Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 31d - Prepositions, Sexuality, and Gender: Unpacking Our Bundles

Saturday, February 23, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 31d - Prepositions, Sexuality, and Gender: Unpacking Our Bundles - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/02/23 - listen here)

Prepositions, Sexuality, and Gender

I had this epiphany a month or two ago when I was trying to work out ways to talk about how the social understanding of sexuality and gender has varied and shifted across time and space. I was trying to think of a way of talking about how you can have specific focused concepts that individually have an objective reality in the world--concepts like feeling romantic or erotic desire in the presence of a person with certain characteristics, or preferring to engage in certain behavioral patterns, or enjoying how a certain esthetic presentation engages with those around you. Yet at the same time, where we always interact with those concepts in bundles--bundles that we perceive as having a unified objective reality. But the composition of those bundles varies in different cultures or at different times within a culture.

I wanted to find a way to talk about how the nature of those bundles--the choice of the specific features that are included or not included, the features that are considered important or irrelevant, the features that are considered to be automatically understood or that need to be explained--how the nature of what gets bundled together affects how we understand the overall set of ideas, and yet we are open to the understanding that someone else in a different culture might bundle the features together differently. And it’s not a matter of right or wrong, of true or false, but simply a different way of interacting with the world.

It turns out to be a hard thing to tackle. It was hard for me to tackle it internally, and it’s been a long journey. One big issue is that our experience of gender and sexuality is so subjective and so embedded in our own cultural expectations that it’s hard to shake off the idea that it represents some sort of objective truth.

As I pondered this question, it occurred to me that I had the perfect illustration to introduce the subject: the meaning and use of prepositions--the very topic I did my PhD research on. So bear with me for a while, because we will eventually get back to the topic of sexuality and gender.

Why Prepositions?

If you’ve ever studied a language other than your native tongue, chances are you came to the conclusion that prepositions--or whatever equivalent set of words or grammar the language used--were frustratingly arbitrary and made no sense. They were just something where you had to memorize all the meanings and when to use which one. And the most important thing was never, ever to try to learn a one-to-one correspondence of meaning with the prepositions in your first language.

Now, at their heart, prepositions--and I’m going to use that term even though some languages have words that do the same thing that get a different label--prepositions are a fairly restricted set of functional words that indicate the relative spatial relationships of two or more entities. They can also indicate relationships in time, and the spatial senses can get applied to more abstract relationships, but let’s start with relationships in space.

Think about the English words “on,” “over,” and “above.” To keep things simpler, we’ll skip compounds like “on top of” and “upon.” These all have in common that we use them to talk about the relative vertical position of one object relative to another object. But the choice of which one we use tells us things about whether the objects are in contact with each other, whether they are vertically aligned or simply at different absolute elevations, and in some contexts they provide information about the shape or nature of one object or the other. The traditional method linguists use to figure out the map of a word’s meanings is to see what sort of picture or story people understand when you use them. Or which combinations simply don’t make sense--or only make sense with a really bizarre back-story.

Think about the following examples:

  • The cat is on the table. (This is a very salient example to me as I record this at my dining room table.)
  • The cat is over the table.
  • The cat is above the table.

What are the images you got from each example? For “the cat is on the table” you probably imagined my cat sitting there, in contact with the upper surface of the tabletop. But it seems weird to specify it in that much detail. How about “the cat is over the table”? If you use the word “over” the same way I do, chances are you have to make up a little story about why you’d say that. Like: you have an annoying friend who is hold the cat in mid air above the surface of the table allowing it to eat something from a plate and you say, “The cat isn’t allowed on the table” and they say “it isn’t on the table, it’s over the table.” And you would acknowledge that they were technically correct and then you’d say, “Get the fucking cat away from the fucking dinner table.”

How about “the cat is above the table”? For me, this invokes an image of the cat sitting up on the top of the bookcase or some similar perch, where it can look down at the top of the table, but it isn’t necessarily vertically aligned with the space occupied by the table.

Now how about the following examples:

  • Put the tablecloth on the table.
  • Put the tablecloth over the table.
  • Put the tablecloth above the table.

In this case, the word “over” can clearly mean “in contact with the surface of the tabletop” but we also expect it to mean “and the cloth is spread out to cover the entire surface.” This time the annoyingly literal friend might put the tablecloth on the table still in its folded up state and claim to have followed directions. But they couldn’t take that position if you used “over.” Once more, we’d have to make up some sort of highly specific story for the sentence “Put the tablecloth above the table” in order for it to make sense.

You couldn’t really say, “put the cat over the table” and have it mean, “arrange the cat in a spread-out position in contact with the tabletop” because regardless of the cat’s cooperation, it doesn’t have the physical shape to be used with “over” in the “spread out to cover” sense.

Now how about these examples:

  • The chandelier is on the table.
  • The chandelier is over the table.
  • The chandelier is above the table.

