Sexuality à la carte?



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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51 Responses

  1. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I sadly have to go back to work in a few minutes. It does occur to me, though, that the idea of an innate “identity” as such really doesn’t date back much further than the Renaissance. This idea of a fixed inner self, often at odds with a social self, is really an early modern idea that becomes a full-blown fascination in the modern era, especially for the Romantics. I wonder if it’s not tied up with the Enlightenment and new ideas about political legitimacy originating in the individual body.Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Right, but plenty of correct ideas have a very short provenance. I mean, it’s possible that everyone was just wrong about human sexuality until very recently.Report

      • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Will says:

        Possible — in fact this seems to be the default intellectual position among educated Americans — but it seems to me unlikely. Unlike scientific discoveries, discovering basic facts about human sexuality requires no special mathematics or precise measuring instruments. It seems much more plausible that sexual desire is something that is at least in part constructed by societies; there is no such thing as desire uninformed or unshaped by culture.

        I think Rufus’s point, though, is that an innate personal identity at odds with your society is one of those things you can’t have until somebody invents it.Report

        • Avatar Will in reply to David Schaengold says:

          Yeah, I don’t want to totally dismiss the way culture shapes our sexual identities. But the idea that certain sexual preferences are related to innate, scientifically-discernible traits does not strike me as outlandish.Report

          • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Will says:

            Certainly the material that cultures shape into desires is innate, but how would science go about discerning innate traits that previous societies had left undiscovered?Report

              • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Will says:

                So that would put these discoveries in the future, at a minimum, since we certainly don’t know presently how genes relate to sexual desire.

                But even in principle this wouldn’t work. Take the limit case, where it was discovered that all people with same-sex desire shared a certain gene. Even this would not definitively establish that there had always been a class of people with a permanent orientation to desire members of the same sex, because it might well be the case, and indeed history would still indicate, that the phenomenon of permanent same-sex attraction is a function of cultural forces in the present acting over that gene.Report

              • Avatar Will in reply to David Schaengold says:

                But that’s would be a pretty suggestive finding, right? Wouldn’t that at least imply that a certain subset of the population had, throughout human history, experienced consistent desires for the same sex, even if they didn’t act on them? Those feelings may have been mediated or suppressed by certain cultural practices, but that doesn’t disprove the existence of innate sexual preferences.Report

              • Avatar Freddie in reply to Will says:

                But Will, finding a genetic cause for traits is pretty easy. There have been some significant improvements in our understanding of heritability since Mendel, but Mendelian inheritance is still pretty much accurate. And there has been no consistent evidence of heritability of homosexuality in the little available literature we have. Identical twins, even, have been found with one straight twin and one gay twin. Now the number of specific alleles that contribute to sexual preference could easily be high, making heritability a complicated thing to track. But that complication would also likely contribute to sexual orientation as it is experienced. It’s complicated, and even if you’re speaking in jest, calling arguments that it is complicated an argument of “sexuality a la carte” isn’t productive.Report

              • Avatar Freddie in reply to Freddie says:

                Note that this isn’t an argument against a genetic origin of sexual orientation. I’d be quite surprised, given the anatomical nature of sexual attraction, if there wasn’t a partially genetic explanation. But our limited understandings of the demographics of gay men and women suggest that the genetic element is part of a more complicated set of factors, such as what happens in utero, as in the older brothers hypothesis.Report

              • Avatar Will in reply to Freddie says:

                As I said above, I don’t mean to diminish the impact of environmental factors or the complicated nature of human sexuality. The title of the post may not have conveyed this, but my larger point is that it’s quite possible that certain aspects of human sexuality are inherited or otherwise innate, even if they’ve been mediated or influenced by different cultural institutions throughout human history.Report

              • Avatar Rufus in reply to Freddie says:

                I actually lean towards the idea of natural tendencies, of varying intensities, that are activated or neutralized by environmental factors, if that makes sense. I also suspect that bisexuality, while not as prevalent as Foucault might say, is considerably more prevalent than society is currently willing to admit. When I watched Ted Haggard being interviewed by Oprah, it seemed fairly evident to me that he was describing bisexuality, and that she could not wrap her head around it. I halfway expected “tilt” to appear across Oprah’s eyeballs.Report

  2. A couple weeks ago I finished Robert Graves’ memoir Goodbye to All That, which of course is primarily about his experiences in WWI but includes quite a bit about his pre-war experiences. He writes about a similar kind of behavior being widely practiced and tolerated at his college, Charterhouse. He also writes about having in effect a long-term romantic relationship with an underclassman for which he was routinely chastised, but he never considered himself a homosexual.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    A joke.

