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Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

DOI 10.1007/s11186-007-9059-4

Erotic habitus: toward a sociology of desire

Adam Isaiah Green

Published online: 9 February 2008

# Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2007

Abstract In the sociology of sexuality, sexual conduct has received extensive

theoretical attention, while sexual desire has been left either unattended, or, analyzed
through a scripting model ill-suited to the task. In this article, I seek to address two
related aspects of the problem of desire for sociologywhat might roughly be
referred to as a micro-level and a macro-level conceptual hurdle, respectively. At the
micro-level, the sociology of sexuality continues to reject or more commonly gloss
the role of psychodynamic processes and structures in favor of an insulated analysis
of interactions and institutions. At the macro-level, the sociology of sexuality has yet
to provide an analysis of the structural antecedents of sexual ideation. Scripting
theory, grounded in a social learning framework, cannot provide a proper conceptual
resolution to these problems but, rather, reproduces them. By contrast, I argue that an
effective sociological treatment of desire must incorporate a more penetrating
conception of the somatization of social relations found in Bourdieus notion of
embodiment and his corresponding analysis of habitus. In this vein, I develop the
sensitizing concepts erotic habitus and erotic work, and apply these to a cross-
section of feminist and sociological literatures on desire. I argue that a framework
grounded in embodiment, but complimented by scripting theory, provides a
promising lead in the direction of an effective sociology of desire.

One of the tasks of sociology is to determine how the social world constitutes
the biological libido, an undifferentiated impulse, as a specific social libido.
Bourdieu 1994:78
In the sociology of sexuality, desire is an elephant that sits upon the scholars
desk, seen by all but addressed by few. This is particularly curious given that the
discipline rests, implicitly, upon a desiring subject. In fact, present day scholars of
sexuality have a large, rich, and diverse body of literature from which to conceive
sexual identities, practices, communities, politics and polemics, but comparatively
little by way of a sustained, systematic analysis of desire itself. If Epstein (1991) was

A. I. Green (*)
Sociology Department, University of Toronto, 725 Spadina Avenue, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 2J4
e-mail: adamisaiah.green@utoronto.ca
598 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

right when, sixteen years ago, he observed a dearth of sociological attention to the
structuring of sexual desires (p. 831), the contemporary state of the field is
arguably little improved.
In this article, I seek to address two related aspects of the problem of desire for
sociologywhat might roughly be referred to as a micro-level and a macro-level
conceptual hurdle, respectively. At the micro-level, the sociology of desire continues
to be plagued by the absence of a sufficient rapprochement with psychodynamic
accounts of erotic development.1 Indeed, following Epstein (1991) and Stein (1989),
while the prevailing social constructionist perspectives in the sociology of sexuality
provide an important conceptual advance over former approaches that naturalized
desire and sexual practice, they have at the same time been averse to incorporating
the unconscious and its related processes in a sociological theory of desire. This
aversion is perhaps none too surprising given the history of sexuality research in
Western European and American scholarship, which, prior to the second half of the
twentieth century, was rooted largely in non-social processes such as evolution
(Greenberg 1988), Freudian drive theory (Stein 1989; Weeks 1985), and a
biomedical sexology (Herzer 1985; von Krafft-Ebing 1928). In this sense,
sociological accounts of sexuality have been relatively recent and have taken shape
against the historical backdrop of an otherwise inhospitable body of sexuality
scholarship. Methodological challenges, too, associated with studying the uncon-
scious have no doubt contributed to the absence of theorizing its role in shaping
desire (Eriksen 1960; Reingold and Merikle 1990). Nevertheless, by rejecting or,
more commonly, glossing the role of psychodynamic processes and structures in
favor of an insulated analysis of interactions and institutions, the sociology of
sexuality has fallen short in its treatment of eroticism, reducing explanations of
desire to a wooden model of social learning or, perhaps, avoiding the question
of desire altogether.
If the sociology of sexuality, in the first instance, has been reluctant to engage
psychoanalysis, it has, in the second instance, failed to bring to bear a macro-level
analysis of the structural antecedents of sexual ideation. For instance, we still have
no systematic way of conceiving of the relationships among race, class, gender, and
sexual ideation, no framework for understanding the processes by which social
structure shapes, impinges upon, and constitutes sexual ideation. In this sense, the
sociology of sexuality has yet to render a sufficiently social psychoanalysis, not
because it ignores the psychology of sexuality (though, indeed, this it does), but
because it ignores the relationship of social structure to the unconscious, and, in turn,
desire. Hence, sociological accounts that gloss psychological process are not
sociologically reductive but, rather, not sociological enough.
By contrast, feminist theorists have provided a number of fascinating theoretical
leads in the relationship of social structure and sexual fantasy, for instance, between
desire and nationality (Davidson and Sanchez Taylor 1999), desire and race (Ho and
Tsang 2000; Sedgwick 1997) and desire and gender (Moraga and Hollibaugh 1983;
MacKinnon 1989; Pronger 1990), yet have not been taken up by sociologists in an
effective formulation for capturing the social contribution to desire. Put another way,

But for important exceptions see Benjamin (1988) and Chodorow (1994), for theoretical work that
couples cultural and psychic processes.
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the challenge remains for sociology to determine the processes whereby the
biological libido is invested in, oriented toward, and brought into alignment with
the universe of historically specific objects that constitute a given social order.
In another area of sociology, Bourdieu (1977, 1984, 1990) advanced a theory of
practice rooted in the principle of embodiment, with important implications for
theorizing the social organization of desire. Bourdieu sought to transcend at once the
competing objectivist accounts of structuralism and the subjectivist accounts of
interpretivism that ran through classical anthropological, phenomenological and
sociological writing on human action, but reached their most fully articulated
deadlock in the meeting of structural functionalism and symbolic interactionism in
mid-century American sociology. For Bourdieu, social structures are not simply
external to the individual, but, rather, occupy a somatic relationship to the self. This
relationship develops out of a process whereby social structures are deposited in
the unconscious via symbolic force, materializing in a set of embodied
inclinations, dispositions, schemes of actions and appreciations captured in the
concept, habitus (1977). In turn, the habitus shapes the ways in which subjects act
toward, invest in, experience, produce, and reproduce the social world (ibid.). The
habitus, then, is a structured structuring structure, incorporated in bodies
through repeated and long-term exposure to the structures of social life: It represents
the deepest and most insidious penetration of the social order at the level of the
The habitus is an eminently useful but underdeveloped conceptual resource in the
sociology of desire. Developed properly, the concept addresses both the micro-level
problem of linking psychodynamic processes and sexual ideation, on the one hand,
and the macro-level problem of linking social structures to sexual ideation, on the
other. In this formulation, the scholar of sexuality is sensitized to the ways in which
the social order, while not determining desire, nonetheless lends sexual ideation its
sociological specificity.2 As I argue below, this conception of the social contribution
to sexual ideation is not altogether new, but exists, albeit in a latent form, in a range
of feminist and sociological literatures. Here, the social order and ones place within
it are theorized to have an active residue in the unconscious, supplying a social
cosmology of eroticized objects and attendant thematicsi.e., an erotic habitus
(Green 2008) that orients the undifferentiated biological libido toward particular
social forms.
Nevertheless, though I draw heavily on Bourdieu, I at the same time wish to read
his theory of practice against the grain of a strictly cognitive interpretation of
habitus, affording instead a more thoroughly developed role for the unconscious and
its associated psychodynamic properties. That is, following Fournay (2000) and
Widick (2003), I argue that an overly-cognitive reading of Bourdieus practice theory
short-circuits psychodynamic mechanisms that are fundamental to his notion of
habitus, particularly as this latter concept hinges on the unconscious somatization of

It is important that in linking the dispositions of erotic imagination to the social order that one does not
overstate this relationship and, extending the caution of Wrong (1961), construct an oversocialized human
eroticism. As I argue further below, I take it for granted that human sexual desire is a quite complex and
fluid composition of drives, emotional injury and loss, semi-conscious strategies of revenge,
compensation, and the like (c.f. Stoller 1985), and cannot be reduced to a sociological explanation.
600 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

the social order. Indeed, if we are to take seriously Bourdieus habitus, we cannot but
read in his work a variant of object relations theorya strong sociological object
relations theorywhereby the external world of objects and their historical relations
are introjected to become constitutive of identity. This reading of Bourdieus habitus,
I argue, is a prerequisite for a sufficiently sociological rendering of erotic habitusa
concept that takes its inspiration from Bourdieu himself, who resisted ceding
explanatory jurisdiction to psychology even as psychoanalytic principles were
central to his general theoretical program.
In what follows, I first revisit what is arguably the prevailing account of desire in
the sociological literaturescripting theory. I argue that scripting theory, rooted in a
social learning framework, does not resolve the micro- and macro-level problems
associated with a sociology of desire but, rather, reproduces them. This is no less
true of more recent formulations of scripting theory that, while departing from the
simple dramaturgical notion of role enactment, continue to beg the questions they
were designed to answer. A second section draws on Bourdieus account of the
habitus, and, in particular, the gender habitus, and identifies significant parallels
between his notion of the somatization of social relations and object relations theory.
Here, I argue that while object relations theory and Bourdieus account of practice
are not reducible to the same, there is an important conceptual overlap of special
importance for a sociology of desire. From this theoretical vantage point, a third
section introduces the terms erotic habitus and erotic work, which offer sensitizing
concepts for capturing the relationships of the unconscious, sexual ideation, and
social structure. I then turn to existing feminist and sociological accounts of desiring
subjects to provide a preliminary but concrete application of the erotic habitus and
erotic work concepts. Finally, a concluding section restates the position of this article
and makes suggestions for future research. In total, the present aim is not to present a
thoroughly socialized explanation of variation in desires, as I believe such an effort
to be a nave form of sociological reductionism. In fact, under the sway of primary
process and subject to biographical idiosyncrasy, individual sexual desire will never
be entirely accounted for or predicted by sociological explanation. Nonetheless, in
this article, I strive to pave the way, in theoretical terms, for an analysis of how
sociological factorsincluding racial, ethnic, gender, and class dominance, among
otherscome to matter in constituting sexual fantasy. In this sense, while the
conceptual apparatus I offer does not resolve the problem of desire for sociology, it
may provide an important conceptual advance toward mapping the social
contribution to sexual desire.

