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Jun 01 2012

…What The F@#k?

Our sexual orientations are innate. We’re all just born that way. None of us really have any choice in what kinds of bodies we are and aren’t attracted to. It’s just the way we are. Personal preference. You can’t change what your sexual desires are, they’re just a part of who you are. And if you criticize how those desires manifest, or what we say about them, you’re clearly a bigot.

So the dominant narrative goes anyway.

Throughout this week, I’ve been periodically touching on a couple little themes that were in anticipation of this post, hoping to subtly build up a bit of an agreeable framework before I dove into what is undoubtedly going to be a somewhat controversial piece. Themes like the way that the “born this way” argument, while initially convenient to the gay rights movement has become a destructive, harmful dogma, positioning us as only being deserving of rights in so far as queers are unable to live heteronormative lives. Suggestive that our rights should be conferred on the basis of pity, helpless as we are to overcome our deviant natures. Themes like how homophobia or transphobia, disgust with variations in sexuality or gender, can be tucked into the framework of “sexual orientation”, under concepts like the Kinsey Scale, and thus sanctified and protected from criticism as an inherent quality of straight (or in the case of transphobia, lesbian or gay or straight or whatever) sexual orientation. And themes like how sexuality never has to operate in particular, given ways. That there are always options. Sex doesn’t have to be penetrative, or even genital. Sex can be whatever we want it to be.

The reason I did that? Because people aren’t likely to respond very well to my saying that the concept of sexual orientation has itself become a harmful force. At least not without a little bit of prep work. But yeah… I think it’s become a subject that is very dangerously marked as above discussion, that someone’s personal preferences are just what they happen to be into (or be disgusted by) and it’s wrong to ever take a critical look at it and the cultural biases that influence it. That although we’re all happy to openly be supportive of various identities, and will be (somewhat) open to criticism in terms of our words and day-to-day actions, when it comes to sex and sexuality, what we say about it, how we go about it, whatever, that’s all suddenly, inexplicably above question. We’ve built up an absurd myth that our sexualities are perfectly innate, that whatever role cultural bias or conditioning may play, or whatever ways we talk about and enact sexuality may support discriminatory biases and social dynamics, it doesn’t matter, it’s just the way we are. Born that way. Just personal preference. Above critique. Above question.

Sexual orientation has become a rock under which a whole hell of a lot of homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, sizeism, and a whole lot of other bigotry is hiding. I think it’s about time we flipped over that rock and take a good hard look at what’s been hiding there.

No fatties. I got yellow fever for some asian chicks, brah. Str8-acting only. In each of these instances, it’s relatively easy to see how cultural bias plays into the supposed personal preference. “Asian chicks” and “Str8-acting” in particular are based on conditional cultural ideas. What is or isn’t Asian, and what qualities Asian women have that lead their intense fetishization in the Euro-American imagination, how that fetishization exists in the context of a very particular culturally, racially and politically charged dynamic between the cultures in question, a context of Orientalism and The Other and how gender roles are perceived in cross-cultural dynamics, all of that is socio-culturally relative. No one is born fetishizing The Submissive Women Of The Mystic East. No one is born with a concept of “Asian chicks” at all. It’s a social construct.

And seriously, I don’t label things “social constructs” lightly.

If we look at “Str8-acting”, too, it becomes very obvious how this concept is socio-culturally mediated. What, exactly, does it even mean to “act Str8″? This of course would be in contrast to the implied “gay-acting”, those “other faggots” that whoever writing this preference into his Craigslist ad wants nothing to do with. This “personal preference” is born of how we’ve socially constructed (and imagined as concrete and unwavering) the categories of straight and gay, masculine and feminine, male and female, “real men” and “silly little faggots”, etc.

But attempt to critique a gay man who states a preference for such “real men”, attempt to point out the degree to which it plays into heterosexist social stratification, the way it implies femmephobia, misogyny, internalized homophobia, internalization of the way gay men are culturally positioned as “womanly”, “not real men”, metaphorical eunuchs, etc…. attempt even to just talk about it, and you’ll be met with intense resistance: It’s just a personal preference. Just the way I am. I can’t change my desires. You’re the real homophobe. Born this way.

But no one is born with a concept of “Str8-acting”.

Looking deeper: how about the fetishization in gay culture of cops and military? Groups that have classically operated as forces that subjugate gay men and gay culture? How about the fetishization of neo-nazis and skinheads? Where the group is almost entirely defined by its violent bigotry (fabulously sexy Hugo Boss uniforms of the original NS aside)? Or how about the fetishization of homophobia itself, gay men who get off on simulated exchanges where a “straight homophobe” hurls homophobic abuses at them?

What do these iterations of sexual desire mean? Are they similarly above question, above discussing? Just personal preference? Just the way they are?

But these examples are easy. These are extremes, where the interplay between sexual desire and problematic socio-cultural concepts is obvious. But if in these instances it’s clear that sexual desire is being socio-culturally mediated, if in these instances it’s okay to discuss what these things mean, how they operate as the internalization of dangerous attitudes towards certain identities, and if in these instances “personal preference” and sexual orientation don’t function as adequate excuses… why do we stop there?

What possible reason do we have to suppose that our own desires are any different? That we, despite the way that culture touches and modifies everything else about us, are possessed of a sexuality and sexual desires that are wholly pure, innate, completely undistorted by the culture in which they manifest and present themselves?

This isn’t to say that sexuality operates purely as social construct, nor is it to deny the abundance of evidence suggesting that immutable neurobiological predispositions exist. I’m just saying those predispositions are mediated by culture. That the final manner in which sexual desire manifests is ultimately an interplay between “nature” and “nurture” (pretty much exactly like gender- a likely innate gender identity that expresses itself through the terms, categories and concepts of the culture in which it occurs). I’m just trying to say that its connected to culture and we can, and bloody well should, talk about it, that we should stop treating the manifestation of sexual desire and preference as a taboo subject, off-limits for discussion and question.

I’m just trying to lift up that stupid rock.

A couple months ago I wrote a post called Un-Gendering Sexuality, about how as I found myself increasingly secure and confident in my identity as a woman, my sexual desires began to shift. Aspects of my sexuality I had previously ignored or suppressed, or that had previously just plain felt wrong, on account of being culturally coded as “masculine”, were now available to me, no longer feeling like violations of my identity and no longer triggering my gender dysphoria.

Since writing that post, I’ve come to actually act on these shifting desires. Which I guess now makes me bisexual. Or pansexual. Or something. To be honest, I don’t know, and I no longer really care. And I’m intensely enjoying not knowing or caring. A world of possibilities appears, which is an intimidatingly open field, but exciting too.

Things I had previously understood about myself as innate and immutable, that I was exclusively androphilic and exclusively sub, turned out not to be the case. I had thought of them as just who I was. Just personal preference. Just the way I was born.

But it wasn’t. It was the way my cultural understanding of sexuality, and my socio-culturally mediated perceptions of myself and my desires, had made me. That was how my sexual desires manifested in a given context. When the context shifted, the desires shifted along with it.

Of course, not everyone’s sexuality will be as fluid as my own. That would be stupid. But the point is that what people may take to be innate, immutable aspects of their sexual orientation may in fact be a whole lot more illusory than they suspect. And to be honest? I highly doubt I’m the only one whose sexuality was manifesting in a particular way on account of particular perceptions and a particular context. In fact, I highly doubt anyone’s sexual orientation is free of the influence of culture, perception and context.

Letting down defenses, letting down the knee-jerk desire to assert the validity of your sexuality against a wildly sex-negative culture, are you really sure that you know all there is to know about your own desires? That the way they’re manifesting is purely innate, or purely self-determined, completely without external influence? And are you really sure everything about it is harmless?

None of this would really be much of a problem, or anything that really needed to be talked about, if it were self-contained. So sexuality is tied to cultural context, cultural attitudes and perceptions, so what? Would that matter? We’re all just enjoying ourselves, right?

Well, the problem is not our own desires. The problem is in how we talk about them. When we enshrine sexual desire as being wholly personal and absolutely above question, we allow manifestations of discriminatory attitudes to be enshrined in the context of sexual orientation, and create that rock under which it can hide.

Consider for instance the ongoing debate surrounding the attitudes towards trans women within the queer women’s community. Trans women recently began taking notice to the way we’re consistently portrayed as sexless, unfuckable, and creepy (if not disgusting). Queer trans activists also began noticing how nominally inclusive queer women who would pay lip service to the legitimacy of our female identities would turn around and paint us as being inherently men when the subject moved to sex. “Sure, you’re a woman, except when it comes to sex. Then you’re an icky, gross man. Because penis. But it’s just personal preference!”

The response to this from the lesbian community was intensely hostile. Rather than understanding it for what it was… an attempt to critique how trans women are portrayed and thought of in queer women’s circles… it was seen as an attempt to coerce sex through guilt-tripping well-meaning lesbians whose personal preference meant they could never ever be intimate with someone with a penis (or who had had a penis, or any “masculine” morphology at all). Remember what I said on Wednesday about sex being a whole lot more than genitals and penetration? About how trans women’s bodies aren’t the same as cis men’s? Acting like your partner’s genitals only exist for the sake of satisfying your personal preference is an inherently selfish act, and acting like those genitals have to have anything at all to do with fucking one another is an inherently unimaginative act.

And most tellingly, in relation to my thesis that sexual orientation is used as a means of setting certain forms of bigotry above question and critique, in addition to being accused of attempting to use politics as a means for rape-by-coercion (in fact, no trans woman involved in this debate I know ever expressed any interest whatsoever in trying to sleep with anyone who considered their bodies disgusting, or who didn’t actually have an interest in them. Who, with anything even approaching a healthy attitude towards sex, would?), these women (and myself, for being supportive of their principles) were accused of homophobia.

It was simply a natural, matter-of-fact aspect of their sexual orientation, their being lesbians, that they would see us and our bodies as disgusting and unfuckable, and openly frame them as such, without the slightest hesitation, remorse or self-reflection. Shades of Matt Dillahunty’s disgust with two men kissing being imagined as an innate quality of his Kinsey Scale straightness.

Homophobia, “born this way”, personal preference, sexual orientation… all used as a cudgel with which to silence an attempt at taking a simple look at the manner in which an oppressed group are fetishized or desexualized by the privileged group.

Hiding transphobia under a rock.

I have long maintained, and discussed on this blog before, that any rhetorical or conceptual framework, no matter how useful it may be in other contexts, becomes destructive the moment it’s used to shut down thought, shut down discussion, shut down critique. Nothing should ever be insulated from critical inquiry. Nothing. No matter how much personal meaning it has. This is, for me, a cornerstone of skepticism, and atheism. It doesn’t matter that religious beliefs are a deeply personal aspect of one’s identity. They still need to be critiqued when they become dangerous or harmful.

Sexual orientation is not as simple as just what you happen to like and dislike. Nothing ever is.

And how we frame it has become dangerous and harmful.

127 comments

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  1. 1
    The Nerd

    “Born that way. Just personal preference. Above critique. Above question.”
    Anti-skepticism? In my sex-positivity?
    It’s more likely than you think.

    1. 1.1
      The Nerd

      Update: I am, in fact, having some profitable discussion on this topic with friends. So thank you for that. :)

  2. 2
    DefragDoll

    I know that I’m most likely lesbian due to the fact that in my childhood, the majority of the men/boys in my life treated me poorly or were emotionally unavailable, whereas the girls/women were much more nice to me. I find kindness sexy, what is difficult is to get past the concept that all men are jerks or cruel. Even though I know this to be a logical fallacy, knowing it doesn’t seem to be having any effect on how my libido responds.

    It’s a puzzling dilemma. I don’t want to guilty of misandry, but I just prefer the company of women.

    1. 2.1
      northstargirl

      My feelings about it are so funny. I chafed so much under the dominating masculinity in which I was raised, and that surrounded me as a child. I get my fill of men very quickly. But I happily settled down with a man-a sweet, loving man I love very much, but, yeah, sometimes I am reminded of “same planet, different worlds.” :)

      Even with that, what makes me fall for someone has nothing to do with the physical aspects. It’s what’s within. Does that person engage me? Does that person make me feel beautiful? Does that person want me to be happy? And so on. If I find the right person, everything else just becomes details. The beauty inside is what gets me. The one who had all these qualities and with whom I have built a very happy life happened to be male, but if I were still single and found a woman who made me feel this way…it could have happened.

