Social dichotomies are constructed binaries used to categorize groups in opposition to one another, typically due to believed mutually exclusive behaviors or characteristics. Two of the more pronounced dichotomies of our society are related to gender and sexuality: Male/Female and Heterosexual/Homosexual.
Although gender and sexuality are not directly related, both of these dichotomies share similar uses and histories in our society. For example, both dichotomies have a privileged/deviant model in terms of one group having the majority of sociopolitical power. Because the privileged groups, Men and Heterosexuals, have more to lose by being seen as members of the deviant groups, Women and Homosexuals, they are frequently defined in direct opposition to the deviant. In other words, one of Heterosexuality’s key characteristics is not being homosexual (Seidman, 2015). The same can be said for Maleness not being female or feminine. In this way, deviant groups tend to have more freedom of expression than their dominant counterparts, if only because they have no social power to lose if their identity is not validated. A straight man has much more to lose if his identities are not validated compared to a lesbian being mistakenly viewed as male or straight, for example (Seidman, 2015; Epstein, 2002).
It can even be argued heterosexuality as an identity did not exist until homosexuality become a more solidly defined socially-deviant identity. As Seidman articulates, “Normal sex was defined as heterosexual erotic attraction; abnormal sex was homosexual erotic attraction. In other words, the concept of ‘heterosexual’ took shape and meaning in relation to the concept of homosexual” (2015). Gender and sexuality are frequently conflated, and this could be seen in the birth of heterosexuality. As women began to expand their roles in society in the 20th century, and gender boundaries became threatened and more difficult to define, opposite sex attraction came to be seen as a “natural” division of the sexes that could be relied upon. So long as women were attracted to men and men to women, the genders could still be defined in relation to one another, even if their roles themselves were changing rapidly (Seidman, 2015).
Because of this conflation of sexuality and gender, declaring heterosexuality also became a declaration of normal gender identity and expression in order to relieve gender anxiety. For this reason, gender deviancy became seen as a sign of homosexuality, regardless of sexual behavior (Seidman, 2015). While the conflation of gender and sexuality is problematic, these two dichotomies are closely related. If nothing else, because it is impossible to define sexuality without also defining the genders of the participants within that sexual identity. In addition, one dichotomy can have the power to change the other. Consider the term “lesbian” to describe a homosexual woman, rather than “gay woman”. Recalling attraction toward men as a social characteristic of what it means to be a woman, not identifying as heterosexual can be considered deviant enough to no longer qualify as a woman or a man, but something else entirely: A lesbian.
For some lesbians a rejection of heterosexual womanhood, arguably the only womanhood within the Male/Female dichotomy, is used as a signal of her sexual identity to others through performative masculinity (Seidman, 2015; Esterberg, 1996). And while a transgender woman may identify as heterosexual because of her attraction to men, her deviancy from the cisnormative Male/Female dichotomy can be strong enough for men to categorize her as homosexual instead. Because Male/Femaleness is at least partially defined as heterosexual, and because Heterosexual/Homosexual sexualities are defined by Male/Female attraction to Male/Female people, these two dichotomies, while not directly reflective of the other, have a tightly bound relationship that may never come untangled.
Which begs the question of identities that do not fall neatly into either of these dichotomies. Being so deviant as to fall out of the binary altogether brings with it its own unique complications. Transgender men and women, as well as non-binary genders and intersex people, all fly in the face of the “natural” cisnormative Male/Female dichotomy by challenging what it means to be Male or Female and perhaps even the entire concept of gender itself. Bisexual, Pansexual, and other non-monosexual identities also defy the Hetero/Homosexual dichotomy, as attraction to the same or other genders is no longer defined in opposition to the other to create an identity. Although these dichotomous deviants face even more social opposition than deviants within the dichotomy, namely cis women and homosexuals, they also help expand what it means to fit into those dichotomies over time through queering the dichotomy itself (Epstein, 2002). While homosexuality becomes more socially acceptable over time, queerness could even be seen as a political identity in opposition to dichotomies and an intentional decentering of identity, rather than an identity directly related to sexual behavior (Epstein, 2002).
As those who fall outside of the dichotomies push back, the socially constructed nature of Male/Female and Hetero/Homosexuality becomes more apparent to everyone. How people react to that newfound awareness can depend on how heavily invested they are in their “natural” position of power in regards to gender and sexuality. Straight cis men, for example, have the most to lose for falling outside of the dichotomy, as they have the most social power. This can be an explanation for why such men express themselves in homophobic and misogynistic ways, to be anti-gay and anti-woman is an easy way to define oneself at the top of the hierarchy (Seidman, 2015).
But even straight cis men have gained some benefits from the easing of borders between these dichotomies. Male roles have expanded to allow many characteristics previously exclusive of women, such as caregiving, cooking, and more as women have gained more freedom within society. Heterosexuals are now free to associate with homosexuals and other sexual deviants without fear of losing their status as heterosexual, although even the most accepting may still resort to social distancing as a means of establishing their heterosexuality when called into question (Seidman, 2015). Although the blurring of boundaries between dichotomies can be beneficial to everyone, the dichotomies themselves are more likely to expand rather than disappear. For all of their problems and shortfalls, dichotomies are an easy way to organize the world and seem to be important for how we understand ourselves in relation to the rest of society. While the definitions may change and expand, the vocabulary itself will likely always remain.
Epstein, Steven. 2002. “A Queer Encounter: Sociology and the Study of Sexuality.” Pp. 44-60 in Sexuality and Gender, edited by Christine L. Williams and Arlene Smith. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Esterberg, Kristin G. 1996. “’A Certain Swagger When I Walk:’ Performing Lesbian Identity.” Pp. 259-279 in Queer Theory/Sociology, edited by Steven Seidman. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.
Seidman, Steven. 2015. The Social Construction of Sexuality. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 43-54.