Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Is it possible to classify the varieties of human sexuality, to come up with a schematic of that sexuality? No doubt, we try to do so by saying that certain aspects of our sexuality are important and that others are not. But are such claims justified? Instead of grounding our opinions about the nature of our sexuality on evidence, could we be privileging particular aspects of that sexuality based on prejudices, on cultural norms and inherited ideas? Could we then be misguiding ourselves? Could we even be limiting ourselves, and our chances to relish life, by accepting such judgments? Might we actually be letting ourselves drift into making moral judgments based on these possibly artificial norms? All of these, because they potentially raise real issues, are legitimate questions. In fact, they are more than simply legitimate; they are questions that need to be asked (given the consequences of not asking them). I will, therefore, try, to the best of my limited ability, to provide some kind of answer. This answer, obviously, is that we are limiting ourselves, that we are failing to recognize the diversity of human sexuality by accepting and reifying any simplistic scheme.
In order to get to this answer, let me begin by looking at the currently popular system used to describe human sexuality. In this, each and every person is placed within one of three categories based on how that person's sexual proclivities accord with a particular criterion, specifically, the gender of those persons an individual is sexually attracted to relative to that individual's own gender. Every person is then identified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. An individual is said to be homosexual if he prefers individuals of the same gender, heterosexual if he prefers individuals of the opposite gender, and bisexual if he is attracted to both genders.
I do concede that this system of classification did, with its formulation and subsequent popular acceptance, introduce nuances into people's understanding of human sexuality that were absent before, and that it has validated sexual behaviors that were previously understood to be eccentricities at best and abominations at worst. Nonetheless, the system is far from being the prefect description of who we are as sexual beings that it is often taken as being. It is not, in fact, rare for a person's sexuality to fail to match up neatly with the categories of this system. It ignores countless behaviors and preferences that can be every bit as important as are those it does recognize. Despite this, it is very common now to hear people talk about this system of classification as though it were describing really existent entities, as though its categories (heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality) were empirically verifiable and universally applicable entities.
As a consequence of such attitudes, this system is now limiting us more than it is freeing us, and it is doing so in numerous ways. For all the system's former utility, and for all the good that has come from our adopting it, because it does set up arbitrary groupings (which are held to be real, while all other criteria for creating categories are declared to be false), it is woefully inadequate. It is, therefore, perhaps time for us to move past this system, to toss it into the rubbish heap of history, and to leave it behind us. Let's grant that it has served us well as a stepping stone, but let's not chain ourselves to that stone and so hobble ourselves so that we are left unable to dance at the sight of the wonders available to the spirit willing to go to new places.
Let's accept, instead, that human sexuality is infinitely complex, that it often even denies categorization. Let's go so far as to say that categories are generally arbitrary constructions and are virtually inevitably limiting. Whenever we are expected, whether by others or even by our selves, to conform to expectations that are associated with particular categories, pleasures that we might have experienced, that we might desire to experience, are closed off to us simply because we feel that since we belong to some particular category those behaviors are inappropriate.
I am not claiming, I should say, that the current system of classification is entirely erroneous, that it completely fails to describe human sexuality. I am not, and anyone who reads this and says I am has misunderstood me. What I am claiming is that it provides an inadequate description.
I have three reasons for making such a claim. First, this classificatory system is only one possible model of human sexuality; it identifies a particular continuum of sexual behaviors (and I include here both external activities, such as engaging in a sexual act with a particular person, as well as internal behaviors, such as brain activities (thoughts, in particular) and the activities and responses of hormones and bodily organs). Second, an acceptance of this model as an accurate description of what lies at the basis of human sexuality implies a devaluation of all other behaviors, even though these may be of equal or greater relevance to a person than are those behaviors that have been validated. Third, the model does not invariably provide for accurate classifications, that is classifications reflecting actual identities or groupings of persons according to their behaviors, even when only those behaviors recognized as significant in this system are being considered.
Before addressing these issues, I should note a fourth problem I see with our classification of human sexuality (though this is a problem with its limiting tendencies and with the sloppy thought processes of many of those who accept it rather than, like the preceding three, with its inadequacies), namely, that it actually consists of two distinct layers which are (it seems to me) almost inevitably confused, such confusion leading to countless real problems. One of these layers is simply the descriptive division of human beings into three categories based on particular sexual behaviors, as has already been discussed. The second layer, which is usually presented as being dependent upon the first, but which, in practice, is the more important of the two, consists of various social roles; that is to say, it provides a framework into which a person can take on a particular identity together with particular behaviors associated with persons who have that identity. Though based on putative innate characteristics, these categories are, primarily, groupings that provide social identities for the individuals belonging to them. Innumerable confusions and limitations result from such a conflation.
Of course, none of the three popularly accepted categories is homogenous, but this does not affect my point. The subcategories of each group are just that. Each falls nicely, like the subspecies of a species, into a particular wider category. Most obviously, each category is subdivided in two by the biological sexes of the members of that category. There are, thus, heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, homosexual women, bisexual men, and bisexual women. Within each of these, there are further subcategories, although I do not think that I need to go into a detailed discussion of such. I need merely acknowledge that each of these subcategories is itself further divided into multiple sub-subcategories, and each of the latter will be associated with particular behaviors. Among homosexual men, for instance, there are those who adopt deliberately feminine behaviors and those who adopt behaviors associated with heterosexual men. There is a plethora of identities, each with its own set of behaviors, that can be ranged between these extremes. The same can, in essence, be said of any of the other categories. If I have simplified things in my discussion, it has only been for the sake of convenience. I ask the reader to bear this mind. It would be tiresome, irrelevant, and, in fact, impossible to provide details about every possible identity. It is enough to point out that each of subcategories belongs to one of the three wider categories and each conflates (and confuses) social and sexual behaviors.
