Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Bisexual Zone

I'm slowly reading J. Neil C. Garcia's Philippine Gay Culture (2nd edition, University of the Philippines Press, 2008) -- slowly, because it's long and dense, but also because Garcia grapples seriously with questions of local institutions and expressions of same-sex eroticism without making the mistakes many post-colonial scholars do.  He has some good ideas, but he doesn't always go deeply enough; the benefit I'm getting is a better understanding of the assumptions that lie underneath a lot of discourse about sexuality.  I keep stopping to think over what he says, so it's going to take me a while to read all 500 pages.

For example, on page 44 he summarizes Alfred Kinsey's numbers on homosexual behavior among (American) males: 37 percent had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm with another male between the ages of 16 and 55; 25 percent had "more than incidental" homosexual experience for at least three years between 16 and 55; and 4 percent had exclusively homosexual experience throughout their adult lives.  He then draws on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's schema of "minoritizing" versus "universalizing" perspectives on sexual orientation, trying to apply it to Kinsey's work:
And so, Kinsey universalizes the question of homosexuality to include even the mainstream, so-called homosexual majority.  It is acts, not people, that may accurately be called homo- or heterosexual.  And with sexuality as simply a "discourse of acts," it becomes somewhat possible to transhistoricize "homosexuality," even if only as a matter of behavior.  Apparently, Kinsey's model presupposes either that all human beings are potentially bisexual, or that some forms of bonding among individuals of the same sex -- called "homosociality" in more recent scholarly literatures -- just happen to turn genital now and then [44-5].
There are several useful problems here.  Garcia is right, to a point, that Kinsey's approach includes "even the mainstream, so-called heterosexual majority" in the category of homosexual behavior; that was one reason Kinsey's work shocked mainstream America so much.  But the usual public reaction was to suppose that any man who had an orgasm with another man even once must be a homosexual.  (That fabulous creature whose definition no one can agree on.)  On reflection they might concede that one time might be an experiment; compare Voltaire's famous rejoinder "Once, a philosopher; twice, a Sodomite!"  Or a man might be in prison, with no other option than other males for the duration.  But the fact that many people have and enjoy sex with others of their own sex without thinking of themselves as homosexuals is still extremely difficult for most people to parse.

Remember the trade/queer model that was so common in the US at the time Kinsey and his associates were gathering their data: A man who provided his erection to another man without reciprocation was still a Man, no matter how many times he did so.  A Queer was one who put another man's erection to use.  Superficially, this model was same-gender: Queers were generally contemptuous of "pansies, fags, and swish." They were also as insistent as Trade that Trade are not homosexual.  In Barry Reay's book on the subject, he quotes Thomas Painter, one of Kinsey's informants, who wrote:
Painter, who appeared in Henry’s book along with his hustler associates, later questioned the sexologist’s categorizations. ‘Dr. [George W.] Henry obviously believes that participation in a homosexual act makes one a homosexual, and we do not believe any such thing.’ He was especially critical of the doctor’s characterization of the hustler Leonard R. as a homosexual when he was not homosexual: ‘most male prostitutes to homosexuals are themselves heterosexual [New York Hustlers, Manchester UP, 2010, 63].
This model can be valid as long as it's understood that that it treats homosexuality as a matter of role in sexual acts, not of sexual arousal or desire.  It had to accommodate numerous ad hoc exceptions, however, like "Eddie, who was being pedicated by both Painter and Melcarth and had begun to worry about enjoying it – ‘Eddie … fucks girls avidly’ – was easily convinced that it merely enlarged his sphere of enjoyment and did not make him ‘queer’" [Reay, 124].  Since Eddie would have to be queer according to the Trade/Queer model, something else than accurate classification is going on here.  I'm willing to accept almost any definition of "homosexuality" for purposes of discussion; what I find interesting is that even a given definition's advocates can't stick to it.  And as I've suggested before, the fact that advocates of the Trade/Queer model have to keep insisting that Trade aren't "homosexual" indicates that there's a strong cultural tendency to believe that they are.  That doesn't mean that either side is right -- that remains to be settled -- only that the Trade/Queer distinction isn't as obvious as its proponents want to believe.

