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


The view that there are no premodern terms or concepts for sexual orientation is, quite simply, mistaken. The dating of the possibility of homosexual orientation specifically to the late nineteenth century can be easily demolished. Aristotle believed that some people were ‘naturally inclined’ to homosexual behaviour (Nichomachean Ethics). In a work attributed to him (Problems), Aristotle speculates on the origin of the ‘orientation’ of adult men who prefer to be anally penetrated. Dall’Orto notes the seventeenth-century Italian confessor who told a sodomite, ‘That is a sin against nature’, and was told in reply, ‘Oh father, but it is very natural to me.’ Other scholars note statements about gay men recorded by Paris police in the 1720s such as ‘He had this taste all his life’, or ‘From an early age he did not do anything else but amuse himself with men; these pleasures were in his blood.’ As Greenberg (1988) notes, ‘There is a clear recognition here of highly stable, specialized homosexual orientations’.

The negative conceptualization of the homosexual as a class of person who was not erotically interested in the other sex is not limited to modern eras. An early chronicler of the life of the Emperor Ai (who reigned 6 BC to AD 1) observed, ‘By nature Emperor Ai did not care for women’. His love for his favourite Dong Xian gave rise to the ‘cut sleeve’ metaphor that became virtually a symbol for exclusive homosexuality in China. In England the broadside ballad The Women-Hater’s Lamentation was rushed out following the arrest of a group of forty sodomites in 1707 after which several men killed themselves while awaiting trial. In the term women-hater, the attitude is a metonym for the act, but it nevertheless clearly points to one of the features regarded as being central to an orientation in relation to gender rather than a specific sexual act. Among seventeenth-century Japanese merchants known as sh_jin zuki, connoisseurs of boys (married men who preferred youths), there was a sub-group of exclusively homosexual men called onna girai, woman-haters. Misogyny is a characteristic feature of the boy-lovers in Ihara Saikaku’s work in the seventeenth century, even though they are supposedly bisexual and married, and it is clear that Ihara’s intended audience is exclusively homosexual.

The equivalent to ‘woman-hater’ is common in many ancient languages, where terms denoting attraction to the same sex are complemented by terms suggestion orientation away from the opposite sex. Throughout the medieval period men who have sex with men are often perceived as being misogynist, or at least as having no desire for women. The social constructionist emphasis upon sodomitical acts fails to account for the fact that premodern homosexuals of many types were characterized by an orientation away from a specific gender, often with the same sort of unaccountable antipathy ascribed to homosexuals by modern sexologists. One of the boy-lovers in The Greek Anthology makes it clear that ‘My heart feels no love for women, but burns with an unquenchable flame for males’ (trans. Boswell). A woman in the Arabian Nights tells a man that she perceives him to be ‘among those who prefer men to women’. In the twelfth-century Roman d’Eneas, Aeneas loves men rather than Dido: ‘This wretch is of the sort who have hardly any interest in women. He prefers the opposite trade. . . . He does not know how to play with women, and would not parley at the wicket-gate; but he loves very much the breech of a young man’ (trans. Boswell). In fifteenth-century Tuscany the ‘sodomite’ was conceived of as being exclusively oriented toward young men. Bernardino of Siena in 1424 preached against letting young men appear in public all spruced up, and warned mothers: ‘Send your girls out instead, who aren’t in any danger at all if you let them out among such people’ (Rocke 1989).

Sarah Churchill in 1708 said that Queen Anne had ‘noe inclination for any but one’s own sex’, and throughout history women who have ‘no inclination to marry’ have been perceived as lesbians. The history of lesbians in particular shows that the determination not to marry (which is an attitude rather than an act) is seen to be a characteristic of a lesbian type.

Discussions of ‘predilections’ and ‘propensities’ and the call to embrace rather than struggle against one’s sexual ‘temperament’ are central to French Enlightenment and pre-Revolutionary literature (which prominently features characters with homosexual ‘sensual appetites’). The very popular and representative Thérèse philosophe (c. 1748) cites the example of three brothers who have the same upbringing but widely divergent passions (e.g. one prefers books to women) to illustrate the proto-essentialist case for capricious nature and determinism, and rejects religious and moral scruples as artificial social constructs (Darnton 1966). A footnote in a 1798 English translation of the works of Sappho refers to the rumours of her ‘unhappy deviation from the natural inclinations’, which demonstrates that the ‘modern’ concept of deviant orientation was well in place in England by the end of the eighteenth century.

