Sexual Identity

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Because some terms are deeply embroiled in controversial debates, the task of defining them itself becomes controversial. So it is with the term sexual identity. Providing any definition immediately situates the definer within a particular perspective. One important perspective, which has served as the backdrop of much contemporary discussion, claims that the term refers to the distinct biological types of male and female. This "traditionalist" definition of sexual identity has sometimes been associated with one or more of the following additional positions: that certain specific and "complementary" psychological attributes and social roles, specifically those of masculinity and femininity, correspond to each of these distinct biological types; that a "natural" sexual attraction exists between these two biological types; that this attraction is most naturally satisfied through the act of intercourse; and that the act of intercourse, while naturally motivated by attraction, should also be motivated by other concerns, most importantly by love and by the desire to have children within the context of marriage.

These claims have been challenged over the last few decades by feminists, by those advocating various forms of sexual liberation, by gays and lesbians, and by scholars. All of these challenges raise questions about what is meant by sexual identity. Some of the positions developed in response to the traditionalist set of views have themselves been challenged. For the sake of clarity, one can group the challenges and counterchallenges around the following set of questions:

  1. The sex question: Are there really two distinct biological types, male and female?
  2. The gender question: How should one think about the relationship between biology and psychological attributes and forms of behavior?
  3. The sexuality question: What constitutes sexual desire? What are the various ways in which it can be characterized?
  4. The sexual ethics question: How ought one think about sexual practices? Which, if any, should be condoned, which prohibited, and why?

The Sex Question

Over the past few decades, many have rejected the claim that there exist two sexes without gradations. Some feminists have argued that, biologically, it is more useful to think of many of the physical characteristics associated with sexual difference as manifested across the human species in a range of degrees, rather than as being associated exclusively with either sex. They claim that only a social desire to emphasize difference has caused us to think of such variations in stark, bipolar ways. Thus, for example, though one often thinks of men as physically bigger than women, many individual women are taller, heavier, longer limbed, and so forth, than many men. Similarly, while one tends to think of women and men as possessing very distinctive hormones, in actuality the situation is more complex. For example, the hormones estrogen and androgen are often thought of as the "female" and "male" hormones, respectively, suggesting that women have one and men the other. In reality, both hormones are found in both women and men, and after menopause, women often exhibit a lower ratio of estrogen to androgen than do men of a comparable age (Spanier). These feminists argue that many of the striking differences we see are at least partially the consequence of social pressures exerted on women and men to manifest such differences. Thus women are encouraged to remove body hair and to buy shoes that make their feet look as small as possible.

Some cultural historians claim that the view of men and women as possessing sharply differentiated bodies has developed only within the last few centuries. Thomas Laqueur, for example, points out that prior to the eighteenth century, women's bodies were thought of as less developed versions of men's bodies. In this one-sex view, the vagina was not thought of as different from the male penis but, rather, as an inverted form of it. But during the eighteenth century there emerged a view of the two-sex body, that is, of female and male bodies being fundamentally different. With this new development, organs that had previously been referred to by the same name were given separate names. Thus, what had previously been the testicles now became differentiated into the testicles and the ovaries. Others that previously had no name were given names, for example, the vagina. Even parts of the body remote from reproductive functions, such as the skeleton and the nervous system, began to be depicted as distinctive for women and men.

Recent research in biology suggests that differentiating the male from the female is no simple task. Various indicators of maleness and femaleness are individually sometimes ambiguous. Even when all of the indicators are clear, they do not necessarily cohere. For example, within contemporary science the standard distinguishing criterion has been taken to be the presence or absence of the Y chromosome. Most people possess two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent; females are understood to be those with two X chromosomes and males those with one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. However, there are problems with any neat application of this criterion. Some individuals inherit only one X chromosome but no Y chromosome. Or a piece of a Y chromosome may become attached to an X chromosome, producing an individual with an XXY pattern.

