Archive for the ‘sexuality’ Category

WIERD Methodology: Some Problems with the Study of Sexuality

December 9, 2012

The title of this blog post refers to a 2010 paper entitled “The WEIRDest People in the World?” by J Henrich, S. Heine and A Norenzayan. WEIRD is an acronym for White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. In the paper, the authors argue that most psychology studies take as their sample study group undergraduate college students who generally fit the WEIRD acronym. They argue that this sample is not very indicative of humanity as a whole and we should be very wary of using this group as indicators of general human psychological states. As they say, the WEIRDos “are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers.”

At first, I was skeptical of the acronym. I thought, why are we creating a new acronym for a problem covered by the term “eurocentrism”? But, WEIRD actually points to the demographic of study, and has some value specifying that group. However, I find that the more important issue is the methodology that makes this acronym meaningful: the lazy and ethnocentric science of human behavior.

I am quite approving of science that aims to find generalized human characteristics, also known as “human nature”. The problem is when lazy science puts the cart before the horse. As an example, let me point you to a BBC documentary about nudity I stumbled across last week.

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Chimps Ahoy!*

March 4, 2012

Recently, there have been a couple of articles on Gawker about “bonobo lesbian relationships“. My humor juices got flowing about this, and so I thought I’d mix theory and my wacky humor in one post.

When talking or thinking about sexuality, most North Americans tend to adopt understandings that circulate North American culture, most often along the lines of gender differences or clearly delineated sexualities. Those who have read Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality are in some ways at an advantage for being able to acknowledge that most of our ideas of sexuality come from the 19th century with small transformations over time, but no real substantial difference from the way people thought and constructed sexuality a century and a half-ago.

To summarize Foucault, (more…)

Homophobia and the Post-colonial Predicament

January 28, 2011

As we mourn the passing of David Kato (h/t: feministing) and imagine how this is the tip of the homophobic iceburg, the whole global issue of homophobia makes me ponder some of the historical and structural issues that come into play with world-wide homophobia.

As some of us know, homosexuality is a recent development. While same-sex love has been around for all of recorded history, its iterations have been many, various and at times even the status quo (I’m looking at you, Ancient Greeks). Homosexuality itself, however, is an invention of a nineteenth-century Europe dedicated to SCIENCE!!!! and the “finding”–pronounced construction–of deviance from a bourgeois, middle-class state-promoted sociology of the nuclear family. This sociology was developed in order to guarantee the subsequent generations of a middle-class educated populace that is the foundation of the modern nation state. For those who like trivia, keep in mind that the term heterosexuality only began to see wide usage in the 1930’s, about 50 years after the invention of the term homosexuality (which, originally meant what we now think of as heterosexuality, with a brief period where it meant what we now think of as bisexuality).

Homosexuality as a term is not some neutral term that just describes the state of affairs of a particular sub-set of people. It is a term that springs from the titillated desire for science to shamelessly catalogue and pruriently search out for hidden deviance with a perverse twinkle in its eye. The term has a complex history that includes its use to discipline and discriminate against those classified as homosexuals. It has also been taken up with pride by those who faced oppression based on the term, and in this strategy there has been some success in the West in ameliorating its rhetorical uses for oppression.

Aside from these elements worthy of note, most important for understanding global homophobia is that at the same time as homosexuality is being constructed as a deviance–not coincidentally–European powers are colonizing the world. The power of Europe to be there (a phrase I take from Edward Said–also note how close this resembles Heidegger’s Dasein, “being-there”) enabled Europe to construct itself as the West, and this in turn affected its own constructions of sexuality. The end product was that most colonial powers brought a new and, for Europeans, important,  legal framework into the colonies: sodomy laws, and laws against homosexuality. For many of these colonized regions (aside from those already impacted by their common connection to Western epistemes, most noteably Islamic regions) these laws criminalizing homosexuality and sodomy were new and entirely innovative procedures of classifying people. For some countries, these laws were minor blips that were paid little attention. For other countries, especially those who were under discursive pressure to fight against the “feminization of the East” that Orientalism so handily lobbed towards them, these laws were quite useful for convincing themselves that they were as masculine as masculine can get.

