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


By recognizing that there are historic contexts for the homosexual well before 1800, the queer historian avoids the truly anachronistic interpretations of the social constructionist and the queer theorist. The traditionalist or 'essentialist' points out, for example, that certain queer phenomena operate in many contexts and therefore cannot be said to be determined by nineteenth-century family values and economic structures. Since a queer subculture existed in sixteenth-century Venice, the industrial revolution can hardly be said to be necessary for the emergence of a queer subculture. Since men married one another and lived together as couples during the early Roman Empire, free-labour capitalism and the breakdown of the self-sufficient household economy can hardly be sufficient or necessary explanations of the emergence of modern queers. Contrary to the view that gay subcultures emerge when feudalism gives way to capitalism, the traditional gay subcultures of Spain and Italy are peasant-based and are breaking up in the more heavily industrialized areas of these countries (G. Dall’Orto, ‘Mediterranean Homosexuality’, EH). Until very recent times, homosexual guilt and homophobia have been notably absent in Asian cultures where the family is paramount, so ‘the family’ is insufficient to account for homophobia.

Within the field of lesbian history, ‘all the usual criteria used by historians to explain social change do not seem sufficient. A lesbian identity did not result from economic independence or from an ideology of individualism or from the formation of women’s communities, although all these elements were important for enhancing women’s personal choices’ (Vicinus 1993). It is very interesting to chart the progress of the American ideal of manhood and the denigration of effeminization, but Chauncey (1994) does not seem to recognize that the ridicule of ‘namby-pambies’ was as true in the early eighteenth century and used exactly the same terms. This feature of homophobia is not specific to a set of circumstances in twentieth-century America.

Whether or not anyone could ever gather the kind of statistical evidence that would prove that ‘sissy, pussy-foot, and other gender-based terms of derision became increasingly prominent in late-nineteenth-century American culture’ (my italics), it is impossible to say, but it is completely untrue to identify this era as the time when men first ‘began to define themselves in opposition to all that was "soft" and womanlike’. Criticism of softies, mollies and molly-coddles was very prominent in the 1720s, when pamphlets about the dangers of boys being softened and spoiled by their effeminate upbringing were commonplace. Chauncey admits that ‘The fairy was not invented as a cultural type by fin de siècle male angst, but that angst – as well as the growth of the gay subculture – made the fairy a much more potent cultural figure, and one so prominent that it could serve to mark the boundaries of acceptable male behavior. As Rotundo has noted [in American Manhood, 1993], the sexual implications of "Miss Nancy," "she-men," and other epithets became more pronounced around the turn of the century.’ All these terms of degree – ‘increasingly’, ‘much more’, ‘so prominent’, ‘more pronounced’ – require rigorous statistical evidence rather than impressions. Perhaps this ‘increase’ is true for America, but literally the same kind of attack on ‘Miss Nancy’ and ‘he-whores’ was a commonplace in England by 1700, and sporadically documented half a century earlier. There may well have been a crisis in middle-class American masculinity after the First World War, but the same ‘crisis’ has occurred regularly throughout the centuries, in different cultures.

The discussion of the relationship between homosexuality and capitalism restricts homosexuality and homosexuals entirely to logical categories and ignores the fact that they are people with experiences. A homosexual is conceptualized as a non-procreative individual and that is deemed to be sufficient to explain capitalism’s rejection of him as he does not increase the market. That does not explain why capitalism does not reject with similar virulence nuns and spinsters. Nor does it acknowledge the fact that real homosexuals spend more money on fashions and furnishings and decorations than heterosexuals. This seems to have been true way back into the past when sumptuary laws had to be passed to prevent fops from spending so much money on their clothes.

Supposedly the family is promoted as the agent of consumption, necessary for the market. From an early date it was argued that large families encourage men to work harder in order to consume more for their family: ‘consumerism became the machine which activated the whole of society’ (Spencer 1995). But how can a consumerist society reject the sodomite – who is a veritable symbol of conspicuous consumption? The portrayal of sodomites as big spenders and buyers of luxury goods is commonplace in Western history. ‘Bachelors were warned to take care not to deck themselves out in too opulent a manner: "rolling in foreign silks and linens" is likened to "blind sodomites groping after their filthy pleasures"' (Spencer 1995, citing a work of 1680). The queer has always been conceived as the consumer of luxury goods and collector of expensive objects par excellence.

