Cross Culturally Recurrent Themes

If homosexuality is not a totally arbitrary construct of symbolic culture, then we should find some recurrent themes behind all of the cultural diversity. For example, are "pathics" like "gays"? What about the typical men who have sex with them? Are there perhaps universal cognitive associations with homosexuality?

"Cross-gendered Individuals" versus Typical Men and Women. People with experience in both gender-stratified and modern gay systems often compare "pathics" with "gays," under the assumption that a man who became a "pathic" in one culture would become a "gay" if he had lived elsewhere. Williams (1985) interviewed Lakota Sioux Indians who automatically associated their traditional winktes with modern "gays." They noted, however, that winktes would have sex with men, not with other winktes like gays do, and one Indian complained: "It makes me mad when I hear someone insult winktes. A lot of the younger gays, though, don't fulfill their spiritual role as winktes, and that's sad too."

Just how similar are modern gays to the receptive partners in gender-stratified systems? At least with regard to early cross-gender behaviors, like playing with girls, engaging in girls' play activities, and avoiding fights, American "gays" are very similar to "pathics" from the Philippines, Peru, Guatemala, and Brazil (Cardoso, 1994; Whitam, 1983; Whitam & Mathy, 1986; Whitam & Zent, 1984). Psychoanalytic theories often attributed homosexuality to hostility with fathers, but the U.S. correlations between hostile fathers and homosexuality did not appear in the more accepting cultures of Guatemala and the Philippines. This finding suggests that fathers' hostility may be a consequence, and not a cause, of homosexuality in more intolerant cultures.

In their comparison of Brazil, Peru, the Philippines, and the United States, Whitam and Mathy (1991) also found that cross-gendered females were more likely than other females to have engaged with boys' in boys' play activities, and to have adopted men's clothes during childhood.

Typical Men Who Engage in Homosexual Activities. Research on the characteristics of typical males who engage in homosexual behaviors is much rarer and the results are more ambiguous. In his study of prisoners in Brazil, Silva (1998) found that it was those most concerned about their positions in status hierarchies who spoke most favorably about raping other prisoners. Looking at homosexual activities in a Brazilian fishing village, Cardoso (1994, n.d.), found that the men who had sex with the village's pathics were more fond of aggression during sex. Perhaps these findings are related to U.S. studies that show high-stimulus-seeking males are more likely to engage in bisexuality (Ekleberry, 2000; Udry, 2002), or to the finding that U.S. males expressing more hostility towards homosexuals are more likely than other males to show sexual excitement (measured by penile volume) when viewing films of male homosexual activities (Adams, Wright, & Lohr, 1996).

Cognitive Associations of Homosexuality. For centuries scholars have puzzled over how our concepts are constructed. Plato thought that we are all born with very specific ideas (like "horse") which we later attribute to empirical phenomena. Kant reduced these inborn ideas to a few basic building blocks (categories like "time," "space," or "causality") that he thought necessary to construct any intelligent system. Piaget followed Kant, but more recently, developmental psychologists have discovered that babies are born with some very specific concepts (McKenzie, 1990; Pinker, 1994) and that (as etymologies and pidgin languages show) more abstract concepts are built up from earlier more concrete concepts (Givon, 1989). This ontogenetic process may reflect phylogenetic changes in cognition as thought becomes more complex.

Do humans have any elementary concrete ideas regarding homosexuality? The psychoanalyst Arango (1989) suggests that our "dirty words" reflect some of our most basic concepts. These words seem to be stored in a different part of our brain, and may continue to be remembered and used even after brain damage destroys the rest of our conceptual thinking.

Many of the dirty words mentioned by Arango seem to derive rather directly from primate markers for dominance and submission. For example, in most, if not all, human languages, typical primate "homage-paying" behaviors are used to insult people thought too anxious to please their superiors. Brazilians call such people puxa-sacos (literally sack-pullers), recalling the behavior of subordinate vervet monkeys. More common is the subordinate's gesture of sniffing the dominant's behind.

The association of "active" (insertor) homosexual roles with domination and "passive" (insertee) roles with subordination also appears to be almost universal, although the nature of the domination may vary from cruel demonstrations of power (as in prison rape) to more fatherly "mentorship" roles.

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