You are not a heterosexual. In fact, you cannot be a heterosexual. The identity is incoherent. It’s like claiming to have squared the circle; despite what you say, I know you haven’t. Now I don’t mean that if you’re male it’s impossible to be sexually attracted to a woman and vice versa. That’s clearly wrong. I do, however, mean that it is impossible to be essentially a heterosexual or, for that matter, essentially a homosexual.
Obviously, the operative word here is “essentially.” To claim to be essentially a heterosexual or essentially a homosexual is to claim that a particular, exclusive sexual orientation is a permanent and immutable aspect of one’s identity. For me to say that I am essentially a heterosexual is for me to claim that I have been, am, and always will be exclusively sexually attracted to persons of the opposite sex. When stated like this, an essentialist definition of sexual orientation may sound a bit odd, but it is nevertheless this definition that undergirds much of our present-day discussion. “Born this way” rhetoric, for example, assumes the permanence and immutability of sexual orientation. It points out that sexual orientation is “inborn” and something to be discovered, a decided fact whether a person knows it yet or not. This is clearly also the case in the coming-out story trope of a person who thinks him or herself straight, but discovers slowly but surely that he or she is actually gay. For example, a married man with children might discover that he is, in fact, a homosexual, and our tendency is to think of this person as having always been gay and to dismiss out of hand the possibility that his sexual orientation changed over time. This view is supported by the fact that, according to the Straight Spouse Network, only a third of mixed orientation couples even try to make their marriages work; all the others break up either immediately or within one or two years of the lesbian, gay, or bisexual spouse coming out. These figures are indicative of this tendency to think of sexual orientation essentially—i.e. as permanent, immutable, and sexually exclusive. If a gay spouse has always been and will always be exclusively sexually attracted to persons of the same-sex, then it only makes sense that the vast majority of mixed-orientation couples consider divorce as their first and only option.
The problem with this kind of essentialist definition of sexual orientation, however, is that sexual attraction—and thus sexual orientation—is neither predictably permanent nor sexually exclusive. This can be seen from the fact that there is no way to draw a line around everyone a person can be sexually attracted to, while at the same time restricting that group to members of only one biological sex. For example, let’s assume we can draw a line around the set of every person a hypothetical man, let’s call him Joe, can be sexually attracted to (I say “can” because I am including in this set people Joe has never seen but whom he would be sexually attracted to if he did see). Now what is it these people have in common that makes them the set of persons Joe can be sexually attracted to? If we are considering purely physical sexual attraction, the kind someone might have for an unknown person seen for the first time, then what these people have in common will be certain physical traits; e.g. facial structure, broad shoulders, breasts, &c. If we are considering a more personal sexual attraction, then what these people will have in common, in addition to certain physical traits, will be things like personality type or gender expression. Notice that in every case what is shared by this set of people are external, visible traits and modes of expression, not XX or XY chromosomes.
Here we begin to see the problem, as knowledge of a person’s biological sex is neither sufficient nor even necessary for sexual attraction. What Joe finds sexually attractive is a largely culturally conditioned collection of traits, not female-ness in general. After all, Joe is not sexually attracted to every woman he meets, only to those who have the particular collection of traits he finds sexually attractive. Thus a person’s biological sex is not sufficient for sexual attraction. But neither is it necessary, as sexual attraction can be present even before a person’s biological sex is known. Androgynous model Andrej Peji?, for example, was assigned male at birth but has modeled both male and female clothing. Without undergoing sex reassignment surgery or breast augmentation and without identifying himself exclusively as a woman, he was voted in 2011 by readers of FHM magazine as the 98th sexiest woman in the world. In this example, it is clear that biological sex has very little to do with sexual attraction, and this is consistent with everyday experience, as no one thinks that sexual attraction can only follow an assiduous inspection of genitalia, chromosomes, and gender conformity.
What we see, then, is that, while an essentialist view of sexual orientation makes biological sex one of if not the most important factor for sexual attraction, biological sex actually has very little to do with real-life sexual attraction. None of the things that makes a set of people the set of people Joe can be sexually attracted to are exclusive to one biological sex. Men can have large breasts and high voices, women can have broad shoulders and stoic personalities. Since the traits that lead to sexual attraction are not contingent upon a person’s biological sex, it makes no sense to then say that sexual orientation is and must be dependent upon biological sex. The coup de grâce for the essentialist definition of sexual orientation lies in the fact that who and what we find sexually attractive changes over time, both as a result of changing personal tastes as well as shifting cultural norms. The result is that the essentialist definition of sexual orientation, upon analysis, is impotent, as it can be neither permanent, immutable, nor even sexually exclusive.
