There Is No ‘Natural’ Human Sexuality

The circumstances that arouse our sexual feelings and the ways in which we express them are structured by the society in which we live, and have changed over time. There is no “natural” human sexuality. Historically in the West, sexuality has been linked with reproduction. This arises out of the Christian equation of sexuality with sin that must be redeemed through reproduction. It results in the invalidation of all forms of sexual expression and enjoyment other than heterosexuality. To fulfill the Christian mandate, sexuality always should be intended for reproduction. Actually, in our day, just plain heterosexuality will do, irrespective of reproductive consequences.

This sets up a major contradiction in the way we initiate children to sexuality and reproduction. We teach them that sex and sexuality are about having babies and warn them that they must not explore sex until they are old enough to be mummies and daddies. Then, when they reach adolescence and the entire culture pressures them into sexual activity (whether they want it or not), the more “enlightened” among us teach them how to be sexually (meaning heterosexually) active without becoming mummies and daddies. Surprise: it doesn’t work very well. Teenagers do not act “responsibly”–teenage pregnancy and abortion are on the rise. Somewhere, we forget that we have been teaching lies: sexuality and reproduction are not linked in “advanced,” “developed” societies. Youngsters are expected to be heterosexually active from their teens on, but to put off having children until they are economically independent and married, and even then to have only two or, at most, three children.

Other contradictions: this society accepts, on the whole, Freud’s assumption that children are sexual from birth and that in childhood society channels that polymorphously perverse sexuality into socially acceptable forms. Yet we expect our children to be asexual. Furthermore, more than most traditional societies, we raise boys and girls together, while we insist that they must not explore their own sexuality, and especially not each others.

What if we acknowledged the actual separation of sexuality from reproduction and encouraged our children to express themselves sexually, if they were so inclined? This would mean that they could explore their own bodies as well as those of friends of the same or the other sex, when they felt like it. It would also mean that they would have some sense of their own and other people’s sexual needs, and would know how to talk out these needs with friends and sexual partners before reproduction became an issue for them. Presumably, without the embarrassment of unexplored and unacknowledged sexual needs, contraceptive needs would be much easier to acknowledge and deal with as they arise. So, of course, would same-sex love relationships.

As Steve Jackson has pointed out in Childhood and Sexuality this would be especially advantageous for girls, though it would help children and adolescents of both sexes. Boys, in the ordinary course of sexual exploration, discover their penis as an organ of pleasure, and it is also the organ they are taught about when they learn about reproduction. Reproduction and pleasure therefore are linked. Girls exploring themselves find their clitoris, but when they learn about reproduction, the clitoris often goes unacknowledged, and they are taught that their vagina is the organ important for sex and reproduction. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the vagina is “the passage leading from the external genital orifice [what’s an orifice, Mummy?] to the uterus in mammals [what’s a mammal, Mummy?]; from Latin vagina, sheath [you mean I am a sheath for a penis or a baby, Mummy?].” Therefore, for boys, there is an obvious link between reproduction and their own pleasurable, erotic explorations; for most girls, there isn’t.

It should not surprise us that a male-dominated society has constructed sexuality in ways that serve men’s sexual needs more than women’s. The interesting thing is that when Shere Hite came out with her first Report, which said that sexuality, as we have constructed it, doesn’t serve women, many women came forward to acclaim her and agree. When she later wrote, in her Report on Male Sexuality –that it didn’t do so well by men, either, she was dismissed as a charlatan. The analysis I have just described comes to the same conclusions: our construction of sexuality doesn’t do well by women or men. But it’s harder on women.

Granted that sexuality is socially constructed, each of us writes her or his own script out of the sum total of our individual experiences. None of this is inborn or biologically given. It is constructed out of our diverse life situations, limited by what we are taught and/or imagine as permissible, correct behavior. There is no “female sexual experience,” no “male sexual experience,” no unique heterosexual, lesbian or gay experience. There are instead the different experiences of different people, which we lump according to socially significant categories. Whenever I hear a generalization about the sexual experience of some particular group, exceptions immediately come to mind–except that I refuse to call them exceptions; they are part of the total reality. Of course, some similarities are generated out of the similar social circumstances in which members of groups find themselves, but we tend to exaggerate what exists when we go looking for in-group similarities, or for differences between groups.

