chapter
24 Pages

Introduction

Although the researchers claimed that they had no agenda, their report for popular consumption was shot through with a bias in favour of heterosexual sex, with marriage constantly looming large in their framework and terms of reference: "in selecting sex partners, people are also selecting partners with whom they might have children and with whom they might raise children." "At one time or another, almost everyone has felt excluded from the world of loving couples. Almost everyone has watched young lovers walk hand in hand through a park on a balmy spring aftetnoon or noticed how many women, young and old, beautiful and not so beautiful, sport wedding rings, or how many men, attractive or not, prominently display pictures of their wife and family in their office." One of the more featured "findings" was what is repetitively termed "vaginal sex." Some 80 percent of women and 85 percent of men said that "vaginal sex" was very appealing. "To our surprise, we discovered that although the sexual menu is long and varied, only one practice-vaginal intercourse-stood out as nearly universal. It is of course the only sexual activity that can result in the birth of a baby and it is the only practice that is universally and morally sanctioned by all religions .... Vaginal sex also is what most people imagine when they think of sex. It is the sexual activity that defines the loss of virginity, the one that teenagers dream of when they think of 'going all the way.'" (The survey also found that over 25 percent of men and 20 percent of women said that they had experienced anal sex at some time in their lives, but did not make a feature of this discovery.)3

One of the benefits of studying history is that it enables recognition of the strangeness of contemporary society. Or, rather, it allows one to see that not only is the past different from the present, but that aspects of present culture that seem eternal or fundamental will prove transient. In the contemporary West, sexual desires, behaviors, and identities are largely organized around the two polar opposites of heterosexual and homosexual. The polarity by no means imparts equality, of course, with heterosexuality made powerful through its identification as "normal" and "natural," while homosexuality has been demonized as heterosexuality's dark twin, "deviant" and "unnatural." Not all Western contemporaries seem at ease with such limited choices and neatly defined categories. Bisexuality refuses "binary categories" and "one-to-one correspondences between sex acts and identities" in favor of polymorphous desires.5 Indeed the sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued that an important characteristic of modern sexuality is its malleability. Sexuality is no longer a "natural condition," but rather "free-floating." It "functions as a malleable feature of self": what he has termed, with all its modern connotations, "plastic sexuality."6 And yet, when aU the qualifications have been made, there is no doubting the resilient power of the more conventional sexual imaginary. In an extended critique of Giddens, Lynn Jamieson has demonstrated a widespread adherence to many of the fixed gender stereotypes of compulsory heterosexuality-what has been termed heteronormativity.7