walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Published on: May 15, 2013
Freudian Gays and Behavioral Feminists

The media have been full these days with news about the seemingly inexorable victories (at least in America and Europe) of the sexual liberation movements that began over fifty years ago. Same-sex marriage is being legislated in a lengthening list of American states and European nations. The ruling coalition in Germany is threatened with dissolution […]


The media have been full these days with news about the seemingly inexorable victories (at least in America and Europe) of the sexual liberation movements that began over fifty years ago. Same-sex marriage is being legislated in a lengthening list of American states and European nations. The ruling coalition in Germany is threatened with dissolution because of a split over the issue of quotas for women in corporate management. Insular Icelanders (who, one would think, should be preoccupied with a persistent and pervasive economic crisis) have fallen in line with other Scandinavian countries by keeping prostitution illegal, but prosecuting its customers rather than its providers, who are defined, rather ambivalently, both as professional “sex workers” and as certified victims. I understand that the intended beneficiaries of these measures are not very enthusiastic, being more comfortable with the old-fashioned sleazy arrangements.

Of course much of the world outside the United States and the European Union is, to put it mildly, more skeptical about all these liberations. Western progressives, certain that they are “on the right side of history”, can dismiss such skepticism as an expression of a backward mentality sure to crumble eventually before the triumphant march of Enlightenment. In American media the New York Times is particularly mesmerized by anything relating to homosexuality. I expect one day to see two headlines on page one of this “newspaper of record”: A big one, “Chinese and Japanese Navies in Fierce Battle over Disputed Islands. Japan Invokes Defense Treaty with the US.” And one in only slightly smaller print, “Papua New Guinea Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage”.

Sigmund Freud has been a bête noire of feminists for having written, in an essay on human sexuality, that “biology is destiny”. Actually this is a misquotation. What he wrote was that “anatomy is destiny”. But that sentence was in the context of a passage asserting that little girls are greatly distressed when they discover that they lack an intriguing protuberance possessed by their brothers, and that this “penis envy” is a basic feature of female psychology. This context of course has only reinforced the view that the old curmudgeon was a terrible male chauvinist. I am not sure that Freud is accurately categorized in this way. It seems to me that his view of sexuality is not so much biological as mechanical—a hydraulic system of pipes, where repressing some items in one place will lead to their popping up somewhere else. I am quite sure that Freud, had he lived to see it, would have been appalled by the recent wave of sexual liberations. He was, if anything, a rather repressed type himself. The only known deviation from uptight bourgeois morality on his part was a not quite innocent attraction to his wife’s sister (which may or may not have been consummated).

But let me not quibble. Let me stipulate that the offending sentence could be read as meaning that biology is destiny. In which case Freud has regiments of followers today among scholars in different disciplines, who try to explain all or most human behavior in terms of inborn drives, genes and the neurology of the brain. The curious irony is that many adherents of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transsexual movement have come to subscribe to the view that biology is indeed destiny—while at the same time other members of the same movement fiercely maintain that “gender” is an arbitrary social artifact, largely independent of its biological substratum. The movement thus oscillates between biologism and sociologism (which, I suppose, should not surprise us—political rhetoric is not an exercise in logic).

The dominant political discourse of the GLBT movement has now proposed that sexual orientation is not chosen but congenitally given—in other words, is destiny. As I have pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, this is a significant change from the earlier defense of gay rights in terms of the freedom to choose one’s lifestyle as one prefers. In other words, it is similar to religious freedom and freedom of speech, protected under the First Amendment. The explanation for the change of discourse is clear: If sexual orientation is not a choice but a given, it is like skin color, and therefore the movement can wrap itself in the mystique of the Civil Rights Movement. Gay rights are now defended constitutionally, not in terms of free exercise or speech, but of equal treatment under the law (Fourteenth Amendment). The mystique of racial equality has become an important component of the American Creed and as such well worth embracing.

Thus some gays have become quasi-Freudians. Feminists who are lesbians and/or allied with gay men have participated in the paradigm shift. (I am not aware of any apologies to Freud.) This has not prevented other feminists, probably a majority, to derive their discourse from sociology rather than biology. They are behaviorists, not Freudians. The ubiquity of the concept of “gender” in feminist parlance brilliantly reveals the underlying assumption: The term “sex” still retains the understanding that there is something crassly biological in the behavior covered by the term—people still “have sex”; nobody “has gender”. “Gender” is a grammatical term, not a biological term. It is a social construct, which, unlike sex, varies widely between human languages. Thus the “sun” is masculine in French, feminine in German (le soleildie Sonne), while the reverse is true in the case of the “moon” (la luneder Mond). Among other things, this means that French and German feminists seeking to purge language of its alleged bias against women have a more difficult task than their English-speaking sisters (who must concentrate on their relentless campaign against the generic masculine). To be sure, some linguists have maintained that there is a universal grammar which all actual languages share. Be this as it may, nobody is born speaking French, even if there is an innate and very general structure that French shares with every other language. Such a structure is not very helpful as a French-speaker tries to converse with an individual whose only language is Chinese. For better or worse, human individuals (with very few transsexual exceptions) are born with sex-specific genitalia; nobody is born speaking Chinese or French.