Incidentally, although I reject the claim that these identities are somehow innate, I do not mean to diminish the value that many people place upon them. There are countless individuals who place great importance upon such identities, and any decision to do so (even if not consciously made) is completely valid. After all, simply recognizing that there are multiple possible schemes according to which we can classify human behaviors, and that a person's own behaviors may have more to do with societal expectations than with some putative biological necessity, does not diminish the worth of that person's behaviors. I generally do not believe that a person is correct if he understands that his identity, or that of most anyone else, reflects some innate nature. Nor do I believe that he is correct if he thinks that these identities, these roles, are the only roles possible. Nonetheless, I respect the dignity of the role a person chooses. I just hope that other people will do the same, even if the roles they find being played do not fit into their own system of classification.
What is important to remember here is that, although a person's sexual behaviors are relevant in determining the category in which he is placed, and are not generally ignored (though they sometimes are), our application of the terms of our system of classification to a person is usually meant to identify that person as belonging to a certain social grouping. A given category, in fact, often provides a person with a large part of his social identity in the modern West.
A man who identifies as heterosexual, for example, will generally adopt behaviors, here particular traits and mannerisms, that are associated with that category. By possessing these behaviors, such a person displays that he is a member of a given social grouping. The heterosexual man can act 'macho' to let everyone know he's a heterosexual. The homosexual woman can be 'butch' if she wants people to know she's a lesbian. The homosexual man can adopt 'flamboyant' mannerisms if he wants to be identified as a 'gay,' and the heterosexual woman can be dainty and feminine if she wants people to know she's a heterosexual woman. I am obviously grossly simplifying the categories here, but my point should be clear.
Not surprisingly, these behaviors rarely have any biological basis. There seems to be some belief in our society that 'straight' men will display 'male' behaviors, that 'straight' women will display 'female' behaviors, and that homosexual individuals, whether male or female, will display behaviors that mingle those belonging to males and those belonging to females. Unfortunately for the people who believe this, while there are clearly behaviors that are associated with real genders as a result of members of that gender possessing actual physical traits (such as brain structures and levels of particular hormones), there does not seem to be any exclusive association of these particular behaviors with persons of a given category (i.e., homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual) within that gender. These behaviors, aggressiveness among men, to give an example, seem to be possessed as much by members of one category of men as by another. In other words, 'gay' men and 'straight' men are probably equally likely to be aggressive. I, at least, have never noticed any difference. To put my point simply, the behaviors associated with each of the categories have no biological basis, even though many people seem to believe that they do.
The behaviors that we can see being adopted by persons of any given category are, instead, almost invariably determined as being appropriate to persons of that category by our culture. There are, for instance, beliefs that 'straight' men will like particular competitive sports, will be fascinated by cars, will be disdainful of showing emotions, and so on. There are also beliefs that 'gay' men will enjoy Broadway musicals, will be interested in fashion, and will be concerned with their health and appearance. Obviously, the association of every one of these things with being 'straight' or being 'gay' is determined solely by our culture and has no biological basis. 'Straight' men can enjoy music and fashion as much as 'gay' men do. They have in the past and do so today. 'Gay' men can enjoy sports and cars. In fact, most of the associations don't hold true outside of the particular time and place of our current culture, and even in this the association is often tenuous and arbitrarily or inconsistently applied. Broadway musicals didn't exist a hundred years ago, but opera, one of the styles of musical performance of that day, was not, to my knowledge, thought to be unfit entertainment for 'manly,' pudenda-craving men. There were even some risqué types of musical performance that were meant only for men. Eighteenth century French noblemen, lecherous skirt chasers that they were, were, nonetheless, keenly interested in fashion. For that matter, the members of that most heterosexual of modern institutions, the military, are frequently obsessed with grooming, fancy clothes, gold braids, shiny trinkets, polished shoes, pretty medals, and dainty ribbons. What are we to say of body builders and athletes? Are they, being interested in their bodies, 'gay'? Are 'gay' men who love their cars really 'straight'?
Clearly, the behaviors associated with being 'gay' or being 'straight,' or being of some other orientation, are arbitrarily, that is to say, culturally assigned. In fact, as I already noted, those behaviors that do seem to have some biological basis are not exclusively associated with one or another class of individuals. A desire for sexual experimentation, expressed both in a desire for multiple sexual partners and for engaging in a variety of sexual acts, is associated with both 'gay' and 'straight' males. In other words, it is associated with a biological gender rather than with a particular social category into which members of that gender are divided. No such behaviors, so far as I am able to discern, can be clearly associated with one category of persons of a particular sex and not associated with members of another category of that same sex. Although this claim is based only on my own experience, I still have to say that 'straight' behaviors like bragging, territoriality, and aggression are just as commonly found among 'gay' men. I've never noticed the least difference in their prevalence.
Social Behaviors as Determinants of Inclusion in Sexual Categories and Sexual Categories as Things Innate in a Person's Nature
I do not think that it can be denied that we assume that a person who belongs to a given category will behave in certain ways. People will often identify particular mannerisms as 'gay' or 'manly' (meaning heterosexual), and will go so far as to allow social behaviors to trump sexual behaviors in classifying a person. If a man who has sex exclusively with women has 'homosexual' mannerisms, it is likely that people will say that he is 'really gay,' even if he doesn't know it. His mannerisms are more important than his sexual behavior, and if his sexual behavior does not accord with his mannerisms, then it is because he is denying his inner nature.