    It’s an octogenarian’s birthday and a chick jumps out of a cake and says “I’m here to give you super sex!”

    He says “I’ll take the soup.”Report

  4. Avatar Freddie says:

    This is a delicate issue and one for which I have taken some flak in the past.

    As you hint at, a rigid binary is becoming a bit of a dogma in some circles– gay people are just gay, born gay, genetically and physiologically gay, and people who claim to be bisexual are really just confused or unable to come to terms with their homosexuality. This is perhaps an extreme formulation, but I think you see it often enough in, for example, the gossipy websites which treat outings as accusations, even though they are supposedly operating from a place of enlightened attitudes towards homosexuality. You also see it, though, in the mainstream gay rights organizations, which have made the fact that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice an absolute crucial element of their political platform. This arises from noble intentions, but I do worry about some of the consequences.

    The first is just that I think that politicizing what is ultimately an empirical question is never a good idea, and you can see the rush to pronounce homosexuality as purely genetic as a good example of this. The fact is that there simply isn’t the science available to make that claim yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was revealed to be the case, but we have a long, long way to go before we can even say with certainty that there is an entirely physiological basis for human attraction, let alone ascribing a particular origin to that physiology. Human sexuality is an enormously complicated topic. The older brothers hypothesis involves empirical evidence about male homosexuality that would be contrary to a genetic (or purely genetic) explanation. More controversially, what little science is currently available has more success in demonstrating physiological evidence for male homosexuality than female. This is extremely sensitive territory, as many lesbians already feel that our culture does not respect their sexual identity as “really gay” in the way that male homosexuality is respected in that sense.

    Part of the problem is that there is often a really absurd false binary set up, where people insist that if you don’t think homosexuality is purely genetic, you are asserting that it is a choice. Which is flatly untrue. There are all sorts of alternative explanations that aren’t purely genetic but that nevertheless are not a choice. I am not suggesting that homosexuality is a mental disorder or anything similar, but I think our understanding of schizophrenia gives us a good clue to the complicated background of perceived human behaviors. Schizophrenia, science is now fairly confident, involves a genetic predisposition, exposure to certain environmental factors (controversially, exposure to house cats), and psychological conditions. While again insisting that I’m not suggesting being gay is a form of mental illness, I think that should suggest that there could easily be a combination of factors that contribute to homosexuality– genetic, environmental, psychological. Unfortunately, in the current climate, suggesting that psychological features or elements of a person’s experience contribute to their homosexuality tends to get immediately labeled calling homosexuality a choice.

    Part of the problem with the debate as it is currently conducted by the major gay rights organizations is that there is some frankly insulting logic going on behind certain arguments for gay rights and gay marriage. The insistence on the fact that homosexuality is not a choice as being the reason to allow gay marriage is in effect saying, “they can’t help it, so let’s give them rights.” To me, the salient point is that people deserve the right to marry whoever they want, or to have sex with whoever they want, because they are human beings and are afforded those basic rights. The legal contract of marriage shouldn’t be denied to any two people who want to enter into it no matter whether they are gay, straight or whatever. What if it were a choice? Are we honestly comfortable saying that in that circumstance, the government should have the right to define which two consenting adults have the right to marry?

