Essentialism, Social Constructionism and Sexual Identity

What determines sexual identity? One way to explore this question is through the lenses of essentialism and social constructionism. Essentialism presumes that sexual traits, such as attraction, orientation, physical appearance and mannerisms, exist as an inherent part of the individual. In stark contrast, social constructionism supposes that these same characteristics are a product of the culture in which the individual lives. There is evidence to support both theories, and each theory is problematic for reasons I will discuss here.

In the essentialist view, various sexualities can exist in any society at any time. People are born with a predetermined sexual preference, and in any culture a given percentage of the population will exhibit a certain sexual identity. Plato described this phenomenon in his Symposium. In a speech attributed to Aristophanes, he describes three essential sexual identities, each distinguished by the object of the individual’s attraction. In American culture today, we define them as heterosexuals, male homosexuals, and lesbians.

Under the lens of social constructionism, the sexual nature of the ancient Greeks can be ascribed to various cultural phenomena. For instance, segregation of men and women was commonplace. Men served as soldiers and teachers. Older men mentored boys in the ways of society and sexuality, paving the way for homosexual relationships. Women toiled as weavers and homemakers, and though little has been written about the daily lives of ancient Greek women, they were regarded as property and existed as a class among themselves. Greek men’s distaste for women’s sexual pleasure would also make it likely that women would seek each other as sexual partners. Also, because social duty included marriage and producing heirs, sexual preference did not dictate sexual behavior and therefore did not define identity.

The assumption of the normalcy of heterosexuality is a problem that significantly weakens the constructionist model. The fact that heterosexual sex is necessary to continue the species is undeniable. The purpose of other sexualities is more elusive. According to Darwin’s law of natural selection, the organisms that pass down the most genes are the ones who survive. Within this theory, one of the characteristics of the survivors would be the strongest drive to reproduce. By this logic, homosexuality as an inborn trait would quickly be bucketed out of the gene pool.

Under constructionism, circumstances can arise that result in sexual variation. The Sambia of New Guinea are a tribe in which heterosexual sex is a known necessity, but not something to be enjoyed. Among the military tribe of the Sambia, soldiers are the most valued tribesmen. Their beliefs that masculinity comes from semen and that women are pollutants to men have forged a culture in which heterosexual sex is a requirement, but though it is necessary to the tribe, is considered detrimental to the individual men. By sucking the semen from one another, the men increase their own might to keep them ready for war. A boy who does not have a desire to suck semen from an older boy is forced to do so, so that he may grow to be a strong man and a powerful warrior. In this case, the specificity of sexual acts and their purpose don’t really make room for preference and attraction. This belief structure constructs homosexual behavior as a way to enhance and preserve male strength and dominance and heterosexual behavior as weakening to the men. The Sambia, like the ancient Greeks, do not identify themselves by their sexual practices or preferences. Sex between same-sex partners and sex between opposite sex partners fulfill different social functions.

Essentialism paints this as an incredibly oppressive culture. Assuming that some people are born with different sexual tastes, there is no room in the culture for these variations to manifest. The strength of the warriors must be preserved at all costs. Even married men, who no longer engage in sexual behavior with other men, replenish their own power after sex with their wives by licking viscous sap from a tree. Women are perceived throughout life as detrimental to male power.

Neither essentialism nor social constructionism is correct or incorrect; however both models are incomplete. Essentialism deals with internal experiences, such as attraction and desire. It also suggests that certain physical characteristics and behaviors go hand-in-hand with these internal experiences. For instance, in America, a lisp and a limp wrist are often assumed to accompany homosexual tendencies in men. A woman’s bullish bone structure is often assumed to indicate lesbianism. Society then put these sexual groups into categories, assigning them social significance. In America today, heterosexual men are the most privileged sexual class with heterosexual women enjoying the same rights on paper if not always in practice. Homosexual men and lesbians are currently fighting for equal marital rights.

For social constructionists, there are countless theories around the reasons for sexual variation; however most, if not all, of these theories still presume that heterosexuality is the default human condition. A constructionist may assume that an absent father caused his son’s homosexuality or that a lesbian suffered by a man. There are many more subtle suggestions. In a culture where non-homosexuals are marginalized, homosexuality and the behaviors associated with it can become an act of rebellion. Drag can be seen as an acting-out against the tribe by violating the cultural r taboos of dress and adornment as they relate to gender.

Upon examination of these two frames, it occurs to me that essentialism argues for the equality of all sexual orientations, as it is inborn. Constructionism, which doesn’t really take into account the non-reproductive roles of sex (i.e. pleasure, population control), is often used to paint homosexuality as a weakness or perversion of heterosexuality. Neither viewpoint is complete, but each is useful for exploring the questions of associated with sex and culture.

DeLamater, Journal of Sexual Research, “Essentialism vs. social constructionism in the study of human sexuality – The Use of Theory in Research and Scholarship on Sexuality, Feb. 1998


One thought on “Essentialism, Social Constructionism and Sexual Identity

  1. Boston! So glad to read your writing. It seems like there is a much longer entry–did it get cut off? I’m looking forward to reading the rest. Beautifully written,as always.

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