Two things underlie such assertions. First, people who make these claims are confusing social identities with the categories determined by sexual behaviors that are putatively behind these identities. The two, the social and descriptive categories, are not, however, necessarily related. Of course, these individuals, whether they would articulate it or not, do seem to believe that the categories are necessarily related. This belief is based on a second assumption, that the categories are real, that they comprehensively describe human sexuality and that they reflect something innate in a person. For such individuals, a person is naturally 'heterosexual,' naturally 'homosexual,' or naturally 'bisexual,' and his behaviors are what they are as a result of his expressing or not expressing this nature.
The strength of our conviction that a person's 'true' sexuality is perceptible through his non-sexual behaviors can be seen over and over again. In fact, when we do concede that a person's sexuality does not match up with his social persona, we often feel the need to come up with a new classification. The term 'metrosexual' seems to have been coined for just this reason. Certain men who clearly prefer women as sexual partners have, nonetheless, adopted behaviors associated in the modern West with homosexual men. Obviously, they aren't straight as we understand the term, so we've invented a new classification for them, one that allows us to preserve the concept of 'heterosexuality' as a social category. I might add that members of this new category are frequently described as being less 'manly' than are 'regular' straight men. They are, somehow, slightly outside the system of classification, fitting only very uncomfortably into the 'heterosexual' grouping, if at all. Actually, it would seem that that, socially, they are more properly 'bisexual,' even if the behaviors of the members of the 'metrosexual' grouping fail to match up with those within the 'bisexual' grouping. The odd, uncomfortably intermediate place these individuals hold, their not being quite bisexuals or quite heterosexuals, says a great deal about how important social identities are in our scheme of classification.
Someone might now object to my claims by noting that although categories determined by social behaviors and categories determined by sexual behaviors are popularly conflated, the two can still be distinguished. He might then concede that, socially, 'metrosexual' men hold an ambiguous place within the popular scheme. Even while admitting this, he can, however, still point out that, in the system of categories determined by sexual behavior, it is these men's sexual behaviors that determine them to be heterosexual. This person might go on to note that even though heterosexuality is a social category, its being so is still clearly subordinate to its being a category of sexual behavior. It is, ultimately, the sexual behaviors of an individual that demand that this person be classified as 'heterosexual,' 'homosexual,' or 'bisexual,' not his social behaviors. The social identities, whatever their importance to those accepting them, are ultimately derived from sexual behaviors and, insofar as these classifications differ from sexual behaviors, they are based on mistakes. The categories of sexual behaviors, when used correctly, do, this objector can at this point claim, accurately describe human sexuality.
To reemphasize a point made earlier, I am not here denying that we are actually talking about two systems, one describing sexual behaviors and one describing social behaviors. The fundamental problems with the claim just made by my hypothetical opponent, that these two can and should be distinguished from one another in a truly clear way, are the facts that the system of describing sexual behaviors that is popular today is taken as accurately representing some external reality and that it is, as a result, easily, perhaps inevitably, conflated with the system of describing social identities.
It is hard to imagine how the clear cut and putatively real divisions of the descriptive classification of human sexuality would not be important factors in determining human behaviors if this model is fundamentally accurate. If the categories are real, then these divisions form an important part of who a person is, of what an individual is like. Inevitably, this will express itself socially, if only in a person's sexual interactions with others. More than likely, however, it will express itself in that person's wider identity. After all, the system purportedly describes a person's innate nature. I certainly do not think that it can be denied that there are many people who believe that we can observe an individual's mannerisms and determine that he belongs to a particular social category, 'gay,' for example. Nor do I think that such a belief would be unreasonable, if the categories do reflect our innate nature. In fact, it is hard to believe that such an innate nature would not be visibly expressed.
Any reification of the categories used in our current classificatory system will inevitably lead us to think that we can make determinations of who a person 'really' is. Such determinations, in turn, consistently lead us to limit both our own and others' behaviors, to think that a person should act in accordance with his supposed true nature. What is more, and this is an important point for me, when I talk about such limitations, I am talking about things that have arisen as a result of the nature of the system, specifically, its purportedly accurate description of each and every person's innate nature. Noting the way that one group of heterosexual men, 'metrosexuals,' are devalued as members of that group both by other groups and by other subgroups of heterosexuals, in the form of these others refusing to recognize them as being heterosexual, can, consequently, be given as a criticism of the system. Even if a 'metrosexual' male has never had sex with another man, we can use his mannerisms to infer that his 'real' sexual preference must be for other men. I personally have heard individuals express the belief that 'metrosexual' men are 'really' gay. Although sexual behaviors are, generally speaking, conceded as being behind the categories popularly used (because these sexual behaviors supposedly provide the basis for particular social identities), the sexual behaviors are not more important than are social behaviors in determining the category to which a person belongs. On the contrary, the social behaviors are clearly, for some, more important than are any actual sexual behaviors.
I am not, however, claiming that social behaviors automatically trump sexual behaviors in determinations of what category a person should be placed in. There are, for instance, times when a person, having witnessed particular social behaviors in another that do not accord with that individual's sexual behaviors, will feel unsure of the other's 'real' nature. If a person is somehow intrinsically 'heterosexual,' 'homosexual,' or bisexual,' then it does follow that both a person's social behaviors and his sexual behaviors should reflect his innate nature. When these do not match up, this tension must exist as a result of the person's expressing his innate nature with certain behaviors while denying it with others.
