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Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Gay Essentialism

Posted by Adam Roberts on 07/21/06 at 11:30 AM

I recently had lunch and a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine.  This friend is a gay man, an individual perfectly and even joyfully comfortable with his own sexuality.  He’s English, but dresses in a marvellous flamboyant style.  I’m English too, but I’m straight and I dress like I want to blend into the crowd, as if the worst thing that could happen to me would be to be noticed.

We chatted about many things, but during the course of our conversation I was struck by how essentialised his views on human sexuality were.  Here’s an example of what I mean.  He talked about lesbian friends of his who had gotten into relationships with, and fallen in love with, straight women at the time when those straight women had been ‘going through that phase’ of exploring their notional bisexuality (a concept in which my friend didn’t quite disbelieve, but which he considered a very rare variety of human sexuality).  When these women then left their lesbian girlfriends for another man this constituted a kind of betrayal, worse than the standard break-up trauma.  There was, he argued, a dishonesty about getting into a relationship on these terms.  He didn’t say exactly this, but I took him to be arguing that being honest about one’s sexuality (facing up to it, acknowledging it, not trying to hide from it) is a very basic duty that we owe both to ourselves and to other people.  It’s easy to see the force of this position, particularly given the weight of history, and not-so-distant history neither: the great number of gay men and women who have down the ages either been forced to live a lie by their homophobic socities, or worse have internalised homophobic pressures and have tried to convince themselves that they’re actually straight, to their enormous psychological cost.

I disagreed.  It seemed to me that if you fall in love with a person and they then leave you for somebody else it’s going to be painful whether that person is of the same or a different gender.  More, it seemed to me that what my friend was saying was based on the belief that a person’s sexuality is a brute fact of their being; that, indeed, a straight woman was going against her nature (for whatever reason; ideological belief; bohemian social pressure maybe; curiosity) by experimenting with a gay relationship.  I said that I didn’t like talking in those terms because these are precisely the terms in which the homophobic Right attacks gay people.  (Namely: ‘for a man to have sex with a man goes against human nature …’)

Then we came to an interesting disjunction.  He argued that the basis of persecution of homosexuality was bound up with concepts of choice: the idea that gay men and women choose to be gay, and could choose normality if they weren’t so contrary and perverse.  That, in other words, the religious right (say) don’t attack gay people as gay people, but as people who could have followed their God-given straight-ness but who had perversely ‘chosen’ to be gay instead.  He insisted that there had never been a moment in his life when he sat down and said to himself, ‘so, which way shall I go? Gay or straight?’ From as early as he had been aware of sexual feelings he had been aware that they were focussed on men.  Sean Connery, he said, was one of his first crushes.  And Rolf Harris.  De gustibus indeed.  This made sense to me, of course; not that he fancied Rolf Harris, but that he did not find himself at any point consciously or otherwise ‘choosing’ to be gay.

But I wonder if systematic homophobes do indeed predicate their animus on choice?  Does an acceptance of the fact that gay people don’t ‘choose’ their sexual orientation draw the fangs of the homophobic hater?  Isn’t it more likely that the homophobic hater is quite happy to accommodate the notion that gays don’t choose to be gay, in the same way that the racist isn’t bothered by the fact that black people don’t choose to be black?

Of course my position here is basically a Foucauldian one.  Human behaviour is discursive, not natural.  A certain group of men fuck women for ten years; then they spend ten years in prison (or on a Royal Naval Frigate, or wherever) and they fuck men; then they come out again and they fuck women.  Does it make sense to say that for the intervening period they abruptly became ‘gay’, and then became ‘straight’ when they emerged?  Or would it be better to describe them as a group of sexual beings whose appetites fitted themselves to the opportunities that presented themselves?  (This, my friend said, was me strawmanning his position: ‘I never said that such men go ‘straight/gay/straight’’).

It has always seemed to me that heterosexual and homosexual are words describing certain kinds of act, not words categorising certain types of people.  The alternative, surely, is essentialism; and I suppose I’ve taken it as axiomatic that it is essentialism that is at the root of oppressive prejudice such as homophobia and racism.

My friend rolled his eyes (politely) when I mentioned Foucault.  When younger, he sagely informed me, he’d been persuaded by those sorts of 1980s radical identity politics; but no longer.  His experience have taught him that, in terms of their sexual orientation, he said, people are the way people are.  Feelings, he also said, are feelings, and you shouldn’t muck about with them because you personally are going through a (implication: self-indulgent) process of sexual experimentation.  I hasten to add that he wasn’t suggesting a proscriptive model of human sexuality; people should be absolutely free to have consensual sex with whomsoever they like.  But the basic criterion must be honesty.  Saying: ‘I’m a straight woman, but I’d like to have a gay encounter, do you fancy that?’ is alright.  Lying to yourself and other people, even if one is not consciously setting to deceive, is not alright.

In a way this follows on, I’m thinking, from one of Scott’s recent posts on the assumed inevitable consonance between deconstruction and left-wing politics.  Essentialist beliefs seem to me conservative beliefs.  It might almost be a way of defining a core conservative position to suggest that it parses ‘essence’ through such quantities as ‘human nature’, ‘nation’, ‘race’, ‘God’ and so on.  Now, I’m certainly not trying to tar my friend with the Conservative brush; and most of the gay people I’ve known have been lefties.  But that may be because I tend to hang out with lefties.  It’s not a shock to discover that some gay people (can we, nowadays, say many gay people, I wonder?) are right wing: that indeed certain features that tend to characterise gay lifestyle — the affluence of professional people who do not have to fritter all their money away raising kids, say — can go hand-in-hand with Tory attitudes to things?  Might this, I wonder, have anything to do with an essentialist belief in the immutability of individual nature?  Of course, plenty of affluent straight people turn Tory at/the end (to quote Byron) too, so maybe right-wing or left-wing political beliefs have nothing to do with human sexual orientation.  But my problem is this: surrendering my belief that ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ describe acts not people, and adopting an essentialist notion of human sexuality, would feel to me like doing that dreary middle-age abandonment of radical youthful positions.