“On” clearly means that the chandelier is in contact with the tabletop, perhaps waiting for an electrician to install it. But both “over” and “above” would make perfect sense for talking about an installed chandelier positioned vertically in alignment with the table but not in contact with it. In this case, it probably wouldn’t make sense to say either “over” or “above” if the chandelier were simply at a higher elevation than the tabletop but located in the living room.

How can three little words convey such different types of meaning? One part of the answer is that they’re interacting with our understanding of the nature and uses of the objects and with our image of the default organization of the world. But a big part of that range of meanings comes from differences in the bundle of meaning features that they carry.

So, for example, in addition to all sharing the feature “located at a higher elevation”, the preposition “on” normally carries the feature “in contact with” while the other two either are silent about this feature, or in the case of “above” carries the implication of non-contact.

“Over” carries a feature that implies (but does not require) some sort of extent in space. So it’s used for something that either has significant surface area with respect to the thing under it, or if movement is involved, something that moves along an extended path that crosses above the other object. Thus, for example, we get very different pictures from “Don’t jump on the table!” and “Don’t jump over the table!”

And when we look at other uses for “on” we find that the feature “in contact with” is more important that the above-ness. Because a picture can be on a wall or a spider can be on the ceiling while neither of them is above the thing they’re “on”.

And that’s just in English. Now talk about tables, cats, tablecloths and spiders in some other language, and you’ll find that the features get bundled in different ways that mean you can’t just do a search-and-replace to translate from one language to another. For example, in German, you can use “auf” to mean “on” in the sense of “the cat is on the table” but if you want to talk about the picture on the wall or the spider on the ceiling you use “an” (spelled a+n). The languages are focusing on different features. German “auf” similarly focuses on contact with a surface, but walls and ceilings are a different type of surface than tables, they represent an edge or border and that’s considered a feature important enough to be encoded in a preposition in German. We could describe the same idea in English but we’d have to use more description rather than it being an automatic part of the spatial relationship.

Those are just a couple of illustrations of a much larger principle. One of the things that make prepositions difficult to learn is that we’re accustomed to thinking of the bundle of meanings in each preposition as being a natural set. As being features that automatically go together. Because that’s the way we learned them: as a bundled set. But there isn’t necessarily anything natural or true or better about certain bundles of spatial relationships being encoded in a single word.

Now, I could go on about prepositions for days and days. (In fact, I went on and on about them for about ten years before I finished my dissertation.) But that isn’t the point of this podcast. The point is that in trying to understand the many different ideas people have had about gender and sexuality throughout time and space, it can help to break down our understanding of gender and sexuality categories into their component features and to think about why certain features get bundled together and given a label, while other possible bundles don’t get labels (or are considered impossible or unnatural). Why are certain features considered important enough to define gender and sexuality categories while others are considered optional or irrelevant? And is there an objective truth or rightness to certain ways of bundling those features, or is it more a matter of equally valid cultural practices that serve certain functions within the larger society?

[sponsor break]

Basic Gender/Sexuality Building Blocks

When you start unpacking concepts and categories of gender and sexuality throughout the ages, you can start identifying a set of these building blocks, these individual features that have been bundled together.

Historically, many cultures use a set of building blocks that assume only two genders: male and female. More rarely, a culture may identify more than two genders. Even more commonly than that, a culture may have a model of gender as existing on a sliding scale from male to female, or as allowing for a variety of intermediate states between the two. Regardless of this variety, it’s probably safe to say that all historic and modern cultures include “male” and “female” as prominent organizing categories, and that the central prototypes for those categories draw strongly on specific building blocks of anatomy, procreative role, socio-economic role, psychological experience, and performative behavior. When individual persons vary from these prototypes, their society will perceive and categorize them according to how those building blocks are bundled within that particular culture. Which features are considered more significant and which are considered to be incidental.

That doesn’t mean that the culture in question doesn’t contain or have a way of discussing persons who don’t fit neatly into its existing categories. But it means that the existing categories will affect what features are considered more meaningful and relevant.

The English language, after all, is perfectly capable of distinguishing:

  • “a large thin sheet of something is in extensive contact with a vertical surface that it is permanently fastened to in an integral fashion”


  • “a large thin sheet of something is aligned with, and attached to a vertical surface, but is not integral to it”


  • “a small object is in contact with a vertical surface”


  • “a small object is in contact with the upper side of a horizontal surface”


  • “a small object is in contact with the lower side of a horizontal surface”


  • “a large thin sheet of something is in extensive contact with, but not fastened to the upper side of a horizontal surface”


  • “a large thin sheet of something is in extensive contact with, and permanently affixed to the upper side of a horizontal surface.”

