Problems with Polarization: A Critique of the Gay or Straight Model

Spring 2009
Experience and Other Evidence Essays

Article 3 of 12

Like many others, I was brought up with very rigid views of sexuality, especially with regards to sexual orientation.  People came in one of two packages: heterosexual and homosexual.  For a while I never questioned this categorization, assuming it was a natural state.  However, as I learned more, I started to see flaws in a polarized construct of human sexuality.  As history shows, a binomial definition of sexual orientation has not always existed.  Historians have postulated that homosexuality is largely a social construction.  Scientific surveys and psycho-analysis have shown that human sexual behavior is more nuanced than a “straight or gay” system.  Also, my experiences, such as my attendance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a sexually charged hybrid of film and theatre, illustrate contradictions in a straight or gay world view.  Human sexuality, rather than a natural, constant state, is largely dictated by society, and society’s construct of binomial sexual orientation poorly reflects observed behaviors.

The view of a binomial sexuality has not always existed; it only became concretized with a rise in biological sciences.  The ancient Greeks would have puzzled by a classification based the gender of their sexual partners (Mottier 4).  Sex, to the Greeks, always constituted penetration, where the one penetrating adopted the male role, and the one accepting was the female role.  It was common for adult men to have sexual relations with an adolescent boys and acceptable as long as the adult assumed the male position (Mottier 11-12).  However, with the proliferation of Christianity, sex became inherently sinful and only permitted for procreation.  Thus, homosexual behavior was forbidden.  The binomial categorization of sexual orientation arose in the nineteenth century in a climate of scientific advances in biology.  Gender was biologically defined through the sex organs.  It was even thought that the vagina was an inverted penis, implying that man and woman formed natural pairs (Mottier 36).   Heterosexuality was therefore natural, while homosexuality was a mutation, creating the polarized view many of us hold today.   However, sexual historians have taken issue with this view.

Sexual historians have suggested that a binomial description of human sexuality is social construct rather than an accurate portrayal of reality.  In his work The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault comments on the artificial advent of homosexuals as a distinct class of human beings saying “homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy into a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43).   Foucault’s statements, especially his use of “species,” can be understood as criticizing biology’s influence on defining sexual orientation, specifically the notion that homosexuality is mutation.  Homosexuality and heterosexuality are constructions erected through the lenses of the biology’s early stages, a scientific paradigm.  Furthermore, an analysis of the former quote puts forth the argument that “sexual preference may itself be nothing more than a superficial matter of taste and practice, like […] the preference for white or dark meat of fowl, and that it need have no deeper roots in the soul than we generally suppose these cases to have (Thorp 57).  In fact, studies on human sexual activity show that sexual preference is more of a taste, which is subject to vary, than a definite phenomenon.

Studies have shown that a significant percentage of human beings have engaged in homosexual activity, and a spectrum of sexual orientation is more appropriate than a binomial definition.  A study, known as the Kinsey reports, revealed that thirty-seven percent of men and twenty percent of women have had at least one homosexual experience (Smith 620).  This shows that many are not exclusively straight, even though is how they identify themselves.  Based on his reports, Alfred Kinsey developed a scale of sexuality based to show that sexuality is a continuum rather than a polarity (Kinsey 639).  The spectrum outlined by the Kinsey scale ranged from zero to six, where a zero indicates exclusive heterosexuality and a six exclusive homosexuality.  Someone who was a two on Kinsey’s sexuality scale would be categorized as “predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual” (Kinsey 636-659).  We see then that sexuality is more of a taste as Foucault suggested in his historical analysis. For instance, someone who is a two on a scale of who prefers dark or white meat would predominantly choose dark but more than incidentally opt for white.  As we saw earlier, biology limited sexuality to a polarity. However, Freud’s work in psychology proves the binomial categorization of sexuality is not nuanced enough.

