Questioning the Homo-/Hetero-/Bi-/Asexual Taxonomy – Part Three of Four: The Evidence of Your Personal Experience

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I claimed, at the end of Part One, that “the potentiality for sexual interest in either gender is natural in nearly all people in some degree.” In Part Two I explained my own experience, which bears this out. Here I mean to appeal to more general experiences that I’m sure I share with almost all readers to prove this point.

Please imagine your likely response to three different pornographic films: one with only male actors, one with only female, and one with mixed. Now, I believe that pornography is, not to put too fine a point on it, evil. So don’t try this at home. But suppose that you could and did overcome any feelings of guilt, fear, or disgust that may be present, so that you could view the films as they were meant to be viewed—as an aid to arousal—without the interference of such emotions. Supposing that each film was “well done” (effective), would arousal not be attainable in each case? It certainly would be for me. The aesthetic appeal of the human form is a compelling thing; sexiness is sexy; desire is desirable; and the performance of arousal is itself arousing. That is how sexual desire is evoked—by both genders in both genders.

It is not, then, femaleness or maleness, but sexiness that is the main catalyst for sexual desire. Contrast your hypothetical viewing of the three pornographic films with a parallel case: you are now viewing three groups of inert bodies (male, female, and mixed) in either a post-op recovery room or a morgue. Or, if you find this example disturbing, imagine you are viewing three sets of non-erotic nude statues. These bodies do not ask to be viewed sexually, and my guess is that in each case (assuming normal sexuality), the tendency towards arousal would be vastly less than in any one of the hypothetical porn films.

Please note that this position is perfectly consistent with “gay” rights and “gay” marriage. Recall from Part One that neither the Greeks (for whom there was no stigma against “homosexual” activity) nor the medieval Christians (for whom there was such a stigma) believed in our taxonomy of sexuality. Neither instituted gay marriage, but their philosophy of sexuality does not preclude “gay” marriage. Their philosophy (and mine) is in direct tension only with the idea of “gay-ness”—at least when “gay-ness” is thought of as an inherent rather than an assumed part of one’s identity (see David’s related post on inherent vs. assumed identities here). The issue of whether homosexual activity is objectionable (i.e., whether the “pagan” tradition or the Judeo-Christian tradition is correct on this point) is a separate issue.

We may consult our personal experience for other evidences against those who wish to maintain that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic analogous to race; that it belongs wholly to the realm of nature rather than nurture; that persons are wholly incapable of influencing their own sexuality through their efforts; and that social training, cultural stigmas, and therapy are all unlikely to have any effect on sexual orientation.

There is our lived experience of a sudden shift in the nature of our interest in a person when we realize that the person is younger than we had thought (an unusually mature pre-teen, let us suppose)—or that the person is a relative—or of the opposite gender from what we had supposed. We had regarded the person as sexually attractive, but we are abruptly disabused of both our miscategorization and our attraction—or, at the least, our attraction becomes a much more disturbing and uncomfortable thing, less likely to be acted on. We experience the shift as something that happens to us upon realizing our mistake, not something that we intentionally enact. It follows that social training makes a difference, and involuntarily affects how we view others, at least until we un-learn the social training.

The universal taboo against incest is especially revealing. If it were true that it is simply a person’s inescapable nature to be attracted to men (let the person be of either gender), then what would account for the person’s ability to avoid attraction to a handsome brother? (Most of us have this ability, and value it.) The answer would seem to be that the taboo makes a difference—not only in our reaction to sexual attraction, but in whether or not we experience such attraction in the first place.

Some of our social training regards the categories we use to understand our feelings. Our psychological and physiological responses to others are not self-explaining, and are often ambiguous. In an interesting and related blog post, D.C. McAllister argues that our culture is so sexualized and so focused on eros (romantic love) that we have neglected philia (friendship)—and this prompts us to interpret strong feelings of connection with others and desire for further connection as sexual (when they could better be interpreted as non-sexual social feelings). And the interpretation can actually affect the reality. We can sexualize a relationship by placing it within a sexual paradigm. If she is right (as I think she is), it demonstrates that acts of interpretation, together with socially constructed categories (McAllister takes on “bromance”), can change how we experience our sexuality.

Consider also how sexual interest waxes and wanes in any romantic relationship. We often become more or less attracted as we get to know a person, and sexual interest is also clearly affected by one’s mood, one’s health, one’s expectations, and one’s perceptions of oneself and of the other. This waxing and waning of sexual interest in the particular person does not necessarily correlate with the waxing and waning of sexual desire generally.

There is the easily demonstrated fact that sexual tastes often change. What an individual finds sexually enticing will vary over the course of a life—and what a culture or sub-culture considers attractive will similarly change even as it differs from other cultures or sub-cultures.

There are, finally, the sad facts that the desire for sexual novelty, adventure, and/or rebellion can lead to harmful results (sadomasochistic sexuality or teen pregnancy, for example); that sexual behaviors can be addictive; that soft pornography tends to lead to hard pornography which tends to lead to violent pornography; and that sexuality can in various other ways grow enflamed and distorted until it interferes with the normal functioning and well-being of individuals and societies.

