Conformity and Deviance



Every society develops standards, rules, and norms for the sexual behavior of its members. These norms may differ a great deal from one society and one historical period to another, but in any case they result in dividing people into two groups: those who conform to the norms, i.e., the "normal" persons, and those who deviate from the norms, i.e., the "abnormal" persons or "deviants".

For instance, until early in our century the Siwans in Northern Africa expected all "normal" males to engage in homosexual intercourse, and they regarded those who refused to do so as peculiar or "queer". In contrast, the Rwala Bedouins, who lived on the Arabic peninsula, considered homosexual practices to be so "abnormal" and outrageous, that they put the participants to death.

Turning to our own society, we find that in Victorian times "normal" women were not supposed to have orgasms. Those who did have them or who insisted on them were often branded as loose, immoral, and even sick. Today it is the nonorgasmic woman who is considered "abnormal", "dysfunctional", or "inadequate", and who is offered treatment.

These few examples illustrate not only that sexual norms are relative, but also that deviations from these norms may provoke very different social reactions. In other words, what is sexual conformity in one culture may be sexual deviance in another culture, and those who are considered deviants may suffer very different fates.

As we have seen, sexual deviance can be approached in at least four ways:

• It may be ridiculed as a personal quirk (as in the strictly heterosexual Siwan male),

• it may be condemned as a sign of immorality (as in the orgasmic Victorian woman),

• it may be punished as a crime (as in the homosexual Rwala Bedouin),

• it may be treated as a disease or disorder (as in the nonorgasmic modern woman).

In the first of the above cases the sexual deviance is of no great consequence. The deviant is simply an odd fellow who is easily tolerated. However, the other three cases are much more serious. Once deviance is defined in moral, legal, or medical terms, it becomes a matter of concern for the church, the courts, or the medical profession. As a result, the deviant is no longer regarded as a harmless non-conformist who has a right to be left alone, but as a sinner who needs to be saved, a criminal who needs to be punished, or a patient who needs to be cured.

There are, of course, also some human societies where our particular four examples of sexual behavior would attract no special attention and would, in fact, never be regarded as deviant at all. In such "permissive" societies the sexual standards are broad and flexible enough to accommodate a great many personal peculiarities, and thus both heterosexual and homosexual males, orgasmic and nonorgasmic females are considered well within the range of normality.

On the other hand, a society with especially rigid sexual norms may put any or all of these different groups of people not just in one, but several deviant categories. We have already mentioned that in Victorian Europe and America, orgasmic, sexually demanding women were often seen as both immoral and sick. Thus, they were subjected not only to pious sermons, but also to psychiatric treatment. Similarly, some countries today regard male homosexuality not only as a sin, but also as a crime and a disease. As a consequence, male homosexuals in these countries face a triple social condemnation—a truly demoralizing experience.

It should be noted, however, that in modern societies the sexual norms can change rather quickly and that triple and double deviance can therefore suddenly be reduced to simple deviance or even complete conformity. An example of such drastic change has recently occurred in the United States where psychiatrists have now removed homosexuality from their list of mental diseases, where several state legislatures have repealed the traditional laws against homosexual behavior, and where a number of Christian churches have ceased to condemn such behavior as sinful. Thus, within a relatively short time, many American homosexuals have been transformed from social outcasts into respectable citizens. Only those who belong to conservative churches, reside in conservative states, or seek treatment from conservative psychiatrists still find themselves defined as deviants in need of "correction".

This leads us to still another important aspect of the problem. In our fast-changing world the moral, legal, and medical standards for sexual behavior may not always remain in agreement and may even become mutually exclusive. That is to say, our very conformity to one standard may come to imply our deviation from another. For example, a modern nonorgasmic woman may be asked by her therapist to masturbate frequently in order to become "fully functional". However, the same woman may be told by her clergyman that masturbation is a sin which will be punished by God. In short, she is given the choice between being either healthy and immoral or moral and sick. No matter how she decides, she ends up violating a sexual norm. By the same token, her therapist who recommends masturbation may thereby break a criminal law. (At least one state in the U.S. makes it a crime to encourage someone to masturbate.) Still, his professional ethics may demand that he give that encouragement. In short, his choice is between being either law-abiding and immoral or moral and criminal. Thus, he, too, is confronted with a dilemma. We could, of course, explore this conflict of norms even further by considering the therapist's possible religious beliefs or the medical views of the clergyman, but the main point of the argument should already be clear: Deviance as well as conformity are relative terms, and their concrete meaning varies with the social context.

