May 20, 2007

This American Life - 81 Words

Let me preface this post by writing that This American Life is one of my favorite shows on the radio, if not my most favorite. Anyway!

This past weekend, This American Life reran an episode titled "81 Words" about the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) decision to alter the entry about homosexuality is the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM). For a show designed for a nonacademic audience, it was pretty great.

It touched on the changing meaning of homosexuality over time, although not as in-depth as it could have been. The narrator mentioned that before the mid-1800s, there was no such thing as homosexuality, there were only people who religiously-defined sexual crimes. These crimes included committing acts of sodomy (including masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, bestiality, and any other sexual act that didn't directly result in the production of babies). However, the producers' left out the fact that what we now know as a "homosexual" is an identity category. There is a big difference between being a homosexual and engaging in sexual acts with a person of the same sex. For example, men on the "down low"[1] don't consider themselves gay, but do have sexual relations with other men. A homosexual identity is a new phenomenon, not occurring over 1,000s of years but only within the last 150 or so.

A thousand years ago, people who engaged in sexual acts with other people of the same sex were considered sodomites. Then, around the mid- to late-1800s, a medical definition became popular: People who engaged in same-sex intercourse had a medical or psychological disease. At the time, many people considered this a great accomplishment: Now, people who engaged in same-sex intercourse could not be blamed for their sexual acts, it was God's fault for giving them a disease. However, the problem with calling same-sex intercourse a disease is that people will try to cure a person of that disease. From the late 1800s until 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental illness that could be cured through therapy or other interventions. And this is where the This American Life story picks up.

Definitely check this story out. You can download a copy from for 99-cents or download a free copy from the This American Life website for a limited time.

May 18, 2007

Heterosexual by Default, Homosexual by Deviation

Throughout everyday life, most people make predictions and have expectations about other people’s thoughts and behaviors. Additionally, most people need some sort of external reference to make these predictions. This external reference could be race, ethnicity, gender performance, age, socioeconomic status, dress, or a combination of the above. The problem with these predictions is that they are almost entirely based on broad cultural stereotypes that often do not include opportunities for individual variation. One such stereotype involves sexual orientation. People often presume that others are heterosexual, or that heterosexuality is the default and nonheterosexuality is a deviation from that default. The theory of heteronormativity has both theoretical and practical implications, including binary thinking, intolerance of others, and hierarchical value structures.

Heteronormativity is a cultural phenomenon that is based in the different ways that societies make rules and norms surrounding sexual activity. In societies with heteronormative ideologies, heterosexuality is preferred above all other forms of sexuality. This is due to the social construction of sexuality in heteronormative cultures. The social constructionist theory suggests that different cultures give different labels and meanings to sexual thinking and behavior, which affects the ways that people in those cultures experience sexuality. According to Jeffrey Weeks, “the West still defines the norms of sex in relationships to one of the possible results -- reproduction” (Weeks, 1986). Reproduction is inherently heterosexual. Try as they might, two women cannot combine their DNA to create new life like a man and a woman can. Therefore, heterosexual reproduction becomes the ideal of sexual behavior between two people. A corollary of this is that nonreproductive sexual behaviors are less socially-desirable than reproductive sexual behaviors. This corollary helps to explain why there is a broad social preference for intercourse over masturbation. Gayle Rubin (1992) wrote that “the powerful nineteenth-century stigma on masturbation lingers in less potent, modified forms, such as the idea that masturbation is an inferior substitute for partnered encounters.” In heteronormative cultures, “normal” sexuality is socially constructed to involve reproductive, heterosexual behaviors. Conversely, “alternative/deviant” sexuality involves nonreproductive and/or nonheterosexual behaviors. Due to the heterosexual construction of sexuality in many Western cultures, certain sexual behaviors are designated as “deviant” and are open to be mocked and ridiculed by society at large.

