Sexuality - Katherine Johnson - ebook

Sexuality ebook

Katherine Johnson

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The contemporary study of Sexuality too often finds itselfat an impasse, conceptualizing Sexuality either psychologically orsociologically: sexologists and psychologists have tended to pointto the biological origins of Sexuality underpinned by hormones,drives and, most recently, genetics; in contrast, historians andsociologists point to the social field as the defining force thatshapes the meanings given to Sexuality and sexual experience. Confronting the limitations and challenges this impasse poses,Katherine Johnson argues for a psychosocial approach that rethinksthe relationship between psychic and social realms in the field ofsexuality, without reducing it to either. Weaving through anexpanse of theoretical and empirical examples drawn from sociology,psychology, queer and cultural studies, she produces an innovative,transdisciplinary perspective on sexual identities, subjectivitiesand politics that makes an original contribution to key debatesranging from identity politics and gay marriage, to mental health'risks' and queer youth suicide. Embracing ideas from developmental psychology, socialconstructionist sociology, social and critical psychology,psychoanalysis and queer theory, this original book will benecessary reading for students and scholars of Sexuality across thesocial sciences.

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Title Page



1. Introducing Sexuality: towards the psychosocial

Sexuality: between psychology and historicism

Transdisciplinarity, subjectivity and psychosocial studies

Towards a psychosocial manifesto for sexuality

2. Developing Sexuality

Freud and psychosexual development

The problem with Freud?

Biological models and sexual orientation

Hormones, foetal development and gay babies

Neuroscience, gay brains and genetics

Developmental models of sexual identity formation

Coming out: developing a homosexual identity

Bisexuality and the disruption of binary sexual identities

Heterosexual identity formation: one model fits all?

Developing sexuality and the psychosocial subject

3. Constructing Sexuality

Coming out of oppression

Social constructionism: roles, scripts and stories

Social constructionism: discourses of sexuality

Constructing sexuality, reconstructing psychology?

Constructing sexuality, intersectionality and the psychosocial subject

4. Queering Sexuality

Finding a new place to begin: the emergence of queer theory and activism

Queer icons: the influence of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Queering race, hybridity and mixedness

Queering psychology: critical psychology, critically queer

Theorizing queer subjectivity, killing off psychology?

Desiring subjects, psychoanalysis and its place in queer theory

The turn to affect and the return to psychology

Queering sexuality and the psychosocial subject

5. Affecting Sexuality

Shame and sexuality

Shame and media representations of queer lives

Comedy queer

Reading Derek Faye

Reading Daffyd Thomas

‘Coming out’ of shame: queer politics and suicidal distress

Shame, sexuality and the psychosocial subject

6. Transforming Sexuality

Poststructuralism and the paradox of identity

Worlds won and lost

Reparative readings, hybridity, community

For and against gay marriage

Ambivalence and affective dissonance

Affective activism, community and queer mental health

Transforming sexuality and the psychosocial subject

7. A Psychosocial Manifesto for Queer Futures

Transdisciplinarity: theory and methods

Identity, subjectivity and the politics of marginalization

Queer futures?



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For Dee with love and in memory of Derick Johnson missed as always.


A Psychosocial Manifesto



Copyright © Katherine Johnson 2015

The right of Katherine Johnson to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2015 by Polity Press

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press350 Main StreetMalden, MA 02148, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8895-4

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Johnson, Katherine E.

Sexuality : a psychosocial manifesto / Katherine Johnson.

    pages cm

ISBN 978-0-7456-4131-7 (hardback : alk. paper) --ISBN 978-0-7456-4132-4

(pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Sex. 2. Sex (Psychology) 3. Queer theory. I. Title.

HQ21.J58 2014



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Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website:


It has taken more years than I initially intended to complete this book and I am grateful for the support and patience of family, friends and colleagues throughout this time. Dee Rudebeck, Jude, Emil, Maia and Silas Marwa and Abi Johnson need particular credit for keeping a sense of humour in the moments it seemed that ‘the book’ was going to become an additional lifelong companion. I only wish Derick Johnson was also still here to see it finished. Given the delays I am particularly grateful to my editors at Polity, Emma Longstaff for originally commissioning the book and Jonathan Skerrett for seeing it through to publication. I am deeply indebted and thankful for the ongoing influence and support of Lynne Segal, who always impressed that interesting work is to be found on the margins and has provided kindness and encouragement through good times and bad. Co-learning, conversations and critical engagements with Paul Hanna, Ed Moreno, Stella Fremi, Stephanie Davis, Matt Adams, Paul Stenner, Jayne Raisborough, Niki Khan and Hannah Frith have all contributed greatly to ideas developed here. Life at the University of Brighton is enriched by the collegiality in the School of Applied Social Science and collaborations with colleagues from the LGBTQ research hub, particularly Kath Browne, Olu Jenzen, Irmi Karl, Nigel Sheriff and Aidan McGarry, who share commitments to social justice and community-engaged research.