Even if capitalism rejects homosexuals as being non-productive, it is not clear why it would create the concept of homosexual. If we want one word to explain homophobia, it is not capitalism, but religious puritanism. It is beyond doubt that canon law is the direct source of medieval/Renaissance secular statutes regulating ‘sodomy’, using Christian phraseology that underwent few changes for six centuries. Virtually all specific pogroms against homosexuals can be traced to the initiative of a fundamentalist Christian (or Islamic) group or person: moral reform is motivated by religion, not by economics.

In any case there is no evidence that the persecution of homosexuals rose concurrently with the rise of the bourgeois family. Many reviewers of Weeks’s Coming Out (1977) remarked upon the author’s failure to support his central thesis with satisfactory evidence, and even noted that, on the contrary, homophobia declined during the nineteenth century (Licata and Petersen 1980). ‘Why is Weeks so intent on clinging to the hypothesis that persecution of homosexual males and sodomites grew in the nineteenth century? As far as I can determine, the answer lies in the author’s ideological predilections: the conviction that persecution of homosexuality had something to do with the rise of capitalism in the nineteenth century and, in particular, the growth of what the author calls the "capitalist family." . . . Weeks’ ideological biases seem to have overwhelmed his judgment’ (Gilbert, review of Coming Out, 1980).

The capitalist family model does not really account for why sex outside of marriage should be disparaged, as bastards will also be consumers. The fact that the sodomite does not procreate is but a very tiny part in the mechanism of consumption. In fact asceticism was still revered in some quarters, and late marriages were common. And although marriage was promoted, spinsters and bachelors nevertheless were not reviled. The argument that homosexuality is condemned in inverse proportion to the promotion of procreation is not borne out by, for example, the mid-eleventh century enforcement of celibacy for the secular clergy, who were forced to abandon not only their wives and concubines but also sodomy. Peter Damian’s Liber Gomorrhianus (1059), a locus classicus for homophobia, was a call for clerical chastity. Protestants in general and Puritans in particular rejected the Roman Catholic view that sex should be engaged in during marriage only for the purpose of procreation, and yet the Puritans when they were in the ascendancy were even more fanatic than Catholics in rooting out the evil of homosexual intercourse even while they celebrated the domestic joys of conjugal intercourse.

Moral purity is the key to homophobia, not anything so rational as a biological principle given an economic gloss. In the higher ‘discourse’ of churchmen and jurists, the ideology of procreation played its role in condemning homosexuals, but the expression of homophobia among the populace, e.g. throughout the eighteenth century, took the less rational – and more ethnic-based – forms of hatred such as xenophobia (queers are usually rejected as practitioners of a foreign vice), expressions of disgust at effeminacy, castigation of sinfulness and blasphemy. The most commonly expressed economic view was the accusation that mollies ‘take the bread from much more honest whores’ – amply demonstrated by the female prostitutes who gathered in great numbers to torment gay men in the pillory (Norton 1992).

The relationship between homophobia and specific political regimes is fortuitous. Homosexuals fared reasonably well under Italian fascism, but were persecuted under English, American and French democracies during the same period. The right-wing paramilitary groups in Weimar Germany seem to have attracted a significant number of homosexuals, but the fully organized National Socialists attempted to exterminate homosexuals, and the Falangists in Spain murdered Lorca by firing bullets up his arse. From the mid-1920s homosexuality was denounced by Stalinist Communists as bourgeois decadence or as fascist perversion. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Or rather the choice is made for you. In 1933–35 the German homosexual emancipation movement was exterminated ‘by both the fascists and the Stalinists’ (Lauritsen and Thorstad 1974).

The widespread modern view that institutionalized pederasty is characteristic of cultures which degrade women is traceable to Engels’s statement in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that ‘this degradation of women was avenged on the men and degraded them also, till they fell into the abominable practice of sodomy and degraded alike their gods and themselves with the myth of Ganymede’ (cited by Hallam 1993). Women have been degraded and subjugated in many (most) societies – more notably in Christian Europe than in ancient Greece – but nevertheless pederasty is not institutionalized in all such societies. The supposed link between egalitarian relationships and the rise of industrial society founders upon the continuance of ‘intergenerational’ relationships in Mediterranean industrial capitalist societies today. Any simple equation of a certain type of relationship with a certain ‘stage’ in the development of capitalism is refuted by innumerable exceptions.

D’Emilio’s (1993) theory about the relationship between free-labour capitalism and homosexuality has never been developed further than as a working hypothesis (limited to the American context), and is so simplistic and lacking in a historical ground as to be ludicrous:

Only when individuals began to make their living through wage labor, instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity – an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a personal life based on attraction to one’s own sex. . . . These patterns of living [gay networks, lesbian couples, etc.] could evolve because capitalism allowed individuals to survive beyond the confines of the family. . . . The decisive shift in the nineteenth century to industrial capitalism provided the conditions for a homosexual and lesbian identity to emerge. As a free-labor system, capitalism pulled men and women out of the home and into the market-place. . . . Free labor and the expansion of commodity production created the context in which an autonomous personal life could develop.