There are even occasions when people, for reasons I am not entirely able to fathom, believe that another's innate sexuality has been entirely concealed. Although we do generally think that a person's sexual nature will be expressed though his mannerisms, interests, and the like, we still concede that there are times when a person's inner nature will be denied or suppressed. I suppose the belief that there are such cases is reasonable in the context of the popular classificatory system, but its actual absurdity reveals the absurdity of the system. If the categories 'heterosexual,' 'homosexual,' and 'bisexual' are real, if they do represent something innate within us, it follows that they do not depend on being expressed (however likely it is that they will be). A person can have a particular nature even when this nature is concealed, which it could be for any number of reasons (e.g. prejudice, the expectations of others, a false sense of identity, etc.). In other words, an individual's sexual behaviors do not need to correlate with those of persons of a particular category for him to fall into that category. Thus, a man can be 'intrinsically' homosexual even if he thinks he is heterosexual and has never had sexual relations with another man. His behaviors are then irrelevant. Even his mental or internal physiological behaviors might be irrelevant. This person might never have even had a thought of finding another man attractive, and he might never have felt any physical attraction to a man. Such things are not important, however. His putative innate nature is.
I, for reasons that will, I hope, soon be obvious, do not accept as correct any assertion that a person's innate nature is 'homosexual,' 'heterosexual,' or 'bisexual.' For me, there is not necessarily some 'real' homosexual trying to get out of a man who is sexually attracted to women but who has 'feminine' mannerisms or interests. Nor, for that matter, is there a 'straight' man trying to get out of a man who is sexually attracted to men but who has 'masculine' mannerisms or interests. The belief that there is such an 'innate' nature trying to express itself in these or any of the countless other possible instances I could cite is, more often than not, just untrue.
Homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality are simply three ways to describe human sexual behaviors. At best, these terms provide a convenient scheme by which specific human behaviors can be described. At worst, they reject the great bulk of human sexual interests as irrelevant, misrepresent many interests that are accepted as relevant, and give rise to various identities (together with the expectations that come along with these identities) that so restrict many human beings as to greatly diminish the pleasures such individuals could have found in life.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, in claiming that our currently popular system of classifying human sexuality is inadequate, I am not denying that its categories have some basis. Nor am I saying that we do not respond to stimuli that are generally associated with persons of a particular sex. I am, however, claiming the following: 1) Such stimuli are not invariably associated with persons of a particular sex, and 2) responses to such stimuli are not the only factors relevant to human sexual behaviors. This is all that I am claiming in the whole of this essay. The ramifications of such claims are considerable, but my point is nothing more radical than this.
I have no doubt that a great many of the stimuli to which we are biologically programmed to respond are more commonly associated with persons of one or another gender. In fact, I do not have any doubt that, generally, a person responds to characteristics most often associated with individuals of one particular sex. This sex can, of course, be either the same as or other than an individual's own. Whether this sensitivity to such stimuli is a result of brain structures, exposure to certain hormones while developing in the womb, or occurs because of some other reason, it does seem apparent that we are programmed to respond to particular things while not responding to other things.
Anyone reading this and disagreeing with my wider claims might, at this point, ask, "Isn't this enough to accept that certain people are heterosexual, others homosexual, and yet others bisexual?"
No. It is not, for at least two reasons. First, just because some trait is commonly associated with persons of one gender, it does not follow that it is always so associated. Second, admitting that responses to such traits are real does not equal admitting that they are the only stimuli to which a person can respond.
"Surely," an opponent might claim, "some traits can be characterized as being 'female' while other can be characterized as being 'male.' You yourself have just granted that this is generally the case.'"
Like I said, there are certain traits that act as stimuli and that are generally associated with persons of a given sex. Some of these are almost invariably so associated. Nonetheless, many traits that are taken as being either 'female' or 'male' can actually be found in persons of both sexes. There are, for example, particular hip to waist ratios that are usually associated with the female body which most men are 'programmed' to find attractive. However, these hip to waist ratios can also be found among persons who are biologically male. Let's imagine that there is a male who takes female hormones, adopts a female persona, and looks essentially like a female, even having the hip to waist ratios most often found attractive by men. Now, a man who finds persons with such proportions attractive sees this individual and is attracted to him. Is he therefore homosexual? He cannot be according to the measure just given, since he is responding to traits associated with females. For the same reason, he cannot even be bisexual. To be so, he would have to be responding to stimuli associated with males, which he is not. Perhaps it could then be averred that this man has simply been deceived. Maybe he has been tricked, but what if that doesn't matter? What if he learns that this person to whom he is attracted is male and is still attracted to that individual? What if he already knew that? Such a person simply does not fall neatly into any of the three categories we have. I am not, I might add, going to accept any claim that he's 'really' gay even though he doesn't know it. You have to establish that such a category describes something real before you can make this claim. Besides, if someone makes such a claim, he does so only by ignoring the actual stimuli to which the man is responding. The empirical evidence simply does not support the real existence of the popularly accepted categories.
There are, moreover, things to which a person can respond sexually other than traits associated with a particular sex. The failure to adequately describe biologically determined responses to stimuli associated with a given sex is, therefore, hardly the only problem our current system of categories has. In fact, though it fails miserably in this regard, it fails even more completely in other ways.
To begin with, there are biological factors other than those associated with sex, such as age and, perhaps, race, that can be important. It is, in fact, extremely likely that a given person will be impelled by biological factors to respond to certain stimuli that have nothing to do with the sex of another individual he encounters. If this is the case, then gender related factors are not the only biological factors relevant to a person's sexuality.
