Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sexuality and Gender: Social Constructs or Biological?

The debate continues about whether sexuality and sexual desire are social constructs or are biological and genetically determined. The more I read on the subject of social constructs the more convinced I become that the answer lies with the former rather than the latter.

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Ph. D. is Professor of Biology and Gender Studies at Brown University. She participates actively in the field of sexology and has written extensively on the fields of biology of gender, sexual identity, gender identity, and gender roles. She contends that the act of labeling a person a man or a woman or heterosexual/homosexual is a social decision. Fausto-Sterling acknowledges the importance of scientific knowledge, but considers our beliefs about gender to be the foundation that defines sex and sexual behavior.

A social construct is defined by Webster’s as “a social mechanism, phenomenon, or category created and developed by society; a perception of an individual, group, or idea that is ‘constructed’ through cultural or social practice.” A social construction or social construct is any phenomenon invented or constructed by participants in a particular culture or society, existing because people agree to behave as if it exists or follow certain conventional rules.

Emile Durkheim first theorized about social construction in his anthropological work on collective behavior, but did not coin the term. The first book with “social construction” in its title was Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, first published in 1966. Since then, the term found its way into the mainstream of the social sciences.

The central idea of Berger and Luckmann's Social Construction of Reality was that actors interacting together form, over time, typifications or mental representations of each other's actions, and that these typifications eventually become habitualized into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. When these reciprocal roles become routinized, the typified reciprocal interactions are said to be institutionalized. In the process of this institutionalization, meaning is embedded and institutionalized into individuals and society - knowledge and people's conception of (and therefore belief regarding) what reality is becomes embedded into the institutional fabric and structure of society, and social reality is therefore said to be socially constructed.

The stereotypical gender roles prevalent today that mandate “masculinity” means that that males should always be dominant and that “femininity” means females are always submissive are nothing more than a social constructs. Ideas invented or constructed by participants in a particularly patriarchal culture, the perpetuation of which is completely dependent upon people agreeing to behave as if the ideas are valid and further agree to behave in accordance with these predetermined roles. A submissive male or a dominant female are judged to be outside the “norm” by those who subscribe to this “conventional” construct.

Logically we have to ask ourselves this question. Is there anything immoral or illegal about a man choosing to identify with a submissive relational and sexual role or with a woman deciding to identify with a dominant relational or sexual role? Is anyone hurt by this? Are the rights of anyone infringed or trampled? The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no! Submissive men and dominant women have simply chosen a fresh, new social construct that better fits their own perceived and individual sexuality rather than continue to be coerced into fitting within the old construct which makes them feel unhappy and unfulfilled. History is replete with examples of enlightened people rejecting outdated and outmoded social constructs and embracing new ones that make more sense. The dominance/submission lifestyle is just one more example. In a real sense those of us who have embraced male submission and female dominance can accurately be termed social deconstructionists. I for one think that is quite cool.

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