Homosexual behavior in the United States, 1988-2004: quantitative empirical support for the social construction theory of sexuality.

Author:Chiang, Howard Hsueh-Hao


Previous quantitative social scientific studies of same-sex sexual behavior in the United States have mainly focused on estimating its prevalence and analyzing its trends over time, primarily because such studies have been conducted under the impetus of providing insights for effective HIV/STD prevention strategies. Even when regression techniques are employed, which is rather rare, these studies have explicitly avoided inferring causal relationships between various sociodemographic variables and homosexual practices, though their positive correlations have been frequently reported (Anderson & Stall, 2002; Billy, Tanfer, Grady, & Klepenger, 1993; Binson et al., 1995; Black, Gates, Sanders, & Taylor, 2000; Butler, 2005; Davis, 1929; Fay, Turner, Klassen, & Gagnon, 1989; Johnson et al., 2001; Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Rogers & Turner, 1991; Spira, Bajos, & le groupe ACSF, 1993; Turner, Villarroel, Chromy, Eggleston, & Rogers, 2005; Wellings, Field, Johnson, & Wadsworth, 1994). In this regard, the present study contributes to this larger body of social scientific literature in three unique ways.

First, this article examines homosexual behavior in the United States through a quantitative causal analysis approach. Specifically, it investigates the causal relationship between two main variables--geographical urbanization and homosexual behavior--testing the significance of the causal direction from the former variable to the latter by using three different statistical models, one linear and two non-linear. Unlike previous studies that have paid relatively little attention to the causal connections between homosexuality and other sociodemographic variables, the central goal of this study is to establish a causal relationship that can be explicitly examined using statistical methods in which geographical urbanization functions as a variable that causally determines the prevalence of same-sex sexual contact in the United States.

In addition, although the present study was designed to draw data from the General Social Survey (from 1988 to 2004), as have most other researchers thus far, a distinct feature of this study is its incorporation of the recently updated 2004 General Social Survey (GSS) dataset. Despite the availability of the 2004 GSS dataset to researchers by 2005, one of the latest major social scientific publications dealing with the subject of homosexual practice in the United States, although comprehensive and broad in its scope of analysis, did not utilize the 2004 dataset (Turner et al., 2005). This is because the data for measuring the degree of urbanization of the respondents' residential area was publicly released in January 2006. The present study takes advantage of this newly released set of information and integrates this dataset into the estimations of the prevalence of homosexual behavior in the nation and the analysis of the hypothesized causal model.

Finally, through a simple quantitative causal modeling approach in exploring the relationship between geographical urbanization and homosexual behavior, the present study takes a provisional stand in the larger essentialism versus social constructionism debate about homosexuality and sexuality in general. When dealing with the topic of homosexuality, quantitative social scientists have often neglected offering any explicit claim with respect to the debate, except for incidences in which some researchers only mention that their results suggest or hint at the more plausible theoretical perspective of social constructionism (Laumann et al., 1994). In contrast, the quantitative analyses carried out in the present study are intended to speak directly to the debate between essentialism versus social constructionism. If the hypothesized path of causality from geographical urbanization to homosexual behavior is found to be statistically significant, this finding would demonstrate the high contingency of the behavioral expressions of homosexuality upon the social contexts in which they occur, and thus favor the social constructionist side of the debate. The method of quantitative causal analysis allows the idea that sexuality is socially constructed to be assessed empirically, bridging the gap between theoretical perspectives and quantitative findings that pervasively characterize current social scientific inquiries on human sexuality.

Before entering the essentialism versus social constructionism debate explicitly, however, the present study will first estimate the prevalence of homosexual behavior in the United States by incorporating the newly released GSS 2004 dataset, providing fresh insights into its trends across time and by sociodemographic variables that many others have investigated. In the order of investigation, my quantitative analyses seek to answer three specific research questions:

  1. How prevalent was same-sex sexual contact in the United States between 1988 and 2004?

  2. Do people who belong to different subpopulations in the United States express different levels of homosexual behavior?

  3. Do empirical data support the social construction theoretical perspective of sexuality?

    Essentialism versus Social Constructionism Debate

    Most contemporary discussions about homosexuality, in one way or another, contribute to the larger debate between the essentialist and the social constructionist understanding of sexuality. For people who think of sexuality from the perspective of essentialism, sexuality represents a biological drive, a natural given. Therefore, sex differences or differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals are scientifically concrete and distinguishable. Moreover, essentialists believe that any form of sexual desire is trans-historical and trans-cultural. According to this line of reasoning, modern typologies of sexuality, regardless of when they are invented, can be applied to people living in different times, regions, and cultures. For instance, proponents of essentialism in sexuality studies argue that the concept of "homosexuality" can be associated with the sexual behavior, desire, and even identity of those individuals who lived their lives prior to the coinage of the term (Boswell, 1980, 1989, 1995; Katz, 1976; Rich, 1983).

    Social constructionists often engage themselves with the task of criticizing the assumptions made by essentialists and argue that sexuality is not a biological given but a cultural construct. While essentialists view categories such as "gay" and "straight" as universally objective, social constructionists understand them as subjective in the sense that the labeling process itself carries a whole host of specific cultural connotations and social interpretations that are neither universally coherent nor historically identical. What "gay" means today at the dawn of the twenty-first century, for constructionists, is drastically different from what "sexual inversion" meant a century ago. Similarly, as Halperin (1990) has pointed out, it is not convincing to argue that "because feudal peasants work with their hands and factory laborers work with their hands, feudal peasantry was the form that proletarianism took before the rise of industrial capitalism" (p. 46). Whereas essentialists often believe that biological forces, such as genetics, hormones, or the brain, determine sexual drive, social constructionists argue that the ways in which essentialists attempt to identify the determining forces of sexuality already function within a socially constructed epistemological framework.

    The debate between essentialism versus social constructionism has been one of the central concerns among historians of sexuality, and most historians of sexuality today view themselves as part of the constructionist camp (some even identify themselves as participants of the larger school called "new historicism"). The groundbreaking study on female romantic friendships in the nineteenth century by Smith-Rosenberg (1975), later complemented by Rotundo's (1993) work on homoromance (without sexual identity) among Victorian male youths, demonstrated that the way same-sex intimacy was understood in nineteenth century America dramatically differs from the way it is conceived today (see also Taylor & Lasch, 1963). While Foucault (1978) and Weeks (1977, 1981, 1985, 1989a, 1989b, 2002) placed a heavy emphasis on how the concept of "homosexuality" was introduced by the medical elites and the sexual scientists in the late nineteenth century, Faderman's (1978a, 1978b, 1978c, 1992, 1994) historical study of lesbianism similarly asserted that the major contribution of sexologists at the turn of the twentieth century was precisely the modern pathologization and morbidification of female same-sex intimacy (see also Davidson, 1987; Rosario, 1996, 1997, 2002; Terry, 1999). Contrary to this perspective, Chauncey's (1985, 1994) research showed that male sexual identities in the working-class community in the first half of the twentieth century were constructed irrespective of how sexuality was classified and defined in the medical discourse. Together, the works of these historians, among many others, exemplify the power and value of the social constructionist approach. By thinking of sexuality not merely as a reflection of nature but as a product of social knowledge, social constructionism brings into light that the ways in which "desire" is conceptualized both by the living actors of a particular time period and by historians who study it are always contingent upon cultural context.

    One of the major debates among social constructionists who study the history of homosexuality is the precise time period in which the concept of "homosexual" as an identity first emerged. The earliest piece of literature that introduced the social constructionist view of homosexuality appeared in 1968 and was written by a labeling theorist, McIntosh. In...

To continue reading