Essay on Sexuality and Gender

Free Essay on Sexuality and Gender:

Social theory has recently been engaged in a wide-ranging discussion concerning the relationships between “sexuality” and “gender“. One of the most influential texts in this debate is Judith Butler Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, a book that also circulates within Foucauldian, psychoanalytic, and deconstructionist debates concerning the constitution of the subject and the category of identity.

Butler’s investment in the Foucauldian paradigm has more to do with the relation of discourse to the construction of subjectivity (she argues that there is no subject “before” discourse or outside the law) than with epistemic shifts or the emergence of new subjectivities within discursive formations. In other words, Butler is interested in the philosophical and linguistic significance of Foucault’s claims concerning the circulation of juridical power and the idea of the subject as enabled into being by that power. She does not seem to be as interested in the “historical Foucault.” (Butler, 1990)

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Thomas Laqueur evinces precisely the opposite tendency in his book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, as he traces historical shifts in perception of “sex” from a one-sex model of the body (an ancient and early modern view) to a two-sex model (a post-Enlightenment conception), arguing that political exigencies motivated this change in scientific perception (rather than any specific scientific discovery concerning the anatomy or physiology of sex). (Laqueur, 1990)

For Laqueur, “sex” (anatomical or physiological sexual difference) is always an effect of a society’s gender arrangements. Gender, as the social structure designating the proper place of subjects along an axis of differentiation, determines perceptions of the body as sexed — determines, indeed, what counts as “sex.” (Laqueur, 1990)

While Laqueur makes this argument through an analysis of the history of the one-sex model of the body and its transformation into a two-sex model over the course of centuries, Butler makes a similar argument in a deconstructive mode: “sex,” she argues, cannot be thought of as prior to gender if gender is the law that is necessary in order to think “sex” at all. In this analysis, “sex as nature” is only the naturalized a priori that gender projects as its requisite antecedent.

In order to make sense of the changes in discourse — that is, changes in the relationships between “sexuality” and “gender” as terms – we could utilize yet another model or mode of analysis: semiotics, or specifically, Roland Barthes’s semiotic model of mythology. (Barthes, 1993)

Barthes work in cultural semiotics, as exemplified by The Fashion System, makes possible a method of reading the body as a sign system whose signifiers are both part of a “real code” beyond the discursive capacity of language to appropriate and part of a terminological or descriptive system produced by science to bring the body into language and therefore into epistemology and ideology. Ways of seeing the body, ways of encoding anatomy and physiology into the language of medicine, have a significant impact on imagined and imaginable forms of subjectivity.

Barthes’s semiotics of mythology thus allow the researchers to “work the join” between Laqueur’s and Butler’s two appropriations of Foucault, to make theoretical claims via a historical analysis and to use history to understand the problematical discursive relationship between sex and gender. (Barthes, 1993) It is important to remember, however, that a model is a heuristic device, which facilitates a certain understanding, highlighting certain features while diminishing the significance of others; it is the selective rewriting of a situation whose complexity entails the possibility of other, alternative models, models which highlight different features, presenting different emphases.

In chapter I of Gender Trouble, Butler examines the naturalized relation between gender, sex, and desire that produces the idea of identity in the human subject. Her argument concerning the unnaturalness of gender and its presumptive regulation of sex is made through a very precise analysis of the linguistic and philosophical logic that maintains sex as the origin of gender by obscuring how gender serves to produce sex as “the natural” condition of its existence as an identity.

Butler uses philosophical and political discourses as the stage of her analysis, relying heavily on readings of Michel Foucault, Monique Wittig, Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, and Jacques Lacan to substantiate her claims. Butler purpose in writing Gender Trouble is to unsettle the premises of both feminist politics and theory insofar as each relies on the idea of an identity that precedes the subject of feminism. That is, Butler’s argument against “gender” is one whose real target is the politics of identity that have supported feminist theorizing and political action in recent years. (Butler, 1990)

The first line of the preface to Gender Trouble claims that “contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism.” (Butler, 1990) While feminist theorists such as Teresa de Lauretis attempt to alleviate that trouble through further specifications of the category “gender,” Butler proceeds in the opposite direction, attempting to unsettle its signifying power and thus reorient its position as a signifier in feminist theory and action.

