The Social Construction of Sexuality (Essay)

This is an essay I wrote for my Feminism Today! class last semester, which was really useful in helping to clarify my thoughts on issues of sexuality and gender.

Feminism would hold that sexuality is socially constructed. Discuss how and why women’s sexuality and femininity is socially constructed and how these constructs may be the site of oppression, regulation and control.

Sexuality – its origin, content, and political meaning – has been an important concern for the feminist movement. Key in understanding and articulating a particularly feminist picture of the sexual has been the idea that sexuality is socially-constructed. This essay explores the ideas of social construction and anti-essentialism in the context of female sexuality. No definition of the sexual is taken, rather I agree with Stevi Jackson that ‘an act is not sexual by virtue of its inherent properties… [but] becomes sexual by the application of socially learned meanings’.1 The construction of sexuality involves complex interactions between the body, the self, culture, power, the state, etc., which are explored throughout the essay. First, the issue of essentialism and the meaning of the categories of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are discussed. Next, Freud’s account of psychosexual development is discussed in relation to critical feminist perspectives. Drawing on Foucault’s analysis of power and of social control, a framework for understanding the mechanisms by which sexuality is constructed is sketched. Next, with Foucault still in mind, the analyses of radical feminists are drawn on to discuss the political implications of normative forms of sexuality. Finally, the tensions between ‘sex-positive’ and ‘sex-negative’ feminism as forms of resistance are briefly discussed.

As it’s presently constructed, to talk of sexuality presupposes gendered subjects. Consequently, to understand how female sexuality is socially constructed, one must first understand how women are constructed as women, by looking at the social construction of sex and gender. Most feminists hold that gender difference is largely if not entirely socially constructed. However, there has always been an essentialist current within feminist thought, which holds that femininity is biologically determined (for example, Naomi Wolf’s recent book Vagina: A New Biography2), but contests the patriarchal conception of femininity as inferior. This viewpoint is criticised by Andrea Dworkin, who argues that essentialism is always reactionary (Fascist, even) in its political implications.3

Many feminists maintain a radical separation between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, with ‘sex’ referring to the biological differences between male and female bodies and ‘gender’ referring to masculine and feminine behaviours, attitudes, identity, modes of thought etc. However this sharp distinction, while useful in some respects as a counter to reactionary bio-essentialist arguments, is problematic. The sexing of the body is also an act of interpretation, and as such relies on a socially-constructed interpretive framework within which gendered meaning can be ascribed to (or imposed upon) bodies: this or that particular feature of the body (such as the capacity for reproduction, or a certain arrangement of chromosomes, or a certain morphology) is taken as the salient feature of that body and its associated sex.4 In the case of intersex bodies, this act of interpretation is often accompanied by the physical imposition of this interpretation via coercive surgery on infants to ‘normalise’ their bodies within a schema of anatomical norms. Transexual individuals, by radically decoupling bodily sex as interpreted by medical professions from sex as a lived experience, and, in some cases, by transforming their bodies to match their understanding of themselves, also undermine notions of an underlying biological facticity of ‘sex’.5 As such, ‘sex’ is not a neutral pre-discursive surface on which gender is inscribed, but rather the construction of ‘sex’ is an aspect of the social process of gender formation.6

In Gender Trouble Judith Butler argues that gender (including ‘sex’) should be viewed as a performative utterance: a discursive act which brings into being that which it names.7 In this, she echoes Monique Wittag’s argument8 that ‘sex’ as a category is inseparable from the power relations in which it is constructed. ‘It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary.’ To argue the contrary would be to naturalise the oppression of women with reference to a constitutive difference between the sexes that exists prior or external to society, either biologically (the physical sense) or ontologically (the metaphysical sense).9

Among the first feminist works to contest the idea of a ‘natural’ sexuality existing prior to culture is Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society.10Drawing on anthropological evidence, she compares (hetero)sexual attitudes and behaviours among various indigenous groups, and discovers a wide divergence. Commonsense notions of a qualitative difference between male and female sexuality, in which the male is active and the female is passive (her sexuality is held to involve ‘long arousal and slow satisfaction, inferior sex drive, susceptibility to field dependence… and romantic idealism’), are found to be culturally-specific rather than universal. Cultures are also found to vary widely in the meaning and importance afforded to sexual activity. Oakley’s work provides an empirical support to an anti-essentialist account of human sexuality.