Even those individuals who possess a standard XX or XY pattern may exhibit characteristics that would incline many not to identify them by their chromosomal pattern. An XY individual may have testes that do not secrete the male hormone testosterone, or may have cells that are not sensitive to testosterone. That person will end up looking more like a female than a male (Lowenstein). There are also XY individuals who look female at birth and are raised as girls, but who develop masculine bodily features at adolescence. There are XX people whose adrenal glands secrete large amounts of male hormones. One consequence is clitoral enlargement, causing them to be taken for boys at birth. As adults they may also possess increased muscle mass and hairiness (Lowenstein). In short, recent scientific research has supported the point that even the biological distinction between male and female is not always clear-cut.

The Gender Question

Until the emergence of the second wave of feminism in the 1960s, the term gender was used primarily to indicate differences between female and male forms within language. Differences between women and men were commonly indicated by the term sex, as in the phrase "the battle of the sexes." Feminists, however, began to use the term gender to refer to what they argued were socially constructed differences between women and men. It was felt that the term sex, when applied to differences between women and men, suggested that such differences were biological in origin. A new term was needed to refer to differences that were a product of society.

Studies done within the social sciences pointed to the great differences among societies in expectations of what was appropriate behavior for men and women. For example, the anthropologist Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo noted that there are some societies where women trade or garden, and others where men do; some where men are prudish or flirtatious, and others where women are (Rosaldo, Lamphere, and Bamberger). Psychologists and other social scientists stressed the importance of socialization in structuring an individual's sense of self. Thus, John Money and Anke Ehrhardt (1972) asserted that when children were assigned a gender at birth that did not match their chromosomal sex, it was most likely that their adult sense of self would conform to their assigned gender rather than to their chromosomal sex.

The term gender has been very useful in encouraging a greater recognition of the social construction of differences between women and men. Increasingly, however, scholars have been raising questions about how gender should be understood, and particularly how its relationship to sex should be interpreted. Using the term sex to describe biological differences, and gender to describe socially constructed ones—what R. W. Connell calls the "two realms model"—ignores the fact that biological distinctions are themselves social constructions, at least in part. That modern biology, for example, interprets the penis as an organ distinct from the vagina is a social construction, more a consequence of changing cultural metaphors than of new scientific evidence (Laqueur). The notion of a "pre-social sexed body" (Heyes) which is identifiable in purely biological terms, then, has lost much of its appeal. As a result, the distinction between gender and sex based on the categories of the social and the biological respectively has also lost its force and theorists are struggling with what Connell calls "an additive conception of sex and gender." As she explains, "our new model begins with the observation that human bodies are active players in social lives. They are neither biological machines producing social effects mechanically, nor blank pages on which cultural messages are written" (Connell, p. 463).

Another problem with emphasizing the difference between sex and gender is that the relationship between psychological traits and biological phenomena is still often understood to be that the former follows from the latter. While gender emphasizes that many psychological traits are social constructions, it does not necessarily undermine the view that such traits follow from biological differences. All it adds is that the path from biology to psychology proceeds by way of social construction.

Any model that claims that psychology follows from biology has problems accounting for those individuals whose socialization deviates from the norm. In other words, to the extent that gender is still viewed as tied to sex, there remains the problem of explaining the phenomena of girls who grow up exhibiting "masculine" psychological traits and boys who grow up with a "feminine" sense of self. The most striking examples of such cases are transsexuals, people who experience a dramatic misalignment between their physical features and their internalized sense of self. Such people frequently desire physical restructuring of their bodies to bring the physical and the psychic into alignment.

