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Beyond pain

How can we understand sexuality in terms of grand schemes and the everyday? Rachel Spronk's article "Beyond Pain" helps us reflect on this question.
Silhouette photo of a man and woman kissing.
© Loc Dang via pexels

Following the global Aids epidemic, sex has come to be ‘de-eroticized’ in research on sexuality. What this means is that, in studying some of the ‘painful realities’ and health concerns attached to sex, researchers may have lost sight of the fact that sex is, above all, about the senses, and many times people engage in sex for pleasure.

In general terms, sex research is faced with the challenge of understanding how societal factors organize sex and sexuality, and finding out how these processes shape the experiences of people. How, Spronk (2011) asks, can we ‘study sexuality and at the same time respect the interface between the social context and personal experience’? In this course, our discussion of grand schemes and everyday lives is precisely about respecting this interface.

Rachel Spronk’s research from Nairobi illustrates the variety of framings of sex. A shift has taken place is which the conventional notion of sex as a marital duty is replaced with the modern duty, broadly shared by young middle class adults in Nairobi, to achieve shared sexual pleasure. In this shift, it is possible to see how a ‘gendered sense of self’, which may relate to (or challenge) normative expectations and existing gender roles, is enacted through sex.

For example, female sexuality becomes redefined as pleasure and not necessarily as procreation, and male sexuality becomes partly redefined in relation to female pleasure. When pleasure and orgasm become a standard, a new kind of obligation is added to sex, generating insecurity and fear of “failing” as a competent sexual partner. This may be a result of this new standard or the fact that women were never previously encouraged to perceive themselves as desiring sex for pleasure and therefore felt inhibited to do so.

For men, sexual desire has always been understood as self-evident in conventional discourse, but was not, until recently, connected to his partner’s sexual pleasure. In a more recent discourse around sexuality, sex is reframed as something that needs to be worked upon, as sexual skills, like other skills, require knowledge and practice. This new discourse on sex challenges conventional constructions of masculinity, which emphasized virility and spontaneity. In the new definition of sexuality, sexual intimacy becomes an inter-subjective experience.

This means the emotions attached to sex become important. Spronk’s interviewees explain variously that sex makes them feel “good”, “happy”, “alive”, “strong” and more. These meanings of sex focus on the individual, but other meanings are relational (or “inter-subjective”) – for example, where sex is connected to love, affection, and mutual pleasure that can augment emotional ties between partners. This relational aspect also has broader social implications. The moment of sex is a moment of exchange where the personal and the social merge, where social, cultural and/or religious norms around gender and sexuality connect with an intimate, physical encounter.

Condom Condom. Sasint, via Pixabay.

Discourses in different sociopolitical contexts construct different models of what might be meant by ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex. ‘Bad’ sex is ‘immoral’ sex, while ‘good’ sex has come to mean ‘sex that conforms with normative cultural values’ . These social definitions of sex, in turn, also affect the very personal experience and sensations of sex. To navigate the challenges of studying sex and sexuality, Spronk proposes to keep three key points in mind when analyzing, thinking and speaking about sex. This was already outlined in her video-lecture on sexuality, but it bears repeating:

1) Sex is a vehicle for powerful sensations that are experienced very subjectively. It is therefore a personal medium through which a range of feelings, emotions and needs may be expressed, depending on the personal narrative of the individual.

2) Sex is more often than not an inter-subjective exchange between people. Sex carries a sense of emotional interaction that varies in its nature, and can act as a means for the expression of different feelings, emotions and needs that are acted upon in relation with another person. People have sex for any number of reasons: for fun, to fulfill a desire for intimacy, as a physical thrill, to achieve social status, to confirm a gendered sense of self, to exert power, to express love, to humiliate, to conform to expectations, and much more. The emotions and the nature of intimacy can differ depending on the context.

3) Sexuality is a particularly sensitive conductor of social influences, cultural perceptions and political divisions and is therefore socially defined. Individual experiences and narratives on sex and sexuality are shaped by social meanings and expectations. For example, sexual practices may be related to notions of gender, age, ethnicity or race, religion, social status, familial responsibility, ideas about intimacy, love, and affection. Relations of power are typically translated into the organization of sexuality.

Studies from a health perspective on sexuality have tended to ignore the construction of gendered and sexual identities, the cultural meaning of sexual conduct, and the erotic significance of variant sexual practices in distinct social settings. There is no way of avoiding the fact that accounts of sex, intimacy and sexuality eventually come down to studying personal sensations. These sensations are comprised of the complex conjunction between physiological arousal, erotic practices and interpretative processes; they are thus situated at the threshold where body and discursive knowledge converge and merge.

You can download the full article yourself through this link.

After reading the text, reflect on the following guiding questions:

  • Is there anything that surprises you about Spronk’s discussion of sex and sexuality? Keep in mind the word cloud from the previous step.
  • Does Spronk’s article raise any new ideas or categories that you didn’t think of before?
  • How would you explain what this article tells us about the relationship between grand schemes and everyday lives regarding sexuality?


© University of Groningen
This article is from the free online

Religion and Sexual Wellbeing: Pleasure, Piety, and Reproductive Rights

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