Comments

To answer your question: yes, the homophobic Right does publicly and persistently attack the gay lifestyle as a pernicious “choice” on the part of the wicked. This is particularly true among self-described Biblical literalists, who often (profess to) regard sex itself as a necessary evil in any case and see gay sex (they tend to have an especially horrified fascination with sodomy) as a crime against the divine rather than a sexual act.

So, the obvious response from the gay community (and a very common one) is to scoff at the notion of “choice.” And in many cases this may actually be true. But I think it’s a trap, for two reasons:

1) It makes it logical (and common, though not universal) for the gay community to regard and portray bisexuals as a fringe group of dilettantes, when in fact there is a significant amount of evidence that bisexuality is at least as prevalent as (and perhaps even more prevalent than) either strictly gay or straight sexuality. This tendency sits in an uncomfortable contradiction with the general (and I think often correct) perception that a lot of homophobia is rooted in sublimated or repressed bisexual urges (hence, one might say, the widespread rightwing belief that gay sex is somehow narcotically addictive). The realities would seem to hint that life gets healthier for everyone if bisexuals simply come out, but bisexuals are on the horns of a dilemma if they do so because they can expect significant flack not only from straights, but also from the gay community.

2) Aside from its somewhat suspect relationship to reality, gay essentialism doesn’t confer the benefit of providing an effective defense against homophobia. A parallel current in homophobia, after all, asserts that even if gay behaviour is not a choice, it’s a disorder that can and should be treated. Various fundamentalist ministries in the States subscribe to such a doctrine, which is also the canonical position of the Baha’i Faith (although some are trying to change that, I think). To say that homosexuality is purely and solely biological, even if true, would merely change the tactics of the homophobes; and if it’s an oversimplification, it would lead to a change in those tactics while simultaneously cutting off the gay community from a potential source of support.

Your friend is surely right that “people are the way people are,” but if he imagines that this means “most people go one way or the other” I suspect he’s mistaken. Admittedly I, too, am basing this on anecdotal experience as much as anything else; having known married (or soon-to-be-married) couples in which the bride or groom were either “straight” gone “gay” or vice versa, I saw plenty of accusations of dabbling and dilettantism but precious little to justify them.

(Did he really talk about Foucauldianism as “radical identity politics” BTW? One would think it’s rather the reverse...)

By on 07/21/06 at 01:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the most immediate political level, my opinion is that the “I didn’t choose” and the “people shouldn’t be blamed for their choice” lines don’t really make much difference to the right wing.  As Slack says above, the right is happy to respond with either “you’re sick/inferior/sinful” or “we must make you choose otherwise”, and they suffer no cognitive dissonance in switching back and forth between them.  So their response should be left out of consideration.

For the long term, if you believe that science has any ability to deal with brute facts and social ones and how to distinguish between them, then scientists are eventually going to be able to figure this out.

In the interim, I don’t see why it matters to me what the right answer is, or what individual gay people believe.  My own commitments don’t change in either case.

I don’t see the necessary connection with the conservatism of some middle-to-upper class gay people and essentialism, though.  If you live in a place where there isn’t much anti-gay prejudice, then your economic interest may be greater than your interest in not being personally harassed, and you may not care much about people elsewhere being harassed.  It’s the standard liberal idea that in some places, class dominates over (race/sex/sexuality/ethnicity), and in some places, it doesn’t.  A more leftist view would say that class is always most important and that anything else is some kind of false consciousness, I suppose.

By on 07/21/06 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. Slack, I assume he’s talking about the wave of radical positions taken in light of The Uses of Pleasure and reflected in hagiographies like Saint Foucault.

Adam, from what I’ve read, you seem more in the right.  Homosexual acts are a biological fact.  (Scroll down to the title “Nature and Homosexuality,” which the Valve won’t let me link to.  I also recommend Lehrer’s article itself, linked to in that post.) The problem, as Lehrer puts it, is how applicable the behavior of randy sheep is to H. sapiens, esp. considering that sheep are opportunistically orgasmic, a position consonant not with a particular sexual identity, but with a love of endorphin rushes.  From an evolutionary standpoint, the question would be “Why were any-way-I-can behaviors selected for so many unrelated species?” At this point, the answer would be reductive, but if nothing else, it places the behaviors associated with homosexuality squarely within the bounds of biological explanation.

Where does this leave us in terms of gender and/or orientation essentialism?  Well, on far shakier ground than the recent studies which demonstrate that 50% of women have four photopigments in their eyes, and are therefore able to process a wider spectrum of color information than the other 50% and all men.  In the right circumstances, that could evolve into an essential difference between men and women ... but this leads us in the direction of The Summers’ Slippery Slope: do such differences already exist, and if they do, do we 1) acknowledge them and tailor education and services accomodate and/or ameliorate them or 2) do we deny they exist, treat them--to paraphrase Gould in The Mismeasure of Man--like we do genetic predispositions in eyesight, with glasses and/or LASIK?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/21/06 at 02:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[Didn’t mean to hit “Submit."]

All of which is only to say, that we have these behaviors, and we have these essential differences (whether we want to acknowledge them or not); but we can’t draw a line between them, which means, to my mind, that people aren’t born homosexual, because such a category doesn’t exist in the natural world.  Humans, not being limited to that--esp. when considering the formation of identity and social bonds--acquire certain predilections, which lead to certain behaviors.  Sometimes they tend toward the homosexual, others to the heterosexual ... but if we were still in the trees, even the most homophobic person you know would be “penis-fencing,” to ejaculation, the next runner-up.  The question is, would they be gay?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/21/06 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suppose the nub of this is the weasel voice of my inner Conservative, saying things like ‘Adam you believe essentialism is wrong; you believe that prejudice depends upon essentialism.  How naive!’

