Psychoanalysing Sexuality

24 10 2008

I am continually infuriated by psychoanalysis and those who preach it. Often, I hear some pseudo-intellectual opine upon the psychological origins of particular behavioural patterns, as though they were somehow removed from the common stock and capable of assessing the activities of others as different to their own. I even had a particularly nasty discussion a little while back that continually threatened to become an argument, were it not for the fact that I struggled to maintain composure. Believe it or not, the argument was with a girl no older than myself who believes most passionately that homosexuality is an aberration, caused by an inadequate relationship with a particular parent, and that homosexuals could (and should) be cured, simply with the right amount of psychological reconditioning. She was not religious, incidentally. Just wrong.

Allow me to state the blindingly obvious, if only because so many people seem obviously blinded. As organisms we are a combination of two things, and only two things. We are a combination of what we are made of and of our experiences with life. People sometimes phrase this as “nature” and “nurture”, but I detest the terms. Clearly chosen for their assonance, they’ve become catchphrases that are now bereft of meaning. Once we consider what those words actually mean, it suddenly becomes very obvious that we are always, and only ever, a combination of the two.

That does not mean that any given attribute is partly one and partly the other. It means that every given attribute is entirely, 100%, the one and entirely, 100%, the other as well. Any attempt to separate and quantify the two is bound to meet with failure. A biochemist who only focuses on the neurological aspects of behaviour is just as misguided as a psychotherapist who only looks at the psychological side of things. There is nothing from the realm of our behaviour, for which we are not entirely a combination of both.

And that brings me to the issue of sexuality. Despite the pretensions of many in our society, attitudes towards sexuality are hilariously simplistic. Most people, fitting by nature into the default category of “heterosexual”, never question what sexuality actually is and are often content to view it as a three-pronged fork. One is quite simply either gay, straight, or bi. Not very complicated at all.

Alfred Kinsey, a twentieth-century biologist, attempted to improve upon the situation by developing what has come to be known as the Kinsey Scale. Unlike the simplistic (yet persistent) three-point spectrum, Kinsey’s scale has a whole seven. I acknowledge that it is a step in the right direction, but seven is not a great deal more impressive than three.

How does one categorise the difference between a male who identifies as heterosexual but who is nonetheless choosier in his partners than another male who likewise sees himself as “straight”? Or how about a female who finds the thought of having sex with a man disgusting, and another self-identified lesbian who finds it less repulsive but is nonetheless not aroused? Is it not obvious that sexuality is a multi-dimensional matrix? Why is our society so intent on putting everybody into a box?

The answer is despairingly simple. Bad science.

The blame, to a large extent, rests with the pseudo-sciences: sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis. The term pseudo-science is not pejorative, incidentally: I would grant the same title to linguistics. They all attempt to derive information regarding behaviour from the external manifestations of that behaviour, and with absolutely no regard for genuinely testable scientific concerns like biochemistry and neurology. Academics in these disciplines, having a great love for taxonomy, enjoy the formulation of categories, into which people can be placed. These categories are established on the basis of superficial features and it is surprising how readily people will step into them.

The scientists of our world – those who develop theories that can actually be tested in “laboratory conditions” – are likewise to blame for this ridiculous situation. In former years, biochemists and neurologists gave no regard for the subject’s experiences with life, and believed that everything came down to purely genetic concerns. It is satisfying to note that this is no longer the case today, as more scientists perceive the social influences upon the subject’s psyche. Nonetheless, the studies of former centuries have so pervaded the common attitude towards sexuality that one still hears people speak of a “gay gene”, as though there is some specific genetic difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals that merely needs to be activated for their behaviour to change.

Speaking personally, I am tired of having my sexuality called into question every time I defend gay people. Do I need to be a Muslim to lament the suffering in Darfur? People who disparage diversity are a threat to everybody: there is no such thing as a “default” position on anything. People who think that homosexuality is “wrong” (as though evolution made some kind of “mistake”) have a pleasant surprise coming to them. Being gay cannot be cured. Being ignorant can.

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6 responses

24 10 2008
Judy Redman

Simon, you move in the wrong circles. When I defend gay people, I’m called an agent of Satan! :-)

But more seriously, the theory makes most sense to me is that sexual orientation is a continuum, with some people being strongly straight, others strongly gay and others at varying places in between. And in homophobic societies, many of the people who are in the middle identify as straight because it’s easier.

26 10 2008
Simon Holloway

Actually, I get called that too, but only when I defend the agents of Satan.

As for your point regarding the continuum, that works for me so long as it is a continuum in the truest sense. It needs to be completely fluid, rather than being marked with discrete locations, and needs to have a (potentially) infinite number of variations. That is why I prefer the idea of it possessing more than the one dimension. I realise that my delineation is too complicated, but complexity is a positive thing. It breaks down when people actually want to be given a label, of course.

27 10 2008
Jen

And so many people do want to be given a label. Apparently most bisexuals get a bad deal because they have no clearly defined cultural identity of their own and both ‘pure’ sides look down on them as if they were a kind of mongrel.

4 12 2008
Lou

“The term pseudo-science is not pejorative, incidentally: I would grant the same title to linguistics. … on the basis of superficial features and it is surprising how readily people will step into them.”

Thems fighting words, there! I am soooo going to take you up on this one! I think you have a narrow view of linguistics. This is NOT the type of linguistics my colleagues and I do. We collect data and we find patterns. We make hypotheses and we test those hypotheses against what we find in the data. Naturally, we don’t do it in laboratory conditions, unless we want to know how people use language in a laboratory. We do it in as naturalistic a setting as is possible.

Anyway, I will restrict my rant and rave for the moment because I am enjoying your blog and want to read more of it….and then get back to my data!

5 12 2008
Simon Holloway

Lou, your uses of ellipses have taken me out of context. The second part of that quote (“academics in these disciplines”) was a reference to sociology, anthropology and psycho-analysis. As for the first half of my quote, I would still defend that. You said that you and your colleagues collect data and test your hypotheses against that data; I would agree that this is precisely what linguists do. But I would also argue that it is not a ‘scientific’ method, in the strict sense of the term, as data is never empirical and cannot ever be tested by anything more rigorous than the hypotheses themselves.

19 12 2008
Em

You may be relying on an outdated conceptualisation of psychoanalysis to form your opinion. Different psychoanalytic theorists have varying views on homosexuality. I personally think psychoanalysis lends itself to being open to all forms of sexuality due to an acceptance of the person for whoever or whatever they are. For this reason, it is actually the opposite of categorising people, and instead is interested in a deeper understanding of the whole person in their infinite complexity.

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