What is Normal?

What is determined to be “normal” when discussing sexuality? This past weekend, I was watching an old Saturday Night Live episode, which had a skit dedicated to this topic. While the skit was meant to satirize sexuality, it brings up a good point. Who decides what is and isn’t “normal”? And, Why is heterosexuality accepted without question?  The answer is, as usual with sexuality during the early 20th century, procreation. Society believed that sexual intercourse, and all relating sexuality, was for the sole purpose of procreation. However, as the 20th century progressed and sexuality began to shift from procreation, to pleasure, deviations of sexuality began to threaten the “norm”.

Sexuality is an idea, not an identity. This is what I perceived from Jonathan Katz’s essay, “The invention of Heterosexuality”. This was an interesting essay, because it seems, that while obviously heterosexuality has always existed, by naming it, it becomes an aspect of self- identity. Katz gives the argument that heterosexuality is readily unquestionable; it is comprehended by society as “normal” because the act of heterosexuality has always existed, since Adam and Eve (Peiss, 348-349).  Katz also says, “ by not studying the heterosexual idea in history, analysts of sex [..] have continued to privilege the ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ at the expense of the ‘abnormal’ and ‘unnatural’(Peiss, 349).  By not questioning why heterosexuality exists, and why it is so easily accepted, people further alienate homosexuality as different and wrong.  While Katz does distinguish that sexuality is not abstract, “ heterosexuality and homosexuality came into existence before it was named and thought about” (Peiss, 355), it’s social construction is the reason for the perception of sexuality today. The invention of heterosexuality could not have occurred without the invention of homosexuality (Peiss, 351).  By identifying the unorthodoxies of “normal sexuality”, society not only established the idea of heterosexuality, but also increased the idea of homosexuality.

Heterosexuality was universally accepted not only because it oldness, but also because during the early 20th century, sexuality was linked to procreation. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, society placed the importance of procreation as the reason why heterosexuality, of “legitimate natural desire” was considered normal, “legitimate natural desire was for procreation and a proper manhood or womanhood”(Peiss, 350). Once again, it was societies’ belief that sex was for procreation that stigmatized any differences against “normal” sexuality. However, as the family dynamic began to change during the late 19th century, so did sexual idea. Sexuality is, and always has been connected to the family. Katz says, “the transformation of the family from producer to consumer unit resulted in a change in family members relation to their bodies[..]the human body was integrated into a new economy, and began more commonly to be perceived as a means of consumption and pleasure”(Peiss, 351). As more Americans left the typical family dynamic, they began to explore their sexuality, as seen in my previous post.

The rise of the middle class, which changed the sexuality of America, not only led to women’s sexual liberation, but also the influx of homosexuality in the public sphere. People were leaving their strict families, and exploring themselves sexually. The rise of a homosexual subculture can be attributed to sexual insecurities and defined gender roles. Fairies, flamboyant (gay) men with feminine qualities, were nonconformists of the male gender, while “manly men” were typical working class men (Chauncey, 115).  George Chauncey points out in his book, Gay New York, homosexuality threatened the masculinity of “normal” men- “the crisis in middle- class masculinity, many middle-class workers felt compelled to insist [..] that there was no sexual element in their relations with other men” (Chauncey, 115). As Meagan points out, “Men began fearing the public representation of femininity, and as result, growing numbers of men turned to “strenuous recreation, spectator sports, adventure novels, and a growing cult of the wilderness” (Chauncey 113). This definition of male heterosexuality was the basis for criticism of the gay community’s “less masculine” social divisions”. I completely agree with Meagan’s view of male heterosexuality; the fear of emasculation leads to the need to prove one’s masculinity.  The fear of emasculation, and the fear of differences lead to the stigmatization against homosexuality.

The perception of sexuality is entirely based upon society. Because heterosexuality is unquestioned, society perceives it as “normal”. However, homosexuality has always been apart of history. It wasn’t until the names, homo and heterosexuality, were used, did heterosexuality become the “dominant” sexuality (Peiss, 349).  Homosexuality was an aspect of everyday public life in New York during the beginning of the 20th century. However, the rise of the importance of masculinity, especially during the interwar years, lead to the ignominy attached to homosexuality.  History should be unbiased, and explore both spectrums of sexuality, before condemning one.