      1. DefragDoll

        Thing is, I was with someone fr a long time who loved me, and I loved. But he could also treat me poorly at times as well, and I think fetishized my transness. I sustained a 7 year relationship without being physically attracted. Things kinda fell apart, and i accepted that I was attracted to women. Hearts were broken on both sides many times over. Painful things said and done. But in the here and now, I’m going to try and not make the same mistakes.

        1. northstargirl

          Oh, yes. There are stories I can tell of relationships, or attempts at relationships, that went bad. One of them took what seemed like predatory interest in my trans status, and was especially unpleasant (the only time in my life a “date” ended with me in the shower trying to get the shame off me. No, it wasn’t rape, but I let myself be taken advantage of because I wanted too much to be accepted). It left me extremely wary, and that meant when I decided to take a mate, I was very, very careful and sussed out his intentions very carefully.

          It’s sad that so often we don’t find a good relationship until after we’ve had some bad experiences, some of which can (and certainly in my case did) leave scars. I think that’s why I’m thankful for the healthy relationship I now have, and why I work very hard to hold up my end of it, because I remember the bad experiences I had back then.

          Good luck to you as you move forward.

  3. 3
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    This post. THIS POST. If it were physical, I would hug it and offer it baked goods.

    As it stands, I offer Natalie applause and internet pastries of her choosing. And only a slight tinge of annoyance that you totally said everything I wanted to on the topic, so the writings I had on the matter feel redundant.

    1. 3.1
      sphex

      Seconded!
      Well, except for the part about you saying things I wanted to say. Prior to reading this, there are some things I didn’t even know how to THINK. One of the many reasons I love reading you, Natalie, is that you bring thoughts and ideas into my head that have never been there before. Reading you makes me a better person, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

    2. 3.2
      LordOberon

      Thirded!

      This is such an excellent post. It was well thought-out and personal yet accessible to a large audience. I’ve felt something similar for a long time, but not have the experience and clarity that Natalie has expressed.

      Also, I am totally going to steal it when trying to explain my thoughts to my friends and family :)

      1. Laura-Ray

        Fourth…ded? XD I tried to communicate thoughts like these to my history of sexuality class.

        This actually also really struck a chord with my own personal sexuality. Which is hella confusing. Like, my sexuality kind of falls in line with me being a lesbian, my SO is mildly dysphoric and basically our sex… works to satisfy our needs? But yeah, getting to the point where we could call our sex “sex” was a pain in the butt. Eventually I started to realize that if lesbians were doing what we were doing, it’d be sex- it just so happens, in our case, a penis is involved XD

  4. 4
    kagerato

    What’s that sound? Ah, dynamite blasting open a rock.

  5. 5
    WilloNyx

    There is no sure fire way to decide what aspects (if any) are born it. That being said I am not going to consider them born in for the purposes of this comment.

    Even if the entirity of our sexualities are completely socially constructed (that includes fluidity and all) I don’t consider any aspect of preference (and that includes preference to interact with certain genitals in certain ways) to be inherently selfish as it can’t be any way less than the selfish it is. Altruism is a silly concept over all. Just cause your sexuality can find enjoyment in a broader range doesn’t mean you are being less selfish. Just cause you can find non sexual but emotionally satisfying experiences in satisfying another sexually doesn’t make you any less selfish for doing so.

    Now this post and the lead up especially did not shame sexuality in the way the previous arguments I have seen did. I still think it is a bit worrisome because it says that the problem is our preference.

    To me the problem isn’t our preference. The problem is the culture that shapes the preference. To say the problem is our preference puts me in a dangerous place because at what point do we say that shaming someone for not preferring “people with brown hair” acts as coercion.

    Furthermore, it isn’t unimaginative to want sex a particular way. It isn’t selfish to try and pursue it that way unless you do so in a way that suggests a value judgement.

    Think about it like this. Genitals, skin color, weight, ability, intelligence, smell, taste, fashion, music preference, gender, and a fuckton of other shit are all just one aspect of a person. None of these things make up the whole of the person. Neither does character.

    What if I decide I don’t want to fuck someone who for what ever reason won’t wear a condom? I mean the not wearing a condom is only one aspect of them. Immutable aspect or not, it is one aspect among many. My choices to not want to fuck condom wearers is totally rooted in the cultural assumption that having sex without a condom is risky behavior (oral anal vaginal). That assumption is only founded if the person I am fucking is actually a risky person to have sex with. Can my partner shame me by insisting that that cultural assumption does not apply to him/her? Can my partner insist that I am placing a value judgement on all non condom wearers because I won’t fuck non condom wearers?

    At what point is my sexuality not get shamed for setting up any arbitrary lines of what is fuckable or not fuckable? Where is the arbitrary line ok? For me that arbitrary line sits that deciding NOT TO FUCK is ALWAYS OK.

    I sit completely on the side of the fence that says it is not ok to question a persons’ sexual preference. It is completely Ok to question the value judgements behind those preferences. It is completely ok to remind them that their sexual preference may very well be rooted in fluid value judgements and that it is wise to consider how it can be affected by their changing value judgements.

    I am not ok with people saying that penis’s are unfucakable.
    I am ok with people saying that I prefer to fuck vaginas.
    I am not ok with people saying “no fatties.”
    I am ok with people saying that they prefer to fuck thin people.

    The reason this is a big deal for me is rooted SOLELY in the idea that I person has the right to refuse sex any any time for any reason. That reason can be a superficial as the right music wasn’t playing. The right to NOT act sexually based on our current sexual preferences is ALWAYS OK to me and ought not to be criticized because we walk a VERY fine line of coercion. That reason can be because they don’t like fucking penises, vaginas, blonds, assholes, mouths, Asians, stupid people, smart people, brunettes, redheads, hairy people, hairless people, people who like “The Cure,” or they don’t like fucking at all.

    There is no definitive line what aspects of our sexualities are fluid. That is why I don’t want to shame people for stating their preference. I have no problem shaming the value judgements the preference is rooted in. I just think it is always a very fine line we tread here.

    That being said, I am not asking people to shut up about it. I am merely saying that I have a line which can be and is often crossed in this debate that I will not waver on because a BIG principal for me is that people know that the choice to interact with someone sexually is a personal choice. It cannot be selfish because it cannot be anything less than personal.

    I think of it along the same lines that I can’t call the choice to have or not to have an abortion selfish. No matter the reason, the choice to carry/not carry a child are entirely personal. It has no hope of being anything other than selfish. It makes no sense to shame it for being selfish. It only makes sense to me to shame the causes. Let changing the attitudes that shape our sexual preferences change the preferences. It seems to me that way (which worked for you) doesn’t put us at risk for shaming people in ways they cannot affect. Because believe me some aspects of sexuality CANNOT be affected. How little does reparitive therapy work for gays? I don’t believe there is an effective treatment for pedophilia yet either except maybe chemical or physical castration. The brain is a tricky place. How strong does a PTSD response to certain body configurations have to be before it is a legitimate (no superficial) reason for refusing sex. This is a tricky subject for me. I want the cultural attitudes that define our sexualities to shift. I want our sexualities to be more inclusive when they can be. But I also know that our sexualities are often just as much a part of us as our genders are. That is to say who we are is sometimes changeable, sometimes not so much.

    I don’t know where this puts us in this debate. Some things we agree on. Other maybe not so much. I have basically said what I need to say on the matter and I plan to just listen to the rest of what people say so I don’t monopolize the conversation with the problems I have with this debate.

    1. 5.1
      The Nerd

      “To me the problem isn’t our preference. The problem is the culture that shapes the preference.”
      Maybe my reading comprehension suffers today, but I’m pretty sure this is what the conversation is. What we have are symptoms of a society full of prejudices. If (for example) we have a bunch of people who say “I don’t date dark-skin people” but not a similar number of people who say “I don’t date light-skin people”, what we have is a measureable societal influence of racism on these people’s sexual developments. We can then track those statistics as well as formulate a plan for correcting prejudices in the general public similar to how we can track the pay gap between different races. Obviously wages and sexual orientation aren’t the same thing, but it’s precisely because they’re different that they can tell us different things about society in differently useful ways.

      1. lochaber

        I’ve heard some good arguments that it can work the other way too, with a stated preference for a given race having to do with stereotyping and fetishization and what not.

        I think this area can get really touchy, but it’s pretty interesting stuff to think about/examine/discuss.

        I’ve heard quite a few guys state that the reason they like Asians is because they are more “traditional” or subservient. Pretty much struck me as a nice neat little bundle of racism, misogyny, and jackassery all wrapped up together.

    2. 5.2
      Prodigeek

      To argue from the standpoint of regulating against the possibility of ever being falsely shamed for prejudice is a dangerous road to travel. It is the very self-denfensive mindset propagates oppression and wreaks of paranoid, kyriarchical, abuse-culture defensiveness.

      Moreover, the discussion is not simply about having preferences. The issue is having preferences and conflating it completely with biology to promote unthinking and shut down discussion and /or self-evaluation. The point is not for anyone to override your autonomy and demand that you must fuck or you will be shamed. The point is know yourself, how you affect others, and to live in the most honest and mindful way.

      1. Anna

        I think arguing from the standpoint of not falsely shaming anyone for anything is an important thing. There is a great deal of shame out there in particular about sexual issues and woman are frequently at the brunt of it. I recently participated in a local slut walk about that very issue. One of the issues discussed was that shame and guilt over what woman choose to do and do not do is frequently used coercively to goad woman into unwanted sex and unwanted relationships. When you talk about questioning any persons decision to not consent or to feel uncomfortable with sex for any reason that pressure is there.

        It is OK in my opinion to question those beliefs when those preferences are put out onto other people. That is when the persons preferences are being pushed on others. It is not ok with me to add to pressure so many of us already feel. It doesnt matter whether it is biology or society it just isnt something someone should be called into question on.

        Basically, I would say question your own sexuality. Encourage people to question their own but be really careful about the way in which the debate is framed. If someone says they don’t find something attractive or want to engage in any specific practice do not question it. If they frame it as something wrong with the person/practice it is open to debate.

        1. Prodigeek

          You prompted me to re-read WilloNyx’s comment. It seems that I need to read more carefully. I missed the following:

          “That being said, I am not asking people to shut up about it.”

          That was my major concern with what he said before this line.

          Thank you, and sorry WilloNyx,
          Take care.

        2. hall-of-rage

          “If someone says they don’t find something attractive”

          OK, I’ll bite on the presupposition there. Why would someone ever need to say they don’t find “something” attractive, in public? Especially when they are focusing on a characteristic in a way that might be problematic? In my opinion, if you have a problematic sexual preference and there’s no reason you really need to say so, then don’t.

          More concretely: In the absence of racism, I can’t think why someone would feel a need to make a statement like “I don’t like dark skin”. Given that there is plenty of racism to go around, such a statement directly feeds racism and is hurtful. So yeah, I would question a statement like that.

          One might disagree on specifics about which statements are neutral and which are bad, of course. But “I am only attracted to women” is fairly neutral if you leave it at that, yet modifying this to “I am only attracted to cis women” is not only hurtful, and pointless except to be hurtful, it’s also (very probably) flat-out incorrect.

          1. Anna

            I think you missed the point of what I was saying. Actually it seems you only read the last paragraph. I said above that statement its not ok for people to externalize those preferences in a way to make people feel devalued. That is fair game for criticism. Your examples were part of that. I agree that is open to question.

            The last paragraph refers to someone who has been asked to question practices and just says “im uncomfortable with practice x”. That is not a value judgement and they would in that case be putting it out in response to being questioned on it. My way of saying people should never be made to feel guilty about not wanting or wanting anything specific personally.

            We have no idea what life experiences or perhaps even biology might cause a specific preference so I don’t think its good to make people feel guilty over them.

          2. hall-of-rage

            I read the rest but assumed you meant “if someone says” would be the *start* of a debate. But…even in that context, it depends. What one person declares about their preferences, if unquestioned, could potentially shame a lot of other people. Especially if that person is making a declaration of normative sexuality.

