Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 31 (2006) 781-789
©2006 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Rebecca Sullivan
University of Calgary

Kim Sawchuk
Concordia University

In her landmark essay “Thinking Sex,” Gayle Rubin states:

Dominated for over a century by medicine, psychiatry, and psychology, the academic study of sex has reproduced essentialism. These fields classify sex as a property of individuals. It may reside in their hormones or their psyches. It may be construed as physiological or psychological. But within these ethno-scientific categories, sexuality has no history and no significant social determinants. (1984, pp. 275-276)

Twenty years later, Rubin’s critical observations on the study of sex remain relevant for feminist and queer scholars working in communication studies, even as sexuality has become its own field of inquiry within the humanities and social sciences. The challenge for those engaged in sexuality studies, as Rubin identifies, is to avoid reducing sex into the property of an individual psyche or body. In this positivistic guise, sex becomes an abstract universal variable, diverting attention from its socio-historical dimensions.

The papers in this issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication invite readers to understand sexuality as a mode of communicative action in our perverted twist on Jürgen Habermas’ famous tomes (1981a; 1981b). Examining sex and sexuality from within the purview of communication points to the erotically charged ways of being, speaking, listening, believing, and doing (Probyn, 1993, p. 2). As practice, sexuality is the site at which pleasure and desire are made manifest between subjects. As discourse, sexuality may act as a lightning rod for debates around what counts as acceptable or imaginable social conduct. In conversation with Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin explicates how sex and sexuality may be understood as a language.

As with languages, some people have more gender and erotic flexibility than others. Some can acquire secondary sexual or gender languages, and even fewer will be completely fluent in one position. But most people have a home language, and home sexual or gender comfort zones that will not change much. This does not mean these things are not social, any more than the difficulties of acquiring other languages means that languages are not social. Social phenomena can be incredibly obdurate. (1994, p. 70)

Thus, if we think of sexuality as a mode of communicative action, sexuality as discourse and as practice intersects along the historical and spatial particularity of bodies.

Before continuing, it is necessary to untangle our terms of reference. Sex simultaneously communicates at least two interrelated notions. On the one hand, sex indicates the multiple practices and forms of erotic and sexual life, from heterosexual couple-dom to leather fetishism (Creet, 1991; Delany, 1991). On the other hand, sex often refers to a biological category of classification usually twinned with and contrasted to gender (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Although sex and gender are knotted together, any close examination of sex, gender, and sexuality reveals their inherent complexity.

Speculating on the politics of imagining the body beyond the traditional binarisms of male-female, body-mind, or nature-culture, feminist philosopher Moira Gatens writes: “It is important to begin the exploration of other ontologies which would be developed hand in hand with a political-ethical stance that accommodates multiple, not simply dichotomously sexed bodies” (1996, p. 56). It is for this reason that we have deliberately dubbed this special issue sexualities rather than sexuality. Sexuality is never singular: bisexuality, transsexuality, transgendered, gay, lesbian, queer, heterosexual, and homosexual are not simple identity classifications or discrete practices. Each are allied with a range of erotic expression that are greatly varied culturally and historically (Warner, 2002).

Sex is also a category often paired with gender. In the standard articulation of a sex-gender distinction, sex functions as the biological ground to a more culturally encoded notion of gender. Uncoupling sex from gender to underscore the distinction between the biological category of male and the social category of masculinity, for example, was an important turn in feminist critiques of the biological basis of sexual oppression and gendered divisions of life and labour that divided men and women too neatly into predetermined roles. Captured in Simone de Beauvoir’s famous dictum “women are not born but made” (1968, p. 33), this distinction initially enabled a critical analysis of notions of an inequity within the divisions between masculinity and femininity. However, the distinction between sex and gender has not been without its pitfalls (Gatens, 1996). Too rigid a distinction between sex and gender can de-historicize and essentialize these terms in at least two ways that are significant for scholars of communication and media studies.

