Social Construction Theory and Sexuality
By Carole S. Vance
EN 2011 – Terry Goldie Reading
Sexuality and Gender
− Social construction theory drew on developments in several disciplines: social
interactionism, labeling theory, and deviance in sociology; social history, labour
studies, women’s history, and Marxist history; and symbolic anthropology, cross-
cultural work on sexuality, and gender studies, to name only the most significant
− Feminist scholarship and activism undertook the project of rethinking gender in
the 1970’s focused on a critical review of theories which used reproduction to link
gender with sexuality, thereby explaining the inevitable and naturalness of
− Historical and cross-cultural evidence undermined the notion that women’s roles,
which varied so widely, could be caused by a seemingly uniform human
reproduction and sexuality.
− The ease with which such theories had become acceptable suggested that
science was conducted within and mediated by powerful beliefs about gender,
and in turn provided ideological support for current social relations.
− Popular struggles to advance women’s access to abortion and birth control
represented an attempt to separate sexuality from reproduction and women’s
gendered role as wives and mothers.
− Femininity and sexual attractiveness were achieved through persistent
socialization regarding standards of beauty, makeup, and body language.
− Discussions between different generations of women made clear how variable
their allegedly natural sexuality was, moving within our own century from marital
duty to multiple orgasms, vaginal to clitoral eroticism, and Victorian
passionlessness to a fittingly feminine enthusiasm. Sexuality and gender went
together, it seemed, but in ways that were subject to change.
− Gayle Rubin – anthropologist – explored the shape of ‘a systematic social
apparatus which takes up females as raw materials and fashions domesticated
women as products.’
− She proposed the term ‘sex/gender system’ to describe ‘the set of arrangements
by which society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity,
and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied.’
− In 1984, Rubin suggested a further deconstruction of the sex/gender system into
two separate domains in which sexuality and gender were recognized as distinct
− According to Rubin’s formulation, sexuality and gender were analytically distinct
phenomena which required separate explanatory frames, even though they were
interrelated in specific historical circumstances. − Theories of sexuality could not explain gender, and taking the argument to a new
level, theories of gender could not explain sexuality.
− Sexuality and gender are separate systems which are interwoven at many points.
− For researchers in sexuality, the task is not only to study changes in the
expression of sexual behaviour and attitudes, but to examine the relationship of
these changes to more deeply based shifts in how gender and sexuality have
been organized and interrelated within larger social relations.
Sexuality and Identity
- A second Impetus for the development of social construction theory arose from
issues that emerged in the examination of male homosexuality in nineteenth-
century Europe and America.
- Mary McIntosh’s 1968 essay on the homosexual role in England – a landmark
article offering suggestive insights about the historical construction of sexuality in
England, her observations initially vanished like pebbles in a pond until the mid-
1970s, when they were again taken up by writers involved in the questions of
feminism and gay liberation.
- It is at this time that an identifiably constructionist approach first appears.
- The earliest scholarship in lesbian and gay history attempted to retrieve and
revive documents, narratives and biographies which had been lost or made
invisible due to historical neglect as well as active efforts to suppress the material
by archivists, historians and estates.
- These documents and the lives represented therein were first conceived of as
‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’, and the enterprise as a search for historical roots.
- Jeffrey Weeks, English historian of sexuality – drawing on McIntosh’s concepts of
the homosexual role, he distinguished between homosexual behaviour, which he
considered universal and homosexual identity, which he viewed as historically
and culturally specific.
- His rich and provocative analysis of changing attitudes and identities also
contextualized sexuality, examining its relationship to the reorganization of family,
gender and household in nineteenth-century Britain.
- Colonial society did not seem to conceive of a unique type of person – a
homosexual – who engaged in these acts. Nor was there any evidence of a
homosexual subculture or individuals whose subjective sense of identity was
organized around what we understand as sexual preference or identity.
- Records or accounts that document same-sex emotional or sexual relations are
not taken as evidence of ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ identity, but are treated as jumping-off
points for a whole series of questions about the meanings of these acts to the
people who engaged in them and to the culture and time in which they lived.
- Intellectual developments are also evident in early work on the formation of
lesbian identity and in work considering the question of sexual behaviour and
identity in non-Western cultures.
- Had the categories ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ always existed? And if not, what
were their points of origin and conditions for development? If identical physical
acts had different subjective meanings, how was sexual meaning constructed? If
sexual subcultures come into being, what leads to their formation? Sexuality as a Contested Domain
- State-level society shows that sexuality is an actively contested political and
symbolic terrain in which groups struggle to implement sexual programs and alter
sexual arrangements and ideologies.
- Although socially powerful groups exercised more discursive power, they were
not the only participants in sexual struggles.
- Minority reformers, progressives, suffragists, and sex radicals also put forward
programs for change and introduced new ways of thinking about and organizing
- Constructionist work shows how their attempts to carve our partially protected
public spaces in which to elaborate and express new sexual forms, behaviours,
and sensibilities are also part of a larger political struggle to define sexuality.
- Social construction work has been valuable in exploring human agency and
creativity in sexuality, moving away from unidirectional models of social change
to describe complex and dynamic relationships among the state, professional
experts, and sexual subcultures.
The Development of Social Construction Models, 1975-1990
- It is true that all reject trans-historical and transcultural definitions of sexuality,
and suggest instead that sexuality is mediated by historical and cultural factors.
- But a close reading of constructionist texts shows that social constructionists
differ in their views of what might be constructed, variously including sexual acts,
sexual identities, sexual communities, the direction of erotic interest (object
choice) and sexual desire itself.
- All social construction approaches adopt the view that physically identical sexual
acts may have varying social significance and subjective meaning, depending on
how they are defined and understood in different cultures and historical periods.
- Because a sexual act does not carry with it a universal social meaning, it follows