The politics of sex research and constructions of female sexuality: what relevance to sexual health work with young women?



By examining the relationship between the cultural construction of female sexuality and the lack of potential for many young heterosexual women to be truly sexually healthy this paper submits that messages for women within HIV prevention programmes can be confused, confining and at times dangerous to women's health and well-being. It is suggested that these messages also reinforce a traditional, biologically determined medical understanding of female sexuality that does not take note of social or culturally based research or commentary on female experience or female desire, but rather confines many women to sexual restrictions, doing little to empower women to prevent sexual risk-taking. The ideological basis of the discussion within this paper is informed by the awareness that applications and understandings of 'sexuality’are diverse and contested within sex research traditions and will influence the choice of research concerns. The‘deterministic’explanation of sexuality that 'sexuality’(the abstract noun referring to the quality of being ‘sexual’, Williams 1983) is your fate or destiny and that biology causes the patterns of sexual life, is abandoned in this paper in favour of a search for a definition of sexuality which brings together a host of different biological and mental possibilities which are given meaning only in social relations. This allows for a framework for the study of sexuality that relates it to other social phenomena, particularly economic, political and social structures (Foucault 1979); in other words, a study of the 'social construction’of sexuality. This paper suggests that health care professionals need to develop an awareness of the diversities within female sexuality and gain insight into their own values and assumptions about female sexuality if these are not to inhibit effective approaches and interventions in the areas of HIV and sexual health.