Inclination was similarly used in French nearly two centuries earlier. In the early seventeenth century François Callon, the head of a Dutch trading company at Nagasaki, gave an account of the third Shogun, Lemitsu (1604–51): ‘the low opinion in which he holds women and the shameful inclination he has towards boys have always kept him from marriage’ (Spencer 1995), which clearly sums up the concept of orientation. Giordano Bruno in 1584 described Socrates – though continent – as having a ‘natural drive towards the filthy love of boys’ (la sua natural inclinatione al sporco amor di gargioni) (Dall’Orto 1989). Clearly this fits the definition of the modern homosexual as a desiring person rather than a single-act sinner.

Most ancient and indigenous languages also use the term ‘inclination’ to describe queer desires, and preferential inclinations are often commented upon. Sex-positive societies often defend sexual variety by reference to natural inclination. The Hindu manual of love, the Kamasutra, prescribed ‘mouth congress’ for eunuchs, and defended oral and anal sex: ‘in all things connected with love, everybody should act according to the custom of his country, and his own inclination . . . (considering only whether the act) is agreeable to his nature and himself’ (cited by Nanda 1993).

The History of the Life . . . of Edward II, written between 1625 and 1628 by someone whom we know only by the initials E. F., ‘offers an early example of a pathological model for homosexuality, two hundred and fifty years before Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis’ (Miller 1996). E. F. describes Edward’s ‘masculine affections’ as unbridled, a ‘passionate humour, so predominant in him’ that ‘alter them he cannot’. This homosexual ‘humour’ is clearly seen as a mental disposition or orientation. Similarly, Marston says of a sodomitical gallant with his Ganymede at his heels: ‘his clothes do sympathize, / And with his inward spirit humorize. / An open ass, that is not yet so wise / As his derided fondness to disguise.’ This gallant is clearly conceived of as an openly gay ‘type’, all of whose features and behaviour have been constructed to correspond with his ‘inward spirit’ or queer core identity.

Because the term ‘orientation’ is now common in legal and psychiatric discourse, we think it is a scientific word. But of course it is merely a directional metaphor drawn from magnetism and navigation, which has gradually superseded the directional metaphors used prior to the 1970s: inclination, deviant, pervert, invert, preference, taste, tendency, bent, drive. Sexual love is often expressed in terms of directional metonyms. For example, the direction of Cupid’s darts towards the object of desire is as common a feature in classical homoerotic poetry as in heterosexual poetry. The man who ‘has eyes for’ good-looking youths frequently appears in classical Arabic poetry, and the direction of his gaze clearly establishes his sexual orientation as an integral part of his basic personality.

Ancient peoples speculated about sexual orientation just as we do. ‘A character in the Hellenistic novel Affairs of the Heart claims that it is possible to discern the sexual preference of a friend by noting the gender of his servants’ (Boswell 1994). Hellenic literature is full of references to the heterosexual and homosexual dichotomy, even attributing different sources to each orientation. Meleager in Mousa Paidiké says that ‘The Cyprian queen, a woman, hurls the fire that maddens men for females; but Eros himself sways the love of males for males.’ And Plutarch in Eroticus refers to ‘Eros, where Aphrodite is not; Eros apart from Aphrodite.’ This is why Cicero could find the source of homosexual desire in the exercise of nude males in the Greek gymnasia.

There is no historical or linguistic evidence to support the ‘dramatic shift’ theory that around a certain date identity based upon specific sex/gender roles was replaced by identity based upon general sexual orientation. The modern debate about identity has created a false dichotomy between role and orientation that has no historical validity. Most of the graffiti on the ruined walls of Pompeii are homosexual and bisexual; most of this graffiti are to the effect ‘I want to fuck a boy’ and sometimes even ‘I love a boy.’ The common graffito volo piidicarii is often mistranslated as ‘I want to fuck someone’ so as to humorously suggest urgent and undifferentiated horniness, but in fact it means ‘I want to fuck a male.’ Ancient people had special verbs indicating gender object choice for intercourse: Greek pugizein and Latin pedico and Arabic lâta mean ‘fuck a male’ (while Greek binein and Latin futuo mean ‘fuck a female’). Pedico is usually mistranslated as ‘sodomize’, but it was never used for anal intercourse with women: it is a specifically queer verb. The writers of this queer graffiti were active (penetrative) men. This seems to me to provide evidence that a homosexual ‘role’ and in particular a homosexual ‘identity’ was not limited to passive homosexuals. In this graffiti it seems to me that self-conscious queers are expressing themselves as self-conscious queers.

