Questioning the Homo-/Hetero-/Bi-/Asexual Taxonomy – Part Four of Four: Final Thoughts

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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.

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8 thoughts on “Questioning the Homo-/Hetero-/Bi-/Asexual Taxonomy – Part Four of Four: Final Thoughts

  1. “My answer, in two words, is happy families.”

    I’m sure you already know this, but I define “happy family” differently than you do.

    “The only plausible benefit of our taxonomy of supposedly immutable sexual orientations, so far as I can see, is that it legitimizes the gay identity.”

    Whoa. This line is pretty yikes. I mean, you see no other benefits of being able to identify as NOT heterosexual? Really? That’s hard for me to believe. It seems like you’d have to actively ignore a whole bunch of peoples’ experiences in order to say that.

    Like I mentioned in a comment on another post, you couldn’t have even written these essays without the existence and acceptance of those 4 words.

    If I understand correctly, you seem to think the 4 words are causing the trouble. For you, a person that has experienced sexual fluidity, the words caused stress — I assume because our church teaches that one kind of sexual attraction is “good” and everything else is “bad”. Again, from what I understand, you assumed you were heterosexual, didn’t think much about it, then experienced some same sex attraction, and felt anxiety that you were possibly gay.

    The 4 words aren’t the issue. The idea that gayness was cause for anxiety is the issue. I repeat: The idea that gayness was cause for anxiety is the issue. And that idea was something you definitely weren’t born with, it was something you were taught (and are still being taught.)

    Not everyone is equally sexually fluid. There are people who have tried to be attracted to the opposite sex and can not do so, no matter how hard they try. Are the 4 words the problem there? Or is it the fear that their family and community will reject them if they can not be attracted to the opposite sex?

    Being able to freely and safely say, “I am not heterosexual, and I didn’t choose to be this way” has been hugely beneficial, even life saving, to millions of people. That’s a pretty big benefit in my opinion. Before those 4 words, it meant millions of people living in fear, pretending to be something they are not, and often being punished for it anyway.

    I know I’ve left long comments, which I feel apologetic about. But I think this is such an important topic and I appreciate you opening it up with this series.

    When I return back to your first essay, my thoughts are still the same. I agree that the general “sexual” is the better term and I think we’re moving that direction. In order for us to get there, I believe we will have to remove the stigma from the various sexual attractions (outside of children and animals). I think we’ll also need to let go of our gender constructions to achieve this.

  2. If you will read the Wikipedia page on Foucault’s History of Sexuality, I believe you will be convinced (as I am) that there never was a heterosexual only paradigm: the concept of heterosexuality and homosexuality developed together by contrast with each other at the same moment in history. I think it was an illegitimate development and we should return to just “sexuality” (as you know). But I agree that the current taxonomy would be descriptively more accurate than the heterosexual only paradigm (if the latter had ever existed)–but better still would be to get rid of the categories of orientation, especially as the defining feature of one’s sexuality. Sexual behavior is important. Moral commitments are important. Inclinations and “orientations” are not important.

    Certainly it is a problem if a person is rejected by family and community based on their sexual desires. I even think it is a problem if love is withheld from a person on the basis of sexual behavior (or on any other basis). But I think it is OK to promulgate sexual norms that help people regulate their own behavior and live healthier and happier lives. That will entail some social pressure and it will produce some stress, but the alternative (letting sexuality express itself in whatever way presents itself without guidance or discipline) is a recipe for much greater stress.

  3. “But I think it is OK to promulgate sexual norms that help people regulate their own behavior and live healthier and happier lives. That will entail some social pressure and it will produce some stress, but the alternative (letting sexuality express itself in whatever way presents itself without guidance or discipline) is a recipe for much greater stress.” I agree. And I think Happy Families is a worthy aim. I don’t see why this could or should preclude a gay couple or families with gay parents.

  4. I’m very glad you agree. I think it’s extremely important to remember the role society plays in directing sexuality, and curbing the impetuosity of individual freedom.

    I have not defended the proposition that the goal of happy families is best served by promoting traditional marriage as the sole context where sex is encouraged. I merely referred my readers to Dennis Prager’s argument, which I find persuasive even though I reserve judgment on several of his claims. But I am going to revise this post because this question (regarding the desirability of gay marriage and the setting aside of traditional Judeo-Christian sexual morality) confuses the main issue and distracts the reader. My main point is only tenuously related to sexual morality: it is that our categories of sexual orientation are misleading and harmful, especially when conceived as an expression of some essential part of one’s nature that is there simply to be discovered.