It is, for example, quite possible that there is some biological drive within each of us to find persons who have physical characteristics relatively similar to our own attractive. Conversely, it is possible that we will find persons whose physical traits are substantially different from our own unappealing. I hardly need to point out that children are often afraid of persons of different racial backgrounds when not often exposed to such persons. Anyone who has traveled will have encountered such reactions. There would seem to be reasons for this. In primitive societies, being fearful of outsiders could increase one's likelihood of not being killed by outsiders, who could well be enemies. It is not hard to imagine how such an impulse could, if it has a biological basis, affect our sexuality. To support this, let me point out that features found to be attractive in the West are frequently specifically Caucasian features. The 'ideal' Western woman is, after all, a tall, large breasted blonde. How many women of Asian or African descent would fit that ideal? Conversely, features rarely found among Caucasian women, but frequently encountered among the women of some other group, steatopygy among certain African peoples, for example, while considered attractive by the men of that other group, are often seen as bizarre or grotesque by Caucasians. Of course, I am not saying that cultural factors cannot outweigh these biological imperatives (which might not exist - I am hypothesizing here). They can and sometimes do. I'm Caucasian and yet my own wife is a short, black haired Asian woman, and I find her far more attractive than I do any tall blonde.
While there are those who might argue with me that a person's race can be a biologically determined sexual stimulus, I cannot believe that many would deny that another person's age relative to one's own can be, at least for men. The fact is, males, of whatever putative sexual category, are extremely unlikely to be attracted to persons who are not of the same age or a younger age.
Mind you, I realize that learned responses can outweigh biological imperatives, even with regard to age. Nonetheless, though a person can learn to find older persons attractive, we clearly are biologically driven to find youth appealing. We are not slaves to our biology, but if that is granted, then this whole tripartite division will have to be forsaken as its most important basis will have been abandoned.
Even granting that some individuals do find their elders attractive, because of associations made while young or for some other reason, I have no doubt that, for the overwhelming majority of men (and probably for a significant number of women), a person's age is an even more important factor in deciding whether that person is a potential sexual partner or not than is that person's sex. Even people who are usually accepting of others' differing sexual attractions are likely to react with disgust if they hear of someone engaging in sexual activities with an individual who is significantly older. It is quite possible that they will actually decide that this person must be mentally ill. The biological reaction against such behaviors is very strong. In fact, I cannot begin to mention the number of times I have heard men, both 'gay' and 'straight,' who have expressed how sick or disgusting it is that a man would have sex with a person significantly older than he is. For them, the best way to explain such behaviors is to assume that the younger man is, in some way, mentally ill. If he's not ill, then he must be engaging in such 'disgusting' behavior to get something out of it, usually monetary reward. That's how extreme the reaction often is.
Here's an illustration of my point. If two men in their mid-twenties, both of whom identify as heterosexual, and a woman in her nineties were all stranded on a deserted island, I have no doubt that the men would turn to one another for sexual satisfaction before they turned to the woman. In other words, my guess is that age would be more important than gender in deciding who is a potential sexual partner.
It should, at this point, be obvious that not all of the things to which we are programmed to respond sexually are associated with a particular gender. There are other traits, such as age, that can be just as important sources of stimulation, and that are such as a result of what we are as biological organisms. Even this complexity is not, however, enough to explain humanity sexuality. Not everything to which we respond sexually has been determined by by our hormones, brain structures, and the like.
In fact, many of the things that we find attractive are determined by the culture in which we live, and the things to which we respond because of acculturation are even less consistently correlated with physical sex than are biologically determined traits. Although we may associate a given characteristic held to be attractive with a particular sex, another culture may associate it with the opposite sex, or with both sexes. In the past, for example, athleticism was held to be a desirable characteristic in men, but not in women. It was, therefore, expected that women would be attracted to a person who was athletic, but that a man would not be. Today, athleticism is held to be desirable in both genders. There is, clearly, no correlation between the characteristic and a particular gender. If there were a correlation between this characteristic and some intrinsic sexual orientation, then we would be forced to say that all those men who are attracted to healthy, athletic women are actually homosexuals.
The things a person learns to find sexually appealing are not, I might add, limited to traits, behaviors, and the like widely accepted in the culture in which he lives. There are a great many other factors that, though specific to a given individual, can be relevant for that person. Each individual's unique history causes him to form tastes specific to himself, and these tastes are, very often, as important as are any of the others already noted. Let's suppose, for example, that a particular man commonly classified as 'heterosexual' likes black hair, that he likes black hair so much that he is not attracted to anyone who does not have black hair. This characteristic, then, is as important as the other person's sex, insofar as not having black hair and not being female both disqualify another from being a potential sexual partner for him. Why then is hair color not as valid a means of constructing categories of sexual orientation? We could say that there are 'black-hair lovers,' 'blond lovers,' 'brunette lovers,' 'redhead lovers,' and 'multicolor lovers' (the last would be something like bisexuals).
