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Same Sex Relations and perceptions in Western Thought

from xhrisl - Tuesday, May 04, 2004
accessed 1806 times

An examination of same sex relations and changing perceptions within the last century.

An examination of same sex relations and changing perceptions within the last century would seem to support the notion that attitudes within the medical and legal community with regard to same sex relations have steadily progressed toward a more lenient attitude with regard to the variations to be found within human sexuality. In the most simplistic of interpretations this change can be assumed reflective of more liberal prevailing social attitudes resultant of; secularized education, higher education attainment levels, and lessened religious influence within the political and domestic spheres. This of course is contingent upon an understanding of the assumption that what is defined today as a same sex experience, or homosexual act is of the same nature, and was defined as such at the turn of the last century. The problem with knowing such a distinction with any degree of absolute certainty is however, outside of the social historical context problematic at best. Eve Sedgwick writing in Epistemology of the Closet sums up this dilemma; […] an unfortunate side effect of this move has been implicitly to underwrite the notion that “homosexuality as we conceive of it today” itself comprises a coherent definitional field rather than a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual definitional forces (45).

In light of this consideration, while exploring the issue of homosexuality and same sex relations within the following the understanding of such shall be based upon the sexual act between two persons of the same sex as the defining characteristic.

Going back slightly over one hundred years ago Krafft-Ebing a German M.D. (who might best be classified today as a Psycho-Sexologist) authored Pyschopathia Sexualis . The definitive work of his time with regard to sexuality and morality, it would remain an important source of reference well into the early twentieth century, with its twelfth German publication released in 1903 and its English counterpart in 1906. Nevertheless, as the title implied Krafft-Ebing’s work groundbreaking as it was, neglected to define normative sexual behavior by any measure other than its relative context in opposition to abnormal sexual behavior. The importance of his work however, is the lasting effect his views on homosexual behavior had within the medical and legal community. For Krafft-Ebbing, applying degenerative theory to human sexual behavior lead him to view antipathic sexual instinct as a mental illness, and as such he urged for the humane treatment of individuals thus afflicted. He further distinguished between what he termed acquired and congenital cases of homosexuality (361-365), while at the same time making note of the distinctive differences between perversity, such as in a homosexual act and perversion such as in a homosexual lifestyle, in this regard his work was monumental (78). Furthermore, the influence of his clinical observations on the condition of inversion/homosexuality would affect the subsequent attitudes of latter medical professional and researchers, most notably among them Sigmund Freud.

In 1905 when Freud published Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality he was himself indebted to the available research of the leading authorities of the times with regard to clinical observation of homosexual behavior, having at this point in his career not been afforded much interaction with homosexual subjects. As such the research conducted by Krafft-Ebing was the most credible source from which to draw his conclusions when formulating his theories on human psychosexual development. However, whereas Krafft-Ebing had viewed homosexuality as a manifestation of degenerative theory in progress Freud’s work would in contrast dispel such notions. Among the contentions Freud put forth against the notion of homosexuality as a manifestation stemming from degenerative theory were that accordingly for a person to be suffering from a degenerative illness: “(1) several serious deviations from the normal are found together, and (2) the capacity for efficient functioning and survival seem to be severely impaired.” He contrasted these defining facets of degenerative theory with his subsequent findings on the behavioral patterns of homosexuals, wherein he found that many such individuals showed no other deviations from the ‘norm’ other than their choice of sexual partner. The individuals studied showed no impairment in intellectual development and furthermore that the widespread prevalence of homosexuality cross- culturally, even to be found within “primitive races” precluded the practice as manifestation of degenerative theory in progress (4-5). Nevertheless, despite Freud’s contentions concerning the debate over the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, and his theories regarding ‘innate’ and ‘acquired’ homosexuality it would not be until the middle of the twentieth century that research into homosexual behavior would be undertaken with as much skill and tenacity as he had shown.

The first major step in the tabulation of homosexual behavior during the mid-twentieth century was conducted by Alfred C. Kinsey, beginning in the late 1940’s and published in two volumes; Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Following a pattern of distinction similar to that employed by Krafft-Ebbing for distinguishing between perversity and perversion, Kinsey would distinguish along a continuum between exclusive heterosexuality and exclusive homosexuality using a linear model with; The ratings represent[ing] a balance between the homosexual and heterosexual aspects of an individual’s history, rather than the intensity of his or her psychosexual reactions or the absolute amount of his or her overt experience (1953:470).

