31. The ethnographic study of sexuality: practices, cultures, and stigma

Convenors: Mariella Popolla (Università di Genova) & Giulia Selmi (Università di Parma)
Contacts: pmariella@yahoo.it; giulia.selmi@unipr.it

As anthropologist Gayle Rubin (2002) pointed out qualitative sociology played a key role in establishing a social sciences approach to sexuality by producing ethnographic studies of sexual population that challenged the privileged role of medicine (and psychiatry in particular) in the study of human sexuality. From the Chicago School on, ethnographic studies of a wide range of non-normative sexualities and sexual cultures have highlighted how sexuality is a social product (and yet process) rather than the result of natural drives, and how sexual practices, meanings, and identities are shaped by the social context and embedded in power dynamics (Irvine 2003, Kimmel 2007). 

This contributed to the development of a coherent theory of social construction of sexuality (Plummer, 2002; 2008) that opened up a space to further analyze sexuality in its intersection with race and ethnicity, class, age, disability, and gender above all. Yet, as Plummer underlines (ibid), many studies focus primarily on the symbolic dimension of sexualities to the detriment of the corporeal one; in other words, the body in its material aspect has been quite silenced. Furthermore, ethnography and qualitative sociology had to consider emerging subjects, voices and practices that have been historically marginalized or flattened by social homologation processes (Epstein 1994). Qualitative studies of sexuality, then, have shown how the sexual moves between, and redefines, the boundaries between private and public, the political and the intimate, the symbolic and the corporeal (Jackson&Scott 2010). 

Drawing upon this genealogy of groundbreaking empirical research and critical theory, contemporary sexuality scholarship is pushing these reflections further, or in new directions: autoethnography (E.g. those authored by sex workers, porn industries insiders, subcultures members); the emergence of new sexual cultures; online and digital sexual spaces and practices, just to name a few. In this panel we seek contributions that explore, but are not limited to, the following questions:

  • Despite a genealogy of the qualitative study of sexuality has still a fragile status within social sciences. How and to what extent dis/courtesy stigma is still at work on sexuality scholars? How gender and generation matter in the stigmatization process?
  • What are the challenges of ethnographic studies of online sexual interactions, practices, and cultures?
  • What happens if we study sexual social action as embodied practices? 
  • How to recognize and value as a legitimate academic knowledge the one produced by autoethnography made by marginalized subjects, insiders, activists (e.g. sex workers, porn performers)? To what extent their involvement could represent a shift within the method itself and its techniques?
  • How and to what extent disabled, racialized, migrant, and queer subjects redefines the knowledge on sexuality and sexual cultures?
  • How non-binarism may them impact our body knowledge about sexual practices, sexual encounters and sexual orientation?
  • How can ethnography help to observe and reframe the same concept of sexuality and bodies within fields such as performing arts, both as a labor sector and as a site of imaginaries production? 

Sexuality, sex work, pornographies, sexual cultures, sexual practices, sexual scripts, online sexualities, 

Fields of study
Sociology, anthropology, sexuality studies, cultural studies, performing arts studies

Epstein, S. (1994). A queer encounter: Sociology and the study of sexuality. Sociological Theory, pp. 188-202.

Irvine, J. M. (2003). “The sociologist as voyeur”: Social theory and sexuality research, 1910–1978. Qualitative Sociology, 26(4), pp. 429-456.

Jackson, S., & Scott, S. (2010). Theorizing Sexuality, McGraw-Hill.

Kimmel M. (eds.) (2007), The Sexual Self: the Construction of Sexual Script, Vanderbit University Press.

Rubin, G.  (2002). Studying sexual subcultures: Excavating the ethnography of gay communities in urban North America. In E. Lewin & W. Leap (Eds.), Out in theory: The emergence of lesbian and gay anthropology (pp. 17–68). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Plummer, K. (2008) Studying Sexualities for a Better World? Ten Years of Sexualities  Sexualities, vol. 11, n. 1–2, pp. 7–22

—-              (2002) La sociologia della sessualità e il ritorno del corpo. Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia, XLIII, 3, pp. 487-501

Short Bio
Mariella Popolla, PhD in Social Sciences-Sociology is adjunct Professor of Sociology of Economic and Labor Processes at the Department of Health Sciences (Dissal) and post-doc fellow in Sociology of Economic and Labor Processes (SPS / 09) at the Department of Education Sciences (Disfor) of the University of Genoa. She is a member of the editorial team of AG-About Gender-International Journal of Gender Studies. She collaborates with the Regional Social Observatory for the drafting of the Report on Gender Violence in Tuscany. Her main research areas focus on the social construction of masculinities and femininities both from the point of view of the labour sector and from that of representations (especially from the point of view of queer and feminist pornography); gender violence and homo-bi-lesbo-transphobic bullying; and on the intersections between disabilities and the performing arts from a work perspective. For DeriveApprodi she has recently published Eppur mi piace … Immaginari e lavoro tra femminismi e pornografie

Giulia Selmi, sociologist, got a Ph.D in sociology and social research at the University of Trento with a thesis on phone sex work, and the link between sexuality, language and work. She is currently assistant professor at the Department of Law, Political and International Studies at the University of Parma where she teaches Gender and Sexuality: social models and policies and Methodology of Social Research. She is member of the research center Politesse –Politics and theory of Sexuality of the University of Verona, and member of the board of the Research Network 23 – Sexuality of the European Sociological Association. She works on gender, sexuality, sex work, new intimacies and the transformation of social, health and educational services, mainly with qualitative and participatory research methodologies. 

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