    I know that the issue now is one of full legal equality and that this sort of argument is secondary to that fight. The real work is ongoing. But I do think that we should be careful about how we proceed, because it is easy for what seems like enlightenment to become just another set of orthodoxies. I understand why so many gay men and women express their opinions this way: they know that they are gay and have always been gay and that there is no doubt about. My point isn’t that every or most or a lot of gay people may also have attraction to members of the opposite sex. I’m only saying that people who do self-describe as bisexual deserve the right to do so without being dismissed as closet cases when they are men or as “Myspace Lesbians” if they are women. That’s a nuanced argument, and one that people often caricature; I got into this argument once and someone claimed I was really saying “gay men should try a girl once in awhile,” which is just ridiculous. People who have never felt anything other than homosexual attraction have every reason and every right to insist on being defined that way. Certainly, to me, bisexuality is hard to understand; I just don’t have personal experience or feelings that allow me to relate. But what I try to remember is that the point is not to try to extrapolate from my own experience in a universalizing way.

    I don’t know, maybe this is all off-base, but I feel like it’s important.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Freddie says:

      Well ol Kinsey hypothesized a continuum Freddie and I’ve yet to have seen any alternative that makes as much sense or is backed by much data. Some people are exclusively homosexual and then it runs a gamut up to the exclusive heterosexuals. It seems clear that with enough socialization you can push a person a ways up or down the continuum but only so far before they just can’t go any further. It’s been suggested by some studies that women are somewhat more flexible in that stretchiness than men.

      I think part of the visceral reaction to any challenge to the notion that homosexuality is not inherent is that in the minds of most gays that line leads to a path that runs up the hill to project exodus and the other ex-gay horror shows where hapless people are systematically brutalized both mentally and physically and then spit out “Cured by the powah of Jeysus!!!”Report

      • Avatar Freddie in reply to North says:

        I think part of the visceral reaction to any challenge to the notion that homosexuality is not inherent is that in the minds of most gays that line leads to a path that runs up the hill to project exodus and the other ex-gay horror shows where hapless people are systematically brutalized both mentally and physically and then spit out “Cured by the powah of Jeysus!!!”

        Yeah, I’d be a real bastard not to understand the attitude. I just question whether it’s the most fair or valuable going forward.Report

      • Without being too personal, I have always had a thing for redheads. I dated several of them. I use to think it was because I’m Irish and they just appealed to something locked away in my genetic code. Then not too long ago my mother remarked on my old dating habits. She reminded me that when I was a kid I was obsessed with an old Maureen O’Hara movie (The Black Swan). She thinks it came from that.

        I guess what I am saying is that I’ve always believed that the homosexuality was in no way just nature. If nuture can clearly affect our preferences (guys marry women like their mothers, fatherless girls marry older men) why is it so offensive to believe someone could be influenced in the direction of homosexuality? I think the answer is that it could possibly strengthen the case that homosexual couples raising children could produce a homosexual child. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that but the role of parents and environment play a HUGE role, as Freddie brilliantly pointed out in his comment.Report

    • Wow.

      This is just fantastic Freddie. Really. I agreed with literally every single word in your comment. I want to make my own comments but I can’t really top this so i will just say ‘ditto for me’.Report

      • Freddie – if that comment from me came across as sarcastic, it wasn’t meant to be. Your comment was spot-on…honestly.Report

        • I took it sincerely, Mike, and I appreciate the compliment.Report

          • Avatar Rufus in reply to Freddie says:

            Freddie, I wish your comment was its own post. I tend to think of sexuality in much the same way. This line rang a bell: “Schizophrenia, science is now fairly confident, involves a genetic predisposition, exposure to certain environmental factors (controversially, exposure to house cats), and psychological conditions.” I tend to think of nearsightedness, which definitely has a genetic marker; however, there are people with that marker who are not nearsighted, generally because they live in cultures that don’t read.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Freddie says:

      It’s important and your comment makes me appreciate not having had that many conversations which fall into the binary you mention. Mostly, I wanted to address this paragraph,

      The legal contract of marriage shouldn’t be denied to any two people who want to enter into it no matter whether they are gay, straight or whatever. What if it were a choice? Are we honestly comfortable saying that in that circumstance, the government should have the right to define which two consenting adults have the right to marry?

      What makes the number two any less arbitrary than the sex of the participants?

