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


Social constructionists argue that labels must be rejected (or deconstructed) because they are allegedly the tools of external social control. Some modern gay apologists fondly believe that there was once a golden age when no one was labelled and everyone enjoyed fluid sexuality. Thus Cowan (1988) says that ‘Throughout much of human history it seems that people – both gay and straight – could live comfortably without a name for the "love that dare not speak its name". In biblical times it was enough for David to simply say that his love for Jonathan "was wonderful, passing the love of women".’ What an extraordinary example to choose: it means precisely the opposite of what Cowan says! The whole point about this famous biblical passage is that the lack of a name for David’s love made it difficult to speak about it. It manifestly does not demonstrate a ‘simple’, ‘comfortable’ acceptance of something common – on the contrary, it vividly illustrates the struggle to describe something ‘wonderful’ and very special and beyond the common conceptions available at the time. Contrary to this love being a commonplace occurrence, David loved Jonathan ‘as he loved his own soul’ – a phrase having ‘no parallel anywhere else in the Jewish Scriptures’ (Boswell 1994). In biblical times it became the archetype for true, lasting love, pointedly set against the transitoriness of heterosexual passion.

The relationship between language and experience has been one of the central problems of philosophy for centuries. In more recent times the issue has been the complex relationship between language and identity. The social constructionist school maintains the omnipotence of words: I label you, therefore you are. The school is rooted in structuralism, a linguistic/semantic approach to literature, in which text rather than context is the final arbiter of meaning. The sociological development of the theory maintains that the homosexual did not exist as a personality type or identity until he (or she) was labelled, that the labelling occurred in the work of the sexologists in the late nineteenth century, and that therefore homosexuals did not exist until they were created, i.e. constructed, in the late nineteenth century. The traditionalist or essentialist rejects the philosophical presumption that meaning precedes experience, and adopts the common-sense view that homosexual identity precedes labelling. Despite the sophistication with which social constructionists deal with epistemes and semiotext(e)s, they are profoundly ignorant of historical linguistics.

In the search for specific words or labels for homosexuality we should not ignore the fact that most people use euphemisms or phrases made up of ordinary words to describe what they do. Even today most people do not use a specific word to describe themselves when engaged in intercrural intercourse, although slang words are available. When General Kuno Count von Moltke explained in court his sexual relations with Philipp Prince zu Eulenburg-Hertefeld, in the first decade of the twentieth century, all he could say was this: ‘Fooling around. I don’t know of no real name for it. When we went rowing we just did it in the boat.’ ‘Fooling around’ was perhaps the most frequently used euphemism during the 1920s through 1940s, and is probably still the term used by adolescents engaging in their first ‘experiments’. In the early 1930s British gay men referred to each other as ‘so’ and ‘musical’, terms gradually supplanted by ‘queer’, which may have been used earlier by the Irish and was popularized in theatrical circles (Skinner 1978). To say that such words show lack of scientific refinement is quite true, but everyone knows exactly what they mean – even when they use such vague terms as ‘it’ and ‘that way’.

The absence of language does not indicate the absence of conceptual thought. The concept of lesbian sex existed even when no particular term was used to identify it. Donoghue (1993) documents the use of generic terms such as ‘kind’, ‘species’ and ‘genius’ (i.e. genus) in mid-eighteenth-century discussions of lesbians, abstract phrases such as ‘feminine congression’ or ‘accompanying with other women’, and abundant euphemisms: ‘irregular’, ‘uncommon’, ‘unaccountable’ and ‘unnatural’, ‘vicious Irregularities’, ‘unaccountable intimacies’, ‘uncommon and preternatural Lust’, ‘unnatural Appetities in both Sexes’, ‘unnatural affections’, ‘abominable and unnatural pollutions’. There is much evidence to suggest that the earlier use of the word ‘hermaphrodite’ was as much a euphemism for ‘homosexual’ as the modern term ‘bisexual’. There is ever-increasing pressure towards abstraction; in many circles today, gay men are called ‘men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM)’, while lesbians are regularly called ‘women-loving-women’. On the Internet, all groups are now embraced within the acronym MOTSS (members of the same sex) or LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer). This may be convenient, but I don’t think it is an advance in epistemology.