For many conservatives, my argument will certainly be a hard pill to swallow. It might help to realize, however, that sexual desire and pleasure have little if anything to do with sexual ethics, presumably something most conservatives are interested in preserving. For example, the fact that a husband might desire relations with a woman other than his wife does not make adultery okay, and the fact that a rapist derives pleasure from his act does not make it less abhorrent. Because sexual desire and pleasure are irrelevant to questions of sexual ethics, abandoning the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality actually serves to bolster rather than undermine a traditional sexual ethic. In his recent First Things article “Against Heterosexuality,” Michael W. Hannon argues along these lines, pointing out that the heterosexual-homosexual binary has led to the replacement of a traditional sexual ethic based on chastity and marriage with one based instead on heteronormativity. This has led in turn to a corresponding degradation of sexual norms, as with a heteronormative sexual ethic, there is nothing wrong with pornography, objectifying sexual fantasies, and premarital sex, provided it is heterosexual pornography, heterosexual sexual objectification, and heterosexual premarital sex. But just as the presence of pedophilia neither exonerates nor extenuates the evil done by a child molester, the mere presence of heterosexual or homosexual desires tells us nothing about the actual moral implications of a sexual act.
Thus the picture of human sexuality that I offer, if anything, strengthens a conservative point of view because it gets rid of the obfuscating language of sexual orientation. Instead of a heterosexual-homosexual binary, I see human sexuality as more closely resembling a multi-faceted continuum which takes into account changes over time, level of desire, traits found desirable, &c. (cf. the Kinsey scale, the Storms scale, and the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid). History supports this view. There are, for example, cultures in which the experience of both erotic heterosexual as well as erotic homosexual relations is nearly universal among the male population. I am thinking particularly of certain regions in Ancient Greece and of the modern-day Sambia tribe in Papua New Guinea. In these cultures, no male can claim to be exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual. Instead, everyone (as I see no reason why this should not extend to the women) seems to lie somewhere on a quite complex heterosexual-homosexual continuum. This further supports a more fluid view of human sexuality and shows that the essentialist definition of sexual orientation fails not only conceptually but also factually.
The implications of this are tremendous, and if a conservative were to reject my conclusions despite what I believe to be their truth, he should at least accept them for the implications they have on current sociopolitical issues. For one, the impossibility of essential homosexuality means that no one is barred prima facie from a traditional, conjugal marriage. This means that a conjugal definition of marriage as a comprehensive union between one man and one woman doesn’t really exclude anyone, and the enshrining of this definition in law is simply the enshrining of a unique kind of relationship open to virtually everyone. Of course, predominantly same-sex desires might make it harder for someone to enter into a conjugal marriage, but a wealth of examples back up my reasoned claim that it is not impossible. On this view, demanding same-sex marriage is like forming a baseball team and then demanding to participate in a soccer tournament on the grounds that everyone on the baseball team finds soccer a difficult and boring sport to play. While it is certainly within the rights of a state to recognize same-sex marriages, just as the organizers of a soccer tournament can admit a baseball team if they so wish, my point simply is that, just as it is not unconstitutionally discriminatory to exclude baseball teams from a soccer tournament, it is also well within the rights of a state to only recognize comprehensive unions as marriages.
As an aside, it is important to note, however, that once a soccer tournament admits baseball teams, it’s no longer a soccer tournament, but something else. Likewise, once a state begins recognizing same-sex marriages, the institution it is recognizing isn’t really marriage in the traditional sense of the word, but something else. Of course, we can call this new institution marriage, and this new, broader institution is not necessarily better or worse than the former one, but the point remains that, just as a baseball team arguing for inclusion in a soccer tournament is arguing not for equality but for the soccer tournament to be something different, the present marriage debate is not really about equality, but rather about the definition of the institution itself.
Another, much more controversial, implication of my argument is that homosexuals can’t be a discrete and insular minority for the purposes of judicial review, as exclusively same-sex sexual desires are neither an immutable nor highly visible trait, both of which are essential criteria for the determination. People certainly can and do claim to have a permanent and immutable sexual attraction to one biological sex exclusively, but this kind of claim is not at all analogous to racial or sexual discrimination, as both skin color and biological sex are clearly immutable and highly visible, unlike this claim, which is neither. This is not to belittle the discrimination or persecution of, say, effeminate men or masculine women—both of which are clearly problems. It does, however, reveal some of the dissonance between the rhetoric and the reality of the marriage debate.
While many more implications can be drawn from what I have said, I hesitate lest I get too far ahead of myself. As it stands, the first step is to abandon the binary view of sexual orientation. We are neither heterosexual nor homosexual. We are simply human, and it is against our common humanity—not our sexual urges—that we should test the morality of our actions. A greater acceptance of masculinity and femininity in all their forms is part and parcel of this paradigm shift, as the heterosexual and homosexual labels have often harmfully been associated with particular gender expressions. There is neither one way to be male nor one way to be female, and if anything, the persecution cited by LGBT activists is especially a persecution against those who refuse to conform to expressive gender norms. This persecution must stop. Whatever your sexual desires, whatever your eccentricities or personality traits, what matters is what you do, not who you are. You are not a heterosexual. You are not a homosexual. You are simply a human being, and the sooner we recognize this, the better we all will be.
Christian Say is a sophomore from Nappa, California, majoring in the Philosophy Department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.