Adam Isaiah Green, Ph.D.
University of Toronto,
Department of Sociology
SEXUAL FIELDS: Toward a Sociology
of Collective Sexual Life.
University of Chicago Press
In modern times, urbanization, mass communication, and the erosion of traditional institutional controls of sexuality establish the conditions for the rise of highly specialized erotic worlds in the West.
Such erotic worlds cater to a plurality of sexual tastes and dispositions, yet they are as much arenas of sexual exploration as they are sites of stratification and domination. Organized by eroticized schemas related to race, ethnicity, class and age, erotic worlds bind the “how”, “why” and “with whom” of sexual sociality to the regularities of collective life.
My research of gay sexual subcultures in New York City and downtown Toronto has prompted me to think of erotic worlds as physical sites of sexual sociality that are organized by an underlying structure of social relations—a sexual field. A sexual field emerges when actors with potential romantic or sexual attraction for one another converge in social space (e.g., a site) and wherein this convergence orients each toward the other according to a logic of desirability imminent to the domain itself. Here, actors with overlapping erotic tastes project their desires into social space, thereby producing a structure of desire organized around a set of related erotic themes. Structures of desire, in turn, establish the hegemonic currency of sexual capital of a given sexual field and, in turn, a sexual status order that actors must negotiate.
Structures of desire are typically reflected in the setting of a particular sexual site and in the fronts of its patrons.
As an example, Church Street of
downtown Toronto houses a strip
of gay bars and nightclubs that
each possess their own particular
erotic theme, clientele, and
attendant sexual status order.
For instance, the “Black Eagle”
is the classic North American
leather bar with a very specific
representational character, clientele base and structure of desire. This structure of desire revolves around leather attire, a rough, blue-collar masculinity and sadomasochism, and is reflected in advertisements of the venue in local magazines and newspapers, in the signs and emblems on the exterior of the bar, in the SM leather videos playing inside the bar, in the bar’s décor, its name, the contests it features (e.g., ‘Sexiest Leather Daddy”), the particular fashion choices of its patrons, in the age distribution of patrons (typically older than the trendy “twink” bar down the street), and in the interactions between patrons, including observable patterns in who garners sexual attention from whom and who approaches whom and how. Thus, patrons of the leather bar find themselves inserted into a sexual field with a robust structure of desire, well defined currencies of sexual capital, and intractable tiers of desirability—field features with an external facticity comparable to any other social structure.
By contrast, only a few feet North on Church Street, one finds “Lub Lounge” — a gay bar with a very different kind of representational character, clientele base, and structure of desire—i.e., a very different sexual field. At Lub, the patronage networks are comparatively younger and whiter than most other bars on the strip, the men wear expensive dressy-casual couture, have sporty urban hair-dos, are tanned and lean, and drink fashionable martinis. On weekends, a DJ plays hip, high-energy urban gay remixes and it is not uncommon for the crowd to dissipate after 1 a.m. as patrons move to “Fly”, a dance club down the street, thereby extending the field to a new site.
In total, the sexual status order at the Black Eagle is a study in contrasts from that of the Lub Lounge, as each is organized by marked distinctions in what is deemed sexually and socially desirable. The kinds of sexual capital that secure status at the Black Eagle have little currency in Lub, and vice-versa. Indeed, the man in his mid-forties with high erotic capital in the Black Eagle’s sexual field will likely find himself with an erotic capital deficit at Lub, and vice-versa. These status differentials become particularly consequential when characteristics such as race, class, age and ethnicity systematically stratify the dispersion of sexual capital between groups of sexual actors, affording differential degrees of power and social significance in the course of interaction. As a consequence, field position may be related to gay community attachment, the formation of friendship networks, self-esteem, perceptions of equity and justice, and sexual decision-making practices.
SEXUAL FIELDS: THE THEORY
My formulation of the sexual fields framework draws from
Bourdieu’s theory of practice to illuminate the structural backdrop
of erotic worlds, but Goffman’s social psychology to provide the
conceptual groundwork for capturing micro-level interaction
within these structured contexts, including patterns of
expectation, situational negotiation and the management of self. Bourdieu
Bringing Bourdieu and Goffman into conversation, the sexual Bourdieu
fields framework highlights how actors negotiate sexual fields
by developing a reflexive relationship to their practices and
to their hexis, and the corresponding sexual capitals these provide.
The framework also provides a conceptual apparatus that
shifts the sociological focus from individual-level problems
around sexual Identity and practice to the study of systems
of sexual stratification that characterize collective sexual life
in late modernity.
Research into sexual fields is in its infancy.
Left unanswered are a wide range of empirical
questions that run the gamut from micro-level
issues around the relationship of social structure
to the erotic habitus (2008, Theory &
Society) and, in turn, to the structure of sexual
fields, to macro-level issues around the
relationship of erotic worlds to the urban
landscape, including inquiries into the political,
social, cultural and commercial conditions under
which structures of desire take form and the
conditions under which they vary.
Moreover, it will be necessary to examine how more and less densely structured sexual fields relate to one another, how the sexual fields of a given locale configure unique kinds of sexual sectors, which are themselves embedded in still broader social, political and economic processes and structures, including local and federal policies related to sexual regulation and sexual citizenship, patterns of immigration, gentrification and urban renewal, and the rise and fall of sexually transmitted infections.