Monday, November 21, 2005

On sexual politics

The title could just as well be "On cultural politics": I would argue that the modern Western sexual identities ("straight", "gay", "bi" etc. etc.) are an integral part of the perpetual modern quest for fixed identity and personality (which of course is doomed to failure). Before this era of anxiety and fluidity of meaning, personal identity was formed differently, the constellation was different. I may sound like a latter day T.S.Eliot, but I would say that for example there was no such thing as a medieval self-identity: the self was more organically a part of the surrounding culture, not so aware and insecure as it later became, it was both more fluid and more secure than the modern (illusion) of the fixed self.

So, briefly back to actual sexuality. We all are sexual beings, scattered on a broad scale: this tremendous, atavistic force will out, but its concrete expression is heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. I am tempted to say that the majority are variously "bi-sexual" in these modern, crude terms, but that would already be misleading. So, what maybe could be realistically said is that practically all people are sexual and that they will end up engaging in various sexual actions in a undetermined, unpredictable mixture of biology and culture. Always beware the modern categories of identity: they will more confuse and restrict than clarify and liberate.


helsinkian said...

Saying that everybody is sexual is not necessarily true. Some people are to various degrees also asexual. The idea that everybody is bisexual is derived from the writings of Freud in one way or another. Some say all teenagers are bisexual before forming a fixed straight or gay identity and some say all women are bisexual since society does not repress female bisexuality as much as male bisexuality. Different societies are sexually repressive in different ways and the study of sexual behavior of prison populations says a lot about the issue of latent bisexuality in even larger groups of people.

So you're basically suggesting we're "sexual". My guess is that Freud came to the conclusion of bisexuality or the prospect of it after doing experiments on cocaine before turning into psychoanalysis. Cocaine turns people on regardless of what sex object, if any, is close by. Being sexual is also in some sense a chemically alterable state of being.

It also depends on where the line between sexuality is drawn. Since 19th Century Western thinking was much more open for close same-sex friendships without the thought of sex acts as a necessary part of love, openly declaring love for people of the same sex was quite common in the very same Victorian society that was seeking for a diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental illness. Victorians were very repressive and concerned on what sex acts between people of the same sex and indeed masturbation took place but love was often present and seen as naturally not being connected to sex.

I think that people in today's India still have a view on the individual as a part of society or as nothing more than the sum of relationships to other individuals. Not even in all cultures of today (especially Eastern) it is by no means clear that the existence of the individual by him/herself makes any cultural sense at all.

When you see the individual as nothing more than the sum of relationships, fluid sexuality is probably more natural. It depends on the moral code of the society, of course, but the issue of the individual declaring his or her orientation is irrelevant when this orientation only makes sense in relation to others.

stockholm slender said...

Well, I said "practically all" - though, yes, surely there is a distinct minority of fairly asexual people. I would not say the majority of the people are "bi-sexual" as I would think that this would fundamentally be quite a meaningless statement. But in modern terms it might be an approximation of what I mean. So, basically I think that the modern, static categories are only incidental to sexuality which is a far more complex and dynamic force to be encompassed by a couple of monolithic identities, modern masks. In any case, I was probably more concerned about modernity than sexuality here - of course, sexuality does seem to be a burning problem in our still quite unenlightened and primitive civilization, but personally this Western fear and loathing of sex has always been a mystery to me.

helsinkian said...

Yes, it's the modern quest for fixed identity that excludes other possibilities. Gay/straight/bi is actually fairly analogous to the monolingual/bilingual debate in a bilingual community. It's about choosing sides and showing your colors more than substance. Maybe sexual potential is a bit comparable to linguistic potential, complete bisexuality is in a similar way possible as complete bilinguality but it is relatively rare since few people live their lives in a 50-50 environment where both choices are rated as equally valid.

My analogy to languages was simply meant to suggest that we're talking about scales with great degrees of variation rather than fixed positions that would necessarily be genetically decided. Totally another thing is that what language you learn in childhood has nothing to do with genetics (ability to learn languages is however genetics-related) but gay and straight sexuality (which may be present in one and the same person to equal degree) are also related to genetics, although an environment (like prisons or boarding schols) can have a significant impact on the degree of manifestation of certain sexuality.

I'm not a huge expert on Freud but he certainly did mankind a huge favor by liberating the discourse on sexuality from many of the obsessive repressions of the Victorian era. I find his writings intriguing, even his early stuff on cocaine (probably written high on cocaine) sounds like he is rushing to conclusions before taking time to observe the long-term impacts of cocaine.

stockholm slender said...

That's an interesting comparison - I would say that most modern politics are identity politics shaped by the modern experience of sceptism and uncertainty. If our experience would be really secure and fixed, we would not be obsessed by identity as it would not be in doubt. This insecurity is what I see in our fragmented consumer societies or fundamentalist groups and militant loyalties in the global trouble spots. It all is escapism - instead we should not try to aim for the iron control of a fixed and secure identity, it is a project doomed to failure.

stockholm slender said...

Your remarks on Freud's experiments are very interesting. My idea of sexuality would then resemble people being constantly on cocaine... Well, seriously speaking I see sexuality as separate from specific and individual sexual actions and objects - in channeling and shaping these culture has much influence.

helsinkian said...

I was wondering on the difference of cocaine and alcohol on the issue of sexual stimulation. All the discussion about rape victims being drunk, would that be different with rape victims on cocaine? I'm just trying to think that whether people are being sexually stimulated with booze or cocaine or ecstasy or whichever chemical, aren't we always talking about cultural situations? What does chemically-induced arousal tell about a person's sexuality? Sexuality, arousal and sexual acts are three separate issues.

Consider all the straight people who try gay sex in an experimental sense and to manage take alcohol or a drug. Does the drug really have any significance on that person's sexuality? I guess I was backtracking a bit and coming to the conclusion that sexuality can't be a result of taking mind-altering substances, it has to be something else.

Now that I mentioned rape victims, apparently one of the most common types of female-on-male rape is when the man is drunk. The scenario breaks two cultural taboos, the idea that women can't rape and that being drunk somehow means that the victim has taken the initiative. I'm trying to say that sexuality is indeed culturally constructed and what is possible or impossible is sometimes a question of linguistics; how we conceive of an idea and how we define the meaning of a concept.