Sexuality’s ebb and flow
Shaped by genetic makeup and shifting social norms, sexuality is a wonderfully fluid thing. The sex of a human fetus is unknown during the early stages of human development. As the human embrio evolves, a ridge of tissue in the embryo’s abdomen will give rise to either ovaries or testies. Internal genetic components thus begin to express themselves externally. Tied with this process are a number of chemical developments—triggered by hormones, estrogen and even the functioning of a certain “master gland”—all of which are critical to sexual development. Hormonal makeup may encourage “rough and tumble play” during childhood, and links have even been established between childhood play behaviour and adult sexual orientation.
Hormonal makeup therefore goes some way to determining sexual practices, and this genetic determinism likewise extends to cerebral development. The human brain is separated in two halves by a phenomenon known as “cerebral lateralization,” which effectively separates various functions into two different sides of the cerebrum. Studies have concluded that homosexual men are generally more left-handed than their heterosexual counterparts. Yet left-handed persons similarly display mixed dominances.
But this deterministic view of sexuality is only part of the multifaceted development of sexuality. Socialization is likewise necessary to the development of one’s sexuality. There is a degree—as Marx would have it—that our social and cultural practices are determined by our particular historical epoch. Sexual practices and preferences are therefore a reflection of the dominant mode of social reproduction of the time. Thus sex between men was common practice among ancient Greeks, with Socrates serving as a classic example and Euripidies’ Cyclops proclaiming that “I prefer boys to girls.”
Moreover, many of our present sexual norms and practices are deeply tied to capitalism—primarily through marketing strategies, home ownership promotion, child rearing and so on. Thus North American post-war emphasis on home ownership entailed the development of particular societal norms and practices such as strong emphasis on the basic family unit. Residues of this epoch pervade society today. The basic post-war family unit is an overwhelming—certainly hegemonic—structure in society, and digression from its basic principles leave one outcast and estranged. A single woman in her thirties is even considered something of an oddity.
One compelling question is thus whether capitalism contains the seeds or shackles of sexual liberation. This is no simple matter, and it merits close scrutiny. Some generational differentiation also merits closer scrutiny. There is a degree to which the post-war family unit is unravelling, along with emphasis on home ownership and suburbanization. Echo generations are increasingly embracing urban forms of living, and this begins to bring a whole social mode of reproduction into question. Fundamental tenets of love, interpersonal relationships and marriage are similarly being challenged by younger generations, making clear that social norms are always open to radical revisions.
Shifting Tides of Sexual Identity
So, if sexual practices are determined and developed through both genetic and social practices, how do individuals go about situating themselves sexually? This question is far too often responded to in black and white terms. But this constant drive toward reductionism and oversimplification is counterproductive in some respects. Humanity is far more developed than existing within such simple dichotomies. Even those among us who are “straight as an arrow” have shifting sexual desires, fantasies and needs. And heaven forbid if society’s sexual norms were reduced to standard practices! The bedroom would be a very dull place indeed.
Indeed, sexuality provides endless—and often irritating—grounds for exploration. There is a constant desire and pressure to define one’s self. And this is not simply for one’s own sake, but for the sake of loved ones and potential partners. Speaking from experience, partners have left me because of discomfort over my sexual ambiguity. If only I could define myself, I think, everything would be more concrete and tangible. There is something pleasing about simplicity, about clarity.
But on the other hand, life is not simple or clear. In fact, the more we understand ourselves, I believe the less inclined we feel to make the slightest attempt at definition in the first place. After all, we do not define love or happiness in such categorical terms, precisely because life and love are fluid things that generally escape definition. Sexuality is no different.
We can nevertheless develop some generalizations about sexuality in order to situate ourselves as individuals and within our respective communities. Sexual identity, sexual practices and sexual fantasies. These three categories were presented by McGill academics in their analyses of sexuality. Sexual practices and fantasies are evidently the juiciest and draw the most interest, but they are also the least interesting of the three categories. The physical act of sex is great, certainly, but it is merely a physical act. Like playing your favourite sport, it fulfills an element of life, but so does eating or going to the toilet. These are things that creatures do to satisfy their basic needs and wants.
Sexual identity is, however, far more interesting than sexual practice or fantasy. And questioning one’s sexuality can open fascinating windows into new understandings of sexual identity and society at large, windows that too many men and women do not take adequate time to explore. We ignore our sexual identity at our own peril, for what is life but a continual process of love and loss? We cannot know love if we do not know ourselves. But what is sexual identity in the first place? Sexual identity is again not a fixed thing, and particular historical epochs shape our understanding of sexuality. Thus the word homosexuality did not even exist prior to 1869. Moreover, any attempt at sexual identification necessarily entails some level of categorization. The problem being, of course, that boundaries are terribly foggy and shifting. I am fond of Kinesy’s work and his often quoted section from Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male:
[Individuals] do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all white….Nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.
Despite this statement, one very quickly falls into the use of scales, grids, charts and statistics. All of these are helpful in their own way. I have often found comfort in seeing the sheer number of men that have fantasized or had sexual experiences with other males, for example. Kinsey found in his 1948 study of males, for example, that 37 percent of men surveyed reported at least one homosexual contact to the point of orgasm during their lives. But one must resist simple reductions of this nature, and Kinsey himself went to great lengths to stress that a “homosexual type” does not exist. Homosexuality is something one does, not something one is. Thus it can rise and fade, like love or happiness. And moreover, would we dare reduce feelings of love to statistics and scales? I find it troubling that academics have recently taken to measuring happiness and various indicators of social or emotional poverty. The great pleasure of life is that so much of it cannot be reduced to simple accounting. Life flourishes in detail and nuance—in the ephemeral and descriptive—and much of life is altogether intangible. Some of the greatest pleasures in life will never find expression in words. So if sexual identity is anything at all, it is a sweeping current or a wind—at times calm and at times turbulent, but always shifting and flowing. Such is the nature of life. We get caught in new winds and tides, and we either drift or struggle against these swirling currents. The great joys and struggles of life exist precisely because of these fluid currents and tides. One cannot help but feel that, if we were to remain static, we would simply sink.