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Culturally constructed sexuality

phenoms's picture

    When I read “Living the Good Lie” I was skeptical that any human could repress biological aspects of their being in favor of social ones. Could a gay man really choose a heterosexual lifestyle because he identifies more closely with his religion? It didn’t seem plausible, possible, or pleasant. And yet, there was something that drew me to closer examination. Was the distinction between the biological/social as clearcut as I had always assumed?  Biologically, I am female, and socially, I identify as a woman. But untangling the biological/social for sexuality proved more difficult than I had anticipated. The intersection of sexual orientation and society is as deeply entwined as Foucault’s theory of power/knowledge. Because we live in an era and culture that accepts a sexual spectrum from hetero to bi to gay, we assume these identities have always been. Subjectively, they are abstract cultural markers that precede us, making it feel as if they have always preceded us. When in fact personal identification on the basis of sexuality is relatively recent, and marks a shifting scientific obsession on sexual studies (Foucault).
    In America, (especially for men), we seem to subscribe to a”one-drop-rule” on the sexual spectrum. For a man, one sexual encounter with another man will (for some people) forever brand him as gay. We are easily and rigidly defined by our sexual choices. Which brings me to this picture.  

    Deena is a character (person) on the Reality TV show Jersey Shore. The show decides to create a storyline out of Deena’s same-sex experiences (all two of them). Her experiences provide absolutely incontrovertible evidence that she is gay, right?  Well it appears so, since over 5,000 people have already shared their opinions on the matter.  Because part of the discourse surrounding homosexuality accepts it as an unchanging part of identity, one that remains fixed and constant throughout one’s life. To be homosexual now, is to have always been homosexual (on some level).  Hearing Deena explain herself is even more excruciating.  In what seems like a rare, unedited moment of reality TV, she tries to defend her heterosexuality.

    I have always understood that sexuality shouldn’t be compartmentalized. That we shouldn’t be relegated into little boxes. Straight? Gay? Bisexual?  When I was first introduced to the Kinsey scale of sexuality it seemed like a pretty good way to understand the spectrum. But still, it was presented in terms of biological fact and certainty that left me a little uncomfortable. If we accept the reality that subjects grow and change, can we accept the possibility that sexual orientation can as well?
    Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume One explains just that. Foucault rejects the innocence of knowledge, even scientific knowledge, and instead perceives discourse through the lens of history and power. He makes it abundantly clear that sexuality is not a fixed term. Instead, he claims it evolved as an identifier in the 1800’s along with the marriage of confession with scientific discourse. This combination allows us to examine personal desires, fetishes, sexual experiences, etc with the scientific language that reinforces knowledge and truth. It publicizes the  personal. As Eli Clare writes, “woven through and around the private and intimate is always the public and political” (149). Foucault would amend that statement by reinforcing the idea that the personal/public dichotomy is first and foremost a social construct.
    For example, the act of coming out was not always a public motion. John D’Emilio states that mid century Gay activists helped politicize an action which previously dealt only with self-acceptance. Mid-century changing discourse allowed for the inclusion of friends, family, co-workers, and automatically politicized the action. However, if we go back far enough, to the basis of language and inclusion, the act was always political because it derived itself from a status quo of terminology and cultural norms that emphasized sexuality as an every important identifier (John D’Emilio).We come to the table with our culture’s words, symbols, and significant identifiers.  
    Eli Clare discusses, he performs a queer identity and a rural identity. They somewhat contradict each other, and yet each is essential to Eli’s personhood. To give up one completely, would seem impossible, and so Eli must work within the confines that both allow.  This is not unlike the men who choose to live heterosexual lifestyles while acknowledging homosexual urges. They contradict one another, yet room can be found within the confines of both. When we accept both sexual identity and religious identity as socially constructed, it is easier to understand  a man(or woman) who forsakes one for the other.
    The fact that Deena’s actions signify some truth about her identity is a cultural construct. It is not the sexual repression from law like structures that forces Deena to confess. She is forced into her explanation/ defense through the ubiquity of creative power that governs society. Just as intersex babies are forced gender assignment, an adult who does not choose heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality is not allowed a space without the power/knowledge construct of culture.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1
D’Emilio, John. The Gay Liberation Movement
Swartz, Mimi, Living the Good Lie
Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride


Anne Dalke's picture



You are just beginning to dig here into a deep, deep tunnel, the tangling of biological and social categories, where many gender theorists have dug before! If you want to go on digging, in the direction that "Jersey Shore" has pointed you toward, I'd suggest R.V. Young's The Gay Invention: Homosexuality Is a Linguistic as Well as a Moral Error (I disagree w/ his political and moral position, but like the linguistic analysis here…) and--much more acute, in part because it turns the tables--Jonathan Katz's The Invention of Heterosexuality.  As Katz makes clear, Kinsey's "famous continuum emphatically reaffirmed the idea of a sexuality divided between the hetero and homo"; it really didn't dissolve the binary, but actually reinforced the construction of polar opposities.

Homosexual acts were NOT always political, and--as Foucault's History of Sexuality explains--not always identity markers, certainly not following the "one-drop rule" (which is, I think, the single most compelling idea in your paper).

The work we'll be doing in class next week around matters of interest will also muddy the waters/tighten the tangle here. You may remember that Riki Wilchins offered an account of the "heterosexualizing" of intersex infants (defining them as either-or) as an example of the problematics of identity politics: "maybe we should rethink the politics of gendered identification....not an integral, independent feature of experience, but two accepted sets of meanings through which we are called to understand ourselves and to be understood by others" (p. 131). Or, in your words, "We come to the table with our culture’s words, symbols, and significant identifiers," and are "forced" thereby into cultural categories.  

So: what has happened to your understanding, in the course of writing this paper? You begin with a "clearcut" distinction between the biological and social, trace an emerging sense of the difficulty of untangling the two, and end…where? With a belief that there are no biological determinants, only cultural ones??

(Speaking of which: how do the cultural markers of your username and avatar function in this paper? What do they signal, about you as a writer on this topic?)