The term gender may still suggest, as did the term sex, that people's psychic lives and behavior are necessarily unified, that it is appropriate to talk about a male or a female identity. One suggestion has been that we talk about gender be used not to describe individual identity, but to describe acts or performances all humans play out (Butler). Such a model allows one to move the focus of gender from the individual to the activity. This type of shift is consistent with an overall tendency on the part of many contemporary scholars to think of gender as a type of social coding that is applied not only to behavior but also to psychic stances and to bodies. A further aspect of this notion of social coding is suggested by Jan Clausen, who describes her experience when she changed from a committed lesbian to a woman involved in a long-term exclusive relationship with a man. Clausen claims that "the notion of sexual identity … implies some expectation about the future" (pp. 97–98); the inclusive approach—that which covers behavior, psychology and the materiality of the body—thus extends over time as well.

The Sexuality Question

At least since the 1890s in industrialized Western countries, one paradigm of sexuality has been dominant: that which describes genital-to-genital intercourse between one male and one female as "normal," and as "abnormal" or "perverse," sexual practices that fall outside that paradigm. "Perverse" practices in this paradigm include but are not limited to the following: voyeurism; exhibitionism; incest (sex between close relatives); oral sex; anal sex; sex with children (pedophilia); sex involving more than two persons; sex between humans and animals (zoophilia); sex with oneself (masturbation); sex involving the use of visual images (pornography); sex with a corpse (necrophilia); sex involving heightening sexual pleasure by dressing in garments associated with the opposite sex (transvestism); sex associated with the giving or experiencing of pain or humiliation (sadomasochism); sex strongly associated with a particular object or part of the body (fetishism); and sex between members of the same sex (homosexuality).

Homosexuality has, in particular, been the subject of much attention and debate. The stigmatizing label homosexual has been used to negatively characterize certain individuals since the late nineteenth century (Weeks, 1989); laws have been enacted against homosexuality and people have been jailed for practicing it (e.g., the English playwright Oscar Wilde). During the twentieth century, medical doctors and other scientific specialists have depicted it as a pathology and, as with other pathologies (but not accepted practices), have searched for causes (Bayer).

Much debate has centered on the question of whether homosexuality is a product of genetic inheritance or some other biological trait, or is a consequence of socialization. During the 1960s and 1970s, homosexual men (who increasingly adopted the label gay) and homosexual women (lesbians) began to form political organizations to resist the laws, practices, and beliefs that stigmatized them. They argued that homosexuality was not a perversion or a pathology to be outlawed or cured, but a difference in preference or orientation that should be tolerated within a free and open society. Since the 1960s, the American psychiatric community has moved away from a description of homosexuality as pathology. In December 1973, the board of trustees of the American Psychiatric Association moved to delete the category homosexuality as necessarily a pathology from the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, retaining the term ego dystonic homosexuality to cover those not comfortable with their sexual orientation. In yet another revision, any specific reference to homosexuality was removed altogether, but the term sexual orientation distress was retained to permit treatment of those disturbed about their sexuality (Bayer).

More recently, there has been a good deal of interest in studying the possible biological origins or causes of homosexuality. There are two major explanatory pictures, both of which have been variously received with skepticism and approval. The first is the anatomical approach, which claims that one can (or should be able to) find structural differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals. Simon LeVay, for instance, published a study in 1991 showing that the interstitial nuclei of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH) of homosexual men was on average significantly smaller than those of heterosexual men (Murphy). Other candidates for anatomical explanations include the anterior commissure and the suprachiasmatic nucleus (Hamer, 1993). None of these studies have been met with unmixed approval. Some criticisms of the anatomical approach include the claim that sexual orientation is far too complex a phenomenon to be mapped to a single (and seemingly simple) physical cause, concern over the size of the sample pools, and even the attempt to "explain" homosexuality at all (Murphy).

