Chapter One Social Constructionism or Essentialism
Does a homosexual exist just as mankind is of the species, Homo Sapiens? Is a homosexual orientation intimately intertwined with a person’s true identity as a human being? When using the term homosexual, is one accurately defining a person’s self, his inner core, and the nature of his being? If it is true, then homosexuality may be implied as natural, and that it is essential to their human wholeness. There are those advocating for homosexuality who hold such a view, that one is born a homosexual. But there are others advocating for homosexuality who hold a conflicting view, that homosexuality only has the meaning which is given to it by the society and culture it is a part of.
These conflicting views are usually framed by the parameters of the words essentialism and social constructionism. This discussion of the causes of homosexuality is usually a philosophical tug of war with conflicting ideologies.
Various theories of homosexuality are derived from either an essentialist approach or a social constructionist approach. Essentialism claims that homosexuality is a construct that is both ahistorical and acultural, a part of human civilization for all time; whereas constructionialsm suggests homosexuality is defined more by temporal periods and cultural context. (Sullivan, Homophobia, History, and Homosexuality: Trends for Sexual Minorities, p.3 in Sexual Minorities: Discrimination, Challenges, and Development in American, Michael K. Sullivan, PhD, editor)
Out of all the issues in the essentialist/social constructionist debate, whether or not same gender or bisexual sexual orientation is a choice is probably the sole interest of many individuals and groups. It is one of the most fiercely debated issues among scholars, scientists, and the lay public. It is also debated by some members of gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. Essentialists assume that no sexual orientation, whether same-gender, bisexual, or heterosexual, is a conscious choice (Gonsiorek & Weinrich, 1991; Herdt, 1990) Instead, a fixed, independent biological mechanism steers individual desire or behavior either toward men or toward women irrespective of circumstances and experience” (De Cecco & Elia. 1993, p.11). In distinct contrast to this view is the claim that one’s sexual orientation is chosen or constructed. This is one of the most basic tenets of social constructionism (Golden, 1987; Hart & Richardson, 1981; Longino, 1988; Vance, 1988; Weeks, 1991; Weinberg & Willliams, 1974). Instead of sexual orientation, the phrase sexual preference is often used by social constructionists to indicate that people take an active part in constructing their sexuality (Weinberg, Williams, & Pryor, 1994) or make a conscious, intentional choice of sexual partners (Baumrind, 1995)."
Essentialists often hold to biomedical view of homosexuality, and use scientific studies to find a cause for homosexuality. Later on a discussion will look at some of these scientific studies that are used in an attempt for supporting a biomedical cause for homosexuality. Within this essentialist view there are non-relational qualities or properties. One is who they are and that it is without any relationship to any other people or objects in the world. Therefore in sexuality, particularly concerning homosexuality one is born a homosexual, it is ;nature that is causative for homosexuality
Essentialist approaches to research on sexual orientation-whether they be evolutionary approaches or approaches that rely on hormones, genetics, or brain factors-rest on assumptions that (a) there are underlying true essences (homosexuality and heterosexuality), (b) there is discontinuity between forms (homosexuality and heterosexuality are two distinct, separate categories, rather than points on a continuum), and (c) there is constancy of these true essences over time and across cultures (homosexuality and heterosexuality have the same form today in American culture as they have had for centuries and as they have had in other cultures today). (Delamater & Shibley Hyde. Essentialism vs Social Constructionism in the Study of Human Sexuality. p.16)
Essentialism regarded homosexuality as a form of gender inversion that arose from such presocial forces as genes, hormones, instincts, or specific kinds of developmental psychodynamics (Richardson 1981). In other words, it viewed same-sex desire and its perceived behavioral pattern of gender nonconformity as a manifestation of some biological or psychological inner sense; (Greenberg 1988, 485) It regarded homosexuality as a distinct and separate form of being, with modes of expression that transcended time and place (Troiden 1988). (Levine, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, p. 233)
The category of homosexuality carries a definition of the essential nature of the self. As individuals are inserted into this discursive framework through the growing authority of medicine, science, psychiatry, and law, individuals who have same-sex longings are defined as unique, abnormal human type: the homosexual. (Seidman, Embattled Eros, p.147)
Yet we can find within this philosophical belief system there is a heterosexist essentialism and a homosexist essentialism. Those individuals who adhere to heterosexist essentialism assume an unmitigated dimorphism of sexuality, hetero/homo-sexuality. Seeing the complementary dualities of human existence, the heterosexist essentialist is implying that homosexuality is an immature or inferior developmental track. The individual that adheres to a homosexual essentialism would impose a gay or lesbian identity on those individuals who experience same-sex attractions, and encourage the acceptance of a gay identity. Coming out, is a concept that encourages individuals to celebrate their homosexuality. In doing so, homosexual essentialists are implying that a person was always essentially homosexual in orientation but has only now become ready and willing to acknowledge their true sexual nature and identity.
