To understand the relationship between sex and society, I’d say the social institution is the most important theoretical concept. It provides a concrete way to describe immaterial, often invisible phenomenon. It’s easy to examine a material object in front of you on the table, but to examine structurally complex societal forces, you need some way to shrink the universe down a bit. The concept of the social institution lets us discuss entities that are real but can’t be pointed to materially. It basically means a network of people tied together through a particular way of viewing the world.
The benefit of talking about social institutions should be clear from the fact that it was the first topic we discussed in class. (Hopefully my notes are accurate). Right from the beginning when we discussed “Let’s Talk About Sex,” we unpacked how different social institutions work to create societal attitudes toward sex. We saw how social institutions aren’t inherently bad or good – it’s their content that determines their value. Social institutions created European countries’ tolerant attitudes toward sex, but they also created *dun dun duhhhhhhh…..* yellow skittles. It’s very important to remember that social institutions aren’t always bad. The concept is typically invoked to criticize a negative social trend, so we might associate them with negativity, but social institutions give us all kinds of wonderful things. Take your pick:
When we discussed identities, intimacies, and regulations, the social institution was integral to our understanding. The substance of most identities stems from some kind of social institution, a network of people who recognize a mode of self-expression as carrying a particular, consistent value. Straight men are straight men because the format of the “straight man” is a commodity with value and meaning that registers the same way at different points throughout society. It’s like the identity is a dollar, and the social institution is the network of banks that honor the dollar. On that analogy, you can read discrimination against certain minority identities as being like an artificial devaluing of a non-dollar currency.
Intimacies work much the same way. We talked about Foucault’s theory that social institutions regulate our diverse somatic experiences into static categories. Anal sex is what it is not just because of the physiological process involved, but because of the particular moral and identity associations society attaches to it.
When we got into campus culture, both in dealing with Hooking Up and the bill we looked at, the language of social institutions gave us tools to analyze our experience as students here. Instead of just sharing the observation that I saw people behaving a certain way, I could contextualize that behavior within the societal pressures that produced it like heteronormativity, hypermasculinity, rape culture etc.
All in all, I think the concept of the social institution was most crucial piece of theory for the class. I’d also say it was my biggest takeaway. The intellectual tools to think critically about social institutions don’t just have to apply to sex. It’s a theoretical perspective that will enrich your understanding of the world as much as you let it.