Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gender: A Theory of Lesbian Sexuality?

Social theories of sexuality tend to leave me baffled. Granted overly complex evolution based theories of sexuality leave me baffled as well. Still I can't help but read them and try to understand them. The best writing on theories of sexuality tend to contain fascinating tidbits and ideas whether or not I agree with the central thesis of the theory. The most fascinating tidbits and ideas reflect more on the author than on the theory they're describing.

A case in point is a publication called Lesbian Sexuality: Issues and Developing Theory by Dr. Margaret Nichols of the Institute of Personal Growth which provides counseling and psychotherapy in the New Jersey area. If you head off to read the article I have one suggestion. I had to zoom into the webpage to make the article readable. I blame the web designer and not the author for the choice of a small font and a font colour that isn't too distinct from the page background. If you print the piece the font is still small but much clearer.

The essay starts with an opening that's guaranteed to make you want to read more:
I am a Sexually Incorrect lesbian. For years I've hidden it, but now I intend to share my dirty little secret with the world.
Early on Dr. Nichols seems to make fun of those who would impose a form of sexuality on others:
If this is not enough to convince you that I am truly S.I., consider this: I repudiate politically correct lesbian lovemaking. P. C. lesbian lovemaking, for the uninitiated, consists of the following: Two women lie side by side (tops or bottoms are strictly forbidden—lesbians must be non-hierarchical); ....
The purpose of the article is presented as: observations of recent very interesting sexual trends within the lesbian community, and my (somewhat prurient) fascination with gay male sexuality led me eventually to do some theorizing and writing of my own. This essay is best viewed as a work in progress. I am an old-fashioned lesbian feminist from the school of thought that believed that the "personal is political." 
At which point... hang on to your hats, the ride gets bumpy. She starts by covering some survey data on lesbian sex. Surveys that start by looking at how frequently couples (heterosexual, lesbian, and gay male) have sex. She then digs deeper (so to speak) looking at monogamy, range of techniques, and other surveyed results of comparative sexual practices. Her initial conclusion?
What is happening here? I believe that lesbians, like heterosexual women, are essentially sexually repressed. We are at least as repressed as our straight sisters, perhaps even more. We have more sexual conflicts than do men, gay or heterosexual, lower sexual desire, and fewer ways of expressing our sexual needs.
I have to admit... at this point I'm not sure I agreed with her conclusions. But she's already brought out some interesting ideas to mull over so I continued. After some disparaging words on how heterosexual couple are not as likely to reach authentic and genuine intimacy Dr. Nichols suggests that:
Moreover, studying lesbian versus gay male relationships gives us a splendid opportunity to examine the "male principle" and the "female principle" as they are currently culturally defined and as they operate in pair-bonding. That is, gay men represent "unmitigated maleness," both alone and in couples, while lesbians represent "unmitigated femaleness."
Now I'd love to hear what gay men think about being called "unmitigated maleness" and lesbians about being called "unmitigated femaleness".

If it sounds like Dr. Nichols lost me as a believer in her central thesis at this point you're correct. And this is less than halfway through the essay. Again that doesn't mean I don't find that she makes fascinating arguments. Her description of some of the reasons lesbians might experience greater sexual repression is worth reading. If you aren't a believer in "the personal being political" then they may ring a little hollow. If you believe that you can't help but be political then they make more sense. Some reasons she cites are certainly worth thinking about. If one third of lesbians have been married (to a man) at some point it has to colour your sexual outlook.

Also interesting is her overview of lesbian attitudes towards the kinkier side of sexuality. Dr. Nichols looks into how "S/M" (to borrow her short form) may be perceived by the lesbian community.

When she looks at "roles" within lesbian relationships I again find myself not quite sure she's presenting a representative viewpoint. Her look at the problems that butch-femme roles can cause left me scratching my head.
The politically correct lesbian feminist line has been that butch-femme roles were essentially imitations of heterosexual culture, and that once we liberated our thinking through gay pride and feminist thought we rejected those roles and discovered that we are really all alike, that there are no roles.

