Clare Bright, Honors 394A
Question 2

At the moment, views of sexuality are primarily divided into essentialist and social
constructionist. These views are relatively self-explanatory; the essentialist view holds that sexuality is
an inherent and immutable part of identity while the social constructionist view holds that categories of
sexuality are socially constructed and that no individual inherently falls into any such categories. This
basic description suffices to initiate an analysis of Lisa Duggan's statement that “any gay politics based
on the primacy of sexual identity defined as unitary and 'essential' residing clearly, intelligibly and
unalterably in the body or psyche and fixing desire in a gendered direction, ultimately represents the
view from the subject position 'twentieth-century Western white gay male'” (Duggan, 162). Duggan
claims through this statement that the essentialist viewpoint is fundamentally flawed and does so by
arguing that it is biased toward those who have privilege in other systems.
As an initial means of interpreting this statement, it is important to consider the history of both
the essentialist viewpoint and the social constructionist viewpoint. In particular, Duggan's statement
seems to claim that a universally essentialist position is necessarily related to a modern Western male
perspective. While an investigation of this statement to any level of completion would require a
considerable amount of outside research, what does seem fair to say is that depending on the culture
and the time period, sexuality has been seen both as essential and as nonessential for centuries and
perhaps millennia. Even looking only at the views of native tribes in North America, in some cases
homosexuality was regarded as a defining aspect of identity, while in other cases homosexual
relationships were socially supported for a large portion of the population (though limited to males, in
the example found in Katz) and did not necessarily preclude the individuals from heterosexual
relationships or fundamentally impact their identity within the tribe (Katz, 285, 289). From a certain
perspective, this seems to immediately contradict Duggan's reference to essentialism as existing from a
'twentieth-century' perspective. However, Duggan's justification of her position later goes on to identify
the beginning of the homosexual/heterosexual polarity as just over a century ago, making her

'twentieth-century' merely redundant rather than directly incorrect, assuming Duggan is taking this
vague landmark as the first significant point on the timeline (Duggan, packet page 6). Because this is
approximately the time when views regarding sexuality began to be expressed in terms of theory
instead of merely implied by cultural practice, it is not entirely unreasonable to consider Duggan's
statement from within the twentieth century, though this obviously negates one of her qualifiers.
Within the twentieth century, Duggan's claim becomes somewhat more clear, if the details are at
times still suspect. As the structure of society allowed gay males to become more open and prevalent in
society before lesbian females (I should note here, in case the previous construction seems redundant,
that I prefer to use categories of sexuality as adjectives rather than nouns), early theory, much of it
essentialist, perhaps not unreasonably focused on gay males and the societal implications of this
particular sort of sexuality. In this sense, Duggan is accurate that much of essentialist theory was
literally built around twentieth-century Western white gay males. It is a significant leap, however, from
that point to the assumption that essentialism is inherently focused on twentieth-century Western white
gay males. The most basic justification for this leap would be tied to the very definition of privilege; as
those with privilege in a given category have a disproportionate amount of societal power, it is a
straightforward conclusion to say that white males would have a disproportionate amount of power, and
therefore influence, within the gay rights movement. As essentialist theory and essentialist politics
have mostly developed in within the framework of twentieth-century Western culture, this then
accounts for all qualifiers of Duggan's claim. A justification from a different angle can be found within
Duggan's commentary on the recent rise of the term 'bisexuality', which forced a shift in the traditional
duality supported by essentialism. As more groups begin to realize that their needs are not met by
essentialism, it expands to include them, but does so only by recycling the same rhetoric that originally
only applied to twentieth-century Western white gay males (Duggan, packet page 6). The issue created
by the definitiveness of Duggan's statement is that it is practically impossible to determine whether

