Social Construction of Sexual Orientation Research Paper

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Sexual orientation is a much used but fundamentally ambiguous concept. It came into use in discussions of sexuality in the 1970s largely as a synonym for homosexual desire and object choice, less frequently for heterosexual patterns. ‘Sexual orientation’ suggests an essential sexual nature. The task of historical or social constructionist approaches is to suggest that this belief is what itself needs investigation. Constructionist approaches seek to do two broad things: to understand the emergence of sexual categorizations (such as ‘the homosexual’ or ‘the heterosexual’ in western cultures since the nineteenth century) within their specific historical and cultural contexts; and to interpret the sexual meanings, both subjective and social, which allow people to identify with, or reject, these categorizations. It is, thus, largely preoccupied, not with what causes individual desires or orientations, but with how specific definitions develop within their historic contexts, and the effects these definitions have on individual self-identifications and collective meanings.

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1. The Rise Of Constructionist Approaches To Sexuality

The classical starting point for social constructionist approaches is widely seen as an essay on The Homosexual Role by the British sociologist, Mary McIntosh (1968). Its influence can be traced in a range of historical studies from the mid-1970s (Weeks 1977, Greenberg 1988), and it has been anthologized frequently (e.g., Stein 1992). What is important about the work is that it asks what was at the time a new question: not, as had been traditional in the sexological tradition from the late nineteenth century, what are the causes of homosexuality, but rather, why are we so concerned with seeing homosexuality as a condition that has causes? And in tackling that new question, McIntosh proposed an approach that opened up a new research agenda through seeing homosexuals ‘as a social category, rather than a medical or psychiatric one.’ Only in this way, she suggests, can the right questions be asked, and new answers proposed. Using Kinsey (Kinsey et al. 1948), McIntosh makes a critical distinction between homosexual behavior and ‘the homosexual role.’ Homosexual behavior is widespread; but distinctive roles have developed only in some cultures, and do not necessarily encompass all forms of homosexual activity. The creation of a specialized, despised, and punished role or category of homosexual, such as that which developed in Britain from the early eighteenth century, was designed to keep the bulk of society pure in rather the same way that the similar treatment of some kinds of criminal keeps the rest of society law-abiding. McIntosh drew on a variety of intellectual sources, from structural functionalism to dramaturgical approaches, but clearly central to her argument was a form of labeling theory. The creation of the homosexual role was a form of social control designed to minoritize the experience, and protect and sustain social order and traditional sexual patterns.

If McIntosh put on the agenda the process of social categorization, another related but distinctive approach that shaped social constructionism came from the work of Gagnon and Simon, summarized in their book Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality (1974). Drawing again on the work of Kinsey and symbolic interactionist traditions, they argued that, contrary to the teachings of sexology, sexuality, far from being the essence of ‘the natural,’ was subject to sociocultural shaping to an extra-ordinary degree. The importance culture attributes to sexuality may, therefore, they speculated, not be a result of its intrinsic significance: society may have had a need to invent its importance and power at some point in history. Sexual activities of all kinds, they suggested, were not the results of an inherent drive but of complex psychosocial processes of development, and it is only because they are embedded in social scripts that the physical acts themselves become important. These insights suggested the possibility of exploring the complex processes by which individuals acquired subjective meanings in interaction with significant others, and the effects of ‘sexual stigma’ on these developmental processes (Plummer 1975).

By the mid-1970s, it is possible to detect the clear emergence of a distinctive sociological account, with two related concerns. One focused on the social categorization of sexuality, asking questions about what historical factors shaped sexual differences which appeared as natural but were in fact cultural. The other was concerned primarily with methods of understanding the shaping of subjective meanings through sexual scripting, which allowed a better understanding of the balance between individual and collective sexual meanings.

A third theoretical element now came into play: that represented by the work of Foucault (1976 1979). Foucault’s essay is often seen, misleadingly, as the starting point of constructionist approaches, but there can be no doubt of the subsequent impact of what was planned as a brief prolegomena to a multivolumed study. Like Gagnon and Simon, Foucault appeared to be arguing that ‘sexuality’ was a ‘historical invention.’ Like McIntosh, and others who had been influenced by her, he saw the emergence of the concept of a distinctive homosexual personage as a historical process, with the late nineteenth century as the key moment. The process of medicalization, in particular, was seen as a vital explanatory factor. Like McIntosh, he suggested that psychologists and psychiatrists have not been objective scientists of desire, as the sexological tradition proclaimed, but on the contrary ‘diagnostic agents in the process of social labeling’ (McIntosh 1968). But at the same time, his suggestion that people do not react passively to social categorization—‘where there is power, there is resistance’—left open the question of how individuals react to social definitions, how, in a word that now became central to the debate, identities are formed in the intersection of social and subjective meanings.