      If I were a polygamist, I might be encouraged by the nuance of your comment, but acutely aware that all the while, you never address or challenge the orthodoxy of two.

      I agree with 90% of what your comment, Freddie, I only disagree insofar as I’m unsure of where I stand on the idea of civil marriage in the first place. If it is indeed as personal and intimate as anything else, then the existence of civil marriage itself is an infringement upon liberty and individual rights.

      Not that I oppose the idea of formalizing familiar relations, but why we should – in a civil context – exalt the relationship between two people, seems odd.Report

      • Kyle – I agree with you that eliminating gender as a criteria for gender while retaining numerical standards is a bit disingenious of gay marriage proponents. This may be further reason for the suppression of the notion of bisexuality even among homosexuals…it would imply that forced-monogamy is a suppression of 50% of one’s sexual identity.

        As a legal matter though, gays have a bit more leverage in arguing for protected class status than polygamists do. I’m not saying I agree with that but it’s my interpretation of the law.Report

      • Avatar Freddie in reply to Kyle says:

        This is a bit of a weaselly answer, but it is a serious consideration– the extension of marriage rights to same sex couples is, functionally, incredibly easy. The institutions already exist; the case law already exists; the infrastructure and apparatus already exists. Concerns like divorce and probate and health benefits and child custody have already been settled or have a workable legal apparatus for being settled. Contrast that with legal polygamy. The consequences would be far greater for society and its institutions. The amount of legal work that would have to be done to solve key questions would be considerable. The amendment of existing legal and bureaucratic structures would be a large undertaking. It’s just a far bigger deal in the degree to which society would have to adapt.

        That isn’t a compelling answer on the level of rights and philosophy, but it is a reason why approaching polygamy with greater caution makes a certain degree of practical sense. Another answer that is not satisfactory but also has a certain amount of logic to it: there are far, far fewer people asking for the right to marry more than one person than there are asking for the right to marry someone of their own sex.Report

        • Avatar Freddie in reply to Freddie says:

          Also– I guess I just find the issue of equal protection under the law to apply to gay marriage but not polygamy. As currently constituted, two people in any state can get married, as long as one is a man and one is a woman. As currently constituted, in no state can someone be legally married to more than one partner, as I understand it. The first is an issue of equality; in other words, gay people don’t have a right to marriage per se but a right to the same legal standing as straight people. The second is not an issue of inequality; no one is permitted to engage in polygamy. There is no excluded class.Report

          • Avatar Kyle in reply to Freddie says:

            That’s fair – and this is just thinking aloud really – it just seems to me that from the POV of SSM opponents marriage is defined as one man, one woman and not two people who love each other.* So, from that POV there is no class exclusion, because a gay man can marry a woman and a lesbian woman can marry a man. In the same way that men aren’t excluded from say courtesies for pregnant women. It’s definitional. Ctd., if you wanted to create an institution for two people of any gender getting hitched, then you’d need a new institution.

            So marriage is “orientation neutral,” but not gender/sex neutral and, in effect, recognizing SSM is recognizing a change in the definition of the term.

            The pro-SSM crowd emphasizes that the institution is not orientation neutral and, in fact, between two people, so the gender/sex requirement is discriminatory. While I’m sympathetic to that, sidestepping the definitional issue, doesn’t deal with it. Simply put, if one redefines marriage from one man, one woman, to become two people, then it seems pretty arbitrary to modify one part of that definition and not the other.

            45 years ago, equal protection meant allowing unmarried couples access to the same prophylactics as married couples. Now, it increasingly means same sex couples get access to the same civil institutions as straight couples. I’d bet the idea of extending marriage to polygamists seems far less far-fetched to us, than the idea of gay marriage in 1965 and yet, here we are.

            Though, now that I’m thinking about this, I do find the jurisprudence of sexual orientation to be uncomfortably shaky, if only because we don’t know what orientation is. Is it one off behavior/acts? A pattern of behavior? Intent? These are all questions that are relevant as long as we see marriage issues in terms of orientation discrimination.

