Ethnicity & Sexuality: Boundaries and Identities

Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers by Joane Nagel

Ethnicity relates to societal beliefs about sexuality as Joane Nagel writes in the second chapter of her book Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers. Nagel argues ethnicity not only relates to one’s ancestry, but also occurs as a social process “that emerges from the interaction between individuals and those whom they met as they pass through life”1. As a result, it varies from region to region. For example, while a Nigerian in Nigeria gets defined through religion, language, and region, the same person would be perceived simply as Black in the U.S.

Nagel refers to the social process of ethnicity as ethnic boundaries which include both physical symbolic markers of space that signify the in- and out- group of ethnicities. Thus, Nagel argues that ethnicity, often understood as biological, also exists as a social construct. We merely believe ethnic boundaries result from genetics, which makes us believe these boundaries don’t change.

Types of Ethnic Boundaries

Nagel lists several ethnic boundaries that function together to define group membership:

  1. Legal – citizenship
  2. Spatial – segregation
  3. Cultural – food, fashion, etc.
  4. Institutional – religions
  5. Social – friendships
  6. Economic – business
  7. Political – policies
  8. Ideational – trust
  9. Sexual – sexual cosmologies

Self-imposed maintenance of ethnic boundaries means our understanding of ethnicity results from spatial, legal, cultural, social and structural factors.

Sexual Boundaries as a function of Ethnicity

These ethnic boundaries serve as the template from which sexual boundaries in a society arise. These sexual boundaries can be divided into practices, orientations, and desires. Nagel lists several sexual boundaries:

  1. Spatial and temporal
  2. Cultural
  3. Legal
  4. Economic
  5. Political
  6. Racial
  7. Ethnic
  8. National

Therefore sexuality should be understood in terms of social structure and power because the human body serves as a instrument of performance and performativity for ethnicity. Those who study sexuality tend to have a phallocentric focus, which fails to interrogate heteronormativity and queerness. Indeed the maintenance of phallocentric sexualities enforces a gender binary and socially constructs homosexually as other (beginning in the 18th century).

  1. Nagel 2003: 42