Returning to Garcia's "Apparently, Kinsey's model presupposes either that all human beings are potentially bisexual, or that some forms of bonding among individuals of the same sex -- called 'homosociality' in more recent scholarly literatures -- just happen to turn genital now and then." It has been a while; I should reread Kinsey's chapters on homosexuality, but as I remember Kinsey didn't presuppose anything there about why human beings have sexual contact with persons of their own sex.  I do know that he rejected biological and psychoanalytic theories.  His aim was to find out what people did, and with whom, not to classify them as kinds of people -- homosexuals, fornicators, adulterers, masturbators, etc. -- as previous medical sexologists did.  I find it intriguing that so many people are evidently unable to distinguish between acts and actors, even as a thought experiment.

I get the impression from writers about Kinsey that he may personally have believed that "all human beings are potentially bisexual," but it's not even clear what that means.  Many people use the slogan to mean that we are born erotic blank slates, capable of any sexual desire or behavior, until Society forces us into certain categories.  This doesn't work very well, because clearly people don't conform to Society's dictates, even apart from sexual orientation. Masturbation, for example, was regarded with almost universal horror in mid-20th century America, yet it was almost universally practiced.  Besides, Society sends mixed messages on sexuality: fornication is forbidden, but boys also learn that it's fun and a proof of manhood besides, and Boys Will Be Boys; women are to be respected, but there are many women who are not respectable and therefore are fair game for male pursuit.  And so on.

Whether all human beings are bisexual in practice, regardless of Society's categories, is another question.  Whatever Kinsey himself believed, his data didn't show any such thing.  A majority of his male sample were monosexual: 50 percent had exclusively heterosexual experience throughout their lives, and 4 percent had exclusively homosexual experience throughout their adult lives, and most of the rest skewed toward one pole or the other.  I've had some entertaining disputes with people who wanted to define "bisexuality" to mean equal attraction to, or activity, with both sexes, which would exclude most practicing bisexuals from the category; but they refused to say where along the continuum the line real bisexuals and mock bisexuals should be drawn.  It's also possible, of course, to declare Kinsey's data invalid, but I'm not aware of any other evidence that most human beings are bisexual: the claim is an act of faith.

"Potential" is another tricky word.  At birth every human being can potentially learn any language on earth, but no human being can learn every language.  (This is another logical distinction that appears very difficult for many people to grasp.)  A few individuals are able to master many languages, and many people can get along in several; but in real life the potential always narrows down to some degree.   Andrew Holleran once wrote that nobody will have sex with just anybody, but most people will have sex with almost anybody.  It should also be pointed out that the number of people I have sex with is limited not only by my willingness, but by their willingness to have sex with me; this is a hard fact that seems to be left out of the discourse most of the time, as is the difference between my ideal or "perfect" partner and those I actually am attracted to, the ones I'll happily accept if they offer.  As I've also pointed out before, "sexual orientation" is a blunt instrument for describing people's erotic attractions: all my sexual partners are male, but I'm not attracted to all, or even most males, and this seems to be true for most people.

I don't know whether Kinsey would have agreed with me, but it seems unlikely to me that there is only one explanation for the range of behavior he discovered.   Those percentages aren't broken down, for example, according to the role the men involved played in the acts they enjoyed.  (Since the criterion was having an orgasm, I think it's safe to say that at least some enjoyment was involved, a point to which I'll return.  Though this raises the question of whether the orgasms involved were both partners' or just one's.)

The time parameter Kinsey used ("for at least three years of their lives") also may reflect opportunity.  For example, a man might go cruising for easily accessible orgasms from other men while he was single and lived in a city, but then he married and could get regular sex at home -- but he might still go cruising now and then if he traveled on business away from his family.  Depending on his personal inhibitions, he might or might not give his male partners orgasms as well.  (As the example of Painter's Eddie shows, some men are more accommodating than others.)   During World War II, a good many military personnel of both sexes took advantage of same-sex erotic opportunities "for at least three years of their lives" while they were far away from home in cities with lots of gay bars, but found heterosexual opportunities easier and safer when they went home to their farms or small towns.

Whether their "orientations" changed is another question, but we have no way to measure "sexual orientation."  Kinsey counted experiences, not orientations, despite the use of his homosexual-heterosexual continuum and even his interviewing format by more recent researchers, who either assume that experience equals orientation or hope that no one will notice that the two are not the same thing.  Many of Kinsey's critics accused him of ignoring the emotional aspects of sex, but it's arguable that he did so out for convenience's sake, since acts are relatively easy to count and emotions aren't.

