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Have concepts of nature impacted same sex driven men?

How political ideas have lived in conceptions of nature and masculinity

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Key words:  Politics, identity, nature, society, ideas.

This paper aims to assess how political ideas ‘live’ in conceptions of what is ‘natural’, and in those who are included or excluded from the political sphere. The bedrock of this analysis is Aristotle’s body/mind dichotomy which prioritizes the male mind as the site of political knowledge (The Open University, 2016a). This dualism, taken up by Descartes, has functioned and been furthered in the West by Darwin’s concepts of natural, among others, creating an enduring framework of ideas. While demonstrating, in the 19th century, men’s origin in the animal world, for Darwin evolution happens through functional, natural instincts such as sex that drive ‘natural selection.’ Within this pattern, ‘rarity’ is the precursor to extinction, while “individuals having any advantage” such as strength have the best chance of surviving (cited in Rohy, 2012). Confident of the recent ‘two-sex model’ establishment, science espoused a form of biological essentialism by formalizing the natural difference of female and male anatomies (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016b). The mind/body split of Aristotle is reversed. The body becomes the site of knowledge but, because of natural dispositions, women and, by association, homosexuals are excluded from the public or political sphere. The author is aware that besides Darwinian-related concepts, other discourses have existed. Nevertheless, the focus here is on how entangled ideas of natural and political, in relation to body/mind dichotomy correlates, have elevated heterosexuality while simultaneously oppressing homosexuality. 


When it comes to considering the livingness of political ideas, there are six correlated ways ideas survive across periods and situations in conceptual and material manners (The Open University, 2016b). However, this paper will approach the question by narrowing in on the four most adequate ways, and structure the body in four chronologically interposed sections, emphasizing illustrative and theoretical arguments. Accordingly, in the first section there will be an exploration of how Darwin’s concepts of natural have been adapted to fit patriarchal values of the late 19th century. Subsequently, there will be discussion about how biologically-based arguments have medicalized, and therefore institutionalized homosexuality as a pathology. The third part will evidence how Darwin’s ideas persisted in political debates in the second half of the 20th century. Around the same period, evolutionist ideas inspired gay social movements, this will be demonstrated in the fourth section. This paper concludes by arguing that political ideas have lived in Darwin’s concepts of natural reinforcing popular patriarchal values while also permeating science and law. This dynamic first excluded and finally included homosexuality into the political sphere on patriarchal normative grounds furthered by Cartesian dualism.


Adapting concepts of nature to patriarchy


The biological determinism advanced by Darwin’s ideas came to the forefront and has been adapted by society during the rise of capitalism. According to Foucault, this was a period in which sovereign power was supplanted by the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life. Foucault was interested in the ways people come to police themselves without direct repression. This happens because of practices and norms, closely connected with identity, defining some behaviours as normal or natural. To discipline the population, institutions such as governments, universities or families convey a set of discourses called biopower and policies called biopolitics (The Open University, 2016a). The family, administered and also functioning as a unit of administration, is fundamental for the rise of capitalism and therefore a political entity. In this framework, biology and adapted notions of natural become political and impact people’s gender by associating one’s identity with sexuality. Despite Darwin considered biological differences “exquisite adaptations,” it must be stressed that in the 19th century his ideas encountered and became entangled with Christian values (cited in Rohy, 2012). Assumptions such as the idea that human nature is corrupt and that sexual activity is for reproductive purposes only, sustained the “spirit/flesh” dualism, recalling Darwin’s ideas of natural instinct, evolutionary theory and body/mind dichotomy (Weeks, 2003). It is through the appropriation of Darwin’s ideas built on biological differences that, while modernity surges, traditional patriarchal values and social institutions such as marriage, heterosexuality, family life and monogamy can be reinforced through a new rationality and survive at the expense of those non-aligning with such a worldview.