Psychoanalysis is among the key analytical tools for the understanding of sexuality. Sigmund Freud’s male-centric analysis of the psychosocial construction of sexuality, which has had an important influence both on academia and in shaping commonsense understandings of sexuality in wider society, has been contested by feminists. One such critique of Freud is offered by Stevi Jackson.11 She rejects the notion that sexuality is driven by some ‘animal’ or ‘instinctual’ side of human ‘nature’ which is then repressed and shaped by social forces – the Freudian libido – rather it is produced socially, with the biological serving merely as the surface onto which socially-learned meanings are inscribed. Sexual learning involves the assimilation of these social meanings into one’s self-concept, rather than learning to repress or express one’s innate desires. For Freud, libido is an active masculine force, symbolised by the phallus, and the female is defined and understood in terms of its absence, not just sexually, but in her whole personality. Women are, he says, from an early age overcome by an intense envy of the penis and a concomitant feeling of being mutilated which determines her entire personal and sexual development. This assertion, according to Jackson, is unfounded: there is no reason to assume that little girls evaluate themselves negatively on encountering the penis, let alone that penis envy develops to the obsessive proportions Freud gives it. In making this leap, Freud is in fact imposing his own meanings upon children’s behaviour. Simone de Beuvoir12 argues that Freud’s theory makes little effort to study female psychosexual development in itself, rather he simply modified his masculine model, and in doing so obtained the conclusion that the female is a mutilated male, a complex deviation from the human norm, who is male. She argues that while for little boys, who obtain a living experience from their penis, the penis may be a source of pride, little girls are often only dimly aware of the male genitalia, and thus there is no necessary corollary that they should be humiliated by its absence in them. Further, she argues that Freud’s generalisation of the male Oedipus and female Electra complexes (i.e. that a boy’s affection for his mother and a girl’s for her father during their development have a distinctly genital aspect) is spurious and without foundation, particularly in the case of girls.

The regulation of sexuality per se and women’s sexuality in particular has often been a pre-occupation of political powers. This, according to Foucault, is due to sexuality’s two-fold importance: on the one hand, powers are concerned with the regulation and discipline of bodies, on the other with the regulation of populations.13 ‘Regulation’ here should not be confused with ‘repression’: the exercise of control over sexuality may involve ‘refusal, blockage and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification’.14 From the 18th century onwards, Foucault argues, biopolitics – that is, a governmental practice concerned with the rationalisation and control of phenomena of populations of living beings, such as birthrate, health, hygiene, etc. – increasingly formed part of governmental practice and became and important concern of governmentality.15 It is important to note here that, while power often acts through the state, the state should not be seen as a universal and autonomous source of power with a will or intent of its own, but rather as a conduit and series of mechanisms through and by which powers act.16 In Discipline and Punish, Foucault develops two particularly important concepts in this regard. First, biopolitics involves the development of technologies of the body, often diffuse in application and effect, by which the body, understood more or less as a machine, can be explored, shaped and reorganised by disciplinary institutions according to the logic of various powers. These processes produce ‘docile bodies’ shaped and habituated to practices of submission.17 Second, the ‘panopticon’ is used by Foucault to denote a society in which people are subject to continuous surveillance, which functions to remove the need for coercive force in the exercise of social control. The subject of surveillance, aware of her own visibility, is made to apply constraints automatically to herself, and thus becomes simultaneously both agent and subject of her own subjection.18

For Foucault, power is not held or exercised by one group over another, rather it is composed of ‘multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization’.19 As a result Foucault arguably offers a somewhat depoliticised account of the regulation of sexuality: there is no patriarchy as such in Foucault’s analysis; gender is not of particular concern: it is just one sphere of regulation among many.20 Nonetheless, feminists have found in Foucault important analyses and tools which aid the understanding of female sexuality – in particular, a move away from understanding social control as purely a repressive force, which allows for a more nuanced discussion of how and why female sexuality is repressed in certain directions and encouraged in others. Susan Bordo21 draws on Foucault’s ‘docile bodies’ in discussing how particularly gendered forms of submission are inscribed onto female bodies. Andrea Dworkin’s description of women as being ‘made for intercourse’ (discussed later) can be read in this light.

