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CAROLE S. VANCE
“Social Construction Theory: Problems in the
History of Sexuality”
from A. van Kooten Nierkerk and T. Van Der Meer (eds),
Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality? (Amsterdam: An Dekker,
1 989): 13-34.
Social construction theory in the field of sexuality proposed an extremely outrageous idea. It
suggested that one of the last remaining outposts of the “natural” in our thinking was fluid
and changeable, the product of human action
and history rather than the invariant result of
the body, biology or an innate sex drive.
Empirical and theoretical work on history of
sexuality has grown dramatically in the last
twenty years, for which social construction
approaches plus the invigorating questions
raised by social movements like feminism and
lesbian and gay liberation are largely responsible. Indeed, the links between social construction theory and gay activism run very deep.
Efforts to transform society inevitably raised
questions about the past and the future, as they
also called into question prevailing ideological
frameworks for examining the “facts” about
sex and gender.
This attempt to historicize sexuality has produced an innovative body of work to which
historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and
others have contributed in an unusual interdisciplinary conversation. Social construction
theory has become the influential, some charge
orthodox, framework in the new sex history. Its
advantages (lest you’ve forgotton) can be immediately recognized through comparison with
contemporary mainstream literature in sexology and biomedicine, seemingly archaic kingdoms in which the body and its imperatives still
rule.
The very real advantages of social construction theory, however, and the enthusiasm it has
generated make it all the more neccessary to
identify and explore current problems in social
construction. In doing so, this paper attempts to
differentiate between problems which are generated by common misunderstandings of social
construction theory – and thus which are more
easily resolved – and intellectual problems
embedded in the social construction framework
for which no quick and easy solution can be
found.
TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A SOCIAL
CONSTRUCTIONIST
In the sometimes heated debates that have gone
on about essentialism and social construction,
the word “essentialist”, to some ears, sounds
increasingly pejorative – a dirty word, a contemptuous put-down, a characterization of
being hopelessly out of date. Yet we need to
start this discussion by recognizing that we have
all been brought up to think about sexuality in
essentialist ways.
Essentialism can take several forms in the
study of sexuality: a belief that human behavior
is “natural”, predetermined by genetic, biological, or physiological mechanisms and thus not
subject to change; or the notion that human
behaviors which show some similarity in form
are the same, an expression of an underlying
human drive or tendency. Behaviors that share
an outward similarity can be assumed to share
an underlying essence and meaning.
The development of science and social science in Euro-America in the past century can be
characterized by a general movement away
from essentialist frameworks toward perspectives that, although called by various names, are
contructionist. These new frameworks have
challenged the “natural” status of many
“SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION THEORY: PROBLEMS”
domains, presenting the possibility of a truly
social inquiry as well as suggesting that human
actions have been and continue to be subject to
historical forces and, thus, to change. Gender
and sexuality have been the very last domains to
have their natural, biologized status called into
question. For all of us, essentialism was our first
way of thinking about sexuality and still
remains the hegemonic one in the culture.
The novelty of constructionist approaches in
sexuality explains several things: the volatile
reaction to it (among heterosexuals, too, not
just lesbians and gays); the residual essentialism
in all of us, even those trying to work in a social
construction frame; and the difficulty in adopting a consistent rather than a partial constuctionist approach. Some use the words
“social construction”, yet their analytic frames
show unbeknownst to them many remaining
essentialist elements. This leads to the phenomenon of somewhat unattractive, if triumphant,
“essentialist tendencies” in their colleagues’
work. Seen in a more generous light, this
scrutiny is an attempt to clarify the assumptions
we use in doing our work and make them
explicit.
The dominance of essentialist approaches
also explains why there a few self-proclaimed
essentialists. Only those who depart from the
dominant system have cause to label themselves; those who work within it remain more
unselfconscious. For the same reasons that heterosexuals do not classify themselves or have a
developed awareness of “heterosexual identity”, essentialists have had less reason to name
themselves and reflect on their practice than
social constructionists.
The chief virtue of social construction theory
is the new questions it encourages us to ask.
Social construction is not a dogma, a religion, or
an article of faith. If and when in the course of
these discussions it becomes reified, its value is
lost. Social construction theory does not predict
a particular answer: whether something we call
“gay identity” existed in the seventeenth or
nineteenth century, in London or in Polynesia,
or whether nineteenth-century female romantic
friendship or crossing-women are properly
called “lesbian”, is a matter for empirical examination. Contemporary gay identity might exist
I 161
in other times and cultures or it might not; its
construction could be the same as we know it
now, or radically different. Construction theory
does not have a stake in the answer, but it is
committed to asking the questions and to challenging assumptions which impair our ability to
even imagine these questions. Construction theory is against premature closure, and its price is
tolerating ambiguity.
UNHELPFUL CRITICISMS OF SOCIAL
CONSTRUCTION THEORY
The ways in which social construction theory
intersects with sexual politics and our daily
social and personal lives gives the discussion
surrounding it a special volatility and charge,
often disguised in more intellectual, though still
legitimate, concerns. It is evident that many
problems with social construction theory
remain to be worked out. However, there is a
class of criticisms of social construction theory
which is based on a misunderstanding and even
possibly intentional misreading of it. These
criticisms do not advance the development of
our discussion, because they set up false problems and draw attention from legitimate questions. Before moving on to genuine problems in
social constuction theory, I would like to identify unhelpful and misguided ways of phrasing
the issues.
Some critics contend that social construction
theory implies that sexual identity, or more to
the point, lesbian and gay identity is somehow
fictional, trivial, unimportant, or not real,
because it is socially constructed. The punch
line “it’s only socially constructed” is a characteristic remark of these critics, revealing their
belief that only biologically determined phenomena could have any significance in human
social life. This is an odd position for historians
and social scientists to take. Social construction
approaches call attention to the paradox
between the historically variable ways in which
culture and society construct seemingly stable
reality and experience: here, the ways in which
the prevailing sexual system seems natural and
inevitable to its natives, and for many individuals the expression of some deeply felt essence.
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I CAROLES. VANCE
To explain how reality is constructed does not
imply that it is not real for the persons living it
– or trivial, unimportant, or ephemeral, though
it is also true that the insight of construction,
when absorbed by the natives (that is, us) has
the potential to subvert the natural status of the
sexual system and cause us to question and
rethink our experience of essential identity.
Other variants of this misreading suggest that
individual sexual identity is easily changeable,
much like a new outfit plucked from the closet
at whim; that individuals have conscious control over sexual identity; and that large scale
cultural formations regarding sexuality are easily changed. Since social constructionists have
said nothing of the kind, one is at first puzzled
by the enormity of this misunderstanding, but
the explanation for it is perhaps to be found in
the special status of sex in our culture and our
thought. 1
An analogy from anthropology is useful here.
It is commonplace for anthropologists to say
that human behavior is socially or culturally
constructed, by which we mean that human
behavior is learned and not intrinsic or essentially determined. But to suggest that any feature of human life, for example, national or
ethnic identity, is socially constructed is not to
say that it is trivial. Nor is it to say that entire
cultures can transform themselves overnight, or
that individuals socialized in one cultural tradition can acculturate at whim to another.
This criticism of social construction confuses
the individual level with the cultural level: that
sexuality is constructed at the level of culture
and history through complex interactions
which we are now trying to understand does not
mean that individuals have an open-ended ability to construct themselves, or to reconstruct
themselves multiple times in adulthood. (This is
not to deny individuals’ experiences of sexual
malleability and change, which are probably
considerably more extensive than our cultural
frames and our own biographical narratives
admit.) The specialness of sex is highlighted by
this comparison, since a quite ordinary and
accepted insight about cultural construction in
most areas of human life seems very difficult to
understand without distortion when applied to
sexuality. When we come to sex, our minds
grind to a halt: normal distinctions become
incomprehensible, and ordinary logic flies out
of the window.
A third major misreading of construction
theory concerns continuity and change. In contrast to essentialism’s assumption of continuity
in behavior and subjective meaning, social construction appears much more receptive to the
possibility of change, discontinuity and rupture.
Some critics have exaggerated this characterization, claiming that constructionist theory
predicts only discontinuity and, thus, any demonstration of historical or social continuity
proves that construction theory is wrong.
The openness to recognizing difference in
behavior and subjective meaning, however, in
no way commits the researcher to always finding it, nor does it rule out the discovery of
similarity. The very nature of historical and
cultural change makes it likely that peoples
closely related by time and space will show
many continuities.
We should be especially attentive to these
types of criticisms of social construction theory
(especially signaled by the comment “it’s only
socially constructed”), because the continual
demand to address misreadings of the theory is
unhelpful and needs to be put to rest. Energy
would be better spent in exploring three genuine
and difficult theoretical issues: (1) degrees of
social construction theory; (2) the instability of
sexuality as a category; and (3) the role of the
body.
