Thursday, December 30, 2004

Review: The Regulation of Desire

The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities, 2nd Edition by Gary Kinsman. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1996.

This book is a history of the regulation of sexuality that focuses on Canada but also includes material on the United States and Britain. I found its content to be interesting but its theoretical approach to be fascinating and invaluable.

The author of the book is a sociologist (and activist) at Laurentian University in Sudbury and he applies some of the conceptual framework of sociologist Dorothy Smith to the writing of history. I first encountered this set of ideas at a conference at Laurentian in November 2002 -- a conference of which Kinsman was a central organizer and which Smith attended. The only one of Smith's books I have read is Writing the Social, so I'm not sure I can do them justice, but I'll present the central idea very briefly.

The core idea in Smith's work, as I understand it, is as follows: You begin by starting from lived experience in all its uniqueness and particularities. You look at how that experience is constrained by institutions, cultural practices, and texts. These work together to function as "relations of ruling" which shape different experiences at different local sites in a connected and coordinated way. Looking at the individual and shared experiences of people who experience oppression as well as the texts and institutions shaping those experiences provide a powerful tool for understanding the world.

For example, this post applies that general concept in a fairly slapdash manner, starting with my local experience and drawing informally on research by others on the ways in which neoliberal capitalism creates and uses space to make some assertions about the broader implications of my experience. I have seen it used to investigate, in a rigorous and academic way, disjunctures between the managers and "clients" of a para-governmental agency supporting people with disabilities and older adults, starting not from the assertions of the managers about how their organization worked but from obvserations of and reported experiences from people who use the service as interpreted in the context of the texts governing the organization and a the ways in which such texts are operationalized by frontline workers.

The reason why I am so taken with Smith's work is that it seems to deal with some thorny problems in a more satisfying way than I have seen elsewhere. In particular:

  • it incorporates an understanding of text and discourse in its analysis of the world;
  • it does not divorce text from the material world
  • it maintains an active and engaged subject, rather than draining all agency to discourse or to macro-level forces;
  • it conceptually links across scales of existence from the individual to the social, and pays attention to mechanisms by which scales are linked;
  • it starts from personal experience but is all about the links between different experiences at different local sites, and thereby avoids the uncritical liberalism that can result from foregrounding experience without a framework.

The Regulation of Desire uses this approach to look at history. It does not treat "gay history" as being purely about things which are, in retrospect, interpreted as having been "gay" but rather looks at the changing experiences of men who wish to engage in same-gender erotic practices, and the changing informal and formal institutional and textual frameworks shaping the experience of all flavours of sexuality. It is not the creation of some specialist, obscure niche of history, whose trivia is of interest only to a few, but an attempt at incorporating an analysis of how sexual regulation works together with other forms of social control around class, gender, and race to shape Canada over time (though it is particularly weak when it comes to issues of racism, as the author acknowledges). I can't really convey the full impact of this, so please read the book, but I will talk a bit more about a few themes I found interesting.

One theme that this book is effective in illustrating is the socially constructed nature of gay and lesbian identities. I've always bought that idea, but this book made it much more real by connecting identity to social practice, lived experiences, spaces, and constraints provided by ruling relations. People have engaged in same-gender erotic practices in every human society, but identities like "gay" and "lesbian" really have only taken on meaning in social contexts in which self-sustaining networks of people engaged in such practices can exist more or less independently. In other words, in pre-capitalist Europe there were lots of opportunities for such practices in male-only institutions like the army and monastaries, and probably more freedom to create favourable personal circumstances among the aristocracy, but there was no opportunity for significant numbers of people to live outside of family or rigid institutional structures. But with the growth of the market economy, wage labourers could live outside of or at the periphery of family networks. They could begin to define their identities in other ways, and could form networks on bases other than family. Of course, given the gendered nature of the labour market and the family, such networks took several decades longer to form among women, and functioned in different ways. As well, all such networks (and related identities) have evolved a great deal over time.

Another interesting theme in the book is the law reform of 1969. This is usually identified as the "legalization" of homosexuality in Canada, but in fact that was only the legalization of some practices for some people in some situations. This shift in how sexuality is regulated in Canada is based on creating (or at least emphasizing) divisions between public and private, and between adult and youth. Of course it is the state that gets to define what those terms mean. In so doing, the new framework continued to criminalize things that do no harm, and also practices that have historically been central to how gay networks have formed, as well as activities of some gay and lesbian people (and others who do not identify as such but who engage in same-gender erotic practices).

In the conclusion, Kinsman begins outlining a position that is a synthesis of the polarized extremes emerging from debates on sexuality that were at their most feroucious in the early '80s but which still rage on today. In these debates, liberal feminists and one subgroup of radical feminists tend to have their rhetoric coopted by conservative religious and state forces, and tend to see sex as a site of danger but not so much as a site of pleasure. On the other extreme, a different subgrouping of feminists and other progressives (including many gay male writers/activists) who have seen sex primarily as a site of pleasure and not so much as a site of danger tend to take a libertine position that leads to de facto or even deliberate alliance with the exploitative and oppressive mainstream corporate pornography industry under the banner of "free speech." Instead, Kinsman argues for a position that is grounded in the realities of sex as pleasure and sex as danger, and which focuses on empowering oppressed people in the context of sexuality (and everywhere else) rather than empowering the state to further regulate the sexualities of women and gay men.

So...not a very cohesive review, I know, but hopefully it encourages you to check out this very interesting book.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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