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Exploring Sexual Identity through Essentialism, Social Construction, and Goffman’s Stigma

Denay Patterson
Ohio Northern University

Sexual identity has become an increasingly prominent topic in popular culture lately.  From a hit song about girl-on-girl kissing to the record number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters on television this season, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, exploration of sexual identity is becoming more and more accepted in society.  Despite this increased awareness of sexual diversity in the media, many people do not begin exploring their own sexuality until adolescence or later, giving sexual identity less time to develop in a person.  Thus, it is quite common for people to still be unsure of their sexual identity during early and even middle adulthood.  Due to the complexity of sexual identity development and discovery, the field of research in sexual identity is varied.  In this paper I explore two opposing theories on the topic, essentialism and social construction.  Essentialism assumes an innate, biological source of sexual orientation, whereas social construction argues that sexual orientation is constructed based on society.  I give the background of and evaluate both of these theories and then discuss any ways in which the two might be synthesized.  Finally, I discuss Goffman’s theory of stigma in light of sexual orientation and these two theories.

North Central Sociological Association Conference, Dearborn, MI