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Theorizing Sexuality: Vexing and Vexed Categories 25 March 2009

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Culture, Evolution, Homosexuality, Language, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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At the base of the problematic of theorizing any social/cultural phenomenon lies the task of defining the phenomenon in the first place. Definitions by nature are a process of creating useful categories of analysis, categories that draw boundaries in the world of phenomena in order to enable the analysis we desire. Here I’m going to attempt merely to point out the baseline problems of coming up with categories of analysis for a Theory of Sexuality. A warning that this isn’t a polished piece of writing, but meant to be more informal and conversational with other specialists and interested parties.

This discussion arises out of my reading of a book called _Homosexuality and Civilization_, where the author traces a predominantly Western history of same-sex sex, both in terms of socially sanctioned practices and in terms of social repression. Confronting the range of historical meanings of homosexuality (for lack of another word) at the same time as watching the author struggle to maintain his categories of analysis pushed me to think about whether or not there is a Homosexual in the past (not unlike Foucault, I suppose). What I found is that there are interrelated but not coextensive phenomena at play that must be carefully dealt with in order to adequately frame an analysis (or theory) of sexuality.


I begin by laying out some of my basic assumptions about the source of knowledge categories at the meta-level. I’m not trying to be rigorous in my citations as I might in a scholarly article; rather, I’m trying to move through my assumptions so you, the reader, can understand where I begin my consideration of the problem of categories in the theorization of sexuality.

I am firmly anti-foundationalist, but in a Deweyan way, where I would argue that empirically speaking all human categories derive from a group’s interaction with its environment and it’s efforts to understand and in some way control its environment. I purposefully think of this as a group effort, probably because of my social science bent, but also because by definition, the human mind is shaped socially, in interaction with other humans. There simply is no human mind that is constituted in and of itself. My Deweyan orientation becomes more important when I compare what I’m saying against the extreme strands of post-structuralism (e.g., the hard-constructionists of the British sociology of science), who often conclude that all knowledge is self-referential and all symbol systems can only derive meaning from other symbols; and therefore that human knowledge is radically disconnected from the world it seeks to explain and can never be anything but a construct.

ETA: I cannot disagree with this hard-constructionist model more. All knowledge is inextricably linked to a transaction with the environment that produced it. It is, at its core, significantly more than self-referential. Anti-foundationalism in the pragmatic mode means a radical contextualization of knowledge, not a radical disconnection from the world that is known. Now onto language, really the sticking point for post-structuralism (IMO).

I’m more prone to accept the findings of cognitive linguists and neurologists who are finding that language, in the way our brain functions, is not the constituter of thoughts (i.e., is not the stuff of thought) but rather a tool the brain uses to think. When you “hear” yourself htinking with language, what you are experiencing is your brain using language to manage the phenomena it encounters and analyze them.  Language and symbolic representation of the world writ large are not the stuff of the contents of the brain, but rather a tool the brain uses to think about the world it experiences. Language is active and moving, like a hammer; not the thing itself.

Secondly, with Dewey, James, Pierce, and Mead, not to mention a whole raft of cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists(1) of the past 25 years or so, I would insist that knowledge is an emergent property of the brain’s interaction with its environment (including the social environment), so that knowledge can never be separated from the body’s experience of its environment or the collective and social experience mediated through language and interaction in the society. Knowlege and categories are always situated historically, that is, radically contextual; they are always without foundation, that is, without eternal, universal meaning; but they are always connected directly to the group’s experience of its world and are always embodied. (Always remembering that part of the world is the social, symbolic world of the group, including its history, tradition, language, practices, objects, etc.)(2)


The first problem of categorization when theorizing sexuality is deciding how to draw the lines of inclusion and exclusion in the categories in question. Indeed, “sexuality” itself is a fraught category, already begging the question of its own usefulness. Is sexuality the bodily, embodied act? is it also the fantasy, the desire? does it include the acts unrealized and only imagined? or is it more than acts at all, including systems of meaning? or is it psychological, the “identity” of an individual and how the individual categorizes herself in terms of her sexuality (which again begs the question of “sexuality”)?