DIFFERENT DEGREES OF SOCIAL
CONSTRUCTION
The widespread use of social construction as a
term and as a paradigm obscures the fact that
constructionist writers have used this term in
diverse ways. It is true that all reject transhistorical and transcultural definitions of sexuality and suggest instead that sexuality is
mediated by historical and cultural factors. But
a close reading of constuctionist texts shows
that social construction spans a theoretical field
of what might be constructed, ranging from
sexual acts, sexual identities, sexual communities, the direction of sexual desire (object
“SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION THEORY: PROBLEMS”
choice) to sexual impulse or sexuality itself.
At minimum, all social construction approaches adopt the view that physically identical
sexual acts may have varying social significance
and subjective meaning depending on how they
are defined and understood in different cultures
and historical periods. Because a sexual act does
not carry with it a universal social meaning, it
follows that the relationship between sexual acts
and sexual identities is not a fixed one, and it is
projected from the observer’s time and place to
others at great peril. Cultures provide widely
different categories, schemata, and labels for
framing sexual and affective experiences. The
relationship of sexual act and identity to sexual
community is equally variable and complex.
These distinctions, then, between sexual acts,
identities, and communities are widely employed
by constructionist writers.
A further step in social construction theory
posits that even the direction sexual desire itself,
for example, object choice or hetero/
homosexuality, is not intrinsic or inherent in the
individual but is constructed. Not all constructionists take this step; for some, the direction of desire and erotic interest are fixed,
although the behavioral form this interest takes
will be constructed by prevailing cultural
frames, as will the subjective experience of the
individual and the social significance attached
to it by others.
The most radical form of contructionist theory2 is willing to entertain the idea that there is
no essential, undifferentiated sexual impulse,
“sex drive” or “lust”, which resides in the body
due to physiological functioning and sensation.
Sexual impulse itself is constructed by culture
and history. In this case, an important contructionist question concerns the origins of
these impulses, since they are no longer assumed
to be intrinsic or, perhaps, even neccessary. This
position, of course, contrasts sharply with more
middle-ground constructionist theory which
implicitly accepts an inherent sexual impulse
which is then constructed in terms of acts,
identity, community, and object choice. The
contrast between middle-ground and radical
positions makes it evident that constructionists
may well have arguments with each other, as
well as with essentialists. Each degree of social
I 163
construction points to different questions and
assumptions, possibly to different methods, and
perhaps to different answers.
The increasing popularity (perhaps even faddishness in some circles) of the term “social
construction”, however, made it appear that
social construction is a unitary and singular
approach and that all social construction writers share the same paradigm. But a review of
social construction literature, which makes its
first distinct appearance in the mid-1970s, as
well as its forerunners in the 1960s, shows a
gradual development of the ability to imagine
that sexuality is constructed. The intellectual
history of social construction is a complex one,
and the moments offered here are for purposes
of illustration, not comprehensive review. 3
Intellectual precursors to constructionist
approaches, for example, include anthropologists doing cross-cultural work on sexuality in
the 1960s. 4 They assumed that culture encouraged or discouraged the expression of specific
sexual acts and relationships. Oral-genital contact, for example, might be a part of normal
heterosexuality in one group but taboo in
another; female homosexuality might be severely
punished in one tribe yet tolerated in another.
However, these anthropologists accepted without question the existence of universal categories
like heterosexual and homosexual, male and
female sexuality and sex drive. Culture shaped
sexual expression and customs, but the basic
material to work with- a kind of sexual Play Doh
– was the same everywhere, a naturalized category and thus never open to investigation.
Although we can recognize this work as a precursor to social construction theory, it clearly
contains many essentialist elements.
The struggle to move away from essentialist
and naturalizing ways of thinking about sexuality was a difficult one. Mary Mcintosh’s 1968
essay on the homosexual role appears to us as a
landmark article, offering many suggestive
insights about the historical construction of
sexuality in England. 5 But her observations
vanished like pebbles in a pond, until they were
engaged with by mid-1970s writers, clearly
motivated by the questions of feminisim and gay
liberation. An identifiably constructionist
approach dates from this period, not before.
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I CAROLE s. VANCE
Early work in lesbian and gay history
attempted to retrieve and revive documents
(and lives) which had been lost or been made
invisible. These lives were first conceived of as
lesbian or gay, and the enterprise akin to a
search for historical roots, an attempt to document the existence of gay people and experience. This was history against the grain, against
the heterosexist narrative: in short, activist history and history as political work. To their
credit, researchers who had started this enterprise from a firm point of fixed sexual categories
began to consider other ways of looking at their
material and more expansive questions to ask.
Jonathan Katz’s work is one example of this
process, since his first book, Gay American
History, is very much in the “gay ancestors”
tradition. 6 In the course of researching his
second book, Gay/Lesbian Almanac, he began
to consider that sexual acts reported in American colonial documents from the seventeenth
century, for example sodomy, might not be
equivalent to contemporary homosexuality. 7
Sodomy – then understood as any unnatural,
non-reproductive sexual act- was a temptation
and sin to which anyone, male or female, could
fall victim, as to envy or theft. Although the
documents amply show discovery and punishment, colonial society did not seem to conceive
of a unique type of person – a homosexual who engaged in these acts, nor did it provide a
homosexual identity on a cultural level or anything resembling a homosexual subculture on a
social level.
Katz’s second book marks a sharp departure
from the first, in that records or accounts that
document same-sex emotional or sexual relations are not taken as evidence of “gay” or
“lesbian” people, but are treated as jumping off
points for a whole series of questions about the
meanings of these acts to the people who
engaged in them and to the culture and time in
which they Jived.
The intellectual development reflected in
Katz’s work is not unique to him, but appears in
many others’ as well. And from this work came
an impressive willingness to imagine: had the
category “homosexual” or “lesbian” always
existed? And if not, what was its point of origin
and the conditions for development? If identical
physical acts had different subjective meanings,
how was sexual meaning constructed? If sexual
subcultures come into being, what leads to their
formation? In these and other questions,
researchers imagined what has become the
foundation of lesbian and gay history. 8
The intellectual history of social construction
is a complex one. The point of briefly noting a
few moments in its history here is simply to
illustrate that social construction theorists and
writers differ in their willingness to imagine
what was constructed. For us, their differences
suggest that we should avoid using “social
construction” in such an undifferentiated way.
As readers we should try to be clear about what
each theorist or author imagines to be constructed. As writers and speakers, we should try
to indicate more exactly what we mean by social
construction in our own work.
THE INSTABILITY OF SEXUALITY AS A
CATEGORY
Because they were tied to essentialist assumptions which posited biological and physiological factors as influential in determining the
contours of sexuality, sexological and biomedical paradigms of sexuality nevertheless offered
one advantage: sexuality enjoyed the status of a
stable, ongoing, and cohesive entity. The constructionist paradigm more flexibly admits variability in behavior and motive over time and
place. But to the extent that social construction
theory grants that sexual acts, identities and
even desire are mediated by cultural and historical factors, the object of study – sexuality becomes evanescent and threatens to disappear.
If sexuality is constructed differently at each
time and place, can we use the term in a
comparatively meaningful way? More to the
point in lesbian and gay history, have constructionists undermined their own categories?
Is there an “it” to study?
We have attempted to address the problem of
false universalism by exercising more care in our
terminology and conceptual categories: thus, in
examining fellatio among Sambia adult men
and teenage boys in the New Guinea highlands,9 it may be more appropriate to speak of
“SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION THEORY: PROBLEMS”
“same-sex” rather than “homosexual” acts or
relations. The first term attempts to describe
sexual behavior without assuming that its social
and affective meaning is equivalent to that of
contemporary society: New Guinea is not
Amsterdam or Greenwich Village. This term
and others like it encourage openness rather
than premature closure in our thinking about
the historical and cultural meaning of diverse
sexual acts and identities. However, even with
my care, I’ve already called these acts “sexual”.
Here we may detect, despite genuine efforts
toward conceptual and definitional openness,
that even the new sex history has an ambivalent
and more complex relationship to the idea of
sexuality as a coherent category. Some social
constructionists explicitly encourage the total
deconstruction of the category of the sexual, for
example, Foucault. Others have not taken this
theoretical position, though it remains implicit
in their work. For, if sexuality is constituted
differently in different times and places, it follows that behaviors and relations seen as sexual
by contemporary Euro-Americans may not be
by others, and vice versa. 10
Questioning the very category of sexuality,
however, proves difficult. A student of mine
agreed that it would be incorrect to call Sambia
male intiation rites involving fellatio between
older men and younger boys “homosexuality”,
but he was nevertheless convinced that this was
experienced as a sexual act by those engaging in
it. How did he know it was sexual, I asked?
“Their cosmology posits that young boys grow
to adulthood only through the ingestion of
semen,” he replied, “but you don’t see them
eating it with a bowl and a spoon.” The move to
question the category “sexuality” remain counterintuitive, therefore, and thus often results in
an intellectual stance that can only be inconsistently or unconvincingly maintained. The
attempt to deconstruct sexuality as a meaningful universal construct has also generated
considerable backlash for reasons we will
describe later.