Of course we’re able to distinguish all those relationships. I just did. But if I weren’t trying to make a specific point about those features, I’d simply say:

  • The wallpaper is on the wall.
  • I like those draperies on the wall.
  • Hang the picture on the wall.
  • Put the plates on the table.
  • There’s a spider on the ceiling.
  • Put the tablecloth on the table.
  • There’s a lovely birch veneer on the table.

The word “on” encompasses all those possibilities and, to some extent, suggests that the other features of the scenarios are less relevant than that “on-ness”. In this same way, a culture can be perfectly capable of describing a highly-specific set of gender and sexuality features, but it will consider certain subsets of features to be more relevant than others and will tend to have categories and vocabulary that center around those subsets.

Consider, for example, that our modern western categories of gender-based sexual attraction and desire assume that the gender of both the desiring person and the desired person are relevant to defining the category. For example the identity category “lesbian” (in its most restricted sense) is defined as “a person of the female gender whose desire is for persons of the female gender.” But when we look closer we observe that we have a more general category of “persons who desire persons of the same gender as themselves” and not a more general category of “persons of any gender who desire persons of the female gender.” So a more concise and accurate definition of the modern category “lesbian” might be “a person of the female gender whose desire is for persons of the same gender.”

On the basis of pure logic, might it not make just as much sense to have a category “persons of any gender who desire female persons”? Perhaps, and yet we don’t have a simple, single term to describe that. Or at least not one that’s in common everyday use. And that says something about the larger conceptual structure of our society.

Even when a category is assumed to be the case unless we’re told otherwise -- what we call an “unmarked default” -- it tells us something about the conceptual structure we live in. The unmarked default for contemporary western culture is “a person (of any gender) who desires persons of a different gender than their own”. We can describe this category explicitly, but it will also generally be assumed if we don’t mention a category. This makes it the unmarked default.

Within our culture, it’s relevant that the unmarked default isn’t “a person (of any gender) who desires persons of the same gender” or “a person (of any gender) who desires persons of the female gender” or “a person (of any gender) who desires persons of any gender” even though, based purely on formal logic, those are equally valid defaults.

Each culture will have its own particular unmarked default, and it will have a set of variations from that unmarked default that are considered relevant enough to have category structures and labels. It will have a much larger set of variations from all those categories that can be described precisely, if desired, but that don’t match an existing category structure and label closely. Persons falling outside those existing categories will tend to be “read” as belonging to an existing category depending on which of the bundled category features are considered to be most important or which features are considered to be irrelevant. They may fit awkwardly into the category. They may contradict some of the features. But once they’ve been classified, they will tend to be assigned all of the bundled features associated with that category.

Clothing as a Category Feature

Let’s consider another example of a highly specific feature: clothing that is arbitrarily assigned to a particular gender. Of course, all gendered clothing concepts are arbitrary--we’re all born naked--though most cultures will struggle to try to come up with some sort of objective basis for the assignment. Or, more often, will act as if there is an objective basis without even working to justify it.

If we accept, for the moment, that in any given culture, there are garments that are considered to have a specific and unalterable gender assignment, then we can look at how those cultures categorize people who appear to be dressing contrary to their assigned gender. On a purely logical basis, one might consider four possibilities:

1. Clothing choice has no bearing on gender category. The act is recognized as contrary to the understanding of who ought to wear the garment, but is not interpreted as saying anything meaningful about the person wearing it.

2. At the opposite end of the scale, would be: wearing a garment assigned to a specific gender places one in that gender category. Gender is defined entirely by what clothing one wears.

3. A third option might be thought of as “clothing as a symptom”. Wearing a garment associated with a gender different from the assigned gender is considered evidence that the gender assignment was in error. That the desire to wear the clothing of a specific gender is an innate characteristic tied to one’s true gender identity. This coexists with an assumption that people who are happy wearing garments associated with their assigned gender do so out of innate preference.

4. A fourth option could be called “clothing as appropriation” in which gendered clothing stands in for aspects of status or identity associated with the garment gender, but where society does not consider that wearing the garment confers any valid association with the gender. Persons who dress contrary to their assigned gender are, therefore, in some sense anti-social. They are trying to steal a status or identity, or doing it for deceptive purposes, or because they have anti-social personalities, whether you call it sin or rebellion or criminality or mental illness.

All of these options have existed historically. Outside of these possibilities would be a hypothetical culture that didn’t assign gender associations to clothing or accessories at all, but I don’t know that we’ve ever found such a culture. Intertwined among these options are cultures that allow for more gender categories than the binary. The options I’ve mentioned here are oversimplifications in terms of how specific cultures respond to transgression against garment gendering.

Similarity and Difference as Features

But Heather, you ask, what does all of this have to do with interpreting sexual orientations in history? I’m working my way there slowly. I have a couple more individual features to consider.