One consequence of having a child (am I the only parent to think this?) is that you find yourself tugged towards a model of essentialist identity: Lily’s mother and I certainly did not try to construct Lily as ‘girly’ (nor as ‘tomboyish’ neither); and yet she seems to have gravitated towards pink things, princesses and cuddly toys, almost as if ‘naturally’.

Doctor S.  You say “there is a significant amount of evidence that bisexuality is at least as prevalent as (and perhaps even more prevalent than) either strictly gay or straight sexuality.” I don’t ask to bait you but because I’m genuinely interested: what evidence is this?  Is it easily referenced?

Rich: I take your points, and in an active political sense (both in the ‘neither position justifies prejudice against gays’ and in the ‘neither belief should stop me campaigning against oppressive prejudice’ senses) you’re right of course.  I suppose my fear is that behind the standard leftist line ‘class trumps sexual orientation’ (or ‘gender’ or ‘race’ or whatever) ... and especially in a case like this ... is the grisly spectre of Lysenkoism.

By Adam Roberts on 07/21/06 at 02:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[Scott’s comment post crossed with my own.]

‘Would they be gay?’ begs the question, though, doesn’t it?  Hard to deny certain biological differences (even Judith Butler doesn’t deny biological sex, ‘male’, ‘female’).  But ‘sexual practices’ for humans, as for Bonobos and some others, is recreational as well as procreational.  In fact is whatever the figures are: 99.99% recreational as against (one child so far or Rachel and me) 00.001% procreational.  According to which logic describing somebody as ‘essentially gay’ seems to me as dubious as describing them as ’essentially a deep left back with the ability to play in the libero position’ or ‘essentially a “buy the purple properties in Monopoly and stick hotels on them at the first opportunity” player of Monopoly’.

Or is this what you’re saying anyway?

By Adam Roberts on 07/21/06 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And an erratum:  “(one child so far for Rachel and for me).” That ‘or’ would carry worrying implications ...

By Adam Roberts on 07/21/06 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “Lily’s mother and I certainly did not try to construct Lily as ‘girly’ (nor as ‘tomboyish’ neither); and yet she seems to have gravitated towards pink things, princesses and cuddly toys, almost as if ‘naturally’.”

There was a book, _The Nurture Assumption_, from 1998 that I thought was a pretty good popularization of some studies about this.  It claimed, if I remember rightly, that about half of variability was genetic (or pre-birth, anyway), about half was “nurture”, but that the “nurture” half was dominated by interactions with peers, and that if the parents had a certain level of basic competence (i.e. not abusing the child, etc.) then what they did didn’t matter much, except insofar as it affected the quality of the later-in-life relationship between parent and child.  I particularly remember one anecdote about a study showing that young girls “knew” that women weren’t doctors even when their mothers were doctors.

By the way, I thought that essentialist explanations of sexuality weren’t held by anyone until the last couple of centuries, and that before that evreyone thought that there were just acts, not people who “were” anything intrinsic.  Wouldn’t that mean that at one time, essentialism of this type was progressive, or at least new?

By on 07/21/06 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been through the same path as Adam, first feeling that Foucault’s anti-essentialism could be liberating for everyone, and then finding out that very few people wanted to hear what he was saying.

Within actual sexual-minority communities, there’s a lot of manoevring around to establish community leadership positions for certain leaders, and gender essentialism gets dragged into that. In order to lead a community, it has to be a defined community. (In Portland, OR, there was a bitter struggle between the lesbian community and the M2F transsexual community regarding anti-discrimination laws—possibly partly because the individual leading the M2F community was widely disliked.)

To me the whole thing is depressing. Rather than attaining gender-ID secularity, in the liberal areas we’ve achieved the partial government recognition (or establishment) of a group of organized gender-ID communities.

By John Emerson on 07/21/06 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, that’s pretty much what I was saying.  At a given point, the question becomes absurd, since there’s no there there.  There are no essentialist categories, period, unless we create them.  They don’t exist in nature.  One species is “essentially” a species because it shares a genotype and a given set of behaviors; change those behaviors, or the environment in which they’re practiced, and different selective pressures apply.  Now they’re “essentially” another species.  (I could go further, reproduce large chunks of my dissertation on the logic of speciation, but I’ll spare you.) We’re not really even essentially human, much less gay or straight.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/21/06 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam asks: what evidence is this?

As far as I know, Kinsey’s studies (some decades on) remain those with the greatest scope and depth on record and are still widely referenced. Though they’ve been accused of some methodological flaws, the underlying theory that human sexuality functions on a continuum—with absolute straight or gay individuals clustered in relatively small numbers at the poles—remains widely influential. I think. (But I may be completely talking out of my ass.)

Saying that this means “bisexuality is prevalent” depends of course on how one defines “bisexuality;” people attracted to both sexes equally are probably not that common either. However, if Kinsey’s data is to be remotely believed, people who are attracted to some extent to other people of either sex are quite common.

Looking at that, I realize it’s not very imposing as evidence goes. Calling it “a significant amount” is pushing it. It would be better to say “what evidence we have suggests...”

By on 07/21/06 at 05:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It has always seemed to me that heterosexual and homosexual are words describing certain kinds of act, not words categorising certain types of people.  The alternative, surely, is essentialism.

