written by Errol Hendrickse.
A Modern Viewpoint.
Historically, there has been little written by the existentialists about sexuality, and even less about homosexuality. In this essay I intend to investigate my own position and consider how this would affect me as a psychotherapist who works within the existential practices. “The starting point of an existential way of working is for the practitioner to clarify her views on life and living” (Van Deurzen 2002, p3).
I will investigate the idea of sexual orientation through the lens of existential philosophy, focusing on Jean-Paul Sartre’s key ideas of ‘freedom’ and ‘being in bad faith’. I will first give a brief overview of the essentialist and constructivist debate within this context, before taking an in-depth look at some ‘counter cultural’ (Altman, 2012) literature from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. In general, these areas will overlap, and I intend to illustrate this within this paper.
During the era when the majority of existentialists were writing about their ‘in depth’ (Cohen, 1997)life philosophies, there was little space to discuss what it was to be homosexual. This is perhaps largely due to the fact that the existential writers of the time chose not to enter into the debate. Moreover, they were uninterested in the theories that later laid the foundations for the investigation of what it was to be homosexual. As Hans Cohen wrote: ”phenomenologically, the attempt to find a particular “cause” to explain an imprecisely defined area on the wide spectrum of sexuality is quite meaningless” (Cohen, 1997, p94).
Even Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was the most interested in sexuality among the existential writers, gave little specific attention to sexual orientation in his writing. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). For him, sexuality was a fundamental aspect of ‘meeting intersubjectively’ that penetrate all areas of one’s life. He suggested that we were are each a carnal consciousness that manifests our being in the world through our body. Furthermore he states that our sexuality is an expression of our worldview and our desire come from within that. Martin Milton emphasizes that; ”an existential understanding, …, will focus on the relational function that human sexuality has for human existence, and the relational intentionality” (Milton cited in Davies (ed.)and Neal (ed),2000, p42)
It is suggested by George Serban, that homosexuality is merely an existential way of seeing and being seen in a sexual situation (Serban,1968). However, the existential phenomenological writer Medard Boss characterised homosexuality as a ‘perversion’, but the pathological attitude of his writing led them to be rejected by many contemporary existential thinkers (Cohen, 1997). Ernesto Spinelli for instants, points out that such a pathology only make sense within a cultural context that accepts bio-reproductive norms (Spinelli, 1996), and therefore Boss’s attitude would be disregarded by most existential thinkers of today. Although there are brief allusions to homosexuality elsewhere in existential thinking, it is undoubtedly from Sartre’s writings that we can glean the most about existential attitudes toward homosexuality – not least due to the fact that Sartre actually used the term ‘homosexual’ to illustrate his thoughts on bad faith, freedom and facticity – “since in a sense, listening to Sartre on freedom is in fact, hearing the existential voice.” (Babarik, 1996, p.112)
Freedom and facts
For Sartre, human consciousness is freedom, although this freedom is limited by factuality (Satre,1943). The idea of freedom, which he also labels as ‘transcendence’, lies at the heart of his philosophy. He places the emphasis on the ‘absolute freedom’ of the individual to choose how he lives his life. However, he distinguishes between the “essential distinction between freedom of choice and freedom of obtaining.” (Satre,1943, p506). Therefore, absolute freedom must be understood as freedom “within one’s situation to confer significance upon that situation” (Solomon, 1972, p280). It is more accurately defined as freedom of intent or ‘placed freedom’ (Spinelli, 1994). In Sartrean philosophy, our freedom is limited only by a set of facts: those aspects of our situation over which we have no control and no choice – our reality (Sartre, 1943). These include for example our time and place of birth, our nationality, gender, height, whether we are right or left-handed. Who we are as a being should be considered a ‘factual possibility’ (MacQuarrie,1972). At this point our ability to choose the way we live comes into play, and it is our choices that Sartre responds to (Warnock, 1970). Each person who is born will rise above his specific circumstances to choose his ‘path of self’ (Sartre,1943). And in Sartrian terms, sexuality (previously regarded as sexual orientation) is an aspect of our ‘facticity’. “There is an infinity of possible ways in which one may weave one’s sexuality into the warp and woof of one’s life.” (Barnes 1974, p61)
The notion that our freedom is limited by some givens, asks the question – who are we exactly? For me, it is this question that is important – and one that we find at the heart of the debate on homosexuality. Betty Cannon’s description of facticity as “the contingent world I did not create but which I must choose to live in some fashion or other” (Cannon, 1991, p46), is fundamental to the question of whether sexual orientation is a choice or a given. Phenomenologically speaking, sexuality is a lived experience – and therefore it should be noted that for many, perhaps the majority, sexual orientation “may not feel like a choice – may not be available to consideration by us in the way that we are used to choices being available” “(du Plock 1997, p67).