Social learning, sexual conduct, and sexual desire

Sociological research of sexuality over the previous fifty years has been diverse,
prolific and theoretically innovative. And yet, with few exceptions,3 it has also been

For an interesting exception, see Bems (1996) multifaceted model of sexual orientation, which posits a
dynamic developmental trajectory that originates in physiology but intersects with childhood interactions
in gendered play groups. This theory, however, is meant to explain sexual orientation as opposed to the
substance of desire within a given object-choice.
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rather inattentive to the question of desire itselfthat is, to the relationship of what
we desire to the structures and processes of social life. This is not to suggest a lack
of empirical or theoretical attention to sexual conduct, particularly as conduct is
conceived in terms of the sequencing of sexual acts or the enactment of sexual
repertoires. Quite the contrary, in this latter regard, scripting theoryrooted in a
social learning model and framed in the language of dramaturgywas designed for
this very task, obtaining a kind of monopoly status within the field, omnipresent in
an extensive and wide-ranging constructionist literature on sexual identity and
practice (Gagnon and Simon 1973; Laumann et al. 1994; Laumann and Gagnon
1995; Laumann et al. 1994; Levine 1992, 1998; Wiederman 2005). Nevertheless,
beyond a simple social learning explanation, scripting theory offers little explanatory
leverage for analyzing sexuality, particularly when the object of study shifts from
conduct to ideationi.e., what Epstein (1991) in his critique of scripting theory
termed, the structuring of sexual desires (p. 831). And, moreover, as Stein (1989)
observed, left unanswered by scripting theory are the core questions for a sociology
of desire: Why do individuals differentially select sexual scripts and what is the
process of this differential acquisition? With these criticisms in mind, I turn to a
closer examination of scripting theory.

The tripartite structure of scripting theory

Scripting theory was developed in the sociology of sexuality as a response to the

prevailing influences of Freud and Kinsey, both of whom conceived of sexuality in
terms largely devoid of social context and meaning (Gagnon and Simon 1973).
Against the asociality of such scholarship, Gagnon and Simon (1973) brought to
bear the tenets of social learning theory on the study of sexuality, observing that
sexual excitation was itself a learned behavior (p. 8). Borrowing the language of
dramaturgy from Goffman (1967), Gagnon and Simon (1973) argued that sexual
actors enact social scripts, demonstrating a learned competence in the meaning of
internal feeling states, the sequences of sexual acts, the contexts for sexual practice,
and limits on sexual response (p. 19). In this framework, even erogenous zones were
said to be outcomes of a learned scripting process that varied across cultures (p. 62).
Later formulations of scripting theory expanded the metaphor of the script to
include three conceptual dimensions: cultural scenarios, interpersonal scripts, and
intrapsychic scripts (Laumann and Gagnon 1995; Simon and Gagnon 1986). The
first dimension, cultural scenarios, captures the culturally specific instructions
for sexual conduct (Laumann and Gagnon 1995, p. 190), including, roughly, the
when, where and with whom of sexual exchange. The second dimension,
interpersonal scripts, refers to the patterned negotiations of sexual activity between
partnerswhat might be called the how of sexual exchange (ibid.). Finally, the
third and perhaps least developed dimension, intrapsychic scripts, expands the
scripting metaphor to include sexual meanings and desires, particularly as these are
used to guide sexual conductboth past and future (Laumann and Gagnon 1995,
p. 190; Whittier and Simon 2001, p. 141).
The tripartite scripting model offered by Simon and Gagnon (1986) and Laumann
and Gagnon (1995) built on the recognition that sexual practice is a complex
composite of rules, norms, meanings, desires, and interactions. Accordingly, the
602 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

expanded formulation provides a conceptual apparatus that sensitizes the analyst to

scripting processes at multiple levels of social lifei.e., the cultural, the
interpersonal, and the intrapsychic. The expanded model was also inspired by a
related concern with the problem of over-socialization whereby human action is
artificially reduced to cultural training (Whittier and Simon 2001; Wrong 1961). In
particular, the third component, intrapsychic scripting, provided that a one-to-one
relationship between cultural scenarios and the internal dialogue of sexual scripting
is unlikely, as individuals actively interpret and reconstruct sexual meanings
circulating in the wider cultural discourse (Whittier and Melendez 2004; Whittier
and Simon 2001).
Nevertheless, despite its increasing sophistication, the tripartite model fails to
provide a sufficient account of the substance of sexual fantasy and the process of its
development, nor an effective account of variability in script appropriation and
enactment across individuals and groups. For explanations of sexual variation that
hinge on the first dimension of the tripartite modelcultural scenariosrecreate the
very problem that the expanded formulation sought to overcome: the oversocialized
man. Here, sexual actors are less agents who actively build sexual lives than wooden
puppets who mechanically follow the puppet masteri.e., cultural instructions.
But so too, efforts to explain the why, what, and how of sexual scripting that
rely on the second and third dimensions of the tripartite modelinterpersonal and
intrapsychic scriptingfare little better, for here scripting theorists must look outside
the scripting framework to find the decisive factors that shape and circumscribe
sexual conduct and desire, including social structural factors in one variant of
scripting theory, and unconscious processes of introjection, in another. As a
consequence, scripting theory does less to resolve the micro- and macro-level
problems associated with a sociology of desire than beg their resolution. Below, I
consider these problems in greater detail.

The social structural determinants of sexual scripting

The inability of scripting theory to provide a sufficient explanatory framework of

sexual fantasy and conduct is perhaps best demonstrated by the scholarship of
scripting theorists themselves, who must draw from alternative concepts and theories
to make the model work. Thus, in explaining why individuals choose certain scripts
over others, and how individuals differentially enact a script, Laumann and Gagnon
(1995) are forced to go beyond the tripartite scripting model to include social
structure vis--vis master status (pp. 191192). They justify situating the tripartite
scripting model within a larger structural framework because, by itself, scripting
theory cannot identify who people are and how these features shape what an
individual believes is possible to say and do (and often think) (p. 191,
parenthetical phrase in original).

[S]cript theorists define master statuses to be those characteristics that 1) are

a major basis for the ways in which social interaction is structured, 2) are a
basic component of the self-identity of the individuals who possess them,
and 3) organize the cognitive maps or modes of understanding that individuals
bring to social circumstances.The significant point here is that, in each case,
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an individuals particular master status characteristics are used to formulate

expectations about his or her attitudes and conduct. (Laumann and Gagnon
In this formulation, it is ones master status4e.g., ones gender, race, class, and
educational backgroundthat is decisive in shaping the who, why, and what
of sexual practice. By Laumanns and Gagnons own account, these statuses
incorporate aspects of identity, provide schemes of understanding, and shape the
structure of interaction in ways that fundamentally organize all subsequent scripting
processes. Put another way, relative to social structure, scripting is a second-order
process. Hence, Laumann and Gagnon (1995) conclude:
Improving the fit between scripting theory and social structure requires that a
conceptual bridge be constructed that will link different effects of social
structure on the variety of ways in which individuals enact social scripts.
Perhaps the most important components of a script are the social features of
individuals who enact them. (p. 191, emphasis added)
More recent applications of scripting theory have left behind the terrain of sexual
conduct for an explicit analysis of desire (Whittier and Melendez 2004; Whittier and
Simon 2001). In this important and ambitious new direction, scripting theorists
attempt to demonstrate the analytic utility of scripting theory, particularly
intrapsychic scripting, in shaping an individuals sexual types and those eroticized
themes that emerge in sexual interaction (ibid.). In this literature, the data marshaled
as evidence of intrapsychic scripting are both provocative and compelling but, here
too, scripting scholars are forced to turn to social structure vis--vis analysis of
master status in order to explain why individuals possess different kinds of desires
and how these desires are acquired.
For instance, in their fascinating analysis of sexual intersubjectivity, Whittier and
Melendez (2004) analyze reports of sexual interaction from the vantage point of an
individuals perception of her partners perception of heri.e., what individuals
thought others thought of them (p. 133). Explicit in this analysis of intersubjectivity
are factors related to the social structural location of the sexual actor and her partner.
This leads the researchers to make a definitive qualification from the outset of their
analysis reminiscent of Laumanns and Gagnons (1995) observation: Sexual scripts
are interpreted and enacted differently by actors depending upon their unique life
histories, experiences and backgrounds (Whittier and Melendez 2004, p. 131).
Accordingly, in a particularly suggestive analysis, Erika 44-year-old Latino
maneroticized rough sex with white men wherein he imagined himself as the
conqueror (p. 139). By assuming an aggressive, controlling posture in these
interactions, Erik experienced a kind of ecstatic racial triumph, liberating him from a
childhood history of racial exclusion in the White world (p. 140). Thus Whittier
and Melendez conclude: Because he perceived White men as the establishment, his

