“Beautiful and Lofty Things”: Queer Appeals to Power and Turn of the Century Sexology

A presentation given at the trans/forming feminisms conference in Dunedin, New Zealand, on the 25th of November 2015. An expanded version of an earlier essay.


 

“How could it be unhealthy, that which makes a man happy and inspires in him beautiful and lofty things! His only misfortune is that social barriers and penal codes stand in the way of ‘naturally’ expressing his drive. This would be a great hardship.”[1]

The turn of the twentieth century is widely regarded as an extremely important era for sexology and the formation of the queer identities we know today.[2] It’s acknowledged as the period from which we get the labels, categories, and identities ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’, and sexological literature and discourse from the era has a pervasive impact on queer discourse today. However, sexology’s relationship with homosexuality is more ambiguous and complex than a simple and clear-cut categorisation into the homo/hetero binary, and its agents of influence have been heavily criticised both within academia and in queer circles. Today’s talk is in two parts: the first is a focus on Richard von Krafft-Ebing and his work and influence; the second continues a more general look at developments within sexology and their continuing influence on discourse.

In public discourse as well as areas of academia today, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homo/hetero binary dominates. This model, a “presiding master term” as she calls it, is one in which heterosexuality relies on homosexuality for its own existence and definition.[3] It is often interpreted as a strict, mutually exclusive binary, and Sedgwick does not question exactly how binarised this model is.[4] The model is still useful, however, in noting a particular shift at the turn of the century: “every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo-or hetero-sexuality”.[5] This now significant shift was the result of many smaller changes in ideological thought at the time: from deviance, to inversion, to finally the shift in focus from sexual act to sexual object choice.

In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing published the first edition of Psychopathia sexualis, a psychiatric text intended for lawyers and use in the justice system in distinguishing between crime and disease – the primary way same-sex attraction and behaviour was discussed in the era. Psychopathia sexualis categorised many forms of non-normative non-procreative sexuality, including sadism, masochism, fetishism, and ‘contrary sexual feeling’ or inversion – that is, same-sex attraction and behaviour. The work has been heavily criticised by many people from many backgrounds. Presentist historians, antipsychiatrists, queer theorists and historians alike have criticised Psychopathia sexualis for a form of medical colonisation and for medicalising sexuality and queerness. Thomas Szaz criticised Krafft-Ebing for aiming to “supplant the waning power of the church with the waxing power of medicine” and claimed that Psychopathia sexualis was full of unscientific falsehoods.[6] Some of these are not necessarily unfair critiques, but early sexology and Psychopathia sexualis in particular remains especially worthy of study considering its extensive autobiographical content and its pervasive influence on queer community and discourse as well as on the shaping of our model of sexuality.

Psychopathia sexualis’ significance, for me, comes from the extensive amount of autobiographies within the text and the relative freedom under which they were given. Earlier in his career Krafft-Ebing worked in places such as the overcrowded Feldhof Asylum, with generally poor and uneducated patients who were institionalised more for custodial care than treatment and who had no choice but to conform to medical standard and rule and share their stories involuntarily and surely with less respect and agency. But later and later editions of Psychopathia sexualis contained more and more volunteered autobiographical content from queer men. Unfortunately, these men were from a very singular and homogenous social and cultural class and experience – white, educated, wealthy, aristocratic, bourgeoisie. Krafft-Ebing eventually established a clinical ward in the university hospital as well as a private sanatorium led to more and more wealthy, educated, upper-class patients whose case histories were a lot more autobiographical and who would have had a lot more agency in telling their stories. Oosterhuis notes that homosexual men particular seized this opportunity.[7] Krafft-Ebing as well as Albert Moll, writing soon after, worked with both upper class clients with agency as well as lower class patients and those with otherwise lessened agency. Oosterhuis points this out nicely: “Lower class men, prosecuted sexual offenders, the hospitalised and most female patients were generally not in a position to escape the coercion which undeniably was part of psychiatric practice.”[8]

The primary focus of critiques of Krafft-Ebing and Psychopathia sexualis is one of medicalization. As Foucault claims, the delegating of sexuality to the realm of medicine started with the sexologists of the late 19th century. Our model of sexuality is medicalised because of them, and hard work has been done and continues to be done to undo this influence. However, a brief look at the alternative contemporary models of sexuality and queerness in particular reveals that we perhaps could have had it a lot worse. Urlich’s contemporaries in Britain were also advocating for decriminalisation and acceptance, but the prevalent model and experience of queerness among the British upper class was one of age difference. The ‘accepted’ queer among this class was an older aristocratic man who slept with much younger boys, both aristocratic and from lower classes. Although there were other factors in play, if the influence of this British aristocratic queer had been more pervasive than the German sexological influence, it could have resulted in a very different model to the medicalised Born This Way archetype we have today.

I am not as ready to defend Krafft-Ebing and sexology as a whole as historians such as Oosterhuis, nor am I as ready as Oosterhuis to dismiss the idea that sexuality was comprehensively medicalised by sexology and psychiatry in the era. Oosterhuis, in multiple papers on the subject, seems to believe that medicalization requires the complete, overt, and explicit domination of its subjects, and that as a result the subjects must have zero agency in the process. It seems to be his belief that because of the autobiographical content and because of the way at least those upper-class men were able to tell their stories freely and with agency that the concept of medicalization does not apply. It is true that Psychopathia sexualis and its autobiographies enabled ‘perverts’ and queer men to speak and be heard, and that it enabled voices usually silenced to be seen, and it is necessarily true that such autobiographical content exemplifies a level of agency not typically seen in some interpretations of Foucault’s theories of medicalisation. However, I assert that theorists like Oosterhuis are critically misunderstanding these theories, and suggest that the existence of a modicum of agency does not negate nor preclude the domination or hegemony of medicine and medicalisation. While the subjects may be given a voice, the medical field then utilises that voice to its own advantage – the agency of the autobiographies given by queer men of the time is used to strengthen the hold of medicalisation in the same way that queer men used the medicalisation of their sexuality to challenge the rule of law over their identity.

Because it is very clear that these men knew what they were doing in sending Krafft-Ebing their autobiographies; their appeal to power and the legitimacy of medicine is often made explicit in the autobiographies themselves. A ‘highly placed man from London’ (Oosterhuis’ words) wrote to Krafft-Ebing and said: “I believe that your perspective [that of same-sex attraction being an illness or disease instead of moral corruption] is most advantageous for us” even as in the same paragraph he rejected the word ‘unhealthy’ and indulged in “giving you some more relevant explications”.[9] In appealing to medicine, they strove to shift same-sex attraction and behaviour from the realm of crime and law to the realm of health and medicine – the primary drive in activism of the time, even as the men themselves vehemently denied being sick. In these autobiographies we see a very early example of the phenomenon made explicit by Lady Gaga in 2011: the ‘born this way’ archetype of queerness, or, in more academic terms, the innate or biological model of sexuality. Later editions of Psychopathia sexualis contained many letters discussing the fact that their perceived illness stemmed not from their nature or their sexual identity, but from the social barriers to that identity.

One man wrote in 1890: “Unfortunately, we are considered sick for a completely valid reason, namely, that we really became sick and that one then confuses cause and effect…”[10] These appeals surely had at least a modicum of success: by the 1890s Krafft-Ebing himself was putting his name to petitions to repeal laws criminalising same-sex behaviour; the early protest movements of the end of the century referred to Krafft-Ebing as a scientific authority; and after signing Magnus Hirschfeld’s petition in 1897 Krafft-Ebing contributed his last article on homosexuality in which he stated that there was truth to the opinion of his queer correspondents, argued that it was a condition that had to be accepted, and even attributed an equal ethical value to same-sex and heterosexual love.[11]

The appeals to power we see in the autobiographical content in Psychopathia sexualis are not a thing of the past – today we would probably refer to them as respectability politics, playing to the desires and norms of those in power in order to obtain a modicum of that power – or more likely simply a modicum of humanity – ourselves. The case for gay marriage is a significant example of this kind of appeal to power; moulding ourselves and our relationships to a heterosexual standard to the detriment of those who do not wish to conform or play to respectability. Instead of extending the rights of the married – such as immigration policies, adoption, healthcare and insurance coverage, even simple things such as visitation rights to a hospitalised partner – to those who are unmarried or not in a civil partnership, the gay marriage campaign has simply extended the right to marry. It is worth noting that this particular appeal to power gained so much popularity and focus within the community and without that other issues, such as the wellbeing of queer and trans youth, the treatment of transgender prisoners, the life expectancy and death rates of trans women of colour – have fallen to the wayside.

Money also plays a big part in the gay marriage issue – in California, gay marriage campaigners spent $48 billion opposing prop 8 when California’s provisions for domestic partnership provide almost the exact same benefits – $48 million on essentially symbolic acceptance.[12] It’s also interesting to note that in countries that have legalised gay marriage, funding to queer organisations and activists has dropped significantly – there’s an obvious pattern in the states of once multimillion dollar statewide equality organisations either shutting down or being rendered useless due to a lack of funding.

Appeals to power and respectability politics can be utilised positively, however, even in radical queer activism. For example, No Pride in Prisons is a resolutely abolitionist organisation, but that aspect of our politics is necessarily played down in media releases and social media communications in order to gain the support of the more liberal majority and especially in order to successfully communicate and negotiate with the officials we desperately despise and wish did not exist at all. It has results; during our hunger strike for Jade Follett, a trans woman being held against her will in a men’s facility, No Pride in Prisons remained in the media well beyond the 24 hour cycle that typically decimates activism, making it to the front pages of Stuff, TVNZ, 3 News, and the Herald three times that week and obtaining a significant-length report on the 6 o’clock news. The strike was quickly successful, and this can be attributed to the amount of pressure on the Department of Corrections that stemmed from both extensive media coverage and significant online support. Such coverage and support would not have been possible if we instead sat on K Rd with signs saying “move Jade Follett and close down Rimutaka” – in this case, the appeal to power is not the end game, but rather a step towards full abolition. The goal is not immediately feasible, so we must make sure that those subjected to the violence of the prison system are kept as safe as possible until the prison system no longer exists.