In sum: It seems very likely to me that homosexuality is a destiny for some individuals and a choice for others. It doesn’t have to be either/or. I don’t see why the demand for the rights of people with this sexual orientation, a demand deeply rooted in the values of democracy, should hinge on an unnecessary dichotomy.

I will make some concluding observations about all this, first as a (very cautious) social scientist, then as a (convinced and less cautious) moralist. (This last term was once ascribed to me in a pejorative sense. If it means that I am a citizen with strong moral convictions, then I am willing to plead guilty.)

In the first capacity, let me recall that the respective importance of nature and nurture in the shaping of an individual has been debated for a very long time. It seems plausible to me that both are involved. We still don’t know with any degree of precision where one leaves off and the other begins. But it is clearly distortive if we conceive of human beings as either chimpanzees with a more complicated brain or as free agents with a body at their disposal. In the matter at hand, it is very probable that there are biologically rooted differences between men and women, and that these determine some of their behaviors. It is evident, however, that different societies have been very inventive in the institutions built on top of (and sometimes against) the biological determinants.

In my capacity as a moralist, I am suspicious of all movements—I have the lingering intuition that every movement can very quickly turn into a lynch mob, and that I would be a likely target of its rage. The movements of sexual liberation have, I think, been a mixed bag. Some of their consequences have been very good, such as the ending of discrimination against women and of the persecution of homosexuals. Other consequences have been less desirable, such as the legal definition of privileged victim categories, or the politization of private life. Only rarely does one have the luxury of coming across a movement that one can endorse without reservations—in that respect, the Civil Rights Movement was unusual (at least until much of it turned to victimology after the death of Martin Luther King).

Let me end with two suggestions: Gays should give up trying to be a racial minority. And feminists should stop denying that, whatever else they are, they are also part of a species of mammals.

[Photo of Sigmund Freud and his daughter, courtesy of Getty Images]

show comments
  • johnny silence

    It seems to me that it is politically necessary for LGBT folks to talk as if they are a racial minority, because that’s the framework within which oppression of minorities can be perceived as unjust at the popular level of American politics. As long as being gay is something you DO, people feel comfortable saying, “Hey, knock that off!” But if it’s something you ARE, the claim to equal treatment is much stronger. Not many people would feel comfortable saying to an African-American, “Hey, quit blacking already and be white!”

    • Joe Eagar

      That may work politically, but I don’t think it works sociologically. Most social indicators for blacks were *better* in the 50s and 60s, even though they were politically disenfranchised.

      The American civil rights model is uniquely cruel to the common masses of whichever socioeconomic group it latches onto. The model tends to enable moral and social nihilism, at the expense of more enlightened points of view (it’s no coincidence that serious talk about combating single motherhood only started happening once that problem spread out of “civil rights” groups to poor whites).

      • Joe Eagar

        A concrete example: the way gays and straights tend to gang up on bisexuals for violating this politicized crap.

  • Gary Novak

    When Johnny Silence says that it is politically necessary for LGBT folks to talk AS IF they are a racial minority he displays an indifference to the truth of the matter. Does he worry that adopting
    talking points on the basis of the supposedly limited capacity of Americans to perceive injustice might backfire. It seemed politically expedient to edit the talking points on the Libyan embassy
    attack twelve times, but when it comes out that political advantage, not truth, was the goal, it hurts the administration.

    Berger notes that it was not long ago that gays were arguing for lifestyle freedom. If they now flip flop to biology is destiny, do they not deserve the moral respect of the politician who “will say anything to get elected”? Will Americans be more inclined to sympathize with the oppression of gays
    when the public perceives the unprincipled attempt by gays to manipulate public opinion? Sometimes there is not even a short time lag between flip flops. I recently criticized sociology textbook author John Macionis for taking the
    religion out of civil religion. Here is what he says about sex: (1) “Although there is a biological ‘sex drive’ in the sense that people find sex pleasurable and may seek to engage in sexual
    activity, our biology does not dictate any specific ways of being sexual any more than our desire to eat dictates any particular foods or table manners.” (2) “A growing body of research suggests that sexual orientation is innate, or
    rooted in human biology . . ..” Both statements occur in the same chapter. I was not satisfied with Macionis’ explanation of the apparent contradiction and concluded that the first statement was made in the context of defending social constructionist sociology from sociobiological reductionism, while the second
    was made as a political defense of gays.
    Indeed, he admits as much in his text: “There is also a political issue here with great importance for gay men and lesbians. To the extent that sexual orientation is based in biology, homosexuals have no more choice about their sexual orientation than they do about their skin color.” (“Sociology”: The Basics, 2006) Earlier in the text, Macionis presented politicized sociology as a legitimate form of sociology: “In making value
    judgments about how society should be improved, critical sociology rejects the scientific claim that research should be value-free.”

