Sexuality And Geography Research Paper

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Geographical questions concerning sexuality are ideally investigated by combining empirical work with theories of how and why particular sexualities garner spatial force and cultural meaning. In practice, most theoretical treatments of sexuality in geography have dealt with normative forms of heterosexuality in industrial contexts. Queries about heterosexuality have centered partially on theorizing why and how procreation is given symbolic, spatial, and practical centrality in different cultural and historical contexts. Other theoretical queries have involved analyzing how heterosexual metaphors and expectations inform the structure and meaning of language, discourse, and place. For instance, what is the historical and spatial significance of saying master bedroom, cockpit, capitalist penetration, motherland, virgin territory, mother-earth, or father-sky? In contrast, empirical work has centered on documenting where nonheterosexualities take place, how states and societies regulate nonheterosexual places, bodies, and practices, and the sociospatial difficulties and resistances faced by those who desire nonheterosexual places and identities. Some empirical work also addresses the marginalized places of sex workers in heterosexual sex-work trades.

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The disparity between theoretical vs. empirical work reflects how knowledge and power intersect spatially. Most persons today are compelled to assume, and are hence familiar with, the bodily and spatial arrangements of heterosexual gestures and public displays of affection, procreational practices (marriages, buying a ‘family’ home, having children) and forms of entertainment. Consequently, little explanatory or descriptive analytical space is needed. In contrast, the bodily and spatial arrangements of those assuming non-normative sexualities are commonly hidden from view and relatively unknown. They therefore require documentation before theorization can proceed.

Intersections between geography and sexuality cannot be understood singularly by listing research accomplished to date. Rather, discussion about how geographers have formally and informally navigated sexuality debates is needed to contextualize how external politics have informed internal concerns and research agendas.

1. The Sociology Of Sexuality Research In Geography

Few geographers have, until recently, explored how sexuality shapes and is shaped by the social and spatial organization (what geographers call the sociospatiality) of everyday life. Fewer still have explored how geography as a discipline is shaped by heterosexual norms and expectations, or what is called heteronormativity. The ways that modern heterosexuality informs everyday life are not seen or studied because it is taken as natural. Hence, most people unconsciously use it to structure the sociospatiality and meaning of their lives, living out and within what Butler (1990) calls a ‘heterosexual matrix.’ Many cultural settings in which heterosexuality predominates place great practical and ideological value on procreation. Here, couplings of persons with genitalia qualified as oppositely sexed are presumed to be biologically natural, feeding into culturally constructed ideals of gender identities and relations (WGSG 1997). In modern industrial contexts, boys and girls are expected to grow up to be fathers and mothers who settle into a nuclear household to procreate. Given modern heterosexuality’s centrality in determining what is natural, it commonly grounds notions of ontology (being), epistemology (ways of knowing), and truth.

The socially constructed ‘naturalness’ of heterosexuality in modern contexts is produced and reproduced at a variety of geographical scales. Many nation-states, for example, define and regulate heterosexuality as the moral basis of state law and moral order (e.g., The Family), forbidding sexual alliances not ostensibly geared towards procreation (Nast 1998).

Such laws and related political, cultural, and epistemological strictures have historically limited the kinds of spatial questions geographers have thought, imagined, or asked. Today, precisely when the existence and sovereignty of nation-states is being challenged by transnational actors so, too, is the relevance of the nuclear family being questioned, suggesting partial societal and political symbiosis between family and state types. Nevertheless, for the time being, heterosexual strictures predominate across sociospatial domains, helping to account for geography’s generalized disciplinary anxiety towards: (a) those who conduct research on, or question, how heterosexuality is sociospatially made the norm, (b) geographers who hold queer identities, and (c) those engaged in queer identity research. The word queer, here, refers to persons practicing non-normative kinds of sexuality. The word is not meant to efface sexuality differences, but to stress the oppositional contexts through which those who are non-normative are made marginal (see Elder et al. in press). By the late 1980s geographers in significant numbers had brought analytical attention to the violence involved in sustaining what Rich (1980) has named, ‘compulsory hetero- sexuality’ (e.g., Foord and Gregson 1986, Bell 1991, Valentine 1993a, 1993b, WGSG 1997, Nast 1998). Part of this violence has to do with the fact that most geographic research fails to question how hetero- sexuality is spatially channeled to shape the discipline and everyday life.