Unfortunately, there is no sign of the ‘born this way’ appeal to power of queer men at the turn of the century being a step in a larger plan, and it is only in relatively recent years that the medicalisation of queerness and transness in particular has begun to be addressed in queer activism; for example in the challenges to the placement of homosexuality and the shift from ‘gender identity disorder’ to ‘gender dysphoria’ in the DSM. Current activism seeks to remove transness from the DSM completely, instead focussing on its placement in the more extensive International Classification of Diseases, where it could be placed in a category of health conditions instead of disease or illness.

Sexology’s initial discussion of same-sex attraction and behaviour in terms of deviance and disease in order to argue that conditions such as inversion, or contrary sexual feeling, were pathological and thus in the realm of medicine as opposed to law or religion lead to the early medico-sexological position that same-sex attraction had two forms: congenital and acquired, as Krafft-Ebing called it, forms of antipathic sexual instinct.[13] Krafft-Ebing also made a distinction between perversity and perversion: acquired antipathic sexual instinct was temporary and contextual; the determining factor was “the demonstration of perverse feeling for the same sex; not the proof of sexual acts with the same sex”.[14] He warned against confusing perversity and perversion, acquired and congential, and stated that there was “an immediate return to normal sexual intercourse as soon as the obstacles to it are removed”.[15] In contrast, congenital antipathic instinct stemmed from a pre-existing taint in particular individuals. In these cases, the ‘homosexual instinct’ overwhelmed the ‘heterosexual instinct’, a concept that prefigures later discourse on the subject.[16] Krafft-Ebing’s model of same-sex attraction included some notions of hereditary taint as well as influences such as masturbation and seduction.

His model was one of morality, “the eternal struggle between a bestial sexual nature and the demands of civilized culture”.[17] This particular area of Krafft-Ebing’s thought was verified by Albert Moll, writing eight years later, who agreed that same-sex desires could stem from either hereditary or contextual causes. Moll however did not agree with or make use of Krafft-Ebing’s distinction between congenital and acquired inversion. Significantly, Moll expanded the contextual causes of inversion to include individuals who may experience temporal same-sex desires: someone “‘seized from time to time with homosexual desires’, even when a ‘heterosexual urge’ predominates within him”.[18]

The next major development came three years later in 1896 with Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion. Ellis did not conceive of same-sex desire as pathological, and heavily questioned the notions of pure or exclusive masculinity and femininity, arguing that everyone possessed ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics, and that the proportions of these varied in individuals. Ellis also proposed a new distinction between inversion and homosexuality, in which inversion was innate and homosexuality was the result of sociocultural context (for example, rates of homosexuality would increase in homosocial contexts such as boarding schools or prisons).[19] This new distinction replaced the model of congential vs acquired in his work, as Ellis found it had “ceased to possess significance”.[20] Ellis already was questioning the usefulness of homo/hetero categorisations, calling them “scarcely a scientific classification”, instead breaking down his notion of homosexuality into two forms, one ‘strong’ and one ‘weak’, including men who may have relationships with women.[21][22]

Ellis’ work led naturally to the work of Freud, even though they worked in different fields. Freud built on Ellis’ work and took it further, arguing against the existence of congenital attraction, due to his tripartite model of sexual attraction including ‘occasional inversion’, a preference for same-sex partners under certain contextual conditions.[23] Significantly, Freud believed in a polymorphous model of attraction, under which individuals can potentially desire any sex: “it is something which is congenital in all persons”.[24] This universality challenged existing thought around inversion: if the potential for perversion was universal, then there could be no easy physical indication of inversion, and as such an individual’s sexual object choice was unlinked from their gender presentation. Freud also introduced a distinction between sexual aim and sexual object choice.[25] Prior to this, sexual aim was inextricably linked to social and gender role – if a man’s sexual aim was passive, he must be effeminate – and was of equal importance to object choice in classifying and categorising sexuality.

Chauncey lays it out succinctly: “’men,’ whether biologically or male or female, necessarily chose passive women as their sexual objects.”[26] By the turn of the century object choice became the focus of classification, and due to the universality in Freud’s model, the passive or active sexual aim was no longer indicative of social role. This is an important and large step toward the model of object choice homosexual identity we are familiar with today.

There is a link, as Chauncey points out, between distinction of object choice and sexual aim and the increasing use of the term ‘homosexuality’.[27] During this time the term’s definition also crystallised, referring only to homosexual object choice without automatically implying gender variance or inversion of the normative male sexual role. It is interesting and important to note that this shift occurred significantly slower for women – Freud explicitly stated that social role inversion was a normal feature of female sexual inversion in his Three Essays, the same work in which he unlinked social role from sexual role for men.[28]

Earlier sexology, when studying relationships between a ‘masculine’ woman and a normative woman, tended to focus on the ‘masculine’ woman as the invert, considering the normative woman to be performing her proper social role under the heterosexual paradigm of the Victorian era, as Chauncey called it.[29] Under this paradigm the normative woman, who was passive and “decidedly feminine” according to Hamilton in 1896, was fulfilling her expected social role by acting as wife to someone of masculine character – as if she were married to a man.[30] As such the ‘feminine’ agent did not challenge the heterosexual paradigm and was not a major subject of study until the late nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that this relationship paradigm described the ‘masculine’ partner as the ‘offender’, and referred to the ‘feminine’ partner as “the weak victim”, mirroring and potentially influencing more current discourse and ideas around lesbians and lesbian partnerships: that is, the trope in public discourse of the ‘predatory’ lesbian, and intra-community discussions around butch/femme relationships.

By the late nineteenth century these women began to concern the medical profession, and Ellis stated “we are accustomed to a much greater familiarity and intimacy between women than between men, and we are less apt to suspect the existence of any abnormal passion”.[31] This is another area in which sexology’s influence has perhaps remained in more current discourse, or at least in which it can continue to provide an insight. Such ideas are commonly seen in tabloid-like news articles about celebrities, in which any pair of women showing affection are labelled “gal pals” and assumed to be friends. Headlines in such articles can read as ludicrous, such as “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile”.[32]

Study of these ‘invert/normative’ relationships began to break down the heterosexual paradigm, as both partners were pathologised as lesbians due to object choice instead of sexual aim. The ‘wife’s role was no longer of victim but of active and complicit – however it was not until the late 1920s that it was ‘discovered’ that neither partner in these relationships was ‘playing the role of the man’ when a study performed by Lura Beam and Robert Latou Dickinson revealed that no lesbians in their study thought of themselves as performing the male part.[33] This challenge to the heterosexual paradigm served to highlight the shift toward object choice as the focus in classifying female sexual identity alongside male.

When considering sexology’s ambiguous relationship to homosexuality it is also important to examine possible cultural influences on the literature and vice versa – whether societal or medical shifts in thinking came first. Chauncey offers three developments in American society that he considers were an influence on sexological thinking: the visibility of urban gay male subcultures, the challenges posed to Victorian norms by women, both in the form of suffragettes and in women entering the wage-labor workforce, and the resexualisation of women in mainstream thought that stemmed from these challenges. Chauncey also cites medicine’s rise to ideological superiority over religion and law as influential.[34]

The entrance of women into the workforce led to a higher degree of social and economic independence, at the same time that marriage and birth rates in the middle-class were declining. In the 1880s onward this led to a crisis of masculinity of some sort as women were no longer reliant on men for economic support as well as other unrelated factors such as declining autonomy in men’s workplaces.[35] These challenges and the resulting crisis, Chauncey argues, led to a “sudden growth in the medical literature on sexual inversion” as a way to defend the existing sex/gender system and potentially stigmatise women who were performing a non-normative social role of independence as inverts and deviants. Ellis, in Sexual Inversion, quoted an unnamed “American correspondent” who stated that one of the reasons for the rise in inversion was “the growing independence of the women” and “their lessening need for marriage”.[36] Despite these challenges from medical literature, women in the early twentieth century were gaining more freedoms and experiencing a resexualisation in popular thought – likely due to the increased economic necessity of marriage. If women no longer needed to get married to support themselves, then there should be another draw to it: sexual desire. This shift occurred alongside homosexual object choice being increasingly condemned for women, likely again as a means to protect heterosexual marriage.

