Sexuality and the Categorization of Populations


In How and for whom does gender matter? Rethinking the concept of sexual orientation (2013), Alison Better and Brandy Simula problematize “gender-centric” (665) understandings of ‘sexual orientation,’ arguing instead for a broadening of sexuality research to encompass dimensions of sexuality which are not in relation to gender preferences. As they write, researchers have increasingly found divisions between how individuals self-identify sexually and their sexual practices or the gender of their partners (665). Yet nonetheless, discourses of sexuality remain dominated by a gender-centric framings, such as queer heterosexuality discourses (668), which cannot adequately capture dimensions of sexuality that are not exclusively, or at all, related to gender. As Better and Simula’s research highlight, many individuals feel they cannot adequately represent their sexuality through gender-centric discourses of sexuality (676-677) as other factors such as race (668, 669), BDSM roles (671, 672-4) or personal connection (675) may be just as, or more, important in ones sexuality.

Better and Simula’s work joins many other gender and sexuality sociologists in “calling for multi-faceted conceptions and measures of sexual orientation” (669). A central theme which has underpinned these calls has been a challenging of the possibility to categorize populations into distinct sexual identity categories. Attempts to categorise and express ones sexuality through a single identity or word – regardless of whether it be heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, trans, bi or other sexual orientation and identities more broadly – suggests an unified identity group. However such forms of identification and categorization risk homogenizing through rendering a multitude of different experiences as the same or similar. As Better and Simula shows, even within identities which appear to be gender-centric such as homosexuality or heterosexuality, non-gendered dimensions of sexuality, such as BDSM roles or personal connection, may often play a more significant role in the sexual desires and practices of individuals. Attempting to homogenize sexuality into preferences of male or female would thus miss when gender either works in relation with other dimensions or is irrelevant in sexual practices.

Research on heterodoxy (Beasley et al 2015) also joins in pursuing this deconstructive attitude, particularly through theorizing heterosexuality. Heterodoxy foregrounds forms of heterosexuality which differ from the orthodox to consider what such divergences mean or can potentially mean for gender and sexual power-relations ( 682). By challenging the possibility of homogenizing heterosexuality as monolithic and homogeneously oppressive, and “queer as the only site for a less oppressive sexuality” (Beasley et al 2015, 681), heterodoxy importantly also contributes to discussion and conceptualizations of more equal gender and sexual relations. This is a controversial position that needs thorough consideration of the exclusion made through theorizing heterodoxy and presents some of the challenges which this emerging pursuit may have to face.

This resistance towards homogenizing sexual identities as monolithic also coincides with Tristan Bridges A Very Gay Straight? (2013) research on how heterosexual men may come to define their deviations from homogenous understandings of their gender and sexual identities, male heterosexuals, as ways in which they are “a very gay straight” (58). Importantly, Bridges highlights the significance of more nuanced understandings of sexuality through sexual aesthetics (58), whereby heterosexuals can identify themselves as ‘gay.’ This is more than a matter of defining oneself but also serves to obscure sexual inequalities and how heterosexuals who deploy sexual aesthetics benefit from these inequalities (58).

On a final note, Better and Simula’s work in moments almost coincided with assemblage theory. As Better and Simula quote an interviewee, “[i]t really is about the person and not about the sex of the person” (672). Better and Simula draw from this that desire itself is a result of interactions as opposed to gender. Horowitz (2013) may expand this to argue that desire is not a result of interactions but intra-actions. In an assemblage or new materialist view, bodies are constantly intra-acting and being constituted relationally with other matter – “people, computers ideas, the weather” (320) – which suggests against any expectations we may have that meanings, or sexuality, should be reproduced in a consistent manner (320). As Horowits writes “[b]ecause we are looking at different phenomena [i.e., different people meeting, or the same people meeting on a different day, a different place, having intra-acted with many new forms of matter since]… it should come as no surprise that the observations issuing from each one… should differ as well” (319).


Note: Image does not represent the nuanced approach being suggested

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Posted in All Posts, Feminism, Queer Theory

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