Heterosexuality’s incorporation into the micro-practices and spaces of the discipline means that heteronormativity dominates the ways geographers investigate space. Witness the sustained heterosexist practices and spaces of geography departments and conferences (e.g., Chouinard and Grant 1995, Valentine 1998), heterosexist geographical framings or epistemologies of space, nature, and landscape, and the discipline’s heterosexist empirical interests, divisions, and focii (e.g., Rose 1993, Binnie 1997a). Even feminist geographical analyses rarely show how constructions of gender relate to the heterosexual practices to which they are attached Foord and Gregson 1986, Townsend in WGSG 1997, p. 54). In these ways, heterosexuality underpins geographical notions of self, place, sex, and gender (Knopp 1994). Consequently, geographers reproduce hegemonic versions of hetero sex and oedipal (or, nuclear) family life, helping to make these appear legitimate, natural, morally right, and innocent.

2. Theoretical Research On Heterosexuality And Geography

Perhaps the first geographers to theorize heterosexuality’s impact were Foord and Gregson (1986). Using a realist theoretical framework, they argued that gender divisions of male and female derive from procreation and, hence, heterosexuality. Later, Rose (1993) demonstrated how the language, interests, methods, theories, and practices of certain subfields in geography (particularly time geography and humanistic geography) bely a masculinity that, respectively, ignores women’s lives or renders them nostaglic objects of desire, not unlike how landscapes and nature have been romanticized and feminized in the discipline. Yet the masculinity Rose describes in heterosexual; it is heteromasculinity. Heteromasculinity can additionally be argued to reside in epistemologies and empirical focii of geographic research generally (Knopp 1994), especially physical geography and some Marxian analyses of space.

Nast (1998) theorizes that modern heteromasculinity is not a singular entity set in structural opposition to femininity asin traditional binary theories of gendered binaries. Rather, the heteromasculine is structured along two imagined, symbolized, and enaced avenues: (a) the filial (son-like) and (b) the paternal. The filial is constructed as hyperembodied and hence celebrates-as-it-constructs men’s superior physical strength and courage. The paternal is different in that it celebrates men’s superior intellectual strength, objectivity, and cunning and is written about as though disembodied. These two masculinities are antagonistically inter-related in an imaginary and symbolic framework supportive of the prototypical industrial, oedipal family.

In the context of globalization and nationalisms, Gibson-Graham (1999) and Nast (1998), respectively, theorize how heterosexualities and geographies discursively and practically make one another. GibsonGraham analyzes the striking rhetorical parallels between some Marxian theoretical constructions of capital and some social constructions of rape that cast women as victims. Thus, many Marxian theories script capitalism as violently irrepressible, a force that destroys noncapitalist social relations with which it comes into contact. Such theorization gathers force from heterosexualized language and imagery, such that capitalism and its effects are rendered naturally and forever singular, hard, rapacious, and spatially penetrative. Analogously, raped women have commonly been scripted as victims of men’s naturally and singularly superior strength and virility. Rape, once initiated, is judged as unstoppable or inevitable. Women are therefore encouraged to submit (like noncapitalist groups) to heteromasculinity’s logicviolence. For Gibson-Graham, what needs to be resisted is not the ‘reality’ that women and markets are naturally rapable or that men and capitalism are monolithically superior and rapacious. Rather, imaginaries and discursive formations need to be deployed that allow for difference and agency and that support, facilitate, and valorize resistance and change.

Nast (1998) drawing upon Foucaultian notions of discourse as useful, similarly shows how heteronormativity is dispersed across sociospatial circuits of everyday life, including discourses and practices of the body, nation, transnation, and world. Focusing on modern nationalist language and imagery, she shows that many representations of nation-states depend upon images of a pure maternal and pure nuclear family. In these instances, heteromasculine control over women’s bodies and procreation is commonly linked to eugenics or racialized notions of national purity. Obversely, some nation-states, particularly fascist ones, are represented using phallic language and imagery that glorify the oedipal (nuclear) family father. Cast as superior protector of family and nation, he and his sons defend against that deemed weak and polluting, including other ‘races’ and the maternal. Nuclear familial imagery and practices have also been used in the context of industrial interests providing, for example, practical and aesthetic means for systematically alienating and reproducing labor. Here, the nuclear family is a core setting for producing and socializing industrial workers, with the family and family home fetishized as natural protected places of privacy and peace.