Many other social constuctionists assume, as
perhaps it is easier to, that specific, core behaviors and physical relations are reliably understood as sexual, even though they occur in
diverse cultures or historical periods. The
I 165
knowledge or assumption that behavior is
indeed sexual serves as a guide to what must be
studied or what might be safely ignored. To give
up this assumption considerably widens the
field of what might be the object of study, with
both good and bad results. The often implicit
assumptions about the sexual nature of physical
acts or relations depend in turn on deeply
embedded cultural frameworks that we use to
think about the body.
THEROLEOFTHEBODY
Social construction’s greatest strength lies in its
violation of our folk knowledge and scientific
ideologies that would frame sexuality as “natural”, determined by biology and the body. This
violation makes it possible, indeed compels us
to raise questions that a naturalizing discourse
would obscure and hide. Social constructionists
have been even-handed in this endeavor,
dethroning the body in all fields – in heterosexual history as well as in lesbian and gay history.
At first, we greeted this development with good
cheer, happy to be rid of the historical legacy of
nineteenth-century spermatic and ovarian
economies, women’s innate sexual passivity,
and the endless quest to find the hormonal cause
of homosexuality. Yet the virtue of social construction may also be its vice.
Has social construction theory, particularly
variants which see “sexual impulse”, “sex
drive”, or “lust” as created, made no room for
the body, its functions, and physiology? As sexual
subjects, how do we reconcile constructionsist
theory with the body’s visceral reality and our
own experience of it? If our theory of sexuality
becomes increasingly disembodied, does it reach
the point of implausibility, even for us? And if we
wish to incorporate the body within social construction theory, can we do so without returning
to essentialism and biological determinism?
Let me discuss these points more concretely
by giving an example from my own work in
female circumcision. Although not a specifically
lesbian or gay topic, it illuminates the difficulty
of thinking about the relationship of sexuality
to the body and has much to offer for other
body issues.
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I CAROLE s. VANCE
Briefly, female circumcision 11 is an umbrella
term for traditional customs carried out in
various Middle Eastern and African countries.
These customs involve the surgical alteration
and removal of female genital tissue, usually
performed by midwives and female kin. The
procedures vary in severity and range from
removing part or all of the clitoris (simple
circumcision) to removing the labia (excision).
In infibulation, the most radical form of surgery,
the clitoris and labia are excised, and the vaginal
opening is sutured to reduce its circumference,
making heterosexual penetration impossible
and thus guaranteeing virginity. These operations are done at different ages and for different
reasons – to promote hygiene and fertility, to
render women aesthetically more feminine and
thus marriageable, and to promote virginity. It
is important to understand that these procedures are widespread and in local terms thought
to be required by religion or custom. 12
In the past ten years, an intense conversation
has developed between Western and ThirdWorld feminists over these practices. It is not my
goal here to thoroughly describe this debate, or
to suggest, by examining Western views, that we
enjoy a privileged vantage point or right to
intervene. What interests me here is how we
think about these practices and the body in less
guarded moments.
First, we tend to think about the effect of
these customs, particularly on sexual functioning. We draw on a physiological model of
Masters and Johnson, which places the clitoris
at the center of female sexual response and
orgasm. 13 We reason that removal of part or all
of the clitoris interferes with orgasm, perhaps
making it impossible. That is, we are universalizing a physiological finding made on American
subjects without much thought. 14 Could Sudanese women’s responses be different?
If we are willing to consider that sexual
response is more than physiology, we might ask
what is known about female sexual experience
in these cultures. The answer is not dear cut, in
part due to the small number of studies done
and the difficulty of doing them. A Sudanese
gynecologist compared women with different
degrees of circumcision in Khartoum, finding
that women with milder degrees of circumcision
reported orgasm whereas women with severe
degrees did not. 15 But even this inquiry depends
in eliciting a response to terms like “orgasm”,
whose subjective meaning is what is at issue. A
highly-educated Sudanese woman who had
been infibulated mused on this problem during
our conversation in New York. Familiar with
the Masters and Johnson framework which
would suggest orgasm was unlikely, she asked
me if she had experienced an orgasm. But how
could I know?, short of resorting to the clearly
inappropriate American adage: “if you have to
ask, you haven’t.” She struggled to navigate the
boundaries of culture and language, saying that
perhaps she did, since she enjoyed sex with her
husband and found the experience pleasurable.
Our response is complicated: still tied to a
physiological frame, we think about different
degrees of tissue removed, the possible nerves
remaining under the excised clitoris, the transferral of sexual response from one body zone to
another. We strain to imagine a different scenario of pleasure, still plausible within our
framework. Western feminists also think of
what is familiar to us: women’s accommodation
to the lack of sexual pleasure and even active
displeasure rationalizations, protestations of
satisfaction, low expectations. In viewing these
customs, we oscillate between imagining the
sexually familiar and the unfamliar. Nor are we
alone in our efforts to compare and contrast:
another Sudanese woman famliar with Western
culture found her situation far from unique.
“You circumcise women, too,” she said, “but
you do it through Freudian theory, not through
surgery. You are not so different from us.”
If we give up physiological frames of thinking
about circumcision and acknowledge that in
these countries it is a culturally normative
practice, we begin to entertain unsettling questions. Is female orgasm constructed? What are
the conditions for it? Is it neccessary? Is it a
physiological potential, whose expression may
be facilitated or curtailed? If curtailed, is that
repression and injustice? Or is the construction
of female orgasm open-ended, with no imperative for it to happen? Can sexual pleasure be
constructed totally without orgasm for women?
(And here I mean, can women in an entire
culture experience sexual pleasure, though they
“SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION THEORY: PROBLEMS”
rarely or never experience orgasm?, not the
more customary question we might ask in our
own culture: can a single sexual episode be
pleasurable, even though the women has not
experienced orgasm? These are very different
qustions.)
By now, even social constructionists, particularly women, are disturbed and upset. Abandoning or even detaching from a physiological
to the extent that we
frame makes us feel
questioned this practice – that we are now
losing ground to object to it. It points up the
tendency, even among social constructionists, to
defend sexuality and sexual pleasure in terms of
an essential right and the functioning of the
body. More importantly, the discomfort we
experience as the body slips away, or threatens
to, in this particular case suggests that we need
to explore the limitations of sexual theory
which has no room for the body. As we consider
restoring the body to social construction theory,
we wonder if it is possible to be a materialist
without sliding into essentialism? Are there
ways to integrate bodily sensation and function
into a social construction frame, while still
acknowleding that human experience of the
body is always mediated by culture and subjectivity, and without elevating the body as
determinative? The answer will not be found in
a return to essentialism, whether frank or disguised, but in exploring more sensitive and
imaginative ways of considering the body.
As difficult as these problems may be, social
constructionists do not grapple with theoretical
issues about degrees of social construction, the
object of study, or the meaning of the body in a
vacuum. The new sex history is indebted to
feminism and gay liberation for many of its
insights, for non-academic settings which nurtured this work during the early stages of its
development when the university disapproved,
and for its intellectual urgency. These popular
political movements created an audience of
activist and self-reflective individuals who very
much wanted to know and to use the knowledge
to inform their activism. I mention this because
some of the problems in social construction
theory, particularly the critical reaction to it in
the last few years in lesbian and gay political
circles, originate in the meaning of this theory to
I 167
members of oppressed groups in the contempo’
rary sexual hierarchy. 16
THE SEXUAL SUBJECT’S DESIRE FOR
HISTORY
A common motivation for fans of lesbian and
gay history was a desire to reclaim the past and
to insist on lesbian and gay visibility in every
place and at every time. But the discoveries of
the new sex historians have sometimes proved
disturbing as researchers gave up their initial
certainty about the existence of “gay people”
and embarked on a more complicated discussion about the origins of gay identity in the
seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. In these
discussions, sexual acts could not be read as
unproblematic indicators of homosexuality;
and rather than an unchanging essence which
defied legal and religious prohibitions, homosexuality increasingly came to be seen as a
variable experience whose boundaries and subjectivity were shaped through complex negotiations between state institutions, individuals, and
subcultures.
Variability, subjectivity, negotiation and
change often violated the wish for a continuous
history. If the point of gay history was to
document an ancestry, a gay Roots, then for
many activists this kind of gay history was
frustrating, even a failure. The disappointment
and anger at not being able to see oneself
reflected in the mirror of history has fueled some
of the criticism of social construction theory in
the belief that a more essentialist perspective
would permit the development of group history
and solidarity.
In addition, it is common for mainstream
lesbian and gay political and lobbying groups in
the United States to use essentialist argument
and rhetoric in advancing their case. Lesbians
and gays are deserving of civil rights, they say,
much like women, ethnic, and racial groups.