Garcia's other alternative, that "some forms of bonding among individuals of the same sex ... just happen to turn genital now and then," might apply to some of the people in what might be called Kinsey's bisexual zone, but it begs the question of why they "just happen to turn genital."  That's Garcia begging the question, by the way, since as far as I know Kinsey didn't suggest this possibility.  I've often talked to people who spoke of sex as something that just happens when "love" reaches a certain level of intensity, but this is certainly not true for everyone.  And it's a reminder that many attempts to explain sexual behavior among human beings ignore the fact of human consciousness.  We may try out things because we hear about them, or learn about them in other ways.  (Rural kids seeing farm animals copulating, for example.)  If they feel good and we can get away with it, we'll probably do them again if we get a chance.  And of course, heterosexuality is compulsory among human beings as it isn't for other animals, but it's forbidden when it's not compulsory, so kids often go to a lot of trouble to get sexual experience -- not just from "instinct" but to be able to feel like adults.

The flaw in essentialist accounts of sexual orientation, whether they're gendered or not, is that they assume that sexuality is driven by mysterious essences in a person.  They tend to ignore the world and people outside the person.  In gendered accounts, we have (say) the "woman's soul trapped in the body of a man," seeking the man's soul in the body of a man. Why it wouldn't be as responsive to a man's soul in a woman's body isn't clear.  This model also founders on why a man would be interested in having sex with an invert: maybe his man's soul is drawn to the woman's soul in the invert's body?  In the nineteenth century the model fostered a narrative of doomed love, the invert vainly seeking "normal" partners.  The underlying assumption is that male and female are opposites, mutually attracted like magnetic poles, but this is an assumption, belied by the fact that all heterosexual males aren't attracted to all heterosexual females, and that some heterosexuals are attracted to some individuals of their own sex.  The latter case is seen as an anomaly, but maybe it's just a sign that the "opposites attract" model of sex is incorrect; Emma Donoghue showed in her book Inseparable that it hasn't always been the only model of love in Western Culture.

Another reason to doubt the gendered model is that people work so hard to find differences at all costs, especially where gender is concerned.  If a lesbian couple both cut their hair the same length, then the blonde must be the femme and the brunette must be the butch.  If both are blonde, then some other difference must be the opposite that constitutes their bond: one is taller, or heavier, or whatever.  Class can also be gendered, with the lower-class partner ascribed butch.

It's interesting to me that even in the Philippines, where a gendered model of same-sex eroticism rules the roost according to Garcia, other models coexist, and not only the supposedly Western "gay" one.  Judging from the popular genre of "macho dancer" movies, which are now a niche market in the West but didn't originate as export products, many of the clients of male sex workers in the boy bars aren't obviously flaming queens.  Bakla -- the noisily effeminate transgender men -- also work in the bars and service male clients who want that type.  In Midnight Dancer, the breakthrough film in the genre, one of the macho dancers has a friendly affair with a bakla coworker, but the emotional focus of the story is his relationship with a masculine client of higher socioeconomic status; again, I suppose the upper-class guy can be read as the Queer to the dancer's Trade, but the dancer is too emotionally and sexually responsive to fit that reductive model very well.

The same consideration applies to Latin America, where the paradigm is often vestida (cross-dressed penetrated feminine male) and mayate (impenetrable macho male), activo and pasivo, but there's still plenty of homogender same-sex activity going on under the activo / pasivo cover.  The dichotomy doesn't hold up under even cursory inspection.  This reminds me of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu discovered in his early fieldwork on North African Muslim societies:
... I was stupefied to discover, by the use of statistics -- something that was very rarely done in ethnology -- that the type of marriage considered to be typical in Arabo-Berber societies, namely marriage with the parallel girl cousin, accounted for about 3 to 4 per cent of cases, and 5 to 6 per cent in Marabout families, that are stricter and more orthodox [In Other Words (Polity Press, 1990), 4].
Similarly, the dominant model of sexuality in a society might not be the most common; it might even be a minority.  But if everyone pays lip service to it as the way things are, they'll try to make everyone fit it anyway.  In the US, this process reverses the Philippine model: "gay" means two gender-compliant ("straight-acting" is the code) men together, even though many gay men are anything but masculine; gay men obsess over straight men, tops and bottoms; and gender play such as drag is still very popular not only as entertainment but as the guilty, half-denied other side of respectable Homo-American culture.  It's there, but it doesn't count.