2. Sexual Behavior, Sexual Categories, And Sexual Identities

The most crucial distinction for social constructionism is between sexual behavior, categories, and identities. Kinsey et al (1948) had shown that there was no necessary connection at all between what people did sexually and how they identified themselves. If, in a much disputed figure, 37 per cent of the male population had had some sort of sexual contact with other men to the point of orgasm, yet a much smaller percentage claimed to be exclusively homosexual, identity had to be explained by something other than sexual proclivity or practice. Yet at the same time, by the 1970s, many self-proclaimed homosexuals were ‘coming out,’ in the wake of the new lesbian and gay movement. Many saw in the historicization of the homosexual category a way of explaining the stigma that homosexuality carried. What was made in history could be changed in history. Others, however, believed clearly that homosexuality was intrinsic to their sense of self and social identity, essential to their nature. This was at the heart of the so-called social constructionist–essentialist controversy in the 1970s and 1980s (Stein 1992). For many, a critique of essentialism could also be conceived of as an attack on the very idea of a homosexual identity, a fundamental challenge to the hard won gains of the lesbian and gay movement, and the claim to recognition of homosexuals as a legitimate minority group. This was the source of the appeal of subsequent theories of a ‘gay gene’ or ‘gay brain,’ which suggested that sexual orientation was wired into the human individual.

It is important to make several clear points in response to these debates, where social scientific debates became a marker of social movement differences. First, the distinction between behavior, categories, and identities need not necessarily require the ignoring of questions of causation, it merely suspends them as irrelevant to the question of the social organization of sexuality. Foucault himself stated that: ‘On this question I have absolutely nothing to say’ (cited in Halperin 1995). The really important issue is not whether there is a biological or psychological propensity that distinguishes those who are sexually attracted to people of the same gender from those who are not. More fundamental are the meanings these propensities acquire, however, or why ever they occur, the social categorizations that attempt to demarcate the boundaries of meanings, and their effect on collective attitudes and individual sense of self. Social categorizations have effects in the real world, whether or not they are direct reflections of inherent qualities and drives.

The second point to be made is that the value of the argument about the relevance of theories of a ‘homosexual role’ does not depend ultimately on the validity of the variants of role theory (cf. Whitam and Mathy 1986; Stein 1992). The use of the word ‘role’ was seen by McIntosh (1968) as a form of shorthand, referring not only to a cultural conception or a set of ideas but also to a complex of institutional arrangements which depended on and reinforced these ideas. Its real importance as a concept is that it defined an issue that required exploration. Terms such as constructionism and roles are in the end no more than heuristic devices to identify and understand a problem in studying sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. It is transparently obvious that the forms of behavior, identity, institutional arrangements, regulation, beliefs, ideologies, even the various definitions of the ‘sexual,’ vary enormously through time and across cultures and subcultures. A major objective of historical and social constructionist studies of the erotic has been to problematize the taken for granted, to denaturalize sexuality in order to understand its human dimensions and the coils of power in which it is entwined, how it is shaped in and by historical forces and events. The historicization of the idea of the homosexual condition is an excellent pioneering example of this.

The third point that requires underlining is that, regardless of evidence for the contingency of sexual identities, this should not imply that personal sexual identities, once acquired, can readily be sloughed off. The fact that categories and social identities are shaped in history does not in any way undermine the fact that they are fully lived as real. The complex relationship between societal categorization and the formation of subjectivities and sexual identities has in fact been the key focus of writing about homosexuality since the mid-1970s. On the one hand, there is a need to understand the classifying and categorizing processes which have shaped our concepts of homosexuality— the law, medicine, religion, patterns of stigmatization, formal and informal patterns of social regulation. On the other, it is necessary to understand the level of individual and collective reception of, and battle with, these classifications and categorizations. The best historical work has attempted to hold these two levels together, avoiding both sociological determinism (you are what society dictates) or extreme voluntarism (you can be anything you want): neither is true (see discussion in Vance 1989).

Some of the most interesting work has attempted to explore the subcultures, networks, urban spaces, or even rural idylls that provided the space, the conditions of possibility, for the emergence of distinctive homosexual identities. McIntosh’s suggestion that the late seventeenth century saw the emergence of a subcultural context for a distinctive homosexual role in England has been enormously influential. Her rediscovery of the London mollies’ clubs has been the starting point of numerous historical excavations (e.g., Trumbach 1977; Bray 1982). There is now plentiful work which attempts to show that subcultures and identities existed before the late seventeenth century, for example, in the early Christian world (Boswell 1980), or in other parts of Europe (see essays in Herdt 1994), just as there have been scholars who have argued that we cannot really talk about homosexual identities until the late nineteenth, or even mid-twentieth centuries (see essays in Plummer 1981). There is a real historical debate. As a result, it would now seem remarkable to discuss sexual identities (and their complex relationship to social categorizations) without a sense of their historical and social context. Sexual identities are made in history, not in nature.

