Abjection and Normativity

James Aimers

Ain’t much of a difference/ Between a bridge and a wall/ Without me right in the middle babe/ You would be nothing at all” (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)

How does the reevaluation of gender and sex relate to sexuality? The historian Michel Foucault influentially argued that sex and sexuality are embedded in discourses shaped by power. More recently, the historian David Halperin’s book How to Do the History of Homosexuality described the problems inherent in applying our contemporary concept of sexuality to other places and times (see also Chapter 3). This attention to categorizations and binaries is a hallmark of queer theory because categorizations of people and their actions depend on ideas about what is normal and what is deviant (see Voss, 2000, p. 184). In other words, culturally varied definitions of “the abject” help define and maintain the normative. Yet there is good evidence that what we define as abject sexualities (e.g., homosexuality; transsexuality) would not have been considered so deviant in many places and times in prehistory.

For Mesoamerica, Perry and Joyce (2001, p. 74) note that the “domain of the abject” involved concerns about being incompletely human or physically unusual (e.g., human-animal hybrids and dwarves). Joyce (2000, p. 191) also mentions hermaphrodites as well in this context. Sigal (2000:224) argued that the ancient Maya were not as concerned with homosexual sex as much as sex—or anything else—taken to excess. Joyce (2006, p. 800) notes that the “sexuality of young men in Postclassic and Classic Maya society may itself have been more fluid than any normative heterosexual model would allow. In art, young men were routinely represented as the objects of the gaze of older men and adult women.” Carved stone reliefs at a possible public building for young men at the Maya site of San Diego depict “enema insertion, erratic (probably drunken) dances, disheveled hair, and what may be autoerotic asphyxiation” (Aimers, 2014, p. 157) “with a decided undertone of homoeroticism.” (Houston & Inomata, 2009, p. 55). Dichotomies like normal/deviant and man/woman implicitly define normal sexuality as heterosexual and same-sex desire as deviant. This often occurs without adequate consideration of how people in other times and places have framed sexuality differently, and without acknowledgement that the contemporary Western focus on sexual practice as a fundamental aspect of social identity is itself historically unusual. Fuglesvedt (2014) concludes that, “[t]here is nothing wrong with studying sexuality when this is relevant; what is argued is rather that the sex/gender paradigm insists on the enduring and absolute relevance of sexuality ” (p. 69).