February 6, 1996

Queers, Lesbians, Women and Other Theoreticians

Moderator: Stanley Coen, M.D.
Presenter: Catherine Stimpson, Ph.D.
Discussants: Ethel Person, M.D.
Roy Schafer, Ph.D.
Reporter: H. David Stein, M.D.

Dr. Stanley Coen, as moderator, outlined the issues for the evening. He began by expressing his delight to have Dr. Catherine Stimpson, who is not a psychoanalyst, discuss basic problems with the construction of our views on gender and sexuality. “Psychoanalysis,” he noted, “just like the rest of our culture, has to be trapped within the values and ideals we dare not question. If we can see how these biases and unquestioned assumptions constrict our understanding, then perhaps we can open new possibilities.” Coen observed that over the past thirty years, theories and ideas about gender and sexuality have changed in many disciplines, including psychoanalysis.

Dr. Stimpson’s Presentation

Dr. Catherine Stimpson’s presentation was eloquent, passionate and wide-ranging. She provided a historical approach to the contributions of the feminist, gay and lesbian, and queer movements, pointing out how their theoretical contributions challenge cultural ideas about sexual identity and “normative” sexual behaviors. In particular, she focused on the experiences and contributions of lesbian women -- how they are perceived in both the heterosexual world and the worlds of the feminist, gay, and queer movements. Stimpson described the “marginalization” of lesbian women in society and their capacity to transcend the barriers imposed upon them.

Stimpson recalled organizing the Modern Language Association Forum in 1974, entitled “Homosexuality and Literature.” She read from her introduction: “Welcome; our subject is homosexuality and literature. Literature has reflected, but also distorted and suppressed, homosexuality. Literature has been analogous to life. Our presence, our criticism, is a corrective to distortions and censorship. We are in the process of helping to drain and destroy a taboo. Let’s kick a taboo when it’s down.

The tone of this meeting was radically different. The speaker and panelists expressed respect and admiration for each other. All were struggling with the complex theoretical issues concerning sexuality as understood in psychoanalytic theories -- and in the theories of feminists, lesbians, and queers.

Stimpson identified four basic questions about lesbians: Does being a lesbian define one’s identity, or (as Stimpson argued) is it but one aspect of a person’s identity? How can lesbians live in the world without feeling self-loathing, shame, guilt, and fear? How can others help to control or diminish the self-loathing experienced by lesbians? And how does one picture a mature, ethical, non-celibate life, without narrowing sexuality to an exclusive focus on the genitals, reproduction, and a member of the opposite sex as object choice? These are critical questions to ask, but there are no clear and distinct answers,” Simpson stated. “In sum, an exploratory, notational mood is reasonable.”

To begin to answer these questions, Stimpson described the contributions of feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, and queer studies. She noted that feminist studies began the development of ideas that one’s biological sex- male or female- may not be a simple dichotomy. They also confronted the question of psychosocial gender roles. Feminist studies argued strongly that gender role should not be bound to one’s biological sex. Stimpson argued against the idea some lesbians express that they were “born that way”. “It is an essentialist position that simplifies a complex developmental process,” she said.

Turning to the strained relationship between feminism and lesbianism, Stimpson asserted that lesbian sadomasochists rejected the ingenuous notion of romantic, affiliative lesbian sexuality. They took pleasure in lesbian sadomasochistic pornography, thus rebuking the feminist position against pornography.

Another source of tension between the feminist movement and lesbians was traceable to feminists’ ignoring the “lesbian difference” and reinforcing heterosexuality as the norm. Stimpson referred to Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience,” in which Rich argued that “a major function of heterosexual norms and operations is to efface the lesbian. Where is the Lesbian?”

To elaborate on this issue, Stimpson commented on Terry Castle’s work The Apparitional Lesbian. Castle writes that the lesbian has sufficient power to challenge male authority, which inspires a “morbid paranoia” concerning lesbians. The lesbian must be made to disappear or to be “ghosted.” However, “like all ghosts,” Stimpson continued, “she never wholly disappears. She haunts our culture, to be sighted behind veils and shadows.”

Lesbian identity becomes even more complex when the issue of race is added. Which aspect of oneself becomes the “queen of identity,” and how do lesbians of different racial backgrounds relate to each other?

