Sexual identification


Red Turnip Theater’s latest play, Cock, now in performance at Whitespace, is a sensitively portrayed and layered piece that explores sexuality as a spectrum. Pitted against the normative binary of gay/straight, the main character John’s movement from sexual interest in males to sexual interest in females forces one to reevaluate why “what” we desire (male/female) is predominant over whom we desire (a unique, individual person). While still taboo in Philippine society, this idea of sexuality as a spectrum merits deeper attention for its ability to build a more tolerant and humane society.

Cock reminds one that the binary of gay/straight and the language of being “born this way” were mobilized in order to win basic, preliminary civil rights and acceptance. The biological argument sheltered homosexual desire from charges of immorality. If homosexuality is found amongst animals, if it is something determined in the womb, how can society punish an individual and demonize such desire? However, saying that homosexual desire is not “immoral” because it is automatic, it is innate, is not a subject of choice, still on some level demonizes it. Why can’t it be dignified as a choice? Why can’t one human desire another person as a human, rather than as an expression of a pairing of chromosomes? (Indeed, this is how early modern Japanese men’s male-male sexual relations were treated in Tokugawa Japan—as a collection of choices rather than as the result of a determined sexual identity.)

Indeed, this argumentation and positioning have worked very effectively in many societies and have begun to “normalize” homosexuality in many countries. But, the reality of sexual practice and desire is far more varied than this. Indeed, the results of a sexuality study by Meredith Chivers showed that women, on the whole, no matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, registered measurable sexual arousal to scenes of male-female, of female-female, and of male-male sexual relations. (See the January 22, 2009 article “What Women Want” in the New York Times) The implication is that women, more able to “go both ways,” are also more easily socialized into a single category.

This kind of sexual identity politics and the need to “identify” sexually bears out Michel Foucault’s theoretical inquiries into the creation of the human subject as a product of society’s power relations. Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality introduces the cultivation of the self as the defining feature of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. It analyzes the ways in which the technologies of and discourses on sex made human life at its most intimate an object of regulation and discipline.

This self-disciplinary regime is what accounts for “the way a human being turns him- or herself into a subject…how men have learned to recognize themselves as subjects of ‘sexuality.’ ” Further, Foucault asks why there has been such an invested search for the “truth” about sexuality and why the sexual becomes the arena in which we believe our real selves exist. Indeed, often sexuality is singled out as our most “authentic” human dimension—our most innate, natural desire.

Yet, it is not repression that Foucault interprets as the deepest working of power upon an individual—but rather, when societal structures (its self-disciplinary regime) incite an individual to sexually identify at all, to subjectivize oneself to society, its norms, and its options. “Coming out” as gay, to Foucault, is not fighting against the deepest working of power. Repression is a surface-level expression of societal power, while the still deeper expression of societal power is the governing of individuals’ understandings of their own needs, desires, and interests. Cock highlights this economy of identity, in which appearances structure the bounds in and forms through which human relations take place. The economy of identity requires John to perform his sexuality and to identify as a visibly gay male or as a visibly straight male.

Within the economy of identity that creates the performed, relational self, the most profound working of power is necessarily individual. According to Foucault, the most significant manifestation of power, here, is the individual ceding of autonomy involved in the creation of the sexualized self and its mediation and realization through the language, symbols, and norms of society. Sexuality is far more fluid across categories of gender than our society pretends, and we would dignify the humanity in each of us to duly ennoble its reality.

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University. Her column appears on the first Monday of every month.


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  1. Amnata Pundit on

    This is the reason my father stopped me from getting a PhD. He said with a PhD, you can make the most stupid ideas sound deep.

  2. I always enjoy, and nearly always agree with this guest writer, but I wish she could stop showing off her convoluted and obscure English when simpler expressions would do!
    I am an English University professor (retired), so it suits me, but not most Filipinos for whom it is a second language. Normative binary is not a phrase found in newspapers. It could easily be rephrased as “the usual distinction between”.

  3. If we don’t watch out, next thing that will be “normalized” is pedophilia. You can use these well crafted arguments in defense of it, you know. Just because it is found in animals doesn’t mean it should be normalized. Animals rape their females. By the way, there are many people who get turned on by a rape scene, and there’s a market for snuff films. You don’t really want to go there do you? Be careful with what you feed your mind, eventually you will become it.