Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sorting It Out

I think I've finally figured out how to express a point I've been fussing about for some time, namely the definition of "homosexuality."  For example, the anthropologist Sabine Lang wrote that "In Western culture, a homosexual relationship is defined as being between ... two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender."  There are many things wrong with that definition, which I've spelled out before, but I think I've now pinned down my key objection.

Similarly, Serena Nanda wrote of "a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation."  I've spelled out some of the many things wrong with this formulation too, but I don't think I quite got at the core of it until now.

Likewise, Graeme Reid wrote: "In the classic contemporary Western model of homosexuality both partners in a same-sex relationship would automatically be classified as homosexual, based on sexual object choice."  Would they really?  Wouldn't it be necessary to make at least a dutiful nod to sexual fluidity and the Kinsey continuum before automatically classifying both partners as homosexual?

So: A more accurate account of a Western definition of "a homosexual relationship" (or more likely, "a homosexual act") is that it involves two individuals of the same sex, whether or not they are of the same gender or sexual orientation.  The difficulty here, I think, is the risk Lang, Nanda, and I all run of ignoring who is doing the defining.  I recognize that many or most people who use these terms assume an inversion / gender variant model of homosexuality, which is also "Western" but assumes that any sexual act or relationship must be gendered: you have your queer and your real man, or your bulldyke and your femme, and only the gender variant in the pair is "the homosexual."

I'm skeptical, in fact, about claims that this or that researcher said that both partners in a homosexual act are homosexual, because most researchers in the twentieth century have used the inversion model.  I suspect that in most if not all cases, they referred to "homosexual activity" and some piece of trade's delicate sense of manhood was outraged, even though the researcher had not said or meant that both men in the encounter were inverts.

Sorting this out is complicated by the fact that even Alfred Kinsey and others who tried to avoid thinking in essentialist terms found it difficult not to speak of homosexual persons.  But even a homosexual person can be viewed (as Kinsey would have done) as someone who interacts erotically with persons of his or her own sex, without assuming that he or she is an invert.  Analogously, the language one speaks doesn't tell us anything about one's nature, though historically people have often believed otherwise: I speak English because I grew up in an English-speaking environment, and learned other languages by choice, not because I was a Spanish-speaking or French-speaking soul trapped in the body of an Anglophone.  It has often occurred to me, when I looked at statements about homosexuality from the Kinsey team, that they were overlooking questions of gender, copulatory role, and the like -- but that was exactly the idea; the trouble was that when Kinsey reported (say) that 37 percent of his male sample had at least one experience with another male to orgasm between the ages of 16 and 55, most readers jumped to the assumption that they were all inverts, homosexuals, etc.  This is interesting when I consider that many if not most Americans in those days surely subscribed to a version of the queer/trade model, in which the penetrator ("trade") officially was Not Homosexual.  But that might explain it: given that assumption, what else could they think when they heard that 37 percent of males had "homosexual" experience, but that all those men were queers?

Remember the young Dominican woman I've quoted before, who, when she learned that her boyfriend was being kept by a maricón, accused him of being a maricón himself, to his great indignation.  "And she said 'What do you mean you’re not a maricón, if you live with a man?!' And I said they weren’t the same thing. 'What do you mean?' And I said, 'No, because he’s the one who receives, and I’m the one who gives.'"  Even in a society where the trade/queer model is dominant, not everyone goes along with it, and with reason.  As Annick Prieur (one of the few writers who is able to think about these matters with some clarity) put it in Mema's House (Chicago, 1998), "Gender is a question of discourses, of signs, of presentations and representations, of gestures, speech, garments and clothes, but it is also a question of naked bodies.  And when two persons with the same male sexual organs are naked, the construction of one of the partners as a not-homosexual man and of the other one as a not-male person is difficult to upkeep" (274).  It takes a lot of sociocultural work to maintain the trade/queer distinction.

What I propose, then, is that in discussing a homosexual act or relationship, there is no need to make assumptions about the gender or the sexual orientation of either partner.  A homosexual act involves two people with the same genitalia, regardless of their sexual identity or orientation or gender -- or their religion or political affiliation or height or weight or eye color.  This all seems so obvious as I write it, but from what I've read on the subject over the past few years I have to conclude that it's not obvious to many people at all.  Indeed the evidence is that it's really very difficult for many or most people to grasp.

Many people who cite the Kinsey continuum misunderstand it, and it's instructive to consider why that is.  It was supposed to help people visualize a non-essentialist model of homosexuality (though Kinsey wouldn't have used the word "essentialist," which wasn't in vogue then), by pointing out that many people have varying amounts of homosexual and heterosexual experience during their adult lives.  Yet many people, including academic and clinical thinkers, take the scale as a metric of "sexual orientation," even though there is no way to measure or quantify sexual orientation.  Arguably you can use it however you wish, as long as you're aware you're not using it as it was meant to be used, but it doesn't appear that such people are aware.  They equate sexual behavior with sexual orientation and even identity (though they also tend to confuse sexual orientation with sexual identity), even as they appeal to a device that was meant to uncouple the two, at least analytically.

One might ask at what point on the scale a person becomes "homosexual" or "heterosexual."  The answer would depend largely on what is meant by "a homosexual person."  It can mean a person with a homosexual essence, which stays the same whether a person has any overt sexual experience a at all, and even when "a homosexual person" has considerable quantities of heterosexual experience (and vice versa).  Or it can mean that a person has considerable homosexual experience and decides to label oneself on that basis.  It needn't imply anything about one's biological (or spirit)* nature.  As the writer Marge Piercy put it, "There's no reason I shouldn't be a lesbian if I fell in love with a woman again" -- a lesbian, in this quite reasonable and idiomatic sense, is a woman who's "in love" with a woman at the moment, regardless of her experience with men at other times.  By contrast, the writer Kelley Eskridge wrote that "I don't even call myself a lesbian," despite her relationship of twenty-plus years with the writer Nicola Griffith.  But those who want to stress the "fluidity" of sexuality, to reject "binaries," and to trumpet their rejection of essentialism, should recognize that a label like "homosexual" or even "gay" doesn't tell us anything about a person's nature.

*I mention "spirit" here because the two-spirit model, for example, is thoroughly essentialist: it assumes that there are precultural male and female natures that drive people's behavior, but they are spiritual (whatever that means) rather than biological (whatever that means).  It seems to me that there's no real difference between "spirit" and "biology" in these conceptions.  In both cases, an inner woman is postulated though not defined or explained, who drives the male body she inhabits to seek penetration by other males.  This kind of idea is generally dismissed by scientists as 'mysticism' when the inner woman is a spirit, but not when she's a biological essence -- a concept that is no more rational as far as I can tell.