Examination of Sexuality
Alfred C. Kinsey argued in 1948, "It would encourage clearer thinking on these matters [of labeling homosexuals] if persons were not characterized as heterosexual or homosexual, but as individuals who have had certain amounts of heterosexual experience and homosexual experience. Instead of using these terms as substantives (real and apparent entities) which stand for persons, ...they may be better used to describe the nature of overt sexual relations, or of the stimuli to which an individual erotically responds."
Here I shall look at this statement regarding sexuality and gender from a sociological perspective on deviance. In this discussion, I will address the following questions: What role does sexuality (and gender) play in society? How are these categories constructed? How are they maintained? What do these categories reveal about important configurations of power in American society?
The "social construction" of the category of gender has had its roots firmly planted since biblical times: from the creation of the female, Eve for man (so Adam would not be lonely) to the 1800s when women were not allowed (by men) the right to vote. It has been prevalent in marriage ceremonies as brides promised to "honor and obey" their husbands (although the "obey" part seems to be absent recently). The role of the male being dominant or superior to the female is one that insists on transcending time despite modern day efforts for gender equality in society. We (society) constructed this category based on a patriarchal system that places the primacy of masculinity above all else. Gender ensures a distinction between male and female, affirming male dominance over the weaker female. Moreover, the dichotomy of the patriarchy over all else that threaten it must be maintained through continual reaffirmation and reinforcement.
The reinforcement of gender roles and boundaries through societal constructs is shown in Woodhouse’s discussion of transvestites or cross-dressers. Cross-dressing heterosexual men (dressing in women’s clothing) pose a threat to traditional society that presents male and female gender categories as immutable categories that have no room for malleability. "On a social and cultural level the two groups (male and female) are mutually exclusive..." (Woodhouse, p. 117). This is maintained and strictly enforced in our male-dominant society through approval of masculinity and disapproval of femininity. "Outside of the closely demarcated boundaries of the drag act or the fancy-dress party, men cannot appear in any item of women’s clothing without immediate loss of the superior status attached to the male and the full imposition of ridicule and censure" (Woodhouse, p. 119). We see examples of this ridicule from very early childhood and adolescence with boys being scorned and called a "sissy" for playing with dolls or expressing feminine traits which are reserved for the secondary, inferior female role and "should be eradicated" (Woodhouse, p. 119). There is a vice-grip on the primacy of masculinity which refuses to let go of pointing out that which is not masculine, and giving it a value. "Any man who is effeminate cannot be heterosexual, there must be something wrong with him" (Woodhouse, p. 137) and is therefore considered "less than." "To deviate from this [primacy] status is to take a step down; to adopt the trappings of the second sex is akin to slumming it or selling out. And those who protect and maintain the primacy of masculinity cannot allow this to happen or the whole edifice would crumble" (Woodhouse, p. 119). "And identity politics as well as science has an interest in keeping them ["homo" and "hetero"] opposite" (Garber, p. 231).
However, the categories of sexuality (homo-, hetero-, and bisexual) and the use of the term "homosexual" to characterize the individual as a "real and apparent entity," rather than describing a behavior, are recent constructs of humans. "Prior to the nineteenth century - or, some will say, the eighteenth - homosexuality in the western world was a practice, not an identity" (Garber, p. 213). The use of the term to describe who a person is, is to attach the negative stigma of an unacceptable behavior to the individual, thereby making the person unacceptable. This is also done as a means to sanction and prohibit the behavior. Who wants to be called a "homo" or "fag?" Being labeled a homosexual is society’s way of determining what type of person you are and how you should be treated. What is also powerfully realized is that definitions of deviance and labels are handed down by those in society who decide "the norm" based on the current trend and philosophy of the time and their culture. This is important for two reasons. First, it affirms the sociological issue of power in constructing deviance. Secondly, it challenges the notion of gender being immutable and invariable over time and culture. Woodhouse excellently states this in her discussion of sex, gender, and appearance in relation to transvestites (cross-dressers). "The realization that gender is not a fixed entity, that gender roles and expectations can be questioned, attacked and changed, emphasizes the significance of viewing both gender roles and gender identity as social constructs whose meanings are continually affirmed and reaffirmed, negotiated and renegotiated through the social process of human communication and interaction" (Woodhouse, p. 119). An example of the idea that gender is fixed is shown here from NARTH’s School Sex Education Guidelines: "This impression of having always ‘felt different’ is a reflection of childhood gender nonconformity" (NARTH, p. 2), arguing it is not the case that you were born homosexual. Here again is the assumption that sex, gender role, and gender identity exhibit a conformity to, and an identity with one of two possibilities: masculinity (being primary) or femininity (being secondary).
The extent to which the "abnormal" is integral to the existence of "normal" is another important tool in evaluating categories of sexuality and gender identity. Distinguishing between good and bad, normal and abnormal is a human construct and one that is applied to nearly every facet of our human existence. "Normal" needs to be continuously reaffirmed in order that we may redefine what is "abnormal." We call things "wrong," "unnatural," "bad," "perverse," "strange," "odd," "queer," "abnormal," "immoral," and "deviant" to remind and reinforce that what these words describe is not acceptable behavior. We enforce the boundaries of "normal versus "abnormal" in countless ways. Just walking down the street, we automatically assign a social role to certain types of people based on "what" and "who" we perceive them to be. In addition, the rules can change. These boundaries must continually be reestablished based on the current philosophy of what is acceptable at the time. "The !
process of change through which certain deviations become labeled as normal or abnormal remains difficult to discern, becoming clear only when historical or social conditions permit..." (Bayer, p. 189). As we shall see, people in positions of power, have the ability to influence "what society permits" and sometimes we construct negative perceptions in our crusade to influence the rest of society.
The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality is a flagship among organizations in constructing particular interpretations that serve their particular group. The title on their brochure, "Taking a Stand: For Those Seeking Freedom from Homosexuality," wouldn’t be implying that homosexuality is negative, would it? By promoting negative interpretations of homosexuals, for example, groups like NARTH can help to influence and enforce what is considered deviant. NARTH warns that a pro-gay "philosophy usually includes the redefinition of marriage; the disparagement of gender differences as arbitrary ‘social constructs’; the undermining of family and religious authority with the substitution of a different set of standards; and the idea that homosexuality is a normal variant of human sexuality" (NARTH, p. 9). This statement embodies the tactic of demonizing and vilifying the deviants to enforce traditional gender and sexual constructs by pointing to the many ways in which homosexuality threatens to destroy society. To begin, "the gay philosophy" (which they sat down as a collective and wrote in the spring of 1967) stated here, threatens to "redefine" the institution of (heterosexual) marriage - the pillar establishment that exemplifies approved gender roles in our society. The undermining of family and religious authority serves to show that homosexuals are breaking down two of the utmost important institutions in society (the family and religion), in addition to going against authority. It is also sure to affirm the "normal" and enforce boundaries by questioning the idea of variability in human sexuality. NARTH also presents "evidence" against homosexuality by posing hypothetical questions and providing responses supported by "science" as if they are hard irrefutable facts. Even more disturbing though, is this recommendation for teaching about homosexuality that ties into the following discussion of the psychology field: "We haven’t learned from science that ‘homosexuality is as healthy as heterosexuality.’ Views about what constitutes psychological health are always based on some system of philosophy and morality. By itself, science cannot distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, healthy from unhealthy" (NARTH, p. 9). This supports a notion that science is objective and unbiased, has no moral agenda, only reports the facts, and makes no judgements. This is an interesting premise - let us see if it holds true in the scientific field of psychology.
The vote upon the question of whether homosexuality ought to be considered a mental disease was put before the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. The subsequent decision to remove homosexuality from the DSM-IV list of disorders brought huge political conflict. "The status of homosexuality is a political question, representing a historically rooted, socially determined choice regarding the ends of human sexuality" (Bayer, p. 185). The discussion by Bayer goes on to reveal many more important sociological issues; including how the formulation of homosexuality as a psychological "disorder" forced the APA to look at how social values influence psychiatry. Bayer cites Peter Sedgwick’s essay, "Illness - Mental and otherwise." He credits the antipsychiatrists with having made it clear that "mental illness is a social construction," and that "psychiatry is a social institution incorporating the values and demands of its surrounding society" (Bayer, p. 193).
Some would even go so far as to say that "all concepts of health and disease are informed by human values" (Bayer, p. 193). These values are what serve to help define the concepts of disorders and illness. Bulimia - it is an eating "disorder." Or is it society’s pressure for women to look like thin and beautiful models? Homosexuality - it is a mental "disease." Or is it simply exhibiting another form of sexual behavior? If it is a variant of sexuality, we know from NARTH, it certainly is not "normal." However, "Normality and health cannot be understood in the abstract, rather they depend on cultural norms, society’s expectations and values, professional biases, individual differences, and the political climate of the times" (Bayer, p. 182). This is why tradition has been able to classify a broad range of behaviors as warranting clinical attention. "Along with other forms of sexual deviance [transvestism] has been medicalised, treated as if abnormal and needing medical care" (Woodhouse p. 136). In the classification of homosexuality, "the struggle for legitimization therefore entailed a challenge to psychiatry’s authority and power to classify homosexuality as a disorder" (Bayer, p. 189). All of this makes very clear the role particular institutions in society have in classifying, constructing, and reinforcing what is deviant in society.
An examination of categories of sexuality and gender also reveal close ties with important power configurations in American society. Deviance is constructed as a form of social control - to control the way people think, feel, and behave. What quality best possesses the ability to exert this control? Power. "We engage everyday in extraordinarily powerful, consequential, and often painful interpersonal negotiations about what is or is not acceptable and about what our respective places are in a world that provides us with less guidance and certainty about such matters..." (Millman, p. 98). This notion of what is or is not acceptable is an essential tool in defining what is deviant. In terms of sexuality and gender in our studies of deviance, feminist theory gives the most thorough discussion of the dichotomy of power between male and female sexes. The assignation of gender "establishes a hierarchy whereby a sexual division of labor ensures an imbalance of power and control weighted heavily in favor of male supremacy" (Woodhouse, p. 118).
Media is a primary medium where the "powerful perpetuation of dominant power structures" (Hantzis & Lehr, p. 181) is portrayed on a regular basis. In the case of the popular culture media, they are careful not to show healthy, fully developed, and fully expressed homosexual characters so as not to give the idea that homosexuality is "normal." The sitcom Ellen is a perfect example of this. Here we have a character who comes out as lesbian on national television only to be censored into behaving the way society deems appropriate. In this episode, the fact that she is a lesbian is announced over the airport loudspeaker; however, in subsequent episodes this fact is highly downplayed. Here is a parallel example in the discussion of another television character: "She twice states that she is lesbian, but her character is never permitted to perform as a lesbian. The absence of a performance of lesbianism is not simply the absence of lesbian sex, but the absence of any representation of lesbianism as a factor of Marilyn’s identity. The invisibility of Marilyn’s lesbianism not only allows Heartbeat to avoid any substantial portrayal of an experience outlawed by the dominant patriarchal discourse, but to obscure homophobia..." and "...we suggest that the invisibility of her lesbianism supports patriarchal values by removing the need to confront the homophobia and heterosexism/sexism that visible lesbianism signifies" (Hantzis & Lehr, p. 177). This sanitization for public consumption is nearly always prevalent with the exception of when they do show gay characters, they are usually portrayed in a stereotypical, feminine fashion such as Nathan Lane in the movie The Birdcage or with the stigma of the gay man with AIDS, such as Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. This continued prevalence of stigmatization and stereotyping of those considered "deviant" serves to maintain status and control of power.
Government is another forum where the role of power is rampant, specifically in legislating laws to control, restrict, and punish behaviors deemed deviant by society. The power of legislation is conveyed many times in this statement regarding the matter of biology in homosexuality. "If homosexuality were found to be an immutable trait, like skin color, then laws criminalizing homosexual sex might be overturned. Same sex marriage, job protection, antidiscrimination in housing laws - all these could hinge on the redefinition of homosexuality as biologically caused rather than socially and culturally chosen" (Garber, p. 225). This statement brings up several ways of exerting control over deviant behavior (linked to a particular group of people): by making the behavior a punishable, criminal act; by discrimination through laws; by not granting protection of rights; and by prohibiting the recognition of same sex marriage (as if by not recognizing it, it isn’t really there).
An example of this social control is demonstrated in the case of Ballot Measure 9. In 1992, an initiative was put on the ballot to amend Oregon’s state constitution to prohibit and revoke laws that protect homosexuals from discrimination. The Oregon referendum sponsored by the Oregon Citizen’ Alliance (OCA) further mandated that all government agencies and schools recognize homosexuality as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse"; and no government monies could be used to "facilitate" homosexuality. The issue became a campaign to vilify, demonize, and dehumanize homosexuals. Note the focus here was not on the behavior but on the people. Religious right organizations such as the OCA take the demonic approach with their sole objective to seek out, point out, control, and eliminate deviance.
An example of this conflict occurred in San Diego County last year. People were upset that the Grossmont Union High School District voted to add the words "actual or perceived sexual orientation" to the district’s nondiscrimination and multicultural policies, which already included protection from discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and disability. According to an article in the San Diego Union Tribune on June 4, 1999, those opposing the new policy that would give special protection to gay and lesbian students believe it is "enabling this (homosexual) agenda to infiltrate the schools." One student remarked, "I think if they give the gay people rights, then they have to give everybody rights." Another parent remarked, "This isn’t about protecting kids, because adequate protection already exists. This is about legitimizing homosexuality, bisexuality, etc., in an attempt to bring it into the curriculum" (Union Tribune, p. B4). Notice the language used here by those in opposition of the new nondiscrimination policy: "homosexual agenda," "infiltrate," "legitimizing." They are all used in a negative context to maintain the boundaries and reaffirm what is deviant.
In summary, many sociological issues contribute to the construction of categories of sexuality and gender identity in our society. The primacy of masculinity versus femininity, the categorizing of deviants as "abnormal" or needing psychiatric "treatment," and the role of power in American society all contribute to explaining and understanding the role of deviance in our society. There are also several tools that serve to maintain, enforce, and reinforce these categories, but the strongest uniting factor is the imputation of negative status for that which is deviant. Kinsey argued that we should avoid applying terms of behavior to individuals. Rather than using terms such as heterosexual and homosexual to describe persons, we should use them "to describe the nature of overt sexual relations." I think he posed this idea in light of conducting objective, unbiased research and the realization that the use of these terms was too restrictive and limiting to characterize a person based on their sexual behavior. From a deeper look, we have seen that there are many factors that determine how society feels about sexuality. Although I agree with Kinsey’s statement, our world is not designed to look at the issues of sexuality and gender in an unbiased, objective manner. Who knows? One day, it may be.
Bayer, H. (1987). Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis. NJ: Princeton University Press.
Garber, M. (1995) Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Hantzis, D. M. and Lehr, V. (1994). Whose Desire? Lesbian (Non)Sexuality and Television’s Perpetuation of Heterosexism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals (NARTH). (1999). School Sex Education Guidelines: Teaching About Homosexuality. [Pamphlet]. Encino, CA.
[Title Unavailable]. (1999, June 4). San Diego Union Tribune. P. B4.
Woodhouse, A. (1989). Fantastic Women: Sex, Gender, and Transvestism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
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