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Sexual Orientation - Essentialism Or Social Construction

gender categories sexuality homosexuality knowledge

The biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling examined the social nature of biological knowledge about human sexuality. She contends that the act of labeling a person a man or a woman or heterosexual/homosexual is a social decision. Fausto-Sterling acknowledges the importance of scientific knowledge, but considers our beliefs about gender to be the foundation that defines sex and sexual behavior, even affecting the kinds of knowledge scientists produce about sex (Fausto-Sterling 2000).

Cross-cultural and multicultural comparisons show that sexuality encompasses a wide range of behaviors and practices that are selectively chosen and conditioned by individual societies. Categories are coded as acceptable or not acceptable, even as those categories can, and often do, change over time. Thus, where one is born and when, leads to differing experiences of sexuality.

This range of meanings provides insight into sexuality and sexual orientation as social constructions and as arenas of social control. For example, before the forced assimilation of the Pueblo peoples in the nineteenth century, the Zuni included a category known as the berdache (or third gender people), providing an alternative role for homosexual and bisexual males and females (Roscoe 2000). Similarly, knowledge of boy-wives and female-husbands in Africa reveals a spectrum of sexual desires and behaviors beyond binary sex and gender categories (Murray and Roscoe 1998).

Variances in identity and behavior, however, do not establish sexual orientation as a social construction beyond categorization and social meaning. Moreover, socially defined characteristics are problematic because categories are determined by humans and open to misinterpretation. As Charlene Muehlenhard argues, categorization of sexual orientation is not objective or universal; these categories have political implications (Muehlenhard 2000).

Where does sexual orientation come from—is it innate or chosen? This is the question that lies at the heart of controversies over sexual orientation. Because most people are heterosexual and because the majority's sexual orientation is seen as the norm, this question is really asking, "What causes homosexuality?" Heterosexuals do not typically think of themselves as having a sexual orientation or wonder where it comes from. If asked, most would say, "That's just how I am," as if it was so much the natural order of things that it seems ludicrous to ask. But just as being white is a racial category, heterosexuality is a sexual orientation category.

Asking a causal question regarding homosexuality can be considered "politically suspect and scientifically misconceived." (Bem 2000, p. 91). Political motivation is linked to agendas for prevention/cure or justification to discriminate. The scientific flaw is found, as noted above, in the fact that heterosexual origins are also not understood. Nevertheless, countless researchers, political pundits, and religious zealots have authoritatively pronounced that sexual orientation equals homosexuality and homosexuality equals perversion, sickness, evil, and a threat to the social order.

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