Sex and Power: Capillaries, Capabilities, and Capacities

Elspeth Probyn. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. Sage Publication. 2005.

Sex and power: what could be more compelling, and immediate? A once radical, now seemingly mandatory term within sociology and feminism, does the pairing of sex and power need rethinking? In theory, as in practice, the conjoining of sex and power reveals the intricacy of how subjectivities are ordered and identities regulated. By linking sex with power it becomes possible to foreground routes of power that continually cross the macro, the micro, the structural and the subjective, differentially articulating the social, the cultural and the economic.

While the question of sex and power is of crucial importance to sociology, in this chapter I argue that the dominant ways in which it is framed threaten to render it impotent. This is not to say that there have not been innovative ways of addressing the question of sex and power. Increasingly, however, the debate is divided by an insistence on the one side that we privilege a materialist analysis, and on the other that the question is best analysed in terms of discourse and representation. One camp follows a Marxist or a post-Marxist line that calls for—although it does not often deliver—a political economy of sex. The other camp, which includes some feminisms and much of queer theory, argues that an analysis of the discursive realm of representations provides the most acute understanding of the workings of sex and power.

Dennis Altman’s book Global Sex (2001) exemplifies and reproduces this division. Altman is a well-known and respected writer on homosexuality and he has been deeply involved in HIV research, especially in terms of the Southeast Pacific region. Given his expertise in matters of sexuality and his commitment to HIV/AIDS research one would think that he is ideally suited to guide us through global sex.’ Unfortunately, in the stead of a ‘thick description,’ we merely get polemic.

The positions against which Altman argues are variously named as postmodern feminism, cultural studies, queer, or ludic theory. Altman’s dismissal of discourse and representation, and the absence in his book of a sustained argument for terms that might replace them, is deeply worrisome for the field of studies on sexuality. It is, as I have suggested, all too common. The deep antipathies that divide the field produce a bifurcated situation, with sociology on the side of the structural and economic, ignoring or repudiating analyses of how hegemony is constituted and maintained symbolically.

As such, Global Sex is a clear example of Michèle Barrett’s critique of sociology. She argues that traditionally sociology ‘overemphasised the determining effects of social structure, at the expense of an understanding of human agency and identity’: that ‘it viewed inequality in terms of social class’ (2000: 15). This is, of course, a broad critique that could be debated. More interesting is her contention that sociology has a problem with ‘the imaginative, the sensual, the emotional, the other, for that which we cannot control’ (2000: 14). Her list of the areas in which ‘sociology is conspicuously inadequate’ is of interest: ‘Physicality, humanity, imagination, the other, fear, the limits of control; all are missing in their own terms, in their own dynamic’ (2000: 19).

The terms Barrett raises are precisely the issues that permeate sex. They are mercurial and hard to study or theorize within a sociological frame. The great challenge is to understand how they connect—are shaped and produced by, or collude—with forms of power. While the division of debate, and the divisive debates that Barrett alludes to are not restricted to the question of sex and power, the limitations of dominant paradigms can be clearly seen in regards to this crucial aspect of life. I will, however, argue that the study of sex and power may also inspire new ways of combining various strands of sociological analysis and thus demonstrate the potential that sociology has always had for incorporating and extending ways of thinking about societies and their structures.

From the slogans of the 1990s such as ‘Girl power,’ the manifold manifestations of alternative or ‘resistant’ sexualities, to the oppressive regulation of sexuality under various fundamentalist regimes, power appears in many guises, and reveals differing forms of sexuality. The sheer variety of sexual expression is matched by the difficulty of conceptualizing sex and power as objects of study, and the links between them. In evident ways, the term sex is slippery. At one level it can refer to reproduction and ways in which women are confined by the economic implications of reproduction. Sex is therefore always entwined with questions of gender. On another level, sex can mean sexual practices, and often then leads to examinations of how sexual identities both regulate and are regulated by individuals and groups.


When I think of the mechanics of power I think of its capillary form of existence, of the extent to which power seeps into the very grain of individuals, reaches right into their bodies, permeates their gestures, their posture, what they say, how they learn to live and work with other people. (Foucault, 1977a: 28)

In terms of power, definitions and conceptualizations proliferate. There is, however, an established distinction in terms of conceptualizing power as repressive or conversely as productive. In simple terms, this can be understood as ‘power over’ versus ‘power to.’ Repressive power translates more often than not into juridical power which, as Judith Butler states, can be thought of as ‘power acting on, subordinating pregiven subjects’ (1997: 84). In contrast, productive power concerns the capacity of power to form subjects. Opposing views of the human subject are central to these different definitions: in the one, the subject exists prior to the application of power; in the other, power always already intervenes to produce subjects. The distinction between repressive or juridical and productive is indebted to Foucault, although it obscures many of his finer points regarding the operation of power. However, broadly put, repressive power can be defined as where ‘all the modes of domination, submission, and subjugation are ultimately reduced to an effect of obedience’ (Foucault, cited in Mason, 2001: 123).