An increase in concern about gender non-conforming men is linked to case histories of queer men indicating existing subcultures which were increasing in visibility, especially in New York, and as early as the 1880s.[37] It is important to note that the men in these case histories were identifying themselves as part of these subcultures, a significant step toward identity formation, and that these subcultures pre-dated the medical literature about them – as Chauncey states, “[t]hey were investigating a subculture rather than creating one”.[38]

As such, it is clear that medical and sexological literature was not acting alone or in a vacuum, but was influenced by and even responded to shifting social norms. These areas of sexology in particular are worthy of note and study as they relate heavily to current discourse: heterosexual marriage is still viewed as ‘under warfare’ by the conservative right, for example, and queerness is still overwhelmingly thought of in the ‘born this way’ paradigm exemplified in the pathologisation and medicalization of same-sex desire as well as in the case notes and autobiographies in both Krafft-Ebing and Moll’s work.[39]  

Additionally, as current discourse around sexuality encounters more and more fluidity beyond the hetero/homo binary and indeed beyond the additions of bisexuality, pansexuality, and so on, such as the existence of “gay for play” men, which refers to men who self-identify as straight but submit Casual Encounter listings on Craigslist looking for men to have sexual interactions with, and the “g0y” movement, an identity claimed by men who love men but do not identify as gay, queer, or homosexual, and who abhor anal sex, thorough analysis on the construction of hetero and homosexual identities and the fluid possibilities that preceded their dominance is especially significant.[40]

 

 

 

 

Bibiolography

Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006

Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989

Dettmer, Lisa. Beyond Gay Marriage, Weaving the Threads, 17, 2, 2010 http://reimaginerpe.org/node/5822

Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895

Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896)

Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905)

Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896

Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902)

Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis, 5th ed., 1980

Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis, 14th ed., 1912

Krafft-Ebing, R., “Zur ‘conträren Sexualemfindung’ in klinishc-forensicher Hinsicht”, 1882

Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893)

Oosterhuis, H., ‘Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s “Step-Children of Nature”: Psychiatry and the Making of Homosexual Identity’, in K.M. Phillips and B.Reay, eds, Sexualities in History: A Reader, New York, 2002

Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994

Szaz, T., Sex by Prescription. New York: Garden City, 1980

[1] Krafft-Ebing, R., “Zur ‘conträren Sexualemfindung’ in klinishc-forensicher Hinsicht”, 1882, pg 213-14.

[2] I use ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ throughout this essay as shorthand for same-sex attractions and behaviour; however it is important to note that this term is anachronistic and may often pre-date any queer, homosexual, or same-sex attracted identity.

[3] Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994, 11.

[4] Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006, 427.

[5] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 2.

[6] Szaz, T., Sex by Prescription. New York: Garden City, 1980, pg 19-20

[7] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s “Step-Children of Nature”: Psychiatry and the Making of Homosexual Identity’, in K.M. Phillips and B.Reay, eds, Sexualities in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, pg 279

[8] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

[9] Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis, 14th ed., 1912, pg 430 (quoted in Oosterhuis, ‘Step-Children of Nature’, pg 281)

[10] Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis, 5th ed., 1980, pg 129-30. (Quoted in Oosterhuis, ‘Step-Children of Nature’, pg 281)

[11] Oosterhuis, ‘Step-Children of Nature’, pg 283.

[12] Dettmer, Lisa. Beyond Gay Marriage, Weaving the Threads, 17, 2, 2010 http://reimaginerpe.org/node/5822

[13] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989, pg 129.

[14] Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902), 188

[15] Ibid.

[16] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 429.

[17] Ibid, 431.

[18] Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893), 139. Quoted in Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 432.

[19] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 433.

[20] Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896), 83.

[21] Ibid, 87.

[22] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 434.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905), 6.

[25] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 123.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, 124.

[28] Freud, Three Contributions, 8.

[29] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 125.

[30] Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896, 505. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 126.

[31] Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895, 142. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 127.

[32] Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

[33] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 128.

[34] Ibid, 139.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ellis, Sexual Inversion, 261. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 140.

[37] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 142.

[38] Ibid, 143.

[39] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity’

[40] “Gay for play” refers to men who self-identify as straight but submit Casual Encounter listings on Craigslist looking for men to have sexual interactions with. “g0y” is an identity claimed by men who love men but do not identify as gay, queer, or homosexual, and who abhor anal sex. For more, see http://g0y.org. For more analysis on the significance of non-queer identifying men engaging in same-sex behaviour, see Shields, J., Para: A Working of Contemporary Parasexuality, Auckland: Artspace NZ, 2015, http://artspace.org.nz/doclibrary/public/JenniferKatherineShields_para.pdf.

“Enigmatical, Obscure, Incomprehensible”: Fluid Sexuality in Turn of the Century Sexology and Its Impact on Current Queer Discourse

Written for a History of Sex paper at the University of Auckland in October 2015. I will also be presenting on this and related material at the trans/forming feminisms conference at the University of Otago in November.

The turn of the twentieth century is widely regarded as an extremely important era for sexology and the formation of the queer identities we know today.[1] It’s acknowledged as the period from which we get the labels, categories, and identities ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’, and sexological literature and discourse from the era has a pervasive impact on queer discourse today. However, sexology’s relationship with homosexuality is more ambiguous and complex than a simple and clear-cut categorisation into the homo/hetero binary.

In public discourse as well as areas of academia today, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homo/hetero binary dominates. This model, a “presiding master term” as she calls it, is one in which heterosexuality relies on homosexuality for its own existence and definition.[2] It is often interpreted as a strict, mutually exclusive binary, and Sedgwick does not question exactly how binarised this model is.[3] The model is still useful, however, in noting a particular shift at the turn of the century: “every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo-or hetero-sexuality”.[4] This now significant shift was the result of many smaller changes in ideological thought at the time: from deviance, to inversion, to finally the shift in focus from sexual act to sexual object choice.

Sexology initially discussed same-sex attraction and behaviour in terms of deviance and disease, in order to argue in the 1880s that conditions such as inversion, or contrary sexual feeling, were pathological and thus in the realm of medicine as opposed to law or religion.[5] This lead to the early medico-sexological position that same-sex attraction had two forms: congenital and acquired, as Krafft-Ebing called it, forms of antipathic sexual instinct. Krafft-Ebing also made a distinction between perversity and perversion: acquired antipathic sexual instinct was temporary and contextual; the determining factor was “the demonstration of perverse feeling for the same sex; not the proof of sexual acts with the same sex”.[6] He warned against confusing perversity and perversion, acquired and congential, and stated that there was “an immediate return to normal sexual intercourse as soon as the obstacles to it are removed”.[7] In contrast, congenital antipathic instinct stemmed from a pre-existing taint in particular individuals. In these cases, the ‘homosexual instinct’ overwhelmed the ‘heterosexual instinct’, a concept that prefigures later discourse on the subject.[8] Krafft-Ebing’s model of same-sex attraction included some notions of hereditary taint as well as influences such as masturbation and seduction. His model was one of morality, “the eternal struggle between a bestial sexual nature and the demands of civilized culture”.[9] This particular area of Krafft-Ebing’s thought was verified by Albert Moll, writing eight years later, who agreed that same-sex desires could stem from either hereditary or contextual causes. Moll however did not agree with or make use of Krafft-Ebing’s distinction between congenital and acquired inversion. Significantly, Moll expanded the contextual causes of inversion to include individuals who may experience temporal same-sex desires: someone “‘seized from time to time with homosexual desires’, even when a ‘heterosexual urge’ predominates within him”.[10]

The next major development came three years later in 1896 with Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion. Ellis did not conceive of same-sex desire as pathological, and heavily questioned the notions of pure or exclusive masculinity and femininity, arguing that everyone possessed ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics, and that the proportions of these varied in individuals. Ellis also proposed a new distinction between inversion and homosexuality, in which inversion was innate and homosexuality was the result of sociocultural context (for example, rates of homosexuality would increase in homosocial contexts such as boarding schools or prisons).[11] This new distinction replaced the model of congential vs acquired in his work, as Ellis found it had “ceased to possess significance”.[12] Ellis already was questioning the usefulness of homo/hetero categorisations, calling them “scarcely a scientific classification”, instead breaking down his notion of homosexuality into two forms, one ‘strong’ and one ‘weak’, including men who may have relationships with women.[13][14]

Ellis’ work led naturally to the work of Freud, even though they worked in different fields. Freud built on Ellis’ work and took it further, arguing against the existence of congenital attraction, due to his tripartite model of sexual attraction including ‘occasional inversion’, a preference for same-sex partners under certain contextual conditions.[15] Significantly, Freud believed in a polymorpheus model of attraction, under which individuals can potentially desire any sex: “it is something which is congenital in all persons”.[16] This universality challenged existing thought around inversion: if the potential for perversion was universal, then there could be no easy physical indication of inversion, and as such an individual’s sexual object choice was unlinked from their gender presentation. Freud also introduced a distinction between sexual aim and sexual object choice.[17] Prior to this, sexual aim was inextricably linked to social and gender role – if a man’s sexual aim was passive, he must be effeminate – and was of equal importance to object choice in classifying and categorising sexuality. Chauncey lays it out succinctly: “’men,’ whether biologically or male or female, necessarily chose passive women as their sexual objects.”[18] By the turn of the century object choice became the focus of classification, and due to the universality in Freud’s model, the passive or active sexual aim was no longer indicative of social role. This is an important and large step toward the model of object choice homosexual identity we are familiar with today.

There is a link, as Chauncey points out, between distinction of object choice and sexual aim and the increasing use of the term ‘homosexuality’.[19] During this time the term’s definition also crystallised, referring only to homosexual object choice without automatically implying gender variance or inversion of the normative male sexual role. It is interesting and important to note that this shift occurred significantly slower for women – Freud explicitly stated that social role inversion was a normal feature of female sexual inversion in his Three Essays, the same work in which he unlinked social role from sexual role for men.[20]

Earlier sexology, when studying relationships between a ‘masculine’ woman and a normative woman, tended to focus on the ‘masculine’ woman as the invert, considering the normative woman to be performing her proper social role under the heterosexual paradigm of the Victorian era, as Chauncey called it.[21] Under this paradigm the normative woman, who was passive and “decidedly feminine” according to Hamilton in 1896, was fulfilling her expected social role by acting as wife to someone of masculine character – as if she were married to a man.[22] As such the ‘feminine’ agent did not challenge the heterosexual paradigm and was not a major subject of study until the late nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that this relationship paradigm described the ‘masculine’ partner as the ‘offender’, and referred to the ‘feminine’ partner as “the weak victim”, mirroring and potentially influencing more current discourse and ideas around lesbians and lesbian partnerships: that is, the trope in public discourse of the ‘predatory’ lesbian, and intra-community discussions around butch/femme relationships. By the late nineteenth century these women began to concern the medical profession, and Ellis stated “we are accustomed to a much greater familiarity and intimacy between women than between men, and we are less apt to suspect the existence of any abnormal passion”.[23] This is another area in which sexology’s influence has perhaps remained in more current discourse, or at least in which it can continue to provide an insight. Such ideas are commonly seen in tabloid-like news articles about celebrities, in which any pair of women showing affection are labelled “gal pals” and assumed to be friends. Headlines in such articles can read as ludicrous, such as “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile”.[24]

Study of these ‘invert/normative’ relationships began to break down the heterosexual paradigm, as both partners were pathologised as lesbians due to object choice instead of sexual aim. The ‘wife’s role was no longer of victim but of active and complicit – however it was not until the late 1920s that it was ‘discovered’ that neither partner in these relationships was ‘playing the role of the man’ when a study performed by Lura Beam and Robert Latou Dickinson revealed that no lesbians in their study thought of themselves as performing the male part.[25] This challenge to the heterosexual paradigm served to highlight the shift toward object choice as the focus in classifying female sexual identity alongside male.