Adam:

I think what you are missing out on is the notion of orientation.  Homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual do not simply refer to acts, they also refer to whether one is primarily attracted to the same sex, opposite sex, or both.  And this is not the same thing as essentialism.  What the notion of orientation recognizes is that for whatever reason (nature, nurture, or more likely some combination of both) indviduals develop a primary attraction to either members of the same sex, opposite sex, or both, and that this attraction is not something they can control for the most part.  By the time they are fully formed adults, their orientation is deeply ingrained and probably nearly impossible to change.  This fits with the observation that most of us have that we do not “choose” who we are attracted to - it just happens to us.  I find nothing objectionable about applying the labels homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual to the an individual’s orientation. 

On the other hand, I don’t really understand your friend’s objection to people who go against their primary orientation.  I can understand that it is sad and unfortunate that many people, because of general attitudes of homophobia, feel the need to act straight in order to fit in or avoid harassment. 
But the wrong there derives from society’s denunciation of homosexuality.  I don’t see how you could say that the individual attempting to passs as straight has committed some sort of moral wrong.  That person may be decreasing his or her happiness by doing so, but I don’t think it is a moral question. 

Nor can I see how somebody who experiments sexually against the grain of his or her sexual orientation has committed a moral wrong.  If we feel the need to experiment, why isn’t that a part of our personal makeup just as much as our sexual orientation?

By on 07/21/06 at 05:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And I don’t think the example of sailors or prisoners really challenges the notion of orientation, since what we are talking about is primary preference.  Men who do not have any opportunity for sexual relations with women may be primarily heterosexual in orientation yet nevertheless engage in primarily homosexual relations if that is their only option.  Their preferences haven’t necessarily changed, but their options have.

By on 07/21/06 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That does sound essentializing, though, especially when you say “primarily” instead of “exclusively”. It would seem that there would by a fuzzy border there where someone’s orientation might primarily heterosexual with some gay tendencies, or else fully bisexual.

Once the primary categories are established, then there start being secondary categories within the primary categories, and often disputes between the secondary categories.

I was always an outsider looking in, but through a number of my friends, and also my habit of reading almost all free print publications I see, I’ve always had some idea of what’s going on.

By John Emerson on 07/21/06 at 05:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John:

I really don’t see why it is “essentializing” to recognize that people have sexual preferences and that these preferences are often very strong toward the opposite sex or the same sex.  The fact that people may have weaker attractions to the same or opposite sex doesn’t mean that they don’t have stronger attractions.  I think that the notion of a spectrum of attraction is perfectly consistent with the recognition that many (if not most) of us will feel most strong attracted to either the same or opposite sex.

By on 07/21/06 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

With prisoners and sailors I think that the “primary preference and situational adaptation” argument is often used as a form of homophobic denial, often along with the idea that the active is not gay but the passive is.

But a prison psychiatrist once told me that heavily sex-roled prisoner couples usually switched sex roles—“if they’ll flip, they’ll flop” is the prison vernacular.

By John Emerson on 07/21/06 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As an empirical fact, not, but is an identity or identification, yes, especially if it is used to define social groups and prescribe behavior.

I think that the original point here was that awhile back the anti-essentializers were trying to escape from categories of sexuality as identities, but seemingly people are settling into identities more now.

By John Emerson on 07/21/06 at 06:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, then essentalism is not objectionable to me if all it means is use of categories of identity. Categories are useful tools. 

The objectionable part is when one begins to prescribe behavior, as you say.  But if you aren’t doing that, what’s the big deal with using categories?

By on 07/21/06 at 06:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

With prisoners and sailors I think that the “primary preference and situational adaptation” argument is often used as a form of homophobic denial.

Perhaps, but that’s no reason to think it’s not true.

By on 07/21/06 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with blah that the “acts” theory doesn’t hold for us—for instance, anal sex can be performed on either a man or a woman, either a man or a woman can give oral sex (to either a man or a woman—), everyone can kiss everyone, etc., etc.  In the classical world, it might have made more sense, since the primary distinction was between active and passive.  But for whatever reason, we tend to characterize sexuality by the gender of the target—or deviant sexualities by the age, species, dead or alive, etc., characteristics of the target.  The acts that are performed in those contexts are not as decisive—there’s no recognized sexual identity of “likes to give blowjobs,” for instance.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/06 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

WOAH!  Italic overload!</i>

By Adam Kotsko on 07/21/06 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As I read Foucault, he wasn’t denying that we accept our sexual identities and more or less live up to them, or that we categorize others according to their sexual identities. He was just saying that these identities are not grounded in truth but are artifacts of local historical social categories, and not only that, attempts to escape from these categories just by switching the value sign and notation (from “Homosexuality is an abomination” to “gay is good") while keeping the categories themselves, are not liberating or only partly so, because the original categories themselves were imposed by power.

In the same way, it is possible to say of someone that he is “black”, and everyone in America does live by its racial categories, but the American system of recial categories is destructive and arbitrary.

By John Emerson on 07/21/06 at 07:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

there’s no recognized sexual identity of “likes to give blowjobs,” for instance.

Which, I think, demonstrates one problem with any essentializing definition of identity that wants to find itself a biological basis.  Because biologically, all males of the species “like to penis-fence” (or would, were we Bonobos).  I have no problem with the idea that people construct, adopt or are interpellated by a particular identity which they then graft onto their biological impulses--but that’s not the position that essentialists desire.  They want to say that orientation is genetic--or, in the weaker version, that it’s phenotypical.  (One particularly wacky version links it to the increase in hormones and steroids in meats, which lead to higher hormonal levels in pregnant women, leading to boys with “estrogen on the brain” or girls with testosterone.  Now, I’m not saying that’s necessarily untrue; only that if the idea is to essentialize homosexuality, it’s better not to found it on doped cattle.)