We do have to acknowledge that there do not seem to exist words in early languages which correspond to male and female homosexual, or male and female same-sex relations simultaneously. In other words, there don’t seem to be any words for this high level of abstration until the discipline of sexology begins in relatively modern times. It does not necesssarily follow, however, that there were no words for homosexuality as a general concept, and that it was not until the modern age that abstract, generic, ‘scientific’ terms were invented for homosexuality. Before we attach too much significance to the absence of terms that simultaneously cover male and female homosexuality, consider the following.

When modern people use the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality’, nine times out of ten they are thinking of male same-sex relations. Only at the last minute will they say, ‘Oh, yeah, this includes women too’, but even then they will probably use the other term ‘lesbian’. When the terms were coined in the late nineteenth century, they were used predominantly – in fact almost entirely – in the context of legal prohibitions against sex between men. ‘Inverts’ were almost always considered to be men. When John Addington Symonds worked with Havelock Ellis on the book Sexual Inversion, the first book on homosexuality in English, only at the last minute was Symonds persuaded to include a chapter on female homosexulity in his historical survey. (Ellis’s wife Edith was a lesbian, and she got her lesbian friends to contribute their case studies to the project. In her circle, they used the word ‘lesbian’ rather than ‘female sexual inversion/homosexuality’, but eventually this was sublimated into the abstract consideration by her husband.)

A second thing to consider is that it is really only in the English language that you can have one single word for both sexes, because European (and most other) languages require different forms for masculine and feminine (and neuter) nouns etc. Strictly speaking, the words that were coined in German were homosexualist (which means ‘male homosexual’) and homosexualistin (which means ‘female homosexual’). The same division is true for other equivalent words (e.g. in Ulrichs’s system Urningthum meant specifically male homosexuality, the Urning was specifically a male homosexual, and the female homosexual was an Urningin. Ulrichs’s classification system has more than 30 terms, but though they are all very ‘scientific’ and abstract, the only term that applies equally to men and women is Urnische Liebe, ‘homosexual love’ (though even that is really used most of the time about men). When we stand back and look at his system, it appears as though he has conceptualized the abstract concepts of ‘the homosexual’ and ‘the bisexual’ and ‘the heterosexual’, but I think all his concepts, strictly speaking, label specifically male or female examples of these.

The claim that in ancient and indigenous cultures there are no words for homosexuality as a general concept, is true only if you insist that the term simultaneously encompasses men and women. Even then it’s not entirely true, because Aquinas defined ‘the vice of sodomy’ as ‘male with male and female with female’, which satisfies the requirements for abstract inclusiveness. If you don’t insist that the term encompass men and women, then you will find terms for male homosexuality and male homosexuals as general concepts, and female homosexuality and female homosexuals as general concepts, and male and female heterosexuals and heterosexuality as general concepts.

For example, ancient cuneiform texts have been found describing male homosexuality as a generalized concept, ‘the love of a man for a man’, and one cuneiform text mentions lesbians. As early as the third century BC Hellenic writers coined the word gunaikerastria to denote sexual relations between women. This term means ‘female lover of women’ and is as scientific a term as one could wish, less euphemistic than ‘lesbian’, more economical than ‘sex between women’, and devoid of value judgements.

There were many ancient terms for abstract concepts or categories of homosexual. In the Byzantine Empire there were several words for male homosexuality in general (rather than words for effeminate or receptive homosexuality in particular): paiderastia, pederasty; arrhenomixia, mingling with males; arrhenokoitia, coitus with males. The two latter terms are perfect behaviourist equivalents to ‘homosexuality’. Paiderastia, from Classical Greek paiderastes, boy-lover, is itself a general concept, strictly speaking no narrower than the modern ‘man-lover’. Boswell (1994) points out that ‘the most common words for "child" in both Greek (pais) and Latin (puer) also mean "slave," so in many cases when an adult is said to be having sex with someone designated by these terms it could simply be with his slave or servant’. In other words paiderastia, pederasty, is not necessarily narrowly confined to boys, but may be closer to ‘homosexuality’ than modern historians acknowledge. The pederastic pair consists of the erastes and the eromenos, ‘lover’ and ‘beloved’; we can infer an active/passive division, but strictly speaking these are not examples of inserter/receptor terminology, and the term ‘boyfriend’ was not used in a particularly derogatory fashion. The modern Greeks, under the influence of (American) English usage, have abandoned these terms, and use the awkward term omophylophilia.

