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Sexuality Men Women
Outline two or more different approaches to the study of sexuality.
Sexuality is mainly conceived as being a natural drive or instinct, which becomes inevitably part of the biological make-up of an individual, which only seeks fulfilment through sexual activity. Such a view of sexuality, which sees such as a natural entity, is most commonly referred to as essentialism. The majority of essentialist theories present today have presented sex as a natural instinct needed for the purpose of reproductive activity.
In such a way, Weeks (1986) outlines that in such an essentialist approach there is an apparent link between sexuality and biological sex/gender. “Modern culture has assumed an intimate connection between the fact of being biologically male or female (that is having appropriate sex organs and reproductive potentialities) and the correct form of erotic behaviour (usually genital intercourse between men and women)” (Weeks 1986 p.13)
In regards to an essentialist viewpoint, one is left to distinguish between men and women, in particular reference to their independent sexual desires and needs. It has been noted that women tend to have a natural tendency to promiscuity while men, on the other hand are described as having a much stronger sex drive.
Therefore, in reference to this particular discourse, human sexuality is heavily rooted in biological terms, whereby a heterosexual drive intended for the purpose of procreation would be considered “normal.” Thus, under such an approach, lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women have been largely considered deviant and unnatural, while any individuals who categorise themselves as any of these are subsequently not considered “real” men or women.
“We learn very early on from many sources that “natural” sex is what takes place with members of the “opposite” sex. “Sex” between people of the same “sex” is therefore, by definition, “unnatural.” (Weeks 1986 p.13) For both men and women, heterosexuality is clearly the norm under such an approach, while sex is ideally expressed in monogamous and marital relationships in an ideal world.
Jeffrey Weeks, who happens to be one of the key critics of essentialism has been known to reject any approach that fails to consider the historical and social forces that shape sexuality. Weeks suggests that the diversity of sexual identity and desire is also important to acknowledge. He rejects the notion that there is a true essence of sex, there is no “uniformed pattern” which is “ordained by nature itself” (Weeks 1986 p.15). The essentialist argument comes as simplistic to Weeks, as it reduces the nature of sexual relations and identities to biological factors.
Many other theorists have acknowledged the simplistic nature of essentialism, by agreeing that sexual desires may appear to be natural, but also acknowledging the idea that our sexual responses and identities may in fact be socially constructed. When we learn the patterns of our behaviour, we are subjected to the meanings attached to such behaviours as well. Such behaviours then become a product of certain social and historical forces; which can immediately be extended to include our sexual attitudes, feelings and the ways in which we feel about sexuality itself and hence our sexual identity.
It has been said that sexuality is very much shaped by the culture in which we live. The very factors that make up our society (laws, religious teachings, social policies, the media) all attach their own meaning to such meanings that are conveyed to us. This approach does not deem biology as insignificant; inevitably the body imposes some limits due to sheer distinction between being male or female i.e. we experience different things in regards to what genitalia we possess.
Yet having said this, anatomical structure and physiology do not directly influence what we do and the way we act, not does it determine the meaning we attach to the actions we choose to make. “All the constituent elements of sexuality have their source either in the body or the mind, and I am not attempting to deny the limits posed by biology or mental processes. But the capacities of the body are given meaning only by social relations”. (Weeks 1986 p.15).
In relation to social construction, the body is said to gain certain meaning in certain social contexts as different parts of the body can be defined in many different ways. For example, in the 1960s it was stated that a new cultural context emerged. It was at this point in time that the “G-spot” was discovered. Such a discovery led to the vast publication of books, with the added introduction of classes to help women explore their bodies and find their so-called “G-spot.” In such a way, the physical anatomy of women stayed the same as before but at this point it had a different social significance. This particular part of the body was given a particular and new social meaning, which was constructed to become an object of desire.
Foucault (1981) has been a very influential early theorist by shedding light on the social construction of sexuality. He argues that there is no one truth about sex. Hence various discourses, whether this be it law, religion, medicine or psychiatry have established their particular view of the body and its relative pleasures. Sexual desire is created through a set of bodily sensations, pleasures and feelings.
