the book Sexual Conduct, centered in the theory of the “sexual scripts”, which both developed in the late 60’s, while working at the Kinsey Institute.

“In the period that Bill and I were writing the essays that make up Sexual Conduct we were trying to reduce the explanatory role of the “natural” (as well as the “biological”) in the explanation of sexuality. Both Freud and Kinsey understood the important role of the cultural and social situations for the expressions of sexuality, but both saw these expressions as the resultant of a contest between biological imperatives and social containment”, recalls.

What was novel in his work, he remembers, was the denial of the priority of the natural or the biological in people’s sexual life. “Our view emphasized the artificiality of human cultures and hence the artificiality of the sexual life that was part of specific cultures and specific historical periods. The crucial word is elicitation. Sexual life is acquired in the same fashion that all social performances are elicited and acquired”, says Gagnon, who recently presented, in Brazil, An interpretation of desire(CLAM/Editora Garamond), his first book to be translated into Portuguese. In this interview, he talks about the period – known as the “sex revolution” – in which he develop his pioneer work, and about the impact of his theory on the study of sexuality.

Your book Sexual Conduct brought a new way of thinking about sex and sexuality, that is, face them as a social phenomenon. In this publication you and William Simon first presented the theory of the sex scripts. According to this theory, the sexual behavior is a learned process, possible not due to biology, but because of social scripts, with cultural and historical contexts. How and why did you come to this conclusion?

As with most novel appearing ideas, there are intimations of what we argued in earlier work. As sociologists trained at the University of Chicago we were influenced by the work of Burgess and Park on the city as the site of a myriad of occupations, both conforming and deviant. The career metaphor, so important in the work of Becker and others, suggested to us a model for framing sexual life. Certain forms of sexual life were already organized as “work” (e.g., the prostitution of both women and men), our sense was that this metaphor could be extended to all forms of sexuality. Thus one could think of how sexual actors of all kinds acquired the social skills and roles appropriate to specific sexual practices and how they learned to participate in the social world that surrounded and informed roles that had a sexual component. Such performances required that actors learn what we came to call the “scripts” for role performance.

The career metaphor offers both discontinuities and continuities between roles and practices acquired earlier in life with those that are acquired subsequently. There is both significant learning and un-learning as individuals move through the life course. The idea of a sexual career emphasizes the importance of the demand characteristics of the current social environment, rather than the continuities between past and present in human development.

This emphasis on the present has important implications for our view that sexuality had to be viewed in specific historical and cultural contexts. While the idea that the “homosexual” and the “heterosexual” are recent historical categories is now a commonplace, it was not widely held in the early 1970s. The point we were making was not that men did not have sex with men or women with women, but such conduct had to be understood in terms of local systems of learning and practice. It was that there was not such a practice, but that the meaning of that practice was fundamentally different in different historical moments and cultural locations. The new names were indicators of the changed social and cultural meaning of the practices themselves.

These ideas that came from Chicago sociology were supplemented by a heavy dose of the ideas of the literary critic Kenneth Burke. Of sporadic importance in sociology in the United States, his work is largely addressed in schools of communication and among some literary critics. There are important threads in the concept of “sexual scripts” that are based on Burke as are his ideas about the importance of social context for motivation.

According to the theory of scripts, there are three: cultural, interpersonal and intra-psychic scripts. What are the differences between them? Nowadays does this difference still seem reasonable to you?

In the history of the development of the theory, our first consideration was given to the social psychological situation — the actor and his or her co-actors. This implied for analytic purposes two domains, the private domain of the actors (what went on in their heads) or the intra-psychic script, and the public domain of interpersonal interaction or the interpersonal script. The private scripts of each individual were in part actualized in the negotiated interpersonal situation. Both how much the intra-psychic script of any one individual was actualized and how much negotiation took place was variable. The connection between what was planned or fantasized by any individual and what happened in the interaction was always contingent and imprecise.

In later analyses we used these ideas to characterize the inter-subjective world of culture and the scripts for sexuality that were embedded in the cultural situation. What were the sexual scripts in various cultural media as well as in the rest of the material culture in which people lived? This would include architecture, traffic rest stops, golf courses, that is, everything. In general, my mode of treating the connections between these scripts is to view the interpersonal and the cultural as “public” and linked to each other through the actions of individual’s and mediated by these individuals intra-psychic scripts.

