For the total removal of sexual orientation labels
We have adopted terms like hetero-, bi-, or homosexual in our everyday language. But they were actually introduced only late in the 19th century by psychiatrists describing “sexual pathologies”. Could we imagine living in a world without such labels? Osvaldo González Reyes argues that we should give up all sexual orientation labels. This is one of the three best submissions for a writing contest in my “Theory of Science” lecture taught at the University of Groningen in 2019.
The concepts that we use in our daily world to describe our reality and to interact with it do not have a natural origin. It is well known that there are not natural laws dominating this world from which we could extract our constructs (Baker and Kitcher, 2014; Salmon, 2006). The “real” world out there is too broad to be fully taken into account by our limited human minds every time that we act or express something, even the most obvious perceptions are modified by our mental structures before they arrive in our consciousness (Goldstein, 2010). Therefore, it is extremely necessary for us to reduce this broad reality to concepts and heuristics in order to function properly in this world that we have created, OUR world.
But how do we do this? and who is in charge of determining the shapes our constructs should acquire? The answer is, no one and everyone at the same time. We do this intersubjectively, by exchanging our very different perceptions with others, criticising others’ opinions and reaching common agreements on how our concepts should be (Longino, 1990). This shows an important aspect that I would like to highlight: concepts are malleable, and they are subjected to any changes that we want to impose on them.
There have been many instances over history when societies differed in the way they regarded reality and the constructs they employed to structure it. The constructs used to create these different realities influenced the way its inhabitants behaved in them. This has been the case of Aristotle when he morally justified slavery in the Greek society stating that some kinds of humans do not possess self-responsibility and therefore others should be in charge to lead them to a virtuous life (Aristotle and Jowett, 1885). This is something completely unthinkable in our current society. Hegel’s ideas and the post-enlightened tradition is another example of how Europeans could morally justify that some cultures could lead the development of other “inferior” cultures through colonialism (Leezenberg & de Vries, 2019).
This way of structuring reality in Aristotle’s Greece defined the life and the behaviour of the Greek population, where having a slave at home was very common. Even more noteworthy is the example of Eskimos’ colour perception. Some Eskimo populations have structured their reality in a way that they have created many more colour constructs than us. As a result, they are perceptively able to distinguish nuances between colours, above all white, that are exactly the same for us (McNeill, 1972). This is the perfect example of how even our perceptive system relies on constructs. We can draw another important aspect from these examples: concepts dictate the way we relate to OUR reality, hence the way we interact and treat each other as part of that reality.
Then we can understand these two important aspects as a two-sided mechanism. Firstly, OUR reality, the one that we create together intersubjectively, is modifiable in many aspects, its structure does not come from any natural power, it is constructed and reconstructed by us all the time (Hacking, 2007). Even more important is the other component of this mechanism, it compels us to act according to the constructs that we have created and therefore to reinforce them.
Removal of sexual orientation labels
The current binary gender and sexual orientation labels, like any other construct or system of construct, were created in order to give shape to our reality, and to make it more manageable according to certain ends. However, this has not always been the case. In ancient Greece the term “homosexual” did not exist as it does today, same-sex sexual relations were understood as any other kind of sexual activity between two people without any distinction or remark of abnormal behaviour. The role of the “homosexual” person in their society or their social status was not differentiated from that of the “heterosexual”, precisely because the current vision of homosexuality did not exist. This made possible other forms of sexuality as well, for example “bisexual” relations.
Even some units of the ancient Greek armies, where only men could participate, were organised in pairs of lovers, since they were meant to show more courage during battles defending their loved ones (Crompton, 2009). Consequently, we should ask two essential questions here: What was the original purpose of the creation of the current concept of homosexuality? Does this purpose still hold today?
The term “homosexuality” was not coined until the 19th century. Along with the post-enlightened spirit of that time its aim was to split sexual orientation so people with different sexual tendencies could be analysed in a more “scientific way”. It was quickly used by psychiatrists and doctors to determine its effect on a growing population, clearly define gender roles applied to the family and the training of good professionals. Very soon, treatments to “correct and rehabilitate” were proposed (Pickett, 2018).
Nowadays we know that none of these goals is worth pursuing. Firstly, taking into account homosexuality as a factor to analyse the growth of a population is absolutely ridiculous. We live in a world where the human population increases more every year, regardless of the sexual orientation, where only from 1 to 2% of the population is homosexual.
Secondly, sexual orientation is a completely irrelevant factor concerning gender roles within a family, mainly because nowadays gender roles are more permeable and in many families they do not even exist, being both parents performing all the necessary actions. In this case, I do not see any reason why same-sex relations should be framed by an outdated concept, even less if it does not change any aspect of family life.
