Critically evaluate essentialist approaches to the theorisation of sexuality.
Essentialism argues that there are ‘real’ and categorical sexualities in the world and that each of these sexualities can be described definitively according to a set of characteristics or properties, e.g. a man that has sexual intercourse with another man fits the category of homosexual (Hammack, 2005). This conceptualises sexuality in terms of ‘sexual orientation’, assuming that no sexual orientation; whether homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual; is a conscious choice (Gonsiorek & Weinrich, 1991) and is instead a “fixed, independent biological mechanism that steers individual desire or behaviour either toward men or toward women irrespective of circumstances and experience” (DeCecco & Elia, 1993a, p. 11). Essentialism relies on the assumption that there are underlying essences (homosexuality and heterosexuality), that these essences are two distinct categories, and that they are the same today as they were centuries ago (Delamater & Shibley Hyde, 1998). This is evident within essentialist research as it ignores the meanings people give to their sexualities and attempts to classify them within this dichotomous heterosexual/homosexual model (Clarke, Ellis, Peel, & Riggs, 2010). An example of this is the existence of intersex individuals (Kessler, 1998). Kessler (1998) criticises essentialism arguing that rather than treating the existence of intersex people as a sign that there are more than two natural sexes, the bodies of intersex infants are altered in line with the two-sex model in order to maintain that model as a natural fact. There are several variations of essentialism including the biological approach, the sociobiological approach and the psychoanalytical approach; all of which view homosexuality as an anomaly (DeCecco & Elia, 1995). The biological approach assumes sexuality is innate and is primarily concerned with gonads, hormones, brain function and physiological response (DeCecco & Elia, 1993b). This approach has been supported by studies such as LeVay’s (1991) gay brain study, Hamer’s (1993) gay gene study and Voracek’s (2008) digit ratio study. These studies all found strong evidence that sexuality is biologically based, however much of this research was conducted on animals so it is not fully generalizable to human sexuality (DeLamater & Shibley Hyde, 1998). Hegarty (1997) criticised LeVay’s (1991) claim to discovery, arguing that he relied on the social construction of sexuality as ‘sexual orientation’, with LeVay and other essentialist researchers presenting as fact (as universal, ahistorical and acultural) a model of sexuality that is one among many possible models of sexuality, and that is particular to contemporary western culture. Further to this, LeVay (1991) also classified his participants as either homosexual or heterosexual and included a bisexual man in the homosexual group, therefore assuming and reinforcing the norm that “there are two types of person, homosexuals and heterosexuals, and that they can be considered biologically distinct” (Hegarty, 1997, p. 361). The only alternative to including bisexuals in the homosexual group is to abandon the essentialist dichotomous model of homosexuality and to acknowledge that sexuality is more fluid (Clarke et al., 2010), as suggested by the constructionist approach (DeLamater & Shibley Hyde, 1998). Studies have often failed to provide evidence of complete genetic determination, e.g. no identical twin study has found a 100% concordance rate, suggesting something other than genes must also be playing a part in the formation of sexuality (DeLamater & Shibley Hyde, 1998). Constructionists have suggested that the reason for this lack of genetic determination is that an individual’s sexuality is purely due to his or her sexual attitudes and behaviours being directed to a member of the opposite or same sex; suggesting there is nothing ‘real’ about sexuality, it is purely...
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