3. Heterosexuality And Homosexuality

Identities are not, however, created in isolation from other social phenomena. In particular, a history of homosexual identities cannot possibly be a history of a single homogeneous entity, because the very notion of homosexuality is dependent, at the very least, on the existence of a concept of heterosexuality, which in turn presupposes a binary notion of gender. Only if there is a sharply demarcated difference between men and women does it become meaningful to distinguish same sex from other sex relationships. Social constructionism, Vance (1989) noted, had paid little attention to the construction of heterosexuality. But without a wider sense that ‘the heterosexual’ was also a social construction, attempts to explain the invention of ‘the homosexual’ made little sense. One of the early attractions of the first volume of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality was precisely that it both offered an account of the birth of the modern homosexual, and put that into a broader historical framework: by postulating the invention of sexuality as a category in western thought, and in delineating the shifting relationships between men and women, adults and children, the normal and the perverse, as constituent elements in this process. Foucault himself was criticized for putting insufficient emphasis on the gendered nature of this process, but this was more than compensated for by the developing feminist critique of ‘the heterosexual institution,’ with its own complex history (MacKinnon 1987; Richardson 1996).

Central to these debates was the perception that sexuality in general is not a domain of easy pluralism, where homosexuality and heterosexuality sit easily side by side. It is structured in dominance, with heterosexuality privileged, and that privilege is essentially male oriented. Homosexuality is constructed as a subordinate formation within the ‘heterosexual continuum,’ with male and female homosexuality having a different relationship to the dominant forms. In turn, once this is recognized, it becomes both possible and necessary to explore the socially constructed patterns of femininity and masculinity (Connell 1995).

Although the constructionist debates began within the disciplines of sociology and history, later developments, taking forward both theoretical and political (especially feminist) interventions, owed a great deal to postructuralist and deconstructionist literary studies, and to the emergence of ‘queer studies.’ Whereas history and sociology characteristically have attempted to produce order and pattern out of the chaos of events, the main feature of these approaches is to show the binary conflicts reflected in literary texts. The texts are read as sites of gender and sexual contestation and, therefore, of power and resistance (Sedgwick 1990). Sedgwick’s work, and that of the American philosopher, Butler (1990) were in part attempts to move away from the essentialist constructionist binaries by emphasizing the ‘performative’ nature of sex and gender. This in turn opened up what might be called the ‘queer moment’ that radically challenged the relevance of fixed sexual categorizations. For queer theorists, the perverse is the worm at the center of the normal, giving rise to sexual and cultural dissidence and a transgressive ethic, which constantly works to unsettle binarism and to suggest alternatives.

4. Comparative Perspectives

Much of the debate about the homosexual heterosexual binary divide was based on the perceived Western experience, and was located in some sense of a historical development. Yet from the beginning, comparisons with non-Western sexual patterns were central to constructionist perspectives. Foucault (1976/1979) compared the Western ‘science of sex’ with the non-Western ‘erotic arts.’ It was the very fact of different patterns of ‘institutionalised homosexuality,’ that formed the starting point of McIntosh’s essay, where she had identified two key regulating elements: between adults and nonadults (as in the intergenerational sex which denoted the passage from childhood to adulthood in some tribal and premodern societies), and between the genders (as in the case of the native American ‘berdache’). For some writers, these patterns are the keys to understanding homosexuality in premodern times. Historians have traced the evolution over time of patterns of homosexual life which have shifted from intergenerational ordering, through categorization around gender and class, to recognizably modern forms of egalitarian relationships (for a historical perspective see Trumbach 1998). So it is not surprising that constructionist approaches have led to an efflorescence of studies of sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, in other cultures, tribal, Islamic, southern (Herdt 1994). This comparative framework increasingly has been deployed within contemporary western societies to highlight the difficulty of subsuming behavior within a confining definition of condition or fixed orientation.

5. Beyond Constructionism

Historical and social constructionism has advanced and changed rapidly since the 1970s. The ‘category’ that early scholars were anxious to deconstruct has become ‘categories’ which proliferate in contemporary societies. ‘Roles,’ neat slots into which people could be expected to fit as a response to the bidding of the agents of social control, have become ‘performances’ (Butler 1990) or ‘necessary fictions’ (Weeks 1995), whose contingencies demand exploration. ‘Identities,’ which once seemed categoric, are now seen as fluid, relational, hybrid: people are not quite today what they were yesterday, or will be tomorrow. Identities have come to be seen as built around personal ‘narratives,’ stories people tell each other in the various interpretive communities to which they belong (Plummer 1995). Individual identities, it is increasingly recognized, are negotiated in the ever-changing relationship between self and other, within rapidly changing social structures and meanings. Sexual orientation may, or may not, be a product of genetics, psychosocial structuring, or environmental pressures. That issue, which has tortured sexology for over a century, may or may not be resolved at some stage in the future. For the constructionist, however, other questions are central: not what causes the variety of sexual desires, ‘preferences’ or orientations that have existed in various societies at different times, but how societies shape meanings around sexual diversity, and the effects these have on individual lives.


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