Specifically, Laumann and Gagnon (1995) define master status in the United States as: socially
interpreted physical attributes such as gender, race, and age, or other socially salient characteristics, such
as marital status, educational background, political orientation or religious affiliation (p. 191).
604 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

intrapsychic scripting was experienced through the lens of race, or at least his
perception of others as raced and their views of him as such (p. 140).
This particular application of scripting theory is path breaking in the sociology of
sexuality insofar as it seeks to highlight the relationship of the social world to
individual sexual fantasy. The insights that Whittier and Melendez (2004) and
Whittier and Simon (2001) bring to bear on the complexity of sexual scripting are
powerful and compelling, wresting the study of desire from a traditional
psychodynamically reductive developmental model toward a sociological analysis
of the penetration of social structure at the level of sexual fantasy. But in these
applications, scripting theory does not provide an explanation of why or how men
like Erik acquire and enact particular desires; rather, scripting theory provides a
conceptual apparatus for describing some of the effects of more decisive factors
including, most importantly, ones social structural standpoint and attendant life
experiences. It is, after all, Eriks historical location as disadvantaged Latino men in
a larger, racially stratified social system that shape the content of their intersubjective
scripting and the passion with which they pursue particular kinds of sexual partners
and highly specified modes of erotic interaction. Here, as before, scripting arises as a
second-order process of internal dialogue and intersubjectivity organized by and
following from long-term exposure to systems of racial and class-based stratifica-
tion. In short, to make scripting theory work as an explanation of sexual conduct and
desire, scripting theorists must set aside intersubjective scripting processes in search
of their social structural determinants.

The psychodynamic mechanisms of sexual scripting

If scripting theorists look to social structure to develop an explanatory framework of

sexual conduct and sexual desire, more recent efforts to explain the latter have led
them to incorporate the unconscious. Thus, in explaining the process by which
master statuses produce differential intrapsychic scripts, Whittier and Simon (2001)
and Whittier and Melendez (2004) turn to object relations theory, for it is in the
territory of the unconscious that differentially located actors in the social structure
acquire the themes of intersubjective scripting. Here, as before, scripting theory does
not provide an answer to the why and how question of desire, but instead, describes a
second-order process that follows and is organized by a primary process of
introjection. Accordingly, to understand who eroticizes what and why, and how this
process unfolds, Whittier and Simon (2001) must set aside the scripting apparatus,
deferring instead to psychodynamic mechanisms of introjection, which, by
definition, occur in the unconscious.
[T]he scripting approach always assumed or regarded intrapsychic scripting
as involving a complex and idiosyncratic introjection of meanings, objects,
part-objects and practices as individuals relate with the world surrounding them,
not only in infancy and childhood, but across the life course as well. (p. 142)
Because individuals are differentially located in the social structure, they will
engage in a distinct pattern of introjections that, while by no means reducible to a
simple formula of correspondence, acquire a socially recognizable character in the
form of highly eroticized typifications, or what Whittier and Simon (2001) refer to as
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 605

my type. In this iteration of scripting theory, the model makes its most bold
departure from the dramaturgical concept of role enactment to the language of
cultural inscription, hinging intersubjective scriptsi.e., typeson unconscious
Types are the continuing introjections of meanings that at any one point in time
the self has acquired through relations as regards who and what is sexually
desirable. Types are simultaneously actual individual creations and instances
of culture as they are instances or inscriptions of culture on the individual
psyche. (p. 144)
While this formulation has the advantage of offering a more penetrating
conception of social constitution than that of social learning, it does so at the
expense of analytic viability. First, in this account, the tripartite scripting model is,
by itself, insufficient as an explanatory framework of sexual desire and its related
processes, resting instead on unconscious processes from which intersubjective
scripts, including the formation of types, follow. Second and more importantly,
this formulation has the added problem of glossing or, worse yet, conflating
altogether what are, in fact, distinct mechanisms and processes. Here, conscious and
unconscious dimensions of sexual lifei.e., intrapsychic dialogue and introjected
objects, respectivelyare merged without concern for their distinct organizing
logics, their unique modes of representation, their differential susceptibilities to
social forces and the vicissitudes of primary process, all of which render intrapsychic
scripting and object relations irreducible to the same. In fact, ironically, by putting
scripting theory in charge of the entire formation and expression of sexual de-
sire, scripting theorists collapse into one confounded scripting process what are
implicitly distinct units of analysis, with the effect of stretching the scripting model
beyond intelligibility.
To conclude, scripting theory fails to resolve either the macro-level or micro-level
conceptual hurdles outlined in the introduction above. At the macro-level, scripting
theory lacks a sufficient account of social structure, offering only a tacked on gesture
in this direction by moving outside of the metaphor of the script to include master
status (Laumann and Gagnon 1995). Here, scripting processes are, in fact,
dependent upon larger structural forces that are decisive in shaping who scripts
what, why and with whom. Similarly, at the micro-level, scripting theory lacks a
psychodynamic mechanism to link the world of objects to the formation of eroticized
types and associated intersubjective processes. Instead, scripting theorists look
outside the scripting framework to incorporate object-relations theory, but do so in a
manner that collapses together scripting and introjection processes, when these are,
in fact, distinct moments in psychic life that cannot be effectively rendered within
the scripting apparatus.
It is important to note that the above criticisms of scripting theory are by no
means intended to minimize the importance of the framework to the sociology of
desire. Quite the contrary, scripting theory, properly conceived as conscious
intersubjective and interpersonal processes, has an important role to play in the
analysis of sexual conduct and desirean issue returned to below. Nonetheless, little
is gained when the scripting model is stretched into an all-purpose, one-size-fits-all
framework. To the contrary, maintaining the integrity of the scripting model requires
606 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

that sociologists take greater care not to overextend the script to subsume structures
and processes that lie beyond the scope of its explanatory apparatus. Indeed, a
script is not a master status, nor a social structure, nor an unconscious, psychic
structure. Scripting processes are, however, relevant to how these elements bear on
what we do sexually and with whom. It is toward an investigation of these latter
relationships that a proper application of scripting theory must proceed.
Having provided a discussion of the conceptual limitations of the scripting model, I
turn below to consider an alternative framework that shifts the conception of the
relationship of self and society from social learning to embodiment. I argue that an
effective sociology of desire must move beyond the social learning apparatus to a more
carefully conceived, constitutive theory of social inscription via the habitus. Such a
framework simultaneously addresses the micro- and macro-level problems associated
with a sociology of desire. It also provides a framework for capturing the sociological
antecedents upon which scripting processes differentially arise and are transformed.

The habitus: the mind of the social order

Habitus: transcending three antinomies in social theory

In theorizing human practice, Bourdieu (1977) drew from the social life of the
Kabyle of Algeria, whose mundane economic activities, religious rituals and
matrimonial traditions inspired renewed attention to the relationship of individual
activity and the social order. In the daily rhythms of these practices, Bourdieu
observed a practical virtuosity captured neither by the determining forces of social
structure, nor an individualistic, self-determining intentionality. Rather, practice was
subjectively but not individually constituted; at once dynamic and adaptive, but not
infinitely so; reflexive and practical, but irreducible to rational calculation.
Extrapolated more broadly, in each instance of practice, actors demonstrate an
active, practical mastery of the world, but in ways that betray the culmination of an
historically specific biographical encounter with the social ordera structural
standpoint acquired by dint of nothing more than the arbitrary location of ones birth
in social space. But how to conceptualize this biographical encounter in such a way
as to capture its persistent structuring effects without establishing a new erroneous
form of structural determinism? Conversely, how to provide for the active, strategic,
and subjective elements of practice without lapsing into an overly intentional or
untenably fluid account of human action? Put another way: how to render these
tensions in a proper theory of practice without falling prey to the traditional
antinomies of objectivist and subjectivist social theory found in structuralism and
interpretivism, functionalism and interactionism, sociology and psychoanalysis?
For Bourdieu, the answer to these questions begins with a reconsideration of the
relationship of the individual to society, perhaps best captured in what he termed the
double objectivity of structures (Bourdieu 1990). Whereas social facts constitute
objective structures exogenous to psychological life, they at the same time constitute
subjective structures incorporated within psychological life as objects of knowledge.
In this sense, the structures of the social world exists twicea double life (Bourdieu
and Wacquant 1992, p. 7)materializing, on the one hand, in the uneven distribution
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 607

