Sexuality and Sexual Identity

Sexuality and Sexual Identity
In Social Deviance
Alfred C. Kinsey argued in 1948 that “It would encourage clearer thinking on these
matters of labeling homosexuals if persons were not characterized as heterosexual or
homosexual, but as individuals who have had certain amounts of heterosexual experience
and homosexual experience. Instead of using these terms as substantives (real and
apparent entities) which stand for persons, …they may be better used to describe the
nature of overt sexual relations, or of the stimuli to which an individual erotically
Here I shall look at this statement regarding sexuality and gender from a sociological
perspective on deviance. In this discussion I will address the following questions: What
role does sexuality (and gender) play in society? How are these categories constructed?
How are they maintained? And what do these categories reveal about important
configurations of power in American society?
The “social construction” of the category of gender has had its roots firmly planted
since biblical times: from the creation of the female, Eve for man (so Adam would not be
lonely) to the 1800s when women were not allowed (by men) the right to vote. It has
been prevalent in marriage ceremonies as brides promised to “honor and obey” their
husbands (although the “obey” part seems to be absent recently). The role of the male
being dominant or superior to the female is one that insists on transcending time despite
modern day efforts for gender equality in society. We (society) constructed this category
based on a patriarchal system that places the primacy of masculinity above all else.
Gender ensures a distinction between male and female, affirming male dominance over
the weaker female. And the dichotomy of the patriarchy over all else that threaten it must
be maintained through continual reaffirmation and reinforcement.

The reinforcement of gender roles and boundaries through societal constructs is
shown in Woodhouse’s discussion of transvestites or cross-dressers. Cross-dressing
heterosexual men (dressing in women’s clothing) pose a threat to traditional society that
presents male and female gender categories as immutable categories that have no room
for malleability. “On a social and cultural level the two groups (male and female) are
mutually exclusive…” (Woodhouse, p. 117). This is maintained and strictly enforced in
our male-dominant society through approval of masculinity and disapproval of
femininity. “Outside of the closely demarcated boundaries of the drag act or the
fancy-dress party, men cannot appear in any item of women’s clothing without immediate
loss of the superior status attached to the male and the full imposition of ridicule and
censure” (Woodhouse, p. 119). We see examples of this ridicule from very early
childhood and adolescence with boys being scorned and called a “sissy” for playing with
dolls or expressing feminine traits which are reserved for the secondary, inferior female
role and “should be eradicated” (Woodhouse, p. 119). There is a vice-grip on the primacy
of masculinity which refuses to let go of pointing out that which is not masculine, and
giving it a value. “Any man who is effeminate cannot be heterosexual, there must be
something wrong with him” (Woodhouse, p. 137) and is therefore considered “less than.”
“To deviate from this primacy status is to take a step down; to adopt the trappings of the
second sex is akin to slumming it or selling out. And those who protect and maintain the
primacy of masculinity cannot allow this to happen or the whole edifice would crumble”
(Woodhouse, p. 119). “And identity politics as well as science has an interest in keeping
them “homo” and “hetero” opposite” (Garber, p. 231).
However, the categories of sexuality (homo-, hetero-, and bisexual) and the use of
the term “homosexual” to characterize the individual as a “real and apparent entity,”
rather than describing a behavior, are recent constructs of humans. “Prior to the
nineteenth century – or, some will say, the eighteenth – homosexuality in the western
world was a practice, not an identity” (Garber, p. 213). The use of the term to describe
who a person is, is to attach the negative stigma of an unacceptable behavior to the
individual, thereby making the person unacceptable. This is also done as a means to
sanction and prohibit the behavior. Who wants to be called a “homo” or “fag?” Being
labeled a homosexual is society’s way of determining what type of person you are and
how you should be treated. What is also powerfully realized is that definitions of
deviance and labels are handed down by those in society who decide “the norm” based on
the current trend and philosophy of the time and their culture. This is important for two
reasons. First, it affirms the sociological issue of power in constructing deviance.
Secondly, it challenges the notion of gender being immutable and invariable over time
and culture. Woodhouse excellently states this in her discussion of sex, gender, and
appearance in relation to transvestites (cross-dressers). “The realization that gender is not
a fixed entity, that gender roles and expectations can be questioned, attacked and
changed, emphasizes the significance of viewing both gender roles and gender identity as
social constructs whose meanings are continually affirmed and reaffirmed, negotiated and
renegotiated through the social process of human communication and interaction”
(Woodhouse, p. 119). An example of the idea that gender is fixed is shown here from
NARTH’s School Sex Education Guidelines: “This impression of having always ‘felt
different’ is a reflection of childhood gender nonconformity” (NARTH, p. 2), arguing it is
not the case that you were born homosexual. Here again is the assumption that sex,
gender role, and gender identity exhibit a conformity to, and an identity with one of two
possibilities: masculinity (being primary) or femininity (being secondary).

