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This collection brings together the work of writers from a range of disciplines and cultural traditions to explore the social and political dimensions of sexuality and sexual experience. The contributors reconfigure existing notions of gender and sexuality, linking them to deeper understandings of power, resistance, and emancipation around the globe. They map areas that are currently at the cutting edge of social science writing on sexuality, as well as the complex interface between theory and practice. Framing the Sexual Subject highlights the extent to which populations and communities that once were the object of scientific scrutiny have increasingly demanded the right to speak on their own behalf, as subjects of their own sexualities and agents of their own sexual histories.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520218383
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/23/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 284
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Parker is Professor in the Institute of Social Medicine at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and the Sociomedical Sciences Division of the Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, as well as Director of the Brazilian
Interdisciplinary AIDS Association (ABIA). Regina Maria Barbosa is Coordinator of Research on Women's Health at the Institute of Health and a Research Scientist at the Center for Population Studies at the University of Campinas in São Paulo. Peter Aggleton is Professor at the Institute of Education at the University of London.

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Framing the Sexual Subject

By Richard Parker

University of California Press

Copyright © 2000 Richard Parker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520218383

Chapter One—
Corporeality in a Discursive Silence

Gary W. Dowsett

It is quite dark, the eyes take a while to focus. As the vision clears, he comes into view. Lying naked, facedown on a padded bench surrounded by shoulder-high partitions, he has put his desire "on-line," with a box of condoms and lubricant nearby. A man, also naked, approaches slowly, silently, and reaches out to brush ever so lightly the buttocks of the man on the bench. The slow stroking expands its ambit, covering the body from back of neck to back of knee, focusing its attention on arousing the arousing buttocks. In the dim light, others congregate to watch from the doorway or over the partitions. More glistening eyes come into view. Soon they too are being stroked, more insistently, more confidently.

The man on the couch lifts his head a little and briefly surveys the congregation, notes the erect man at his side, and slowly lowers his head onto folded arms. He raises his buttocks slightly to the touch of his attendant, giving consent. Over the next hour, the man on the bench is fucked by ten men in sequence, always with condoms, always with his head cradled on folded arms, after the first glance never seeking to assess the successors laboring uponhim, and only in momentary crescendoes arching backwards to receive more fully his thrusting devotees in their perverse salute to the sun.

Surrounding him, others come and go, aroused, sated, included visually or physically in the performance or merely satisfied to bear witness to yet another re-presentation of "the internalized phallic male as an infinitely loved object of sacrifice" (Bersani, 1988, 222).

For me there is a certain terror, even a certain sense of betrayal, in describing the above events. Permission to gaze upon this sex eventwas granted to the men present, not to you as readers. This was no Masters and Johnson laboratory, with clinical setting and white coats absolving scientists from their desire. Nor does my reservation derive from ethical issues about informed consent in sexuality research, even if participant observation poses its own ethical problems. But there is still a sense in which this sex event, selectively available to men throughout history, and ever changing in its succeeding representations, should be only for the initiated, for those male bodies pursuing what we have only recently called homosexuality .

My anxiety comes also from the risk of being misunderstood. How do I convince those who have never witnessed or experienced such an encounter, of its particular logic, its contextualized intentions, its cultural specificities? How does one explain academically what engages men when faced with the "pigpen of pulchritude" (Coe, 1993, 299). These silent events are symphonies in erotics, performed in the suspension of time that sex often engenders—a suspension described better by poets and novelists than by sex researchers.

This event is part of the picture that fills what has been described as Foucault's empty frame of sexuality (Connell and Dowsett, 1993); this event is a fact in the intersection of discourses that construct sexuality. Yet I want to distance such events from this intersection, for it always casts them as quotient or product, always assimilates them within power. I am not reiterating some gay liberation trope here; this is not some rehash of John Rechy's "sexual outlaws" (1977); nor am I attempting to frame such sex acts as refusal (Weeks, 1985) or realignment (Bristow, 1989). After all, no man in the sex event described had his mind on challenging the sexual or social order. But I want to avoid the trap that renders such events as always already inscribed within Foucault's deployment of sexuality, and in this sense necessarily defeated at their moment of origin.