    I’m picking on Macionis here because I am familiar with his text, but, as Berger pointed out in his “disinvitation to sociology,” similar examples are easily found throughout politically correct sociology. (I accepted his disinvitation and retired!)

    It is quite true that although Berger prefers moral arguments against capital punishment, he does not turn up his nose at economic arguments (“Capital Punishment and the Deficit”). But he
    would not speak “as if” something were true just out of political expediency. That’s too close to
    Goebbels: Truth is what is good for the German (or gay) people. Berger is perfectly aware of the rationale for claiming that gays are a racial minority, but he doubts the truth of that claim. Johnny Silence is silent about truth.

    • Griffonn

      Your argument leads logically to the conclusion that homosexuality is like a disability.

      The analogy with race doesn’t hold up. Homosexuality isn’t like race in any significant way.

      The argument you are making suggests that gays need to be able to have special accommodations because their dysfunction makes them incapable of living a normal life without them. That’s disability, not race.

  • johnny silence

    Yep, me & same-sex marriage, just like Goebbels and the Nazis. Godwined in record time!

  • Gary Novak

    Let me see if I can paraphrase Johnny Silence’s sentence fragments: “You are ignorantly calling
    me a Nazi—don’t you know the Nazis persecuted homosexuals?—in record time—because knee-jerk hate doesn’t require time for reflection.” (I’m afraid “Godwined” is beyond my hermeneutic skills.) My point, of course, is not that Johnny shares Nazi values but that he may share Nazi
    epistemology: truth is what is good for our side. I don’t think Macionis is a Nazi, either, but he is taking a dangerous course when he recognizes politicized sociology as legitimate. He actually writes: “Generally speaking, scientific sociology tends to appeal to researchers with more conservative political views; critical sociology appeals to those with liberal and radical-left politics.” It’s bad enough that he is suggesting that one can choose a methodology on the basis of what “appeals” to one. But notice that he is also saying that even those (like Berger) who choose scientific sociology are actually politically [conservatively] motivated. Science, in other words, is a conservative ideology. Everything is politics.

    I don’t know if Johnny shares that view or not. My point was simply that he was silent about truth. Perhaps in the circles he travels in it is taken for granted that homosexuality is, in fact, innate. If so, THAT is what he should be arguing in his response to Berger, who has already articulated the view that the claim of innate homosexuality can be politically expedient: “If sexual orientation is not a choice but a given, it is like skin color, and therefore the movement can wrap itself in the mystique of the Civil Rights Movement.”

    Sociology texts often have “boxes” which allow previously “Silenced Voices” to speak. I wonder if
    Johnny Silence sees himself as one of those voices. Is that why he doesn’t notice that his point
    has already been made by the author to whom he is responding? Perhaps all he wants to do is stay “on message” and get more exposure for his persecuted perspective. It’s not too late to make a case (preferably in complete sentences) that he is concerned with truth, not just winning.

    I have no idea why Griffonn is telling me that the race analogy doesn’t hold up. I completely agree with Berger that gays should give up trying to be a racial minority.

  • Luke Lea

    Freud was a charlatan who for a couple of generations gained intellectual ascendancy in the West and had best be forgotten. Sure, he made some acute observations here and there, but mixed in with a lot of meretricious nonsense. I am opposed to making him a cultural reference point any longer even though (or perhaps because) I grew up on him and read just about everything he wrote. Ditto for Nietzsche and Marx. They are blots on Western intellectual history.

  • Anthony

    It is no coincidence that the Rights Revolutions of 20th century helped homosexual orientation acquire greater majoritarian acceptance. Given that result and as Peter Berger stated, there should be no unneccessary dichotomy (nature or nurture) in a demand consonant with deeply rooted values of democracy (especially as moral judgments are catching up with American sense of fairness).