The other possible explanatory story is that of the socalled gay gene. In 1993, Dean Hamer and a team of scientists concluded a study of the genetic make-up of gay men and their family members (most importantly brothers who were also gay) and announced that "our data indicate a statistically significant correlation between the inheritance of genetic markers on chromosomal region Xq28 and sexual orientation in a group of homosexual males" (Hamer, Hu, Magnuson, et al., p. 321). This study has also been criticized: for instance, the demographic homogeneity (and size) of the subject pool has led some to question whether the correlation is really genetic or merely environmental (Kaplan). This concern is made even more problematic by the fact that a precise causal connection between the possession of specific genetic markers and homosexual orientation is still lacking (Murphy). Most disturbing about any attempt to establish a biological link to homosexuality, according to some theorists, is the very fact that alternative sexual orientations are in need of explanation. In other words, the research itself may imply that there is something abnormal, or indeed perverse, about such orientations and thus, something that needs "curing" (Kaplan).

Other questions have been added to the debate, among them whether homosexuality describes a particular kind of person or, more appropriately, a specific type of activity. Social historians have pointed out that the category "the homosexual" was constructed in the latter part of the nineteenth century to depict a specific type of person, followed shortly by the construction of "the heterosexual" (Katz; Halperin). Prior to the creation of "the homosexual," people who engaged in acts one would label as homosexual were not necessarily seen to require a special label. This is at least partially a consequence of the fact that the sex of one's partner has not always been viewed as an overriding feature of the sex act. For example, within many Native American societies, certain men, "the berdache," took on many of the tasks and characteristics associated with women. These men would have sex with other men. However, what was seen as distinguishing the sexual practices of the berdache was not that they had sex with other men but that they took the passive role in sex. Their male partners were not distinguished from men who had sex only with women (Williams). The same distinction between active and passive (or dominant and submissive) is believed by many to be the primary form of categorization of sexuality in ancient Greece (Stein; Kaplan). For such reasons, Eve Sedgwick has observed that, given the many dimensions along which genital activity can be described, it is quite amazing that the sex of object choice has emerged as central during the twentieth century, and has come to define what is meant by "sexual orientation" (Sedgwick).

The Sexual Ethics Question

Just as matters of individual sexual identity have been oversimplified into a single male-female dichotomy, the many varieties of sexual behavior have often been reduced to a simple distinction between normality and perversion.

The condemnation of homosexuality and other deviant sexual activities and "perversions" leads to a discussion of sexual ethics and to the question of alternative sexual paradigms. A paradigm is an exemplary instance that serves as a standard. A sexual paradigm is an example of sexual activity that is taken as a standard for "normal" sexual behavior. The most obvious sexual paradigm is heterosexual genital-to-genital intercourse, but in order to employ this paradigm as a norm, one needs to specify not only the overt activity but the aims and desires of the participants. Is the purpose of sexual intercourse, for example, to produce children? Or to produce pleasure? Or to express love? Or to mark a "conquest"? One can further distinguish between minimalist and murky paradigms of sexuality: minimalist accounts tend to define sexuality as a simple, straightforward desire, while murky accounts dig deeper in order to find hidden or unconscious desires. Thomas Nagel, for example, introduces the minimalist notion of "unadorned sexual intercourse," although he adds that such behavior, "unadorned," may well be perverse, and that a typical sexual encounter involves a complex of communicative gestures. Janice Moulton defines sexuality simply as the desire for physical contact, although she then provides a rich discussion of its many associated meanings. Alan Goldman isolates what he calls "plain sex," which he defines as "a desire for contact with another's body," and rejects accounts that try to define sexuality in terms of any further goal or purpose.

On the murky side, there is the lasting legacy of Plato's Symposium and its various discussions of eros. In particular, there is Aristophanes' famous tale about the divine fission of individual human beings out of complete wholes, according to which sexual desire is nothing less than the impossible desire to join together with "one's other half" and become "complete once again," and Socrates' much more effete conception of eros as the love of Beauty as such. Two thousand years of Christian theology have attempted both to chastise and to spiritualize sexuality, and the Tantric traditions of India and Tibet have refined sexuality into a spiritual road to enlightenment. In the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung profoundly deepened conceptions of sexuality, which is, in their accounts, no mere desire but a focus for the darkest and most explosive secrets of the psyche.

