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Defining the study of sexuality within the discipline of geography

Defining the study of sexuality within the discipline of geography

Author of this post:
RNDr. Michal Pitoňák, Ph.D.

The text is an edited version of the following chapter, cited as:
PITOŇÁK, M. (2013): Geografie sexualit, bílé místo v prostoru české geografie?. In: OSMAN, R. (ed.): Geografický výzkum: participace a angažovanost. MUNI press.

Sexuality is natural and variable

Intimate same-sex relations, in which individuals of the same sex engage with each other, form relationships (often only informal relationships), sexually satisfy each other, or interact with each other in ways that are often considered homoerotic (or less appropriately, homosexual), are commonly found in nature. Only literature emerging in recent years which addresses this issue, such as the book Biological Exuberance, has drawn attention to how common homosexual behavior is in nature (Bagemihl 1999). To date, evidence of homosexuality has been found in at least 300 species of vertebrates (Balcombe 2006: 109). In other words, the „naturalness“ of same-sex unions has only entered human discourse in recent years, through language. Up until the second half of the 20th century, there was essentially no discourse that considered same-sex relations normal or natural.

The problem of changing discourses surrounding sexuality and the „emergence“ thereof is aptly described by the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1978, 2000). Foucault’s work is central to the geography of sexualities (Bell and Valentine 1995; Duncan 1996; Valentine 1996), but he did not receive recognition in the field of geography as a whole until after his death, in the book Space, Knowledge and Power – Focault and Geography (Crampton and Elden 2007), which explores his works and many as yet unpublished texts. Soja even refers to Foucault as a postmodern geographer (Soja 1989: 16). If we understand sexuality in the same way as Foucault, then:

„Sexuality is not a natural feature or fact of human life, but a constructed experiential category that has historical, social and cultural origins rather than biological ones.“
(Spargo 2001: 17)

Foucault did not exclude the biological dimension of sexuality, he simply emphasised the crucial role of institutions and discourses in its formation, and Berger and Luckmann (1999) also take the same approach to the issue. In this sense, then, the „homosexual identity“, as we know it, it is merely the product of a social classification whose main aim was regulation and control. „To name meant to label“ (Banditerová 2005: 103). Banditerová uses the analogy of R. Brannon, who compared homosexuality to being left-handed.

„The origin and causes of both behaviors remain unknown. Left-handedness and homosexuality belong to minorities that exist in every human society, and claiming that homosexuality goes against nature is as unfounded as claiming that exclusively using the left hand also goes against nature.“
(Banditerová 2005: 151).

What is the framework within which the geography of sexualities, as a social science discipline, addresses sexuality? Firstly, it is more than simply the study of sexual desire and the behaviour of individuals within a space. A distinction must be made between sexual orientation, behaviour and identity.

Sexual orientation¹

Sexual orientation probably has a biological basis (i.e., it is basically existential, in that it can also be studied i.e., from an essentialistic point of view, e.g. in biology, medicine, etc.), but its exact mechanisms are still unknown (Jenkins 2010: 288) and geography does not deal with this potentially unethical area of research (i.e. the search for the cause of „homosexuality“).

In Czechia, as in most of the world’s developed countries, homosexuality (or, better: non-heterosexuality) is a legitimate variant of human sexuality (Weiss 2003).

Sexual behaviour

Sexual behaviour is no longer only existential (i.e. it has an impetus in sexual orientation, of course), but it is also socially constructed, because there must be a possibility to express it, i.e. it must be legal, non-stigmatised, etc. Sexuality is constructed differently in different cultural (but also historical/temporal) regions and is regulated (i.e. institutionalised) in different societies in slightly different ways.

In ‚modern‘ societies, heterosexuality and its institutionalisation (e.g., the idealisation of the ‚nuclear family‘) has become the primary unit of reproduction (e.g. of the workforce, or of population change in general), while non-heterosexuality has only gradually gained legitimacy with the development of post-material values in developed societies (Inglehart and Welzen 2005).

