19 Jun 05 11:55 PM
I thought I’d put up these notes for those writers who explore slash or homoerotic relationships between two characters (often male) of the same sex, and might be interested to know about some of the theorising that has been done on the relationship between ‘homosocial’ and ‘homosexual’.
‘Homosocial’ is a word that originally was defined as meaning ‘amicable relations between people of the same sex that fails to take on an erotic dimension’. ‘Homosexual’ (is a word with a long and murky history of meaning), but here for simplicity’s sake lets say that it means relationships between people of the same sex that do contain sexual elements. (As opposed to just being a close emotional relationship – that would probably be considered ‘homosocial’)
However, a number of academics in the fields of literature, social science and queer theory have posited the idea of a “potentially unbroken continuum between homosocial and homosexual – a continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically disrupted.” (Eve Kosofsky Sedewick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, 1985).
This means that writers may be writing relationships between men that could be interpreted as having an element of m/m desire, but because of the way in which sexuality and male relations are constructed in this society the writer is unable and/or unwilling to recognise it. (The same might happen with readers encountering this material. They also have internalised the non-recognition of male/male desire)
Historically, there is also evidence that homosocial relations at times do take on homosexual elements. As I am from Australia, I know most about this in an Australian context. For example, there are documents which show homosexual activity to have been very common amongst convicts. Often sexual activity in this context would take on violent and abusive aspects, but there were also convict couples who formed long term stable relationships involving love and affection (there are in existence a number of rather beautiful letters convicts in these kinds of relationships wrote to each other). Male bush workers in 19th century Australia also often formed not only close friendships, but homosexual relationships, with each other. While it may be true to some extent to say that these situations developed due to the scarcity of white women, there were always large numbers of black women available for sexual use by white men, so this alone does not in my opinion sufficiently explain away homosexual desire.
I think a better explanation is that it is often necessary to repress the sexual/erotic elements of homosocial relations between men because legitimate masculinity in our society depends on compulsory heterosexuality. But even so homosociality doesn’t go away, it just means that heterosexual relations are constructed within a homosocial framework. In “Between Men” Sedgwick investigates a number of texts from Shakespearean to late Victorian times in which men have homosocial relationships that verge on being homosexual, but where a woman is ultimately exchanged between the two men as a sexual object in order to deflect and obscure homosexual desire. She draws on Gayle Rubin who has argued that patriarchal heterosexuality can best be discussed in terms of one or another form of the traffic in women: it is the use of women as exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men (Gayle Rubin, ‘Traffic in Women: Notes Towards a Political Economy of Sex’ in Towards an Anthropology of Women Ed. Rayna Reiter, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975, pp. 157-210.)
Hope this has given you all something to think about.