And here we come up against what is known as the post-colonial predicament. This term was coined by Carol Breckenridge and Van der Veer in their edited volume The Post-Colonial Predicament. What the post-colonial predicament describes is the internalization and naturalization of colonial epistemes, structures and institutions by once colonized peoples. That is, it is when colonized and post-colonized people take once imposed colonial stuctures as if they were their own natural way of doing things.

In order to understand globalized homophobia, we need to understand that in almost all cases (I’m hedging my bets, but note I’ve never seen a counter-example) homophobia in postcolonial regions is precisely an example of the post-colonial predicament. The homophobia of, say Uganda, was a colonial trope that is now coming to fruition as if Uganda has always been against people of alternative sexuality. This is absolutely not the case. And it is not isolated. World-wide, almost every case of homophobia is caused by the remnants of colonialism.

In fact, there is even further transformation of discourse about this. In India, we find a discourse among the right that India has never has same-sex love and that homosexuality is a Western imposition, and that same-sex love is actually Indians pandering to the West as if they are some sort of colonial spy. This makes the right feel good, as it rhetorically situates them as anti-colonial gatekeepers. However, as people like Ruth Vanita and Peter Jackson and others have shown, India has a long long history of alternative sexualities. Indeed, what IS new is the taking up of Western understandings of same-sex love by activists in order to find strategies and global support for fighting DISCRIMINATION. It works both ways. Also note that this discrimination only began because of colonization.

So how do these insights help us? There are many answers to this question, but I would argue that a rhetorical strategy that reversed the Indian right’s strategy would not only hold some element of facticity, but also be quite attractive. I would argue that LGBT activists and the like should start arguing that homophobia is pandering to colonialism. One could even spin it by making material connections between the elites in, say Uganda, and the right of the United States. If homophobic rhetoric in post-colonized countries begins to be associated with colonial cow-towing, the anti-colonial sentiment that still remains a powerful rhetorical device world-wide can be strategically and fruitfully used to shame and counter this homophobic discourse. The key, of course is marketing and the pragmatic concern of being able to penetrate the media etc. with this trope.

Regardless, my sentiments go out to all those globally who have to face oppression based on the convoluted and complex history of homophobia and its rhetorical uses by elites to shore up their own power.

Differences in Western Sexuality

January 9, 2011

One of the things I’ve talked about on this blog is the construction of modern sexuality and adolescence and the impact of this on our cultural mores. Over the last couple of centuries this has gone through some developments leading to contemporary attitudes about sexuality. Along with the construction of adolescence has blossomed, in the twentieth-century, the category of, and attitudes towards, teenagers. Teenagers occupy a kind of liminal state between adolescent and adult and this creates a complex intersection of discourses all inter-relating that impact our attitudes towards teens and young adults. No where is this more evident than regarding teen sexuality. With this in mind, I found it quite interesting to find my way to an old slate piece (h/t: Feministing). The link takes you to a slide show that shows some of the discursive differences between attitudes about teen sexuality in America (and I would argue Canada) in comparison with European attitudes. I have to say, some of the statistics are quite telling and the explanations they take about the piece are solid.

From my own perspective, I find it interesting to ask the question, while watching the slide-show and reading the analysis, ‘to what end do these different views of teen sexuality aim?” That is, what if we take a methodological stance that assumes a teleology and homogeneity to these discourses and consequently wonder what are the goals of talking about teen sexuality in way that they are talked about? Now, of course, we know that discourses are contradictory and there is no homogeneous force shaping them, but taking this stance might offer interesting insight.

In that light, I would argue that the respective discourse about teen sexuality says something about the different attitudes about about teen sexuality in Europe and North America. We see European attitudes being more practical–focused on strategies that accomplish specific goals and attempting to frame representations to meet these practical goals. In North American attitudes, I find the discourse about teen sexuality has very little to do with teen sexuality in and of itself. The goals are similar, but impacting the discourse is a whole set of idealizations and imaginary fictions imputed on the subject. North American attitudes speak to me of this having much more to do with adult fears and dreams than teens themselves. Unfortunately, it leads me to a kind of psychologism where I come to this insight, and thus its corollary: What kinds of of strange nostalgias has led former teens (adults) to construct these elaborate fear-based narratives about their past?

It all seems a little opaque to me, but I find the question an interesting one that I will continue to ruminate on.

Passion, Desire

October 18, 2010

Desire. The impulse to liberate our desires is a carefully camouflaged trap. Our desires are not singularly unique manifestations of some inner spirit. They are but the machinations of historical processes and guided interests that we internalize. Letting loose our desires atrophies our subjectivity, enslaving us.