It is such desires which shape our sexual values and henceforth the meaning we attach to our bodies. Sex is therefore not some biological entity governed by natural laws (as suggested by essentialism) but is more like an idea specific to certain cultures and particular historical periods. The creation of definitions and in particular the categorisation such that of heterosexual, homosexual and lesbian etc becomes the ingredients of sex.
It is through this that we try to make sense of it. However, the work of Foucault, although recognised as very important has been criticised for not paying enough attention to the way gender influences sexual desire and identity.
In tangent with the work of Foucault, Weeks highlights that sexual identity is historically shaped. Weeks was apprehensive with the way in which sexuality and especially homosexuality has been embedded in an ever-changing and highly complex history over the past 100 years. With a number of influences, cited as being feminists, gay and lesbian activists and Foucault himself, Weeks developed the hypothesis that many sexual categories that we ultimately take for granted are actually the product of social and historical labels.
The distinction between the “natural” and secure are all subject to continuous labelling. Weeks felt it important to study the history of sexuality, in order to gain an understanding of the many forms of identities existent in society today, in terms of demographics such as class, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference. Again, he emphasises the point that it is reductionist to reduce the complexities of reality to essentialist biological truth. Sexual identity, therefore, according to Weeks is not achieved simply by an act of individual will but rather through social construction.
In addition to the above, “the ‘biological justification’ for heterosexuality as ‘normal’, it might be proposed, has fallen apart. What used to be called perversions are merely ways in which sexuality can legitimately be expressed and self-identity be defined.” (Giddens 1992 p.179). Giddens suggests that it is late modernity that has changed sexuality from being a single hegemony and replaced it with ‘sexual pluralism’. This significant shift brought on by the fact that sexuality as a term was largely replaced by “sexual identity,” which nonetheless is defined by individual choice, whereby sexual choice falls under one of the elements of an individual’s “lifestyle” choice.
In a historical sense, such a shift took place in a very short period of time. Sex and ways of thinking about it, provided a science of sex so to speak. These were accompanied by clear distinctions between the normal and abnormal. Such ways of thinking have produced a series of accounts of the way people behave sexually. Such accounts different to the work of the early sexologists such as Freud. Giddens introduces the notion of ‘institutional reflexivity’ to explain the shift. Through the process of reflexivity, it is the distinctions between the “normal us” and the “perverse them” that vanish. ‘Sexual diversity, although still regarded by many hostile groups as perversion, has moved out of Freud’s case-history notebooks into the everyday social world’ (Giddens 1992 p.33).
It has been found that there has been evidence to support the claim that the notion of perversion has been replaced by diversity, that our expressions of sexual desire rank alongside other expressions of self-identity, that sexual pluralism has replaced sexual monism. Some caution is necessary with this however, as Weeks points out (1986 p.81) “the admitted fact of diversity need not lead to a norm of diversity.” Such arguments and criticisms establishing the complex nature to the study of sexuality.
Amongst the essentialist/social constructionist debate, there has been a large amount of contribution from radical feminists. Radical feminists, (the assumed extreme ended form of feminism), has come under criticism for employing an essentialist viewpoint, whereby radical feminists themselves would claim to be following a social constructionist viewpoint. The essentialism that radical feminists are thought to applied to radical feminist thought is not the traditional biological sense, but a more social sense.
Radical feminists view the subordinate position of women as being universal and hence unchanging, therefore leading to a failure in acknowledging historical and cultural difference. As Ann Ferguson states “though these social constructionist theories may not technically be biologically essentialist, they are still a form of social essentialism: that is, they assume a social divide between male and female sexual natures which is unconvincingly universal, static and ahistorical.” (Ferguson 1989 p.54)
Typically, radical feminist thought on sexuality has pondered on the way in which patriarchy impacts women in particular social contexts. Radical feminists have not assumed sexuality to be universal and hence unchanging. A large part of the belief system of many radical feminists is the view that sexuality is socially constructed and therefore can be changed and reconstructed in many different ways; views on sexuality can change and be opposed.
