Sexuality as a Social Construct

So my suitemate came home super excited from her Gay and Lesbian History course, and informed me that sexuality was a social construct.  I promptly disagreed, stating that although the supposedly fixed nature and obsession with gender was a social construct, that didn’t mean sexuality was. Her evidence was that in ancient Roman culture, as long as the men were the penetrators in a relationship, male or female, they still retained their power and masculinity.  To her this meant that sexuality was simply socially constructed, and a hole was a hole in any circumstance.

I believe it’s possible to have exceptions, or have fluid preferences based upon the weak concept of ‘gender’, but I don’t think this marks sexuality as a social construct.  I countered that social norms can either increase or decrease a specific behavior towards a specific gender, but the desire itself is biological, and does not change based on society or time (which was her argument of what a social construct was).

Unfortunately the argument was cut short when she informed me that she thought I was wrong, that I believe in what she called essentialism, and I should take the class.  I asked for clarification of what she meant in terms of social construct, and she informed me again that I should just take the class.

I’m always sad when arguments end with the ‘enlightened’ party simply stating that the opposing opinion should educate theirself, especially when I obviously cannot take the class anytime soon.

On another note, does anyone else know what she was talking about?

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About Alicen Lewis

Find me on BaiRabbit.wordpress.com! Archived Blog: Previously a summer intern for the startup incubator Idealab, during the school year I am also on the board of the Scripps College Professionals Network, Team Leader and Head Web Designer for Scripps College IT for Faculty, and President of Scripps Women in Technology. My previous experience includes working Digital New Media with Geek & Sundry, a Los Angeles Commercial YouTube company.

Posted on February 20, 2013, in Geek Suite, Gender/Sexuality, Growing Up and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. i actually read this essay in November in a literary theory class and I do agree with your suitemate. i happen to be a lesbian (no idea if you are) but in short:

    it is a social construction because it is not scientific, it is something you decide for yourself and then identify with a specific party. primarily it is a matter of perception, how you see yourself, want others to see you and how they actually see you. additionally, it is a term anyone can label you. not what your instincts tell you.

    definitely, read the essay. it is dense but very interesting. Haney Lopez also writes an essay about race being a social construction.

    let me know if you have any questions or anything!

  2. I’ve had a similar debate with somebody who was claiming that gender was not a social construct. In this debate, I argued exactly the same position you were arguing here, that gender is a social construct and sexuality is not. In a similar manner to your suitemate, this person suggested I read a very dense 450-page book by a neuroscientist. I bought the book but still haven’t gotten around to reading it (summer vacation should give me a chance to give it my full attention).

    Regardless, the conversation did help me to focus my thoughts on the subject. I remember arguing about the fact that because different societies define gender differently, a person with certain dispositions may see themselves as one gender in a certain society, but a different gender entirely in a different society.

    I still believe gender to be a social construct, as evidenced in my most recent blog post ( http://revdolphin.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/thought-and-language-l-s-vygotsky/ ), but as I’m considering the question in your debate of how much sexuality is and is not a social construct, it occurs to me that, just as the same dispositions may be viewed as different genders by different cultures, so, too, could the same attractions be viewed differently. After all, if sexuality is driven in large part by the gender of the person the agent is attracted to, then it would seem to follow that if that gender were defined differently by a different culture, then the agent’s sexuality would necessarily be defined differently as well.

    I myself have referred to myself as a heterosexual on numerous occasions. However, I have been attracted to and had relationships with transgender people who define their genders outside of the binary. Can I then truly call myself a heterosexual in this case? I can’t even truly call myself bisexual because the term “bisexual” draws from a binary definition of gender. I now usually use the term “mostly heterosexual cisgender male” to refer to that aspect of my identity (though I’ve had friends argue the cis- in my gender because I always carry a purse and will occasionally wear skirts). My own sexuality is complicated by the multitude of gendered identities that exist.

    At this point, I’m still on the fence about whether or not sexuality is a social construct. However, whatever the answer to the question, I don’t believe it should influence how I relate to people of whom I am aware of their sexuality. Unfortunately, I’ve heard it argued that how acceptable a lifestyle or identity should be is inversely proportional to how much choice that person has had in the creation of that lifestyle or identity. The erroneous assumption that relates to that perspective is that a socially-constructed identity is a “choice” and should therefore be subject to stigmatization if it doesn’t fit in with the mainstream. Whether or not you agree with such a perspective on stigmatization of chosen lifestyles or identities, I feel it essential to clarify that “social construct” is not synonymous with “choice.” If sexuality is a social construct, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is a choice.

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