The construct of homosexuality can be conceptualized from two major perspectives: essentialist and constructivist. Essentialist assumptions have informed the thinking of many theorists and researchers traditionally associated with human sexuality, such as Sigmund Freud. The essentialist perspective views homosexuality as a core attribute of individual identity. From this perspective, homosexuality is held to be temporally and culturally stable, biologically driven, and internal. As such, its development is said to follow a predictable and predetermined course.
A second perspective, the constructivist perspective, posits that individuals, cultural groups, and social institutions actively define the meanings attached to sexuality, sexual identities, and sexual behavior. In rejecting the primacy of biological determinism and essentialist assumptions, the constructivist perspective holds that theories about sexualities must incorporate a social-psychological focus. Looking to the past and considering how sexuality has been conceived and lived out during different eras and in different places lends support to the contention that its construction is both culturally and temporally variable. It is really only in recent times that sexuality has been framed as an essential part of the individual, as an identity in and of itself. In fact, the term homosexuality was first coined in the late 19th century.
Before the 19th century, religion was largely responsible for the social and political organization of sexuality. However, in the past century and a half, the social and political organization of sexuality has taken place in more secular venues. During the late 19th century, interest in sexuality emanated from the medical tradition, wherein the concern was in examining pathology. The emergence of the homosexual in contrast to the heterosexual can be seen in the work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, published in the late 19th century, became one of the most influential texts on pathological sexuality. In this, Krafft-Ebing’s use of the terms hetero-sexual and homo-sexual introduced the idea of two sex-differentiated eroticisms, one deemed to be normal and healthy and the other abnormal and unhealthy. Krafft Ebing’s main focus was on distinguishing between congenital sexual perversion and acquired sexual perversity. In this context, the notion of a physiologically based sexual orientation (healthy or unhealthy, normal or abnormal) emerged.
In the early part of the 20th century, Freud suggested that individuals were born bisexual and, as life progressed, moved toward either a homosexual or heterosexual orientation. Freud postulated that a restriction in object choice was necessary for the development of normal sexuality. Restriction in object choice occurred through the resolution of the Oedipus complex. In so doing, the individual became exclusively monosexual. Freud suggested that fixed sexual identity was established by the onset of adolescence. He further maintained that homosexuality and heterosexuality could not coexist, and so the basis for exclusivity in orientation was established.
In the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, the work of Kinsey and colleagues was pivotal in influencing ideas about sexuality. Kinsey and his team used a taxonomic method to capture the range of human sexual behavior. They allowed for the complex nature of sexuality by introducing the use of a continuous scale to understand sexual orientation. This scale ranged from 0 to 6, with 0 indicating exclusively heterosexual and 6 indicating exclusively homosexual. They suggested that individuals may fall in any position on that continuum, thus allowing for a range in terms of sexual attraction and behavior. Despite the introduction of the continuum concept in the 1950s, categorical definitions that constructed homosexuals and heterosexuals as opposites continue to be used when talking about sexuality.
Identity Development Models
In the past 35 years, models of sexuality that have been proposed have generally focused on the development of homosexual identity. These development models have primarily focused on gay men, with lesbians most often being subsumed under this group, and with minimal attention accorded to bisexual identity development. Most homosexual identity development models have come from an essentialist position and share a number of common features. Most hold that development of homosexual identity involves a series of stages (e.g., predisclosure, disclosure, exploration, identity development, identity prizing, and identity integration). Other models have adopted more of a sociological approach. These latter models particularly seek to chart the process by which women or men come to construct their identities as gay, lesbian, or bisexual and allied to this are said to exhibit particular attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles.
Criticisms Of Categorical Models
Using categorical definitions of sexuality (i.e., homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual) is clearly part of the dominant cultural script in North America. However, the categorical model of sexuality has been subject to considerable criticism. Often this term has been used to reference sexual identity (usually fixed), sexual behavior, and sexual fantasies simultaneously and simplistically. Many have claimed that these phenomena may not be congruent. Increasingly, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and sexual partner choice are being recognized as independent variables. For example, the National Health and Social Life Survey reported low inter-correlations among dimensions traditionally associated with sexuality and sexual orientation. Specifically, they reported that 4.3% of women and 9.1% of men in the study (N = 2,000) had experienced some form of sexual activity with a same gender partner since age 18. Additionally, 5.6% of women and 4.5% of men found same-gender sex appealing, with 6.2% of men versus 4.4% of women reporting attractions to someone of the same gender. More than 95% of the respondents identified themselves as heterosexual.
Seeking to capture more of the dimensional experience of sexuality and sexual orientation, Klein and colleagues suggested that sexual orientation is best defined as consisting of seven components: (1) sexual behavior; (2) emotional preference; (3) sexual fantasies; (4) sexual attraction; (5) social preference; (6) lifestyle, social world, and community; and (7) self-identification. These seven components together resulted in the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid. Each dimension can be rated on the Kinsey scale (0—exclusively heterosexual to 6—exclusively homosexual). It is suggested that there may be low or high congruence in ratings among the differing dimensions. Individuals can also rate the grid for past, present, and future sense of self.
When thinking about homosexuality, we are challenged to move beyond categorical, simplistic definitions that confound separate dimensions in an effort to be descriptive. In simplifying this construct, the complexity is lost, and moreover, we fail to allow for the dynamic and fluid nature of sexuality and sexual identity construction. More and more researchers and theorists are advocating examining these constructs more complexly using both traditional and nontraditional methods, thus allowing for the examination of variability in construction and description at the individual and group level.
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