Compulsory Heterosexuality is predicated on an association between two biological genders (male and female) with SOCIAL constructions that impose behavioral expectations on these biologically gendered people.
This creates a lot of confusion for a lot of reasons.
First, there is a tendency to take sides in something called the nature vs. nurture controversy. This is a debate about whether biology or society are the greatest infleunces on our behavior, and with regard to sex it pits the biological determinists against the strict social constuctionists. In fact, it is a false dichotomy. Human behavior cannot be separated into “natural” or “social” behaviors independent of one another except as mental categories. This is a separation borne of the mental habit of dualism — that is, the notion that things are divided up into twos, be that yin and yang or mind and body.
Dualism almost inevitably leads to describing social relations as invoving dualities that involve differences in power, be they master-slave, settler-native, owner-worker, or man-woman. We have to be careful of the critiques of dualism, because some of them — when talking about sex — actually use dualism to attack dualism. Hereis an example from Maria Mies, in her 1998 Preface to her 1986 book, “Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale”:
“Although biological determinism whad been criticized quite early in the women’s movement as a method of explaining man’s patriarchal dominance by the biological difference betweenthe genders, the postmodernists [social constructionists] tabooedeven the use of such concepts as ‘woman’, ‘mother’, ‘land’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘capitalism’, and so on. The fact that women have the capacity to bring forth children, that they can become mothers, is totally devalued, de-historicized and dematarialized. It is considered to be a mere biological accident which nowadays can be changed by biotechnology. The same applies to the dategory ‘woman’. The fact that most people appear in this world as male or female is not accepted as a given, because it is possible today physically to change one’s gender or one’s sexual orientation. The gender discourse in particular contributed to the elimination of such categories as ‘mother’, or ‘woman’. In this discourse ‘sex’ as supposedly biologically determined and ‘gender’ as culturally constructed are being separated and contraposed. The resultsin the old schizophrenic situation that ‘sex’ is again de-historicized and declared a matter of biology onlywhich can then be left to reproduction and genetic engineers, while ‘gender’ becomes the ‘higher’ affair, where culture plays the determining role. Old dualism in new garb.”
After false dichotomies and dualism, we run into another issue related to gender — at least among the intellectuals who populate the Academy. It is something called “essentialism.” But as with the critique of dualism sometimes creating new errors to replace the old ones, so does anti-essentialism attack the problems with essentialism as an error of the individual at the expense of critiquing larger oppressive systems.
Anti-essentialism is a response to biological determinism. In the tug-of-war over this false dichotomy around the issue of gender, there is determinism on theone side and anti-essentialism on the other, and even a new attempt to “balance” the two, called biological foundationism.
The argument of biological foundationism is different from biological determinism. Biological foundationism, according to Linda Nicholson , is a â€œcoat-rackâ€ theory:
â€œHere the body is viewed as a type of rack upon which differing cultural artifacts, specifically those of personality and behavior, are thrown or superimposed.”
Biological foundationism attempts to reconcile the obvious fact that we exist as a biological body with the equally obvious fact that our behavior is overwhelmingly influenced by socialization. The problem with this approach is that it is highly reified. Concrete context is withdrawn and replaced by abstraction and generalization. Human behavior is yanked out of social history, and that history is replaced with a Dawkin-esque history of the genesâ€¦ which is then qualified by an element of equally unspecific social constructionism.
The implication is one of mutual autonomy â€“ autonomy of the biological and autonomy of the social, with some simple and linear causal interactions, like billiard balls bouncing off one another and not changing the essential shape of each ball.
It is the failure of this autonomy in real life that makes this analysis unconvincing. It also sets us up for other fallacies that begin with this unquestioned premise of autonomy.
There is an argument that animals, even â€˜higherâ€™ mammals and primates exhibit certain sexual and-or apparently sexualized behaviors, implying an element of biological causation. Counterposed to this is the (social constructionist, but also Marxist) claim that human behavior is not determined by these kinds of predispositions. Counterposed to the constructionist argument is the claim that denial of the biological â€˜elementâ€™ (like a billiard ball) is a reversion to biblical separatism between â€˜human and beast.â€™ This is a non sequitur.
The rejection of biological determinism, and of biological foundationism, is not based on assumptions of divine intervention and religionâ€™s species discontinuity. It is based on both the empirical evidence provided by the social sciences that demonstrate, through diversity, the inextricably social character of conscious human behavior, and on the assumption that socialization is interfused with every conscious behavior past infancy.
