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Sex and intimacy in modern times

Offer semester
2nd semester

Lecture time
Wednesday 2.30pm – 4.20pm

Lecture venue

Course description

Great transformations have been taking place in the realm of intimacy – the rise of non-monogamous non-marital forms of intimacy, the increasing visibility of lesbian and gay existence, the well established commercial sex industry, the popularized public report of private stories, the huge development of the popularity of cosmetic surgery, and numerous possibilities for intimacy in the cyber world, to name but a few.

New forms of identity, intimacy and sexuality have emerged in the era of the post-modern/globalized world, which blur the boundaries of what constitutes private matters and public issues and challenge the meanings of normal/abnormal citizen, natural/artificial body, real/virtual relationship, authentic/counterfeit intimacy, and so forth.

Using contemporary sociological and political theories of identity, gender and sexuality, this course aims to track down the major transformation in the realm of sexual intimacy in modern times and to examine newly emerged ethical issues, moral dilemmas and social conflicts over sexual intimacy in four inter-related domains:

  1. democracy, human sexual rights and citizenship – how these issues are important in talking about intimate relationships;
  2. mass media and popular culture – how private matters become increasingly subject to public scrutiny;
  3. economy and consumption – how intimacy is increasingly commodified and commercialized; and,
  4. science, medicine and computer technology – how medical and computer technologies foster new pleasures, bodies and practices and the problems that arise from this.

At the end of the course, students are expected to be able to think critically about intimacy, to understand the complex interplay between self and society and to have learnt how to respect individual differences and preferences.

Course learning outcomes

On completing the course, you will be able to:

  • Identify key concepts in understanding intimacy using contemporary sociological and political theories of identity, gender and sexuality.
  • Demonstrate critical understanding of the complexity of issues of intimacy in their everyday lives through examination of the interplay between the self and society, i.e. how social, economic, political and cultural forces shape our intimate choices and decisions; and between private and public, i.e. how our most private decisions are bound up with public institutions such as the state, the law, the media, and medicine.
  • Express an appreciation of the distinctiveness and inter-relatedness of their own and other intimate cultures and demonstrate a cultural sensitivity with people of diverse cultures.
  • Behave as responsible global citizens who respect individual differences and preferences and uphold the core values of a democratic society: human rights, justice, equality and freedom of speech.

Study load

ActivitiesNumber of Hours
Reading / Self-study20
Assessment: Essay / Report writing20
Assessment: Presentation (incl preparation)20
Assessment: Group project50


Participation in Problem-based Learning tutorials30%
Individual essay20%
Group project40%
Individual reflective exercises10%

Required reading

Bartky, S. L. (1999). Foucault, femininity, and the modernisation of patriarchal power. In J. A. Kourany, J. P. Sterba & R. Tong (Eds.), Feminist philosophies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2004). Love online: Emotions of the Internet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. [Chap. 8]

Carroll, J. L., & Wolpe, P. R. (1996). Sexuality and gender in society. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers. [Chap. 1]

Giddens, A. (1992). The transformation of intimacy: Sexuality, love, and eroticism in modern societies. Cambridge: Polity Press. [Chaps. 3, 4]

Jamieson, L. (1998). Intimacy: Personal relationships in modern societies. Cambridge: Polity Press. [Introduction, Chap. 2]

Kong, T. S. K. (2006). What it feels like for a whore: The body politics of women performing erotic labour in Hong Kong. Gender, Work and Organization, 13(5), 409-434.

McNair, B. (2002). Striptease culture: Sex, media and the democratization of desire. London: Routledge. [Chaps. 4, 5]

Plummer, K. (1995). Telling sexual stories: Power, change and social worlds. London: Routledge. [Part 1]

Plummer, K. (2003). Intimate citizenship: Private decisions and public dialogues. Seattle: University of Washington Press. [Key reading]

Rubin, G. (1984/1993). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In H. Abelove, M. A. Barale & D. M. Halperin (Eds.), The lesbian and gay studies reader (pp. 3-44). London: Routledge.

More readings will be assigned for each lecture in the beginning of the term.

Recommended reading

Berlant, L. (Ed.). (2000). Intimacy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. [Selected chapters]

Bernstein, E., & Schaffner, L. (Eds.). (2005). Regulating sex: The politics of intimacy and identity. New York: Routledge. [Selected chapters]

Duncombe, J. (2004). The state of affairs: Explorations in infidelity and commitment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Illouz, E. (1997). Consuming the romantic utopia: Love and the cultural contradictions of capitalism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Haritaworn, J., Lin, C. J., & Klesse, C. (Eds.). (2006). Polyamory [Special issue]. Sexualities, 9(5).

Kong, T. S. K. (2011). Chinese male homosexualities: Memba, tongzhi and golden boy. London: Routledge. [Selected chapters]

Seidman, S., Fischer, N., & Meeks, C. (Eds.). (2011). Introducing the new sexuality studies: Original essays and interviews. London: Routledge. [Selected chapters]

Stombler, M., et al. (Ed.). (2004). Sex matters: The sexuality and society reader. Boston, MA: Pearson A and B. [Selected chapters]

Zeldin, T. (1995). An intimate history of humanity. New York: HarperCollins.

Zelizer, V. A. (2005). The purchase of intimacy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Course co-ordinator and teachers