Freud’s study of psychological developments regarding human sexuality demonstrate that even those who identify as predominantly heterosexual can momentarily deviate, showing that heterosexuality is not a fixed state.  Freud believed that sexual orientation was developed during the initial stages of life through interaction with one’s environment (Mottier 46).  In his work Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud outlines his theory and observations regarding sexual development.  He saw sexuality as object oriented, meaning that individuals continually sought a certain type of venue to satisfy their sexual desires.  Through development, either a male or female was chosen as their object.  However, Freud found that a binomial definition of sexuality was not sufficient to explain his observations. His term for homosexual was “invert.” Based on his observations, Freud fashioned “contingent inversion,” a case where someone who normally identifies themselves as heterosexual “under certain external conditions [… is] capable of taking as their sexual object someone of their own sex and of deriving satisfaction” (3).  The existence of such a phenomenon conflicts greatly with the commonplace idea of definite heterosexuality.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an example of such an “external condition,” which creates a setting of free sexual expression and represents the unlimited possibilities of human sexuality (Weinstock 57), Freud’s idea of “contingent inversion” being one of them.  Both the film itself and the audience’s activity demonstrate the ideas presented thus far.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a film supports Foucault’s idea of sexuality as social construction and Kinsey’s scale of sexual orientation.  The film is about a clean-cut recently engaged couple, Brad and Janet, who find themselves at the residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a transsexual with male sex organs.  At one point, Dr. Frank-N-Furter sequentially seduces both Brad and Janet rather easily.  Jeffrey Weinstock, a professor at Central Michigan University, points out the subversive implications of their seduction, especially Brad’s.  The conservative figure, Brad, is easily stripped of his ideals, indicating that the social construction of pure and expected heterosexuality is fragile (Weinstock 58).  This is in line with Foucault’s idea of sexuality as a superficial matter of taste and practice, which, as the movie demonstrates, is a construction that can be easily manipulated.  Brad’s seduction also suggests an inherent but socially repressed bisexuality in human nature (Weinstock 59).  Kinsey’s scale certainly substantiates such a claim, as it shows that much of humanity has homosexual inclinations.  As a member of the audience of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, one can see how setting can govern ones sexual behavior. 

As an attendee of The Rocky Horror Picture, I witnessed Freud’s concept of “contingent inversion” and contradictions with the normative view of sexuality.  I have been to two showings, and both times I saw the boundaries between heterosexuality and homosexuality are blurred.  My friend and I, all who identify as heterosexual, dressed up like members of the opposite sex, a behavior that is commonly considered homosexual in nature.  Our attire was among the tamest.  Dressing up in my sister’s clothes for the show felt exciting, like I was shedding myself of an artificially imposed burden.  At one of the showings, the audience was urged to move into the aisle during one of the songs with the line “and it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane,” and hump the person in front of them, regardless of their gender.  To my surprise, everyone participated.  Looking back and having read Foucault, this now makes sense to me; people’s sexual behavior is largely governed by social expectation, and inside the theatre, they were quite different than outside.  Friends of mine who had found themselves behind someone of the same sex confided in me after the show that they were comfortable given the setting.  One, who was between two men, even said he was aroused but felt it was largely due to the sexually charged atmosphere.  This is congruent with Freud’s case of “contingent inversion,” which is induced by ones surroundings.

While many believe that a gay or straight world is an inherent fact, the evidence proves them mistaken.  As history reveals, such a system has not always existed and only arose with biology, a field that took great pride in taxonomy.  Sexuality, when deconstructed, is better viewed as a matter of taste, which studies on human sexual behavior have corroborated.  Psychology has shown that external stimuli can momentarily alter ones primary sexual orientation.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an experiment on sexuality, illustrating how humans can radically alter their behavior in a different situation and shattering the conventional, binomial view of sexuality.  Given that polarities are easier to conceptualize than continua, it will be hard to reform our limited view of sexuality.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1962.

Kinsey, Alfred C. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1998.

Mottier, Ve`ronique. Sexuality: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Thorp, John. “The Social Construction of Homosexuality.” Phoenix  46.1(1992): 54-61.

Weinstock, Jeffrey. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Great Britain: Wallflower, 2007.