So any category to be used in any field of research includes a relationship of a) the word(s) used to contain the category; b) the phenomena to be included, and by extension, excluded from the category; and c) the social work of building and maintaining the category’s boundaries long enough for the conversation to be useful in lighting our understanding.

The first problem of the word-label is probably obvious. Since the words we use are shared in multiple contexts and have multiple meanings, we can only be sure of their rigorous use if we reiterate the meanings we need, or by coining new words (an often clumsy and opaque solution, but one which appeals to me). Language by its very nature always fails to contain that which it seeks to describe; there are always “leakages” of meaning.

But If “sexuality” is the word, then what phenomena will we include in it? Is it the only category that matters? For me personally, I’m interested in sexual dissent, secret behavior, minority sexual practices; these seem to beg for categories of their own in addition to “sexuality”.(3) As soon as we start deciding what phenomena to include in the categories, we engage in a process of exclusion; categories may also limit our perception, when we accept them as salient and representing something useful in the world. Categories can thereby eliminate from view important facts that might change our understanding. Perhaps there is simply no way to avoid this danger and it must be embraced as part of the process.  But the possible consequences can be dire, leading to the erasure from history or analysis entire experiences or populations, or misapprehending groups or individuals under our gaze.

I will argue here, briefly, that the categories used to analyze sexuality must include both biological, embodied knowledge and social, cultural knowledge.


At the risk of stating the obvious, the very fact that I want to theorize “sexuality” necessarily arises out of my experience in my own place and time in human history, my situatedness in the 21st century, unitedstatesian culture of sexuality, and my gayness. Indeed, “sexuality” itself is a rather new category, at most about 150 years old in Western European thinking (see note (3) below).  Problematically, historical categories do not match our own; that is to say, culturally speaking, that in different times and places, human groups have categorized sexual phenomena in radically different ways. With homosexuality, for example, I have only to go back to just before WWII to find a significantly different world than the one I live in now (noting, of course, that in that sentence I couldn’t have even expressed it without the word “homosexual”).

If pre-contact Hawaiians, for example, had no concept of “sexuality” at all, did they have it? Is it even possible to analyze Hawaiian sexuality if their own culture didn’t have a category to describe it?  Or what about today, where in, say, much of the Muslim-Arabic world, homosexuality is seen as a Western-Christian phenomenon, so when men have sex with men, it’s not homosexual (to them) but something else altogether with completely different contexts and rules governing its meaning and behavior. What then would I even be studying if I tried to analyze “homosexuality” among Saudi men, for example? Or if I go to Taliban controlled Afghanistan (you’ll excuse me for using hot button examples, somewhat glibly, to illustrate), and women are so holy and also so dangerous to the spiritual health of men, they must be hidden, uneducated, and silent, and traded among men who control their very bodies (or at least outwardly so). Is that even “heterosexuality”? Does it make sense to call their marriages “heterosexual” just because they are opposite-sex composed?

Or is there something thin enough, something universal enough that can be laid down as the basis of a category that can be used to analyze across cultures?


In sociology and anthropology, there is a perennial problem of whether or not we use our current, accepted categories to understand the cultural, social Other, and if so, what effect that has on our ability to understand. If we use our own categories, does that merely reproduce our own cultural biases, our own situated context? In sociology, the idea is that is sometimes put forward that if the researcher can somehow reformulate the categories of analysis, it will increase the intellectual payoff and therefore usefulness of the analysis. By simply reproducing the old categories (e.g., race, class, gender), we reproduce the social phenomena we are studying.

In history, an analogous problem of “presentism” demands that to understand the past you must leave aside your current understandings to simply express what was believed in the past. For historians, the culture of the past can never be known if it is only in terms of the present.