            It seems to me that there really isn’t a governmental purpose served by retaining the gender/sex requirements on marriage and therefore they’re an equal protection violation. Of course, I feel that way about all laws where the legality of an action hinges upon the sexes of the perpetrators. It’s just gender discrimination.

            *or assorted other reasons.Report

        • The rebuttal points here are fairly obvious, but I’ll roll them out anyhow:

          Any govt that can invent the IRS shouldn’t let adminitrative paperwork be an obstacle to equality.

          Inheritance law is a non-issue (estates are routinely divided among multiple individuals) and custody is also a non-issue.

          As for the number of people clamoring for recognition…shame, shame. Tyranny of the majority and all that. (I would also add that the gay marriage movement only really picked up steam when non-gays joined the struggle).Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

            Politically though the polygamists can’t just hitch their wagon to gays. They’d have to make the case for three by themselves and it’d be steep sledding considering the sordid history that polygamy comes with. It’s not like same sex marriage has a long history of beaten women, abused children and destabilized societies trailing along after it.Report

            • North, when you look at the monogamy rate for gay men there’s sufficent reason to question their access to an institution rooted in monogamy. But we hope for the best, don’t we?Report

            • Avatar Cascadian in reply to North says:

              I think the best reason for legalizing polygamy is exactly the beaten women and abused children. Currently these people have limited legal recourse. Being MEG (to use J’s terminology) is all well and good until it’s time to leave. Then MES may have a place.

              The other issue of legality is prosecution. If Blackmore should be prosecuted for having a host of heavenly wives, what about the PM who has a lifelong mistress?Report

              • This is a good point – children and women get beaten in monogamous marriages every day. That’s not a reason to stop marrying people, it’s a reason to have better legal protections.

                We hope that legal marriages will get gay men to be monogamous…maybe legal polygamy would reduce the instances of abuse, etc.Report

            • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to North says:

              “destabilized societies”?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to David Schaengold says:

                On the basis of having a bunch of unmarriageable angry young men running around with not enough women to go around. Historically as I remember this discussion going the old polygamist states solved this problem by having a war. Nothing like a war for killing off poor single men.Report

              • Avatar Cascadian in reply to North says:

                They could always become gay.

                Of course, the opposite side of this market would be that women could demand a higher price (in whatever form they chose). I’ve read that with the higher rate of education for women something like this is already occurring. We do want free markets don’t we?Report

            • Avatar Kyle in reply to North says:

              “Politically though the polygamists can’t just hitch their wagon to gays. They’d have to make the case for three by themselves”

              You can say that but it doesn’t make it anymore true… It’s not as though the SSM crowd hasn’t been trotting Loving v. Virginia I don’t think it’s likely, precisely because Freddie’s right there aren’t that many people clamoring for polygamy, but I think if there were a movement they’d hitch their wagon to every group that’s ever had to fight for rights and won.Report

          • I think inheritance law is a pretty big issue, actually. Although estates are routinely divvied up amongst multiple heirs, this is usually done by will. When you wind up needing to divvy an estate up amongst multiple heirs with equal priority where the decedent is intestate, you create a gigantic mess. This would be especially the case in a polygamy situation – do all the wives get an equal portion of the state, or do the portions get divvied up based on number of children born to each wife, or is there some formula based on length of marriage to the decedent that’s appropriate? And to what extent should a wife’s grandchildren be factored into the equation? Once you bring polygamy into the equation, there’s so many different situations that could come up that there’s not many bright-line rules one can invent that could be applied for all situations without delving into the primitive and – from a modern Western standpoint – unconscionable (like eldest child gets everything, or senior wife gets everything, or children get everything in equal parts, wives get nothing, etc.). Most such rules would probably themselves wind up violating equal protection concepts, IMHO.Report

        • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Freddie says:

          Hopefully I’ll have time to put together a full explanation tonight, but I think there’s more to this from a rights/philosophy standpoint than you realize. By this I mean that the reason a polygamy-friendly legal regime is functionally so much more difficult to implement goes to the very heart of why the state has a role in marriage in the first place, at least in Western cultures. Certain rights granted by marriage in Western society cease to be meaningful if they are non-exclusive.Report

          • Avatar Kyle in reply to Mark Thompson says:

            Rather than replying to both comments, I’ll just say – since I haven’t yet – that I agree with you and Freddie here on the complexity of the legal issues (that this is debatable strikes me as odd but whatevs…) at hand.

