“If two dudes kiss at a party does that mean they’re gay?” Sexuality and gender collide in this question. The social construction of both gender and sexual orientation lay naked. Sexual orientation becomes conditional not on exhibited behaviors, but conditional on the societal response to the exhibited behaviors. In the response to this simple question students can see how sexual orientation, which for many of them has up until now has been something that is determined solely by biology, can be something that is determined socially.
I have designed a “pop quiz” that asks my students to read a short story of two young heterosexual students who after a night of over indulging on alcohol end up kissing one another after a group of their peers repeatedly chanted, “Kiss, kiss, kiss!” The story ends the next morning when one of the two young people wakes up to their cell phone ringing off the hook. Someone recorded the kissing and put it on Facebook.
You can download the pop quizzes here.
After reading the story the students are asked to write down what they think the consequences will be for the young people in the story. They are asked if they think the friends, family, and local community will think these two young people are homosexual.
What my students don’t know is, there are two versions of the story. Identical in every way except for the names of the two young people. One version talks about Jasmine kissing Alyssa & the other talks about Darius kissing Cole.
When my students have finished answering the questions I ask them to raise their paper in the air if they wrote down that they believe the community surrounding these two young people would think after seeing the video that they are homosexual. I collect the papers and ask the class to share any thoughts they have. While they talk I separate the pile of quizzes into two piles, one for the male names and one for the female names.
Without fail, far more students think that Darius and Cole will be thought of as gay by their friends and family. Every time I have done this activity the results are almost 2 to 1. Twice as many students think that men kissing at a party will be consider gay than women kissing at a party.
When I tell my students that there were 2 versions of the reading they’re shocked. They laugh and shake their heads. I tell them that twice as many students thought the men were gay than thought the women were lesbian. I tell them that I almost always get this result and I ask them why? This starts a long discussion on the social construction of sexuality and gender construction.
After this activity we begin a discussion focused on deconstructing gender and sexuality. I have my students read Masculinity as Homophobia by Kimmel or Dude, You’re a Fag by C.J. Pascoe to give them the eyes to see how expressions of gender are socially constructed. Both of these outstanding texts make it easy for students to see both how society narrowly defines masculinity and femininity and defines the two in opposition of one another.
I administer this pop quiz during my week long discussion of sexuality and specifically after the class discussion of the Kinsey Continuum of sexual orientation. The Kinsey Continuum is based on the national research Alfred Kinsey did on the sexual thoughts and actions people had in 1948. Kinsey found that the men who admitted to engaging in sex acts with other men, or fantasizing about doing so, or admitted being aroused by gay pornography almost always reported that they were heterosexual and not gay. The Kinsey Continuum is great, because it shows the disconnect between self-identified sexual orientation (a social construct) and the desires, behaviors, and fantasies of an individual (an empirical construct).
With a solid understanding of the social construction of gender and sexuality students are ready to see how sexual orientation is socially constructed and how narrowly defined masculinity is more intolerant to non-conforming gender expressions than is femininity. As a society we are more accepting of gender non-conformity in women.* Especially when the non-conformity is expressed in a way that delights heterosexual men. Two young women kissing at a party while surrounded by young men chanting, “Kiss, kiss, kiss,” is seen as non-threatening to our narrowly defined masculinity; scenes like this can be viewed as reinforcing narrowly defined heterosexual masculinity. My point here is not to judge expressions of sexuality and gender, but rather to demonstrate the flexibility of female sexuality and the rigidity of male sexuality.
*I feel compelled to acknowledge the violence and hostility that lesbians and other women who express their gender in non-conforming ways experience everyday. I feel it’s safe to say that narrowly defined masculinity is overall more hostile to non-conforming expressions of masculinity, but it’s not a competition. The larger problem here is the constraining of self-expression regardless of which sex is expressing it.
Kimmel, Michael S. 2000. “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity.” Pp. 213-219. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism, edited by Maurianne adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Rosie Castaneda, Heater W. Hackman, Madeline L, Peters, Ximena Zuniga. New York, NY: Routldege.