of goods and resources that characterize stratified societies and, on the other, in the
objectification of social structure via differential, internalized systems of classification,
affective and bodily dispositions. A proper study of practice, then, requires an analysis
of ones position within the historical relations of a field, and the attendant cognitive,
psychological and bodily dispositions that accrue from this position. And so it is here,
in the analysis of this latter component of the double life of structures, that Bourdieu
(1977) drew from classical social theory to develop the concept habitus.
The habitus is perhaps Bourdieus most critical, most rich, and most bold
contribution to social theory, for this one concept establishes the theoretical
groundwork for a fundamental reworking of the core question of sociology: What
is the relationship of the individual to the social order? And, in a related but less
often considered analytic scope: what is the relationship of the unconscious to social
structure? For Bourdieu, the habitus is a psychic structure that represents the nexus
of social structure, subjectivity, and the unconscious, wherein social relations are
deposited, inculcated, instilled, inscribed, embodied, and somatized in
the form of unconscious perceptual schemata, dispositions, appreciations, and bodily
hexis. As the objectification of social life in the form of psychic structure, the
habitus transcends three persistent antinomies that run through social theory: that
between objectivism and subjectivism; that between sociology and social psychol-
ogy; and, I argue, that between sociology and psychoanalysis.
With regard to the first antinomy, the habitus is constituted by a cognitive orientation
to the social world developed out of ones location in the social structure. This
orientation consists of classificatory schemata, forms of know-how and ways of sense-
making that explode the strict analytic division between what is societal and what is
subjective. Thus, the occupational aspirations, intellectual orientation, and problem-
solving approaches of Frances elite university students, when compared to their
working-class counterparts, were not to be regarded as natural properties of a given
class but, rather, the consequence of an historical process of inculcation whereby
location in social space, with its particular economic and social necessity, produced
systematic differentials in cognitive orientations to the social world (Bourdieu 1997).
Similarly, with regard to the second antinomy, the habitus consists of a set of
dispositions, personal and subjective characteristics, which, as a function of
their origin in the social order, dismantle the artificial separation of sociological and
social psychological processes. Thus, the refined aesthetic sensibilities, tastes and
lifestyle choices of Frances cultural nobility, when compared with its more common
folk, were not to be construed as evidence of cultural superiority or bloodline but,
rather, the deep, dispositional workings of social structure inculcated in the tastes,
sensibilities, and appreciations of a given class (Bourdieu 1984).
The above antinomies represent an explicit theoretical point of departure for
Bourdieu, and were part of a particular, French, mid-century, trans-disciplinary
context within which his theory of practice was constructed (Postone et al. 1993).
Nevertheless, there exists a third antinomythat between sociology and psycho-
analysisthat was to become an increasingly unavoidable point of consideration for
Bourdieu, perhaps most vividly represented in his late work on gender (Bourdieu
1998), though indeed the subject of comparatively little explicit theoretical attention
(Fournay 2000). For Bourdieu, the habitusa cultural unconscious (Widick
2003:865)is by definition a product of introjection whereby the social order is
608 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

objectified in the unconscious, constituted in such a way that shatters, in part, the
duality of sociological and psychodynamic process. Here, neither the oversocialized
man (Wrong 1963) of structural functionalism nor the instinct-driven, if sublimated,
man, of classical psychoanalysis (Freud 1961), suffice as an explanation of practice.
Thus, the soft, docile carriage and submissive temperament of Kabyle women, when
compared with the sturdy, athletic bodies and combat-ready temperament of Kabyle
men, were not to be regarded as the mere adherence to a role or a function of
anatomical differentiation and its corresponding psychological destiny, but a
consequence of the embodiment of gendered social relations at the deepest level
of bodily and psychic structure (Bourdieu 1998). Hence, while Bourdieus own
academic habitus may have predisposed him to guard against psychological
explanation, preferring, instead, the cognitive metaphors of sociological action
theory and a subsidiary psychology appended to sociological process (Fournay
2000; Widick 2003),5 his focus on the psyche-society interface, as seen most notably
in the centrality he affords the inculcation of social structure in his practice theory,
brings Bourdieus sociology into a face-to-face encounter with psychoanalysis in a
way that transcends the discreet separation of psychodynamic and social structural
phenomenoni.e., the third antinomy.6
The concept of the habitus provides a nearly limitless platform for theoretical
lines of development, and can be found in a now large and growing North American
and Western European sociological and anthropological literature. Curiously,
however, the concept has received scant systematic attention in the sociology of
sexuality,7 despite its unusual promise for a consideration of the social antecedents
of desire and practice. Hence, I turn below to highlight aspects of the habitus concept
that are of special relevance for a sociology of desire. Focusing on Bourdieus
analysis of masculine domination and the formation of gender habitus, I draw a
parallel between this line of conceptual development and object relations theory, thus
establishing the groundwork for introducing the concept of erotic habitus.

The habitus and object relations theory: embodying the social order

Bourdieu has developed the concept of habitus to demonstrate the ways in

which, not only is the body in the social world, but also, the ways in which the
social world is in the body. (Reay 1995, p. 354)

This is not to suggest that Bourdieu saw no role for more traditional psychoanalytic interpretations of
intrapsychic process, such as sublimation (for instance, see Outline of a Theory of Practice on male
sexuality), but rather to stress that Bourdieu held an ambivalent relationship to psychoanalysis, preferring
to situate psychology within a broader sociological referenti.e., a socioanalysis. As Fournay (2000)
notes of Bourdieu: It may be noted that all the keywords of the Bourdieusian vocabulary (a quality of
social logic, institute, fields, habituses, essentially social, social universes, engendered) are
strategically placed like a quarantine line around the word libido as though to neutralize it, or block it, in
the name of a quality of sociology that appears, decidedly, threatened (p. 109). And see Widick (2003)
for a similar point.
This is not to suggest that the concept of habitus entirely dissolves disciplinary distinctions between
sociology and psychoanalysis. As an example, habitus cannot address the operation and organization of
primary process, though the former may indeed inform the substance of the latter.
For some interesting leads in this direction, however, see Carrillo (2002); Prieur (1998); and Stein
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 609

If human beings are to be distinguished from their animal counterparts, one need
look no further than to culture, which, following Berger and Luckmann (1966),
replaces the instincts to shape thought, perception, and action. Not unlike the
social constructivism of Berger and Luckmann (1966) or Foucaults analysis of
human subjectification (1980), Bourdieu believed that human beings were
constitutionally docile, symbolically absorptive, and prime for cultural construction,
most especially in early life. Nevertheless, saturated in physical and social worlds
mediated through symbolic systems, humans soak up their symbolic environments in
such a way that they do not perceive the socialization process itself but, rather,
misrecognize their identities, dispositions, inclinations, tastes, material and cultural
orientations, and even bodily structure (e.g., its particular height, weight, shape, and
density), as a function of their nature. This is the process of symbolic force
(Bourdieu 1990, p. 38) whereby the content of social lifee.g., the relations among
social strata, normative and symbolic forms, classifications of status groupsare
inscribed on the mind and somatized at the level of the body, invisibly and
insidiously and, therefore, as if by magic (Bourdieu 1998). Symbolic force is, in
this regard, a process of domination, which, though neither coercive nor
mechanically determinative, is profoundly consequential in shaping human social
life vis--vis the habitus:
The effect of symbolic domination (whether ethnic, gender, cultural or
linguistic, etc.) is exerted not in the pure logic of knowing consciousness but
through the schemes of perception, appreciation and action that are constitutive
of habitus and, which, below the level of decisions of consciousness and the
controls of the will, set up a cognitive relationship that is profoundly obscure to
itself. (Bourdieu 1998, p. 37)

Perhaps nowhere is the work of symbolic domination better demonstrated than in

the case of gender differentiation and male dominance. So profound and fundamental
is the power of symbolic force in constituting the two sexes that Bourdieu conceived
of habitus as itself distinguished by genderi.e., a male and female habitus.

The divisions constitutive of the social order, and more precisely, the social
relations of domination and exploitation that are instituted between the sexes
thus progressively embed themselves in two different classes of habitus, in the
form of opposed and complementary bodily hexis and principles of vision and
division which lead to the classifying of all the things of the social world and all
practices according to distinctions that are reducible to the male/female
opposition. (Bourdieu 1998, p. 30, emphasis added)
As an embodied social programme of perception (Bourdieu 1998, p. 11),
gender habitus incorporates the sexual division of labor (Krais 1993) in at least two
ways: first, through the inculcation of binary gender typifications represented in the
sexual division of labor; and second, through the inculcation of a corresponding
dimorphic bodily hexis. Both of these processes occur beneath the scope of
consciousness to produce a contrainte par corps:
After two hundred years of pervasive Platonism, it is hard for us to think that
the body can think itself through a logic alien to that of theoretical reflection.
610 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

In this sense, we can say that gender domination consists in what we call in
French a contrainte par corps, an imprisonment effected via the body. The
work of somatization tends to effect a progressive somatization of social
relations, of gender domination through a twofold operation: first, by means of
the social construction of the vision of the world; and second, through the
inculcation of bodily hexis that constitutes a veritable embodied politics.
(Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 172)
Bourdieus twofold operation of somatization begins first as a form of cognitive
inscription whereby the universe of social objects is internalized in the form of
habitual perceptual schemata. Through long term exposure to the social order, the
individual inherits a social taxonomy or, in Husserls term, typifications, that force
the flux of sensory data into a socially intelligible, ordered matrix. In the case of sex
differentiation, perhaps the most universally fundamental feature of social ontology,
male and female individuals acquire the concept of gender as a category that assigns
to sexed bodies a set of arbitrary cultural meaningsoften binary in structure,
though not always.8 In this formulation, the acquisition of gender identity is not
merely a sanctioned role enactment, as postulated by social learning theory, nor a
cognitive developmental processes whereby behavioral consistency with an assigned
gender category produces a pleasurable sense of fit within the prevailing patterns
of social life. Rather, the somatization of gender operates through the unconscious to
define an individuals perception of the possibilities of human form, and then
through a corresponding transformation of the body itself as individuals cultivate a
gendered affect, carriage, and gatethe deepest meaning of what it means to be
socialized. Here, the social order is literally embodied, i.e., the second moment
of Bourdieus two-fold operation:
The masculinization of male bodies and the feminization of female bodies
effects a somatization of the cultural arbitrary which is the durable construction
of the unconscious. (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 172)
If Bourdieu rejects social learning and cognitive developmental models in favor
of a gender habitus, he at the same time rejects interactionist models premised on a
gender identity or gender presentation enacted in situ (c.f. Kessler and McKenna
1978; West and Zimmerman 1987), as these latter formulations fail to account for
the structural embeddedness of self-concept and perception. That is, gendered
identities, dispositions and bodies are not made and remade per interaction but,
rather, arise through the somatization of the social order in durable dispositions and
schemes of perception of the gender habitus. Referring to the female habitus and
the body, for instance, Bourdieu writes:
Everything in the genesis of the female habitus and in the social conditions of its
actualization combines to make the female experience of the body the limiting case