essentialist advocates are 'truly' adjusting their philosophy to account for a greater variety of sexualities
than originally were supported by the theory or are simply trying to apply the same logic to situations
where it no longer applies. This aspect of Duggan's claim can be reduced to the question of whether the
essentialist viewpoint can overcome its narrow beginnings to properly account for the variability in
sexuality seen in society today or in any hypothetical society of the future. Duggan believes that it
Duggan offers instead the social constructivist view. As Duggan explains it, essentialist theories
from their inception have had to craft makeshift solutions for individuals and situations that did not fit
conveniently into the categories they intended to establish. The tendency of certain scenarios to cause
homosexual behavior in individuals who otherwise only exhibited heterosexual behavior was handwaved as 'situational' and therefore negligible (Duggan packet page 6). From the social constructionist
point of view, it would be unreasonable to see this specific behavior as 'situational' but not classify the
'natural' behavior of the individual as equally 'situational' as both occur in and apply to a specific
societal context. Similarly, as essentialist theories are forced to account for more categories of
sexuality, their tenuous link to a hypothetical indicator based on genes becomes more complicated and
altogether less likely. Essentialism is inherently limited; social constructivism is unlimited.
Of course, various objections have also been raised to the social constructivist viewpoint. From
the essentialist perspective, an overemphasis on social constructivism could threaten to undo what
progress has been made and delegitimize the movement as a whole by placing sexuality as, ultimately,
a choice rather than an inherent characteristic. This, in turn, would seem to lend credence to those who
seek to 'cure' homosexuality or see it as a problem that can be 'solved' with a proper shift of mindset.
Beyond that somewhat extreme risk, a view of sexuality as nonessential would cause the gay rights
movement to lose many of the similarities it has build up and reinforced with the African-American
movement and the feminist movement. Under the auspices of essentialism, the gay rights movement

can operate as a function of identity politics; that is, politics dealing with the issues of a specific group
of people who a share an identity they cannot control. Various precedents have already been set for the
operation of identity politics and the guarantee of rights regardless of such identities. If social
constructivism were to become the dominant viewpoint of the gay rights movement, it would become
practically impossible to proceed with traditional identity politics; gaining rights and equalities related
to the gay rights movement would from this perspective become significantly less convenient and
perhaps practically impossible given the lack of precedents.
To this point, I have not delved particularly deeply into the details of either the essentialist
viewpoint or the social constructionist viewpoint. This is, at least in part, because a proper analysis of
the validity of Duggan's statement requires a certain attempt at neutrality. An analysis of my own stance
regarding the issue, however, is necessarily presented from my perspective, so I will preface the
succeeding commentary with the statement that I support the social constructivist viewpoint and will
attempt to justify that position.
Considering the previous layout, it is perhaps most convenient to consider the issues
essentialists take with the social constructivist viewpoint and endeavor to refute them. The first, and
perhaps central, issue is that the social constructivist viewpoint classifies sexuality as effectively a
choice, though often a subconscious choice, rather than an inherent property of an individual. The
essentialist viewpoint holds this to be a flaw, which to me almost serves in itself to call into question
the validity of the essentialist viewpoint. The only situation in which depicting sexuality as a free
choice instead of an inherent characteristic is worse for certain sexualities is if those sexualities are
assumed to be an inherently worse or less appealing choice. The essentialist viewpoint on this matter is
then catering to the bigoted and insensitive by claiming that non-heterosexuals are the way they are
only because they have no choice not to be, which implies that anyone given a choice would choose to
be heterosexual. This then paints non-heterosexuality as a 'flaw' that can be accounted for by certain

social practices, which is scarcely better than the pseudoscientific explanations from the Victorian era
that the essentialist viewpoint took its roots from. If, instead, non-heterosexuals are able to claim that
their sexuality is as it is because they choose it to be, this sends a much more powerful message.
Another issue the essentialist viewpoint has with the social constructionist viewpoint is that
approaching sexuality as essential creates compelling parallels with previous movements, meaning that
the justifications used in those movements can also be used in this movement. Investigating some of
the commonly drawn parallels, however, leads to the conclusion that the essentialist/social
constructionist schism is along different lines than might be initially supposed. For the sake of
example, current opposition to gay marriage is often compared to opposition to interracial marriage.
But what does that parallel actually imply? In each case, marriage was for centuries divided almost
completely along certain lines. Those who dared to go against this restriction were often ostracized and
given derogatory names. People claimed that children growing up in these households would be unable
to fit in with society. As time passed, it became more acceptable to transgress this traditional boundary.
Consider, for a moment, if advocates of interracial marriage had claimed that only certain people were
attracted to people of other races, and that, in fact, this percentage was relatively low, say, ten percent.
For the vast majority of people, attraction to members of one's own race was 'normal', but for this small
minority, attraction to members of other races was 'normal', which meant society would have to accept
it. After some time, it was determined that certain subsets of people were actually attracted to people of
multiple different races, so new categories were developed for them, categories that were of necessity
even smaller than the others. This should sound ridiculous. Is the parallel inaccurate, though? Why are
such vastly different courses of action deemed acceptable regarding interracial marriage and nonheterosexual marriage? What this divide hopefully illuminates is that the conflict between essentialism
and social constructivism is not at its heart about how to interpret sexuality. It is, instead, about how to
interpret sex and gender. For a more direct parallel, consider that the current major essentialist