Such sex events offer us a challenge: to re-think such events as "big bang" moments, moments of creation, moments where sexuality comes into being not merely in an intersection of discourses pinpointing subjectivity like a butterfly in a museum display case, but where sexuality itself is constructed (not "represented") by bodies-in-sex. To grasp this potentiality, we need to move beyond the textuality of discourse toward the texturality of the body—for the mime in which bodies-in-sex collectively make sensation and re-make meaning actually drowns out the larger, more structural din of sexuality, as weknow it post-Foucault. It might be that sexuality has become an emperor without clothes, and we are forced again to contemplate a naked body. I want to contemplate that body not simply as the incorporation of sexuality, but as a body operating sexually in a discursive silence. This discursive silence is like a black hole, not empty but full of density, itself offering a discrete corporeality.

The role of erotics in sex events is immediately intelligible to anyone present, yet rarely are words spoken; such lore is not handed down in that kind of oral tradition. Completing a satisfying collective sexual encounter without speech requires not only the learned sexual skill of gay men in recognising their own desire in each other and matching it, but also on the deeply relational character of such engagements. In this concatenation of the relational and the embodied may be found something disturbingly new about sexuality.

I want first to look at two elements in relation to the body: sexual practice, and the relations of sex. And I shall do this by presenting a brief life history of a man I interviewed as part of my ongoing ethnographic investigation of Australian gay men's sexuality in the era of HIV/AIDS (Dowsett, 1996). Second, I want to explore the relationality of gay sex, with a view to discussing the sexual construction of sociality as my third point.

The Body in Sex

Harry Wight learned about sex with boys at a young age. Harry had a regular "wankette" with another boy after school and on Saturday mornings before and after swimming lessons; they would always strip naked at the local changing room. Other boys and similar events followed, mutual masturbation mainly, and eventually an initiation in anal sex—with an older boy, although it was Harry who did the inserting.

Many other men I have interviewed over the last ten years of research reported similar childhood experiences—regular sex games with neighbors, with schoolmates, sometimes with older men. The boys taught each other about erections and the orifices they mightpenetrate, about the pleasures of arousal, and inevitably about ejaculation. Most learned sex acts with peers; occasionally older youths or siblings were involved. Some reported learning from schoolmates of places (called in Australia "beats," and usually public parks or toilet blocks) to find sex with grown men and with other boys. Such sex play was not furtive, but was carried on away from the gaze of parents and other adults. It was also a very sociable activity, collectively pursued, yet free from the preponderant discursive definition to which sexuality is often prone. In this sense, such sexual exploration occurred in social lacunae in which the operation of general prohibitive and regulatory discourses on sex was imperfect and patchy in penetration. Its success, if any, lay in producing secrecy, not celibacy.

Harry had already had considerable sexual experience with other boys when he first heard the word "poofter". "What's a poofter?" he naively asked a schoolmate on the bus one day. As the other boy alighted, he answered for all to hear, "Someone who pisses up ya' bum and it feels great!" Even more significant as countervailing narrative, however, was the pleasure being experienced in, on, or through the bodies of other boys. These bodies-in-sex, wilfully oblivious to definition and denial, were producing a collective sexual culture long before any of the boys heard of poofters, buggers, sodomites, gay men, Oscar Wilde—or Michel Foucault. In their example, we have to tackle seriously the formative contribution of the body's early experiences in sex—of first pain and first pleasure, fearful first ejaculation, mutual manipulations of like bodies, and the unique pleasures of the male prostate—the formative contribution, indeed, of penetration first experienced in discursive silence, in which no sheepish, oblique, or ill-defined discourse on sodomy counters the unnamed and, at that time, unnamable bodily sensations of being fucked.