            For example:
            *a person saying “I don’t like dark skin”, when a dark-skinned person is listening. A whole hell of a lot of dark-skinned people already feel unworthy because of their skin color. And if nobody at least tries to encourage the person to be more comfortable with a range of skin types, then…well, the damage of racism is being done unmitigated. It doesn’t even matter whether the speaker is white or not. (I should say that I mean stating the preference without admitting a problem with it; e.g. I know a man who describes his skin as “brown” and has talked openly about being primarily attracted to white men, but he says explicitly that it means he’s “racist against [his] own people”. I truly admire him for talking about this in this way.)
            *a person, particularly a straight cis man or a cis lesbian in a group of queer women, proclaiming “I don’t do dick, therefore I don’t sleep with trans women”. This has the immediate effect of placing normative pressure on the listeners, straight cis men or cis lesbians (or any queer women trying to fit in with lesbians) who may be attracted to trans women: it makes them feel as if their own sexuality is invalid, as if they have something to be ashamed of. I can safely say now as a cis lesbian that I am fairly immune to this pressure, but that if I were to keep silent when someone made a comment like that, I would start letting shame in after all. And all that is actually WAY less important than what happens if a trans woman is in the room, listening. (this is a really good post from TransActivisty about that kind of shame)

            I know where you’re coming from though, I’ve certainly been pressured into sex I didn’t like. I’ve also had my assumed preferences challenged, by experience, and by communicating about them with someone I felt safe with; this kind of open honest questioning process really helped remove a lot of my fears around sexuality. While I agree with you that context matters a lot, in general I think more open communication about sexuality is better and helps get rid of shame. It’s just tricky to know when people feel like they can be more open, or when they feel silenced.

      2. No Light

        SThis, thank you.

        The disgusting RadFem trope of penis=man is bad enough. To. then see queer radfems, oppressed women themselves, doubling down on trans women, is horrifying. To qualify that with “Born this way! Can’t shame me!” adds insult to injury.

        I’m a dyke. I love women. I love their minds, personalities, everything about them. To that end, I would prefer a trans woman that looked like George Clooney, to a trans man who looked like I dunno… Kate Winslet.

        RadFems of the transphobic variety are. ironically, so gender essentialist ,that they make MRAs look enlightened!

        1. amhovgaard

          I love women too. But what turns me on is their bodies – the way they look, feel, smell… Sure, I can love people just for their personalities and their minds, but that’s the kind of love I feel for my brothers, it’s not sexual. And, yes, certain aspects of a person’s mind & personality can make them more or less attractive (if I can’t stand to be around you for more than 30 seconds, sex is clearly not on the agenda), but that only matters if I already find them more-or-less attractive. And that wouldn’t be the case if they looked like George Clooney.

          OTOH, I don’t see why simply “not being attractive/sexy” should make people or activities disgusting.

          1. No Light

            My example was an exaggeration, as I’m sure you realise.

            Trans women look like women, smell like women, and feel like women. That’s probably because they are women.

            What I object to is people who find someone sexually attractive, have great chemistry with them, and then freak out because their cis privilege led them to make incorrect assumptions about the other persons genitalia.

            Nobody’s saying you have to fuck trans women. Love them like sisters, support them, push back against those who seek to hurt them.

  6. 6
    Marcelo

    I think we have a *natural* need to put ourselves and others in little boxes, and by doing so we accept and embrace a lot of the box we think we fit in.

    The idea of “no boxes” is great but seems a little utopical to me, would be great if no one defined itself by who they want to sleep with, but that’s so damn important to some people that I don’t see it becoming a thing in any community I know.

    1. 6.1
      Natalie Reed

      We can at least understand the boxes AS boxes, though. Relatively arbitrary, and tied to cultural ideas.

      I DON’T campaign for a “no labels” world. That is indeed stupid, naive idealism. “Labels” like gay, trans, black, latina, white, atheist, etc. have meaning on the basis that our culture, collectively, invests them with meaning. Race, for instance, is a very arbitrary construct, with very fuzzy borders, BUT because our culture loads race with meaning, and confers social advantages or detriments on the basis of race, the categories become useful for describing experiences.

      The trouble is that within the realm of sexuality and gender, we’ve begun to forget the arbitrariness, and we’ve created this EXTREMELY destructive dichotomy where everything is understood as either purely innate or essential (the born this way arguments, the bio-essentialist approaches to gender, etc.) or purely social construct (the transphobic radical-feminists, for instance). To me, the OBVIOUS truth is that yes, these categories are partly arbitrary and strongly culturally conditioned, but yes, they have neurobiological or biological components beneath them, while also just because it’s partly arbitrary and strongly culturally conditioned doesn’t automatically make it meaningless. It doesn’t NEED to be essentialized in order to be meaningful and worth running with.

      Sometimes I just want to take the whole culture and shake at it while yelling in its face “STUPID DICHOTOMIES ARE STUPID! WHY! DON’T! YOU! GET IT!?”

      1. Marcelo

        I get at least part of what you’re saying, sexuality labels are indeed very much culturally based, specially on the common idea that a person is 100% this or that. On that line of thought the Kinsey scale would be an improvement, but again, I agree with you that it’s also very restrictive.

        What I tried to say above is that what you consider yourself sexually is usually a big part of your personality or your sense of self. Most people are VERY found of their boxes, I’ve seen gay people be more discriminatory against bisexual than most straights, and I kind of get why, like this person feels like “you’re no longer a part of my group, I thought you were but you betrayed us”. Not that I think it’s good, or that it should be this way, just that it is this way.

      2. Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy

        I think a piece of this is descriptive versus prescriptive: “I am only attracted to women, therefore I will call myself a lesbian” versus “I have been calling myself a lesbian, therefore I will deny that I am ever attracted to men.” This is a different thing from someone who is attracted to women and men deciding to have only female sex partners (for reasons that seem good to her). And the shorthand of “I’m a lesbian, stop trying to fix me up with guys” doesn’t need to include whether or how often the speaker has noticed a man as attractive, or why.

        Unconnected to the above: do you have a policy on linking, or would “Natalie Reed has some interesting thoughts on the idea that sexuality is innate” be sufficient. (I’d be linking from Dreamwidth and LiveJournal, most likely.)

        1. Natalie Reed

          Link away. My only real preference is that people do be sure to credit me and provide links back to the original whenever using my work for whatever.

      3. Yiab

        Bleepity bleeping bleep, I thought I loved the post and then I read this comment and realized that you have just put into elegant words an idea I’ve been wrestling to get across to people for so many years!

        Sometimes your posts are merely excellent, this one is truly beautiful, thank you.

  7. 7
    Prodigeek

    !@#$ thing just ate my comments! Starting over…

    I feel your “pain” Happiestsadist. I resonate with that feeling of annoyance. I’ve gotten to the point of avoiding a lot of posts from this blog as the notifications come across my inbox. I realize that if I do I will very likely be physically incapable of NOT reading the entire post, sharing and yammering about it for about half a page on my own wall (by myself), and spending the rest of an afternoon trying to come up with something brilliant to add to it on my own blog and accomplishing nothing but falling behind on my work tickets once I realize that I can’t possible articulate it any better than Natalie already has ;-)

    Once in a while I just can’t help it however. I’ve been very closeted about this idea for a while now since it is so obviously “blasphemous”. A few years ago when I took the dramatic shift of question most of my right-wing, conservative upbringing, I also managed to break through the majority of my ingrained homophobic assumptions. As I continued to think and read about it, I began to think about this notion of “intrinsic sexuality”. I think it’s fairly evident that the notions of gender attraction are not purely and exclusively environmental or conditioned, but the I had to wonder: Does it make sense to argue that it’s purely biological? That seemed just as evidently oversimplified to me.

    I originally accepted the popular narrative of intrinsic biology, but then my response shifted to “who cares!?” It’s obvious to me that the whole “just a matter of upbringing” is used as a cudgel to beat down anyone and everyone who doesn’t fit the binary, patriarchal paradigm. Yet, what if a properly conducted scientific paper came out tomorrow showing that even some very small segment of the gay population were in fact mostly or completely oriented the way they are due to some framework that could be roughly described as “upbringing”. If this is where people are, does it matter how they got there? Do we exist in a dichotomy of either biological or pathological? Is this not more of a political construct than a scientific one, even if it started with some scientific “fact”?

    This by the way, is one of the giant beefs I have with the skeptic/scientific fanperson mentality: conflating one thing with another because they are either ignorant or denialist of any context other than that of science, especially sociopolitical. They deny and ignore the very existence of this realm in which they unavoidably intersect and so snap-fit their science into whatever default social context feels comfortable and/or serves their biases.

    I think the beginning of this epiphany was when to my great surprise, I discovered that there was a fair amount of hostility toward bisexuality within the gay community. It seems that we’ve mostly accepted the default framework of anti-gay sentiment; the dichotomy of biology versus pathology, and are “playing” on their terms. Again, I am not denying what I believe to be a fairly clear issue of the involvement of biology in sexual orientation. I’m just suggesting that we should not through people like our friend crystalwalters here under the bus so that we can more easily appease or win-over the anti-gay masses.

    1. 7.1
      Prodigeek

      I didn’t really connect the dots, but hopefully people get what I meant. I’m suggesting that the hostility of segments of the gay community toward bisexuality may be that the idea of bisexuality is perceived to be a thorn in the concept of biologically essentialist homosexuality. Not sure if this explanation was necessary, but there it is.

  8. 8
    Drew

    The “born this way” argument in favor of gay rights only works against people who have so dehumanized homosexuals that they think they are swayed by satan to choose a life of sin. When these people are confronted with the fact that orientation is not a choice they begin to reframe the issue as one of prejudice against people being themselves.
    The problem with this, though, is that we live in a country where people are supposed to be free to do as they choose. If it was a choice, would it then be okay to restrict me from making that choice? On what grounds? Why is my freedom dependent on others’ approval?

    I totally agree that people have taken orientation away from what it actually means to include a bunch of preferences that are influenced by society. I am disappointed to admit that I find myself attracted to white men far more frequently than I am attracted to men of other races. I have no reason to believe that this is anything other than the direct result of American cultural standards of beauty. Men of all colors are beautiful and sexy. I would be doing myself a disservice by identifying this racist conditioning as an innate characteristic of mine.
    People really ought to put more effort in to challenging themselves and their sexuality, not necessarily through experimentation, but by thought. Why do I believe that I am inherently androsexual? Is there evidence for this? Do psychological studies show that sexual orientation is immutable? Have I sincerely considered the possibility of being attracted to a woman? Why would I believe that I am inherently submissive/dominant? Is that something that could change based on the partner I’m with, my confidence level, my acceptance of my own sexuality, or other factors? The list goes on…

    I don’t know how to phrase this next bit in a way that would be sensitive to people of all kinds…
    I guess, I’d just like to hear more about what you or others have to say about sexual orientation and how trans* individuals fit in to it (that is, how they fit into the sexual orientation of others). I tried to right some specific questions, but they all came out really awful. So, if you’re willing I would be interested in hearing more about this specific subtopic, but I totally understand if you don’t want to get into it here.

    1. 8.1
      hall-of-rage

      Good points in this comment. I want to respond to one bit though:

      “People really ought to put more effort in to challenging themselves and their sexuality, not necessarily through experimentation, but by thought.”

      That doesn’t work that well. Sexual attractions become much more obvious when you interact with people than when you imagine archetypes.

      But where I’m coming from with this is that at first I tried to figure out my orientation purely by thought, but my thoughts were clouded by denial and discomfort and I had no idea of this at the time, and the result is that I’m years behind where I should be in figuring out my sexual preferences. I also speak for a lot of queer people when I say that we may have recurring anxieties over whether we’re actually “queer enough” or something.

      I agree with you (and Natalie) that it’s damaging for everyone to pick a box and stick to it. But I can understand why a lot of gay people (in particular) cling to boxes, because as soon as you admit that maybe you could like someone of the opposite sex, you’re subject to all those social pressures to find that one person. I’m not legitimizing that decision, just trying to say to be sensitive about how you challenge it.

      1. Drew

        I hope what I said didn’t bother anyone too much. I know I used the words “ought to” which is judgmental phrasing and I could have worded that better.

        I know challenging ones sexual preferences can be particularly difficult for people who are queer or who have experienced sexual trauma, which is why I would put most of the “ought to” weight on everyone else. That is the het-cis folk. If literally everyone challenged their notions of sexuality and sexual preference there would probably be a lot less stigma attached to the sexual minorities.