The research on suicide and mental health that features in the book would not have been possible without financial support from CUPP, dialogue with Ben Fincham and collaborations with Paul Faulkner, MindOut and Allsorts – vital and vibrant community mental health projects running in Brighton and Hove. Working with Helen Jones, Jess Wood, Jason Saw, Elliot Klimek and service users from both organizations has been life enhancing and I am sustained and encouraged by their passion, activism, friendship and care. I am particularly thankful to Liz for allowing me to use her image from the Focusing the Mind exhibition (Brighton Pride, 2008) in published work. I am also grateful to Michelle Lollo and Caroline Nin for hosting the Paris experience and providing the image (p. 161) to document it, alongside many years of friendship.

Colleagues and postgraduate students in the Department de Psicologia Social, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona have hosted a number of visits and provided a rigorous testing ground for reflecting on interventions from critical/community psychology and psychosocial studies. I’m particularly thankful to Joan Pujol, Marisela Montenegro and Antar Martínez Guzmán and look forward to future collaborations. Michael O’Rourke, Noreen Giffney and Anne Mulhull need a special mention for running the The(e)ories: Advanced Seminars for Queer Research in Dublin. These intensive workshops draw together scholars and practitioners from queer studies, psychology and psychoanalysis and offer a rare opportunity to read closely and collectively while seeking clarification from the author of the text in hand. The impact of the sessions I have managed to attend over the last eight years is apparent in the pages that follow.

Finally, I am grateful for research leave funded by the University of Brighton, which provided extended periods of time for the basic requirements of research: reading, thinking and writing. In 2007 the Department of Gender and Culture Studies, University of Sydney hosted me for five months providing me with access to their excellent library where I did much of the work for chapters 2 and 5. Chapter 5 is an expanded version of an article previously published as ‘How very dare you!’: shame, insult and contemporary representations of queer subjectivities, Subjectivity, (2012) 5, 416–37. I am grateful to Palgrave for permitting me to reproduce ideas, as well as Catherine Tate, Matt Lucas and David Walliams for allowing me to again use extracts from The Catherine Tate Show and Little Britain. I am also thankful to Jenz Germon, Gilbert Caluya, Cate Thill, Louisa Smith, Raewyn Connell, Jessica Cadwallader, Sarah Cefai, Julie Mooney-Summers, Naimh Stephenson, Jane Ussher and Janette Perez for welcoming me to Sydney and engaging with my research, and to Sally Munt for providing insightful feedback back in Brighton on an early draft of this chapter. Chapter 2 was written at home in Brighton on a shorter period of research leave in 2010. The rest has been carved out, as my colleague Mark Erickson would say, ‘in the cracks’ of our daily lives. Any errors, limitations and omissions are thus my responsibility, or perhaps I can attribute them to the distractions of Brighton and Sydney; two wonderful cities that provided the backdrop for the writing of this book and home to many queer lives.

1Introducing Sexuality: towards the psychosocial

Any polarizing of psychology and history cripples the investigation of the issues that both psychologists and social scientists are trying to understand.

Helen Merrell Lynd, 1958, p. 214

The structure of this kind of conceptual impasse or short circuit is all too familiar: where it is possible to recognize the mechanism of a problem, but trying to remedy it, or even in fact articulate it, simply adds propulsive energy to that very mechanism.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 2007, p. 635

Sexuality: between psychology and historicism

Despite Helen Merrell Lynd’s warning polarization between psychological and socio-historical approaches has been an all too familiar feature of late twentieth-century thought, particularly in the field of sexuality. In reviewing prominent theories and debates it is reasonable to claim that this polarization constitutes a ‘kind of conceptual impasse’, found in many accounts influenced by either Marx or Freud, or latterly Freud and Foucault, whose vital work sets the scene for contemporary understandings of sexuality within academia and everyday life. This book explores the polarization between psychological and socio-historical accounts that are documented well in sexuality studies and somewhat ambitiously proposes an alternative, a psychosocial manifesto that seeks to stitch and mend the polarization. Yet, as Sedgwick states, trying to remedy, or even articulate the impasse is not without its own problems. Specifically, in trying to articulate accounts of sexuality without recourse to a polarization between psychology and historicism invites us to engage with the ‘psychosocial’, but inevitably within this articulation it is difficult not to fall back on the mechanisms that constitute the split.