My head scratching stopped a while later when I found myself whole heartedly agreeing with one of Dr. Nichols conclusions:
Indeed, at best the butch-femme position can help us transcend sex roles. It has been symptomatic of our gender conditioning that we always see these differences as gender-linked: The fact that our culture has typically defined a desire to paint one's face as female and a swaggering walk as male does not mean that these are biologically sex-linked traits. At best, we can learn to separate traits and behaviors from gender. Just as I believe that anything women do together sexually is lesbian sex, so it can be true that any behavior a woman engages in can be female behavior.
May I suggest we take things a step further? If traits and behaviours can be separate from gender then why can't they also be separate from sexual preference and sexual identification? Why not realize that being feminine or masculine can be independent of heterosexuality or homosexuality?

I could go on but I'll leave you to read Dr. Nichols and form your own views.

On of the reasons I find essays such as Dr. Nichols' fascinating is not that I find myself agreeing or disagreeing. It's not that I find myself thinking "I know she's wrong on that point and here's why". It's not even that I think we need to end up with well defined social theories of sexuality.

No. What I like the most is that there is much in her thesis and theory that I hadn't considered before at all. Quite a few times I found myself not sure if I agreed or not. Simply because I had to stop and think things through. Any essay that makes me stop and think was well worth reading.

If you want to read an interesting take on sexuality and lesbian sexuality in particular then I suggest Lesbian Sexuality: Issues and Developing Theory.

1 comment:

Elizabeth McClung said...

First the article and then your interpretation:

The article I found to be interesting with several ideas I agreed with, some which are already so proven with stats that they go without saying. I would liked to have seen more incorporation of the aspect of non-communication and the high instance of physical abuse in lesbian relationships.

Her statement: "Social sanction seems to be the strongest bond that holds relationships together." seems to be the foundation, and I concur, as we say, "You are in this relationship because YOU want to be, no one else wants it." - because while heterosexual divorce blues are heavily portrayed in media and life, gay partnerships ending are given a 'well, that's nature' type of attitude, while parents sigh a relief but more oft, no one cares. There are no dating tropes, no build up, no social convention. Indeed, when my partner and I got together, I lost my entire family, and most friends, she lost almost all her family and was offered money, a job and a new place to live as an incentive to leave.

Also, many 'hetero relationship' exist in name only, what many of my relatives, who have seperate vacations, even seperate houses call 'marriage', lesbians call, 'my ex'.

As to sex, again, abuse and experience define the 'voice at the end of the bed' - that voice that says, "Bad girl, shouldn't want that, good girls don't..., etc", when you get two of those in a bed, without hard work, therapy, long term sex is less likely to occur. This is what is referred to as lesbians and gay men having 'femaleness' isolated (the inhibitor or typical/atypical demonstrated statistically). Are there still generations of women who are still in marriages where they have regular sex but no real enjoyment of it - certainly. Take that mindset and put it in a lesbian relationship and sex and sex selfishness is problematic (particularly in a society which teaches, though example and academically that men MUST have sex, that they WILL masturbate, MUST masturbate, and have 'sex of convienance' like prison sex which ISN'T being gay, it is just being male - not my conclusions, but male academics).

Your view: email me if you want to talk about butch/femme socially and in the bedroom - her view is more US and North America representative. UK is behind on this, Latin America as well, while Asia is somewhere around Queen Victoria in historical views.

Her view of masculine/feminine as one which is participated by that gender is one which I agree as well, but many don't depending on their political/linquistic view. But your point negates the purpose of the article, which is to identify and isolate those inhibitors on females which appear in lesbian sexual behavoir in unions. I doubt you are trying to do that when you state, "why can't they also be separate from sexual preference and sexual identification?" which I think you mean Gender indentification (or please explain 'sexual identification' opposed to sexual preference. You are seriously concerned that the author is painting lesbians as having sexual social influences on behavoirs atypical to heterosexuals? That isn't what I see the author stating, rather the opposite. In a paper that examines sexual problem in one of three sexual grouping, to throw out gender and orientation makes that a bit difficult. However, if one is made unconfortable by statements regarding male sexual behavoir or female influences, that is actually a seperate topic. This is where I felt you went. I also hoped for more of the body and conclusions as many of your statements which you say are 'conclusions' are actually 'introduction of premise' or 'explaination of introduction' and from the first 1/3rd.