Friday, March 17, 2006

Is Gay Essentialism a Fad?

Don Browning and Elizabeth Marquardt's essay in The Meaning of Marriage offers some "liberal cautions on same-sex marriage."

In the discussion of sex, it is normal now for liberals to automatically translate that term into "gender." The prevailing liberal theory is that no feature of masculinity or femininity is rooted in the biology of men and women. Everything is a social construction.

Everything, that is, except sexual orientation. When it comes to sexual orientation, liberals become essentialists again. Advocates of homosexuality are increasingly drawn to the idea that sexual orientation is a biological fact, not a social construction (and certainly not a choice). Therefore, society must accommodate to all sexual orientations and "get used to it."

Browning and Marquardt point out that the logic of modernization is dissolving all claims of fixed relations and innate or essential qualities. Even the deepest and most ancient of essential differences, those between fathers and mothers in marriage, are subject to the acids of social constructivism. It may be premature to fix the flag of same-sex marriage to homosexual essentialism today; the same modernizing theory that all identities are just social constructions may sweep it away tomorrow.


kairos said...

Good post. No, great post.

I've studied with Browning, and have found him to be working hard to save a nuclear concept of family. He makes some good arguments for the strength of *healthy* nuclear families as opposed to other family structures, from decent sociological studies.

All the while, he struggles with the notion of same-sex families, like he does with alternate family forms, and while I appreciate his attempt to nurture modern nuclear families in general, I don't think he has ever found much room for sanctioning same-sex unions, or really for finding their place among what could be seen a strong modern family setting. For him the ideal is the heterosexual mother-father that never divorces. Sure, that makes sense. But there are other family structures out there, and they can work too.

"Liberalism" struggles with the distinction here between social construct and essentialism. There is a branch of liberalism that truly thinks all is construct, and some trends in postmodernity contribute to this, but liberal realists have been trying to navigate a middle ground for a while. Certainly the second or third wave of feminism, for instance, has moved beyond thinking *everything* in gender relations is a social construct. Social constructs are built upon some biological realities, and these are to be dissected, critiqued, and understood. Only women give birth. That's a biological fact. The way we deal with that fact is a social construct built upon that biology.

So I think Browning goes a bit too far here.

Gruntled said...

The strong part of Browning's argument about modernization is that the acids of individualism are hard to reconcile with marriage in any form, for any number and combination of sexes.

Anonymous said...

You people are amazing. You blame liberals for the high divorce rate and high number of non-nuclear families on 'liberal engineering' is stupid.

I thought that conservatives promoted the idea of taking responsibility for one's actions, but it seems now that they control all three branches of government they want to continue to play the victim. LOL

Gruntled said...

I am not sure which "you people" you have in mind. Liberals and libertarians agree that the law should be designed to free individuals to do whatever they want. This undermines marriage.

I don't think it is quite right to say that conservatives control all three branches of government. The Republican coalition is an alliance of opposites between libertarians and social conservatives. There are social conservatives in government, but so far they have been very ineffective in stemming the individualist tide that is privatizing marriage law.

Denis Hancock said...

Excellent posting.

It reminds me of the Sociobiology Wars of the mid-1970's. Did you have that in mind when you posted this?

I blogged about your posting this morning, so feel free to critique my take on this.

kairos said...

The strong part of Browning's argument about modernization is that the acids of individualism are hard to reconcile with marriage in any form, for any number and combination of sexes.

Absolutely, and I think he's strongest on this point. Thanks for raising that.

Aaron X said...

Reposted Booker rising.

If we are talking about sex, then we're immediately talking about evolutionary biology. And a simple peek at mammalian sexual behavior will teach you all you need to know about human sexual behavior.

Simply put, mammals in general will attempt sex with anything, including each other, siblings, offspring, inanimate objects, you name it. In fact you'd be hard-pressed to name anything on this planet that a mammal hasn't tried to have sex with or found aspects of sexual arousal in connection to. Apparently we've been hardwired to seek out things which arouse our sexual interest.

Aside from the influence of social overlays, human beings continue to act out sexually in much the same way as every other mammal to be found on Earth.

So when you proceed from that starting point, then it just becomes a matter of defining love and love relationships, social concepts. Can males/females develop deep emotional attachments for other males/females, with the corresponding sexual desires. I'd say the anecdotal evidence from centuries of human interaction provides more than sufficient efficacy for such a theory.

As to genetic evidence for a predisposition towards a specific sexual preference, I've yet to see anything with a foundation in hard science along those lines.

I would assert that the whole concept of human sexuality is nothing more than the continuing effort by societies to control perhaps the most powerful biological force on the planet -- the drive to procreate.

Creating sexual identities in order to classify people is nothing more than society's efforts to maintain control over sexuality, since uncontrolled sexual expression has a tendency to crash through boundaries and tear down the foundations which support social structures like religion.

When it comes to the designations heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual etc., these are some quaint little concept to be sure, but if the number of children being raped, brutalized and sexually molested on a daily basis in this country and around the world is any indicator, then we've got a long way to go in gaining anything resembling real control over this most fundamental of forces.

Until human society begins to address head-on these destructive tendencies created by our sex drives, and the distortion of those drives, I don't think we've got any business worrying about how consenting adults choose to express themselves with each other sexually, or who they choose to form long-term loving relationships with.

When it comes to defining desire, or sexual desire, no doubt there is a large social component, but it would also be foolish to assume that the social component is a more powerful factor in the equation then the biological one. To deny an integral biological component is tantamount to denying that we are biological organisms.

Get a handle on unbridled sexual behavior in the form of incest, rape, and child molestation then maybe we can afford the luxury defining the minutia of human sexuality, like preference or predisposition.

For the most part our attempts to control sexuality and repress it across the board have done more to damage human societies and the evolutionary progress of human sexuality then it's done to aid said progress, especially in recent history, specifically since about the time of the Christian Reformation, if were talking about the West.


Anonymous said...

point well taken Aaron. BTW, I think I just injured myself on my floppy-drive.