When considering sexology’s ambiguous relationship to homosexuality it is also important to examine possible cultural influences on the literature and vice versa – whether societal or medical shifts in thinking came first. Chauncey offers three developments in American society that he considers were an influence on sexological thinking: the visibility of urban gay male subcultures, the challenges posed to Victorian norms by women, both in the form of suffragettes and in women entering the wage-labor workforce, and the resexualisation of women in mainstream thought that stemmed from these challenges. Chauncey also cites medicine’s rise to ideological superiority over religion and law as influential.[26]

The entrance of women into the workforce led to a higher degree of social and economic independence, at the same time that marriage and birth rates in the middle-class were declining. In the 1880s onward this led to a crisis of masculinity of some sort as women were no longer reliant on men for economic support as well as other unrelated factors such as declining autonomy in men’s workplaces.[27] These challenges and the resulting crisis, Chauncey argues, led to a “sudden growth in the medical literature on sexual inversion” as a way to defend the existing sex/gender system and potentially stigmatise women who were performing a non-normative social role of independence as inverts and deviants. Ellis, in Sexual Inversion, quoted an unnamed “American correspondent” who stated that one of the reasons for the rise in inversion was “the growing independence of the women” and “their lessening need for marriage”.[28] Despite these challenges from medical literature, women in the early twentieth century were gaining more freedoms and experiencing a resexualisation in popular thought – likely due to the increased economic necessity of marriage. If women no longer needed to get married to support themselves, then there should be another draw to it: sexual desire. This shift occurred alongside homosexual object choice being increasingly condemned for women, likely again as a means to protect heterosexual marriage.

An increase in concern about gender non-conforming men is linked to case histories of queer men indicating existing subcultures which were increasing in visibility, especially in New York, and as early as the 1880s.[29] It is important to note that the men in these case histories were identifying themselves as part of these subcultures, a significant step toward identity formation, and that these subcultures pre-dated the medical literature about them – as Chauncey states, “[t]hey were investigating a subculture rather than creating one”.[30]

As such, it is clear that medical and sexological literature was not acting alone or in a vacuum, but was influenced by and even responded to shifting social norms. These areas of sexology in particular are worthy of note and study as they relate heavily to current discourse: heterosexual marriage is still viewed as ‘under warfare’ by the conservative right, for example, and queerness is still overwhelmingly thought of in the ‘born this way’ paradigm exemplified in the pathologisation and medicalization of same-sex desire as well as in the case notes and autobiographies in both Krafft-Ebing and Moll’s work.[31] Additionally, as current discourse around sexuality encounters more and more fluidity beyond the hetero/homo binary and indeed beyond the additions of bisexuality, pansexuality, and so on, such as the existence of “gay for play” men on Craigslist and the “g0y” movement, thorough analysis on the construction of hetero and homosexual identities and the fluid possibilities that preceded their dominance is especially significant.[32]


[1] I use ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ throughout this essay as shorthand for same-sex attractions and behaviour; however it is important to note that this term is anachronistic and may often pre-date any queer, homosexual, or same-sex attracted identity.

[2] Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994, 11.

[3] Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006, 427.

[4] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 2.

[5] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989, pg 129.

[6] Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902), 188

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 429.

[9] Ibid, 431.

[10] Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893), 139. Quoted in Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 432.

[11] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 433.

[12] Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896), 83.

[13] Ibid, 87.

[14] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 434.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905), 6.

[17] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 123.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 124.

[20] Freud, Three Contributions, 8.

[21] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 125.

[22] Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896, 505. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 126.

[23] Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895, 142. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 127.

[24] Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

[25] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 128.

[26] Ibid, 139.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ellis, Sexual Inversion, 261. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 140.

[29] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 142.

[30] Ibid, 143.

[31] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

[32] “Gay for play” refers to men who self-identify as straight but submit Casual Encounter listings on Craigslist looking for men to have sexual interactions with. “g0y” is an identity claimed by men who love men but do not identify as gay, queer, or homosexual, and who abhor anal sex. For more, see http://g0y.org. For more analysis on the significance of non-queer identifying men engaging in same-sex behaviour, see Shields, J., Para: A Working of Contemporary Parasexuality, Auckland: Artspace NZ, 2015, http://artspace.org.nz/doclibrary/public/JenniferKatherineShields_para.pdf.


Bibiolography

Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006

Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989

Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895

Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896)

Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905)

Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896

Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902)

Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893)

Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994

A Cult of Representation: Ignoring Harmful Ideologies in Favor of Queer Rep

Written in Oct 2015 for a Sociology of Gender paper at the University of Auckland

In her article on lesbian pulp novels and US lesbian identity, Yvonne Keller argues that academia and queer history have mistakenly ignored lesbian pulp novels published in the 1950s and 1960s due to what is viewed as a problematic nature. She argues that these novels, though typically written for and marketed to heterosexual men, provided accessible representation for lesbian women who otherwise would never see themselves in media, and that the novels provided a means for lesbian identity formation (Keller 2005). Today, I would argue, we have the opposite problem: a cult in which representation reigns supreme, obliterating all other critical analysis. Shows like Glee, The L Word, and even American Horror Story are lauded for their representation of queer and transgender characters, while critiques of the shows and the way they reify harmful norms and ideals fall to the wayside.

In Sarah Warn’s introduction to Reading the L Word we see a struggle with representation analogous to Keller’s argument about pulps: when you’re not represented, when you don’t see yourself in the media you consume, you will grab and hoard any representation that exists. Lesbians in the 1950s and 60s consumed lesbian pulps even though they were largely marketed at straight men and filled with generally negative content: women struggling with their identities and not getting a happy ending. In the early 2000s, queer representation on television was sparse: Warn discusses the sparse queer moments in television in her introduction. So when The L Word (then called Earthlings) was announced, it was big: “Someone was actually creating a show about lesbians?” (Warn 2006). It wasn’t just that The L Word had a singular lesbian character or issue or storyline, but it was about lesbians. Multiple lesbian characters who the show revolved around, who would interact with each other and have relationships and problems that weren’t just “I’m a lesbian”. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote very early into the show: “The sense of the lesbian individual, isolated or coupled, scandalous, scrutinised, staggering under her representational burden, gives way to the vastly livelier potential of a lesbian ecology” (Sedgewick 2004). Notably, just like the pulps of the mid-20th century, part of The L Word’s draw to network Showtime was its presumed appeal to straight men.

As The L Word aired and progressed, it grew immensely popular in the lesbian community. AfterEllen.com’s success is largely due to it and its fanbase; Autostraddle has countless “Top [X] Moments in The L Word” lists; and it’s difficult to find a social circle of lesbians who haven’t seen every episode. And not without reason: it was a long-running show with a lot of representation for lesbians – unfortunately, only a very specific subset of lesbian; the main characters are cis, wealthy, ‘lipstick’ lesbians. There is little diversity in The L Word and little sensitivity to other minority groups: trans women either don’t exist or are made fun of, and the trans masculine representation is supremely flawed.

However, it’s been 11 years since The L Word began airing and 6 since it finished: surely the state of queer representation has improved, right? It’s certainly spread – it’s a lot more common to see queer characters on shows (though usually one at a time), and shows like Glee have become the younger generation’s The L Word, with more than one queer character/issue/plotline at a time. The uncritical attitude toward representation hasn’t shifted in the same way: representation trumps other issues.

On the surface, Glee sounds ideal: a queer character in a cast of diverse ethnicities right off the bat, with more and more introduced throughout the seasons, including a Black trans woman by the third season. Glee has been lauded by media and thoroughly embraced by youth, queer or otherwise, as an example of a progressive show with good queer representation. Unfortunately, critical analysis of the series reveals its normative agenda and ideology.

Katherine Wolfenden’s article on Glee’s stereotypes and neoliberal flexibility provides a succinct and powerful summary and analysis of the problems with Glee as a show overall: specifically the way the show fails to challenge dominant thinking, social norms, and harmful ideologies. Glee is guilty of not only failing to deconstruct harmful systems like masculinity, but also of strengthening them by utilising lessons of acceptance and diversity to build these ideals into the hegemonic system (Wolfenden 2013). She does this using Robert McRuer’s notion of neoliberal flexibility, a model under which media, corporations, and normative majority populations can benefit from diversity, and under which minorities are tolerated and worked with instead of demonised. This model of flexibility does not guarantee positive and unproblematic representation, however: McRuer points out that in many representations

“disabled, queer figures no longer embody absolute deviance but are still visually and narratively subordinated, and sometimes they are elimated outright… heterosexual able-bodied characters in such texts work with queer and disabled minorities, flexibly contracting and expanding, while queer, disabled minorities flexibly comply” (McRuer 2006, 18)

Wolfenden sums it up nicely: “queer and disabled people appear in the media… so long as they are still subordinate to able-bodied, heterosexual characters” (Wolfenden 2013). In the case of Glee, it’d be easy to assume the minority characters on the show exist purely to provide a foil to the normative majority characters.