This line of thinking is illustrated by the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy, which originated in typologies that were in vogue in late nineteenth century biology, especially in human biology. Behaviors were no longer merely attributes of particular persons; they defined people. A person who had sexual relations with a person of the same sex became a certain kind of person, a “homosexual”; a person who had sexual relations with people of the other sex, a different kind, a “heterosexual.” This way of classifying people erased the hitherto accepted fact that many people don’t do exclusively one or the other. It created the stereotype which was then popularized by the sex reformers, such as Havelock Ellis, who biologized the supposed difference. “The homosexual” became a person who is different by nature and therefore should not be held responsible for her or his so-called deviance. This served the purposes of the reformers (though the laws were slow to change), but it turned same-sex love into a medical problem to be treated by doctors, rather than punished by judges–an improvement, perhaps, but not acceptance or liberation.

This brings us to Freud, who was unusual for his time (and still, to some extent, for ours) in insisting that sexual development is problematic for everyone and that it is scientifically as valid to ask how a child comes to love people of the other sex as of her or his own. However, he plotted a course of development that involved his newly invented Oedipus complex and castration anxiety to explain how men come to form affective attachments to women and women to men. Loving people of one’s own sex continued to be seen as pathological.

Feminist revisioning of Freud by Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinnerstein interprets the course of affective development by putting at the center the child’s relationship to the mother rather than to the father. However, since girls’ first intense, affective experience is with a person of the same sex, whereas for boys it is with a member of the other sex, their description continues to posit a crucial difference between the ways in which girls and boys develop their identities and erotic relationships to members of the other sex. Whereas Freud delineated a course that he believed more clear and direct for boys, but more fuzzy and problematic for girls, Chodorow’s formulation suggests that male development is the more problematic. Girls grow up identifying with their primary care-giver, a woman, and they assume that they will become like her. Boys, on the other hand, become men by insisting on being unlike the person who cares for them, whom they know best, who is their first love. And since boys (like girls) usually are not nearly so familiar with a man as they are with the mother (or other primary caretaker, who also usually is a woman), this necessity to differentiate themselves in kind from the primary caretaker engenders a fragility into the male ego that women need not deal with. Surprisingly, neither Chodorow nor Dinnerstein addresses the question of why, in that case, women later form affective ties with men rather than transferring their primary bond from the mother (or other female caretaker) to other women. Their model readily lends itself to the idea that to women and men, love for women comes easily, while love for men is problematic. But they do not explore these implications.

In my own theorizing I don’t either, because I am no more comfortable with models that posit a psychological determinism than I am with biodeterminist ones. I find Chodorow’s and Dinnerstein’s analyses more interesting than Freud’s, but no more convincing. Much more realistic to me are the diversity, change, and flexibility in sexuality reported by Kinsey, who emphasized that most people can love people of either sex and that the choices change over time and social circumstances. I do not give much credence to retrospective accounts by some lesbians and gay men who believe that they were born “different,” homosexual. In my teaching, I have sometimes asked students to reflect–out loud, if they wish–about the development of their own early loves and attachments. And, usually, women who think of themselves as heterosexual in that their sexual relationships, as adults, are with men recall strong erotic ties to one or more women or girls during their childhood and adolescence. My point is that if these women were involved in loving relationships with women, they might look to these early loves as “proof” that they had always been lesbians, while if they relate sexually to men, they may be tempted to devalue them and call them childhood crushes.

I believe that people fall in love with individuals, not with a sex. Even within one sex, most of us prefer certain “types”; usually not any man or woman will do. It is an interesting question what shapes those preferences. But no one has suggested that something innate makes us light up in the presence of certain men or women. We would think it absurd to look at hormone levels or any other biological phenomenon as the cause for “type” preference within a sex. In fact, scientists rarely bother to ask what in our psychosocial experience shapes such tastes and preferences. We assume it must have something to do with parents or other early experiences, but don’t probe deeply unless our preferences involve the “wrong” sex. Then, suddenly, we try to pinpoint specific causes from out of the maze of biological, psychological, and social experiences that make us the people we are at a given time in our lives. Because of our recent history and political experiences, feminists have an easier time accepting this line of reasoning than many other people do. Many women who have thought of themselves as “heterosexual,” and who may have married and had children, when we have had the opportunity to rethink, refeel, and restructure our lives have fallen in love with women, sometimes much to our own surprise.

The society in which we live channels, guides, and limits our imagination in sexual as well as other matters. Why some of us give ourselves permission to love people of our sex whereas others don’t is an interesting question, but I don’t think it will be answered by checking our hormone levels or trying to unearth our earliest affectional ties. As more women begin to speak more freely about our sexual experiences, we are learning more about how women come to re-examine, re-evaluate, change. Lately, increasing numbers of women have begun to allow ourselves to acknowledge “bisexuality”–loving women and men, in succession or simultaneously. I believe that most of us will end up acknowledging that we love certain people or, perhaps, certain kinds of people, and that gender need not be a significant category, though for some of us it may be.

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