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“Identity and Homosexuality”

Notes on:
Sylviane Agacinski, Parity of the Sexes.


What if sexual difference, instead of going back to the difference between two things of the same order, led us to discover that man and woman are not speaking of the same thing when they speak of the sexes? If the masculine and the feminine were not only the double form of the human, but beyond the symmetries and the dissymmetries, and under the unifying category of sex, it were a question of two profoundly different human realities that in the end might be without exact equivalent? And moreover, isn’t it only in this way that there can be two sexes, and not just variations of one? Perhaps maternity is what reveals a feminine specificity with no masculine equivalent. A full recognition of the heterogeneity of the species is dizzying.

[Two profoundly different human realities: Agacinski puts it well. Others, besides Weininger, have speculated in this vein (Bertolt Brecht and any number of radical feminists come to mind), but perhaps too frequently out of inconsequential despair or disgruntledness. It is high time we work out seriously what this hypothesis entails.]

Aristotle is enlisted in a functional argument for why women and men are “incapable of existing without each other.” There are erotic, biological and emotional dependencies, more specifically, for pleasure, procreation and something encompassing and surpassing “all the others”. [We are inclined to describe this third dependence as a consequence of a structurally incomplete nervous system in each sex: one than that degenerates into morbidity in men and mindlessness in women or, more picturesquely, criminal bestiality and cosmic pettiness.]

Intersexual dependence—to use Aristotle’s distinctions between the necessary (sine qua non), the general (unremarkable) and the accidental (sometimes)—falls in the class general. Thus leaving proportionate space for homosexuality. [And even where intersexual dependence doesn’t obtain—as in homosexuality, it does obtain. Consider, for example, Weininger’s sexual calculus of attraction which does not require that the boundaries of one sex be coincident with the boundaries one person, that is to say, the maleness in me may be attracted (or repelled) by the maleness in you, even when both of us are male or both of us female. Attraction or repulsion happens between sexes, not necessarily between their embodiments. The fact that certain embodiments tend to signal certain sexes is real but contingent.] Her task in this chapter is then to work out the dynamics of gay and lesbian sexual identity and sexual orientation in this light.

The myth of Aphrodite the Fecund and Aphrodite the Voluptuous, the goddess of life and of eroticism [cf. Weininger’s less godlike archetypes: the mother and prostitute, or the two Marys, the virgin mother and Magdalen, etc.] is discussed with a view to noticing what it is “[v]oluptuousness can do with this [sexual] difference.”

Male homosexuality, in particular, does not need sex in the flesh. It may well find pleasure in pure sex. But pleasure in pure absence of sex is no less a possibility. What is common to the masculine impulse in all its forms is the obsession with purity and a pervasive ambivalence with mixture.

These forms are perhaps two aspects of the same desire for purity: on one side, nothing but sex and only one sex, without mixture, without mixity; on the other, nothing sexual, no sex at all, only love of the soul, without the impurity of mixing with the body.

[Thus, there is in male attitudes toward sexuality, besides that of pure physical lasciviousness, a monastic strain, the exact opposite of unbridled sexual license, a deliberate abstention as exercise in self-control—control precisely because the self can be mastered, humbled, as though it were an other—a view deeply foreign to a natively feminine religious sensibility where the body is never categorically alienated from but rather integrated into spirituality. Celibacy, interpreted strictly, that is, as forbidding even masturbation, could never have arisen as a principle of religious purity among women—even though, perhaps ironically, they—more than men because of the diffuse experience of feminine eroticism: its resistance to localization and definition (as Weininger noticed)—might stand to suffer success at it.

Social forces in the normal course of life act to impose, however, a temperate measure of both attitudes in men’s lives. The institution of marriage, so far as he is concerned, fights against sexual purity in both senses: a man is not permitted to indulge in either. He is, in effect, domesticated, made to heal under regulation. He is not to pursue his impulse, nor revel in its repudiation… Aristotle, wielding temperance like a club, is the theoretician of marriage and community.* So it does not surprise us to find feminists of a certain strain appealing to him.

*But a vastly more articulate, if complex, ethic on sexuality and the principles of harnessing it (or being harnessed by it, as it were) is found in D. H. Lawrence, partly in reaction to Weininger. (The ethic is evident in all Lawrence’s writing but see especially his Study of Thomas Hardy.)

(Ed. Note: Luno writes elsewhere, “Clearly, a man has not the same relation to his body that a woman does. It is for him, when not a tool for exploitation, an unasked for imposition he would wish for the courage to do without. At first, if not throughout her life, this must strike a woman as unbelievable. For it implies she is doomed to be his victim or his widow.”)]

Jean Genet is cited as illustration of this hankering for an ambivalent purity.

…impurity is altogether on the side of the feminine body and procreation, while the beauty of boys is more pure, and still more pure is the beauty of ideas.

Agacinski fears that with modern technological advances the idea of procreation, purified of the messiness involved in sharing bodily fluids, is on the ascendancy at the expense of the more biologically, materially-rooted feminine.


Thus Freud demonstrates that the sexual dichotomy poses different problems for every ‘subject’: The problem of access to a masculine or feminine identity, and that of structuring desire and object choices. If these two problems are linked, they are not, strictly speaking, identical.