  5. Great article! And thank you for your voice.

    As far as happy families go, I know that the gay community likes to showcase shiny happy gay parenting situations but the vast majority of same sex partners are not monogamous. Mark my words on this. Gay men outside the LDS church are well known for promiscuity, with an average of 250 sexual partners in their lifetime and 1/4 admitting to an average of 500. There is a dark side to this that gets brushed under the rug. Mix in children and this lifestyle does not being happiness. The union of a man and woman create children who are tied to that union which offers stability within a marital relationship. This ideal is the ideal for a wise purpose 🙂

    1. Ok, I’d like to know your source but let’s assume that’s true. Why do you care if gay men are having lots of sex with each other? Are they causing you harm? Is the promiscuity of some gay men a valid reason to deny those who want to be monogamous the right to get married and raise a family? And what about gay women?

  6. This was an interesting series of posts. You make some good points. I agree that human sexuality is much more complicated than is reflected by those four labels. From my limited understanding I do believe you are correct about the recent origin of the concept of sexual orientation as well. For most of history sexuality was viewed as something separate from marriage and family and there was little need for the idea. However, the concepts of marriage and family have evolved, which I think gave rise to the need to define sexual orientation. Modern marriage, at least in most Western societies today, is a relationship based on romantic love, sexual attraction, and a desire to create a new family unit together. People who don’t experience romantic or sexual attraction to anyone of the opposite sex but do feel attraction to someone of the same sex (who admittedly are a small minority) are only able to form that kind of relationship with someone of their same sex. Thus the need for the definition of homosexual orientation. It may not be entirely accurate for everyone that identifies with it since they may feel some degree of attraction to the opposite sex, and maybe as a society we’ll grow out of needing it, but for now it’s useful. I don’t think the mere existence of labels for sexual orientation implies that it’s an immutable characteristic or that it defines a person. There are certainly those who espouse that belief, but I think it’s possible to use them as simply descriptors that people can use in expressing their attractions. It’s entirely possible to identify as heterosexual one day and then later decide to identify as something else, it’s not like you have to choose at a certain age which label to use and stick with it forever. And if someone doesn’t like any of the accepted labels, they can choose not to identify with any of them.

    I identify as gay (among many other things of which it’s not nearly the most important) because I am exclusively attracted to the same sex. No amount of effort or ‘encouragement’, and I tried for many years, was able to produce any attraction to the opposite sex. My sexuality has certainly changed through my life in certain ways, but the sex of the people I’m attracted to hasn’t. My boyfriend, however, has been attracted to both males and females, though mostly to males. He says he’s only ever had romantic interest in men. While interesting to know simply because he’s my partner and I want to know everything about him, I don’t really care who else he’s attracted to. I know he’s attracted to me and he’s committed to me, and that’s what’s important. Maybe one day I will feel attraction to a woman, I can’t say never though it seems unlikely, but that doesn’t really matter much to me either, because I am attracted to and committed to him.

    1. Thank you, Danny, for your open-minded engagement and your willingness to share your own experience. It is refreshing and deeply gratifying to receive validation on at least some of my project here from someone who (to judge by your other comment above) disagrees with me about various related issues. You are certainly right that the idea of marriage and family have evolved. Marriage in increasingly viewed as a “relationship based on romantic love, sexual attraction, and a desire to create a new family unit,” but older meanings also persist–meanings centered on procreation, the organization and perpetuation of the community, and marital duties and privileges for both husband and wife. There is no single universally accepted meaning, but the romance-based marriage is currently the dominant paradigm. The gay marriage movement seeks to make romantic/sexual attraction and the mutual desire to form a family-type unit the sole and sufficient condition for marriage. I subscribe to the older definition of marriage, and that is part of the reason I oppose same-sex marriage.

      I think you are right, though, that the commitment of the members of a marriage or marriage-like relationship is the crucial thing–not who they do or do not happen to be attracted to. Romantic and sexual attraction to each other certainly helps, but it is certainly not a sufficient condition for the success of such a relationship, and (I would argue though I anticipate that you might disagree) it is not even a necessary condition.

      Again, I thank you for your willingness to validate at least some of my argument, and we can agree to disagree about other issues even as we seek to understand each other. You might find it helpful in seeking to understand where people like Julie (above) are coming from to see this TedTalk that a friend recently made me aware of. Her theory of the “ideal” and your “Are they causing you harm?” response bears out this speaker’s theory about the differing moral foundations that are characteristically held by social conservatives and social liberals respectively. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vs41JrnGaxc

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