The first major example, used by Wolfenden in her article, is the treatment of Kurt, the effeminate gay boy in the show from the start, by the other characters – especially by the jocks, who perform hegemonic masculinity. Throughout the show Kurt is treated as one of the girls due to his sexuality and the effeminate masculinity he performs (both of which are implicitly equated by the show, another harmful societal norm reified but ignored in the desperate praise of both Kurt and his actor, Chris Colfer). Kurt’s brother, Finn, is a normative, heterosexual teenage boy: he’s the quarterback and is dating the HBIC-trope cheerleader. Finn is regularly called upon to protect Kurt, who is written to assume the role of the fragile, vulnerable, and effeminate gay boy, and when Finn inevitably gets past whichever societal barrier is preventing him from standing up for Kurt, he learns how to be a better man: not by example, but by protecting Kurt in the same way he would protect his girlfriend. This is made absolutely clear by his post-“manning up” speech performance of Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are, in which he sings both to Kurt and to Quinn, his girlfriend.

Two things are happening here. Firstly, the relationship between Kurt’s sexuality and his gender performance is emphasised and naturalised. Wolfenden points out that “Kurt may not be a manly man, but he can be understood and accepted as a functioning female” (Wolfenden 2013). Kurt cannot be accepted as a masculine gay man, but when he becomes one of the girls, he receives the acceptance and protection of his normative masculine brother. Secondly, and as a result of this, the show’s model of masculinity is shifted to include a form of tolerance – but a limiting and unchallenging one. Finn’s masculinity includes protecting Kurt – but Kurt as a gay man with an effeminate performed gender, as one of the girls. This leaves harmful notions of the sex/gender binary, of heteronormativity, of toxic masculinity, and of the exclusion of minorities untouched, unchallenged. It reifies the assumption that gay men are inferior, unable to perform masculinity appropriately, and that they are weaker and deserving of protection in the same way that women (who are also portrayed as inferior under this model) are.

The second major example of problematic representation involves the character of Unique Adams, a Black transgender woman introduced in season three. Right off the bat this character upholds harmful societal ideas about trans women: she is played by a cisgender male actor, an industry standard that leads to inaccurate and harmful portrayals, makes it extremely hard for trans women actresses to get work, and relies on the popular notion of the trans woman as “just a man in a dress”. Interestingly, Glee showrunner Ryan Murphy is also guilty of this in one of his other shows, American Horror Story: Freak Show, which features a transgender woman playing a ‘giant woman’ in the freakshow, the part of which was originally cast for a cisgender man (Leah 2014). The introduction of Unique was a step forward after no trans representation and the use of a transmisogynist slur in a season two episode about Rocky Horror. However, Unique’s character has very little to her, and simply becomes a foil for the other characters via the neoliberal flexibility discussed above, and a shell through which the show can explore gendered and race based discrimination (Sandercock 2015).

In her debut episode, Unique meets with Kurt and Mercedes, another Black woman. In this interaction and throughout her appearances, Unique is portrayed as aligned with and between these two characters – she is queer (by means of her gender, as she is straight – though Kurt immediately misassumes her to be a gay cisgender man) and Black. This is highlighted further as characters point out their similarities: one character can see no difference between Mercedes and Unique; another calls the two very similar nicknames; and Unique herself refers to herself as a love child of Mercedes and Kurt.

Keegan points out that transgender representations on screen (I would argue elsewhere, too) is reduced to emotive affect: “feeling bad” (Keegan 2013). This is necessary, under neoliberal flexibility, to represent queer characters while taking away their ability to embody deviance and thus challenge norms. McRuer discusses this necessity in the context of compulsory able-bodiedness:

“The culture asking [such questions as ‘wouldn’t you rather be hearing?’] assumes in advance that we all agree: able-bodied identities, ablebodied perspectives are preferable and what we all, collectively, are aiming for. A system of compulsory able-bodiedness repeatedly demands that people with disabilities embody for others an affirmative answer to the unspoken question, ‘Yes, but in the end, wouldn’t you rather be more like me?’” (McRuer 2006, 9)

This, I would argue, is the source of the ‘tragiqueer’ trope that pervades queer representation and harkens back to the lesbian pulps and earlier: queers in media don’t get happy endings, they don’t end up together, happily; they generally end in the death of at least one character. By representing queers as doomed to unhappiness, dominant forces prevent queer minorities from being able to challenge norms or provide an alternative to the hegemonic system.

Glee’s representation of Unique falls into this trope. Her storylines revolve around her trans identity and how it harms her or sets her back – the gendered school bathroom access storyline in season five gained positive media attention, but involved Unique being subject to transmisogynist violence which, in the real world, typically ends in a physical violence, often murder. The storyline is resolved when Unique is given access to a private faculty bathroom, but such a resolution only others and marginalises her further, instead of addressing the clear culture of transphobia and violence at the school.

One of Unique’s other major storylines involves romance – a topic that is typically a dangerous site for positive representation. Traci Abbott points out how “romantic contact stifled because the filmmaker fears the audience will read the trans character’s gender identity as inauthentic and the romance as transgressive” and that depictions of romance involving a trans character can “undermine the otherwise positive portrayal of the trans experience and reaffirm the dominant viewpoint that authentic gender is dependent upon birth sex rather than gender identity” (Abbott 2013, 34). It is worth noting that attraction of any kind to a trans person is fraught in our society, and the ‘deception’ that we seem to inherently embody is still grounds for the justification of murder in forty-nine out of fifty US states.

Unique’s romance plot is already housed in a tense context, then, and it sadly does nothing to challenge any of the ideological problems with the context. She plays the inaccurate trope of deceptive trans woman, pretending to be a thin, white, cisgender woman online in order to talk and flirt with a classmate, Ryder (another footballer), online. Via the persona of Katie, Unique helps Ryder to change his views towards her as well as his reliance on essentialism, an ideology inherently harmful to transgender people. However, as Sandercock points out, both Unique and ‘Katie’ express these views to him, but it is only Katie he considers seriously. This is as far as Unique and Ryder’s relationship progresses, with no on-screen intimacy involving Unique, only reifying Abbott’s trans/romance dilemma. Unique’s attempt at romance reinforces the trope of trans woman as deceptive, does not challenge heteronormative assumptions about sexuality and gender, and while it highlights Ryder’s racism in listening to Katie but not Unique, it does little further.

It’s easy to understand the urge to reach out and grab on to whatever representation you can find. Growing up with no reflections of yourself makes queer and trans identity formation hard. However, the uncritical cult of representation that we see in public discourse today is harmful. It’s all well and good for cis white queers – representations of them are less and less rare. But those representations are all too often paired with harmful representations of those marginalised within the queer community. Those representations are all too often utilised by the normative majority to justify their own positions. Perhaps what we need is a new L Word; one filled so thoroughly with minority representations that we no longer are the minority; one that does not utilise our representations to justify harmful normative ideals.

Bibliography

Abbott, Traci B. “The trans/romance dilemma in Transamerica and other films.” The Journal of American Culture, no. 36 (2013): 32-41.

Keegan, C.M. “Moving bodies: sympathetic migrations in transgender narrativity.” Genders, no. 57 (2013).

Keller, Yvonne. “”Was It Right To Love Her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?”: Lesbian Pulp Novels and US Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965.” American Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2005): 385-410.

Leah, Thomas. ‘AHS: Freak Show’ Transgender Actress Erika Ervin Is Changing Things on Television in a Big Way. 2014. http://www.bustle.com/articles/43406-ahs-freak-show-transgender-actress-erika-ervin-is-changing-things-on-television-in-a-big-way (accessed September 2015).

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Sandercock, T. “Transing the small screen: loving and hating transgender youth in Glee and Degrassi.” Journal of Gender Studies 24, no. 4 (2015): 436-452.

Sedgewick, Eve Kosofsky. “‘The L Word’: Novelty in Normalcy.” Chronicle of Higher Education 50, no. 19 (2004): B10-B11.

Warn, Sarah. “Introduction.” In Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television, edited by K Akass and J McCabe, 1-8. London: IB Tauris, 2006.

Wolfenden, Katherin. “Challenging Stereotypes in Glee, or Not? Exploring Masculinity and Neoliberal Flexibility.” Student Pulse 5, no. 2 (2013).

Enormous, Threatening, Yet Dimly Perceivable: On Creating Radical and Threatening Postmodern Art Under Late Capitalism

Written for an essay/blog assessment in a sociology of pop culture course at the University of Auckland in September 2015.

As I occupy the dual and potentially conflicting position of sociologist/radical activist and current practicing artist necessarily working under and influenced by postmodernism, the question “what’s wrong with postmodernism?” has challenged me. My path to becoming an artist is one defined by postmodernism and an interest in it, from studying Visual Culture in high school to entering Elam School of Fine Arts on a portfolio created in two months after never having practiced art in my life, to my current research and writing-focussed practice and the related show at Artspace last October. I am not an artist of traditional modernist technical skill – I cannot paint or draw representatively, for one. My work is conceptual and stems from my academic interests in history, sociology, and social justice. Postmodernism has appeal to me in its interest in the voices of the Other, as within the artworld as it stands I am part of the Other.

The critical attitude toward postmodernism in this course and related readings has thus challenged me: as Ciara expounded on the commerciality of Damien Hirst’s work and questioned its status as art, I was thinking “yes, but it’s still art, and the commerciality is part of its message, part of what makes it art, not less worthy,” even as the critical sociologist in me agreed with her statements.

