Gender, a complex of anticipations and instructions, is an essential hermeneutic of virtually all social experience and all responses to experience. To the degree that a polarized gender system provides a major framework within which clues to identity are sorted, and within which individual erotic interests are elaborated, a complexity of responses should be an increasing by-product of the contemporary Western experience. To the degree that gender distinctions are mutually exclusive, individuals must often choose between very specific desires that generally announce their presence with highly restrictive gender distinctions as well as their implications for larger senses of gender identity.
The signif icance of gender in the development and maintenance of selfidentity may actually have increased in recent decades as it becomes one of the few remaining aspects of identity that colors virtually all aspects of our lives. It approaches constituting a master status imposed upon all.
Gender identity, too often described as a simple, unidimensional aspect of the self, must increasingly be understood to be a complex dynamic and highly contingent process, a process that includes, among other aspects, the individual’s recognition of its inclusion in a universe of seemingly uncompromising bimorphs, or what in this sense can be termed gender identification. Another aspect is the degree of comfort the individual experiences in effectively executing the behaviors attached to gender-significant roles, the contents and requirements of which are in the control of the individual in only the most marginal of ways, or what we can term core gender identity. And, lastly, there is
the internalized judgment of others, often disguised as the self’s most authentic voice, or what can be called ideal gender role expectations.
The latter two (core gender identity and ideal gender role expectations) are clearly given to varied vicissitudes in the course of the individual’s history of development within the developments of history. However, such transformations are rarely without surviving residues of earlier constructions of gender. To the degree that these two present incongruence, if not conflict, gender-significant behavior must of necessity reflect how such incongruities are resolved and, moreover, the overt quality of performance rarely articulates with precision specific experiences at the “core” of identity.
In recent considerations of the history of the psyche, there is a notable tendency toward conceiving of the evolution of a more abstract self (Gergen 1991; Zurcher 1977), a self whose gendering is closer to the surface, less tied to “primitive beliefs” (Rockeach 1968) regarding identity and, as a result, more responsive to changing social expectations. This position is a consistent implication of much current constructionist, deconstructionist, and feminist reevaluations of current conventions regarding the gendering of both behavior and feeling. Indeed, gender may emerge as a problematic only in sociocultural settings where many individuals are required to create and sustain the cohesiveness of the self, settings where individuals must achieve integration of their several social roles in contexts of considerable ambiguity (“What is it that I should desire to be?”) and uncertainty (“Am I really one?” “Will I ever become one?”), as against contexts where the existing integration of social roles creates the appearance of a constant self. It is in this sense that, as Freud observed, even when individuals fantasize themselves as appearing as members of the opposite sex, this does not necessarily mean that they desire to be that gender, but merely that they desire the experience, including the experience of an emotion, that is commonly associated with that gender (Nunberg and Federn 1965-72).
This is not the occasion for a full examination of how common bisexual experience is or all of its possible consequences. What is important at this point is that common to many contemporary versions of adolescence is a fantasied bisexual experience and that it occurs at ages when it is accompanied by a well – developed sense of the social meanings of such an experience. Contemporary must be specified because it is possible that this developmentally significant experience is not in many critical regards a universal occurrence.
Among the major sources of anxieties involving gender among adolescents is the often visible discomfort of adults with what is often yet to be decoded by the adolescent. An already pronounced self-consciousness is further inflated by the ambiguities of child-adolescent distinctions that often contain opposing permissions and a seeming arbitrariness in how they are applied. What is casually permitted in childhood is often accorded great significance in adolescence. This is particularly characteristic of physical contacts between males, as well as those between males and females. This self-forming heightening of self-consciousness attaches to the sexual in both dimensions of significance: the larger and more diffuse issues of gender and, within gender, the character of the erotic. Such self-scrutiny must include a nervous monitoring of one’s own intrapsychic responses and the perceived, often imagined, attributions of a growing number of significant others for whom the individual’s gender competence and sexuality are of concern.