According to Darwin man’s superiority is evidenced “in whatever he takes up whether requiring…reason…the use of the sense and hands” (cited in The Open University, 2016a). In line with this thought, the gendering of reason as male and the body as female, allowed the positioning of women in the social private space while elevating men to the public one as the subject of politics. This has strengthened a determined kind of masculinity while establishing non-conforming masculinities, and women, as objects of politics. Due to their stark contrast, women and effeminate men helped establish the characteristics defining manhood. Mosse suggested that, “the word effeminate came into general usage during the eighteenth century indicating an unmanly softness and delicacy” (cited in Kerren, 2014). Effeminate men have been “deprive[d] of their manhood” (cited in Kerren, 2014). Understandably, the gendered dualism, which associates activity with men and passivity with women, reinforced through the appropriation of Darwin’s biological determinism arguments, ascribed passivity and therefore femininity to men engaging in same sex activities. However, before the advent of Darwin, ‘sexual inversion’, under which same sex relations fell, referred to a broad range of deviant gender behaviours. For instance, Halpering suggested that sympathy for cats could be attributed to mental disorder in men (The Open University, 2016a). Likewise, most sodomy-related laws applied indifferently to relations involving men, women or animals (Weeks, 2003). Until the late 19th century, recalling natural selection related ideas, a ‘sodomite’ was defined by the nature of his act, namely, as a person engaged in non-procreative sexual acts. According to Weeks (2003, p. 35), during the same period a growing separation between private and public, natural or unnatural not as a sin but marked by concerns with “hygienic policing of non-marital, non-heterosexual sexuality, was increasingly the norm by which all behaviour was judged.” In this sense, sexual activity was beginning to define a particular identity and thus, according to Foucault, acting as a mechanism of disciplining masculinity.


While the position of man and woman was a result of the natural order of things, according to the appropriation of Darwin ideas, ‘homosexuals’ could be seen as an evolutionary aberration or rarity, since they could not procreate. The reproductive attributes of men and women were a natural explanation of people’s binary, basic differences rooted in their ‘animal natures,’ a form of essentialism that, since Darwin, can establish ahistorical functions for patriarchal social organizations. However, for different people in different periods of history, same sex desire was not a problem nor was it a revealing feature of one’s identity any more than, for instance, one’s nutritional customs. Foucault blamed the ‘Cartesian moment’ for this shift (cited in Drazenovich, 2012). According to him, in reference to sexual conduct, the object of attention for the Greeks was not the act itself. Instead, they were concerned with the nature of the force which drove sex. Whatever the biological sex, desire for another person was possible because of the indiscriminate attraction for beautiful human beings. Recalling Aristotle’s dichotomy, the moral question was whether you were active or passive. This has become more evident during modernity, since natural selection-based ideas have been aggregated. However, it does not mean that all people conformed to these developments; Foucault suggested that ‘sexuality’ is a bourgeois idea (Weeks, 2003). Likewise, Smith (2009) argued that Darwin's natural selection fits into the middle-class’ observation of gender in nature, and as a consequence, the naturalization of cultural norms and Victorian values in society. In other words, the adaptation of Darwin’s ideas of natural, gave new arguments to reinforce existing discourses about traditional heterosexual institutions and practices which placed under a shadow same-sex driven people and criminalized their attitudes even in private spheres.