First, it may set up a new binarism that mirrors the divide between nature and culture: this is reflected in the assertion that one is born male or female and becomes man or woman, masculine or feminine. In this case, sex becomes a term without a social referent: it is biological, it is natural, it is outside of history and as such mythologized in ways suggested by Roland Barthes in his now classic analysis (1972). Such a position, as the work of Holly Devor (1989) on gender blending demonstrates, ignores the very instability of human biology and obfuscates the intrinsic interdependence of recognizing primary and secondary sexual characteristics in the ascription of a sexual identity at birth. For the majority of humans the division appears straightforward: there is either a penis or a vagina between the baby’s legs. This binary division is reinforced in the “technologies of gender” (de Lauretis, 1987) that attach themselves to bodies: from the pink and blue of colour-coded disposable diapers (Sawchuk, 1992) to the naming of hockey and figure-skates as “boys’ skates” and “girls’ skates” (Fawcett, 2006). New technologies of visualization now interpellate subjects into a binary sex-gender system before birth (Cartwright, 1995). These subtle cultural practices communicate “proper” conduct for subjects who are born pre-sexed, as it were. Such divisions permeate our very practices as communication scholars, as Alison Beale cogently argues in her analysis of cultural policy as a technology of gender (1998).  However there are significant numbers of inter-sexual humans whose chromosomal and hormonal composition troubles the easy identification of either male or female (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). These biological variations are often corrected by bio-medicine. Yet are such surgical corrections necessary? Or are they only necessary in cultures that cannot accept sexual variation and insist on a strict normative conception of sex and gender?

The presence of a multiplicity of sexual cultures and subcultures challenge the normative “heterodoxy” of sex, linked to compulsory procreation and a singular kinship structure. It challenges the very idea that sexuality is a thing that individuals possess. Sexualities circulate in ways that are simultaneously private and public, lived and expressed, shared while still remaining somehow integral to the self. It is far more than genital or even just bodily expression, but comes with it deep psychic, and even sometimes spiritual commitments that are expressed erotically if not necessarily sexually (Sullivan 2005). Considered as the interrogation and exploration of the multiplicity of forms of communicative action within a culture, sexuality appears to be necessarily plural because it covers such a wide array of practices, and interrogates the meaning and value of pleasure, desire, eros, and bodies within specific historical and social locations (see Rubin, 1984, p. 275). This program of study was made famous by the work of Michel Foucault on the history of sexuality (1978) but was preceded in many respects, as Gayle Rubin points out, by scholars working from anthropological and sociological perspectives who documented sexual variation (1984).

The essays in this special issue of the Journal explore sex, gender, and sexuality as they weave their way into and through media representations and social practices. In so doing they build upon, dialogue and argue with the near-revolutionary advances of queer theory and feminism. These academic and activist traditions have articulated gender, sex, and sexuality alongside race and class as analytically significant.  Studying sexuality is necessary for any understanding of the relations and dynamics of power and control. Unfortunately, these issues have not always been present in communication studies scholarship or in our textbooks. By exploring the insection of sex and the media, these essays are a contribution to and engagement with the field of communications. The articles also grapple with the differences and the connections between feminist and queer studies. Given our desire to “sex” communications we were somewhat taken aback at how few submissions we received that sought to explore facets of sexuality through an explicitly feminist lens. Not as surprising was the surfeit of articles that sought to rearticulate Judith Butler’s notions of performativity and queer theory as if they were synonymous with gender and sexuality studies. This surfeit left us pondering how and when gender became divorced, in terms of critical scholarship at least, from sexuality (Butler, 1990).

It is important to clearly acknowledge the specific, albeit interrelated, character of queer and feminist studies, a tension foregrounded in Chantal Nadeau’s contribution to this special issue. Although connected, each has a distinct history and imagines its theoretical subject in different ways. As Rubin has stated, “[A]dding gender did not take care of the issues of sexual persecution and sexuality” (1994, p. 91). Specialized work that approached sexual variation, erotic life, and persecution was necessary. Likewise, as Hilary Radner has argued, queer theory remains indebted to feminism for its resolute commitment to revealing the social and historical relations of gendered and sexual oppression (1999). The productive frictions between queer theory and feminism provide important lessons to consider as we foreground work that deals specifically with racism and colonialism within our feminist and queer frameworks. The advancement of this agenda demands both empirical and theoretical innovation and care in our feminist and queer scholarship. As Rubin forcefully puts it: “A lack of solid, well-researched, careful descriptive work will eventually impoverish feminism, and gay and lesbian studies, as much as a lack of rigorous conceptual scrutiny will” (1994, p. 92). She goes further:  “[G]alloping idealism is as disturbing as mindless positivism” (1994, p. 92). The challenge is to connect media representations and genres with the communicative technologies and practices used by actual communities.

We open this special issue with Mary Bryson, Lori MacIntosh, Sharalyn Jordan, and Hui-Ling Lin’s “Virtually Queer? Homing Devices, Mobility, and Un/Belongings.” A remarkable ethnographic study of queer women’s use of communications technologies in their everyday lives, the article explores how these subjects, particularly those in rural or more isolated areas of the country, use the Internet to produce a sense of home and belonging. Picking up on Ann Cvetkovich’s statement that queer studies should examine the nuances of how people live their “emotional and sexual lives” (2003), the article breaks with a certain celebratory tendency in theories of cyberspace by focusing on the quotidian uses of popular culture. As the authors argue, to suggest that there can be an “online self” separate and distinct from the “offline” self is to ignore the messiness of social and sexual subject construction: virtuality is not somewhere else; being online cannot be so easily disentangled from being offline. The virtual for these subjects creates a sense of contiguity between realities. In so doing, the Internet is given materialist weight and we are reminded of the very real individuals behind these virtual selves who must traverse dangerous geographies of desire to create these online communities. We also include, in this issue, an interview with Mary Bryson conducted by media activist Mélanie Hogan, which readers may download as a text or a short video.