Nonetheless, all preceding points have been ignored, as the view that radical feminists are essentialist has largely been adopted. IN addition to this, it appears that the recent that the influence of postmodernist ideas within feminism has re-instated this. For example, the words “patriarchy”, “woman” and “man” have been classifies as essentialist and problematic. Such issues and conceptions highlight the difficulty in theorising sexuality with one dominant approach.
It has been suggested that queer theory, as it emerged in the 1980s in the United States, was the distinctive factor that provided intellectual challenge to the categories that were established in the 19th century. It was queer theory that opposed the idea that heterosexuality was the only natural and normal form of sexuality, in addition to challenging the idea that homosexuality was in fact a distinct category of people that act in a particular way.
All binary divisions that were imposed on sex and sexuality were rejected by such an approach. It was argued that the theoretical basis for the rejection of existing categories was due to the fact that such categories fails to reflect real differences, whether this be biological or otherwise, but instead reflected discourse. Such categories therefore, were part of the language of heterosexual dominance and hence had no truth outside it. (Stein & Plummer 1994).
Furthermore, queer theory also criticized the notion of distinct sexual identities. Similar to postmodern thought on sexuality, queer theory recognized that the conception of identity was made up of many different things. “Individuals can construct and reconstruct themselves through their choice of lifestyles, moving across categories and boundaries as they please” (Epstein 1994).
Queer theory not only provided a refreshing sociological analysis of the importance of social categories but also had a political aim as well. However, such a viewpoint is open to sociological criticism as some may argue that fails to recognize the sheer volume of social construction, hence leaving the approach fairly simplistic.
Judith Butler’s work (1990, 1991) represents a postmodern attempt to theorise sexuality. Butler challenges the assumed causal links between sex, gender and sexual desire. She emphasises that the person individuals’ desire is seen to lead from either being masculine or feminine, whereby the norm construction is for desire to be directed towards the opposite gender. Not only does Butler challenge such a notion, but further goes on to address the assumption that heterosexuality is the only valid form of sexual desire. To her, heterosexuality is simply one element of desire.
What is important to point out at this point is the fact that heterosexuality is the only form of desire that has come to be seen as natural. Butler highlights that once these notions and so called links are challenged then both gender and sexual desire will become “fluid” – something which is not extensively present today. Butler is one of the few theorists who contests all forms of sexual norms. “It is not just the norm of heterosexuality that is tenuous. It’s all sexual norms” (Butler in Osbourne and Segal 1994)
Going into further detail, Butler proposes that no gender is a “true” gender. Gender is a performance; it is more about what is done at particular times rather than a universally fixed notion. Butler sees heterosexuality as the “naturalized” original, while a binary model of sexual identity i.e. the “either/or” of hetero/homosexuality is unstable as each requires the other as a reference point. For Butler, “there is no ”proper” gender, a gender proper to one sex or the other, which is some way that sex’s cultural property’ (Butler 1991 p.21).
There are, rather, ‘illusions of continuity’, by which heterosexuality naturalises itself. Such an illusion is thought to depend on the idea that “there is first a sex which is expressed through a gender and then through a sexuality” (Ibid). However, Butler argues the opposite, stating that a “regime of sexuality mandates as compulsory performance of sex” (ibid p.29). We have already established that the performance relied on masculinity and femininity.
According to Butler, the linked chain of sex, gender and desire, which becomes the make-up of heterosexuality is thought to be required yet fragile at the same time. The claim of such a chain being fragile is addressed in Butler’s Gender Trouble (1996), whereby Butler outlines a fundamental interpretation of the “Oedipal struggle” as developed by psychologist Freud. Within this text, Butler chooses to focus on the original denial of same-sex desire.
She readily argues that it is homosexual incest that was the original taboo, as compared to heterosexual incest as was claimed. “The young boy and the young girl who enter into the Oedipal Drama with incestuous heterosexual aims have already been subject to prohibitions with dispose them in distinct sexual directions. Hence the dispositions that Freud assumes to be primary or constitutive facts of sexual life are effects of a law, which internalised, produces and regulates discrete gender identity and heterosexuality.” (Butler 1990 p.64)
Therefore, the gender identification within the oedipal struggle is one that is produced by the repression and denial of same-sex desire. Such a disposition is caused by the effects of laws that see same-sex desire negatively. Some may argue that such a statement supports the idea of social constructionism.
In regards to heterosexuality, there are certain expectations that are placed on the body which relate to gender performance in order to acquire sexuality. A “feminine” woman and a “masculine” man are expected to experience pleasure via penetration of their respective genitalia.
This nonetheless explains the problems faced by transsexuals and the belief that successful acquisition of gender identity is impossible without the appropriate genitalia. Therefore, the transsexual’s gain or loss of a particular body part to establish a certain desired identity is not a “subversive” act but rather an act that portrays the nature and existence of the link between sex, gender and desire have become “naturalized.”
Although the work of Butler has been highly influential in the discipline of gender studies, it appears that a number of criticisms have been attached to her work. A major critic to the work of Butler has been Nancy Fraser, who argues that the concept of performance in relation to gender and sexuality and Butler’s immediate focus on it is somewhat ignorant of “everyday ways of talking and thinking about ourselves.” Many others have also focused on such an issue in their criticism of Butler’s work. For example, Speer and Potter also argue that Butler’s work is difficult to apply to real-life situations, as the focus on language and meaning leads to problems relating to validity.
Generally, over the past couple of decades, it appears that there have been significant shifts in the understanding and acceptance of sexuality, especially homosexuality. There has clearly been an emergence of new sexual identities, with fundamental challenged to traditional frameworks. However, having examined a number of approaches to the study of sexuality and looking closely upon the basis of the arguments presented by many of the theorists addressed in this essay it appears as though their arguments are in a nutshell rooted within the essentialist/social constructionist argument.
While there are theorists who view sexuality as determined by a particular factor whether this be it biological or anything else, there are those that view that society and history have their part to play as well. I feel that such a construction and these same assumptions, in whatever form they may come, will always remain. Sexuality will perhaps always be subjected to such connotations. What I do find important, however, is the factor of gender and its relationship to sexuality. It appears that gender is in fact an integral part of sexuality and the understanding of it. However, even discourse on sexuality and gender are yet to clearly direct us to a definitive understanding of sexuality.
BUTLER, JUDITH (1990) “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity”, London: Routledge, pp. 21-29
BUTLER, JUDITH (1991) “Imitation and gender subordination” in D. Fuss (ed.) “Inside/out Lesbian theories, Gay theories”, London: Routledge, pp 64-65
EPSTEIN, STEVEN (1987) “Gay politics, ethnic identity: the limits of social constructionism”, Socialist Review, 93/94: pp 9-54
FERGUSON, ANN (1989) “Blood at the Root: Motherhood, Sexuality and Male Dominance”, London: Pandora Press, pp 54-55
FOUCAULT, MICHEL (1981) “The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction”, Harmondsworth: Penguin
FRASER, NANCY (1994) “False Anthitheses” in “Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange”, London: Routledge, p 67
GIDDENS, ANTHONY (1992) “The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies”, Cambridge: Polity Press, p 33 p 179
HAWKES, GAIL, (1996) “A sociology of sex and sexuality”, Buckingham: Open University Press, pp 134-141
MARSH, IAN (2000 ed) “Sociology making sense of society”, London: Prentice Hall, pp 327-380
OSBOURNE, PETER and SEGAL, LYNNE (1994) “Gender as performance: an interview with Judith Butler.” in MARSH, IAN (2nd ed), “Sociology making sense of society”, London: Prentice Hall, pp 373
RICHARDSON, DIANE (2000) “Rethinking sexuality”, London: Sage, pp 19-67
SPEER, SUSAN and POTTER, JONATHAN (2002) “From Performatives to Practices” in McILVENNY, PAUL (ed) “Talking Gender and Sexuality”, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Company, pp 150-180
STEIN, ARLENE and PLUMMER, KEN (1996) “I can’t even think straight”: “queer” theory and the missing sexual revolution in sociology”, in SEIDMAN, STEVEN (ed.), “Queer Theory/Sociology”, Oxford: Blackwell.
WEEKS, JEFFREY (1986) “Sexuality”, London: Tavistock, pp. 13-81
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