All these factors are related to the fact that in some societies, historical contexts, or situations, sexual behaviour changes according to circumstances, norms, laws, customs, traditions, etc. Examples „from the other side“ which are already somewhat notorious include sexual behaviour in prisons, in youth groups or elsewhere, where unregulated heterosexual behaviour and the considerable need of some heterosexual individuals for gratification leads to „homosexual contact“, in which the behaviour of these individuals does not necessarily correspond to their sexual orientation, but rather, only responds to the context.  Inversely, then, it is necessary to understand why „homosexually-oriented people“ „quit“ their sexual behaviour if it is not legitimised (i.e. not legalised, or, if it is criminalised), or even if their lives are threatened due to their sexual behaviour, a situation that corresponds, for example, to many countries in the Arab world in which homosexual behaviour is prohibited and punishable by death. Therefore, regionally, human sexuality is regulated by very diverse mechanisms, both legally as well as culturally and socially. Differences can clearly be observed not only across the world, but also within the macroregion of Europe.

Sexual behaviour is therefore clearly structured by space and time, not only at the spatial macro-level of entire cultural regions, but also across time or historical epochs. The same is true at the meso-level (urban and rural areas) or the micro-level, where even particular areas in cities can be more liberal than others, and it is also true within the temporal dimension, where the time of day, for example, influences our possibilities with regard to sexual behaviour (day/night). These spatio-temporal constructions always involve, above all, cultural and political influences that manifest discourses; in short, power relations.

Sexual identity

Another concept is that of diverse sexual identities (gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, straight, etc.), which are becoming increasingly problematic, in particular due to queer theory and the growing influence of post-approaches (post-structuralism, postmodernism, feminism, etc.), and especially because they are socially constructed.

If language² is the means by which we attribute meaning to our experiences and feelings, then identifying with or rejecting them leads to the formation of a particular type of identity that is based on and conditioned by culture (DeLamater and Hyde 1998). The study of the changing relationship of identities to the space in which they are established is certainly a geographical matter. How does the anonymity of the environment, the size of the population centres, the type of built-up area, the presence of various boundaries, various infrastructures, education, and many other spatially structured phenomena affect the construction of sexual identities? Why do research surveys in different countries find different proportions of people identifying as sexual minorities? Why do populations in certain countries not know what a gay, lesbian, or homosexual person is? These and many other questions are the subject of study in the field of the geography of sexualities.

According to Butler, sexuality is „a fluid set of meanings reinforced by ideas about sexuality and gender“. How these ideas are formed is aptly complemented by Ballegaard’s definition, according to which „gay and lesbian sexual identities are socially constructed and reinforced through membership in a particular community“(Ballegaard 2009: 18). Hughes adds another interesting aspect of sexual identity, and that is the often misunderstood fact that those who are homosexual do not choose whether to become homosexual, but rather, they choose whether to identify as such (Hughes 2006). It is clear, however, that this „choice“ has little to do with free choice.

The relationship between sexual orientation, behaviour and identity is therefore quite interconnected and complex. In a nutshell, sexualities are therefore:

„Social constructs subject to various meanings and deemed to have different functions at different times and in different places, which can be reconstructed according to social, cultural and political trends, needs and pressures.“
(Forrest a Ellis 2006: 92).

Photo by Lareised Leneseur on Unsplash

Sexualita v geografii; queer³ teorie v geografii

Any geographical thought about sexualities must begin with an exploration of how sexual identities are constructed and manifested in space. Bell and Valentine (1995: 30), confirmed that the performance of identities is space dependent. The queer approach, however, suggests that neither identities nor bodies are fixed, but rather, are constantly being reshaped.

Sexualities (identities, behaviours) are fluid, contextually constructed and, above all, they are spatially dependent. Queer geographers argue that space is not „just a container in which things happen, but is actively produced by the actions that take place within it“ (Browne 2009: 42). The automatic or fixed understanding of space as being (primarily) heterosexual must therefore be challenged, by exposing the heterosexual acts carried out on a daily basis, the repetition of which normalises them as heterosexual, and which are consequently not even considered to be (hetero)sexual. Therefore, as early as the 1990s, David Bell and his colleagues explained that space is not „naturally“ heterosexual, but has been „heterosexualised“ by specific acts and norms, and that it is therefore performative. It is these unspoken norms (present in the cultural sphere) that have constructed the space for those with a majority sexual orientation – heterosexuals – for whom, however, heterosexuality&nbspis natural, unproblematic, invisible and normalised (Duncan 1996). The normalisation of heterosexuality within a heteronormative society renders it invisible (Valentine 1996). At this stage, it is useful to introduce the term heteronormativity, which is – understandably – frequently referred to in the geography of sexualities. According to the Dictionary of Human Geography, it is:

„A social regulatory framework that produces binary gender division normalises desire between women and men and marginalises other sexualities as being different and deviant“ (Gregory et al. 2009: 329).