    2. 8.2
      hall-of-rage

      “how trans* individuals fit in to it (that is, how they fit into the sexual orientation of others)”

      As you probably know (I think I’ve seen you on other entries), there are different physical components of being “male” or “female”, and a wide range of gender expressions. Sexual orientation is by definition at least as complicated as biological sex, because it takes the components of a partner’s biology into account. In short, in case you skipped the previous day’s post, I suggest reading it and I bet that will answer a lot of questions.

      But at risk of oversimplifying: generally people who are attracted to cis (wo)men are attracted to trans (wo)men, and non-binary transgender people fit in just fine to multiple orientations. It’s just that so many people read everyone as cis, or are afraid to think about dating transgender people, that they may not realize this even about themselves.

      1. Drew

        I guess I’m just wondering how people feel about individuals whose attraction may actually have a genital focused element. People can fall in love with a personality and be attracted to a person’s face or body (or personality again), but what if they just can’t have sex if the parts aren’t the ones they are looking for? Is that considered a legitimate expression of one’s inherent sexuality or is that more likely to be considered a matter of preference or even an effect of insecurity?
        (just as a sidenote, I’m not thinking of a “gay panic” or revulsion response with this question, but rather “that doesn’t work for me”.)

        1. hall-of-rage

          Well, if you just prefer vaginas and are surprised your partner has a penis, that should be a turn-off, but in practice it is either fine or makes someone feel disgust. Because they’re not turned off, and they’re uncomfortable with that. This is what Natalie’s refrain “The opposite of attraction is not revulsion or disgust, it’s boredom” is about.

          For the “can’t have sex” bit, what helped me think about this was a quote that stuck with me from Julia Serano’s “Whipping Girl”, approximately: “your partner’s genitals are for their own pleasure, not yours.” To contradict that attitude when you’re already attracted to someone is selfish.

          Usually you’re attracted to someone before you know what their genitals look like, even if you make assumptions about them. So the idea of someone having a strong preference to dictate their partner’s genital type actually confuses me. It could be possible? I suspect that almost all of the time people say they have genital preference, they have insufficient evidence and are making cissexist assumptions. I somehow have had the personal experience to know I strongly prefer cis or trans women over cis or trans men, so my perspective is unusual. (God I hate saying condescending shit about how my personal experience is so broad, especially as I’m not some skilled seducer. But it’s for a good cause right?)

          1. hall-of-rage

            Should have said “usually” or “almost always” after “in practice it is”.

            Oh, and I seem to be echoing the end of this post. Oops.

          2. Drew

            I read the article you linked and it really left me with more confusion, questions, and frustration than I had before. Thanks for your helpful responses, but I don’t think Natalie’s blog is the right place for me to continue seeking out answers to my own insecure, sex-negative questioning. I will try to find a more appropriate forum.

          3. Natalie Reed

            Well, I’m sorry you couldn’t find this blog more helpful. But I know it’s not going to be right for everyone. I wish you all the best with finding your answers, and if you ever do wish to come back, even just to read the perspectives represented in the posts and comments without necessarily agreeing with them, you’re more than welcome. I’m happy to have differing voices and opinions represented in the comment threads, and I do apologize if it felt like your perspectives weren’t welcome here. They are. But if you’re finding that you’re not getting much out of this corner of the interwebs, I understand. Cheers.

          4. hall-of-rage

            Oh dear, I don’t mean to make you feel bad, I’ve certainly been through my share of sex-negative shame and it still comes up unexpectedly. If you think it would help to talk to me privately, that’s why I link my tiny website.

          5. Drew

            Oh geeze! I’m sorry, guys! I didn’t mean to make it sound like I will stop reading this blog or commenting on it. I just meant that I didn’t want to step into your trans*-safe blog space and fill it with a bunch of questions from my deeply cissexist and sex-negative perspective. I don’t want to turn this public discussion into my own personal complaint/education session and pull one of these:
            http://www.derailingfordummies.com/complete.html#educate

            Though, I may take you up on that offer, Hall-of-Rage.

  9. 9
    Rasmus

    This study on twins is probably the best attempt at trying to test the born that way hypothesis: Genetic and Environmental Effects on Same-sex Sexual Behavior: A Population Study of Twins in Sweden

    They found that:

    “Although wide confidence intervals suggest cautious interpretation, the results are consistent with moderate, primarily genetic, familial effects, and moderate to large effects of the nonshared environment (social and biological) on same-sex sexual behavior.”

    It sounds like lots of people are born with a significant bias in how the sexual orientation is going to play out later in life, but that’s not the same thing as being “born that way”. If we’re born that way then the sexual orientation ought to be explainable without taking anything postnatal into account. Right?

    Also, it’s pretty silly to think that humans couldn’t simply decide consciously to shape their sexual orientation to some extent. We can decide to shape everything else about ourselves to a greater or lesser extent, so why not our sexual orientation?

  10. 10
    chexuma

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the “Born That Way” mantra is not without some merit.

    I do not believe that Otherkin are in any way “nonhuman” or partially animal/vampire/demon/fairy/robot/anime character/”multiple system”, and I get irritated when some of them claim oppression and appropriate trans language and concepts. But if data came out that supported the idea that even a small number are in fact partially nonhuman, I’d adjust my views. (Though I’m not holding my breath).

    I get annoyed when cis “heteromantic demisexuals” refuse the label of “straight” and claim membership in the queer community. But if evidence came out supporting the notion that there is some relevant neuroanatomical feature than differentiates them from cis heterosexuals who don’t put out on the first date, I’d have to reconsider my views.

    Likewise, there are those who believe that homosexuality cannot be an inborn orientation because evolution would quickly eliminate a “gay gene”; they believe that gay people are simple delusional, and to support gay rights is to support a delusion. The Born That Way argument has successfully converted some of them, and future revelations that not all gays are Born That Way won’t necessarily cause them to abandon their new-found acceptance.

    (Incidentally, I don’t think Born That Way targets religious fundamentalist, who can brush aside inborn orientation as a test from God or something equally inane.)

    It’s worthwhile to recognize the limitations of Born That Way, but to throw it out entirely would be counter-productive.

  11. 11
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Hmm.

    I think that we should all be free to be ourselves, whether our differences and unique qualities are chosen or inborn. (I mean, so long as we’re not deliberately causing harm. That’s where I draw the line.)

    1. 11.1
      Natalie Reed

      What about inadvertently causing harm?

      1. WMDKitty -- Survivor

        I think, when it comes to inadvertent harm, one should do what they can, within reason, to correct or mitigate that harm.

      2. Light

        I would say that the kind of harm matters. We have to be very careful lest we paralyze everyone.

        1. WMDKitty -- Survivor

          Hence the qualifier, “within reason”.

          So, you do the least harm you can while not, like, going to unhealthy or counterproductive extremes.

          1. Natalie Reed

            Sure. Perhaps. But right now, I think our definitions of these things when it comes to sexuality are WAY out of whack. We’re acting like the tiniest efforts to even just discuss the ways that how people are framing sexuality might be harmful are seem as unreasonable. And that’s not cool.

            For instance, the comments on this post have already been largely defined by people trying to assert those boundaries and describe things as not be questioned, rather than looking at what might actually be worth questioning. Isn’t that a bit telling?

            I’m sorry, but people’s personal comfort level with the topic of their sexuality is NOT more important than those lives being hurt by their identities being fetishized or portrayed as disgusting or sexless or untouchable or whatever.

          2. The Nerd

            There are times when the person either won’t realize or will refuse to recognize that they are causing harm. I recently spoke to someone who says she refuses to date bisexuals, and she insists that doesn’t hurt anyone cuz they can just go date someone else. But when asked why she doesn’t date bis, it’s because she thinks bisexuals are cheaters and more likely to run off with someone else. I tried pointing out how that prejudice of hers is not beyond questioning, and can be proven false, thus it falls within the realm of skeptical inquiry. But she kept repeating how she’s “entitled to her own opinion” and we’re trying to “shame her personal choices”.
            I’m sure we’ve all had such a conversation about so many pet issues with so many people who feel that their emotionally sensitive topic ought to be exempt from cultural conversation, probably because they have been cruelly shamed so many times before by religious moralizers. Changing the dialog will require a good deal of finesse.

  12. 12
    Light

    Very interesting I recently came across articles detailing how certain statements in online profiles were racist because they say things like “Not into Asians etc.” It got me thinking:

    1. One may consider a statement like the above racist.
    2. The gendered statement of “Not into guys.” may be considered sexist.

    That the second statement could be considered sexist is countered by some by stating that one’s sexual orientation is immutable and therefore not sexist; whereas being into Asians is a preference. A preference of course being inherently mutable.

    There are multiple problems with this line of argumentation for one thing it is possible that some people derive their sexual attraction to a specific race in part because of as of yet unknown genetic predispositions that are not even necessarily directly related to anything involving the drive for reproduction. In short some people assume that immutability is owned whole cloth by our gender attraction.

    Furthermore the very language of sexual orientation vs sexual preference is broken. Sexual orientation is considered the attraction to one or both genders at a minimum. The problem with that is that we typically end up interpreting gender as the biological designation of male and female. The take away with respect to the born this way argument is that we are programmed to be attracted to males, females or both. A preference is then put on the exact same level as whether one likes Broccoli or not.

    However what happens if we consider the following scenario:
    1. Consider the most sexually attractive person to you in terms of physical features.

    2. Now imagine that at the genetic level this person is of the opposite gender despite appearance.

    Did the features you imagined become less attractive when you got to step two? When I did this myself Not only did the features not become unattractive I was able to understand a reaction I had some years ago back in college was the result of a cultural prescription rather than my heterosexuality not being what I thought it was.

    I had a classmate back in college who showed me some pictures of people I initially thought were female who turned out to be genetically male. While I don’t clearly remember the images themselves I remember quite clearly that I said in my mind “I can’t believe I thought a guy was hot. (With a sexual reaction.)”

    What I have come to be able to articulate within the past few weeks is that hetero, homo, and bisexuality do not denote attractions to the genetic designations male and female, they denote attractions to characteristics that we generally group by genetic designations we call gender because of how these physical characteristics typically manifest themselves.

    What this means with respect to sexual orientation vs sexual preference is that trying to separate a group of physical features into a grouping called orientation merely obfuscates the reality that or brains do not really code for specific genders only physical features of specific genders. It tries to create a distinction where none truly exists. A sexual orientation is nothing more than the collection of physical features that we find attractive due to genetic predisposition.

    Many preferences for certain physical characteristics may be attributable to an individual’s genetic make up. Not everyone’s preferences are necessarily equally derived from genetics. “Born this way.” need not apply to everyone equally as you say in your article. The language that has become popular due to the rhetorical force it carries really messes up these conversations.

    This dichotomy silences just about everyone whose experience differs from the orthodoxy. It assumes that only one collection of people have a right to the “Born that way.” argument. It also assumes that if something is not necessarily derived from genetics that it is mutable. As if something derived from other factors cannot be just as immutable for some people as their own preferences.

    I know I’m probably restating many things you have already touched upon but yours was a perspective I had not thought of even though I think we share lots of similar conclusions on this subject.

    1. 12.1
      amhovgaard

      This made sense to me :) We need labels/boxes (categories) to be able to think about the world, and we think we use definitions: “man=…”, “woman=…” when in reality we usually decide which box to stick something/-one into by comparing them to a prototype. Which is actually a better method, since real people (and other non-factory-produced stuff) don’t fall into neat, clearly-defined category-boxes. So if someone looks a lot like your personal, imaginary woman-prototype your brain sticks the label “Woman” on that person. Since you can’t actually see their genes, they don’t directly influence your choice of label. You just get confused when the two kinds of category (definition and prototype) don’t match.And then all this cultural stuff messes things up by making you think that there’s something wrong with you for feeling that way, or with them for being/looking like that…

      BTW, was your choice of “liking/not liking broccoli” as an example of a preference deliberate? Because some people are incapable of learning to like that particular taste, apparently for genetic reasons ;) And some food preferences that we know are cultural are pretty much immutable in many (most?) cases: you’ll have a hard time teaching the average adult European/North American to switch to a diet of bugs.