While I’m sympathetic to both critiques, I’m also wary of them. In the sociological critique, I find the idea that new or different categories may better illuminate the phenomena in question; but I also think that asking questions from our own contexts is not only human, but deeply useful. I don’t mean to say that I would advocate using unexamined categories of my own culture; but that using them isn’t necessarily bad, when done so carefully and systematically and perhaps with a detailed explanation of why. So in the case of sexuality, we would need to ask up front why are we even studying what people do with their genitals and/or what they think about what they do with their genitals? Why would such a study matter? What knowledge is gained and why? Or why do I want to use my idea of homosexuality from the 21st century (and academic, I must add) context to understand, say 18th century America or 21st century Saudi Arabia?

I think the historical warning against presentism is extremely useful in establishing the phenomena to be analyzed. This is analogous, to me, to the anthropological warning against ethnocentrism in studying present others. But I think it hamstrings the analysis once you get there. I’m not sure there’s a away not to be presentist or ethnocentric when conducting an analysis of social cultural phenomena that we hope to be useful in some way, beyond the mere curiosity of understanding the other.

So I would argue for a three-part process: 1) a careful work through and definition of the categories to be used (kind of what I’m setting the stage to do here); 2) when gathering the phenomena (data) a strict effort to avoid presentism and ethnocentrism; 3) an analysis that brings what is discovered about the Other into conversation with what the researcher knows and experiences in their context.


To set out where I think a useful and empirically sustainable theory of sexuality should base its categories of analysis, let me give some observations:

1) humans have sex (and also choose not to have sex);
2) they do so for a multitude of reasons;
3) those reasons are always both social/cultural and bodily/biological (ranging from social duty, to “love”, to boredom, to horniness, etc.);
4) humans constantly generate meanings for sex (4);
5) those meanings vary from context to context because they emerge from humans interacting with each other in a complex environment, which they do not control and which constantly changes;
6) there seem to be discernible patterns of sexual behavior over time and across cultures, though these patterns manifest in statistical distributions rather than in trans-cultural universals;
7) humans have sex because they want to, but defining and studying “want to” (i.e., desire) is probably the most difficult aspect of sexuality, because it seems to always bound in the reasons and meaning of sex.

Given the above, I think that the ground of a theory of sexuality must have three interweaving, moving parts of sexuality:

sex Act(s) and behavior [embodied and in some way connecting mind to genitals?]

Desire and affect [embodied, but affect focused]

Meaning [the organization of the acts and the desire within a social-historical context]

Two things to note. First, I do not think that identity is a good or useful way to categorize sexuality (although I do think there’s a history of sexuality as identity to be told).  Identity seems to be one of the possible outcomes of a culture’s efforts to understand or control its sexuality, rather than something that is necessarily attached to sexuality.

Second, from reading extensively about Greece and Roman meanings of sexuality in terms of today’s understanding of homosexuality (not to mention the vexing problem of defining “homosexuality” in today’s world) I think it necessary to insist on a relative independence of the three parts of Act, Desire, and Meaning to understand how the work together.

Acts: although the acts and embodied experience of sex do not exist outside of culture and are always attached to at least one actor’s desire, they can be studied physiologically as things in themselves. If we can think of embodied acts as separate (even if its just an intellectual conceit), we can come to think more clearly about desires and especially meanings.

Desire/Affect: There are layers of desires (always connected to bodies and emerging in cultural, meaning-full contexts) at work in sexuality, that may or may not have a direct correlation to the bodily act, the sensation of sex, or an orgasm. The desires may be social (e.g., for status), psychological (e.g., to affirm an identity), or bodily (e.g., to come). The most difficult to study, mainly because the fleeting affect within an individual rarely leaves a trace to be studied. And because defining “desire” itself can be vexing, from Freud’s “overestimation of the object” to a biological explanation of the function of oxytocin in the brain.

Meaning: Here we have the qualitative difference of acts and desires as they are manifested in social roles, symbolic explanations and representations, sanctions and repressions, etc.