This argument derives less from a self-conscious
theoretical commitment to essentialism and
more from the pervasiveness of essentialist
frames in American culture, particularly in
regard to race and ethnicity. In an ideological
system that defines these groups as natural, real,
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I CAROLE s. VANCE
and organized according to relatively unchanging biological features, one obvious and powerful symbolic strategy is to claim an equal status
for lesbians and gays. In this ideological and
political context, it is to the advantage of all
groups struggling for resources to stress not
only group unity and historical privilege (buttressed by and documented through histories of
the ancestors), but their status as an essential
group to which members have no choice in
belonging. Fundamentalists and conservatives
are fond of ridiculing the analogy between gay
rights and minority rights: minorities are “real”
groups to which members can’t help but belong
through their racial features, whereas no one
has to be gay, if he or she simply refrains from
sin and lust. Gays and lesbians do not constitute
a natural group, right-wingers insist; they are
just a bunch of perverts.
In such an arena, gay politicos and lobbyists
find it helpful in the short run to respond with
assertions about gays through the ages, to
assert a claim to a natural group status, and to
insist that being gay is an essential, inborn trait
about which there is no choice. And, indeed,
essentialist arguments about sexual identity can
be extended to heterosexuals and used to good
advantage: if sexual identity is inborn, or at
least fixed by age three, then lesbian or gay
schoolteachers pose no threat to students in
terms of influencing their identity or development (in an undesirable way, the argument
would seem to concede). By dint of repetition,
ideas about gay essentialism were reinforced in
the contemporary gay movement (though they
were hardly unknown in American culture)
and, more importantly, linked to group
advancement, success, and self-affirmation.
Therefore, arguments which opposed or undercut essentialist rhetoric about gay identity were
increasingly unfamiliar and heretical, even
perceived as damaging to gay interests. Within
the lesbian and gay community’s internal
discussions and self-education, the failure to
make a distinction between politically expedient ways of framing and argument and more
complex descriptions of sociai relations promoted an increasingly rigid adherence to
essentialism as an effective weapon against
persecution.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF MARGINAL
GROUPS TO DECONSTRUCTION
In a similar vein, it is ironic to note that in the war
of ideas against heterosexual hegemony, social
construction theory has become most influential
only in the intellectual circles of oppositional
groups. Social construction theory may be the
new orthodoxy in feminist, progressive, and
lesbian and gay history circles, but it has made a
minimal impact on mainstream authorities and
literatures in sexology and biomedicine. These
groups continue their investigation and theorizing from the assumption that sexuality is essential. At most, the deviant status of homosexuality
calls for inquiry into its etiology (whether hormonal, psychological, or sociological), but the
causes of heterosexuality have attracted little
interest. In traditional sexual science, heterosexuality remains an unexamined and naturalized
category, and little in popular culture causes
heterosexuals to consider their sexual identity or
its origins and history.
In contrast, the social constructionist framework common in lesbian and gay history has
become disseminated to a larger lesbian and gay
public. Some wonder whether this constructionist perspective is helpful. What are its implications? Why should lesbians and gays have a
developed consciousness that their sexual identities have been “constructed”, when heterosexuals do not? Does this intellectual
sophistication lead to a sense of group frailty
instead of robustness? And does any history of
construction inevitably pose the theoretical
possibility of a future deconstruction, even
disappearance, which is alarming and uncomfortable? The retorts of Dorothy Allison and
Esther Newton at recent conferences- “deconstruct heterosexuality first!” and “I’ll deconstruct when they deconstruct – reflect in their
immediacy and robustness both anxiety about
group dissolution and the improbability of such
a development.
The tension here is identical to a tension felt
within feminism, which simultaneously holds
two somewhat contradictory goals. One goal is
to attack the gender system and its primacy in
organizing social life, but the second goal is to
defend women as a group. Defending women or
“SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION THEORY: PROBLEMS”
advancing their interest (in equal pay, abortion
rights, or child care, for example) emphasizes
their status as a special group with a unique
collective interest, distinct from men, thus
replaying and perhaps reinforcing the very gender dichotomy crucial to the system of gender
oppression.
The same irresolvable tension exists within
the lesbian and gay movement, which on the
one hand attacks a naturalized system of sexual
hierarchy which categorizes and stabilizes
desires and privileges some over others, and on
the other hand defends the interest of “lesbian
and gay people”, which tends to reify identity
and essential nature in a political process I’ve
described. There is no solution here, since to
abandon either goal for the other would be
foolish. Real, live lesbians and gays need to be
defended in an oppressive system, and the
sexual hierarchy, which underlies that oppression, needs to be attacked on every level, particularly on the intellectual and conceptual levels
where naturalized systems of domination draw
so much of their energy. There is no easy
solution here, but even an awareness of this
tension can be helpful, since it powerfully contributes to the larger political and emotional
climate in which social construction theory is
received, and rightly so.
CONCLUSION
Social construction theory offered many radical
possibilities in theorizing about sexuality. To
take the next steps, we need to continue and
deepen our discussions about its very real problems. These problems will not be resolved
through discussions alone, though such discussion offer clarification, but through the course
of continued research and investigation.
To the extent social construction theory
strives for uncertainty through questioning
assumptions rather than seeking closure, we
need to tolerate ambiguity and fluidity. The
future is less closed than we feared, but perhaps
more open than we hoped. All movements of
sexual liberation, including lesbian and gay, are
built on imagining: imagining that things could
be different, other, better than they are. Social
I 169
construction shares that imaginative impulse
and thus is not a threat to the lesbian and gay
movement, but very much of it.
Clearly, the tension between deconstructing
systems of sexual hierarchy and defending les··
bians and gays will be an ongoing one. In that
case, we need to find a way to acknowledge
more openly and respond more appropriately to
the emotional responses social construction
theory engenders, deeply felt responses about
identity, community, solidarity, politics, and
survival- in short, our lives.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I am pleased to acknowledge my debts in writing this
paper, most especially to the researchers, writers, and
activists (too many to acknowledge by name) whose
work in the past twenty years originated and refined
social construction approaches in sexuality.
This paper was originally given as a keynote
address at the International Scientific Conference on
Gay and Lesbian Studies in Amsterdam, December
15 1987. I’ve remained faithful to the talk format
rather than convert my remarks into a formal paper.
Many thanks to those responsible for this stimulating
and productive conference; the hardworking Conference Organizing Committee; the Schorer Foundation; and the Research Group for Gay and Lesbian
Studies of the Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study
of Science, Society, and Religion, Free University of
Amsterdam. I am especially grateful to Anja van
Kooten Niekerk and Rick Stienstra for their dedication and vision. Thanks also to participants in the
conference for their helpful comments and criticisms.
While writing and revising this paper, I benefited
from the comments and conversation of Alan Berube,
Frances Doughty, Lisa Duggan, Jeffrey Escoffier,
Janice Irvine, Jonathan Katz, Lou McDonald, Esther
Newton, Gayle Rubin, Ann Snitow, David Schwartz,
and Gilbert Zicklin. I appreciated the encouragement
of Lisa Duggan, Frances Doughty, and Alan Berube
at crucial moments.
NOTES
1 Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex”, in Carole S.
Vance (ed.), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring
Female Sexuality (London: Routledge & Kegan
Paul, 1984): 267-319.
2 There is no suggestion here that the most radical
forms of social construction theory are neccessarily the best, although the exercise of totally
170
I CAROLE s. VANCE
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
deconstructing one of the most essential categories, sexuality, often has an electrifying and
energizing effect on one’s thinking. Whether this
degree of deconstruction can be plausibly maintained is another question, explored in a later
section of this essay.
A more comprehensive account is offered in my
review “An Intellectual and Political History of
Social Construction Theory”, unpublished manuscript.
For typical examples of this approach, see:
Robert C. Suggs, Marquesan Sexual Behavior
(New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1966);
Marvin K. Opler, “Anthropological and CrossCultural Aspects of Homosexuality” in Judd
Marmor (ed.), Sexual Inversion (New York:
Basic Books, 1965): 108-23; William Davenport, “Sexual Patterns and their Regulation in a
Society of the Southwest Pacific” in Frank A.
Beach (ed.), Sex and Behavior (New York: Wiley
& Sons, 1965): 164-207.
Mary Mcintosh, “The Homosexual Role”,
Social Problems 16 (1968): 182-91. Reprinted
in Kenneth Plummer (ed.), The Making of the
Modern Homosexual (London: Hutchinson,
1981).
Jonathan Katz, Gay American History (New
York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976).
Jonathan Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (New
York: Harper & Row, 1983).
One interesting question concerns the differential manifestation of social construction,
theory in lesbian versus gay male history. The
most contentious battles between essentialists
and social constructionists have been conducted
in gay, not lesbian history. At first glance, one
might think this is so because social construction
theory has had less impact on lesbian history
and, indeed, there is less self-conscious invocation of constructionist frameworks in some of
this work
An examination of the actual content, however, suggests widespread adherence to constructionist approaches in lesbian history. And
essentialism, when it appears, often takes a
different form, focusing less on the universality
of sexual acts, as is the case in gay male history,
and more on the universality of emotion and
interpersonal relations. The reasons for these
differences would be interesting to explore.