Just as feminist studies developed theories about gender differences, gay and lesbian studies evolved and developed ideas about sex and sexuality. This led to another source of friction between lesbians and women’s studies: Lesbians, because of their same-sex object choice, were seen by society as “deviants.” Lesbians may in fact feel oppressed,” Stimpson said, “and more allied politically and socially with gay men, sadomasochists, transvestites, and prostitutes than with other women.”

Stimpson then offered the contributions of queer studies to the evolution of our understanding about human sexuality. Queer studies quoted Freud, who wrote about the universality of bisexuality and can be read as “the archeologist of protean desires.” This led queer theorists to add a “third term” in describing sexuality. One needs to differentiate among biologic sex, gender identity, and the multiple possibilities of sexual desire. Binary distinctions such as heterosexuality and homosexuality; masculinity and femininity; and normality and perversion were no longer valid, according to queer theorists.

Stimpson summarized her review by saying that these three areas of studies cannot be considered as if they were “identical triplets;” however, “they display family resemblances. Their development as theoretical, intellectual, cultural, and academic movements is inseparable from the developments in political and social movements.”

At the end of her talk, Stimpson returned to the “lesbian difference.” Although lesbians have been “marginalized, demonized, and ghosted” by society, writers such as Terry Castle offer a view of a lesbian as a “creative presence-in-the-world, who has willed herself to be worldly, cosmopolitan, and having a way of being that has plenitude, grace, civilization.”

Dr. Person’s Presentation

Dr. Ethel Person offered a brief historical view of the psychoanalytic approach to sexuality. She then offered a contemporary psychoanalytic under standing of sex, gender, and sexuality. Person argued that although these entities are interactive, each has a separate developmental history and each is composed of constituent parts.

Person noted that the integration of psychoanalytic theory and feminist theory began with feminist psychoanalysts. Two assumptions about sexuality were challenged: that male and female development were the only two normative modes of development, and that heterosexuality is normative.

The field of sexology, which began in 1870, was very much influenced by the prevailing cultural views. At the turn of the century, scientists became interested in normative sexuality and fascinated with deviance, such as sadomasochism. This led to the realization that the domain of sexuality extended beyond the genitals. Distinctions were made between sexuality and procreation. In this historical context, Freud introduced the first psychological theory of sexuality: where erotogenic zones extended beyond the genitals, and sexual instincts were composite in nature. Psychoanalysis absorbed the prejudices of the culture, so that heterosexuality was considered exclusively normative, and feminine sexuality was a compensatory development.

Person then discussed the distinctions between -- and the separate developmental lines for -- sex, gender and sexuality. She noted that in recent years, there have been significant developments about sexuality, which have led to more sophisticated and objective psychoanalytic theories.
Person noted that biologic sex, which was initially seen as binary (male or female), is now seen to consist of diverse components. Internal genitalia, external genitalia, prenatal hormones, the circulating hormones of post-adolescent life, secondary sex characteristics, sex of assignment, and genetic sex are all involved with the assignment of biologic sex, and these components may not match with one another. Thus, there can be many variations between male and female.

Turning to the issue of gender, Person recalled that Freud saw masculinity as innate, while femininity was a compensatory adaptation forged in conflict. It was not until 1959 that Money definitively demonstrated that gender related more to sex of assignment than to genetic or anatomic sex. “It now appears clear,” Person argued, “that gender is constructed.”

Person credits Nancy Chodorow’s work for showing that Freud’s theory of penis envy in women is actually a male-derived theory of what it would be like for a man to find himself without a penis. She noted with concern that in feminist literature, femininity is seen as a masquerade: however, this ignores the idea that masculinity can also be viewed as a masquerade. “Each sex retreats into a specific gender identity to cover over various anxieties,” she observed.

But in the clinical setting, we see complex, diverse sexual and gender identities; we have been able to move away from a binary view of sex, gender and sexuality in our theories. We have developed a more complex and pluralistic view of sexuality, and to see it as a composite of various configurations. “We should not be talking about masculinity and femininity, but about masculinities and femininities.”