We must take seriously also the contribution of these skilling and satisfying activities in producing the sexually proficient youths and men who later encounter the deployment of sexuality in, as Foucault puts it, a more exacting and incisive form. Harry, for instance, proved a less than willing subject for sexuality. In early adolescence, he met his future wife and homosex stopped for a few years. After a while, however, this changed. His girlfriend would come to dinner each Sunday and they would have sex afterwards—but that was Sunday. On Thursdays, Harry went to college, and at age eighteen, the now-engaged young man, on his way to class one evening, stopped in apublic toilet at a railway station: "Anyway, I was standing there having a leak and this guy came in. And all of a sudden it just kinda clicked. And he stood there and I stood there and I remembered what I used to do before. And he said to me: 'Do you want to?' and I'd cracked a fat [got an erection], and he said: 'Do you want me to do something about it?' And I said: 'No, I don't.' I just sucked him . . ."

About a month later in the same beat, Harry accepted an invitation to a married man's empty home, again missing class. This time Harry fucked the guy; it was Harry's first fully successful anal penetration. Needless to say, Harry failed college that year, as his new-found thrill became a regular pastime. He would meet the same man regularly, and his partner taught him the sexual ropes—kissing, oral sex, anal sex. Eventually Harry let the guy fuck him, but it hurt and Harry remained an insertive partner after that.

Harry had sex with other men in that beat and, soon, in others. He worked in the central business district, and found other toilets at railway stations and in parks to visit en route to and from his job and during lunch hour. Thus he came to know of a significant sexual network throughout the city and its suburbs—a pleasure map by which he navigated through his day.

Some men in my research filled their days by meandering through these possibilities. Many accounts in the study tell of men pursuing beat sex avidly, reporting repeated encounters with multiple partners. As one described it: "I can remember coming from [a suburb] to Sydney and calling in at a series of beats on the way and getting screwed eight times, and just loving that. This was the pre-safe-sex days . . . I can still remember, part of the deliciousness of it was the feeling of cum dripping out of my arse and the slipperiness of my cheeks moving past each other as lubrication." There is more than a hint of "trespass" here, of walking the streets bearing silent witness to male-to-male sexual transgression—lots of it, and in public places. Having another man's semen inside one's rectum is an insistent motif in much gay poetry and fiction, and its forfeiture a serious issue to deal with in HIV prevention. And it would appear that women are not the only ones with worries about wet patches.

Harry's success, and the readily available beat partners, speak of an active sexuality where a man's penetrability, far from providing the comfortable analogue of the passive vagina (or, once upon a time, allowing science its "invert"), demands that we engage the possibilityof sexual encounters where both partners must be regarded as phallic. We are reminded not to mistake the penis for the phallus; these sexual interests cannot be reduced to men's capacity for ready erection and quick orgasm. What is important is the reciprocal nature of the encounters, the easy exchange of pleasure rather than its "taking," the desiring anus, and the active fingers, hands, mouths, penises, lips, tongues, semen, and sweat involved. There is no denying the physicality; it is bodies in sex that are central here, and no discursive incursion on the beastly nature of sodomy, fellatio, anilingus, or fist-and finger-fucking achieves its mark against the lure of the body-in-sex.

There is undoubtedly a strong bodily pull in this "toilet tango," as Oscar Moore (1991) exalts it; the fantasizing body displays or enjoins a "disembodied" yet, at the same time, palpably corporeal penis in the "glory hole" or under the partition; eager anonymous anuses are read like braille in the darkness. Sex of such caliber is not without other dimensions; the sexual possibilities provided by beats mean that they become not only sites of promise of unending pleasure, but also signifiers of, and spaces for, exploring the elsewhere unattainable or unavailable—of pursuing the fantastic. In this regard, homosexually active men have created and developed worldwide sexual cultures that can be explored anywhere, in any language—yet without words—and with increasing concentration as global urbanization expands. Thus our cities are made sexually.

But back to Harry, who knew little of this global wonder. In marriage, he and his wife soon lost the ardor of their youth, and he turned his sexual attentions increasingly toward men. Beat sex continued uninterrupted during the decade of the marriage. Harry occasionally ventured out to the odd social event with other homosexual men. He went to his first inner-suburban gay dance—a "smorgasbord," he called it in retrospect—but experienced no sense of connectedness to what he saw there. One or two of his sex partners became his friends. He met gay couples, and he started an affair with another married man, but quickly finished it when it became a bit "serious." Beat sex was his mainstay.

