Friday, July 30, 2010

Choose your own adventure

One thing that my friend Melissa McEwan is actually pretty good about is the fluidity of sexuality. She frames her essay as a critique of an episode of The View, which is kind of annoying (though I guess it's not much different from the way I frequently frame my own essays as critiques of McEwan, so I shouldn't complain), and her critique is myopic in the way it tends to be, but she gets at some good things here:
I don't particularly love the idea that women who come out as lesbians late in life were necessarily closeted all along. I'm sure that's true for many women, but why is it so hard to conceive of a woman (or a man, for that matter) whose attractions, or choices, change over hir lifetime?

We're always so desperate to talk about sexuality as if it isn't a choice, ever, for anyone, lest we create a crack into which homobigots can insert their argument that it's an American-wrecking lifestyle choice that makes the Baby Jesus cry buttplug-shaped tears or whatever, but, you know, maybe we should be talking about sexuality in a way that says even if it is a choice, people who love and fuck and live with and parent with and grow old with or have one-night stands with people of the same sex are deserving of equal rights because it's no one else's goddamned business and MREWYB.
(MREWYB is an acronym for my rights end where yours begin; it's a nice enough thought if we must remain within the conceptual framework of "rights," which I wish we wouldn't. Jack has a nice essay on some of the problems with this framework.)

The whole "it's not a choice" concept is muddled on a number of levels. There's what McEwan mentions, which at a more fundamental level is that this rigid interpretation of sexuality devalues choice in favor of genetic (or whatever) destiny. It sets up a context of unavoidable circumstances and says we're all helpless victims to them--while simultaneously insisting that being thus victimized ain't half bad! Sounds a lot like capitalism when you put it that way, actually.

Another problem with "it's not a choice" is that even if we say that sexual preference or orientation or whatever isn't a choice, sexual behavior always is. The capital-L Lesbians of second wave feminism, for example, could tell you that. It may or may not be personally healthy for any given individual to choose one sexual behavior over another, but it is still possible to choose. Acknowledging this does not lead logically only to the "choose monogamous heterosexuality within marriage!" argument, though if you have a case for it, by all means make it. Accepting that sexual behavior is a choice can lead equally to any number of other arguments, from "do whatever you feel like but try not to hurt anyone" (my favorite) to others just as specific (and potentially harmful) as the fundamentalist line, like "have sex only with people matrilineally related to you" or "never get consent" or "stick with nonhumans." Out of the whole range of options opened up by admitting that there is a choice here, it shouldn't be difficult to argue in favor of doing whatever we feel like short of hurting people, and yet we still seem to be terrified of making this argument.

Another problem I have with the "it's not a choice" crowd, and this is more anecdotal, is that at least among people I personally have known, there is a high correlation between promoting the choiceless concept and promoting the static, often binary (on/off, straight/gay) model of sexuality that McEwan critiques in her original post, the model that doesn't seem to be questioned by anyone on The View for instance.

I tend to identify my sexuality, when called upon to do so, as "gay," for a bunch of reasons. It's a simple shorthand. It is the single word that most accurately reflects my actual sexual behavior as it has occurred in the real world (though "infrequent" also comes close on that front). It has the force of habit behind it, as it's the identification I came to back when I first realized there was something to identify, more than half my lifetime ago now, back when my still-developing brain and still-strong (despite my parents' best efforts!) cultural indoctrination led me to simple answers rather than accurate ones. Because, yes--"gay" is a simple answer, and a decent approximation, but it's not accurate, in a multitude of ways that I'm not going to go into here (partly because some of them are entirely private, partly because it's complex enough that it would extend the length of this essay a thousandfold, and partly because a huge chunk of it is things I haven't even figured out how to articulate externally). I don't know what a more accurate description would be--I guess "queer" would do it, though I have an aversion both to the sound of the word and to the specific people who used it most frequently when I first became aware of it as a legitimate descriptor, and anyway I'm not sure how I feel about using such an enormous blanket term that nevertheless separates all of humanity into the distinct categories of "queer" and "straight," which I reject as invalid.

