UIC Institute for the Humanities

 Working Groups


Health and Society

2013-2014 Events

“Sexual Health as Buzzword: Competing Stakes, Proliferating Meanings, and the Politics of Niche Standardization”  Add To Calendar

Steven G Epstein
Professor of Sociology and John C. Shaffer Professor in the Humanities
Northwestern University
  • Date(s): Wednesday, 10/23 3:00 PM to Wednesday, 10/23 5:00 PM
  • Campus Address: Institute for the Humanities, Lower Level, Stevenson Hall
  • Address: 701 South Morgan Street
  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Contact: Linda Vavra
  • Email: huminst@uic.edu
  • Website: http://huminst.las.uic.edu
  • Phone: 312-996-6354


In recent decades the idea of “sexual health” has gone from obscurity to ubiquity. The explosion of discourses, practices, and products that reference this goal can be traced through many of the usual markers of institutionalization in the worlds of public health and biomedicine, including the birth of journals, research centers, professional associations, and training programs. Yet the convergence around the term masks a remarkable diversity of scientific, political, economic, and cultural agendas. Through an analysis of both emergence and dispersion, I describe the contexts in which the recent emphasis on sexual health has arisen and the consequences of attempts to lay claim to it. On the basis of content analysis of documents, I identify 12 distinct “threads” of sexual health discourse and practice, and I characterize this proliferation of sexual health projects as an example of “niche standardization,” in which the cultural potency of a polysemous term is fueled by its being differentially standardized across multiple social worlds, both expert and lay. I examine the consequences of this niche standardization with respect to the biomedicalization and commodification of sexuality and the place of sexuality within practices of governance. Yet I argue that the effects of the invention and dispersion of sexual health are diverse and relatively uncontained, and that no social actor or institution has succeeded in establishing ownership. These findings also provide insight into the character and functions of buzzwords, and I suggest steps toward the development of “buzzword studies.”

Steven G Epstein
Professor of Sociology and John C. Shaffer Professor in the Humanities
Northwestern University


Claire Laurier Decoteau, Sociology
Sandy Sufian, Health Humanities and Disability Studies, and History



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