When I say, to myself and others, that I am a homosexual, what does that really mean? Does it mean that I have chosen to lead a life in which I only engage in sexual acts with persons of my own gender? Does it mean that a non-chosen part of my personality is such that I am sexually and emotionally attracted only to other men? If so, how can the emergence of something not chosen be explained? By biology? By psychology? Why should it be explained? Can it be explained? And what about the possible difference between what I believe and what is, in fact, reality?
In what follows, I shall make an, admittedly amateurish, attempt to provide some tentative answers to these rather difficult questions, and in doing so, I shall pay special attention to a philosophical approach to interpreting the world called social constructionism. In essence, constructionism claims, in this realm of affairs, that sexuality is a social construction and that there is no essential, innate, immutable characteristic of a person which can be termed heterosexuality or homosexuality. Rather, these concepts are reflections of social discourse, which shapes and creates the phenomena to which we refer and which varies substantially with time and space. In this view, the term "sexual orientation" does not reflect an entity which exists irrespective of social circumstance. Thus, my calling myself a homosexual today, in the context of having been brought up in the modern West, does not mean that this notion is applicable to ostensibly similar manifestations in other cultures, and it does not mean that there really is such an innate identity, other than in the socially shaped minds of myself and others.
We see that constructionism effectually challenges the essentialist notions which underlie much of ordinary and scientific thinking, and in this respect, it demands of us that we endeavour to free ourselves of habitual and unreflective modes of deliberation. As I have tried to do so, I have come to conclude the following. Displays of different aspects of what constitutes a human being are not easily explained as stemming from a particular type of influence. In fact, it seems to me an arduous, possibly impossible, task to unfurl the complete determinants of the underlying set of thoughts and behaviour which a human make. As a result, I am highly suspicious against any system of analysis which proffer a claim of exclusive knowledge - and therefore I view constructionism's conviction, that only social forces matter in the field of human sexuality, as - at best - problematic. I will try to elaborate on why I have come to hold this position below.
Let us begin by considering two "essentialist" and mutually exclusive hypotheses about human sexuality:
(A) Humans have a fixed sexual orientation, determined at birth, and it is that of perfect bisexuality. Social factors are irrelevant both for determining a person's sexual orientation as well as for people's understanding of this concept.
(B) Humans have a fixed sexual orientation, determined at birth, and for the entire population, it is distributed along a continuum, ranging from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality. Social factors are irrelevant both for determining a person's sexual orientation as well as for people's understanding of this concept.
A devout essentialist would presumably adhere to one of these alternatives, and consider nothing else as of interest for an evaluation of the basis or understanding of human sexuality. Such a position is rightly considered absurd by constructionists and, to my knowledge, held by no one.
But saying that extreme essentialism is not tenable as an explanatory device is not the same as saying that essentialism cannot contribute fruitfully to an analysis of sexuality - in fact, I view it as vital. The thing is to view hypothesis (A) and (B), neither like constructionism (which categorically views them both as false), nor like extreme essentialism (which views one of them as a comprehensive concept containing the complete truth), but as contributing to a proper explanation of sexuality. That is to say, one may start with the idea that people have an underlying sexual orientation, which is not chosen, which is innate, which is immutable, but which is only one among many factors determining the feelings and actions of sexual man. And one may, in addition to this, think it plausible to add social or cultural influences as vital in shaping people's conceptions and actual behaviour.
Consequently, I view myself as a "weak" essentialist in that I think there is an essence of the human personal set-up which, largely irrespective of social discourse, is an identifying feature with regard to sexual object choice. In terms of economic theory, a person's preference for the maximisation of net utility is transformed into acts of choice subject to a restriction called sexual orientation (in addition to many other restrictions). Furthermore, I think hypothesis (B) to be predominantly true - in conjunction with social considerations. In other words, I believe that in "any" society in "any" age, each person has a nonmalleable sexual orientation, but the way in which a particular sexual orientation is understood, viewed, treated, and experienced undoubtedly varies greatly, depending on the cultural framework of the society in question. But underlying all such frameworks is an essential reality, which is not socially created, just socially interpreted.