While the modern West has operated with a sex epistemology organized around binary sex categories
(i.e., male and female), other cultures conceive of sex in more expansive terms, including the recognition
of a third gender, as among the berdache of Native North American societies, the travesti of Brazil, and
the hijra of India.
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 611

of the universal experience of the body-for-others. The relation of ones own

body cannot be reduced to a body image, in other words the subjective
representation (self-image or looking-glass self), associated with a certain
degree of self-esteem, that an agent has of his or her social effects (seductiveness,
charm, etc.) and which is largely built up from the objective representation of the
body, descriptive or normative feedback supplied by others (parents, peers, etc.).
Such a model forgets that the whole social structure is present at the heart of the
interaction, in the form of schemes of perception and appreciation inscribed in the
bodies of the interacting agents. (Bourdieu 1998, p. 63)

Having conceptualized the gender habitus, it is not a far leap for Bourdieu to
consider sexual relations and fantasy, as gender itself is a source of eroticization.
Here, binary male and female typifications, and the division of labor upon which
these typifications rest, establish the substance of erotic desires and practice,
including fantasies that revolve around dominance and submission:

If the sexual relation appears as a social relation of domination, this is because

it is constructed through the fundamental principle of division between the
active male and the passive female and because this principle creates, organizes,
expresses and directs desiremale desire as the desire for possession,
eroticized domination, and female desire as the desire for masculine
domination, as eroticized subordination or even, in the limiting case, as the
eroticized recognition of domination. (Bourdieu 1998, p. 21)

Bourdieus formulation of the gender habitus as the somatization of social relations

and resulting perceptual schemata, gendered dispositions, bodily hexis, and, here, sexual
desires, holds a remarkable parallel with object relations theory. As a variant of
psychoanalytic theory, object relations theory emphasizes interpersonal relations and
their enduring effects over the life history (Buckley 1986; Chodorow 1978; Fairbairn
1952; Klein 1935). While object relations theory has no single statement on the
relationship of psyche and society, varying quite broadly between an inward-looking
focus on the relationship of objects and drives (Arlow 1980; Klein 1935) and, at the
opposite end of the spectrum, an outward-looking focus on interpersonal relations and
social structures (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Krasner 1986; Chodorow 1978, 1994), what
holds across these formulations is a mechanism of internalization whereby objects
(persons) and part objects (parts of persons) are introjected to become constitutive of
identity and personality. Thus, Schafer (1968) writes of internalization as:
Those processes by which the subject transforms real or imagined regulatory
interactions with his environment and real or imagined characteristics of his
environment into inner regulations and characteristics. (p. 9)
Conceived in this way, internalization in object relations theory is the process
whereby the patterning of micro-level interaction, as this arises via the patterning of
social relations more broadly, comes to constitute personality. Outward-looking
object relations theorists, in particular, specify the transmission of social structure to
the unconscious in a language that is nearly interchangeable with Bourdieus
formulation of the inculcation of dispositions and schemes of perception. Here,
612 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

social structural features of a society shape objects and their relations, and are taken
up in psychic structure.
[S]ociety constitutes itself psychologically in the individual not only in the
moral strictures of the superego. All aspects of psychic structure, character and
emotional and erotic life are social, constituted through a history of object-
choices. Elements of social structure, especially transmitted through the
organization of parenting as well as the features of individual families, are
appropriated and transformed internally through unconscious processes and
come to influence affective life and psychic structure. (Chodorow 1978, p. 50)
And much like the habitusa past made presentwith its enduring, durable
structure and transposable dispositions, so the psyche in object relations theory, and
in psychoanalytic theory more generally, is formatively organized in ways that
structure all subsequent interaction and perception.
What is internalized from an ongoing relationship becomes unconscious and
persists more or less independent of that original relationship. It may be
generalized as a feeling of self-in-relationship and set up as a permanent feature
of psychic structure and the experience of self. (Chodorow 1978, p. 50)
Although Bourdieus theory of practice and object relations theory each rest on a
crucial psyche-society interface, it must be noted that there are important distinctions
between these approaches that make the two irreducible to the same. Perhaps most
importantly, object relations theory, no matter how externally oriented, is a
conceptual apparatus trained on the dynamics of primary process for which
Bourdieu and sociology more generally have very little access, interest, or facility
for analysis. As Chodorow (1978) cautions: Internalization does not mean direct
transmission of what is objectively in the childs world into the unconscious
experience of self-in-relationship Internal-ization is mediated by fantasy and by
conflict (p. 50). Nonetheless, the unconscious and its related processes are not
hermetically sealed off from social structure but are, in fact, imbricated within it in
ways that have real consequences for the core concerns of sociologynot the least
being the formation of affectively charged identities around gender, race, class,
ethnicity, and age. For what does the internalization of social structure as a feeling
of self-in-relationship (Chodorow 1978:50) mean if not a socially and historically
produced perception of self in relationship to a given societys social cosmologyits
system of categories (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:126)including those
schemes of perception and appreciation (Bourdieu 1998, p. 63) organized by
gender, race, class, and the like? And how can one conceive of the habitusi.e., a
socialized subjectivity (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:126) and a deep structure
(Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 19) arising from the somatization of social
relations (Bourdieu 1998, p. 23)if not by recourse to a mechanism of introjection
as posited by object relations theory whereby elements of social structure are
appropriated and transformed through unconscious processes that come to influence
affective life and psychic structure (Chodorow 1978, p. 50)? Indeed, if we are to
take seriously Bourdieus analysis of gender domination, how can we conceive of
the gender habitus and its bodily, psychological, and sexual manifestations without
invoking the tools of object relations theory and the psyche-society interface so
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 613

crucial to the formation of human personality? The point here is not to turn
psychoanalysis into a sociology, nor, conversely, sociology into a psychoanalysis;
rather, it is to suggest that there is a terrain at the intersection of these disciplines that
requires the tools of both disciplines to capture.9 In this sense, in Bourdieus
conception of habitus, one finds an approach to this terrain that incorporates aspects
of object relations theory whereby the self is constituted by and oriented toward a
symbolic universe of objects. These objects transform the self, which, in turn,
transforms the world of objects, and so on:
The mind born of the world of objects does not rise as a subjectivity
confronting an objectivity: The objective universe is made up of objects which
are the product of objectifying operations structured according to the very
structures which the mind applies to it. The mind is a metaphor of the world of
objects which is itself but an endless circle of mutually reflecting metaphors.
(Bourdieu 1977, p. 91)
Having read Bourdieu against the grain of a strictly cognitive interpretation of
habitus and toward a necessary, partial rapprochement with object relations theory, I
turn now to a consideration of the habitus concept for a sociology of desire.
Admittedly, this is a preliminary formulation offered less as a definitive point of
arrival than as suggestive point of departure for thinking through the problem of
desire for sociological scholarship. Here, I draw on Bourdieu as a way out of the
now long-standing impasse in theorizing the social contribution to sexual desire, and
as a follow up on the theoretical leads of Stein (1989) and Epstein (1991), who
articulated the limitations of scripting theory but stopped short of formulating an
alternative framework.

