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Sexualités américaines

Claudine Raynaud

Introduction. Sex, Gender, Sexualities: Theoretical and political Quests, Institutional Responses

Claudine Raynaud

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1"Sex in America," the plenary lecture delivered by Stuart Michaels, held in its title the promise of an immediate answer to the 1995 Congress of the A. F.E. A. (Association Française d'Études Américaines): "Sexualités aux États Unis: Expression et répression." A sociologist at the University of Chicago, Michaels participated in a survey of sexual behavior in 1988 later published as The Social Organization of Sexuality and Sex in America in 1994. The study received intense media attention and made the cover of Time magazine on October 17, 1994, with the subtitle "the most important survey since the Kinsey Report". But Michaels tried instead to draw attention to its checkered political history and to the discrepancy between the media coverage and the methods and findings of the research. The survey originated during the Reagan administration in response to the AIDS epidemic and became in 1989 the target of right wing politicians, such as Jesse Helms. The results of the study, which, among other things, revealed a lower percentage of homosexual behavior than expected, were perceived as good news by the general media which promptly read the findings as a celebration of heterosexual marriage. To Michaels, these results show puzzling discrepancies between men's and women's reports of their experience of sexuality and reveal a disturbing chasm between social science research and the work done in Gender, Gay and Lesbian Studies. His acknowledgment is that large surveys, such as this, automatically reflect the middle, the average, the masses, and that self-report does not necessarily coincide with sexual behavior. A strong opening statement on the politics of sexuality, his contribution straddles the two interrelated issues of this volume: theoretical questioning and institutional responses. It also demonstrates a deep concern for a responsible health policy to fight the AIDS epidemic.

2The first section of the volume contains the work of the participants in the workshop of "sex" and "gender" which aimed at mapping out these concepts understood as cultural constructs. Do sex and gender intersect as they do in Gayle Rubin's "sex-gender system"? (Rubin, 1975). Is their very intersection to be questioned? Has the demise of "sex" — understood as sexual "identity" — come about under the converging yet diverse influences of post-structuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction? What is the relationship between these concepts and "men" as in "Men's Studies," or Masculinity Studies? How are they articulated in relation to "women" and to "woman" (formally — and still for some — identified with "sex")? How are they used in "Gay and Lesbian Studies," "Queer Theory"? What has become of what some feminists once called the future of difference (Eisenstein and Jardine, 1980)? The complexity and the interdisciplinary nature of the investigations, together with the necessarily political stakes of any theoretical position, leave these questions open to debate. The workshop ultimately confronted strictly theoretical undertakings of researchers in anthropology and sociology to the social construction of sexual "identity" illustrated by the work in progress of two American scholars (a cultural historian and a cultural critic). The debate also attempted to bring to the fore the political, ideological and cultural inflections of the concepts of sex and gender, and hence the difficulty of transatlantic translations in that domain. It is self-evident that the French word sexe does not necessarily translate the English sex, and genre cannot be regarded as the Gallic version of gender.

3Brigitte Lhomond, a sociologist from the Health Research Group at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), whose work has centered, among other things, on adolescent sexual behavior in the age of AIDS, demonstrated how "Women's Studies" and "Gay and Lesbian Studies" have enabled researchers to think differently about the relationships between the sexes, women's oppression and compulsory institutional heterosexuality. Her starting point is that sex in the biological sense of the term is constructed by social discourse and practice. She also stresses the confusion around the notion of gender since, when gender means socio-sexual roles, this leads to a confusion between women and femininity, men and masculinity, i. e. the social relations and the symbolic system which comprises them. The distinction, useful for analysis, between sex and gender should be maintained for one could run the risk of naturalizing gender. If, more recently, "Queer Theory" denounces the essentialism which supports the notion of identity, such an approach implies, according to Lhomond, an a-historical and an a-sociological vision of the world which stems from a refusal to take into account the reality of social groups.

4For her part, anthropologist Nicole-Claude Mathieu centered her research, as early as 1970, on the social categorization of the sexes. The article included in this volume is a summary and an updated version of her own conceptualization of the relationship between the two notions of sex and gender. It consists of a general grid of these relations in Western and non-Western cultures. Mathieu has created a theoretical model which distinguishes three modes of interaction between the two notions: 1) gender translates sex; 2) gender symbolizes sex; 3) gender constructs sex. Her investigation also bears on the discrepancy between sex and "gender" and the heuristic value of a new notion, that of "social sex." The prédominent concept in contemporary research in the human sciences, "gender" obscures the material and ideological fact of a social organization of the sexes. Mathieu strongly opposes "cultural gender games" promoted by postmodernist psychoanalytic approaches to sexuality and instead insists on "social sex-opression" in the face of the fundamental asymmetry and hierarchy between genders. She concludes that the organization of the sexes uses, but also constructs anatomical differences to transform them into social classes at the expense of the class of women.

