Pride & Parody I

Thoughts on sexuality

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories…[and t]he sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.

Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male

I spent last weekend working at Manchester Pride’s Big Weekend; my second time doing so. Before I get onto my thoughts on that, though, let’s have a chat about sex and sexuality to make sure we’re all on the same page. I’ll even propose an improvement to the language with which we discuss such things and throw in a salacious bit of information about my own sexuality. I can hear your excitement from here.

On the other hand, as I’ve essentially just written a 3,000-word essay to argue that traps aren’t gay,1Update 2019-02-13: I’ll leave the original text and link as they were, but there is a very good video by ContraPoints on why this phrase is at best questionable. whether I’m actually so far into the closet that I’m finding Christmas presents is left as an exercise for the reader.

Sex and Sexual Orientation

All organisms reproduce in order to create further genetic copies of themselves. Some reproduce asexually, in which case only one organism is needed, and some reproduce sexually, in which case it takes two to tango. The sex of a given sexually-reproducing organism is dependent on which gamete the organism produces. There are suggestions that there may be species with more than two sexes, but almost all sexually-reproducing species are dioecious—they have distinct male and female sexes, based on whether one produces sperm or eggs.

Different species have different sex-determination systems, with human sex being determined by the presence or absence of a Y chromosome during foetal development—there are a number of disorders that result from non-standard chromosomal allocation during development and can lead to ambiguities in a child’s sex, and there is some debate as to whether these conditions represent medical aberrations from the norm and should be treated in such a way that the child can assigned male or female, or whether they represent their own unique range of additional sexes beyond the male/female dichotomy and that such treatment is an infringements of the rights of such intersex people.2Whilst the preceding description of what biological sex is and the fact that such disorders produce a range of negative effects may imply that the answer to the debate is obvious, it is important to remember that sex is nonetheless an arbitrary category imposed by man on the world, and not the other way around.

One’s sexual orientation describes the nature of those that they find attractive.3It’s a little outside the scope of this essay, but I would suggest that one can react to a physically-appealing person with either a sense of aspiration or attraction. Aspiration is the reaction one will have towards the appealing person to which one is not sexually oriented towards—for example, a heterosexual man will react to a fit, well-built man with a desire to look like him, rather than to get on him. The two most commonly-discussed sexual orientations are heterosexual and homosexual, terms which started life as adjectives and later, through nominalisation, become nouns as well—orientations coined since this tend to come pre-nominalised. We generally take the nounal meaning of these terms to be that a heterosexual is a person who is attracted, usually exclusively, to members of the opposite sex, whilst a homosexual is one attracted to members of their own sex. Meanwhile, the adjectival usage can be used to either refer to the sexual orientation of the thing being described or the sexes involved in it, and as such is ambiguous. Does heterosexual sex means sex between two people who are attracted to the opposite sex or sex in which the sexes of the participants were not the same, which are often but not necessarily the same thing? I’ll return to this in a little bit.

Theories of Human Sexual Orientation

Theories about the range of human sexual orientations vary from the simplest heterosexual–homosexual dichotomy and slightly-expanded heterosexual–bisexual–homosexual trichotomy (wherein a bisexual is considered to be a person who is attracted to both members of their own and of the opposing sex), through the likes of the 6-grade Kinsey scale all the way to the popular contemporary idea of an infinitely-continuous spectrum from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual.4I have left asexual, which refers to a lack of a sexual orientation, out of this overview for brevity’s sake. The terms hetero-, bi- and homosexual, even when gradations between them are allowed, generally suggest an idea of sex as binary which some believe leaves intersex people out in the cold. Note, however, that the prefix hetero- does not necessarily mean the binary opposite of something, but rather that which is different to it, so could well be considered to refer to an attraction to any or all of the different sexes that a non-binary view of sex would allow for.

Bi- is rather less ambiguously a binary prefix, however there is some debate over just which binary it refers to. Terms like pan- and omnisexual have been proposed in order to describe the sexualities of people who believe sex to be a continuum. The terms are most often used, however, by people who believe one’s gender to be distinct from one’s sex, who believe that attraction occurs on the basis of gender rather than sex and who are thus instead referring to their resultant genderal orientation—the gender(s) towards which they are attracted. In this case, they really ought to be more precise and use a term like pangenderal, regardless of how hideous the word may be.

This nounal usage can be backward-, forward- or present-declarative—that is, to identify somebody as a heterosexual (for example) may be to make a statement about the sexual alignment of their historic relations, to make a prediction about the sexual alignment of their future relations, to make a claim about the sexual alignment of any current relation or to make some combination of the three simultaneously.

On this note, there are two theories as to the mutability of one’s sexual orientation: either one’s sexuality is fixed permanently at birth, or it can change later in life. The two theories differ in how they consider the relation between past, present and future orientations. According to the first theory, someone’s historic sexual orientation(s) must be reconsidered in the event that they later come out as a different one—that is, the theory requires that someone who now declares themself to be a homosexual is to be considered to have always been a homosexual, regardless of any potential previous heterosexual relations, which are presumably now to be considered as something akin to as sexual act within a theatrical performance and false. In addition, the future orientation will therefore either be the same as the current orientation if the current orientation is that person’s true orientation, or else be the to-be-come-out-as true orientation to which their historical orientation shall some day have to be realigned to.

