Let Virtue be as Wax

We are all products of our era, and often unbeknownced to us, our language is to blame. Words become signposts that reassure us that we know where we are headed. Where we came from. And yet they can be as lost as us –especially in the domain of sexuality. Even the word ‘sex’ itself –a seemingly self-defining concept- can be misleading. It’s origin, commonly attributed to the Latin verb secare –to divide, or cut- presumably to explain the physical difference between men and women, does not necessarily entrain the psychological divisions. Or behaviour.

To paraphrase Socrates at his trial, the unexamined word is not worth using. That ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ were so inconsonant I had not suspected. Sex, quite obviously, is a physical assignation; sexuality on the other hand, is the more psychologically -the more erotically- imbued preference. Indeed, the concept of heterosexuality did not exist as such in the past. Nor did homosexuality as an article by Brandon Ambrosino in the BBC News pointed out: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170315-the-invention-of-heterosexuality?ocid=ww.social.link.email  ‘One hundred years ago, people had a very different idea of what it means to be heterosexual.’ In fact, ‘The 1901 Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defined heterosexuality as an “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.” More than two decades later, in 1923, Merriam Webster’s dictionary similarly defined it as “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” It wasn’t until 1934 that heterosexuality was graced with the meaning we’re familiar with today: “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”’ It would seem that ‘all of our sexualities are “just there”; that we don’t need an explanation for homosexuality just as we don’t need one for heterosexuality.’

‘“Sex has no history,” writes queer theorist David Halperin at the University of Michigan, because it’s “grounded in the functioning of the body.” Sexuality, on the other hand, precisely because it’s a “cultural production,” does have a history. In other words, while sex is something that appears hardwired into most species, the naming and categorizing of those acts, and those who practice those acts, is a historical phenomenon.’ Or, to put it another way, ‘[…]there have always been sexual instincts throughout the animal world (sex). But at a specific point on in time, humans attached meaning to these instincts (sexuality). When humans talk about heterosexuality, we’re talking about the second thing.’

And as well, ‘[…] sexual desire was situated within a larger context of procreative utility, an idea that was in keeping with the dominant sexual theories of the West. In the Western world, long before sex acts were separated into the categories hetero/homo, there was a different ruling binary: procreative or non-procreative.’ So sexuality is the desire and although the act may be categorized as procreative (different-genital intercourse), or non-procreative (it doesn’t matter), with erotic desire -in the past at least- the intention was not further categorized. It was the act that was noticed. The act that was labelled. ‘Something […] happened with heterosexuals, who, at the end of the 19th Century, went from merely being there to being known. “Prior to 1868, there were no heterosexuals,” writes Blank [the author of Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality]Neither were there homosexuals. It hadn’t yet occurred to humans that they might be “differentiated from one another by the kinds of love or sexual desire they experienced.” Sexual behaviours, of course, were identified and catalogued, and often times, forbidden. But the emphasis was always on the act, not the agent.’

And yet nowadays, we seem to require labels –as if the words were themselves expositors and not mere descriptors. ‘Debates about sexual orientation have tended to focus on a badly defined concept of “nature.” Because different sex intercourse generally results in the propagation of the species, we award it a special moral status. But “nature” doesn’t reveal to us our moral obligations – we are responsible for determining those, even when we aren’t aware we’re doing so.’

The difficulty of negotiating this landscape had occurred to me long before I read the article, however. A few years ago I walked over to a downtown bus stop, tired after having a rather long day at work. I’d left the office early, and I thought I was the only one there until I noticed two teenaged girls sitting on the little bench in the bus shelter in passionate embrace. I didn’t want to embarrass them, but I did feel the need of sitting down. Unfortunately they had both put their backpacks onto what little remained of the seat on either side, so I thought I’d wait until they’d finished, as it were. I kept glancing at them, but their fervour seemed unending and I eventually resigned myself to standing.

Suddenly a head disentangled itself from the osculatory machinations and stared at me accusingly.

“Got a problem, mister?” it asked, while a hand deftly extricated a piece of overly-chewed gum from its mouth.