As Harry's experience shows, the beats provide for a slow development of social relations, beyond sex itself, among homosexually active men—nascent relationships, stop-start affairs, new friendships—and can be places to meet others and just talk. What is important in this is the sociality developing out of sex. This layering of meaning and potential is hardly captured by those terms we so often use for such sex acts in our behavioral surveys and HIV/AIDS safe-sex monitoring: "casual," "anonymous," "impersonal." This activity is anything but casual; it requires familiarity with the choreography of sexual pursuit and action, and the patience and dedication of a champion. It is never anonymous; are lovers less lovers for their silence? There is nothing impersonal in achieving mutuality in the concupiscent collision of desiring bodies.

Such sociality can build, transform. Harry reported the following event as his first truly wonderful sexual experience. He met a near-naked man in a park:



And I really think that was the first time I ever made love to a man.


Really, was it just straight sex until that moment?


It was all sex, straight raw sex up until then. He said: "Would you like to come with me?" and I said: "Would I ever!" He took me up into the bushes type thing in the car, and he made love.


What's the difference?


John [his partner] and I do it. We do it—sometimes we just screw, just fuck, and then other times we just make love.


Can you give some words to describe it? I don't mean describe it like in a sentence, but just actually words, like sensual, touch.


A bit of touch, a bit of—I mean [pause] it probably might just happen in the time of your life when you most need it . . .


With two people at the same moment?


Yes. Can you relate to what I'm talking about?


Oh yes, absolutely. I just wanted you to spell it out.


[laughter] I mean, this guy was—although I stripped off with K—— earlier on when I was a kid, and I probably stripped off with all of them, this bloke undressed me. There was no quick grab hold of your cock and wank it and get your mouth around it. There was feeling to it. There was touching to it. And did I get in the shit when I got home, 'cause I was probably there for about three hours. And he taught me how to kiss. He taught me how to put your tongue out, and not leave it there, which annoys me . . . Just took his time with me.


The magic moment, eh?


It doesn't happen often.

This moment initiated a process of transformation in Harry. It illuminated the possibilities in male-to-male sex beyond orgasm, beyond one level of reciprocity. Something more, something indefinable, glimmered for him in this short affair that got "serious." Soon that glimmer came sharply into view in the relationship he developed with John.

Harry had a rule about casual sex partners at that time; he never saw the same person more than twice. This decision was designed to protect himself from the emotional connection he had realized was possible, as well as to protect his marriage, and reveals again the relational complexity of so-called "impersonal" homosek events. Harry met John in a beat and after having sex, he and John talked ! Talking can be so dangerous; it jeopardizes a fragile anonymity, it beckons intimacy. The two men met again after work for a drink. They discovered that their situations were similar: both married with kids, sexually interested in men, "average blokes" (as Harry called them), and regular beat users. In penetrative sex, one preferred to be receptive, the other to insert. The major difference between them was the state of their sexual identities. John's wife had known he was homosexual when they married. Harry's had known nothing of his sexual interests.

Eventually, the men's growing sense of connectedness developed into a strong emotional and sexual relationship. John's wife apparently knew about it, and finally told friends that he intended to leave her. This pushed Harry into the decision he had so far put off. His wife had by then realized he was homosexual. After a painful breakup, Harry and John began living together; they had been together for ten years when I met them.

Harry's story reveals the centrality of the body, its explorations, and its sensations to the construction of a life—to patterns of living, balance of preoccupations, decisions, and directions. The story also illuminates the recognition of the self in the body—that being Harry is measured in the body. When Harry's body engaged other men, it was that body's sensations and experience that led him. It was the searing pain in his anus that caused him subsequently to forgo being penetrated. It was his tongue that was taught not to hang out, his skin that was always bared, gaining further arousal and pleasure from the sight of others' skin. It was his "cracking a fat" that reminded him of pleasures foregone during his courting days. Finally, it was the experience of his whole body making love in the bushes that taught him there was more to men than "raw sex."