Homosexual choice can be consistent with fundamental sexual difference: sexual identity does not, of itself, determine choice of sexual objects. This clashes with an assumption held by many gay and lesbian studies “that genders are the result of a cultural construction”.

Freud: The object of desire is one thing; the subject another. [See the first of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.]

The homosexual is a natural and revealing exception to the general rule of heterosexuality. As such, gay men and lesbian women are a true minority and subject to all the dynamics of that position, but women are not. Something quite different is playing out in the masculine/feminine struggle that is not correctly approached from the direction of comparison with issues of sexual orientation. Indeed, the struggle is something upon which gay/straight issues are superimposed.

Thus there is a homosexual politics for gay men distinct from that for lesbian women. This is illustrated through the important part in the male homosexual agenda played by the demand for an “uncompromising struggle for the sexual freedom of both sexes and thus for absolute respect for private life…” The suspect implication here is that this freedom is equally critical to both types of homosexuals. There is “a certain valorization of deviance” and perhaps an overweening respect for privacy that betrays an androcentrism.

Can one voice politically represent both gay men and lesbian women? There is an undercurrent of reveling in exceptionality and transgression which has a distinctly masculine flavor. It is not likely that homosexual women share this as a priority.

Competing with the demand for valuing deviance is another aimed at the incorporation into society of new forms of venerated coupling, whole new lifestyles in which same sex couples are granted all the rights, responsibilities and respect traditionally accorded heterosexual couples. This model seems to accept the traditional idea of a stable couple as the building block of a community. The emphasis is not on deviance but on integration into existing social structures.

Sex interests bleed through the homosexual acceptance issues. Masculine homosexual culture is unmistakably distinct from its feminine counterpart.

Agacinski quotes Rick Castro, a gay film documentarian:

Certain people in the gay community try to transpose hetero values of sex and love onto homosexuals, and they say, ‘We are the same, We fall in love and have sexual relations just like everyone else.’ But I believe that this is not at all true… Many gay men are looking for the perfect man. They have very specific criteria as to what turns them on sexually.

Agacinski comments,

The multiplicity of sexual partners plays an essential role here because the taste for a specific criteria counts more than the choice of a person. Bruce LaBruce [Castro’s co-filmmaker] emphasizes that in his opinion, ‘homosexuality is very morbid’ and that it has ‘a dark side.’

[The morbidity is pure unadulterated masculine dissatisfaction with whatever is present and material. It is sometimes the precursor to conscious heterocosmicity but more often the vaguely tragic wish to exhaust materiality of all that it contains, a wish that may come to be experienced almost as duty—the alternative too dark to contemplate. This same dissatisfaction is distracted or attenuated in the male heterosexual who is more or less easily susceptible to the cosmicity of woman—so long as she succeeds in distracting him, first with her charm, then with her emotional support. If he is fortunate, this will occupy him a lifetime. Nevertheless, the morbidity always lurks in the shadows of his consciousness, ready…

By contrast, the male homosexual has less of this to fall back on, he has to survive through dogged pursuit of a pure unspecifiable charm always intensest in anticipation and deflated in consummation. If he finds stable support, it is often in devotion to some external project, unrelated to relationship—in artistic (or other vocational) pursuit, for instance. Here he has less liability than the heterosexual male artist who must contort his aesthetic devotion or risk straining or ruining his relationship with someone more rooted in the cosmos. This is probably related to why a disproportionate number of the greatest cultural figures have been homosexual or at least outside a normal heterosexual involvement.]

Homosexuals suffer

…a contradiction, an irresolvable one perhaps, between the desire to proudly assume an ‘eccentric’ and transgressive position—this is the temptation of any sexual freedom sovereignly affirmed—and, at the same time, the fear of exclusion, the desire for integration, even the nostalgia for a normal family life.

Michel Foucault’s attitude is examined in this connection. Was he liberationist or an integrationist?

Foucault alludes to the ancient Greek moral preference for activity over passivity. The choice of boys, women, slaves (or even animals or inanimate objects) as targets of male sexual attention and penetration had less to do with a stable orientation in a specific direction than with a complex of factors including what is available, willing and not overly proscribed. (Some proscription only enhances the allure.) This attitude, Agacinski notices, is, however still quite androcentric. In sorting the parties to the sexual act into the passive and the active and accruing moral preference to the active, one does not describe the act as a woman might. Why, Agacinski asks, would she not describe her role as every bit as active?…

[But probably the correct feminine answer here is to minimize the moral significance of the active/passive distinction. She is simply not motivated to make it in the first place unless defensively, aroused by some power claim on his part. It is his initial provocation stemming from the need to bifurcate the world into subject and object, a need she does not natively share.]

This overvaluation of the active has caused men to think of women as inherently sadomasochistic, as liking being acted upon. The pity is misplaced. He imagines his humiliation in her place. What conclusions he proceeds to draw given this are already doomed to distortion.

Foucault’s analysis of homosexuality, Agacinski concludes, is built upon the feminine/masculine difference. It does not make a case for some third form of sexuality or sexual dynamic.

Hence, the answer to the question about Foucault seems less interesting than the attempt to answer it.

Posted by luno in parity, sexualities, philosophy and sex, Heterocosmos, sex differences (Friday August 4, 2006 at 1:01 pm)

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