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The extent to which the “abnormal” is integral to the existence of “normal” is
another important tool in evaluating categories of sexuality and gender identity.
Distinguishing between good and bad, normal and abnormal is a human construct and one
that is applied to nearly every facet of our human existence. “Normal” needs to be
continuously reaffirmed in order that we may redefine what is “abnormal.” We call
things “wrong,” “unnatural,” “bad,” “perverse,” “strange,” “odd,” “queer,” “abnormal,”
“immoral,” and “deviant” to remind and reinforce that what these words describe is not
acceptable behavior. We enforce the boundaries of “normal versus “abnormal” in
countless ways. Just walking down the street, we automatically assign a social role to
certain types of people based on “what” and “who” we perceive them to be. And the rules
can change. These boundaries must continually be reestablished based on the current
philosophy of what is acceptable at the time. “The process of change through which
certain deviations become labeled as normal or abnormal remains difficult to discern,
becoming clear only when historical or social conditions permit…” (Bayer, p. 189). As
we shall see, people in positions of power, have the ability to influence “what society
permits” and sometimes we construct negative perceptions in our crusade to influence the
The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality is a flagship
among organizations in constructing particular interpretations that serve their particular
group. The title on their brochure, “Taking A Stand: For Those Seeking Freedom From
Homosexuality,” wouldn’t be implying that homosexuality is negative, would it? By
promoting negative interpretations of homosexuals, for example, groups like NARTH can
help to influence and enforce what is considered deviant. NARTH warns that a pro-gay
“philosophy usually includes the redefinition of marriage; the disparagement of gender
differences as arbitrary ‘social constructs’; the undermining of family and religious
authority with the substitution of a different set of standards; and the idea that
homosexuality is a normal variant of human sexuality” (NARTH, p. 9). This statement
embodies the tactic of demonizing and vilifying the deviants to enforce traditional gender
and sexual constructs by pointing to the many ways in which homosexuality threatens to
destroy society. To begin, “the gay philosophy” (which they sat down as a collective and
wrote in the spring of 1967) stated here, threatens to “redefine” the institution of
(heterosexual) marriage – the pillar establishment that exemplifies approved gender roles
in our society. The undermining of family and religious authority serves to show that
homosexuals are breaking down two of the utmost important institutions in society (the
family and religion), in addition to going against authority. It is also sure to affirm the
“normal” and enforce boundaries by questioning the idea of variability in human
sexuality. NARTH also presents “evidence” against homosexuality by posing
hypothetical questions and providing responses supported by “science” as if they are hard
irrefutable facts. Even more disturbing though, is this recommendation for teaching
about homosexuality that ties into the following discussion of the psychology field: “We
haven’t learned from science that ‘homosexuality is as healthy as heterosexuality.’ Views
about what constitutes psychological health are always based on some system of
philosophy and morality. By itself, science cannot distinguish good from bad, right from
wrong, healthy from unhealthy” (NARTH, p.9). This supports a notion that science is
objective and unbiased, has no moral agenda, only reports the facts, and makes no
judgements. This is an interesting premise – let’s see if it holds true in the scientific field
The vote upon the question of whether homosexuality ought to be considered a
mental disease was put before the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. The
subsequent decision to remove homosexuality from the DSM-IV list of disorders brought
huge political conflict. “The status of homosexuality is a political question, representing
a historically rooted, socially determined choice regarding the ends of human sexuality”
(Bayer, 185). The discussion by Bayer goes on to reveal many more important
sociological issues including how the formulation of homosexuality as a psychological
“disorder” forced the APA to look at how social values influence psychiatry. Bayer cites
Peter Sedgwick’s essay, “Illness – Mental and otherwise.” He credits the antipsychiatrists
with having made it clear that “mental illness is a social construction,” and that
“psychiatry is a social institution incorporating the values and demands of its surrounding
Some would even go so far as to say that “all concepts of health and disease are
informed by human values” (Bayer, p. 193). These values are what serve to help define
the concepts of disorders and illness. Bulimia – it’s an eating “disorder.” Or is it society’s
pressure for women to look like thin and beautiful models? Homosexuality – it’ s a
mental “disease.” Or is it simply exhibiting another form of sexual behavior? If it is a
variant of sexuality, we know from NARTH, it certainly isn’t “normal.” However,
“Normality and health cannot be understood in the abstract, rather they depend on cultural
norms, society’s expectations and values, professional biases, individual differences, and
the political climate of the times” (Bayer, p. 182). This is why tradition has been able to
classify a broad range of behaviors as warranting clinical attention. “Along with other
forms of sexual deviance transvestism has been medicalised, treated as if abnormal and
needing medical care” (Woodhouse p. 136). And in the classification of homosexuality,
“the struggle for legitimization therefore entailed a challenge to psychiatry’s authority and
power to classify homosexuality as a disorder” (Bayer, p. 189). All of this makes very
clear the role particular institutions in society have in classifying, constructing, and
reinforcing what is deviant in society.