In “From No Go to No Logo: Lesbian Lives and Rights in Chatelaine,” Barbara Freeman provides a wonderfully detailed analysis of the representation of lesbians since the 1960s in Canada’s most successful women’s magazine. Exemplary as a work of archival and historical scholarship, this article demonstrates the pitfalls of consumer-oriented identity politics that privilege the self and personal pleasure over social praxis and relations of power. She alerts readers to ongoing legal and social injustices against those who appear to deviate from dominant (hetero)sexual norms. In a manner distinct from recent tendencies to place lesbian studies within queer theory, Freeman argues that investigations of lesbian identity be understood as a feminist issue. Drawing out themes of how sexuality and citizenship are expressed within a dominant media form, and shift through time under different conditions of production, this article follows Freeman’s path-breaking book The Satellite Sex, which documented in detail the media coverage of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (2001).

Picking up on the theme of hetero-normativity, Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s essay “‘Very Little Wrist Movement’: Rock Hudson Acts Out Sexual Heterodoxy” takes on one of queer theory’s most cherished icons, Rock Hudson. Deploying a close textual reading of Hudson’s performances in the context of 1950s notions of virginity, Tamar Jeffers McDonald examines the figure of the male virgin as both “comic and fake.” Hudson’s work in the campy sex comedies of the 1960s deconstructs hegemonic forms of heterosexual masculinity in far more elaborate ways than obliquely suggested by his closeted homosexuality. Hudson embodies what McDonald defines as heterodox masculinity. McDonald thus raises the often neglected issue of virginity as a form of sexual subjectivity, not an absence of sexuality. Heterosexual male virginity is, she claims, dangerous to orthodox masculinity precisely because it assumes a position of sexual passivity and feminization. To merely queer his performance is to miss a key part of its subversive potential.

Masculinity is likewise examined in Thomas Haig’s “Bareback Sex: Sexuality, Silence, and the Dilemmas of Gay Health,” in which he underscores how sexual practices between gay men can ultimately reinforce stereotypical gender roles of “strong, silent” masculinity. His study of barebacking, consensual unprotected sex between sero-positive men, and the challenges this practice poses for community health activists, asserts that maintaining silence around sexuality may have a ricochet effect that perpetuates and legitimates forms of marginalization. At the same time, such a response affirms the centrality of listening to silence within communication, drawing upon the deeply ethical work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Haig’s work as both a scholar and an activist in the gay community places gender politics within queer studies of desire, pries feminism from its heterosexist shell, and challenges those who would see philosophy as irrelevant to activism.

Risk is an important signifier in the expression of sexualities, and sex ultimately puts bodies on the line in highly vulnerable ways with respect to the nation-state. Paying attention to questions of sexuality and health promotion in another context and with another group of “subjects at risk,” Andrea Martinez, Aldo Meneses, and Diana Lucía Sarabia’s “La réprésentation de la sexualité adolescente dans les quotidiens du Canada central et du Chili” interrogates whether and how the lessons of recent conferences on human rights in Cairo and Beijing have been implemented in health promotion campaigns targeted to youth. Examining how these campaigns, which called for greater gender equality, individual rights, and sexual health, are being represented in the media, the authors note that media representations of teenage sex in the media in both Chile and Canada frame sex from within a discourse of criminality and danger. Comparing the media’s fascination with sexual violence against youth in these two locations, their research indicates how the news media may reproduce sexist and homophobic assumptions that are incompatible with the goals of promoting sexual and reproductive well-being.

The question of bodies at risk necessarily brings to mind that not all bodies are equal in the eyes of the law. In “Missing and Murdered Women: Reproducing Marginality in News Discourse,” Yasmin Jiwani and Mary Lynn Young demonstrate how sex, and the stigmas attached to sex work, are used to demean and diminish the presence of Aboriginal women in urban centres. Investigating the 2001-2006 newspaper coverage of the killing of more than 67 women in Vancouver since 1978, their analysis powerfully documents the contemporary discourse on sex and violence and the difficulty that Downtown Eastside Vancouver residents had in getting authorities to believe that a serial killer was stalking the neighbourhood, an indifference that left these women dead and missing. Jiwani and Young demonstrate how these women were further marginalized as the story unfolded: systemic violence became reducible to the aberrant action of a single White man constructed by the media to erase the broader issues of violence, racism, and sexism from the public eye. Racialized and sexualized in the media, the stories of the missing Aboriginal women are used to keep sexually suspect behaviour out of sight and out of mind. Such sequestration contributes to an ongoing colonialism that constitutes an unreported “war against women.” As the authors cogently state, “[W]hen the terrain is sexual violence, racism and sexism interlock in particularly nasty ways.”

