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A Call For An Intersectional Perspective On Sexuality

Source: Von Dominik Bamberger

Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.

When we talk about sexuality, specifically our own sexualities, we sometimes fail to consider other forms of differences (and similarities) among humans.  We need to be sure to consider how our race, ethnicity, sex and gender, social class, age, ability, religion, and nationality shape and influence our sexual identities, desires, preferences, and community memberships.

The Tendency To View One Form Of Difference At A Time

Often, when we talk about difference and, more specifically, inequality, we tend to talk about one form of difference and inequality at a time.  That is, we talk about race, racism, and racial inequality.  Or, we talk about gender, sexism, and gender inequality.  It is rare, however, that we talk about how these forms of difference coexist and shape one another.

In gender studies, sociology, psychology, and the humanities, we use the term intersectionality to describe how forms of difference operate simultaneously and intersect and interact with one another.

So, for example, rather than simply looking at the experiences of bisexuals (i.e., sexual orientation), we could look at the experiences of Latino bisexuals (i.e., ethnicity and sexual orientation), or bisexual teenagers (i.e., sexual orientation and age), or Catholic bisexual immigrants (i.e., religion, sexual orientation, and nationality).

Why Is This More Inclusive View Important?

Although we can get a good sense of someone’s life experiences and sense of self just by looking at their sexual orientation or self-reported sexual identity (e.g., lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, gay, queer), we may be overlooking how other forms of difference shape one’s life.

We are not simply sexual beings; we also have a particular race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, age, ability, and nationality.  For example, if we were only to look at the gap in income between women and men, we would fail to see that Black, Latina, and American Indian women are at an even further disadvantage in pay relative to white men.

Simply considering one form of difference fails to paint a complete picture of individuals’ lives.

A Clear Example

As a Kinsey Confidential site visitor pointed out in a comment to the April 30th blog post, “Dine Out for Life – HIV/AIDS Fundraiser” by Natalie Ingraham, one glaring oversight in research on HIV/AIDS rates among Black men who have sex with men (MSM), who may or may not identify as gay or bisexual, is the consideration of race, or, more specifically, racism.

Two researchers found that the higher HIV infection rate among Black MSMs is not due to riskier or less safe sexual practices (i.e., not using condoms regularly and effectively), but is due largely to a smaller pool of potential sexual partners.

The researchers found that among a sample of  Black, white, Latino, and Asian-American MSMs, Black men were rated the least preferred sexual partners and perceived to be the most likely to be HIV-positive.

Thus, because Black men are considered least desired and most dangerous in terms of HIV/AIDS, they have a harder time finding partnerships with non-Black men, which severely minimizes their pool of potential partners and increases their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.  By simply considering sexual orientation, we’d see that men who have sex with men have higher rates of HIV/AIDS relative to men who have sex with women (MSW), but we would miss the racial and ethnic differences among MSMs and MSWs.

It might be a neat exercise, and certainly helpful in a self-reflective sense, to consider how your own race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, ability, age, and nationality shape and influence your sexual orientation, identity, desires, relationships, preferences, and community memberships.  And, making things a bit more complicated, think about how your sexuality shapes and influences these forms of difference in turn.

Sexual Orientation Cannot Be Changed

Source: Out Gay Life

Note: this blog post was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.

Late this summer, the American Psychological Association voted to denounce the practice of treating clients to change their sexual orientation, typically just from gay, lesbian, or bisexual to heterosexual.  It also declared this form of therapy to be harmful to individuals’ mental health.

The American Psychological Association And Sexuality

The APA has not always had the greatest reputation with respect to sexuality.  Until 1973, the organization’s primary guide for diagnosing mental illness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), defined homosexuality as a mental illness.  Under pressure from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists, APA moved to take homosexuality out of the DSM.

Since then, the APA has become a greater supporter of LGBT people and critic of homophobia, producing research that highlights homophobia’s negative impact in the mental health of LGBT people (e.g., bans on same-sex marriage).  This latest step to denounce the practice of “reparative” or “conversion therapy” further establishes the organization as an ally of LGBT people.

Conversion Therapy

Due to the intense prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people in the United States and worldwide, many find the idea of converting their sexual orientations to heterosexual appealing; they see life as much easier and better if they were not lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

A number of groups, mostly religious, have promoted the practice of conversion therapy, claiming to offer those who are unhappy with their sexual orientations to find a better life.  They even promote a high success rate of such treatment, though their methods of research tend not to go through the rigorous, peer-reviewed standards of most social science research.

Most research has found that such treatments do not actually work and can have harmful effects on clients of such treatment, thus leading the APA to call for the end of such practices.

Can Sexual Orientation Be Changed?

The origins of sexuality, whether bisexual, homosexual, or heterosexual, are still not yet fully known. Sexual orientation is complex, but what is known indicates that sexuality is not chosen, nor can it be changed.

The supposed success rate of conversation therapy really indicates the ability for individuals to suppress their sexual desires, not to change them.  I suspect that our sexual orientations are developed from both biological and social sources.  After all, same-sex sexuality, relationships, and desires have always existed, just like those that are different-sex, but gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual sexual identities have not.

(In Ancient Greece, men who had sex with men did not identify as gay, nor bisexual or straight – it is only in the twentieth century that we began to take on a social sexual identity in the Western world, and now more globally.  And, now, it appears that the links among sexual desire, sexual behavior, and sexual identity are becoming even looser.)

Moving Forward

Now that the APA has taken this step to cease efforts to change individuals’ sexualities, we need to move forward in diagnosing homophobia as an illness that plagues our society.