Due to the social construction of sexuality in the Western world, a hierarchy exists that determines the social value of sexual identities. Gayle Rubin suggests that “marital, reproductive heterosexuals are alone at the top of the erotic pyramid” (1992). She goes on to write that “stable, long-term lesbian and gay couples are verging on respectability, but bar dykes and promiscuous gay men are hovering just above the groups at the very bottom of the pyramid” (Rubin, 1992). In this way, monogamous, reproductive heterosexuality is valued socially above all other forms of sexuality. Partnered, long-term, heterosexual relationships are valued above all other forms of sexual relationships. Sexual encounters that occur between two people are “partnered” encounters, and are part of the preferred forms of sexuality, which helps to explain the social taboo on masturbation. Long-term relationships are also favored over short-term relationships, which is why there is cultural restriction against very short-term relationships like one-night stands. Also, heterosexual relationships are preferred over nonheterosexual relationships. Certain sexual preferences and acts are valued over others, which results in the social hierarchy of eroticism.

The definitions of heterosexuality relate to its broad social normalization. By default, people are labeled as heterosexual under heteronormative ideologies. Sexual normalcy is often defined “in terms of relations with the opposite sex, and the consequent categorization of other forms as deviant” (Weeks, 1986). First, gender is defined as the opposition of male and female; other gender identities are not included in the definition of heterosexuality. Under this definition, a transgender person cannot identify as heterosexual. Secondly, all nonheterosexual identities are described as deviation from normalcy. A broad heteronormative ideology predicts that heterosexuality is normal, and nonheterosexuality is deviant. “Deviance” carries a connotation of strange, bizarre, and not fit for social acceptance. Therefore, nonheterosexuality is outside the range of culturally acceptable behaviors and practices. Yet again, heterosexuality is at the top of Rubin’s “erotic hierarchy,” with all other forms of sexuality below it.

Heteronormativity also reflects social norms surrounding gender roles. The presumption of heterosexuality suggests that heterosexuals conform to traditional gender roles. A key aspect of the Western construction of masculine identities is their sexual attraction to women. Nonheterosexual men “fail” at their masculine identity because they are not sexually attracted to women. When a man does not show externalized sexual interest in women, he will probably be considered “gay” by others because an essential part of masculine identity is the sexual pursuit of women. Nonheterosexual identities are lower on the social hierarchy of sexuality than heterosexual identities. At the same time, some presume that pervasive, forceful sexuality is essential to masculinity. In this way, heterosexual and nonheterosexual men are constructed similarly. Women are often instructed to resist sexual advances made by men, while men are encouraged to accept all sexual offers. Men with nonheterosexual identities are often constructed as having the same pervasive, forceful sexuality. This assumption results in the perceived “homosexual threat” posed by homosexual men (Yep, 2002). It is possible that gay men are seen as more of a homosexual threat than lesbians, which may explain why most personal observations of negative homosexuality are often of male homosexuality. In this way, the construction of sexuality also involves gender norms, which deviance from symbolizes a deviation in sexuality.

Bisexuals and bisexuality are also questioned by society in ways that heterosexuals and heterosexuality are not. Intolerance of bisexuals is often manifested in the “denial of the very existence of bisexual people” (Ochs, 1996). This intolerance exists because “we live in a culture that thinks in binary categories” (Ochs, 1996). In discussions of sexuality, most people often discuss heterosexuality and homosexuality. The omission of other categories implies that there are only two classes of sexuality. Ochs suggests that bisexuality is overlooked because it is more difficult to classify bisexuals into either heterosexuality or homosexuality, and this difficulty makes people profoundly uncomfortable (1996). Heterosexuality is often the default sexuality, and homosexuality is constructed as the opposite of heterosexuality, and as such, bisexuality does not fit in to that binary classification system. Additionally, bisexuality is often associated with nonmonogamy (Ochs, 1996). Bisexuals are attracted to people of more than one gender, and it is often assumed that bisexuals will have simultaneous relationships with people of one of more of those attractive genders. In the social hierarchy discussed earlier, this gives bisexuality an undue connotation of sexual encounters that occur in nonmonogamous, short-term relationships, which are valued at a lower level that monogamous, long-term relationships. There is a social assumption that most sexual encounters occur in heterosexual monogamous contexts, but bisexuality defies that rationale. Bisexuality does not fit in to the binary categories of sexual identity and also has an unnecessary relationship to nonmonogamy, which gives bisexuality a lower social standing than heterosexuality.