  13. 13
    Savannah

    Just got caught up this evening on what turned out to be a really interesting series of posts… I agree with the great majority of concepts presented, though I have some differences in view here and there (or maybe it’s just my instinct to insert some very specific nuance on a few points, into what is already a very nuanced presentation). Most of it I will probably just mull over in my own head for now, but a couple points:

    FTR I do actually believe that a woman (cis or trans) has every right to turn me down for sex based on the fact that I have a penis. Maybe it is selfish, or close-minded, I don’t know, but I think she is justified in doing it (and besides I’m not out looking for pity sex or to help you score anti-oppression sex cool points). What I do demand however is that if someone turns me down, that they do so in a kind and respectful way. I don’t necessarily think there’s anything particular to trans identity in that either, it’s just the way that human beings should be kind to one another (although some people have been very unkind to me at those moments, based solely on my trans status).

    That having been said, I agree that the larger cultural context informs sexual desire, and none of that is beyond question (as long as those questions are always framed in a respectful manner).

    Although when I’m reading the last half of this most recent post, I can’t help but think “how does ‘political lesbianism’ fit into this picture?” I mean, it is at least formally calling for certain women to leave behind their (presumably) innate attractions and form relations explicitly based around certain political perspectives/goals. Is that justified? Is it justified for homophobic cis men to try and “woo them back” en masse? Personally, I find i’m uncomfortable with both of those on some level, and really prefer the idea of human beings just dealing with one another on a person-to-person basis when it comes to attraction.

    1. 13.1
      Natalie Reed

      Well, yeah, of course I’m not saying people don’t have the right to make their own decisions about who they do or don’t sleep with. The right to say no is a fundamental right, and it remains a right no matter WHAT the reasons are. Even someone turning you down for sex on the basis that they don’t sleep with people whose names begin with S would still be in their rights. But that doesn’t mean we don’t also have the right to talk about those decisions, what those decisions mean, what they reflect about our culture, and how our culture might be affecting them.

      I think the ideal situation is that, yes, we determine our attractions on an individual, person-to-person basis. “Am I attracted to this person? Are they attracted to me? Do we want to have sex with each other?”. But unfortunately, that’s not how it works. We see individuals in relation to the cultural categories (and attendant baggage) we read in them.

      Regardless, the kinds of things I’m saying should be available to critique aren’t things like “Mindy isn’t attracted to Sally”, it’s things like people saying “I’m just not into trans women. I don’t find them attractive. I think sleeping with one would be gross. That’s just the way I am”, or “Asian chicks are hot because they’re so much more feminine and submissive than white chicks”, or “I’m not into faggy guys. I like real men.” THAT’S what I’m talking about addressing.

      I have, in fact, REPEATEDLY heard transphobic straight men use sexual orientation as an excuse for their ridiculous attitudes on the issue of disclosure, which is hilarious when they say “I’m just not attracted to trans women” in the context of a hypothetical scenario in which they were attracted to a trans women (without knowing her status).

      In fact, how a man might find a trans woman attractive pre-disclosure and repulsive post-disclosure is the PERFECT example for how sexuality is mediated by cultural perception and I can’t believe I forgot to include it in this post. I may have to go back and edit it in. Because it sums it up so incredibly perfectly.

      And to be honest, Savvy, you sound like you’re basically repeating TERF talking points on Cotton Ceiling back at me. As in, framing this conversation exactly the way they want it to be framed.

      1. Savannah

        Uh, I have to say that I don’t get that last paragraph you wrote… especially since I feel like I really didn’t say very much one way or the other in my original comment.

      2. Light

        It’s perfectly fine to deconstruct things like that. Everyone involved needs to be careful to avoid having such deconstructions turning into a sort of covert demand that one person be attracted to another. We also shouldn’t be maligning others because they draw an arbitrary line where you or I don’t.(In terms of who they wish to be intimate with.) That sort of thing will just lead to retreat into bunkers and icbm launches on all sides. I kind of feel like this is how the conversation ends up going for too many people.

      3. Anna

        Ok I had issues with your argument on this but if I am understanding you position correctly from this I think I mostly agree with you.

        Just to see if im understanding this correctly having an attraction or an aversion is not an issue at all, its when someone makes an assertion such as “trans woman arent attractive” that it becomes problematic. It’s not the idea of having a sexual orientation or sexual preferences itself its the use of that to make claims about other groups or individuals?

        I am just trying to understand this argument, its important to me for many reasons. I am extremely uncomfortable with my own sexuality, have a great deal of fear and shame related to my own desires, and have desperately wished I was more fluid and could find attraction where I simply can’t. I worry a lot about people internalizing the kind of guilt I feel from having there preferences questioned.

        It just immediately sends a reaction to me like arguments I had put upon me (and still do) about my gender identity. People saying that I was supporting the gender binary by needing to transition. That i was anti feminist for asserting that gender was important at all. I internalized those messages too because I think of myself as a feminist. I beat myself up a great deal and still sometimes feel like I am somehow betraying what I believe.

        People have made me question my orientation and identity all the time. I have spent a great deal of time and energy feeling shame and guilt about it and painfully examining what I feel and trying to change or experiment with a life I just cant live. Words like selfish upset me because I have been made to internalize that to the point where I hate myself so much that I think I am loathsome.

        I just really fear that if there isn’t extreme clarity on this debate that a great deal of people could be hurt in both directions. As you say previously, a great risk of inadvertent harm.

        1. Ginny

          Yes, yes, yes. While I think we all agree that a person has the right to say no to sex at any time and for any reason, what’s unclear in this discussion is how far people have the right not to be shamed for their sexual inclinations.

          Speaking as a student of human sexuality, I think the “born this way” trope is bunk and I forget that a lot of mainstream culture still embraces it. Our preferences, both large-scale (gender) and small-scale (women wearing red shoes) are informed throughout life by messages from the culture we live in. Just because an inclination wasn’t genetically determined and isn’t immutable doesn’t mean that a person feeling that inclination has any choice about it in the moment. And when someone else condemns that inclination as morally wrong or culturally insensitive, whatever guilt and shame that person feels in response does nothing to change their inclination… it only creates guilt and shame around a person’s sexuality, which, however mediated by ugly cultural forces, can and should be a source of joy for that person.

          What I think we need to do is twofold… and tell me, Natalie, if this accords with your overall point or conflicts with it. First, we can and should criticize people for the language in which they express their sexual inclinations. “Gross” really never needs to be said, and it crosses the line into shaming someone else’s sexuality or identity, which is not okay. We can and should educate people whose fetishes are based on stereotypes, making sure that they aren’t going to consider themselves entitled to a certain kind of behavior from a person simply based on their race. But if someone’s turned on by Asian women, and maybe that has something to do with cultural messaging they’ve gotten around female submission, as long as they treat any actual Asian women they encounter with respect and don’t expect them to conform to the stereotype, I have no problem with the fact that the Asian features trigger a bunch of subconscious responses that make their erectile tissues perk up.

          Second, we need to encourage people to label themselves loosely. There’s a big difference between saying, “Your sexual inclinations will likely change over time, and the ones you have now are bad,” and “Your sexual inclinations will likely change over time, and you should be open to that.” I do think saying “I’m just not into X” causes problems when it becomes a defining part of someone’s identity, and may actually prevent them from growing (naturally, and probably without conscious intervention) and someday finding out that they are, in fact, into X. Or maybe they’ll never be into X, but by framing it as a current inclination rather than a stable feature of their identity, they’re less likely to engage in othering, less likely to give themselves permission to think of X as “gross,” less likely to start to think that people who aren’t into X are the best kind of people.

          Thanks for the intensely thought-provoking post.

          1. Savannah

            Lots of good ideas here around the potential for fluidity in sexuality. I’m not sure how I feel about the Asian thing though… I feel a bit uncomfortable with that part.

        2. Drew

          I don’t think the idea is to shame people for their preferences, but rather to get them to question if they even actually have the preferences they think they do.
          For instance, consider the example given about a cis-het-male saying “I’m just not into transwomen; they’re gross” when he doesn’t even know he was just flirting with or even getting sexual favors from a transwoman. He thinks he has that preference, but clearly it’s not that big of a deal. It’s not something about him that makes him not attracted to transwomen, it’s that he has decided that he shouldn’t be attracted to transwomen.

          I think the idea is to get people to say “Yes we compartmentalize our sexuality (and gender identity and other peoples’ sexuality and gender identity and so on) and this is a natural human trait, but let’s not lock ourselves or others into these boxes we make. Making boxes is fine, because that’s how the mind works, but refusing to ever consider opening them, moving things around, or breaking boxes down and making new boxes is extremely limiting to yourself and others and in some circumstances it can be downright prejudicial.

          1. Anna

            The problem with telling people to move outside those boxes is you often don’t know why they are there and it can be dangerous to push someone on those boxes. Here is a specific example and the one I find most worrying personally. Telling someone you need to examine why you are not attacted to men for example, the person says “but I am just not comfortable sexually with male genitals” in response. You feel that is worthy of discussion. What you dont know is that person has been raped. Rape victim gets to feel shame over being uncomfortable sexually as a result of trauma something that they just do not need.

            It is not ok for said rape survivor to walk around saying “all mens penises are disgusting” no matter how understandable that might be in their situation. Question that by all means, although try to question the assertion not the preference. However pushing that person on their sexual attraction in the absence of such statements is dangerous and has the potential for a great deal of harm.

            We don’t know why people don’t like something and it may or may not be valid but it is better to be safe because a great number of us have reasons that are not under our control for sexual response and we already feel enough pressure as is.

          2. Natalie Reed

            And yet again, I’ve made it very clear that what this is about is not pressuring or shaming or challenging anyone’s individual choices or whatever. It’s about looking at how we frame things, perceive them, as communities and cultures and sub-cultures. Would you PLEASE stop drawing this away from what the actual issue has repeatedly been clarified to be?

          3. Anna

            I am talking about how the way the community frames this argument can have effects and be percieved certain ways by individuals. I am asking that people consider how challenging these notions even generally can be taken and to be careful of the ways the debate is framed.

          4. Natalie Reed

            Sometimes people being made uncomfortable or feeling offended by certain conversations is an issue that outweighs the benefit of those conversations, and sometimes it’s totally justified to ask that those debates not be pursued on the grounds that they’re hurtful, or difficult, or offensive, or make people uncomfortable. But sometimes not. Sometimes it works the other way, and the importance of the conversation outweighs whatever discomfort or offense it may cause. Sometimes it’s important to have the conversation anyway. Sometimes uncomfortable topics need to be broached.

            Remember my example about religion above? Religion is something that most believers hold to be a very personal, very important and very meaningful aspect of their identities, and challenging their beliefs is hurtful, offensive and uncomfortable. But challenging those beliefs is important, that importance outweighs the discomfort of the subject, and it’s not okay to shut down critique and conversations about religious beliefs simply because they’re deeply held and personally meaningful.

            That’s basically the way I view our frameworks for sexuality. Yes, I know that people’s sexual identities are important to them, just like I know people’s spiritual beliefs are important to them. But just as that doesn’t mean religion is off limits for critical inquiry, it’s not justification for taking sexuality and how we think of sexuality off the table for critical inquiry either.

            I know you mean well, Anna, and I do like and respect you. But to me, it feels like your argument here is functionally a “shut up, that’s why”. As in, it’s not participating in the conversation, it’s taking the position that the conversation shouldn’t happen.

            The fact that most of the comments here have been either thanking me for broaching the topic, or resistance to the topic being broached, rather than participation in the conversation I’m suggesting we be able to have, says a lot about how this issue is loaded, and in fact illustrates quite clearly what I was saying about us having gotten to a point where it’s intensely difficult to talk about these issues at all, let alone advance that conversation to the places it needs to get.

          5. Anna

            My intention was not to stop the debate but to try to find a way to frame it that would minimize harm for all. I apologize if it came accross in another fashion. I will leave the debate with my sincerest apologies

  14. 14
    AmuckCanuck

    It’s essays like this which is why I like your blog. My assumptions get challenged, I learn things, and I end up thinking about things I hadn’t before even thought *needed* thinking about!

    At the risk of sounding like I’m gushing, you’re one of the best on the freethought site! Keep up the good work!