Erotic habitus and erotic work: subjective manifestations of social structure

It is easy to see how social the sexual is when one notes that the patterns of
idiosyncratic desires flow from all that which is socialracism, sexism, ageism
romanticism, etc. All social values and beliefs are complexly present and
visible. (Whittier and Simon 2001, p. 162)
Those who are called or who consider themselves heterosexuals are, in all
likelihood, tall-blond-Wasposexual, short-curly-haired zaftig-Jewishosexual,
African-American-with-a-southern-accentosexual, erotically excited only by
members of their own ethnic group or only by those outside that group.
(Chodorow 1994, p. 38)

One could argue further that even as the irrational domain of primary processdetermined by its own
pre-established lawswill bear on how an individual experiences the world, primary process exists in
relation to the selfs encounter with the social order. That is, the self is itself an object in social space and,
as such, will not have a universal experience of the world of objects, but one patterned by social forces.
Hence, the raw material of experience and perception that is metabolized by primary process, situates
primary process in relation to the social worldi.e., society penetrates primary process via socially
patterned experience.
614 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

In the study of taste, Bourdieu believed that sociology was rarely more akin to
social psychoanalysis (Bourdieu 1984, p. 11). Perhaps nowhere is this more evident
than in the study of sexual desire wherein the complexities of intrapsychic process
and the objects of social structure are brought together in highly charged, highly
specific, sexual scripts. To the extent that these scripts reflect both the objective
world of objects and the subjective realm of desire, sexual fantasy is at once highly
sociological and highly psychologicala representational field (Sedgwick 1997,
p. 422) that requires the tools of both disciplines to understand. Reading Bourdieus
habitus as a psychic structure constituted by the introjection of the world of objects
and their historical relations, one finds a powerful sensitizing concept for a sociology
of desire. Here, the social order and ones place within it have a somatic relationship
to the unconscious, supplying a social cosmology of eroticized objects and attendant
thematicsi.e., an erotic habitus (Green 2008) that orients the undifferentiated
biological libido toward particular social forms.
Erotic habitus is a socially constituted complex of dispositions, appreciations, and
inclinations arising from objective historical conditions that mediate the formation and
selection of sexual scripts. The concept rests on the principle that sexual desire is
oriented to the social world through historically specific erotic habitus that differentially
invest particular objects with erotic meaning, while rendering other objects neuter.
Beneath the level of consciousness, the schemes of the erotic habituseroticized
typologies revolving around classifications of race, class, and sex, for instance
represent the embedding of social structures in bodies (Bourdieu 1998, p. 40), and
lend sexual fantasy its collective and historical character.10 In this way, erotic habitus
generates sexual fantasies that are subjective but not individual erotic representations.
In each sexual fantasy, the self makes an imaginary encounter with the social order
through an erotic meditation on particular objectsi.e., object choices. These object
choices and attending erotic themes are anchored to the social world in two ways: First,
all object choices involve the eroticization of particular objects internalized as social
taxonomy in the erotic habitus; and, second, all object choices are tied to the subjects
sense of self in relation to the world of objectsi.e., the subjects subjective sense of
location within the social order. This latter sense of self, moreover, is constituted not
simply as a cognitive subject position within a social taxonomy of objects, but by virtue
of the fact that social structural factors, including racial and gender inequality, will
themselves produce differential experiences and, in turn, differential psychological
tensions that mark the selfs relation to the social order. These, too, will bear on erotic
habitus. This is not to disregard individual, psychological factors related to the
idiosyncrasies of biography and familial relations, for instance, and indeed, no matter the
social contribution, sexual fantasy cannot be reduced to social structure. Nevertheless,
the erotic habitus may be thought of as capturing the sociological contribution to sexual
fantasy, and is itself linked to individual psychological process in ways that defy simple
disciplinary jurisdiction.

Ethel Person (1999) coined the phrase erotic signature to indicate, in psychoanalytic terms, the
specificity of a given individuals desires. Like a fingerprint, an erotic signature distinguishes
individuals in relation to the particular scripts that arouse them. The erotic habitus concept is
commensurable with this term, but provides a stronger emphasis on the sociological, collective basis of
seemingly individual sexual fantasies.
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 615

To the extent that the erotic habitus is an unconscious psychic structure, it cannot
be studied directly through empirical methods. In fact, individuals are generally
unaware of the origins of sexual fantasy and, moreover, have little means by which
to alter consciously their desires, no matter how offensive, hateful, shameful, violent,
self-destructive, self-loathing, racist, sexist, or homophobic they may appear (Person
1999; Stoller 1985). Rather, the structure of the erotic habitus reveals itself in the
patterning of sexual desires, brought to consciousness via the erotic work, or, the
process whereby internalized schemes and dispositions of erotic habitus are
transformed into sexual scripts. Erotic work, then, is a process of erotic imagining
that articulates the unconscious structure of the erotic habitus at the level of
conscious sexual fantasy. Conversely, sexual fantasy may be thought of as a running
commentary on the unconscious somatization of social relations.
The erotic habitus, as an aspect of habitus more generally, takes form over the
course of the life history, but in a manner that gives disproportionate weight to early
experience (Bourdieu 1990). These early experiences comprise moments in
psychological life whereby individuals acquire, through symbolic force and
introjection, a deeply internalized orientation to the social order and their location
within it. To be sure, the animating dynamics of eroticismincluding dominance
and submission, humiliation, merger, and transformationare likely universal
features of human sexual life (Bataille 1962; Chodorow 1994; Stoller 1985), and
yet, to the extent that differently located individuals in social space have distinct
experiences of the external world (and thereby, distinct group erotic habitus), so the
erotic work will reveal a sociohistorical patterning. Nevertheless, the erotic habitus
should not be regarded as determinative of sexual fantasy, but rather, as a socially
structured set of erotic dispositions, schemes of perceptions and appreciations that
interface with more idiosyncratic, biographical, and psychological factors to make
certain objects more or less likely to be focal points of arousal. In this sense, the
erotic habitus provides a rough template of objects and erotic dispositions from
which individuals consciously improvise a sexual script. Moreover, even as the
erotic habitus materializes early in psychological life, it is not to be conceived as an
ossified psychic structure but, rather, subject to change over time as individuals have
new experiences that reconstitute self-concept and the selfs location in social space.
Below, I explore these aspects of erotic habitus and erotic work by drawing on a
range of empirical cases developed in the work of feminist and sociological scholars.
These cases are subject to multiple interpretations and should be read, therefore, not
as definitive evidence of the erotic habitus but, rather, as suggestive vignettes. I
introduce this work as a means to build upon and make more explicit the theoretical
insights of its authors and to show how their analyses are implicitly anchored in a
framework of embodiment and habitus.

Sedgwicks Gary Fisher: eroticizing racial domination

In her essay, Gary Fisher in Your Pocket, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1997) provides a
particularly striking example of the relationship of social structure to sexual ideation.
Gary Fisher was a gay, African American graduate student of extraordinary literary
talent with whom Sedgwick had established a long term, platonic relationship. In the
last few years of his life, Fisher, suffering from AIDS, wrote a series of
616 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

autobiographical reflections, journal entries and short stories that he sent to Sedgwick.
Sedgwick would eventually publish these in Fishers name following his death. Fisher,
it turns out, was a military brat, traveling as a child from one, largely white army base
to another. His connections to both African-American and white culture were tenuous,
and his life history was marked by an outsider status that endured well past his days
as a graduate student at Berkeley, where he encountered Sedgwick.
Fishers sexual fantasy life revealed sexual scripts embroiled in racialized struggle
and domination. For Fisher, the history of race-based economic and social
inequalities in the United States were not just external historical facts or political
injuries around which an emancipatory activism would ensue (though indeed it did).
Rather, Sedgwick suggests that racialized social structures occupied a position in the
unconscious that, digested through the mechanisms of primary process (e.g., sorted,
displaced, reassigned), would resurface in his erotic thoughtshis bodily desire.
Like others gone before him, he forged a concrete, robust bodily desire in the
image of historical dispossession, humiliation, compulsion and denegation,
among other things. Probably any sexuality is a matter of sorting, displacing,
reassigning singleness or plurality, literality or figurativeness, to a very limited
number of sites and signifiers. (Sedgwick 1997, p. 424)
Borrowing from Bourdieu and object relations theory, we might say that Fishers
particular biographic encounter with the social order inculcated a racialized sense of
selfan unconsciously held racial self in-relation to other racial selves and strata
that, in turn, produced desires and practices that drew from and reflected racial inequality
and dispossession. For Fisher, being AfricanAmerican was more than just a master
status as scripting theory might suggest; it was also a somatic relation to the social order
reworked and made conscious in sexual fantasy. This is the process of erotic work.
Hence, from Fishers journal are a series of entries that revolve around racial
domination, such as that found in a letter to a former sex partner, Mater Park:
Dear Master Park, Heres that letter you wanted. Im laying here sideways in the
bed with Slavery Defended opened to about midway, sampling the arguments and
thinking about how good it felt to serve. Not that it matters, but I enjoyed
Thursday immensely, particularly the sleaze and humiliation of some of it. The
racial humiliation is a huge turn on. I enjoy being your nigger, your property, and
worshipping not just you, but your whiteness. (quoted in Sedgwick 1997, p. 421)
Fishers journal entry may be regarded as deeply disturbing because he appears to
find pleasure in his own subjugation, which, devoid of subtlety or subterfuge, seems
to offer no resistance.11 But his desires are part and parcel of what it means to be an
embodied subject who, in the face of a racialized social order, experiences race not

Catharine MacKinnon (1989) makes a related point in relationship to womens sexuality. MacKinnon
argued that women, in the context of patriarchy, are not free to experience sexual pleasure but are subject,
rather, to an androcentric, eroticized violence. Hence all heterosexual encounters, even those that bring
pleasure, are but mere variations of rape. By contrast, Sedgwick (1997), along with other pro-sex
feminists, regards BDSM as a potentially therapeutic engagement with power and violence by transposing
these into a sexual improvisation where these themes can be explored and managed.
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 617

as something external to himself, but as an active feature of the social structure

somatized in the structure of the erotic habitus and brought to consciousness via erotic
work. Subsequently, in each sexual fantasy and in each sexual interaction, Fisher
engages in an imaginary encounter with the social order whereby his intersubjective
scripting (Whittier and Melendez 2004; Whittier and Simon 2001)i.e., his sense of
what others think of himis bound to race and a racialized subject position. At stake
in Fishers sexual life then is his relationship to the history of racialization, inscribed in
the erotic habitus, and present in each sexual interaction in the form of racialized
schemes of perception and appreciation that organize his sexual scripting along very
particular sociohistorical lines.12 Invoking the structures of the social order in this way,
Fisher forges a representational encounter with symbolic domination, engaging its
injurious terms through the dramaturgy of erotic play.