The term sexuality can refer to a set of practices or behaviours, a range of feelings or affects, or as a way of categorizing people on the basis of their sexual orientation, sexual identity or political allegiances. The plural, sexualities, is utilized to acknowledge the multiple meanings of sexuality and to recognize that an understanding of contemporary sexuality needs to engage with a proliferation of identity categories, sexual practices, subjectivities, desires and relationship formations, including for example queer or trans alongside more familiar categories such as heterosexual, lesbian, gay and bisexual. This book explores the way in which the term is conceptualized in an array of psychological and social debate, such as neuroanatomy, adolescent development, sexual health, youth suicide, identity politics or gay marriage, and provides access to a range of theoretical perspectives that seek to explain how sexuality is developed, constructed, queered, embodied and transformed.

Since the late 1800s, sexologists and psychologists have tended to promote the view that sexuality has its origins in biological processes underpinned by hormones, drives, and more recently, genetics. In contrast, historians and sociologists point to the social field as the defining force that shapes the meanings given to sexuality and sexual experience. This observation provides the starting point for investigating how polarization produces different forms of knowledge and the impact these have on how sexuality can be experienced in personal and political contexts. Such distinctions are familiar within social science accounts of sexuality, but they are also apparent within the humanities and queer studies. For example, Michael Warner (1993) expressed a similar warning to Lynd in the seminal text Fear of a Queer Planet, critiquing the divergence in theories of sexuality particularly between psychoanalysis and historicism. He suggested psychoanalytic approaches have been used to link the political demands of ‘lesbians and gay liberation to fundamental psychic structures’ (1993, p. xi) in a framework that lacks the necessary subtlety to recognize historical or cultural differences, while historical perspectives that champion difference through social constructionist analysis pinpoint the importance of cultural specificity in identity construction but have not generated new theories for explaining sexual subjectivities. Nevertheless, in more recent years, queer studies has been reinvigorated by a ‘turn to affect’ and with it the increased application of psychoanalytic concepts and theories, as well as the influence of neuroscience, to develop new tools for describing processes of normalization and resistance, and for rethinking subjectivity.

Elsewhere, mainstream psychology has largely discarded and discredited psychoanalytic approaches in favour of a scientific research paradigm that seeks to understand questions about the aetiology of sexual orientation. These types of research studies attempt to identify causal origins in the hope of explaining why someone might identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and these origins are often assumed to be biological, determined by hormones, genetics or neurological structures. Working within the same paradigm, developmental approaches look to establish whether there are models that can explain the processes by which individuals come to call themselves gay, lesbian or bisexual, and these tend to note the influence of both biological and social factors. However, the cultural turn that precipitated a paradigm shift that began to transform the social sciences and humanities in the 1970s heralded the beginning of a radical separation within psychology that has further exacerbated the problem of polarization. In the UK, for example, there has been a growing disciplinary trend where social and critical psychologists informed by poststructuralism, feminism and psychoanalysis have either drifted away or have been exiled from more mainstream psychology departments, with many ending up in sociology, interdisciplinary health studies, or more recently in newly created pockets called psychosocial studies. This redrawing of disciplinary borders has been influenced further by the introduction of the research quality assurance process (Research Assessment Exercise [RAE] now renamed Research Excellence Framework [REF]). Much is at stake with government research funding distributed to universities on the basis of how well the submitted departments rate against others within the category they have been entered into. In recent years psychology has been grouped into a category submission of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience. Within this the work of social, critical, theoretical and even some applied psychologists is seen as detrimental to a strong submission based around experimental, cognitive and neurological research. As a result many of the leading critical voices within psychology, those most likely to engage with socio-historical approaches and to explore the intersections between psychology and historicism have found themselves included in other submissions – most frequently Sociology, or Social Work and Social Policy. Playing the REF game, as it is sometimes referred to, and getting strategic decisions right, is seen as crucial for university funding. Yet, the danger is that this is at the expense of encouraging the theoretical and methodological richness that is necessary to understand complex issues such as sexuality. As I hope to demonstrate in this book, this can only be achieved by reading widely in order to draw across disciplines and intellectual traditions, a process that can be both liberating and terrifying. Resting on the margins of a discipline loosely claimed as ‘home’ (in this case psychology), looking out towards sociology, women and queer studies, cultural studies or literary theory generates new ways of seeing, feeling and knowing. But when these connections do not gel or you find yourself falling between the gaps of disciplinary debates without an interlocutor, these endeavours can be isolating and disheartening. These are the pleasures and challenges that studies which claim to be transdisciplinary face, and the ‘psychosocial’ is one such space welcoming those willing to take such risks.

