The media have been full these days with news about the seemingly inexorable victories (at least in America and Europe) of the sexual liberation movements that began over fifty years ago. Same-sex marriage is being legislated in a lengthening list of American states and European nations. The ruling coalition in Germany is threatened with dissolution because of a split over the issue of quotas for women in corporate management. Insular Icelanders (who, one would think, should be preoccupied with a persistent and pervasive economic crisis) have fallen in line with other Scandinavian countries by keeping prostitution illegal, but prosecuting its customers rather than its providers, who are defined, rather ambivalently, both as professional “sex workers” and as certified victims. I understand that the intended beneficiaries of these measures are not very enthusiastic, being more comfortable with the old-fashioned sleazy arrangements.
Of course much of the world outside the United States and the European Union is, to put it mildly, more skeptical about all these liberations. Western progressives, certain that they are “on the right side of history”, can dismiss such skepticism as an expression of a backward mentality sure to crumble eventually before the triumphant march of Enlightenment. In American media the New York Times is particularly mesmerized by anything relating to homosexuality. I expect one day to see two headlines on page one of this “newspaper of record”: A big one, “Chinese and Japanese Navies in Fierce Battle over Disputed Islands. Japan Invokes Defense Treaty with the US.” And one in only slightly smaller print, “Papua New Guinea Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage”.
Sigmund Freud has been a bête noire of feminists for having written, in an essay on human sexuality, that “biology is destiny”. Actually this is a misquotation. What he wrote was that “anatomy is destiny”. But that sentence was in the context of a passage asserting that little girls are greatly distressed when they discover that they lack an intriguing protuberance possessed by their brothers, and that this “penis envy” is a basic feature of female psychology. This context of course has only reinforced the view that the old curmudgeon was a terrible male chauvinist. I am not sure that Freud is accurately categorized in this way. It seems to me that his view of sexuality is not so much biological as mechanical—a hydraulic system of pipes, where repressing some items in one place will lead to their popping up somewhere else. I am quite sure that Freud, had he lived to see it, would have been appalled by the recent wave of sexual liberations. He was, if anything, a rather repressed type himself. The only known deviation from uptight bourgeois morality on his part was a not quite innocent attraction to his wife’s sister (which may or may not have been consummated).
But let me not quibble. Let me stipulate that the offending sentence could be read as meaning that biology is destiny. In which case Freud has regiments of followers today among scholars in different disciplines, who try to explain all or most human behavior in terms of inborn drives, genes and the neurology of the brain. The curious irony is that many adherents of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transsexual movement have come to subscribe to the view that biology is indeed destiny—while at the same time other members of the same movement fiercely maintain that “gender” is an arbitrary social artifact, largely independent of its biological substratum. The movement thus oscillates between biologism and sociologism (which, I suppose, should not surprise us—political rhetoric is not an exercise in logic).
The dominant political discourse of the GLBT movement has now proposed that sexual orientation is not chosen but congenitally given—in other words, is destiny. As I have pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, this is a significant change from the earlier defense of gay rights in terms of the freedom to choose one’s lifestyle as one prefers. In other words, it is similar to religious freedom and freedom of speech, protected under the First Amendment. The explanation for the change of discourse is clear: If sexual orientation is not a choice but a given, it is like skin color, and therefore the movement can wrap itself in the mystique of the Civil Rights Movement. Gay rights are now defended constitutionally, not in terms of free exercise or speech, but of equal treatment under the law (Fourteenth Amendment). The mystique of racial equality has become an important component of the American Creed and as such well worth embracing.
Thus some gays have become quasi-Freudians. Feminists who are lesbians and/or allied with gay men have participated in the paradigm shift. (I am not aware of any apologies to Freud.) This has not prevented other feminists, probably a majority, to derive their discourse from sociology rather than biology. They are behaviorists, not Freudians. The ubiquity of the concept of “gender” in feminist parlance brilliantly reveals the underlying assumption: The term “sex” still retains the understanding that there is something crassly biological in the behavior covered by the term—people still “have sex”; nobody “has gender”. “Gender” is a grammatical term, not a biological term. It is a social construct, which, unlike sex, varies widely between human languages. Thus the “sun” is masculine in French, feminine in German (le soleil – die Sonne), while the reverse is true in the case of the “moon” (la lune – der Mond). Among other things, this means that French and German feminists seeking to purge language of its alleged bias against women have a more difficult task than their English-speaking sisters (who must concentrate on their relentless campaign against the generic masculine). To be sure, some linguists have maintained that there is a universal grammar which all actual languages share. Be this as it may, nobody is born speaking French, even if there is an innate and very general structure that French shares with every other language. Such a structure is not very helpful as a French-speaker tries to converse with an individual whose only language is Chinese. For better or worse, human individuals (with very few transsexual exceptions) are born with sex-specific genitalia; nobody is born speaking Chinese or French.
In sum: It seems very likely to me that homosexuality is a destiny for some individuals and a choice for others. It doesn’t have to be either/or. I don’t see why the demand for the rights of people with this sexual orientation, a demand deeply rooted in the values of democracy, should hinge on an unnecessary dichotomy.
I will make some concluding observations about all this, first as a (very cautious) social scientist, then as a (convinced and less cautious) moralist. (This last term was once ascribed to me in a pejorative sense. If it means that I am a citizen with strong moral convictions, then I am willing to plead guilty.)
In the first capacity, let me recall that the respective importance of nature and nurture in the shaping of an individual has been debated for a very long time. It seems plausible to me that both are involved. We still don’t know with any degree of precision where one leaves off and the other begins. But it is clearly distortive if we conceive of human beings as either chimpanzees with a more complicated brain or as free agents with a body at their disposal. In the matter at hand, it is very probable that there are biologically rooted differences between men and women, and that these determine some of their behaviors. It is evident, however, that different societies have been very inventive in the institutions built on top of (and sometimes against) the biological determinants.
In my capacity as a moralist, I am suspicious of all movements—I have the lingering intuition that every movement can very quickly turn into a lynch mob, and that I would be a likely target of its rage. The movements of sexual liberation have, I think, been a mixed bag. Some of their consequences have been very good, such as the ending of discrimination against women and of the persecution of homosexuals. Other consequences have been less desirable, such as the legal definition of privileged victim categories, or the politization of private life. Only rarely does one have the luxury of coming across a movement that one can endorse without reservations—in that respect, the Civil Rights Movement was unusual (at least until much of it turned to victimology after the death of Martin Luther King).
Let me end with two suggestions: Gays should give up trying to be a racial minority. And feminists should stop denying that, whatever else they are, they are also part of a species of mammals.
[Photo of Sigmund Freud and his daughter, courtesy of Getty Images]