Cherrie Moraga: eroticizing gender domination

If race for Fisher was a salient feature of his biography and, in turn, the structure of
his habitus, Cherrie Moragas formative years as a young woman in a highly
patriarchal Chicano culture were no less critical in shaping her relationship to the
social cosmos. Moraga grew up in a family with rigidly organized gender roles
whereby women were subordinated to men, the latter who were regarded in every
way superior (Moraga and Hollibaugh 1983). As a female sibling, Moraga was made
responsible for the domestic care of her brothers, including preparing their beds,
ironing their shirts, serving them beverages, and the like (ibid.). Whereas her
brothers received the unconditional love of their mother, Moraga, as a female, felt
she had to earn her mothers affections. Moreover, the patriarchal Chicano society in
which she experienced her adolescence prescribed explicit sexual roles to men and
women: men were to have women through vaginal-penile penetration; women
were to be had through being penetrated. These gendered differentials in power,
agency, and subjectivity imposed social structural constraints that Moraga would
eventually escape by extricating herself from her Chicano family and community,
turning to Anglo North American culture in its place. Nevertheless, by her own
account, this external history had an active residue that would fundamentally
organize her sexual life as a lesbian long after her exodus from Mexico. Thus, in
describing the relationship of this history to her sexual subjectivity, she writes:
In the effort to avoid embodying la chingada [the one penetrated], I became the
chingon [the one who penetrates]. In the effort not to feel fucked, I became the
fucker, even with woman. The fact of the matter was that all those power
struggles of having and being had were played out in my own bedroom.
And in my psyche, they held a particular Mexican twist. (Moraga quoted in
Almaguer 268, emphasis added)
Moragas sexual practice reveals a practical encounter with the gendered schemes
of Chicano culture in a manner that provides an opportunity for sexual subjectivity
and emancipation. Organized through the lens of rigidly structured gendered

In a related point, Foucault (1980) has argued that power, as a form of subjectification, generates
pleasure at the same time it produces dominated subjects.
618 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

oppositions, Moragas erotic work reflects an erotic dispositionan erotic habitus

homologous with the structure of social relations which, internalized in her formative
years, became a source of sexual pleasure and empowerment.
[W]hat turned me on sexually, at a very early age, had to do with the fantasy
of capture, taking a woman, and my identification was with the man.
(Moraga and Hollibaugh 1983, p. 396)
Moragas sexual fantasies, however, also served as a source of guilt and political
contention, for her desire to capture women flew in the face of feminist discourse,
appearing as a blatant reiteration of the terms of heterosexuality. Radical feminism, in
fact, had imagined lesbian sexuality as an emancipatory, feminist eroticism born out of
political conviction, not the unconscious incorporation of patriarchal power relations
(Bunch 1975; Rich 1980). Thence, on feminism and sexual fantasy, Moraga writes:
It set up a perfect vision of egalitarian sexuality, where we could magically
leap over our heterosexist conditioning into mutually orgasmic, struggle-free,
trouble-free sex. (Moraga and Hollibaugh 1983, p. 395)
In referencing heterosexist conditioning, Moraga locates her desires in the
larger context of gendered relations. The conflict she experiences between her sexual
desires and her feminist allegiance underscores the unconscious basis of her fantasy
lifei.e., her erotic habitusa psychic structure for which feminist politics has little
jurisdiction. That is, Moragas erotic work brings the structure of the social order,
embodied in the structure of the erotic habitus, into consciousness, despite its
political and personal implications. Nevertheless, in this erotic work, Moraga finds a
benign catharsis that, if repressed, will bring the inculcated terms of the social order
to bear on other areas of her relationship.
Well, what I think is very dangerous about keeping down such fantasies is that
they are forced to stay unconscious. Then, next think you know, in the actual
sexual relationship, you become the capturer, that is, you try to have power over
your lover, psychologically or whatever. If the desire for power is so hidden and
unacknowledged, it will inevitably surface through manipulation or what-have-
you. (Moraga and Hollibaugh 1983, p. 397)

Westons Paula Nevins: eroticism through identificatory improvisation

Kath Westons (1996) study of lesbian eroticism offers a series of provocative

vignettes that underscore the ways in which sexual fantasy provides an improvisa-
tional encounter that situates ones self concept in relation to the wider universe of
objects. In one particularly provocative vignette, Paula Nevinsa lesbian identified
womanrecounts an instance in her recent sexual history when she engaged in sex
with a man. This incident was highly anomalous given the description she offers of
her typical sexual type:
Im definitely more on the masculine side of the scale. Theres no doubt about
it, because Im very attracted to the other side of the scale: blonde, blue-eyed,
Renaissance maidens. (Weston 1996)
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 619

Nevinss sexual type reveals two facets of the inculcation of social taxonomy,
both of which bear on the ways she authors and selects sexual scripts. First, in the
account above, Weston presents an internalized social ontology marked by
femininity on one side and masculinity on the other. Hence gender, read as binary
affect, becomes embroiled in Nevinss sexual imagination, and a guiding thematic
around which sexual scripting, including her own subject position as masculine
identified, occurs. Yet, second, femininitythe other side of the scale from
masculinityis not only an affective state in opposition to masculinity, but it is
represented here in racially and historically specific terms: blonde, blue-eyed,
Renaissance maidens. These features of Nevinss ideal object choice locate her
erotic habitus in a very particular cultural and historical context and speak to the
kind of internalization of social relations that mark Bourdieus deeply socialized
On the occasion Nevins had sex with a man, however, the sex of her object choice
had changed, though the character of the erotic work remained thematically consistent.
In this instance, Nevins describes the man as lovely, small-town, virginal with hair to
his shoulders. He was, in fact, a feminine teenage boy who, from the vantage point of
Nevins, occupied a location outside the gender binary in a manner that allowed her to
perceive him as something other than man: [He was] this very beautiful, innocent
being. I cant really consider him a man. Note here again the invocation of a gendered
taxonomy within which females are beautiful and innocent and men their opposite.
Yet, in an interesting twist, Nevins found in this experience not simply the erotic tension
of masculine and feminine but, rather, psychological access to her own masculine
identification: In a sense, it wasnt really about sex for me. [It was about] opening up to
a very innocent masculine young part of myself.
Nevinss interaction with this unusually feminine man crystallized an aspect of
her own gender identification in a way that was highly pleasurable. That is, through
a process of identification with her partners young, almost pre-pubescent
masculinity, Nevins improvised a sexual scenario that was consonant with her
erotic habitus even as the sex of her usual object choice had changed. Here is an
instance of the great creativity of sexual scripting, even as the guiding taxonomy of
erotic habitus endures in a transposable form. For Nevins, what is at stake in this
particular sexual interaction and in her fantasies more generally is her own embodied
sense of gender in relation to a universe of gendered schemes as these are projected
onto a variety of gendered and racialized object choices. The sexual script she
authored in this encounter was not part of the received canon of lesbian sexual
scripts but, rather, an improvisational play on internalized social taxonomy that
implicated her own deep sense of self as a gendered, masculine woman. Unpacking
her desires requires a scripting process, but one anchored to the deep psychic regions
of self-identification and self-in-relation to a world of objectsi.e., the erotic

Rereading scripting analysis: intersubjective scripting and erotic habitus

Having touched on the relationship of sexual scripts to erotic habitus, I turn in this
final section to revisit the work of scripting theorists themselves in order to
620 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

demonstrate how scripting and embodiment may be used together in the sociology of
desire. Here, I return to the case of Erik analyzed by Whittier and Simon (2001)
and Whittier and Melendez (2004), as I believe their analysis underscores the need to
embed scripting processes and sexual desire in a framework of embodiment.
Erik is a 44-year-old Latino man whose sexuality is embroiled in race and class
conflict. Hence, Erik pursued a very particular kind of hostile, affectively charged
sexual scenario, adopting highly specific kinds of sexual scripts. Regarding his
sexuality, Whittier and Melendez (2004) write:
Rough sex with white men in adult bookstores was a way Erik made the White
world sit up and recognize that he was visible and present in their lives. (p. 139)
By his own account, Eriks interest in white men requires a biographical explanation
rooted in childhood and in the ethnoracial system of stratification he experienced. Then,
Eriks ethnic status served to block full integration with the White world:
You know, thinking about it, when I was a kid being in that elementary school
and I was the only Latino kid and trying to get into the White world, to blend in
(Whittier and Simon 2001, p. 153).
As an adult, Eriks earlier experiences with social inequality had taken a more
durable, enduring form, reflected in sexual desires marked by race and class:
It was sort of like getting revenge, sort of like getting into the White world, I
mean, youd see these guys in their little shirt and ties and their suits, and
theyd have this persona of perfection, um together. They were together guys,
you know, they werent upset. They didnt cry, so together and to be able to pull
down his pants and lift up those starched shirts and youre in control, you
know. Seeing them moan and lose their inhibitions and call out your name
begging, you know, to keep doing what youre doing, that was a turn on to me.
(Whittier and Simon 2001, p. 154)
In their analysis of this case, Whittier and Melendez (2004) and Whittier and
Simon (2001) identify an intersubjective scripting process wherein Eriks sexual
practices and desires were explicitly organized in relation to married white men and
their perceptions of him as a Latino man.
Erik contextualized his interest in White married men as representing the
established world, but also as part and parcel of his experience growing up and
being different in that world. Because he perceived White men as the
establishment, his intrapyschic sexual scripting was experienced through the
lens of race, or at least his perception of others as raced, and their views of him
as such. (Whittier and Melendez 2004, p. 140)
Following Eriks own account, Whittier and Simon (2001) suggest that his particular
erotic preoccupation has its roots in childhood experience as an ethnic outsider:
[T]he status hierarchies that Erik has engaged with in his sexual life are those
that he felt and experienced as salient in his childhood and that were modified,
perhaps not catastrophically, but subtly, across his life course. (Whittier and
Simon 2001, p. 156)
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 621