Acts, Desires, and Meanings are all experienced in the Deweyan sense: They are both undergone (that is, passively put upon our senses, as stimulus upon our bodies (sometimes from the brain itself)) and a “doing” or activity (we always act in response to the undergone stimulus, be its origins in our own brains or outside of them). For Dewey, the experience must be always seen in this inseparable nexus of undergoing and doing; it is always both-and; it is always passive reception of what “is” and active reaction to change it.  So for me, sexuality in these three phases, is always a movement through time and place, the emergence of particular genital-desire-meaning formations.

For me, separating sexuality into these three phases allows a much richer analysis of the past. I will discuss some of this in detail in a later post, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but let me just illustrate with pederasty of ancient Athens. Much of the debate in historical circles boils down to whether or not homosexuality even exists, because clearly the cultures of sexuality were so different in other times. If in Athens, homosexual contact was allowed [you’ll notice I’m purposefully leaving “homosexual” undefined for the moment] between citizen men as a mentor-mentee relationship; and if citizen men could penetrate any other human legally that did not belong to another citizen; then homosexuality did not exist. [I’m being extremely gestural here to illustrate a point about theory of sexuality, not to make a detailed argument about Athens.]

But if we analyze Athenian sexuality in different terms, we may get another interpretation: separate out the acts in general terms of partner and genital use: e.g., age-differentiated males anal penetration, age-congruent males anal penetration, cross-class anal penetration, etc. Separate out possible desires in that context: e.g., age-congruent same-sex desire, age-differentiated same-sex desire, class-congruent opposite-sex desire, etc. Then separate out the meanings of sex acts and desires: e.g., sanctioned age-differentiated, class-congruent, same-sex desire and anal penetration of younger by older, etc. The historical case of Athens does not prove to us that there weren’t men who desired other adult men in Athens; it can only show us what the culture thought of particular sex acts and how the society organized them. It doesn’t tell us necessarily about the desires of those engaged in a particular act or practice. It tells us how a particular culture in a particular time and with a specific history sought to channel, organize, and control sexual acts and desires. This may seem rather painfully obvious, but in the historical literature and in much of the anthropological literature, the emphasis on difference is so strong and overpowering, that all categories of analysis get reduced to such tightly focused contexts, thereby limiting our perception of the phenomena to the terms of the people who produce them, which has the effect of erasing from view the human experience of having desires that need to be consummated in a given context, possible variations, misapprehension of normatives for empirical realities, and collapsing of possibilities.


(1) Following the brilliant critique of evolutionary psychology in Buller’s _Adapting Minds_, I’m referring here to the empirical and provisional work in the field, not the sweeping and highly problematic claims of the more popular Evolutionary Psychologists (Buller distinguishes them by the caps).

(2) I’m stopping this discussion here, but could go on about it. For example, only when we understand language as a tool and knowledge as emergent properties of brains, i.e., the Mind, can we understand empirically how and why knowledge changes over time in useful, adaptive ways. Evolutionary metaphors can be exceptionally helpful when theorizing the flux of knowledge over time in groups.

(3) This is where I really still see the brilliance of Foucault’s analysis in La volonté de savoir (Will to Know (a take on Nietzsche’s Will to Power (volonté de pouvoir, in French)), in the first volume of the _History of Sexuality_, where he traces the Victorian sexological process of an ever more granular categorization of the most miniscule and narrow experiences, feelings, desires, fancies, and behaviors of the genitals. I want to avoid falling into the Victorian pit, but it’s a delicate dance around the edge of the precipice to create useful categories.

(4) I tend to use the word “meaning” in the way that G.H. Mead via Dewey would use it, to indicate not a dictionary definition, but rather the language-symbol combined with an experience of the interconnection of social practice and behavior and affect with a given phenomenon. So the meaning of “tree” isn’t its place on the biological typography, but rather it is the symbol “tree” in conjunction with the lived-experience of treeness in a social context by the individual experiencer and in interaction with the cultural group giving “treeness” its meaning.