A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


Social constructionists themselves acknowledge that despite an intellectual commitment to their theories, they often operate ‘as if’ their sexual identity were innate.

Myself, in the main I agree with Fuss [Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference, 1989] that ‘lesbian’ is a historical construction of comparatively recent date, and that there is no eternal lesbian essence outside the frame of cultural change and historical determination. However, this strictly intellectual definition wouldn’t stop me feeling, and sometimes behaving, as though the total opposite were true. . . . We need our dream of a lesbian nation, even as we recognise its fictionality. (S. Munt, New Lesbian Criticism, 1992, quoted by Bradby 1993)

This is a very revealing admission from a leading lesbian feminist, which raises a host of problems. Is it possible to base one's identity upon something one knows to be false? In this personality split between desire and theory, which is the fact and which is the fiction? My own feeling is that Munt has been led against her will into adopting the fashionable theory of social constructionism. In a similar way, nearly all gay and lesbian critics of literature and the cinema feel compelled to use the fashionable post-structuralist theory of the death of the author while at the same time they find it impossible not to hypothesize the existence of the author when discussing any lesbian or gay texts.

If anything tends to disprove the idea that personality and behavior are purely the results of choice and will (including the imposition of the will of others), it is homosexuality. The idea that one can choose to be queer arose as part of the political agenda for social change in the 1970s and 1980s, and personal testimony of this phenomenon is limited mainly to lesbian-feminists (e.g. Dell Richards). The ‘freedom of choice’ within the gay emancipation movement was not initially cast as a political choice; it originally meant freedom simply to be homosexual without harassment, freedom to express oneself publicly, freedom to follow one’s path. Homosexuality itself was a given, which one could choose to fight against, to hide, or to accept and even celebrate. The emphasis was upon choosing one’s authentic self, not selecting an identity from a variety of alternatives. Homosexuality is not a political choice: it is dictated by the imperatives of desire.

The historical record demonstrates that, on the contrary, many homosexuals chose heterosexuality, but failed to maintain it because choice is less powerful than destiny. The idea that sexual identity is ‘malleable’ to the degree that social constructionists believe seems to me to be absurd. Abundant evidence demonstrates that sexual orientation cannot be changed even for men who are strongly motivated to change and who have voluntarily undergone extensive psychiatric therapies, involving the use of drugs and hormone injections, behaviour modification techniques, electric shock therapy, etc., in an effort to turn straight. The main result has been to make many therapists rich while shattering the lives of countless homosexuals. The widespread failure of all these therapies to achieve their purpose has lead to their virtual abandonment except by psychiatric institutions supported by the radical religious right in the United States. Most therapists now advise their clients to accept themselves and concentrate on managing their identities in a positive fashion; it is recognized, in effect, that their queerness is part of their essential nature and cannot be changed.

The development of penile plethysmography (measurement of penile volume change during sexual arousal) by Czech researcher Kurt Freund in the 1970s demonstrated that men who said they had been ‘cured’ of homosexual desires by aversion therapy in fact still possessed a scientifically measurable desire for homosexual relations. This prompted Freund to give up aversion therapy, and other researchers confirmed his findings that it was nearly impossible to change sexual orientation. Plethysmographic research has also demonstrated the validity of anecdotal evidence that very few men are equally aroused by men and women, i.e. a ‘bisexual orientation’ is rare. This scientific technique confirms the essentialist position: ‘it has established the validity of talking about one’s sexual orientation, since it can establish that it exists independently of what one consciously reports. . . . it has challenged the notion that one’s sexual proclivities are mere preferences on the level of what route one prefers to drive to work’ (James D. Weinrich, ‘Plethysmography’ EH).

Ray Evans in a 1961 article in ONE Institute Quarterly of Homophile Studies took the view that biological factors are important and perhaps crucial to the homophile personality and behaviour, and his basic conclusions have not been undermined by an additional thirty-five years of research: (1) ‘the very fact that throughout the mammalian scale, a great many more males than females engage in homosexual behavior is in itself suggestive of a constitutional factor’; (2) ‘Despite innumerable case histories and expansive psychoanalytic "explanations", there is no incontrovertible evidence as to how homosexuality is acquired through life experiences. There is no known set of conditions which invariably leads to its development’; (3) ‘When virtually all pressures and attitudes of parents and society tend to teach and enforce heterosexual behavior, it is perplexing how anyone learns to be homosexual’ (Legg 1994).

People can act out their homosexuality in different ways, but the cultural relativism observed by the social constructionists has been very much exaggerated. The essentialist does not reject the notion that there are ‘homosexualities’ rather than a single monolithic homosexuality. It is obvious that the ways of being homosexual sometimes differ in different historical periods and in different cultures. But they are not infinitely different; in fact the differences are not very wide. Perhaps there are not even so many as a dozen different homosexualities. Dynes and Donaldson (1992) distinguish only seven models of male homosexual relationships (with somewhat fewer lesbian counterparts): age differentiated (institutionalized paiderastia as in ancient Greece), ephebophilia (adult passive males with seventeen- to twenty-one-year-old active masculine males), gender-differentiated (e.g. the berdache), androphilia (reciprocal same-status adults as in contemporary North America), adolescent experimentation, situational (heterosexuals deprived of women), and ‘dominance-enforcement’ (power roles as alleged for ancient Rome).

Eight hundred years ago Richard of Devizes in his Chronicle of the Times of King Richard the First (1192) described at least four classes of males (who probably comprised a queer subculture) who still figure prominently in today’s queer typology: glabriones, ‘smooth-cheeked, pretty, effeminate boys’, pusiones, ‘little hustlers, kept boys’, molles, ‘effeminates’, and mascularii, ‘man-lovers’ (W. Houser, ‘London’, EH). Vicinus (1993) agrees with Steven Epstein that there are only a limited number of ‘sexual scripts’ by which we are all ‘typecast’, and she suggests there are only four lesbian types, ‘transvestite, romantic friend, occasional lover, and androgynous woman’, and only a few types of lesbian relationship, e.g. romantic friendship and butch/femme. She cannot reconcile the claim that modern sexual identity is socially constructed and historically specific with her historical perception that ‘same-sex erotic attraction appears to be transhistorical and transcultural and to appear repeatedly in a limited range of behaviors’ (Vicinus 1993).

The assertion that there are an infinite number of homosexualities is a political statement rather than an observable fact. Not only have a very limited number of homosexual paradigms been observed throughout history and throughout different cultures, but they are very often found concurrently in a single culture. These models are more similar to one another than individual cultures are similar to one another, and it is remarkable that queer (sub)cultures have more in common with one another than with the larger cultures of which they are a part. Empirical research has not borne out the universal–polymorphous hypothesis, nor has it discovered a very wide range of configurations of erotic pleasure. ‘The conclusion is inescapable: since cultures are legion but sexual arrangements are few, there can be no one-to-one correlation of culture and sexual-orientation typing’ (S. Donaldson and W. R. Dynes, ‘Typology’, EH).

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Sexual Identities", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social05.htm>

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