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Sex and sociality : comparative ethnographies of sexual objectification

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This paper is intended as a critique of recent theorisations of sexuality and desire, which have led performative theorists to contend that gender is an effect of discourse, and sex an effect of gender. It results from informal discussions between the three authors on the mechanisms through which sexuality gets objectified in modernity. The ideas of influential Western thinkers (in particular Georges Bataille) are confronted with field data on sexuality – as lived and imagined – that the authors have been gathering in Amazonian societies, Trinidad, and on the internet. Ethnographic data and Western theories about the nature of eroticism are used to argue that the utopian definition of sexuality as sexual desire and will to identity is too divorced from the mundane, love, domesticity and reproduction in a broad sense and based on a too limited sphere of social experience. Consequently, to apply this definition to how and why humans engage in sexual activity leads to erroneous generalisations. For when encountered ethnographically, sexuality consists of practices deeply embedded in relational contexts. The paper concludes with the proposition that debates about the possibilities of human sexuality and of its political intervention will make no significant progress unless we stop repeating that “sexuality is socially constructed”, and start looking at the ways in which it is lived as part of everyday social life.

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