5George Chauncey's intervention contributes to exploring how we conceptualize, theorize and historicize the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality. In a perspective which bears affinities with Mathieu's theoretical position and in line with a Foucaldian approach to the historical discourse of sexualities, he examines the links between female prostitution and male homosexuality in early twentieth century American street culture. His study illustrates the historical variations of conceptions of sexuality and of gender and constitutes a de facto refutation of the naturalist argument. At the beginning of the century homosexual activity was an insufficient basis for a man to be called a "fairy," neither was heterosexual behavior sufficient to define a man as normal. The "fairy" is to be understood in relation to a gender identity rather than a sexual identity. Chauncey concludes that the binarism heterosexual-homosexual was not a fundamental pattern of the American middle class sexual ideology. Fairies'choice of men as partners was considered typical of women's attitude, hence the link between the fairies and the female prostitutes; their sexual behavior was "gender behavior" rather than homosexual behavior. Moreover, their effeminacy confirmed rather than threatened the masculinity of other men and made them into "third sexers": they behaved like "tough women." Chauncey's work is a brilliant example of one of the combinations between sex and gender from a diachronic perspective — it is also a class analysis of concurrent variations within these combinations — which Mathieu had mapped out from a primarily synchronic geographically diversified comparison of data.

6Looking at contemporary performance artists whose work centers on the body, sexuality, sickness, and pain, Linda Kauffman takes us to beyond the limits of the human into the "post-human" and its regression towards the drives (eating, defecating, the elemental alimentai body). Kauffman has previously worked on French performance artist Orlan, but the article included here focuses on Bob Flanagan, an American artist whose artwork consisted in staging his deadly disease (cystic fibrosis) as well as the sado-masochistic practices intimately linked to it. Robert Flanagan died of cystic fibrosis on January 4, 1996 Relying on interviews with the artist and his partner, Kauffman links Flanagan's mises-en-scène of his heterosexual sado-masochism to "babyism", a return to a strong relationship with the mother (the mean mother) and to the pre-oedipal. She also explores the relations between this "exhibitionism" of sickness and abjection. Flanagan's work could be said to foreground, as a new modality of the "obscene", the frontier between suffering and eroticism, our mortal frame — the material and finite nature of the human body (flesh) — and the pleasure one derives from pain. Iconoclastically, Flanagan turns the museum into a hospital ward and destroys romantic notions of art as transcendence and immortality. Kauffman replaces the artist's work within a broader intellectual and cultural movement and moment which extend to contemporary advertising, such as Bennetton's scandalous "United Colors" posters. She focuses on the filmmaker Peter Greenaway (The Pillow Book) curator of the exhibition "The Physical Self', the novelist J. G. Ballard and the filmmaker David Cronenberg, as well as other contemporary feminist artists, such as Kiki Smith, or "ordeal artists" Chris Burden and Vito Acconci.

7The last section of her article relies on Kristeva's notion of abjection developed in Powers of Horror (1983) — itself indebted to Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger (1969) — to explain what is so troubling and even nauseating in these artistic statements or performances. Their exploration of the "Post Human" is often almost unbearable for they lay bare of the limits of undifferenciation before language where human and animal merge. Or they are deeply perturbing in their allusion to a future where powerful political references, such as the Chinese revolution, will be reprocessed by consumerism to the point of totally losing sight of the historical signifier; advertising capitalizes on cultural amnesia. In 1993 the Whitney Museum mounted an exhibition named' Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art", a pun on "object Art" referring to object-relation theory, and hence a reflection on "bad" object choices to fill in the "lack", the want (Kauffman, 1997). Quite fittingly, the 1995 Beaubourg exhibition to which Kauffman also refers was called "Hors Limites".

8Kauffman's polemical, unsettling, witty essay raises questions about the limits of aesthetics and representation, of ethics and politics, which are also brought up by other contemporary artists in relation to the AIDS epidemic. She frames her statement by insisting on the violence of right wing lobbying (Christian Action Network) and on state censorship of the artwork she discusses through budget cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts. As in Michaels's article, the politics of sexuality and the very definition of "normal" sexual behavior are framed in their relationship to the Constitution (The Bill of Rights and freedom of expression) and to the Government (Congress's and the President's cultural and social policies).