Resultantly a greater measure of leniency in classification of homosexual behaviors and individuals was assured. The most shocking result of this employment technique was the net yield concerning the prevalence of homosexual encounters reported by members of both sexes.

The incidences and frequencies of homosexual contacts, and consequently the incidents of homosexual ratings, were much lower among the females in our sample than they were among the males on whom we had previously reported (see our 1948:650-651). Among the females, the accumulative incidences of homosexual responses had ultimately reached 28 per cent; they had reached 50 per cent in the males (1953:474).

Another interesting yield from these surveys was the despoilment of the notion “which is held both by clinicians and the public at large, that homosexual responses and completed contacts occur among more females than males” (1953:475). Resultant of Kinsey’s research American social perceptions of sexual behavioral norms and what people thought they knew were thrown into uproar. Notwithstanding, as ground breaking, as Kinsey’s findings were there remained some principle faults with his research methodology, among the contentions his detractors leveled were, chiefly that certain population groups he and his research team sampled may have had higher incidents of homosexual contacts than the general population, such as incarcerated inmates, members of sex-segregated colleges, and military institutions. Furthermore, that since the data collected was of the self-report type the possibility for error due to reporting bias was also a relevant factor. Nevertheless, despite the validity or invalidity and interpretation of the data, which Kinsey obtained, the report of its findings set the heterosexual world of middle America on its ear by exposing an underlying closeted homo eroticism which pervaded popular culture to an extent hitherto unimagined.

A challenge to the findings reported by Kinsey did not come from Masters and Johnson in 1966 when they published Human Sexual Response; in fact they contended, “Homosexual material, although recorded in both behavioral and psychological context for both sexes, has not been included in this text. The returns from this facet of human sexual response are too inadequate at present to warrant consideration” (22). It is worth mentioning in passing that were Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) the only two major works to come out of The Institute for Sex Research, Masters and Johnson’s dodge might not have been so obviously a political ploy to distance themselves the controversial findings which came from the Institute for Sex Research. However, only a year before Masters and Johnson published Human Sexual Response, the Institute for Sex Research had published Sex Offenders (1965), in which extensive examination was devoted to homosexuality as it related to instances of criminal sexual behavior.

Popular culture was also inundated with conflicting views from within the medical community as a itself, exemplified in the widely publicized Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex was the view that: “If a homosexual who wants to renounce homosexuality finds a psychiatrist who knows how to cure homosexuality, he has every chance of becoming a happy, well-adjusted, heterosexual (162).” This view exemplified the conflict, which had taken hold particularly within the context of the nature vs. nurture debate best exemplified by the heated discourse surrounding the treatment of inter-sexed children and sexual assignment surgery. The chief prognosticators of this discourse being Dr. John Money, who contended that, core sexuality could be shaped to match the surgically assigned sex, and his contender a young Dr. Milton Diamond who stressed that sexuality was not so malleable as to change a core identity as yet not readily visible.

Their most famous contention rested on the case of John/Joan---a young boy who’s botched circumcision would lead to sexual reassignment. Considered an exemplary case in that the child had a twin brother who acted as a perfect control group, and flaunted as a success for many years (and written into a plethora of psychology texts) Dr. Money would have had it seem that nature was indeed subservient to nurture. However, Dr. Diamond’s assertion prevailed, and young Joan would by the time of her adolescence become aware of her true condition and seek reassignment to her biological sex---ending years of gender identity confusion. In fact Dr. Money would refrain after 1980 from even mentioning the twins case directly in public statements, yet nonetheless would continue to lecture on the efficacy of infant sexual reassignment surgery (Colapinto 202). If, as Anne Fausto-Sterling writes; “Nineteenth-century scientists developed a clear sense of the statistical aspects of natural variation, but along with such knowledge came the authority to declare that certain bodies were abnormal and in need of correction”, then twentieth-century medicine perfected the practice---not only on the bodies, but also attempting to classify and perform psychic surgery on the minds of those individual possessing traits which did not fit into the binary sexual system of classification. (Fausto-Sterling 36).

The importance of the debate surrounding these ‘bodies in need of correction’ lay at the heart of the discourse whether or not same sex desire was innate or acquired. However, while earlier studies had attempted to seek out the prevalence of homosexuality and same-sex relations in American society, by the later part of the twentieth century this area of inquiry was subtly beginning to take a back seat within the medical community as the focus shifted toward searching for the underlying causes of homosexual behaviors. Subsequently, with more focus being placed on biological, chemical and hormonal models the perception of homosexuality as a mental illness began to fade (at least within the psychiatric medical field) and in 1973 the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders.

