Image of two men kissingA Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


Most social constructionists, taking their cue from Weeks and Foucault, concentrate on the ‘discourse’ of homosexuality, i.e. the discussion and investigation of homosexuality by professional sexologists and physicians, and ignore the evidence that falls outside that discourse. Indeed the more hardline queer theorists maintain that no objective facts can be established outside the field of textual discourse. But if anything suggests that experiential reality exists outside of discourse, it is the feeling of thousands of homosexuals of a desire for which they have no name.

Even when we examine the professional discourse, repeatedly we find instances of a dawning awareness among heterosexuals (especially the middle classes) of the existence of a world of homosexuals (especially among the working classes) which homosexuals have known about for decades and even centuries. As W. Dorr Legg expressed it in 1962, after reviewing the notable gap in the sociological literature: ‘Are social scientists actually unaware of phenomena that are common knowledge to every street urchin? Do these scholars suffer from some sort of in-group myopia?’ (Legg 1994) The answer lay in their class: the middle classes are puritans, and have little connection with the lower classes. Symonds, for example, was actively engaged in the discourse before he discovered the reality with a Guardsmen; the truth dawned for him not as a result of discourse, but after seeing ‘a rude graffito scrawled with slate-pencil upon slate. It was of so concentrated, so stimulative, so penetrative a character – so thoroughly the voice of vice and passion in the proletariat – that it pierced the very marrow of my soul. "Prick to prick, so sweet".’

There are also many cases in which the authorities, those who supposedly define and create the homosexual construct, began an investigation which suddenly revealed to their astonishment a large underworld, which becomes so threatening that the investigation was put a halt to. The investigation of the gay subculture at the Newport Naval Training Station led to the arrest of twenty sailors and sixteen civilians in 1919, at which point the chairman of the court ordered the chief investigator to curtail the investigation, saying ‘If your men [the decoys] do not knock off, they will hang the whole state of Rhode Island’ (Chauncey 1985). So even within the discourse, what we are often dealing with is social discovery rather than social construction. A key feature of the homosexual ‘discourse’ during the 1950s and early 1960s consisted of ordinary homosexuals successfully persuading the sociologists to recognize them and to begin basing their theories on the majority of homosexuals who had never consulted psychiatrists or been arrested. It was this line of sociological enquiry, e.g. by Evelyn Hooker whose pool was drawn from friends of her ordinary gay friends, which began to successfully deconstruct the models constructed by psychiatry and the law.

Social constructionist discourse is fond of hyperbole and regularly throws out assertions about ‘crucial change’, ‘massive shift’, ‘distinctively new’, ‘profoundly different’, ‘vital moment’, etc. (all phrases used by Weeks 1991). As far as I am concerned, ‘watersheds’, ‘shifts’ and ‘ruptures’ have very little to do with queers themselves, and much to do with the education of heterosexuals, who gradually became less naive as sexologists and the more outrageous queens made clear what queers have always known. For example, the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and Prince Philipp Fürst zu Eulenburg in 1907 were more important for revealing the truth about homosexuals than for creating false stereotypes about them. In the former, the inescapable link between Platonic love and stained bedclothes was made plain for all to see. In the latter, as Eulenburg lamented, ‘At the moment when the freshest example of the modern age, a Harden [who published the scandal in his newspaper], criticized our nature, stripped our ideal friendship, laid bare the form of our thinking and feeling which we had justifiably regarded all our lives as something obvious and natural, in that moment, the modern age, laughing cold-bloodedly, broke our necks’ (cited by Miller 1995).

In the history of camp, including camp in public and in the movies, we can see that naiveté is the only possible explanation for why such things were not immediately understood the moment they were uttered or imagined. There was a thriving American queer/fairy subculture in the 1910s and 1920s, quite safe and secure due, as one man said, to ‘the ignorance and naïveté of the American public’ (Chauncey 1994). Skinner (1978) recalls that in the 1930s ‘most people were incredibly ignorant about the gay world’. I cannot help but agree with Edmund Gosse’s interpretation of Walt Whitman, in a letter written to Bliss Perry on 6 March 1907: ‘The real psychology of W. W. would be enormously interesting. I think the keynote to it would be found to be a staggering ignorance, a perhaps wilful non-perception, of the real truth about him; the innermost truth escapes from almost every page for those who can read.’

Virtually everyone today perceives Von Gloeden’s photographs of the boys of Taormina for what they really are – queer signifiers – and Gloeden’s contemporary queers also perceived them in the same way, whereas contemporary heterosexuals were blind to the nature of neo-Hellenic ‘pastoralism’. The main difference in historical changes of perception is that the heterosexual public at large has gradually become more sophisticated in recognizing queer semiotics. It is not that ‘modern perception’ has changed, but that modern straight perception has belatedly incorporated queer perception. This is not a conceptual ‘rupture’, merely straight time-lag. Not even the time-lag itself is modern: for many centuries queers have felt themselves to be sophisticated and cosmopolitan, in contrast to provincial rustics. In Vanbrugh’s play The Relapse (1696), the character Coupler, an obvious homosexual, makes a pass at a young man who rebuffs him – ‘Stand off, old Sodom’ – and Coupler retorts, ‘Has thou been a year in Italy, and brought home a fool at last? By my conscience, the young fellows of this age profit no more by their going abroad, than they do by their going to church.’