Unfortunately, in the past this simple truth has not always been understood. Today it may seem obvious enough to us, but even the most learned and brilliant minds in history often failed to see it. Instead they thought of sexual deviance as an objective quality which arose in the individual and which had to be controlled by society. In accordance with this view, they assumed the existence of a "deviant personality" and devoted most of their efforts to discovering its characteristics and explaining its development. Based on their findings, they then devised various methods for forcing the deviant back into conformity. For many centuries this was the only accepted approach to sexual deviance. Occasionally, there was some variation of emphasis or style, but the results were always strikingly similar:

• During the Middle Ages, when the dominant social force was religion, the problem was defined mainly in religious and moral terms. Thus, the difference between sexual conformity and sexual deviance was seen as the difference between righteousness and sin. Sexual deviants were possessed by the devil or an evil spirit. They could be turned into "normal" human beings only by prayer and repentance. In order to control sexual deviance, society needed more priests and more churches, (By logical implication, sexual conformity could best be preserved in a church state.)

• With the beginning of the Modern Age, the church lost more and more of its power to the secular authorities, and thus the problem began to be defined mainly in legal terms. The difference between sexual conformity and sexual deviance was now seen as the difference between respect for the law and crime. Sexual deviants were "criminal types". They could be turned into "normal" human beings only by punishment and rehabilitation. In order to control sexual deviance, society needed more policemen and more prisons. (By logical implication, sexual conformity could best be preserved in a police state.)

• Finally, the 19th and 20th centuries saw a diminishing trust in political authority and a growing respect for science. As a result, the problem began to be defined mainly in medical terms. The difference between sexual conformity and sexual deviance was seen as that between mental health and mental illness. Sexual deviants were "psychopaths". They could be turned into "normal" human beings only by psychiatric treatment. In order to control sexual deviance, society needed more psychiatrists and more mental hospitals. (By logical implication, sexual conformity could best be preserved in a "therapeutic state.")

In all three of these instances we can observe the same basic ideology at work: The prevailing sexual norms are not to be questioned. Sexual deviance is not to be tolerated. The deviant has no right to his deviant behavior. Special social agents and institutions must be invested with special powers to bring the offenders "back into line" and to impose universal sexual conformity. Human beings in general will achieve and retain their "best" sexual behavior only under some form of totalitarian control.

And a second observation deserves to be made: The social control of sexual behavior may be exercised in the name of "God", "the legal order", or "medical science", but, no matter what the justification, it is always presented as objective, impartial, and "natural". Societies do not like to admit that it is, in fact, nothing more than the control of one group of people by another. The social, indeed, political aspect of the arrangement is rarely discussed, but is hidden behind a smokescreen of religious, legal, or medical jargon.

However, if one really wants to understand the problem of deviance, one has to take a much broader view. It is not enough to focus on the individual deviant and the means of transforming him into some acceptable "normal" person; one also needs to examine those who insist on this transformation and who have defined him as deviant in the first place. Indeed, as such an examination often reveals, the righteousness, respectability, or mental health of the conforming majority is, to a very large extent, sustained and confirmed by the visible presence of sinners, lawbreakers, or mental patients. In other words, deviants perform an important social function. They provide welcome "warning examples" and thereby promote social cohesion and stability among the rest of the population. Their existence also confirms, in a negative way, the dominant values of a society: The existence of godless people confirms the importance of religion, the existence of lawless people confirms the importance of law and order, and the existence of insane people confirms the importance of psychiatry.