Past puberty there can be few wholly autoerotic sexual acts; almost all sexual acts, particularly those enacted within the realm of the imagination, are conditioned by an awareness of the meanings such acts have for all whose presence is invoked by the enactment. Sexual fantasy requires that the actor author the behaviors and the emotional experiences of all participants. The individual in staging and role-playing the activities of all participants must risk knowing the emotions of all participants. It may ha ve been this aspect that marked the role of the sexual in the creation of the modern self and accounted for the ease with which it occasioned a moral panic of remarkable duration.
The ecology of desires (the meaning of or response to behavior) that creates and sustains sexual excitement and the possibility of sexualized pleasure is drawn from the experiences of all who play a role, however slight, in the enactment of the sexual script. This includes deriving pleasure or heightened excitement not from but through the feelings attributed to the other. This aspect of bisexuality is associated with the adolescent masturbatory experience and extends to erotically involved fantasizing or daydreaming. This was precisely what Ferenczi saw as one of the most debilitating aspects of masturbatory practice. A concern echoed later by Blos (1962:168) and what Kubie (1972) termed “the drive to be both sexes”, or the psychic participation in the experience of both or all participants in the sexual performance.4
The more explicitly heterosexual the fantasy, the more inevitable is the bisexual nature of the experience. For some there will be the pleasure of feeling different emotions and different pleasures when acting in the guise of the other gender within the realm of psychic reality, while it is the other who is experienced as experiencing the feelings that the subject desires and, for whatever reasons, may only be able to experience vicariously. In any case, the fantasied feelings and confirming mirroring of both parties become a source of satisfaction.
At this point a distinction must be drawn between the degree of development of a bisexual capacity at the intrapsychic level and the capacity to develop a bisexual capacity at the interpersonal level (Herdt and Boxer 1995). The former speaks to a capacity to experience sexual excitement, however latently, through cross-gender identifications, where some part of the chemistry of sexual pleasure is dependent on subjects experiencing themselves as acting sexually toward or being sexually acted on by others of the same gender. The latter speaks to the capacity to overtly experience desire for both cross – and same-gender sexual contacts.
Intrapsychic bisexuality, I think, might be occurring among increasing numbers of successive cohorts of adolescents and with heightened claims upon consciousness and desire. Several interactive developments sustain this speculation. One such factor is the dramatic lessening of homophobia that tends to make both homosexual possibilities and expressions of continuing, if embattled, homophobia more visible.
Moreover, more general cultural trends encourage heightened androgyny, or what has come to be known as “gender blending”. As the modern novel invites its readers to empathically share the consciousness of many kinds of social and psychological others, more recent electronic texts make such cross-gender, empathic identifications even more commonplace. It was more than two decades ago that the gendered nature of the gaze first informed film theory (Mulvey 1975). The camera’s gaze is fully gendered, often recruiting the viewer to the subjective point of view of the other gender.
Clearly present across our current landscapes are numerous instances of what an only slightly older era would term gender reversals or radical revision of the gender typing of social roles. Many of these instances, while often shocking in initial encounters, have all too quickly become the unrecognized familiars of everyday life. The major of these is the entry by large numbers of females into occupations and professions once limited to males.
The significance of increases in capacities for a bisexual response extends well beyond the gendering of the object of sexual desire. What also may be implicit is the possibility that the same conditioning factors that potentiate heightened levels of bisexual response will contribute to a revision of the very privileged status of the sexual as an act of extraordinary intimacy to be properly performed only within the most intimate of relationships.
Lastly, as the changing gender rules and conduct continue, responses remain conditioned by the gender residues of given roles or situations. The surgeon and police person are still emotionally perceived as male, the nurturer as female. The power of the phallus cannot but enrich the meaning of the penis. Similarly, the mock phallus, once viewed as the exclusive product of male pornography, appears as a regular feature of some part of lesbian pornography. Concepts of penis envy and castration anxiety, which in some regards are opposite sides of the same coin, must acquire new dimensions of meaning in such a context.