3. Empirical Research On Sexuality And Geography In Sociospatial Context

Most sexuality research in geography consists of empirical studies of sexuality. In many cases the research is undertheorized, partially reflecting the nascent state of sexuality research wherein specificities of sexualities are mapped out before they are theorized across contexts. Many of those documenting the spatial contours of sexualized bodies and practices have focused on: (a) marginalized heterosexuals, such as sex workers, and (b) queer bodies and places. The former is heteronormative to the degree that the researchers do not specify that it is heterosexuality with which they work; they also do not theorize heterosexuality’s specific sociospatial force in the contexts they study. Consequently their work reinforces popular senses that when one speaks of sex, it is naturally and singularly heterosex. In contrast, working against the grain of heterosexual norms and [expectations] because they are researchers who study the spatiality of queer bodies and places call attention to the specific sexuality(ies) through and against which they work.

Perhaps because in some postindustrial contexts the nuclear family and procreational economies went into decline in the 1970s (alongside the Fordist family), social movements involving queer sexualities obtained greater popular recognition and political and material might, especially where related to gay men. It was at this time that a first wave of queer geographical work broke surface, dealing primarily with white gay male investors in urban contexts and drawing largely upon Marxian theories of rent. Many of these works were unpublished and bore descriptive titles (but see Weightman 1980; for unpublished works, see Elder et al. in press).

In tandem with increased scholarly production was an increase in the scholarly isibility of queer geographers (see Elder et al. in press). Evidence of increased networking among sexuality researchers is Mapping Desire, the first edited collection on sexuality andgeography(BellandValentine1995).Thecollection, like other works produced towards the late 1980s and 1990s, reflects broad geographical interests, ranging from heterosexual prostitution in Spain, to state surveillance and disciplinary actions towards Black men and women in apartheid South Africa, to the ‘unsafeness’ of the traditional nuclear family home for many lesbians. The works consists mostly of case studies detailing how marginalized identities are lived out, negotiated, and contested. Ironically, given the collection’s title, no spatial theories of desire are presented.

Institutional recognition of queer geographers or sexuality research was not sought in English-speaking contexts until the 1990s and only then, in the United States and Britain. In the 1980s, members of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) formed the Lesbigay Caucus, subsequently holding organizational meetings at annual AAG meetings and cosponsoring sessions. In 1992 a small group of British geographers created The Sexuality and Space Network, a research and social network affilated loosely with the Institute of British Geographers. That same year, members of the Lesbigay Caucus decided to work for creation of a Sexuality and Space Specialty Group within the AAG which, unlike the caucus, would sponsor sessions and research committed to exploring inter-relations between sexuality and space. The Specialty Group was granted official status in 1996, becoming the first group of its kind in the discipline.

Empirical work on sexuality and geography is gendered, especially in the context of queer research. Most scholars writing about lesbian spaces are women documenting geographies of women’s fear and discrimination and how these are resisted at different scales and in different contexts. In contrast, most researchers addressing gay male spaces are men. In contrast to lesbian-related research, that related to gay men speaks mostly to proactive market measures successfully taken in securing urban-based private property and terrorities, particularly queer cultural districts produced through large investments in real estate and small business. In either case, western contexts prevail.

Thus, Patricia Meono-Picado (Jones et al. 1997) documents how Latina lesbians in New York used spatial tactics to oppose the homophobic programming of a Spanish-language radio station, Valentine (1993b) and McDowell (in Bell and Valentine 1995) chart how some lesbians tenuously negotiate their identities in the workplace, Rothenberg (in Bell and Valentine 1995) discusses the informal networks lesbians use to create community and safety, and Johnston (1998) speaks of the importance of gyms as safe public spaces for alternative female embodiments. Valentine also discusses discriminations faced by lesbians everyday (1993a) and the considerable diversity within and among lesbian communities. (in Jones et al. 1997). Finally, Chouinard and Grant (1995) argue against marginalization of disabled and lesbian women in the academy, comparing their exclusions as disabled and lesbian women, respectively.

In contrast, the urban market emphasis present in much gay male research is partly evident in titles such as, ‘The Broadway Corridor: Gay Businesses as Agents of Revitalization in Long Beach, California’ (Ketteringham 1983 cited in Elder et al. in press). The title secondarily speaks to a phenomenon present in much research, particularly about gay male spaces, namely, the exclusionary use of the word ‘gay’. While a study may pertain to gay men only, the word ‘gay,’ like heteropatriachal designations of ‘man,’ is commonly deployed as though it speaks for all queer communities. It thereby obliterates the specificities and identities of those not gay-male-identified (Chouinard and Grant (1995). Perhaps the most prominent and prolific scholar pioneering research into urban markets and queer life is Larry Knopp. Though his work centers on gay male gentrification, he has consistently attempted to theorize gendered spatial differences in queer opportunity structures and life (e.g., Knopp 1990, Lauria and Knopp 1985).