categories of sexuality (I must honestly admit here that I'm not sure what the current essentialist
consensus is regarding asexuality) can be re-sorted as 'attracted to males', 'attracted to females', and
'attracted to males and females'. If these terms of gender were replaced with terms of race, the
categories would immediately become politically incorrect. I think it's fair to say that in current society,
an individual may express a leaning toward a certain race (or, for that matter, a certain hair color, a
certain height, or whatever else), but it is exceedingly rare to state an exclusive preference based on any
such category, much less to define oneself based on the preference thus stated. Why should gender be
treated any differently?
To state it directly, I am of the opinion that gender should not be treated as the primary defining
characteristic of a relationship because the genders of the people in a relationship really don't matter
any more than, say, hair color, height, or race. Admittedly, the sexes of the people in a relationship are
nontrivial when it comes to having children, which I suppose circles back around to how the nuclear
family should be de-emphasized as the dominant family unit; if parents were less possessive of their
children and more open to raising children that only contained genetic material from part or none of the
relationship, that distinction would also cease to be a defining issue. To rephrase Duggan's initial
statement, the social constructivist viewpoint, which I share, holds that desire is not fixed in a gendered
To take this a step further, the social constructivist view of sexuality is intrinsically linked to the
movement for gender equality, particularly the branch of radical feminism. Any ideal of an
androgynous society subtly relies on or incorporates the assumption that individuals in the society
would not discriminate based on gender in their relationships. As I view an essentially androgynous
society as likely the only effective means of establishing any true gender equality, the social
constructivist viewpoint then becomes necessary from another perspective.
To draw a parallel from a different direction, I return to the beginnings of essentialist theory,

where, as Adam states, Ulrichs interpreted homosexuality as an anomaly akin to left-handedness or a
cleft palate (Adam, 16). Considering that I'm left-handed and was born with a cleft lip, this statement
struck me, though perhaps in the opposite of the intended direction. Assume for a moment that
handedness and sexuality work the same way (interestingly, the ratio between those who identify in the
majority and those who identify in the minority wouldn't be all that far off). What does this actually
suggest? First of all, the existence of ambidextrous people should have pointed out a flaw to Ulrichs
that wouldn't be properly included in essentialist theory for almost a century. On a specific note,
though, what defines me as left-handed isn't so much an inherent preference that may or may not exist
but years of muscle memory and specific training. I currently identify as left-handed because it matches
my general pattern of action (to borrow terminology for emphasis), but if, say, my left arm was
amputated tomorrow, I would become right-handed. Further, if I had been taught only to use my right
hand for writing all through my schooling, I would probably be effectively right-handed. In fact, in
many societies, this was commonplace; regardless of any initial preference shown, children were taught
to be right-handed because it was socially proper. Now, it's possible that there is actually a gene or
whatnot that controls handedness, which would make this a less effective example. It's not my area of
expertise. In any case, something that requires years of training is mutable given the right conditions
and incorporates more categories than initially assumed by essentialist theories. Is it all that
unreasonable that sexuality, which, well, isn't defined partially by muscle memory built up over years,
would be more easily changeable?
Another qualm I have with essentialism is that despite the expansion of the categories it defines,
many groups are still left out, and, it seems, will inherently be left out by the very structure of the
viewpoint. For transgender people, the essentialist push to identify with a specific category of sexuality
is complicated by the fact that this identification must be reinterpreted upon identification as
transgender, even while society in many cases will not recognize the re-identification until an operation

is complete. As a further complication, transgender people pre-operation are limited to 'gay sex' if they
consider themselves heterosexual and 'straight sex' if they consider themselves homosexual. If from the
traditional perspective, the sex of those involved in a relationship matters in terms of having children,
the existence and growing recognition of transgender people serves as another indicator (along with
traditional reasons such as infertility) that the sex of the people in a relationship does not imply an
ability to have children, further weakening any valid reason to define relationships on such terms. On a
more extreme note, essentialist categories of sexuality, defined as they are both by the sex (or gender,
depending on interpretation) of both individuals, literally do not apply to intersex people because they
have no defining point from which to establish homo- or heterosexuality in the case that they intend to
identify as only being attracted to one gender. From the other direction, the implication that everyone
except for the small minority of people who identify as pansexual (which generally isn't even included
in essentialist categorization) would categorically refuse a relationship with someone who was intersex
is but one of the many worrying implications found within essentialism. In perhaps an oddly fitting
manner, the only way many of these issues are sorted out is if everyone is taken to be pansexual, which
is really just an alternate statement of social constructivism.
The essentialist viewpoint also incorporates the idea that the percentages of each category of
sexuality is relatively constant across all cultures and eras, which seems questionable on multiple
levels. In ancient cultures where homosexual and heterosexual behavior were treated differently, it
seems safe to say that the rates of homosexuality (or to be more precise in many cases, bisexuality)
were significantly higher than would fit the current essentialist model. In today's society, the insistence
that the rate will always remain constant reinforces the perception of heterosexuality as 'normal',
homosexuality (and in more recent years, bisexuality) as 'abnormal', and anything that doesn't fit
conveniently into those categories as practically nonexistent. The rarer a category is, the more an
individual will consider it unlikely that they fit into it. This has already been clearly established even

