SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES ON SEX AND SEXUALITY
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Sociologists representing all three major theoretical perspectives study the role that sexuality plays in social life today. Scholars recognize that sexuality continues to be an important factor in social hierarchies and relations of power and that the manner in which sexuality is constructed has a significant effect on perceptions, interactions, health, and outcomes.
When it comes to sexuality, functionalists stress the importance of regulating sexual behaviour to ensure marital cohesion and family stability. Since functionalists identify the family unit as the most integral component in society, they maintain a strict focus on it at all times and argue in favour of social arrangements that promote and ensure family preservation.
Functionalists such as Talcott Parsons et al. (1955) have long argued that the regulation of sexual activity is an important function of the family. Social norms surrounding family life have, traditionally, encouraged sexual activity within the family unit (marriage) and have discouraged activity outside of it (premarital and extramarital sex). From a functionalist point of view, the purpose of encouraging sexual activity in the confines of marriage is to intensify the bond between spouses and to ensure that procreation occurs within a stable, legally recognized relationship. This structure gives offspring the best possible chance for appropriate socialization and the provision of basic resources.
From a functionalist standpoint, homosexuality cannot be promoted on a large-scale as an acceptable substitute for heterosexuality. If this occurred, procreation would eventually cease. Thus, homosexuality, if occurring predominantly within the population, is dysfunctional to society. This criticism does not take into account the increasing legal acceptance of same-sex marriage, or the rise in gay and lesbian couples who choose to bear and raise children through a variety of available resources. It is of course not the case that homosexuals are unable to marry or procreate with members of the opposite sex as this has occurred throughout history.
From a critical perspective, sexuality is another area in which power differentials are present and where dominant groups actively work to promote their worldview as well as their economic interests. Homosexuality was criminalized in Canada in 1841. At the time of Confederation in 1867, sodomy was prohibited, and in 1890 the Canadian Criminal Code made “acts of gross indecency” between men illegal. Acts of “gross indecency” between women were not prohibited until 1953. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, homosexuals were even treated as national security risks and hundreds of gays and lesbians lost their civil service jobs or were purged from the military. Thousands were kept under surveillance (Kinsman 2000). It was not until 1969 that the Criminal Code was amended to relax the laws against homosexuality. As Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau said in 1967 when the amendments were introduced, “Take this thing on homosexuality. I think the view we take here is that there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. I think that what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code. When it becomes public this is a different matter, or when it relates to minors this is a different matter” (CBC 2012). It was not until 2005 that same-sex couples were given the right to marry. Critical sociology asks why homosexuality, and other types of sexuality, have been the subject of persecution by the dominant sexual majority.
From a critical sociology point of view, a key dimension of social inequality based on sexuality has to do with the concept of “sexuality” itself. Sexuality is caught up in the relationship between knowledge and power. The homosexual was first defined as a “kind of person” in the 19th century: the sexual “invert.” This definition was “scientific,” but in no way independent of the cultural norms and prejudices of the times. The idea that homosexuals were characterized by an internal, deviant “inversion” of sexual instincts, depended on the new scientific disciplines of biology and psychiatry (Foucault 1980). After centuries in which an individual’s sexual preference was largely a matter of public indifference, the problem of sexuality suddenly emerged in the 19th century as a biological, social, psychological, and moral concern. The new definitions of homosexuality and sexual inversion led to a series of social anxieties that ranged from the threat to the propagation of the human species to the perceived need to “correct” sexual deviation through psychiatric and medical treatments. The powerful normative constraints that emerged, based largely on the 19th century scientific distinction between natural and unnatural forms of sexuality, led to the legacy of closeted sexuality and homophobic violence that remains to this day. They depended on how scientific types of knowledge, which defined the homosexual as an unnatural type of person, were combined with emerging forms of medical, psychiatric, legal, and state power.
Part of the power issue involved in having a sexuality or a gender therefore has to do with the perceived “naturalness” of one’s sexual identity. However, having a gender or sexual identity only appears natural to the degree that one fits within the dominant gender schema. The dominant gender schema is an ideology that, like all ideologies, serves to perpetuate inequalities in power and status. This schema states that: 1) sex is a biological characteristic that produces only two options, male or female, and 2) gender is a social or psychological characteristic that manifests or expresses biological sex. Again, only two options exist, masculine or feminine. “All persons are either one gender or the other. No person can be neither. No person can be both. No person can change gender without major medical intervention” (Devor 2000).
For many people this is natural. It goes without saying. However, if one does not fit within the dominant gender schema, then the naturalness of one’s gender identity is thrown into question. This occurs first of all by the actions of external authorities and experts who define those who do not fit as either mistakes of nature or as products of failed socialization and individual psychopathology. It is also thrown into question by the actions of peers and family who respond with concern or censure when a girl is not feminine enough or a boy is not masculine enough. Moreover, the ones who do not fit also have questions. They may begin to wonder why the norms of society do not reflect their sense of self, and thus begin to feel at odds with the world. For critical sociology, these are matters defined in the context of power relationships in society.