Those who hold to this homosexist essentialism may have two variants to support their views, an identitarian or behavioral essentialism.
But essentialism as an intellectual program in lesbian and gay studies has two variants. The first one to develop was essentialism as a metaphysical or universal category of sexual identity, which might be called identitarian essentialism. The second variant to emerge focused on the biological explanation of sexual orientation and interpreted it as a naturalized category of behavior; this is behavorial essentialism. Eschoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity, p.130)
The identitarian essentialist looks back into history and sees those who commit homosexual behavior as being a homosexual or gay. The behavorial essentialist looks to homosexual behavior in other species for supporting the view that humans are born homosexual.
This idea of a gay identity is relatively new, becoming popularized only since the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in the United States and Western Europe. So, it may be viewed, as a type of homosexuality and it will be discussed in further depth later. Unfortunately, authors now sometimes use a homosexual and a gay/lesbian identity interchangeably. Also, there is some possibility of confusion when authors write about sexual orientation and sexual preference. So often when writing about homosexuality there is a confusing use of terms, homosexuality/gay and lesbian identity, sexual orientation/sexual preference. Also, some authors want to speak of an erotic orientation instead of sexual orientation. An essentialist and a social constructionist may have varying definitions for the same word or idea. Then there are those who hold to an interactionist view of homosexuality. That is, they would say we should have a combination of essentialistism and social constructionism ideas. Their defining of terms need to be understood in this context also.
Interestingly, the term essentialism is generally used by those who are oppose to it and not those who practice it. (Delamater & Shibley Hyde. Essentialism vs Social Constructionism in the Study of Human Sexuality. p.11)
The crises have arisen in deciding what is essential to the homosexual category: Is it a particular pattern of sexual behavior? Is it a particular sexual identity? Is it an underlying orientation? (Richardson, The Dilemma of Essentiality in Homosexual Theory, p.89 in Bisexual and Homosexual Identities: Critical Theoretical Issues, John P. De Cecco, editors PhD and Michael G. Shively, MA)
Individual erotic preferences are certainly not created solely by the social structural arrangements. But the integration of these preferences into a system of personal values, motives, and self-image very much depends on historical conditions. To define the traits of the homosexual personality outside the concrete socionormative milieu is impossible. (Kon, A Socicultural Approach in Theories of Human Sexuality, editors James H. Geer and William T. O Donohue, p. 279-280)
The essentialism view of homosexuality may be traced to the late nineteenth century and to Karl Ulrichs who lived in what is present day Germany. Ulrichs was a homosexual himself, and was the first person to theorize about the concept of a homosexual being a third sex. He was advocating for legal and social rights for homosexuals.
Ulrich’s goal was to free people like himself from the legal, religious, and social condemnation of homosexual acts as unnatural. For this, he invented a new terminology that would refer to the nature of the individual, and not to the acts performed. (Kennedy, Karl Heinrichs Ulrichs in Rosario, Science and Homosexualities, p.30)
The social constructionist view may be traced to the 1970s, being advocating for by homosexuals in England and the United States. This was the beginning of the era, which has now been termed, gay liberation.