For an ethnographic account of these practices,
see Gilbert Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes (New
York: McGraw Hill, 1981).
We have been sensitized to the dangers and
limitations of imposing our categories and systems of meaning. The commitment to avoid
ethnocentric readings of non-Western behavior,
11
12
13
14
15
16
however, encounters another problem: the tendency in the cross-cultural literature to withhold
and dismiss data about homosexuality, from
combined motives of sexual reticence and homophobia. Similar problems occur in history.
Knowing this, the alert reader is reluctant to
accept the glib and formulaic dismissals that the
behavior in question does not constitute homosexuality, and instead leaps at suggestive evidence, treating data which can only be seen as
clues as definitive evidence instead. We need to
chart a course between these extremes.
Although “female circumcision” is perhaps the
most common Western term for these practices,
many researchers in the field prefer the terms
“female genital surgery” or “female genital
operations”. Female circumcision too easily suggests an analogy to male circumcision, whereas
the procedures performed on women are usually
far more serious in terms of the degree of bodily
tissue removed and in the physical and psychological consequences.
For more detailed description and discussion of
female circumcision, see: Asma El Dareer,
Women, Why Do You Weep? Circumcision and
Its Consequences (London: Zed Press, 1982);
Olayinka Koso-Thomas, The Circumcision of
Women: A Strategy for Eradication (London:
Zed Press, 1987); A. Verzin, “Sequelae of Female
Circumcision”, Tropical Doctor 5 (1975):
163-9; World Health Organization, Eastern
Mediterranean Regional Office, Traditional
Practices Affecting the Health of Women and
Children (Khartoum, February 1979); R. Cook,
Damage to Physical Health from Pharaonic
Circumcision (Infibulation) of Females: A
Review of the Medical Literature (World Health
Organization, Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, 1976); Fran P. Hosken, The Hosken
Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of
Females, 3rd rev. ed. (Lexington, MA.: Women’s
International Network News, 1982).
William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Human
Sexual Response (New York: Bantam Books,
1966).
Constructionists might well question whether
the sexual response among even American
women should be viewed as a function of
physiology.
Ahmed Abu-el-Futuh Shandall, “Circumcision
and Infibulation of Females: A General Consideration of the Problem and a Clinical Study of
the Complications in Sudanese Women”, Sudan
Medical]ournal5 (1967): 178-207.
For a discussion of the concept of sexual hierarchy, see Gayle Rubin: 279-83 (in the original
of “Thinking Sex”).
Chapter 9
The (charmed) circle game
Reflections on sexual hierarchy through multiple sexual
relationships
This chapter explores the experience of people who have multiple sex partners
or are “polyamorous” (Anapol, 1997; Barker, 2005; Easton & Liszt, 1997; Lano
& Perry, 1995). The purpose of this exploration is threefold: to document the
lived experiences and perspectives of eight men and women in Hong Kong
with multiple sex partners; to analyse through their narratives the way they
see themselves and their relationships, and how they cope with the social and
moral pressures related to their sexual choices; and finally, to explore a new
way of mapping out desire which will help us rethink Gayle Rubin’s concept of
sexual hierarchy.
In the influential 1984 essay called “Thinking Sex”, Gayle Rubin argues that
people sort out “good sex” from “bad sex” by a series of hierarchies. Rubin
(1984) shows how the line between good sex/normal sexuality and bad sex/
damned sexuality is continually reconstituted or drawn by the various discourses on sex, be they religious, psychiatric, popular, or political. These discourses delimit a very small portion of human sexual capacity as sanctified,
safe, healthy, mature, legal and politically correct. Those in the “charmed circle”
are “the heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive and noncommercial”. Good sex should also be coupled, relational, within the same generation,
and occurring at home. Rubin (1984) argues that there are social privileges and
concrete material benefits to being associated with social legitimization:
Individuals whose behaviour stands high on this hierarchy [of accepted
sexual practices] are rewarded with certified mental health, respectability,
legality, social and physical mobility, institutional support, and material
benefits (1984, p. 279).
Any sex that violates these rules is “bad”, “abnormal” or “unnatural”. They are
the “outer limits”. People with multiple sex partners, according to Rubin, are
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Sex and Desire in Hong Kong
thus at the outer limits. Rubin finds the good/bad sex dichotomy problematic
and oppressive to sexual minorities.
This chapter adds to the existing critique of Rubin by examining the questionable assumptions involved. First, Rubin’s sexual hierarchy is insensitive to
the cultural construction of gender. With reference to Bristow’s 1997 critique of
Rubin for her lack of attention to “how differing perceptions of gender can and
do affect moral responses to sexuality” (1997, p. 202) and “how cultural differences might influence moral stances on erotic behaviour”, I will illustrate, with
the case of Chinese men and women in this study, how Rubin’s theory is insensitive to how gender is differentially realized and performed, e.g., in relation to
heterosexuality and marriage. Second, Rubin’s sexual hierarchy is insensitive to
the question of race. I find both Schueller’s 2005 critique of Rubin’s treatment
of race “through analogy” (2005, p. 69), as well as critiques by Mohanty (1991),
Amos and Parmar (2001) and Razack (1998) of mainstream feminists for their
failure to acknowledge the differences between themselves and black and Third
World women relevant here. Their critiques remind us how “we cannot simply
prioritize one aspect of our oppression to the exclusion of others” (Amos &
Parmar, 2001, p. 31), rendering any singular categorical analysis, be it gender,
race, class, or sexuality ineffective and incomplete. There is, in fact, a matrix of
different hierarchies along the axis of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation,
class, national origin and culture. Only “a synthesis of class, race, gender and
sexuality” (Amos & Parmar, 2001, p. 31), an acknowledgment of “intersectionality” (Mohanty, 1991) and “the multiple axis of oppression” (Schueller, 2005,
p. 64) is the way forward to understanding the Hong Kong men and women
who have come up with ingenious ways to make gender and do sexualities.
In this chapter I concentrate on three main points. First, I argue that the
lived experiences of men and women with multiple sex partners disturb such
hierarchy between the charmed circle and its outer limits, leading to a new
understanding of the notion of heteronormitivity. As Stevi Jackson (1999)
suggests, problems inevitably arise when heterosexuality as institution,
identity, practice and experience is conflated and treated as a monolithic unity.
Heterosexuality offers a different experience and implication according to the
gender, age or class of the person occupying that category (Ho, 2001; Ho &
Tsang, 2002; Jackson, 1999).
Second, people with multiple sex partners show how people assumed
to have unified sexual identities and fixed positions on the sexual hierarchy
can actually have multiple “subject positions” on that hierarchy. A person, for
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193
example, can be simultaneously married and gay. This article will help examine
the questionable assumptions in sexuality theories and studies that people are
relatively stable and perhaps even contented with their assumed sexual identities. Some people can behave according to their assumed roles and yet identify
themselves differently in other social spaces. They perform their social and
sexual identities differently in different social contexts, and in different points
along their life-course. Some people shuffle between the boundaries of the
charmed circle and the outer limits. Some are partially in and partially out.
Models like Rubin’s do not recognize the permeability and contingent nature of
the interface between the private and the public.
Third, as stated above, Rubin runs the danger of foregrounding one particular type of social power in delineating the charmed circle and ignoring other
types of social power (e.g., gender, class, education, race, ethnicity and culture)
as well as the personal power (e.g., social skills, creative sexual strategies) to
transgress and (re-)create one’s own charmed circle. The experience of people
with multiple sex partners shows how individual coping and strategies of identification can transform the experience of space in the hierarchy. When some
people have expanded their skills of coping, they can draw boundaries and
make use of the boundaries more easily to achieve their personal and political
goals. They can also develop their own ethics regarding the erotic to help them
make sense of what they do and justify their own actions.
Methodology
The interviewees were all ethnic Chinese, with one identifying himself as
Canadian Chinese. The rest were born and raised in Hong Kong and considered themselves local residents (“Hong Kong people”). Their ages ranged from
24 to 57 and while four had completed only secondary education, the rest had
received university education to bachelor’s level or above. One had a doctorate.
Three identified themselves as gay or lesbian. Two were married. The participants of this study came from diverse social locations, even though many of
them may be considered middle class, but what constitutes “middle class” in
Hong Kong is a complex question. Just in terms of income and education, we
have highly educated people like Siu Wai and Mei Ling (both held a Master’s
degree) but they did not have a regular income. Hung Gor did not have
much of an education but he owned a small printing company. The picture
got more complicated when we took into account life spaces and life-chances.
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Sex and Desire in Hong Kong
Historically, shifts in the distribution of life chances in the last two decades
have increasingly favoured those with capital rather than with education.
With an increased supply of highly educated people, compensation packages
for the same positions, be they lawyers, teachers, or firefighters, have all been
significantly compromised for people hired in the last five years, resulting in a
very awkward situation of people in the same position and rank having a huge
discrepancy in their earnings, and therefore in status, purchasing power, lifespaces and life chances.
