Because the point is logically moot, as I’m never having it off with anyone else ever again. I’m not straight, I’m not gay, I’m with you. How do I get it through that skull of yours? I’m…John-sexual. Oh, bloody hell, you’re mine, you said I could have you, you did. You promised.
~ Sherlock Holmes to John Watson in “Entirely Covered In Your Invisible Name (Part One)” by Wordstrings.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the personal and political implications of talking about sexual “orientation” rather than sexual behavior, sexual desires, sexual relations, or other ways of getting at what we humans do when we engage with that part of our existence. Since I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and have more questions than answers, I’m gonna share some of those thoughts with you.
A few disclaimers before we get started: I want to be clear from the get-go that these opinions are only my own and are highly subjective in that they’re closely related to my own experience of sexuality, identity, and desire. I recognize that lots of people have found the idea of sexual orientation to be extremely useful both politically and personally, and I have little interest challenging that framework wholesale. At the same time, I find it an increasingly limited and unsatisfying way to talk about our sexual selves — and I’m interested in throwing some of my reasons out there for discussion and debate.
In the same vein, please be mindful that questions of sexuality are intimately connected to questions of identity for most people, and speak as much as possible from your own perspective rather than making generalized statements about what works or doesn’t work, what’s valid or invalid, for everyone.
All that having been said, here are some initial thoughts before I open the floor for discussion:
What does the concept of “sexual orientation” mean to you? When I use the term sexual orientation I generally mean someone’s (supposedly) innate attractions. Whether we identify those attractions as originating from one’s physiology, from environmental factors, or psychological make-up, when we talk about “orientation” we mean something that has a certain fixity. Something that remains constant over time for that individual person — it is our orientation toward others and the world outside our skin. The concept of sexual orientation has been the dominant framework for understanding human sexuality in recent decades, and has been particularly useful as a way of pushing back against conservative voices that argue that same-sex relations are “unnatural” and are pathological behaviors that can (and should) be changed. The sexual orientation model allows us to insist that same-sex sexuality (as well as other types of sexual feeling — i.e. asexuality, object sexuality, etc.) are innate and therefore “natural.” Rather than focusing on behavior (what we humans do to express our sexuality) we’ve focused on intrinsic sexuality: the idea that our sexual identity is a core part of who we are in the world, distinct from how we act.
For a long time I took the idea of sexual orientation for granted. I grew up in an area where, and an era when, to be a supporter of same-sex sexuality as a valid expression of erotic love meant to believe that human beings were “born this way.” It mean believing that human beings were somehow hard-wired to find certain types of bodies attractive and not others. It’s the obvious rejoinder to arguments that same-sex romantic affection or sexual activity is somehow unnatural, a deliberate perversion of normal human behavior. I think this concept is so familiar to us that we forget it is a relatively modern framework for speaking of human sexuality (the focus on identity versus behavior).
The concept of “orientation” doesn’t work so well for me, personally. While it was obviously awesome that I grew up in a time and place that recognized the validity of same-sex attractions as well as other-sex desires, I’d argue that living in a culture which framed sexuality as either homo-, bi-, and heterosexual was a major stumbling block for me when it came to learning about the way my sexuality functioned. I was confused by the fact I didn’t fit into a tidy identity box, and nervous (sometimes I still am!) that I wasn’t enough of whatever orientation I thought I might be to convince other people of its validity. I’ve written before about coming to think about my sexuality as person-centered and fluid, but some people still argue that fluidity itself is an orientation — distinct from being lesbian, bisexual, straight, etc. So I could claim “fluid” as an identity, but is it possible to claim non-fixity as a fixed part of your core being? What are the implications of arguing that some people are “oriented” or hard-wired for change over time while others are hard-wired for fixity? How could we tell which population any given person was a part of until they’d lived their whole life — at which point, would such identification even matter? Yes, I use orientation terms for myself: “bisexual,” “lesbian,” etc. But mostly it’s short-hand. If push came to shove, I would say of myself: I am a being in a loving, sexually-intimate relationship with another being. That’s my orientation: My relationship with Hanna. If (heaven forefend) we chose to go our separate ways at some point, I would be not-in-a-relationship-sexual. Until I found someone else with whom I fit. Hopefully this will be a moot point for the rest of my life.
And while some folks find it useful for self-identification and community formation, it also seems like the fixity of sexual attractions starts to break down fairly quickly. Take, for example, the recent work on sexual fluidity [link?], or the increasing popularity of the catch-all term “queer” to denote someone of non-straight, non-heteronormative sex and/or gender identity. At the same time that new orientations are being constructed (and, yes, I would argue deserve to be recognized), they’re also challenging the very concept of a sexual orientation itself. Take, for example, the recent post by Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon.com about asexuality. Clark-Flory simultaneously frames asexuality as a sexual orientation, while also pointing out (in the words of AVEN founder David Jay himself) that asexuality is in some ways an exercise in re-defining what role human sexuality plays in identity- and community formation.
