Envisioning the World We Make, Social-Historical Construction, a Model, a Manifesto, 1 Introduction

1  Introduction
Theories of the social-historical construction of homosexuality and heterosexuality suggest that these and other sexualities are produced by human beings in different ways, in different societies, at different times. But what does the social construction of sexualities suggest as a general model of the construction process? Clarifying that model will, I believe, provide a tool for analyzing historically specific modes of construction, and the human constructs produced within each.[1]

To create historically specific studies of sexuality we had to break decisively with an earlier, fundamentally ahistorical idea of sexuality. That major conceptual shift is clear in my own work. In 1976, in my first book on homosexual history, I spoke of “gay” people, desires, and acts in the early American colonies, conceiving those colonists, lusts, and acts as identical to those of present-day U.S. gay people.[2] Those eternal, ahistorical gay colonists were, I stress, implicitly identical, not just similar, to us. The homosexual desires and acts of 1676 were the homosexual desires and acts of 1976. Homosexuality, heterosexuality, and sexuality in general, we assumed, stayed the same. What changed was society’s responses.

But by 1983, in my second book on homosexual history, I was moving with others beyond that ahistorical understanding of sexuality. My analysis contrasted the historical organization of lust and procreation in the early-American colonies with the very different organization of sexuality in the U.S. between 1880 and 1950.[3] The new sexual relativity theory, I began to understand, suggested that everything changed: sexual actors, sexual desires, sexual acts, those acts' effects and meanings, and the systems in which sexuality was produced. The basic character of sexuality has changed over time, along with our understanding of what constitutes sexuality.

The great variation in what we call sexuality is suggested by some of the radically different, powerfully expressive words historically associated with intense, physical, bodily acts, desires, and relations of people with people:

amour, appetite, ardor, attraction, carnality, commerce, concupiscence, connection, contact, craving, desire, drive, eroticism, having the hots for, hunger, impulse, instinct, intercourse, lasciviousness, lechery, libido, longing, love, lubriciousness, lust, passion, object choice, orientation, preference, randiness, sensuality, taste, temptation, urge, venery, yearning.  

Each of those terms bears investigation as a clue to a particular, historical erotic system, a lust regime that time-minded researchers want to understand in its own, specific character. How to best comprehend the historical diversity suggested by those different terms is an issue that motivates this essay.

Many researchers understand now that the phenomena we call sexual have changed radically over time. We’ve learned to deploy the term sexuality provisionally, to ask how they back then named, conceptualized, and organized actors, desires, activities, and the systems in which they were constructed. We’ve learned to investigate each society’s changing way of ordering, making, and understanding lust.

For thirty-five years the idea that sexuality is socially and historically constructed has helped historians, sociologists, and anthropologists reject the earlier ahistorical concept of our subject. The rich empirical and analytical results of the social construction framework are now seen in multiple books and articles detailing the historically particular forms of sexuality, and the systems in which they were produced.[4]

As we left the old essentialism behind, social construction frameworks proved their worth in practice. Once the problem of sexual essentialism was pointed out, few scholars came directly to essentialism’s defense.[5] And so, paradoxically, as the struggle against the earlier fundamentalism was won, social constructionists lost their chief adversaries, and their original motive for developing social construction theory. The earlier intense interest in social construction lost its original reason for being.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, in academia, teachers of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies, and queer theorists, were more often welcomed within film, literature, Women’s Studies, American Studies, anthropology and sociology departments than in more conservative history departments. Analysis of the particular, theoretically informed work that historians do, researching, documenting, and interpreting the actions of people over time, in specific social systems, was sidetracked.

One of those queer theorist pioneers, literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in 1990, in The Epistemology of the Closet, objected to social construction theory as she claimed it was formulated by Michel Foucault and David M. Halperin.[6] Sedgwick objected to the idea of a “Great Paradigm Shift” in which a new, medical conception of homosexuality and heterosexuality was produced and, she alleged, everywhere and evenly, replaced earlier concepts – for example, inversion and sodomy. (Nowhere did Foucault or Halperin make such a claim.) She pointed to multiple, contradictory, old and new, concepts and enactments of sexuality circulating simultaneously in present-day societies. And so, she argued, we in the present can’t simply assume we understand others’ understanding of homosex and heterosex.

