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Article • Towards a Public Sexology

7 February 2020

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☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].

Translated by Audrey Morabito

Studying sexuality isn’t always easy. It’s a sultry, touchy and taboo subject on a moral and personal front. Anything intimate in nature is delicate for the researcher and their field of study (Monjaret and Pugeault, 2014), as well as for the people they are studying, who may perceive the researcher as a potential source of judgement or even a threat (Giard, 2015).  Even though sexuality is a touchy subject, sexology as a field—which I interpret to be the study and intervention around human sexuality (Brenot, 2012), and not a specific academic subject distinct from social science—has been evolving over the past six decades. Everything relating to intimacy, whether it be love, sexuality or gender identity, has seen important progress and transformation, in large part to Queer theory (Butler, [1990] 2006; Foucault 1994) and feminist movements. These changes have had repercussions on the way individuals live their emotional and sexual lives. This has led to a liberalization of love and sexuality and to a lessened social pressure and institutional control over individual’s sexuality (Bozon, 2013; Weeks, 2014). Furthermore, the rise of community-based organizations, through the voice of rights advocacy associations and groups, that defend the rights of marginalized peoples, has allowed sexuality to be more visible. This gives an unprecedented visibility to certain issues related to sexuality or gender, like the educational campaign launched in France in March 2019 that shed light on the clitoris (Castaing, 2019). Even though our societies and citizens have made important changes concerning how they broach and live their sexual lives—not to mention the discourse and images concerning what is intimate (Illouz, 2012)—the question is, how do we share knowledge, practices and the general exploitation of different sexological fields and their principal actors, whether they be working in the academic, clinical or community-based fields? Each of these sectors, though they keep in touch and mutually observe one another, remain objectively separate. Yet at a time when sexuality in a broader sense—from sexual health to gender identity to discrimination (Combessie et Meyer, 2013)—is studied, discussed and at the heart of multiple social advocacy campaigns, why is there such a division in the field of sexology? I will show here that each of the fields that produce sexological knowledge, the clinical; which through contact with people, observes the manifestations of sexuality and responses to their requests, the academic; which produces studies on sexuality using rigorous scientific methods and finally, the community-based organizations; which encompasses social advocacy groups for the marginalized, address a common theme, have different audiences, fulfills complementary objectives, and yet are distinct. However, beyond these differences, this article will call for a public sexology, anchored closer to individuals.

Sexology and Its Audiences

Before considering the logic behind the three aforementioned listed major fields, let's first take a look at the division of labour from the theoretical point of view of sociologist Michael Burawoy (2009). According to Burawoy, sociological labour is divided into 4 main groups which pertain to a specific relationship it has with its audience: 

  1. Public Sociology: the goal is to create dialogue between the sociologist and the public through media platforms, television or radio programs or even books. Their respective interests differ but each relate to the other. 
  2. Professional Sociology: it seeks to reach a goal that has been fixed by a client in order to find solutions to a given problem. 
  3. Policy Sociology: is made up of different fields of research each having their own hypotheses; it produces knowledge through rigorous methods, structured questions and conceptual frameworks. It is this type of sociology that allows for the existence of public and professional sociology. 
  4. Critical Sociology: interrogates the assumptions of the research programs of professional sociology by shedding light on its biases. Feminist and Queer theories are examples of this type of sociology. 

Of course, these four types of sociology are not independent from one another and it is possible that researchers go from one to the other during their career or maintain some awareness of the different aspects brought forward by each of these sociologies.

This sociological work concept is interesting when trying to understand its sexological counterpart, both the disciplines being linked by method and, at times, the subjects they tackle. If we apply this typology to sexological work, we realize that divisions may exist between the clinical, academic and community-based fields. Thus, clinical sexology can be qualified as sexological expertise as it responds to practical reasons and the specific needs of those who use its services (Giami and de Colomby, 2001). This would be the case, for example, for a couple having communication or sexual desire issues where a problem is identified and requires professional intervention. Academic sexology is responsible for producing knowledge through rigorous methods and making sexological knowledge legitimate. Finally, according to Burawoy’s typology, the community-based aspect of sexology can be linked to critical sociology while having undeniable public dimensions and expertise. Its aim centres around rights and advocacy for the marginalized, as well as educating people and disseminating information about certain practices or identities, as is the case for the LGBTQ+ communities. This is what we will call “community sexology”, as it questions both academic and clinical sexology on its oversights and biases.