In her book Spectacles of Violence, Gail Mason argues that this definition of power of ‘power over’ is compatible with certain feminist definitions of patriarchal power. In this model, ‘power is defined as a form of domination that subjugates women by blocking them from doing certain things or thinking in certain ways; women are controlled through demands for social conformity and obedience’ (Mason, 2001: 123). In comparison to repressive power, ‘Productive power is defined as a relation between forces that, in passing through discourse and material events, is constitutive of particular social positions and the sense of self that is acquired in the negotiations of these positions’ (p. 123).

These are, of course, general descriptions, and as Mason argues, for Foucault and those inspired by his work, the distinction between the two hypotheses is more heuristic than ‘real.’ However, they have powerfully demarcated areas of research and thinking about power and sex. They have also generated intense disagreement and hostility between camps. The major source of contention lies in what power is seen to do, how it is exercised, and where power is to be located. In terms of the Foucauldian line, a theorization of power is intimately associated with conceptualizations of subjectivity and the formation of the human subject. In Butler’s summation, ‘subjection is, literally, the making of a subject, the principle of regulation according to which a subject is formulated or produced. Such subjection is a kind of power that not only unilaterally acts on a given individual as a form of domination, but also activates or forms the subject’ (1997: 84).

If it is the case that power forms the subject, or in other words that there is no subject that pre-exists power and is able to single-handedly wield power, we need to inquire after the vehicle that carries power. Put in other terms, how are we to study power if it cannot be located as originating in people’s hands? For Foucault the answer, in much of his work, was that power is carried by discourse. This in turn leads us directly back to sex, as this quotation from The History of Sexuality (Vol. 1), illustrates: What is at issue is the overall ‘discursive fact,’ the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse.’ … my main concern will be to locate the forms of power, the channels it takes, and the discourses it permeates in order to reach the most tenuous and individual modes of behaviour, the paths that give it access to the rare and scarcely perceivable forms of desire, how it penetrates and controls everyday pleasure—all this entailing effects that may be those of refusal, blockage, and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification: in short, the ‘polymorphous techniques of power.’ (1980b: 11)

This quotation encapsulates many of the ideas that are continuously interwoven in Foucault’s analysis of power. It highlights the nebulous yet tenacious nature of its movement, the way in which power continually penetrates us: its polymorphousness. It is also precisely this type of language which so infuriates his critics. To many ‘polymorphous’ sounds like merely amorphous and fuzzy. However, at its most basic, discourse designates the way that heterogeneous groups of statements serve to construct regimes of true and false. As Stuart Hall defines it, ‘a discourse is a group of statements which provide a language for talking about a particular kind of knowledge about a topic. When statements about a topic are made within a particular discourse, the discourse makes it possible to construct a topic in a certain way. It also limits the other ways in which the topic can be constructed’ (1992:291). While the implications of this definition are large, in terms of everyday life it is usually quite clear when you have stumbled into the land of the false. At an experiential level, you may simply feel wrong: your sexuality, or body, or comportment are at odds with the dominant regime of the true. In this vein, Paul Bové (1995) argues that while Foucault produced a new sense of discourse, it described a familiar phenomenon. At one level, discourse describes and locates the ‘self-evident’ and the commonsensical that is in operation in all societies. It both names and can be used to analyse what produces, legitimates and supports the ‘self-evident.’

In other words, this notion of discourse asks: How does discourse function? Where is it to be found? How does it get produced and regulated? What are its social effects? How does it exist? In more elaborated terms, discourse aims to ‘describe the surface linkages between power, knowledge, institutions, intellectuals, the control of populations, and the modern state as these intersect in the functions of systems of thought’ (Bove, 1995: 54-5). Clearly from this description, and also following the earlier discussion of the role of power in the formation of subjects, no one person owns a discourse, although they/we reproduce it. In this sense, the function of discourse is anonymous (Bove, 1995: 56).

Butler argues much the same point about the anonymity of power, and relation of discourse to the formation of the subject. In her words, ‘The subject is neither a ground nor a product, but the permanent possibility of a certain presignifying process, one that gets detoured and stalled through other mechanisms of power, but which is power’s own possibility of being reworked’ (1991: 13).

However, just because discourse does not emanate from one body does not mean that certain discourses do not serve certain interests over others. As Foucault argues, ‘Posing for discourse the question of power means basically to ask whom does discourse serve? It isn’t so much a matter of analysing discourse into its unsaid, its implicit meaning, because discourses are transparent, they need no interpretation, no one to assign them a meaning’ (1980a: 133). In other words, discourse analysis looks not to meanings per se but to how they function, asking with what other discourses they function, what are their effects? Against certain misreadings (power is everywhere,’ ‘everything is discourse’), the study of discourse lends itself to a precise and systematic mode of analysis. The problem with many understandings of discourse and power, be they positive or negative, is that they seek to locate these terms in some confined space (for example, in the state, in men’s hands, etc.). But the point is to look to their movement, and in terms of power to examine its effects.

In terms of discourse, it is evident that one can and must examine the constitutive elements, the statements that make up a discourse at a given time. In a general manner, we can say that the analysis of discourse is always tied to genealogy: discourse analysis is directed at the conditions of possibility for statements. It asks what had to be in place in order that ‘x’ or ‘y’ can be stated? As an intricate system of classification, discourse names, brings into being, and places experience and knowledge. As anyone who has felt their power knows, words matter. As the title of one of Foucault’s earlier works puts it, there is an ‘order of things’ directly related to words, statements—in short, discourse. In fact the title of that book in the original French is ‘words and things’ (les mots et les choses). The common dismissal of discourse as ephemeral is therefore misplaced, if at times understandable. As Foucault aptly writes in The Order of Things (1973), humans vainly try to escape the ‘heavy materiality of discourse.’