THE REPRODUCTIVE PARADIGM. Biologically, sexuality can be defined in terms of a very specific genetic process, although even that has its ambiguities and confusions. This biological definition and its implied reproductive paradigm play an enormous role in contemporary conceptions of sexuality. Whatever embellishments, variations, and alternatives humans and some other vertebrates have evolved or invented, heterosexual intercourse remains something of an "original text" in our sexual hermeneutics. It can be rejected, refuted, even reviled, but it must, first of all, be taken account of.

One might distinguish here, in line with a three-thousand-year-old moral tradition, between an individual's purpose and what one might call nature's purpose. Until the end of the nineteenth century, when teleology or the purposiveness of nature was taken seriously, this phrase could be interpreted literally. In the twenty-first century, in the wake of increasingly antiteleological conceptions of evolution, the phrase nature's purpose must be taken as, at best, shorthand for a complex set of causal processes that are themselves the result of chance and natural selection. Even so, one might distinguish between the various drives and desires favored by natural selection because they increase the likelihood of a more adaptive genotype (what Richard Dawkins calls "the selfish gene"), and the more or less conscious and sometimes articulate desires of an adult human being. But humans are not, like most creatures, mere sexual pawns of cunning nature. Some teenagers may not know of the various consequences and the significance of sexual activity, but for most adults this knowledge is profound, if not extensive, and sexuality may never be free of those associations. But whether or not this is the hidden purpose of all sexual desire and activity, it is clearly the conscious and conscientious choice of some sexual activity. Building a family is not, for most people, the only purpose of sexual activity; but by having sexual intercourse, it is possible to have children. Whatever creative alternatives may be dreamed up by medicine, one undeniable aspect of sexuality is, and will be, its traditional role in procreation.

The view that sexuality and sexual desire are really aimed at reproduction, even if the sexual participants desire only to perform a particular activity without thinking of the consequences, tends to lead from the minimalist view of sexuality to various murky views. The self-evident desires are no longer taken at face value, and a deeper biological (or theological) narrative, which may not be self-evident to the participants, comes into play. Thus the psychological consequences of thousands or millions of years of evolution manifest themselves in desires that may seem straightforward. Or, behind seemingly simple sexual desire lurks the secret of God's creation and the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. But what links all the murky views is that sexuality does have a purpose or purposes, however they are to be explained, and these purposes are typically not self-evident. According to the minimalist views, sex is best understood as "plain" or "unembellished"; the murky views, on the other hand, insist that sex so understood is not understood at all.

The target of many, if not most, of the minimalist accounts is the restricted reproduction of the procreative paradigm of sexual activity. For two thousand years, the harsher side of Biblical commentary and the Christian theological tradition has insisted that sex is primarily, if not solely, procreative. In this view, the pleasures and desires associated with sexual activity not only are inessential but also are to be minimized. Emphasizing pleasure to the exclusion of the possibility of reproduction—for example, using contraception or engaging in activity that cannot result in impregnation—is forbidden. Essential to sexuality, in the reproductive paradigm, are male ejaculation, female receptivity, fertility, and conception.

THE PLEASURE PARADIGM. In opposition to the reproductive model, with all of its strict prohibitions and limitations, and its suggestions of deep biological drives and purposes, the attractiveness of what one can call the pleasure paradigm is unmistakable. The availability of improved birth control methods since the 1960s has contributed greatly to its appeal. Sex is for pleasure, and what is desired is pleasure. There is nothing murky about this. Indeed, to many people the pleasure paradigm is self-evident. Accordingly, the restrictions on sexuality that limit and direct it toward heterosexual intercourse drop away, and in effect, anything that feels good is acceptable. Of course, one might well object that pleasure is not in itself sexual, and so one might want to circumscribe pleasures that are sexual from those that are not. But, for the defender of the pleasure paradigm, this requirement comes later. First comes the liberation from the restrictions of the reproductive model. Homosexuality, autosexuality, even bestiality seem to be normal on the pleasure paradigm. Heterosexual intercourse is but one of many activities serving the paradigm, and however many couples may continue to prefer it, it does not have any special claim to normality. According to this paradigm, good sex is that which provides maximum mutual pleasure; bad or mediocre sex is that which fails to satisfy either or both partners.

