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Issue in Focus: Naturalising the Normative

Brightly-coloured abstract art of a never-ending loop growing smaller and smaller in the middle.

Ursula Franklin, a metallurgist, feminist, and pacifist from Canada said in one of her interviews:

What attracted me to science at that time was that it appeared to be objective. I remember being at school and seeing physics experiments and seeing a cathode ray tube and the magnet and the beam being bent and I suddenly had this feeling of great joy that even they, those people in government who were after us, couldn’t make an electron beam bend in any other direction. So, science seemed to be the field where I could escape politics.

She was talking about why she came to science and also of her childhood in the 1920s in Germany in a family that survived the horrors of Nazi concentration and labour camps. In a situation where nothing else worked, science seemed to be the beacon offering knowledge that was objective, universal, and beyond the prevailing politics.

As we look more carefully at what Ursula Franklin said, in 2015, many decades after the time when she first thought it, we read phrases like “it appeared to be objective”, “seemed to be … where I could escape politics”. This assertion about the universality of scientific knowledge and the doubts about its objectivity are very much a part of the process of feminist critiques of scientific knowledges and processes. And these conflicts come most to the fore when we speak of sexuality because sexuality lies at the cusp of human experience which is as material and carnal as it is social and constructed. So we turn to science for the objective observations and explanations but keep finding reflections of social norms all the time.

The first revelations were in the women’s health movements, where the discussions on sexuality and sexual health began in the ’80s. While learning from modern science helped speak of menstruation as a natural, regular process of the body in ways that cultural practices denied, the dominance of the social conception of a woman’s body in science’s understanding of human bodies baffled us. The natural process of reproduction marked women’s bodies as different even in science, and the normative was still the male body. It seemed like the social construction around reproduction and sexuality marred the ability of science to really ‘see’ bodies. As health activists, as we looked deeper, we found more evidence of the ways in which the social understanding of women influenced science’s understanding of women’s bodies.

The imagination of the sexual act, for example, was only peno-vaginal. ‘Men’ were seen as more sexually active, the male act of orgasmic sexual release was for long seen as the only way to understand sexual pleasure, and the ‘unrestrainable male sexual urge’ was nurtured through language used to describe the biological processes. Loss of libido in women was a minor side effect of a drug but could become a major problem in the case of men. Intervening in the full monthly cycle to take care of the four fertile days in it came from a sense of control as much as it came from the only imagination of sex as that in which the penis enters the vagina and ejaculates. As women paid more attention to their bodies, they discovered the clitoris and other parts of their bodies that made multiple forms of orgasms possible. As they explored their own bodies, they spoke of the varied ways in which the fertility cycle could be marked and learnt to touch, feel, and understand themselves in ways that cultures had prohibited and science had invisibilised.

Feminist critiques of science found more evidence about the ways in which sexual acts and persons were understood. Emily Martin’s study of biology textbooks is a case in point. In her essay, The Egg and the Sperm, she points out the ways in which sexual roles are assigned to male and female gametes: “The more common picture – egg as damsel in distress, shielded only by her sacred garments; sperm as heroic warrior to the rescue – cannot be proved to be dictated by the biology of these events.” Through her work she successfully traces the fact that as the scientific understanding of the process of fertilisation changes, the descriptions shift, but keep the social imagery of the aggressive and active male sperm and the coy and passive female egg intact in different ways. She successfully highlights how this resulted in a limited, if not incorrect, understanding of human fertilisation itself.

Societal norms that are contested, especially around body and sexuality, are often passed as the ‘natural order’ of things. The objective study of ‘nature’ that science claims to do induces society to seek scientific explanations to verify naturalness. It has been shown in many cases that the questions that scientists ask, and the methods they use, are coloured by norms of society. Yet, the ‘scientific answers’ thus got help determine what is natural. In the process, the normative gets naturalised.

For example, in the above case, the passive egg and the aggressive sperm descriptions as ‘seen in the body’ justify the same claim from social conceptions of male and female sexual behaviour. In the process, the normative understanding of aggressive masculine sexual urges and passive feminine sexual desires get a truth value by being termed natural, and all social resistance to these concepts gets even more difficult.

This question is most asked in the case of homosexuality. When heterosexuality is the norm, the immediate question is to ask if homosexuality is ‘natural’. Science is expected to find out if animals also display homosexual behaviour. The trouble with this project is the difficulty in defining homosexual behaviour, which is already an extension of the difficulty of labelling something as sexual. Since sexual activity is never seen disconnected from reproduction, how will scientists see acts that do not lead to reproduction as sexual? The more basic question remains – on the one hand we identify sexual desire as a ‘natural’ (even animal-like) desire, but on the other, control it socially in ways that no other desire is controlled and managed. In such a scenario where is the question of trying to see if animals have homosexual desires?

Partly propelled by the fact that this is seen as sexually deviant behaviour, the other question that science tries to answer is, “What is it that makes a person homosexual?” The question itself is fraught with the social construction of heterosexual desire as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’, yet it is still considered a valid scientific problem to which biological absolutist answers are sought. Is it at the level of hormones, or is it at the level of genes, or is there some cognitive development that is different…? Psychiatry had listed it under mental disorders and while it was moved out of there as late as 1973, practices to ‘cure’ those who want to be ‘cured’ and forcing others who don’t continue till date. This pushes even many homosexual persons to turn to science to prove that their desire is natural, to prove that ‘they are born thus and nothing can be done to change them’, and so on. And so the quest to find the ‘gay gene’, the responsible hormones, or the difference in brain circuitry continues.

This is where I think Ursula Franklin’s clear use of “seems to be objective” needs to be invoked. The experiments, the data, the methods used, maybe there is nothing to fault in them. It is in the nature of the question asked itself that there is an inherent problem. These are wrong questions built on socially accepted normative premises. The hope then lies within other scientific principles – those of revising theories, recognising the wrong questions, changing the hypothesis.

Societal norms of what desire should be, what bodies should be like, how they should experience desire – science has been accepting these and is working hard at making these norms look natural. The presence of more strident voices within the sciences, of people recognising the spectrum of sexualities, of those acknowledging the natural variations in human bodies, and of those willing to ask questions that go against the grain of the dominant social order, can change the scientific questions asked and revise the methods of study.

The entry of ‘women’ even as an uncomplicated category without taking into account the differences due to other marginalisations of caste, class, religion, region, ability, sexuality, etc.,   did a lot to challenge science on its perception of women’s bodies and desires in the ’60s and ’70s. The presence of many others today particularly those who are marginalised from the mainstream discourse of science and society because of their non-normative genders and sexualities is asking for their experiences to be included and visibilised. These inclusions alone can provide a new way of studying the materiality of sexuality that is cognizant of societal constructions.

For a long time science has followed the method of trying to explain the world in a mechanistic, mathematical way, so that studying it through measurements is possible. Categorisation and classification were the ways used in modern biology. Human bodies, animal worlds, nature itself, do not, however, lend themselves to clean and neat categories. The challenge then is in revisioning the ways in which science ‘sees’ ‘nature’. Science is definitely not neutral. Like any other human enterprise it can choose the socio-political frame within which it interprets the world. And like any other structure of society it needs as much scrutiny from civil society as it can get so that it represents a larger slice of its subject – nature.

Photo Credit: New 1lluminati (CC BY 2.0)