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Theorizing Sexuality: Introduction 15 February 2009

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Gender, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Sexuality.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been working to rethink my theories of sexuality and especially what I think of Queer Theory. My dissertation and forthcoming book in many ways self-consciously ignore Queer Theory, a reflection of my effort to read the past (I studied gay men in the 1960s) and draw conclusions from my qualitative data without distorting them. [One of my serious objections to the way “theory” came to be used in American scholarship since the 1970s, especially in the Humanities and in Cultural Studies, is that it is treated almost like Holy Writ that gives you foregone, ready-made conclusions to what you are studying.] 

My primary purpose is to re-theorize one of the primary problematics that concerns Queer Theory, which is the nearly self-evident fact that humans are incredibly diverse sexually, from practices to beliefs to their emotional self-awareness of sexual matters. On the surface there seems to be almost nothing uniting human beings sexually, which leads many (not least of which, Foucault) to reconfigure Freud’s notion of “polymorphous perversity” into a sort of panoply of human sexual practices. Now any social scientist or humanist worth their salt would say that sexuality is a complex (some would even say, ultimately unknowable) relationship of the biological with the cultural/social. But, if you’ll indulge an unsubstantiated observation, the implication in this scholarship is nearly always that the social is dominant, and maybe even determining; in worst cases, the biological/medical data is rejected as having come out of the power-discourse of “Science” [scare quotes on purpose] and therefore is unreliable. [I’m throwing this out without an extensive review of the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment, here; this is only a blog afterall.] Much social theory (and Queer Theory in particular) has remained stuck in the old nature-nurture debates, and has been, at least since Franz Boas, firmly on the side of nurture.

Given the growing amount of research into sexual desire and behavior coming from physical anthropology, biology, genetics, ethology, medicine, and even psychology, it seems that a re-theorizing of sexuality is in order. The old Nature-Nurture model is utterly inadequate framework to understand any human phenomenon, not just sexuality. Having been highly influenced by William James, George H. Mead, and John Dewey’s (and by proxy, Charles Pierce’s) efforts to reconfigure the meaning of “nature”, I will be arguing here in a series of blog posts for something more integrated that seems to follow more easily from both the biological and the social/cultural data.

1) I think that social and cultural scholarship risks becoming obsolete if it doesn’t take seriously the research in genetics, ethology, etc., concerning sexuality.

2) In order to retheorize sexuality successfully, it requires a full rejection of the nature-nurture dichotomy. Although I’m not keen on using biological metaphors, it might be useful to begin with the concept of “phenotype” from genetics, where any trait (including behavioral and phenomenological) can only emerge from a constant, inextricable transaction between genes and environment. Dewey theorized this throughout the 1920s, for humans, as coming from an evolutionary history where our social environments are our environments. This jibes with current scholarship in human evolution, where it appears that the evolution of our behaviors and brains is directly connected to the environmental pressures of a complex social environment. In sum, my base assumption here is going to be that bodies (brains, hormones, genitals, genes, nerves, senses) are inextricably connected to environment (physical, object world; climate; food; world of social interaction; symbolic world of meaning). I want to emphasize here that the social world itself cannot exist without the bodies from which it emerges and are limited by the potentialities of the bodies involved. Both bodies and environment exist only in and through the other. So far, this is probably not all that revolutionary if you’re coming from the biological side of study; but from the social constructed side, this can have major implications for research and, in this case, our theories of sexuality.

3) Clearly, Western languages (i.e., English) is weighted down with 2500 year history of assumptions about the special place of “mind” or human consciousness outside of the natural world. So language is going to be a barrier here. One of my goals over the coming months will be to work out how to actually have this discussion in English without evoking all the precisely wrong connotations from the words we must necessarily use. 

4) A positive theory (yes, I really did just say “positive”, and I’m doing it to provoke reactions, on purpose) of sexuality, one which assumes the body-environment transaction, must also account for change over time, that is, for history. At present, history now stands more or less as proof of social construction of sexuality. But I will be arguing that history is better seen as evidence of the body-environment transaction.

5) Queer Theory (and social theories of other things, such as race and ethnicity) often fail to account for what exactly is being socially constructed. When we say, “It’s socially constructed”, what exactly is the antecedent “it”? Is it a concept? A phenomenon? An event? A qualia? And having assumed that “it” is socially constructed, Queer Theory (if you’ll excuse again a sweeping generalization) never accounts for the limits on that construction, other than social/cultural limits.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be using this blog as a means to work through these evolving ideas of mine. I welcome feedback and pushback from serious readers with whom I can hone, change, develop my ideas. To be clear, you don’t have to be a scholar to participate: layfolk and students should also dive right in to the discussion with questions and comments.

Please remember that these are ideas-in-process, so approach the discussion as open-ended and exploratory.

Here are, so far, the topics that I hope to treat in upcoming posts, in no particular order:

  • Category of ‘sexuality’ itself (origins, usefulness, limists)
  • accuracy of “orientation” as a category
  • Gender: Women, sexual desire, and sexual identity
  • social institutions and embodied desire
  • changeability and fluidity of desire within a lifetime
  • untangling normative from descriptive in studies of sexuality
  • mistaking discourse for the thing itself in sexuality studies
  • history & sexuality (Foucault, here we come)
  • theorizing the biology-culture-social connection in empirical human sexual behavior and sexual qualia (i.e., desire and sensation)


1. Ann - 15 February 2009

Nothing to say. Much to learn. I’m very much looking forward to the series.