Once the reproduction model has been rejected, there are no longer the restrictions on either the objects or the obvious aims of sexual activity, but neither is it the case that "anything goes." Homosexuality is no longer a perversion of sex, but rape certainly will be. Almost any sexual activity between consenting adults is acceptable, but forcing sex on a person is not. Sexual activities that will not result in conception are no longer secondary, and sex that is conscientiously prevented from resulting in undesired conception becomes the norm. Masturbation becomes part of the paradigm of acceptable sexuality, even though its lacks the dimension of shared sexual enjoyment. The appeal of the paradigm and the cornerstone of most contemporary sexual ethics is the idea that sex ought to be pleasurable and, within moral but not particularly sexual bounds, unrestricted.

We might call the pleasure paradigm the Freudian model of sexuality, in order to pay homage to the person most responsible for its contemporary dominance. Sigmund Freud, in his Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, argued that sexuality should be conceived as enjoyable for its own sake, not as a means to further ends, whether natural or divine. But the centrality of Freud here also suggests that the pleasure paradigm may not be so simple and self-evident as originally suggested: Freud is one of the great contemporary architects of "deep," if not labyrinthine, accounts of the psyche and of sexuality in particular. And so, for him and for us, pleasure and satisfaction are not to be construed so straightforwardly. Pleasure, as Aristotle noted more than two millennia ago, is not just a sensation. It is the "bloom" on successful activity. It accompanies but does not constitute satisfaction. But the difficult question is, Satisfaction of what? And here Freud's theory moves from an apparently minimalist physiological model to an extremely murky deep psychology.

In Freud's early theories, the pleasure paradigm rested on a male-dominated biological foundation, a discharge model in which sexual pleasure has its origins in the release of tension (catharsis). But the tensions released in sexual behavior are not merely physiological; they also arise from complexes of ego needs and identifications with various sexual "objects," usually (but not always) other people. Thus Freud distinguished between mere physical gratification and physical satisfaction.

The pleasure paradigm, for all of its seeming simplicity, invites murky interpretations. What is it that is enjoyed? What is it that is satisfied? A sensation is not pleasant in itself but in terms of its context, as a love bite on the shoulder by one's lover or a nasty passerby, respectively, makes evident. Indeed, even orgasm is not pleasant in itself, however often that might be fallaciously supposed; an orgasm in an inappropriate context is typically an extremely unpleasant experience. And so the pleasure Freud postulates is no simple release of tension but the satisfaction, often symbolic and indirect, of some of the murkiest of hidden and forbidden desires.

THE METAPHYSICAL PARADIGM. Some of these desires and motives are so profound that they deserve to be called metaphysical. Freud's discussion of the Oedipus complex sometimes takes on these ontological overtones, and Jung's various archetype theories surely do. But perhaps the most basic of all metaphysical paradigms of sexuality goes back (at least) to the fable told by Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium, and the idea that the gods split what we now call human beings out of complete wholes, with sexual desire being the desire to reunify the divided halves. One need not literally accept the more consciously absurd aspects of the story to appreciate the deep insight captured in the idea of "two out of one" or "merged selves" that Plato's Aristophanes suggested.

Sexual activity is an expression of a profound desire that has very little to do with merely physiological need or satisfaction, and the metaphysical paradigm is, accordingly, very much a part of the contemporary conceptions of romantic love and the idea that two people were "made for each other."