Just as the queers’ antagonism to the fairies is the antagonism of the middle class to the working class (Chauncey 1994), so the argument about ‘identity’ versus ‘role’ is a class issue. These two concepts are essentially the same, only seen from the viewpoint of opposing classes. It is the middle-class queers wanting to be ‘assimilated’ who have ironically developed a more self-conscious gay ‘identity’ (partly by setting themselves in opposition to fairies and by legitimating their behaviour by reference to gay culture), while the working-class fairies who are better assimilated into their ethnic class have an effeminate ‘role’ rather than an identity. The fairy places himself along the male/female gender axis, while the queer places himself along the homosexual/heterosexual behaviour axis; ‘role’ is used to describe the former, and ‘identity’ is used to describe the latter. But behaviour is the determining factor in both cases, and in both cases the participants ‘see themselves’ as something – and ‘seeing oneself’ is a characteristic of a self-conscious identity. We are simply playing class-based linguistic games when we further try to differentiate between sexual role and gender role in relation to identity.

Chauncey acknowledges that ‘gender role’ is too simplistic a way to perceive the behaviour and self-understanding of fairies. They do not see themselves as women in general, but as tough street prostitutes in particular, and most of their mannerisms and argot are borrowed from the subculture of female prostitution. In my view this is essentially a sexual role rather than a gender role: fairies act in such a way as to attract men; they offer their sexual services to men in the manner that is most readily recognized by their punters, i.e. as if they were female prostitutes or ‘tough girls’. The limp wrist, the swivel-hipped swish, widespread use of rouge and powder, are all markers to signal sexual availability rather than gender identity. ‘Effeminacy’ is undoubtedly a matter of sexual presentation, which is too often simplistically conceived of as a matter of gender self-presentation.

An anecdote Chauncey cites to demonstrate the use of the word ‘gay’ as a camp/gender term in fact shows that effeminate fairies conceived of themselves in terms of sexual role as well as gender role. A hairdresser who was a ‘flaming faggot’ recalls that one boy who was hanging out with young gay men in the Bronx in 1937 one day was picked up but came back

crying, saying the boy he’d left with wanted him to suck his thing. ‘I don’t want to do that!’ he cried. ‘But why are you hanging out with us if you aren’t gay?’ we asked him. ‘Oh, I’m gay,’ he exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air like an hysterical queen, ‘but I don’t want to do that.’ This boy liked the gay life – the clothes, the way people talked and walked and held themselves – but, if you can believe it, he didn’t realize there was more to being gay than that!

Chauncy uses this anecdote to imply that the naive fairy's understanding is more accurate than the understanding of all the other fairies in the group. But the whole point of the anecdote is to illustrate the naiveté of the gender-role conception of the fairy.

Chauncey (1985) has similarly misread the evidence concerning the queer sailors investigated at the Newport Naval Training Station in 1919. The members of this tightly knit group, calling themselves ‘the gang’, often wore lipstick and make-up and walked with hands on their hips in the street, called one another ‘the girls’, and went to ‘fagott parties’ organized by ‘queens’ who wore ‘drags’ and had ladies’ nicknames (sometimes ethnic, e.g. Wop Bianchia, often operatic, e.g. Salome or Theda Bara). They were ‘fairies’ and ‘queers’, and effeminacy permeated the subculture. But Chauncey is nevertheless mistaken when he asserts that gender was ‘the determining factor’ in the label ‘queer’. The queers amongst themselves used sexual rather than gender labels: ‘fairies’ (active fellators), ‘cocksuckers’, ‘pogues’ (those who liked to be ‘browned’ or anally penetrated) and ‘Brownies’, ‘two-way artists’ and ‘French artists’. It can just as easily be argued that gender was simply the facilitating mode of behaviour chosen to satisfy the determining factor of sexual orientation. Gender and sexuality are inextricable in the queer subculture.

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(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

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

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