It was not until reading Jameson’s The Postmodern Condition, Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that I began to connect with the critiques on a more personal level, on the level of artist. While listening to lectures and reading Adorno I couldn’t help but feel the critiques were somewhat elitist, happy to critique popular culture or a younger generation without critiquing Modernism or high art. Jameson clarified this point for me, pointing out that the Modernist classics have been assimilated into Western cultural canon and the academic institution, so that I and my peers, growing up long after the growth of postmodernism, view the Modernist classics as distant, dead figures, worshipped by our elders – they are, to us, signs of the elite and bourgeoisie artworld (Jameson 1993, 4). Cremin’s statement that modernist movements were unified in opposition to market forces became clearer when I wasn’t constantly prepared to defend postmodernism – my practicing artist peers in particular – from what I interpreted as one-sided elitist critique (Cremin Kāhore he rā, 1).

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From Jameson’s The Postmodern Condition

This clarification was revelatory to me, enabling me to critique postmodernism without being put on the defensive; postmodernism being all I know, being submerged in it, as Jameson puts it (Jameson 1993, 48). Suddenly the critiques of postmodernism became more clear. I saw its inherent connection to capitalism and market forces. I saw how the technologies I was so interested in as an artist were more, a ghostly and ungraspable global network of capital, of power, of control (Jameson 1993, 38). I saw how the once sublime Nature was literally physically eradicated by capitalism and its structures (physical and otherwise) and how this very network took its place as the postmodern sublime.

I then had to ask, if there is no critical distance under postmodernism, as we are all necessarily submerged in it, how can one create radical art? When popularity or recognition is inherently necessary to reach people with a radical message, and popularity immediately translates into familiarity (Adorno’s work was important here) and exchange values and is thus immediately commodified, how do you produce radical art without simply falling into capital (Adorno 2001, 30)? Is it possible to work from within when exchange value obliterates use value, or the message? Jameson refers to cognitive mapping to talk about a possible radical postmodern art, saying that such an art would have to make clear that ghostly and ungraspable network of power and control, enabling the individual to locate themselves within it (Jameson 1993, 54).

In Marxian analysis, only the collective is capable of this when the individual is situated within such a totality (Jameson 2002, 274). In Foucauldian analysis, the only way to challenge global capitalism without simply recreating its oppressive and repressive elements is a grassroots, localised, pluralistic attack – note that pluralism is a core tenet of postmodernism itself (Harvey 1997, 46). Foucault himself exemplifies this in his work with prisoners and homosexuals – categories of individuals more visible to power than most. Unlike current populist action, his work in these areas was not toward state or institutional reform, which necessarily only strengthens the institution to critique, but instead in empowering resistance within these groups to institutions of organised oppression.

So according to these two analyses, the radical and threatening postmodern art must be collective, localised, pluralistic. I look around me at the artistic institutions and networks I am involved with and I see mere glimpses of possibilities of this within the artist-run scene primarily dominated by students. I see people who are engaging with mass media and the culture industry, engaging with film and music and dance, but are resisting commodification in a way by never putting a price tag on their work, never selling their work, never producing work that can be sold. In the postmodernist style they are producing performances, happenings, art that is simply people being in a space together, dancing for hours or even days on end, for example (MacDonald 2015) (club 2014). I look at my own work, recently zines produced cheaply and sold for the cost of materials and shipping, previously work at a large institution with money at hand producing writing attempting to challenge it from within. I know that I could be doing better in my attempts to challenge, in my attempts to reveal the unknowable network of late capitalism; I recall having to tone down my writing to not bite the hand that feeds me. I am not there yet – art is not there yet, but it exists on a pluralistic, a collective, a localised scale, and it has potential.

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor. On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening. London: Routledge, 2001.

club, D.A.N.C.E art. “Guinness World Record Attempt.” Artspace NZ. W e l c o m e. Auckland, 2014.

Cremin, C. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. n.d.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1997.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. London: Routledge, 2002.

Jameson, Fredric. The Postmodern Condition, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1993.

MacDonald, Theo. GO OUT > STAY IN > GET THINGS DONE. Inky Palms, Auckland, 2015.

Biopower, death, and normative biopolitical genocide

Written for a sociology paper at University of Auckland, April 2015


“In a normalising society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable.” (Foucault, 1976, pg.256)

Judith Butler believes that certain acts of violence are justified while others are ignored. In ‘Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear,’ she discusses the response to the attacks on September 11th, 2001, and the resulting “war on terror” in the Middle East. When she talks about how violence perpetrated by the United States is justified or ignored, Butler (2004) is talking about Foucault’s concepts of biopower and state racism – concepts relevant across different nations, states, and populations.

Biopower, defined by Foucault in The Will to Knowledge and Society Must Be Defended, both in 1976, is a mode of power over life that focusses on the body as a living entity, as part of a species – as opposed to discipline, the mode of power that views the body as a machine, something to be integrated into economic systems in the most efficient means. Biopower exists alongside and in opposition to the sovereign right to kill – instead, biopower focusses on life; extending it, keeping it and the population healthy. These two concepts exist in tandem only via the means of what Foucault (1976) calls state racism, that is, the defining by the state of a privileged population, and consequently also an Other, a foreign population, whether inside the state’s borders or out, that poses a threat to the integrity of the state’s privileged population. Stemming from the combination of biopower and state racism is a normative biopolitical genocide; that is, the killing – or more often, the letting die – of the Other in order to protect the integrity, health, and life of the privileged population. As Foucault says in The Will to Knowledge, “one might say that the ancient [sovereign] right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (Foucault, 1976, pg.138).

In ‘Explanation and Exoneration’ Butler talks about acts of violence and war committed by the United States justified by both foreign policy decisions and through the reasoning of self-defence (Butler, 2004, pg.4). These foreign policy decisions are made, naturally, by the state, and are part of the process of defining the Other that threatens the integrity of their population. So, too, is the self-defence rationalisation a state-defined one, as it stems from the Bush administration declaring the attacks of September 11 as declarations of war. Even the usage of the term “terrorist” becomes a way to define an Other – it is never used by the state to refer to violence committed by its own power. As Butler exemplifies it: “The term ‘terrorist’ is used… by the Israeli state to describe any and all Palestinian acts of resistance, but none of its own practices of state violence” (pg.4). Another means of justification of state violence is indeed the intentional overlooking or dismissal of those events – in particular if they are not committed against the state’s privileged population. Again, from Butler herself: “Our own acts of violence do not receive graphic coverage in the press, and so they remain acts that are justified in the name of self-defence” (pg.6).

Biopower is used to create and justify this normative biopolitical genocide in essentially every Western state. In neoliberal and colonial societies like Aotearoa, the indigenous population is, more often than not, part of the Other that threatens the privileged population, and the violence against them that both kills and lets them die comes in the form of incarceration rates, low access to healthcare, and institutionalised racism. The privileged population can essentially be characterised as Audre Lorde’s “mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is within this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside” (Lorde, 1984). The privileged population extends further than this norm and is not an even field of power distribution; it is useful to think of what this population is centred around: white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied people – that is, those with privilege and power in society.

Transmisogyny as normative biopolitical genocide

Perverted sexuality has effects at the level of the population, as anyone who has been sexually debauched is assumed to have a heredity. Their descendants also will be affected for generations, unto the seventh generation and unto the seventh of the seventh and so on. This is the theory of degeneracy: given that it is the source of individual diseases and that it is the nucleus of degeneracy, sexuality represents the precise point where the disciplinary and the regulatory, the body and the population, are articulated. (Foucault, 1976, p.232)

Applying an intersectional framework to the concept of a privileged population, as a disabled, queer, neuroatypical trans woman, I am not wholly part of this population. As Pākehā, I need less protection as I am less exposed to more systems of violence as the trans women of colour I know; and as the privileged population is an uneven field rather than a definitive category, I gain certain memberships and protections for being white, but I am nonetheless a target of the normative biopolitical genocide in our society. I am a target for being disabled, and for being queer, and for being mentally ill, but the most powerful experience of it, for me, is for being all three of those as well as being trans. I mention this because I feel it is important to situate myself and my lived experience before the following discussion of how biopower is utilised in this normative genocide that leads to an overall life expectancy of around 32 – lower for trans women of colour.

Biopower is necessarily interested in demography and its control, as it is focussed around the control of life – as such, statistics around death and birth rates, life expectancies, etc, are relevant to its domain. We have a little data on trans death rates and life expectancies – done mostly within the community, for as the state-defined Other, we are a threat to the protected population rather than contributing to it. Additionally, according to normative views, transgender people do not reproduce, and so would not contribute to the life of the nation even if the state wanted us to – which it categorically does not. In the early stages of Western trans medicalisation – that is, the pathologisation of being transgender that led to it being something to be treated with medicine – sterilisation was an implicit required outcome of treatment. In fact, Sweden, for example, only recently removed enforced sterilisation from the requirements to legally change one’s sex (Nelson, 2013). In The Will to Knowledge, Foucault (1976) talks about biopower as “the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others” (p.138); the forced sterilisation of trans people is one of these rights. It enforces our sterility, our inability to contribute ‘inferior’ or dangerous genetic material to the privileged population of the state, and is an integral tool to the normative biopolitical genocide that is attempting to eradicate us.

