Rereading de Beauvoir 19: The Lesbian

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 4. The Lesbian. (429-48)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

So, actually, I recommend neither reading this chapter nor this post. But I read the damned chapter and tried to write a post. So here goes, and if it makes no sense to you, don’t blame me.

As SdB has already stated, biology is not destiny. And here, she makes the related point that biology does not determine sexuality either. Or, as she puts it “Sexuality is not determined by anatomical ‘destiny’” (429) or, another way: “anatomy and hormones never define anything but a situation and do not posit the object towards which the situation will be transcended”.

Basically, this chapter wades deep into the whole being-gay/trans-is-a-choice/is-not-a-choice swamp. But if you’re really an existence-before-essence Existentialist, do you have to take the ‘choice’ position? Or not? (I need to think about that.) Anyway, I think this is the chapter that has prompted some of the most vehement criticisms of The Second Sex. For my part, I find it problematic for perhaps different reasons, since I’m willing to allow SdB to be ‘of her time’ — somewhat.

For me, I feel like despite her commitment to ‘existence before essence’, she slips into its opposite at times in this chapter. There’s just way too much talk of what is and is not ‘normal’ for my liking. (I realise asserting some behaviour is ‘normal’ doesn’t necessarily mean she’s asserting it is ‘given’ or ‘essential’ or ‘natural’, yet I think she kind of does at times.)

So, yes, where was I? Early on, SdB writes (which surprised me) that “there is no rigorous biological distinction between the two sexes; an identical soma is modified by hormonal activity whose orientation is genotypically defined, but can be diverted in the course of the foetus’s development.” (429)

And here are a couple of definitions I needed for this:

soma (noun): the parts of an organism other than the reproductive cells.

genotype (noun): the genetic constitution of an individual organism. Often contrasted with phenotype.

I actually don’t know how much of SdB’s ‘science’ here is/was considered correct, e.g. things like “Some men take on a feminine appearance because of late development of their male organs…” (???) but a whole lot of the pyscho-analytic (Freudian!) content is pretty darned dubious (more on that below).

She describes and analyses various attitudes toward homosexuality (gays and lesbians), for example that gay men inspire hostility from heterosexuals because they (heterosexuals) demand that the male be a dominating subject. Contrast that with what she describes as the “indulgence” shown lesbians. (Actually, I think this can be seen in our own history around the criminalization of homosexual acts between men, with no comparable criminalizing of lesbian sex.)

“Sapphic love”, as SdB sometimes calls it, doesn’t challenge the “traditional model of the division of the sexes” in the way male gay sex does. Some of her descriptions of the various ‘tendencies’ among gays and lesbians are, again, questionable and I don’t think it’s worth recounting them here. While she’s critical of the pyschoanalysts of the day (Freudians!) seeing homosexuality as “determined by external circumstances” (430), she certainly still appeals to their work a lot.

In discussion both lesbianism and transvestitism (the term used then, and by SdB), she writes:

“The future woman naturally feels indignant about the limitations her sex imposes on her. The question is not why she rejects them: the real problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.” (434)

I wonder what her analysis of transwomen would be, and that MtF — male to female — appears to be more common than FtM — female to male. (Though some studies suggest that might be misleading because females can more easily live with male gender expression and might seek treatment less often.) But let’s say it’s true, that MtF is more frequent, then does that undermine SdB’s claim above? If the societal roles imposed on women are so much more limiting, why are more ‘men’ presenting as ‘women’? I realise implicit in this discussion is a challenge to the “woman in a man’s body” narrative, i.e. that men are choosing to present as women. And since I don’t know what I think about all this — but definitely have some ‘gender critical’ tendencies and a loathing of sex-role stereotyping ­­— further rambling wouldn’t be very fruitful. Better to stick to SdB.

“There are numerous lesbians among women artists and writers. It is not because their sexual specificity is the source of creative energy; it is rather that being absorbed in serious work, they do not intend to waste their time playing the woman’s role or struggling against men.” (437)

Buuuuut again more dubious notions with echoes of those psychiatrists and psychotherapists SdB likes to cite, in this case Wilhelm Stekel (again), author of the previously mentioned work “Frigidity in Women”:

“Just as the frigid woman desires pleasure even while rejecting it, the lesbian would often like to be a normal and complete woman, while at the same time not wanting it.” (436)

I just don’t get how someone who rejects essentialism and the idea that ‘femininity’ is somehow ‘natural’ can start talking about being ‘a normal and complete woman’, unless implicit in this is a criticism of the very notion of the same, or unless she’s saying lesbians want to conform to the inessential socialized notion of being a normal and complete woman. But then, she could say that. That is, she could talk about the pressure to conform.

Then there are a few case studies, again, a bit riven through with ‘their time’ and so not particularly interesting (to me), and stuffed full of yet more Freudian psychoanalytic jargon and theories that, quite frankly, sound like crap, e.g. her ‘analysis’ of ‘Sandor’, someone who today would probably call himself a transman. Again, this often feels to me like it’s running counter to SdB’s disavowel of essentialism, because she seems to be saying that if you’re a lesbian (or trans, I guess) then it’s not ‘normal’ and probably at least in part because you had either a bad or an anxious mother, (439) or you’re a narcissist (442) or all these other reasons…

…then, soon after this, she states (again) that there is never only one determining factor “it is always a question of a choice made from a complex whole, contingent on a free decision” (442).

There’s that swamp again.

I’ll sum this whole chapter up with a “sexuality… it’s just bloody complicated, OK!”. Thank goodness that’s the end of “Part One. Formation.” Next up: “Part Two: Situation”. I didn’t really enjoy “formation” at all.

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