In his inaugural lecture to the Collège de France, ‘The order of discourse’ (1971), Foucault presented a more elaborated presentation of the systematic workings of discourse. Bové (1995: 58-63) sums up the precise protocol for the analysis of discourse:

  • It traces the ways in which discourse constitutes ‘objects’ and classes of objects.
  • Discourse constitutes these objects as subjects of statements which are judged true or false according to the logic of the empowered discourse.
  • Discourse is material in its effects—discourse and practices are interrelated.
  • ‘The analysis of discourse [lies] in its conditions of possibility, its conditions of formation, in the series of its modifications, and in the game of its dependencies and its correlations. Discourse thus appears in a describable relation to the ensemble of other practices.’
  • The positivity of discourse is defined as ‘practices tied to certain conditions, tied to certain rules, and susceptible to certain transformations caught within a system of correlations with other practices.’

Foucault put these principles of analysis to work in his The History of Sexuality. The first volume, ‘The Will to Knowledge,’ is perhaps the more cited in terms of sex. In it he examined the workings of the nineteenth-century discourse on sexuality. As is well known, he argued against the prevailing view that the Victorians were prudes who dared not speak of sex. Famously his rebuttal of ‘the repressive hypothesis’ raised the ways in which from the late eighteenth century on, Europeans never ceased talking about sex. More to the point, he analysed the emergence of scientific discourses all predicated on the desire to name various elements of sexuality which served to incite talk about sexuality. New fields of study—notably, psychoanalysis, psychology and sexology—invented evermore nuanced classifications in terms of sexuality.

At the heart of Foucault’s argument about sexuality is a conception of power linked to the regulation of truth statements. Power in this definition is dynamic: it doesn’t shut down, it actively opens new areas to scrutiny. ‘We must cease at once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it excludes, it represses, it censors, it abstracts, it masks, it conceals. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth’ (1977b: 194). This mode of exercising power is, for Foucault, a distinctly modern move, exemplified in the relation between power, knowledge and truth. These terms are grouped around sexuality: they make sense of sexuality in particular ways, and sex for us moderns becomes a privileged way of knowing the truth about—of making sense of—ourselves. This is a very different configuration, a distinct and particular mode of operation spawned from a nexus of discourses that emerge at a particular time in a particular place.

The particularity of the analysis is emphasized because Foucault was not arguing about the innateness of the sexualized operations of power, nor did he license an extrapolation of his analysis beyond the European context. Nor, in fact, was he, as many feminists have pointed out, terribly interested in women’s sexuality per se. In the later volumes of The History of Sexuality he turned to an examination of the antecedents of the European sensibility in regards to sex. In The Use of Pleasure (1986), and The Care of the Self (1988), Foucault examines various texts, manuals and practices undertaken by the Ancient Greeks as ‘practices of the self.’ These were the routine ways through which citizens of the polis produced themselves as such. They included close attention to what they ate, their dreams and their conduct within the community. Sexual practices were mentioned but in and of themselves were not terribly important. Ethical comportment was a central preoccupation and was measured in terms of how a citizen practised the regimen, or the articulation of these techniques of the self.

Foucault posits a rupture in how sexuality was used and thought. If, for the Greeks, sex was one practice amongst several, all coordinated in the service of ‘taking care of the self,’ this is radically at odds with the use of sex that emerges co-extensively with European modernity. Summed up in the Judaeo-Christian injunction to ‘know thyself,’ sex becomes that imperative which spawns an ever-increasingly intricate measuring of the self. It is the impetus to self-knowledge, and because of its fragility as a knowable object, it spurs us ever on in the quest to be in the true. As the following quotation captures, sex for us is not easy, mired as it is in:

a process that spreads it over the surface of things and bodies, arouses it, draws it out and bids it speak, implants it in reality and enjoins it to tell the truth: an entire glittering sexual array, reflected in a myriad of discourses, the obstination of powers, and the interplay of knowledge and pleasure. (1980b: 77)

This description of sex’s relation to truth, power, knowledge and reality amply demonstrates Foucault’s conception of power: ‘Power operates not through repression but through the proliferation of discourse and statements’ (1980b: 133).

In this manner, and as several commentators have argued, power is conceived of as ‘a making possible—action upon action’ (Bové, 1995: 57). But this operation is framed and in turn made possible by the ‘materiality of discourse.’ As Bové clearly points out, ‘discourse makes possible disciplines and institutions which in turn sustain and distribute these discourses’ (p. 57). Immediately, power’s object, operationalized through discourse, is to control bodies and actions in the most insidious ways—from inside, as it were. As Butler puts it, sexuality for us is our very principle of intelligibility to ourselves and to others: ‘the category of sexuality here functions as a principle of production and regulation at once—here sex is a category, but not merely a representation; it is a principle of production, intelligibility, and regulation which enforces a violence and rationalises it after the fact’ (1991: 19). In forceful terms, Butler describes the work of sexuality in ways that emphasize ‘the heavy materiality of discourse.’