Heteronormativity is the broad social assumption that almost everyone is heterosexual, which makes heterosexuality the “default” sexuality. All other sexual identities fall below heterosexuality on a sociocultural hierarchy of sexual orientation. The ideology of heteronormativity falls under traditional gender roles. Additionally, heteronormativity excludes bisexuality as a valid sexual identity due to the problems with binary categories. Overall, heteronormativity creates a social environment that is intolerant of nonheterosexual identities.

Works Cited
Ochs, R. (1996). Biphobia: It goes more than two ways. In B.A. Firestein (Ed.), Bisexuality: The psychology and politics of an invisible minority. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 217-239.
Rubin, G. (1992). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C. Vance (Ed.), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring female sexuality. New York: Routledge Press, pp. 267-319.
Weeks, J. (1986). Sexuality. London: Horwood & Tavistock Press, pp. 19-44.
Yep, G. (2002). From homophobia and heterosexism to heteronormativity: Toward the development of a model of queer interventions in the university classroom. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 6(3), 163-176.

May 16, 2007

My Theory on Sex - December 2005

A long-standing debate within the social sciences has been the root of human behavior and thinking: biology or society. This debate has been summarized by two main theories: social constructionism, which posits that thinking and behavior are based on society’s rules, and essentialism that suggests that personality is inborn, and that all people have innate, immutable traits. However, I believe that both of these theories are inaccurate. If social constructionism was correct all of the time, then there would be very few similarities between different cultures and historical periods because cultures are very different by time and place. Alternatively, if essentialism was correct all of the time, then more people would be very similar cross-culturally and cultures would be more similar across time and place. I hypothesize that the basis of human thinking and behavior is biology and certain innate characteristics, but the culture and society in which one lives modifies these characteristics. This model includes both biological and social influences, and suggests that these influences interact with each other to create individual personalities. For example, imagine two brothers that are one year apart in age. They are so close in age, that they are likely to have similar experiences culturally. They are also raised by the same parents and have similar genetics. However, practical experience tells us that it is highly unlikely that these two boys would be alike in every single way. They both have inborn personality traits that they do not share with their brother and that make them individuals, rather than very similar. Now imagine that these boys were raised in 8th century China. The time and place of their birth has changed, but their innate personality traits have not changed. It still seems likely that the different culture in which they were raised would also have an effect on their personalities. When examining the root of human behavior and thinking, it is important to recognize the influences of both biology and culture, because neither exist without the other.

Gender is one of the most common dichotomies in Western culture. However, it has been suggested recently that gender should be viewed as following a continuum, with traditional notions of “male” and “female” and the ends of that continuum. This conceptualization allows for more individual variation than previous models because there are more than two “options” for gender. A person can fall at any point on the continuum of gender, without being forced into an archaic binary system. In addition, it reflects the observation that most people do not conform to all aspects of traditional gender norms. I predict that most people would reside close to the polar ends, with very few people being at the exact poles. If this were true, then most people would conform to many aspects of gender norms, but not all. This model also helps to deconstruct the notion that “male” and “female” are mutually exclusive. An individual’s gender will probably reflects some traditional notions about both genders, with a greater adherence to the norms of one particular gender. Conceptualizing gender as a continuum is more reflective of the ways that gender is expressed in recent Western culture.

In the fields of psychology and human sexuality, female desire is often viewed as a complement to male desire, meaning that women are only interested in sex because men are interested in sex. This ideology reinforces a deficiency model of gender and denies female sexual agency. First, “maleness” is frequently constructed to be the ideal gender form, and that all other forms of gender are less valuable than male gender (a deficiency model). This leads to a greater tolerance of non-male variations in gender. For example, in Western societies, there is a greater tolerance of female transgressions of gender (i.e. wearing pants) than male transgressions (i.e. wearing a skirt). Additionally, those who identify as male may face greater criticism if they challenge their seemingly concordant sexual identity, or they identify as male and nonheterosexual. Secondly, in modern U.S. culture, women have a great deal of sexual agency. Denying this is to suggest that women are passive sexual partners who only exist as a place to hold babies until they are ready to be born. It also expresses heteronormativity, which many theorists have recently criticized. Gender forms should be constructed as equally valuable and not so that one gender is preferred above all others.