Transdisciplinarity, subjectivity and psychosocial studies

The term ‘psychosocial’ is widely used in health studies to indicate an interaction between certain psychological and social factors. In this context, it is primarily used within a scientific research framework that seeks to ascertain the influence of each factor (such as personality or income) or delineate between levels of analysis (e.g. bio-psycho-social) (Hollway, 2006). In contrast, in the UK in particular, psychosocial has been developed as a field of study for rethinking the polarization between psychology and historicism. In defining psychosocial studies as ‘transdisciplinary’, Paul Stenner (2007) notes that those working in this field tend to be ‘academic migrants’ or ‘cross-country scholars’ who are concerned with ‘real life issues of power, social exclusion and inequality’. Emotion or affect often operate as key topics for transdisciplinary psychosocial studies because of its readiness as a site for ‘revisioning’ the space between the psychic and the social (Stenner, 2007; Greco and Stenner, 2008). Thus, within this emerging corpus of work we find accounts of love (Brown, 2006), grief (Stenner and Moreno, 2013) or regeneration (Walkerdine and Jimenez, 2012) but produced through theoretical lenses that seek to go beyond either sociological or psychological explanations. For some this is because of the polarization where ‘the sociology of emotion … continues to afford the intellect and reason too much control over feeling and the irrational’, while its alternative, ‘an exclusively defined psychoanalysis of affect in which the structural, historic forces in people’s lives might be underrepresented’, is inadequate (Brown, 2006, p. 6); for others, this is more emphatically because ‘psychology ends up killing – or at the very least simplifying – the phenomena of which it desires to speak’ (Brown and Stenner, 2009, p. 4).

In an attempt to address these discipline-based limitations, psychosocial studies has encouraged rich theoretical engagement from a range of perspectives including sociology, social and critical psychology, but also feminism, queer, postcolonial and cultural studies, in order to reconsider the relationship between psychic life and social conditions in the making of subjectivity (e.g. Frosh, 2010b). Subjectivity is a key concept that raises its own questions about how we come to experience ourselves as subjects, and whether this can ever really be known. Henriques et al. (1984/1998, p. 3) use the term,

to refer to individuality and self-awareness – the condition of being a subject – but understand in this usage that subjects are dynamic and multiple, always positioned in relation to discourses and practices and produced by these – the condition of being subject.

In a move towards theorizing subjectivity, those influenced by phenomenology have pointed to how poststructuralist approaches place too much emphasis on discourse, power and control that constitute particular subject positions or identities, rather than the embodied or intersubjective element of this experience (e.g. Johnson, 2007; Burkitt, 2008). Here, in bridging poststructuralism and phenomenology, poststructuralist approaches are associated with establishing the ways identities, such as gender, sexuality, race or class, are constituted through ideological and normative processes, while phenomenological engagements with subjectivity entail ascertaining how someone comes to occupy a particular identity and experience the world in which they reside. Contrasting investments in concepts such as ‘identity’ or ‘subjectivity’ are now familiar within sexuality studies and psychosocial studies. It is taken for granted that the influence of social constructionism and queer theory has dismantled any certainty in the stability of identity categories, but identity remains an important concept particularly when thinking about political allegiance and social transformation for groups that are minoritized and oppressed. In sketching out the distinction between identity and subjectivity the social psychologist Margaret Wetherell suggests:

‘Identity’, thus, allows the researcher to investigate what groups and their relations make possible for subjects. ‘Subjectivity’ tells the story of how a specific self lives those available cultural slots, actively realizes them, takes responsibility and owns them as an agent, turning social category memberships and social roles into ethical, emotional and narrated choices. (Wetherell, 2008, p. 75)