Sedgwick did have a point. The construction of women’s heterosexuality, for example, has had a different historical timetable, and a different impact, than the construction of men’s. But the contradictions Sedgwick pointed to between different understandings of homo- and heterosex can be studied by constructionist historians as “uneven development,” an old analytical instrument in the historian’s tool box. Instead, however, of arguing for a more flexible, subtle, historically specific social constructionism, Sedgwick threw out the fledgling constructionist baby.[7]

Acting on her objections, Sedgwick set out, she said, to “promote the obsolescence of ‘essentialist/constructivist’” as the two, opposed ways of understanding homosex/heterosex.[8] Instead, Sedgwick suggested, homo and hetero should be analyzed according to whether they conform with or flout dominant gender norms, as sexualities of minority or majority populations, or, alternately, as sexualities universal among humans.

Sedgwick had opened her 1990 manifesto with the dramatic declaration:

an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western Culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/hetero definition.[9]

Despite that provocative challenge, Sedgwick and later students of the queer have shown little interest in the empirical history of the homo/hetero divide – little interest in researching, documenting, and analyzing the detailed evidence of homo/hetero’s origins and construction over time.[10]

Sedgwick’s move to make the essentialist/constructionist debate obsolete, taken up enthusiastically by academic queer theorists, was, in the words of historian David Halperin, “spectacularly successful.” In 1991, for example, while calling publicly for “better social theory,” Michael Warner commented, “The major theoretical debate over constructionism seems exhausted.”[11]

So discredited was constructionism that, by 2002, as formidable an intellect as Halperin was reporting in How to Do the History of Homosexuality:

As a result [of Sedgwick’s critique], the very phrase ‘social construction’ has come to seem a hopelessly out-of-date formula in queer studies, and the mere invocation of it makes a writer appear backward and unsophisticated. I have had to almost entirely avoid it in the essays collected here, in favor of less compromised (if no less contested) terms like “historicism.”[12]

After 1990, in academia, among queer theorists, social construction took on a strong, musty whiff of the passé.[13] And so the further development of social construction theory as active aid to empirical historical research came to a halt. Today, in 2016, we are left with multiple, unresolved, conflicting interpretations of social construction theory.[14] Clarifying and developing that theory still offers, I suggest, a valuable means of understanding the human-produced world. So, yes, I dare to call for a reconsideration of the allegedly naïve and simpleminded, old-fashioned and over, social construction. Even worse, I stress social construction’s intimate alliance with an even older Marxist mode of production theory.[15] At serious risk of being trashed as stupid, naïve, and over-literal, I suggest that, to better comprehend the world we make, we need a clear, general model of social-historical construction.[16]

Because heterosexuality is still so often conceived in universal, eternal, anti-historical terms it provides a good test case to submit to the model I propose. So, by way of illustrating this model, I sample here the history I began in The Invention of Heterosexuality, and research by others.[17] Examples of hetero history are offered here to suggest how this model can work as analytical tool. Empirically detailed heterosexual histories are work for future researchers.

Next: 2 The Model

[1] The present essay has had a long gestation. Starting in 1956, and continuing intensely through 1962 or ’63, I undertook close, critical readings of major works by Simone de Beauvoir, Christopher Caudwell, R. G. Collingwood, Antonio Gramsci, Arnold Hauser, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Marx, C. Wright Mills, Talcott Parsons, Jean-Paul Sartre, Max Weber, Raymond Williams, and other social analysts.

Early versions of the present essay, titled “The Political Economy of Pleasure: Toward a Theory of the Socio-Historical Structure of Erotic Activity, with Special Reference to Heterosexuality,” were delivered at Harvard University, in 1990, at the 4th Annual Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference; at the American Historical Association, in 1990; at SUNY-Buffalo, in 1991; at the New York Institute for the Humanities, in 1991; at Penn State in 1992; at the University of New Hampshire in 1992; and at Carleton College, in 1994.