The problem, then, is that some queer and gender theorists want to turn the “ought” into an “is” for rhetorical purposes.  While that may be effective in the short-term, in the long-run, the actual “is” wins out, and there’s a danger of all those short-term victories being undermined.  (This all being part and parcel with the issues I have about the relationship of psychoanalysis to advocacy criticism.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/21/06 at 08:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that de-essentializing gender identification probably requires finding actual cultural counter-examples where the sexual preference was not related to personal identity in the same way as in our society.

Foucault found a counter-example in classical Greece and Rome, where most men were apparently what we call “bi”, but where personal identity was defined more on the dominant-submissive active-passive pole. So even though he found societies within which same-sex preference was not stigmatize as such, he still found a negative side in other stigmas (against women and passive men, and to a degree against sex as such).

By John Emerson on 07/21/06 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

WOAH!  Italic overload!

Has been reversed.

By Bill Benzon on 07/21/06 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I think your friend describes a classic sincerity versus authenticity moment. 

Even if we accept a radical sexual constructionism, we can ask our partners to be sincere, if not authentic.  To be a gay woman and be left by one’s girlfriend for a man can be worse than any other breakup *if* the girlfriend always led her partner to assume that she way gay.

Now, one might say: any painful breakup means that your partner led you to assume something that wasn’t sincere—namely, that your partner wanted to be with you.  But what makes the situation described by Adam’s friend more ethically complicated is that the gay partner winds up not feeling rejected as an individual for another individual, but is also made to feel that she was never anything more than an experiment.

This, of course, isn’t necessarily true.  One can be, say, biologically straight and still have a sincere erotic and romantic love for someone of the same sex. 

The problem comes when someone dumps their partner for a different set of genitalia than for a different individual. 

I think I’m being incoherent.

By on 07/21/06 at 10:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Even if you’re being incoherent, it does seem to be the case that those are feelings people have in such situations.  There are also the proverbial feelings on the other side, seemingly particularly when a woman leaves a man for another woman—though we are led to believe that the man is usually led to feel that his personal inadequacy was somehow in play, rather than to suspect that he was an experiment.

Of course, it may be the case that Friends is not representative of real life.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/22/06 at 12:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You and the rest of us, LB.  When these conversations are had in a non-polemical environment--say, between best friends of seven years--they have a confusing, earnest, inquisitive hue which neither participant can quite figure out.  And yes, this sounds like the typical “but but but I have gay friends!” excuse ... but I don’t mean it like that at all.  What I mean is, my best friend, who happens to be gay, is as confused about all this as anyone else I know. 

That may seem anecdotal, but it also speaks to the inability of people to, on an emotional level, distinguish between desire and acts, as both seem equally enjoyable in different contexts.  (One of them admittedly being “West Hollywood,” another “Silverlake,” both of which are worlds unto themselves.  So maybe he and I are terrible examples.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/22/06 at 12:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I wrote this, hesitated, posted it anyway, not completely happy with it, will take any lumps coming, will also endure possible embarrassing silence:

There are personal essays, acadmice studies, etc., by lesibian writers on these subjects. It might be useful, when we are dicing essentialisms/constructionims about lesibans and gays, and hets, to listen to them each. Since, I’m fairly certain none of the men on this list are lesibian women. ;-)I chide gently here, on the one hand because Adam’s question was sincere, and also because talking about humans simply as kinds of textual examples can be, well, to put it simply, not cool. Still, mostly a good job this time.

The discussion though, and well laid out this time by everyone, every time it’s had, shows a tendency to want to Answer the Nature/Nurture, Choice/Not Choice question, which makes sense because there’s a good deal of political urgency around it. And what I keep seeing is that we don’t know The Answer, we just don’t. I’m hoping the genomists will discover the set of genes responsible for the spectrums sexuality and loving behavior, point out that because there’s a spectrum (which I think there will be, but that’s just a bet) that some people Know who they want to love, and how, from the get-go; and some need to take a few years to sort that out.... If these issues are shown to be primarily genetic, then we can protect people in the ways that we protect race or gender in the law currently. If not (either this isn’t genetic (?!) or we never find out), then we have to (or at least really should) find some new way to protect groups from discrimination and disenfranchisement on simply moral grounds, becaue they’re human,—and that requires shifts of the cutlural deep structure that are a loooonnnnnggggg way off yet and not at all certain.

Socially, culturally, sex and love are two aspects of human being dealt with in a Most Superficial and Manipulative way in our popular and media culture. Kinsey’s work, the work of people who study love, who have ideas about how to teach humans to enter these relations and activities well aren’t big players in the cultural scene. Some of Adrienne Rich’s essays, bell hooks trilogy on love, Irigaray’s ethics of sexual difference, the whole premise behing Tantra, that 70s book The Road Less Traveled, Murdoch’s ethical work on the process of unselfing in order to be loving, and so forth. No one, of any orientation, is particualary Good At These Things Naturally because they do have to be learned to be done well—both sex and love. There are books, from ancient texts on love and sex, to contemporary work and investigation, but it’s not translating into the larger, popular culture. There, for all I can tell, we’re still playing in romantic fantasy land of projection, and some folks grow out of that, and some don’t.

Foucault and Co., have done a service in their diagnosis. But writers who are looking for treatment/cure of the problem don’t get as much play. Problems are much easier to point out than working at responses to those problems, so this is “natural.”

Since we don’t address sexuality, love, good relationship ethics in a direct way in our culture (esp. mine, in America), everyone has to figure this out on their own. Tragic, I think, that we teach so much about how to make a living, and so little about how to live well. Which, given how much we Do Know about these aspects of our being, is just dumb.

In the end, I’m interested in the moral issue here: do women, and do men, who are experimenting in order to find out where their orientations lie put their cards on the table? If not, someone is, as Luther wisely put it, being inauthentic. And that smarts when it comes to light. If the cards are not on the table, one player is using the other as a means, not an end (be all Kantian about it). Simple enough, unintentional as that use may be, it’s still foul play.