Given the investment in this book in the concept of subjectivity, this definition is taken rather unfairly from Wetherell who is summarizing the work of Couze Venn (2006) in order to argue against subjectivity as a productive concept for rethinking the relationship between the psychological and the social. Yet, in the context of exploring sexuality which is so often referred to in categorical identity terms, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ), I find the subjectivity/identity distinction helpful to acknowledge that the purpose of engaging the psychosocial is to say something about how these identities are lived ‘either thoroughly or ambivalently’, as well as about where they are located in power structures (Wetherell, 2008, p. 76). To do justice to Wetherell here, it is worth noting that her concern is that a focus on subjectivity dulls down engagements with identity, such that issues of intersectionality are overlooked.

The term intersectionality was first outlined in the context of feminist and critical race studies as a way of moving beyond single axis attention to difference and marginalization, analysing the intersection of gender and race and their impact on lived experience within a specific focus, that of problematizing the US legal system (Crenshaw, 1989). The early interest in the intersection between race and gender within feminist theory and politics (Crenshaw, 1991) has been greatly expanded in recent years to include demands for broader attention to how a range of social categories including gender, race, class and sexuality interact. Yet, the field of studies is not without its own theoretical, methodological and practical contentions (McCall, 2005; Nash, 2008). In particular, McCall questions whether analyses are able to attend to ‘the complexity that arises when the subject of analysis expands to include multiple dimensions of social life and categories of analysis’ and outlines the strengths and weaknesses of favouring ‘anti-categorical complexity’, ‘intracategorical complexity’ or ‘intercategorical complexity’ (2005, p. 1772). To explain, anti-category approaches are frequently aligned with scholars who are sceptical about the ability of analyses of identity categories to say anything meaningful about the complexity of lived experience. Intra-category approaches are associated with those who seek to demonstrate how categorization results in exclusion and how understanding the complexity of subjectivity can illustrate the limitation of categorization approaches. Inter-category approaches are seen to be useful for demonstrating the links between the category itself and inequality, particularly focusing on analyses of social groups.

Debates about intersectionality return us to similar concerns within the field of psychosocial studies: the relationship between identity and subjectivity and how to stitch together understandings of the psychic and social consequences of marginalization and inequality, which operate through different identity categories and social dimensions. It might be argued that in attending to the psychosocial when theorizing sexuality and subjectivity through a transdisciplinary framework other identity categories such as race and social class remain underanalysed – a limitation that an intersectional approach would address. But, in a recent interrogation of the proliferation of calls for intersectional analyses, Robyn Wiegman (2012, p. 246) has asked ‘what does it mean that intersectionality functions today by tacking back and forth between a demand for the particular and a promise that through it every relation of subordination can be brought into critical view?’, while Surya Monro (2010, p. 1007) proposes that ‘analysis of the interstices between social characteristics is relatively straightforward at the level of the individual, but once group level conceptualization is undertaken a category-based approach is required to a degree’. Thus, this book heeds the warning and seeks where possible to attend to intersectionality, but always within a framework that avoids attaching marginalization and oppression to hierarchical categories of difference.

In conceiving a psychosocial manifesto it is important to resist introducing new polarizations between identity and subjectivity, where one wins out over the other, instead recognizing the analytic purchase of both for specific fields of enquiry and political debate and their interrelatedness. Returning to Wetherell’s original point, it can be noted that she too is working within a psychosocial ethos that opposes the polarization of subjectivity and identity because, as she states, ‘features conventionally marked out as to do with “subjectivity” … are intrinsic to the formation and cultural representation of what gets marked out as “identity” ’ (2008, p. 78). Nevertheless, her central concern with theoretical debates in the psychosocial field more generally is whether the movement towards psychoanalytic theory as a way of studying subjectivity ‘may end up over-emphasizing interiority and privacy’ (p. 78). In this sense, she suggests psychoanalysis might offer a return to psychology and interiority at the expense of the socio-historical, despite recent attempts for psychoanalysis to engage a more social constructionist discourse. This concern that privileging one theory over another results in firstly a split and then the emphasis or polarization between interior and exterior is precisely the outcome that this book attempts to avoid.