“It was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body” (Foucault, 1976, p.143)

While discourse within the trans community has shifted, popular external and ‘professional’ opinion is still a heavily medicalised one that has shifted little since the 1960s – that is, to be trans one must experience dysphoria and one must desire full medical transition (both hormone treatment and all the appropriate surgeries). This discourse is one that requires trans people to submit themselves to the medical system and thus to state surveillance and violence. We are judged on our identities and our ‘transness’ – whether we meet the very strict, very Western colonial-imperialist criteria for being trans (that is, binary, presenting extremely feminine, with no room for androgyny or genders beyond male or female). Many of us are unable to gain access to this system, and many more are immediately diagnosed with borderline personality disorder as a ‘reason’ for our discomfort with our assigned genders. In short, the healthcare system neglects us, was designed to exclude us and pathologise us. This links to Foucault’s idea of ‘indirect murder’ (1976, p.256) – Mark Kelly (2004) defines it as exposing some to “greater risks to which the body of the population would not normally be exposed” (pg.60) and applies it to contemporary societies in Racism, Nationalism and Biopolitics: “Every state does still need to make a distinction between those it keeps alive (and every state does have a welfare system and health service which work towards these ends) and those it kills (foreign enemies in war, executed criminals), together with those it merely allows to be exposed to greater risk of death (the victims of Third World famines, its own poor and elderly citizens)” (pg. 61)(emphasis mine). By simultaneously forcing us to engage with a violently exclusionary medical system as well as excluding us from that system, the state is preventing us from receiving the care it provides to its privileged population, and is engaging in indirect murder.

In the same way that acts of violence perpetrated in the Middle East by the United States do not receive coverage and thus remain glossed over and justified, so too are acts of violence perpetrated by the privileged population justified and/or ignored. In fourty-nine out of fifty American states, it is legal to argue that you were justified in killing a woman because you were about to sleep with her, then discovered she was trans. It was only in September 2014 that California banned the ‘trans panic’ defence in murder cases (Molloy, 2014). The panic defence was used successfully as recently as 2010 in Aotearoa, to downgrade a murder charge to one of manslaughter (The Dominion Post, 2010). Butler (2004) says that the acts of violence in the Middle East are “justified in the name of self-defence, but by a noble cause, namely, the rooting out of terrorism” (pg.6). Just as those acts are noble in the defence against terrorism, violence against trans women is justified by the state and its legislation, and considered noble by many in society – Galloway, one of the men who murdered Diksy Jones, told police she “did not deserve to be in the world” (The Dominion Post, 2010).

We are at risk of higher rates of substance abuse and suicide (Clark, me ētahi atu, 2013). Trans women of colour in particular are at higher risk of violent attacks and deaths – in the first seven weeks of 2015, seven trans women were murdered, six of them trans women of colour (Kellaway, 2015). We’re at higher risk of domestic violence and abuse. We have significantly lower access to state services, such as healthcare, police, and welfare. In Aotearoa trans women are imprisoned in men’s prisons where they are subject to rape and abuse (Department of Corrections) (Shields, 2015). Both the state and their privileged population have little to no interest in improving these conditions – as a member of a group who protested these very conditions at Auckland Pride Parade this year, we received very little support and a lot of abuse.

Foucault (1976) states that state racism “does make the relationship of war – ‘if you want to live, the other must die’ – function in a way that is completely new and that is quite compatible with the exercive of biopower” (pg.255). The ‘completely new’ way he references is normative biopolitical genocide. To put it simply: normative biopolitical genocide turns existing in a society in which you are not a part of the state’s privileged population into existing in a warzone.


Bibliography

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London/New York: Verso.

Clark, T. C., Lucassen, M. F., Bullen, P., Denny, S. J., Fleming, T. M., Robinson, E. M., & Rossen, F. V. (2013). The Health and Well-Being of Transgender High School Students: Results From the New Zealand Adolescent Health Survey (Youth’12). Journal of Adolescent Health.

Department of Corrections. (n.d.). Transgender and Intersex Prisoner. Retrieved April 2, 2015, from Department of Corrections: http://www.corrections.govt.nz/resources/Prison-Operations-Manual/Movement/M.03-Specified-gender-and-age-movements/M.03-4.html

Foucault, M. (1976). Society Must Be Defended. (D. Macey, Trans.)

Foucault, M. (1976). The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. (R. Hurley, Trans.) Maryborough, Victoria, Australia: Penguin.

Kellaway, M. (2015, February 20). Miami: Seventh Trans Woman Murdered in U.S. in 2015. Retrieved from Advocate.com: http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/02/20/miami-seventh-trans-woman-murdered-us-2015

Kelly, M. (2004). Racism, Nationalism and Biopower: Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended. Contretemps, 58-69.

Lorde, A. (1984). Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. In M. Marable, & L. Mullings, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resitance, Reform, and Renewal; An African American Anthology (pp. 538-544). New York: Bowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Molloy, P. (2014, September 29). California Becomes First State to Ban Gay, Trans ‘Panic’ Defenses. Retrieved from Advocate.com: http://www.advocate.com/crime/2014/09/29/california-becomes-first-state-ban-gay-trans-panic-defenses

Nelson, R. (2013, January 14). Swedish Law Requiring Transgender People to be Sterilised Repealed. Retrieved from TIME.com: http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/01/14/transgender-people-in-sweden-no-longer-face-forced-sterilization/

Shields, J. K. (2015, February 12). What Do We Have to Be Proud Of? Corrections Officers at Pride and Trans Women in our Prison System. Retrieved from Jennifer Katherine Shields: https://jenniferkateshields.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/what-do-we-have-to-be-proud-of-corrections-officers-at-pride-and-trans-women-in-our-prison-system/

The Dominion Post. (2010, November 05). Men guilty of Manslaughter in Diksy case . Retrieved from Stuff.co.nz: http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/4312904/Men-guilty-of-Manslaughter-in-Diksy-case

Score! Rugby, Masculinity, Heteronormativity, and Queer Deaths

written for a reading response assignment for socio 101: sociology of aotearoa, at the university of auckland in february 2015.


“I was hoping I was going to kill myself before people found out then… nobody would have known that I was going to. I didn’t want to embarrass my family, which is what I thought would happen when people found out I was gay – if they found out I was gay. But I never ever thought I was going to get to the stage where I am now. I never knew that it was possible to live and be happy as a gay person. And as soon as I realised that I was a gay person it seemed completely impossible to be happy.” (‘Andy’, cited in Town, 1999, p. 135)

“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.” (Alcorn, 2014)

Masculinity has many negative outcomes in society, for men and others. As it stands, the construction of masculinity in Aotearoa is heavily influenced by sport, in particular rugby, which, according to Richard Pringle, holds a privileged sociocultural position in our society (Pringle, 2007).

Richard Pringle’s article, ‘Sport, Males, and Masculinity’ provides a solid overview of the influence of sport on masculinity, and a good basis for critique of both sport and masculinity in Aotearoa. Pringle introduces Raewyn Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity and discusses how it has dominated sport sociology in the last two decades. Hegemonic masculinity describes the socially valued, privileged, and idealised version of masculinity that is held above all other forms, implementations, and performances of masculinity. While dependent on and influenced by context, hegemonic masculinity almost always puts men in power, and more often than not it is exclusively heterosexual and anti-feminine. Importantly, hegemonic masculinity is not embodied by all men, but rather is something that men may aspire to. Connell uses the term “complicit masculinity” to refer to men who do not enact a strong dominance or embody hegemonic masculinity but receive the beneifts of patriarchy regardless (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Connell uses Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which describes “how a ruling class or group establishes and maintains cultural dominance over subordinate groups” as well as the way the subordinated legitimise the system of beliefs enacted by the dominant group (Pringle, 2007). As a result, hegemonic masculinity not only describes the dominance of men over women but naturalises it along with certain ways of performing masculinity.

Pringle then critiques the use of hegemonic masculinity, citing Helen Yeates’ discussions of Australian rugby leage and its commodification, stating that increased media intrusion and the appearance of players in magazines for women shows them in “softer social contexts” (Pringle, 2007, p. 363). Toby Miller also provided a similar argument, saying that players’ bodies were marketed not just for straight, complicitly masculine men, but also straight women and gay men (note: although the hegemonic ideal of masculinity is heterosexual, gay men still receive benefits from the patriarchy on the basis of being men and can be considered complicitly masculine). This is not a coherent critique of hegemonic masculinity’s use in sport sociology for two reasons: firstly, Connell addresses the potential for hegemonic masculinities to change in her 2005 revisitation:

“Hegemonic masculinities therefore came into existence in specific circumstances were open to historical changes. More precisely, there could be struggle for hegemony, and older forms of masculinity might be displaced by new ones.” (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 832-3)

Secondly, the idea that the marketing of the bodies of the oppressors to the marginalised somehow negates the oppression is not coherent – in fact, it is a function of Gramscian hegemony. The idealisation of a specific kind of body and a specific performance of masculinity is no more than an hegemonic tool to encourage the subordinated to legitimise their subordination (Gramsci, 1971).

The only coherent critique provided by Pringle of hegemonic masculinity’s use in this area is a Foucauldian one. Hegemonic masculinity relies on a top-down model of power, stemming from a ruling class and acting upon the subjugated. As such, the model of power it utilises is purely hierarchical and sorts people into distinct categories, with the potential to ignore key distinctions and differences. Instead, Foucault theorised power to be a relational concept and not a substance that could be possessed or acquired (Foucault M. , 1983; Foucault M. , 1978). Foucauldian post-structural analysis of power examines each individual in an interaction and how power is being exerted or expressed in that relationship, and as a result does not obscure the key differences that a Marxist theory of power such as hegemonic masculinity does.

Pringle provides evidence from qualitative studies around the production of masculinities that value aggression, pain tolerance, and risk taking, along with the associated cultures of sexism and alcoholism. Rugby grew out of a culture that believed that physical sport would create “real men” and would push down feminine characteristics, enabling and reifying a gender order. Sport has been so heavily associated with femininity that to fail at sport is akin to failing at being manly – contributing to the fragility of masculinity that ostensibly leads to emotional problems and potentially domestic abuse. In my experience, “sporty” or “manly” men tend to be a lot more aggressive and threatening, and not just physically.

