Construct a comprehensive argument for constructionist and essentialist beliefs about homosexual identity development
The term “homosexuality” is a relatively modern term, coined in the 19th century by Austrian born human rights campaigner, Karoly Maria Benkert. Although the label is modern, debates about sexuality, and same-sex attraction have ranged from Plato’s Symposium to modern queer theory. Among sex researchers today, and within the LGBT community, few issues create a more heated debate than the one between essentialism and constructionism in the delineation of human sexuality.
This debate has roots in social and biological sciences and addresses the dichotomy between sexual attraction and sexual orientation, and whether homosexuality is a biologically natural and innate (essentialism) or whether sexual identity is fluid, socially constructed and culture-dependent (constructionism). Throughout history, both essentialist and constructionist theories have been used to support both sides of the gay rights movement. In its essence, this debate raises the question of whether homosexuality, and hence heterosexuality and bisexuality, is socially constructed or is driven by natural, biological forces.
Philosophically, the concept of essentialism originated in the work of Plato, in the 4th century B. C. He argued that universal truths formed the basis of human life, and that the phenomena of the natural world were simply a finite number of fixed, unchanging forms, or essences. The crucial properties of essences were constancy and discontinuity. “That is, an essence does not change and is categorically different from other essences”1. In social sciences today, essentialism implies a belief that certain behaviors are natural, inevitable and biologically determined, and it usually refers to a biological basis of sexual behaviors.
Primarily based in biological and psychological theories of etiology, this approach identifies heterosexuality as the “natural” and “normal” human condition, and homosexuality, in contrast, is the result of “faulty” biology and “maladaptive” psychological development. Essentialists believe that the concepts of “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” reflect unchangeable realities that hold true for all cultures, across all history.
People who believe that sexual preference is inborn are pure essentialists and often hold to a biomedical view of homosexuality. One is who they are and that is without any relationship to any other people… One is born a homosexual. “2 The modern essentialist view of homosexuality can be traced to Karl Ulrich, from what is present day Germany. Ulrich was gay, and one of the first people to advocate the concept of a homosexual being the “third sex”, advocating for equality and civil rights for gay people. “Ulrich’s goal was to free people like himself from the legal, social, and religious condemnation of homosexual acts as unnatural.
He invented a new terminology that would refer to the nature of the individual and not to the acts performed. “3 Essentialism is often considered to be a conservative position in regard to sexual identity and considered to be “reactionary” in their consequences. 4 Ulrich’s, and similar theories were adopted by the homophile movement to attempt to gain rights under the pretense that because homosexuality was a biological disposition, than it should not be persecuted or treated any different than other mental and physical “abnormalities”.
In their efforts to fight homophobia essentialists typically try to promote gay rights through arguing that gay people “can’t help” being gay. By admitting that homosexuality was an “abnormality”, and by appealing to science, this theory became the basis for many groups in the homophile movement, including the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society, who appealed for civil rights for gay people through assimilation rather than confrontation. Essentialists assume that no sexual orientation, whether same-gender, bisexual, or heterosexual, is a conscious choice.
Instead, a “fixed, independent biological mechanism steers individual desire or behavior either toward men or toward women irrespective of circumstances and experience”5 In distinct contrast to this view is the claim that one’s sexual orientation is chosen or constructed. This is one of the most basic tenets of social constructionism. The constructionist answer to essentialist theory is that there is no “natural” sexuality and that all sexual understandings are constructed within, and mediated by, cultural understandings.
Constructionist theorists argued that “sexuality is not … [a] universal phenomenon which is the same in all historical times and cultural spaces”6 Sexuality is created by culture, by the defining of some behaviors and some relationships as “sexual,” and the learning of these definitions by members of the society. Historically, same-sex behavior has been viewed as exactly that, behavior, that could be evaluated independently. Thus, specific societies might approve or disapprove of engaging in same-sex behavior, without identity being assigned to the individual.
The essentialist, biological theory of sexuality assumes that there are two distinct and unchanging “essences”, heterosexual and homosexual. Therefore, if a preference for partners of the same gender is biological, or due to genes or brain chemistry, one would expect consistencies in gays or lesbians, and in heterosexual men and women, across cultures. On the other hand, social constructionists expect substantial variation across cultures in the behaviors associated with homosexuality and heterosexuality because they theorize that sexuality is based upon behaviors and attitudes.
An individual’s sexual identity is socially created, bestowed, and maintained. One is heterosexual because their sexual attitudes and behaviors are toward members of the opposite sex. For the homosexual, these sexual attitudes and behaviors would be for members of the same sex. Therefore, social constructionists would suggest there is nothing “real” about sexual orientation, except for a society’s construction. 7 British sociologist Jeffrey Weeks is credited as defining the debate over homosexuality identity as a difference between “essentialism” and “constructionism. At its basis, essentialism is defined as the idea that sexuality is a basic and essential part of being human, and that it is determined by biological factors and genetics. Constructionism is defined as the idea that sexuality is a learned way of thinking and behaving. These two schools of thought are generally viewed as mutually exclusive, but there is some consideration given to the importance of a combined theoretical approach, at least in application and practice.
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