The constructionist perspective began to generate theoretical writing beginning in the 1970s. British historical sociologist Jeffrey Weeks, influenced by the earlier work of Mary McIntosh, appropriated and reworked the sociological theories known as symbolic interactionism or labeling theory to underpin his account of emergence of a homosexual identity in Western societies during the ninetee- century. Other British writers associated with the Gay Left Collective produced work from within this same field of influence. U.S. historians Jonathan Ned Katz and John D Eimilio, influenced primarily by feminist theory and the work of Marxists such as E.P. Thompson, began to produce social construction theories of homosexuality by the early 1980s. (Duggan, Making It Perfectly Clear, p.116 in Sex Wars edited by Duggan & Hunter)
The constructionist perspective transformed social science thinking about human sexuality (Gagnon & Simon, 1973). It challenged us to see the conceptual categories through which individuals interpret eroticism are not, as previously thought, as biologically or psychologically determined but socially constituted (Simon & Gagnon, 1987). Culture, that is, provided the conceptual meanings through which people distinguished sexual feelings, identities, and practices. It thus effectively claimed that these definitions were culturally relative (Plummer, 1975)." (Levine, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, p. 233)
The philosophical social constructionist view of sexuality is based upon behaviors and attitudes. An individual’s sexual identity, reaching even as far as the preferred object of erotic attraction, is socially created, bestowed, and maintained. One is heterosexual because their sexual attitudes and behaviors are toward members of the opposite sex. For the homosexual, these sexual attitudes and behaviors would be for members of the same sex. Therefore, social constructionists would suggest there is nothing "real" about sexual orientation, except for a society’s construction.
According to this view, sexual roles and behaviors arise out of a culture’s religious, moral, and ethical beliefs, its legal traditions, politics, aesthetics, whatever scientific or traditional views biology and psychology it may have, even factors like geography and climate. The constructionist view holds that sexual roles vary from one civilization to another because there are no innately predetermined scripts for human sexuality. (Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality, p. 19)
Homosexuality has everywhere existed, but it is only in some cultures that it has become structured into a sub-culture. Homosexuality in the pre-modern period was frequent, but only in certain closed communities was it ever institutionalized - perhaps in some monasteries and nunneries, as many of the medieval penitentials suggest; in some of the knightly orders (including the Knights Templars), as the great medieval scandals hint; and in the courts of certain monarchs (such as James I of England, William III). Other homosexual contacts, though recurrent, are likely to have been casual, fleeting, and undefined. (Weeks, Coming Out, p. 35)
Conversely, constructionism interpreted homosexuality as a conceptual category that varied between cultural and historical settings (Troiden 1988). Definitions of same-sex eroticism were viewed as cultural inventions that were specific to particular societies at particular times. It also held that conceptualizations of homosexuality determined the forms same-sex eroticism took within a given society (Greenberg 1988). In other words, the social meaning of homosexuality shaped the domain of emotions, identity, and conduct associated with sex between men. (Levine, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, p. 233-234)
Thus, not surprisingly, they would reject the possibility of biomedical factors, i.e. nature, being involved with sexual orientation. One cannot be born a homosexual. It is nurture which plays the role in creating homosexuality. A social constructionist view of homosexuality is not objective; it has relationship qualities and properties that are culturally defined and dependent.
Transcending all these issues of lifestyle was the potent question of the gay identity itself. The gay identity is no more a product of nature than any other sexual identity. It has developed through a complex history of definitions and self-definition, and what recent histories of homosexuality have clearly revealed is that there is no necessary connection between sexual practices and sexual identity. (Weeks, Sexuality and Its Discontents Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities p. 50)
We tend to think now that the word homosexual has an unvarying meaning, beyond time and history. In fact it is itself a product of history, a cultural artifact designed to express a particular concept. (Weeks, Coming Out, p. 3)
In sum, homosexuality is not one but many things, many psychosocial forms, which can be viewed as symbolic mediations between psychocultural and historical conditions and human potentials for sexual response across life course. (Herdt, Cross-Cultural Issues in the Development of Bisexuality and Homosexuality, p. 55)
Gilbert Herdt is an anthropologist, who self-identifies as a gay male. He has written many books advocating for homosexuality and I will be repeatedly quoting from his writings. Herdt is best known for his work among the Sambia people of the eastern highlands of New Guinea. He could be considered to hold to a social constructionism view of homosexuality. The following quote taken from the introduction of his book, Same Sex, Different that was published in 1997, is very interesting.