within essentialism regarding people who did not fit with traditional heterosexuality but assumed due to
societal constraints that they did (and in fact this is necessary for the ratios between categories to be
constant in eras when practically no individuals openly identified as anything but heterosexual), so
wouldn't stated constant ratios produce the same effect? Put another way, it seems likely that if it
suddenly became the standard societal viewpoint that ninety percent of people were bisexual, within a
few generations, it seems likely that around ninety percent of people would identify as bisexual.
Whether such statistical assignment would be beneficial for society or the individuals involved depends
on how many people it causes to think that they fall into a category of sexuality less inclusive than or
contrary to the one they 'actually' fall into. There are essentially no adverse side effects to considering
oneself to fall into a category of sexuality more inclusive than the one one 'actually' falls into. With the
combination of these ideas, which I hope seem relatively sensible, it ends up not mattering in a sense
whether social constructivism is correct because the best possible situation for society is if everyone
thinks it is. Of course, the argument could be made that this sort of statistical prescriptivism only works
in the first place if social constructivism is correct. While this is potentially valid, I think that analysis
in general indicates that the societal consequences of society at large taking essentialism to be correct
and being wrong are much worse than the consequences of taking social constructivism to be correct
and being wrong. And while I'm not particularly fond of Pascal's Wager, this in contrast seems like a
bet worth taking.
A somewhat related concept is the power of internal perception. As may have been determinable
from the preceding pages, my opinions tend far toward the nurture side of the 'nature vs. nurture'
argument. From this perspective, I think that one's power to control one's own perception of who one is
is much greater than most people realize. To put it in different terms, if there is no way to determine the
truth from external sources, is there any effective difference between convincing oneself one has a
characteristic and 'actually' having it? And for that matter, if there is no effective difference, can it be

truly said that the person doesn't 'actually' have that characteristic? I am perhaps couching this in vague
terms, but the point I'm trying to convey is that the power of societal and subconscious influences,
especially at an early age, can cause things to be taken for granted about oneself that were actually the
result of an assumption or act of conformity (or nonconformity) made consciously or subconsciously at
some point in time. This isn't to say that such things are less valid; it is instead to say that such things
are not necessarily inherent, regardless of the degree to which they manifest themselves or seem to
control the lives of those thus affected. But, of course, this is not to say either that such things are
absolutely not inherent; for many complex cases, such as sexuality, it may be impossible to know for
decades, centuries, or perhaps at all. Which raises the interesting question of whether we as a society
would want to know in the first place. Let us say, purely for the sake of argument, that sexuality has
some defined number of categories based on genetics. Let us then say that a 'sexuality test' becomes
readily available. Are there any actual ways in which this society benefits over a society where gender
doesn't define relationships? I, for one, can think most readily of examples where this defined-sexuality
society would be flawed. Take, for example, the happily married man with two kids who takes a
'sexuality test' just to confirm and finds out he 'should have' been gay his whole life. Or the woman who
took a test at birth to find out she was heterosexual and then begins to have feelings for another woman
and has absolutely no idea how to resolve them. Any number of similar examples could be thought up,
and I still have no idea what results this hypothetical test would give for transgender and intersex
people. It seems like a fair statement to me that even if there is a genetic source of sexuality, we are
better off as a society treating it as though it doesn't exist. Fear of the unknown is a fundamental human
emotion, but it must be tempered by fear of knowing too much.
In short, while I don't necessarily agree with Duggan's perspective that the essentialist
viewpoint is inherently linked to a position of relative privilege, I do agree that the implications in
general of the essentialist viewpoint are significantly less appealing than the implications of the social

constructionist viewpoint. Additionally, I think that the social constructionist viewpoint is more
inclusive and consistent than the essentialist viewpoint, as well as more likely to be correct given the
extent to which society is shaped by cultural perceptions that often shift drastically between eras and
locations. Finally, I think that regardless of which viewpoint is correct and considering that it may be
impossible to determine, a society holding the social constructionist viewpoint will be better off at
meeting the needs of all of its citizens than one holding the essentialist viewpoint.