In a world where basic civil rights and recognition are denied to those who do not conform to dominant sexual norms, where danger and sometimes death lurk for those who lead “sexually suspect” lives or who challenge gender norms, it would be an intellectual conceit to argue simply that sexualities refer to a kind of postmodern play of selves, a floating signifier open to perpetually changing interpretation, or are simply a media event. Chantal Nadeau’s research paper, “L’urgence-désir comme engagement,” asks us to consider what we engage with and where we invest attention and energy. She does so while reflecting upon the relationship between queer activism and feminist politics at this particular moment in Canada and Québec. To return to questions of silence, Nadeau asks scholars to pay close attention to how sex and sexuality can be used to deflect attention from other interrelated issues of citizenship and social change. To demonstrate this she describes how her current projects, such as her investigation of the discourses on immigration in Québec and the Netherlands from within the queer community, are connected to her past work on nationhood (Nadeau, 2001). As a mode of communicative action, sexualities mediate more than just bodily desires. Focusing attention on sexuality and desire may reveal how certain sexual subjects are legitimated legally while others struggle on the margins to gain access to the privileges of sexual citizenship that others assume as rightfully theirs (Berlant, 1997; Grundy & Smith, 2005).

The  relationship of sexual subjectivity to the law and to the practices of communication is examined in different ways in the two commentaries on the same-sex marriage debates in Canada included in this issue. One need only glance at the headlines to see the command sexuality has on the social imagination. The ruling Conservative party frequently uses sexuality, particularly same-sex marriage, as a political whipping post. Mark Lipton’s commentary “Queer Comes the Bride” reflects upon the issue by taking up two contemporary videos on same-sex marriage. Josephine Mills and Leila Armstrong, writing from the context of Alberta, where resistance to same-sex marriage is strongest in the country, analyze their reasons for getting hitched, and in so doing re-imagine the old feminist salvo that the personal is political.

Feminist and queer activists in Canada have not, however, merely been critical of the media. Media activists have embraced the potential of visual communications to document struggles, to produce alternative accounts of events, and to instigate a critical media literacy of image, texts, and words. Working within this tradition, Maureen Bradley ruminates upon her video “Reframing the Montreal Massacre,” created almost 10 years ago in response to the murder of 14 young engineering students, all women, on December 6, 1989, at the École Polytechnique. The murder of Aboriginal women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the recent events at Dawson College make the questions on violence, gender, and the news broached in Bradley’s reflections timely. The Journal, with the permission of the artist, has made this video available on our website.

Although the articles in this issue extend across a wide landscape of ideas and issues surrounding sexuality, they share a commitment to ground different forms of sexuality in their historical and social context, they reveal how sexuality is used to signify relations of power across the political-economic spectrum. In the media, in our legal, medical, spiritual, and educational institutions, and in our everyday lives, social tensions are played out on the bodies of sexualized and hyper-sexualized subjects (Caron, 2006). Debates over sexuality often become a stand-in for cultural anxieties about control, normalcy, order, and discipline. This is particularly the case if one considers the history and legacy of debate in Canada over sexuality, including obsecentity and pornogrpahy laws, marriage and domestic relationships, media visibility, health campaigns, and violent crimes (Fuller, 1995; Kinsman, 1987; Lacombe, 1994).

Thus this special issue is born out of a desire to understand more fully the political and intellectual stakes of sexuality within communication studies. To quote media studies scholar Lisa Henderson, sex is simultaneously a cultural form, psychic resource, social marker, and political fulcrum (2001, p. 20). Henderson’s remarks suggest that media and communication studies, as disciplines, can extend the breadth and impact of sexuality as something far more than an individual mode of subjectivity or identity. We therefore present this issue in the hopes of igniting more debate and discussion, expanding not only the peramaters of sexuality but also communication studies, and suggesting fruitful couplings of both. As Gayle Rubin puts it: “To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality” (1985, p. 267). Sex and sexuality, in all of its variations, is a political and communicative act. Paying attention to its contours in the media and in our everyday lives reveals the dynamics of marginalization and oppression as well as the possiblity of liberation, agency, and the destabilization of a stifling status quo. 


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