Those, such as Altman, who would see Foucauldian analyses of sex as ‘convoluted theories of desire which evade questions of social and economic power and inequality’ (Altman, 2001: 159), would do well to listen more carefully to how discourse works as an analytic entry into power’s operations. Power and sex in Foucault’s terms can hardly be said to be outside of the workings of the social or the economic. Certainly Foucault operates at a different level, one that sees inequality as more complex than a binary, on/off phenomenon, or that would posit power as causally effecting oppression. Against such reductions, Foucault compels us to conceive of our relationship to power in more challenging, and ultimately more realistic ways: to consider ‘that the horizon in which we act is there as a constitutive possibility of our very capacity to act, not merely or exclusively as an exterior field or theatre of operations’ (cited in Butler, 1991: 10).

One may justifiably point out that Foucault was overwhelmingly interested in Western systems of discourse, and as Edward Said has stated ‘his Eurocentrism was almost total’ (in Barrett, 1991: 152). However, the conclusion we must draw from Foucault’s analyses of the question of sex and power is that very different bodies will be produced under different discursive regimes, themselves absolutely embedded in local, historical conditions. Following from this, Butler argues that ‘the recasting of the matter of bodies as the effect of a dynamic of power, such that the matter of bodies will be indissociable from the regulatory norms that govern their materialization and the signification of those material effects’ (1993: 2). In other words, studying the operations of sex and power must of necessity connect the body to the ‘geographically and historically specific “norms” within which we each locate, evaluate and understand our bodies’ (Bell and Valentine, 1997: 26). In turn we must see these norms as not just impinging on bodies, but as that which produces, as Butler (1993) puts it, the very matter of bodies—that which constitutes the materiality of sex.


Having outlined some of the key terms within a Foucauldian approach to the question of sex and power, I now want to turn to the question that is raised by him about our capacity to act. This is a very practical question, whilst of course it operates philosophically in complex ways. Rather than rest within the universe that

Foucault constructs, I will take the question of capacity and attempt to rearticulate it within a very different theory about power, human agency and the ways in which capabilities are extended or curtailed by power. Although I am wary of crossing very different epistemological projects—and as we will see, Foucault and Nussbaum are in many ways incompatible—none the less the practical turn that Nussbaum’s philosophy wants to take maybe complemented by Foucault’s more corporeal conception of power.

Nussbaum, a prolific writer, has recently declared herself to be at war with much of contemporary feminism, at least that which is influenced by Butler. Nussbaum’s stinging attack on Butler, published in theNew Republic, made no bones about the problematic nature of poststructuralist feminism. Butler’s project is said to be without hope, to mock the ideals of human dignity, and in a highly quotable sentence she warns that, ‘Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protection through it’(1999: 45).

In her book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (2000) Nussbaum is more temperate about what differentiates her project from much contemporary social and feminist theory. Nussbaum’s proposal for a new way of intervening in the question of human development is firmly grounded in, and expounds, a number of universal postulates. As such, she is immediately at odds with theories of difference, and various forms of social constructionism. It must be stated that her understanding of social constructionism is dated, and as is often the case with arguments outside of sociology, she imputes a purity to the paradigm that most sociologists would not recognize. In other words, few would argue that human experience is purely socially constructed, and would question what indeed that could precisely mean.

Notwithstanding this caveat, Nussbaum’s framing is of interest: she firmly posits that ‘it is possible to describe a framework … that is strongly universalist, committed to cross-cultural norms of justice, equality, and rights, and at the same time sensitive to local particularity, and to the many ways in which circumstances shape not only options but also beliefs and preferences’ (2000: 7). Universalism is, of course, antithetical to much theory that has developed on the back of a critique of liberalism, and Nussbaum is an unapologetic liberalist. Yet her notion of universals is tied to a conception of human capabilities that is not a replica of the familiar figure of liberalism’s universal man. In her argument, ‘a particular type of universalism, framed in terms of general human powers and their development, offers us in fact the best framework within which to locate our thoughts about difference’ (2000: 7).

Her project of ‘applied philosophy’ draws from the work of John Rawls and Amartya Sen; in other words, it brings together normative philosophy and development economics. If this is already quite a stretch, for sociologists Nussbaum’s use of empirical material may be problematic. While she clearly states that her argument is not to be read as sustained empirical research, she nonetheless relies on interviews and ‘narrative examples’ of Indian women for the rhetorical impact of her argument. As such, the spectre of ‘real’ women, those whom she earlier claimed were harmed by Butlerian feminist accounts of sex, are crucial to the development of her argument. We already know that sex for Nussbaum will not be the stuff of discourse or queer performativ-ity. Sex here is the reality that impedes women from exercising fully their human capabilities. As such it is thoroughly embued with power, understood as that which prevents, represses and oppresses in clearly defined ways.

I will return to whether and how Nussbaum’s project can speak to the Foucauldian understanding of sex and power. But first I want to examine her list of the universals that constitute ‘central human functional capabilities.’ She lists ten such capabilities. While the absence of sexuality is striking, we may be able to articulate sex as imbricated within, if not central to, her list. The capabilities she lists are:

  • Life
  • Bodily health
  • Bodily integrity
  • Senses, imagination and thought
  • Emotions
  • Practical reason
  • Affiliation
  • Other species
  • Play
  • Control over one’s environment (2000: 78-80).