9These politics and the policies they shape are the subject of the second section of the volume which contains analyses of how the different institutions (the United States Supreme Court, Labor laws, the Army, the American mainline Catholic and Protestant churches as well as the Evangelical churches and the Christian Right) which "order," shape, protect, discipline, govern society respond to sexuality, to sexual behaviors, to the specificity of the oppression of women, homosexuals (gay men and lesbians) and transsexuals.

10Richard Hodder-Williams's essay provides a useful survey of the understanding of the categories of sexual discrimination by the Supreme Court, from the point of view of a political scientist, and serves as a general introduction to the articles which follow. Taking the example of the NAACP and its long legal fight against racial discrimination as representative of interest group legislation, his article shows how women activists have failed to follow suit and analyses the varied reasons for this failure. The divisions within the Women's Movement are one of the cause of its weakness. Over the years the Justices have shown two tendencies: to defer to elected legislatures when differential treatment might be construed as granting privileges and to accept as a rationale women's difference when it stuck to the stereotype of the weak woman. Stereotypes evolve, they never die. The political composition of the Court, as well as America's federalism and its multi-level judicial system, are crucial in advancing or restricting women's rights, as is made evident by the legalization of abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973). Hodder-Williams concludes by retracing the fated history of the Equal Rights Amendment, which raises the problem of thinking women's difference in opposition to women's equality. He also evokes the legal fight for the recognition of their rights of gay men and lesbians. Rights in the American culture are related to individuals, and not to groups and the major victories are won by the legislatures (Equal Pay Act and Civil Rights Act) at the bar of public opinion. As Gibault's intervention (below) shows, the U. S. army is obviously a test case for an examination of the "progress" made by "sexual minorities." The debate on pornography which opposes feminist lawyer Catharine McKinnon to both feminists (who counter her views) and liberals (who link this action to censorship) is also central to an understanding of sexuality, and women's oppression within an American political and cultural context.

11Elisabeth Boulot focuses on sexual harassment at work and retraces the evolution of Federal court rulings in this field since the mids-eventies which ultimately rest on an interpretation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts. McKinnon has played a prominent role in the progress of sex discrimination on the work place, questioning, for instance, the gender neutral approach embedded in the reference to "a reasonable person" (1979) after having pointed out that the differences approach entailed too narrow an interpretation of Title VII (1976). The distinction between quid pro quo situations where sexual favors are exchanged for benefits linked to employment (promotion, pay rise, fear of losing current employment) and the situation where harassment is characterized by a hostile or offending work environment for one of the sexes is now clearly established. Federal courts comforted in their position by several Supreme Court decisions, condemn both forms of sexual harassment after having examined the facts according to extremely precise criteria. In certain circumstances, the employer's conduct and responsibility can also be questioned.

12Like women, gay and lesbian activists are trying to find a legal way to put an end to discrimination through organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force or the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. After having stressed the great variety of sources concerning labor laws in the United States, Michel Antoine focuses on hiring and firing discrimination in the case of sexual minorities. Since there has been no evolution in legislation, gay, lesbian, and transsexual associations use these domains as test cases to struggle against discrimination and to achieve legal equality. From the point of view of the law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act gives them their major argument when faced with private employers, while other judicial principles inscribed in the Constitution are invoked, most notably the "equal protection clause," in the public sector. Antoine stresses how the arguments put forward by the plaintiffs in De Santis v. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. (1979) attempt to redefine the notion of "sex" included in Title VII. Their first argument,for instance, contended that "sex" should refer to "sexual activity" and not be restricted to anatomical sex. Transsexuals face the justices' resolve to refuse to depart from a correspondence between biological sex and the corresponding gender stereotype (see Lhomond above). The sexual minorities' fight against discrimination does not stop at undertaking legal action. Businesses are continuously pressured into change both from the outside by associations who denounce the most conservative of them, and from the inside, when gay and lesbian committees are formed within the ranks of their employees. Antoine also shows how certain states (such as the State of Massachusetts, as well as eight other states and the District of Columbia) have adopted a more progressive position.

13Michèle Gibault tackles the topic of homosexuality within the United Sates army, which officially constitutes the last openly homophobic bastion of the Federal State. In this case, it is no longer a question of a person's right to work, but of being denied such a right: gay men and lesbians cannot "serve" in the army, although they are present at all levels of the hierarchy. A vast body of legal texts gives the army considerable means to sanction homosexual behavior, texts which are diversely used in times of peace or of war. The eighties, years of the Gay Liberation Movement, were a period of intense repression and, if the 1993 "Clinton Compromise" ("don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue") eliminated the obligation to state one's homosexuality when joining the army and suspended the anti-gay purges, it maintained the principle of excluding homosexuals from the army. The Aids epidemic did not have as a consequence the expected liberalization of the Army's attitude.