Let’s think about the feature of similarity versus difference. There is a pervasive theme across cultures regarding the dynamics of interpersonal relationships driven by similarities between the two parties or contrasting differences between them. How is one expected to relate to a person with whom you have a great deal in common (possibly including gender)? How is one expected to relate to a person from who you are significantly different? How do similarity and difference interact with sexual or romantic desire? What types of similarity and difference are considered relevant to that attraction?

This feature can be very complex in how it’s implemented in a culture’s categories and vocabulary. If emotional connections and physical desire are considered to be separate phenomena, then the culture may emphasize similarity for one of them and difference for the other. If the culture assumes that the categories male and female necessarily imply difference, then it follows that heterosexual erotic desire must be predicated on difference. And if heterosexual desire is the only licit type of sexual desire, that has implications for how relationships based on similarity are viewed.

If a culture assumes that certain types of relationships can only derive from similarity of the participants, that will affect how they interpret relationships between persons viewed as having difference. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, are men and women considered to be fundamentally different from each other or minor variants of a similar sort of being? Is sexual desire assumed to derive from contrast or from similarity? Do opposites attract or do birds of a feather flock together? Is romantic love interpreted differently depending on whether the participants are considered to be similar or different? What types of similarity or difference other than gender will affect these models? Differences of class? Of ethnicity? Of education? Of physiology?

Defining Sex Acts

And for the final feature we’re going to consider today--though we’ve by no means exhausted all the relevant ones--let’s talk about what gets classified as a sex act and how sex acts are gendered. Is an activity classified as sex or not based on the anatomical parts involved? Based on the specific combination of anatomical parts? Is a sex act classified based on the assigned gender of the parts or on their simple spatial configuration? Or do body parts get gendered based on the activities they participate in? How does one’s role in a sex act relate to one’s physiology? To one’s perceived social gender? To one’s internal gender identity? Are activities classified as sexual based on sensory response? That is, is it a sex act if you get turned on, regardless of what body parts are or are not involved? Does the presence or absence of sex acts affect the categorization of other aspects of a relationship?

Analyzing Feature Bundles of Gender/Sexuality Categories

This would be a natural stopping point in setting up the categories for further discussion, but I have the sneaking suspicion that my listeners are still a bit skeptical about how all this relates to gender and sexuality identities. So I’ll leave you with a hypothetical example of how cultural categories affect the understanding of gender and sexuality.

A person is assigned as female at birth, based on physiology. She grows up apparently comfortable with female identity, presentation, and performance. As an adult, she experiences and expresses romantic desire for a woman. Her culture responds in which of the following ways?

1. This is considered utterly normal and does not result in her culture assigning her to any special category other than “woman”.

2. Romantic desire for a woman is considered to be an inherently masculine trait because desire is understood to be driven by “difference” with respect to gender. She is examined for signs that she has male physiology with a view to re-categorizing her as a “man”.

3. She is assigned to a subcategory of woman defined by romantic desire for the same sex.

4. Romantic desire for a woman is considered to be an inherently masculine trait, therefore she is expected to change to presenting and performing as male.

5. Romantic desire is defined as occurring only between man and woman, therefore her emotional experience and the expression of it is categorized as something other than romantic but is accepted.

6. The concept of a woman feeling romantic love for a woman is incompatible with the available categories, but gender categories are considered immutable, therefore she is recategorized as belonging to neither the category “woman” nor the category “man”.

The answer? All of the above at various times and places. And sometimes multiple possibilities co-existed, while others were not on the cultural radar at all. And this only addresses one very particular scenario. The path that woman’s life takes will depend not only on the bundle of experiential features that she brings to it, but on the ways in which her culture emphasizes and prioritizes those features in how she is categorized and what authorized options are offered to her. More to the point, the available cultural categories will affect how she understands and categorizes her own experience.

This is why the study of gender and sexuality in history must struggle against the idea that specific bundles of experiential features are fixed constants of human existence. And it must struggle against the idea that specific cultural category structures have objective truth value, whether those categories are the ones we’re studying in the historic past or they’re the ones we’re familiar with today. Recognizing this doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to identify with historic people based on sharing certain features of our experience of gender and sexuality, but it means that we need to beware of assuming that complex structures of experience or categorization have been constant through time and space. That because we share certain features with a historic person, that either their entire experience, or the way they understood and categorized that experience, will align with our own.

If something as simple as describing the relationship of a tablecloth to a table needs to be understood through varied cultural lenses, how much more so the relationships of human beings in love with each other? Having set up a way of looking at these cultural categories, in next month’s essay I’ll look at some historic examples of people who failed to fit neatly into their culture’s available options, and how the process of sorting out the conflicts can tell us about how those options were structured, and about how well or badly they fit the person in question. In the end, I hope to have demonstrated why the simple question of “was this historic person a lesbian or not” is misleading and far less interesting than the glorious complexity of human experience.

Major category: