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


One of the basic tenets of social constructionism is that exclusive homosexuality was not possible until the late nineteenth century. The claim is that before that period only homosexual acts existed, and these acts could be and were enjoyed alternately with heterosexual acts. Such acts were allegedly fairly randomly distributed and did not add up to an identity. To exclusively choose homosexual acts, which would imply an orientation, supposedly became available only in modern times. The words ‘homosexual’ and ‘gay’ generally imply that one prefers sexual intercourse predominantly if not exclusively with the same gender, so to apply these terms to premodern individuals is held to be anachronistic. But in fact there are plenty of examples of exclusive or preferential homosexual desire in ancient cultures, and abundant evidence demonstrates that ancient people had a concept of the predominant/exclusive homosexual. The exclusive homosexual also existed among indigenous societies (e.g. the North American berdache and the hijra of India).

Athens was ruled for a century by ‘pederasts’ in the classical mold, i.e. at the age of twenty-two they established a connection with a twelve-year-old boy, and at the age of thirty they married a woman, but still continued to live with their mess-mates until the age of sixty. But at least one, Hipparchus – the tyrant assassinated by the famous lovers Harmodius and Aristogiton (who also married) – was exclusively homosexual, and interested in adult (albeit young) men rather than boys. Men in the ancient world noted for being exclusively homosexual include Zeno, Bion, Alexander the Great, Virgil, and Plato.

The locus classicus for the concepts of exclusive homosexuality and bisexuality is not a Victorian sexological manual, but Plato’s Symposium, in which Aristophanes describes the famous theory that all people derive from three primordial dual ancestors who were cut in half by Zeus and forever try to reunite with their other half: male–male halves, female–female halves, and male–female halves. In this myth, heterosexuals thus derive from a primal hermaphrodite. To ‘seek one’s other half’ is the goal of all lovers, whether they are male homosexual, or lesbian, or heterosexual, to use the modern terms, and none of these categories has priority over another. Aristophanes’ theory may not be representative of the time, but it does nevertheless establish that an ancient Greek could deal with concepts of exclusive homosexuality, innate homosexuality, and homosexual orientation. Agathon, who hosted the Symposium, was an effeminate ‘aesthetic’ queen, whom Aristophanes called ‘wide-arsed’.

For many centuries, going back to Ptolemaeus, astrologers have suggested astrological configurations which are essentially homoerotic. For example, men with ‘Venus in Aquarius in the fourth house, with the moon either squaring or in conjunction with Venus’ are believed never to marry or to ‘always be lovers of boys’. Numerous astrological texts – the science of the ancient world – demonstrate beyond doubt that the ancient world had a scientific conception of homosexual orientation:

In all charts, if the Moon is found in the Tail of Leo, it will produce homosexuals who serve as tympany players to the mother of the gods [cinaedos efficiet, matris deorum tympanis servientes]. The writings of Firmicus Maternus [fl. fourth century] and other astrologers clearly demonstrate that many individuals, especially those living in late antiquity, reckoned that to become a gallus was to live out a preordained destiny which, like the shaman’s, could be ignored or rejected only if one were willing to accept divine retribution. (Conner 1997)

In 1671 a German mannish lesbian, Gretta, ‘was said to be born under an inverted, unnatural constellation’ (cited by Vicinus 1993).

Juvenal in his Satires (second century) portrays half a dozen recognizable queers, queens and dykes. The key feature of Lucian’s works – the satirical Golden Ass, the ‘science fiction’ True Histories about an all-male society on the moon where men marry and give birth from the thigh, and his Life of Alexander of Abonuteichos, the biography of the philosopher/mystic who kept a harem of young priests – is that they satirize personalities rather than sexual behaviour per se. Martial and Lucian both portray exclusive lesbians, examples that are famous topoi in the literature of lesbianism.

John Boswell has discussed a romantic novel of late antiquity, Ephesiaca, in which such categories (though defining words are not used) play an important role in the intrigues of the narrative. One man is exclusively heterosexual; the character Hippothoos is attracted to a man but marries a woman out of duty, then leaves both to pursue two other men, and at the end of the story he is united with a fourth man. Presumably readers easily recognized this character type of the predominant homosexual.

Most of the queer-specific words in classical civilizations relate to males who actively seduced other males in order to be fucked by them. The mythological archetype was Ganymede, from which was derived the mundane term catamitus and the modern word ‘catamite’. Although Ganymede was raped (literally snatched up to serve Zeus in heaven), he is almost always portrayed not as a victim but as a boy who chooses men by preference, and to a nearly exclusive degree. He is not passive with men and active with women (which is the kind of paradigm that social constructionists would prefer), but vociferously despises women and actively sets out to seduce men. The word Catamitus was applied only to exclusively passive (young) men.