An examination of categories of sexuality and gender also reveal close ties with
important power configurations in American society. Deviance is constructed as a form
of social control – to control the way people think, feel, and behave. And what quality
best possesses the ability to exert this control? Power. “We engage everyday in
extraordinarily powerful, consequential, and often painful interpersonal negotiations
about what is or is not acceptable and about what our respective places are in a world that
provides us with less guidance and certainty about such matters…” (Millman, p. 98).
This notion of what is or is not acceptable is an essential tool in defining what is deviant.

In terms of sexuality and gender in our studies of deviance, feminist theory gives the most
thorough discussion of the dichotomy of power between male and female sexes. The
assignation of gender “establishes a hierarchy whereby a sexual division of labor ensures
an imbalance of power and control weighted heavily in favour of male supremacy”
Media is a primary medium where the “powerful perpetuation of dominant power
structures” (Hantzis ; Lehr, p. 181) is portrayed on a regular basis. In the case of the
popular culture media, they are careful not to show healthy, fully developed, and fully
expressed homosexual characters so as not to give the idea that homosexuality is
“normal.” The sitcom Ellen is a perfect example of this. Here we have a character who
comes out as lesbian on national television only to be censored into behaving the way
society deems appropriate. In this episode, the fact that she is a lesbian is announced over
the airport loudspeaker, however, in subsequent episodes this fact is highly downplayed.
Here is a parallel example in the discussion of another television character: “She twice
states that she is lesbian, but her character is never permitted to perform as a lesbian. The
absence of a performance of lesbianism is not simply the absence of lesbian sex, but the
absence of any representation of lesbianism as a factor of Marilyn’s identity. The
invisibility of Marilyn’s lesbianism not only allows Heartbeat to avoid any substantial
portrayal of an experience outlawed by the dominant patriarchal discourse, but to obscure
homophobia…” and “…we suggest that the invisibility of her lesbianism supports
patriarchal values by removing the need to confront the homophobia and
heterosexism/sexism that visible lesbianism signifies” (Hantzis ; Lehr, p. 177). This
sanitization for public consumption is nearly always prevalent with the exception of when
they do show gay characters, they are usually portrayed in a stereotypical, feminine
fashion such as Nathan Lane in the movie The Birdcage or with the stigma of the gay man
with AIDS, such as Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. This continued prevalence of
stigmatization and stereotyping of those considered “deviant” serves to maintain status
Government is another forum where the role of power is rampant, specifically in
legislating laws to control, restrict, and punish behaviors deemed deviant by society. The
power of legislation is conveyed many times in this statement regarding the matter of
biology in homosexuality. “If homosexuality were found to be an immutable trait, like
skin color, then laws criminalizing homosexual sex might be overturned. Same sex
marriage, job protection, antidiscrimination in housing laws – all these could hinge on the
redefinition of homosexuality as biologically caused rather than socially and culturally
chosen” (Garber, p. 225). This statement brings up several ways of exerting control over
deviant behavior (linked to a particular group of people): by making the behavior a
punishable, criminal act; by discrimination through laws; by not granting protection of
rights; and by prohibiting the recognition of same sex marriage (as if by not recognizing
An example of this social control is demonstrated in the case of Ballot Measure 9.
In 1992, an initiative was put on the ballot to amend Oregon’s state constitution to
prohibit and revoke laws which protect homosexuals from discrimination. The Oregon
referendum sponsored by the Oregon Citizen’ Alliance (OCA) further mandated that all
government agencies and schools recognize homosexuality as “abnormal, wrong,
unnatural, and perverse”; and no government monies could be used to “facilitate”
homosexuality. The issue became a campaign to vilify, demonize, and dehumanize
homosexuals. Note, the focus here was not on the behavior, but on the people. Religious
right organizations such as the OCA take the demonic approach with their sole objective
to seek out, point out, control, and eliminate deviance.

