Defeating homophobia will result in more people having gay sex, but fewer people defining themselves as gay.
What if? Let’s speculate about a time in the future when we’ve won equality, and homophobia is a thing of the past. How would achieving a post-prejudiced era, where gay is deemed just as good as straight, affect sexuality? If the differences between hetero and homo no longer mattered, what would that mean for the future of queer desire and queer identity?
I ask these awkward questions because we already know, thanks to a host of sex surveys, that even in our narrow-minded, homophobic society, most people appear to be born with a sexuality that is, to varying degrees, potentially capable of both heterosexual and homosexual attraction.
Research by Dr Alfred Kinsey in the USA during the 1940s and 50s was the first major statistical evidence that heterosexuality and homosexuality are not watertight, irreconcilable sexual orientations. He found that sexuality is, in fact, a continuum of desires and behaviours, ranging from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality. A substantial proportion of the population is somewhere in the middle, sharing an amalgam of same-sex and opposite-sex feelings.
In Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male(1948), Kinsey recorded that 13 per cent of the men he surveyed were either mostly or exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. Twenty-five per cent had more than incidental gay reactions or experience, amounting to clear and continuing same-sex desires. Altogether, 37 per cent of the men Kinsey questioned had experienced sex with other males to the point of orgasm at least once, and half had experienced mental attraction or erotic arousal towards other men (sometimes transient and not physically expressed).
Kinsey’s companion research, Sexual Behaviour In The Human Female 1953), found the incidence of homosexuality and bisexuality among women was about half that of men (probably explainable by the prevailing misogynistic culture, which encouraged women’s dependence on men and restricted opportunities for the development of an autonomous female sexuality).
The Kinsey research has since been criticised as unrepresentative, largely on the basis that instead of being randomised and weighted to reflect a true cross-section of the US population, it relied too heavily on self-selected volunteer interviewees and on sampling from often single-sex institutions like colleges, prisons and the armed forces.
Kinsey’s statistics have also been called into question by the results of recent sexological investigations, such as The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles in the UK. Published under the title Sexual Behaviour in Britain (1994), it found significantly lower levels of same-sex relations. Only 6.1 per cent of men and 3.4 per cent of women reported having had a homosexual experience during their lifetime.
The methodology of this survey has, however, been questioned. It was based on a random geographic sample of the population. Yet we know that homosexuals are not randomly distributed across the country. They tend to be concentrated in big cities, and in particular districts within those cities. Moreover, the interviews took place in people’s homes. Closeted lesbians, gays and bisexuals are unlikely to admit same-sex behaviour to a stranger who knocks on their door, especially if they live with their families and fear exposure.
A number of other recent sex research projects have produced statistics at variance with those of The National Survey:
* Polling by the British Marketing Research Bureau for the Health Education Authority in 1989 discovered that 86.5 per cent of men and women had “never” felt attracted to a person of the same sex. Thirteen and a half per cent had either experienced homosexual attraction (7.5 per cent) or declined to answer the question (6 per cent). This exceptionally high refusal rate suggests that some of those who declined may have been closeted / repressed lesbians, gays or bisexuals, afraid to admit their same-sex desires.
* A French compilation of questionnaire results on a range of subjects published in the same year, Vous les Francais: 56 Millions de Francais en 2200 Sondages, revealed that 25 per cent of French men claimed to have had sex with another man.
* The American National Health and Social Life Survey, which was published in 1994, found that 10 per cent of males and 9 per cent of females said they had either desired or experienced sex with a person of the same gender.
These figures suggest that while Kinsey may have overestimated the incidence of same-sex relations, the recent research by The National Survey in Britain has almost certainly under-reported it.
The possibility that individuals could share a capacity for both hetero and homo feelings was an idea that Sigmund Freud pioneered. His psychoanalytical investigations led him to argue, in Three Essays On The Theory Of Sexuality(1905) and An Autobiographical Study(1925), that everyone is born with a “constitutional bisexuality”, possessing both a heterosexual and a homosexual capability. Our erotic desires are initially pluralistic and diverse, without any differentiation between attraction to male and female. Sexual orientation evolves, Freud theorised, through a complex developmental process which is significantly influenced by social factors, such as our relationship with our parents during infancy and the moral norms dictated to us by society. Socialisation, rather than biologically innate preference, is the pivotal force in the formation of sexuality, according to Freud.
This idea that we all begin life sharing dual hetero and Homo interests was backed up by Freud with evidence from his clinical practice. Writing in Psycho-Analytic Notes On An Autobiographical Account Of A Case Of Paranoia(1911), he argued that “every human being oscillates all through his life between heterosexual and homosexual feelings”.