I think the problem is that the whole notion of "sexual identity" is a crock. It's a function entirely of our socialization in this insane, fucked up, unlivable society we have. It is, in fact, a form of the choiceless victimization I described early on in this essay. Don't get me wrong; there are clearly people who tend towards the behaviors we bundle under the "straight identity" and those who tend towards the behaviors we bundle under the "gay identity" and those who tend towards the behaviors we bundle under the "bisexual identity" and so on, but tendencies do not an identity make.

For a long time, the concept of fluid sexuality confused me; surely, I thought, if you're attracted only to members of the opposite sex, you're just straight, and if you're attracted only to members of the same sex, you're just gay, and if you're attracted to both, you're just bi. Why make it more complicated, more mysterious I thought, than that? Doesn't that cover everything? I eventually realized that the whole concept of "same" and "opposite" sexes is, at best, incomplete and inaccurate, that the "attraction" model isn't much better, and that there is a great deal more to sexuality than just which side of the artificial gender binary you most enjoy mingling genitals with.

Earlier, when I said "sounds a lot like capitalism!" it was more than a jokey throwaway. The late-period capitalism that we live in requires of us that we feel like we have options--but only the options provided to us by the system itself. Thus, with sexuality, we do have, in many ways, a greater openness than the generations that preceded us. It's OK to be gay, pretty much! But this openness has been channeled into tiny little boxes, easy to control, easy to market to. Gay? Buy the gay identity! Straight? Buy the straight one! Look at all these options we have for you. Anything you could possibly want to reflect and display your identity, we can sell you. And if you want to choose some other option--sorry, it's not a choice.

I've said it before--just as economic interests seek to control our movements, a control that can be fought with the Situationist concept of psychogeography, the same interests seek to control our sexualities. We need, again and always, to be sexual flâneurs--in, and this is important, whatever way best suits us.


Justin said...

There are times when I feel like I am living out of time, or that I feel like I am an alien from outer space observing people - not because I am more evolved or something, so that metaphor is rigged in a way that I don't feel - but because I just cannot understand or relate at all to the behavior or emotions of the person I am observing and am just left feeling confused. Seeing other people who are concerned about or upset over other people's sexuality and sexual behavior is one of those things. I just do not get why anyone would care if other men choose to be with other men, or women with other women, etc.

I get where it comes from in an evolutionary context, that you want to propagate the species, but we have long since gone past the point where we ought to be worried about propagating the species in that sense, its really the other way around at this point - we probably need more homosexual/non-offspring producing relationships for the sake of the species. (And here, I feel like this is what an alien would make of this whole thing.) Even that argument could be challenged though on a number of grounds, including assessing whether it is better from a survival perspective to form carnal bonds with one another. I mean, that is what the fighting forces of the Greeks did and one benefit from a military readiness perspective was that they were much closer and personally invested in one another.

And that in turn can be challenged, as these kinds of arguments always should be, as a wholly cultural - non-genetic/evolutionary based set of standards and explanations.

Returning to planet earth...

I think the choice vs non-choice thing is about what the individuals tastes or impulses tend toward rather than behavior. I could choose to engage in a homosexual act, but I do not choose to be sexually attracted to another man. Sexual attraction for me is not a conscious choice as far as I can tell. But the alien has to pipe up now and repeat, why is this is of such great concern for moral scolds to figure out if sexual attraction is a choice or not!?

Jack Crow said...


I want to sing a paean to this. Maybe I will.

Anonymous said...

Justin --

Sometimes a person's excessive concern and misplaced scorn is rooted in a past episode the person would prefer never happened. I have known people who were same-sex molested as children, and the event created a subconscious reflexive negative attitude toward same-sex sexuality.

Sometimes it's because a come-on from a same-sex person makes the target of the come-on wonder about his or her own take on sexuality. This, I think, is at the root of circumstances which give rise to the accusation of "homophobia" -- that the target of the come-on may fear himself or herself actually attracted to the same-sex proposition. That's the nearest I can guess/fathom/hypothesize.

