1.2 Constructivist theories

a) Symbolic interactionism

The term “symbolic interactionism” was coined by Herbert Blumer in 1969. The basic idea of symbolic interactionism is that human beings are social beings and develop thanks to their social relationships the ability of cognition and self-awareness. People are not only products of society, but they also contribute to the construction of their society: individual and society are mutually dependent and dynamically interwoven. Thus, human behaviour can be explained in terms of meanings and symbols. Further, human beings act on ground of meaning things do have for them, whereas meaning is derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation. Sociological areas that have been particularly influenced by symbolic interactionism include deviance/criminology as well as the sociology of sex.

Social scientists have argued that sexuality is not an unchanging biological reality or universal natural force, but a cultural construct, shaped by economic, social, and political processes and therefore, like society itself, historical, that is, variable in both time and space. According to the historian Thomas Laqueur (1992) the division of sex into male and female along the line of specific organic-anatomic features took place only about 200 years ago. This was not common in antique times. Due to antique philosophy men and women had more in common than in what they differ (one-sex-model).

Social interactionists point out three symbolic levels shaping sexuality:

  • The historical level (the meaning of sexual behaviour is influenced by cultural norms and the socio-historical context of the individual);
  • The relational level (the meaning of sexual behaviour is developed from social relationship between persons)
  • The biographical level (the meaning of sexual behaviour is gained from individual life history and one’s own expectations).

According to Blumer human activities consist of encountering situations in which they have to act. Activity is built on how they perceive this situation, how they evaluate perceived things, how they interpret them and which kind of line of action they finally create. Hence, sexuality is getting a symbolic level since it is perceived as a result of life scenarios aiming to attain objectives beyond excitation and procreation but inducing self-respect, material comfort, desire for completeness etc.

b) Anthropological prospects

One of the very first researches about sexuality in different cultures was provided by Margret Mead in the twenties of last century when she analysed for example adolescent women in New Guinea to find out if conflicts in puberty are solely caused by biological changes or additionally by cultural norms. According to historic-anthropological point of view sexuality is conceived as something lived, as human everyday life experience. Thence sexuality is analysed in its specific cultural, political and economical contexts.
When studying either different groups of human beings at some period of time but in different historical and geographical contexts, or contrary to that a certain group of human beings in a specific geographical context but at various times, it becomes obvious that sexuality, its practices and values attached to them are exposed to constant changes.  
So, for example a “two spirited person” is a native tradition from North and South American as well as Canadian tribes (e.g. Inuit, Inca, Lakota, Cree, Cheyenne). Traditionally, the two-spirited person was one who had received a gift from the Creator, that gift being the privilege to house both male and female spirits in their bodies. Being given the gift of two-spirits meant that this individual had the ability to see the world from two perspectives at the same time. This greater vision was a gift to be shared with all, and as such, two-spirited men and women were revered as leaders, mediators, teachers, artists, seers, and spiritual guides. They were treated with the greatest respect, and held important spiritual and ceremonial responsibilities. Two spirited persons also can be found outside North America like in Africa (Swahili, Zulu) in Korea, Thailand, and Philippines and so on. Europeans saw them later as homosexuals and introduced homophobia into those cultures.
Anthropological research has influenced theories about sexuality insofar as that homosexuality cannot be regarded as opposed to heterosexuality: Both orientations are two poles of the same sexual continuum. Already in the fifties Alfred Kinsey had developed a theory about a continuum reaching from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality (also see Adrienne Rich (1979): On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978). Anthropological research supports the theory of social construction of sexuality, whereas human sexuality is characterized by great diversity.

c) Social learning theory

Social learning theory focuses on the learning that occurs within a social context. It considers that people learn from one another, including such concepts as observational learning, imitation, and modelling. Among others Albert Bandura (1977: Social Learning Theory) is considered the leading proponent of this theory. The social learning theory especially is applied to the understanding of aggression (A. Bandura (1973): Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis) and psychological disorders, particularly in the context of behaviour modification. It is considered a bridge between behaviourist learning theories and cognitive learning theories since it has cognitive factors as well as behaviourist factors (actually operant factors). Contrary to behaviourists it is assumed that behaviour can be chosen over another or increased in frequency or intensity without direct reinforcement (like direct rewards). Cognitive elements are introduced via individually generated expectancies about rewards, whereas expectancies are acting as reinforcers of behaviour.
Social learning theory rests on some basic assumptions about humans and human behaviour:

  • People are social beings; they react to the environment or respond to stimuli in the environment. This means that sexual behaviour can be taught.
  • Within social learning theory the idea of an existing innate sex drive is superfluous since trait or trait-like behaviour is created in conjunction with environmental stimuli.
  • Social behaviour can occur without external reinforcement; individual cognitions mediate the cues from the environment.