And, according to Takács, heteronormativity simply „refers to cultural and social practices that make men and women believe that heterosexuality is the only possible sexuality“ (Takács et al. 2008: 5).

In space, heterosexuality has no limits and, if it remains within certain moral boundaries (e.g. nudity, exhibitionism, etc.), the manifestations thereof are not perceived as sexual acts. In a way, therefore, „self-evident heterosexuality“ can be understood as being invisible, and one of the tasks of queer geographers and theorists is to give it visibility.

Viewing space from a queer perspective, or, in this case, understanding heteronormativity, is challenging, especially for individuals with a majority sexual orientation, due to the nature of the majority sexual orientation. A person from the majority population does not identify as „heterosexual“, rather, they just consider themselves as „normal“, and they do not think of their daily routines or behaviour as expressions of sexuality – if they feel the need to, they will hold their partner’s hand, kiss them, hug them, gaze in their direction, or go out to meet them, but they do not consider any of these acts as expressions of sexuality within acceptable norms. However, if „majority heteronormative“ individuals notice two men holding hands, kissing or hugging each other, for example, they are not considered „normal.“ Why is this so, if they are expressing the same gestures towards each other as heterosexual partners? Why is it that we often look away when we see two kissing lovers (male and female), but we „stare“ at two male lovers or two female lovers kissing each other? This is happening everywhere. These people experience space differently to the majority population, so is it possible to overlook their perspective? Geographers of sexualities (including queer ones) say that it clearly is not. Are all spaces equally heteronormative, or do the characteristics of this phenomenon change from space to space? Where can non-heterosexual couples „kiss“ one another without feeling that others are watching them accusingly or mocking them? Is it in their homes, in some public places, or elsewhere? How does queer theory approach the possibilities of human behaviour and, within the possibility of structures, how is the approach similar to Giddens’s structuration theory, which is influential in geography, and how is it different? These questions can be answered thanks to the work of theorists such as Judith Butler (1990), who, among other things, expanded on the already influential ideas of Foucault. According to Butler, space in its simplicity is heterosexualised through various processes, and according to Foucault, heteronormativity is protected by various practices.

Public spaces

The most common argument of heterosexual people regarding their „tolerance“ of non-heterosexual people is that they „tolerate them“, but „they should keep it behind closed doors, in private“ (Duncan 1996). This is based on the mistaken assumption that sexuality belongs in private, and is part of an institutionalised heteronormativity in which heterosexuality is a ubiquitous part of everyday activities, and therefore the cause, or perhaps the effect, of the statement „they should keep it behind closed doors“ is the inability (or unwillingness) of the majority sexually-oriented to acknowledge their differences (Bell and Valentine 1995). In other words, the inability to perceive their own (hetero)sexual acts as sexual acts. Heterosexuals behave „normally“ in public spaces, not realising that when they kiss, hold hands, or touch each other’s bottoms, this is sexually explicit behaviour.

For non-heterosexual people, public spaces are therefore perceptibly heteronormative. They perceive the sexual actions of heterosexual people and are as sensitive to them as they are to their own, which are still often considered „abnormal, inappropriate, etc.“ in heteronormative society. They therefore perceive public spaces as highly sexualised and unequal. Valentine (1996) states that the spaces considered public by heterosexual people are not public, but rather, they are only public to a partial extent, because many places exclude people not only on the basis of their sexuality but also on the basis of their age, race, social class, etc. Valentine cites the well-publicised example of a lesbian couple who were expelled from a supermarket in Nottingham in 1991 after kissing each other while shopping. This is a trivial example which illustrates that public spaces are not equally open to everyone, and that not every one in these spaces has the same opportunities (Valentine 1996: 153).