As a gay man and as someone who has worked with gay men I agree with the following – “I have never encounted… a gay man who “chooses” to be homosexual” (Isay, 1994,p16). Indeed, I find Sartre’s statement, that a homosexual is not a homosexual in the same way that this red-haired man is red-haired man (Sartre,1943) disconcerting and condescending. It is in my belief that the freedom to be is a matter of who we are, rather than what is expected of us in a ‘lived experience’. I quote A.E Housman’s poem, Oh who is that sinner with handcuffs on his wrists? – written after the trial of Oscar Wilde which addresses the attitude towards homosexuals:
“Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Of they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.”
(Housman, Blyth (ed), 2011, p699)
From a Sartrean point of view, the freedoms I have, know and choose are my ways of acting. I know that I can choose to have sexual contact only with men, only with women, or with both, regardless of whether I find them physically appealing, or I can choose celibacy. I also know that I have a choice in the way I interpret my situation: for instants – I can see my homosexuality as a piece of great fortune in the heterosexist world in which we live, or I can see it as a frustrating limitation on the number of people in the world that I am sexually attracted to. Although all these options prove freedom and choice – I can choose all or part of them – it will not change the fundamental fact that I am sexually attracted to men though I agree that I have freedom the same way that heterosexuals demonstrate their freedom in a Sartrean sense.
My lived experience is that I have had no choice in my sexual orientation. Which brings me back to the question of: is sexual orientation, whether it is heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgenderism, an element of ones facticity?
In existential thought it is considered that the human condition is fundamentally characterised by the tension between freedom and facticity. Sartre regarded every attempt at flight or refusal from our fundamental freedom or our facticity as ‘bad faith’ (Satre,1943). And homosexuality as the “paradigm case of bad faith … the misinterpretation of choices which one makes for himself as fact, which determines one” (Solomon, 1972, p293).Closely linked to this in Sartre’s thinking is the tendency to interpret a series of past facts as a prediction of the future, which in the present context would be illustrated by a man who can “on the basis of a past homosexual encounters, characterises himself as a homosexual, thus excusing himself for future homosexual acts” (ibid., p297). For me, this perspective misses the point because, it focuses on the behavior of the person and not on the “internal” experience or state. While I would agree with the notion that the past decisions do not necessarily determine future actions, this does not change the fact that the one experiences these attractions. You can decide not to deal with the label “homosexual”, but can you choose whom you are attracted to? We find here the ‘damned if you do, dammed if you do not’ bind in which the gay man finds himself from a Sartrean point of view. He is in bad faith as a homosexual on the basis of his experiences so far, but he also falls into bad faith by “acknowledging all the facts which are imputed to him, yet refusing to draw from them the conclusion which they impose” (Sartre, 1943, p.86). The fact is that he is homosexual. Standing in the Sartrean philosophy we find a fine line between the rejection of freedom and the rejection of facticity. That is not to say that a gay man, being in good faith, can never be attracted to a woman, for such occurrences are, of course known. In fact, people can experience major changes in sexual orientation throughout their lives, and a phenomenological approach to the lived experience would remain fluid.
However, I would suggest that what you cannot do is – experience a change in your innate sexual impulse, just as bisexual individuals do not decide on an attraction for both sexes. It is only when one thinks of oneself as a “thing” that one falls into bad faith, because for Sartre, “a homosexual is not a homosexual as a table is a table” (Sartre, 1943, p87). For, if we bring the discussion back to the phenomenology of the lived experience, it is obvious that “few words grate on contemporary gay nerves like the word “choice”. The idea of homosexuality as a deliberately chosen path runs counter to the personal experiences of gays and lesbians” (Moon, 2002).