What D’Emilio is theorizing is at most a facilitating factor rather than a constructing factor. The rise of large urban conurbations seems to be linked to the rise of gay subcultures, and the social opportunities offered by large populations are far more important than how one earns one’s living. The mercantile centres of medieval and Renaissance European cities were sufficient to facilitate the growth of thriving queer subcultures. It is true enough that capitalism simultaneously weakens and idealizes the nuclear family; but that such a situation is sufficient to promote a gay identity I find incomprehensible.

That capitalism is universally and intrinsically homophobic I also find difficult to comprehend. For social constructionists such as D’Emilio, capitalism and homophobia are inextricable: ‘The elevation of the family to ideological preeminence guarantees that a capitalist society will reproduce not just children, but heterosexism and homophobia.’ Allegedly the worker required by capitalism will postpone pleasure because of the work ethic and will be subservient to his wage masters, and generally avoid male–male intimacy, much less male–male sex. But there is no inherent reason why the structures of capitalism should not foster male bonds and homosexual relations. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russia the Skoptsy sect of Old Believers who engaged in commerce ‘had an institutionalized practice of an older merchant adopting a younger assistant–lover as his son and heir. After the older man’s death this heir would repeat the process with a still younger man, thus giving rise to a mercantile dynasty’ (S. Karlinsky, ‘Russia’, EH). Innumerable assistant/apprentice systems since the fourteenth century have had homoerotic parameters.

It seems perverse to talk about secular capitalism rather than the Christian right as a major factor in the hatred of homosexuals. No one has seriously tried to dispute the fact that homophobia predates capitalism by at least a thousand years – if hanging sodomites and burning lesbians at the stake are not homophobic, what is? This raises a philosophical conundrum: if homophobia and homosexual identities are inherently linked – ‘identity and oppression are bound together’ says D’Emilio (1993) – how is it possible for homophobia to thrive in the absence of homosexual identities?

Victorian repression of course had a tremendous impact upon the expression of homosexuality, but this is not attributable to capitalism per se. It is more an accident of the time and place in which capitalism flourished, i.e. the rise of religious fundamentalism and revival which rose to counter the materialistic values of capitalism. The Marxist interpretation of prostitution during the Victorian period has been applied over-simplistically to the homosexual model. Something labelled ‘prostitution’ is often incorrectly inferred in the case of sex between men. Paul D. Hardman in a 1992 ONE Institute lecture on his experience among the Zapotecas, Mixtecas and Chatinos of Mexico advised that ‘confusion may arise regarding requests for gifts or money by an Indian lad when sex is offered. [These boys] are not necessarily hustlers, especially in the villages. They may well be when they are in the big cities, but that is a different phenomenon. The whole question of asking for things along with sex requires more study to determine if the phenomenon is based on ancient culture, as it appears to be, or merely an adaptation to met modern needs’ (Legg 1994).

To some extent accepting money may be a face-saving ritual for macho lads. In modern Western societies the exchange of gifts is part of working-class sexual culture. Although Weeks (1980) acknowledges that a wide range of meanings can be attached to the concept of ‘prostitution’, he nevertheless promotes the widespread (Socialist) myth that prostitution is characteristic of the homosexual subculture, that prostitution provides the links between the aristocratic world and the subculture, and that with ‘the great disparities of wealth and social position among the participants, the cash nexus inevitably dominated’. On the contrary, throughout the eighteenth century the molly subculture was uniformly working-class, aristocrats and gentlemen never went to molly houses, and – despite the epithets of ‘he-strumpets’ and ‘he-whores’ thrown at the mollies – an abundance of records can provide no more than two or three instances of the exchange of cash for sex, although many instances of blackmail. Male ‘prostitution’ in any recognizable modern sense of the term was virtually nonexistent until the 1780s (Norton 1992). Mutual pleasure rather than financial benefit is characteristic of male prostitution throughout history. Modern hustlers and sex performers clearly enjoy their job more than female prostitutes. Male prostitution in ports is commonplace, but generally very small amounts of money are required by the sailors, which suggests that such ‘nominal sums [are] an excuse for a desired sexual contact’ (S. Donaldson, ‘Seafaring’, EH). Imposing the Marxist analysis of the ‘cash nexus’ and class war upon such circumstances can lead us wildly astray.

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Capitalism and the Family," 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social20.htm>

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