Private spaces

Let us now look at a typical example of a private space – the home. According to Madanipour, the home is a place in which individuals experience psychological contentment (Madanipour 2003). However, a large amount of research confirms that, once again, this is not the case for non-heterosexual people, or at least for a certain part of their lives (their youth). The home has always been recognised as a crucial hub within society, a place in which identities are formed and memories take root, and a centre for intimacy (Madanipour 2003: 71). However, the home does not even fulfill this function for non-heterosexual people (Matejskova 2007: 138). According to Saunders, the home is a place in which the individual can exercise their autonomy away from the intrusive gaze of the employer and the state, and whose integrity is a top priority in the lives of many individuals (Saunders 1990). Lynda Johnston and Gill Valentine, however, write about the home as a place with heterosexist and often homophobic overtones (Johnston and Valentine 1995: 102). What, for example, does the home of a non-heterosexual adolescent look like? What is it like for an individual growing up in a heteronormative – or even homophobic – family (Bell and Valentine 1995: 92)? Does the home fulfill the above functions at a time in which the person is most vulnerable, i.e., during their adolescence, growth, or when they are studying?

Queer spaces

Does a space exist that is not (hetero)normative? And where is this space located, or can it be purposefully created? A space that would essentially be anti-normative, would not have exclusive (e.g. heterosexual) norms, and would therefore be inclusive of all people of different sexualities, ethnicities, races, genders or other axes of difference, could perhaps be called a queer space. The term queer space is used primarily in the context of the geography of sexualities and feminist geographies, but also in other disciplines which are informed by critical social theory, of which queer theory (Rushbrook 2002: 201) forms an integral part.

Because sexual orientation is not visibly imprinted on people’s bodies, and evidence of belonging to one or another orientation cannot be seen anywhere on the body, sexual orientation is somewhat different from other axes of difference such as, for example, race, gender, sex, or age. For this reason, the fact of belonging to a different sexual orientation can be hidden, and this circumstance is perhaps the only reason why full equality between people of different sexualities has not yet been achieved. Therefore, non-heterosexual people often live hidden lives in heteronormative society, do not express themselves in public and are sometimes reluctant to express themselves naturally even in their heteronormative home, and they retreat to their so-called „closets“⁴. Currently, therefore, non-heterosexual people mostly only feel that they can be themselves in selected public spaces or places (Bristow 1989). For the most part, these spaces are various commercial gay or lesbian spaces (most often gay clubs, bars, saunas, etc.), which are spatially concentrated in large cities, including Prague. Why is this the case, and are these spaces queer? These and many other questions raised here are answered by the geography of sexualities, which is equipped not only with the necessary methodological and theoretical tools, but also with the sensitivity to examine the world from a spatiotemporal perspective. There is a growing demand (e.g. in the EU) for geographical knowledge which can be found in various differentiated and often silenced perspectives (not only sexual ones). But the process of understanding, making visible and discovering the specificities as well as the regularities that structure and influence everyone’s socio-spatial lives is still at the beginning of its long journey.

¹ This is not a preference, because it is not something that people can choose, and therefore it is not possible for it to be a preference (American Psychological Association 1991).

² To achieve a post-structuralist understanding of language, it would be necessary to at least discuss the works of J. L. Austin (linguistic theory of speech acts), L. Althusser (the notion of ‚interpellation‘), J. Butler (theory of performativity), develop the psychoanalytic arguments of S. Freud and J. Lacan), take a closer look at the works of J. Derrida (deconstruction, non-fixity of meanings), and discuss many other works.

³ In the sense in which it is to be understood in this article, queer is  „a way of thinking, a way of knowing, a specific mode of critique that aims to challenge normalisation, to examine assumptions which are taken for granted, especially (but not exclusively) categories related to gender, sex and sexuality. Queer geography is difficult to define because indefinability, anti-normativity and anti-essentialism are at its core“ (Browne 2009: 39).

⁴ The spatial metaphor of concealing oneself, which Sedgwick (1990) and geographer Michael Brown (2000) discuss in detail. This is also the origin of the popular term „coming-out“, which comes from the phrase „coming-out of the closet.“

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