I concluded Part Three by asserting that “society does and should take a hand in directing sexuality towards good results and away from bad ones”—but what counts as a “good” result, and how are good results to be encouraged? These are very important questions, but they are not the questions I am dealing with here. I will say only, in passing, that the authority to answer these questions is entrusted primarily to We the People (and not to the Supreme Court).
What I am dealing with here is not sexual morality, but sexuality simply as such: what is it? I have given no complete answer, but I have suggested that sexuality is NOT something that just happens to us. In particular, I have argued that (1) sexual orientation is not an immutable (i.e., unchangeable, inherent) characteristic of our natures, and (2) our culture should not impose on individuals a sexual identity based upon that orientation. Currently, our culture does impose such an identity by attempting to place everyone in one of four “immutable nature” boxes—homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or asexual. Dominant elements of our culture even suggest that in order to achieve an authentic existence, one ought to recognize which box one was born into and act accordingly. These cultural impositions account for much of the stress and angst needlessly suffered by so many people over “discovering” what their sexual orientations are.
Individuals remain completely free, of course, to impose on themselves a sexual identity based upon their sexual orientation. I personally don’t prefer this as a way to define one’s sexual identity, but that is immaterial to my argument. I may write a subsequent post in which I argue that one’s sexual identity should be bound up with the personal relationship(s) (hopefully singular) in which it is or will be primarily expressed, rather than in the gender to which one is primarily attracted. But THAT IS NOT THIS. What I have done here is mainly to rally the evidence that sexual orientation is not an inherent, predetermined, and immutable characteristic of one’s nature.
Part One shows that never in history have people thought of sexuality in this way until the 19th century. So if sexual orientation is an inherent, predetermined, and immutable characteristic of one’s nature, people apparently failed to notice the fact for a very long time.
Part Two details my personal experience, which has been that sexual orientation does indeed shift, and is furthermore both amenable and responsive to differing interpretations and influences both from the individual and from the cultural pressures that reach him. In my case, the teachings of my society and those of my religion regarding sexuality turned out to be an anxiety-producing combination. But I would add that even people without a traditional Judeo-Christian sense of sexual morality would also experience some degree of anxiety over same-sex attraction, given the desire to fit in to a primarily “heterosexual” society, or even just given the identity-defining importance attached to sexual orientation in our society.
Part Three argues that not only my sexuality, but everyone’s, is similarly deeply and fundamentally influenced by “nurture” factors such as individual imagination, social codes, categories, and interpretations. In particular, it argues that the sexiness of something (as defined largely by culture), rather than its gender, is the primary catalyst for sexual desire. The particular examples used (such as the pornography thought experiment) may not ring true to everyone—but I think everyone must at least concede that cultural and psychological contexts make a vast difference in how one experiences and interprets one’s own sexuality: sexuality is, in large measure, a social construct. I do not use the term “social construct” dismissively. Many realities of at least equal importance to those accessible by hard science are embodied in social constructs—most of the truths of religion, for example. When I say “sexuality is, in large measure, a social construct,” I mean only that how one experiences one’s own sexuality is deeply affected by one’s society. If any of my readers are not yet willing to concede this point, may I suggest this shortish blog post by a fellow who seems pretty clearly to be pro-gay marriage and who agrees with me on this point. Or the chapter on sexuality in an anthropology textbook.
There are good and bad social constructs—truthful and misleading social constructs—and I think our rigid taxonomy for categorizing sexual orientations is of the bad and misleading sort: misleading because it pretends to correspond with something fundamental in our natures without actually doing so; and bad because it thereby creates needless anxiety.
It does not follow from the socially-constructedness of sexuality that genetic and biological factors make no difference in sexual orientation. There seems to be good evidence that they do. (There is equally good evidence that such factors do not make all the difference—the fact that many identical twins identify differently, for example. By contrast, identical twins are always of the same race. See this piece summarizing the research regarding links between biology and sexual orientation, including twin studies that tend to show that genetic factors are not the main cause.)