Living among the Sambia and understanding their culture thus came to shape and influence my own sexuality and the sense which I defined myself as being gay and in a partnership for life with another man in my own society. Just as one might expect, it was very important to my Sambia friends not only that I was interested in their customs and could be trusted to keep the secrets of the initiation rituals from the women and children, but also that I was curious and comfortable about their homoerotic relations. I understood their feelings well enough. And I was sensitive enough to inquire about issues of sexual attraction and excitement that another person in my position might have found offensive or repulsive if he lacked the experience or curiosity to go on.
But equally true, as the years went by, the Sambia could not understand my own sexuality, and even my closest friends, such as Weiyu and Moondi, would implore me to consider getting married and having children. They even tried to arrange a marriage for me with a Sambia woman, and on more than one occasion, because they felt sorry for me! More than once I can remember Moondi asking about my relationship with my friend (partner) in the United States; and I would even use the word gay to refer to this relationship, but Moondi was unable to understand what this meant to me. I had reached the limits of cross-cultural understanding even among the people closest to me in the Sambia culture. Their society did not have a concept for homosexual or gay, and these notions, when I translated them in the appropriate way, were alien and unmanageable.
Thus, it is remarkable for me to think that, even though living with the Sambia enabled me to accept in a way perhaps strange to the United States concept of same-sex relations as normal and natural, the Sambia in their own way could only regard my own culture’s identity constructs of homosexual and gay as strange. Herein lies a powerful lesson about cross-cultural study of homosexuality-and a warning about the importance of being careful in the statements and assumptions we make about another people, as well as the need to respect their own customs for what they are-and are not. (Herdt, Same Sex, Different Cultures, p. xiv-xv)
Even though writing this, Herdt and many others continue to try to use the Sambia cultural homosexuality as a type of age-structured homosexuality to support the post-modern western concept of homosexuality, a gay identity.
Those advocating for a homosexual identity have not resolved this philosophical tug of war of conflicting ideologies, essentialism versus social constructionism. In fact, the strongest criticisms between these two views have been among homosexuals themselves. There is a logical explanation for this philosophical ideological tug of war. Both sides ask different questions, find different answers, and therefore this philosophical tug of war will have no winner.
Social constructionism does not offer alternative answers to questions posed by essentialism: it raises a wholly different set of questions. Instead of searching for truths about homosexuals and lesbians, it asks about the discursive practices, the narrative forms, within which homosexuals and lesbians are produced and reproduced. In its opposition to, and deconstruction of, both homosexuals and science itself, it can never be rendered compatible with the essentialist project. (Kitzinge, Social Constructionism: Implications for Gay and Lesbian Psychology, p.150 in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Identities over the Lifespan: Psychological Perspectives, D Augelli & Patterson)
The social constructionist/essentialist debate is ultimately irresolvable, because these two positions are not commensurate. Social constructistism and essentialistism not only offer different answers, but also ask different questions and rely on different approaches to finding the answers, (empiricism versus rhetoric). (Kitzinge, Social Constructionism: Implications for gay Lesbian Psychology, p.156 in. Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Identities over the Lifespan: Psychological Perspectives, D Augelli & Patterson)
Both essentialism and social construct views of homosexuality have their limitations. Science or medical theories have never been proven. A discussion will follow looking at some of these scientific studies. Likewise, the social construct view has serious shortcomings.
The social-constructionist theory of homosexual identity has its own weaknesses, however. According to some evidence, sexual behavior is a continuum and varies over the life cycle. This evidence brings into doubt the fixedness or stability of people’s sexual identities. (Escoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity, p. 129)
To escape the stranglehold that social constructionism has placed on the field of sexuality, we must understand the strengths and weaknesses of the theory. First, the theory is a strategy for critical analysis; it is not a scientific theory. In fact, social constructionism makes a poor theory. The goal of constructionists is to point out how information and concepts within social discourse support various social groups and particular versions of social reality. They cannot say what reality should be. Social constructionism is a relativist philosophy that holds that social narratives about reality have value to the people invested in them; beliefs have no objective value. For social constructionists, social beliefs that gay people are demon-possessed and should have holes drilled into their heads in order to release the evil spirits that reside therein is as valid an explanation as believing that there is a gay gene. The sociopolitical climate determines what beliefs are valued. When these beliefs are identified, constructionism can be used to facilitate social change, if change is desired. (Kauth, True Nature A Theory of Sexual attraction, p.105)
Kauth is his book goes on to write about the limits of social construction. His first limit placed on a social construction view is as follows.
Feminists, gay/lesbian theorists, social activists, and others who feel marginalized by society make up the largest group of adherents to social constructionism. For these followers, social constructionism represents a tool for social liberation. (Kauth, True Nature A Theory of Sexual Attraction, p.105)
He also writes that a social constructionist base their condemnation of essentialism on the single-factor biomedical theories of same sex eroticism. While at the same time they hold to their own single-factor social labeling theory of homosexuality. A third limit he says is of a failure of any discussion of bisexuality. But at the same time promoting the idea that the absence of sexual categories will result in diverse sexual relationships. Kauth’s fourth limitation of a social construction is that it expresses a disembodied, purely social view of human beings. In regards to sexuality they want to discuss the social impact, and not the influence upon people as well as all animals the similar biological and instinctual forces to survive and reproduce. Delmater and Hyde in their article, Essentialism vs Social Constructionism in the Study of Human Sexuality write of two more weaknesses. In social constructionism there is a tendency to assign a passive role to the individual. More puzzling is the limited explanatory and predictive power of constructionists theories, given their emphasis on variability.
In brief, although social constructionists are very good at poking holes in conventional thinking, the theory offers little in the way of a useful conceptualization for the development of sexual attraction. The theory just does not match recorded experience and observations across cultures, and its predictions fall short. (Kauth, True Nature A Theory of Sexual Attraction, p.108)
Perhaps as many people have theorize, including Kauth, an interactionist model for homosexuality may be the best logical and practical outcome for the understanding homosexuality.
A common assumption of most theories is a multi-dimensional developmental model with several factors (e.g., psychological, biological, and sociological ) interacting with in a complex manner to determine homosexuality (Marmor, 19965). (Martin, Early Sexual Behavior in Adult Homosexual and Heterosexual Males, p.396)
The literature on sexual orientation is replete with theories about the causes of homosexuality. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss each of those theories, individually. It should be noted that almost all of the theories of homosexual are predicated on the same basic assumption. Most theories presume that homosexuality is caused by abnormalities in biological, psychological, or social development leading to sexual inversion-that is, having or desiring to have characteristics of the opposite sex including sexual attraction to one’s own sex. (Storms, A Theory of Erotic Orientation Development, p.350)
It develops in some individuals as a result of influences of heredity, prenatal development, childhood experiences, and cultural milieu in varying combinations. No one influence seems either necessary or sufficient-homosexual orientation is a possible outcome in many different circumstances because the human mind is uniquely evolved to be rich in possibilities. (Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality, p.249)
But after reading and trying to understand what these and many other authors have written, advocating for homosexuality I am even more confused about what I read in an article from The Journal of Sex Research. These authors are writing of concerns about holding to an interactionist view of homosexuality.
In our view, the basic definitions of essentialism and social constuctionism may well prohibit efforts to frame conjoint theories. Essentialism relies on a notion of true essences, with an implication (found in postivism) that we can know these true essences directly and objectively. Social constructionist argue the opposite, that we cannot know anything about true essences or reality directly, but rather that humans always engage in socially constructing reality. There is no happy detente between these approaches. Similarly, the essentialist emphasis on separate and distinct categories or essences is at odds with the social constructionist view of the startling diversity of human sexual expression across time and culture, and even within the individual. Therefore, although one may frame inteactionist or conjoint theories of biological and cultural influences, it seems to us unlikely that there can be a true conjoining essentialist and social constructionist approaches. (Delamater & Shibley Hyde. Essentialism vs Social Constructionism in the Study of Human Sexuality.” p. 17)
What are we then left to believe from this philosophical discussion of conflicting ideologies of the causes of homosexuality? Although what all these authors have written may contain truth(s). This is also true, our physical bodies do respond to many stimuli, including same-sex sexual/erotic stimuli. Therefore, we cannot leave out a moral aspect to human sexuality. Sexual promiscuity, usually with anonymous partners, is often associated with homosexuality. Nor can we deny there are negative physical consequences, i.e. sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that include AIDS. Even those advocating for homosexuality, must acknowledge these moral and medical consequences.
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