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Approaches to understanding sexuality are categorized as either essentialist or social constructionist. Essentialism, focusing on the individual expression of human desire and pleasure, favors a biological explanation. Social constructionism, focusing on the relationship between individual and society, explores how sexuality is embedded in historical, political, and social practices. Attention is paid to the ways in which sexual desires, practices, identities, and attitudes are conceptualized, categorized, deployed, and regulated through the social institutions and practices of society.
History of Sexuality
Foucault (1979) traces the history of the hetero-sexuality/homosexuality dichotomy to processes that began in the nineteenth century and the birth of sexology. Challenging essentialist conceptualizations of sex and sexuality as transhistorical and stable categories, Foucault claims that the discursive invention of sexuality as a biological instinct fundamental to understanding an individual’s health, pathology and identity lead to biopower.
While sex denoted the sexual act, sexuality symbolized the true essence of the individual. Distortion or perversion of the natural instinct would lead to sexual abnormality and deviance. Sexual behavior represented the true nature and identity of an individual. Same-sex sexual behavior denoted a homosexual identity; opposite-sex behavior a heterosexual one. For Foucault, this resulted in the connection of the body, the new human sciences, and the demands for regulation and surveillance, so that power and pleasure (knowledge and sex) meshed with each other. Homosexuality was constructed as a perversion, thus legitimating its regulation and surveillance alongside the institutional promotion of heterosexuality.
While the sexologists favored a biological explanation, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of sexual development led to the psychological construction of different sexual identities. The individual progresses from an initial polymorphous sexuality in early childhood through to the development of a mature stable heterosexual identity in adulthood; homosexuality is a temporary (adolescent) stage of development. Adults who identify as homosexual are either fixated” on an earlier phase or have, due to psychological disturbance regressed” backwards. Either way, homosexuality is located within a discourse of deviance, and psychopathology.
Sociology of Homosexuality
Kinsey’s large-scale studies (1948; 1953) on human sexual behavior highlighted the discrepancy between the number of people who engage in same-sex behavior and the number who identify as homosexual. Kinsey developed a six-point continuum to encompass the variety of sexual behavior and feelings present, ranging from exclusively heterosexual (1) to exclusively homosexual (6); bisexuality is in the middle. Individuals might move between categories throughout their life, thus rendering invalid the use of discrete sexual identities.
Gay Liberation and the Women’s Movement in the 1960s led to academic interest in oppressed groups. The Kinsey Reports and the development of the labeling perspective provided the theoretical catalyst for sociological interest in sexuality, initially focused mainly on sexual deviance. Sociologists suggest that people who engage in same-sex behavior are labeled deviant due to the reactions of a hostile society; there is nothing intrinsically deviant about a homosexual identity. McIntosh (1968) stated that the very conceptualization of homosexuality as an individual condition is a form of social control, deterring newcomers while isolating those identified as deviant.
Gender and Sexuality
Prioritizing the relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality radical feminists argue that women’s sexuality and their reproductive capabilities are controlled and regulated by men through a patriarchal sex/gender system in which women are constructed as sexually passive, men as active. Deconstructing this natural” relationship, radical feminists theorize both lesbianism and heterosexuality as political institutions aimed at regulating and controlling women’s sexuality.
Other feminists, critical of the perceived essential-ism and anti-sex thinking present in radical feminism have focused on heterosexuality as a ”political regime” based on an artificial biologically based distinction between women and men, hence oppressive to both women and homosexuals. This analysis undermines the traditional understanding of the category of sex as being biologically defined and immutable and enables the examination of how sex difference contributes to the existing social order. Essentialist categories of woman, man, heterosexual, and homosexual are reconfigured as political categories to become critical sites of gender deconstruction.
More recently, sociologists have begun to examine the social construction of masculinity, its links to power and the social organization of sexuality. Key concepts include hegemonic masculinity”, subordinated” and complicit” masculinities. Heterosexuality is regarded as being central to hegemonic masculinity.
Queer theory, drawing on the work of Foucault and Derrida, concentrates on the dynamic relationship between the dualism homosexuality/ heterosexuality, thus permitting an examination of the heteronormative nature of all knowledge and social structures. Heterosexuality represents an axis of power and dominant model for conducting intimate gender normative relationships. Heteronormativity dominates both the legal and cultural systems, thus normalizing differential treatment of those who stand outside of the heterosexual regime. The concept increases our understanding of both the structural disadvantages of those who stand outside the heterosexual regime and the way in which institutionalized heterosexuality limits and constrains those who identify as heterosexual.
A focus on the borders that exist between sexual identities leads to the deconstruction of all sexual identities, including politicized ones. Although the construction of the homosexual enabled the struggle for civil rights, claiming the label homosexual simultaneously reinforces the centrality of heterosexuality. It is impossible to locate oneself outside” of dominant discourses, for to define oneself as standing outside the sexual norm means first placing oneself within dominant definitions of sexuality. Thus, claiming a homosexual identity contributes to reinforcing the hetero/homo split (Namaste 1994).
Queer theory and practice signal important theoretical shifts, resulting in a critical distancing from the terms lesbian and gay; the term queer has become a catalyst for people disaffected by earlier work on sexual identity, which homogenized the experiences and interests of lesbian and gay men and assumed that sexual identity is both visible and static. Queer theory’s poststructuralist approach challenges the foundationalist assumptions present in existing understandings of identity and uses this as a basis to question current notions of sexual identity, leading to a rejection of unifying concepts and an increasing emphasis on difference and plurality.
Theory and Practice
Explanations for sexuality, regardless of origin, have a direct consequence at an individual, institutional and societal level. The stigmatization of homosexuality has a detrimental effect on people who find themselves attracted to members of the same sex, a situation that can be exacerbated by the social and legal sanctions surrounding same-sex lifestyles. Likewise, while feminists have exposed the complex relationship between gender and sexuality, women in many parts of the world remain legally and socially subordinate to men, sociological interest in sexuality provides a broader analysis of the social organization of sexuality in society.
- Foucault, M. (1979) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. R. Hurley. Penguin, London.
- Kinsey, A. C., Gebhard, P., Pomeroy, W. B. & Martin, C. E. (1948) Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. W. B. Saunders, Philadelphia.
- Kinsey, A. C., Gebhard, P., Pomeroy, W. B. & Martin, C. E. (1953) Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. W. B. Saunders, Philadelphia.
- McIntosh, M. (1968) The homosexual role. Social Problems 16 (2): 182-92.
- Namaste, K. (1994) The politics of inside/out: queer theory, poststructuralism, and a sociological approach to sexuality. Sociological Theory 12: 220-31.
- Katz, J. N. (1996) The Invention of Heterosexuality. Plume Penguin, London.
- Plummer, K. (ed.) (1981) The Making of the Modern Homosexual. Hutchinson, London.
- Rich, A. (1980) Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs 5 (4): 631-60.
- Richardson, D. (ed.) (1996) Theorizing Heterosexuality. Open University Press, Milton Keynes.
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