According to the second theory, the past, present and future orientations are decoupled. The theory allows for one’s current and past orientations, or one’s current and future orientations, to be both distinct from each other and, at least at their respective points in time, both equally true. Within this theory are different views as to the means by which those orientations change; either consciously or unconsciously. Of course, one’s own view is likely to located at some point between these two axes, rather than at either of the poles.5For my own part, and while I confess to not being overly familiar with contemporary research in this area, my intuitive sense is that sexual orientations appears probably somewhat mutable. As for the possible means of prompting such orientation changes, I expect them to be primarily unconscious but I see no reason why conscious measures of psychological reinforcement cannot also have an effect. For example, one technique practiced in gay conversion therapy involves the patient being given a jar of faeces which they are to smell whenever experiencing homosexual thoughts, in order to reinforce to themselves the association of homosexuality with dirtiness. I can fully imagine that doing so for some time would eventually lead to the disgust response remaining even when the jar was removed, even if this sorry situation would only amount to a sort of defeated asexuality rather than the intended enthusiastic heterosexuality.

A Note on Etymology

Let us return to the ambiguity I mentioned with regard to the adjectival use of terms like heterosexual and homosexual. To see why I believe this is a crucial obstacle to an accurate understanding of human sexuality, let’s first examine the etymology of the term heterosexual, with the points made being equally applicable to any other orientation. Hetero- meaning other or different is uncontroversial enough, but the suffix -sexual is less clear, with the original 1650s meaning—of or pertaining to the fact of being male or female—having been joined a century later by that of pertaining to copulation or generation. However, these are very clearly not the same thing, and is here that the ambiguity arises.

Benefits of a Shift in Definition

Heterosexual, taken with the first meaning of -sexual, thus means of or pertaining to a different sex, whilst being taken with the second meaning instead produces copulation with that which is different. Returning to my previous example of the phrase heterosexual sex, this first definition is the one that results in the interpretation of sex in which the sexes of the participants are not the same. This is also the definition that is in general adoption, but I would argue that this definition makes is flawed, whether used as a noun or as an adjective. To use it as a noun, I am a heterosexual is shorthand for I am a heterosexual person, which following this definition means I am a person of or pertaining to a different sex. This statement is worse than useless, informationally—with its claim that one is what one is not, it is also a logical impossibility. When adopting this first meaning, the adjectival form can sometimes convey valid information—he is in a heterosexual relationship meaning he is in a relationship pertaining to a different sex, she thinks heterosexual thoughts meaning she thinks thoughts about a different sex—but nonetheless produces nonsensical statements like the aforementioned heterosexual person. One could say he is a heterosexually-attracted person, but here things are getting rather clumsy and verbose.

Now, let us take the second meaning of -sexual and apply it. He is in a heterosexual relationship means he is in a sexual relationship with a person or people different to him. Similarly for heterosexual thoughts—this has the additional benefit of encoding more information about the nature of the thoughts in two words, whereas the previous definition would have required the clumsy construction heterosexual sexual thoughts to encode the same. Let’s return to my previous example again: heterosexual sex. First, sex as a verb is a shrinking of the phrase sexual activity. As this is now included in the -sexual, the statement should more correctly be heterosexual activity, and can now be interpreted as sexual activity between dissimilar people. You could even nominalise the term into heterosex and remove the activity entirely.

In contrast to the first meaning, he is a heterosexual person (and the truncated he is a heterosexual) now means he is a person who copulates with those who are different—in other words, he is a person who is sexual, heterogeneously. As such, this shift of definition serves to bring -sexual more in line with the rest of the pantheon of technical terms used to describe other forms of human socialisation, such as -social and -romantic. For example, heteroromantic is used within sociology to describe a person who socialises with similar people (usually, but not necessarily, on the basis of their sexes), whilst someone who is described as homoromantic and heterosexual is someone who is sexual with dissimilar people, but romantic with similar ones (again usually, but not necessarily, on the basis of their sexes). As you can see, none of these terms contain the word sex, and the suffix instead refers to the activity taking place. Whether the similarity or dissimilarity is referring to their sexes or not can be left to be worked out from context, from an implicit assumption that an unspecified property defaults to sex, or an explicitly specification, as in a phrase like sexual homoromanticism.