Radical feminists in particular have been significant in theorising the political significance for women of various forms of normative socially-constructed sexuality. Adrienne Rich, writing in the context of a period of feminist debates on the role of lesbians and lesbianism within the feminist movement, identifies ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and lesbian erasure – i.e. the idea that women have an innate orientation towards men and the definition of lesbianism as less natural, deviant, a product of bitterness towards men, or an alternate lifestyle choice to the heterosexual norm – as an important form of male power.22 She details a range of manifestations of male power ‘ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness’ which, in aim or effect, subtly or forcefully, convince or coerce women towards heterosexuality (particularly within the marriage construct) and away from lesbianism, in the furtherance of a male-oriented political economy of female sexuality.

In Intercourse23, Andrea Dworkin critically interrogates the act of heterosexual intercourse within the context of a patriarchal society. Within this context, intercourse is understood as both a physical and metaphysical occupation of a woman’s body, which places her in a subordinate position and denies her the integrity and privacy of her own body. She is ipso facto less human than a man, for whom being physically entered is never a normative use of his body. In male discourse, she argues, this is simultaneously both the proper use and a violent abuse of a woman. It further dictates that intercourse is synonymous with and totally delineative of sex. Since men control both the terms on which the act takes place and the ways in which the act may be understood, and since it takes place within a context of fear and inequality, women never fully have ownership of the experience, even if they formally consent to, or even desire intercourse. For Dworkin, private sexual activity is not discontinuous with the social or political spheres: women’s position in the bedroom and in society are inter-related and co-productive of one another. Women must make and remake themselves into the objects of men’s fantasies, failure to do so leaves a woman no longer legibly human. Dworkin leaves open, but does not presume, the possibility that intercourse can survive the dissolution of male power and represent an expression of sexual equality; however, in order for this to happen, women must be equally empowered both to control both the physical and experiential content and to produce the metaphysical meaning of sexual activity.

Dworkin’s argument should be read carefully, however. While she explicitly denies the interpretation that all intercourse is rape24 there is nonetheless a failure to adequately delineate discourses from essences, which leaves similar interpretations open. Read together with Foucault, one might agree that intercourse means violation and domination, and that women may be socialised to experience that domination bodily as pleasure and as desire, but it is not essentially so. It does not follow immediately that entering a person’s body dehumanises and objectifies them – discourse and power relations make it so.

The critical analyses of radical feminists, such as Dworkin, have been criticised by ‘sex-positive’ feminists on the grounds that they are ‘sex-negative’ – i.e. that they reproduce sexually-repressive conservative moralism within the feminist movement in a way that ultimately harms women’s ability to self-determine their sexuality. On her blog25, Lisa Millbank attempts to sketch an ‘authentic’ (non-pejorative) sex-negative feminism, based in the understanding that sex is often in varying ways an imposition, to which feminists can positively subscribe. She argues that sex-positive and sex-negative feminism needn’t be seen as opposed to one another, but rather, that both can act in concert as progressive forces in opposition to patriarchal demands on women. That is: sex-positivity acts as a countervailing force to sex moralism while sex-negativity acts against compulsory sexuality, both of which co-exist as contradictory regulatory forces acting on women. Ariel Levy26, meanwhile, while not opposing sex-positive feminism as such, criticises the utilisation of sex-positive narratives which reposition the sexualising demands and sexually exploitative practices of patriarchy as forms of feminist liberation. These issues are significant when we move from describing the social forces that construct sexuality to formulating a praxis of effective resistance: progressive intentions, such as the creation of counter-hegemonic spaces in which sexuality is celebrated, are susceptible to recuperation by patriarchy, turning them against other women in complex and often unpredictable ways.

In conclusion, a multiplicity of forces and interests are involved in shaping female sexuality. Often, these forces act to naturalise the present position of women by reference to some essential true sexuality: biologically determined, in the case of the bio-essentialists, or ontologically in the case of Frued et al. However, as seen above there is no truth of sexuality that is prior to culture, only discourses and mechanisms which both produce and constrain sexuality according to the logics of various political powers. Patriarchy is the key focus of feminist agitation, but patriarchy is not a monolith, and women are often made to embody contradictory demands simultaneously: for example, that women must be continually sexually-available, but must never be sexual in their own right. Agreeing with Judith Butler, what is clear is that, given the diffuse and multifaceted character of women’s oppression, there ‘is no one site from which to struggle effectively. There have to be many, and they don’t [necessarily] need to be reconciled with one another’.27

Bibliography

Bordo, Susan, “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity” in Writing on the body: Female embodiment and Feminist theory, eds. Katie Conboy, Nadia Median and Sarah Stanbury, 309-26. US: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990.