Sifting through her description of these categories, we find sex in a number of places. Most obviously in a footnote about ‘affiliation,’ Nussbaum notes that she had not originally placed nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation on her list as she found that it would be premature based on her experience of Indian society. Interestingly enough, it was the Indian reaction to the film Fire that has caused Nussbaum to rethink her position and she would now ‘add this item to a cross-cultural list that is expected to command overlapping consensus’ (p. 80, fn). The 1996 film, by the Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta, is a lush bodice-ripper portraying an affair between two middle-class sisters-in-law. It caused a violent scandal in India, and prompted a full-scale debate throughout Indian society including at the level of the Indian government.

Sexuality also figures in the category of ‘bodily integrity,’ which includes security against sexualized forms of violence and ‘having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction’ (p. 78). She supports this with reference to the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development which includes the statement that ‘Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to do so’ (p. 78).

In explicit terms, these are the only instances where Nussbaum relates sexuality to the full expression of ‘truly human functioning.’ However, one can also use Nussbaum’s list to draw out the ways in which power limits connections between sex and other capabilities. For instance, her insistence on the emotions, imagination and play lend themselves to an understanding of sexuality that would be broader than reproduction or sexual orientation. Under the category of ‘senses, imagination and thought,’ she concludes that ‘being able to have pleasurable experiences, and to avoid non-necessary pain’ could easily be opened to include a call for much wider sexual education that might ameliorate the context whereby children, in both the developing and developed worlds, might gain access to knowledge about different forms of sexual activity. Equally the category of ‘emotions’ includes ‘not having one’s emotional development blighted by overwhelming fear and anxiety, or by traumatic events of abuse or neglect’ which would support queer and feminist arguments about the violence caused by the obligatory performance of hetero-normativity. This would include Butler but more acutely Eve K. Sedgwick’s telling accounts of the effects of normative heterosexuality on children. As Sedgwick puts it in her essay ‘How to bring your kids up gay,’ ‘the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginatively large’ (1993: 161). Indeed, while Nussbuam and Sedgwick would make strange bed partners, there is a case for suggesting that Sedgwick’s Tendencies be read alongside Nussbaum. Sedgwick’s detailed description of the ways in which normative sexuality orders ‘impacted’ social spaces, and the way sexual identity comes to rule everything from how you look, with whom you do what, where and how, and the ways that sexual identity forms ‘the main locus of emotional bonds’ (1993: 7), functions to ground Nussbaum’s more abstract argument.

If Sedgwick makes us feel the burden of power always exercised through the ways in which normative sexuality curtails human thought and capacity, how does power operate in Nussbaum’s argument? Strangely enough, for a book that wishes to intervene in the field of development, there is little overt discussion of power. Certainly we are to understand that poverty and the unequal distribution of resources at both the level of geo-politics and of gender are ever-present limits within which Nussbaum presents her model. And while evidently she has spent some time in India, the choice of India as reference point is far from innocent. As I have mentioned, sociologically her use of putative empirical material is dubious. She makes constant recourse to seemingly the same four Indian women to add ‘narrative colour.’ However, her list could have been developed in any situation, and indeed it is precisely her argument that these constitute universal human capabilities. There is therefore no epistemological or methodological rationale for why India is privileged. One has to conclude that it is a rhetorical device aimed at securing her argument as ‘real’ and not merely representational. As such it is presumably more persuasive to place her argument within a context where the question of power and its effects on people is rendered immediate for a Western audience’s ‘knowingness’ about power differentials in the large sub-continent.

It is a winning ploy in that it operates to place elements that are familiar to Western readers within a ‘strange’ context. Many of her categories of capabilities could feature in Western women’s magazines. By using India as the reference point where we ‘know’ people are starving, Nussbaum avoids the familiar Marxist conundrum whereby what are now considered ‘life-style issues’ (the ability to fulfil one’s imagination, to affiliate and form friendships with whom we please, to chose sexual partners etc.) do not have to wait until ‘after the revolution.’ In this way, Nussbaum avoids having to prioritize material needs, as she reworks her list as based in materiality.

It should be clear that I find Nussbaum’s proposals provocative, and agree with her on their necessity. I may be much more moved by the generosity of arguments such as Sedgwick’s, which argue much the same as Nussbaum but in an open and engaging manner. This is not just a quibble about style; there is a distinct lack of intellectual generosity in Nussbaum’s work that is at odds with the purported goal.

Notwithstanding these objections, Nussbaum’s text can be read as an invitation to think the question of sexuality more expansively than is often the case in studies focused on ‘sex and power.’ Sexuality here could be envisioned as both the vehicle for, and an objective of, a reworked notion of human capability. The understanding of power that underlies her model is also consistent with a Foucauldian notion of power even while it is apparently at odds ontologically with his philosophical position. It is clear that in Nussbaum’s list power operates as ‘an action on actions,’ as a way of foreclosing human capabilities. Nussbaum presents her argument as ‘practical’ against the supposed impracticality of work influenced by Foucault. But in fact her argument has no greater or less practical value than Foucault’s injunctions that we ‘think differently,’ and that we not accept things as they are. As with Foucault, there is no ‘why’ in Nussbaum’s argument. In other words, they both look not to the cause and origin of power but rather to how it spreads across bodies and societies constantly forming a limit of human capabilities.


