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Forms of Desire

Dahlian Kirby reviews Forms of Desire, edited by Edward Stein.

This book has nothing to do with desire, being instead a debate between a group of intelligent folk on whether or not the social constructionist theory is the business. Recovering from my initial disappointment I read the book, even learnt things.

The central argument of Forms of Desire is about whether homosexuality is a product of the society in which we live (‘socially constructed’) and therefore relatively recent in origin, or whether it has always been with us. The argument seems to take place between (not surprisingly) those who believe in social construction and ‘essentialists’. Essentialists are a much maligned group of people who don’t seem to really exist, or at least no one writing in this book will admit to being one, although some say they aren’t as bad as people make out, and some seem to think they are very right wing and not the sort of people one would like to mix with. If there was such a person, an essentialist would believe that those who are homosexual have an essence of homosexuality within them, that there is such a person as a born homosexual, that they are not merely people responding to social and cultural pressures.

Each chapter of the book is written by a different person, each dragging up almost the same few flimsy pieces of historical evidence to either prove or disprove that homosexuality has always been with us. Although some of the facts are quite interesting, several of the chapters were quite dull, each writer blending into the next. Then there’s the photographic evidence – some 19th century pictures of the mentally ill (they all look normal to me) and a picture of Jesus with an erection (I couldn’t see it).

Chapter Eight by James Weinrich therefore came as a refreshing surprise. Weinrich states his arguments clearly and has the ability to entertain – the piece in which he uses the idea of cat-lovers and dog-lovers to illustrate the differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals is wonderful. The chapter is taken from Weinrich’s book Sexual Landscapes which I am now keen to read.

Steven Epstein’s chapter on gay politics and ethnic identity was for me the most exciting and radical aspect of the book. Epstein beautifully tackles the paradox of the idea of a need to establish a gay identity while at the same time promoting the message that homosexuals are the same as everyone else. Epstein suggests that the need for a ‘homosexual identity’ for people in an oppressive society is obvious, but that unfortunately the identity which has emerged doesn’t appreciate the diversity of those concerned, rather the gay movement is a movement dominated by white middle-class males. Epstein sees the dangers of either a strict constructionalist or a wholly essentialist stance, concluding that theoretical insights must be coupled with “contemporary self-understandings of the women and men who populate the movement”.

Epstein’s chapter and especially his conclusion helped me realise why I felt so uncomfortable with most of the rest of the book. Rather than the discussion about sexuality the book promised, the writers have so narrowly defined the ideas of human sexuality as to have written a series of intellectual exercises, far removed from the people their subject is supposed to be discussing. I am not suggesting that the book should have been any less rational, but the subject is too important to be tackled in such a dull way. Epstein and Weinrich are far more daring in their style, I can believe they actually exist!

My main criticism of the book is its male, white, middle class approach. It is as if there now exist two kinds of sexuality: there are men who sleep with men and those who do it with something else. Out of twelve contributors only two were women, and they too concentrated on male ideas. One writer actually did point out that our evidence of sexuality in ancient Greece is only based on what men thought, because Greek men were interested only in sex from their own viewpoint. So what’s changed?

I’m glad I’ve read this book. It reminded me how far away we are from daring to really look at human sexualities, how we need to examine our culture away from ‘the official version’ of male heterosexuality and the men who do something a bit different. Nice illustration on the front cover, mind.

© Dahlian Kirby 1994

Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy edited by Edward Stein. Published by Routledge in paperback for £12.99. (ISBN 0415 904 854)

Dahlian Kirby struts her funky stuff in Leeds.

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