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06 March, 2012

Sexuality, Identity, and Category Construction: Part I

Just 'Cause You Feel It Doesn't Mean It's There.

A recent guest post by fannie on Alas! A Blog asked whether, insofar as it entails a move to buy in to marriage and to mainstream social structures rather than demanding that all dimensions of difference be recognized, the gay marriage movement is ultimately a conservative movement. The author and some commentators argue that, "rather than pushing to make flawed institutions and flawed ways of thinking about gender and sexual identity better, the push seems to be to keep flawed structures intact while allowing more people into these structures."

Lucky timing. I love that someone on a highly visible blog is discussing these issues, because I had just been drafting a post about the nature of this sort of problem. What I'd like to do now is, for those of us who are just absurdly curious, to lay out in detail one argument for how not only the marriage rights movement but also any political movement that relies on, as fannie put it, "arguments of the 'we’re just like you and we were born this way' type" is a half-baked means that leads to an incomplete end. Why is this argument effective, and how is it damaging? Why is this particular argument threatening to many people?


Back in high school, my friends and I would talk about how we didn't want to ascribe to any particular pigeonhole in terms of sexual identity; we'd say, "I'm not attracted to MEN or WOMEN, I'm attracted to individual people." That sounded great at the time, but, funny story here, somehow it didn't solve all of society's problems. Huh.

As I spread out the first tendrils of political awareness, I got invested in the rhetoric in the air at the time: people often recruited "I was born this way, so don't you tell me that it's unnatural!" for arguments around then, as I guess folks still do now. Plenty of people are aware of how using that in an argument about human rights is an example of what some people call the naturalistic fallacy, implicitly perpetuating the idea that whether a thing is natural is somehow connected to whether that thing is acceptable, but people choose to put research into the question nonetheless. Perhaps this started as a reaction against dogmatic religious speakers who, in an attempt to argue without reference to their first-choice source material, picked up "It's unnatural" as a new tactic. I guess there's also an appeal in the idea that people can't be blamed or punished for what isn't their choice, but in the same country where Lady Gaga recorded "Born This Way", the state is empowered to execute mentally ill people as criminals. Clearly, the legal system's actions are not consistent with a strictly intentional stance. It's worth noting that Christianity in specific already has a conceptual metaphor (or literal understanding) of having to be responsible for a flaw that isn't one's own fault: the concept of having to overcome original sin. Just file that away for later. And, just to complicate this even further, it's important to point out that the argument-from-biology might be part of the same public debate in which queer activists are engaged but might be coming from somewhere completely different.

Putting aside whether the essentialist/determinist argument makes sense on any level or not, I still thought, "Hey, let's check out these articles claiming to provide evidence for genetically determined sexual orientations!" Being involved in evolutionary biology and psychology, I got my hands on the primary literature. It became clear that, although there were patterns suggesting heritability, there was not yet a clear answer. But if sexuality is both intrinsic to one's identity and biologically fixed, then shouldn't whatever mechanism we discover be a straightforward one? After all, it's not as if we're dealing with a complicated subject matter.1

Although there is evidence for one or more strictly biological contributions to sexual orientation, I learned (mostly from Foucault) a lesson that I might have learned in high school: that the categories we use to discuss sexuality are not tied to some deep, universally recognized categories but are shaped by certain historical precursors. This knowledge has changed how I look at both sexuality and conversations about sexuality. Empowerment is great, so thank you Lady Gaga, but to me, it's important to look at the ways in which any given approach to this topic can influence the conclusions we reach, and at whether that might lead to less ideal circumstances in our own lives than we might otherwise be able to build. The following post is not old news for plenty of us (note the disclaimer/citation on that one <3), but it's an important point that I want represented on this archive.

Medicalization and Reductionism

Normally, I am a big fan of methodological reductionism, because hey, atoms exist and I am made of them, let's research the hell out of that shit. Maybe reductionism has been misapplied in certain ways, however, and with harmful consequences. One thing that can cause problems in an otherwise delightful romp through reductionist territory is when the categories one applies in studying a given thing are not natural categories.

One consequence of the surge in reductionist and rationalist thought in natural philosophy (which has become the natural sciences) is a legacy of essentialism in our discourse of sexuality. Foucault, for instance (and I know some folks object to Foucault, but your time will come as well), writes in The History of Sexuality about the transition from sex as a thing that one does to a thing that defines a person -- the difference between "I loved it when that businessman sodomized me!" and "I loved it when that sodomite businessed me!" Er, "businessed" isn't a verb, is it? I hope you take the point: that there have been times and places in which sexual behavior was decoupled from identity such that sex was a thing that one did, rather than sexuality being a thing that one had, and rather than "sexual identity" being a concept in any fashion whatsoever. Foucault points fingers at a few convergent trends, including both confessional culture and, more relevant to this post, medical attitudes toward sexuality and the psychology of sex. To get back to why this matters: how can we look for, for example, a "gay gene" when "homosexuality" may be a category that exists thanks to the way a few medical and psychological professionals in a certain historical and cultural context created their categories? And, just to bake your noodle/state the obvious, depending on your experience: how can "homosexuality" be a natural category when not only gender but sex itself is not a naturally binary category? It's pretty clear to see that there's a very real cultural phenomenon happening, but it's important to recognize that a real cultural category is not necessarily identical with any natural category. You dig? These conversations are happening elsewhere, too, as people ask whether there are necessarily detrimental effects when we label and circumscribe identity categories. At the same time, people are recognizing the importance of language for simply having the ability to communicate about one's experience in the first place. Hell, there's even an academic article on language and polyamory called "There Aren't Words For What We Do Or How We Feel So We Have To Make Them Up." No lie.

All told, these categories are doing a lot of work, but how solid are their foundations? The more we make divisions, the more we realize how woefully inadequate any set of divisions will be. But, since these divisions are being recognized and oppression and bullying are being applied along these lines, how can we afford to ignore them? Without having recognized and named our differences, would we even be having this conversation?

To Be Continued

1: NB: sarcasm.

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