Geography Geography of Sexuality
Phil Hubbard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0026


Geography as a discipline has been reticent about recognizing that sexuality is foundational to the making of social and spatial orders (cf. class, race, or gender). Initial work on geographies of sexuality was therefore restricted to consideration of “zones of vice” and studies of prostitution (a key theme in the Chicago School’s urban ethnographies). The increased visibility of lesbian and gay life in a range of Western cities (notably San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris) saw pioneering studies emerge in the 1980s which began to highlight the importance of particular neighborhoods in the social, economic, and political life of those whose lives fell outside the heterosexual “norm.” The realization that some “gay neighborhoods” were spaces of incipient gentrification helped to bring geographies of sexuality into dialogue with unfolding debates in urban geography about the importance of culture and lifestyle in driving processes of capital accumulation through property development. By the 1990s, studies of sexuality and space were established as an important subfield of gender and feminist geography, setting out an agenda for studies which was informed by “queer theory” and an interest in moving beyond a politics dedicated to equality for gay and lesbian individuals to a more radical project of destabilizing established sexual norms. Subsequent studies have begun to think through the implications of such an approach for interrogating the geographies of heterosexualities, recognizing that few “straight”-identified individuals have lives that conform to the ideals of the nuclear family. Rising rates of divorce in the urban West, serial monogamy, and the increasing rate of single living suggest that changing patterns of sexual behavior might have important consequences for housing and domestic reproduction which demand to be investigated further, while civil partnership and gay marriage suggest the emergence of new homonormative geographies. Emerging work on the geographies of love, intimacy, and care is also important here, as it shifts the focus away from sex itself to other dimensions of desire. Nonetheless, some of the trends noted by geographers in North America, Europe, and Australasia are far from universal, with postcolonial critique demanding that concepts of sexuality and space worked through in the metropolitan centers of the urban West should not be imported to other contexts where their relevance is far from certain.

General Overviews

The field of sexuality and space is now recognized as important in human geography and given more than just lip service in many introductory texts. However, there are relatively few collections that provide an overview of the subdiscipline, with the majority focusing on the geographies of lesbian and gay life rather than the wider range of sexualities that might be significant in understanding the geographies of economic, social, and political life. Bell and Valentine 1995 is important for flagging some important debates around gay gentrification, homemaking, and working lives, but has also widened the agenda by making connections to studies of heterosexuality and bisexuality and noting the possible theoretical connections between them. It remains the key text in this field and is required reading. Browne, et al. 2007 highlights the state of the art fifteen years on from the Bell and Valentine collection, and though this collection is strongly tipped toward North America and the United Kingdom, in other ways it highlights the progress made in developing a critical geography of sexuality. More accessible is Johnston and Longhurst 2010, which offers an overview of urban, rural, and homespace sexual geographies and touches on questions of migration and transnationalism. An earlier and pioneering UK-based overview of debates in the histories and geographies of sexualities is Mort and Nead 1999. Though there is currently no journal dedicated to the study of sexuality and space, useful reviews of the field like Binnie and Valentine 1999, Hubbard 2000, and Brown 2012 have been published in Progress in Human Geography. Beyond the references noted here, there are few collections that provide a wide overview of geographies of sexuality, and those that do tend to be focused on the urban West, with the lack of overviews of non-Anglophone literatures very apparent (though Blidon 2008 offers an interesting if brief French perspective).

  • Bell, David, and Gill Valentine, eds. Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities. London: Routledge, 1995.

    The first recognized overview of the field, and one that widened the conceptual landscape of sexuality and space to include questions of heterosexuality and bisexuality. This collection can now be seen to have some important omissions, but in other ways it was very prescient about trends which later emerged as queer theory became a more significant influence within human geography.

  • Binnie, Jon, and Gill Valentine. “Geographies of Sexuality—a Review of Progress” Progress in Human Geography 23.2 (1999): 175–187.

    An important summary of more than historical interest, noting the focus on emerging ideas of performativity. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Blidon, Marianne. “Jalons pour une géographie des homosexualités.” L’Espace géographique 2 (2008): 175–189.

    Reviews French social and cultural geographies of sexuality, arguing for a move beyond mapping the residence of gay-identified individuals to consider the effects of social stigmatization and distancing.

  • Brown, Michael. “Gender and Sexuality I: Intersectional Anxieties.” Progress in Human Geography 36.4 (2012): 541–550.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132511420973

    A timely piece that shows that geographies of sexualities have focused on the intersection of sex with gender and race, but not class, disability, or age. A brief intervention, but the first in a series of reviews of the field. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Browne, Kath, Jason Lim, and Gavin Brown, eds. Geographies of Sexualities: Theory, Practices and Politics. London: Ashgate, 2007.

    A significant overview of the state of the art that assessed progress a decade on from Mapping Desire. Organized around sections considering theories, practice, and politics, the volume dwells particularly on the value of queer approaches in a discipline where social science rather than humanities approaches have tended to dominate.

  • Hubbard, Philip. “Desire/Disgust: Mapping the Moral Contours of Heterosexuality.” Progress in Human Geography 24.2 (2000): 191–217.

    DOI: 10.1191/030913200667195279

    Summarizes a varied corpus of work that considers heterosexuality and its spatial expressions. Though critical of existing work on sexuality and space, this review identifies possible connections between queer theory and feminist theories and sets out an agenda for an enlarged subdiscipline focused on a wider range of sexual desires. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Johnston, Lynda, and Robin Longhurst. Space, Place and Sex: Geographies of Sexualities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

    The only authored text that seeks to provide an authoritative and accessible overview of the field, drawing extensively on the authors’ own work in New Zealand. Notably considers the different scales on which we might explore questions of sexual belonging and desire.

  • Mort, Frank, and Lynda Nead, eds. Special Issue: Sexual Geographies. New Formations 37 (Spring 1999).

    Written from the perspective of urban historians, this special issue uses varied historical examples to show how processes of sexual governance have relied upon particular practices of policing, planning, and spatial regulation. Articles available online for purchase or by subscription.

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