I now want to turn from Nussbaum’s argument to consider another way of viewing sexuality and power. Here I will draw on Deleuze’s conception of the body’s untold capacities which he takes from Spinoza and which reverberates with his commentary on Foucault’s oeuvre. Again, there is considerable difference and tension between Nussbaum’s preferred paradigm (reworked liberalism) and Deleuze’s philosophy. The coincidence between the key words ‘capabilities’ and ‘capacity’ is not to be taken as a reassurance that there is any compatibility between them. Yet I want to follow my intuition that there is a productive tension between these projects that are so differently based in ‘the intuitive idea of truly human functioning’ (Nussbaum, 2000: 78fn).

For those with only a passing acquaintance with Deleuze, and especially Deleuze and Guattari’s co-written work, it may seem filled with arcane jargon. Terms like BwO (Bodies without Organs), molar and molecular, de-and re-territorialization may be daunting and even annoying. However they are merely different ways of trying to describe facets of social, human and nonhuman interactions. Given how radically varied these are, it is perhaps not surprising that Deleuze and Guattari enlist a wide assortment of terms in order to ‘figure’ human behaviour.

Against Nussbaum’s list of ten human capabilities, the Deleuzian notion of the body is quite different. Taking from Spinoza, Deleuze asserts its unknown capacities: ‘We still do not know what a body can do.’ Notwithstanding this claim, Deleuze follows through on Foucault’s ‘idea that apparatuses of power have an immediate and direct relation with the body’ (1994: 64). We will see shortly how sociology could take up this relation and deepen it. But to frame this simply, crucial to Deleuze’s argument is a depiction that insists on the intimate interrelation of society, the social, the psychic, the economic, human and nonhuman bodies. As Elizabeth Grosz argues, ‘a Deleuzian model insists on the flattening out of relations between the social and the psychical so that there is neither a relation of causation (one- or two-way) nor hierarchies, levels, grounds, or foundations. The social is not privileged over the psychical… nor is the psychical privileged at the expense of the social’ (1994: 180). To recall Barrett’s critique, this is to rethink those aspects that sociology has been slow to analyse: the imaginative, the sensual. More important, it gives us an inkling of how one could go about analysing them.

In Deleuze’s framing, a body is both kinetic and dynamic. The body as such is made of infinite ‘particles.’ The body is a moving assemblage that finds itself enmeshed with other assemblages. This is a complex and yet obvious way of seeing interaction. It depends on an understanding of bodies as multiple and as always engaged with other bodies and entities. Gatens describes how for Deleuze (and following Spinoza) ‘the human body is understood as a complex individual, made up of a number of other bodies … in constant interchange with its environment… the body as a nexus of variable interconnections, a multiplicity within a web of other multiplicities’ (1996a: 7). These connections are called assemblages. Deleuze and Guattari describe the way ‘an arrangement’ … exists only in connection with other arrangements.’ They continue: ‘We shall wonder with what it functions, in connection with what it transmits intensities or doesn’t, into what multiplicities it introduces and metamorphoses its own’ (1987: 3-4).

This language is obviously quite different from traditional sociological description. And it is not description, sociological or otherwise. It is rather a way of figuring interaction, framed in such a way as to open rather than close possibilities. While it lends itself to wild metaphorization, and bad poetry (but then, so can Durkheim), it can also be put to use within sociology to rethink and question what we think we know of human sociability. The emphasis on the milieu, for instance, compels us to place the human body as always interacting and being interacted with on multiple levels. One interesting example of this is Deleuze’s re-reading of Freud’s ‘Little Hans’ case. Freud’s interpretation was framed and overdetermined by his interest in the Oedipal complex, with little concern for the other systems in which the boy was placed. Countering Freud, Deleuze writes, it is ‘as if the “vision” of the street, frequent at the time—a horse falls, is beaten, struggles—wasn’t capable of directly affecting the libido, and has to recall his parents having sex’ (1993: 84). Against this detachment of the psychic and its forces from the social, Grosz argues that Deleuze directs us to how ‘individuals, subjects, microintensities, blend with, connect to, neighbourhood, local, regional, social, cultural, aesthetic, and economic relations directly’ (1994: 180).

As such, the body is an assemblage of bodies traversed and formed by various systems. It is important to note that this is not to posit the body as without history; in fact it compels acknowledgement of the different histories of the body: individual, collective and the ways in which the body functions to connect the economic, social and psychological. As Gatens reminds us, ‘what a body can do is, at least in part, a function of its history and of those assemblages in which it has been constructed’ (1996a: 10). In these terms, this framing can ‘take account of the variety of ways in which individual bodies and their capacities are affected by their participation in larger assemblages of family, work and sociopolitical life’ (1996a: 8).