Shifts in Sexuality and Society in the Era of Slavery

Sex, race, and power. That is the theme of week five, and a loaded one, at that. Overflowing when slavery was factored in. Sexuality in the world of slavery had many components. Not only were there both males and females, but also white AND black of both. Your race (and subsequent occupation, since it was the era of slavery) inserted you into one category, and your gender into a sub-category of that category. Sometimes, your age rendered you a spot in a sub-category of the gender sub-category. Whites were relatively dominant over blacks, and men were relatively dominant over women. But enslaved matriarchs were respected and regarded by their white planter masters. Black men felt emasculated by white planter owners, and could not make advances on white mistresses without being seriously reprimanded. Both racial and gender components led to not only significant changes in the realm of sexuality in America, but severely impacted society as well.

In class, we discussed the agency and limitations of the various characters in the era of slavery – male, white planters/slave owners, white mistresses, enslaved black males (both wandering and married), and enslaved black women (teens/slave girls, middle aged, and matriarchs). While there was a collective presumption that white males had a sort of all-encompassing power in regards to sexuality, upon further examination we realized that was not the case. Overall, enslaved matriarchs had social power over their families, and would be consulted by their owners in regards to things such as slave marriages and oftentimes had the final say, even over the owners.

Yet, white planters were definitely the most masculine role possible in this era: “Fathers ordinarily did the work of inculcating manhood, which included snuffing out white children’s identification with slaves. In 1839, a Virginian named John M. Nelson described his shift from painful childhood sympathy to manly callousness” (Nell Irvin Painter, 184). The cruelties white planters sometimes bestowed onto their slaves were a direct reflection of the level of assertiveness they were allotted by societal standards. These planters had to be able to emasculate male slaves in order to have control, and did so by such assertiveness.

Furthermore, enslaved women were at the bottom of the pile. While they gained some agency as they aged, as discussed in class, they were still on the worst side of the receiving end (no pun intended). Harriet Jacobs explains this in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own” (86). Additionally, no matter what age, enslaved women had to be submissive to not only their masters, but their husbands as well: “…Slave wives, even abroad wives, were expected to submit to their husband’s will, particularly those whose had regular contact. A woman’s submission to her man went hand in hand with her service to her family and community…” (Brenda E. Stevenson, 167).

Overall, the boundaries of sexuality in the era of slavery are, to say the least, complicated. They are full of shifted standards from the previous era of virtue and self-control, that still have some lingering influence, to a realm of sexuality more based on both the obtainment of agency and the assertiveness of it. Whites were mostly concerned with dehumanizing blacks as much as possible by murdering their souls in order to uphold their power as the dominant race. While the shifting paradigms of sexuality allowed for this behavior to occur, it also gave blacks the opportunity to obtain some societal power and personal agency. They were not completely dominated, despite the inhumane and immoral behaviors they so often faced. The sliver of agency they obtained socially and sexually was the foot-in-the-door that allowed them to persist with life and to begin what would be a long and hard fought battle of resistance.

P.S. – The recent Quentin Tarantino movie, Django Unchained, shows some of these sexual roles. For example, Django is a slave and him and his wife, Hilda, have been separated. Without giving too much away, Django ends up interacting with several different plantations in which both roles of power and sexuality are seen. For example, whites whipping slaves. Young, enslaved women being subject to undesirable sexual tasks and being extremely fearsome. White mistresses being seen as virtuous. Older slaves being devoted to their masters. While the story line isn’t the most historically accurate movie you could watch, the societal and sexual dynamics are interesting to observe.

Religious Accountability

Carroll Smith Rosenberg’s Beauty, the Beast and Militant Women and Susanna Haswell Rowson’s Charlotte Temple offer interesting gleams into the 19th century world of love, temptations, and the sexual roles of males and females. Rosenberg’s report details a historical background on issues presented by the New York Female Moral Reform Society that differ from the controversial narrative of Rowson. However, both literary sources support the past sexual moiré that males play a sinister role in seducing young women. But as further readings like Just Treatment of Licentious Men and the previous texts suggest, religion can be held accountable for man’s reasoning for dominance and control over women.

