Leaving religion was a rather unemotional process for me. There was no catalyzing event. I was interested in skepticism. I learned about philosophical arguments for God, and found them unpersuasive. Without any real urgency, I spent a whole year thinking to myself, “Gee, there’s really no justification for belief in God, and there may never be.” At the end of the year, I considered myself an atheist.
Unlike leaving religion, leaving straightness was a far more emotional experience. And yet, I tried to treat it the same way. “Am I straight or am I asexual?” was an intellectual puzzle, to be approached under the same rational ideals. It is not clear to me, after the fact, that this approach was a good idea. Here I give a taste of my thought process.
Just the evidence
A. I had a girlfriend in middle school. We didn’t do anything and in fact I avoided her a lot because I didn’t know what to do with her. But I recall a happy moment or two. I have a diary entry from the time as additional confirmation, in case we’re worried about recollection bias. Although diaries are biased too.
B. I had gone through college without having anything approaching a crush. This contrasts with the standard narrative, where men are single because they can’t gather the courage to ask out the women they are interested in. But let’s consider the possibility that the narrative is bullshit, and lots of straight guys are like me. Maybe I have to do something extra to find a partner. For example instead of relying on crushes to select women, I could pursue women at random! Yes, that is an idea I had, although I never followed through.
Instead, I spent months discretely looking at women passersby to see if I ever felt something that could be interpreted as attraction. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Hmm… if I felt it, would I even know? Maybe I should use men as a control group. (Later, it became clear that men were the experimental group, and women were the control.)
C. I started reading social science papers. I never stopped. One study claimed that asexuals were about 1% of the population, so that sets my priors. Another study identified the age of first sexual attraction, as well as the variance, which allows for Bayesian analysis. I found another study that–independent of any contact with the asexual community–argued for the separation of romantic and sexual attraction.
Feelings are also facts
I was afraid of being queer. There is a temptation to deny one’s feelings, particularly since progressive people are supposed to be okay with queerness. But I’m not one to deny what is inconvenient. Besides, acknowledging my fear was important if I was going to use that feeling as another line of evidence:
D. I was afraid. This is not evidence in itself, but it could be biasing my interpretation of other evidence. Practical rationality does not mean being free of bias, it means recognizing and correcting for bias. Fear could be tipping the scales in favor of identifying as straight, so maybe I should compensate by tipping the scales the other way.
What followed was much agonizing over exactly how much bias was caused by fear.
Ultimately, I decided that I was asexual. And then I decided that I was not asexual, but gray-A. Perfecting the decision-making process means evaluating how the process has worked in the past. So how did it work here?
Simply put, it was awful. There were simply too many things to think about, and it was stressful. I spent one semester being depressed, and another semester pursuing risky behavior (e.g. binge drinking). And rather than addressing my own feelings, I thought about entirely different things. I used feelings as evidence. I was very conscious about avoiding denial, but denial was still at play.
And for all that, I don’t think it significantly improved my assessment of the evidence. Those scientific studies were mostly bullshit. Whether or not I felt aesthetic attraction to passersby was mostly irrelevant. Acknowledging my own bias didn’t help correct for it.
Of course, the experience might have been awful regardless of how I approached it. Plenty of people have negative experiences coming to terms with their orientation. Why would I be different?
Nonetheless, the experience left me shaken. Rationality, what is it good for?
Now, seven years later, I no longer feel shaken, just bitter. I was interested in skepticism, a movement all about practical epistemology. And it didn’t help when it mattered.