In this way, the body is a result of how it has been framed and understood, and it has histories of how it has been affected by social forces. In Gatens’s argument, this is why it is so crucial to conduct genealogical analyses of the body’s framing. In particular, she analyses the ways in which sociological descriptions of sex and gender have come to form bodies. She traces how Robert Stoller’s work in the 1960s on the distinction between biological sex and social gender became the foundation for feminist assertions that bodies are not biologically determined but are socially produced and curtailed by gender. To foreshorten her argument (and see Gatens, 1996b, for a full account of the relation of sex to gender), her genealogical account of the circulation of these concepts finds them deployed within the politics of sexual equality. The assertion of the ‘essential sameness of all persons’ now figures in any number of legal, educational and governmental assumptions. Laws on equal employment, rape and other dictates of sexual equality have come then to powerfully inform, limit and at times extend what bodies can do in particular circumstances.

The conception of power that circulates through this notion of equality is one that asserts that equality is ‘freedom from power.’ As Gatens puts it, ‘liberation, or freedom, somewhat ironically, was conceived in forms of an equality that would be guaranteed by juridical power’ (1996a: 4). Equally ironic is the way in which certain feminist dictates about human nature, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s claims about brute masculine power, have become part and parcel of legal systems. While their particular intervention concerned pornography and its putative relation to male violence against women, this sexualized framing of the body has entered into the everyday: sexual harassment issues and concerns affect behaviour in work places, worries about sexuality enter into how we teach, and more generally what we have come to know of and about sex affects how we conduct ourselves in relationship to others and to ourselves. In this way, power—not at an abstract level, but in concrete ways—is thoroughly sexualized. In Gatens’s terms this is to acknowledge how ‘each of these designations link a body in a multiplicity of ways to complex networks or assemblages which distribute power differentially according to such designations.’ In clear ways, these ‘interlocking assemblages of law, medicine, enunciation, sexuality, and so on, determine what this body can do, say, think’ (1996a: 10).

In this way, power carried by institutional discourses serves to block, redirect, constrain. The body’s unknown capacities’ are curtailed in much the same way as bodies are deprived of attaining their full human capabilities. Sex in this model is not the only way in which power operates, but it is an important one. It also demonstrates how sex embued with juridical power and paradoxically sustained by a conception of a freedom from power, returns to limit what bodies can do.


To recap briefly, focusing on Foucault’s argument I have sketched the relationship of power to sexuality, detailing the ways in which power operates through discourse. In turn I considered Nussbaum’s model of human capabilities and the ways in which power materially intervenes to curtail ‘truly human functioning.’ I then attempted to complement such a view with Deleuze’s notion of the body’s unknown capacities, which as we have seen are constantly made knowable and contained within historical and actual assemblages. I acknowledge these leaps transcend at times very different philosophies. I also realize that as yet they may be at most suggestive for another sociological take on sex and power, and at worst just more jargon. In this concluding section, I will therefore try to respond to the question of how these ideas might actually play out in more sociologically attuned analyses.

One of the methodologies’ that Deleuze raises in regard to his notion of the body’s capacity to affect and be affected is that of ethology. Simply put, ethology defines bodies, animals or humans by the affects they are capable of (Deleuze, 1992: 627). Strictly speaking, ethology began as an offshoot of zoology and evolution. One can see the connection between the study of plant and animal evolution and the definition that Deleuze takes from Spinoza: ‘ethology studies the compositions of relations or capacities between different things’ (1992: 628). Both require that minute attention be paid to the possibility of change at a micro level. Akin to ethnographic description, although without the metaphysical assumptions that often implicitly guide anthropological description, ethology focuses on breaking down processes of interaction into seemingly insignificant elements. It looks at bi- and multilateral movements. Suspending the temptation to name behaviour as sexual, gendered, or indeed as properly economic or cultural or psychological, it focuses on the ways in which particles or entities co-exist and function together. The assemblages that are formed are then somewhat arbitrarily categorized as sexual, or as cultural or economic, and so forth.

It is evidently an experimental way of going about describing behaviour yet its principles can be applied to any number of human assemblages. For instance, in one project I experimented with using ethological principles to describe the field of food media (Probyn, 2003a, 2003b). This entails a noncausal mapping of several systems or assemblages: the circulation of ideas about taste in terms of media production and its economies; close detailing of professions; the ways in which different orders of bodies—professional, ordinary, etc.—incorporate or not ideas about eating; the connections that are forged between what might be called the level of the cultural and the symbolic, and those that are more properly concerned with production, economics and distribution.

Turning from this study, which does not focus on sex and power although it discovers interesting manifestations of it, I want briefly to describe a project that brings many of the theoretical principles described above to bear within a sociological study of sex.

Kath Albury’s Yes Means Yes (2002) is interesting and exciting for several reasons. Albury is part of a younger generation of scholars who have been greatly informed by feminism, feminist sociology and queer theory, yet who have to work with and against several of their tenets. In particular, as Albury writes, ‘feminism has taught me that I have the right to say “no” to unwanted sex. It has also taught me that I can say “yes” to sex’ (2002: vii). Given the heavy hand of the feminist notion of ‘compulsory heterosexuality,’ saying yes to heterosex is some ways harder—at a theoretical level, of course—than saying yes to queer sex or saying no to unwanted sex. Albury’s project concerns, as the subtitle puts it, ‘getting explicit about heterosex.’ Her project is unusual in that it does not seek to simply ‘queer’ heterosexuality, and Albury is quite adamant that such is not the case even when discussing some of the decidedly queer practices of her interviewees. Perhaps more to the point, is that she does not seem to subscribe to a model of resistance. Power here is not that straightforward.