Passion frees us from our own limitations and it transforms us. We must be wary of these mutations. Desire takes our passions and shapes us to its own will. Tempering passion, however, risks tainting it; a manageable passion may not be passion at all. Or indeed, it may only be wishful thinking that we can manage passions. Rationalizations atrophy spontaneity–and may be a more firm a cage than our entangling desires.

Instead of all this concern about desires, passions, CONTROL–we should be artisans who are concerned to shape and reshape our prisons. Denial about our own imprisonment is the most sinister trap of all. It is a bolder freedom to step in a trap of our choosing and to tool it into the shape we desire. All other choices mean that we leave other forces to guide our imprisonment. We become beholden to their manufacturing. Let us prefer our own, and decorate them well.

The Female Character Flowchart

October 12, 2010

While Smurfing, I came across this awesome flowchart from Overthinking it, which, after this post I will delve into to see how much I love it. Just sit back and enjoy the pop-culture sexism decoded in this flowchart:

As the commenter on the site I found the link through (Jezebel) says, this is even before we start applying the Bechdel test.

Our Sexuality

October 11, 2010

I’m teaching a class on sexuality and I thought I should collect all of my preliminary thoughts about it into one place and, hey, that’s what this blog is for!

So, to begin, I’d like to say that my perspective on sexuality is quite Foucaultian. I think taking into account the insights (whether one agrees or not) of Foucault’s History of Sexuality is necessary for an understanding of our contemporary sexuality. Not only does he provide a very interesting account of where our sexual mores and proclivities belong in a historical continuum, he provides a very interesting methodological perspective about how to think about sexuality. It is not whether we possess in some essential way a certain sexuality, rather it is that we should question where sexuality comes from and what effect certain discourses on sexuality have on producing that sexuality. It is less important, for example, to determine whether or not we possess a repressed sexuality: it is rather to ask what does the very idea that we have a repressed sexuality do? How does thinking we are repressed effect the way we think and act about sexuality.

So, the first insight of The History of Sexuality and probably the most famous is that:

1) Whether or not we are actually repressed, the very idea that we are repressed (which we buy into a lot) impacts us. It makes us want to be liberated from this repression. It allows for a whole swath of discourse and activities open up that make us more and more concerned about sexuality. Because we think we are repressed we intensify our concern with sexuality. The idea of Repression actually produces more and more discourse about sexuality. (more…)

Hijras – Part III – Decolonization

March 20, 2010

Continued from two earlier posts: Hijras and Hijras: Colonization.

Under the pressures of legal, categorical, social and colonial oppression, Hijras became marginalized very rapidly in the British raj. They became subject to legal and social policing, and suffered many economic, material and symbolic hardships. The label of the Hijra as a prostitute became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In order to survive day to day, many Hijras had to resort to or were forced into prostitution by the economic and symbolic order around them. Within the cultural and semiological order the role of Hijras became reversed from auspicious in-between liminal figure to frightening transgressor of the symbolic order. Significantly, the force of their symbolic power changed little. Practically, what this meant was (again, generalizing) that Hijras no longer blessed, they cursed–with the same amount of power. They became inauspicious.

After decolonization this marginalization of Hijras continued–it became the internalized cultural model of the newly reconstructed Indian traditional authenticity as propagated by the elites during colonization. This sets the stage for the last 70 years of contemporary Hijra history that can be accessed by ethnography. There are a number of interesting theoretical insights that can be made in particular about the Hijras, but also extrapolated as general theory.

For instance, in a significant Foucauldian twist, the Hijras now use their marginal status as inauspicious to eke out a living. Where they previously were (and still sometimes are–this is not a total reversal, but a contested one) considered auspicious (weddings, births), they now use their inauspiciousness to threaten pollution unless given economic incentive to “go away” and thus take the pollution with them. In reality, many ethnographies show that these two historical trajectories of the inauspicious and auspicious Hijra often play out simultaneously in contested ways. Unfortunately, many of the ethonographies I have seen seem to miss the import of the historical geneological history that shapes this. They tend towards an ahistorical essentialism.