            My personal view is that I think society could allow polygamy and still function so by no means is it some horrible specter of an institution that will result in marriage becoming meaningless. However, because it won’t end civilization (knock on Caprican wood) that doesn’t mean there aren’t potentially problematic issues that don’t warrant discussion and or action. Like the rights and privileges granted to marriage with specific respect to its meaning and exclusivity and the legal issues of competing claims – not just in estates but child and property custodial issues as well.

            I’d also emphasize, I’m not pro-polygamy but I think the discussions are both really fascinating and there’s something to be gained by working through them and how they relate to where we are culturally and legally.Report

            • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Kyle says:

              Oh I don’t think polygamy would be the end of the world, or Western civilization. I just think that the complex legal questions and practical implementation problems are directly related to why we have marriage in the West in the first place. SSM doesn’t create these complex questions at all, so almost definitionally it doesn’t go to the heart of why the state sanctions marriage in the first place.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kyle says:

        “Marriage” is an exceptionally outmoded institution that harkens back to the days when women were originally the property of the father before becoming the property of the husband. Marriage was a way to establish paternity of sons, more or less.

        The advent of personhood for females abolished the property angle of marriage and then the discovery of 99.44% effective birth control (and 100% effective abortion techniques) abolished the aspects related to paternity.

        I imagine that how much you agree with the above has everything to do with your take on Polygamy.

        If your view on “polygamy” is a handful of polyamorous friends in Seattle that are generating as much drama as Bollywood, you could very well be inclined to support polygamous marriage.

        If your view on polygamy is based on the patriarchal nature of the only people who get married polygamously in or around the year 2010, you’re less likely to see it as something that the government ought go out of their way to officially (or unofficially) sanction.Report

    • Avatar Dan Summers in reply to Freddie says:

      North has already touched on this, but I wanted to add my two cents.

      Much of the gay rights rhetoric about homosexuality being innate, genetic and immutable stems from our need to counter the prevalent and durable idea that gayness is a sin. Sin is the result of willingly succumbing to temptation. (Though your typical homosexuality-as-sin partisan also goes to great lengths to convince others that he has never been thusly tempted.) Gays are the way we are because we have willingly fallen to the wiles of Satan.

      If homosexuality is genetic, then it cannot be sinful, as there is no element of free will. It is intrinsic in the same way as gender or race. This serves a useful purpose when countering the likes of Tony Perkins, et al.

      I think the truth is much more malleable. But we (that is to say, human beings) are not often drawn to a nuanced view when discussing broad social change.Report

    • Avatar JosephFM in reply to Freddie says:

      Freddie. Dude. Thank you. This, this stupid binary thinking, is something I’ve been subject to constantly. And what’s worse is just how casual, even jokey it usually is. “Oh you’re just kidding yourself. Oh you’re just acting out, it’s a phase. Oh you’re just being selfish, pick a side.” And people don’t even understand how that’s offensive!

      Then they say I actually have, that I’m really straight after all, and was just experimenting. Well okay, if I’m straight than why am I still attracted to some men? Being in a monogamous relationship with a woman doesn’t eliminate that, any more than

      Then comes the accusations of seeking “hetero priviledge”, which do sting, because I recognize that I do have it. I don’t feel like I’m closeted or suppressing my nature. I get the concern North expresses below, that this scares gay people, the existence of people who can indeed “choose”, because it feeds into the idea that their identity isn’t innate, even though the only thing I’ve consciously chosen is to be faithful to the person I love. My privilege is a solely a function of being lucky that person was of the opposite sex – but the possibility that would not be the case was always there. And it does hurt to have either delegitimized.

      And I’m sorry if that got too personal.Report

  5. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    If sodomy were a capital crime again, I bet we’d see the reappearance of the “just temporarily” sodomite almost immediately.Report