Rejection hurts. Being thrown over for a younger woman, or a better looking man, or a richer partner, the coworker, or another gender, or discovering the long hidden drug problem, or the secret spending all the family’s money.... whatever, each pain has it own unique dynamic and depth, inside of the larger cultural trends, and some people are better equipped to deal with it than others.

By Simone Roberts on 07/22/06 at 03:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

what an interesting discussion.

I think it is a very dangerous prospect to go about trying to find “gay” genes. It seems to me that the very next thing would be discovering a gene therapy to “cure” people of their homosexuality, and treating homosexuality like a disease of some sort.

whether being gay is a choice or whether it is natural, it doesn’t seem to matter - certain people just want gay people to go away, get out of sight, and stay there. I’ve read about very religious christian men who identify as gay claiming to have re-oriented themselves somehow, or who simply claim that although they “feel” gay, they have chosen not to act on those sexual feelings and live life either as a heterosexual or celibate (celibate seems to me to be preferable for these folks).

Sexaulity is so tied up with personal identity. Gay people, having had to self-reflect on coming out, make it so, and heteros also make it so by creating power differentials around hetero/homosexual relations. Yet for heteros, it only really comes up when the “accusation” (hate that term) is made that one is gay when one is not. For gay people, sexuality is presented as something they msut constantly share with every new person they meet, just to make sure everyone knows what’s what. Heteros don’t have to do that. You never hear lesbians, for example, saying “I don’t care if he’s straight, so long as he doesn’t hit on me!”

I know that sexuality is very important to personal identity, but I wish there was a way to make it less so, at least in terms of how we treat people. Perhaps if it wasn’t such a big deal, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. you know what I mean?

By thinking girl on 07/23/06 at 02:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For heteros the accusation of being gay overlaps with the accusation of not being hetero enough. “Gay” is actually a more positive gender self-identification than “unattractive”, “impotent”, “wimpy”, or “loser”.

By John Emerson on 07/23/06 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thinking Girl, you have a great point about the gene search. Like any technology, genomics can be used for good: adaptations of civil rights law much of which is based on genetics (race, gender) or misfortune (physical handicap); or evil: attempts to turn off “gay genes”. That’s technology. That’s knowledge. How it’s used is not predetermined. And you’re spot on about the fundies and the “cured” homosexuals. I’ve read many of those stories too, and they’re completely terrifying.

But here, I have a problem: “I know that sexuality is very important to personal identity, but I wish there was a way to make it less so, at least in terms of how we treat people. Perhaps if it wasn’t such a big deal, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. you know what I mean?”

Sexuality is at issue partly because US society has nearly always been obsessed with sexuality, and has usually framed it as evil, sinful, something to be avoided if possible. Or, on the other hand, in recent decades, to treat it like a toy. Neither option is good for people, or social policy.

What the fundies need to understand, and do understand, and hate is that Civil Rights are civil—created by the polis, written, invented, and none of these rights, which they too enjoy, are found anywhere in the Old Testament (which many of them don’t know how to read).

Sexuality will never not be a big deal. It’s basic, and central to our being. What it can become is reframed in terms not of sin, but in terms of a potentially humanizing aspsect of human nature. When we get healthy in our sense of sexuality and loving behavior, sexuality will not be such a big deal. But that, that is a long way off.

Side note: some people, of all sexual persuasions, put their sexuality at the center of their identity, and some don’t. That’s just people. What’s freakishly incoherent about the fundies is that Everyone Else’s Sexuality is at the center of those other people’s identity, in fact the fundies reduce people to sex, but they just have sex to make babies for God (right). Combine that with a depthless need to feel superior, and an agenda of Christian Dominion, and here you go. The gays are the new commies. The fundies will admit as much. And they’re built up in the fundie mythos to be just as threatening as the commies. Which, makes me laugh: as if there’s some gulag out there overseen by Commandant RuPaul. This is how nuts people get about sex/love when they have no understanding of either.

It’s one of several features of their ethos that fundies share with fundie Muslisms. Which, is interesting too, but in a whole other direction.

Of course, secular humanists, with a Buddhist and feminist bent like myself, we’re in their sights too. It was the humanists and the feminists and the gays who brought down God’s wrath upon the US on 9-11, remember? Fallwell, that sweet soul? And that’s not about my sexuality, that’s about my ideas, my values. So, even as a het-woman of some privilege, I don’t rest on my laurels where these people are concerned.

By Simone Roberts on 07/23/06 at 11:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Foucault’s thesis was that sexuality-as-identity is the artifact and relic of 200 years of public discourse about sexuality, and not a natural fact. Without sexuality, people will still have desires, inclinations, and behaviors, but they won’t have sexual identities and won’t be fitted into a specified number of publicly-recognized sexual-identity pigeonholes.

By John Emerson on 07/23/06 at 11:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me that when your friend talks about “lesbian friends of his who had gotten into relationships with, and fallen in love with, straight women” and the conversation goes onto whether there is a biological set for sexual preference, we are talking about two different things. A relationship consists, mostly, of not-fucking, but it is ideally defined by the sexual act—nonetheless. Many a hetero or homo relationship contains one party, or sometimes both, who, over time, would rather be fucking somebody else. Very often the impulse is acted upon. But often, at the same time, these parties want to stay in the relationship. “Having sex with,” “falling in love with”, and “getting into a relationship with” are not the same thing. The trinity of love, unlike the Christian trinity, is not three faces of an underlying unity.  In fact, sexual desire acts as both the bond and the threat in any romantic relationship over time.