Shane Town’s research on young gay men in ‘Queer(y)ing Masculinities in Schools’ provides a specific if narrow insight into queer experiences in the school system. Town outlines three practices enacted in schools that enable and support a culture of heteronormativity, which in turn supports a culture of homophobia. These three practices are a) silence both in and outside of class about sexuality (especially homosexuality), b) the pathologisation of homosexuality by the implicit linking of it to HIV/AIDS in the health curriculum, and c) the strict policing of heterosexual masculinity, predominantly through violence, homophobic abuse, and social conformity. (Town, 1999)

All the young men in Town’s study report staying closeted in school due to fear of the consequences of coming out. The article starts with one of the students talking about how he would pray for God to make him straight, and directly attributes it to the school: “I guess that is how much the school and community had conditioned me” (Town, 1999, p.135). The practices lead to a culture of absolute heteronormativity. In art history classes teachers would talk about how Michelangelo and Da Vinci were arrested for sodomy, directly portraying homosexuality as negative. When AIDS was brought up in the health curriculum it was linked to homosexuality, inducing a fear for the students’ physical health and creating an avoidance of sexual contact.

Town’s research indicates that the “correct” performance of masculinity is a heterosexual one. Any indication of homosexuality indicates a failure at masculinity, and any failure at masculinity indicates a homosexual identity. Compulsory heterosexuality, an aspect of heteronormativity, means that many queer youth take until their mid to late teens to come to understand their identities, myself included.

Both Pringle and Town make explicit references to rugby as a masculinising (and thus a heteronormative) practice. Pringle describes rugby has occupying a privileged socio-cultural position in Aotearoa – evidenced by its dominance of the sports (and often non-sports) media, attention in schools, and its influence on social life. He points out that the understanding of rugby as “a man’s sport” means female players are marginalised as not conforming to expected gender norms, and that men not interested in rugby are marginalised in a similar manner. To play rugby is to perform masculinity. This is also evident in Town’s study, as many of his interviewees refer to the first XV and the first XV ‘type’ of boy being the ones to utilise homophobic abuse. The violent nature of rugby outlined in Pringle’s work makes a reappearance in Town’s study, where taking part in violent situations was a “significant part of their ability to project and maintain public, masculine and heterosexual images” (Town, 1999). It is in this way that performances of heterosexual masculinity is linked to violence and homophobia, and how the culture of heteronormativity in schools leads to a sibling culture of homophobia among the students: they enforce heterosexuality and masculinity via violence and homophobic abuse and slurs. If a student does not perform masculinity well enough they are considered effeminate and thus queer. In Town’s study, this lead to even the young gay students abusing others in an attempt to keep up their reputation as straight and masculine.

Both Pringle’s and Town’s papers speak to my experiences of high school as a queer trans woman who did not come out until university, as queer youth of all identities have shared experiences in terms of erasure and abuse. While I never held any particular interest in performing any form of masculinity even when I thought I was a man, the lack of community and education and the fear of my identity hits home. As a victim of abuse at the hands of men both in childhood and adolescence I am ideologically opposed to the violent and bigoted form of masculinity rugby contributes to the construction of. This relates to what I found missing from Pringle’s analysis along with many other articles in the study of masculinity: there is a prioritising of the detriments of masculinity for men, as opposed to the ways it may contribute to violence and abuse of women and children. As Pringle states, there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that cases of domestic violence increase during televised screenings of All Blacks matches (Jessup, 1999, cited in Pringle, 2007). This is a reflection of my past experiences with liberal feminism, in which men must be appealed to via explaining the effects of patriarchy on them in order to gain their support.

While Town’s research is worthwhile and obviously important, it falls into the trap that most queer theorists do: that of focussing exclusively on cis gay men, to the detriment of others. While I am not denying the struggles that young gay men go through, mental health statistics for trans youth paint a much more depressing picture. None of the youth in Town’s study had attempted suicide, whereas a recent study in New Zealand schools shows that over 41% of self-identifying trans students show significant depressive symptoms (as opposed to 12% of the cis population), 45.5% self-harmed (23% of cis students), and 20% attempted suicide (4.1% of cis students) (Clark, me ētahi atu, 2013). A similar study from the same report showed similar worrying rates for other queer youth today, showing that even with the notion of widespread societal acceptance, little in our schools has changed. The quote at the start of this essay from Leelah Alcorn, a trans woman who took her life late last year, highlights this clearly.

As an active advocate for queer and trans youth in schools, the knowledge that studies were done in the late 90s proving that change needed to happen is extremely distressing, especially with the recent Youth’12 data proving that relatively little has actually changed. These papers have highlighted a problem in schools I had not previously considered alongside improving the curriculum and bullying policies: the prioritisation of typically masculine pursuits such as rugby over everything else. This will become another focus of my work on making things safer for our youth.


Alcorn, L. (2014, December 28). Retrieved from https://jenniferkateshields.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/leelah-alcorn-and-cultural-transmisogyny/

Clark, T. C., Lucassen, M. F., Bullen, P., Denny, S. J., Fleming, T. M., Robinson, E. M., & Rossen, F. V. (2013). The Health and Well-Being of Transgender High School Students: Results From the New Zealand Adolescent Health Survey (Youth’12). Journal of Adolescent Health.

Connell, R., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender and Society, 19, 829-859. doi:10.177/0891243205278639

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality: Vol 1. An introduction. (R. Hurley, Trans.) New York: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1983). On the genealogy of ethics: an overview of work in progress. In H. Dreyfus, & P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics (pp. 208-26). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from prison notebooks. (Q. Hoare, & G. N. Smith, Trans.) London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Jessup, P. (1999, August 27). Suspicion lingers of sporting fouls. The New Zealand Herald, A4. Auckland, New Zealand: The New Zealand Herald.

Pringle, R. (2007). Sport, Males, and Masculinity. In C. Collins, & S. Jackson, Sport in Aotearoa/New Zealand Society (pp. 203-215). Auckland: Thomson.

Town, S. (1999). Queer(y)ing Masculinities in Schools: Faggots, Fairies, and the First XV. In R. Law, H. Campbell, & J. Dolan, Masculinities in Aotearoa/New Zealand (pp. 166-186). Palmerston North: Dunmore.

The “Normal Body”, its Construction, and its Abolition.

written for a brief test for a 100-level Women’s Studies paper at the University of Auckland in August 2014.

The “normal” body is obviously a highly contentious issue. A “normal” body in the West is white, cisgender (one could argue even male), able both physically and mentally, is skinny, toned, or muscly, and is a lot rarer than the concept of “normal” would suggest. As Audre Lorde says, this norm is mythical, and “each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me’’.[1]

The concept of a “norm” is complex, and one that the theorist Foucault did a lot of work on, especially in how power relates with and resides within this norm. By examining places of deviance both physical – hospitals, asylums, and prisons – and otherwise (most notably sexuality) Foucault theorised the concept of the “Eye of Authority” – we are being watched by ‘Authority’, or those residing within the norm, and being judged for deviating.[2] It is this judgement and the threat of social ostracism that attempts to push people to confine to the norm.

The existence of a norm naturally creates an Other, and this is another function that is used to further coerce people into confining as much as possible and challenging as little as possible. The process of Othering, as Foucault describes it, is the disciplining of us into a (normative) social pattern – it is the “process whereby the subject is defined by identifying it against what it is not”.[3] As Beauvoir writes in “The Second Sex”: “She [woman] is defined & differentiated with reference to man, not he with reference to her. She is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the Absolute. She is the Other.”[4] This is notably in opposition to biological research in which the female is the biological norm, and the male is a variation on this norm – that is, female is default.  It is also not a universal idea – in Ancient Greece, masculinity was earned though masculine acts, and every man had the threat and terror of reverting to the default of femininity through losing his masculinity. This shows the power of the constructed norm and of the systems within society that support it.

Systems and institutions within society are created around this concept of the norm and serve the function of supporting it while punishing the Other. This becomes especially obvious where the Other comes into contact with a system that should be relatively neutral – the medical system is a good example. When an Other makes it to the system – which is not always a guarantee, considering many Othered people have lower chances of seeing a doctor in New Zealand, perhaps due to the way the system treats them – that system treats them inadequately, often taking assumptions on race or gender as to how the patient wishes to be treated or how the patient could be treated.[5] This is exemplified in the NZ medical system by the fact that only 2% of Maori diagnosed with clinical depression were offered medication as opposed to 45% of non-Maori patients with the same diagnosis.[6] It is also exemplified by the non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants, with the sole purpose of “normalising” in the malformed belief that a child cannot grow up healthy if their body and thus developing gender identity does not fit within a certain binary system.

These systems and societal ideas form a feedback loop that serves only to strengthen this “mythical norm”. The norm benefits a small portion of Western society and is detrimental to the rest. It sees both women and men striving to achieve largely detrimental physical forms, it sees children operated on at birth, an operation which is often never talked about, and growing up with severe trauma, and it is not an exaggeration to say that this norm is the cause of many deaths per year.[7] I would extend Audre Lorde’s quote to: “that is not me, it has never been me, it will never be me, and I will have nothing to do with it outside the cause of dismantling it.”

 

[1] Phyllis Herda, “The Construction of Gendered Identities”. (Lecture, WOMENS 100, University of Auckland, July 24, 2014)

[2] Phyllis Herda, “Constructing Normality”. (Lecture, WOMENS 100, University of Auckland, August 26, 2014)

[3] Herda, “The Construction of Gendered Identities”.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “A fair go in Health,” Human Rights Commission NZ, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.hrc.co.nz/key-projects/a-fair-go-for-all/a-fair-go-in-health/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tamara Alexander, “The Medical Management of Intersexed Children: An Analogue for Childhood Sexual Abuse”, Intersex Society of North America, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.isna.org/articles/analog