Sartre’s discussion on homosexuality is undoubtedly unpalatable to the contemporary reader because of his seemingly interchangeable use of the terms “paederast” (a man who has sex, usually sodomy, with a boy as the passive partner) and “homosexual”, his frequent allusions to homosexual acts, and his use of the language of “guilt” and “sin” (Sartre,1943) but we should perhaps forgive his naive use of language as a product of his times. But, there is more to Sartre’s views of homosexuality than the concepts of freedom, facticity, and bad faith, which he speaks of in “Being and Nothing”, since he returns to the subject in his later, darker work “Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr.
It is here in his treatise on the life of the writer Jean Genet that some deeply questionable attitudes come to the fore. In several passages he equates a male homosexual inclination with a passive attitude, or a sexual expression of objectifying a person (Sartre, 1963, p81). He repeatedly makes references to homosexuality as similar to femininity. Sartre’s use of language for the modern reader is somewhat alienating, using phrases such as “contrary to nature”, “corrosive cynicism of homosexuals” and the corrosive cynicism of homosexuals” and the resemblance of the universe of theft to that homosexual” and most disturbingly for me” a person is not born homosexual or normal” (Sartre,1952, p78), he clarifies that for him there is no question of sexual orientation as an element of our facticity.
The Modern debate:
Essential or Constructed?
While a full and comprehensive exploration between the essentialist versus the constructivist debate goes beyond the of scope of this essay, an attempt of a thorough analysis of the ever-evolving body of literature on queer theory “a reclaimed term of abuse by some, e.g. queer activists and queer theorists, to refer to LGBT people in general, or more specifically to those who challenge the binaries of sexuality…”(Richards, Barker, 2013, p.229) deserves a mention from an existential perspective. The essentialist position is that a person is born homosexual or heterosexual, and that there have been homosexuals in every time period and culture throughout history. A person sexual orientation is permanent and unchangeable and relates to ones own identity – and that homosexual behavior is a manifestation of ones own inner being perhaps even being biological or psychological. (Greenberg, 1988) Yet, Michel Foucault, a social constructivist, would argue that homosexuality, as we know it, is a social and cultural construction.
Although there are clear degrees of extremism in these viewpoints, but a social constructivist would generally associates with the idea of choice when sexual orientation is concerned. However, an existentialist position is such that it tends to support Sartre’s ideas on the matter. For Spinelli, as an existentialist, any solid identity is more about the building of a “sedimentation” of being-in-the-world that leads to dissociation of beliefs, values and experiences – and therefore questioning the notion that we have to define ourselves by sexual orientation or identity – homosexual or heterosexual (Spinelli, 1996 and 2001). He acknowledges that there is great convenience, security and personal and group empowerment in the “group” identification for many homosexuals in identifying themselves as such – Spinelli is ultimately more concerned by the implications of this separatist perspective. He shares the shame views and concerns as Foucault that – the word “homosexual” should only be used as an adjective to describe the sexual activity rather than as a noun to identify a specific type of being; “He regrets the fact that what we do or not do is what we are or not, “he laments that ‘what we do, or not do, has become who we are, or are not” (Spinelli,1996, p15). In his writing about his gay reduction strategies regarding feelings of alienation when “coming out” as gay, William Davies described the different approaches adopted by those who “accept their homosexual behavior, but don’t like or accept the idea of a homosexual self-identity “(Davies 1996b, p79), therefore illustrating the existential position that behavior does not necessarily have to define identity.
