Abnormality (EoH)

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The lay public remains much concerned about the question of whether homosexual behavior is abnormal. In medical pathology the term "abnormal" refers to conditions which interfere with the physical well-being and functioning of a living body. Applied to social life, such an approach entails subjective judgments about what the good life is. Moreover, insofar as homosexual and other variant lifestyles can be considered "maladjusted," that assumption reflects the punitive intrusion of socially sanctioned prescriptions rather than any internal limitations imposed by the behavior itself. In otherwords, once the corrosive element of self-contempt, which is introjected by the social environment, is removed, homosexual men and lesbian women would appear to function as well as anyone else. Another difficulty with the concept is that the pair normal/abnormal suggests a sharp dichotomy. Kinsey's findings, however, suggest that sexual behavior is best understood as a continuum with many individuals falling between the poles and shifting position over the course of their lives. It is true but trivialthat in a purely statistical sense homosexual behavior in our society is abnormal, since it is not practiced by most people most of the time. But the same is the case with such behavior as opera singing, the monastic vocation, medicine-all of which are valued occupations, but ones practiced only by small segments of the population. Labeling sopranos, monks, or physicians abnormal would be tautological-it amounts to sayingthat amember of agroupis amember of a group. Needless to say, we are not accustomed to refer to such pursuits as abnormal because they do not, as a rule, incur social disapproval. Sometimes the matter is referred to biology, by enquiring as to whether animals practice it . (See animal homosexuality.) Once again, such cultural activities as religion and medicine are not practiced by animals, but this lack does not compel us to condemn them as abnormal. Because of thenegative freight that has accumulated over the years, augmented by numerous courses in "abnormal psychology," it is best that the term be used very sparingly--if at all-in connection with sexual behavior. The history of the word itself reveals an interesting, if obscure interchange between linguistic development and judgrnentalism. As the Oxford English Dictionary noted (with unconscious irony) in 1884, "few words show such a series of pseudo-etymological perversions." The process that occasioned this unusual lexicographical outburst is as follows. Greek anomalos ("not even or level") produced Latin anomalus-and eventually our word anomalous. Then, through confusion with norma, "rule," the Latin word was corrupted to anormalis, hence French and Middle English anormal. The parasitic "b" crept in as the second letter of the modem word through scribal intervention rather than the natural evolution of speech. (Compare the intrusive "dl1 and "h" in "adventure" and "author" respectively .) It is true that classical Latin had abnormis, "departing from the rule," but it did not possess abnormalis. The presence of the "b" in our word abnormal serves to create an unconscious association with "aberrant," "abreaction," etc. To summarize, the pejorative connotations are enhanced by the intrusion of two consonants, "b" and "r," which-the etymology shows-do not belong there. Two rare anticipations of modern usage may be noted as curiosities. In a harangue against sodomites, the French thirteenth-century Roman delarose (lines 19619-20) refers to those who practice "exceptions anormales." In 1869 the homosexual theorist Kkoly Mkia Kertbeny coined a word, normalsexual (= heterosexual], in contrast with homosexual (which by inference is not normal). Although Kertbeny's first word, in striking contrast to the second, gained no currency, it did anticipate the twentiethcentury contrast of normal and abnormal sexuality.


Alfred Kinsey et al., "Normality and Abnormality in Sexual Behavior," in P. H. Hoch and J. Zubin, eds., Psychological Development in Health and Disease, New York: Grune and Stratton, 1949, 11-32. Wayne R. Dynes

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