Why think (B) more palatable than (A)? While (B) allows for the existence of some people who are perfectly bisexual (i.e., they are roughly equally attracted sexually and emotionally to men and women), (A) does not allow for anyone who deviates from this orientation. And, starting from an essentialist base, it is really introspection - both personal and having taking part of that of friends - which makes me reject (A). I, and many of my homosexual friends, have never been emotionally nor sexually attracted to girls, and the same thing goes for some heterosexual friends, who have thought about the issue: they have never been attracted to anyone of the same gender in that manner. Thus, everyone is not perfectly bisexual at base.
So let us continue in a comparison of my own view, hypothesis (B+), and the constructionist hypothesis, (C):
(B+) Humans have a fixed sexual orientation, and for the entire population, it is distributed along a continuum, ranging from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality. In addition to a biological and individualistic-psychological basis, social factors influence conceptions of and actions related to sexual orientation.
(C) Humans do not have a fixed sexual orientation; instead, that concept is a social construction which itself creates identities not there beforehand. This does not exclude, nor does it necessitate, people thinking in terms of their and others' having a sexual orientation.
Is it possible to discriminate between these two hypotheses? While it is clearly a monumental task to do so, I think it is possible, bringing available scientific research to bear on the issue, to at least make a case for one's position. While reading constructionist theories, I have come to realise that they have something fundamental in common with Freudianism, viz., that they are very hard to test for falsifiablility. To quote Hamer & Copeland (1994): "[T]he social constructionist theory is not likely to be disproved any time soon, since its content is too amorphous to ever be tested rigorously." This makes it different from much of the research in the fields of biology and psychology, which we shall come to in a while. However, I think there are certain lines of reasoning which can be pursued and which will present a case for the rejection of (C) in favour of (B+).
1. First, let us consider some historical and anthropological research. History Professor John Boswell (see note 1) convincingly shows that at least some people in classic Athens and Rome, as well as in Arabic countries, understood human sexuality in terms of stable sexual orientations. Hence, it is difficult, as e.g. David M. Halperin does, to argue that homosexuality as such can only be said to have existed in the modern West. Boswell's reading is that, just as in today's discussion, people in history have had different ways of interpreting sexuality: some have seen it as an isolated area for unaffected choice, some have viewed it as being affected by "natures" or essential "identities", etc. This renders higher credibility to (B+) compared to a situation where all references to an orientation view were absent.
As for anthropological research, the Sambia of New Guinea provide support for hypothesis (B+). It is the case that the Sambia men perform intergenerational same-sex acts in a ritualised manner, but after puberty, they youths are expected to form relationships with women. We may talk about a social or cultural pattern here, which strongly influences behavior: both in adolescence (same-sex acts) and in adulthood (opposite-sex liaisons). However, even in this socially tight society, there is a small minority of men who, despite social ostracism and scorn, try to remain in same-sex bonds upon reaching adulthood. This seems consistent with (B+) but not with (C).
2. Second, let us consider some research in biology and psychology - a strong challenge to (C) - which is quite often rejected flatly by constructionists as being of any significance for sexuality. As Foucault expresses it: "Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct." In contrast, biologists take another view, namely, that sexuality is strongly influenced by natural, non-social factors, such as genes, and that people's personal characteristics - in addition to their bodies - are shaped by evolutionary forces, in the long run. However, environmental and social influences are not denied. Naturally, this field of research is still unable to deliver any conclusive proof about, e.g., the extent and nature of a genetic origin of homosexuality, but preliminary results makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that biology does influence people's sexuality in a non-negligible manner.
Among the findings can be mentioned quite a few studies on homosexual twins. To quote LeVay (1996, p. 175, 177): "Thus, although the actual rates vary considerably from study to study, there is agreement that the incidence of homosexuality is approximately twice as high in the monozygotic co-twins of homosexual men and women as in the dizygotic co-twins... On the whole the twin studies offer substantial if not totally watertight evidence that there is a genetic influence on sexual orientation, at least in men."
Another line of research has been conducted in the form of molecular genetic studies, under the leadership of Dean Hamer at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Hamer & Copeland (1994) state: "The first part of this book was grounded solidly on facts: Most men identify themselves as either gay or straight. Each one either has a gay brother or he doesn't. The brothers share the same genetic markers at particular spots on their DNA or they don't. Those are the facts that led to the conclusion that there is a gene at the tip of the X chromosome that influences sexual orientation, at least in some gay men."
