Cities and Sexualities

As part of a broader investigation of the connections between sexuality and space, researchers in a number of disciplines have explored the relationship between particular sexual practices and identities and urban space – either at a generic level or in terms of particular cities around the world. There are a number of intersecting strands to this work. First, there is research that explores the cultural construction of the city – the city as it is imagined and portrayed in popular culture – and that investigates how this construction shapes possibilities and limitations for sexual practices and identities. For example, in terms of western gay male practices and identities, Kath Weston (1995) shows how US metropolitan centers were (and still are) constructed as places more open to male homosexuality, stimulating ‘‘the great gay migration’’ in the post war United States. For other groups labeled as ‘‘deviant’’ the city may also be constructed positively, in terms either of its liberal atmosphere or of the possibility of anonymity. But this association can lead to the city itself being considered ‘‘deviant’’ or dangerous, and therefore as an unsafe place. This connection is forcefully articulated in relation to two issues: prostitution and (sexually transmitted) disease (STD). In nineteenth century England, for example, moral panics about prostitution centered on city streets as danger zones, and moral regulation served to limit women’s access to urban public space. In terms of disease, similar moral panics over STDs, most notably HIV/ AIDS, have brought about policies to ‘‘clean up’’ parts of the city associated with certain sexual practices – perhaps most famously in New York City during Mayor Giuliani’s administration.

A second important area of work is concerned with ideas about spaces within the city. In the first half of the twentieth century, researchers in the Chicago School of Urban Sociology investigated the urban geography of non normative sexualities, mapping the varied ‘‘sex zones’’ used by different groups (Heap 2003). Later work also used the tools of urban ethnography to research the practices of ‘‘deviant’’ sexual cultures – most controversially in Laud Humphries’s Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places (1975), which utilized covert techniques in a study of male same sex activity in public toilets. One issue both the Chicago researchers and Humphries discussed that has continued to be central to research on the city’s sexual spaces is the distinction between public space and private space. Private space – usually thought to exist in the home – is often constructed as the only appropriate space for sexual expression. In contrast, public space is subject to intense scrutiny and regulation, and anything other than the ‘‘safest’’ forms of heteronormative sexual expression may be subject to formal or informal policing. This powerful divide has led to public space being seen as a crucial battleground in struggles over sexual politics. Some gay rights groups, for example, argue for the right to express their sexuality in public, staging protests to highlight discrimination. Moreover, the safety of the domestic home might not provide opportunities for sexual expression, if that expression is considered taboo within the moral economy of the family or household, so other spaces become centers of sexual practice and identity, including commercial spaces such as bars and clubs, and public spaces such as parks and streets. In the case of western gay male culture, for example, public spaces have historically played an important role, offering opportunities for men to meet away from the regulatory gaze of home and family – a role they continue to play today in western and non western cities.

Related to the issue of public and private space comes the broader question of the politics of space. Access to space in the city is regulated in all kinds of ways, making claims on space an important political tactic. For marginalized sexual minorities, the symbolic and material claiming of space has been a central component of rights struggles. From the temporary claiming of space in a protest march to the permanent establishment of residential or commercial spaces, there are many manifestations of this aspect of the relationship between cities and sexualities. Some critics argue that all space is fundamentally constructed and coded as hetero sexual, and that there are also normative ‘‘genderings’’ of space; these dominant codings and orderings of space limit possibilities for women and for sexual minorities. However, spaces of resistance to the dominant order can be carved out, and although some are highly ephemeral, others can become more permanently rooted in the city. In some large western cities, for example, particular neighborhoods have come to be associated with lesbian and gay communities – either as places where gay bars and clubs are concentrated, as in Manchester’s gay village, or where there is a marked residential concentration of lesbian and gay households, supported by gay owned or ‘‘gay friendly’’ services, as in the Castro district in San Francisco. Other sexual minorities are not equally able to make such claims on cityspace, and have been unable (or unwilling) to develop neighborhoods or villages of their own. Nevertheless, districts like the Castro have historically been very important, in terms of making the lesbian and gay community visible, and also politically powerful (at least as regards local politics).

While claims on space in cities have been seen as important political markers, the spaces claimed are themselves seen by some people as contradictory. Marking out one neighborhood as ‘‘gay,’’ for example, implicitly marks all other neighborhoods as ‘‘straight.’’ Residential concentration also ghettoizes those who live there, and excludes those who do not. A visible gay neighborhood might be attractive not only to gay men and lesbians, but also to homophobic ‘‘queer bashers,’’ or may be subject to excessive policing and regulation. Nevertheless, gay neighborhoods or villages have developed in a large number of cities (although their scale and scope vary considerably); in some cities this development has been encouraged by policy makers, especially since the so called pink economy came to their attention. According to pink economy discourse, gay men (in particular) are affluent and like to spend their sizable disposable incomes on high status lifestyle commodities. Attracting these high spenders into the city therefore promises financial dividends. While the pink economy has been thoroughly debunked as an overhyped myth, there is still considerable commercial interest in some sexual minorities, gay men in particular – though this is considerably less than the commercial interest shown in heterosexuality.

The development of gay spaces in cities is only one of the many relationships between cities and sexualities. As Pat Califia famously wrote in Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex (1994), echoing the foundational work of the Chicago School, the city is a patchwork of ‘‘sex zones,’’ some legitimate and dominant, others constructed as deviant or marginal. Consider able work has focused on exploring these sex zones, revealing the complex sexual ecology of the city. Part of that complexity comes from acknowledging specificity – moving away from generic discussions of ‘‘The City’’ to explore how particular sexualities relate to particular cities and cityspaces. This kind of attention to specificity has been tremendously important in highlighting that very different sexual spaces and cultures exist in different cities (and parts of cities); each city has its own map of sex zones. While studies of the sexual life of cities have to date been dominated by work on large metropolitan cities and by a focus on particular sexual identities and communities – mostly homosexual – important work is increasingly exploring smaller cities (not to mention the rural) and other types of sexual expression, identity, community, and politics. One area of neglect has been an explicit and sustained investigation of the relationships between heterosexuality and the city – while there has been lots of work on gender, there has been much less explicitly about sexuality in this regard.

An area of growing interest and importance, in terms of more specific and situated studies of the relationship between cities and sexualities, concerns cities outside the contemporary West. Different times and different places have produced very different interconnections between urban space and sexual cultures. Historical studies, such as those collected in Higgs’s Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600 (1999), have much to teach us about these interconnections in the past, revealing long forgotten urban sexual habits and habitats. Studies outside the West also reveal a multiplicity of distinct relationships between cities and sexualities, often in spite of the supposedly homogenizing forces of globalization. The study of globalization in relation to sexuality is also important for bringing issues of movement into focus: cities are spaces of flows, where people, goods, ideas, and images intersect as they circuit the globe. There is a growing interest in sexuality and movement, whether temporary or permanent, forced or elective. Rather than totalizing and fixing ‘‘The City’’ in space and time, therefore, work on cities and sexualities must necessarily be pluralistic, reflecting the full diversity of cities and sexualities.


  1. Califia, P. (1994) Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. Cleis Press, Pittsburgh.
  2. Heap, C. (2003) The City as a Sexual Laboratory: The Queer Heritage of the Chicago School. Qua litative Sociology 26(4): 457-87.
  3. Higgs, D. (Ed.) (1999) Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600. Routledge, London.
  4. Weston, K. (1995) Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration. GLQ 2 (3): 253-77.

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