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Mirzoeff’s Discussion of Sexuality

Introduction

A significant social and cultural transformation of sexuality and associated concepts of gender and sex can be observed in modern society. According to Mirzoeff (2014), the belief that “biological sex predicates gender, which … dictates the choice of the opposite gender as a sexual partner – turns out to be a castle built on sand” (p. 171). Hence, the disruptive nature of the subject indicates the need for a reconsideration of traditional concepts and ideas. This paper aims to discuss the perspectives on sexuality, ethnicity, and the human body suggested by Mirzoeff, as well as related social, cultural, and racial issues.

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Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective

First, the difference in the interpretation of gender and sex needs to be explored. Even though both terms are often used interchangeably, sex refers to biological attributes, while gender is based on socially constructed beliefs, roles, and behaviors. Nevertheless, even more changes in people’s interpretation of how the reproductive system operates can be observed, causing an extensive debate. As Mirzoeff (2014) argues, modern logic questions the consideration of gender as a social construction and sex as a category predefined by nature. At the same time, the author mentions that considering sexuality as a cultural phenomenon poses numerous questions.

Indeed, the theories regarding gender have changed the historical perspective. According to Mirzoeff (2014), early modern medicine used to see the difference between man’s and woman’s reproductive organs in their location outside and inside the body. In other words, they were regarded as essentially the same on the biological level until a clear distinction was determined by numerous authors. A total transformation of the beliefs followed and was reflected not only in the interpretations of physiology but also of social roles. Lacquer called this transition a “biology of incommensurability” and viewed it as critical to further sexual classification and practices (as cited in Mirzoeff, 2014, p. 172). Lacquer’s theory implemented a one-sex model that presented a new view on the relationship between man and women, based on different interpretations. Many contemporary issues and stereotypes have their origins in this philosophy of two categories. As Mirzoeff (2014) claims, along with the difference between the two sexes established and expressed openly, the inconsistencies of rights and duties were also acknowledged and regarded as normal. At this point, racial and gender inequalities can be observed and analyzed from a modern perspective.

A transformed view of sexuality was defined for the social and natural order. In particular, Mirzoeff (2014) mentions that medicine in the 19th century considered female pleasure as inessential to reproductive function. As a result, it was regulated and controlled by society, and the involvement of clitoral pleasure was regarded as deviant for long decades. According to Mirzoeff (2014), “if it was believed that female orgasm was an indispensable condition to conception, then no man could afford to ignore it,” which was not the case (p. 172). This example can be considered as one of the consequences of the transformed interpretation.

The Notion of the Fetishistic Gaze

At the same time, the question of miscegenation is discussed and believed to be both challenging and required to the biology of incommensurability. As Mirzoeff (2014) notes, special vocabulary was created in the colonial period to designate the offspring of parents of different races. The terms are based on racial purity and, as a result, significantly charged. Hence, the issues of gender and ethnic inequalities are interconnected. Nevertheless, the fact that people of different origins have children with each other despite the historical, societal disapproval refutes the concept of different human races. According to Mirzoeff (2014), “this mixture of affirmation and denial is typical of the fetishistic gaze” (p. 173). This notion, analyzed by Freud, is a combination of the two important psychoanalytic theories of looking. In psychology, fetishism refers to the sexual attraction to parts of the body other than the genitals or related objects, while in a figurative sense, fetishism is an irrational obsession with something. Race and sexuality are overlapped in this view with a fetishistic gaze.

In this regard, scientists tried to confirm the inconsistencies in people of different ethnicities and sexes, primarily to justify colonialism, slavery, and inequalities. Mirzoeff (2014) mentions the beliefs of Edward Long, who claimed that mulattos were infertile to each other and that their genitalia was deformed due to their mixed origins. Other examples of baseless but persistent attempts to justify the inequalities involve the dissections and examinations of female reproductive organs. For instance, Saarti Baartman, known as Hottentot Venus, is a woman from the African Hottentot people brought to Europe from South Africa in the early 19th century. She was exhibited in freak shows to the public as a curiosity because of her large protruding buttocks and pronounced genitals. Her skeleton, brain, and genitals were displayed in the Paris museum, where they remained available to the public until 1974 (Mirzoeff, 2014). This case proves that race, sexuality, and gender were connected in a classificatory system’s view, which believed that several features visible in Baartman’s body justified its classification of a large group of people based on one individual.

At the same time, the fate of Baartman serves as proof that the perspective of the 19th century was guided by the differentiation of concepts into male and female, normal and pathological. The two-sex system that took the place of its predecessor focused on the two main categories. As a result, any deviation from the binary position challenged the whole system and was treated with hostility. In this regard, Mirzoeff (2014) discusses the experiences of Herculine Barbin, a French memoirist intersex person. At birth, his sex was mistakenly identified as female, and he was raised as a girl. At the age of 17, he first began to show sexual attraction to women. As the doctor later determined, Barbin was, in fact, a man with a developmental defect of the genitals. Mirzoeff (2014) commented on this remarkable case by mentioning the prevalence of the fetishistic gaze able to “see gender in the patient where it was, in fact, ambiguous” despite the lack of visual evidence (p.176). In other words, the standardized concept of a human implies the disregard of many individual cases that undermine the established categories.

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Gender can be considered a culturally and historically relative category. Anatomical signs were discovered to be not always determined, but this discovery did not lead to the recognition of people that occupied minority spaces. As Mirzoeff (2014) argues, homosexuality is one of the possible outcomes of the visual experience, along with heterosexuality, that leads to fetishism. The classification suggested numerous issues regarding racial, gender, and social inequalities based on visual evidence. In this regard, the fetishistic gaze focuses on what it sees and does not require to investigate further to see more. This notion is often discussed concerning the objectification, in particular, of women. Hence, the issues raised by Mirzoeff (2014) in his paper constitute a concoction of gender, social, and sexuality beliefs and assumed roles. In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of portraying women and the world in visual arts and literature from a masculine, heterosexual perspective. It represents and presents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer.

Objectification is the materialization and the treatment of humans as a thing. It enables actions such as violence, war, human trafficking, sexual violence, prostitution, xenophobia, and hatred of groups of people. In feminist theory, sexual objectification refers to treating an individual as an object of sexual attraction, with a leveling of his personality, subjectivity, and will. The consequence of the phenomenon is the self-objectification of women: the objectification of a person’s own identity, and the consideration of oneself from others’ points of view. Sexual objectification, widely present in the media and the culture of rape in general, normalizes violence against women, including sexual violence, and is one of the main targets of feminism.

To summarize, the discussion by Mirzoeff touches upon the issues of the nature of human sex and gender, as well as the related social and racial inequalities. Subjects like feminism, fetishization and objectivization are viewed as resulting from the transition from the traditional interpretation and categorization of people. The current view on sexuality assumes the differences and does not base itself on the two-sex model.

References

Mirzoeff, N. (2014). Sexuality disrupts: Measuring the silences. In M. Rimmele, K. Sachs-Homback, & B. Stiegler (Eds.), Bildwissenschaft und Visual Culture (pp. 171-185). Transcript Verlag.

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