Butler, Judith, Undoing Gender. London: Routledge, 2004.

De Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex. UK: Vintage, 1997.

Dworkin, Andrea, “Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 57-61. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Dworkin, Andrea, Intercourse. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. UK: Penguin, 1991.

Foucault, Michel, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1978. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London : Penguin, 1990.

Jackson, Stevi, “The Social Construction of Female Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 62-73. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Levy, Ariel, Female Chauvanist Pigs, US: Free Press, 2005.

Millbank, Lisa, “The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism,” A Radical TransFeminist, February 29 2012, http://radtransfem.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/the-ethical-prude-imagining-an-authentic-sex-negative-feminism/

Oakley, Ann, “Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 35-9. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Osborne, Peter and Segal, Lynne, “Extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler”. Theory.Org.Uk. Accessed 26 November 2012, http://www.theory.org.uk/but-int1.htm

Moore, Suzanne, “Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: self-help marketed as feminism”. The Guardian, 5 September 2012. Accessed: 1 December 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/05/naomi-wolf-book-vagina-feminism

Rich, Adrienne, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 130-43. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Scott, Sue and Jackson, Stevi, “Sexual Skirmishes and Feminist Factions: Twenty-Five Years of Debate on Women and Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 1-31. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Wittag, Monique, “The Category of Sex” in Sex in Question: French materialist feminism, eds. Diana Leonard and Lisa Atkins, 24-9. UK: Taylor & Francis, 1996.

Endnotes

1Stevi Jackson, “The Social Construction of Female Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 62-73. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

2Suzanne Moore, “Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: self-help marketed as feminism”. The Guardian, 5 September 2012. Accessed: 1 December 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/05/naomi-wolf-book-vagina-feminism

3Andrea Dworkin, “Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 57-61. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

4Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, “Extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler”. Theory.Org.Uk. Accessed 26 November 2012, http://www.theory.org.uk/but-int1.htm

5Judith Butler, Undoing Gender. London: Routledge, 2004 pp.4-5

6Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990, pp.6-7.

7Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990; Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, “Extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler”. Theory.Org.Uk. Accessed 26 November 2012, http://www.theory.org.uk/but-int1.htm

8Monique Wittag, “The Category of Sex” in Sex in Question: French materialist feminism, eds. Diana Leonard and Lisa Atkins, 24-9. UK: Taylor & Francis, 1996.

9For the remainder of this essay I will discuss ‘femininity’ and ‘female sexuality’ in terms of cisgendered and cissexual women – i.e. those with normative gender identity, gender expression and bodily sex – and accept, for example, the normative assumption that men have penises and women have vaginas. However, with the above discussion in mind, it is important to note that to do so is, in itself, an act of social construction with political consequences.

10Ann Oakley, “Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 35-9. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

11Stevi Jackson, “The Social Construction of Female Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 62-73. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

12Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. UK: Vintage, 1997, pp 70-4

13Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London : Penguin, 1990, pp145-6

14Ibid. p.11

15Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1978. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.317

16Ibid. pp.76-8

17Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. UK: Penguin, 1991, pp 135-69

18Ibid. pp 195-228

19Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London : Penguin, 1990, p.92

20Sue Scott and Stevi Jackson, “Sexual Skirmishes and Feminist Factions: Twenty-Five Years of Debate on Women and Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 1-31. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

21Susan Bordo, “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity” in Writing on the body: Female embodiment and Feminist theory, eds. Katie Conboy, Nadia Median and Sarah Stanbury, 309-26. US: Columbia University Press, 1997.

22Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 130-43. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

23Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse. New York: Basic Books, 2007, pp 153-82

24Ibid. pp xxxii

25Lisa Millbank, “The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism,” A Radical TransFeminist, February 29 2012, http://radtransfem.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/the-ethical-prude-imagining-an-authentic-sex-negative-feminism/

26Ariel Levy, Female Chauvanist Pigs, US: Free Press, 2005.

27Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, “Extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler”. Theory.Org.Uk. Accessed 26 November 2012, http://www.theory.org.uk/but-int1.htm

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