She demonstrates that rather than being the expression of sex, or the cultural production of sex, the idea of gender in fact regulates the notion that sex is the natural condition of the human body. Butler makes this claim as part of a broader demonstration of Foucault’s work on “juridical systems of power that produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent.” (Butler, 1990) She analyzes the relation of sex and gender in order to show that what is thought to be the primary condition (sex) is actually an idea mediated by what poses as its secondary effect (gender).

Butler takes her analysis further by arguing that the (fictive) category of gender identity is actually constituted by the performative acts that it is thought to produce as its “expression.” She establishes that gender identity is not a “descriptive feature of experience” but a normative ideal. (Butler, 1990) As such, it operates in a regulatory fashion, producing subjects who fit its requirements for “harmony” between gender and sexuality and punishing those for whom the categories are in disarray.

Indeed, she argues “the very notion of ‘the person’ is called into question by the cultural emergence of those ‘incoherent’ or ‘discontinuous’ gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined.” (Butler, 1990) Gender becomes intelligible through the “heterosexual matrix,” which she defines as “that grid of cultural intelligibility through which bodies, genders, and desires are naturalized.” (Butler, 1990)

It is characterized by “a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender…that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality.” (Butler, 1990)

Ultimately, Butler argues for the “redeployment” of gender performances — those behaviors and activities that produce gender in everyday life and constitute as men and women the subjects who engage them — through subversive, parodic repetitions. These parodic acts would unsettle received notions concerning the naturalness of gender as the core of identity by highlighting the artificial relation of gender to bodies and sexualities. Butler suggests that drag performances are one example of this parodic replaying of gender in order to subvert its meanings in contemporary culture.

She implies that these acts reveal “the performative status of the natural” and argues that the “task is not whether to repeat, but how to repeat or, indeed, to repeat and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself.” (Butler, 1990) Once identities are no longer considered the basis for political action, but are understood to be performatively constituted through such action, and once those actions are engaged in the process of deconstruction Butler designates “subversive repetition,” “cultural configurations of sex and gender might then proliferate or, rather, their present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness.” (Butler, 1990)

The “proliferations” Butler envisions inaugurate the subversion of these terms, which represent the two discursive categories available. Butler would argue that we cannot wish ourselves outside of the existing ideological field in which sexuality and gender are understood as separate but linked phenomena. The presentation of these two terms — “sexuality” and “gender” — as the inevitable categories in play, however, is possible only because Butler disregards the historical production of the idea of gender as identity.

Her lack of historical analysis results in the presentation of these two terms as inevitable; subversion must engage them because they are (always already) what is (and has been) available. If, however, it is acknowledged that “gender” was produced at a specific historical moment in response to particular circumstances, and that its introduction into medical and popular discourses had measurable effects in the conceptualization of sexed subjectivity, then it would be possible to investigate what were perceived as the articulations of sex prior to the introduction of “gender” and to examine the possibility of returning to and “redeploying” sex — not as the natural body, but as a conceptual apparatus designating the body and representing it in medical and other discourses.

Since sex is mediated by gender — that is, gender is the foundational category that regulates sex as sexual difference in a binary opposition — to redeploy gender and proliferate its meanings would be to reconfigure the possibilities of sex. What other researchers are arguing is that while cultural perceptions regulate the articulation of “sex” historically, influencing and producing particular representations of sex as the natural, original condition of the body in sexual difference, the specific conditions of “gender” have not — until the latter half of the twentieth century. (Money, 1992)

It is possible to rethink sex as a category of representation that refers to both body and culture, and in so doing, to expose the contemporary notion of “gender” as a specific kind of regulation of the category sex. In this sense, the researchers are privileging a deconstructive, semiotic critique of the discourses of science, in order to reposition scientific representations of sex as their ideological regulation shifts historically. (Grosz, 1994)

To disrupt the currently problematic theoretical relation between sexuality and gender, it is not enough to specify, problematize, or proliferate definitions and deployments of gender. It would be more profitable, because more unsettling, to attack the category “sexuality,” to investigate how it operated as a concept before the current articulations of “gender,” and to reconceive the scientific discourses that mandate its unitary “nature.”

This critical “attack on sexuality” would be possible because the discourses of science include counterdiscursive tendencies, positions that are conceived of and then lost, or overwhelmed by the mandates of ideological thinking. There are alternative scenarios of “sexuality” available in scientific literature that we can “redeploy” in the service of deconstructing it as a category of analysis; that is, in the service of its proliferation as representation.

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