An example of this conflict is going on right now, here in San Diego County.
People are upset that the Grossmont Union High School District voted to add the words
“actual or perceived sexual orientation” to the district’s nondiscrimination and
multicultural policies, which already include protection from discrimination based on
race, religion, gender, and disability. According to an article in the San Diego Union
Tribune on June 4, 1999, those opposing the new policy that would give special
protection to gay and lesbian students believe it is “enabling this (homosexual) agenda to
infiltrate the schools.” One student remarked, “I think if they give the gay people rights,
then they have to give everybody rights.” Another parent remarked, “This isn’t about
protecting kids, because adequate protection already exists. This is about legitimizing
homosexuality, bisexuality, etc., in an attempt to bring it into the curriculum” (Union
Tribune, p. B4). Notice the language used here by those in opposition of the new
nondiscrimination policy: “homosexual agenda,” “infiltrate,” “legitimizing.” They are all
used in a negative context to maintain the boundaries and reaffirm what is deviant.
In summary, there are many sociological issues that contribute to the construction of
categories of sexuality and gender identity in our society. The primacy of masculinity
versus femininity, the categorizing of deviants as “abnormal” or needing psychiatric
“treatment,” and the role of power in American society all contribute to explaining and
understanding the role of deviance in our society. There are also several tools that serve
to maintain, enforce and reinforce these categories, but the strongest uniting factor is the
imputation of negative status for that which is deviant. Kinsey argued that we should
avoid applying terms of behavior to individuals. Rather than using terms such as
heterosexual and homosexual to describe persons, we should use them “to describe the
nature of overt sexual relations.” I think he posed this idea in light of conducting
objective, unbiased research and the realization that the use of these terms was too
restrictive and limiting to characterize a person based on their sexual behavior. From a
deeper look, we have seen that there are many factors that determine how society feels
about sexuality. Although I agree with Kinsey’s statement, our world is not designed to
look at the issues of sexuality and gender in an unbiased, objective manner. Who knows?
Bibliography:
REFERENCES
(Page numbers from Course Reader
Except Union Tribune and NARTH Articles)
Bayer, Ronald. Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis.

1981.

Garber, Marjorie. ViceVersa. 1995.

Hantzis, Darlene M. and Lehr, Valerie. “Whose Desire? Lesbian(Non)Sexuality and
Television’s Perpetuation of Heterosexism.”(1994).

National Association For Research and Therapy of Homosexuals (NARTH). “School
Sex Education Guidelines: Teaching About Homosexuality.”
San Diego Union Tribune. p. B4. June 4, 1999.

Woodhouse, Annie, Fantastic Women: Sex, Gender, and Transvestism. 1989.

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