Interactionists focus on the meanings associated with sexuality and with sexual orientation. Since femininity is devalued in North American society, those who adopt such traits are subject to ridicule; this is especially true for boys or men. Just as masculinity is the symbolic norm, so too has heterosexuality come to signify normalcy.
The experiences of gender and sexual outsiders—homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, women who do not look or act “feminine,” men who do not look or act “masculine,” etc.—reveal the subtle dramaturgical order of social processes and negotiations through which all gender identity is sustained and recognized by others. From a symbolic interactionist perspective, “passing” as a “normal” heterosexual depends on one’s sexual cues and props being received and interpreted by others as passable.
The coming-out process of homosexuals is described by Vivienne Cass as a series of social stages that the individual is obliged to negotiate with others (Devor 1997): first, a period of identity confusion in which the person attempts to deny or resist the growing suspicion that he or she is homosexual; second, a period of identity comparison in which the person examines the series of available identity options to see which one explains his or her sense of self best; third, a period of identity tolerance in which the person recognizes “I probably am gay” and seeks out more information and contacts; fourth, a period of identity acceptance in which the person carefully manages sexual information or claims public acknowledgment of his or her sexual identity; fifth, a period of identity pride in which the person identifies strongly with his or her reference group and minimizes the value of others; and sixth, a period of identity synthesis in which the person’s sexuality is naturalized, becoming “no big deal.” Of course the transition between these stages is not predetermined, and it is possible to remain stuck in one stage or even to go backwards. For the homosexual, these transitions are fraught with difficulty.
To what degree does the same process apply to heterosexuals? Although the idea of coming out as a heterosexual, or as a masculine man or a feminine woman, might seem absurd, this absurdity is grounded in the norms of heteronormative society that are so deeply entrenched as to make them appear natural. The social processes of acquiring a gender and sexual identity, or of “having” a gender or a sexuality, are essentially the same; yet, the degree to which society accepts the resulting identities is what differs.
Interactionists are also interested in how discussions of homosexuals often focus almost exclusively on the sex lives of gays and lesbians; homosexuals, especially men, may be assumed to be hypersexual and, in some cases, deviant. Interactionism might also focus on the slurs used to describe homosexuals. Labels such as “queen” and “fag” are often used to demean homosexual men by feminizing them. This subsequently affects how homosexuals perceive themselves. Recall Cooley’s “looking-glass self,” which suggests that self develops as a result of one’s interpretation and evaluation of the responses of others (Cooley 1902). Constant exposure to derogatory labels, jokes, and pervasive homophobia would lead to a negative self-image, or worse, self-hate. The CDC reports that homosexual youths who experience high levels of social rejection are six times more likely to have high levels of depression and eight times more likely to have attempted suicide (CDC 2011).
Queer theory is a perspective that problematizes the manner in which we have been taught to think about sexual orientation. By calling their discipline “queer,” these scholars are rejecting the effects of labelling; instead, they embrace the word “queer” and have reclaimed it for their own purposes. Queer theorists reject the dominant gender schema and the dichotomization of sexual orientations into two mutually exclusive outcomes, homosexual or heterosexual. Rather, the perspective highlights the need for a more flexible and fluid conceptualization of sexuality—one that allows for change, negotiation, and freedom. The current schema used to classify individuals as either “heterosexual” or “homosexual” pits one orientation against the other. This mirrors other oppressive schemas in our culture, especially those surrounding gender and race (black versus white, male versus female).
Queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued against North American society’s monolithic definition of sexuality—against its reduction to a single factor: the sex of one’s desired partner. Sedgwick identified dozens of other ways in which people’s sexualities were different, such as:
- Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people
- Sexuality makes up a large share of the self-perceived identity of some people, a small share of others
- Some people spend a lot of time thinking about sex, others little
- Some people like to have a lot of sex, others little or none
- Many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts that they do not do, or do not even want to do
- Some people like spontaneous sexual scenes, others like highly scripted ones, others like spontaneous-sounding ones that are nonetheless totally predictable
- Some people, whether homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, experience their sexuality as deeply embedded in a matrix of gender meanings and gender differentials. Others of each sexuality do not (Sedgwick 1990)
In the end, queer theory strives to question the ways society perceives and experiences sex, gender, and sexuality, opening the door to new scholarly understanding.
Throughout this chapter, we have examined the complexities of gender, sex, and sexuality. Differentiating between sex, gender, and sexual orientation is an important first step to a deeper understanding and critical analysis of these issues. Understanding the sociology of sex, gender, and sexuality will help to build awareness of the inequalities experienced by subordinate groups such as women, homosexuals, and transgendered individuals