You developed your research during the time that was called “sex revolution”. Do you believe in this idea?

I have always been uneasy about the concept of revolution, meaning a sudden total transformation of social practices and meanings, even when applied to political changes. It is not that I am unsympathetic with the idea of great social changes, it is that we so often discount the changes which were taking place prior to the “revolutionary moment” that were preparatory for that moment and that we underestimate the social and cultural continuities between the pre- and post revolutionary periods.

The 1960s and early 1970s were periods of significant sexual change in the United States, but these changes in sexual life were often dependent on changes in non-sexual life in the society. Thus the demographic changes of the post world war period produced the baby boom, some 70 million plus new citizens in the United States in a period of 18 years. At the same time the United States experienced a period of sustained prosperity that created an expanded middle class. The baby boomers entered adolescence as more prosperous consumers than other generation. This separation of prosperity and labor offered a moratorium during which young people could test their sense of competence in the sexual domain during their teen years.

But the current level of sexual practice among adolescents did not take place overnight. There has been a steady decline in age at first intercourse, a steady increase in proportion of sexually active youth, an increase in the numbers of sexual partners before age 21, but these changes have occurred over a period of 30 years. In many domains of sexual life (e.g., intercourse in marriage or masturbation) one can find only minor changes over the last half century. Perhaps the major changes that have taken place in the United States are the emergence of social movements organized around gender, sexuality and reproduction. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s served as the model for the woman’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement (which has expanded its umbrella to include bisexuals and trans-gendered persons). In addition pro-sexual movements have developed around reproductive rights and a variety of health related issues, including HIV/AIDS. The reaction to these movements in the form of the fundamentalist religious right and resultant conflict is a central feature of what is called the “culture wars” in the United States.

Did this “sex revolution” influence your work in any ways?

Were Bill Simon and I influenced by the media imagery of “sexual revolution”? While we were both skeptical of the dimensions and extent of sexual change in the United States, we were aware of and in touch with the changes that were occurring among the young and in certain sectors of the well-educated middle class. As participants in the every day life of the society we were vulnerable to the rhetoric and pleasures of revolution, even as we doubted its reality.

What does this theory mean to you nowadays, taking into account the social changes on the contemporary world referring to themes such as feminism and gay and lesbian movements?

The theory has remained remarkably stable and applicable to current sexual life in my own mind, but one should probably expect that. At the same time the rise of social movements with strong agendas for sexual change has come as interesting surprise. The role of sexuality in these three movements, reproductive rights, gay and lesbian rights and women rights, is not exactly the same, though they often have common goals.

The reproductive rights movement which is centered around issues of “reproductive choice” (which includes the right to control fertility before and after conception) treats sexuality as a form of conduct to properly managed in the relations between women and men. The gay and lesbian movement (with its umbrella for bisexuals and trans-gendered persons) is organized around individuals whose sexual and gender lives appear differ from the sexual majority. It is a movement centered on issues of sexual and gender identity and the right to be different. The feminist movement is composed of both “straight” and lesbian women, but both share the goals women’s sexual liberation, violence and coercion free social worlds, and equality of opportunity for women. The importance of sexuality to each of these movements is a shifting one, but one that comes under their larger commitments to human rights.

The sexual scripts of individuals in these three movements probably do not differ from a great deal from the past, what does differ is their sexual politics.

And how about straight people?

Ah, straight people! What is remarkable about them is the diversity of their sexual lives. There is so much talk about “heterosexual hegemony” without recognizing that the social institutions that “reward” heterosexuals also “oppress” them. The distinction needs to be institutional rewards given to those conform with the standard model of gender, sexuality and reproduction and the wide variation in gender, sexual and reproductive conduct which can be found among them. Sexual and gender practices between women and men vary by age, class, ethnicity, reproductive status, marital status religious fervor — all variables which influence persons with other sexual interests and practices.

At the present time it is clear that persons with children, whatever their sexual or gender interests are, have lives that are shaped by those children as much as by their sexual and gender interests. This is the first point — that both “straights” and “others” has many common concerns and goals. The second is that “heterosexuals” are not a homogenous category — recall the concept of the “heterosexual” community during the HIV/ADS, which implied that heterosexuals formed some kind of communal entity. That idea was wrong.

What’s the difference between sexual behavior and sexual conduct?