This definition has some other interesting advantages over the previous one, as a result of the sex in the suffix -sexual now referring to the act rather than the sex of either participant. This means that derived terms, like heterosexual, now have nothing to do with the sexes, genitalia or chromosomes of either of the participants—only to their similarity or difference. For one, this means that such terms are made more versatile. Describing somebody as politically homosexual, for example, can now be validly used to point out that they are only interested in sexual relations with those who share their political views. Most crucially, however, this decoupling of sexual orientation from the biological sex of either participant appears, to me, to give a far more accurate picture of human sexuality—that one does not experience their orientation on the grounds of chromosomes or gametes (which are, biologically, the determinant of one’s sex) can be demonstrated by the following short experiment. Consider the following two individuals:

Buck Angel & Bailey Jay

Say that one had to choose between sexual activity with the person on the left, or the person on the right. Rare would be the heterosexual-identifying man who chose left; rare would be the homosexual-identifying man who chose right (and vice-versa for women). Certainly, as someone who considers himself to be pretty much an example of the former, right wins for me with little competition.

These two people are Buck Angel and Bailey Jay, a pair of porn stars.6That they are both porn stars is not a result of me attempting to unduly sexualise anything or anyone, but rather an attempt to ensure that both are as likely as can be to appeal to opposite-sex heterosexual/same-sex homosexual readers. Angel, on the left, has two X chromosomes and a vagina; Jay, on the right, has an X, a Y and a penis. Speaking biologically, Angel is female and Jay male. Despite this, I know which one I’d choose, even knowing this to be the case, and I imagine most others would be unlikely to change their choice upon being informed of the biological facts. But, I hear you cry, this is just a bizarre thought experiment! Nobody would ever be in a situation where they had to have sex with one of them. True, but even if a third option of having sex with neither was added, I’m pretty confident that very few would take it initially. I believe this proportion would increase a little if the participants were informed of the biologicals, but not wildly so—I, for one, would probably still be game. Throw in some tasteful surgery and even those last lingering hesitations fly completely out of the window.

According to the original meaning of -sexual, this is a homosexual attraction on my part and implies I must be at least bisexual. However, this does not appear consistent with my orientation outside of edge cases like this—I have never felt attraction to a man previously, and I have no particular reason to expect this to change in the future. By my proposed alternative meaning, however, it does remain consistent—being attracted to Jay is heterosexual as Jay possesses predominantly feminine traits that I do not, and is thus different to me.

Conclusion

Now, obviously people like Angel and Jay are the edge cases, and me arguing that humans do not select mates based off of their ability to produce offspring with them sounds egregiously biology-denying. However, consider that humans never had the foresight to evolve microscopes and so are not naturally able to detect the presence of a potential partner’s chromosomes. Which gamete a potential partner produces is easier to test, but how many people do you know who have to check for the presence of egg production before finding a woman attractive, or sperm production for a man? Combine this with the fact that humans are a fairly sexually dimorphic species—males look different to females. As a result, humans have presumably relied on those visual sexual distinctions to tell viable mating partners apart from those of the same sex for millennia, and as such human orientations are based on the masculinity or femininity of the other party’s secondary sex characteristics, not whether they are male or female—hence why I remain attracted to Jay and not to Angel, despite knowing Jay to be biologically male and Angel biologically female.

I mentioned before the theory that sex is distinct from gender. In this theory, cultural notions of masculinity or femininity are a major part in what is a person’s gender. If you believe this to be the case, consider this as an argument in favour of the notion of a gendral rather than sexual orientation I mentioned before. However, if this is the case, surely we can agree that it is better to choose to use a slightly different, more information-encoding definition for -sexual, and one that is more consistent with similar terms, rather than creating hideous Frankenwords like heterogendral.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Update 2019-02-13: I’ll leave the original text and link as they were, but there is a very good video by ContraPoints on why this phrase is at best questionable.
2. Whilst the preceding description of what biological sex is and the fact that such disorders produce a range of negative effects may imply that the answer to the debate is obvious, it is important to remember that sex is nonetheless an arbitrary category imposed by man on the world, and not the other way around.
3. It’s a little outside the scope of this essay, but I would suggest that one can react to a physically-appealing person with either a sense of aspiration or attraction. Aspiration is the reaction one will have towards the appealing person to which one is not sexually oriented towards—for example, a heterosexual man will react to a fit, well-built man with a desire to look like him, rather than to get on him.
4. I have left asexual, which refers to a lack of a sexual orientation, out of this overview for brevity’s sake.
5. For my own part, and while I confess to not being overly familiar with contemporary research in this area, my intuitive sense is that sexual orientations appears probably somewhat mutable. As for the possible means of prompting such orientation changes, I expect them to be primarily unconscious but I see no reason why conscious measures of psychological reinforcement cannot also have an effect. For example, one technique practiced in gay conversion therapy involves the patient being given a jar of faeces which they are to smell whenever experiencing homosexual thoughts, in order to reinforce to themselves the association of homosexuality with dirtiness. I can fully imagine that doing so for some time would eventually lead to the disgust response remaining even when the jar was removed, even if this sorry situation would only amount to a sort of defeated asexuality rather than the intended enthusiastic heterosexuality.
6. That they are both porn stars is not a result of me attempting to unduly sexualise anything or anyone, but rather an attempt to ensure that both are as likely as can be to appeal to opposite-sex heterosexual/same-sex homosexual readers.

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