14The last two papers address the issues raised by any examination of sexual behavior in a given society: the role of the representatives of the religious orders in condoning or condemning certain sexual practices, in defining and regulating acceptable sexual activity. Conversely, the sexual conduct of Church hierarchy is also being scrutinized. Hilary Kaiser examines mainline Catholic and Protestant American churches to assess how they face the repeated and recent (1992-1993) sex scandals among their ranks. Both churches are more and more implicated in sexual harassment and child abuse scandals — the latter being defined more as an abuse of power than a sexual practice. It is estimated that among 53 000 Catholic priests, 4 000 have been guilty of sexual harrassment. Beyond their obvious ethical implications and the moral damage these scandals cause, the financial burden is extremely heavy. On the one hand, mainline Churches must offer compensation to the victims. For instance, the Catholic Church had to pay 400 million dollars in law suits in 1992. On the other hand, the treatment of priests, whose behavior is construed as pathological, is extremely costly.

15Mokhtar Ben Barka, for his part, looks at the way in which the Evangelical fundamentalist churches and the Christian Right might have integrated certain progressive attitudes towards sexuality in the wake of the sexual revolution of the sixties. His is a provocative reversal of the received opinion on these denominations' moral rigidity and puritan ideals. Ben Barka acknowledges the Christian Right's violent antiabortion stance, their unconditional support of laws which criminalize the practice of sodomy (avowedly aimed at outlawing homosexuality), and their restriction of women's sexuality to procreation within marriage. He nevertheless points to the publication and the circulation of certain sex manuals distributed by Evangelical Churches which illustrate that things are not so clear-cut. (The theoretical implications of this stance merges with Foucault's notion of the non-monolithic nature of power, its "capillarity".) Sexual pleasure can be sought by Christian men and women, but, predictably, the Evangelical Churches see this quest as taking place exclusively within wedlock. Since most of the sex manuals to which Ben Barka refers date from the early eighties, an investigation of the attitude of the Christian Right in the nineties — a decade of backlash — could help us see whether that tendency is confirmed or contradicted.

16The postscript to the volume is a reminder that Looking for Langston (1989) by black British director Isaac Julien was shown during the Congress at the Studio cinemas. The film illustrates the ambivalent workings of expression and repression when it comes to the intimacy of desire. My own analysis departs from African American critic and writer bell hook's and rejoins black British cultural critic Kobena Mercer's by focusing on fantasy. The Freudian notion of fantasy becomes the crucible of several key-elements: the work of art as daydream, erotic daydream and the fulfillment of desire, the ambivalent status of photographs as fantasy and "reality." Conjuring the silenced homosexual past of Harlem Renaissance poet and writer, Langston Hughes, the film never ceases to be an autobiographical cinematic statement on the necessary difficulty — ambivalence — of telling black homosexual longing. The historical referent is the very place and period analyzed by George Chauncey in Gay New York". Harlem in the twenties. Claiming and questioning this African American past, Julien produces a puzzling postmodern and extremely lyrical film. Daydream, archival imagery, reconstructed imaginary sequences contrive to leave the artist's specular quest open, while creating, thanks to the fragmentary technique of "montage," another reader for Hughes's poetry, one who might think the possibility of black homoeroticism.



Chauncey, George, 1994. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.

Eisenstein, Hester and Alice Jardine, 1980. The Future of Difference. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kauffman Linda, 1997. Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kristeva, Julia, 1980. Pouvoirs de l'horreur: essai sur l'abjection. Paris: Seuil. 1983. Powers of Horror: Essay on Abjection. Trans. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press.

Mathieu, Nicole-Claude, 1991. L'Anatomie Politique. Catégorisation et idéologies du sexe. Paris: Côté-femmes.

Laumann, Edward O., John Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels, 1994. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rubin, Gayle, 1975. "The Traffic of Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex,'in Rayna Reiter, ed., Towards an Anthropology of Women. New York: The Monthly Review Press.

N. B.: Other papers from the Tours conference have been published by Marie-Claire Pasquier and Marie-Claude Perrin-Chenour in Revue Française d'Etudes Américaines, n°18, mars 1996. Others still are forthcoming from Paris VIII, Bordeaux and Nice.


Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Tours. She has taught at the Universities of Birmingham and Liverpool, Northwestern, the University of Michigan and Oberlin College. She specializes in critical theory (racial and sexual difference) and autobiograpical writing (ITEM-CNRS). She is the author of Toni Morrison (Belin, 1997), a dissertation on Andrew Marvell, as well as articles on Joyce, Milton, Lowry and contemporary Afro-American autobiographical texts (Hurston, Angelou, Brooks, Lorde, Kennedy).

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1997

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