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On sexuality and controversy

In this video, listen to Dr Rachel Spronk discuss the concept of sexuality. What is sexuality? And why does it seem to be so controversial?
RACHEL SPRONK: Most of you know the term sexuality, but what is sexuality? This sounds like a redundant question, as we all recognise the word and its meaning. We can even say that we are all experts by experience. In one way or another, we are implicated in the way sexuality is part of our personal and social life. Yet, exactly because sexuality is such a common term, it is important to define more precisely what we mean by it. We can separate sexuality into three levels. The personal, the interpersonal, and the social. Think, for example, of sexual desire. Sexual desire is located in the body. It feels very private and exclusive.
Sexual desire is mostly stimulated in connection with others, which can be physical, emergent, or virtual. Lastly, sexual desire is also influenced by the social context. As in, what is culturally seen as arousing, but also, by what is deemed forbidden or proper. Let’s look at the three levels one by one. First, sexuality is personal because it is a vehicle for powerful feelings that are experienced very privately. We experience this intensely because it happens through our bodies. It is about a personal experience of sexual practises, which can be both pleasurable as well as painful. We sometimes refer to “my sexuality” to indicate this personal dimension of sexuality. It is also the domain of sexual identity.
In the sense of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, heterosexual, and more. Second, sexuality is interpersonal. When engaging in sexual practices, sexuality is often an intimate exchange between people, which varies in intensity and meaning depending on the kind of relations. Sexual relations are valued for personal fulfilment and for cultural ideas of gender and personhood. That is, engaging in sexual practices with others makes us feel woman, or man, or it endorses another sense of gender. In other, words sexuality enhances our gendered sense of self. In the interactions between people, cultural meanings of gender come to be constructed. Third, sexuality is socially constructed. We often think of sexuality as biologically defined, but this is a tale of chromosomes, hormones, and other genetic factors.
We say that sexuality is also socially constructed, because the cultural variation of what is considered “decent sexuality” varies immensely. Sex and sexuality are often central to debates of what is seen as natural, moral, or appropriate in all cultures and countries. It is therefore, a particularly sensitive conductor of cultural influences, and hence, of social and political concerns. In other words, sexuality is often part of grand schemes. Why is sexuality often central to public debate? In this course, we do not want to judge, but we wish to explain this question. The point is that sexuality is generally understood in every society as essential to the social and moral order.
Sexual relations are seen as crucial to social cohesion, which is often translated as the natural order of things. For instance, reproduction is often understood as essential to the well-being of the group, the community, or society, and sanctioned by heterosexual relations in the form of marriage. Single parenthood is in conflict with this perspective, and therefore, often seen as problematic. Sexuality is also understood as fundamental to the social order by the way it structures gender roles and gender relations via cultural institutions, such as marriage, and its gendered roles of responsibility, with regard to domestic duties and obtaining resources. When people deviate from what is considered appropriate, it is feared that it will lead to social chaos.
Authorities, such as political leaders, religious leaders, cultural elders, and so on, invest immensely in keeping people on what is considered the moral path by explaining right from wrong, hence creating a discourse on norms and values. In short, sexuality is therefore an integral part of the normative and practical order of everyday life, seen as central to the welfare of society. Deviations are typically feared and disapproved of. Be it single motherhood, homosexuality, or infidelity. What is important to realise is that moral discourses articulate ideals, while in real life, on the grassroot level, people have always deviated and for different reasons. Sometimes for survival, or because they are forced by others, or because they disagreed with the norms and values.
It is our task to understand how they come to deviate, what their personal motivations are, and why others disagree with their deviation, and why sexuality is such an emotive matter herein.

In this video, listen to Dr Rachel Spronk discuss the concept of sexuality. As you listen to this lecture, try to answer the following questions:

  • On what levels can sexuality be understood? Can you think of your own example of each of these three levels?
  • What does it mean to say that sexuality is “socially constructed”?
  • Why is sexuality often controversial?
  • What is at stake in following or deviating from what are considered “appropriate” social norms?

Please share with other learners.

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

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