Social constructionism violates common sense in its insistence that ‘sexuality’ did not exist until modern times. Of course sexuality has cultural meaning, but it does not therefore follow that sexuality ‘represents the appropriation of the human body and of its physiological capacities by an ideological discourse’, nor does it follow that ‘"sexuality" seems indeed to be a uniquely modern, Western, even bourgeois production’ (Halperin 1993). Note Halperin’s preemptive use of the Marxist term ‘production’ rather than something more neutral such as ‘phenomenon’. Halperin’s use of concepts such as ‘the production of desire’ obviously mirrors the Marxist theory of production and distribution: ‘Instead of concentrating our attention specifically on the history of sexuality, then, we need to define and refine a new, and radical, historical sociology of psychology, an intellectual discipline designed to analyze the cultural poetics of desire, by which I mean the processes whereby sexual desires are constructed, mass-produced, and distributed among the various members of human living-groups.’ His theory of ‘modes of construction’ is an echo of ‘means of production’, part of the socialist subtext of nearly all social constructionist theory. Theorists who adopt the cultural emphasis of the theory often seem unaware of its fundamental premise that a sexual construct is an economic product.

Halperin’s interpretation of Greek and Roman ‘sexuality’ has been imposed upon the data rather than arises from it. His argument that sexuality ‘did not express inward dispositions or inclinations so much as it served to position social actors in the places assigned to them, by virtue of their political standing’ is based largely upon Athenian definitions of citizenship (adult free males) and their monopoly of power on one side of a great divide between them and women, children, foreigners, slaves. He finds within this body of mostly legalistic discourse concerning legitimate sexual relations, ‘a cultural definition of sex as an activity that generally occurred only between a citizen and a non-citizen, between a person invested with full civil status and a statutory minor.’ The bizarre inference arising from this claim would have to be that non-citizens among themselves had no sexuality. The mutual love of peasants and shepherds in the homoerotic pastoral tradition popularized by Theocritus and Virgil would exist in a limbo outside of Halperin’s theory.

It may be perfectly reasonable to analyze the structures of power and status to which sexual relations – heterosexual and homosexual – are linked, but that is not all there is to be said about sexual relations. We still need to deal with that which makes them specifically sexual and distinguishes them from non-sexual power relations. The history of homosexuality as power is not coterminous with the history of homosexuality as desire. Halperin seems to characterize ancient sexuality as ‘gendered power relations’, yet this is obviously true also of much modern sexuality. The Foucaultian power/knowledge does not adequately demonstrate any disjunction between ancient and modern forms of sexuality.

The problem is not so much Halperin’s reading of the Hellenic world, but his misreading of the modern world. While it is true that modern, specifically Freudian, psychology views sexuality as the key to the secrets of personality, Halperin ridiculously exaggerates the alleged ‘obsessions of bourgeois Westerners’. ‘In the Hellenic world, by contrast, the measure of a free male was most often taken by observing how he fared when tested in public competition against other free males, not by scrutinizing his sexual constitution.’ Since when have university exams or employment interviews scrutinized sexual constitutions? Surely most intelligent modern people believe that things other than sexuality are the measure of the man. In fact they usually espouse the view that the sexual life is a private matter that should not affect our judgement upon the public man or woman.

Although Halperin is a classicist and I would not wish to challenge the accuracy of his examples, the inferences he draws from them are not clear-cut. His important example drawn from Dio Chrysostom, late first century AD, seems not to prove his point that the ancients were indifferent to the sex of their partners. ‘In a speech denouncing the corrupt morals of city life, Dio asserts that even respectable women are so easy to seduce nowadays that men will soon tire of them and will turn their attention to boys instead – just as addicts progress inexorably from wine to hard drugs.’ Surely Dio cites this to make the point that heterosexual or ordinary relations have become so unexciting that men will turn to homosexual or extraordinary relations. In other words, Dio is drawing lines of a dichotomy which is crossed by the corrupt. In no way does it demonstrate indifference to the gender of the object of one's desire.

Halperin discusses the important fifth-century medical treatise De morbis chronicis (a Latin translation by Caelius Aurelianus of a Greek work on chronic diseases by Soranus who practised in Rome in the second century), specifically the passage on molles (malthakoi), ‘soft’ or unmasculine men, ‘men who depart from the cultural norm of manliness in so far as they actively desire to be subjected by other men to a "feminine" (that is, receptive) role in sexual intercourse’. Caelius attributes this ‘mental disease’ to excessive desire which leads to shamelessness, even leading to the adoption of the clothes and mannerisms of women. This ‘defect’ has a parallel among women ‘called tribades [who] are more eager to have sexual intercourse with women than with men and pursue women with an almost masculine jealousy’. Halperin explicitly rejects the common-sense interpretation of these passages as a perception of male and female homosexuality. He maintains that what is being problematized is not ‘desire for sex with the same sex’ but ‘sex-role reversal, or gender-deviance’. Even if this is true, it is beside the point. It is precisely ‘gender deviance’ that has been seen as the problem of ‘homosexuality’ in the modern conception of homosexuality. How can we say that Caelius’s view widely differs from a modern conception? Even Caelius’s apparent view that old men who tried but failed to have penetrative sex with women become molles is a common theme of modern conceptions of homosexuality – it is certainly the theme of innumerable satires on enervated ‘mollies’ during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and at least through the 1950s it was commonly believed that men who could not get it up for women turned to boys or offered themselves to other men.

Halperin’s view that only sexual acts are evaluated and categorized in classical texts, that ‘there was no conceptual apparatus available for identifying a person’s fixed and determined sexual orientation’, is contradicted by his own quotation from Caelius: ‘But in the case of old men who have lost their virile powers, all their sexual desire is turned in the opposite direction and consequently exerts a stronger demand for the feminine role in love.’ This is a perfectly understandable – and modern – attempt to assess and classify sexual desire as an orientation: ‘turned in the opposite direction’. Halperin acknowledges that in this text molles are conceived to have ‘a constitutional tendency to gender-deviance’: how, then, can he claim that this does not resemble the modern view that (homo)sexuality is ‘a positive, distinct, and constitutive feature of individual human beings’? Ah! – ‘but they are not homosexuals: being a womanish man, or a mannish woman, after all, is not the same thing as being a homosexual.’ But this is precisely the concept of ‘the third sex’ used in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discourse, and this is precisely how the modern queer was still perceived by the modern unwashed public throughout the twentieth century. Has Halperin never read any tabloid newspapers? These contain as much ‘ideology’ and ‘discourse’ as Freud and Foucault.

To support the theory that in the ancient world boys and women were functionally interchangeable (Halperin rejects out of hand the ethos of ‘bisexuality’ in favour of the ethos of domination/penetration), Halperin cites fewer than a dozen examples, though he claims many more could be cited. But buried in his notes he acknowledges numerous exceptions, which it seems to me fatally undermine his position: ‘I am not claiming that all Greek men must have felt such indifference: on the contrary, plenty of ancient evidence testifies to the strength of individual preferences for a sexual object of one sex rather than another.’ He cites thirty ‘attestations to the strength of individual preferences (even to the point of exclusivity) on the part of Greek males for a sexual partner of one sex rather than another’, in works by Seneca, Theognis, Euripides, Xenophon, Antigonus of Carystus, Athenaeus, Seleucis, Plutarch, Achilles Tatius, pseudo-Lucian, Firmicus Maternus, and the Palatine Anthology. The number of examples contradicting his theory is far greater than the number of examples supporting it. His theory is nevertheless retained, not because it is supported by facts, but because it is supported by his own ideological agenda.

Halperin could have cited many more examples illustrating ancient concepts of ‘sexuality’, ‘constitutionality’ and ‘homosexual’ ‘orientation’. The idea that pederasty, for example, is solely a matter of sex acts rather than an attendant set of feelings and culture is contradicted by a super-abundance of pederastic poetry by Rhianus of Crete (fl. c. 275 BC), Aristides of Miletus (c. 100 BC), Apollonius of Rhodes (c. 295 BC), Diotimus (3rd cent BC), Moschus (150 BC), Meleager of Gadara (c. 100 BC), and Phanocles (c. 250 BC). One has to be unbelievably insensitive to read Bion’s (c 100 BC), ‘Lament for Adonis’ as nothing more than an elegy for the loss of a sex object indifferently exchangeable for another object of another sex. Innumerable poems praising the beauty of the formosus puer belie the social constructionist view that ‘sexual object choice fades into insignificance’ (D’Emilio 1993).

We must bear in mind that most of the commentary on homosexual relations during the medieval and Renaissance periods arises within the context of the Roman Catholic belief that the sin is separate from the sinner, that everyone is morally responsible for succumbing to rather than resisting sinful behaviour, which is held to exist in a realm into which people occasionally stray. During the Visit of the Holy Office to Bahia in 1591/2, the Inquisitors brought to light several long-standing loving pairs, such as two young men who had ‘sinned’ together more than 200 times (Trevisan 1986). The social constructionist focus on acts is the modern secular equivalent to the Inquisition’s counting of the frequency of sins. Both approaches are blind to the reality of queer identities. This bifurcated view seldom prevailed outside the West. In ancient India, medical texts from the first century contain queer typologies of 'the third sex' that are strikingly similar to modern views, and demonstrate that ‘medicalization is not an exclusively Western or modern phenomenon’ (Sweet and Zwilling 1993 and 1996). In ancient Chinese culture male pair-bonding was ‘an integral part of Zhou and Han homosexuality, which celebrated male couples for their deep affections’ (Hinsch 1990). Two thousand years of Chinese homosexual history belie the social constructionist emphasis upon random sexual acts.

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Discourse versus Desire", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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