DANGEROUSNESS, IMPOTENCE,. SILENCE, AND INVISIBILITY:. HETEROSEXISM IN THE. CONSTRUCTION OF. WOMEN’S SEXUALITY
LAURA S. BROWN
Although the phenomenology of sexuality is experienced in the body, the ways we label and define that sexual experience are heavily socially defined. What is shameful, what is acceptable, how one describes one’s sexual identity to self and others, are all derived from the social discourse in general, and the discourse on sexuality in specific.
The general social discourse is one that can be described as, among other things, filled with heterosexist and antisexual minority bias. The various cultures of North America, with the exception of some Native American communities (Williams, 1987), ascribe negative value and deviant status to people whose affectional and sexual preferences are toward their own sex. Even in the face of 20 years of a political movement for the civil rights of sexual minority persons (here defined as gay men, lesbians, bisexual women and men, and transgendered people), pervasive negativity toward this population persists. In the past half decade bias-based
violence against sexual minority persons, a measure of such negativity, has risen sharply (Cogan, 1996) as sexual minorities have taken the place formerly held by the straw person of Communism as the cultural representation of the demonic (see Osborne, 1996; Vaid, 1995, for a discussion of the complex political issues inherent in this phenomenon). A federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (ЕЮМА), was passed and signed by President Clinton in 1996, proclaiming same-sex relationships to be exempt from the constitutional protections of the “Full faith and credit” clause of the Bill of Rights. Local and statewide initiatives against sexual minority civil rights continue to pass, even though their goals were defined as unconstitutional by the U. S. Supreme Court in its recent decision on Colorado’s Amendment Two, one such voter-approved law.
One of the messages most powerfully conveyed by opponents of this civil rights movement is that sexual minority persons should become as we once were—silenced and invisible, ceasing to demand the so-called special rights of protections against discrimination or access to societal institutions such as legal marriage or survivor benefits from Social Security. Sexual minorities are particularly scorned when attempting to gain access to those institutions, such as marriage and parenthood, that are deemed the sole possession and right of those who identify and behave heterosexually, as demonstrated by the rhetoric that accompanied the Congressional debate over DOMA and similar bills in state legislatures. The sexuality of sexual minority persons was described as debasing and soiling the institution of marriage, thus the notion that marriage needed to be defended against same-sex unions.
The public discourse on the sexuality of sexual minority persons takes place against the backdrop of this more general heterosexist and biased milieu. The discourse on lesbian sexuality in particular takes place within the overlapping context of sexism and the larger conversation on women’s sexuality. Both forms of oppression have had silencing and distorting effects on lesbians.
In English-speaking cultures, the conversation on the sexuality of gay men is more complete and rich, since sexuality has been more frequently ascribed to men, with women’s sexual selves defined as subordinate or responsive to male sexuality (see Loulan, 1984, 1987, 1990, and Bright, 1990, 1992, 1995, for a more in-depth analysis of this difference). Because gay men are men, their sexuality is perceived, both by themselves and by the dominant culture, in a more overt fashion. When the radical right shows scare videos of the queer community, the images are often those of gay men in some form of sexual display (in this chapter I will not attempt to address questions of construction of gay male sexuality, since the core of my argument is that images of lesbian sexuality are commentaries on women, not on same-sex contact).
The discourse on lesbians, by contrast, is instructive for what it has
historically contained and excluded. It is also of value, as I will argue here, because of its powerful but largely invisible impact on women’s sexualities in general, and the interaction between images of lesbians and images of other sexually agentic women. In this chapter I explore the parameters of heterosexist discourse on lesbian sexuality, and propose that such discourse affects the sexual identities and sexual selves of nonlesbian women as well.
Heterosexism in the social construction of women’s sexuality has had profound consequences for the sexual lives of lesbians. Until recently, hen erosexism has served to make us invisible, or to distort our experience so that we cannot recognize ourselves in the funhouse mirrors of the dominant culture. We have been left to invent ourselves sexually using only the words and images that are available from heterosexual realities in the drawing of our lesbian images.
Not only lesbians have fallen victim to the ills of heterosexist social constructions of sexuality for women. Although most discussions of heterosexism in relationship to any variable have been confined to the effects on sexual minority women, I will argue here that all women’s sexual selves are to some degree affected by the presence of heterosexism in the general discourse. Women who are sexually committed to other women are engaging in a sexuality absent men, where men are irrelevant. In consequence, commentaries on lesbian sexuality can be taken at the meta-level as forms of judgment about women’s sexuality in general. Information about what is pleasurable to women, about women’s sexual agency, and about the power of women to take various roles in sexual activity are all coded into the social commentary on lesbianism. These images are conveyed in various forms to all women, and become part of all women’s sexual narratives (Palladino & Stephenson, 1990). When taken in uncritically, these images serve as limiting factors on the sexual selves of women who are heterosexual as well as lesbian and bisexual (Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 1993).
In this chapter I will explore the overarching impact of heterosexism on the construction of women’s sexual selves. Through an examination of social narratives about lesbians and other sexual minority women, I will explore the means by which women’s public and private expressions of sexual self have been constrained by heterosexist conventions. I will explore two themes that I perceive to be dominant in heterosexist narratives of lesbian sexuality—the invisibility and impotence of the lesbian, and the shaming and dangerousness of the lesbian—as a means for understanding how these constructions can train women into a colonized sexuality that is subservient to men. I will specifically explore the effects of these narratives on the sexual lives of lesbians themselves. I will then turn to questions of resistance and transformation, drawing on the personal accounts of women who have been highly sexually marginalized by the dominant culture yet able to construct vibrant and powerful sexual selves in those margins, as examples of strategies for undermining heterosexism in women’s sexual self-constructions.