Elsewhere, those who utilize psychoanalysis to theorize subjectivity point to the importance that the concept ‘unconscious’ affords for criss-crossing the interior–exterior divide. Stephen Frosh (2010a, p. 194) states that it can offer this ‘in the sense that unconscious ideas are both “in” and “outside of” the subject, neither owned by the “person” nor completely separate’. However, although concepts such as the ‘unconscious’ are without doubt useful, psychosocial studies is not unified in terms of how the concept is utilized. For example, within psychoanalytically inspired psychosocial approaches there has been considerable debate about the merits of approaches inspired by theorists Melanie Klein or Jacques Lacan (e.g. Frosh and Baraitser, 2008; Hollway, 2008) and whether psychosocial studies should in fact be called psycho-social studies. The importance of the hyphen is demanded by some (e.g. Hoggett, 2008) in order to demonstrate that there are distinctions between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ which psychoanalysis can purportedly help to both link and disentangle. In contrast, Frosh and Baraitser (2008, p. 354) are critical of Kleinian informed ‘psycho-social’ accounts where, they argue, ‘inner reality’ is privileged over ‘outer reality’, such that ‘in Hollway’s description of the psychosocial, both elements are theorized as infiltrated by “the” unconscious, which in turn is understood as residing in the “inner world”’. They suggest that the classic psychoanalytic notion of ‘psychic reality’ might be more psychosocial ‘in the sense that it figures something that is never totally “internal”. Psychic reality is what the subject lives in; this replaces an abstract opposition of the “outer” as against the “inner” with a conceptualization of the “psychic” as that which stands for both.’ To emphasize this, the authors draw on the metaphor of the Moebius strip to illustrate psychic reality as ‘a folding of space’, as a ‘hybrid’ that is neither in nor out. The concept of ‘hybridity’ has widespread use in the social sciences and humanities as a means of exploring notions of ‘mixedness’, with particular purchase in queer studies and critical race studies (see chapter 4), and is of significant value as a mode of thinking psychosocially.

Nevertheless, the purpose of illustrating this small-scale debate about the role of psychoanalysis in British psychosocial studies is to give some insight into the analytic tensions that occur when attempting to think between the poles of psychic and social or, as Sedgwick would have it, attempting to articulate and remedy a conceptual impasse. Unlike these authors my aim is not to demonstrate that psychoanalysis is crucial for this, although it can certainly help, or that a particular school of psychoanalytic thought is better equipped to do so. Rather, I wish to provide the reader with some of the theoretical tools necessary to begin to imagine how concepts such as psychosocial might conjure up alternative ways for understanding sexual subjectivities. Central to this is an engagement with queer theoretical perspectives, which are already hybridized forms that draw across the psychic and social fields. Similarly, I embrace Frosh’s (2010a, p. 198) reference to the psychosocial as a ‘sutured unit’ if ‘ill-defined entity’ and, despite the risks of reinvigorating the dualism, I propose it as a productive transdisciplinary approach for exploring sexuality and subjectivity.

Towards a psychosocial manifesto for sexuality

The impetus for this book was originally sparked in November 2003 after hearing David Halperin speak at the Sexuality afterFoucault conference in Manchester. In a talk that became the basis for his essay What Do Gay Men Want? (2007, p. 11), he made the provocative statement that what was needed was a theory of gay male subjectivity ‘without necessary or automatic recourse to psychology or psychoanalysis’. At the time I was writing about transgender subjectivity, working in an interdisciplinary sense drawing on insights from feminist and queer perspectives, and critical psychology. As are all critical psychologists, particularly those with an interest in gender and sexuality, I was well schooled in the limitations of psychology and its methods, its normalizing and pathologizing history, its promotion of the rational, free choice making individual over other models of the self, its political conservatism and dispiriting alignment with maintaining the status quo. Yet, this statement troubled me: what would it mean to theorize subjectivity without recourse to psychology? Would it be possible to do away with psychology, to kill it off as Foucault had once suggested?

