What does it mean to say that you or someone else is lesbian or gay or bisexual or heterosexual? These words are identities. You or I might identify someone with one of these labels who wouldn’t identify with such a label themselves.
This is partly because these words are part of a schema of understanding sexuality. If a person doesn’t share that schema they may not agree with your identifications even if they agree on all “the facts”. In some cultures for example men who prefer to have sex with men over women don’t consider themselves to be gay. Likewise not everyone who exclusively has sex with their "opposite" gender considers that a result of their heterosexuality.
The schema that underpins homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual identifications has four key elements:
- Sexual attraction is a distinct and special type of attraction (we can talk about sexual attraction as separate from just the pursuit of status or pleasure or as distinct from our need for other types of love).
- Sexual attraction experienced in one instance is not a completely unique phenomenon. It will have something to do with the sexual attraction experienced in another instance. (Hence you can draw a pattern of attraction over a period of your life. You can meaningfully talk about commonalities between the people you find attractive.).
- The most meaningful pattern of sexual attraction regards the gender of your object of attraction. (It’s more important for identification if all your desired lovers are men or women than that they are all short or into Dr.Who. Strangely, its even more important for identity if you’re attracted to both men and women than if you are just attracted to fans of Dr.Who )
- Sexual attraction is relatively innate and fixed.
I’m not saying these four elements are the reason for our use of lesbian, gay, bi and heterosexual as identifications (hereafter called gender-based sexualities). These four elements are merely requirements after the fact.
That’s a bold claim I’m making. I’m saying that our gender based sexualities don’t spring from the universal reality of the above four elements. Instead the reality of the above four elements is imposed on us in order for gender based sexualities to work.
I base that belief on the following points;
- Gender based sexual identities are relatively recent ideas. They emerged during the western scientific enlightenment as pathologies (both heterosexual and homosexual were first use to identify disorders) and became popularized through the rise of medicine and psychology in the 18th century. Their original purpose was not sociological but diagnostic. The rise of that diagnostic (and curative) aim directly coincides with the falling away of religion as a means of controlling gender relations through sexuality. I believe gender based sexual identities are where we turned to in order to continue that particular job in an increasingly secular world.
- Opposition to homosexual practice has historically been bound up with concern over gender relations. Firstly gay male practice is most strongly reviled on the basis that it treats higher status men as like-women in sex at least. This is as old as Leviticus in the Bible. In modern homophobia where heterosexual sex is itself sometimes understood via violent porn images, homosexuality is seen as men inviting rape by being willing to “take it like a woman”. In both cases the motivation for homophobia is maintaining the normal gender hierarchy and punishing the symbolic subjugation of men.
- Gay male relationships also contradict certain politically and economically prescribed male to male interactions. Men have historically been expected to co-operate or compete with each other without particularity, i.e. as a team with a common cause rather than independent horizontal allegiances. It is important for the military, police, and business as traditionally male dominated spheres that men don’t fall in love with a fellow soldier for example (or worse an enemy!). Such attachments can challenge vertical chains of authority. ( This wasn’t a problem when sex and romantic love were not joined at the hip but became one as we culturally connected the two.
- Lastly women’s gay relationships are opposed on the basis that they allow women to replace their emotional dependence on men. This is evident in the problematising of women’s “special” friendships as proto-lesbian whether at a young age or older age in early psychological literature. (Female Homosexuality: A Psychodynamic Study of Lesbianism, Frank Caprio, M.D., 1954 ) There may be no sex but the emotional allegiance to other women is opposed just as vehemently. The “problem” of lesbianism has consistently been framed as a fear of men and male authority. The “cure” is to switch that fear for a love for the same.
- The function of gender based sexualities has been to contain homosexual behaviour by attributing it to a personality type (originally a disorder) which is then inescapably inclined to continue that behaviour. When the behaviour is criminal that’s a powerful disincentive to dally in it. This containment has reduced people’s reporting of same-sex attraction and may have reduced same-sex sexual behaviour. I believe that was their purpose.
From this I conclude that gender based sexualities began as a continuing means of restraining behaviour that didn’t support how gender was needed to organize society. Put simply our sexual identifications are hangovers from the needs of patriarchy.
However did you feel while reading the above points that they are somewhat out-dated? I agree. In what gets called late-stage capitalist, symbolic capitalist, post-modern or consumer culture the above points are not as relevant as they were under early capitalism. For one thing we aren’t being organized by society into mom and pop nuclear families. As consumers and as self-employed contractors instead of the nostalgic “working family” we are encouraged to be both absolute individuals and yet interchangeable with each other. Gender as a broad category to belong to is arguably less important in our economy.
The social dimensions of this are important. There is (though not without opposition) a growing culture of non-hierarchical heterosexual relationships. Men aren’t presumed to be on top of women in the bedroom. Hence gay male couples aren’t presumed to include one man acting as a symbolic victim/woman. Men also aren’t prohibited from particular emotional attachments with each other. The buddy film (eg. Lethal Weapon) and Snag culture put paid to that. And subsequently gay men are able to serve in many more armies than they recently were. We don’t want women making babies instead of careers necessarily so there’s no need to be (as) concerned about their emotional independence from men. Most importantly we have officially stopped using gender based sexualities as mental illness categories since the 1970’s. Gender based sexualities may have genuinely evolved into something other than control mechanisms.
Furthermore I am not convinced the right view is that gender based sexuality is entirely constructed and imposed from outside us. There are people you meet who are straight and who you think could never be anything other than straight. There are others who are not straight absolutely and deeply. Some of the horrific treatments people have endured to change their sexuality from lesbian or gay to heterosexual are heartbreaking. Sometimes people volunteer for these treatments. The ineffectiveness of their will and ultimately of torture to change themselves suggest that a gender based sexuality for them is far stronger than mere socialization would permit.
For a great many people it does seem that all the elements – the distinctiveness of sexual attraction, the meaningfulness of a gender based pattern to that attraction, and the unchangeable nature of that pattern are very powerful realities. It’s not impossible that this is a consequence of extreme socialization however that doesn’t feel right. If some people are exceptionally able to be socialized (and that’s why they have a clear gender-based sexuality) how could any of those people be lesbian or gay? There are hardly social rewards (outside of small subcultures) for those sexualities. It really seems we have a language here that despite its short history is telling some peoples deep truth in a way we haven’t expressed before.
Lastly in contradiction of their original aim gender based sexualities have been taken up as sites from which to challenge violence done to people for experiencing same-sex attraction. What previously justified electro-shock therapy, chemical castration and worse is now used to prevent those treatments. In fact without gender based sexualities it seems hard to imagine how rights for gay people could have been articulated. This has even included the reclamation of derogatory terms. The original "negative" – that sexuality is a condition beyond conscious control – has become the basis for government action to support people experiencing same-sex attraction.
“Heterosexuals” have also used the concept of their own innate sexuality as a way of articulating needs and wants. People in sexless heterosexual marriages can say how their lives are impoverished with the language gender based sexualities give them. Women’s sexual desire is certainly much more acknowledged than in the past whether as lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual. Arranged marriages are increasingly viewed as unjust for one thing. A sexuality is seen as something we are all entitled to express. Without the concept of an innate sexuality could we have empowered such choices as we have?
Sexual identification is something that goes on in our society. We cop it and we do it. Only recently it began as a tool to aid patriarchy but it has evolved even more recently into something else and it is still evolving. In my next piece on this topic I want to play around with it further and see how we can continue making something of our own out of it.
It’ll be fun.