Deviance and conformity therefore support each other, and they spring from a common source. It is shortsighted to assume that deviance arises spontaneously in certain individuals and then forces society to take some sort of action. Instead, it is more accurate to say that societies organize themselves in such a way that they create a certain amount of deviance which then helps them to validate the particular norms they have chosen. That is to say, societies produce both their own deviance and their own conformity. Furthermore, it would be an oversimplification to think that deviance exists objectively in some people, and that there is such a thing as an inherently deviant personality or an inherently deviant act. Deviance is not a characteristic of persons or a quality of their behavior. Instead, deviance is the result of human interaction. It is created, maintained, and revoked in social relationships. In short, deviance is best explained as a social role.

Men and women become deviants when they are so labeled either by others or by themselves. For example, someone becomes a heretic when his religious beliefs are found to be false and dangerous by the official religious authorities. As a result, these authorities excommunicate him and, if they have the power to do so, silence him by force. Similarly, someone becomes a criminal when the legal authorities find that his acts have violated the law. As a result, these authorities declare him to be guilty and punish him. Finally, someone becomes a mental patient when his behavior is officially found to indicate a lack of mental health. Psychiatric authorities then pronounce him sick and subject him to treatment.

By the same token, men and women cease to be deviants when they are no longer so labeled either by others or by themselves. For example, they can satisfy the authorities by recanting their heresy and doing penance, by serving their sentences and abandoning their criminal careers, and by being cured of their mental illness. As a result, the labels "heretic", "criminal", and "mental patient" are officially removed, and the former deviants can rejoin the conforming majority. They are received back into the arms of the church, readmitted to respectable society, and restored to the world of the healthy.

This is the basic pattern of conformity and deviance, stripped to its bare essentials. However, in practice the picture is complicated by several additional factors. One of these has already been briefly suggested: It is not at all uncommon for people to label themselves as deviants, i.e., to confess freely to heretical beliefs, to plead guilty to a crime, or to seek treatment for a mental illness. Conversely, in some situations they may also reject the deviant role that is being forced upon them. Instead, they may call it a terrible mistake. Thus, even after their excommunication, they may still claim to be orthodox believers, even in prison they may still protest their innocence, and even in a mental hospital they may still insist on their sanity. Or, as an alternative, people may reject the deviant role on another ground: They may admit having violated official standards, but declare them to be illegitimate and irrelevant. Thus, they may call the traditional catechism ungodly, the criminal code unjust, and the diagnostic manual unscientific.

The authorities, on their part, are sometimes reluctant to affirm the deviance of a certain person. They may refuse to see anything extraordinary in his behavior, even though it is quite unconventional. Or, if he himself insists on being a deviant, they can declare him mistaken, even against his wishes. In addition, they can remove the label of deviant from someone in two other ways: First, they can simply concede an official error by overzealous inquisitors, corrupt judges, or ignorant doctors. Thus, a person burned as a heretic may later be called a saint, a criminal may be exonerated, and a mental patient may be rehabilitated as the unfortunate victim of a false diagnosis. Secondly, the authorities can also decide to reform their dogma, repeal their law, or revise their psychiatric classification system. In none of these cases does the deviant have to change his behavior, yet his conformity is nevertheless restored.

All of this brings up another relevant point: Not everyone who has violated official standards is labeled a deviant, and not everyone who is labeled a deviant has violated official standards. Not all disbelievers come to the attention of the church, not all lawbreakers are caught and convicted, and not all people with bizarre behavior have contact with a psychiatrist. Instead, all of these non-conformists may be accepted as more or less "normal" by their communities. On the other hand, it is very well possible for perfectly "normal" people to be cast in the role of heretics, criminals, or madmen on false evidence. They may then accept or reject that role, but in either case their deviance becomes an undeniable social fact, and they begin to suffer the consequences. They may not really have lost the true faith, but they are still deviants; they may not really have broken the law, but they are still deviants; they may not really have "acted crazy", but they are still deviants.

In view of these and other observations, modern students of deviance have long since broadened their perspective and begun to consider its whole social context. Instead of merely wondering about the origins of deviant behavior in the individual, they now ask: Why and how are certain people set apart from the majority and cast into deviant roles? How do these people react to their role assignment? How does the larger community react to it? Under what conditions can people refuse or leave the deviant role? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the deviant role for the deviant? What are the advantages and disadvantages for everyone else?

