Aporia: Sexual Orientation

by Jason Stotts

Aporia (Ancient Greek: ἀπορɛία: impasse; lack of resources; puzzlement; doubt; confusion) In philosophy, a philosophical puzzle or state of puzzlement;  In rhetoric, a rhetorically useful expression of doubt.

Sexual orientation is a confusing subject.  So confusing that some people have taken to the idea that your sexual orientation is whatever you want it to be, that whatever you self-identify as must be your actual sexual orientation.  But, I find that idea at least…problematic.  What about the issue of self-deception?  What about the issue of other-deception?  What about contexts in which it’s acceptable to be different and cultures where it isn’t?

If a person’s sexual orientation is simply what they self-identify as, then how do we treat a man who calls himself straight, but who only is aroused by men, who only has sex with men, and who has no desire to ever be in a relationship with a woman or have sex with one?  Certainly he’s at least self-deceptive, but isn’t he also wrong that he is straight?  If it’s true that this man does the opposite of what a straight man would do, then this man is not straight.

What about the man who calls himself straight, who is in a relationship with a woman with whom he regularly has sex, but who also feels a strong desire to have sex with men and does so on a regular basis.  He’s not self-deceptive because he knows his desires and acts on them.  He’s likely hiding his true orientation from others because of the stigma of being a male bisexual, but in so doing so he’s communicating something false about himself.  Should we simply consider him a liar?  A coward for not being true to himself?  He’s not wrong about his sexual orientation, since he actually does know what it is, but there is a problem here for other people who might want or need to know his sexual orientation (for example, the men with whom he has sex or his own partner).

So, no matter what sexual orientation is, it’s definitely not just whatever you might self-identify as.  Your sexual orientation is more than simply whatever you feel it is.

Part of the problem is that we have this polarized idea of sexuality: that everyone is either gay or straight and these are mutually exclusive categories.  But this is wrong and misses much of actual human sexuality.  Sexual orientation is not binary.  It is, at the very least, a continuum of sexual options.  I think this is best captured in the Kinsey Scale, which is 0-6, with 0 being a “perfect heterosexual” who only desires and has sex with those of the opposite sex and 6 is a “perfect homosexual” who only desires and has sex with those of the same sex.  Then there are, obviously, the vast majority of people who are somewhere in between.

One alternative scale involves ranking a person on two independent axes: androphilia and gynephilia, or desire for men and women (respectively).  So, a person could have 8/10 desire level for women and a 4/10 desire for men, making them a bisexual.  With this schema, the levels of arousal for men and women are independent and indicate desire for that sex.  Thus, one advantage of this system is that also measures level of overall desire for sexual activity as well as sexual desire for each sex.  I’m not sure which I think is better, but this system does capture more than the Kinsey system, which itself captures much more than the standard dichotomy of gay vs. straight.

Of course, there much these scales don’t capture, like propensity to form relationships versus simply having sex with a person, or a person’s overall level of sexual desire (perhaps their desire for men or women is only moderate, but they really enjoy masturbating), or the fact that a person’s sexual proclivities and orientation can change over time.  But, it does, at least, help move us in the right direction

Of course, one issue that we haven’t addressed head on is the issue of action versus desire.  Or, is being gay a matter of doing gay things or having gay desires or both.  I find this issue more confusing that some of the others.  For example, what should a man who considers himself a Kinsey 2 (bisexual – opposite sex leaning) because he has both desire for men and women, even though his desire for women is stronger, but who has never, due to lack of opportunity, had sex with a women and has only had sex with men?  He self-identifies as bisexual on the heterosexual side, but he’s never had sex with a woman.  On the other hand, it’s not because he doesn’t want to, but is merely frustrated by the situation.  This is further confounded by the fact that many men grow up in our culture with internalized homophobia and try to be bi as they come into their sexual maturity so they can maintain some semblance of being “normal,” when they really know their probably a K5 or K6.  But, leaving aside the issue of whether this particular man is being self-deceptive, what should he be considered?  I find it very strange to call him a K2 when he’s only had sex with men.  Perhaps sexual orientation is simply a matter of ideal situation and not of actual situation.  But that doesn’t seem right either.  I might wish I were a K6, but if I’ve only ever had sex with women, then that obviously seems wrong.  I don’t have an answer for the question of whether we should judge sexual orientation by action or desire, or perhaps both, but it’s an interesting topic that needs more investigating.

I wonder, though, what we should do about children, adolescents, and young adults.  Should we really consider a young person to be gay, bi, or straight when they have no actual sexual experience?  Is this not being at least somewhat…optimistic about their guessing powers?  Should we simply accept that this is what they think they would like to be or should be when they get older?  Should we consider their orientation an open question until they have some experience?  As unlikely as this last sounds, there would be some definite advantages to it: people wouldn’t try to force themselves to conform to their adolescent beliefs growing up and could approach the issue of orientation with an open mind.  Their sexuality could be treated as very tentative until they’re older, maybe even their mid-twenties.  Of course, perhaps it’d be better if we all held our sexuality less rigidly and treated it as at least something of an open question.

Ultimately, I still have more questions than answers on the question of sexual orientation, but I think the topic is a rich one and deserves more careful analysis that it usually gets.

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