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Defining Sexual Orientation: An Unnecessary Exercise in Futility

Defining Sexual Orientation: An Unnecessary Exercise in Futility

The politics of sexual orientation have been a major battleground over the past couple decades, as the nature/nurture questions of whether a person is “born gay,” whether sexual orientation can be changed, etc. continue to be hotly debated in the media and elsewhere even today. This focus on homo-/bi-/heterosexuality as essential parts of personal identity continues to dominate the popular discussion.

That said, this very focus on sexuality-as-identity obfuscates more than it clarifies. As Foucault (along with many many other theorists since) recognized, dividing sexuality into distinct identities defined by attraction is artificial. Rather, sexual attraction itself is a spectrum with many points. This is easily recognizable on the small scale (e.g. some men are attracted to women with larger breasts while some are not, perhaps preferring shapely legs; that is, the source of the “breast-man/leg-man” labels), but it is all too often forgotten in the discussion about homo-/bi-/heterosexuality. Sexual attraction is indeed a spectrum; people are attracted to the opposite sex, the same sex, family members, animals, plants, inanimate objects, etc. As Foucault recognized long ago, any attempt to divide attraction into cut-and-dry categories is itself a construction, the production of a model. That is to say, there is no such thing as a homosexual or bisexual or heterosexual. These are socially constructed identities, not objective categories.

Rather, the only legitimate way to describe sexuality is to forgo the identity question altogether and talk about behavior. The same is true for attraction. In this sense, the introduction of the question of attraction into the moral debate is either a red herring or simply an unthinking redirection of the real question. Attraction has little to no value in determining the morality of sexual behavior; that is to say, it is irrelevant when determining the morality of an action. An example is in order: Let’s say a married man is very much attracted to a woman other than his wife (surely this is not a rare or unthinkable situation!). Would this man be rightly excused for adultery because of his sexual (or other) attraction to this woman? The attraction itself is certainly a reality, but the behavior (i.e. the response to the attraction) is the real question at issue. (As with other ethical questions, motivations do not determine the ethical/moral rightness of an action.)

Attraction itself is notoriously fickle and malleable. As Naomi Wolf’s article referenced in my prior post argues, the dominance of pornography has had a pronounced effect on what (and whom) people are attracted to (yes, I’m dangling a preposition; try it the other way, it still doesn’t sound very good). For one, we tend to become increasingly attracted to what we are exposed (I have had numerous conversations with friends about how fascinating it is that a pretty girl in one context may not be nearly so pretty in another, depending on a number of factors).

As we have continued to build our conception of “sexual orientation” based on attraction, this has led to an increased confusion, such as that reflected in the second half of this MSNBC column, where a man writes in to ask about just such an identity question (warning: the column is relatively explicit; if you are easily offended, don’t click on the link). The columnist counsels him exactly as one might expect in today’s “orientation” based conception: the man might be bisexual or even gay and not know it.

But once we take off the blinders and recognize the whole problem with “orientation” to begin with, the real answer is relatively simple: the man had sexual desires, followed them to new sexual experiences, and now is even more pulled towards the sexually-gratifying behaviors to which he introduced himself. In the process, he has shattered his marriage. It is not a question of identity, it’s a matter of behavior and what (or whom) a person chooses to do.

Once things get re-focused on behavior rather than on identity or attraction, real questions of morality and ethics can again be asked. It ceases to be about a rejection of a “person,” but a discussion of the right-ness or wrong-ness of specific behaviors. (It would be helpful to re-focus the biblical debate on these issues in the same manner—the New Testament authors were concerned with specific behaviors, not whether or not a person was attracted to another person or type of person.) In the specific case from the article, the results (a shattered marriage) suggest what a straightforward reading of the New Testament would suggest: such behavior (swinging and bringing other sexual partners into the marriage bed) is morally wrong and damaging to the people involved. Again, such a determination can be made without a total rejection of the person only once the “identity” or “orientation” question is dispensed with. It is imperative that the political games being played with sexual orientation be re-framed into a discussion of behavior. As Foucault (who would tend to argue in favor of nearly any sexual practice) points out, it is the only potentially fruitful frame for the discussion.

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