Institutionalizing exclusionary concepts of nature


Toward the end of the nineteenth century the initiative for judging sexuality shifted from the Churches to the medical profession, thus institutionalizing a series of assumptions having political consequences for sexual inverts. Yet Ellis, an English physician, remembered, “sexual anomalies were universally regarded as sins or crimes, at the least as vices,” Christian-related prohibitions passed over to the scientific world (cited in Weeks, 2003, p.70). Concerns about morality were increasingly substituted by ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural,’ or ‘healthy’ and ‘sick’ sexuality, according to the normative stance influenced by Darwin’s biological determinism. Since the late nineteenth century, this approach has been supported by what was known as sexology. Arguably, the influence of medical opinion within society led to the medicalization of ‘homosexuality,’ thus institutionalizing and loading ‘homosexuality’ with pathological notions, a prejudice enduring among popular discourses up to these days. Although Spencer says that prosecutions were rare, under the explicit value-charged term ‘Unnatural Offences,’ the death penalty for sodomy was abolished in England and Wales in 1861, and replaced by penal servitude lasting between ten years to life (The Open University, 2016a). Yet Britain kept penalising mutual masturbation and all other sexual acts held in private. This challenges the liberal rhetoric that theoretically gives citizens free agency as to how to live their private sphere and evidences how, through notions of natural, society repressed ‘homosexuals’ in the public and private sphere. Additionally, a further evidence of the association of ‘homosexuals’ with nature or the oppressed side of Cartesian dualism, is the fact that according to Weeks: “all the major enactments concerning male homosexuality were drawn from Acts designed to control [female] prostitution” (cited in The Open University, 2016a).  Around the same period, fellatio and mutual masturbation became criminalized in different American states, leading to an increase of prosecutions (The Open University, 2016a).


Sexual inverts were classified with notions of the eugenic movement related to Darwin, and proving their inadequacy or inferiority to ‘heterosexuals’ was part of Victorian biopolitics (Lee, 2012). According to Terry, concerns were such that “the prevalence of homosexuality in the modern world suggested a potentially dangerous turn toward extinction” (cited in Rohy, 2012). Cartesian dualism could be used to explain the mismatches between biological sex and psychological characteristics. While the inner and innate self was associated with gender, sexual inversion causes could be seen as an acquired or congenital disease. The ‘science of desire’ became an apparatus of biopower against those differing from normative understandings of mental health. The term ‘homosexuality’ was invented in 1869 by Benkert, she was against repressive laws towards homosexuality because she deemed it congenital (The Open University, 2016a). With homosexuality medicalized in the 19th century, it also became institutionalized as an ontological identity. The result of what Foucault described as the ‘perverse implantation’ broadened traditional views of sex, allowing the emergence of new sexual identities (cited in Weeks, 2003, p.71). However, this wave of interest reinforced conceptions of the natural, in fact, the term ‘heterosexuality’ came into being after the invention of homosexuality. Halpering suggests that despite homosexuality being coined as a medical and taxonomic device, it is loaded with patriarchal assumptions (The Open University, 2016). Likewise Boswell remarks, “the categories ‘homosexual/heterosexual’ and ‘gay/straight’ are the inventions of particular societies rather than real aspects of the human psyche” (cited in The Open University, 2016). Sexuality is therefore institutionalized in accordance with heterosexual assumptions and natural divides.


In this process, echoing Darwin, Ellis’ produced a collection of sexual behaviours and beliefs that existed 'in nature' (Weeks, 2003). Ellis distinguishes between inversion, a biological variation to be seen throughout nature, and perversion, later substituted by deviation, which implies a subsequent reversal from the normal. Freud rejected the use of the term ‘degeneracy,’ as was common in the eugenic movement (Weeks, 2003). He related homosexuality to human’s universal bisexuality and the working of the psychic apparatus. Adult sexuality and gender are the fruit of a long and conflict-ridden process. Freud suggested that, broadly speaking, contradictions between a boy's instincts during his infancy are functional to his formation (The Open University, 2016a). For Freud, the development of each person followed the development of humanity from primitive, undifferentiated sexual promiscuity to monogamous heterosexuality, in accordance with humankind’s necessity to ensure survival (Weeks, 2003). Ultimately, heterosexuality is understood as a functional imperative in evolutionary terms. Furthermore, Freud’s use of ‘instinct’ imposes the body over the mind and furthers the essentialist view of sexuality. Although a supporter of eugenics, Ellis proposed that being a pervert is to be member of a minority and that society should accept deviations from the ‘normal’ because they are harmless, and perhaps valuable (Weeks, 2003). Likewise, for Freud homosexuality was a ‘variation’ linked to normal development rather than a pathology. Consistently, he did not support treatments deemed to change homosexuality. Both approaches recall Darwin’s concepts where sex is conceptualised as an instinct built into the biology of the human animal. Freud and Ellis’ works have been interpreted in many ways, often distorting what they meant. By the 1920’s, social organizations were looking to the writings of Ellis, Freud and others to underpin their normalizing positions. In the United States, homosexuality was increasingly seen as pathology. In 1952, this view impacted the rationale for formally institutionalizing homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance in the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (Conrad and Angell, 2004).