Metaphors and tropes are as important for understanding homosexual culture as more precise ‘scientific’ terms. Among the ancient Toltecs (conquered by the Aztecs), queers worshipped the transgender god/goddess of non-procreative sexuality and flowers named Xochiquetzal, and sodomy was called the ‘Dance of the Flowers’. In China, metaphors such as ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’ or ‘the southern custom’ encompassed queer-cultural values of love and loyalty for some two thousand years. The earliest Chinese word referring to homosexual relations dates from the sixth century, nanfeng, literally ‘male wind’ (still used today as a literary expression for male homosexuality), perhaps more accurately translated as ‘male custom’ or ‘male practice’ (Hinsch 1990). Another term from this period is nanse, male lust or male eroticism (se denotes sexual attraction or passion). These words are as abstract (hence ‘scientific’) as the word ‘homosexuality’ coined thirteen hundred years later. Nanfeng actually has two sets of characters pronounced the same, one meaning ‘male custom’ and the other meaning ‘southern custom’ (‘man’ and ‘south’ are both pronounced nan). Homosexuality is believed to have been especially popular in Fujian and Guangdong, the southern regions of China, and ‘southern custom’ was the term for homosexuality during the Ming period; nanfeng shu, the southern custom tree, which consists of two trees, one larger than the other, entwined with one another to become one, was a standard icon of homosexuality in Chinese literature (Ng 1989, Hinsch 1990).

The Chinese language is particularly rich in queer metaphors that do not relate directly to sex/gender roles, but to a larger complex of queer culture with an emphasis upon desires, tendencies, preferences and emotional commitments rather than sexual acts. The two main terms for male homosexual relations, ‘passion of the cut sleeve’ (duanxiu pi or pian) and ‘joy of the shared peach’ both derive from ancient stories about specific emperors and their favourites dating back to the sixth century BC, a literary tradition kept alive for more than two thousand years. ‘Emperor Ai [reigned 6 BC—1 AD] was sleeping in the daytime with Dong Xian stretched out across his sleeve. When the emperor wanted to get up, Dong Xian was still asleep. Because he did not want to disturb him, the emperor cut off his own sleeve and got up.’ This story ‘was alluded to repeatedly in later literature and gave men of subsequent ages a means for situating their own desires within an ancient tradition. By seeing their feelings as passions of the "cut sleeve," they gained a consciousness of the place of male love in the history of their society’ (Hinsch 1990).

The story of the fickle emperor Duke Ling of Wei (534–493 BC) and his devoted favourite Mizi Xia was so famous that his very name became a catchword for homosexuality, and ‘the joy of the half-eaten peach’ became one of the most frequently used phrases to denote homosexuality in general for more than two thousand years. ‘Another day Mizi Xia was strolling with the ruler in an orchard and, biting into a peach and finding it sweet, he stopped eating and gave the remaining half to the ruler to enjoy. "How sincere is your love for me!" exclaimed the ruler. "You forgot your own appetite and think only of giving me good things to eat!"’ (Hinsch 1990). However, later when the ruler’s ardour cooled, Mizi Xia was executed for committing some crime against Duke Ling, who professed not to believe his innocence. ‘"After all", said the ruler, "he once stole my carriage, and another time he gave me a half-eaten peach to eat!"’ This is obviously a poetic symbol, and it seems to me that like all symbols it encapsulates an essence, in this case the essence of homosexual love. It is also worth noting that the metonym of the half-eaten peach connotes a generalized eroticism rather than any specifically active or receptive sexual role, emphasizing the mutual sharing of the fruits of that love.

The male prostitutes who flourished in late Imperial China were called xiaochang, little singers. By the time laws were promulgated to regulate homosexuality during the Ming dynasty, the legal term for homosexuality was jijian, a derogatory term meaning ‘chicken lewdness’, from ji, chicken, and jian, ‘private, secret’, which may reflect a popular belief about the behaviour of domesticated fowl. By 1985, in Taiwan, a long and noble history of poetic metaphors had been replaced by an exact translation of the most notorious Western euphemism: Bugan shuo chu kou de ai – ‘The love that dare not speak its name’!

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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, "Labelling Theory," 9 July 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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