Obviously, in this book it is not possible to pursue all of these questions in depth. It is enough if we realize their complexity. For our present limited purposes, we can restrict ourselves to a brief, superficial sketch, and therefore we cut the discussion short with one important final remark: Once people have been successfully labeled deviants either by themselves or by others, i.e., once the label has stuck, they have no choice but to play the deviant role as it is perceived in their particular society. Indeed, very often they enter full-fledged deviant careers and, together with fellow-deviants, develop special deviant subcultures. Thus, for example, a heretic becomes the fulltime leader of a new religious sect, a criminal turns professional and joins a criminal underworld, or a mental patient flaunts his "craziness" and develops a personal following. Eventually, these deviant subcultures may themselves produce their own deviants who then form their own subculture, and so on.

How does any of this apply to the specific case of sexual deviance? Perhaps we find out most quickly if we return to our initial illustrating examples. We had seen that, in Victorian times, orgasmic, sexually demanding females were often regarded as sinful and sick, and that both preachers and psychiatrists tried to save them. They were not just morally condemned as lascivious, but if they were found masturbating, they were medically treated for "masturbatory insanity". If they were not satisfied with the sexual performance of their husbands, they were treated for "nymphomania" or "erotomania". These treatments could go to bizarre lengths and could involve clitoridectomies (cutting out of the clitoris) and even more radical surgery. If the treatment failed to produce a cure, the patients might be forced into regular deviant careers as "loose women" or as inmates in an asylum.

However, by no means all orgasmic females suffered this fate. If they remained undiscovered or if their husbands could keep up with them, they were never labeled deviant and led fairly normal lives. Finally, when religious and psychiatric opinion changed, even highly orgasmic females were declared to be normal, and the problem of excessive female sexual desires vanished altogether. Indeed, in the meantime the situation has nearly reversed itself, and now nonorgasmic women are made to feel guilty. Thus, they may again end up in a psychiatrist's office for treatment and even be given lessons in more "effective" masturbation. If, on the other hand, they truly prefer a life of chastity, or if their husbands prefer them to be nonorgasmic, they are in little danger of being called deviant.

Even more instructive is the example of the homosexual male. As we have seen earlier in this book, there are societies which simply refuse to make an issue out of homosexuality. They may tolerate and even encourage homosexual behavior, but they do not have any "homosexuals". We have also seen that our own society provides for the special social role of homosexual and that people can be assigned to that role more or less arbitrarily. Kinsey's rating scale showed that heterosexuality and homosexuality lie on a continuum, are not mutually exclusive, and need not be permanent. Thus, the question whether any particular person is or is not a homosexual does not have an objective answer, but is decided through social interaction. For example, a soldier caught in a single homosexual act may be forced into a permanent deviant career, while a young male prostitute may regard himself and be generally accepted as heterosexual. Since he performs his homosexual acts only for money, they "do not really count". Thus, if he remains undetected by the police, he may eventually get married and settle into the life of a "normal" family man. (For further details see the introduction to "Homosexual Intercourse.")

However, once a man has been successfully labeled homosexual, i.e., once he has come to regard himself as a "queer", "faggot", or "gay" and is recognized as such, he learns to play his role according to everyone's expectations. Needless to say, these expectations differ in different societies and different situations. Sometimes the role of the homosexual is quite positive: He may be considered a shaman or holy man (as in certain "primitive" cultures), a model citizen (as in pre-Meiji Japan), or a sensitive genius (as in some Western folklore). At other times his role is entirely negative: He may be considered a heretic (as in medieval Europe), a criminal (as in some states of the U.S. today), or a "psychopath" (as in some states of the U.S. today). Furthermore, it must be remembered that, even within the same society, the positive or negative character of the homosexual role can change in the course of time. That is to say, people can cling to the role itself, yet nevertheless reverse its meaning. Thus, a society can maintain that homosexuals are different, yet nevertheless change its moral evaluation of them. This is also true of the homosexuals themselves. For example, in accordance with public opinion, they may think of themselves as "bad" and therefore act irresponsibly. However, after some soul-searching, they may also come to the conclusion that "gay is good" and therefore act like responsible citizens.