Eriks case represents a fascinating instance of the relationship of erotic habitus to

intersubjective scripting. By itself, scripting theory does not specify why or how
Eriks childhood experiences with racialized status structures would have such a
tenacious impact decades later on his adult desires. These questions, instead, require
a concept that captures the ways in which social structure is transformed into a
psychological phenomenon in the form of enduring schemes of perception,
dispositions, and inclinations. That is, if we reread the case of Erik from the
perspective of erotic habitus, it becomes clear that the structures of inequality
accruing from his racialized subject positioni.e., Eriks subjective sense of self-in-
relation to the social cosmoswas internalized via symbolic force as an aspect of
psychic structure, and implicated in his subsequent object choices and the attendant
erotic themes of his sexual scripting. Indeed, here we do find intersubjective
scripting processes whereby Erik consciously considers himself in relation to the
white social order that, for him, is represented by white married men donning
expensive shirts, ties, and suits. But the object choice itselfgendered, classed, and
racializedand the tenacious, highly charged desire to control and to seek revenge
upon this object betrays a deep psychological engagement with the social order and
an embodied, bodily encounter with social structure. This is the erotic habitus, the
unconscious source of the improvisational and intersubjective scripting processes
that characterize Eriks sexual desires and practices.

Conclusion: from social learning to embodiment

Nearly a century ago, Durkheim (1909) declared sociology incomplete to the extent
it failed to relate institutions to the innermost mind of the individual (p. 755).
Epstein (1991), in the spirit of Durkheim, proposed well over a decade ago a
sociology of desire organized around an object relations psychoanalysis. But while I
am sympathetic to this goal, I am less optimistic than Epstein about the possibility of
a synthesis of sociology and psychoanalysis, for the latter, as I have argued above,
by definition and mandate, is trained on primary processes for which sociology has
no analytic or methodological jurisdiction. Nevertheless, there are dimensions of
intrapsychic process that are organized by social forces in a way that require
sociological investigation and the development of new frameworks and concepts for
mining this territory. Bourdieus general theory of practice and the concept of
habitus, in particular, is just such a framework for tapping into the territory where
social structure and the unconscious meet. Hence, in this article, I have taken up
Epsteins challenge, not by developing an object relations theory suited to desire but,
rather, by expanding Bourdieus concept of habitus to render simultaneously its
affinity with object relations theory and its strong sociological, social structural
orientation. This is the terrain of the erotic habitus.
Erotic habitus, as an aspect of the habitus more generally, builds on Bourdieus
(1977, 1984, 1998) formulation of the concept, but resists an overly cognitive
reading of this psychic structure. Indeed, as Widick (2003) notes, though Bourdieu
had a methodological aversion to psychoanalysis (p. 683), a more profitable
reading of his theory of practicei.e., a reading that is at once faithful to the
unconscious operation of habitus and its relationship to social structure and to its
622 Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626

libidinal investment in the fieldwill set aside Bourdieus disciplinary boundary

work and supplement the focus on cognitive structures with a psychoanalytic
language of psychic investment and affectivity. In an outward-looking object
relations theory, I have found strong conceptual parallels with Bourdieus habitus,
particularly in the psyche-society interface through which the relationship of the
individual and the social structure is conceived. Here, introjection, or, the
embodiment of social structure, establishes a deeply socialized intrapsychic life,
bodily hexis and, I argue, libidinal investment in the form of sexual desire.
In this article, I have argued that sexual fantasy is a conscious activity organized by
unconscious structures, which are themselves constituted, in part, in the psyche-society
interface. Through sexual fantasy, the self makes an imaginary encounter with the social
order via an erotic focus on particular objectsi.e., object choices. The particularity of
object choices and their attendant erotic themes provide a historical, sociological
specificity to sexual imagination. Thought of in this way, sexual desires implicate the
subjects unconscious sense of self as a social object (e.g., a racialized, gendered, classed
self) in relation to a universe of other objects acquired vis--vis the introjection of social
taxonomyi.e., vis--vis symbolic force. However, operating under the laws of primary
process, object choice is not a simple internalization of social structure but, perhaps,
better conceived as the somatization of social relations processed through the irrational
machinery of primary process whereby the subject attempts to join, dominate, split,
disavow, recuperate, or eviscerate the object and, in turn, the self (Benjamin 1988;
Stoller 1985). Erotic habitus, then, is the sociological component of sexual desire that
straddles social structure and unconscious processes. That is, the erotic habitus is the
subjectively embodied social order in psychic structure that orients sexual desires to
the social world without determining their precise expression.
A sociology of desire grounded in this notion of embodiment, as opposed to the
reigning social learning framework of sexual scripting, addresses two persistent
problems in the sociology of sexuality while at the same time maximizing, without
overextending, the utility of scripting theory. At the micro-level, sociologists of
sexuality have typically glossed or ignored altogether the relationship of the
unconscious to sexual fantasy. Hence, as Epstein (1991) observes, this tendency has
left the field without an adequate explanation of the structuring of desire, its tenacity,
intensity, and durability, and the processes by which sexual meanings are inscribed
on individual psyches (p. 831). And, at the macro-level, sociologists of sexuality
have not specified the relationship of social structure to sexual desirei.e., the
relationship of race, class, ethnicity, age, and the like to sexual fantasy. Hence, as
Stein (1989) notes, this deficiency has left the field without an adequate explanation
of who scripts what, how, and why.
By contrast, the concepts of erotic habitus and erotic work, extrapolated from
Bourdieus theory of practice, provide a sensitizing framework for bridging the
unconscious, subjective sexual scripting, and social structure. That is, in the first
instance, the erotic habitus is an unconscious psychic structure that provides a template
of erotic schemes, appreciations, and inclinations that, delivered via the erotic work,
forms the basis of conscious sexual fantasy, sexual scripting, and sexual improvisation.
The concept provides a socially constituted psychological mechanism whereby
introjection of objects and their relations are stabilized as psychic structure. The erotic
habitus, then, is a concept that addresses the micro-level concerns articulated by Epstein
Theor Soc (2008) 37:597626 623

(1991) regarding the structuring of desire and its durability, linking the unconscious
inscription of culture to conscious desires. And in the second instance, the erotic
habitus, like the habitus more generally, is constituted through the internalization of
social structure whereby the social order is inculcated at the level of the body. The
concept highlights the psyche-society interface wherein objects and their relations
materialize as psychic structure. In this way, the concept of erotic habitus addresses the
macro-level concerns articulated by Stein (1989) regarding the structural basis of
sexual fantasies, as the latter are patterned by dint of variation in subject position,
including positions that accrue from race, class, and ethnic location.
Scripting and embodiment, however, are not mutually exclusive and, as I have
argued throughout this piece, are best used together in a sociology of desire. For no
matter the unconscious structure of object choice, consciousness is not merely
epiphenomenal to the unconscious but is itself a generative state of mind by which
improvisational, interactive, and intersubjective scripting processes will occur.
Indeed, erotic habitus infuses underlying schemes of perception, inclinations, and
appreciations with erotic salience, but scripting processes organize these substrata
into intelligible, conscious sexual fantasies. And what is more, conversely, exposure
to new sexual scripts via sexual interaction will surely work back on the erotic
habitus, reshaping its particular appreciations and inclinations in an ever transfor-
mative process over the sexual life history.
To conclude, sexual desire is perhaps one of the most complex phenomena for
sociological analysis, situated at the murky interstices of psychological and
sociological processes. Under the sway of primary process, and subject to the
idiosyncrasy of individual biography, sexual desire will never be entirely accounted
for or predicted by sociological explanation. Nevertheless, there is a discernible
sociological contribution to sexual desires, if only the sociology of sexuality will
enter that forbidden netherworld of the psyche-society interface or, in Bourdieus
words, the process by which the social world constitutes the biological libido, an
undifferentiated impulse, as a specific social libido (Bourdieu 1994, p. 78). In this
article, I have argued that Bourdieus theory of practice, with its conceptualization of
the relationship of psyche to society, provides a promising lead in this direction.
Toward that end, I offer the sensitizing concepts of erotic habitus and erotic work to
develop a more penetrating conception of the somatization of the social order and its
consequences for desiring subjects. In combination with scripting processes that
occur at the level of conscious life, a framework anchored in embodiment may hold
special promise for a sociology of desire, providing scholars of sexuality with new
tools for mining the sociological contribution to eroticism.

Acknowledgment The author wishes to thank Anna Korteweg, Jim Davis, David Greenberg, and Barry
Adam for their very helpful insights.


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Adam Isaiah Green is assistant professor of Sociology at University of Toronto. His published work on
Bourdieu and sexuality includes an essay that develops the sexual fields framework (in Sociological
Theory, 2008), along with a book-length manuscript currently in progress.