  15. 15
    Ami Angelwings

    Thanks for writing this. :) This is something that a lot of people use to justify why criticism of what they desire/like is invalid and in fact, should never have been done in the first place. A lot of guys use this as a defense against criticisms of video games and comic book art, for instance. That “we are attracted to it, and you can’t criticize lust” is enough of a reason why suddenly, we can’t critique fiction. We can nitpick it for continuity errors, we can point out that a character is doing something against what they said in a 1970s comic issue, we can point out how they should have escaped a trap because of their established superpowers, and we can laugh at terrible writing or voice acting, but we can’t criticize the sexualization of female characters because… y’know… that’s just what they like, and you can’t look at the social influences in sexual attraction yo!

    e_e

    Nobody is saying that the actual emotion is wrong, but that the way we choose to express those emotions can be harmful to others. After all, anger is an emotion too. And jealousy. And hatred. Are all expressions of those emotions okay if they harm others? So why is “lust” or attraction different?

    Also, as an Asian woman, I am so sick of people justifying their exotification of me based on some idea of natural attraction. I’ve even heard the idea that Asian women are just evolutionary the ultimate woman so it’s only natural that men exotify us so who am I to say it’s wrong?

  16. 16
    A. Person

    I guess I’m not awake this morning, because my reaction is “So what?”

    Maybe I’m just simultaneously being naive and cynical, but when I hear “That’s the way I am.”, I understand it as “No, I’m not willing to figure out why I am the way I am.”, and I hope that most people hear it that way as well. So, I’m understanding your thesis as “People who state outright that they’re unwilling to examine their assumptions when it comes to sexual preference should examine those assumptions.” which sounds trivially true to me.

    I’m sorry for the negative feedback, I hope that I’m just missing the point.

    1. 16.1
      A. Person

      Yeah, tired. That should read:

      Maybe I’m just simultaneously being naive and cynical, but when I hear “That’s the way I am.”, I understand it as “No, I’m not willing to figure out why I am the way I am.” or “I’m not willing to discuss with you why I am the way I am.”, and I hope that most people hear it that way as well.

      1. Drew

        Honesty time: Every time I’ve said that in the past that has been exactly what I meant. That’s why I try not to say it anymore.

  17. 17
    Ace of Sevens

    See also the way some elements of the queer community jumped on Kim Cattrall for saying the she personally wasn’t “born that way.” It was like she wasn’t allowed to make a choice.

    Another that’s bugged me for some time: if orientation is innate and not a social construct, why does the concept not exist in most societies? In fact, it doesn’t seem to have really existed in any societies until a century ago or so, even ones that had no problem with gay activity. That seems to be pretty clear evidence that our current conception is a construct.

    I would like to see a lot more appreciation for the idea that people like what they like for various reasons and that words like “lesbian” or “gay” or “bi” or “straight” are useful descriptions of preferences not biological realities. That not only leads to head-in-the-sand attitudes and excuse-making, but also purity tests, which are generally awful.

    1. 17.1
      kagerato

      See also the way some elements of the queer community jumped on Kim Cattrall for saying the she personally wasn’t “born that way.” It was like she wasn’t allowed to make a choice.

      That’s precisely it — according to predeterminists, she isn’t allowed to make a choice. It’s been defined as a “well known fact” now that sexuality is completely outside your control, so anyone who contradicts this narrative becomes a deluded fool who must be shut out of the conversation as quickly as possible.

      1. Drew

        I think it’s a fear thing that’s tied into self-acceptance. At least that’s how it is for me.

        For me, learning about the biological determination of homosexuality (despite its incompleteness) was a significant turning point in learning to love myself for who I am. I felt that if I can’t change then I don’t have to blame myself for being this way anymore. I can just accept the hand that has been given me to play and make the best of it.

        Every time I hear someone challenge the “born this way” dogma, I feel a wave of anxiety. To me it’s almost a panic trigger. When I hear that homosexuality could be a choice, it reminds me of all the painful time I spent trying not to be a homosexual. I start to think that maybe there is still hope for me to change. Maybe I am just a failure for not changing. Maybe I’m not just a pervert but also weak-minded. Maybe I’ll never be happy in a relationship because homosexuality is just the deluded choice of a sick man after all. Maybe I should stop listing things before I make myself depressed.
        It’s not a logical thought, that’s for sure, but it is emotionally powerful.

        1. hall-of-rage

          Oh drat, it looks like in a comment above I warned you not to trigger people who…are like you, apparently. FAIL

          That said, I hope that in continuing self-acceptance you can see your homosexuality as a positive thing about you, because after doing so, it should be less panic-inducing to worry about “born this way”.

        2. kagerato

          That’s a good explanation of why people react as they do. However, we must keep in mind that explanations and justifications are two separate things.

          1. Drew

            But, of course.

    2. 17.2
      A. Person

      See also the way some elements of the queer community jumped on Kim Cattrall for saying the she personally wasn’t “born that way.” It was like she wasn’t allowed to make a choice.

      From what I recall of the kerfuffle, it wasn’t that she wasn’t allowed to make a choice, but their argument was that because of certain elements in society like conservative Christians, Western societies can’t talk maturely about bisexual/pansexual experience without it being used to undermine the biological reality of same-sex attraction. I didn’t care for their attempt to silence her, but they weren’t denying that she couldn’t choose which sex she preferred to date. What they were denying was that her experience could be generalized to cover all same-sex attraction as a choice.

      Another that’s bugged me for some time: if orientation is innate and not a social construct, why does the concept not exist in most societies? In fact, it doesn’t seem to have really existed in any societies until a century ago or so, even ones that had no problem with gay activity. That seems to be pretty clear evidence that our current conception is a construct.

      The criteria that we use to create a classifier such as sexual orientation is a cultural construct, but that doesn’t invalidate the idea that there is an underlying biological reality to orientation. You can change the number of classes, and you can change the sorting mechanism, but you’re not changing that underlying reality. It’s like the cultural concept of color. Some cultures have more or fewer classes to sort wavelengths of light into, but the fact that the existence of words for green or blue is culturally based doesn’t suddenly make the corresponding wavelengths pop in/out of existence.

      We often forget that we’re discussing models of reality. Just because you can switch out a model for another that is a better fit in the region of reality that you are personally concerned with, doesn’t mean that that is a better model in general. In addition, there is an additional level of complexity when you start discussing the models used by others, because you may actually be discussing a model of a model (ie strawman).

      A strictly biological model for sexual orientation is a poor model. A strictly culturally-mediated preferences model is also a poor model. Constructing a more nuanced model which uses contributions from both is desirable, but at the current time we don’t have good tools for determining the weightings of contributions, which results in the debate descending back into which is more important, nature(biological) or nurture(cultural).

      1. amhovgaard

        The model that seems to fit most of the evidence is that, like most things ;) it’s a complicated mix of genes, other non-cultural factors, and culture/social environment. Most people are probably born with the ability to respond sexually to, well, most people ;) but with a (stronger or weaker) tendency to prefer either men or women. Some have no such preference. And some may in fact only be capable of liking either men or women sexually. So it doesn’t really matter if you say “People are born this way” or “They’re not…” or “they can/can’t change” – you’re pretty much guaranteed to be wrong :p because none of it is true for everyone.

    3. 17.3
      embertine

      ??? Not Cynthia Nixon?

  18. 18
    Christina

    But attempt to critique a gay man who states a preference for such “real men”, attempt to point out the degree to which it plays into heterosexist social stratification, the way it implies femmephobia, misogyny, internalized homophobia, internalization of the way gay men are culturally positioned as “womanly”, “not real men”, metaphorical eunuchs, etc…. attempt even to just talk about it, and you’ll be met with intense resistance: It’s just a personal preference. Just the way I am. I can’t change my desires. You’re the real homophobe. Born this way.

    So my question is… Who is making this/these arguments) and when is this problem happening?

    “Sure, you’re a woman, except when it comes to sex. Then you’re an icky, gross man. Because penis. But it’s just personal preference!”

    …and when is this happening?

    these women (and myself, for being supportive of their principles) were accused of homophobia.

    Link pls?

    It was simply a natural, matter-of-fact aspect of their sexual orientation, their being lesbians, that they would see us and our bodies as disgusting and unfuckable, and openly frame them as such, without the slightest hesitation, remorse or self-reflection.

    Can you provide a link to an instance of this happening?

    And how we frame it has become dangerous and harmful.

    True, but why didn’t you provide any links to this dangerous and harmful behavior?

    I don’t believe that you’re arguing against a strawman. However, I could see how someone might come to be skeptical that people routinely hold the positions you are arguing against, as you provided no references to these behaviors/arguments actually occurring.

    Make no mistake, I’m not saying that these instances don’t happen – but I am saying that providing a link to someone actually saying these things would be an awesome way to avoid questions of strawmannery. Because I don’t know who you’re arguing against, and I find myself thinking, “Man that’s homophobic/transphobic, I’d really like to see/read these exchanges.”

    1. 18.1
      Natalie Reed

      If this all sounds foreign and new to you, you obviously don’t really follow the trans, feminist or queer-activist blogospheres very closely

      I didn’t provide links because it’s a pain in the ass and it shouldn’t have to be spelled out for anyone with an interest in queer or trans issues, where all of these arguments have been abundant and pretty much inescapable lately. But if you really need to see it for yourself, do a little googling on “Cotton Ceiling” and watch what turns up. Be sure to read the rad-fem side of the argument too.

      In some posts, I assume my readers have a certain level of familiarity with the subject matter. Some are written for “beginners”, but this definitely isn’t one of them. When I’m talking about issues within the queer community, I’m not going to stunt my ability to talk about complex sides of things in order to hold the hands of people who apparently aren’t really involved in it.

      1. Christina

        I guess maybe we just have slightly different standards/methods for blogging.

        Example: even if everybody reading some post I write knows that Christians often accuse atheists of “having no morals”, if I’m going to talk about when Christians say that, I tend to link to a Christian saying that, preferably a high-profile one. Even if we all know it happens with abundance every day.

        I ‘spose you could call that holding hands, but I prefer to think of it as aiming arguments directly at a particular person instead of at a “them”.

        I should also mention that the arguments you raised do not sound foreign to me.

        1. WilloNyx

          It makes pretty strong sense to me why it would be wise for Natalie not to link directly as she has done a pretty badass job in making this a safe space for trans people. Linking and therefore pinging rad fems would merely direct their hatred here. That would tear down those efforts pretty quickly.

          1. Christina

            Well, that’s fair. If you don’t want a bunch of people dogging you for a blog post you wrote about them, it would be wise not to let them know about it.

          2. Natalie Reed

            Yes. Very true. I have specifically, and consistently, maintained a “no linking the TERF blogs” policy since day one. I even enforce this in my comments.

        2. chexuma

          Even if you didn’t cite a Christian decrying atheists as immoral, I don’t think you’d get any demands for links. I’m not sure why you’re requesting links for something that “doesn’t seem foreign” to you.

          And one token citation doesn’t support the argument that such sentiment is common enough to be relevant.

          1. Christina

            I don’t think you’d get any demands for links

            You’d be surprised.

            I’m not sure why you’re requesting links for something that “doesn’t seem foreign” to you.

            For the same reason I ask for a citation for anything else, even things I am somewhat familiar, but not intimately familiar with.

            And one token citation doesn’t support the argument that such sentiment is common enough to be relevant.

            No, it doesn’t.

        3. Natalie Reed

          Do you post comments on other Atheist bloggers’ sites asking “who says this? when? links please!” whenever they mention a done-to-death Christian argument?

          Don’t say yes. Because I know that, at least in this community, you don’t.

          In the atheist blogosphere, people will even just say stuff like “the cosmological argument” or “no true scotsman” or “theodicy” or whatever, and the assumption is that, yes, the readers will know what these things are and what they mean, and know that they do indeed happen. You don’t call for citations and examples every time someone references “no true scotsman”, and I’m being much much more specific than that.

          Christina, you post on a much less frequent schedule than I do. In terms of time and energy, you can probably afford to take a different approach. But I’m trying to generate a lot of ideas, and make a lot of connections, and keep up with a lot of very quickly moving conversations in the community. I pull the connections out of my experience, but rarely have the time to meticulously detail all the specific places those connections and experiences come from.