  • Lorenz Gude

    From what my gay friends have said to me over the course of my lifetime is that sometimes it is nature and sometimes nurture. I certainly believe my heterosexuality is heavily a result of nature. I also grew up taking care of cows which for you city folks means they were all females and in the absence of a bull they were constantly trying to mount each other. Similarly incarcerated males who I have worked with say it takes about six weeks for one’s fellow prisoners to start looking pretty darn good. My conclusion is that Mother Nature has made the sexual urge strong enough to make sure it something happens and is less concerned about the quality of the aim.

  • Joe Eagar

    I love this post.

  • Kristof

    Homosex IS. It happens. With or without affection; developmentally, accidentally, situationally, habitually, punitively, reverentially, etc. Love-making is the kernel, core and gist of the “homosexual” as a variant of the erotic. Explaining how and why homosex occurs (to whichever end) ought to take all variables into account, including those that are involuntary. But when it comes to describing dispositions, matters are more complicated, largely because of the nature of dispositions themselves [logically: potentialities].

    At least as important as the distinction between innate and learned/chosen orientation, is the distinction between sex as drive-discharge and sex as the search for union/intimacy: the distinction between the base and ennobling, lower and higher concepts of the erotic; between guilt/shame and grace. This distinction plays into our evaluation of innate v. learned dispositions, subliminally coloring the conclusions we draw by influencing empathy, and, therewith, our identifications.

    Berger is right, the distinction between innate and however one conceives of the non-innate [as extrinsic, learned, conditioned, chosen, etc.] should be irrelevant to the demand for equal treatment by the law. The partitioning of ‘natures’ according to their degree of voluntary and involuntary ought not to be the decisive issue in justifying equal treatment. Nor, as I hope to show, can it be.

    To say “innate disposition” is surely a redundancy. While “innate behavior” sounds suspect; a blank check of indeterminate value. Since genes influence everything while determining nothing, the purported innateness of the disposition to homosex must be a matter of epigentics. But doesn’t that simply restate the dilemma “nature v. nurture” in positing environmental triggers?

    Surely innate can only mean basic. The burden is on those who would discriminate against homosex practitioners to show that their preference is an unconstrained choice, not on those who invoke innateness to demonstrate why they feel so constrained. For their answer can only be the general response that voluntary and involuntary elements co-determine sexual behavior.

    We are not adjudicating a crime here, though it often seems as if our first concern when addressing the subject of human sexuality is to prevent one. Understandable enough here, considering that not long ago homosex was a commission punishable by incarceration.

    Sexual desire per se is as ‘innate’ as any hunger. One can choose not to feed oneself, of course. But no one chooses what he thinks desirable or what is noxious. The excitement occasioned by the presence of beautiful bodies is pre-conscious and spontaneous. No one chooses to have an erection. (Ergo, they are “innate”.) A human being locates himself at the intersection of freedom and nature [necessity].

    The reason the innate-learned/chosen polarity is unnecessary is that it is not specific to instances of homosex, characterizing all instances of appetitive behavior. That dichotomy is valid [intelligible] only when spelled out, i.e., dialectically articulated, in the course of which its terms are thoroughly mediated/relativized and shown to be dependent variables [parts of a totality].

    Normatively speaking, sexual orientation ought to be socio-politically irrelevant. The whole point of not discriminating on the basis of object-choice is that sexuality per se is a non-negotiable variable, in itself morally neutral, of the person. The person being the totality relevant to the socio-political. What is good for the homosexual is good for every sexual being who can and cannot ‘help it’ and must seek rescue [deliverance] in the goodness of erotic pleasure.

    The idea that discrimination ought to be proscribed only because people cannot help “choosing” the object of their affection is preposterous. We ought to proscribe it because we’re all erotically super-charged human beings aspiring to the beautiful while feeding our hungers. It’s not a question of special protections, but of non-discrimination. The normalization of homosexuality is simply its restitution as an invisible potentiality of nature.

    It’s outrageous we should be debating rights for homosexuals at all. The only reason we have to legislate non-discrimination for the sub-group “homosexual” is because of our collective monotheistic [Judaic] cultural heritage and its totalitarian tribalistic regulations [as filtered through the Pauline demonization of the erotic]. Its habit of moralistic scrutiny of other people’s sex [sin] lives paved the way for science’s categorization [discrimination] of individuals according to preferred object-choice. This taxonomy of orientations entails the identification of a totality [the person] through one constituent part. The laws being implemented to protect individuals thus partitioned are in effect cancelling the salience of their reductive [and therefore degrading] categorization by way of democracy’s great equalizers: “human being” and “citizen”. They are correcting a distortion of the “nature of things” by a collective neurosis.

    The natural state of ‘the’ homosexual, as the example of our special affiliates in the animal kingdom teaches, is to be invisible. Not hidden away, but not discerned as a deviation either. It is to be present/visible as kinsman and neighbor. No more and no less.

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