Furthermore, in the field of brain research, Simon LeVay has found a difference in the brains of heterosexuals and homosexuals, in a region called INAH3: on average, this region is two to three times larger in heterosexual than homosexual men. Since this is a sexually dimorphic cell group, the study suggests that there may be a biological influence on sexual orientation.
In addition to biological factors, like the effects of the brain, genes, and hormones, quite a few psychologists have proffered the view that local environmental factors are decisive for the particular sexual orientation of a person. Note that this is not the same as the constructionist idea that societal forces are at work and that this does not in any way preclude a biological influence. In fact, many believe in a combination of influencing factors, some biological, some psychological - something which is supported by the twin studies (since identical genes do not always produce the same sexual orientation). Among the psychological theories can be mentioned prenatal stress, parenting styles, patterns of childhood reinforcement, early sexual experience, and so on. It is difficult to say what the effects of these factors are, but their influence cannot be rejected,.
In all, although not yet unambiguous, scientific research points in a direction which lends support to (B+), not (C).
3. Third, let us consider how people view themselves. Here, we encounter a problem, viz., the constructionist epistemological view: people don't really know what made them what they are (if they are anything at all except respondents to social stimuli) - but the constructionists think they do know. On one plane, this is not very strange: people observe a lot of things without having any idea about why they are like they observe them to be. But normally, if someone else claims to know, for such a claim to be credible, he must present more than an unfalsifiable theory. LeVay (1996) sums up:
"On the whole, the results of the various sex surveys suggest that there is a good correlation between people's sexual orientation as assessed by their feelings, their behavior, and their declared identity. The survey results do not support the notion that, in contemporary Western cultures, large numbers of men and women are sexually attracted to the same sex but fail to act on that attraction. The great majority of men and women have sex only with members of the other sex, and they do so for a simple reason: they don't find members of the same sex sexually attractive."
It thus appears as if people claim that they do belong to a certain sexual orientation, and my personal experience reinforces my belief in these findings: I have always been sexually attracted to other boys/men, which corresponds well with (B+). It cannot, of course, be ruled out that I, and most others, have been misled by social discourse to think that I am irrevocably gay by nature, but it seems to me that the burden of proof rests on those who claim to know more about me than I do.
4. Fourth, let us consider the vagueness of constructionism. Unlike the research results briefly discussed above that render support to the notion of a sexual orientation, constructionism is simply a rather categorical theory which cannot be tested. It makes use of abstract terms like "social construction" and claims a positive conviction that homosexuality is nothing but such a construction. On what grounds? Not the least important to ask is how a certain mode of discourse influences individuals. Both biology and psychology in this area are individually oriented, i.e., they look at individual cases and offer explanations of why people turned out in a certain way ("you were influenced by gene x in your brain in this way" and "you were influenced by your father being away all the time in this way"). Constructionism, however, instead makes use of a cultural influence, but such generically nebulous influences probably makes it impossible to explain individual variation within a given cultural context.
How, for instance, can constructionism explain that I, Niclas Berggren, turned out to only desire sex with other men, while Karl Karlsson or Sven Svensson turned out to only desire sex with females? If we lived in the same culture, what exactly and specifically made me gay and others straight? Or, perhaps, what exactly and specifically made me think that I have a gay identity and others to think that they have a straight identity? What exactly and specifically makes a person gay (or think he is) in a culture which, according to those constructionists who have a flair for "queer theory", is violently heterosexist? If constructionism cannot credibly answer such questions, it quite frankly appears rather useless to me. Again: hypothesis (B+) stands on firmer ground.
5. Fifth, it appears that if one's sexuality was totally unrelated to genetics, it would be less strong and easier to change. If one takes ordinary beliefs and attitudes, continually shaped by family, friends, and society, it is not all that difficult, over the passage of time, to revise one's outlook on life. For instance, during the course of my 28-year-old life, I have changed from an agnostic, to a Fundamentalist Christian, to an atheist. But my attempts to change my attraction toward men failed, despite several years of hard trying. That a sexual orientation which is exclusively homosexual is virtually impossible to change is documented by Green (1988), and that a (male) homosexual orientation in terms of self-identification is very stable, after initial confusion in life, is shown by Lever (1994). Again, can such difficulty in transforming people (who themselves often want to change) and such stability in terms of self-identification be explained better by means of (B+) or (C)? Unless constructionists explain why this social construction is so hard to escape, the story seems much more in line with (B+).