May 5, 2007

Monosexuality as a Monolith: Response to Riegers, Chivers & Bailey (Aug 2005) Sexual Arousal Patterns of Bisexual Men

*Note: I wish I could link to the article, but the only copy I could find on the web was one that requries a password. You may be able to find it through your library's electronic journal service.

Citation: Rieger, G., Chivers, M.L. & Bailey, J.M. (Aug 2005). Sexual arousal patterns of bisexual men. Psychological Science, 16(8), 579-584.

A few researchers at Northwestern University have reported that bisexual men don't exist. They say that all the men the studied were either heterosexual or homosexual, and no men were bisexual. What follows is an analysis of the flaws with the research, including both methods, theory, and cultural and practical implications.

Simply enough, this article is extremely heteronormative. Heteronormativity is the cultural preference for heterosexuality over all other forms of sexuality. This is different that homophobia, which implies a dislike or fear of homosexuals. Heteronormativity often plays out as the assumption that everyone is heterosexual until told otherwise. This is why it is always socially interesting to find out who is identified themselves as homosexual, bisexual anything else, because so many people assume that most people are heterosexual.

The researchers suggest that practically all men are either heterosexual or homosexual. They note the difference between attitudes and behaviors, that people can have a sexual orientation that is not reflected in their behavior (i.e. a self-identified bisexual who only have sex with people of the same gender). They also cite a few articles that found that many homosexual men previously identified as bisexual (up to 40%). This suggests that bisexuality is just a pre-cursor to homosexuality, or heterosexuality in rare cases.

The researchers write that self-reporting one's own sexual identity and orientation is not enough. There has to be a more objective measure for sexual orientation. To do this, the researchers measured the change in penile circumference while watching pornography featuring either two men having sex or two women having sex (a cephalograph). There is more than one problem with this.
  1. The researchers assume that all gay men will be aroused by watching two men have sex, and all heterosexual men will be aroused by watching two women have sex. What about heterosexual men who like to watch pornography with a man and a woman? Anecdotal as well as academic research suggests that heterosexual men like to watch a variety of pornography over the population. In other words, there are a bunch of different kinds of guys who like to watch a bunch of different kinds of porn.
  2. Is level of erection an ideal measure of sexual orientation? The researchers suggest self-report measures can be inaccurate because people may be misleading in their answers for a variety of reasons.
  3. This also implies that men who identify as bisexual are more likely to "lie" than people of either monosexuality (heterosexuality or homosexuality). Other researchers have found in studies of biphobia (like homophobia, but towards bisexuals) that some of the stereotypes about bisexuals include that they are likely to lie to their partners, are disease-carrying, and generally disliked.

They use the Kinsey Scale as a self-report measure of sexual orientation. (The Kinsey Scale was developed by Albert Kinsey. The scale ranges from 0 to 6, with 0 being "sex exclusively with people of other genders/heterosexuality" and 6 being "sex exclusively with people of the same gender/homosexuality" and "sex with 50% same gender and 50% other gender/bisexuality" being a Kinsey 3. A person can fall anywher on that scale from 0-6, and Kinsey found that most people were not 0s or 6s, but somewhere in between.)

Anyway, the problem with the Kinsey scale is that it only measures behavior. It does not take in to account, fantasies, desires, attractions, sexual values, etc. Other valid scales have been used to measure sexual orientation that include more than one quality, like the Klein Grid and more recently the Intimate Career (Peplau, 1999).

Basically, they find that none of their participants had strong penile reactions to the both kinds of pornography. This relates back to the flaws discussed earlier, specifically the major flaws with the pornography and the researchers operational definitions of bisexuality.

I have moral qualms with the research as well. I don't think that anyone has the ability to instruct another person on how to identify themselves. If a group of men, women, or people of any other gender choose to identify as bisexual, then who cares? The researchers are making a point to show that people who identify as bisexual are not being really honest to other people about their sexual identity.

There are many flaws with this research about bisexual men. It follows the theory that sexuality can only be heterosexuality or homosexuality (monosexuality). Also, it heavily implies that men who identify as bisexuals are "lying" with that identification. This is not suitable for modern psychological research (or any other kind of research for that matter), and should not be accepted by anyone in the academic community, or anyone else either.