It also does not follow from the socially-constructedness of sexuality that personal choice necessarily does makes a difference in sexual orientation. I do not claim to know the degree to which any given person in contemporary society is free (or can learn to obtain some freedom) to determine that person’s sexual orientation once it is formed—and (or so I hear) most do not experience a conscious choice in the formation. Yet some people, at least, have some say in the matter, for some have succeeded in changing their sexual orientations (see this study). One of my friends identified as gay, but then fell in love with a woman and is happily married; he now identifies as bisexual. But just because some have changed does not mean that everyone can: some have tried and failed to do so.
That some have tried and failed to change their sexual orientation does not necessarily mean that they never could succeed—but it is clear that sexual orientation has been resistant to many therapies. It would be interesting to study the reasons for this. All I insist on is that it would be both false and unhelpful to promulgate the doctrine that one’s orientation is simply and purely an immutable characteristic of one’s nature.
I wonder if part of the explanation is that sexuality is better led by suggestion, invitation, and opportunity than by instruction, precept, and prohibition. It is better “pulled” towards something than “pushed” away. It more easily expands than contracts. Plato has compared sexuality (and the other passions) to unruly horses who are barely to be controlled even by the best charioteer (the charioteer representing Reason). Certainly my experience suggests that the way to fight unwanted sexual thoughts and impulses is not through direct resistance (“whatever you do, don’t for even a moment have thought X” is a sure formula for raising thought X in the mind). For these reasons, I suspect that it would be vastly easier to learn sexual desire for the opposite sex than to eliminate sexual desire for the same sex.
The fact that sexual orientation sometimes seems intractable is the main (and only?) evidence in favor of the “immutable characteristic of nature” school of thought. (Correlations between certain physical or genetic traits and “homosexuality” do not even purport to show that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic of one’s nature.) But plenty of other explanations for the apparent intractability are readily available that can better account for the overwhelming evidence that culture and psychology play a huge role in one’s sexual reality. Idiosyncratic affinities and disaffinities (arachnophobia, for instance) are often similarly intractable, but nobody claims that these are immutable characteristics of anyone’s nature.
In summary, our current taxonomy of sexualities causes needless anxiety to those who, because of that taxonomy, believe that their identities are somehow implicated in the nature of their sexual desires. The urge to place everyone in one of the four boxes obscures the amorphous, ambiguous, and shifting nature of sexuality; and whatever potential there may be for self-determination of one’s sexual orientation is compromised by the belief that sexual orientation is part of one’s identity or an immutable part of one’s nature. Instead, we should just recognize that sexuality is sexuality—there are not four discrete kinds of it—and, it seems to me, there is nothing in the nature of most people’s sexuality to block interest in both genders. Therefore, the gender(s) to which one is attracted at a particular period of one’s life is not the most important, or even an important way to categorize or understand sexuality. Sexual behavior is important. Healthy relationships are important. Moral commitments and social codes are important. Sexual impulses and “orientations” are not, unless and until they begin interfering with healthy relationships, moral commitments, and social codes. By placing undue emphasis on impulses and orientations, our taxonomy makes it more likely that they will interfere with people’s lives in these ways. So society should get out of the business of defining people’s sexuality for them on this basis.
The only plausible disadvantage I can see to rejecting our current taxonomy and the notion that one’s orientation is an immutable characteristic of one’s nature, is that it decouples sexual orientation from race (which is an immutable characteristic of one’s biological nature, at least according to Supreme Court precedent). It thereby removes one ground of justification for the gay identity. Even if this is a detriment, there are other plausible grounds for justification. “Homosexuality” should be debated on the merits, rather than preserved from the ideological boxing ring by an invalid association with race.
Join me in promoting the truth that sexuality is vastly more complicated, more indeterminate, and more affected by nurture than the currently dominant sexual ideology assumes.