Gay men’s desires and differential abilities to pro- cure spatial security at scales and densities greater than that obtained by lesbians (for example, Boystown in Chicago, the Castro district in San Francisco, the West End in Vancouver, Mykonos and Korfu in Greece, and cruising areas for western gay men in Bangkok) have been a source of scholarly debate. Castells (1983) argued early on, for example, that urban-based gay men form distinct neighborhoods because, as men, they are inherently more territorial. Adler and Brennan (1992) disagree, contending that lesbians, as women, are relatively disadvantaged economically and more prone to violence and attack. Consequently, they are less able to secure territory, legitimacy, visibility (see also Knopp 1990).

More recent analyses have taken a comparative or cross-cultural look at queer life, entertaining both greater analytical specificity and diversity along lines of gender, ‘race,’ disability, and/or national or rural– urban location (e.g., Brown 2000, Bell and Valentine 1995, Chouinard and Grant 1995). There is also nascent research on state regulation of sexuality, national identity, and citizenship (e.g., Binnie 1997b, Nast 1998) and on intersections of sexuality and the academy (JGHE 1999).

Despite the increased presence of queer research and researchers in the discipline, sexuality research, especially that which deconstructs heterosexuality or which makes queer sexuality visible, is still considered radical (Chouinard and Grant 1995, Valentine 1998, JGHE 1999). Negative reactions point to anxieties over research that expose heterosexuality’s artifice, research that implicitly argues against the privileges and privileging power relations upon which heterosexual ontologies of truth and gender are grounded. The depth of fear is made poignantly clear in a recent article by Valentine (1998) about the ongoing homophobic harassment levied at her by someone in the discipline who collapses her sexuality (she is a lesbian) with her sexuality research on lesbians, explicitly naming both a moral abomination.

4. Future Research

A number of areas for future research suggest themselves. First, theorization is needed in addressing sexuality–geography links. What kinds of spatial and symbolic work do normative and queer sexualities practically accomplish across historical and cultural place? More work is needed that explores how normative heterosexualities vary across time and place, in keeping with diverse sociocultural expressions, uses and values of kinship and family structures. Moreover, the nuclear family is apparently in decline unevenly across place and time, in keeping with shifts in places of industrialization, begging the question as to whether some sexualities and affective familial patterns are better suited to certain political economies than to others (see also Knopp 1994). If this is the case, what kinds of sexual identities and desires work well in postindustrial places, and how are industrial restructuring processes affecting oedipal family life and the commoditization of normative and oppositionally sexed identities? What sorts of alternative sociospatial alliances are needed to allow diverse sexualities to co-exist? Are gay white men between the ages of 25 and 40 ideally situated economically and culturally to take advantage of the decline of the nuclear family in postindustrial contexts, which do not depend as much upon, or value, procreation?

Second, sexuality–geography research needs to be more theoretically and empirically attuned to differences produced through normative and oppositional constructions of race, gender, class, disability, age, religious beliefs, and nation. Little gender research has been done in the context of queer communities, for example. Are sociospatial interactions between gay male and lesbian communities devoid of gendered tensions? Does patriarchy disappear in spaces of gay male communities (Chouinard and Grant 1995, Knopp 1990)? Are lesbians or gay men situated outside the signifying strictures of heteronormative codes of femininity and masculinity? And how are constructions of race expressed sexually and geographically? Much work needs to be done on how persons of color have been put into infantilized, subordinate positions and places associated with the white-led Family. African-American men after emancipation, for example, were consistently constructed as rapist-sons sexually desirous of the white mother. What kind of work do these and other similarly sexed constructions accomplish in colonial and neocolonial contexts (Nast 2000)? Similarly, why does sex with young boys and men of color, particularly in Southeast Asia, have such wide market appeal among privileged gay white men, resulting in considerable sexualized tourism investment? And what kind of cultural, political, and economic work is achieved through sado-masochistic constructions threaded across sexed and raced communities? What precisely is being constructed and why? Finally, how do sociospatial debates about, and constructions of sexuality, continue to shape the theories, practices, and empirical concerns of geography?


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