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.