The interviews were conducted by the author with the help of two research
assistants.1 The interviews usually covered the following areas: How do people
describe the multiple sexual relationships they have? How do they perceive
their relationships vis-à-vis the practices of monogamy or mono-relationship?
What arrangements do they have for their multiple sexual relationships?
How do they see themselves and deal with their relationships and sexuality in
relation to their various partners? How do they negotiate between competing
demands of multiple partners? Under what situations would they allow their
relationships to appear in their various life spaces? Do their partners know of
the existence of other parties involved and are open about their multiple relationships? What is the importance they attach to marriage and family? How
central to their lives do they regard relationships? How do they evaluate their
choice of maintaining multiple partners and do they think of themselves as
moral? What makes it possible for them to face the judgment of those who
think that they are immoral?
The eight interviews, which amounted to a total of 30 hours of interview
material, were audiotaped, transcribed and translated from Cantonese Chinese
to English. The names are all pseudonyms and some of the details have been
changed to further conceal subjects’ identities. A social constructionist discourse analytic approach was used to analyse the data and to explore patterns
in the data (differences and similarities within and between the accounts) as
well as the functions and effects of the ways in which accounts were presented
(Potter & Wetherell, 1995). Themes that emerged from the patterns of the data
1. The purpose was to help create a different social space where two of my friends, who
were interviewees, could talk about their lives to me in a slightly different way than in
our everyday social conversations. In the presence of another researcher, they had to
explain themselves more clearly, and could not take for granted that I knew why they
do what they do.
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195
were analysed, and formed the basis of the major conclusions (Tutty et al.,
1996). The coding of the data was facilitated by the computer software NVivo.
Findings and analysis
Hong Kong is a Chinese community whose family values and sexual morality
have been greatly influenced by a mixture of Taoist-Confucian, neo-Confucian
and Christian traditions of men dominating women, making Hong Kong still
a society tilted in favour of men and operating according to a male-centred
premise (Ng & Ma, 2001). Yeung et al. (2004) describe Hong Kong women as
needing to make huge efforts to secure their social inclusion through participation in the workplace and family. The ensuing discussion will show how people
who are at the “outer limits” (according to Rubin) can have different strategies of managing and using their relationships for the constitution of their
selves. For those who are willing to take risks, they can make good use of their
“deviance” to create their own charmed circles by a politics of iconogenesis.
Others constantly shuffle between the charmed circle and the outer limits by
what I would call “a politics of excelling” and “a politics of ignoring”.
Creating their own charmed circles
The case of Mei Ling
A twenty-five-year-old Master of Philosophy candidate in gender studies, Mei
Ling has been actively involved in social activist movements. Recently, she
produced an award-winning autobiographical film, in which she talked about
how she became pregnant by her sixteen-year-old boyfriend whose only advice
was abortion; whereas her other twenty-five-year-old boyfriend asked her to
marry him. When she finally opted for an abortion, she could not come to
terms with it and decided to videotape her dialogue with her baby the night
before the operation. In this short film, Mei Ling also talked substantially about
how she saw her body differently before and after her pregnancy while masturbating before the camera. In the past two years, she has had forty screenings of
her film in universities, youth centres and women’s groups. While Mei Ling’s
public nudity, on-screen masturbation and highly unconventional openness
about her abortion and relationships should present her in a negative light,
she managed to turn it into possibilities for furthering her political project
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Sex and Desire in Hong Kong
196
of fighting for women’s rights to sexual pleasure, as well as her academic and
personal growth. She decided that she would write her Master of Philosophy
thesis on the audience reception of her abortion film.
Mei Ling’s story enjoyed high profile in the media, including mainstream
women’s magazines, in which she disclosed intimate details of her relationships
with her four boyfriends. Mei Ling said she couldn’t care less: “As a creative
person, I can protect myself with my own work and media productions.” For
her, the personal is always political: “I want to create a social movement with
my own life. What I do on a daily basis can be discussed and used as materials
for promoting public discussion.” Following her debut, Mei Ling completed a
film on her mother and the mother-daughter relationship with the support of a
government grant. She said she hoped to come out to her mother through the
process. Although Mei Ling admitted to feeling “marginalized” by not being
understood by her family and friends, she insisted that it was important for
her to be honest about her desire not only to herself, but also to the people she
desires and to the larger society. She believed such openness made her “different”. But her friends often challenged her for “not knowing exactly what she
actually wants”.
No one in my immediate environment really identifies with me. My
friends are either social activists or people who study gender. But not all
of them are experienced in relationships. Even though some of them also
have multiple relationships, they would not talk about it the way I do.
Sometimes, I feel I am living in my own world.
Mei Ling’s experiences of her multiple sexual relationships became her
artistic creation, which in turn earned her media and social attention with
which she created her own charmed circle. Her story highlights the structural
duality of “moral condemnation”. Within a capitalist order, celebrity status and
media coverage can easily be converted into something with marketable value.
For women with limited means, a creative strategy of iconogenesis, even when
it attracts moral condemnation, can become their important resource for the
construction of an alternative charmed circle.
The case of Siu Wai
Siu Wai, thirty-two, was a research officer before turning freelance. She claimed
that she became interested in reading pornography at nine. She was later
delighted to find a feminist organization which did not oppose pornography.
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She became an active member. Like Mei Ling, Siu Wai was able to use social
pressure productively to create her own charmed circle. Siu Wai’s sex partners
were all males except for one lesbian woman. They included her steady boyfriends, sex buddies, one-night stands, and male prostitutes. Siu Wai claimed
that she subscribed to the principle of “tell-all” honesty, though this principle,
much to her annoyance and frustration, always seemed to backfire. For Siu
Wai, the most important thing is the autonomy of her body. She talked very
little about sexual pleasure but much about choices made within a domain
usually taken as sexual, including abortion rights and women’s ownership of
their bodies. Siu Wai has made a name for herself by disclosing her personal
sexual encounters in her newspaper column.
I believe that women should stand up for themselves in every aspect,
including their sexual appetite for quantity and variety. They should not
concern themselves with only social issues like sexual discrimination at
work or sexual abuse at home.
Siu Wai said that feminism and her self-conferred labels—“lang nu” (wild girl)
and “yam fu”(slut)—have helped her deal with her struggles. She wrote about
her sexual experience in newspapers and magazines. “Sex is no big deal, but
Hong Kong women are just too shy and afraid to come out. I am more than
happy to tell them about my life.” Siu Wai’s alternative lifestyle seemed to have
won her a unique reputation in Hong Kong society. She has often been invited
to be a radio presenter, column writer and guest speaker for forums on women
and sex.
The case of Ying Ying
Ying Ying, thirty-seven, became a lecturer in women’s studies at an overseas
university, specializing in sexuality and human rights, after teaching at a local
university. She is also active in theatre. Her reflection on her theatre production concerning the female body was published in an international journal.
She regarded her relationship with her lawyer boyfriend as primary, but that
did not prevent her from developing concurrent relationships with partners of
different genders, races, classes, nationalities, ages and sexual orientations in
different geographical and social locations. Again, Ying Ying’s case shows how
some Hong Kong women make use of their personal experiences to create their
own charmed circles in a gender stereotypic society through art and academic
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198
pursuits, though she was less open about her relationships and lifestyle in
public than Mei Ling and Siu Wai.
I think my lifestyle is surely better than monogamy and what is prescribed
by society. I may at some point want to settle down and have only one
relationship, but definitely not now. I can learn so much through intimate
relationships with different people and the exposure involved is precious.
Some men are domestic and I learn to cook. Some are more academic and
I can discuss philosophy with them.
Ying Ying thought that it was not easy to find someone whom she could feel
passionate about and want to get close to. She thus wanted to enjoy her relationships the best she could.
At the time of the interview, Ying Ying had been told by her long-time
lawyer boyfriend that he had got a woman pregnant. Ying Ying supported her
boyfriend’s decision to provide child support and have regular contact with
the baby. “If I can go through something like this with him, I think there is
nothing that will break us apart.” Besides, this could earn her new leverage: “If
I got pregnant with someone else, I suppose that he would be as supportive and
nonjudgmental.” We can almost expect to hear her reflection of this experience
in her academic work and theatre performance, which will in turn generate
new ideas and resources for her further development.
Discussion: A politics of iconogenesis?
The foregoing three cases illustrate how women can create their own charmed
circles through the particular presentation of their own bodies, sex and relationships. It is clear that for different individuals, sexual identification/positioning
has different instrumental functions. For Mei Ling, the most important thing is
the autonomy of her body. Her case shows how women can have authority over
their own bodies in decisions regarding nudity, pregnancy, abortion and, particularly, how they can undo the shame that is often attached to abortion—by
choosing to display the wound and trauma of her body that is associated with
their experience of abortion. For Siu Wai, it is about the celebration of sexual
pleasure. Siu Wai has made a name for herself by disclosing her personal sexual
encounters in her newspaper column. For Ying Ying, it is about how men and
women both have body autonomy, the rights to sexual pleasure, and how a
woman should respect her partner’s body autonomy even when they are in a
steady relationship.
