Date

6-2012

Degree Name

BS in Social Sciences

Department

Social Sciences Department

Advisor(s)

Dawn Neill

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to explore anthropological discourses regarding sexuality and relate them to the lived experiences of individuals. The paper is divided into two interrelated sections: historical and theoretical. Section one identifies a subfield within anthropology, gay and lesbian anthropology, most prominently represented by The Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists (SOLGA), and traces its emergence within the wider discipline of anthropology. It highlights the foundational scholars and theoretical shifts that have been crucial in defining the subfield as it is today and looks at how early anthropologists approached sexuality in general, and same- sex sexuality in particular. Special attention is given to female sexuality, exposing anthropology’s long silence regarding women and sex. Section one also traces the historical, political, and intellectual development of social construction theory, the dominant paradigm underlying gay and lesbian anthropology. This exploration highlights how gay and lesbian anthropology engaged intersecting fields, such as French intellectualism, history, sociology, and radical feminist thought. Social construction theory was developed largely in reaction to essentialist approaches that see sexuality as a fixed and innate essence of individuals. In radical opposition, social constructionists argue that sexuality can only be understood and experienced as historical and cultural constructs. Thus this debate is explored in depth. Section two highlights essentialist or biological frameworks within American anthropology, such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, as well as contemporary American culture which seek to ground human sexuality primarily in terms of biology and reproduction. It begins by outlining sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, mostly prominently articulated by Edward O. Wilson’s 1975 publication, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. After examining Wilson’s, work it explores several well-known studies of the 1990s that purported to have found a biological basis for “homosexuality.” Drawing on a recent example from the Human Rights Campaign (the largest American gay rights organization), it then highlights the essentialist tone that much of the contemporary gay rights movement has adopted. By exposing the underlying assumptions of essentialist theories, it argues that these frameworks are not only limiting and dividing but have the potential to invoke greater homophobia. Engaging social construction scholarship and queer theory, it deconstructs rigid essentialist understandings of sexuality, while offering a more inclusive and open-ended framework from which to discuss and understand sexuality. Using queer theory as a reference point, it looks critically at the process of sexual identity formation and proposes a queered paradigm that both allows for identity construction while at the same time acknowledging the fluidity and inherent ambiguity of all identity formations.

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