I’m taking a course in the sociology of sex – very fascinating, so far – and we’re required to write down some reflections and thoughts on what we’re reading and how it relates to the world around us.
You know, like I’ve been doing here for the last year about race, sociological theory, and the like.
The course is using Sex, Self and Society: The Social Context of Sexuality as a textbook… and I’m rather glad. I wish it cost less; the essays (at least so far) really need wider exposure. I’ve distributed at least one of them to people I work with…
So if some of the things I post – like today’s – sound suspiciously like edited reflections on someone else’s writings… well, that’s because they are. But if I post them, it’s because I think – like today’s – it’s something that needs to be said in our societal conversation. Like here – where, once again, I’m responding to a nature and nurture debate.
I think they’re both the same thing.
There is a balance in the process, and taking it too far can be extremely problematic. It doesn’t take a lot of comparisons of sexual practices outside of the West to realize that sexual behavior is not universal in the way it would be if it were purely biological. The relativistic nature of all social processes seems self-evident with a modicum of dispassionate examination. However, the relative discounting of the biological component of process seems dangerous – even if it is a discounted with a disclaimer.
There is a vast amount of logical evidence that the way that we “do sex” (echoing Lorber’s statements about “doing gender”) is a social construct. The discounting of physicality, however, is problematic. As some concentrate on the exceptions that demonstrate social interactions, there are biological examples that seem to undermine and override social factors as well. Two cases involving pedophilia serve as proximate examples; one where a male’s pedophilia only manifested with the growth of a brain tumor, a second where it appeared while under a prescribed regimen of a psychoactive medication. When the tumor was excised and the medication stopped, the pedophilia completely stopped in both individuals, and they expressed a great deal of horror and remorse. Tragically, the latter individual only had his medication stopped while he was in prison for his crimes.
These exceptions – along with other case studies where personality, behavior, and even speech have been radically altered by biological change are some of the main evidence for an essentialist point of view. A purely constructionist view cannot explain such changes that happen without social mediation. Yet an essentialist view is also insufficient, as Lorber and Steele correctly point out.
The key is in George Herbert Mead’s nearly offhand comment towards William James, who posited a not-wholly wrong biological explanation for emotion, repeated again vis a vis the strongly behaviorist trend in psychology at the time. Neither, he states, is wrong. Neither, however, goes far enough. (Specifically saying “I want to point out, however, that even when we come to the discussion of such “inner” experience, we can approach it from the point of view of the behaviorist, provided that we do not too narrowly conceive this point of view.”)
The process of memory, social interaction, and indeed, social construction, is the process – and the elements of the process itself. A fantasy of another, a relationship with an other, a tryst with an other cannot happen without the precedent physical other having existed (or being represented) to a physical self (or representation of self). While these physical selves are not the whole of the act, interaction, or reality, they are both catalyst and product of the process. Even the most essentialist biologist will cede that external forces – including social interactions – literally changes both the chemical nature and physical structure of the brain. In this manner, the social construction becomes the essential; in later interactions, the essential again becomes the social.
It is in this dialectic process that our reality becomes both socially created and empirical; that sex is physical and social.