Another source of agency for Hijras is that since their identity is so contested, they allow themselves a certain freedom to reconstruct their histories and sense of self. Many Hijra self-constructions are a bricolage of Hindu, Muslim and European mythologizing. They reconstruct empowering myths of themselves to create local collective identities that resist the post-colonial marginalization they face. Regardless, it points to the fundamental Nietzschean point that history has always been about a reconstruction of the past to enable the present. It is a very honest re-evaluation, from this perspective–and related to the reimagining of Indian history by the oppressive class of elites.

The final post-colonial point I’d like to make is that since the 90s, European categories of gay, straight, bi, trans, lesbian etc. have entered urban bourgeois settings, like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.  Collective identity is becoming reshaped in these settings to tap into the global Eurocentric categories that, as we have seen, were constructed in the 19th century (partly due to the European conception of the other–including Hijras). So in an interesting irony, Hijras are now aligning with trans-identified people, are now self-identifying as ‘trans-‘, a category that only exists partly due to the British re-imagination of sexuality that was reacting to the Hijra itself. Nonetheless, this is an interesting political move, and seems to be gaining much cultural capital in the bourgeois sphere. The collective identity taken up globally, now most commonly signified by LGBT(QII) or a variant, that has helped to create such practical gains (and at the same time categorical shackles and in-group policing) is likely to significantly reshape the Hijras place in South Asia yet again.

The Limits of Our Pedophilic Culture

March 20, 2010

The prurience regarding children’s sexuality in the last century and a half is a sadly pedophilic activity. We are concerned about children running about nude. But children are like pets, happy to be free and running about in whatever way feels natural to them. We are concerned with children and adolescents being sexual—in fact, we want to cover over their sexuality with the myth that they are non-sexual beings. The concern regarding children’s sexuality is the imputation we place on them. It is an adult sexuality projected onto children. In such a way, the concern about children’s sexuality, regardless of what one says about it—that it does not exist, or that we have to think about it in highly policed ways—is a pedophilic impulse. Desexualizing children is the very act of sexualizing them according to adult, cultured, constructed sexuality. And thus, desexualizing them is, in a way, ironically pedophilic. Of course, it does not have the same sinister character as pedophiles who care not for the integrity of children’s own agency in exploring their sexuality. But, it is only a difference in degree. We force onto children, with our wild concerns, all of our own fears and beliefs about sexuality. And yet, this is something we take up uncritically. I will not rehash Foucault’s History of Sexuality here. I merely wish to point out that denying children’s sexuality is to completely misapprehend the possibilities of sexuality. And the prurient way that it is done is evidence of a pedophilic imputation of adult sexuality onto children—even if it is to say that they don’t possess it. This is because we don’t stop there. We police it, we worry about it, we build institutional and discursive regimes to watch over it. Ready to pounce. How are we not like a pedophile? Because we don’t force our sexuality on them? And yet, we do. We constantly police it. We worry about it. And we are complicit in a sexism that disciplines women far more assiduously, and men far often more destructively. We build whole systems whose structure is exactly to force our own ideas of sexuality on children.

But, it does point to something. Children themselves are surely sexual, but it is a sexuality that does not possess as much the constructed sexuality of an adult who has been disciplined to understand sexualities in certain ways. Children’s sexuality is not yet determined. It is always an unknown possibility, interconnected with their whole being, each instance a singularity. As such, we are missing an excellent opportunity to study sexuality in general, its more expansive qualities, by not understanding children’s sexuality. By the time we are adults, our sexuality has been given to us, ordered in many diverse ways, but still within the confines of a limit—a limit of discourse, a limit of behavior, a limit of desires, closed off from all of those things it surely is connected with. And yet, we should not wear lab coats in attempting to understand it. That “scientific” perspective has already predetermined certain limits by its very methodology. As such, we still understand so very little about our sexuality. The more we know, the more we cover over. The more we speak about it, the more we speak over it while it whispers its secrets. Understanding sexuality necessitates understanding that everything we say, think and do about sexuality is a kind of knowledge that has nothing to do with sexuality. This kind of knowledge is the effect of various forces using sexuality as a conduit to further their own influence. Knowing about sexuality is economic forces shaping bodies to better fit their increase. Capitalism is much healthier when it can tell us how to desire, what to desire, and in what ways such that we consume, produce and buy in certain ways. Those with some understanding of this kind of knowledge about sexuality become rich by marketing their products, shaping desire, always changing it to allow for further increase in profit. Knowing about sexuality is political and social forces policing the sexual order to push forward the growth of those forces. Gendered and homophobic discourses do the same, and they are all connected. It is no coincidence that those attempting and often succeeding at centralizing power do so by more rigorously policing gender and sexuality. To understand sexuality is to let sexuality speak without all of these forces. And frankly, adults are for the most part too caught up in these forces to hear sexuality speak. Let us not romanticize children, or adolescents in response. They too can be as easily shaped, sometimes in far more brutal or simplistic ways. Advertisers know how easy it is to manipulate children. But, that being said, children often have a much more fluid and natural quality to their sexuality, with moments of exploration that have not been predetermined by all the forces that try to shape it.[1] It is worth looking into as much as it is worth looking into the same instances in adults. To understand sexuality is to be open to it in those places where sexuality is not yet determined.