          We’re doing extremely different kinds of work, and what those differences afford or demand, respectively, ought to be respected.

          1. Carlie
            these women (and myself, for being supportive of their principles) were accused of homophobia.

            Link pls?

            There isn’t always a link for everything. She’s relating an actual experience that happened to her, an actual criticism that was leveled at her personally. If someone said that to her IRL, and therefore there is no written citation of the event, does that mean it never happened? That’s a bizarre standard to hold.

    2. 18.2
      1. Christina

        Thanks!

      2. amhovgaard

        Oh my… I don’t think there’s much point in arguing with people who have that kind of “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts” attitude. Maybe for the sake of the audience?

    3. 18.3
      kagerato

      You ought to go back and read the past few month’s conversations first before calling “citation needed”. Don’t assume that this discussion arose out of nowhere… the entire subject has been on slow boil for a long time.

      1. Christina

        I didn’t assume the discussion arose out of nowhere.

        1. hall-of-rage

          But by applying a standard that says links must be very dense in Natalie’s writing, you’re asking for a lot more time to go into that writing, and placing a priority on repetition rather than insight.

          Let’s be clear: when you ask for a reference, you are asking for the blogger to do work for you, because you are unwilling or unable to Google for yourself. To ask for references on several claims in a row is demanding. It carries an implication that you think the claims are not justified, so doing this is an act of aggression.

          Not that you should avoid aggression in every context; personally, I ask for citations when I suspect they won’t be available, and can’t find them myself. To make such demands when you already know some of the relevant material, and therefore would know more keywords for your own searches, is out of line.

    4. 18.4
      lochaber

      So, not the exact same situation Natalie was mentioning, but I think it follows from the same thought processes/false dichotomies, etc., and may be similar.

      A cis male sleeps with a trans woman. Other people become aware of this, and label him gay. cause: “dur, he fucked someone with a cock, how is that not gay?” (-disclaimer, not what I think, but I’ve heard/read this response countless times, where the people holding this view tend to think it is a given/no-brainer, and there is no other interpretation of the situation)

      also: not trying to direct attention away from the trans individual, I’m just trying to point out a situation that I’m more familiar with, and I think may be more visible to some people, where the common perception is: “penis=male no exceptions”

  19. 19
    Inchoaterica

    one more thing to further throw a spanner in the works: the ugly reality that there is little to no study about the sexual orientation of trans people whatsoever. it wasn’t that long ago (and a lot of trans people still haven’t gotten the memo) that you had to be heterosexual, which doesn’t just disrespect people who are hetero it’s really bad for those of us who aren’t. add to it that much of this “born this way” rhetoric is often abused by the same queers who erase, well, us…

    a huge part of it is lifting this veil of shame around the sexuality of trans people. we fear being attacked by other queers, by TERFs, by HBSers, etc but the longer we let things fester under a veil of shame, or keep shaming others for what they do with their bodies and the bodies of other consenting people, the worse it’s going to get. so it’s pretty awesome to see you pointing this up and like the cotton ceiling discussion is part of reclaiming our sexuality as whole people, not giving in to the cissupremacist idea that we are lesser because of our bodies and gender identities. in other words, we need to stop policing each other as much as we need to stop accepting being policed by cis people.

  20. 20
    Emptyell

    Natalie,

    Thanks for another great post. I have always felt that people are born with predispositions, but that how they adapt those to society is very circumstantial. I hadn’t really put that together with sexuality due to the heavy bias out there but you’ve nailed it as far as I’m concerned.

    As a CIS male I mostly just look in occasionally but this point seems so on target to me that I had to say cheers and keep up the great work.

  21. 21
    Jack

    Morning,

    I don’t know if you are familiar with the writings of Dr. Robert Minor; you probably are, but I just wanted to drop the note in case you aren’t.

    His book ‘Scared Straight’, examines many of the same points you write above and more. I often check in with that text when I am wondering about things sexual and gender.

    Also, Michelangelo Signorile wrote ‘Life Outside’ many years ago which discussed many of the ‘straight acting’ etc. pressures as it relates to gay men specifically being wrapped up in cultural norms of what a ‘man’ is and is not.

    Thanks for your perspective, I genuinely appreciate it.

  22. 22
    eNeMeE

    Thank you for this post. Well written and educational.

  23. 23
    Iamcuriosublue

    So many shades of WRONG here, Natalie, I don’t even know where to begin. I guess with this:

    “Letting down defenses, letting down the knee-jerk desire to assert the validity of your sexuality against a wildly sex-negative culture, are you really sure that you know all there is to know about your own desires? That the way they’re manifesting is purely innate, or purely self-determined, completely without external influence? And are you really sure everything about it is harmless?”

    Well, I can assure you that, whatever my degree of “examination” of lack thereof, I know a hell of a lot more about my sexuality than *you* or other pretentious theory-mongers and third-party kibitzers. Second, to what degree my sexuality is inborn, vs what degree is due to deep socialization is an academic question. Personality traits that are from early socialization are often so central to the core of one’s identity that they might as well be inborn. This is a key mistake you “social constructionism” enthusiasts miss – you seem to think that once you label something a “social construct”, then it becomes a matter of simple individual choice to accept or reject it, not to mention, now open to political critique against those having the “wrong” attractions, which pretty much seems to be where you’re going with this. Never mind that this is pretty much the same mindset that sent 70s radical feminism down the rabbit hole of “political lesbianism”, and no small irony that these are the very people you’re sparring with in this “cotton ceiling” debate.

    And a more important point is, the sexuality that I ended up with, and very much *mine*, not yours, and certainly not the property of any social movement or any other collective entity. I don’t care in the least if you were to consider my sexual attractions to be racist, sexist, and homo- and transphobic. *You don’t get to tell me who or what turns me or anybody else on.* Period.

    1. 23.1
      sphex

      Huh. I’m baffled. Perhaps you should re-read the post? I don’t think she said what you think she said.

    2. 23.2
      hall-of-rage

      So, iamcuriousblue, if I’m reading you right it seems like you’re obsessed with proving you’re totally straight and nobody can say otherwise. Have you stopped to consider why that should be so important to you? Because it sure reads like you’re ranting because you’ve got something to be afraid of.

      Also (snark) Natalie is a “social constructionist enthusiast!” Also the sky is green!

      1. Iamcuriosublue

        Yeah, it’s all about proving how straight I am. –yawn–

        I really could care less how straight or how manly or lack thereof other people consider me. But who I consensually fuck and what I fantasize about? Really not anybody’s fucking beeswax and not open to “political” critique.

        1. Natalie Reed

          You’re right. What choices you make is nobody else’s business. Your right to provide, withhold or withdraw consent is fundamental and inalienable. But how you talk about those choices as a participant in a shared culture is inherently political.

    3. 23.3
      A. Person

      I was wondering when a comment like this was going to show up.

      I think iacb’s criticism is valid, especially with particular paragraph they quoted, because whether Natalie meant it to or not, she does raises the idea of a person’s sexuality being inherently harmful with the last question.

      I can understand the fear here. That by discussing Y is harmful because of X, people will assume that all Y is a direct result of X and thus Y is immoral, whereas Y is actually the result of a contribution of factors, and X’s contribution is variable from person to person.

      It’s valid to ask if X might be contributing to Y, but to assume that X is a primary contribution is the big danger, especially if you’re inferring X from correlating traits instead of a direct observation of X.

      1. Iamcuriosublue

        “I think iacb’s criticism is valid, especially with particular paragraph they quoted, because whether Natalie meant it to or not, she does raises the idea of a person’s sexuality being inherently harmful with the last question.”

        I think the arguments Natalie advances here, if taken in their full measure are one that basically reject the last 30+ years of sex-positive feminism. Hey, guess what, the lesbian separatists were right – there *is* a politically correct “feminist” sexuality, and people should be pressured to conform to it. Natalie’s details may differ over what the correct sexuality is (notably, being pro-trans rather than transphobic), but the critique is essentially the same.

        “I can understand the fear here. That by discussing Y is harmful because of X, people will assume that all Y is a direct result of X and thus Y is immoral, whereas Y is actually the result of a contribution of factors, and X’s contribution is variable from person to person.

        It’s valid to ask if X might be contributing to Y, but to assume that X is a primary contribution is the big danger, especially if you’re inferring X from correlating traits instead of a direct observation of X.”

        Actually, I have no problem discussing sexual preference and attraction, in the aggregate or in the abstract. To revisit a point about, from a developmental point of view, the idea of “born gay” or “born straight” is a bit simplistic, though I think there is good evidence that there’s at least some genetic or prenatal component to gender preference. And, yeah, one could very well point out that preference for body mass index in women is historically and culturally variable. All well and good.

        My problem is when this gets scaled down to the individual level, telling anybody their attractions are a “harmful social construct” and therefore wrong. IMO, individual preferences are sacrosanct, whether arrived at through inborn drives or socialization. (And if you know the first thing about early childhood socialization and the interaction of genes and environment, there are indeed deep aspects to personality that may not be inborn, but are so central to who a person *is* that they might as well be.)

        And, to head this off, I’m sure somebody will chime in “what about pedophiles and rapists”. Well, yes, if your drives cause harm on this level, than intervention and therapy (in so far as it can actually help) is certainly called for, but that’s the outlier that does not prove the rule.

        1. Natalie Reed

          Again, as I have repeatedly maintained throughout this discussion, this is not about targeting INDIVIDUALS or shaming them for their INDIVIDUAL choices. It’s about opening up space to simply have a dialogue about how WE, as cultures and sub-cultures, frame sexuality, and sexualize or desexualize certain kinds of bodies or identities. The fact that people are continuously, inexorably drawn towards “don’t shame me for my individual choices!”, despite it being repeatedly made clear that that’s not what this is about, is an excellent example of the degree to which this conversation has become impossibly and destructively loaded.

          This isn’t about me wanting anyone’s sexuality to be the “correct” one. It’s about opening up dialogue about, for instance, trans women being seen as unfuckable or as fetish objects, asian women being seen as sexily “submissive”, black women being seen as less “ideal” relative to how our sexual preferences “evolved”, “straight-acting” men being seen as “real men” and therefore more sexy relative to “gay-acting” men, etc.

          THOSE are the kinds of things I want us to be able to talk about, in general, as cultural frameworks, NOT “Marcy, you totally need to sleep with Sheila because if you don’t, you’re a transphobe!”.

          How many times is this “shaming individual choices” strawman going to be erected before we can get the fuck over it and look at the actual topic?

          1. Carlie

            It seems pretty self-evident to me. If you look at what body types are considered in general to be sexy and a turn-on, it’s wildly different between different cultures and different time periods. That in itself points to there being a huge cultural influence on what one finds to be sexy.

        2. kagerato

          Actually, I have no problem discussing sexual preference and attraction, in the aggregate or in the abstract

          The evidence shows otherwise, considering the very first thing you did was criticize Natalie for doing exactly that. Apart from one brief aside that wasn’t about shaming, there was no mention whatsoever of any particular individual in the original post. Yet you misread it as a personal attack anyway.

          IMO, individual preferences are sacrosanct, whether arrived at through inborn drives or socialization.

          You don’t get to shut down the conversation by declaring the topic sacred. That’s exactly what the religious do; it’s wrong then, it’s wrong now, and it will always be wrong no matter what the topic is. You cannot appeal to the supernatural, authority, or your personal ego as the deciding factor in a debate. That actually does more to discredit yourself than just about anything else you could do, actually.

          And, to head this off, I’m sure somebody will chime in “what about pedophiles and rapists”. Well, yes, if your drives cause harm on this level, than intervention and therapy (in so far as it can actually help) is certainly called for, but that’s the outlier that does not prove the rule.

          First, cut out the casual association between pedophilia and rape. One of those deserves treatment and the other deserves prison time.

          Second, why is it that some kinds of harm are allowed to be punished and others are not? Are you failing to understand how certain beliefs that other people hold as supposedly part of their “sexuality” — including racism, homophobia, and transphobia — cause harm to others? Why is it many small instances of harm receive no attention, even if their accumulated influence is just as great as one big event? Implicitly I see an argument from law hiding in this — it’s legal, therefore it is right. The law is not justice, it is power and authority.

          1. Natalie Reed

            Holy shit. Iamcuriousblue actually literally said sexuality is sacrosanct?