This is a story of embodied intensities and an increasing determination to pleasure, in a working-class man without recourse to gay liberation tropis or complex theories of sexuality. In the light of this active pursuit of homosex, we cannot simply regard Harry's body as passively awaiting the inscription of the social. Whatever intrusions discourses made upon his sex life, they never persuaded Harry to give it up. At each point, his embodied engagement with homosex more than countered any specific anti-homosexual discourse that came his way. It is clear the physical human body is actively in play here, but not as some pre-social body with asocial capacities awaiting social inscription. Just as there is no longer room for a biology, a physical science of the body, separate from the social body, so a social theory of the body that neglects its biology remains flawed. The body itself teaches and inscribes.

There is another aspect to Harry's tale—the markedly delayed development of more intense relational aspects of his homosexuality. This delay allows us analytically to join the body and its sex practices, mark them off from relationality, and focus on the body itself. But relationality, which eventually did come, quickly confirmed a fully fleshed-out life for Harry as a gay man. The developing relational intensities of Harry's long homosexual experimentation were evident to himself. That relational potential finally bloomed with John, yet the physicality of their long relationship remained; when I interviewed Harry, they still fucked like bunnies often, specializing in threesomes with married men regularly picked up at the local beat. The sexual construction of their relationship did not overshadow other aspects of their life together, but was central to its organization.


A different account of sexuality emerges among a more recent generation of men for which "gay" already existed, but which still demonstrates the formative action of the body-in-sex, this time deeply embedded within a relationality that encodes sensation. This account must reinsert the relational into an investigation of sex as embodied yet not lose the body-in-sex inside relationality.

I recently read the posthumously published, semi-autobiographicalHolding the Man by Timothy Conigrave (1995). Conigrave was an Australian actor, playwright, gay activist, and HIV/AIDS educator. His bestselling book documents his fifteen-year relationship with his lover John, ending just after John's death from AIDS—a year before Conigrave's own, also from AIDS, late in 1994.

As fifteen-year-old boys at a Catholic high school starting the relationship of their lives, Tim and John were fearless in pursuing sex. Their first fuck occurred after a few dates and lots of intense kissing. On a school retreat together:

John and I were lying head to toe on my bed. It was nice being close to him like this. I could feel the warmth radiating from him. John took hold of my feet, held them close to his cheeks and starting kissing them gently.

"What are you doing?" I whispered, alarmed.

"I don't know. I just want to."

My feet were alive with his soft stroking and gentle kissing. "You'd better stop, I'm cracking a fat."

"Good, so am I," John said seductively.

"What are you two up to? A bit of foot fetish, John?" Joe [a schoolmate] was watching us. He suggested we all sleep on the floor. John and I could lie together without looking sus [suspicious], so we all agreed. As we hauled the mattresses off the bed, Biscuit [another schoolmate] winked. "Never know what might happen."

Among the mattresses, pillows, and throw-cushions, we lay like a sheik's wives in a harem. In the darkness Biscuit and Joe whispered and giggled. John and I were nuzzling noses. He smelt sweet.

Lips caressing lips. Exploring. Our lips slightly parted, exchanging breath. Hands slipping into each other's sleeping-bags. His warm body in cotton PJs [pajamas]. Running my hand up his spine, feeling the muscles in his back. His hand going in under my pajama shirt. Skin of his hand against the skin of my back. My hand slipped into his pants and stroked his downy bum, pulling his hips closer to mine. I wanted to reach round to the front and hold his sex but was scared that it might spin him out. I moved my hand to his stomach and slowly worked it down to play with his bush of pubes, occasionally brushing his erection.

His eyes were shut and his breathing was getting faster. I took hold of his cock in one hand and his cool balls in the other. He started to groan gently in my ear. He was coming in my hand.

He took my cock and held it against his body, undoing his pyjamas. I pumped it against his belly until I came on his stomach. He touched my semen. "Wow." He smeared it over his chest and stomach. "Can you touch me again?"

I took hold of his cock, which was still hard. He started pumping my hand until his body arched and he came again. Still puffing, he hugged me and whispered, "I love you."

We drifted off to sleep, deep, blissful, complete. Through the night we would wake and start kissing, fondling, tugging and coming again. We were two suns, exchanging atmospheres, drawn into each other, spiralling into each other.