I might add that this system of categorization is not hypothetical. Not only am I aware of many 'blonde lovers,' who are only interested in persons with yellow hair, but, moreover, I personally am not attracted to persons who do not have have black hair. Categorizing me as a 'black hair lover' is entirely accurate (though certainly not adequate). Having this particular characteristic is more important than having many others. It is a characteristic that transcends sex, race, religion, or any other trait a person might have. Moreover, a person's hair color has had relevance to my attraction to that person since the time I was a child. Even when I hadn't even the vaguest notions about our categories of sexual orientation, I knew that black hair was sexy and that piss yellow, shit brown, and pimple red hair weren't. I suppose this affection for black hair was learned (even if I can't say where I learned it), but that doesn't make it less real for me. It's been part of who I have been as a sexual person from my childhood. Irrespective of what others may say of this preference, it is integral to what I find attractive. If someone were to urge me to find blondes attractive, it would be like the Christian evangelist urging a 'gay' man to find women attractive. I'll even go so far as to say that I find it a little offensive if a person claims that this is just a 'fetish.' If this individual is a 'straight' man, I might say that his infatuation with the vagina is a fetish, or, if he is 'gay,' that his love of the penis is a fetish. What I find attractive is every bit as legitimate an object of desire as is the thing another finds attractive. What is more, the characteristic to which I am attracted is not one that I consciously chose (though it wouldn't matter if it had been). It is, rather, something that I respond to on some basic level. It doesn't matter if this attraction is 'learned' or 'innate.' I fail to see any categorical difference between my demand that a person has black hair and, for example, a 'gay' man's demand that a person be male. If someone distinguishes between these demands, claiming one is valid and the other is not, then I would challenge that person to justify his claim. For a 'gay' man, a person's possession of a penis is necessary for him to be attracted to that person. For me, a person's possession of black hair is necessary for me to be attracted to that person. Why is a persons's hair color not as legitimate a factor in determining his or her desirability as are that individual's genitals? Based on my personal experience, I would have to say that a person's hair color is a far more relevant to finding that person attractive than is the is shape of the meat in his or her underwear. What is more, it has to be admitted that, looking at the world as a whole, I am, with my demands, excluding far fewer persons than is either the 'gay' or the 'straight' man. Either one of these is excluding at least one half of humanity. I am excluding only a relatively small percentage of Caucasians (though I concede that hair color is not the only thing that is relevant to me, any more than a person's having a penis is the only thing relevant to a 'gay' man). At any rate, other learned categories (whatever they may be) could be constructed, and they are. People do exclude potential partners who are not of the correct religion, the right political affiliation, the appropriate economic group, the proper social background, and so on. All of these can be just as important as is the person's physical sex.
Maybe someone will say that my affection for hair color is, by my own admission, learned, and that it is biologically derived attractions that determine sexual orientation. These, my opponent might claim, are what allow us to fix the categories we have.
Unfortunately for this individual, I would point out that he is, apparently, forgetting that we have already discussed how characteristics we are biologically driven to find attractive frequently have nothing to do with a person's sex at all. Even those traits that are associated with a particular gender are not always exclusively found with members of that gender .
Moreover, there is not some rule arrived at by observation of the world that grants greater importance to biologically determined responses to stimuli than to learned responses. On the contrary, we can empirically verify that things we learn to be attractive can be every bit as important as are things we are biologically driven to be attracted to.
"But," an opponent might here say, "when we do learn to find something attractive, we generally learn that it is attractive because we have come to associate it with things we are biologically driven to find attractive."
This could be the case, but it need not be. If a person responds with sexual excitement to a characteristic he has learned to find attractive, then there is a fair chance that this characteristic will be found in persons of both genders (though he might have to look at other cultures to find actual instances).
Perhaps someone might object to my claims here and say that this only proves that all persons are basically bisexual. That's fine with me. I'll concede that. Of course, if we say that everyone is bisexual, then we're not saying anything. Being bisexual being coterminous with being human, we have no classification of human sexuality at all. I have no problem with that. We'll accept the current system, classify everyone as bisexual, and then completely ignore the system.
By Keith Allen
Applying our Categories to Other Cultures, Another Culture's System of Classification, and Conclusion
There are clearly problems with the claim that human sexuality can be adequately described with a linear model in which there are two poles, heterosexuality and homosexuality, somewhere between which extremes every person can be placed based on the assumption that each person has an innate sexual orientation. Nonetheless, I should again emphasize that I do not deny that this model can provide a partial explanation of human sexuality. However, it fails to take into account so many other factors that it is woefully inadequate. In fact, it is often misleading and confining. We respond to particular characteristics we find attractive, whether a given response is biologically produced or learned. These characteristics do not, as I have already shown, allow for a neat tripartite division of human sexuality.
What is more, thinking that this division is the only one possible devalues other possible divisions.
To put it simply, a person's sex is not the only thing another will find attractive. A man who identifies as 'heterosexual' does not find all women attractive. Obviously, just being female isn't enough for a person to be a desired sexual partner to most 'heterosexual' men. The same is the case with the other accepted categories.
I suppose that it's possible that my reader is still not convinced, that he's so invested in his sexual identity that he cannot concede that it is anything other than real. He might say that I keep talking about attractions that are learned or that are unusual exceptions. If we look at human society as it actually exists, my opponent might continue, then the categories do apply.
Regrettably, he would be mistaken. Even in our own society, in which the categories are generally accepted as being real, they frequently fail to describe human sexuality adequately. When applied to other societies, they fail even more miserably.
How would my hypothetical opponent explain the institutionalized same-sex relationships of ancient Greece, pre-modern Japan, and parts of the Islamic world? If the sexual orientations accepted today have a biological basis, then the percentage of persons from one culture belonging to a given category should be approximately the same as the percentage of persons from another culture. Granted, societal taboos can prevent individuals from acting on their inclinations. We can, consequently, in societies rejecting male-male interactions, expect to find lower percentages of persons engaged in such activities than we would find in societies where such activities are accepted. However, it is hard to imagine that any society would actually institutionalize as normative a particular behavior, namely male-male sexual activity, if only a small minority of persons were naturally inclined to such activities. Regrettably, this is precisely what is claimed by those who think that the categories accepted today are true. It would seem, therefore, that the categories we use today are just useless in describing the sexual behaviors of most other cultures.
On top of this, many of these cultures developed system of classification of their own. In ancient India, for example, human sexuality was understood differently than it is in the West today. What is more, I believe that pre-modern India's most commonly accepted description is more accurate than is our own. At the very least, it is more useful as a starting point for describing human sexuality than is our own.