            Well… Christina? THERE is all the evidence you need that this is based on shit that actually happens and actually gets said.

          2. Iamcuriosublue

            kagerto writes:

            “Second, why is it that some kinds of harm are allowed to be punished and others are not? Are you failing to understand how certain beliefs that other people hold as supposedly part of their “sexuality” — including racism, homophobia, and transphobia — cause harm to others? Why is it many small instances of harm receive no attention, even if their accumulated influence is just as great as one big event? Implicitly I see an argument from law hiding in this — it’s legal, therefore it is right. The law is not justice, it is power and authority.”

            I see. So you’re making an essentially Catherine MacKinnon-style argument that certain ideas and sexual expressions constitute “harm” and therefore should be amenable to coercive state action. Nice. That would have a wonderful effect on basic individual rights should it ever get accepted as legal principal.

            And speaking of “things the Religious Right does”, the Religious Right demands conformity to a certain sexuality based on religion, while people like you do it on the basis on an equally arbitrary political ideology. Same shit, different rationalization.

            Natalie Reed writes:

            “Holy shit. Iamcuriousblue actually literally said sexuality is sacrosanct?

            Well… Christina? THERE is all the evidence you need that this is based on shit that actually happens and actually gets said.”

            Well, yes, just like I’d say that an individual’s right not to be tortured is sacrosanct. You know, basic human rights and all that, or is that too “liberal” for you? Now if you want to have a rational debate on the need for basic individual rights or how the “collective good” should trump this, be my guest, but in the meanwhile I think “sacrosanct” is a pretty good shorthand for it.

          3. kagerato

            I see. So you’re making an essentially Catherine MacKinnon-style argument that certain ideas and sexual expressions constitute “harm” and therefore should be amenable to coercive state action. Nice. That would have a wonderful effect on basic individual rights should it ever get accepted as legal principal.

            What? I made an assertion that you seem to be deriving your views from authority, whether that be religion, law, or some other social control structure. You didn’t deny that, interestingly enough.

            Saying that I’m expressing a desire for “coercive state action” is ridiculous. You’ve grasped and twisted what I said into an incomprehensible and contradictory mess. I didn’t advocate for any action on the part of any authority anywhere, and even criticized the use of such!

            Beyond that, you still do not get it. It’s not the ideas and expressions themselves that cause harm. Ideas do not get up and walk around on their own; they have no independent reality. It’s the way they are used — or more properly, abused — by large parts of society to shame, ridicule, attack, and ostracize others that causes the harm. By mischaracterizing a position as critical of ideas instead of behaviors and people, you’ve straw-manned the whole discussion and distracted us from actually addressing anything.

            And speaking of “things the Religious Right does”, the Religious Right demands conformity to a certain sexuality based on religion, while people like you do it on the basis on an equally arbitrary political ideology. Same shit, different rationalization.

            You really enjoy misdirection, don’t you? No one here has demanded conformity. Building false equivalencies to fundamentalist’s views that enforce sexual behavior with threats of hellfire, damnation, rejection, ostracization, and even imprisonment or execution is absurd on its face — so obviously so that you cannot possibly be arguing in good faith.

            It’s not “political ideology” to state that we should be able to discuss the causal factors and influences of sexuality openly, and consider how these impact other people. Trying to shut down the discussion with declarations of how sacrosanct and untouchable it is, however …

  24. 24
    A. Person

    Natalie, you’ve repeatedly stated that the discussion isn’t what you wanted. How did you want the discussion to go? People go more in-depth on each of the examples you gave of how bigotry manifests in sexuality? People bring up their own examples?

    In one of your above comments, you mentioned that we’ve begun to forget the arbitrariness within sexuality and gender. My take is that we’ve only just begun to understand the complexity, and poor simplifications are only to be expected.

    I admit that a lot of my confusion is coming from the way the terms sexual orientation, sexual preference, and sexuality are being thrown around interchangably, and then trying to figure out exactly what was meant. For example, I understand sexuality as sexual behavior and the manifestation of sexual preference, sexual preference being the combination of cultural influences and sexual orientation, and sexual orientation being strictly the biological causes of attraction. So when I see a statement like “sexual orientation is not as simple as just what you happen to like and dislike” I think: “Of course not. That’s not what sexual orientation is. Anyone using it that way is abusing the term.”

    1. 24.1
      eNeMeE

      That’s as may be, when talking in circles who use those terms regularly/professionally, but I don’t think it’s the general case – all three of those can and are used interchangeably in conversation so far as I know.

      Based on little experience but I think that’s part of the problem illuminated in the post. These things are not talked about or discussed regularly or publicly and that allows a whole of of side/irrelevant issues to be lumped in with them – “Transwomen aren’t real women, they’re unfuckable”
      “Why?”
      “Hey, it’s just my sexuality/sexual preference/orientation(spo)”
      “Oh, okay” [conversation ends]

      At least that was my reading of the post – it’s not about anyone doing it wrong, it’s about what people are willing to submit to examination (even on a general level) vs those things they won’t (and what attitudes might be hidden in there that are actually unrelated since spo is a way to end discussion).

      That’s my reading, anyway, and I’m posting it here mostly so it can be corrected and I can stop talking out my ass.

    2. 24.2
      Natalie Reed

      I’m not saying the discussion “isn’t what I wanted”. I just find that where these comments have led is highly evocative of the issue I was attempting to illustrate.

      Under those definitions you’re using, I’d say the problem is exactly THAT people are claiming that sexual preference, and the statements and frameworks surrounding sexual preference, are as “sacrosanct” and above critique as sexuality (individual decisions they make about sex), and as innate and fundamental and immutable as sexual orientation (the neurobiological predispositions).

      Using those definitions, I would certainly say that yes, everyone has the right to their own sexuality, and decisions about their sexuality, period. And yes, there is such a thing as sexual orientation. But that sexual preference is a politicized, cultural issue that demands critical inquiry, and that presently treating it as (in some cases like iamcuriousblue, quite literally) sancrosanct is extremely dangerous and problematic and enshrines as “above question” very harmful cultural attitudes about certain kinds of bodies.

      1. hall-of-rage

        Oh, now that is well said, and pleasingly logical.

        I like this topic and wish I could add in a way that isn’t restating your points.

        I will say that I think the desire to put clear box around one’s sexual orientation and sexual preferences, because of tying one’s identity into this too strongly, needs a name more specific than sexual shaming. “Orientation anxiety” perhaps?

        So as I figure it, the main damage is done when people have orientation anxiety, decide what their partner’s bodies should look like, then talk about it in normative terms: that adds up to (sub)cultural messages that declare “people in group A are undesirable to people in group B”.

  25. 25
    amhovgaard

    This discussion is clearly difficult ;) I think part of it is that it’s really several different discussions, and part of it is all those emotions :) Not sure if it’s possible to get past the personal here; it IS personal for everyone involved, isn’t it? I really liked your post, I agreed with most of it and some of it made me think… and I still felt attacked. Shamed. Yes, I know you said, repeatedly, that you weren’t talking about individual choices, but rather how we talk about these things. It’s just that some of what you said (towards the end) sounded so much like things other people have said to me before, and I think it’s possible that I’m not the only one hearing/responding to old conversations instead of just your post. I’m thinking mainly about things people (other women) have said to shame me and make me toe the line WRT sexual matters, e. g. when I’ve said something that suggests I might be so primitive as to be attracted to someone’s looks (body) first, and not their charming personality.

    And I’m not sure I understand what you meant by this:

    “Acting like your partner’s genitals only exist for the sake of satisfying your personal preference is an inherently selfish act, and acting like those genitals have to have anything at all to do with fucking one another is an inherently unimaginative act.”

    This really does sound as if it’s more about individual choice than discourse.

    At least one of your examples was less complicated: those gay guys who get off on homophobic slurs. Aren’t they just role-playing in the same way and for the same reasons that little kids do? When they’ve had to go to hospital for some scary/painful procedure, and spend the next week or two playing hospital. I don’t suppose it’s a conscious choice in either case, but it looks like much the same thing to me. It makes them feel more in control and makes the scary things less scary. If the last time you were called a “dirty little faggot” you were sexually aroused and the guy saying it was doing so because you asked him to… it probably hurts less the next time some homophobe says it. Of course, once you start adding uniforms and the rest it gets complicated again ;)

    1. 25.1
      Natalie Reed

      I didn’t say that homophobic role-playing was necessarily a bad thing. Indeed I’m sure that for many guys it can be an empowering thing, or a way to work through complex, difficult feelings. It was just an example of a manifestation of sexuality that is clearly tied to politicized cultural issues and is obviously not an inborn predisposition.

  26. 26
    TBS

    Interesting post. And very interesting discussion.

    I am, of course, as a cis hetero white male posting from my outpost high on Mt. Privledge.

    I would venture to guess that most cis hetero men dont actually have an opinion about trans issues, as they dont think much about them at all. I do think there is a biological component to attraction, but it is moderated. I think when I was first with R, my fianceee, I would (and I hope she doesnt read this) occasionally be put off by subtle physical cues, smell taste something. That has changed, and I think such things can.

    Not sure how I would have reacted if R had been pre-op. Being honest with myself I may have handled it badly, which would have been a shame as R is the love of my life.

    One thing I can say is that being with R has caused me to really think about sex. And talk about it. Up on Mt. Privledge it gets cold. Often my cis heteromale coleagues complain about dissatisfaction in their sex lives. Ive enjoyed the benefit of frank communication in mine, which wouldnt have happened in the same way without the trans thing.

    Best,
    TBS

  27. 27
    Lisa Millbank

    The people enjoying this post might want to be aware that they can also find this idea in the works of lesbian feminists like Sheila Jeffreys (e.g. her book The Lesbian Heresy).

    1. 27.1
      Natalie Reed

      Please don’t confuse an effort to make sexuality open for conversation with the efforts of horrible people like Sheila Jeffreys’ attempts to impose their political agenda on it. I find such comparisons very insulting.

      There is a vast middle ground between “sexuality is sacrosanct, totally innate, immutable and off the table for discussion” and “people’s sexualities should conform to my specific political agenda and vision, and those who don’t are agents of the patriarchy”

      Most of that middle ground consists of simple things like saying “Huh, yeah, maybe my sexual preferences are tied to my culture. Maybe that’s okay to talk about”.

      1. Lisa

        Ok, withdrawn; attempt to indicate common ground clearly unwelcome!

        1. Natalie Reed

          You should probably go to the article “common ground” for that.

  28. 28
    Iamcuriousblue

    This is quite funny. Because quite frankly, Natalie, what you’re saying really does sound a tad like Sheila Jeffreys, though unlike Lisa Millbank, I consider that to be very negative.

    And go ahead and attack and name-call me all you want, but I think it is quite clear the discussion has already jumped far away from theoretical. One need only look at the conversations between Amhovgaard, No Light, and others who have been having a conversation about “are my attractions right?” with as often as not answers in the negative. So, like Sheila Jeffreys, I think many people who are having this “conversation” really are all about making sexual attraction conform to a political agenda. So don’t shoot me down for personalizing it; the way you stated it and the way others have taken it have already done so. The only difference between me and others in this conversation is not that I’ve personalized it, but that I’ve added a note of dissent you clearly don’t like very much.

    1. 28.1
      hall-of-rage

      All right, let’s say it’s not theoretical.

      From an earlier comment:
      “the sexuality that I ended up with, and very much *mine*, not yours…*You don’t get to tell me who or what turns me or anybody else on.* Period.”

      I’d say you personalized your dissent itself, hence my initial response where I said you seemed too invested in defending your own sexuality.

      Now we have “And go ahead and attack and name-call me all you want”.

      It seems no-one has called you names so far, and certainly Natalie hasn’t. You’ve made enough substantive points that people have responded to those. But given your further responses, I must agree with kagerato’s comments: you keep seeing personal attacks where there are actually just blunt answers and attempts to have a discussion; it is likely that you are deliberately trying to misdirect everyone, and I hope no new commenters fall for it.

  1. 29
    How I Describe My Sexuality | Monica Maldonado/TransActivisty

    [...] it. The large resulting conversation around my post Selfish Sex and Natalie Reed’s post …What The Fuck? let us know how interconnected we are with what we would call our sexuality.  [There is nothing] [...]

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