I woke in a patch of early morning sun. In front of me was the angelic face of John asleep, almost smiling, his eyelashes against his cheeks. My boyfriend. And last night we made love for the first time .

(Conigrave, 1995, 92–93, original emphasis)

These early sexual moments between Tim and John are reminders of the impossibility of dissolving the link between relationality and embodiment. Rather as the parents of these two boys tried to separate them, we in sex research struggle to tear apart sex practices and sexual relations, embodiment and relationality. Tim and John's very pursuit of relationally-laden sex and a sexually laden relationship laughs at such attempts.

As Tim's and John's bodies collide, at various times, through the first part of the book, they do so in the most improbable contexts, exemplifying a certain sexual perversity of boys, a willingness to have a feel, to grope in a group, to touch up a tush, to flash and fondle in the showers, to play pocket billiards with each other. They were not yet gay, but they were "boyfriends," and their schoolmates sensed something special going on, even colluding in supporting the relationship in the confines of the school.

Tim and John were constrained by unspecified discourses that prohibited sex and contrived to characterize sexual relations between males in a certain way. They were successful citizens in their high school, John a football captain and prefect, Tim a celebrated actor. Both were also extraordinarily beautiful. Whose bodies, whose desires, might this engage? The Jesuit fathers were therefore concerned about the boys' closeness; the parents at first thought them good for each other, but grew hostile when the sexual nature of the relationship became obvious. But something propelled these two boys toward sex, overwhelming the opposition in skirmishes that lasted throughout their lives, but which, from the beginning, they usually won.

Harry Wight had the same sort of sex play with his peers, if without the same early relational intensity, a generation earlier. It was thiscross-generational correspondence in sexual exploration that convinced me these are not minority experiences; rather, in varying degrees and at different times, sexual exchanges between boys can emerge as a significant culture, a widely acknowledged collective experience, witnessed and facilitated, much as their schoolmates willingly assisted John and Tim. These experiences are shared in a variety of ways with other boys—at the level of rumor, near misses, stories, wayward acts, and, for some, sustained practice.

What Tim and John's story also reveals is that the discursive silence in which they explored the potential of their bodies-in-sex was even more silent on the relational possibilities they pursued. Just as Harry, in that moment of revelation, "made love" and recognized something else available in and to men, Tim and John with no help discovered—invented—their relationship, only later seeking gay life to contextualize it, to give it shape and firmer definition. The discursive silence on male relationality that they experienced was filled also by their bodies; there can be no separation of mind and body, emotion and sensation, here.


The sexual activities so far described are not pursuits of sexual identity. Neither are they anonymous encounters. Still less are they decontextualized, hormonally charged releases. These engagements are relationally bounded, emotionally grounded, and embodied. It is all in the mix, and to attempt to make sense of sex by ignoring this relationality and merely tallying partner numbers or relationship status, to reify sex acts in essentialist inventories of practices, to relegate the body either to passive receptacle or to a pre-social "nature" awaiting social inscription: these dominant sex-research paradigms are doomed to failure.

This is not a simple argument for a more complex social constructionist perspective on sexuality, in another attempt to move us from the positivist sexological traditions unfortunately reinvigorated with the advent of HIV/AIDS. Rather, it is a plea to move on from the particular preoccupation of social constructionism that renders sexuality as a social product. I want, instead, to argue for a sexual construction of the social.

In this formulation, bodies-in-sex are not awaiting social inscription; rather, our sociality is built through the sexual, and through the enactment of desire—desire not conceived of as lack, as deeply structured need, but as a creation, a "big bang" that produces sexuality. By placing sexuality at the center of the creation of sociality, this conception offers the possibility to rethink the sexual construction of, for example, space, and of identity (rather than its filleted psychic incumbent), of desiring collectivities, and of sexual cultures like those described earlier in this chapter.

There is possibility here for a notion of subjectivity more agentive—and collectively more agentive—available for a politics of sociality seeking to restore sex to a place of constructive relations, in contrast to the increasing confinement of sex to a politics of the improper, the over-determined, the disdained, and the destructive. The separation of bodies-in-sex from the relationality of sexual encounters, even from sexual desire, diminishes our understanding of not only sex but social life. We must place bodies and bodies-in-sex at the heart of sociality not as recipients of inscription but as progenitors of relationality. Such an analysis of sexuality moves us from a sexuality of individual psychologized need toward a mutually creative/created culture of desire.