Lastly, sexual orientations do not influence how good we are at work. Our skills are mainly influenced by the capabilities that we are born with and the training we have received. Our sexual orientation only defines our sexual behaviour, but not any aspect of our professional life.
Taking these thoughts into account I would like to ask: Why should we base the construction of our current reality on concepts that have no purpose? As we have seen the term “homosexuality” does not fulfil any of the goals it was created for in the 19th century. Then, why should we still use it nowadays?
Moreover, another characteristic of constructs is that their aim is to display the ideal example of what it represents. However, is it possible to obtain the ideal prototype of “male” or “female” behaviour? Is it possible to obtain the ideal prototype of “normal sexual behaviour” and “abnormal sexual behaviour”?
First of all, we do not know, even in natural contexts, which kinds of behaviour are typical of the male or female sexes. Furthermore, we cannot be even certain that there are kinds of behaviour or actions that belong exclusively to a certain sex. There are many instances where the same kind of behaviour is performed by both male and female individuals. We live in a constantly changing context where it has been shown that even biology is shaped by norms and constructs (Butler, 2002) and it is also environmentally mediated by processes of epigenetics (Draghici et al., 2007). Consequentially the creation of male or female behavioural prototypes based on sex seems very unlikely.
In addition, what could be understood as “normal sexual behaviour” if prototypes of “male and female behaviour” cannot be defined? This construct seems very vague too. In addition, sexual orientation and the roles we play in sexual behaviour are so broad that we could not agree on the extent to which physical and personality characteristics belong to one frame or the other or in which degree these characteristics should be present in a type of sexual behaviour or role to make distinctions among them.
This brings us back to the beginning of this essay. As I said, a construct is the reduced and ideal representation of an aspect of OUR reality, it includes certain goals and it helps us act functionally whiting this reality that we have created. Since we cannot find the current functionality or the goals of sexual orientation labels, I argue that they are meaningless as constructs.
However, the most important question everyone should ask in this case is: how does the current dysfunctionality of frames and stereotypes affect others as part of our reality? We are arguing here about constructs that affect other living beings who are part of our reality and the way we interact with them. The frames implying living beings are of the highest social and political importance since they define the lives of many people (Zachar and Kendler, 2012).
Numerous studies have denounced the problems of this dysfunctionality through history. It has led to discrimination, acts of violence and hate, and the creation of stigmas that marked many for live (Stewart, 2010). I finally ask: Is this the reason what we create constructs for? Where is the functionality of these actions?
I humbly opine that the total removal of these sexual orientation and gender labels and the inclusion of all categories under the simple term of “sexual behaviour” will help to resolve these conflicts and, above all, help us have a better apprehension of our reality. Evidently more work needs to be done in the field of education, raising awareness, as well as policy making in order to reach a wellbeing status for everyone.
Osvaldo González Reyes is a recent graduate from the University of
Groningen. Raised in a Cuban and Spanish family he has always been
intrigued by questions of group dynamics, normative influence and identity formation. It was due to these interests that he decided to pursue studies in Psychology and Philosophy. Specifically, he has specialised in social psychology and political philosophy focusing on topics such as how institutions and cultural influences modify our behaviour and interactions with others.
- Aristotles., & Jowett, B. (1885). The politics. Oxford.
- Barker, G., & Kitcher, P. (2014). Philosophy of science : A new introduction (Fundamentals of philosophy series). New York: Oxford University Press, 12-47.
- Butler, J. (2002). Gender trouble. Routledge.
- Crompton, L. (2009). Homosexuality and civilization. Harvard University Press.
- Draghici, S., Khatri, P., Tarca, A. L., Amin, K., Done, A., Voichita, C., … & Romero, R. (2007). A systems biology approach for pathway level analysis. Genome research, 17(10), 1537-1545.
- Goldstein, E. (2010). Sensation and perception (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
- Hacking, I. (2007). Kinds of people: Moving targets. Proceedings-British Academy. Oxford university press, 151, 285.
- Leezenberg, M., & De Vries, G. (2019). History and Philosophy of the Humanities: An Introduction. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
- Longino, H. (1990). Science as social knowledge : Values and objectivity in scientific inquiry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
- McNeill, N. (1972). Colour and colour terminology. Journal of Linguistics, 8(1), 21-33.
- Pickett, Brent, “Homosexuality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- Salmon, W. (2006). Four decades of scientific explanation. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 46–60.
- Stewart, C. (Ed.). (2010). The Greenwood encyclopedia of LGBT issues worldwide. ABC-CLIO.
- Westen, D. (2000). Psychologie: Pensée, cerveau et culture. De Boeck Supérieur, 553.
- Zachar, P. & Kendler, K. S. (2012). The removal of pluto from the class of planets and homosexuality from the class of psychiatric disorders: a comparison. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine, 7(4), 1-7.