I hope this is enough to demonstrate beyond a doubt that sexuality is not merely a brute characteristic of our animal natures, determined beforehand and beyond the reach of individuals or society, and that people are born homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or asexual. It is perfectly clear that sexuality is in part a product of the animal need to reproduce, but its expressions and the ways we interact with it and interpret it are deeply and fundamentally affected by various “nurture” forces, some of them (like social training and language) largely beyond our control, but some of them (like our personal narratives and our sexual behaviors) largely within our control. It is also perfectly clear that society does and should take a hand in directing sexuality towards good results and away from bad ones.

4 thoughts on “Questioning the Homo-/Hetero-/Bi-/Asexual Taxonomy – Part Three of Four: The Evidence of Your Personal Experience

  1. I think Part 3 is the one I’m having the hardest connecting with. I couldn’t relate to the porn example at all. Even if I overcame “any feelings of guilt, fear, or disgust” I can guarantee I wouldn’t be turned on by any of the 3 options.

    At first glance, I’m on board with the idea that sexiness is sexy. But when I try and apply it across several examples in my own life, it’s not true for me. As I said, porn, even in the best case scenario, is not sexy to me. I adore having sex but neither male or female genitilia — even sexily displayed — is interesting to me at all. Male strippers dancing sexy? Nope. Not sexy to me.

    I’m closer on your context examples. Dead bodies? Not sexy. Statues? Depends on the statue. Siblings? Not sexy. (Sidenote: My understanding is that the sibling taboo came about because it negatively affected chromosomal development. As we have more and more control over biology, I wonder if this taboo will disappear?)

    The waxing and waning of sexual interest in relationships I also didn’t relate to, because for me, the waning seems to come from external sources — exhaustion, hunger — and it doesn’t affect my sexual attraction fluidity, meaning if I’m less in the mood for sex with my husband, it doesn’t mean that I’m more in the mood for sex with a female. Not at all.

    Basically, by the end of Part 3, my conclusion is: nurture/community affects sexuality somewhat, but genes affect it much more. I imagine people are born on the sexual attraction fluidity spectrum. Some people are extremely fluid, others are not fluid at all, and most people are somewhere in between.

    But if they grow up in a culture that values heterosexuality (like ours has historically done), then most people never really consider that fluidity spectrum. As we become more accepting of all types of sexuality, I assume more people will recognize where they are on the spectrum. Some will realize they are more fluid than they thought, others will realize they are strictly attracted to the same sex, or strictly attracted to the opposite sex.

  2. Whether genes affect sexuality more or less than nurture/community is a hard question to answer with any certainty. What I think is clear is that sexuality is deeply affected by psychological and cultural influences. Nature’s role, in my view, is mainly to supply plenty of raw sexuality, but it is (again, in my view) generally highly polymorphous even though it has a particular reproductive function. Whether people are sexually fluid or not is probably also deeply affected by nurture, psychology, ideology, social pressures, experiences, etc.

    The fact that you apparently don’t find anything purely visual sexy is a) admirable and b) probably a product of your moral commitments and deeply held beliefs. I don’t think that if you had been born and raised differently (though genetically identical) you could never possibly find these things enticing. But of course neither of us can say for sure–you have been born and raised in the way that you have, and we are both glad that you (unlike me, I’m afraid) do not find porn even remotely tempting.

    I don’t think the taboo against incest exists because of genetic considerations. It exists because it would corrupt family life. It developed millenia before we had any idea about chromosomes. Now there could be a “survival of the fittest” element here–the societies that had such a taboo survived and the others didn’t. And why didn’t they? Obviously, this is speculation, but my guess is that the toxic family relations would be at least as influential in the extinction of those societies (if they existed) as would be the genetic problems.

  3. I wouldn’t say I don’t find visual things sexy, it’s that I don’t find watching sex acts sexy. Romantic movies can be super sexy without coming anywhere near porn. Or heck, videos of handsome men holding babies get passed around Facebook like crack because they are a total turn on for many women (and probably some men too). I’m not trying to be admirable in my views on porn, I’m just saying I couldn’t relate to the example you described. There may be another example you come up with that I could relate to better.

    Possibly it’s how I was raised, but I don’t know if that’s actually a major factor. Up until I got married I pushed the sex boundaries as much as I could without actually having sex, and never felt a stitch of guilt about it, so I don’t think it’s a sex avoidance thing or an attempt to keep myself “innocent”, though I know that’s what my culture tried to teach me. It’s so hard to tell how much of who we are came at birth.

    I would say among heterosexual women, my response to porn isn’t unusual, though it’s not universal either. A movie called Magic Mike came out in theaters recently and I was laughing with some friends about it. It’s not porn, but does feature scantily clad, muscle-bound men. We were evenly split: half loved the idea of Channing Tatum as a stripper. The other half love him as an actor, but had no desire to see him as a sexy dancer.

    Different people like different things. At this point, I’ve encountered more than enough porn in my life to know it’s not for me as a sexual tool.

    The more I think about it, I don’t know if there’s an example we could come up with that would be universally sexy for everybody to imagine. There seem to be a lot of personal preferences involved.

    On siblings: I may have been taught wrong, but the “survival of the fittest” theory is actually exactly what I was taught about the sibling taboo. The idea is that it was learned from observation ages ago, in the same way that people eventually figured out that women only got pregnant during certain weeks of the month.

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