Bourdieu on Sex and Domination

A political sociology of the sexual act would show that, as is always the case in a relation of domination, the practices and representations of the two sexes are in no way symmetrical. Not only because, even in contemporary European and American societies, young men and women have very different points of view on the love relation, which men most often conceive in terms of conquest (especially in conversations between friends, which give a prominent place to boasting about female conquests), but also because the sexual act itself is seen by men as a form of domination, appropriation, ‘possession’. Hence the discrepancy between the probable expectations of men and women as regards sexuality -and the misunderstandings, linked to misinterpretation of sometimes deliberately ambiguous or deceptive ‘signals’, which result from this. In contrast to women, who are socially prepared to see sexuality as an intimate and emotionally highly charged experience which does not necessarily include penetration but which can contain a wide range of activities (talking, touching, caressing, embracing, etc.), men are inclined to compartmentalize sexuality, which is conceived as an aggressive and essentially physical act of conquest oriented towards penetration and orgasm. And although, on this point like all the others, there are of course very great variations according to social position, age -and previous experience -it can be inferred from a series of interviews that apparently symmetrical practices (such as fellatio and cunnilingus) tend to have very different significance for men (who are inclined to see them as acts of domination, through the submission and pleasure obtained) and for women. Male pleasure is, in part, enjoyment of female pleasure, of the power to give pleasure; and so Catherine MacKinnon is no doubt right to see the faking of orgasm as a perfect example of the male power to make the interaction between the sexes conform to the view of it held by men, who expect the female orgasm to provide a proof of their virility and the pleasure derived from this extreme form of submission. Similarly, sexual harassment does not always aim at the sexual possession that seems to be its exclusive goal: in some cases it may aim at sheer possession, the pure affirmation of domination in its pure state…
…If the sexual relation appears as a social relation of domination, this is because it is constructed through the fundamental principle of division between the active male and the passive female and because this principle creates, organizes, expresses and directs desire -male desire as the desire for possession, eroticized domination, and female desire as the desire for masculine domination, as eroticized subordination or even, in the limiting case, as the eroticized recognition of domination” (Bourdieu, 2001: 20-1)

BOURDIEU, P. 2001. Masculine Domination, Stanford University Press.



More on the Sociological Dimensions of Sexuality: This Time from a Developmental Psychologist

Here’s a few words from developmental psychologist Lisa Diamond, interviewed recently in New Scientist offering some more support to the fluidity (as opposed to ‘born this way’) of human sexuality. I have posted on this topic several times before – see here, here and here. Lisa here is commenting on the sexually oppressive effects of social acceptability:

What other arguments do opponents of same-sex marriage make?
They are concerned that children would grow up seeing, wow, gays can get legally married, that must mean our society thinks that being gay is okay. So people will then be more likely to consider gayness themselves and over time there will be an increase in the number of gays out there. And frankly, regardless of the basis of their fear, they’re right about the result. Over the past 20 years, every survey repeated over time has shown that the number of individuals who self-identify as gay has been going up, especially people who identify as bisexual or who identify as heterosexual but who have had some same-sex sexual experiences.

So what is behind the increase in people reporting same-sex sexual experiences?
Probably there’s a core part of the population that is about as gay as the day is long, and they don’t appear to be affected at all by social acceptance, whether you put them in South Africa or America or 1920 or 1980. They’re like, “I am gay and I’m going to find some way to be gay”. But the most common form of same-sex attraction is not exclusive attraction but a bisexual form. You can imagine that these people are likely to be influenced by social acceptance of same-sex sexuality. If you are bisexually attracted you may think, “Wow, the world is going to hate me if I end up with someone of the same sex, my life is going to be a lot easier if I end up with someone of the opposite sex.” So you end up focusing on that.

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Same Sex Marriage and the Prevailing Myths of Sexuality

Does the “something” about Miriam” tell us something about us?

(Originally published on

With the Irish referendum on same sex marriage due Friday I thought it was time to blog on the societal components of the issue, or more accurately the perceptions of sexuality that underlie the issue (despite misleading efforts to make it all about surrogacy). The gay pride movement’s attempts to bolster their position through defining their sexuality as something purely biological – Continue reading

The Link Between Slut-Shaming, Bullying, & Femininity

Good clear post that I have reblogged from Gender & Society on the symbolic violence of femininity and its links to bullying. Ties in nicely with a forthcoming podcast I intend to do on links between masculinity, heteronormativity, sexual oppression and symbolic violence.

Gender & Society

by Sarah Miller

Recent reports in both Slate and Time, focus on research (here) that illuminates how young women use slut-shaming to make multi-directional class distinctions. Authors Elizabeth Armstrong, Laura Hamilton and colleagues find that among white college women, those with low status judge high status peers for being “rich, bitchy sluts,” while high status women claim to be “classy” by designating low status peers “trashy.” Ultimately, while slut slander may appear to be equal opportunity, the outcomes are not: slut-shaming has less of a lasting impact on women with more resources. The research adds insight into why the slut remains a persistent threat in young women’s lives- they have something to gain from using this term against one another. However, slut-shaming does not begin in college (nor with girls themselves), and its’ ramifications can be serious, as the rape victim-blaming that generated Slutwalk, and numerous…

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Does Society Influence Love? The Cultural Development of Romantic Love and Sexual Desire

I came across this presentation on the cultural history of romantic love and sexual desire by Professor of history and of cultural anthropology William Reddy over on the Theory Types website [see bottom of post for video of the lecture]. It seems fitting to post an excerpt from this lecture in time for that insulin-spiking, flower-murdering, commercialization of romance they call Valentine’s Day. The piece assembled provides a summary of Reddy’s central finding on how the dual categorization of sexual appetite and romantic love is solely a development of European history. He found the notions of romantic love to be a historical universal occurrence, however it appears that only in Europe after the 12th century was the distinction made (obviously sexual desire is universal too but its categorisation as distinct from romantic love seems historically not to be the case). He offers 12th century changes orchestrated by the Christian church as an explanation for the origins of this cultural development.

The excerpt begins Continue reading

‘Gay’ priests and a herd of elephants

The recent comments by Mary McAleese, a former Irish President, on ‘gay priests’ have created a bit of a stir over here in Ireland:

She said that “a very large number” of Catholic priests are homosexual and that the church had been in denial about homosexuality for decades. “It isn’t so much the elephant in the room but a herd of elephants.”

The popular Sean O’Rourke RTE radio1 show took up the issue devoting a large section to discussing ‘gay clergy’ with several contributors including priests. Despite all that was discussed I found the absence of one particular narrative quite telling as to the devalued position of social critique in public discussion. The absence pertained to the socialisation and social construction of sexuality through social conditions and relations of power. In short heterosexuality remained unquestioned throughout as the norm for human sexuality with homosexuality – despite the generally liberal approach towards it during the discussion – treated as the deviant Other. It was basically a liberal essentialist narrative that people are (in the words of Lady Gaga’s essentialism) Continue reading