‘Plastic Sexuality’

By | January 23, 2018

I was a while ago asked to contribute an item to the Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/book/10.1002/9781118663219). The topic was plastic sexuality. This blog summarizes what I had to say.

Although the concept might be said to have a long pedigree, longer in fact than the term now conventionally deployed to capture it, the expression ‘plastic sexuality’ was projected into the social scientific mainstream by Giddens (1992) as a companion to his notion of a ‘pure relationship’. A pure relationship is one of sexual and emotional equality, and as such has explosive potential in the context of pre-existing forms of gender power. The modern concept of romantic love is according to Giddens the harbinger of the pure relationship but betrays a number of tensions. On the one hand it implied a radical, active engagement with the ‘maleness’ of modern society, but on the other it confined women to ‘their place’ to the home.

Plastic sexuality is critical for the emancipation implicit in the pure relationship, as well as for women’s claim to sexual pleasure. It denotes a ‘decentred sexuality’, freed from the needs and demands of reproduction. It had its genesis, according to Giddens, in the late eighteenth century, a function of attempts to limit family size; but it spread rapidly as a result of modern contraception and the new reproductive technologies, as well as of significant economic and social gains in the independence of women. By the end of the twentieth century it was becoming a core component of the self. In principle, plastic sexuality promises to free sexuality from ‘the rule of the phallus’. It provides a space that women might occupy.

However, gendered social structures run deep and as the compulsive character of male sexuality is exposed reactive male violence can set in. Writing in the early 1990s, Giddens argues that ‘an emotional abyss has opened up between the sexes, and one cannot say with any certainty how far it will be bridged’. The potential exists for transforming intimacy towards a ‘transactional negotiation of personal ties by equals’, but this would necessarily involve a wholesale democratizing of interpersonal relations. Such a transformation would call into question many of other gendered and oppressive institutions in which love and sexuality remain embedded. This could ‘liberate’ men as well as women. On the other hand sexual ‘liberation’ would not necessarily lead to a de-gendering of eroticism. The normalization of more and different forms of ‘malleable’, commodified sexual pleasure will likely still be defined via the gazes of ‘the desiring and active man’ (Hawkes, 2007).

Plastic sexuality in this account implies enhanced flexibility in sexual relations and encounters and an increased premium on pleasure. It represents ‘autonomous’ sexuality. A number of related issues surface. First, it is apparent that the longstanding biological and socio-cultural binaries of male/female and man/woman respectively have been subverted in much of the developed world. The primacy of (‘hierarchic’) heterosexuality has yielded to a widespread acceptance of gay and transgendered relations. Moreover this shift is being ratified in law as well as in convention: there is to some extent a coming together of Giddens’ pure relationship and plastic sexuality. This is not to deny persistent antagonism and conflict, religious and socio-cultural, in modern western societies, and considerably more vigorously elsewhere (witness the debates around Putin’s comments prior to the Winter Olympics in Russia and the tightening of religious and legal constraints found in many Middle-Eastern and African countries).

Second, the emergence of plastic sexuality marks a renewed interrogation of the nuclear family. This does not imply the imminent demise of gendered relationsor scripts, but does suggest that they might take different institutional forms inthe future. Whether or not these will tend towards an extension of the purerelationship is open to debate The future of the family rests on many factors,economic, political and socio-cultural. What does seem clear is that spaces haveopened up and a significant de-gendering of concept and practice in relationsand sexuality is possible.

Third, ‘rival’ partnerships are coming to the forefront, including non-familial relationships and households, extending from heterosexual cohabitation and non-cohabitation through homosexual variants of the same to serial monogamy or multiple or transitory liaisons on the one hand and celibacy on the other. These rival institutions are currently growing, especially in developed societies.

Fourth, new questions can be posed of age-old institutions like prostitution. While prostitution was popularly cast as an ‘immoral’ challenge to the ‘moral’ family unit, how does it stand, re-defined as sex work, in an era of plastic sexuality? Moreover, women as well as men now purchase sexual services (and from women as well as from men), if as yet in small numbers. Does the emergence and social consolidation of plastic sexuality legitimize markets and commodification in sexuality long subject to social and legal stigma?

Fifth, encounters like speed dating as well as for casual sex have increasingly switched to the Internet, facilitating novel and as yet under-researched worlds of cybersex. For some, virtual relationships and sexual experiences have succeeded or are a substitute for actual options. It has become possible to forge, belong and live in accordance with virtual identities, to satisfy desire via social media and webcams.

Finally, the opening up of real and virtual spaces for change introduces unpredictability. Plastic sexuality has led over time to negative as well as positive reactions. Fundamentalist campaigns have proliferated: homophobia has re-surfaced; radical Islamacists have sought to re-impose constraints on female sexuality; radical feminists have formed alliances with evangelical Christians in projects to criminalize sex work; there is talk of censoring the Internet; and so on. In other words innovations call to mind and re-invigorate not only the traditions and conventions they replace but no less imaginative oppositions.

Giddens thesis has been critiqued by feminists who insist that the personal is social. Jamieson (1999) maintains that Giddens feeds into a therapeutic discourse that individualizes personal problems. Springer (1993) argues that we must ‘relocate the sexual not outside but at the intersection of a multiplicity of discourses by which bodies, pleasures and powers are circulated and exchanged … We must also remember that in saying yes to sex we are not saying no to power.’ The concept of plastic sexuality, in short, can close as well as open avenues of enquiry.


Giddens,A (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Cambridge; Polity Press.

Hawkes,G (2007) Plastic sexuality. In Ed Ritzer,G: The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Oxford; Blackwell.

Jamieson,L (1999) Intimacy transferred? A critical look at the ‘pure relationship’. Sociology 33 (3) 477-94.

Springer,L (1993) Erotic Welfare: Sexual Theory and Politics in the Age of Epidemics. London; Routledge.



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