Sexuality and Sport Essay

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Michel Foucault, one of the most influential historians of sexuality, argues that sex and sexuality became a pivot for the organization and control of life in modernity, and that sex and sexuality are increasingly central to human affairs to the extent that much of contemporary life has been organized around these concepts.

Sport has long been a site for the reproduction of sexual difference, but sexuality occupied a somewhat absent presence” in sport sociological research until the late 1980s and early 1990s. In early studies on sexuality and sport, feminist scholars identified the conspiracy of silence” that led to the demonization and invisibility of lesbian athletes, while, concurrently, it was revealed that pervasive expectations of heterosexuality made it impossible for gay men to come out, legitimized homophobic violence, and resulted in displays of aggressive hyper-masculinity in male sports. These early studies served as strategic and anti-oppressive scholarship that brought the experiences of lesbian and gay athletes out of the sports closet. Since that time, scholars in the sociology of sport have continued to critique the ways in which sport serves as a site for: confirming the two sex/gender classification system, which codes lesbians as masculine and gay men as effeminate, constructing and policing sexualities, and resisting heterosexism and the heterosexualization of sport-related forms. Contemporary theorizing demonstrates an increasing awareness and application of postmodern, poststructuralist, queer, postcolonial, and cultural geography theories to the study of sexuality and sport. Although each of these new” theories provides a unique approach, scholars using these theories focus their attention on: examining the intersectionalities of gender, sexuality, race, and class; critiquing the discourses that organize sexuality, the body, and the sex/gender dimorphic system; investigating the heteronormative spaces of sport.

While the homoerotic potential of men’s sport has been explored, there is relatively little work on homoeroticism in women’s sport. Women are usually represented as objects of desire rather than desiring subjects, and scholarship on lesbians and sport has tended to de-eroticize lesbian desire in order to present a non-threatening image of lesbians so as to promote full inclusion as athletes and coaches. Sport as a socio-cultural institution has established boundaries for experiencing the moving body, pleasure and erotic desire. Queer theorists seek to disrupt these boundaries by suggesting that sport is inherently erotic and sexual and imagine a physical culture that celebrates Eros, rather than rationality. However, the continued sexual objectification of women in sports; the sexual harassment of women, girls, and young boys in sport; the shame associated with homosexual abuse in men’s sport; and the use of sexual games in ritualistic team hazing, which have been profiled in the media, continue to make people fearful of sexuality and the sexual and erotic potential of sport. A recent decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that allows transsexual athletes to compete in Olympic Games appears to acknowledge a continuum of sexualities and desires in sport, and perhaps signals a move forward in human rights in relation to sexuality and sport. However, scholars are skeptical that these policies disrupt the heteronormative sports world. Sexuality and sport remains a site of contestation. Sport sociologists recognize the importance of undoing gender (Butler 2004) and continue to research the ways in which sport might celebrate sexuality and desire in ways that do not ethically exploit, oppress, or cause harm to other beings.


  1. Butler, J. (2004) Undoing Gender. Routledge, New York.
  2. Burstyn, V. (1999) The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
  3. Lenskyj, H. (2003) Out on the Field. Women’s Press, Toronto.

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