Questions in public discourse surrounding the issues of human gender and sexuality seem to revolve around (unchallenged) binaries of female and male, and hetero or homosexual. Now, that they exist in this form currently and shape our lived experience is absolutely true. That they have always existed, however, in the guise(s) that they do now is not, and it can be dangerous to assume the unchanging nature of these constructs when talking, particularly, about social policy.
This train of thought stemmed from an article written last week by Miranda Devine, an Australian commentator, about an anti-bullying policy being implemented in New South Wales (Australian) schools, conservatively titled: ‘The thought police telling kids heterosexuality’s not the norm.’ Known as the ‘Proud Schools’ programme, it is designed to eliminate homophobic bullying by educating kids about the alternate ways in which their lives might be led.
Proud Schools aims to stamp out the bullying by targeting, although not in isolation, ‘heterosexism.’ Defined in Devine’s article, ‘heterosexism’ refers to the ‘“positioning [of] heterosexuality as the norm for human relationship … [by] ignoring, making invisible or discriminating against non-heterosexual people, their relationships and their interests.”’ It’s this education programme (or ‘indoctrination’ programme if we’re going to take her word for it) that Devine takes issue with. Devine seems to have read into this a plan for a full-scale war on heterosexuality: ‘Now it’s a crime to regard heterosexuality as the norm in human relationships.’ Really?
The article then throws to Victorian schools, which have a similar scheme in place, to give us an indication of what is being taught. The Victorian programme ‘holds that gender and sexuality are not fixed but fluid concepts. Students are taught not to think about gender and sexuality in a “binary” way, as in male/female or gay/straight, but as part of a continuum of choices.’ She continues, ‘What are pubescent children supposed to make of that?’
Please, feel free to roll your eyes. I did. Not only because Devine reduces this project to a tug-of-war between straight and gay, which is not only completely unhelpful, but in fact fosters the attitudes which fuel the bullying that is meant to be eliminated, but also because she tips her hand, revealing what it is that she considers the ‘norm.’
Now, I want to focus on this ‘norm’ business; in part because others, quite successfully I think, have pointed to the insanity of her position in different ways (see this blog post , by Ben Jenkins, which I at least thought informative as well as entertaining), but also because, as any reader of Nursing Clio has surely come to expect, these issues are significantly more complicated than is let on.
Although there is a statistical usage of the term ‘norm’, let’s be honest, it is rarely used strictly in this sense outside of national census bureaus, and Devine can barely conceal her concern/fear/antipathy anyway (remember those crazy things children are being taught? Or the thought police? Or the crime that is contextualising heterosexuality?). So we can skip this and go straight to the fact that ‘norm’ is a nice way of referring to what one thinks is socially acceptable and morally justifiable. That heterosexuality is the norm presumes a particular temporality though; if we accept it as a normal state of being it’s only the norm in the here and the now. If we take a longer view the questions about what constitutes the norm of human gender or sexual practice things become a little less black and white. And by ‘a little less black and white’ I mean to say that Devine is completely incorrect in denying the fluidity of sex and gender and affirming heterosexuality as universal.
Binaries, like those of man and woman, are created by people. These categories give voice to concepts which humans use to structure the worlds in which they inhabit, but in defining them we are also interpreting them and thus reflecting social and cultural expectations and understandings. Many of these binaries are, essentially, (socially) meaningful fabrications. This isn’t to say that women and women, men and men, or men and women haven’t been having sex for thousands of years, or that these are unimportant distinctions, identities, and constructs. Yes, men and women are biologically the same now as they were then (although I’d be incredibly interested to hear any evidence to the contrary if I’m wrong) and are having sex with a range of different people, BUT, these ways of thinking about sex and sexuality as dichotomous in the way we consider them today are new.
The words ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ are not even 150 years old yet. ‘Homosexuality’ as a term was coined in 1869! ‘Heterosexuality,’ on the other hand, was used in late nineteenth-century American medical discourse to express something similar to what we now know as bisexuality. Of course, men were having sex with other men, and women with other women, but ‘homosexual,’ and its ‘heterosexual’ counterpart, are distinctly new expressions of acts which take place across time but in vastly different contexts. These terms define people by whom they have sex with, or a sexual interest, rather than what roles they may assume during sex, or the age of the individual or their sexual partner, for instance.
And what about sex? If we’re talking fluidity of binaries this is a great one. Male and female? Categories that span time and place, right? Not so much. Historian Thomas Laqueur says that it’s only in the eighteenth century that we get these ideas of starkly different male and female bodies, before this there’s just a male body. Yes, all you women out there, your uterus used to just be an inverted penis? Bet you didn’t know that? There was some difficulty explaining why women might’ve had two penises (the clitoris being the other one), but these seem to be pretty quickly glossed over. Other historians, like Alice Domurat Dreger, suggest that it’s not until late in the nineteenth, and perhaps early in the twentieth, century that we get a solidification of medical categories of sex.
Isn’t history crazy?
So the question here is what counts as ‘normal’? Teaching children (or anyone, really!) that heterosexuality is not the only way to live is not a bad thing; it’s an honest thing. That it is in some way discriminatory or is going to create a society of tiny, subversive homosexuals is insane. That heterosexuality is the norm is also clearly a short-sighted and ahistorical position.
If you’re still thinking something along the lines of ‘Who cares?’ or, ‘Who is this guy? And why is he posting about all this crazy Australian stuff?’ Both questions are fair, and the answer is that while this is an Australian example, these sorts of ideas often underpin discussions of gender, sex, and sexuality in contemporary debate and even inform social practices. The oft-had conversation about whether sexuality is the result of socialisation or genetics fits into this boat, for instance. Similarly, and often, questions about male and female differences in temperament and skills can be traced back to these historically constituted notions of difference. And what about conversations like this one about what to teach children in schools about sex and gender? Too often we forget that the categories we’re dealing with are mutable and changing.
As knowledge producers, I think it’s our responsibility to throw our hat in the ring and contribute to discussions taking place in the public arena. We’d probably love to write about cupcakes, rainbows, unicorns, and on the odd occasion the successes of a truly egalitarian society (when not distracted by the aforementioned cupcakes, rainbows, and unicorns), but this stuff keeps happening. When you’re thinking about norms next–social, cultural, gendered, political, whatever it may be and in whatever forum–consider whether in fact these are social constants or social constructs; think about the social constraints which they may produce, the prejudice with which they can often be laced; and think about how history might reflect on the choices being made in the name of this ideal. Almost certainly you’ll find the shortcomings of the argument.
In case you’re looking for some further reading…
Alice Domurat Dreger, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex (Cambridge; London: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge; London: Harvard University Press, 1992).
Vern L. Bullough, Homosexuality: A History (New York; Scarborough: New American Library, 1979).
 Vern L. Bullough, Homosexuality: A History (New York; Scarborough: New American Library, 1979), p. 7.