In many cases, I would argue, it is not a problem of the individual, but rather a problem of society.  This logic applies to the classification of “gender identity disorder”, what psychologists call the condition transgender people face in the mismatch between their gender and their biological sex, as a disorder.  In this case it’s not considered a mental disorder, but rather a disorder of the body.

For many, treatment is sought through counseling, changing one’s gender expression (e.g., clothing, name, mannerisms) and possibly one’s sex through hormone treatments and surgery.  But, I see the larger problem lying in society’s rigid gender norms and expectations.  As a sociologist and an activist, my ideal world is one in which we no longer fix the individual’s mind and body to address problems of society.

The Science of Sexual Orientation And Identity

Quite an interesting article.

I’m a little disappointed that I’m just now seeing this article, but the timing is great – I just found out that I’ll be teaching Sexual Diversity in the fall! The article, a little long and slow to load, is well worth the read. It speaks to the ambivalence I believe many sexuality scholars, advocates, and just everyday people have about our understanding about the origins of sexual orientation. We have moved away from “sexual preference”, dismissing any allusions to choice, toward “sexual orientation”. We’ve all heard the anti-choice argument: “Why would anyone choose to be gay, putting up with all of the homophobia and other nonsense.” It’s a valid point: most of us are simply “oriented” toward certain people romantically and/or sexually.

However, there are some competing claims that we must reconcile. Sexuality is fluid. Sexuality is innate. Sexuality is socially constructed. Before the creation of the “homosexual” and “heterosexual” categories in the mid-19th century, homo-, bi-, and heterosexuality served as forms of sexual (and romantic, I would argue) behaviors and relationships. It was the creation of these categories that lead to sexual identities – understandings of sexual people, rather than sexual acts. This gives some weight to the social construction argument, but still, we must note the growing scholarship on biological influences on sexual orientation. Yet, we know from some research, including that of Lisa Diamond (a featured instructor at NSRC’s 2009 summer institute: http://nsrc.sfsu.edu/summerinstitute), that sexuality is fluid and contextual. How else do we make sense of lesbian-identified women who have male sexual (and/or romantic) partners and sex between men in prison and other single-sex environments?

I am weary of the biological arguments for three reasons, one in terms of research, another in terms of the practice of science, and the last in terms of politics. In the first, I must ask why we would suspect that a gene exists that would dictate that we are born to be attracted to X. Let’s say X is men, and I am born male. To say that I am born gay is to imply that something innate within me has dictated that I will find attractive what we have defined socially as male and masculine. That is, a great variety of bodies are captured within the supposedly-universal category of male, yet a certain male prototype exists: white, masculine, tall, muscular, penis, young. How could our genes determine attraction toward something that is socially created?

With respect to the practice of science, I find it ironic that prior to the mid-1970s, science was the enemy of LGBT people – yet now, we’re relying on science to make our case for equality. We were mentally ill in 1970, but now “we can’t help it, because we’re born this way.” In the social sciences, biological explanations for social phenomena are typically dismissed or heavily scrutinized. However, we willingly defer to biology to explain the origins of sexuality. Why? Why do we allow scientists to essentialize us with respect to our sexual desires, yet heavily police essentialist claims about gender, sex, race, and ethnicity?

This leads me to my third reason – politics. LGBT activists have relied on the gay-by-birth argument to make their case for equal rights. The underscoring claim is that legal protections are in order because we can’t help it. Do we not value personal freedom enough to argue for equal rights and protections even if sexuality were a choice? The as-biology argument sounds like a defense of our existence, rather than our claim to personal freedom. I note, however, that this is often the starting point in some arenas, and we’re sometimes met with the already formed conclusion that no rights are in order if sexuality is chosen.

I propose that we expand our notion of “sexual orientation”. I see our understanding as resting on the notion that we are innately attracted to a particular sex – female or male. This is problematic in that there are multiple sexes, given that sex itself is socially constructed. Beyond our attractions to particular sexed bodies, we also have attractions along the lines of gender (including identities, expressions, and presentations), race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body size and shape, nationality, language (e.g., accent), education, and occupation. Relying on the two-sex system for a moment, every female or male is not “fair game” if we’re attracted to one, the other, or both. We may find that Latino business men from New England are desirable, while never noticing the white immigrant construction workers in the US South. How do we make sense of our “types” that are raced, gendered, sexed, classed, sexualized, abled, aged, and shaped? Does biology dictate that we only find attractive bisexual Jewish women?

Furthermore, in our new, expanded notion of sexual orientation, we must reconcile the contextual influence. When our options are limited or shift, our desires change (e.g., the example of men in prison, or moving to a racially homogenous area from one that is racially diverse). For many of us, our attractions shift as we age – we don’t remain attracted to 18 year olds into our 80s or, alternatively, we no longer find 50 year olds to be “creepy” (which many aren’t). This leads me to my final thought – that we must think beyond sexual attraction, desire, and behavior. It may be that our attractions age as we age because we’re more emotionally and socially drawn to people closer to our age. This may suggest an interplay between our social, emotional, romantic, and sexual desires – a complex matrix that we miss in only talking about what gets our “juices flowing”.

As research advances and the US climate slowly becomes more LGBT-tolerant (not necessarily friendly), we need to consider the frames we use to advance our understanding of sexuality. This means detaching our reliance on scientific claims of the innateness of sexuality both in terms of research and activism. This is especially imperative given that science tends to slip back and forth between oppressive and liberating impact in society.