According to this system, there are two poles, male and female, but between these is an infinitely divisible spectrum, much of which is comprised of a 'third gender.' A person's place within this spectrum is determined by two factors: his biological sex and his social/psychological sex. When these two factors coincide, then a person's gender is easy to identify. When, for instance, a person who is biologically male and displays personality traits associated with being male, he will be classified as male. However, a person who is biologically male, but who displays personality traits associated with the female, will fall into the third gender. Others, who are biologically intermediate between male and female, such as hermaphrodites, will automatically fall into the third gender category.
In this scheme, the gender preferred by a person when he is looking for a sexual partner plays little role. The factors that are relevant are: 1) a person's physical sex, 2) a person's mental traits, some of which traits are associated with one particular physical sex, and 3) the relation of the two preceding factors to one another.
The utility of this system is fairly obvious. While not all men are the same, and not all women are the same, it is clear that there are particular mental traits (and consequent behaviors) that are associated more with persons of one sex than with the other. We can, therefore, speak of 'male sexuality' and 'female sexuality,' though we need to recognize that our claims will not be universally applicable, that there is a spectrum of behaviors between these extremes. Frankly, the behaviors and attitudes of 'gay' and 'straight' men are more similar to one another than they (the behaviors of the members of either of these groups) are to the behaviors and attitudes of women. Though a 'gay' man will respond to a sexual stimulus that a 'straight' man will not, and a 'straight' woman will, his attitudes and behaviors are more likely to resemble those of the 'straight' man. For example, I cannot imagine that anyone will deny that most men, whatever their sexual orientation, prefer promiscuity to fidelity while most women, whatever their sexual orientation, prefer the reverse. I am not saying that men are incapable of fidelity, and I'm not saying that no man desires to be monogamous, many, a great many do. I am simply saying that there are observable trends in male sexual behavior. I am not saying that a trend applies to all men. Actually, by using the word 'trend' I am saying that there are some men unaffected by it. Male, female, and third gender are not, then, absolutely differentiated categories.
I should additionally say that when I refer to particular behavioral trends or tendencies, I am not speaking of any norms specific to a given culture. What I am talking about are those behaviors that are associated with the physical make up of persons of a particular gender. Whether these behaviors result from the structure of a person's brain, the hormones present in his body, or the hormones to which he was exposed in the womb, they are things that are associated with a particular gender. It cannot be denied that the male and female bodies are different, including the male and female brains, and that persons of one gender behave differently because of these biological differences.
The Indian system of classification recognizes this fact. It also recognizes that not all the traits associated with a particular gender will be present in a particular individual. It admits of a scale. Some people will be physically male and have only those traits associated with being male. Others, though physically male, will have only some or even none of those traits. It can, as a consequence, be possible for a person to have the external physical traits of one sex but internal traits (brain structures, hormones, etc.) that are associated with the other.
Now, I am not entirely pleased with the Indian system. It does not provide any comprehensive understanding of human sexuality, and many of its specifics are embedded within a particular culture. Nonetheless, it is a better system than is our own. At least it recognizes a real difference, the division of humanity into sexes, and simultaneously recognizes that there is a range of ambiguous individuals between these poles. By making these recognitions, the Indian system does not, like our system, exclude other possible classifications of human sexuality. It still permits them, while, at the same time, providing some classificatory basis that can be used as a starting point for discussions of human sexuality.
This brings me to the main point of this essay. I grant that it is useful to have categories from which we can elaborate particulars. Simple biological gender can provide this basis. Of course, when I say this, I am including all a person's gender related characteristics, including his or her hormones and brain structures. I am not restricting myself to that individual's primary or secondary sexual characteristics. I am certainly not restricting myself to his or her genitals. We can, then, talk about male sexuality and female sexuality while acknowledging that these are merely poles with a great range of possibilities between them, and perhaps unrelated to them. Having accepted this scale of physical sexuality (that is to say, a sexuality based on gender inclined characteristics, including brain structures (and thus personality and thoughts), hormones, primary sexual characteristics, secondary sexual characteristics, and so on), we can go on to look at the complexity of human sexual preferences.
We can, thus, discuss human sexuality in terms of these two things. First, we can discuss sexuality in terms of a person's physical being (including his brain and its activities), which being is, without a doubt, related to his gender. Second, we can discuss it in terms of the objects to which a person is attracted. Since the number of such objects is theoretically infinite, I propose that it is simply not possible to create an arrangement, a schema of these, other than a simple list, an unorganized, potentially infinite enumeration of one preference after another. We should, in fact, abandon trying to arrange categories according to any arrangement of preferences, since, these preferences being of infinite variety, any system of classification will be based on an arbitrary determination that one set of criteria is of greater importance than another.
Let's admit, instead, that human sexuality is infinitely variable. For one person to be attracted to another, that other's hair color might be important while his biological gender might be irrelevant. Someone else might only be interested in a wealthy partner, and yet another person might demand a male partner between the ages of twenty and thirty who is Catholic. At most, we can discuss gender based inclinations (i.e., the inclinations of a person who is male or female), but these often have nothing to do with the objects to which an individual is attracted. Actually, even when we talk about a male-female scale of sexuality, we must do so while recognizing that most everyone will fall somewhere between rather than at the two poles. We should not delude ourselves into believing that the infinite varieties of possible sexual objects can be organized into any coherent scheme.
Not only does our current system ignore the fact that there are those who do not feel that their sexuality fits into any of the three categories, but it also fails to describe the diversity of human sexuality. It says certain behaviors are important and others are not. Even with regard to those behaviors it accepts, it imposes a rigid classification that is often at variance with actual behaviors.