Concepts of nature in political debates


In the 60s, political debate around notions of natural reached its turning point. Debates about sexuality are debates about the nature of society, Weeks says: “as sex goes, so goes society; as society goes, so goes sexuality” (Weeks, 2003, p.33). Recommendations from the Wolfenden report led to the passage of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, applying to England and Wales, which decriminalized certain types of homosexual behaviours carried out in private (Weeks, 2003). The report used liberal jargon and Cartesian dualism correlates to point out that that the duty of the law was to regulate the public sphere. In line with Foucault’s biopolitics, between 1967 and 1976 pubic indecency incidents between men doubled and prosecutions tripled, evidencing heterosexual normative practices excluding homosexual behaviour from the public (Weeks, 2003). Indeed, during a Mardi Gras celebration in Manchester, Pickering, a demonstrator said that in the 60s “several men, two that I knew, got imprisoned...for being caught having lewd activities” (The Open University, 20016c). Yet, although the Wolfenden Report concluded that homosexuality was not a disease, they advocated further research and argued that medicine or welfare agencies were better suited to regulate sexuality. This might be due to the persistent influential ideas pointing to the unnatural development of homosexuality. Justifying its presence in the DSM, Socarides and others still saw homosexuality as a form of mental illness with ‘pre-Oedipal’ origins (Conrad and Angell, 2004). However, around the same period, political debate was widened by Gagnon and Simon. They suggested that bodily potentialities evolve through 'scripts' or, citing Foucault, “ideological constructs organs, somatic localisations, functions, anatamo-physiological systems, sensations, and pleasures' that constitute 'sexuality'” (cited in The Open University, 20016a). In other words, the notion of sex as a natural force driven by instincts with specific effects, was questioned.


While in 1973 homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in the United Kingdom, there was a general reaction in the male gay world against an automatic association of homosexuality with effeminacy, the weak or unnatural side of the Cartesian dualism. This association was an outcome of biopower exerted by institutions and activities through which gender and sexual identities were constructed and constantly reaffirmed, creating ideas of naturalness. As pointed out by Foucault, such institutions form, define and reproduce in accordance with the requirements of the political structure that has been representing citizens. Accordingly, political battles happened within the limits set by patriarchal terms.Nevertheless, change has been accelerated through the forces of globalization, dissolving traditional structures and unleashing a new pluralism of beliefs and behaviours. Yet, the difficulties of the Wolfenden strategy were highlighted in the early 1980s when a new moral conservatism allowed a revival of right-wing political forces. The New Right in America blamed homosexuality for the decline of the family and for the persistence of AIDS (Weeks, 2003). Antigay popular voices invoked ‘Darwin,’ claiming that heterosexuality is the path to ‘survival’ of the ‘species,’ while homosexuality equals ‘extinction’ (Rohy, 2012). Defending patriarchal values against rarity, or the advance of homosexuality, was a matter of life and death. This wave of conservatism was accompanied by the surge of socio-biology, defined by Wilson, the founder and modern successor of Darwin, as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour” (cited in Weeks, 2003, p.105). Adopting his line of thought, further evolutionists argued that genes could explain all social practices. Such theories went along with popular prejudice, meaning that people could identify with and reproduce the patterns of behavior required by society with renewed natural allure: the family could be seen as an adaptive pattern of behaviour caused by evolutionary necessity.


