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Policing Pleasure: A Sociolegal Framework for Understanding the Social Control of Desire

Studies in Law, Politics, and Society

ISBN: 978-1-78714-812-3, eISBN: 978-1-78714-811-6

Publication date: 30 June 2017


The United States has an uncomfortable relationship with pleasure. Cultural ambivalence is evident in discourses surrounding pleasure and the labeling and treatment of those who act on their desires. Pleasure seeking, generally understood in moral terms, is often medicalized and criminalized (as in the case of pregnancy prevention and drug use), placing questions of how to manage pleasure under the purview of medical and legal actors. At the macrolevel, institutions police pleasure via rules, patterns of action, and logics, while at the microlevel, frontline workers police pleasure via daily decisions about resource distribution. This chapter develops a sociolegal framework for understanding the social control of pleasure by analyzing how two institutions – medicine and criminal justice – police pleasure institutionally and interactionally. Conceptualizing medicine and criminal justice as paternalistic institutions acting as arbiters of morality, I demonstrate how these institutions address two cases of pleasure seeking – drug use and sex – by drawing examples from contemporary drug and reproductive health policy. Section one highlights shared institutional mechanisms of policing pleasure across medicine and criminal justice such as categorization, allocation of professional power, and the structuring of legitimate consequences for pleasure seeking. Section two demonstrates how frontline workers in each field act as moral gatekeepers as they interpret and construct institutional imperatives while exercising discretion about resource allocation in daily practice. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how understanding institutional and interactional policing of pleasure informs sociolegal scholarship about the relationships between medicine and criminal justice and the mechanisms by which institutions and frontline workers act as agents of social control.




Elizabeth Chiarello is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Louis University where she researches institutional influences on healthcare provision and frontline work. For insightful commentary, she would like to thank two anonymous reviewers. For integral research assistance, she would like to thank Connor Williams. She would also like to thank the ACLS/Mellon Foundation, the US Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Princeton University’s Office of Population Research and Center for Health and Wellbeing, and UC Irvine’s Center for Organizational Research for their generous support. The author can be reached at


Chiarello, E. (2017), "Policing Pleasure: A Sociolegal Framework for Understanding the Social Control of Desire", Studies in Law, Politics, and Society (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 73), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 109-139.



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