Why does it matter if hypothesis (A), (B), (B+), or (C) is correct? First of all, a general purpose of scientific analysis is to provide correct and useful knowledge about reality, and for those of us who have a basic belief in the validity of such efforts, it does matter how reality is described. Second, the normative issue involved is whether or not this should matter for people's values. I think it should not. Thus, I believe in treating others with respect no matter if their characteristics are real or imagined. However, it has been shown that attitudes toward homosexuals vary predictably with people's beliefs about whether homosexuality is a choice or not: tolerance is much greater in the latter group than in the former. Of course, it is hard - at least for me - to imagine what attitudes would be like if everybody condoned the constructionist view of how life works.
Constructionists are fond of referring to post-modernist thinking with reference to traditional ideas about the constitution of the world, which are happily questioned. But shouldn't the post-modernist insights render constructionists somewhat more humble regarding their own claims (especially since many of them are diffuse and untestable)? How is it that constructionists appear with almost religious dogmatism and proclaim than only vague social constructions determine (beliefs about) sexuality? How do they know?
My own position is one of balance, of taking several schools of thought, of comparing them with each other and with my own experience, and of forming a synthesis which states: I believe (but I do not know with absolute certainty) that there is an essential feature in humans which we can call sexual orientation and which entails instructions on which gender toward which we feel sexual and emotional attraction. But the way in which such instructions are interpreted is highly culture-dependent, which means that the actual understanding and manifestations of homosexuality probably differ quite a bit over time and space. In all, however, I think there is a core which we have in common. And, as a consequence, I deem social constructionism a rather unappealing construction.
1. For a statement from one of the most influential constructionist philosophers, see Michel Foucault (1979). The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. London: Allen Lane. For an evaluative analysis, with which I largely concur, see John Boswell (1989). "Revolutions, Universals, and Sexuality." in Martin Duberman et al., Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York: Meridian.
2. This more general definition of social constructionism is found in Ted Honderich (Ed.) (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press: "Analysis of 'knowledge' or 'reality' or both as contingent upon social relations, and as made out of continuing human practices, by processes such as reification, sedimentation, habitualization... Social constructionists do not believe in the possibility of value-free foundations or sources of knowledge, nor do they conceptualize a clear objective-subjective distinction, or a clear distinction between 'knowledge' and 'reality'. The position, therefore, has profound implications for the practice and philosophy of science, and for political philosophy." (p. 829)
3. For a definition, see The American Psychological Association.
4. Essentialism is often seen as the antithesis of constructionism in claiming that some objects, no matter what their definitions or descriptions, have properties that are timeless and immutable, and these properties are not only requisite to their existence but are expressed in their definitions and descriptions.
5. This may, interestingly, be considered conceptually similar to stating that humans have no sexual orientation at all (i.e., that they are only sexual and that the sexual object choice is gender-irrelevant).
6. A possibly even more absurd position is held by those who claim that human sexual activities and emotions are entirely unrelated to any external influence (biological, psychological, or social factors). For a statement mildly along these lines, see Christopher Toll (1996). "Att inte vara det man inte är" ["To Not Be what One Is Not"]. Svenska Dagbladet, 16 March. Also see my reply: Niclas Berggren (1996). "Att välja irrationellt" ["To Choose Irrationally"]. Svenska Dagbladet, 31 March. Among other things, I argue there that given a human capacity for rational choice, it cannot convincingly be asserted that people choose to become homosexuals, since that identification for most people entails a net cost, in comparison with the alternative, heterosexuality. Furthermore, as reported in Simon LeVay (1996). Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press: "Most gay men and lesbian women have their own opinions about why they are homosexual. Although there are exceptions, gay men in the United States today generally tend to claim that they were 'born gay'. Ninety percent of gay men surveyed by the Advocate in 1994 claimed to have been born gay, and only four percent believed that choice came into the equation at all." (p. 6)
7. In discussing "identity", Margareta Lindholm (1996). "Vad har sexualitet med kön att göra?" ["What Does Sexuality Have to Do with Gender?"]. lambda nordica, vol. 2, Nos. 3-4, November, p. 39, commits a fallacy in dismissing the concept as a descriptive device on the basis of a normative dislike (she believes that the kind of difference which the concept of identity gives rise to, due to its exclusionary character, unambiguously yields inequality). That is, she says x because she dislikes ~x.