Seducer

Rosenberg’s text describes different challenges that the New York Female Moral Reform Society faced. As Rosenberg explains the efforts of the society to eliminate male seduction of women, particularly in cases of violence, she explains why men were capable of getting away with such power, “The fact that social values and attitudes were established by men and oriented to male experiences only exacerbated women’s feelings of inferiority and irrelevance” (Rosenberg, 577). Because of the male dominance in society, Rosenberg is stating that they were then forcefully putting women down and allowing for their wants and needs to preside. Thus, women were to remain subject to a man’s want or need for sex. As the male need for sex became more violent, one of the publications that supported the New York Female Moral Reform Society blamed descriptions in the Bible (Rosenberg, 581). Rosenberg reflects on the society’s call to women to question the Bible due to its language describing man’s superiority. Throughout the past, men were usually the ones who held positions in churches. Further, men wrote the Bible and men largely translated it. One can thus question if it was written and translated with the belief that man was superior to woman. Passages within the Bible state that women should remain quiet in the church and they should serve and honor their husband. As a result, male leaders could have further solidified and exaggerated the notion that woman needed to submit to their husband. Rosenberg states the opinion of the New York Female Moral Reform Society, “But throughout history, man, being stronger, had usurped woman’s natural rights. He had subjected wives and daughters to his physical control and had evolved religious and scientific rationalization to justify this domination” (Rosenberg, 582).

The document Just Treatment of Licentious Men that was addressed to “Christian Mothers, Wives, Sisters and Daughters” concludes similar accusations of religion like the society of Rosenberg’s piece. The report was released by the Boston Female Moral Reformers in 1838 and states, “True, God designed that man should be our protector, the guardian of our peace, our happiness, and our honor; but how often has he proved himself a traitor to his trust, and the worst enemy of our sex?” (Peiss, 112). This proclamation further insinuates cause for women to rethink the testimonies of the Bible and the orders of men.

Due to the rise of female societies that presented a better understanding of the rights and protection of women, feminism was capable of developing. Through the expansion of feminist ideals, society gained a better understanding of equal rights and treatment. For instance, the society of today’s culture represents a more diversified and equal nation, but a nation that also is less trusting of religion. The decrease of religious support may not directly correlate to the equality of women. Yet, gender equality may still have established reasons for females, and later males, to rethink their faith and truly develop a translation of the Bible that displays equality for all.

The Indians: Essentialist or Social Constructionist?

So, where does our sexuality come from?  It seems like a question with no clear answer, but there are two major theories about this topic.  Although, the debate about modern sexuality rages on today, it is not a new debate.  American Indians had a very different idea of sexuality than us today, yet both essentialists and social constructionists would argue that Indian sexuality followed the basis of their respective beliefs.

Jeffery Weeks, a professor of social sciences, tackled explaining the social constructionist view on sexuality.  He stated that it is a socially constructed mindset, which is a product of factors such as kinship, politics, economics, and social views  (Peiss, 7).  Very little of one’s sexual identity is natural or hormonally driven according to social constructionists.  Once major point of emphasis for social constructionists is how sexuality has changed over time.  They argue that this fact, along with the fact that society has changed over time, implies the connection between the two.

Looking into the early Native American societies, social constructionists would argue that their sexuality in the 18th and 19th centuries were great evidence of why sexuality is strongly based on society and outside influences.  Long ago in the early 1700’s, Baron Lahontan observed the Huron Indians and wrote about their sexuality and sexual tendencies.  First he noted that married women could not “quit their husband or vice versa”, as being considered an adulterer or adulteress was as good as being dead (Peiss, 28).  A social constructionist would argue that this shows one way how strict social rules played a part in shaping Indian sexuality.  Another way in which social guidelines outlines sexuality of these Indians was the fact that , according to Englishman John Lawson, “Sodomy is never heard of amongst them, and they are so far from the practice…that they have no name for it in their language” (Peiss, 33).  Social values were not all that played into constructing an image of Indian sexuality.  California Indians were an example of how there were other factors involved as well, as these Indians almost always married spouses of the same class and economic rank in society (Hurtado, 3).  Also, tribes regulated marriages and personal sexual lives in order to foster “productive family relationships” (Hurtado, 2).  These two examples show how economic wealth and political power factor into sexuality as well as social values and norms.

While there is a large amount of evidence that Indians sexualities could be described as social constructionist, there is an equal amount of evidence that supports the argument for essentialism.  According to essentialist, Rictor Norton, essentialism is the belief that our feelings are natural, and come from unexplainable things (Peiss, 10).  This rules out the main argument of social constructionism, as it implies that society, which is an explainable thing, cannot the basis of our sexuality.

