The question about whether people select individuals they are sexually attracted to compares to the question of whether human beings are born with natural desires or if people can be categorized based on their sexual preferences or sexuality. Therefore, the topic remains controversial in sociology because some people believe that sexuality is a social construction, while others think that it is innate in every person. According to scholars, sexuality entails the sexual preferences or attractions to another person, leading to sexual orientation, which reveals the self-identity (Seidman, Fischer, & Meeks 2016). For example, some people identify as homosexuals or heterosexuals. The definition of sexuality leads to the argument regarding the construction of sexuality in society. Society or culture assigns meaning to socially constructed ideas. Although some people claim that sexuality is innate, sociologists provide evidence that the concept is socially-constructed while the meaning is contextual.
The Sociological Approach to Sexuality
The sociological approach is among the methods used to study sexuality, which suggests that sexuality is a social construct. The social construction of sexuality proposes that culture or society provides the conceptual meaning of sexuality. People construct the meaning of sexual feelings, identities, as well as practices. The definitions of sexuality are culturally-relative and flexible since they vary from one society to another. The social constructionist perspective maintains that sexuality is founded on the attitudes and behaviors of individuals in a community (Christina 2019). The culture creates, bestows, and supports the sexual identity, which reaches even to the favored object of sexual attraction. For example, people are homosexuals due to their sexual behaviors and attitudes, which are directed towards people of the same sex. Heterosexuals are attracted to individuals of the opposite sex. Consequently, social constructionists argue that an “actual” sexual orientation does not exist in reality, but only in the construction and meaning assigned by members of a particular society. From the viewpoint, sexual behaviors and roles emerge out of moral, religious, and ethical beliefs within a culture. Besides, culture determines the way people categorized as homosexuals are treated in society, especially in environments with heterosexual privileges (Ward 2019). Hence, sexual roles differ from one culture to another because they are socially-constructed and defined.
The Sociological Perspective vs. Essentialist Approaches to Sexuality
The sociological view of sexuality differs from the essentialist approaches in the explanation of sexual preferences. The classical essentialism suggests that some fundamental essences or forms are natural. They have a discontinuity between the forms instead of continuous variations. The actual principles are constant, unlike socially-constructed forms, which vary over time. Essentialists, especially modern ones, believe that some phenomena occur in nature and are biological. They use approaches such as genetics and brain research to show that forms, such as sexual orientation and sexual attraction, are natural and do not vary over time. Sociologists differ from essentialists because they suggest that sexuality is socially-constructed and that language plays an essential role in the way people define it and interpret the experience. Proponents of social construction theory are concerned about the sexual interactions of members of society. They explore the meanings that people attach to sexual attitudes and behaviors (Donnelly, Burgers, & Simonds 2019). Therefore, the meaning assigned to it differs from one context to another and over a period.
Themes in Understanding Sexuality as Socially Constructed
Various themes emerge when applying the sociological model of sexuality. Society creates, changes, and modifies sexuality through social discourse. Interactions between members of a community are critical in the creation of sexuality. Besides, the construction depends on changes in personal experiences. The theme of change is vital in the social construction theory because sexuality, just like other social realities, is never constant. Sexuality is constructed within a culture and is influenced by political, social, and economic factors that keep changing over time. The theory involves another theme of sexual meaning or scripts that people within society create. The culture created contextual meanings of sexuality that differ across societies. Social discourses of sexuality play an important role in determining whether one identifies the self as homosexual or heterosexual (Seidman, Fischer, & Meeks 2016). They have various sources of sexual meanings, such as religious and educational institutions and the family. People have different interactions and experiences in these environments, which determine the leaning assigned to sexuality.
Theoretical Frameworks to Support the Social Constructionist Perspective
Sociologists use various theories to explain the social construction view of sexuality. Structural functionalism is one of the most crucial elements because it elucidates the social construction of sexuality. The theory views society as a complex system, which comprises various collaborating parts to achieve stability and solidarity. As long as sexual activities occur between adults who consent, it becomes a standard or functional part of a community (Donnelly, Burgers, & Simonds 2019). The theory relates to the sexual interactions between individuals as parts of the whole system. The society assigns meaning to sexual behaviors, which is the social construction process. The theory allows the argument that society should add other categories of sexuality, such as intersexuality (Davis 2019). Conflict theory is another sociological framework that explains the social construction of sexuality. The theory explains the way power differences exist, and dominant factions in society operate to advance their views and interests. Structures such as the legalization of gay marriage in some communities, define sexuality. Symbolic interactionism can also be used to describe sexuality. The theory considers the type of interactions that exist in society and the outcome regarding the impact on sexuality (Wiederman 2015). Interactionist labeling theory determines the types of labels, such as homosexuality being labeled as deviant or abnormal. In general, the theories explain the different ways through which society constructs the concept of sexuality.
Overall, the social construction of sexuality is one of the explanations of sexual preferences and attractions in society. The theory suggests that sexuality is a fluid concept that is created, modified, or changed depending on the cultural context within which people use it. Besides, it also claims that members of a society assign meaning to sexuality based on social, political, and economic influences. The theory differs from essentialism, which argues that sexuality is a natural reality; it is a fixed biological phenomenon. Although essentialists present a convincing argument regarding sexuality, social construction appears to be more grounded in research and practice. Therefore, sociologists should understand the way the meaning of sexuality emerges in society to create effective policies to deal with emerging issues, such as gay marriages. Thus, communities can create legislation and programs targeting people with different sexual orientations, depending on their specific needs because societies construct the meaning of sexuality.
Christina, Greta. 2019. “Are We Having Sex Now or What?” Pp. 5-8 in Sex Matters: The Sexuality & Society Reader, 5th Ed, edited by Mindy Stombler, Dawn M. Baunach, Elisabeth O. Burgess, Wendy Simonds, and Elroi J. Windsor. NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Davis, Georgiann. 2019. “Brining Intersexy Back?” Intersexuals and Sexual Satisfaction.” pp. 11-21 in Sex Matters: The Sexuality & Society Reader, 5th Ed, edited by Mindy Stombler, Dawn M. Baunach, Elisabeth O. Burgess, Wendy Simonds, and Elroi J. Windsor. NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Donnelly, Denise, Elizabeth O. Burgers, & Wendy Simonds. 2019. “Sexuality and Social Theorizing.” pp. 88-99 in Sex Matters: The Sexuality & Society Reader, 5th Ed, edited by Mindy Stombler, Dawn M. Baunach, Elisabeth O. Burgess, Wendy Simonds, and Elroi J. Windsor. NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Seidman, Steven, Nancy L. Fischer, and Chet Meeks. 2016. “The Social Construction of Sexuality.” pp. 59-66 in Introducing the New Sexuality Studies. Routledge.
Ward, Jane. 2019. “Straight Dude Seeks Same: Mapping the Relationship Between Sexual Identities, Practices, and Cultures.” pp. 29-35 in Sex Matters: The Sexuality & Society Reader, 5th Ed, edited by Mindy Stombler, Dawn M. Baunach, Elisabeth O. Burgess, Wendy Simonds, and Elroi J. Windsor. NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Wiederman, Michael W. 2015. “Sexual Script Theory: Past, Present, and Future.” pp. 7-22 in Handbook of the sociology of sexualities, pp. 7-22. Springer, Cham.