The politics of heterosexuality—a missing discourse in cancer nursing literature on sexuality: a discussion paper

Abbey Hyde
International Journal of Nursing Studies 2007, 44 (2): 315-25
In this article, a critique of cancer nursing literature on the issue of sexuality is presented, with particular reference to literature on cancers common to women. The paper begins with an account of two competing perspectives on sexuality. The first is a version of sexuality rooted in sexology, underpinned by biomedical science that makes a claim to having identified 'normal' sexuality. The second is a version of sexuality developed within feminist scholarship that tends to reject biological determinism as a basis for understanding sexuality, instead favouring constructionist perspectives, with the socio-political context of sexual relations problematised. The focus of the article then shifts to cancer nursing literature on sexuality that deals primarily with cancers common to women, to appraise the extent to which either of the above perspectives on sexuality is invoked. Within this body of nursing knowledge, I argue that there has largely been an uncritical endorsement of biomedical constructions of sexuality, rooted in orthodox sexology, with a dominant focus on sexual functioning and on sexual rehabilitation for women with cancer. Moreover, in this knowledge base, phallocentric heterosexuality over and above other forms of sexual expression is privileged, and the socio-political context of unequal gender power relations is largely excluded. References to the social sphere as a dimension of nursing care are focused almost exclusively on maintaining normality, and reflect the emphasis on functional restoration. The largely individualistic, uncritical and biocentric emphasis in this literature may serve inadvertently to reinforce and maintain existing gender inequalities in heterosexual relationships. Finally, I consider the difficulties for oncology nurses in dealing with contradictory truth claims or conventional wisdoms about sexuality from the disparate disciplines of which holism is comprised.

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