By roger on 07/23/06 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Part of the difficulty in resolving the nature/nurture debate is that making claims that someone’s preferences are fixed things, whose source lies in some deeper part of themselves than they are consciously aware of, robs them of choice, the prospect of which most people find scary and unpleasant.

My (purely instinctive) sense of things is that we do have natures, but, being mortal and all, and time being what it is, that we have too little data about how our natures might express themselves in other contexts to say anything purely or broadly essential about them. So, in that respect, with that qualification, I put myself with Adam and against (so to speak) his friend.

At the same time, I think the the urge to embrace/defend essentialism comes from the pretty widespread (and I think true) sense we have that people are happier, feel better when they listen to themselves, their desires, and share the news with others. The opposite side of that coin is that it can be profoundly damaging to stay in the closet about things (particularly, fiercely, critically) when it comes to ones sexual self, but also about, say, ones love of romance novels, or action films, or Kelly Clarkson, or any other object of occasional social censure.

(I often think this is part of the reason we have so much difficulty dealing with racism, despite our knowledge that it is obviously bad/horrible.)

So a rigid essentialism seems an entirely understandable overreaction/defense mechanism against both personal and publicly explicit pressures to stay in the closet about whatever un-sanctioned desires we might have. And, given the state of the world and the way it responds to individuals who embrace desires/suppositions that have ever been censured by anyone, anywhere, some kind of essentialism is probably necessary, speaking practially.

By on 07/23/06 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me put it this way:

I was reading something about the Rom / Gypsies, and found that the so-called “King of the Gypsies” people read about is not their leader in most respects. He’s in charge of representing the Gypsies to the outside world, and has the authority that come from that, but in other respects someone else is the leader, ot there is no leader.

This is a common case with so-called “tribal” societies. In normal times they have a loose, un-unified political structure and no one leader, but when threatened from outside, they join together for defense and choose a leader.

Historically, the leadership structures of religious groups often come from state recognition—the state wants to have someone to go through when they need to deal with the religion’sa believers. For example, the Catholic church owes a lot to Constantibe and Charlemage. Earlier Christianity was pretty chaotic.

So the gay community exists, and gay loyalty and gay identification exist, defensively against a hostile and powerful Other. Without the Other, no identity would be needed. There’s really little left-handers identity, or redhead identity, or short-people identity, for example, even though these are all identifiable minorities.

So the argument is that in an ideal world sexual identity should be demoted to the level of left-hander identity.

Inevitably, the formation of defensive identity groups leads to leadership attempts to adjudicate who really belongs to the group or not, and to discipline or expel deviant members.

None of this is to say that gay identity is not needed for defensive purposes. It’s just to say that without a need for defense, gay identity wouldn’t be needed either. The gay community would just be like the rugby community, the sailing community, the movie-going community, etc.

By John Emerson on 07/23/06 at 01:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

thinking girl:  “whether being gay is a choice or whether it is natural, it doesn’t seem to matter.” This is the point Rich makes right at the start of this thread, and indeed it’s a good one.  Neither an essentialist nor a discursive model of human sexuality should, or actually in any way does, enable hate-crime, oppression etc.  But that’s not to say that it’s not a question worth asking, I think.

I think what I’m pondering to myself is (putting the question of ‘truthiness’ on one side for a mo): which model of human sexuality is the more ideological progressive?  Which helps the fight against homophobia better?

One argument stated by several people on this thread is that an essentialist version of homosexuality provides more leverage against oppression; ‘it’s not a choice, it can’t be wished away, we’re here we’re queer get used to it’ and so on.  But as I say in the post I don’t see that this worked for women, Blacks, Jews or any other oppressed group.  There’s a danger acceleration of the argument implied, I think, along the lines of: ‘since Jews cannot be metamorphosed into Aryans then the only option is to eradicate them.’

Mightn’t the non-essentialist position, instead of prompting people to search for a ‘cure’ (why should they?  who searches for a genetic ‘cure’ for blonde hair, right-handedness or the ability to curl one’s tongue into a tube?) instead prompt people to see the connections between gayness and straightness?  As Adam K says, ‘sodomy’, one of the things that gets Fundamentalist right-wingers so exercised, is common enough within heterosexual partnerships.  How can you be ‘revolted’ by what gay men get up to, when pretty much everything they get up to is gotten up to by straights too?

Simone:  “What the fundies need to understand, and do understand, and hate is that Civil Rights are civil—created by the polis, written, invented, and none of these rights, which they too enjoy, are found anywhere in the Old Testament (which many of them don’t know how to read).”
The ‘civil’ nature of civil rights is a powerful point, well made.  But one of the ironies of the fundamentalist position is that ‘gayness’ is very much found in the Old Testament.  The end of 1 Samuel and the beginning of 2 Samuel, and the rather compelling love story of David and Saul, for instance.  He’s no bit-part-player, that David.

By Adam Roberts on 07/23/06 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Roger, It’s interesting to see that you adhere to the vile heresy of Sabellius!

By Adam Kotsko on 07/23/06 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are no essentialist categories, period, unless we create them.  They don’t exist in nature.  One species is “essentially” a species because it shares a genotype and a given set of behaviors; change those behaviors, or the environment in which they’re practiced, and different selective pressures apply.  Now they’re “essentially” another species.

I think Scott’s got it. And that’s a problem.

In that statement he talks about species, a fundamental concept in biology, albeit a somewhat problematic one. At one time or another, John Wilkins has told me that there are some 20+ versions of the species concept currently being used in biology. I suspect that, if you’ve not read at least some of the technical literature, your species concept is essentialist; pine trees are pine trees, dogs are dogs, and it’s all quite clear and obvious. But once you’ve read about genes and phenotypes and populations and all that, you get a different sense of it all. And that different sense can’t be packed into essentialist language.

