Current sexual vocabulary and categorization of sexuality rely on cultural notions of sexuality in and of itself. The way in which the western world looks at sexuality is socially relevant and culturally constructed—and therefore biased and unsophisticated. Additionally, categorizations of sexuality, namely homo-, hetero-, and bi-sexual, are limiting, and more importantly, fail to communicate the complexity of sexuality and object choice. What is more, current usage of the labels “homosexual” and “bisexual” are loaded, carry a history of judgment, and promote notions of deviation and therefore abnormality. Consequently, the use of faulty language is counter-productive to healthy sexual understandings and should be seriously revised, or not used at all.
In her work, Thinking Sex, Gayle Rubin uses the imagery of “the charmed circle” to demonstrate what type of sex is socially acceptable in the western world. The charmed circle contains good, normal and natural sexuality, and includes the following characteristics: heterosexual, married, monogamous, procreative, non-commercial, in pairs, in a relationship, same generation, in private, no pornography and bodies only. The “outer limits” of the circle depict bad, abnormal, unnatural and damned sexuality. Such characteristics include: homosexual, unmarried, promiscuous, non-procreative, commercial, alone or in groups, casual, cross-generational, in public, pornographic, or with manufactured objects (p 13). Therefore, it remains clear that sex is not simply sex—and depending on how and with whom, such practices are acceptable or condoned. Acceptable sex necessitates the inclusion of one male and one female, and this understanding has infiltrated not only culture, but the medical community as well. Sexology, or the study of sex, focuses on frequency of coitus, orgasm, masturbation, age at first sexual intercourse, number of sexual partners and beyond through heterosexual experience, (Nagel p 49). Information available about sexuality is consequently discriminatory and largely inconclusive because it fails to utilize a wide enough vantage point, and is based on cultural and religious assumptions of what is natural.
Western acceptance of sexuality relies on understandings the biological. However, history has shown that such arguments often operate backwards—science is used to “prove” an already existing hypothesis. As skull size was natural proof of female and African inferiority, what is “natural sex” is also considered after-the-fact. Gayle Rubin articulates that, while hunger is biological, what constitutes food is culturally determined and obtained. Likewise, while reproductive urges are biological, what is considered sex is culturally determined and obtained. Following this analogy, in no way does the basic human need of food account for the complexity of cuisine, diet, and taste—nor does it account for the fact that, across peoples and environments, these choices change dramatically. Additionally, the biological need to consume for energy does not explain fantasies of chocolate cake or buttered popcorn. Likewise, reproduction in no way explains the complexity of sexuality and the differences among peoples across time and spaces, (Rubin, p 10). The available terminology does not account for this complexity either; rather, it promotes misunderstanding of sexuality through over-simplification.
Similar to the analogy of sexuality to hunger, both "natural," David Halperin, in his work One-Hundred Years of Homosexuality, comments, "It never occurred to pre-modern cultures to ascribe a person's sexual tastes to some positive, structural, or constitutive feature of his or her personality...human beings are not individuated at the level of dietary preference... [but] share the same fundamental set of alimentary appetites, and hence the same dieticity," (p 27). Halperin points out the way that our cultural perspective on sexuality creates assumptions (and unfortunately judgments) of those we view. Additionally, his analytical approach calls to question the ways in which categorization creates essential differences in circumstances regardless of similarity. What is more, these differences in categorization impede the ability to understand sex construction and (lack of) categorization in other cultures.
Sexual labels are particularly problematic because they connote more than genital preference. “Individuals do not have the choice not to have a sexual orientation and identity. One is presumed to be “gay” or “straight,” if not in deed, then surely in identity,” (Nagel, p 50). The term “homosexuality” was introduced into the English language in 1892 by Charles Gilbert Chaddock. Previously, “sexual inversion” existed to describe same-sex relations. A far different concept, inversion referred to a process wherein individuals “inverted their proper sex roles by adopting masculine or feminine style at variance with what was deemed natural and appropriate to their anatomical sex.” In essence, through the logic of inversion, a male trapped in a female body could account for lesbianism. The transition from sexual inversion to homosexuality marks the impermanence of sexual perspectives in a given culture. Homosexuality, on the other hand, considers desired partners independently of gender performance, based solely on who has had sex with whom, and indifferent to cultural and environmental factors. (Halperin, p 15-17).
Historical accounts of sexuality underscore the notion that perceptions of sex-relations are socially and often times religiously specific. Through the works of Plato, readers are exposed to a Grecian perspective of sex four-hundred years before the Common Era. In The Symposium, same-sex relations are acceptable and accounted for in the mythology of human beings, soul mates, and sex. At a dinner party, Aristophanes begins his story:
Long ago, our nature was not the same as it is now but quite different. For one thing, there were three human genders, not just the present two, male and female. There was also a third one, a combination of these two…Then “androgynous” was a distinct gender as well as a name…now nothing is left but the name, which is used as an insult (p 26).
Right in his introduction, Aristophanes describes to his audience how gender performance is a human-construct, varying through time, and based on custom instead of nature. He explains that the parent of the male gender was from the sun, that of the female gender the earth, that of the androgynous from the moon. He goes on to describe how human beings also did not look the same then—they were round bodies, with a face on either side, and four hands and four legs, with two sets of genitals. One day, the humans tried to climb up to heaven and attack the gods. As punishment, Zeus split them in half. However, devastated from the separation, the halves threw their arms around each other, and died of hunger, as they would not separate regardless of the cost. Zeus had sympathy toward the humans, so he moved their genitals to the front of their bodies, and the site of sexual reproduction was changed from on the earth onto their bodies.