This begged the question: should the existence of a gay gene permit the abortion of an unborn child? Politics, morality and sexuality mixed and pervaded large political debates of the time. In 1993, a study of the genetics of homosexuality was published by Hamer and announced by the media as the discovery of ‘the gay gene’ (Conrad and Angell, 2004). Attempts to replicate the findings failed, yet the belief that there are genes for homosexuality has become part of common popular discourse. This highlights a clear separation between body and mind, in which, however, chromosomes supposedly being able to determine gender connotations, minimize cultural influences. Yet, consistently with this paper, such dualistic thinking reinforces oppositions such as culture/nature and reason/emotion that have been used to barely justify the positioning of homosexuals in the private sphere. Butler argues that heterosexism has brought about the view that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is deviant (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016b).  At a Mardi Gras commemoration in Manchester, Waites talking about his brother remembers, “when I came out [in the 90s], he was that shocked…he thinks I'm sick, I'm wrong...” (The Open University, 2016c). Although, change has happened, normative views of sexuality continue to produce an effect. Since the 1990s, in political debate is coming into force more than before a questioning of gendered dualism emphasising the unity of body and mind, and therefore breaking down exclusionary dichotomies. This is central to the development of social constructionist models that view the current social organisation of sexuality and gender as socially and historically produced (Richardson, 2000). For Butler, “bodies viewed as the material foundations on which gender is constructed, are themselves constructed as if they provide such material foundations” (cited in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016b). Echoing Foucault, sex classification is always a normative feature consistent with the patriarchal ideology rather than simply a descriptive term. Additionally, Fausto-Sterling’s claims that inter-sexed individuals make up at least three further sex classes calls into question the categories used in political debate to describe nature and society (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016b).


Concepts of nature inspiring gay movements


Since the late 1960s and 1970s, Darwin’s work has inevitably inspired the gay liberation movement, which challenged theories of sexuality based on biological assumptions. Shaped by the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, a gay social movement emerged (Conrad and Angell, 2004). Led by two organizations, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance, the movement developed strategies to establish gay civil rights, firstly working within heterosexually given assumptions by presenting the image of the ‘healthy homosexual.’  On the one hand, it seemed that the gay movement had displaced the nature/nurture framework. At the same time however, the ‘nature’ position inspired some advocates. This shows that concepts are altered and can be used by individuals according to their necessities. Flowing from this, assigning naturalness to the body (genes) counter the idea of a psychopathology that can be cured. Indeed, activists contributed by convincing the APA nomenclature committee to revise the DSM so that homosexuality would not be considered a diagnosis or illness (Conrad and Angell, 2004). The resolution was accepted in 1973.


Waites, when questioned about his sexuality answered, “I don't really have any explanations of why I came out to be gay, it was just how I felt. It was just biochemical feeling...” (The Open University, 2016c). Evidencing this pattern, in the last decade even queer observers have been inspired by evolutionary theory recalling Darwin celebration of differences or Ellis analysis suggesting that: “Whatever its ultimate explanation, sexual inversion may thus fairly be considered a ‘sport,’ or variation, one of those organic aberrations which we see throughout living nature” (cited in Rohy, 2012). This perspective can be seen in the words of the biologist Bagemihl when commenting on the results of a research about same-sex sexuality in animals. She suggested that apparent ‘unproductive’ and ‘aberrant’ forms of sexuality are beneficial, such that “[h]omosexuality is part of our evolutionary heritage” (cited in Rohy, 2012). With the same tones, the conservative commentator, Schlessinger, was able to see variation as an essential tool for human species adaptation to the changing environment, “biology is all about deviance. Species arise because variant traits are selected for by the environment…Variancy is part of normalcy” (cited in Rohy, 2012).