Freud’s case histories of Little Hans (1909) and Dora(1905) led him to note that he had never conducted a single case of psychoanalysis “without having to take into account a very considerable current of homosexuality”. He observed that “latent or unconscious homosexuality can be detected in all normal people”.
If queerness is intrinsic to human sexuality, then it has the potential to be much more commonplace than it is currently. What prevents this is social homophobia. Although he did so rather ambiguously, Freud tacitly acknowledged the cultural suppression of homosexuality. His Fragment Of An Analysis Of A Case Of Hysteria(1905), contrasts the denigration of homosexuals in western societies with their frequent acceptance by “different races and different epochs”. In Three Essays On The Theory Of Sexuality (1905), he added that sexual repression was substantially the result of the “structures of morality and authority erected by society”. The intimation is that the existing sexual order is mostly man-made and could therefore be modified by human will and effort.
Cultural conditioning explanations for homosexuality are supported by the research findings of the anthropologists Clellan Ford and Frank Beach. In Patterns of Sexual Behaviour(1965), they noted that certain forms of homosexuality were considered normal and acceptable in 49 (nearly two-thirds) of the 76 tribal societies surveyed from the 1920s to the 1950s. They also recorded details of some aboriginal cultures, such as the Keraki and Sambia of Papua New Guinea, where all young men entered into a homosexual relationship with an unmarried male warrior, sometimes lasting several years, as part of their rites of passage into manhood. Once completed, they ceased all homosexual contact and assumed sexual desires for women. If sexual orientation was biologically pre-programmed, these men would have never been able to switch to homosexuality and then to heterosexuality with such apparent ease. This led Ford and Beach to deduce that homosexuality is “the product of the fundamental mammalian heritage of general sexual responsiveness as modified under the impact of experience”. In other words, the potential for erotic attraction to both sexes is fundamental to the human species, and is largely socially influenced.
The evidence from these three research disciplines – sociology, psychology and anthropology – is that the incidence of heterosexuality and homosexuality is not fixed and universal, and that the two sexual orientations are not mutually exclusive. There is a good deal of movement and overlap.
What’s more, although sexuality may be partly affected by biological predispositions – such as genes, hormones and possibly brain structures – the decisive causal factors appear to be a combination of childhood experiences, social expectations, peer pressure and moral values. These are the key determinants that channel erotic impulses in certain directions and not others. An individual’s sexual orientation is thus more culturally influenced than biologically given.
This means that everyone is born with a bisexual potential. Because sexual desire is not predestined to be hetero or homo, there is the possibility it could develop in either or both directions.
We know from sex surveys that even in our intensely homophobic culture a sizeable proportion of the population experiences both same-sex and opposite-sex arousal. That evidence comes from research that records consciously recognised desires. At the level of unconscious feelings – where passions are often repressed, displaced, sublimated, projected and transferred – it seems probable that very few people are 100 percent straight or gay. Most are a mixture.
This picture of human sexuality is much more complex, diverse and blurred than the traditional simplistic binary image of hetero and homo, so loved by straight moralists and – more significantly – most lesbians and gay men.
If sexual orientation has a culturally-influenced element of indeterminacy and fluidity, then the present forms of homosexuality and heterosexuality are unlikely to remain the same in perpetuity. As culture changes, so will sexuality.
Once homophobia declines, we are bound to witness the emergence of a homosexuality that is quite different from the homosexuality we know today. With the strictures on queerness removed, more people will have gay sex, but less of them will identify as gay. This is because the absence of homophobia makes the need to assert and affirm gayness redundant.
Gay identity is the product of anti-gay repression. If one sexuality is not prioritised or privileged over another, defining oneself as gay (or straight) will cease to be necessary and have no social relevance or significance. The need to maintain sexual differences and boundaries disappears with the demise of straight supremacism.
Homosexuality as a separate, exclusive orientation / identity will then begin to fade (as will its mirror opposite, heterosexuality). Instead, the vast majority of people will be open to the possibility of both opposite-sex and same-sex desires. They won’t feel the need to label themselves (or others) as gay or straight because, in a non-homophobic culture, no one will give a damn about who loves and lusts after who.
Thud, 22 January 1998.
* Peter Tatchell is a contributor to “Anti-Gay”(Freedom Editions, £9.99), and the author of “Safer Sexy – The Guide To Gay Sex Safely”(Freedom Editions, £14.99).