So I’m friends with these two people on Facebook who have been dating for a long time. I log-in this evening to see them post something to the effect of “It’s been 3 years. I love you!
Normally, I’m not bothered by couple things like that but why couldn’t that have been a private message? Why must you profess your love for each other in public for everyone to see? Do you need the rest of your friends to see it in order for your relationship to be validated? I’d cut them slack if they were engaged but they’re not. Alas, I will never understand pair-bonding. No matter how much I study it on a behavioral and molecular level.
Although I’m ashamed to admit it, I spent 3 hours eating dinner in a campus cafeteria last Thursday. That’s something I don’t do very often. I’d like to think I have better things to do with my time than fiddle with kitchen utensils and talk about nothing. However, I accidently met someone quite extraordinary, so I don’t fault myself completely.
I was getting dinner with a friend of mine from high school who now attends the same university as me. We were chatting when it just so happened that the people who sat at the table next to us also went to our old high school. My friend recognized them and said hi. I didn’t because they were a few grades below me. Besides, I’ve come to realize how much I didn’t like my high school minus a small group of friends and teachers. I don’t see the purpose in reliving my “high school experience,” especially as a senior in college.
Anyway, a couple of the kids from that table sat down and ate dinner with us. The first was a girl who ended up taking off with her friends after about 20 minutes or so. The second was a guy who looked very much like a typical jock from my high school. He’s white, middle-class, a member of the university track team, and probably straight as an arrow. I didn’t understand why he wanted to talk to me or my friend (who’s arguably more “gay acting” than I am). Nonetheless, he sat down and talked to us for a long time.
The conversation was awkward at first. I felt like I had to force it along just to keep things going. Eventually, it got much smoother as I got to know that guy (who I’ll call David) better. I found out that he’s an engineering major, really good at physics, and knows a lot about everything. What surprised me the most was how comfortable he was with my friend and I talking about relationships or sex. I’ve know many heterosexually identified people who like to say, “I’m cool with gay people. Just don’t shove it in my face.” But no, David was totally comfortable with all modes of conversation, no matter how innocent, debaucherous, or inappropriate.
I started to think that David wasn’t totally straight. Turns out, I was wrong on this account. I was informed by both my him and my friend that he is indeed heterosexual. He said that he just, “Liked hanging out with gay guys and pretending to be gay.” I suppose some people would be offended by this statement but I’m actually intrigued. I have never met anyone who identifies as heterosexual but is comfortable enough to flirt with members of the same sex. David is an intriguing mixture of social deviant and traditional white, middle-class, straight male.
And so that’s the reason I didn’t leave the cafeteria for 3 hours. I wanted to spend as much time with David as possible without having it seem creepy. I wanted to know why he liked pretending to be gay, why he liked flirting with guys, if he always liked to do this, if people gave him shit for it, etc etc. I have always thought that members of the most powerful social group in our society that would do anything to retain their status. Why does David not feel threatened by his actions?
My encounter with David also revealed some of my own weaknesses and prejudices. I was pretty quick to judge him although, in fairness to me, I’m aware of that and try to give people a chance. Moreover, I’m impressed by his strength of character. I think it’s great he does as he pleases and lets other people sort out the details on their own. I wonder if he’s an aberration from the norm if he’s part of a paradigm shift in our society. Perhaps I’ll have my answer in 30 years or so.
Many people use biology to support essentialist ideas about sex and gender without a second thought. Whether I am participating in a group discussion in the classroom, reading an op-ed in the newspaper, or chatting with a friend, biology and essentialism seem to come hand-in-hand. I think there is a tendency to overuse biology as a means of support for essentialist arguments about sex and gender. We must keep in mind that our bodies have a complex relationship with the external environment and that the language used to describe our biology (male, female, homosexual, etc.) is socially constructed.
Consider a 2006 study by Hulshoff Pol et al. entitled, “Changing your sex changes your brain: influences of testosterone and estrogen on adult human brain structures.” In this study, scientists scanned the brains of 6 female-to-male (FTM) and 8 male-to-female (MTF) individuals before cross-sex hormone treatment and 4 months after cross-sex hormone treatment. They found that after cross-sex hormone treatment, the brain volume of FTM participants more closely resembled that of control cis-gendered males and that the brain volume of the MTF participants more closely resembled that of control cis-gendered females. What I find remarkable about this result is that it demonstrates the malleability of the human brain. Our bodies are not essential, unchanging vessels. They respond to the environment in a variety of ways.
Often times, people will use biology to argue that some social trait is inborn. In particular, I am familiar with people using data from biological studies to argue that sexual orientation and gender identity are inborn characteristics. These arguments are usually politically motivated and used in an attempt to achieve more rights for queer and transgender individuals. While I fully support providing queer and transgender people with equal rights, I have an issue with the biological essentialist arguments used by some activists.
Terms such as male, female, homosexual, and transgender are socially constructed. They are not self-evident truths and their connotations change depending upon location and time period. The way a biologist conceives of these terms will affect how s/he designs experiments and the conclusions that s/he draws. It would be foolish to pick any particular group of experiments and to say, “This demonstrates that Trait X is an inborn, essential characteristic of human beings.” Most likely, the current research about Trait X is hotly debated by people within and outside the scientific community. The point here is that because the categories we use to describe sex and gender aren’t completely stable, they make it impossible for scientists to conduct research that’s 100% “true”.
We need to rethink the relationship between biology and essentialism. Just because something appears to be immutable, does not mean its impossible to change. For example, Hulshoff Pol et al. demonstrated that the structure of the human brain was able to change in response to cross-sex hormone treatment. Their study shows that our biology is not fixed and will change in response to its environment. We also need to remember that many of the terms biologists when conducting their studies are socially constructed. These terms will affect how biologists frame their hypotheses, which in turn will affect the results of their studies. When scrutinized closely, biology does not support essentialist arguments of sex and gender as well as common sense implies.