Foucault was clearly pointing in this direction when, in one of his later interviews, he said: "I think that what most bothers those who are not gay about gayness is the gay lifestyle, not the sex acts themselves. It is the prospect that gays will create as yet unforeseen kinds of relationships that many people cannot tolerate" (quoted in Bersani, 1995, 11). This is correct in positioning the newness of relations among gay men to the fore, but I would suggest that Foucault is also partly mistaken: sex acts between men do themselves significantly trouble many. The epigraph to Leo Bersani's famous essay, "Is the Rectum a Grave?" offers a case in point: "These people have sex twenty to thirty times a night . . . A man comes along and goes from anus to anus and in a single night will act as a mosquito transferring infected cells on his penis. When this is practiced for a year, with a man having three thousand sexual intercourses, one can readily understand this massive epidemic that is currently upon us" (Professor Opendra Narayan, John Hopkins Medical School, quoted in Bersani, 1988, 197).

It is not some new form of relationality that troubles Professor Narayan. If he were to visit a gay bath house, he might indeed witnessthe enactment of new forms of relationality, in events such as I described earlier, and better understand the epidemic he seeks to stop. But it is clearly the practice of homosex that disturbs Professor Narayan—it is the unending buttfucks that get up his nose.

Gay men walking together in Sydney's famous gay precinct, Oxford Street, similarly represent a different relational possibility between men, but it is not their sexual identities that generates anti-gay violence. Such violence is more likely, in the growing gay ghettos of industrialized and Westernized cities, the consequence of the visibility of gay men's relationships. Gay men do confirm very different relational possibilities between men, but they also denote and define certain physical sensations, pleasures foregone or delayed, maybe even remembered. They may distill some inchoate fantasy, unlocking the sexual potential in passivity and the threat to masculinity it inspires. Anti-gay violence is related to the very proximity of men's anuses to their penises. Gay men act as a real and symbolic threat to, and potential for, other men's ever-present penetrability.

I would seek to reassess Foucault's emphasis by positioning sex practices, particularly homosex, centrally in our understanding of sexuality, seeking first deliberately to move the debate from sexuality as identity, "I am," toward sexuality as praxis, "we do". But this maneuver stops short, for it shifts sex and identity only slightly to the side, and fails the challenge of accounting for the collective production of sexual culture and sociality.

In this regard, the question must be asked, is this sociality a mode confined to gay men, to the marginalized who have carved some safe sexy spaces of their own? I think this notion fails to answer the challenge of homosexuality as the pedal point in a homophobic patriarchy as conceived by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990). If we are to take seriously her universalizing view of homosexuality as the constituent of sexuality, rather than as the predominant sexual minority model of identity politics, we can no longer relegate the sex acts of gay men to the margins. These acts may represent, rather, a significant shift at the center; the young Tim and John may already be there.

But we may also have to consider Michel Maffesoli's proposal for reconfiguring a postmodern sociality, one where "what was marginalized during a productive period is diffracted in a multitude of central marginalities" (Maffesoli, 1991, 7). Maffesoli proposes that, in masssociety, "processes of condensation are constantly occurring through which more or less ephemeral tribal groupings are organized which cohere on the basis of their own minor values, and which attract and collide with each other in an endless dance, forming themselves into a constellation whose vague boundaries are perfectly fluid. This is the characteristic of postmodern society" (Maffesoli, 1991, 12). Such a shift from the structural proposes that the transcendence we seek in Western sexuality may already be present, but dispersed in ways we have yet to learn. Gay men make this easy for us through their visible sedition.

