Sexuality As a Discourse Sexuality

Many years ago I was encouraged to read a book by Jeanette Winterson entitled ‘Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit’ a semi-autobiographical work about the author’s life and sexuality. The author is something of an outcast because of her mother’s devout religious fervour and obsession with religion. This is instilled in her as a child, and lead to one of her teachers telling her that she is obsessed with God. At the age of seven she lost her hearing and the condition was misdiagnosed for a while, eventually however it was discovered that the ailment was physical and it was corrected by an operation. As she begins to grow up her mind turns to love and she has a love affair with her best friend who was female. Although Jeanette says the book is not a lesbian novel it does aptly delineate the exploration of a young person coming to terms with her sexuality.

I choose this book as I believe it subtly portrays how someone who is perceived as the other is rejected by the church and their family. The book was written at a time when being a lesbian was still a very topical subject and one which was not quite the norm. The writer of the book was forced to leave home at the age of 16 and an exorcism was performed by church officials. Essentially she was rejected by her community and deemed to have demons. Growing up in a religious environment caused a dichotomy between her sexual preference and her love of God. She seems however to be able to come to terms with this and still embraces her early upbringing in Christ.

In contemporary society most of the population have a lifestyle which absorbs a heterosexual preferred lifestyle. However there are exceptions to this and ‘gay’ couples are now becoming more acceptable in society. It is still frowned of in some aspects of society, but in the 21st Century it is not considered necessary to hide one’s sexual persuasion. To a great extent coming out for many is not a necessity as they have openly embraced their sexual preference from an early age, and willingly share their love for someone of the same gender as themselves. I maintain that it’s more commonplace than previously because I am aware that it’s not considered a huge deal for a woman to live with another woman in an alternative lifestyle. Similarly men have lived together and even had a civil ceremony which recognises their union as partners. It is recognisable under law for gay couples to form a legal union/partnership with each other.

As far as I understand there are numerous sexualities, which include heterosexuals, bi-sexuals and homosexuals to name but a few. The norm in contemporary society is for heterosexual couples to mate and propagate the species. That is the notion of Adam and Eve a man and his wife shall mate and bear fruit. To some extent it might be argued that the need to document and control our sexuality is part of the state apparatus. In suggesting this it is interesting to note that prominent psychologists, sociologists, authoritarian figures, economists to name but a few are concerned to describe and define our sexuality. Moreover it is arguable a central role of the church to encourage an acceptance of what is perceived as the norm in sexuality.

Foucault (1976) in the History of Sexuality Volume One documents these discourses and argues that they were central in the struggle to confine sexuality within the established order. The discourses which developed are demography, biology, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, ethics, pedagogy and political criticism. Each of these discourses being influential in the construction of the body, and each affecting our perceptions of the inherent qualities within an individual’s identity. Basically, I am arguing that the body and its sexuality are not simply about how people behave according to their sexual impulses, but may also reflect one’s beliefs, attitudes, values and ideologies.

In the History of Sexuality Volume I, Foucault delineates the historical impulses which have shaped our beliefs and behaviour. He traces attitudes to sexual practices from an early point in history, and suggests that from the 17th century onwards an interest in sexuality and repression was stealthily growing in pace. The Early 18th Century was Foucault argues a period when there was the forbidding of certain words, concern with the decency of expression and the censoring of vocabulary. It would seem that this was a period when sexual discourse was too important an aspect of public life to be left solely in the hands of the ordinary man, and the church became the guardian of morality.

Later in the century however sexuality was again subjected to strict and rigorous control and there was a shift in emphasis as discourse on sex emerged as political and economic factors. In the Age of Enlightenment a concern was to ensure that sexuality was documented and managed. At one point legislation was implemented to prevent the interbreeding of the races. Also the black male was denied his individual liberty and the ability to mate with a partner of his choice.

Our sexuality is very much a part of our identity and it is to a large extent how we are perceived by external societal agencies. In today’s society it is illegal to discriminate against those who practise a sexuality which may be at variance to the mainstream culture. In fact arguably most lesbians and gays in western society are accepted and do not experience as much discrimination as in the Victorian era. In suggesting this it’s interesting to note that the work of Alfred Kinsey argues that we are not exclusively homosexual or heterosexual but may range between the sexualities. Freud on the other hand argues that the sexual object is the one who another is attracted to, the allure. Children are born with sexual urges which undergo a complicated development before they attain the familiar adult form.

Freud categorised the stages of a child’s development as the oral stage which begins at birth. The child is interested in suckling to gain milk from its mother. Arguably if this is frustrated, i.e. a denial of milk the child may develop feelings of unresolved conflict which could affect his adult personality. The anal stage of development occurs when a child is about one and a half years old. It starts with toilet training which Freud argues may affect the individual’s attitude towards authority. There is then the phallic stage which is when a child is fully aware of its genitals. Freud suggests that any fixation developed at this stage could be a root cause of homosexuality.1

Our sexuality is a part of our identity and it may even be argued an aspect of our personality. The state has been interested in categorising and classifying those who are considered to be the norm and those who are seen as the Other, or those who operate at the margins of society. This arguably is no longer lesbian and gay men and women, but those who for whatever reason refuse to conform to the constraints and labels imposed by the social order.

1. http://www.victorianweb.org/science/freud/develop.html (Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development – David B. Stevenson ’96 Brown University