Albury’s project is also refreshing in that it acknowledges and works with and within the rich history of feminist writing on sex, and without whingeing. As we know, much of this material has been ‘as confusing and contradictory as its subject matter’ (2002:27). And some has also been clearly homophobic as well as deeply distrustful of any sexual pleasure that women might have with men. For instance, she cites Sheila Jeffries, an obvious target perhaps but none the less a very vocal anti-sex feminist, for whom a feminist and socialist ‘discussion of “sexual pleasure” is as incongruous as a discussion of “interior decorating” in a feature on homelessness’ (p. 26). There is also, of course, a rich line of feminist analysis which is ‘pro-sex.’ In the main, however, pro-sex feminists have tended to celebrate lesbian and queer sex; their discussions tend to operate quite outside of a paradigm of heteronormativity. Akin to Gatens’s call for a genealogical acknowledgement of how concepts have come to form limits on material practice, Albury’s work begins to demonstrate the intricacies of power in contemporary sexual practice.

At an empirical level, Albury’s project draws on interviews with women who have experimented with a range of ‘unusual’ sex practices—from amputee fetishism, different kinds of porn, to anal sex. As a part-time ‘sexpert,’ known as ‘Nurse Nancy’ in websites and sex advice columns, Albury is well placed to draw out evidence of the fact that so-called straight girls are saying ‘yes’ to kinds of sex that their often feminist mothers would call ‘degrading.’ At a theoretical level (Albury, 2005), she draws on and reworks many of the paradigms that I discussed above. Her critique of some of the larger statements about sex and power, including Anthony Giddens’s wide-eyed assumption that gay and lesbian relationships are somehow free of power, is supported by a theory of micropolitics. Drawing on William Connolly’s work, and influenced by Foucault, ‘micropolitics works at the level of detail, desire, feeling, perception and sensibility’ (Connolly, 1999: 149).

This theoretical descriptive statement in turn accords with Deleuze’s ‘methodological’ enlisting of ethology. What Connolly calls the necessity of ‘the selective desanctification of elements in… [ones] identity’ (1999: 146; cited in Albury, 2005; emphasis in original) echoes the imperative in ethological analysis to break down ‘molar’ or sedified entities into their constitutive elements. To recall Deleuze’s notion of the body as composed of infinite particles, bodies are assemblages that are ordered and re-ordered by social, political and economic forces. Ethology then analyses the ways in which elements within the assemblage affect and are affected by other elements. This type of analysis precisely looks to detail, desire and feeling and the ways they inflect micro relations within the assemblage. Or, as Connolly puts it, ‘as one part of [an individual’s] subjectivity … begins to work on other parts’ (1999: 146). Some of these parts might be ordered by sex, whereas others may be composed in relation to other levels of practice. In this, it recalls Foucault’s discussion of the regimen of the Ancient Greeks where precisely it was the reflection on the relation of different practices to each other, the technologies of the self at work, that constituted the ethics of the self.

These somewhat abstract principles are put to work by Albury in her research on heterosexual practices. From the results, it becomes evident that increasingly ‘many western men and women are experiencing forms of heterosexuality that are not clearly bounded by external moral frameworks’ (2002: 171). As she notes, many heterosexuals ‘negotiate complex relationships on the basis of personal, ethical decisions grounded in their individual beliefs and circumstances’ (p. 172).


To return to the question of sex and power, it would be ludicrous to say on the basis of the theoretical arguments and the empirical results presented here that sex is now free from power. Nor is it sufficient to celebrate power within sex, although the eroticization of power in consensual practices such as s/m or b/d is important. But it is not a question of being either for or against power in sex, or sex in power. As I hope is clear, the situation is more complex. Sex and power are fundamental to human capabilities, and their seemingly endless combinations along with the pleasures and fears they articulate may be uniquely human. It is also the microanalysis of how they affect and are affected by different forces that attests to Deleuze’s dictum about the unknown capacities of bodies.

The arguments I have presented here are compelling; they are also somewhat abstract and probably annoying to many sociologists for whom a reworking of Foucauldian principles may be the last thing on their agenda—especially if they would not read Foucault in the first place. I have little hope that the framework I have presented here will overcome the division between materialist’ versus ‘discursive’ analysis, the post-Marxists versus the postmodernists. However, if we are to attend to the challenge that Barrett articulates, as well as that of dwindling numbers of students wanting to study sociology, we will need to listen to alternatives. I am not suggesting that the philosophical analyses of Nussbaum or Deleuze or whomsoever be incorporated wholesale as sociology. As I mentioned, Nussbaum, for instance, is weak when she ventures into the realm of the sociological. And while intriguing, ethology is yet to be fully tested as a methodology within sociological analysis, and in some sense it echoes other methodologies such as grounded analysis or ‘thick description.’ However, if we are to reinvigorate the sociological study of sex and power, and make it equal to and as exciting as its empirical realities, then we are going to have to reconnect sex and power with human sensuality, imagination, physicality—in short, to the awesome questions of human capabilities and capacities.