2. Stephanae - 10 March 2009

Perhaps it’s a small point to dither about, but in my memory of my theory classes (although it may just have been my interpretation of the theory), I thought history stood as proof of the social construction of “sexual identity” rather than “sexuality.” Although, I think it might be more accurate to say that sexual identity was socially reconstructed in the 20th century, not constructed. This makes more sense to me. Identity seems like a fairly direct result of social, cultural, and environmental influences, although even there, I also think biology is a much greater determiner of identity than theory would lead us to believe.

The interesting point for me, in relation to your argument, becomes how the modern reconstruction of sexual identity (a fairly recent phenomenon) changes the entire environment in which we develop our sexuality. I think that, in an effort to retheorize that humans are incredibly sexually diverse, it’s this construction of “sexual identity” that is one of the largest stumbling blocks. Cultural definitions of sexual identity mean ultimately that we are struggling (as affected by our biologies—I so agree with you on that point) to develop our sexuality in an extremely rigid environment, one that ultimately imposes artificial limits on our “panoply of human sexual practices.” (Not that all limits are bad [e.g., rape, pedophilia].)

This isn’t to say that homosexual practices were openly accepted before the construction of sexual identity, but people didn’t grow up in a world where they had to determine (consciously or subconsciously, biologically and socially) from an early age whether they were gay or straight or somewhere in between. Maybe that only made homosexual desires more frightening for those who had them. Or maybe it made them seem less overwhelming, since they didn’t mean you had to decide whether to define yourself as “gay.” I don’t know, but I would guess there is some truth at both ends of the spectrum (as determined by the biologies and environments of the people feeling those desires *wink*).

I’m looking forward to your series and hearing more about the biological pieces of the argument. Especially because, really, I think the biological is harder to talk about. I know what I’m thinking, but I don’t know how my biology led me to think it, or what it’s doing to my brain chemistry, necessarily, or how that will affect the rest of my body and affect what I am likely to think about tomorrow.

3. hellmut - 31 March 2009

Thank you for showing these essays to me, Todd. I’ll keep a running commentary that annotates your essay rather than responding comprehensively.

4. hellmut - 31 March 2009

Regarding science and post-modernism, I lean towards designating conclusions that require power rather than rational and empirical justification as bad science rather than labeling science as inherently domineering.

Good science requires us that we are suspicious of ourselves because we may not be aware of our own biases. That’s why multi-culturalism is not only ‘real’ but also provides an important control in the scientific enterprise.

Respecting other people’s integrity and individuality implies necessarily that there is such a thing as reality. The demand for respect also implies that reality is important.

If I am to respect other people and their narrative then I need to try to understand on their own terms rather than imposing my own. That means that there is a reality that exists beyond my control.

Knowledge refers to a human being’s ability to empathize with other people.

For all our shortcomings, the human species is required to empathize to sustain itself. It is an implication of our mammal species.

We have to be able to empathize with our children. If we antagonize our children, they will perish for want of food and other necessities.

If we sympathize with our children so that we satisfy their desires, the children perish as well. They would fall out of windows and would not be properly nourished.

Rather parents need to be able to understand their children without surrendering their own perspective.

Although, there is no meta-narrative, the need to relate to other human beings requires us to accept a standard that resides outside of ourselves. The trouble is that this standard shifts with every interaction.

Notice, the need for empathy is not only the prerequisite for nurturing children but also optimize violence and exploitation. He who knows his enemy best, is the best strategist.

There is a reality outside of us. We ignore it not only at our peril but unless we acknowledge it, we cannot respect other human beings. Without acknowledging reality, we also have no hope of ever being respected ourselves.

5. Bears are Fat - 14 May 2009

You mis-spelled ‘Peirce.’

This is really interesting and impressively rigorous.

A few things:

It looks like you are catching up to recent developments in anthropology and other social sciences, developments stemming partly from work on science by the likes of Latour, and typified by a current vogue in analytic rhetoric of terms like ‘assemblage’ and ’emergence,’ these ostensibly indexing new ways of getting beyond linear cause-effect thinking or binary/dualist ontologies (as that which separates ‘meaning’ and ‘materiality’). Thus, if the nature/nurture kind of thinking as pertains to sex was very often scripted as a debate between ‘social construction’ or ‘essentialism,’ some contemporary thinking on humans (including their sexual practices) would read them (that is, us) as complexly (in a technical sense devolving from sciences of complexity) determined by cultural-natural orders. Dewey is hot hot hot in this world, and many of the Foucaultians are returning to his work.

I wonder if perhaps you aren’t straw-manning some of the queer theory stuff (but I don’t know if you are). The difficulties of social construction were clearly laid out by the likes of Diana Fuss (see Essentially Speaking, I think) quite a while ago — and it’s not entirely clear to me that even Butler’s Bodies that Matter should be read through the hackneyed lenses of social construction which typically focus on it. As to affect, see also Sedgwick on Silvan Tomkins.

Even perhaps more challengingly interesting, ‘race’ makes a comeback via developments in, among other things, pharmacogenomics.

See also: Hacking, Social Construction of What, but maybe you already have.

Great blog.

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