Pol, H.E.H., Cohen-Kettenis P.T., Van Haren, N.E.M., Peper, J.S., Brans, R.G.H., Cahn W., Schnack, H.G., Gooren, Louis J.G., Kahn, R.S. Changing your sex changes your brain: influences of testosterone and estrogen on adult human brain structure. European Journal of Endocrinology 2006 155 S107-S114.
This afternoon I was reading about social constructionism for the millionth time of my college career. I remember how empowered I felt when I first learned about social constructionism. All sorts of intellectual epiphanies popped in my mind much like popcorn in the microwave. I realized that the racial, sexual, and gender categories I had grown up with were not set in stone. In fact, the terminology used to describe these categories has changed significantly over time. While I have always been wary of essentialist labels, I never tried to systematically deconstruct social identities nor did I try to uncover how these identities were perceived in history. Suffice it to say, social constructionism played a significant role in my intellectual development.
Anyway, while I was reading an article about social constructionism for a class something happened. I learned something! The article consisted of excerpts from Carole S. Vance’s Social Construction Theory: Problems in the History of Sexuality. Most of what she said, I had encountered in previous readings and classes. However, there are two passages in particular that popped a few intellectual kernels in my head.
“The tension here is identical to a tension felt within feminism, which simultaneously holds two somewhat contradictory goals. One goal is to attack the gender system…but the second goal is to defend women as a group,” (31).
(Hence, feminists are attempting to challenge the gender binary but they ironically reinforce the gender binary by protecting women as a distinct group.)
“The same irresolvable tension exists within the lesbian and gay movement, which on the one hand attacks a naturalized system of sexual hierarchy…and on the other hand defends the interest of ‘lesbian and gay people,’ which tends to reify identity and essential nature in a political process I’ve described,” (31).
(So the GLBT movement suffers from the same paradox as the women’s movement.)
These passages demonstrate two limitations when applying social constructionist theory to activism. One issue is that social constructionist theory can be applied anyone regardless of social status. As Vance explained in her essay, social constructionism can be used to question the assumed “naturalness” of dominant groups. From an activist standpoint, this is a great way to challenge the hegemonic reign of dominant groups. However, social constructionism can be used to question the validity of subordinate groups. One might argue, “If sexuality is socially constructed then it makes no sense that there is a ‘gay’ identity or a ‘gay’ community. Why should we create laws that grant special rights to an imaginary group of people?”
Of course, the idea that there is no such thing as a gay identity or community is absurd. Just because something is socially constructed does not invalidate its existence. Social constructionism implies that identities change based upon the current paradigms of a particular society. If these paradigms remain constant, it follows that the socially constructed identities will also remain constant. That said, social constructionism has the ability to construct or deconstruct any identity of its choosing. Activists should be aware of this when employing social construction theory in their work.
The paradox Vance illustrates in the above passages is very real and needs to be addressed. The key question is how can we defend a minority group without reinforcing current social constructions that are responsible for oppressing the group in the first place? There is no easy answer to this question but I have an idea that could serve as a starting point.
I think we need to think broadly with how we conceive of minority groups. There is a tremendous amount of diversity amongst individuals within groups and we need language that reflects that. For example, the “queer community” implies a large group of people who are non-heterosexually identified whereas the “gay community” implies a large group of people who are exclusively attracted to the same sex. Therefore, defending the “queer community” implies defending a large group of non-heterosexually identified people whereas defending the “gay community” implies defending a narrow subset of non-heterosexually identified people. This shift in terminology helps avoid reinforcing the structural binary that is used to oppress non-heterosexuals.
Despite its pitfalls, I have grown quite fond of social constructionism. What I like the most about this theory is it does not take established social identities for granted. It forces us to question societal paradigms, which I think is important for activist work and the production of new knowledge. As a final note, I think its important not to go overboard with this theory. I think it is just as erroneous to be a 100% social constructionist as it is to be a 100% essentialist. I am certain there is a middle ground between these two philosophies that I suppose is “the truth.” Where is that middle ground? I only have a vague idea at best. Oh well, I have the rest of my life to figure that out.
Vance, Carole S. “Social Construction Theory: Problems in the History of Sexuality.” An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World. Ed. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006. (29-32).
I’m officially back in action. I fixed the issue with not being able to like/follow/reblog my posts and I added a comment feature. Success! :D
There is a problem with my custom HTML theme that makes it impossible to Like and Reblog my posts as well as following me. I’m going to try to rebuild my page within the next day or two in order to remedy this. Until then, please excuse the more primitive looking page.
The guy started kissing me. The first thought that popped into my mind was “Gee, I hope I don’t get herpes.” Haha, I’ve always had a strong sense of self-preservation and its good to know it still kicks even when I’m sexually aroused.
The guy sticks his hand down my pants and grabs my dick. After that, I put the brakes on dancing with him and ran away to another part of the dance floor. After the initial shock (I didn’t see it coming at least), the thought that went through my head this time was, “If he were hot he could stick his hand in my pants all he liked.” That said, let me reiterate that I was taken aback that he just went for it. Seriously, how often do you reach your hand in someone else’s pants without permission? However, in all honesty it probably wouldn’t have bothered me if I thought he was hot, provided he didn’t try to hand-rape me on the dance floor.
I ran into the same guy later that evening. He asked why I ran away from him. I couldn’t really hear him. He apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I probably didn’t make the best first impression,” kissed me on the cheek, and left. I guess the moral here is we’re all decent people deep-down, we just get horny and do shit we wouldn’t normally do sometimes. He’s certainly not perfect and neither am I.