There's no sex before culture

In this section I want to unfold my basic assumption that there is no sex before culture. So, the first question should be to ask: what is sex?

sex |
Sex can be derived from the latin word sexus. It was used to distinguish between male and female. In English, sex is used in this aforementioned sense. In German, therefore, there is no usage of sex in this sense. To distinguish between male and female, the word biologisches Geschlecht is used. Of course, Geschlecht, refers to the latin sexus but what I seek to explain is that if someone in Germany speaks of Sex, it does not refer to biological classification but rather to having sex, or it is used as an abbreviation for the term sexuality. The Oxford English Dictionary (2015) also refers to this, but in order to shed light upon its exact meaning, the context in which the word is used must be examined.
By the way: I am not talking about gender. Not now!


The Oxford Englisch Dictionary (2015): sex, n.1. Access: 22.02.2015.

It can't be said that there exists a common understanding of what sex (or sexuality) could be in social and cultural anthropology. One rather gets the feeling that the more that is read about it, the less it can be understood. If one goes through the various scientific literature which exists around the topic of sexuality one thing is very obvious: no one clearly defines what it is. The anthropologist Carole S. Vance summed it up perfectly: "Its meaning is often taken for granted, left implicit as a shared understanding between the reader and the author" (Vance 1991: 879).
So, what is it?
Regardless as to whether someone comes from the disciplines of the natural sciences or the social sciences, I would posit that there's no sex before culture. Of course, there is sexual intercourse and maybe this is what most people assume sex to be. However, where does it start and where does it end? Can one imagine going into a club or walking down a street and saying to a random person: "Let's go and have sex!"* What would happen? And why would it probably not possible to say something like that? The answer must be that sex is much more than (ultimately) sexual intercourse. It starts much earlier. Sex is not a single act which subjects or actors fulfil in their private rooms or wherever. It is a social practice which is surrounded by many single and diverse acts. Altogether, they build something which I want to call "doing sex".

* Note: I can only picture this as occurring within the setting of prostitution.

theory of social practice |
The theoretical framework of this research project is based upon the theory of social practice. Influences come especially from Philosophy and Sociology. To name a few examples as of yet: Pierre Bourdieu (habitual reacting), Judith Butler (performative acts), Michel Foucault (dispositif) and Bruno Latour (actor-network-theory). Special anthropological influence (since there is no distinctive theoretical corpus of sex in anthropology) comes from Thomas Csordas and Brenda Farnell (embodiment) and Tim Ingold (meshwork) which can contribute with their approaches to sex research in social and cultural anthropology.
The minimum consensus of those thinkers can be seen in the fact that acting and the social are stretched beyond the borders of most of the theories in social and cultural studies. It is the subject (or more basically spoken: the body) that acts. The subject is not somebody who merely is (through socialization, etc.). Rather the subject is always a becoming through ongoing action.
The subject always produces itself in the moment of acting. This does not mean that the subject is something like a white piece of paper: it incorporates knowledge through those practicing but, yet, it kind of expands in the way of being a subject through that ongoing action because it interacts with other actors and has to react to its environment.
In the perspective of the theory as social practice this environment is not confined to the interactions between persons. It also includes interactions with objects or things. Things are somehow upgraded; not just tools, but also objects with a specific meaning and function which are as essential for the social practice as persons are. In addition to it, this environment not only consists of persons and things, but also of institutions, bodily movements, laws, values, norms, etc. Altogether, they build a complex or complexes of social practice.

At this point, it must be said that there cannot be one single answer for what sex is. It depends on societies, space and time. However, what must be acknowledged is the statement that sex is a social practice all over the globe.
One of the first anthropologists who undertook research on sexuality was Bronislaw Malinowski. With a quotation of his I want to substantiate the aforementioned statement that sex exists as a social practice in every society.

"Sex is not a mere physiological transaction to the primitive South Sea Islander any more than it is to us; it implies love and love-making; it becomes the nucleus of such venerable institutions as marriage and the family; it pervades art and it produces its spell and its magic. It dominates in fact almost every aspect of culture. Sex, in its widest meaning - and it is thus I have used it in the title of this book - is rather a sociological and cultural force than a mere bodily relation of two individuals." (Malinowski 1929: xxiii).


Malinowski, Bronisław (1929): The sexual life of savages in North-Western Melanesia. London: Routledge.

So, sex as cultural phenomena is a universal but it cannot be reduced to a nucleus of what sex means transculturally.
If one takes a look at the anthropological literature, one can find an incredible variety of descriptions of values and norms which regulate the sexual. Every society has its clear perception of what is allowed and forbidden; what is right and what is wrong; what is desirable and what should be avoided; what it means to "act" in a sexual way or not.
For example, in German culture, there must be a minimum distance between two persons if they are not familiar with each other. If one of those two persons crosses this border, it gets weird because the other person would probably consider this as too close and could it interpret it as a sexual act of getting literally in touch. As my observations in Botswana showed, this is somehow different. Getting close and touching is much more usual. It is even possible to touch different body parts, such as breasts, without this being regarded as a sexual act at all, irrespective of whether it is between females or male and females. (During fieldwork, I found myself in such situations, which was highly irritating. Want to find out more? Read my post about: Being in touch!)