While social constructionists could form a strong argument that Indian sexuality followed the guidelines of their preferred theory, essentialists like Norton has an equally strong argument.  One observation of the Huron Indians revealed that “young women are the masters of their own body” and that they “have a natural right of liberty to do what she pleases” (Peiss, 28).  The key word in that excerpt is “natural.”  This points to the fact that the Hurons believed that nothing explainable gave women these rights, but that they just naturally occurred.  There were no social or economic reasons for this.  In the California Indians, premarital sex often occurred (Hurtado, 3).  This goes against most social customs of the time, so it was again not in any way shaped by society.  Also seen in the California Indians was a practice known as “male homosexual transvestism” (Hurtado, 4).  In this practice, one male would dress as a female and by doing so, he would be assumed to be a woman in the sexual encounter (Hurtado, 4).  There were no social customs or societal reasons for this practice to occur, so an essentialist would argue that this was a naturally occurring feeling that remained unexplained by the day’s society.

The debate over the source of our sexuality is a hot topic today.  However, despite the fact that the definition of sexuality in the United States has drastically changed over time, the same debates between essentialists and social constructionists could be applied to past civilization’s sexualities.  Both of these groups could convincingly argue that the sexuality of American Indians followed their respective propositions for the source of their sexualities.

 

Helen Gurley Brown’s Story more Important when Looking at Larger Context

In class on Tuesday, we were asked the question: “What kind of feminism is Helen Gurley Brown promoting?” This question did not have a simple answer and as I read the book by Jennifer Scanlon I noticed that it was hard to pinpoint even a few elements of Brown’s feminism. The list that we came up with in class is extensive. She promoted sexual liberation, a strategic use of a woman’s sexuality, that a career could be more fulfilling than marriage, that woman can be independent/self-sufficient, that one could exploit the system instead of trying to change it, that women could challenge the sexual double standard, and that having a husband is not central to one’s existence. People have said that she was the charity girl of the 1960’s, and one can see who the charity girls were in my blog. Helen Gurley Brown must have been exhausted. But even so, as we learned, she was not alone in her pursuits of liberation. Other women were discontent with their lifestyle as well. Brown was a pioneer, yes, but not the only one.

Helen Gurley Brown was part of what is now called the 2nd wave of feminism, or the long 1960’s. This is the time of the Feminine Mystique, the Civil Rights movement, and the beginning of the push by women for liberation. So why do I think she is so important in a time when there are so many other memorable events occurring? I would argue that her importance lies in her novel, Sex and the Single Girl, and her career as editor of Cosmopolitan. These were very public outlets that she used to encourage women to challenge the stereotypical ideal of femininity. This is the largest scale novel that we’ve seen for single women only and the first magazine that focuses a majority of its pages on liberating women sexually. “For those who longed to see these issues emerge in public, Brown’s authoritative voice provided assurance that modern liberated behaviors belonged not to the few but to the many” (Scanlon, 61). Helen Gurley Brown speaks against the housewife ideal and encourages the single women who read the novel or the magazine to accept that being married isn’t the best thing that’s ever going to happen to them. She gave them the freedom to consider other options for their futures. Although, her approach disgusted some feminists because she considered anything a viable option for her to further her career or have a little fun. She advocated that it was ok to flirt with men and use her sexuality to get what she wanted, while other feminists wanted to completely separate themselves from men to show their independence. This is explained in more detail in a fellow classmate’s blog. Nevertheless, through her magazine she helped young women “navigate the challenges of single life” (Scanlon). It became ok for women to take advice from Brown, which shows the newfound liberation that some women were experiencing and a shift in public opinion.

This piece of history is especially important when one looks at the larger context of American society at the time. A year before Sex and the Single Girl was published the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women was founded. A year after it was published the Civil Rights Act was passed with the infamous Title 7. Then a year after that, Brown became editor of Cosmopolitan. During the 1960’s there was also the introduction of the pill, the sit-in movements, the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the report by the Presidential Commission was published. All of these factors show a shift in American society; and Helen Gurley Brown’s achievements are a small bite of the change that is occurring, but an important one. The fact that her book and the magazine were so popular shows that other women were feeling the same thing as Brown. She was not alone in her lifestyle or her call for change. She was simply the most vocal and widespread call. There were many women who were discontent with the life trajectory that society laid out for them and Brown’s book showed many of them that they didn’t have to live longing for something more. This is evident in Brown’s vision for the magazine when she became editor-in-chief: “as a celebration of social changes already under way, including, of course, changes in the cultural definition of female sexuality” (Scanlon, 154).

Helen Gurley Brown embodies many different aspects of the 2nd wave of feminism and she became, as we discussed in class, a mouthpiece for the women who couldn’t speak out. She focused on the single women, when no one else was and she challenged every social norm that women had accepted for decades. In the broader context of American history her novel and magazine are perfect examples of a shifting society when “Susie Homemaker” was not the only option for women.