While these arguments seem arcane at the moment, these issue invariably come up in debates about gender, so we need to grapple with them up front in dealing with this whole issue of “male and female.”
Rejection of biological determinism is also based on the recognition that many behaviors are cognitive. Social construction and cognition are not mutually exclusive. They exist apart from one another only as an analytical category, not ontologically. The separation is “dualism.”
Note, I do not say the â€˜social contentâ€™ of behavior, because I believe this implies some quantity; our behavior is 80% social and 20% biological, for example. This is a decidedly non-dialectical understanding. So is the false dichotomy between the determinative influences of â€œsocial beingâ€ (from means of production through epistemology) and â€œconsciousness.â€ These are interfused.
The arguments of constructionists and foundationists (I am dismissing plain biological determinists out of handâ€¦ sue me.) inevitably lead us to the issues of both science and â€˜essentialism.â€™ Since these are so central to every debate on gender, it seems appropriate to address the relation between science and essentialism here.
“Essentialist” has become an Academic epithet (most people don’t know what in the hell you are talkinig about when you say it), and as such implies the moral and-or intellectual superiority of the â€˜anti-essentialist.â€™
The desire of many people to rebut essentialism is the desire to break down the rationale for oppression based on categories like â€˜raceâ€™ and â€˜gender.â€™ This is laudable. The Marxists and radical feminists stand in opposition to dominant interpretations of race and gender as natural because they want to expose the systems of power embodied in race and gender. The post-modernists [strict social constructionists] see their liberation as liberation from oppressive ideas, the liberation of individual identity, which struggles against oppressive social â€˜narrativesâ€™ (racist ideas, sexist ideas) that attempt to curtail the individualâ€™s â€˜freedom.â€™
One obvious goal of both camps is to struggle against racial and sexual stereotypes that are used to justify oppression.
The two strategies of rebuttal against â€˜essentialism,â€™ according to philosophy professor Ron Mallon, are â€œskeptical non-essentialismâ€ and â€œconstructionist non-essentialism.â€
Skeptical anti-essentialists will use the â€˜scientificâ€™ argument â€“ induction â€“ that there is no such thing as race, because as soon as you try to define it, there are exceptions. All people we consider to be Black do not have dark skin.
Constructionist anti-essentialists will de-naturalize. Being Black is not a â€˜naturalâ€™ phenomenon, but the result of being perceived in society as being Black.
Both these approaches ignore the fact that in everyday life, we readily recognize Black people, even those who do not conform to every single characteristic that might be associated with black-ness. White people recognize Black people, and Black people recognize Black people. To my mind, neither of the arguments above (admittedly over-simplified) is particularly convincing to the average person who knows damn well when she sees a Black person.
This also applies to gender. Even if there are transgendered people, men who are more fem, women who are more butch, etc., our initial registration about whom we see (or hear on the phone) about whether that person is biologically male or female is overwhelmingly accurate. Pointing to exceptions to dismiss generalizations, or reducing the generalization to a â€˜constructionâ€™ does not articulate with the day-to-day experience of most people, and not merely based on their prejudices, but often on a preponderance of evidence from their own experience.
It is only the most reductionist view of science, billiard ball science, which supports the kind of absolutism that demands conformity by each individual instance of a phenomenon to a set of quantifiable criteria. Science does not consist only of the application of absolute laws of nature, and purely inductive generalizations. Generalizations for which there are exceptions can still have very strong predictive and explanatory power. Nature and society embody tendencies as well as iron laws. And, as Mallon points out, there can be â€œkindsâ€ without â€œessences.â€ One does not have to deny the kind to refute the essence.
The trouble with essentialism is this notion of â€˜essence.â€™ But it is perfectly possible for someone to exhibit a set of real characteristics that mark that person as Black or female without implying any kind of â€œcore-essenceâ€ whatsoever. There is such a thing as being African American, and it is more than a mere socially constructed “narrative,” and it exists even if it does not display some sharply inductive boundary. There is such a thing as being a woman.
Essentialism implies that each woman, or each African American shares a set of individually necessary characteristics to qualify for â€˜membership;â€™ that these characteristics are intrinsic; and that the actions of â€˜membersâ€™ of a group can be explained by a set of shared properties that might not be directly unobservable. This is obviously false.
