Sexual labels

These days it seems there is an ever increasing list of terms that people use to refer to their sexuality. As Dan Savage humorously put it in reply to a polyamorous letter writer, who was asking to join the LGBT acronym, “We are no longer the LGBT community. We are the LGBTQLFTSQIA community, aka the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, leather/fetish, two-spirit, questioning, intersex, and asexual community/communities. I don’t see why [not…]?“.

What’s going on here? Are we uncovering ever finer detail of the deep structure of the human psyche by successive iterations? Obviously not.

When a new term is coined, there are people who adopt it because they feel it avoids some of the connotations of existing terms with which they were uncomfortable. If, however, they are already invested in the existing term, they may do this only with reluctance or not at all. This is because new terms have their origin in a sense of dissatisfaction with the assumptions about oneself inherent in existing terms, but once they are coined they become an element of identity. The search for identity by means of the adoption of labels sounds a lot like it is a quest for personal meaning, but in fact it is something else: labels are an instrument of social structuration and our predilection for them derives its origins from our tribal nature. We use labels – sexual or otherwise – because we find them to be a key to unlock social doors; to pre-identify as “one of us” and thereby lower the barriers to acceptance, perhaps even claim a right to inclusion.

It is common to say that, these days, we live in a world of overlapping identities. What this means in essence, and this is probably a better way of putting it, is that each of us is simultaneously a member of multiple tribes, some quite local and, in this, more resembling ancestral tribes, others quite open-ended imagined communities (a term Benedict Anderson first applied to the social construction of nation states). These multiple loyalties may coexist peacefully, but also may come into painful conflict.

When one points these simple – and widely recognized – facts out to persons who strongly identify with one or other label, often one gets into very hot water. But what were queer people before the word “queer” was invented? What were “relationship anarchists” before that expression was created? The history of language shows that there will be more words created that suddenly people will cling to as “the” word that captures who they are. These words are social constructions, strategies in a struggle against symbolic domination.

To understand the meaning of words, as philosophers and sociologists have argued ever since Wittgenstein’s symbolic revolution in the theory of language, we need to look at the uses made of them. People are inclined to imagine that words such as “heterosexual” or “straight” describe something that has existed since time immemorial. This is far from the truth: they are neologisms (“heterosexual” first attested in 1892, in common use only since the 1960’s; “straight” in this meaning first attested in 1941; source: These words have come into the language and are used exclusively in opposition to oppressed categories of thought and behavior, first and foremost within oneself. Critical social thought has to identify hidden motivations in the structure of discourse. All of us have many deep seated fears. Biologically, everyone can enjoy same-sex intimate touch. Those who choose to exclude it categorically do so, ultimately, and whatever their rationalization, out of fear.

The war of words is fundamental to social progress or, conversely, social regression (as so well illustrated in Orwell’s 1984). Nevertheless, the only coherent attitude is one of non-identification. Although a universal strategy, it really makes no senseMagrittePipe to identify with labels, because a label is a word, and each of us is a living being. In the same way as Magritte’s painting of a pipe is not a pipe: it is a painting, a signifier and not what is signified. There is nothing wrong with labels, obviously: we need them to carry on a discussion. There is only something wrong with how we think about language: it does necessarily name preexisting “things out there. There is such a thing as a lemon, arguably, but there is no such “thing” as polyamory, it is just a word, used by people to try to communicate their values and lifestyle in opposition to perceived social norms, It is a term those people have chosen, and it means what they want it to mean, i.e. different things for different people. Any one person’s meaning of it evolves over their lifetime, and it may be that at some point they will find another label that better describes them as they then are. Throughout the process, it is not only unnecessary, but it is illogical, to identify with the label. But this is difficult because labels create tribes, and people naturally love their tribe.

This is not to say that there are no “things” at all, no biological or physical basis for the terms we use, no logical distinctions at all: merely that these “things” are not coextensive with the label. Thus being same sex attracted may be a birth condition, but it isn’t necessarily, and so, as Foucault has shown, “homosexual” is a social construction, not a thing in itself. Indeed, everything about sexuality is socially constructed. The very word “sexuality” is a social construction, which has been used with its current meaning only since the 1980’s. The sexual trajectory of some persons who identify as “homosexual” may encompass (or have encompassed) members of the opposite sex at some point, even if in most cases it seems that it may never. Whatever the reasons for our sexuality we have a right to express it (consensually of course). But one should not choose a label and then preclude self-development for fear of exclusion from the tribe which it names and to which it is assumed to belong.

For those of us who think of ourselves as being on a spiritual path, it should be evident that we cannot simply decide that something we are now is what we will be for the rest of our life, we have to stay open to change: because being on a spiritual path, a path of inner inquiry, is the same thing as recognizing that we do not yet know ourselves fully.

So why are many people so virulent when it comes to anything perceived as calling into question their labels, even when there is no question of adopting a repressive stance towards the behavior which they name? I think for two reasons. Firstly, because it is such a relief to have a term which affirms an aspect of ones personality which had been unnamed and in all likelihood repressed. Finding a term means that giving up on repressive social norms does not mean, as it otherwise might, exclusion from society; it can be used to find others whose worldview does not depend on the norm in question; perhaps it can change society itself. But in the same way the virulence also betrays insecurity: insecurity as to the acquired status of the legitimacy of the behavior in question, but also as to the adequacy of the definition we have found. Is this really me? Or am I once again only finding myself to lose myself again?

We are accustomed to think of the act of “coming out” as one of moral courage, and indeed it often is; but Foucault’s unwillingness to do so surprises us all the more for a moral courage which is even greater, no denial of his nature but a willingness to live unnamed. For someone so aware of how language shapes thought, and in turn behavior and society, this was perhaps the only coherent choice.

(Some related articles: Sexual orientation, Mononormativity, A cultural critique of polyamory)

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4 Responses to Sexual labels

  1. Very interesting perspective of social construction. As someone with a literary blog, I love unique discussions like this. Great post.

  2. Pingback: Post-patriarchalism | Becoming Human

  3. Pingback: Foucault, language and freedom: a simple introduction | Becoming Human

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