By the time The Hite Report was published in 1976, and subsequently followed by The Hite Report on Male Sexuality in 1981 it would have seemed that a more tolerant era toward same sex relations had evolved. Neither the nature nor nurture argument holding enough merit to be considered on its own, the 50/50 split came increasingly to be held as the popular view. In fact very little attention was paid to the numerical tabulation of same-sex contacts for the female and male respondents of the surveys, while in contrast the greater part of focus for both books (with regard to information pertaining to same sex relations) consisted of interview excerpts detailing the perceptions of the respondents with regards to questions pertaining to sexuality.

The next major survey to include data regarding same sex relations within the United States was The Janus Report On Sexual Behavior. Published in 1993 the report it- self identified the inherent difficulty of obtaining accurate measurements with regard to same sex behavior in that; “[…] although there were respondents who identified them selves as heterosexual and reported having homosexual relations, there were also a number of respondents who identified themselves as homosexuals and reported that they had had heterosexual relations as well (70).” These findings alluded back to Freudian theory, supporting the notion of a fluid sexuality, or psychic bisexuality. The results when tabulated would render a figure of “twenty-two percent of the men and 17% of the women said that they had had homosexual experiences (69). These figures, while nowhere near as high as those reported by Kinsey must nonetheless be interpreted objectively.

To clarify, these figures are not that of what are to be considered ‘active’ homosexuals, but rather the resultant findings of the respondents answer to the question of “have you ever had homosexual experiences?” It may further be contended that the self-identification of a ‘homosexual’ experience is subjectively interpretive; as for any particular individual the boundaries of homosexuality may blur the interpretive distinctions of such medical authorities as the late Dr. Brill---who defined sexuality by the sole arbitrator of the sex of the body one engaged in the act of colitis with (Ortiz). As such the resultant findings may not be as accurate as one might suspect; with either a lesser number of self-identified homosexual contacts due to self-serving report biases (contingent upon fears of being ‘outed’, or perceived as deviant). Or, the findings may conversely (although unlikely) reveal a greater exaggeration of same sex contacts, based on perceived acts of homosexual behavior (which may not involve genital contact) such as the intimate kissing of a member of the same-sex.

Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not observations and/or self reported instances of same-sex behavior have increased or decreased within the past century the underlying changes, which have occurred with regard to societal perceptions regarding same-sex relations have been significant. From the mere openness to discuss in public form, to the legal rights accorded to individuals who practice same-sex life styles, things have begun to change. Notwithstanding, progress in this arena remains an uphill battle. For instance, while the Supreme Court recently overturned the long-term bias apparent in the 1986 judgment of Bowers v. Hardwick in June of 2003 thereby striking down “a Texas law that makes some kinds of sexual intimacy a crime, but only for gay people” (ACLU) and thereby paving the way for decriminalization of sodomy and similar action in other states.

There remains however a strong current of opposition from the religious sector (and in particular the religious right). Exemplifying this trend in the legal realm is the introduction by Christian Fundamentalist movement of the Defense of Marriage Act. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) does two things. First, it provides that no State shall be required to give effect to a law of any other State with respect to a same-sex "marriage." Second, it defines the words "marriage" and "spouse" for purposes of Federal law. […]

The second substantive section of the bill amends the U.S. Code to make explicit […] that a marriage is the legal union of a man and a woman as husband and wife, and a spouse is a husband or wife of the opposite sex (Lectlaw). What is of interest with regard to the issue is the seemingly schizophrenic accordance of liberties, which the heterosexual community seems willing to grant the gay community. A recent poll conducted on the subject found that only 41% of those surveyed supported a constitutional amendment to make gay marriage illegal, however, only 34% favored allowing same-sex couples to marry (down from 42% a year ago). This finding reflective of a down ward trend also in regards to the honoring same-sex marriage licenses issued in other states---44%, as opposed to last years’ 52%. However, an increase in support of state-recognized civil unions according ‘some of the same rights and benefits as marriage’ seems to be all the flavor---garnering 57% of the vote this year as opposed to 53% last year. (NAU).