Indeed, despite the prevalence of the pleasure model in much of the current literature, there can be little doubt that much more is usually demanded of sexuality than mere pleasure, even mutual pleasure. People demand meaningful relationships. The metaphysical model provides this sense of meaning. Pleasure, according to the metaphysical model, is no longer the purpose of sex, although it will surely appear as its accompaniment. But sex without love, no matter how enjoyable, is to be rejected on this paradigm. Even if it is not "perverse" or "immoral," "plain sex" will be meaningless, and the meaning of a relationship is primary in the metaphysical model.

THE COMMUNICATION PARADIGM. Sex is often "meaningful" without love, however, although sometimes those "meanings" are demeaning, as in a sadomasochistic relationship. What is one to say of the many varieties of sexual activity that are aimed neither at reproduction, nor at pure pleasure, nor at expressions of romantic love and togetherness? What of those relationships that seem to thrive on domination and pain? What does it say about current paradigms of love that sadomasochistic relationships are now celebrated and preferred by some of our more avant-garde social visionaries? And what of those many tender encounters that, nonetheless, make no pretenses of love?

To explain such aspects of sexuality, a fourth paradigm is in order: sex as communication, as a physical form of expression of one's emotions and attitudes toward other people. It is a language, for the most part a body language, whose vocabulary consists of touches, gestures, and physical positions. It may be an expression of domination and submission; it may be an expression of respect, fear, tenderness, anger, admiration, worship, concern, or (of course) love. In the 1940s Jean-Paul Sartre defended a truncated version of this model in his classic Being and Nothingness. He interpreted all sexuality as the expression of conflict, a war for domination and freedom. But what is communicated in sex is rarely this alone, nor is sex plausibly always an expression of conflict. Nevertheless, Sartre forces us to see something that the defenders of the pleasure and metaphysical paradigms of sex prefer not to see: that sexual relationships, even normal, fully consensual sexual relationships, are not always innocent or loving. Sex is a medium for all sorts of emotions, some of them manipulative and even malicious.

The communication paradigm shifts the emphasis in sexuality from the more physical and sensual aspects of reproduction and pleasure to interpersonal roles and attitudes, and from expressions of love alone to expressions of all emotions and attitudes. Thus Sartre's model is clearly a communication model, but it is, like Sartre's view of emotions in general, too narrow, emphasizing only the more conflict-ridden and competitive interpersonal attitudes—one of which, he thinks, is love. In this view, certain sexual activities are visibly more expressive of domination and submission, or equality and respect, or resentment and fear, or shyness and timidity. According to the communication model, these nonverbal expressions are essential to sexuality, its very purpose and content. This does not mean, however, that other sexual aspects need be excluded. The intention to impregnate a woman, for example, may be an expression of male domination and conquest, as described in several of Norman Mailer's novels. Pleasure is an important aspect of the communication model, but pleasure for its own sake is not: pleasure—both the giving and the receiving of it, as well as the sharing of it—is vital to the communication of many emotions. But pain may be important as well, and inflicting small amounts of pain, as well as enduring moderate discomfort, is familiar as a means of expression in sex. What distinguishes the communication paradigm from the three more traditional ones is its emphasis on expression of interpersonal emotions and attitudes. These expressions are recognized by the other paradigms, but not as essential and primary.

IMPLICATIONS OF THE VARIOUS SEXUAL PARADIGMS. It is evident that the answers to such questions as "What is normal sex?" and "What is perverse?" are immensely complicated. On a strict reproduction paradigm of sexuality, normal sex is whatever minimal genital activity is necessary to promote conception. All else is either irrelevant or immoral. In fact, of course, the reproduction paradigm is usually defended within the moral institution of marriage, and rarely defended without some reference to both love and mutual pleasure. On the pleasure paradigm, by contrast, whatever gives pleasure (to consenting adults) is normal and acceptable. Perversions of this paradigm provide pain instead of pleasure, ignore the pleasure of the other person, or produce pleasure in a manner that is, in the longer run, harmful. On the metaphysical paradigm, normality is sex as an expression of mutual meaningfulness, such as mutual love. On the communication paradigm, what is normal becomes extremely complex, for one must view the emotions being expressed and the entire psyches of the people involved to make any intelligent judgment.