At one time, this system of classification was useful. By presenting human sexuality as consisting of a range of behaviors, it helped to validate behaviors that had once been thought abnormal. Now, however, it constrains us. Interests and behaviors that are not validated by the system are denigrated as perversions, fetishes, or sublimated yearnings towards some accepted behavior. We've learned from this system, but we've outgrown it. Just as an infant, with the help of training pants, outgrows the need for diapers, so we, with this system, are outgrowing the need for our older understandings of human sexuality. However, now that we're a little more mature, let's not keep on wearing our training pants until we die. Let's become adults instead.
By Keith Allen
Thursday, 1 May 2008
Reflections on the Current U.S. Presidential Race: A Close Look at Hillary Clinton's Genitalia and Barrack Obama's Complexion
I do not deny the historical importance of the fact that the contest to be the Democratic Party's nominee for president is being fought between a Caucasian woman and a black man. That it is says quite a bit about the advances that both blacks and women have made in the United States. However, the fact that so many people are voting for one candidate because she's a woman or the other because he's black considerably diminishes the magnitude of this landmark. We've turned what could have been a monumental historical occurrence into a mere curiosity. Instead of an historical event on the scale of Mount Rushmore, we've left ourselves the equivalent of a concrete statue of Popeye the Sailor Man.
To put it simply, many people are motivated largely, or at least in part, by a desire to see either a woman or a black man advanced. Race and gender, then, are still relevant in this contest. As I said, it's significant that a woman and a black could stand for such an important nomination, but we're diminishing their achievements by giving into the same kinds of blind opinions, that is to say prejudices, that they overcame. We will really have advanced when a woman or a non-Caucasian person can run for the presidency and that individual's gender or race will be of no importance to anyone. That will be an impressive step forward. Today's race reveals that blacks and women can run for office. It also reveals that some people will vote for these individuals because of their agendas and qualifications. Both of these facts are, of course, good. It also reveals that a lot of people still make their decisions based on a candidate's race or gender.
Sadly, voting for a candidate because that candidate is of a particular race or gender is either racist, in the former case, or sexist, in the latter. Whenever one person treats another in a certain way based on that other's sex, although the other's sex is not a relevant factor in how that individual should be treated, then the first person is behaving in a sexist way. Similarly, whenever one person treats another in a certain way based on that other's race, although the other's race is not a relevant factor in how that individual should be treated, then the first person is behaving in a racist way. The specific race or sex of the individual being treated differently because of his or her race or sex is hardly important. If a white employer hires a person because he's white, rather than because he's the most qualified person for the job, then the employer's decision is racist. In the same way, if a black voter chooses a candidate because that candidate is black, rather than because he's the most qualified person for the job, then the voter's decision is racist. Unless an individual's race or sex is relevant to why a person should be chosen for something, then it is not proper to take these things into account.
As should be obvious from this last statement, I am not claiming that race or gender are never relevant. They can be in both public and personal decisions. With regard to the latter, I could mention that if a man is attracted to tall, busty blondes, it is unlikely that he will date many Chinese women. He isn't being racist by excluding them. It's just that there are very few tall, busty, Chinese blondes. Similarly, if a man is only attracted to other men, he's not being sexist when he doesn't date any women. They simply lack the characteristics to which he's attracted. In the public sphere, preferring one person over another based on that person's sex or race may seem more problematic, but, even here, these can be relevant. If a director is making a movie about Mao Tse-Tung and, when casting someone for the lead role, instead of hiring Halle Berry, a much lauded black actress, he chooses a less accomplished actor of Chinese descent, then I can hardly say that he's being either racist or sexist. Race and sex are both relevant factors in this case.
Let's be honest here, now. Neither race nor gender has any bearing upon a person's being qualified to be the president of the United States. If someone is backing Hillary Clinton because she's a woman, he's being sexist, just as someone who's backing McCain or Obama because either of these is a man is being sexist. If someone is backing Obama because he's black, he's being racist, just as someone who's backing McCain or Clinton because either of these is white is being racist.
I truly have no idea what is going on in the minds of people who decide which candidate to support based on that candidate's sex or race. Why would anyone back a candidate based on that candidate's possession of one or more particular bodily organs? How, in the case at hand, are the candidates' genitalia and skin important? The idea that there are people who are choosing who is to be the leader of the world's only super power based on whether that person has a penis or vagina or if that person has skin of a certain color is utterly bizarre.
We should not be examining the genitalia or skin of Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, John McCain, or any other possible candidate. We should, instead, be looking at what is relevant. First, each and every one of us able to vote in the U.S. should ask which of these individuals is most likely to push the agenda that we believe is right. Second, we should all ask which of these individuals is likely to be competent in the job of president. It is by weighing these factors that we should come to a decision. Certainly, we do actually have to weigh these factors. We might agree more with one candidate but select another because we feel the first candidate would not be a skilled leader. Alternatively, we might find one candidate more competent than another but prefer the less competent candidate because we disagree strongly with the agenda advocated by the more competent candidate. Looking at such things is important. It is critical we do so. Let's get out of our candidates' underwear and forget about what continent their ancestors came from. Let's ask some relevant questions.
Like I said before, it says a lot about the changes this country has undergone that a black and a woman are now fighting to decide which of them will be the presidential nominee of one of the nation's two major parties. However, the fact that sex and race are important factors in this contest, that many people are choosing a candidate based on these factors, reminds me how far we yet have to go. I am captivated by the drama of America's changing, and the current presidential race highlights many of the things that this country has achieved, as well as many of the things it yet needs to achieve.