Sex and related questions of sexual reproduction and coupling have been an important focus for the social sciences since the 1960s and 1970s when sociologists, gay activists, and feminists first began to argue that sexuality is socially constructed, and not innate. The discipline of urban studies adds to such accounts by demonstrating that sexuality is also spatially constructed, with peoples’ sexual identities and desires influenced in various ways their upbringing, surroundings, and neighbourhood of residence in the city. Additionally, it brings to the fore the idea that cities offer more freedom than traditional rural communities in terms of possible sexual lifestyles, with larger cities exhibiting a diverse range of sexualized spaces (e.g., adult entertainment centers, sex clubs, gay bars, brothels) which act as the focus for sometimes niche sexual practices and identities. The way these different sexualities are made visible (or not) in the cityscape is revealing of the way these sexualities are regarded as either ‘normal’ or in some way ‘deviant.’ This noted, the study of sexuality in urban studies has generally been eclipsed by more traditional preoccupations with class and race. However, there has been gradual—if sometimes grudging—acknowledgment that questions of sex and sexuality matter when addressing the complexity of urban processes. This is most obvious in those studies of lesbian, gay, and bisexual life which have honed in on the importance of specific neighborhoods in LGBTQ life. Here studies of LGBTQ residence in a range of Western cities (notably San Francisco, New York, Berlin, Sydney, and Amsterdam, but also some smaller cities and towns including Provincetown, US and Hebden Bridgem UK) highlighted the importance of neighborhood spaces in the social, economic, and political life of those whose lives fall outside the heterosexual ‘norm.’ In time, the realization that many of these spaces of residence were also key sites of gentrification helped to bring the investigation of sexuality into dialogue with unfolding debates in urban and regional studies about the role of culture and lifestyle in driving processes of capital accumulation. Beyond the explication of changing LGBTQ residential geographies, ‘queer theory’ has also contributed to urban studies by foregrounding the importance of LGBTQ sexual identities and practices in processes such as global city migration, city branding, and urban tourism, engaging with debates on urban encounter, race, and gender in the process. Although still small in number, studies have also begun to explore the way that different heterosexualities are distributed across the public and private city, from the quiet spaces of suburbia to the ‘hot’ adult entertainment districts where varied—and sometimes criminalized—sexual pleasures can be bought and sold. In all of this there is an increasing focus on the mediated nature of sexuality, based on the understanding that urban sexual encounters and relationships are often arranged or conducted in the online realm via dating apps and platform technologies.
Textbooks and Reviews
Mainstream urban studies have been slow to acknowledge the importance of sexuality in urban process, meaning the topic of urban sexualities is still regarded as somewhat niche. This means introductory textbooks and anthologies are lacking, with few attempting to construct a synthetic account of the role of the city in sexual life: Hubbard 2013 provides perhaps the most fulsome discussion of the different approaches taken to sexuality in urban studies, which bridges geography, sociology, and sociolegal approaches. Laumann, et al. 2005 is also a notable work in terms of its ambition, which in many ways harkens back to the classical urban ecology of the “Chicago school” by mapping patterns of sexual connectivity and showing that the city constrains and enables relationships according to peoples’ class, ethnicity, and sexuality. This work is essentially about social relationships in the city rather than the way cities are experienced, and represented, as sexual spaces: here, ideas about the way that cities offer a multitude of sexual experience, particularly through the relentless presentation of the commodity form, is an important argument, albeit one that has rarely been summarized effectively. Abraham 2009 offers a wide-ranging discussion of the shifting relations of homosexuality and the city as they have unfolded in the modern era, and is highly recommended. Kalms 2017 provides a more contemporary take, which is both provocative and timely, on the forms of sexual imagery which saturate cities. Although it explores both urban and rural sexualities, Johnston and Longhurst 2010 is also a very accessible and readable introduction to the relation of sexuality and space, with Brown and Browne 2016 a more encompassing collection that reviews the state of the art in geographies of sexualities. Maginn and Steinmetz 2014, Doan 2011, and Doan 2015 are more urban in focus, with the first work mainly addressing heterosexual spaces of identification and the latter pair offering real insight into the role of municipal law, planning, and regulation in the making of LGBTQ and queer spaces. Finally, often-neglected issues of bisexuality in the city are more fully explored in Hemmings 2002.
Abraham, Julie. Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Exploring literary depictions of gay city life, classic works of urban theory, and the rhetoric of political reformers, Abraham’s work explores the connection between urbanization and queer life through analysis of figures including the flâneur, the prostitute, and the drag queen. Focusing on examples from Paris, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, this book argues that the recent commodification of gay life can be seen as one sign that it has been central to processes of urbanization.
Brown, Gavin, and Kath Browne, eds. The Routledge Research Companion to Geographies of Sex and Sexualities. London: Routledge, 2016.
This volume does not have an exclusive focus on cities, but has seven excellent chapters in a section on urban sexualities (pp. 13–63), including a consideration of sexuality in smaller towns by Tiffany Mueller Myrdahl; other sections on sexual health, digital sexuality and commercial sex overlap in significant ways with discussions of urban sexuality.
Doan, Petra, ed. Queerying Planning: Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.
A major edited collection that seeks to expose the heterosexual assumptions that often guide everyday planning practice, albeit that these are often unstated in discourses emphasizing amenity and the best possible use of land. A highly recommended collection featuring contributions from geographers, planners, and sociologists.
Doan, Petra, ed. Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces. London: Routledge, 2015.
Following from Doan 2011, this edited volume explores the ways that urban planning can help promote more inclusive LGBTQ communities and spaces that encompass the lifestyles of a diverse population that includes queers of color, those on low incomes, and older people.
Hemmings, Clare. Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender. London: Routledge, 2002.
A monograph-length exploration of the often-neglected geographies of bisexuality in the city that notes the way that those who are bisexual can be excluded from both ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ urban spaces.
Hubbard, Phil. Cities and Sexualities. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2013.
Explores the city as a site where sexuality is always subject to discipline via policing, planning, and environmental regulation, but notes the capacity of human bodies and sexual practice to challenge and exceed such regulation. Moving between different sites and spaces, the book synthesizes research on both LGBTQ and heterosexual minorities to draw broader conclusions about the centrality of sexuality in urbanization processes.
Johnston, Lynda, and Robyn Longhurst. Space, Place and Sex: Geographies of Sexualities. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.
The only authored text that seeks to provide an authoritative and accessible overview of the field of “sexual geographies,” drawing extensively on the authors’ own work in New Zealand. Notably, the book considers the different scales on which we might explore questions of sexual belonging and desire, including a focus on the urban.
Kalms, Nicole. Hypersexual City: The Provocation of Soft-Core Urbanism. New York: Routledge, 2017.
This book is written from a radical feminist perspective, and with an eye to the visual presentation of sexuality in the city. Kalms powerfully argues that the commodification of women’s sexuality informs the design and appearance of cities, with excellent material on the role of architecture in the making of what she terms “soft-core” cities.
Laumann, Edward O., Stephen Ellingson, Jenna Mahay, Anthony Paik, and Yoosik Youm, eds. The Sexual Organization of the City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Based on extensive research in Chicago, this book considers the way the city can be divided into different “sexual marketplaces,” and outlines how these operate in the context of social norms and constraints.
Maginn, Paul J., and Christine Steinmetz, eds. (Sub)Urban Sexscapes. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Focused on commercial sexuality in all its varied manifestation, the chapters in this collection nonetheless serve as a useful state-of-the-art in terms of research into urban sexualities.
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