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The three women in these cases claimed that they did not mind being seen
as or called “polyamorous”. Obviously, they were not unaware of the social
judgment people might make, but they seemed to have found some positive
aspects to social pressure as they continued reinventing themselves as women
and politicizing their sexual identities and lifestyle. Despite the various prohibitions and regulations, they demonstrated how they could live the way they
wanted. As women, they faced high risk in being open about their multiple
relationships and lifestyle, but their willingness to take risks has paid off. In
Rubin’s schema, Mei Ling, Siu Wai and Ying Ying should be exiled to the outer
limits of the heteronormative world—but are they really? The three women
seemed very much aware of how they could fill a gap in the Hong Kong scene
by their sexual experiences and their openness in sharing those experiences.
Instead of fighting back to the charmed circle, they seemed to be creating
their own through a politics of iconogenesis. Given the limited availability of
options for Hong Kong women, the participants have chosen to make use of
their exposure to alternative ideas about intimacy, feminist ideologies with
the language of women’s rights and body autonomy to engage with public discourses in order to initiate changes in the social culture, while at the same time
expanding their respective life spaces. The cases show how social and cultural
capital are constituent but insufficient determinants of class membership; they
are important forces for the pursuit of an alternative lifestyle.
Shuffling between by excelling
The case of Hung Gor
Among the participants in the study, Hung Gor seemed most discreet about
his sexuality. Hung Gor, fifty-seven, is married with a daughter. He has a male
lover known to his family as his sworn brother (“kai gor”). Hung Gor said he
would like to keep his gay life from his family: “It is my principle to keep this a
secret so that I can be a perfect, normal heterosexual till the end of my life.” If
he were ever to be confronted by his wife or daughter, Hung Gor was sure that
he would deny his gay identity. He stressed there was no need for him to admit
to anything unless he was “caught in the act”. Hung Gor always introduced his
gay lovers to his family as adopted brothers, seldom failing to turn them into
close family friends. Little did he expect that his own daughter would fall in
love with the son of his gay lover and eventually become his wife. He admitted
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Sex and Desire in Hong Kong
200
that not having sex with his wife in recent years had turned her into a badtempered person. His way of coping was: “I let her buy anything she wants.
Her authority at home is never challenged.” That Hung Gor tried not to be
too intimate with his daughter’s father-in-law shows that social pressure was
haunting him. It was clear that Hung Gor did not want to “come out”, although
he told the researcher that he was a “tung-ji” (a local term for “comrade” or
“gay man”). He explained that he himself might not be better off staying in the
closet but that his daughter would be spared the possible stigma of having a gay
father in a relationship with her father-in-law. On the other hand, Hung Gor
was active in a gay-related organization as a volunteer.
Hung Gor often performed his multiple roles and sexual identities in the
same social space or life space. He described himself as an ideal husband, a
loving father, a good brother and a good citizen. No one would cast serious
doubts on his life because, he said, he was almost perfect. While Hung Gor’s life
may be understood in terms of a “politics of passing” (Johnson, 2002; Seidman,
1999), I would rather call it a “politics of excelling”, through which people like
Hung Gor buy into the conventional hierarchy of masculinity, sexuality and
citizenship to acquire the charm, the state of perfection that will camouflage
their transgression and serve as a licence for them to break the rules. By asserting the importance of privacy and the legitimacy of having a private life, Hung
Gor can take up more subject positions in the different spheres of his life even
though it appears as if he has a relatively fixed social position as a husband and
a father.
The research participants displayed a very strong sense of the difference
between “private” space and public indecency, even though we can never know
exactly what circumstances would qualify as private or public. Their experience
demonstrates the need to see beyond the common misconception that public
and private are always opposites, “because the contexts overlap, most things are
private in one sense and public in another” (Warner, 1999, p. 173). This also
begs the question of whether there are transgressions that are really “invisible”,
especially as some who commit them, like Hung Gor, seem to believe that it is
possible to keep their gay relationships a secret till the end of their lives.
The case of Lisa
Lisa, forty-three, a full-time homemaker, is married to a businessman and has
a son. Lisa is well provided for and her husband pampers her like she is a young
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The (charmed) circle game
201
girl. He actually refers to her as his “wahwah” wife (doll wife). However, Lisa
was extremely frustrated by their infrequent sex. Two years ago, she had run
away, only to return after breaking up with her lover. “My husband had found
out that my lover was married and asked me to come back to him.” Lisa said
she was grateful for her husband’s care when she was so disappointed by her
lover. Lisa was more determined than ever to be the kind of good wife her
husband wanted her to be. “I told myself that I would never risk my marriage
with silly romances again.” Lisa decided that she would never fall in love again
though she continued to go to late night parties and befriended strangers at
karaoke bars.
It is true that Lisa was not able to live her sexuality more openly because
she is married and her husband is a businessman, but she made use of her
money and leisure as a middle-class homemaker to socialize with other people.
In other words, her middle-class background worked both ways to potentiate
or foreclose certain strategies depending on other variables affecting an individual’s choice. For married people like Hung Gor and Lisa, their relationships
and the meaning of their marital status change according to their needs and
life circumstances. We need to explore further how they have different ways of
managing their different life spaces and relationships while trying to maintain
a sense of order and balance.
The case of Greg
Greg, thirty-six, a lawyer-turned-musician and self-proclaimed gay man,
was having relationships of varying durations with three men at the time of
interview. All three knew of Greg’s involvement and commitment to the other
parties. He admitted, however, that time and energy were his biggest problems.
“Basically I have to work full-time to take care of every one of them; my parttime job is my work.” Despite these costly relationships which he characterized
as “extremely high maintenance”, Greg said he still tried his best to cater to their
individual needs while seeking out casual sexual encounters through available
gay channels. Casual sex, to him, was “pure” in purpose—there is something
“beautiful” about strangers who can acknowledge their own needs to each other
and help each other out. Asked if this type of sexual behaviour jeopardized his
relationships with the three men, Greg looked baffled. “It’s only a matter of
personal sexual appetite; some have more and some have none.” And for Greg,
it’s nothing but a basic need, in stark contrast to his stable relationships—“a
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Sex and Desire in Hong Kong
202
romantic feeling, emotional connectedness; and mutuality”. He has insisted on
not telling too many details of his casual sex life to his partners. He said he did
not want to further complicate his life and he wanted to keep the excitement of
sexual exploration alive by enjoying the associated guilty pleasure.
Discussion: Multiple spaces and multiple relationships
The cases just mentioned demonstrate the problematic nature of Rubin’s sexual
hierarchy—a simple or simplistic topography of social space as a singular twodimensional plane, with a charmed circle in the centre and an outer space. In
Rubin’s schema, Hung Gor, Lisa and Greg are certainly at the outer limits. But
what we see is that they shuffled between the charmed circle and the outer
limits. While “betraying” the charmed circle, they stayed there and behaved
as if they also wanted to turn the outer limits into another charmed circle. For
many people, multiple spaces exist, allowing individuals and social groups to
traverse in their respective life-worlds, facilitated sometimes, as in these three
cases, by a politics of excelling. For Lisa, within the space of her husband’s
workplace and the karaoke bar (both are “public”), sexual discourses and
practices are differentially structured and performed. With her close women
friends, Lisa would talk about her extramarital relationships. It has to be noted
that while the participants imagined their transgressions to be private and
invisible, their transgressive behaviour often had political and ethical implications that extended to other public domains like karaoke bars and friendship
circles. Besides, in understanding the visibility of transgression, we may need
to look at how “ordinary” people who do not claim to be leading an alternative
lifestyle as “polyamorists” justify their own multiple relationships as transient
and accidental behaviours.
Shuffling between by ignoring
The case of Henry
Now in his late twenties, Henry graduated from university to become a professional fireman. For Henry, all sexual activities were part of a game—a game
of the hunter, the hunted, and the hunt itself. There were rules, he said. Rules
prefixed by the larger society, meant to constrain and moralize, yet these rules
were also meant to be bent and broken. And an insider who knew the game
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The (charmed) circle game
203
could devise his own rules. Thus ignoring the stare of the taxi driver as he
fondled the American-born Chinese he had picked up was only half the fun;
taking her home, having sex with her and sending her home the morning after
without asking for her phone number completed the game. The same applied
to Henry’s many sexual conquests. But after a while, they became a perfected
technique, settling into a predictable winning formula, a pattern, and Henry
began to feel bored. Boredom seemed to creep into his relationship with his
steady girlfriend too:
Ordinary guys are all interested in fooling around to satisfy their sexual
curiosity. There is no big deal if one is interested in “play” especially if one
is single and doesn’t have a steady partner.