This isn’t exactly new: the granddaddy of modern sex research, Kinsey himself, shied away from sexual identity and orientation, instead talking about discrete sex acts. The Kinsey scale, which has come to be used as a language of identity (i.e. “I’m a Kinsey 6”) was not constructed to sort by self-conception at all, but rather express behavior: One’s position on the scale related to the type of sexual activites one engaged in, and was subject to change over time.
The framework of “orientation” also seems limited in its political usefulness. Last week, there was some drama across the queer blogosphere concerning a new scientific study of male sexual response that was being sold to the public as “confirmation” that bisexuality exists. Obviously a number of bisexual men were insulted that scientific authority was deemed necessarily to recognize their sexual experience as valid; some scientists in turn were frustrated that their data was seen as insulting. There was some good discussion of this difference in perception over at Emily Nagoski’s ::sex nerd:: blog. As commenter Melinda wrote there:
Science doesn’t exist in a void. You don’t have something pure and magical called science and then far over there you have activism and politics and opinions. (And it’s not like categories and narratives of sexual orientation aren’t socially constructed in a way that may not best reflect reality, something Lisa Diamond has explored in her research.) It’s way more intermixed than that, and I think it’s just plain wrong to suggest that science isn’t political. The politics of science might be manifested in the motivations behind a study, its methodology, its conclusions, its framing, its impact. In this case you have a study whose conclusions are VERY political. Of course you’re going to have people who are offended. Saying, “Guess what—You exist! We proved it!” is inherently offensive.
I don’t think it’s fair to be angry at anyone for being insulted by a study that’s…well… insulting. I think it’s good they did the study, because it’s better than the other terrible studies out there, but it’s still offensive that the question of whether a socially constructed group exists is a matter of debate, and that science is deemed the *only* reasonable way of answering it.
It’s not that you have all these unreasonable political people who just don’t “get” science.
If you want science, ask scientific questions. “Do bisexual people exist?” isn’t a scientific question; it’s a political one.
Chally, over at Zero at the Bone, also wrote a beautifully articulate piece about this recently, in which she pointed out that basing the argument for equal rights on the assertion one is “born this way” is fairly weak and limited ground to stand on:
I have a weird feeling this post is ripping off The History of Sexuality in some way I can’t locate just now – if so, consider yourself acknowledged, Foucault!
I’m troubled by the proliferation of “I was born this way” as a means of justifying otherness. I don’t think otherness has to be justified, for a start. Additionally, it reads like an attempt to prove innocence – I can’t be blamed for the way I’ve always been! – as though any other way of coming into otherness would be criminal. Apart from all that, why does it matter if one was born a particular way or not?
What this assertion implies is that otherness is less legitimate if it is a choice, or if it’s something one hasn’t experienced from birth. I’m thinking particularly of trans and queer people, and how many are often met with ‘you shouldn’t be choosing that,’ and return with ‘it wasn’t a choice’. This narrative says that there are possibilities, good and bad, and if the one socially coded as bad isn’t chosen, it isn’t bad. The implication remains that it would be if it was chosen, and only as innocent victim does the other merit equal integration into society. That’s not ground I want to give up. I think otherness should be okay, however it comes about. If it comes about later in life, well, people change and people realise and people choose different labels, and that should be okay.
The political implications of the “orientation” framework also came up in the discussion of some pedophile’s attempts to re-frame their sexual attractions as a distinct orientation. See Kristin Rawls’ guest post, and the 250+ comment thread, at Feministe (obvious trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault of children) for a fascinating example of how differing concepts of “orientation” and sexual identity have real political consequences.
And finally, I’ve written in the past about the dangers of relying on the “born this way” frame for our sexual desires:
If queer activists rely solely on the “it’s biology” argument, we miss the opportunity to make a moral and ethical case for same-sex relationships, and the capacity of those relationships to add to the sum total of joy and well-being in the world. This is a message much more radical, when you stop to think about it, than scientific debates over the origins of human sexual orientation. Those scientific explorations are stimulating from an intellectual perspective, but will not satisfy our desire as human beings to discern right from wrong. A scientific answer to the question of where same-sex desire originates may inform, but cannot dictate, what we do with those desires.
So Harpies – help me out here! Has the concept of sexual orientation been useful to you in a personal or political way? How so? Has it ever felt limiting or damaging, either in terms of your own sexuality or in terms of the political struggle for equal rights? How accurate do you think “orientation” is as a descriptor of the way human sexuality manifests itself in our lives? Does your sexuality play a major role in your identity, or is it something that you feel is less central to your concept of self?