Yet the anti-essentialisms, both skeptical and constructionist, do not do an effective job of rebutting this falsehood.
One can not attack the notion of Black-ness simply because all those who are considered and consider themselves Black do not have dark skin. No one uses one single individually necessary criterion to make such an assessment. My youngest daughter is very light-skinned, yet most people readily recognize her as Black based on both phenotypic and cultural characteristics, and on her context (Raleigh, NC). A â€˜kind-group,â€™ such as Black or female, is characterized by a constellation of features, which are recognizable as a pattern, without any individual necessarily having all those features â€“ features that are morphological, geographic, and-or cultural. If my daughter lived in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, she would blend in quite well and be mistakenly thought to be Puerto Ricanâ€¦ the exception to a rule that would generally work.
The problem is not the existence of kind-groups, from the point of view of a politics of liberation. It is breaking down false assertions that the kind-group is responsible for its own oppression based on an intrinsic defect or the idealization of a kind-group based on some mythical intrinsic property. Acknowledging that women and Blacks exist as women and Blacks is perfectly possible while at the same time rejecting racist and sexist essentialism.
Moreover, how do Blacks and women and their allies fight for social remedies aimed at women and Blacks (I use these two categories not to exclude others, but as examples), or for self-determination, once we erase these categories? The liberal politics of anti-essentialist â€˜equalityâ€™ has already led us into this swamp, and itâ€™s where we met David Horowitz screaming reverse-discrimination. He does not claim Black people are genetically inferior. He says Blacks are culturally inferior.
The other anti-essentialist strategy, of breaking with â€˜natureâ€™ and substituting the socially constructed narrative, is equally ineffective, and dangerous. Thatâ€™s not the problem with the constructionist critique. The problem, with post-modernism generally, is its pig-headed rejection of the â€˜metanarrative,â€™ that is, an analysis of the systems of power that contextualize oppression. Showing that racism can not be justified, because race is not â€˜natural,â€™ has proven ineffective. Horowitz and his ilk have rather effortlessly redefined their racism in cultural terms, and mooted the constructionist argument against naturalism. And by reducing everything to identity (which is plain philosophical consumerism), post-modernists have surrendered any possibility of coordinated, collective struggle against oppressive systemsâ€¦ because they deny the existence of those systems. In a real sense, the post-modernist constructionist critique of essentialism itself falls back on skeptical anti-essentialism, because its fallback position is based on pointing out exceptions to generalization as a way of â€˜provingâ€™ the generalization doesnâ€™t exist.
This sounds scientific, but it is bad science. Newtonian physics loses its explanatory power if we are trying to understand a quark, but it works perfectly well to make most machines.
Gender, race, and other categories are both explanatory and predictive a good deal of the time, just like Newtonian physics. These realities do, however, change over time and in relation to other changes, global and local.
If we want to avoid the pitfalls of racism and sexism, anti-essentialism is not the most effective strategy. Anti-reification is.
Returning now solely to gender, post-modern identity politics has reproduced the worst elements of bourgeois patriarchal positivism: dualism (nature vs. culture), atomization (individualism), dogmatism, and the stand-down of a politics of collective resistance. â€œIdentityâ€ has replaced the notion of core-essence, not annihilated it. This is how we got stuck in the cul-de-sac of â€œsexual-orientation,â€ for example, where we define ourselves sexually by a reified attraction to a â€˜type,â€™ (from â€˜Iâ€™m a butt manâ€™â€¦ to â€˜I like fem-domsâ€™) explained by turns as â€˜geneticâ€™ or â€˜chosenâ€™ (like a commodity). Sex as a system of power, then, disappears into subjectivity, as a defense of oneâ€™s individual right to have sex as one pleases (without reflecting on how oneâ€™s practice might reproduce systems of unequal power). Lost is the ability to describe and resist a social system based on the recursive interplay of gendered divisions of labor, colonization, compulsory heterosexuality, and male social and political power.
There is such a thing as biologically male and female. Compulsory Heterosexuality imposed social EXPECTATIONS on the behavior of males and females.
These expectations are not “mutual,” but “complimentary.” Mutuality implies equality and sameness across the physical difference between male and female. Complimentarity implies difference in relation to one another, and that difference is always marked by inequality. Male “strength” compliments female “weakness,” for example.