I blushed, but did manage a conciliatory smile hoping to defuse the tension. “Sorry,” I said, when I could find the words, “I didn’t mean to disturb you, but I was hoping I could sit down…”

The other head opened its eyes at the sound of my voice and managed an embarrassed smile while convincing its hands to leave her friend and move the pack from the seat. “We didn’t mean… We didn’t know anybody was standing there…”

The first head dropped its eyes to the pavement in obeisance. “Yeah, I didn’t mean to be rude…” She picked her eyes up again and sent them softly to my face before she looked at her friend. “It’s just that, like, some people get… You know, like, upset when they see us kissing.”

“Yeah, as if we were, like, tards, or something,” the second girl said as they both moved over on the bench to make room for me.

The word  tards seemed to offend the first girl. “She just means that, like, some people go strange when they see us being so… involved, I guess.” She looked at her friend and whispered something I couldn’t hear. “Like we’re pervs, or whatever,” she continued, after elbowing her gently.

“Yeah, the other day, one old guy walking by even, like, spat on the sidewalk when he saw us cuddling.”

“Yeah, as if he never cuddled with his partner…” the first girl giggled.

“He probably never had a partner, Joni!”

Joni shook her head. “Maybe not, but I don’t think he was, like, jealous or anything, do you?”

Her friend smiled. “He was just looking for a label, sweetheart. Some are easier to find, I guess.”

Indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Yang of Yin

We are, it would seem, a binary species and we live in a binary world where opposites define each other. Think, for example, of up and down –the one depends on the other for its very existence: there is obviously no up without a down with which to contrast it. Good/bad, in/out, light/dark, near/far… even the code written into our computers -the list of inter-dependent binaries is endless.

Perhaps the most famous –and arguably the earliest- recognition of this interdependence is the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang. Without pretending an esoteric knowledge of historical linguistics or an abstruse Sinological background, the meanings of Yin and Yang can be superficially understood as ‘shady’ and ‘sunny’ respectively, and seem to date from sometime in the fourth century BCE.

I suppose the reason this complementarity is so fascinating to me is the implied rejection of the rule of the Absolute. One would seem to need, say, a seller for the concept of ‘buyer’ to exist. And by extension, perhaps, the presence of evil for good to become manifest –although I recognize that to be a bit of semantic trickery. But at any rate, it is an interesting idea to play with.

Binarity –to neologize- has its limits, however. Or at least its two components can be seen as bookends that confine an entire shelf of not-quites. The concept, as we often find after sufficient investigation, can be that of a spectrum, with intermediates melding imperceptibly into their shelf-mates.

Labels, while they help us to identify things, can also lead us astray. I will cover this idea more fully in a later essay, but suffice it to say that a label can be merely a societal/cultural attempt at categorization –a name that simplifies the issue of what to make of the entity. Where to put it. How to interact with it.

For now, however, I would like to touch briefly on whether or not the hitherto necessary binary assignation of gender is anachronistic. There was a helpful BBC News article that brought this to my attention:  http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35242180  and while I have certainly touched on gender issues in past essays, https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/the-asexual/  and https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/gender/ for example, the idea that gender is a labile concept is one that my generation, at least, often finds challenging.

And yet, if one can step back from the anatomical signposts that have directed us for millennia, is the binary assignation of male or female really all that important a predictor of who, or for that matter, what a person is? We’ve always known that different people manifest different characteristics and we even apply societally accepted terms to allow them to maintain their positions within the otherwise ordained sexual designations. We use such terms as ‘effeminate’ for a man who seems at odds with the perceived norms for masculinity, or ‘tomboy’ for a young girl who seems to run with the other team –although I admit I haven’t heard that word applied since I was young myself (perhaps the term is now ‘butch’ although I find it offensive and somehow demeaning). My point, though, is not what words we use, but that we have always found ways to describe someone who does not quite fit into normative –or what the majority may describe as normative- assignations. In other words, a tacit realization –and acceptance- that gender cannot be captured by genitalia alone.

It is not a new concept in any society as the BBC article attempted to illustrate. Sexuality and, indeed, sexual orientation has always been a fluid concept –and both an intriguing and compelling one, as the recent and untimely death of David Bowie has served to remind us. Maybe the time has come to reconsider things. I wonder why it has taken us so long to realize that what we treasure in people and what we find so important is not their gender, not their sexual orientation, and certainly not their appearance, but their energy. Their spirit, I suppose.

We can never agree on everything, perhaps, but as with Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale, I say, ‘When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that.’