Social learning theory treats human sexuality as at least partially learned and cognitively oriented. According to Hovell et al. (1994) sexual pleasure and expectancies about sexual pleasure are among the most powerful of all reinforcers.
In social learning theory homosexuality is linked to the early qualitative learning and development of one's gender identity and gender role. Parents, peers, and the media are a source of role models of children. To the extend that these models behave sexually, children tend to imitate sexual behaviour. As children are more likely to be reinforced for same-sex imitation, they tend to pick up same-sex behaviours, which lead to the cognitive association of particular behaviours with male versus female sexuality. Sexuality is intervowen with the development of gender roles. Nevertheless, these behaviours can change over time as the surrounding environment changes (Oliver and Hyde 1993). Other researchers noted that various environmental modelling experiences predict same-sex or opposite-sex preferences in adulthood (van Wyk and Geist (1984): Psychosocial development of heterosexuality, bisexual, and homosexual behaviour. In: Archives of Sexual Behavior 13, pp 505-544).
Thus, aversive experiences of women like sexual abuse, rape etc. might enforce a same-sex preference in adulthood. This finding is predicted from a social learning model, although also from a simpler reinforcement model. But, since positive aspects (pleasurable physical sensation, appreciation of partner) may be a similar strong factor, it could be argued as well, whether a first orgasm is reached via same-sex or opposite-sex contact might have a similar predictive power.
Since homosexuality still is viewed as less moral, less valuable, less normal than heterosexuality it is easy to believe it arises from negative experiences. This conclusion bars the possibility of homosexuality as an outcome of positive experiences - as it is generally presumed for heterosexual love.

d) Labeling theory (Social reaction theory)

Labelling theory is concerned with how the self-identity and behaviour of an individual is influenced (or created) by how that individual is categorized and described by others in their society. Labels applied to individuals influence their behaviour, particularly the application of negative or stigmatizing labels (such as "gay") promote deviant behaviour becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. an individual who is labeled has little choice but to conform to the essential meaning of that judgment. Consequently, labeling theory postulates that it is possible to prevent social deviance via a limited social shaming reaction in "labelers" and replacing moral indignation with tolerance. Labeling theories are mostly used in criminology explaining delinquency of criminals.
Michel Foucault describes in his lecture Les Anormaux (1975) at Collège de France the development of three figures whose desires made them subject to discipline and control: the "monster", the “unteachable” and the “masturbator”. According to Foucault the power of normalisation replaces the power of jurisdiction. With normalisation medicine comes into power, defining normality and deviance (Faucault’s concept of bio-politics). Labeling shapes reality. New categories had been constructed, like those of mentally illness, race or homosexuality. Homosexuals had to be disciplined and controlled via social values and morals. Homosexuality was categorized as deviant and homosexuals were characterized and labelled as “ill”, “criminal” etc.  As soon as homosexuality had been categorized as an individual and social problem, homosexuals had been dunned, stigmatized, treated, set aside, ghettoised. The stigmatization of homosexuality and homosexuals enabled other members of society to deceive themselves in believing they are “pure”, united against those labeled as “different”.
In using the originally negative label “gay” or “lesbian” and assigning a positive meaning to it (“proud to be lesbian/gay”), homosexuals re-appropriate those parts of society they had been excluded of in the process of labelling and stigmatization. Moreover, changing the meaning of assigned label, collective self-esteem is strengthened and a powerful movement arose, gay and lesbian liberation.

Nonetheless, constructivist theories cannot sufficiently explain the aetiology of homosexuality. Some of those theories carry the risk of promoting prejudice in claiming for example negative experiences with men as cause of lesbianism; this promotes a picture of lesbians as “men hatred” of that they just need to meet “the right one”.  

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