Sex taboos on agenda

March 26, 2004

The Times Higher reports from this week's British Sociological Association meeting

Is it OK to sleep with your students? was just one of the many thousands of questions posed at this year's British Sociological Association, writes Alison Utley.

Other papers dealt with more domestic quandaries: "Getting under the kitchen sink - anxiety, trust and routine in the consumption of cleaning products" by Durham University researchers; and "Reordering domestic space: constructing normality in narratives of extension" by a Manchester University team who sought to understand why people extend their homes.

Questions of gender were still to the fore, as were debates about anti-globalisation movements, the rise of middle England and third-way anti-racism.

Sarah Oerton, a Glamorgan University sociologist, explored the protocols that govern sex across a range of trust-based relationships such as lecturers and their students or doctors and their patients.

"Increasingly, codes suggest that sex somehow threatens and destabilises notions of professionalism and overturns altruism," she said. "There is the feeling that behaviour is uncontrolled and that sex is about to break out at any moment. But codes of practice suggest ambiguity because professionals are somehow expected to be beyond reproach."

Some codes in higher education, Ms Oerton found, prohibit sex between former students and their tutors; with some tutors extending the prohibition to friends and associates at work. "These codes reflect wider public concerns relating to forbidden - illicit but not illegal - sex between powerful and vulnerable groups of adults. They set themselves up as moral guardians and protectors of justice, assuming often without justification that this is in the public interest," she said.

Pamela Abbott, Glasgow Caledonian University, researched the impact of political change on mental and physical wellbeing among ordinary people in the former Soviet Union. She discovered that after the collapse of communism in 1991, there was a sharp increase in mortality rates, especially among middle-aged men.

Closer to home, economic pressures on families have produced massive geographical and social mobility over the past 60 years. A University of Wales, Swansea study has categorised social changes experienced in the first part of the 20th century as stability and homogeneity shifted according to occupation, class, culture and residence.

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