As the essentialist versus constructivist debates continues so does the scientific research on the nature of our sexual orientation. Advanced studies into the possible influences of our physical and social evolution and prenatal anatomical sexual differences are put to question. Further research into the ‘identifying male homosexuals’ brain organization, genetic variation, chemical imbalances both biological, hormonal along with anatomical features are all looked into (McKnight, 1997). Leaving us with the burning question of – is homosexuality the result of nature or nurture? Fundamentally, will the end result of all this research have any real relevance? And do the attempts to discover the “cause” of one kind of sexual orientation above another hold any great meaning for existential-phenolmenologists, because, ‘ it may well be that to study homosexuality is to reinforce its separate existence in the world.” (Plummer, 1981, p27)? Whether we discover through science that we were born with our sexual orientation already determines due to hormonal conditions or as suggests that R.D Laing and David Cooper observed in their comments on the work Sartre “one is not born a homosexual, Sartre argues, but … it is an outcome discovered or invented by a child at a critical moment “(Laing & Cooper, 1964, p79) (i.e. nurture) that the older child or adult experiences that they have a choice to whom they attracted too, may that be their own gender or not. Critically neither side of the “nature or nurture” debate has anything useful to contribute to how a homosexual person chooses to live their life. Indeed, this “issue of choice is incomparably more human in dimension and poignancy than the essentialism versus constructionist debate” (Babarik,1996, p113).
But in our efforts to admit that our lived experience exists with in social context, it would be disingenuous not to admit that the inherent discourse falls into a political dimension as the word “choice” has become a curse word among the LGBT community … mainly because it is generally used as a whipping stick against the community (Moon, 2002). And perhaps, not by chance, in Sartre’s Saint Genet, we find both a moral judgment and an emphasis on “freedom of choice” and ironically those who often seek to condemn homosexuality will, more likely than not, persist in asserting it as a “lifestyle choice”. David Greenberg, professor of sociology at New York University offers an essentialist “defense” when “homophobic” chauvinistic heterosexual tell homosexuals “to change”: the essentialist theories have provided a ready answer: I can not” (Greenberg,1988). So it is no surprise then, that in the current political arena of gay rights and equality, that there is no doubt that the essentialist position, or at least one that denies the availability of the person to choice their sexual attraction is one of the gay lobbyist most powerful weapons.
Furthermore, it is also uncomfortable that we live with labels – which can be viewed as limiting and suspicious or problematic of “essentialising” – in ways in in which the “doing” and “experiencing” could be considered restrictive through categorical labeling (Plummer, 1981). It is nevertheless important that we appreciate the benefits it offers the LGBT community. If a person stubbornly clings to a label, who are we to try and debunk that labeling from them as “the projection of labeling to those who are different and who were made that way?” (McKnight, 1997, p186) Here in lies the paradox of the lifeblood of existentialism – as in that “categorisation is paradoxical: it aids and it destroys.” (Plummer, 1981, p29)
So while existentialists are concerned with the primacy of choice and freedom, they can go too far? We do tend to reduce the power of facticity and our curb freedom (Anderson, 2004). Phenomenologically speaking, however, we tend to prioritise the lived experience in ways that our clients have experience them. But my concern is that “ existentially sexuality is fluid and there is no such thing as gay.” (Crabtree, 2009) Even though I agree with Catherine Crabtree’s view which, could be considered dangerous, even quite extreme; as an abstract ideas could be considered as an over-enthusiastic existentialists view – for me, the danger is that such commitment to an existential concept of freedom, can ” over-emphasis on the fluidity and plasticity” (Crabtree, 2009, p258) of our sexual attraction which in turn takes us too far from our actual live experience.
The topics I’ve discussed are complex and are filled with both paradox and contradiction, and many questions have been raised as answers. So all I can do in good faith is to consider the angles and views of others, in order establish my own feelings and stand point in the matter.
For me, it comes down to a simple question whether sexual orientation may or may not be taken into account as a component of our facticity; in other words, emphasing the presence of phenomenology within peoples actual lived experiences? The answer, for me, as controversial as this maybe seen is – yes.
Although we can still explore freedom as a central theme within our therapeutic encounter, we need examine the phenomenological examination with questions on how the LGBT clients prefer to live but more importantly what it means for them to live in that way. As existentialists, we must guard against being seduced into the focusing on choice and freedom, pushing us towards adopting theoretical frameworks that emphasise “the notion of the plasticity of sexuality for all which is in reality the possibility of bisexuality for some” (Medina 2008, p132).
I believe that, in an existential- phenomenological approach, which at its heart believes that we bring ourselves to the therapeutic relationship – how can I be nothing but a gay affirmative therapist?
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