But gay men in the West form, in their "neo-tribal" sexual activity, a mode of sociality that may also allow us to move beyond what Simon Watney (1986) called the "banality of gender," with its heterosexist preoccupations. Both the bodily pleasures and the reciprocity that Harry explored in sex with men occurred largely within the frame of a life as a heterosexual man—marriage, fatherhood, breadwinner, homeownership, and so on. Harry was one of those "heterosexual" men who have sex with men, so troubling to us in HIV/AIDS work. He was not an example of sexual-identity/sexual-practice dissonance; he did not burden himself with a sexual identity, heterosexual or homosexual, for most of this period of his life (indicating again the limitation of "sexual identity" in sexuality research). Harry Wight did not have a sexual identity; he had no need of one. He only became a gay man long after his sexual adventuring with men, when his relationship with John was well established. "Gay" was merely a cultural superimposition that has helped recast the social lives of Harry and John in recent years.

Not only was the binary heterosexual/homosexual irrelevant to Harry, but the development, late in his life, of a more intensive relationality with John contrasts with the easy tropes in gender that privilege, but separate, "gay men" as a special category, allowing the continuing specious category "men" to dominate accounts of sexuality—allowing, that is, continued description of those gay men able to relate well to women as men who can show their emotion, who are in touch with their bodies, and so on. The patronizing tone of such accounts galls; the increasingly simplistic characterization of "men" left in play beyond "gay" would no longer be tolerated in gender theory, particularly by certain forms of feminism, for the category"women". Yet, unquestioned reliance on that gender binary under-pins most classic accounts of sexuality in so-called heterosexual epidemics, that dominate HIV/AIDS research.

Why, then, do we continue to reify, in sexuality research, categories such as "man," "woman," "transgender,", "male," "female," "transsexual," "homosexual," "heterosexual," "bisexual"? Why has HIV/AIDS research failed to learn from the deconstructive scrutiny lavished on these terms elsewhere—in particular, in cross-cultural research and post-colonial analyses? We need to look beyond these crude categories, which overlay sexuality with a paradigm of inevitable power, often invoked against empirical evidence (as in specious debates on pedophilia and pornography). We must no longer refuse the sedition of ordinary human bodies-in-sex.

Were we to follow this path, we might find that a new sexuality exists not only in gay mens' lives but in others'. We may see, elsewhere, sexuality in modes of sociality that confound conventional structural categories. We may begin to take seriously the sex experiences and activities of other peoples, places, and times. We may even cease that pastoral project of which Bersani (1988) accuses us, stop seeking to clean up sexuality in some liberal pluralist project of purification, and instead begin to enjoy a little more of the creative potential in its sweat, bump, and grind.


Bersani, L. (1988). "Is the Rectum a Grave?" In Crimp, D. (ed.), AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———. (1995). "Foucault, Freud, Fantasy, and Power." GLQ , 2(1/2):11–33.

Bristow, J. (1989). "Homophobia/Misogyny: Sexual Fears, Sexual Definitions." In Shepherd, S., and Wallis, M., (eds.), Coming On Strong: Gay Politics and Culture . London: Unwin Hyman.

Coe, C. (1993). Such Times . Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Conigrave, T. (1995). Holding the Man . Ringwood Vic: McPhee Gribble (Penguin Books).

Connell, R. W., and Dowsett, G. W. (1993). "The Unclean Motion of the Generative Parts." In Connell, R. W., and Dowsett, G. W., (eds.), Rethinking Sex: Social Theory and Sexuality Research . Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Dowsett, G. W. (1996). Practicing Desire: Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS . Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Maffesoli, M. (1991). "The Ethics of Aesthetics." Theory, Culture & Society , 8(1):7–20.

Moore, O. (1991). A Matter of Life and Sex . Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Rechy, J. (1977). The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary . New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the Closet . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Watney, S. (1986). "The Banality of Gender." Oxford Literary Review , 8(1/ 2):13–21.

Weeks, J. (1985). Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Excerpted from Framing the Sexual Subject by Richard Parker Copyright © 2000 by Richard Parker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Peter Aggleton, Regina Maria Barbosa, Frederick Blose, Carlos Cáceres, Rafael M. Diaz, Gary W. Dowsett, Mónica Gogna, Purnima Mane, Dédé Oetomo, Herman Oosthuizen, Vera Paiva, Richard Parker, Rosalind P. Petchesky, Eleanor Preston-Whyte, Silvina Ramos, Rachel Roberts, Michael Tan, Veriano Terto Jr., Christina Varga

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