It is since the 1980s, especially in the US, that in their concern for ‘sexual politics’ the gay community began to increasingly use the language of citizenship in contrast to the liberation movement of the previous generation. Homosexuality was referred to as an ‘orientation’ implying that it is not a choice, but rather, an innate part of one's nature (Conrad and Angell, 2004). Individual action and academics spurred by ideas of natural have contributed in bringing sexuality from the private to the public and political sphere. More recently, Waites has affirmed, “if it wasn't for them [older generation]…we wouldn't be going out walking down Canal Street…being able to have a civil partnership, a recognised marriage” (The Open University, 2016c). The language of civil rights allowed homosexuals to be included as ‘virtually normal’ citizens that besides ‘sexual orientation’ display civic qualities and respect for ‘marriage’ and ‘family values’ (Richardson, 2000). Such discourses, however, reproduce and represent the integration of gay men into a particular version of a citizen, established and focused on values and norms associated with a system of rights originally founded on gender norms. Delphy has argued that this model of citizenship reinforces the necessity of sexual coupledom, at the detriment of other forms of relationships and kinship, as a basis for many kinds of rights entitlements (Richardson, 2000). This offers a way of observing the resultant inequalities faced by excluded citizens in terms of the institutionalization of heterosexuality. It reveals on the one hand, the coercive and regulatory consequences of normative heterosexuality, and on the other, that strategic essentialism, even when used for emancipatory purposes, in the long term does not lead to liberation from patriarchal assumptions.


Regarding the adoption of strategic essentialism, Foucault observed that liberation movements “suffer from the fact that they cannot find any principle on which to base the elaboration of the new ethics…[other than] founded on so-called scientific knowledge of what the self is, what desire is, what the unconscious is, and so on” (cited in Weeks, 2003, p.120). As shown in this text, the ‘science of desire’ is full of assumption and contradictions. Foucault approached this issue in two volumes of history about Ancient Greek and Latin texts. He observed that Greeks were concerned with questions about what is now referred to as sexuality, but they were not worried about classifying sex in manners that could make it a holder of negative assumptions (Weeks, 2003). Notions of natural related to masculinity have been taken up by varying epistemic discourses, marked by biblical and later by predominantly biological notions. Normative discourses should be abandoned to allow a plurality of truths. Since the end of the 19th century, Darwinian ideas of natural have been associating sexual choices with identity. But, while people are able to identify themselves with the ways in which their bodies behave, identity remains related to the mind/body dichotomy. Now, social constructivist theories are deconstructing the notion of natural attached to sexuality. The idea is to break up the enduring line of political ideas entrenched with concepts of natural at the expense of ‘unnaturals,’ while overcoming the established yet oppressive Cartesian dualism.




In conclusion, this paper has tried to show how political ideas ‘live’ in conceptions of what is ‘natural,’ and in those who are included or excluded from the political sphere. It has proceeded in answering this question by observing how, since the 19th century, political ideas conveyed through conceptions of natural have elevated heterosexuality while simultaneously oppressing homosexuality. This paper has been framed through the livingness of political ideas, that is, a concept that establishes how ideas survive across time and space in conceptual and material manners. Consistently, the structure of the text was characterized by an historical order of interposed sections emphasizing theoretical and illustrative evidences. The first section argued how the adaptation of the natural selection argument could fit institutional arrangements relevant for the rise of capitalism and, with renewed allure, strengthened patriarchal values. Subsequently, biological determinism has been fundamental in bringing Christian morality into the jargon of the medical profession and consequently institutionalizing same sex behaviours as pathology, excluding homosexuality from the public or even the private sphere of life. The third section shows how ideas of natural were present in political debates of the 60s and later decades, but then later became increasingly accompanied by arguments challenging biological determinism. Nonetheless, with similar tones, the last section demonstrates that Darwin and associated scholars’ work began to inspire factions of the gay movement’s claiming of rights, yet still on patriarchal grounds.The biological determinism entrenched in Darwin’s studies, which is related to the binary vision of the world re-established by Descartes, has been used as a base to assess how patriarchal political ideas traditionally present in Western societies have found in Darwin a ‘natural’ carrier that could elevate a particular kind of masculinity. In tandem, these ideas have been able to shape society on normative grounds while firstly oppressing same-sex practices or behaviours and later, homosexual identities. Nowadays, homosexuality is increasingly accepted and patriarchal ideas and social arrangements are challenged by theories hoping to dismantle the Cartesian dichotomy.




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