I feel much the same way about nature/nurture in human behavior. In all sorts of areas anyone with a bit of knowledge and more than half a brain believes that there is very robust developmental interaction between the human behavioral repertoire and the biological and social environments in which it develops. I suspect that, once we really get a handle on this stuff, it will remain difficult to translate this understanding into commonsense discourse, which tends to be where we live our lives. It is very difficult to live one’s life in technical terms. Commonsense really wants nature or nurture; saying it’s both says nothing at all.

The force of identity is essentializing. But if you look at what each of us actually is, or what each group is, well, we’re all all hybrids. That doesn’t compute in ordinary social discourse—and whoever is responsible for coining the term “hybridity” should be shot for violence against English pronunciation. It’s fine for the scholarly article or monograph (especially since no one tries to read those things aloud), but it can’t be lived in a world were people insist on socio-geo-political identities.

By Bill Benzon on 07/23/06 at 02:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you have me pegged all right. I’m a cladistics guy when it comes to the taxonomy of the divine animal.

By roger on 07/23/06 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R:
yes, I think you make an excellent point. Which type of discourse will advance the rights of a certain group of people is a very important one. And you’re also right, an essentialist argument for acceptance hasn’t worked for women, for non-white people, for the disabled, etc.

But, look at poverty as an example: there are poor people of all races and sexes, it is not necessarily tied to physical ability or other physical traits - it seems poverty is entirely socially created and yet there is still enormous prejudice against poor people. I’m not sure if this is a good example.

gotta run, maybe I"ll post more later… I have to think about it a bit more.

Thanks! I’m glad I found this site, y’all have interesting discussions. thanks for allowing me to participate

By thinking girl on 07/24/06 at 05:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for joining in.

By Bill Benzon on 07/24/06 at 07:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Advance apologies for going less at the discussion than its parameters, but I can’t help feeling some dodgy foundations are being laid to all the more readily go at the battlements.
Adam mentions revulsion at sexual acts, obviously a loaded, wholly pejorative word, but not necessarily indicative of prejudice in a homophobic sense. As a straight man I don’t find men sexually attractive and whilst men’s bodies and what two of them might do with those bodies doesn’t disguct me, it doesn’t appeal either. To be blunt, it leaves me cold, it is ‘other’, i don’t understand the attraction (for men or women). I’m quite comfortable with this, as I am with my elder brother’s recent comment, in vino veritas, that having sex with a woman would be horrible. I’m not a homophobe, he doesn’t regard me as a breeder.

By on 07/24/06 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hope this comment thread isn’t dead…

Can we reconcile Scott’s “there is no essentialism” with the notion of the aesthetic in literary theory?  I know this moves a bit from the explicit identity form of the argument, but Ken Warren, for example, has worked very hard to argue that particular canonical texts by black authors (Invisible Man, for instance) have an essential aesthetic value beyond their identitarian memes - namely, the human condition; that they are not bound to their time and context but rise to the level of universal art.  This is of course the same logic that augers for such a thing as the canon (and is probably equally susceptible to Scott’s critique).  Just wanted to say that the essentialism/constructionism divide that Adam’s post is working through is equally present in the aesthetic/historicism divide (and plenty of other places in the academy, admittedly without the fancy genome research), and a long way from being settled.

By on 07/26/06 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ellison did not want his book to be given an identitarian reading, but preferred a “human condition” reading. He was quite uncomfortable with the identitarians he knew.

By John Emerson on 07/26/06 at 05:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I totally agree with your stated opinion that words like heterosexual and homosexual should not be considered to refer to categories of people. However, if you really believe that, what are you doing calling yourself “straight”? It seems to me you should call yourself sexually disoriented, or bisexual, or potentially bisexual, or any variation along those lines - but definitely not “straight.”

By Gayle Madwin on 08/07/06 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the present context you gotta say something, and straight men are often not trusted, so you have to put your cards on the table. I mostly fit into the “straight male” pigeonhole, but I don’t really identify with that role, and I don’t try to be as straight a male as I can or make much effort conform to the rules of the identity. Though I have always been conscious of the importance of not getting stuck in any of the many unfavorable gender-identity pigeonholes.

By John Emerson on 08/08/06 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam:

“[...] a straight woman was going against her nature” ... “I said that I didn’t like talking in those terms because these are precisely the terms in which the homophobic Right attacks gay people.”

I think it does make a difference, still, whether you say something goes against “human nature” (i.e. everybody’s nature), or if you speak for yourself and say that something goes against your personal, particular and individual nature.

Hope you’ve had a nice holiday.
I’ve had none - trying to keep in mind and apply to myself what I’m preaching to you.

Take care. 

“I’m English too, but I’m straight [...]” ... “sexually disoriented, or bisexual, or potentially bisexual” ... or essentially imaginarily or spiritually sexual at all; yes, I thought that too - but didn’t want to deprive you of your illusions.

Sweet dreams ...

By on 08/09/06 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam:

“[...] a straight woman was going against her nature” ... “I said that I didn’t like talking in those terms because these are precisely the terms in which the homophobic Right attacks gay people.”

I think it does make a difference, still, whether you say something goes against “human nature” (i.e. everybody’s nature), or if you speak for yourself and say that something goes against your personal, particular and individual nature.

Hope you’ve had a nice holiday.
I’ve had none - trying to keep in mind and apply to myself what I’m preaching to you.

Take care.

“I’m English too, but I’m straight [...]” ... “sexually disoriented, or bisexual, or potentially bisexual” ... or essentially imaginarily or spiritually sexual at all; yes, I thought that too - but didn’t want to deprive you of your illusions.

Sweet dreams ...

By on 08/09/06 at 12:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So my comment appears twice. Must be very important after all.

By on 08/09/06 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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