The aim of this was that, if a man met with a woman and entwined himself with her, they would reproduce and the human race would be continued. Also, if two males came together, they would at least have the satisfaction of sexual intercourse, and then relax, turn to their work, and think about the other things in their life…Those men who are cut from the combined gender (the androgynous, as it was called then) are attracted to women…those women who are cut from the female gender are not at all interested in men, but are drawn much more towards women (p 29-30).
In the eyes of Aristophanes, humans originally coupled, not for the purpose of reproduction, but to achieve an original state of wholeness. Understandings of intercourse and reproduction resulted in Zeus’ intervention, and even then, sex was an avenue to alleviate the anxiety of separation. The myth of Aristophanes showcases a perspective of sexuality that does not position one preference against the other, and consequently, “we all share the same ‘sexuality’—which is to say that, despite differences in our personal preferences or tastes, we are not individuated at the level of our sexual being,” (Halperin, p 20). Additionally, sexuality was not a marker of individual character; sexual access to men was considered an indicator of high-status. Men of power had access to slaves, women and men. Partners were considered “active” or “passive” as opposed to distinction based on genitals. (Halperin, p 35-37)
Unlike ancient Greece, the history of homosexuality within the United States since its introduction into the English language has been grim. Those engaging in different orientations have been historically ostracized, discriminated against, and considered pathological. In the 1950’s, a period of sex panic filtered anxieties about sexuality through images of the “homosexual menace” and the “sex offender.” Although “sex offender” was used to describe rapists and molesters, it came to include homosexuality as well. “In its bureaucratic, medical, and popular versions, the sex offender discourse tended to blur distinctions between violent sexual assault and illegal but consensual acts such as sodomy,” (Rubin, p 5). From the 1940’s until the 1960’s, homosexuals and communists were subjected to intense investigation and persecution. Senator Joseph McCarthy was fixated on eliminating communists, and developed an interest in homosexuals because their lifestyle made them “vulnerable to blackmail” and their “moral character made them susceptible to communist influence,” (Nagel, p 164). Non-heterosexual orientations, homosexuality in particular, have been historically oppressed and marginalized in the United States, and despite progressive movement, the Land of the Free largely maintains institutionalized homophobia. By use of terminology that has served a long-standing pejorative and punitive function, specific mindsets of homosexuality are allowed to continue. Vocabulary that serves to recognize the “deviant” and the “abnormal” continuously infer and underscore what is “normal” and “biological”
Despite oppressive and binary views of natural orientation, this century has seen public uproar in response to new views and ways of thinking. Freud was brilliant in that he forced a more critical eye on the development and state of sexuality, regardless of the sexism in his work, (specifically penis envy). He asserted that all actions are, in some facet, part of a sexual energy—more or less making sex everywhere. Additionally, Freud's asserts that infants attempt to replicate their first pleasure (breastfeeding) for the rest of their lives—and that parents and siblings actually teach sexuality to a growing mind and body. He also cites direct correlation between pleasure, pain and sexuality. Like any other theory, Freudian thought certainly has flaws—but is also has critical observations and perceptions of sex unfitting to the time period in which he lived—and rooted in a deeper thinking of sexuality. Freud unveiled a revolution in psychology and child development because he exposed the fact that sex was not as easy or explicable as heterosexual penetration—and certainly, there is more to it than hetero-, homo-, and bi-. According to Freud, we are all polymorphously perverse, but “mental dams against sexual excesses—shame, disgust and morality—” shape the hetero-normative socialization process.
Freud also positions heterosexuality equally as restrictive as homosexuality. Picking up where Freud left off, Alfred Kinsey develops the Kinsey scale to depict what lies in between. In fact, what Kinsey has to offer is more diverse than “same,” “different,” or “both.” Rated zero through six, zero signifies exclusively heterosexual, and six signifies exclusively homosexual. One is noted as predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual; two as predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual; three as equally heterosexual and homosexual; four as predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual, and five as predominantly homosexual and only incidentally heterosexual. Kinsey’s work offended the public propriety of his day, revealing a singular and rigid scope of sex.
Through exploring different cultures, epochs and approaches toward sexuality, there is no easy way to say that heterosexual penetration is the only acceptable form, simply because it is necessary for reproduction, and simply because our society says so. Contraception and abortion alone showcase that sex is recreational and not just reproductive—but above that, the fact that post-menopausal women and elderly persons maintain a sex drive highlights the idea that the sexual psyche is not easily understood. Let's get real—infants fondle themselves and children masturbate long before the onset of puberty, and long before ejaculation is possible. What is more, pornography and role-play showcase the function of fantasy in sexuality, which is not necessary for plain old put-it-in-the-hole copulation and reproduction. Social stigma of sexuality, coupled with over-simplified and loaded terminology, exacerbate issues of sexual stratification, judgment and oppression. Positing cultural understandings as natural fact is both ignorant and egocentric. Although terminology such as pansexuality (attraction not based on gender), sapiosexuality (attracted to the mind as much as the body) and fluid sexuality (changing over time), have expanded available vocabulary, these terms are not widely used or recognized, still carry judgment, and therefore cannot pose a strong enough challenge to current social stigma and the under-simplification of sex. Until more profound language and perspectives are readily available, I move that we label ourselves simply "sexual."