Culture as ‘legitimate naming’

Mark Regnerus’s “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy” is worth reading for its raw data alone. But Regnerus offers plenty of analysis of the data surrounding relationships, marriage, and commitment that is illuminating. Here’s a bit that particularly stood out to me:

Almost all of us take birth control for granted, and almost all of us alive today never inhabitated a world before it. How did it change things? Giddens asserts that its uptake has, among other things, fostered the idea of sex as an “art form” and injected that into the heart of the conjugal relationship, which then made the achievement of reciprocal sexual pleasure a key element in whether the relationship is sustained or dissolved. The cultivation of sexual skills, the capacity of giving and receiving sexual satisfaction, on the part of both sexes, has become organized reflexively via a multitude of sources of sexual information, advice, and training.

Sarah could be a case study. Despite all the sex and relationships she has had, she has never pursued pregnancy or become pregnant. The prospect of mutual sexual pleasure animates her dating life, even first dates. Sexual interest, or its absence, commonly dictates what happens next, even though her ideal relationship, she claims, would develop and mature before sex, not because of it. And all of these comparatively new achievements, Giddons asserts, have been sealed in language: how we talk about sex and relationships. And that is significant.

Once there is a new terminology for understanding sexuality, [then] ideas, concepts, and theories couched in these terms seep into social life itself and help reorder it.

What he means is that when we name something in the social world, unlike in the natural world, we are not only mentally mapping it, but we are also providing the idea with a reality that then allows it to act back upon us and the wider social world, altering how we then must subsequently navigate it. Thus, the world after something has been named is not as malleable as it was before it. To identify something socially is to give it life and power, not just a name.

It has been occurring for decades in the study of sexuality, Giddens holds. The Kinsey reports, like others following on, aims to analyze what was going on in a particular region of social activity, as all social research seeks to do. Yet as they disclosed,, they also influenced, initiating cycles of debate, reinvestigation and further debate. These debates became part of a wide public domain, but also served to alter lay views of sexual actions and involvements themselves. No doubt the scientific caste of such investigations helps neutralize moral uneasiness about the propriety of particular sexual practices. Sociologist James Davison Hunter asserts similarly when he defines culture as the power of “legitimate naming.” That is, to classify something in the social world is to penetrate the imagination, to alter our frameworks of knowledge and discussion, and to shift the perception of everyday reality.

In the domain of sexuality, fraught as it is with great moral valence, this can make all the difference. It’s why there is often poignance and bitter struggle over words and terms around sex, and the politics of using them or avoiding them.

… what is very unlikely is a return to the patterns witnessed prior to the sexual revolution.

I think the most fascinating conclusion that Regnerus draws from American relational/sexual practices is that marriage will diminish as a normative force. In other words, marriage is/will no longer be understood as the natural or obvious thing that young men and women do, and he concludes that it is already in the process of becoming a “minority practice” that is in the “throes of de-institutionalization.” It will come to be seen as simply one option among many in a socially and sexually pluralistic culture, and those who pursue it seriously are likely to decrease in number.

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