The second time I heard Halperin give this paper was in Sydney at the International Conference of Queer Asian Studies in February 2007, just before his extended essay was published. By then I had secured a contract to write this book, then loosely titled On Sexualities that set out a similar structure to the one delivered here. The idea was to provide a comprehensive overview of a range of disciplinary engagements with ‘sexualities’ as they are developed, constructed, queered, embodied and politicized. The aim was to produce a text that would be relevant to students and academics in psychology and sociology wanting to gain an expanded view of sexualities beyond the one presented in their core discipline. I had just begun researching psychology-based literature for chapters 2 and 3 when I attended the conference, and listening to Halperin on this second occasion irritated me. How, I wondered, could an entire collection of work that had much to say about subjectivity, whether insightfully or not, be dismissed in one phrase: ‘without … recourse to psychology or psychoanalysis’ (2007, p. 11)? Attempting to understand our irritations is always fraught, but this seemed to stem from a perceived unreasonable tendency to collapse psychology and psychoanalysis without proper interrogation of their similarities and differences, as well as a failure to acknowledge the challenges produced by those doing critical work within psychology and psychoanalysis, which also sought to generate non-pathologized understandings of queer subjectivities that were meaningful to the everyday lives of those subjects.

Yet, despite my affective response, Halperin had a point. There is a problem with the way (for him) gay male subjectivity, but we might here include all queer subjectivities, are consistently wrapped up in ‘discourses of mental health, the high moral drama of the individual sexual act, the dichotomous opposition between rational agency and pathology, and the epidemiology of risk’ (2007, p. 29). In fact, there is much to like about the book that he published later that year. In it, along similar lines to Lynd and Warner, he laments that although the impact of Foucault’s thesis removed the ‘inner life of male homosexuality’ from the realm of psychology, this was at the expense of exploring queer subjectivities. Thus he argues that in many Foucauldian inspired approaches sexuality manifests as ‘an aesthetics of existence’ (p. 8), and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) identities have become psychologically empty categories. Nevertheless, his call ‘without … recourse to psychology and psychoanalysis’ was somewhat undermined by a belated recognition that not all forms of psychology have partaken in the pathologizing and individualizing practices that the discipline is renowned for. In fact he states:

It is not a matter of refuting or rejecting psychoanalysis outright, nor of condemning and demonizing the academic field of Psychology as a whole – which, after all, includes the radical subfields of social psychology and critical psychology, so useful for documenting collective practices and formations of subjectivity and for locating in subjectivity itself a potential site of political resistance. (2007, p. 9)

So the challenge for theorizing subjectivity is less about doing so without recourse to psychology broadly defined, but more about the form of psychology with which to engage, and the implications of this. This insight injected a second trajectory into the research for this book. I no longer only read literature from across disciplinary perspectives for what it told us about sexualities, but also for what it tells us about ‘psychology’ and the role it plays in producing understandings of sexuality and sexual subjectivities. This introduced a new dynamic into the research process, a new complexity. At times I wondered whether, against my best intentions, I was actually writing a defence of psychology. However, as the research progressed it became clear that ‘the psychological is quite literally everywhere’ (Brown and Stenner, 2009, p. 4). Not as some monolithic form but as a productive force that is ‘being worked out and worked through as a live concern in all aspects of human activity’.