Human sexuality seems particularly appropriate for expressing the tender feelings of love and affection, but there are circumstances under which this is absolutely inappropriate (for example, with children); and all too often sexual activity that claims the expression of love as its aim may actually be an avoidance of intimacy. Indeed, the common context of sexual activity—two people alone, attending only to one another—is particularly conducive to intimate communication. But if we take two-party sex as our paradigm, then multiple-party sex, insofar as it confuses the communication becomes perversion. Moreover, masturbation, while not exactly perverse, would surely be less than wholly sexual, just as talking to oneself is less than a whole conversation. And perhaps, any form of deceit would be perverse, just as lying is a "perversion" of verbal communication.

Conclusion: The Problem of Normality

So long as biological specification and sexual intercourse alone define sexuality, normality, as opposed to perversion, seems to be easily defined. Males are equipped with certain obvious features, and females are differently equipped with equally obvious sexual features; normal sex is intercourse between male and female. But as more is learned about the complexities of chromosome configuration and the biology of sex, the distinction between male and female becomes increasingly difficult. And as soon as one adds the essential concerns of psychology and the many worlds of cultural norms, practices, and paradigms to the unfolding medical complications, the traditional view of normality becomes a Pandora's box of problems.

This confusion extends to the task of defining a normal model of sexuality. Of the various cases and models considered in this article, not a single one would be accepted as normal in every society and by everyone. Moreover, a pure instance of an ideal type or paradigm is probably nowhere to be found; not even the most pious proponent of a religiously oriented reproductive view would deny the desirability of love, pleasure, and emotional expression in sex, nor would the most enthusiastic hedonist deny the desirability of reproduction on at least some occasions, and perhaps of love and communication as well. And when these four paradigms of sexuality are integrated with the matrix of possibilities that are to be found in the various combinations of gender identity and sexual orientation (and, in the most extreme cases, transsexual biological operations), the result is an enormous number of sexual lifestyles, desires, and activities, every one of which would be insisted upon as normal, at least according to some people.

How does one decide what is normal and what is not? In one sense, normal simply means statistically predominant, and there are still many people who would insist that this is a proper definition. But it is clear that, in ethical contexts, normal also means morally correct. But in an area where most behavior is private, and involves only consenting adults and a great many individual differences, the relevance of statistics is easily challenged. Furthermore, what is statistically predominant in one portion of a population may be relatively rare and considered perverted in another. If sexual normality includes subjective preferences and psychological as well as biological considerations, then any definition of sexual normality will give priority to certain preferences and paradigms over others. But which ones? The traditional religious standards? The more modern "anything goes between consenting adults" attitude? The current "local standards" criterion of the courts, which assumes that it can be made clear how large or small a domain—a home, a town, or a state—is "local"?

The problem of normality thus becomes a dilemma. It begins with a built-in ambiguity between the statistically dominant and what ethically ought to be. The first is ascertained easily enough, assuming either truthful informants or extremely intrusive investigators; but the second, the quest for a sexual ethics, arises from within diverse psychological, cultural, and personal settings that presuppose many of the norms and attitudes that are to be investigated.

The result of these complexities should not be the abandonment of a search for ethical norms or the rejection of the concepts of normality and perversion. What emerges instead is an extremely complex matrix of considerations to be taken into account, in which tolerance is a wise approach and mutual understanding is the desirable outcome. In other words, what is needed in the examination of sexual identity is not just a good deal of medicine, biology, social psychology, and anthropology. It is also a good deal of appreciation for diversity and complexity. It is with this appreciation for diversity and complexity that the contemporary quest can proceed.

robert c. solomon

linda j. nicholson (1995)

revised by robert c. solomon

jennifer k. greene

SEE ALSO: Body; Gender Identity; Genetic Discrimination; Homosexuality; Human Nature; Sexual Ethics


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