Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Jeffrey Weeks ( 1945-) teaches at Bristol Polytechnic. He is one of the leading contributors to the emerging field of gay and lesbian social theory. His books include Coming Out ( 1977), Sex, Politics and Society ( 1981), and Sexuality and Its Discontents ( 1985). The selection is from Against Nature ( 1991).


Sexual Identification Is a Strange Thing

Jeffrey Weeks ( 1991)

One difficulty is that not all homosexually inclined people want to identify their minority status--or even see themselves as homosexual. Sexologists, at least since Kinsey, have pointed out that there is no necessary connection between sexual behaviour and sexual identity. According to Kinsey's best-known statistic, some 37 per cent of men had homosexual experiences to orgasm. But perhaps less than 4 per cent were exclusively homosexual--and even they did not necessarily express a homosexual identity, a concept of which, in any case, Kinsey disapproved.

Sexual identification is a strange thing. There are some people who identify as gay and participate in the gay community but do not experience or wish for homosexual activity. And there are homosexually active people who do not identify as gay. Many black homosexuals, for example, prefer to identify primarily as "black" rather than "gay" and align themselves with black rather than gay political positions. Obviously, as Barry Dank has argued, "the development of a homosexual identity is dependent on the meanings that the actor attaches to the concepts of homosexual and homosexuality". These processes in turn depend on the person's environment and wider community. Many people, it has been argued, "drift" into identity, battered by contingency rather than guided by will. Four characteristic stages have been identified by Plummer: "sensitization", when the individual becomes aware of the possibility of being different; "signification", when he or she attributes a developing meaning to these differences; "subculturalization", the stage of recognizing oneself through involvement with others; and "stabilization", the stage of full acceptance of one's feelings and way of life.

There is no automatic progression through these stages; each transition is dependent as much on chance as on decision; and there is no necessary acceptance of a final destiny, in an explicit identity. Some choices are forced on individuals, whether through stigmatization and public obloquy or through political necessity. But the point that needs underlining is that identity is a choice. It is not dictated by internal imperatives. The implication of this is that "desire" is one thing, while subject position, that is identification with a particular social position and organizing sense of self, is another. This means that labels such as "gay" and "lesbian" increasingly become political choices, and in that process the sexual connotations can all but disappear. This is clearest in recent debates about a lesbian identity. Among gay men the issue has fundamentally concerned sex, validating a denied sexuality. In debates on lesbianism, on the other hand, there have been heated exchanges about the necessary connection of a lesbian identity to sexual practices. Conventional wisdom and, even more stringently, sexological expertise, have defined lesbianism as a sexual category. But increasingly it has been proposed by feminists as primarily a political definition, in which sexuality

____________________
Excerpt from Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity ( London: Rivers Oram Press, 1991), pp. 79-85.

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