Discussing the issue of sexuality, Person described the psychoanalytic theory that we naturally identify with the same sex parent, and once this identification has taken place, we eroticize the parent of the opposite sex. “However, there is no motivational explanation for this theory. It is widely accepted, but poorly theorized,” she said.

Person drew a parallel between Freud’s view of feminine sexual development as a developmental deviation from masculine development and the view that homosexual development is a deviation from heterosexual development. Instead, Person argued, the development of homosexuality and heterosexuality must be seen as constructed out of many independent building blocks.

In concluding, Dr. Person said that sexuality has its own complex developmental history and is not only defined by one’s sexual object choice, but is “also composed of sexual fantasy, eroticization, desire, and conscious sexual identity.” From the perspective that one’s sexual identity can develop on a continuum- from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual -- it is extremely difficult to draw on a unified story for men and another for women. To do so requires a binary theory of sexual development that ignores this continuum.

Dr. Schafer’s Presentation

Roy Schafer, Ph.D., expanded on the difficult issue that Coen had raised: As psychoanalysts, we are trapped by the preconceived cultural values that influence our analytic work, particularly in the area of sex and sexuality. Schafer’s presentation focused on how postmodern critical theory can help avoid the “pernicious influence” of current cultural values regarding theories about sexuality on our theorizing and clinical work.

He offered ten guidelines derived from postmodern thinking, noting that they can be helpful not only in psychoanalytic theories, but in other areas of discourse as well. The guidelines are: 1) Don’t universalize 2) Don’t essentialize 3) Don’t dichotomize 4) Don’t naturalize 5) Don’t moralize 6) Don’t classify one’s material 7) Don’t privilege one discourse and its associated methodology 8) Don’t use mixed discourse 9) Always look for the seat of power and the ideology to which it is expressed 10) Don’t forget the steady influence of the observer on the observed.

Because of time constraints, Schafer stated, he would not be able to discuss each guideline. He began by saying that Freud has been correctly criticized for not adhering to these guidelines in his writing about sexuality: he used mixed discourse and also mixed his own bourgeois ideas about sexuality into his writing.

Discussing “don’t universalize,” Schafer explained that one can incorrectly describe a group as “them,” as though an aspect of the group -- physical, emotional, or political -- is true for everyone in it. Universalizing also leads to an ahistorical view of a particular group, because it leads to a static representation of the group. One should instead stay as close as possible to detailed descriptions of small groups made around a particular time.

In describing the second guideline, “don’t essentialize,” Schafer returned to Stimpson’s paper. Does one view being a “lesbian” as a noun or an adjective? To use nouns, he argued, “is a way of creating essences of something that is fixed and not subject to flux, which misrepresents a great deal and limit’s one’s perceptions.” He noted that Freud in his own work moved from using the term the “unconscious” as a noun to an adjective, such as an “unconscious wish,” representing a more dynamic view of mental processes.

Schafer suggested a constructivist orientation as an alternative to essentializing, as it allows for changing characterizations of theories or evidence over time. He cautioned, however, that one must still examine the nature of the construction itself in evaluating one’s theories.

Schafer then turned to “don’t moralize.” In Freud’s psychoanalytic theories about sexuality, he was very much influenced by Darwin’s idea of the preservation of the species. That led to his belief in genital heterosexual reproductivity as a biologic necessity: “it was the right way for things to end up.” Homosexuality, therefore, was not considered normal. Freud, who aptly described protean aspects of sexual activity, made the mistake of pathologizing them. In contrast, Schafer contended that “different aspects of the body lend themselves to different kinds of pleasure, and different people avail themselves of those pleasures.”

Schafer concluded by showing how one can draw from “Good Freud” and “Bad Freud” in his writings. In his 1920 paper on “The Development of Homosexuality in a Young Woman,” Freud struggled with whether to regard the woman as healthy or unhealthy. Freud recognized that she wasn’t suffering emotionally, her homosexuality was ego-syntonic, and she did not exhibit psychopathology. Nevertheless, Freud stated in that same paper: “One cannot convince them that if he makes the change, he would rediscover in the other object the pleasure he had renounced.”

Schafer closed by reiterating the theme of the evening: he welcomes the development of theories and ideas from feminist, gay and lesbian, and queer studies, which have contributed to postmodern discourse, and to our work as psychoanalysts.