Similar observations can be made with regard to the homosexual subculture. Societies which do not make homosexuality a problem neither have "gays" nor a "gay subculture." Our own society has both. Indeed, the American gay subculture contains itself several sub-subcultures, such as that of the "aunties and nellies", the "drag queens", the "hustlers", the "bike and leather crowd", etc. All of these groups cultivate their own social and sexual styles. Still, within recent years, they have also experienced some common changes. In the past, they were usually secretive, suspicious, intolerant, and exclusive; today they have become much more relaxed and open. Moreover, they have now been joined by new, proud, and liberal gay subcultures, such as gay liberation groups, gay students' unions, gay sports clubs, gay churches, gay political caucuses, and gay professional organizations.

As a result of these and other developments, both the self-image and the public image of homosexuals have been greatly improved. More and more people are also beginning to realize that there is nothing intrinsic or permanent in the homosexual role. Apart from their sexual orientation, homosexuals may have very little in common, unless it is slowly acquired under various social pressures. Thus, in America, the old mechanisms of creating homosexual deviance are gradually breaking down. At least some of the more obvious traditional strategies are no longer successful. It is now being recognized, for example, that the psychiatric search for the causes of homosexuality has never been a neutral scientific enterprise. Instead, it was simply an attempt to find new justifications for controlling homosexuals and new methods of doing so. In actual fact, therefore, the psychiatrist looking for the causes of homosexuality rather resembled a Catholic Inquisitor looking for the causes of Protestantism. He was not an objective observer trying to gain some theoretical insight, but a partisan agent of the established order trying to stamp out an aberration. Furthermore, it has now become obvious that, like Protestantism, homosexuality does not have any particular set of causes. In fact, the two phenomena themselves are virtually impossible to nail down, since both Protestants and homosexuals appear in an endless variety of degrees, shapes, and sizes. In the final analysis, therefore, religious and sexual heresies cannot be usefully studied in isolation. They are the natural product of religious and sexual orthodoxy.

Does this mean that all sexual standards are equal or that they should all equally be abandoned? Is deviance only in the eye of the beholder? Is everything relative? Are there no firm sexual guidelines at all? Should we give up reprimanding people for sexual immorality, punishing them for sexual crimes, or treating them for sexual problems? Obviously not. We have both the right and the duty to do all of these things. After all, nearly every day we see or hear about cases of severe sexual maladjustment leading to conflict and misery. In some of these cases, there are victims who demand protection from various forms of sexual assault, in other cases people suffer from crippling sexual inhibitions, compulsions, or destructive tendencies and ask for professional help. Neither the former nor the latter can long be ignored. No society can survive without a certain minimum of sexual standards or even certain sexual ideals. The enforcement of these standards and the pursuit of these ideals are a direct reflection of a society's moral worth.

By the same token, however, it also well behooves every society to examine and reexamine its sexual values in the light of experience. Furthermore, it should also openly take responsibility for them, instead of hiding behind some alleged "natural order". Historical and cross-cultural studies show all too clearly that sexual violence and misery often spring directly from unrealistic, unreasonable, and unnecessary social regulation. Certainly our own Judeo-Christian civilization has a very dismal record in this regard. The history of sexual deviance in Europe and America is replete with appalling examples of official hypocrisy, cruelty, and fanaticism and thus teaches all of us a very melancholy lesson.

The following pages examine the traditional Western religious, legal, and medical standards for sexual behavior in greater detail. The resulting forms of sexual deviance and the various professional strategies for dealing with them are also discussed at some length. The issue may be further illuminated by a few cross-cultural observations. For the sake of greater clarity, the text has been organized in three separate sections which follow the same basic pattern.


[Title Page] [Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [The Human Body] [Sexual Behavior] [Sex and Society] [The Social Roles] [Conformity & Deviance] [Marriage and Family] [The Oppressed] ["Sexual Revolution"] [Epilogue] [Sexual Slang Glossary] [Sex Education Test] [Picture Credits]