From at least the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries the ‘bugger’ and the ‘catamite’ formed a reciprocal pair whose decided preferences were well matched. Ganymede frequently appears in the debate dialogues popular in the medieval period, as both a misogynist and a misogamist. From the medieval through the Renaissance periods there was a genre that debated the respective merits of (a man’s) love for (young) men or love for women, and occasionally a woman’s love for women. In this tradition words and concepts of choice and inclination are abundant. In classical art and literature Ganymede, far from being just a part of a polymorphous ménage, was a provoker of marital discord and, as in a late Greek novel by Achilles Tatius, served ‘as a divine justification for men who preferred boys to women as sexual partners’ (Saslow 1986).

Exclusive Lesbianism

Although the social constructionists deal only or primarily with men, they believe their theories apply to all genders (which itself they regard as a social construct), so let us look at female homosexuality in premodern cultures. The Italian Catherine Vizzani (1718/19–1744) was an exclusive lesbian, long before that personality ‘type’ supposedly became possible. By the age of thirteen she already preferred girls to boys, ‘and some she caressed with all the Eagerness and transports of a Male Lover’ according to (John Cleland’s 1751 English translation of) her biographer in 1744. She courted a girl called Margaret for two years, even serenading her. She was not a tomboy, but when her father threatened to report her for her passions, she left home disguised as a young man. Her mother remained loyal, and helped her ‘Giovanni’ to get jobs. Her father eventually accepted his ‘son’, commenting that ‘since such was the Case, and the Vigour of his Constitution not to be repressed by Words or Blows, Nature must e’en take its Course’. This demonstrates a full awareness, around 1740, of the concept of lesbianism as a constitution that cannot be repressed but must follow its natural course – all ideas supposedly limited to the concept of the ‘modern’ homosexual.

Vizzani gained fame as a promiscuous youth having affairs with many women. She used a homemade strap-on leather dildo, with which it is difficult to believe that she was able to fool all of her partners all of the time. She was exclusively devoted to women even though, as a man, she would share a bed with male servants. She died of gangrene, age twenty-four. Her real sex was thereupon discovered and an autopsy was performed, which failed to find any genital abnormalities and discovered that her hymen was intact. She was buried in accordance with a ceremony reserved for the death of virgins. Her biographer was Professor Giovanni Bianchi of the University of Siena, who performed the autopsy; his account contains no exaggeration or titillation or fictionalization. John Cleland’s translation interjects moral condemnation and a theory that her anomaly is caused either by the warm Italian climate or that she ‘had her Imagination corrupted early in her Youth’ by hearing obscene tales from Italian maids (who are naturally corrupt) which leads to masturbation and thence tribady. There is very little in this relatively full biography which would ‘date’ it to 1740 instead of 1890. That is, Catherine Vizzani exhibits features and characteristics of an exclusive lesbian type which social constructionists teach us to expect only in the medical case histories of a century and a half later.

The history of lesbianism is rich in examples of exclusive homosexuality. Pair-bonding is a notable feature of lesbian culture, and many lesbians seem to have established female marriages. There is abundant historical material about women living together in marital-style relationships in seventeenth-century Holland, and innumerable examples of female husbands in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain. These female husbands often had several wives in a kind of serial monogamy, but they seldom united with men once they began their career as female husbands. Contrary to the unsubstantiated claim of Trumbach (1994) that before the end of the eighteenth century women cross-dressed primarily for reasons of financial security and safety, and contrary to the view of Lotte van de Pol and Rudolph Dekker that women ‘passed’ in order to think of themselves as men in order to love women, Emma Donoghue (1993) presents a good case that cross-dressers assumed a disguise for the world that facilitated their marital relationship with a woman. ‘Marriage was a refuge that seemed to offer so much: social status, domestic privacy, economic convenience, a sense of emotional stability, a "No Trespassers" sign for any man casting an eye at the female husband’s wife.’

Here is an example. Mary East and her girlfriend around 1730 tossed a coin to decide which one of them would play the public role of husband in their marriage, which lasted for thirty-six years. This was not a case of a masculine role preceding a lesbian relationship or even being integral to the relationship. There are many cases, particularly in the late seventeenth century, in which the motivation is a fraudulent attempt to obtain a bride’s dowry or a widow’s money, and perhaps these pseudo-lesbian ‘con-men’ are not properly considered as part of lesbian culture. The cases that came to the attention of the public, and to historians, would tend to be those in which the wife was not satisfied with the relationship. Female marriages in which both partners were fully satisfied would generally remain secret, and perhaps come to light, as did the case of Mary East, as the result of blackmail.

But quite aside from cases of fraud, Donoghue has demonstrated that in Britain ‘female marriage seems to have flourished in the mid-eighteenth century. . . . the female husband is not a one-off freak but quite a common social phenomenon’. We cannot automatically assume that all these women identified themselves as ‘lesbians’, but we can certainly assume that women living in a marriage that is secretly homosexual must have operated with an identity of some sort, an identity that has some relationship to conscious role-playing, an identity that is something quite different from the random sexual acts to which the social constructionists would restrict them.

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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, "Exclusive Homosexuality", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social11.htm>

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