8. In "My Personal Story: Growing Up Gay", I expand on this and show that I desperately tried to change into a heterosexual for many years - to no avail. It is of course possible (although, I think, highly implausible) that some sort of social influences has transformed my basic sexual orientation into a seemingly homosexual one, but unless someone who claims this to be the case can be precise about how this has occurred, I am unwilling to believe it.
9. Implicit in my own thinking is the philosophy of science of Karl Popper (in which he stated that good theories have two properties: They account for the maximum number of observations with the minimum number of assumptions, and they make predictions that can be tested), and to the extent that constructionism rejects that basis, claiming that no science is objective and that there is no reliable knowledge, then we part ways on a fundamental level. In any case, if that is the position taken, then one might as well reject constructionism, not like I do, with logical reasoning, but simply by saying that we remain total agnostics in every area, and that's it. I think this a destructive approach. As someone active in the social sciences, my firm view is that the scientific control process over time ensures the overall honesty and reliability of research. See also Andrew Sullivan (1995). Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality. London: Picador, pp. 68-69, for a critique of the views of constructionists on science.
10. Dean Hamer & Peter Copeland (1994). The Science of Desire: The Search for the Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior. New York: Simon & Schuster. P. 177.
11. It is of interest to note that the Catholic Church has recently changed its understanding of homosexuality from a choice-oriented perspective to one which recognises the idea of sexual orientation. As stated in Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994). London: Geoffrey Chapman: "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their condition; for most of them it is a trial." (§2358)
12. David M. Halperin (1990). One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge. However, as pointed out to me by Andreas Ehrencrona, sometimes the discussion is merely semantic. If the claim is that what is meant by using the term "gay" or "homosexual" in our culture today is not exactly applicable to other cultures, then I am willing to acquiesce in that claim. But I do not believe in the claim that the underlying, essential phenomenon described by those words merely exists in our culture.
13. For an explanation why it seems that sexually permissive societies primarily view homosexuals as distinct persons and why sexually repressive societies view them as heterosexuals committing wicked deeds, see Richard A. Posner (1992). Sex and Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 125. For an argument on how people could and did formulate equivalent concepts to the more modern "homosexuality", see Richard D. Mohr (1992). Gay Ideas: Outing and Other Controversies. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, pp. 221-242.
14. See Gilbert Herdt & Robert J. Stoller (1990). Intimate Communications: Erotics and the Study of Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. See also David F. Greenberg (1988). The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
15. For a reply to this type of constructionist claim (as exemplified by, e.g., the historian Jens Rydström (1995). "Jakten efter det normala" ["The Pursuit of the Normal"]. Svenska Dagbladet, 8 December), see Magnus Enquist & Hans Temrin (1996). "Naturligt är mångfalden" ["Diversity is Natural"]. Svenska Dagbladet, 7 January.
16. Ibid., p. 105.
17. See Posner, ibid., ch. 4; Hamer, ibid.; LeVay, ibid.; The Economist (1995), 4 November, pp. 97-98; Robert Wright (1994). The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are. The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. London: Abacus.
18. Hamer & Copeland, ibib., p. 149.
19. LeVay, ibid., pp. 143-147.
20. The American Psychological Association agrees with the outlook of this essay in believing in the existence of a "sexual orientation", as does The American Psychiatric Association.
21. See LeVay, ibid., pp. 273-274. See also Lars Bohman (1995). Man och man emellan - En bok om manlig homosexualitet. [Between Men: A Book on Male Homosexuality]. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, pp. 69-104.
22. See LeVay, ibid., p.52.
23. See Richard Green (1988). "The Immutability of (Homo)sexual Orientation: Behavioral Science Implications for a Constitutional (Legal) Analysis." Journal of Psychiatry and Law, 16, pp. 537-568. See J. Lever (1994). "Sexual Revelations: The 1994 Advocate Survey of Sexuality and Relationships: The Men." 23 August, pp. 17-24. See also The American Psychiatric Association.
24. See LeVay, ibid., pp. 3-4. I do not mean that constructionism claims that being gay is a choice; that is more typical of Fundamentalist Christians. I am simply using this finding to illustrate that factual interpretations of reality de facto matter for people's values.
25. See e.g. Pia Laskar (1996). "Queer teori och feminismen" ["Queer Theory and Feminism"]. lambda nordica, vol. 2, Nos. 3-4, November, p. 77.