Thus, through the chapters outlined here and expanded in the following pages readers are invited to not only imagine how a ‘psychosocial’ approach might be shaped for theorizing sexuality and queer subjectivities, but also to rethink definitions of the psychological and its relationship with sexuality and queer studies. We start by considering ‘the poles’ of the polarization identified here. Chapter 2, ‘Developing Sexuality’, provides a critical review of core psychological perspectives that have contributed to popular understandings of sexuality as something that is inherent to the individual. The aim of taking ‘psychology’ as the starting point is to introduce readers who are familiar with general criticisms of psychology, but less so with specific ways these play out in the field of biological and developmental psychology. There are profound conceptual difficulties in attempting to separate sexuality into sexual identities, sexual orientations and sexual behaviours, and empirical evidence that attempts to answer questions about causality is contradictory and contentious. Nevertheless, perspectives such as psychoanalysis, experimental psychology and neuroscience have all played their part in contributing to contemporary debates about sexuality and subjectivity. Understanding how these approaches are problematized within psychology is an important tool to help question the way concepts drawn from them reappear later in the book in constructionist, queer and affect theory literature. The final stages of the chapter engage with developmental psychology literature that has discarded questions of causality to focus on the experience of ‘growing up gay’. Here, we acknowledge the impact of constructionist perspectives on understandings of identity as a stable category, alongside a expanding concern for the well-being of those who come to call themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Chapter 3, ‘Constructing Sexuality’, considers the second pole of the polarization, historicism, and the way that social constructionist accounts of sexuality have reshaped its conception from condition to role, script, story and discourse. The chapter begins by considering sociological literature and the challenges raised for biological and psychological drive theories, before considering the influence of Foucault and the way that critical and social psychological accounts of sexuality have been informed by these debates. Nevertheless, it is argued that social constructionist critique is insufficient for a psychosocial approach to sexuality and subjectivity, and that there is value in considering the potential of the psychoanalytic and biological concepts it so vehemently rejects if we wish to engage with the rich field of bodies, pleasure and desire. Chapter 4, ‘Queering Sexuality’, begins this process through an analysis of queer theory as a psychosocial perspective for theorizing sexual subjectivity. The chapter begins by reviewing how queer emerged as a political and theoretical trope for tackling the impasse that had been reached between constructionist and essentialist debates. It revisits the work of queer icons Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to consider the relationship between gender, sexuality and identity as analytic categories prior to considering the influence of queer critical race studies for extending the frame of anti-normativity to rethink all forms of categorization and the value of border crossings. In building a psychosocial narrative the chapter interrogates the key principles of anti-identity and anti-normativity to ask whether it is possible to queer psychology, or whether there are limitations with a queer perspective for theorizing subjectivity. If killing off psychology is one particular aim for some queer theorists, others have found sustenance in psychoanalytic quarters, arguing that it is possible to work with psychoanalysis and generate non-normative or non-pathological accounts. In the final section we review the turn to affect as emerging out of the influence of queer theory and ask whether this is actually a return to the psychology of emotions, and what problems this raises if we prioritize feelings over knowledge. Chapters 5 and 6 take a slightly different tack by offering examples of a psychosocial reading of queer subjectivity and politics, drawing on the theoretical and methodological tools built up through the previous chapters. Chapter 5, ‘Affecting Sexuality’, considers the shift from gay pride to gay shame and the relationship between affect, politics and subjectivity. By engaging with theoretical perspectives introduced earlier in the book, this chapter attempts to link insights from visual and textual observations inspired by cultural studies with a psychosocial concern for the implications of triggering the ‘shame scripts’ of those who come to call themselves gay. This is developed via a critical reading of two recent British comedy sketches that feature white, gay, male characters to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of shame in the constitution of particular versions of gay male subjectivity against a backdrop of shifting cultural anxieties about contemporary sexuality: in particular, how to talk about homosexuality in a more ‘open’ and forgiving climate. Secondly, it is argued that if shame and insult mark out certain groups for comic value it is worth considering the possible consequences of this for individual lived subjectivities via the link between affective experiences of shame, discourses of mental health and epidemiological accounts of LGBT ‘suicidal risk’. Chapter 6, ‘Transforming Sexuality’, reconsiders debates from poststructuralism and the paradox of identity for political transformation. The tension between identity-based politics and the importance of recognizing intersectionality for understanding marginalized subjectivities is revisited, before asking whether the ‘affective turn’ that is associated with queer theorists such as Sedgwick allows us a route out of this impasse via a shift from language, culture and knowing to experience, community and feeling. Drawing on the same examples of gay marriage and mental health and providing readings of political activism and community visual arts projects it considers affective activism as a strategy for transforming queer subjectivities. It is argued that affective activism invites new forms of relating across identity difference producing a vitalist politics that sustains people through their everyday lives (Allison, 2009). The final chapter draws together the strands of each chapter to summarize the vision presented in the book for a psychosocial manifesto and its application to the field of sexuality, subjectivity and the politics of marginalization, reimagining academic endeavours, transdisciplinarity and, ultimately, queer futures.

2Developing Sexuality

we are probably better off at this stage of history without yet another tentative, ill-supported, potentially false report about the determinants of sexual orientation.

Timothy Murphy, 1997, pp. 228–9

Seeking the ‘determinants of sexual orientation’ is deeply contentious, as well as a methodologically and ethically fraught field of study, which often results in ‘ill-supported’ and ‘potentially false reports’ (Murphy, 1997). Nevertheless, psychology broadly defined as a scientific discipline has been at the fore of research initiatives that aim to establish universal laws that both explain and predict human sexual behaviour. This goal is underpinned by the Enlightenment assumption that the psychological subject is a bounded individual, rational and unified, as opposed to the psychoanalytic model of the subject as fragmented and repressed, or the postmodern conception of the subject as multiple, distributed and relational. Furthermore, scientific psychology frames its understanding of complex phenomena within the epistemological and methodological principles of positivism that seek to establish cause and effect relationships between objectively measured and controlled variables. It is from this basis that the