Sometimes it's just stupidity, bigotry and hatred of what's different. Certain religions --okay, many religions of the major variety-- have sects or strains within that reinforce this equivalent of the primal fear of the darkness... like out here where I live, when city slickers go camping, they tend to build White Man's Fires, huge things that light up a big perimeter and render that scary darkness at a greater distance from where one sits and sleeps.

As with most irrational human behavior, the common theme is fear.

That's just as I see things, of course. Not claiming a unique hold on rectitude here.

Anonymous said...

Ethan -- great post. Gets at the heart and the mind behind sexuality.

Ethan said...

Jack, Charles, thanks! Glad you liked it.

Justin, as you suggest, I'm not sure how effective an evolutionary perspective on all this can be, partly because of the complexities involved in behavior, and partly because we're each of us so wrapped up in culture that it's impossible for us to see where those influences stop. Charles mentions a few of the cultural influences that help obfuscate our understanding of these things. Is that the right way to use obfuscate? I just suddenly remembered that word existed and wanted to use it.

I think the choice vs non-choice thing is about what the individuals tastes or impulses tend toward rather than behavior.

Or at least supposedly so. The problem with that, though, is that outside of our own heads, the only way for anyone else to assess what our tastes or impulses are is through our chosen behavior. I mean, you know, for all anyone but me knows, I could be exclusively sexually attracted to, say, female lizards. But since the only creatures I've ever actually had sexual contact with are human males, anyone besides me would probably be pretty startled to learn that. It gets even muddier than that--because who among us is actually any good at knowing exactly what he or she (or whatever) actually wants? It could be that I actually am attracted only to lizards, but just haven't figured it out consciously because it's so far outside of what is culturally acceptable that I haven't allowed myself to become aware of it.

Thus, the only reasonable way I can see to approach sexuality, when dealing with people other than yourself, is through behavior. When dealing internally with your own sexuality, what is required is openness, a removal of assumptions, and exploration, some entirely inward, some manifesting in the real world. From what you say, it sounds like you're already quite good at this.

Justin said...

I've heard that offered as an explanation, and it makes the most sense as matter of cause - effect. But I still fundamentally do not get it at a personal level, I've had some unwelcome come ons from both genders, and I just can't see how one could react toward homophobia.

As a southern man, I have had some interesting conversations with devout friends or acquaintances who managed to bring this topic up and insist that it is all a choice, my reply is to ask, without sarcasm, if they remember when they started choosing not to act on their attractions to members of the same sex.

Anonymous said...

Justin -- the fact that you respond that way to unwelcome come-ons is a testament to your well-balanced emotional and psychological state on the question of sexuality. Unfortunately not everyone has that type of balance. I work with kids who have emotional and psychological problems, and I can tell you I've seen some very bizarre reactions to things that I would expect to not trigger anything close to those reactions. If you've ever read Alice Miller's work, you will have some solid insights as to the types of things I'm suggesting here.

I've had unwanted come-ons from both genders myself and the one thing I'd say is that men, being more aggressive by nature, tend to be a bit more insistent and that tips the scales against the unwanted male come-ons I've experienced. After the fact I can see how --in the abstract, academically speaking-- I should be flattered, but not every come-on is flattering, thoughtful or considerate. One guy followed me out to my car from the gym, despite my saying I wasn't interested, he kept pestering me to go out for a beer, he even found my phone number (it was listed but I didn't say anything that would indicate how he may find it) and called me. That's pretty well beyond what sorts of unwanted come-ons I received from women. Maybe I was just lucky to not have aggressive but unwanted women pursuing me.

I'm not making a judgment about gay men here, I'm just making a gender-oriented judgment about the relative aggression of pursuit. I have probably been a bit eager or over-aggressive when pursuing certain women.

Melinda said...

This is my new favorite blog.

Ethan said...

Wow, thank you Melinda! You're my new favorite commenter.