If all three fields of sexology are not totally independent from one another, then each of them responds to their own logic. So where is the problem? It is specifically within the division of sexological labour that lays their limits. The clinical field is useful yet remains invisible to the majority of the population, as well as from the academic field, which could benefit from the information gathered during interventions. The academic field is indispensable in terms of legitimizing clinical and community intervention; however, it suffers from major defaults, in particular its lack of communication with the other fields, its disconnect from lived experiences and realities, and knowledge that can be considered insufficiently rigorous. Finally, community sexology can sometimes be weary of academic and clinical sexologies, accusing them of identifying certain individuals or groups as abnormal or deviant, which they have done in the past (Billié et Wintrebert, 2018). 

If each of the fields has its strengths and weaknesses, this division can be viewed as problematic for public debates and sharing knowledge, especially for people who have very limited access to it. This is where the appeal of public sexology takes on its full meaning. 

A Public Sexology at the Service of the Individual and the Community 

By public sexology, I refer to a sexology that revolves around an expert and an audience, taken as a collection of autonomous and independent individuals (Citton, 2007), recognizing a subject as being problematic and banding together to find a solution (Dewey, 2007). But which public sexology are we talking about? Next to the definition of public sociology given by Michael Burawoy, which he qualifies as “classical”, can be found a second definition in which he calls “organic public sociology”, which is composed of sociologists working in collaboration with various organizations, whether they be unions or social advocacy groups that support immigrants or people from the LGBTQ+ communities. If classical public sociology allows a form of dialogue through its media visibility, organic public sociology, on the other hand, is more often invisible even though a dialogue and a mutual educational process is born from the encounters and the exchanges between the public and the researchers. But what about sexology? If each field studied addresses its own issues and audiences, a public sexology—whether it be classical or organic—seems more than necessary. For example, in the case of sexologists appearing in the media (Blanc, 2019), the dialogue is between the sexologist and an audience without the intervention of the academic and community fields. In the case of a public sexology, all three fields could intervene to offer a complete portrait. The idea isn’t to promote the uncontrolled dissemination of knowledge but rather to encourage exchanges between the public and sexologists, whether they be in a clinical, academic, or community setting, through meetings, books or articles or even dedicated spaces.  

A personal experience will help to illustrate what I am trying to bring forth here in this discourse. During my master’s degree in sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 2016, I was interested in the sexuality education curriculum of a high school in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. A philosophy teacher suggested I join one of her classes so that I could present my work to 15-year-old students. To find myself in front of a young audience was not simple in terms of which subjects to discuss and approaching their technical level. It seemed complicated and unnecessary to use vocabulary that was too technical or academic—which could have confused or disinterested these students —just as it was necessary for me to deliver reliable, exhaustive and serious information. The long and numerous exchanges we had over two hours, as well as the teacher’s feedback, were signs of a successful session and a sign of interest from the teenagers for themes that were vaguely or not addressed at all during their schooling (Dusseau, 2016). Did the students retain all the information and its associated vocabulary? Probably not. However, I would like to think that my attempt at vulgarizing knowledge showed them that it is possible to speak about sexuality in a spontaneous, rigorous yet accessible manner. Multiple questions concerning desire and sexuality, although masked by expressions such as “I have a friend that…” or “someone I know…”, demonstrate that the students knew how to take hold of the subject while showing interest. As a doctoral candidate in sociology, sexuality and intimacy have always been the common thread of my research and I have always been keen to share what I have learnt so that others can take and learn from it. This experience of public sexology also passes through informal discussions with friends or strangers who show interest in, debate or criticize my research. The encounters, the exchanges and the observations that I have been able to carry out, beyond that of academic research, have been and remain sources of inspiration, intellectual stimulation and incomparable knowledge that allows me to progress within my own research. Although this example is specific to France, which has a different sexuality education policy than Quebec (De Luca Barrusse and Le Den, 2016) and as a consequence should be used with caution, it seems useful regarding the thesis I am developing here. 

It is the sexology that we need: lively, in motion, with intellectual and academic rigor, yet open to the world, the needs of individuals and as close as possible to their expectations. 

Finally, in addition to publicizing clinical, activist or research experiences, public sexology, which I consider necessary, must also answer the question “for whom?” (McLung Lee, 1976) and “for what?” (Lynd, 2015). It is not about defending the promotion of the discipline for the simple pleasure of disseminating information without much interest. The goal, on the contrary, is to foster dialogue between the different actors in order to solidify knowledge and allow exchanges with more audiences and potentially society as a whole. It is rendering accessible to all a collection of knowledge that is solid, tested and diverse so that it can be used to understand and master their sentimental, emotional, and intimate life. The momentum of a discipline goes through its ability to resonate with its era, become useful and understandable to society and those who make up said society. 


To cite this article:

Dusseau, F. (2020, February 7). Towards a Public Sexology. Les 3 sex*https://les3sex.com/en/news/1041/article-towards-a-public-sexology 

academic, community, clinical, sexology sexology, science, study, complementarity


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