In summation, what then shall we do? Shall we pat ourselves on the back with the congratulatory air of the self sanctified, who consider ourselves enlightened that we no longer relegate those members of our society who deem members of the same sex beautiful to institutions and incarceration? As a society we have not yet traversed far in historical context from the dark wood of ignominy and fear. In perspective it has been only 31 years since homosexuality was removed from the category of mental illness, and only decriminalized in the United States last year. Thirty-one long years if the ‘choice’ of ones partner happened to be a member of the same sex, and speaking of ‘choice’ it has been only 31 short years since a woman had a ‘choice’ between a coat-hanger and pregnancy. The similarities between these two facets of human sexuality are representative of two spheres wherein the interest of religion and the state have long held too tight a stranglehold upon the rights of the individual.

We would do well to remember and apply the motto of The Enlightenment, “Reason, Faith, Progress.” Reason---human reason as the operative element; faith---in the eventual conquest of reason over superstition; and progress, the progress of man through the unification of science and reason. If we adhere to these principles, then as a society we might better come to understand what the philosopher Emmanuel Kant meant when he said, “the enlightenment is mans release from his self imposed tutelage” (Ortiz).

Works Cited. ACLU. “Lesbian & Gay Rights: Criminal Justice & Sodomy Laws” 30 April 2004. Colapinto, John. As Nature Made Him: The Boy who was raised a Girl. New York: Harper Collins, 2000 Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Trans. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomerboy and Christenson. Sex Offenders. New York: Bantam, 1967. Hite, Shere The Hite Report. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1976. Hite, Shere The Hite Report on Male Sexuality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1981. Janus, Samuel S and Janus Cynthia L. The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1993. Kinsey Alfred Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1953. Krafft-Ebing. Pyschopathia Sexualis. Ed. Brian King. Trans. from the 12th Ed. Hong Kong: Bloat, 1999. Lectlaw. “Defense Of Marriage Act” 30 April 2004. Masters, William H. and Johnson, Virginia E. Human Sexual Response. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1966. NAU. Northern Arizona University Social Research Laboratory. Majority Oppose Gay-Marriage Amendment. Arizona Daily Star. (3/19/04). Ortiz, David. Lecture. (1/27/04) & (3/30/04) History of Modern Sexualities. University of Arizona. Spring 2004. Reinisch, June M. The Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1990. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkley: University of California Press, 1990

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from Just a Question
Wednesday, June 16, 2004 - 15:17


Xhrisl, are you single?
(reply to this comment)

From xhrisl
Wednesday, June 16, 2004, 23:45

I plead the 5th. (reply to this comment
from Ruthie
Friday, May 14, 2004 - 07:23

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)
Xhris… lovely article. A bit long but worth it.

We have come a long way but we are still not far enough. People still are discriminated against every day because of their sexual orientation. However, I think that homosexual kids/teens are a more pressing issue than marriage. It’s sad that in our “modern age” children are harassed, tortured, bullied and beaten because of their sexual orientation (or perceived orientation). A few months ago, I was watching a news article about a teen boy who was subject to such treatment. Teachers and administration did virtually nothing to stop it (he is now sewing the school). People are often scared because they are vilified if they want to teach tolerance and respect for others. Does anyone remember the issue of the “Children of the Rainbow” in NY. They made it seem as if the people who wanted anti-biased curricula were teaching pornography. All they were really trying to do was promote anti-discrimination. I understand that maybe you wouldn’t want a young child to be exposed to issues of sexuality but the conservative right don’t believe that any age is a decent age to teach tolerance in reference to sexual orientation.

(reply to this comment)
from Haunted
Friday, May 14, 2004 - 05:34

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)
Very well written - just found the time to finally read it in its entirety. I have to add, however, that I'm sure the percentage of women who've had homosexual experiences has gone WAY up from 17% in the last 11 years. I wonder is there have been any recent studies on that percentage as I've found the open-mindedness and plain curiosity towards same sex relations has broadened in even the past 5 years.
(reply to this comment)
From Haunted
Friday, May 14, 2004, 05:38


PS: I for one, think we still have far to go as evident in this year's controversy over same-sex marriage here in the US.

Interestingly enough, in discussion with those who were against same-sex marriages, the most prevailing argument was that it was "wrong". I found that those who stuck with this argument could rarely explain why (the non-Christians, that is, who were not using Biblical references to back the notion), it just seemed to them to fit in the category of those things which were "wrong".

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