Henry claimed that he wanted to keep his promise of fidelity to his girlfriends. He was prepared, however, for failing because he could hardly stand
boredom:
I would be disappointed by myself if I failed to keep my promise to be
faithful, but I would not be too guilty. I just have to admit that I am an
ordinary guy.
The stereotypic construction of men as sexually driven and naturally susceptible to sexual temptation was exploited by Henry to create a gender-based
licence for himself.
The case of Daisy
Daisy, aged thirty-one, a Chinese Canadian, is a gay activist, social worker, and
a devoted daughter and sister of an upper-middle-class family, faithful friend,
committed lover; with wide travelling experience and international exposure.
Daisy admitted, however, to having “slipped” through the loopholes of her selfconstructed moral safety net.
Except with my girlfriend, I never go all the way with other girls. I will
skip the last step so I don’t feel guilty. There was one time when I couldn’t
manage to control myself, but nothing happened afterwards.
She confessed to succumbing to “attraction” beyond the confines of her
stable relationship with a Japanese woman whom she described as the only
person to have made her want to “settle down”. Daisy found it more comfortable to have intimate relationships with other Asian women; and she had never
developed significant relationships with non-Asians.
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Sex and Desire in Hong Kong
204
During the interview, Daisy struggled to make sense of her class/family
background, her strict and proper upbringing, her life experiences in school
in Hong Kong and in Canada, her work and social experiences in the US, and
her role as a lesbian/women’s activist. Her strategy of dealing with her own
moral discrepancies was to ignore them—either by eloquent self-justifications,
sheer avoidance, or by attuning herself to “larger” and impersonal moral issues
such as rape, or social injustice issues like racism. She thought that a longterm stable partner would better suit her image of herself. She took pride in her
openness about her sexual identity in Hong Kong society where only a handful
of gays and lesbians dare to come out. Her case actually shows how one’s sexual
choice is related to one’s own assessment of the sexual culture, job market and
vision of the future.
Discussion: Charmed circle, now and forever?
The biographies I have introduced demonstrate the resourcefulness of people in
dealing with their invisible transgressions by a strategy of trivializing deviance.
They argued that those minor transgressions were not part of their daily life
and would have no impact on their primary relationships and everyday realities. They had their ways of drawing the map of their life and the topography
of their desire. These strategies were also socially reinforced. For people who
were single like Henry and Greg, they foundit more legitimate to flirt around
and have affairs that nobody needed to know about. Their “politics of ignoring”
has the power to legimitize some accidental “slips”, helping them stay in the
charmed circle. When complete honesty is incompatible with, and may actually
threaten, a person’s current network of relationships, ignoring and concealing
are often seen as strategies of choice. This is complemented by the claim that
one is acting to protect others from harm or embarrassment—a claim that was
made by almost all of the participants.
From sexual hierarchy to flows of desire
People with multiple sex partners refuse to be imprisoned in one social space
or one fixed sexual identity. They shuffle in between the boundaries of the
charmed circle and the outer limits. In all the cases detailed in this article,
very few wanted to identify themselves as polyamorous or nonmonogamous.
For most of them, having multiple relationships was just something they
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205
did; there was no need to assume a totalized identity as someone with an alternative lifestyle.
In their narratives, multiple spaces existed for individuals and social
groups to traverse. Within such spaces, sexual discourses and practices were
differentially structured and performed. As long as the social space was well
defined and the differentiated life-space sufficiently well managed, it did not
matter whether one was monogamous or not. Some informants were very open
about their lifestyle while others were extremely secretive. But all agreed on
the importance of behaving appropriately to make life less difficult not just for
themselves but for others. Situational propriety was considered most important and useful. Absolute morality was not. While Rubin’s notion of sexual
hierarchy assumes a singular social space and a stable identity, our research
participants’ lived experience demonstrates how individuals may use a politics
of iconogenesis, excelling and ignoring to transform the meanings of their
multiple relationships and experience of space in the sexual hierarchy.
A theoretical model that acknowledges the problematic nature of all
identity-markers in a variety of sociopolitical contexts is needed (Tsang & Ho,
forthcoming). There is a need to use a multidimensional frame within which
the sexual values/practices that Rubin discusses are but one variable among
a host of factors to take note of, such as gender, class, education, ethnicity
and culture. First, we need to give serious consideration to the “constructedness” and “multiplicity” of identity, especially in Hong Kong where identity
politics have not developed to privilege (sexual) identity as in Western societies. Second, we need to explore how people’s acquisition of social and cultural
resources and the expansion of one’s skills’ repertoire in the process of trespassing can help transform their experience of themselves.
If people are using different rhetorical devices at different times to create
specific effects on their relationships or achieve different ends (Barker, 2005),
how should we revise our understanding of the concept of sexual hierarchy or
heteronormativity which does not seem to adequately address the fluidity of
identity, desire and context? Despite the influence of Foucault (see Foucault,
1980), the troubling nature of desire-beyond-sexual identity has received relatively little attention. As Kulick (2000) argues, many scholars continue to capitulate to “a sexuality = identity formula”. To move beyond this dynamic, Kulick
proposes a shift of focus from sexual identity to desire. Valentine goes further
to suggest that we should focus on the “unintelligible” desires which present a
unique opportunity to investigate the complexity of erotic desire, its expression
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206
Sex and Desire in Hong Kong
in practice (linguistic and otherwise), and its relationship to identity categories
(Valentine, 2003, p.124). Valentine (2003) suggests that while the separation
of gender and sexuality has been a theoretically productive tool, it implicitly
reifies the identity labels that feminist and queer scholars are at pains to deconstruct (2003, p. 127). Along the same lines, I argue that a progressive political
and theoretical move to make space for “sexuality” as a field of investigation
and activism has unwittingly produced a system whereby the fluidity and flow
of desire cannot be accounted for in contemporary theorizations about gender
and sexuality. The flow of desire I refer to is not just about sexual preferences,
but also the desire to have new relationships with different types of persons and
to experiment with alternative ways of relating to oneself and others. Among
the cases, Siu Wai and Ying Ying have mentioned having sex with other women
even though they have always identified themselves as heterosexuals. In the
context of “individualization, increased reflexivity, detraditionalization and the
destabilization of the homosexual-heterosexual binary” (Roseneil & Budgeon,
2004), practices of intimacy and sexuality can no longer—if indeed they could
ever—be understood solely through such concepts as sex hierarchy, charmed
circle and outer limits. To really know these people, we need to revise some of
our assumptions and come up with a new way of mapping out desire (Tsang &
Ho, forthcoming) to explore the destabilizing effect of the “transgressive performances” (Butler, 1993).
Conclusion
People with multiple partners negotiate their relationships with regard to their
diverse locations. Instead of being trapped within the moral order represented
by Rubin’s charmed circle and outer limits, and regulated by her notion of
sexual hierarchies, participants in this study have demonstrated strategic management of the irrespective circumstances to their advantage. This requires
skilful performance in a game that opens up their life spaces and affords
expanded opportunities for the fulfilment of their desires.
Private/invisible practices are always open and public in some way. Research
participants experience their multiple relationships as personal, special, and
even unique; and often do not see themselves as part of a social phenomenon.
They are not aware that they are at the same time part of a movement involving
the transmission of information, demonstration, and facilitation. Information
regarding their clandestine liaisons, usually intended to be concealed, is almost
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The (charmed) circle game
207
inevitably made available and transmitted to other people, through gossip or
various forms of surveillance. There can be many nameless others (e.g., motel
staff, taxi drivers, karaoke staff, bystanders) who witness their practices, contributing to a modified construction of reality regarding moral propriety and
fidelity. It can also take place through confessional practices such as sharing
with friends, or talking to a researcher or a counsellor. This article argues that
such performances will almost inevitably become known to other people, and
therefore serve as a demonstration of alternative practices and options. This
demonstration will incline or facilitate other people to make similar transgressions. It has been argued elsewhere (Ho, 2001; Ho & Tsang, 2000, 2005; Tsang
& Ho, forthcoming) that action taken by individuals or small groups of people,
without deliberate political agenda or strategy, can become part of a larger
social movement, sometimes with significant political impact. It is believed
that the cumulative impact of individual practices of people with multiple
partners will likewise have far-reaching effects.
Social research and scholarship is a form of social and political articulation
and action, a collaboration between the participants and the researcher (Ho &
Tsang, 2002). The participants’ choice to talk to a researcher can be construed
as a purposive social and political act. Through their confessional accounts,
they participate in the creation of a social text that can take on an authoritative
voice, which will in turn expand their life space. They do not want to stay exclusively within the charmed circle, which would be confinement, nor do they
wish to be completely outside, which would be social exclusion. Instead, men
and women who chose to participate in this study and thus have their voices
represented here were probably trying to attain more mobility and freedom,
expand their life spaces and life-chances, and enhance the opportunities for the
fulfilment of their desire and for recognition.
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~e
Y£e
LESBIAN AND GAY
STUDIES READER
EDITED BY
HENRY ABELOVE
MICHELE AINA BARALE
DAVID M. HALPERIN
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