I am deeply indebted to readers who responded with critical comments on earlier versions of this essay: John D’Emilio, Jeffrey Escoffier, Rebecca Jordan-Young, Gary Kinsman, Judith Levine, Claire Bond Potter, James Schultz, Stephen Seidman, Ann Snitow, Carole S. Vance, and Jeffrey Weeks. I thank Weeks for perceiving that this essay is a “manifesto,” thereby clarifying its character. I'm grateful to Steven L. Cantor for looking for typos and grammar errors in this online publication,

I trace the development of my idea that heterosexuality has a history, and my later public talks and publications on that subject, in The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995): 7-10, notes on 204-05.

[2] Jonathan [Ned] Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: T. Y. Crowell, 1st edition 1976).

[3] Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary (NY: Harper & Row, 1st edition 1983).

[4] Numbers of these rich, social constructionist studies of particular historical societies’ sexualities are listed in the bibliography accompanying this essay.

[5] John Boswell, the most prominent scholar to defend essentialism, refused to call his essentialism by that name. He tried, unsuccessfully, I believe, to recast the essentialist/constructionist debate as one between “realists” and “nominalists.” See John Boswell, "Toward the Long View: Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories," Salmagundi, Numbers 58-59, Fall-Winter 1982-83: 89-113; reprinted with revisions in Duberman et al., Hidden from History (1989), 17-36. See also: John Boswell, "Categories, Experience and Sexuality." In Stein, ed., Forms of Desire (1990, 1992): 133-73. An abridged version of this essay appears in differences 2:1 (Spring 1990): 67-87. Rictor Norton is one of the few scholars to explicitly defend essentialism. See his The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer History and the Search for Cultural Unity. London and Washington: Cassell, 1997. Also see Norton’s “A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory,” accessed January 22, 2016 from http://rictornorton.co.uk/social03.htm)  Graham Robb, in Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century (NY: W.W. Norton, 2005), also opposes social construction theory because he thinks, in its “extreme form,” it “suggests that ‘homosexuality’ did not exist until the word was invented. Before then, supposedly, sexuality was just a certain repertoire of acts, not a personality trait”(11). Contrary to that idea, he argues: “First, there were always people who were primarily or exclusively attracted to their own sex.” (No social constructionist, even us extreme ones, ever denied that.) “Second,” says Robb, “these people were known to exist, and were perceived to be different”(12). (No social constructionist, even us extreme ones, ever denied that.) Robb misunderstands social constructionists’ arguments.

[6] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1990). See especially 1, and 40-48.

[7] Analysis of the contradictory, uneven development that Sedgwick is referencing is one of the basic conceptual instruments in the historian’s toolkit. See, for example, Regina Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).  

[8] Sedgwick, The Epistemology, 40.

[9] Sedgwick, The Epistemology, 1.

[10] Works that critically document and analyze the history of the homosexual/heterosexual distinction as manifested in discourse, human relationships, and in institutions can be searched for in the large bibliography that accompanies the present essay.

[11] Michael Warner, “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet.” Social Text 29, 1991: 3-17 (see page 5).

[12] David M. Halperin, How To Do The History of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002): 11.

[13] In a book published in 1999, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), philosopher Ian Hacking was already emphatically disassociating himself from an over-abundance of academic social construction theories applied, wantonly, to everything.

[14] Some of the “multiple, unresolved, conflicting interpretations of social construction theory” are listed by Carole S. Vance in her path-breaking essay “Social Construction Theory: Problems in the History of Sexuality,” in Denis Altman and others, Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality: International Conference on Gay and Lesbian Studies. London: GMP Publishers, 1989: 13-34.

[15] I do not know of any theoretical analysis linking social construction theory with Marxist mode of production theory, though “production” and “construction” seem to suggest an obvious connection. Social-historical construction theory also seems closely related to Marxist historical materialism. I would like to learn of other work comparing social construction and Marxist mode of production theory.

[16] I am inspired to adapt Kate Thomas’ “stupid, dumb, and over-literal” from her essay “Post Sex: On Being Too Slow, Too Stupid, Too Soon,” in Janet Halley and Andrew Parker, eds., After Sex: On Writing Since Queer Theory (2011): 68.

[17] Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (NY: Dutton, 1995). My own movement toward understanding heterosexuality as historically specific is related on pages 6-13. Other researchers’ works on heterosexuality as social-historical construction are listed in the bibliography accompanying the present essay. Most of this other work is sociological.

Last edit of typos and grammar: February 11, 2016 10:27 pm EST