[1] Is there such a thing as biological forces? And if so, does my analysis here privilege those forces?

Scientific Voyeurism

May 16, 2009

I’m on a train from here to there and thinking about stuff and junk. Well, grading. And, since I underslept, a complex bricolage of images, scenes, thoughts are making it distracting to grade. Perhaps if I get them out…

In what circumstances do we let others examine our bodies? We can imagine being with a lover and this might seem like a tender moment. Or perhaps, one tinged with uncomfortableness, anxiety, pride, etc. We can bring up the spectre of the male gaze. But, I want to explore a different kind of scene.

Imagine the inherent meaning of bodies. The cultural meaning of bodies involves a whole complex of signification. Raced bodies are seen in particular ways. The power inherent in a non-raced body (in some contexts) is an ephemeral, yet important factor. Gender. Class signifiers. Sexual signifiers. Ability and disability. In culture (and here I think it important to recognize the fluidity of culture–percieved boundaries between cultures limit understanding how the flow of semiological meaning is exchanged) different particular contexts shape, facilitate, and imbue bodies with various, sometimes contradictory, meaning. Indeed, it might be safe to say that every instance of imbodiment is a unique play of meaning about the body. But, this understanding makes it difficult to understand and analyse the structure or play of how cultural meaning manifests in situations. We need some sort of generalizations or analytic framework. All that being said, i return to imagining the inherent meaning of bodies. Bodies are a message that are iterable by cultural de-encryption.

Imagine yourself naked. Standing, hands on your side. Imagine someone or someones looking at you. In what contexts does this happen? What cultural, institutional, structural forces construct moments wherein this is a possible scene? Indeed, might it be the case that some individuals throughout history have never experienced this? So, aside from thinking cross-culturally about this, aside from the impact that has on understanding what I want to focus on, I’d like to imagine that the someone(s) watching us are scientists. Medical professionals. Doctors. Experts. Knowers.

We submit ourselves to their gaze. Institutionally we must do this in order to be healed, to be understood, to be helped, to be saved.

Scientists with clipboards surrounding you, as you stand naked. Now, instead of feeling uncomfortable, as most would in this scene, let us change our angle. Let us keep in mind that this is our NAKED body they are looking at. Bodies are inherently sexualized. Here, I think there is a point to a geneology of the repressive hypothesis. It seems like a radical move to de-sexualize some bodies–just as it is radical to re-sexualize others. Regardless, the scientific gaze has a part to play.

I think to get at what I want to say, I need to add one more element to our scene. Here I stand, here you stand, naked. In front of us in labcoats, with clipboards or however you might imagine it, are scientists. Peering, taking notes, whisper so the subject won’t be spooked by an almost necessarily creepy setting, the scientists are constructing knowledge. Now, imagine a tall wooden fence with a couple of small holes in it. Imagine the scientists needing to crouch and share the holes to peer at you.

This is one way I think, structurally, the institution of science plays out. Scientific voyeurism.

The science of bodies is inherently perverted. Science itself is a perversion. Science wants to see the naked body of Nature through the fence that hides it. Why do they (and by extension us) want to look through this hole? In fact, by connection, the fact that we allow scientists to be our valorized voyeurs, means we are essentially paying others to be voyeurs and get back to us. Furthermore, since we are all subjects of this voyeurism, we WANT to be the person being peered at through the fence. The whole situation is perverse from all sides.

Why do we subject ourselves to this? For each person, undoubtedly, there are different intersectional answers. Collectively, however, we somehow want this to be the case.

Scientific voyeurism is enabled by our exhibitionism.