In advanced liberal democracies - the geographical and political regions with which I will be concerned in this chapter – genetics takes its salience within a political and ethical field in which individuals are increasingly obligated to formulate life strategies, to seek to maximize their life chances, to take actions or refrain from actions in order to increase the quality of their lives, and to act prudently in relation to themselves and to others. As life has become a strategic enterprise, “the categories of health and illness have become vehicles for the self-production and exercise of subjectivities endowed with the faculties of choice and will” (Greco 1993). Over the past three decades many aspects of biomedical languages of description and judgement – high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythm, raised blood cholesterol, and the like – moved from the esoteric discourse of science to the lay expertise of citizens. Today, new ideas about genetics are supplementing older notions of heredity and genes within these languages of self-description and self-judgement, inscribing genetic knowledge into the heart of corporeal existence. Like earlier vocabularies these genetic languages render visible aspects of human individuality to others and to oneself that go beyond “experience,” not only making sense of it in new ways, but actually reorganizing it a new way and according to new values about who we are, what we must do, and what we can hope for.
Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, Pg 107-108
Given his inability to offer a proper theory of the subject, Rose misses a crucial dimension to this process: popularised genetic discourses function as cultural resources which individuals draw on when the field of options available to them expands at the same time as ‘traditional’ forms of cultural guidance diminish in their salience. These cultural resources, whatever we think of them or their consequences for the persons who draw upon them, help us in our attempts to cope with the circumstances we find ourselves in.
I’m interested in the same process with regards to sexuality and sexual agency. How have scientific & sexological discourses been drawn upon by individuals and groups attempting to cope with expanding freedom, within the politically contested arena of sexuality and sexual activity? This process has been mediated by self-help, lifestyle journalism and, latterly, reality television, in a way which takes concepts (some of which weren’t very good to begin with) out of their original clinical or scientific context, simplifies and atomises them, ‘hooking them’ back into structures of patriarchal and heteronormative oppression in their use (and abuse) within popular discourses.
In so far as these concepts, as well as the far from uniform structures of thought and talk into which they intermesh, are taken up in everyday life, they reshape how individuals construe, reflect upon and act out their existence as sexual beings. They construct rigid, though far from static, normative horizons of ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ sexuality, within which people attempt to make sense of their experiences and articulate self-understandings in light of them. They define a space of problems and standards within which humans, as self-interpreting moral animals, attempt to cope with life and make some sense of it.