Social sciences and humanities in general and anthropology in particular have for a long time shown a deep interest in trying to assess the way people construct their personal and collective identities.
Among many other heated discussions related to this is the opposition between biological essentialism- and social constructionism-based explanations for the origins of these identities. Biological essentialism assumes that whatever identity marker is used for a person, be it one related to race, sexuality, culture, etc., the reason for a person identifying with that certain group is in their biology and is inherent and unchangeable.
Social constructionism, in its turn, claims that identity is fluid, changeable and, most importantly, socially constructed, created under influence of certain historical and societal conditions and also changing from society to society.(DeLamater & Hyde 1998)The discourse gets an especially interesting turn when it comes to the notion of sexuality and sexual preferences. As opposed to the same question in relation to most other identity categories, for example, race, where in scientific communities the term “race” has been widely proven to be irrelevant in terms of genetics and biology and is only used in a social context (Chou 2017), the possibility of one’s sexual orientation origins being partially or fully biological is still a subject to research and discussion.
Moreover, some members of the LGBT community, unlike most of the other minority groups, themselves widely embrace the biological essentialism explanation for their identity as a means to fight homophobia, claiming that queer people deserve equal rights on the basis of them not having any choice over being the way they are, being fully predisposed to their sexuality by their biology. Some of the aforementioned ongoing biological research include research on the brain, prenatal hormones, and genes. It must be noted, that all of the findings till this date have been rather inconclusive. What is, however, of the bigger interest in this context is the way scientists doing the research address the issue. In an interview for The Guardian done by Zoe Williams (2014), a Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab has talked about his findings related to sexuality and brain.
When being confronted with the fact that his research topic is rather politically charged, he claims that, in his opinion, the prospect of finding a biological explanation for sexuality can be highly beneficial for the queer community. According to him, “people can only live a happy life if they can live the way their brain has been programmed, and the state should accept that, and guarantee them the freedom to live that way so long as they don’t harm others. You should have the freedom to live as a homosexual, a transsexual, a heterosexual, and be protected by the state”. Keeping in mind how many homophobic statements that threaten to deprive the members of LGBT community of their rights are based on claiming that being queer is a “choice”, it can be a sound argument.
One of the many examples of politicians basing their statements against certain LGBT rights supporting policies is the current senior White House adviser Sam Clovis saying that, as homosexuality is a choice and not “primary characteristic”, protecting gay rights can lead to accepting and protecting other “fetishes” that people engage in by choice, which is undesirable. (Kaczynski & LeBlanc 2017) Considering this common trend of politicians taking an issue first and foremost with homosexual practices being a “choice” and not in someone’s nature, striving to be able to provide a definite biological explanation for sexuality and embracing biological essentialism seems to indeed offer some political benefits. Still, the essentialist approach has been widely criticised by various academicians and activists.
It can be said, that in the modern social sciences the prevailing approach to viewing sexual orientation in particular and sexuality in general is the one of social constructionism. One example of that perspective is presented in a conference paper by an anthropologist Carole S. Vance (1989) called “Social Construction Theory: Problems in the History of Sexuality”. Vance states that social constructionism when related to sexuality proposes “an extremely outrageous idea” that “one of the last remaining outposts of the “natural” in our thinking was fluid and changeable, the product of human action and history rather than the invariant result of the body, biology or an innate sex drive.” She then describes the general move away of social sciences from essentialism in the past century but points out that sexuality and gender were the last domains to be included into the discussion, for the longest time continuing to be determined by essentialist notions-only. Exactly because of this novelty of social constructionist views, there are still “essentialist tendencies” that can be found even in the writings that do not identify as such otherwise. The main goal of construction theory is thus to give an opposition, to question these essentialist assumptions that are still hegemonic in culture and that are extremely reductionistic of real human experience. She also makes an interesting point, that there are not exactly too many self-identified and self-conscious essentialists as opposed to social constructionists for the same reason that heterosexual people do not feel as much awareness of their sexual identity as homosexual people do: those that are not in the hegemonic majority tend to be forced more to identify themselves and to reflect on the reasons behind their identity.
Vance then goes on to oppose several common misreadings of constructionism paradigm. She addresses the catchphrase that says that some experienced identities are less important as they are “only socially constructed” and highly criticises it, by stating that a phenomenon does not have to be biologically determined to have importance. Trying to explain how reality is constructed in relation to historical and societal processes does not mean that this reality is less real or significant for the person experiencing it. Another common misreading assumes that, as sexuality is socially constructed, then this would imply a possibility of an individual to easily change their sexual identity. She opposes it by saying that it mixes up the individual and the cultural level of perception. As also exemplified in anthropology, assuming that culture is not inherent or inborn and is a result of complex processes happening to an individual after their birth does not imply that “entire cultures can transform themselves overnight, or that individuals socialized in one cultural tradition can acculturate at whim to another”. She also points out that social constructionism is not a dogma and the writings of different theorists vary drastically.
Still, there is a general assumption that physically same acts can have different significance in different cultures, which is indeed proven by various anthropological reports. She, however, acknowledges the problem that arises from completely deconstructing the biological notions of sexuality: how then to assess our bodies’ biological reality and sexual impulses without returning to essentialism? Is it possible to be materialistic without being essentialist, with acknowledging that body experiences are mediated by culture without rejecting the very reality of these bodies? There has indeed been a variety of writers who found biological essentialism and social constructionism opposition to be too limiting in the first place and have instead advocated for a conjoint approach. One of them is an anthropologist Donald F. Tuzin (1995) who, in a paper “Discourse, Intercourse, and the Excluded Middle: Anthropology and the Problem of Sexual Experience”, presented a biocultural view on human sexuality. He claims that sexual desire in itself is a product of evolution, supporting it by the statement that there would be no other explanation for people risking their life, family, tranquility, and reputation in order to be able to express that desire in a particular way.
But the way that desire is expressed is, according to him, still defined by social context. Thus he sees sexuality in itself as a product of nature and the way it is expressed, acted on in a particular society as a social construction. Can this, however, be viewed as a true conjoint of essentialism and social constructionism? Is it indeed combining biological and social factors, but is biology equated to essentialism and social influence to social constructionism? DeLamater & Hyde (1988), when referring to the paper by Tuzin, conclude that no, a true conjoint between essentialism and social constructionism does not seem possible. While essentialism claims that there is a certain essence which is objective and possible to observe or study, social constructionism denies an existence of such essence and its objectivity and rather states that reality is constantly being constructed by humans.
Thus their very basic assumptions would always contradict each other and never be able to create a reconciliation. Still, however, the possible tensions and unresolved intellectual issues might exist within the social constructionist approach to studying and viewing sexuality, it seems to be the most adequate one to date. It does not fully assume that biology does not have any influence on sexual preferences whatsoever, it rather broadens the ways to assess what does play a role, makes the discussion more inclusive and exhaustive. It is also a much more refined approach which continues to question itself, be self-conscious and self-critical and therefore to develop.