Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Binarism and Dichotomy [II, 6]

Thinking in terms of basic contrasts-—hot and cold, day and night, male and female-—seems to be a feature encountered in every human language. It might be termed the antonym method. To be sure in many instances such dichotomies are not absolute. For example, we recognize an intermediary, warm, between hot and cold. Indeed the thermometer provides us with an almost infinite series of gradations. Still there is an undeniable polarity between the hottest temperature, on the one hand, and absolute zero, on the other.

Even allowing for the gradations, the antonym principle, one thing being opposed by its polar opposite, does not enjoy universal favor, for it is challenged by the principle of unity—-the idea that at many levels, from the universe itself to the human consciousness, there is no division. The latter view is sometimes known as holism. In short, dichotomy is ever-present—and ever-contested

In the realm of sex it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that the conceptual system began to be organized in terms of such bipolar contrasts. In fact the discipline of sex research or sexology emerged during that period. Its first “star” was the psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), whose 1886 treatise Psychopathia Sexualis was once a household word. Examining the phenomenon of S/M (as we would now describe it), Krafft-Ebing first noted the term Sadismus [in fact this was a borrowing from the French sadisme (1829), coined after the most famous exponent of the practice, the Marquis de Sade]. The German scholar decided to reserve the first term for the active role, creating a new antonym, Masochismus. The latter term derived from the fictional writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895). In the new binary system, one term expresses a predilection for inflicting pain as part of a pattern of sexual excitement and gratification, the other a desire to experience such pain. Of course the combination can be expressed in the compound term sadomasochism, nowadays commonly abbreviated as S/M. In a more informal way the concepts of frigidity (aversion from sexual activity) became paired with the idea of nymphomania. And so forth.

For our purposes the central binary contrast was between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The former term was introduced in 1869, the latter a little later—-both originally in their German dress. In common parlance the gay/straight contrast expresses this perception. While this dichotomy has lasted until the present-day, there is also an intermediate state, bisexuality. This example shows that thinking in terms of polar contrasts does not preclude positing intermediaries.

The general category of homosexuality has two subcategories: lesbianism and male homosexuality. Terminologically, there is some confusion, as some see lesbianism as entirely different phenomenon, reserving the word homosexuality for male-male relations. (This assumption is buttressed by the misleading etymology, which takes the homo- part as the Latin for man. In reality it is the Greek prefix for same.)

Historically and cross-culturally many societies have stressed the active/passive contrast of sex roles, which generally applies to males only. Passives are thought to be effeminate and exclusively oriented to other males—-if possible to macho men, the actives. The actives may swing both ways, functioning with both women and men, but always taking the insertor role.

The ancient Greeks recognized the polarity of the erastes, the dominant, older lover, and the eromenos, the younger partner.

French texts of the early modern period attest a major cleavage between the bougre, the aggressive, masculine appearing homosexual, and the bardache, slighter and more effeminate, usually younger.

The contrast vigorously survives in Latin America, where the dominant conception of same sex relations assigns the majority practicing same-sex relations to the pasivo class. Activos are assumed to be bisexual. In some circles this venerable contrast is yielding to a more unified concept, which is termed gay. There are other terms for those who are versatile enough to play both roles. An example is disco, a phonograph record, because individuals so designated can be played on both sides.

In American culture the active/passive contrast is less common. However, the same-sex subculture of our jails and prisons recognized the pitcher/catcher polarity, the former being the insertor, the latter the insertee. Many pitchers do not regard themselves as homosexual, and will commonly resume a heterosexual life style after release.

Pedophiles distinguish between the boy lover or chicken hawk and his youthful partner, the boy or chicken.

Some postmodern critics of the bipolar approach to segmenting human phenomena, have decried it, because it presents a recurring temptation to assign an inferior status to one of the two poles. In this context mention of the contrast tends to reinforce the inequality. Historically, historians of the status of women have shown how this has operated in the male/female binarism. The remedy is to insist on the equality of the two—-and perhaps that the contrast has been exaggerated. We see this process in the development of the heterosexual/homosexual pairing. For many decades those who invoked it, some of them themselves gay, had taken it for granted that heterosexuals are superior. With the rise of the gay liberation movement in 1969 this subordinate status was no longer acceptable. Thus we see slogans like “gay is good” and the like, affirming the inherent dignity of gayness. Increasingly, the matter of heterosexual and homosexual was viewed in terms of symmetry, two options of equal status, rather than subordination.

As has been noted, an intermediate category, bisexuality stands between the two poles of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Some observers, who believe in the absolute polarity of straight and gay, dispute the reality of this phenomenon. However, there is no doubt that individuals who regard themselves as bisexual exist in significant number, and this status is recognized. In youth some people may identify as bi as they are in transition to one of the poles. There is also the rare term ambisexual, employing the Latin prefix ambi-, “both.”

There are a number of picturesque terms for bisexuality. Bimetalism reflects an antiquated dispute in the discipline of economics, where a bimetal system is based on both gold and silver. AC/DC stems from electrical arrangements. The term double-gaited derives from racing, where a double-gated horse can run on both a dry and a muddy track. The switch-hitter, who “swings both ways,” is a sports metaphor, from baseball.

The prefix bi- should mean simply both or twice, as in “bimonthly.” However, in the neologism biphobia it stands for irrational opposition to bisexuality; the term is modeled on homophobia. The term heterophobia is rare, because the condition is rare.


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