Sexual behavior simply describes the set of bodily practices that humans and non-human’s perform, sexual conduct is the meaning that those practices have to the individual’s who perform them and to the collectivities (the cultures and societies) to which they belong. Sexual conduct is behavior evaluated and understood by actors in social situations defined by history and culture.

You and Kinsey developed research in the area of the sexual practices, but both took different ways. In what part of this way did you part company?

My connection was to Kinsey the social scientist rather than Kinsey the evolutionary biologist. When one carefully examines his two books, one discovers that he combined at least three roles: there was Kinsey the sexual theorist who believed that in a natural template could be found for human beings in their mammalian heritage, Kinsey the sexual reformer who believed that the current sexual regime in the United States was repressive and out of joint with men’s and women’s sexual natures, and Kinsey the sociologist whose interviewing methods, important variables, and modes of analysis were entirely social in character. There were other Kinsey’s, but the important ones to me was his sociological orientation. All of the important variables in his work were social, not biological.

We parted company when I decided that that his work on sexuality was not social enough. Kinsey did not realize that the experience of orgasm (for instance) was a social-psychological experience as well as a biological one. As such one could not easily add up orgasms from one practice or situation to another to create something called “total outlet.” Thus an orgasm or sexual experience (the latter is more important in the volume on women) from one sexual practice or another or from one time or another in the life course could not be treated as equivalent.

More obvious were the sampling flaws in his work which were recognized at the time he published his studies. It is clear from carefully designed sample surveys that Kinsey’s original studies did not properly represent the sexual conduct of the United States in the period they were conducted.

And how different is your approach from the Freudian approach on sexuality?

I have in recent years departed fully from whatever influence Freud’s psychological and developmental ideas had on my work. I now think that what is most interesting about most Freud’s Important psychological ideas (the seduction fantasy, the unconscious, the development process, the structure of the mind, etc.) is how they became so widely accepted in the mid to late 20th century. Many of the current criticisms of Freud seem right to me, including those that rest on more positivist perspectives, but my differences with his ideas rest more on their lack of utility to my own ideas and research practices. Freud, in most of his guises, is not useful to me.

But there is a certain emphasis in Freud’s original work that still resonates in my own thinking. This is the emphasis on symbolic processes which were underpinned his therapeutic practice. While there is too much rigidity in his “dream book” and too great a search for the sexual secret hidden beneath the non-sexual sign (e.g., cave = vagina or skyscraper = penis), the network of symbolic associations that characterize all cultures is implicated in this work. An important confirmation of the importance of the symbolic can be found in the work of George Herbert Mead and Kenneth Burke, but in both there is a greater emphasis on the cultural specificity of the associations between symbols and the weaker priority given to any specific set of symbols. Thus the order of causation is not only from the sexual to non sexual symbol, but from the non-sexual to sexual. Symbolism is a multi-direction and multi-lane process.

My own thinking about Freud diverged from William Simon’s in the later parts of our career, but an important introduction to his thinking can be found in his volume: Post Modern Sexualities.

So, it was your denial of the “natural”, as in Freud or in Kinsey’s ideas, that brought this social study of sexuality?

In the period that we were writing the essays that make up Sexual Conduct we were trying to reduce the explanatory role of the “natural” (as well as the “biological”) in the explanation of sexuality. Both Freud and Kinsey understood the important of the cultural and social situations for the expressions of sexuality, but both saw these expressions as the resultant of a contest between biological imperatives and social containment. While their concepts of the “natural” differed, biological sex had universal and trans-historical features which societies had to manage.

Our view emphasized the artificiality of human cultures and hence the artificiality of the sexual life that was part of specific cultures and specific historical periods. Actors whose sexuality was elicited by that time and place performed the sexuality of a specific time and place. The crucial word is elicitation. Sexual life is acquired in the same fashion that all social performances are elicited and acquired. It was this denial of the priority of the natural or the biological in sexual life that was novel.

Do you believe there’s a new contemporary “sexual script”?

You have to specify what kind of “new” script to which you are referring. There are clearly scripts that are forming – “bare backing” among some gay men, a script for oral sex among younger adolescents, new scripts for prostitution among women who are working without pimps or who now have to pay taxes (see the Netherlands). The issue is whether there are scripts other than the intra psychic, the inter personal and the cultural — I am not sure of this. Are there new particular scripts like the ones I mentioned? Sure.