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I think the topic of homophobia is fascinating, because I think all too many people misunderstand what homophobia means. Most dictionary and common-use definitions consider “homophobia” to be a fear of, or aversion to, homosexuals. I, however, don’t think that’s quite right.
I think the term “homophobia” is great. It is a combination of Greek homo- standing in for “homosexual” and -phobia, which is Greek for fear. Homosexuality is, of course, desire or attraction for a person of the same sex. Actually, what homosexuality is, is a very interesting discussion in it’s own right. Is it a kind of person or a disposition for action? Is it primarily about a person’s attractions? Is it about the kind of person they could imagine themselves being in a relationship with? Is a person always right about their sexual orientation? But, we’re going to leave those questions aside for now.
Returning to homophobia, I think the term is great because it denotes a fear of homosexuals. What sets me apart from most people, though, is that I think of this quite differently. I think that homophobia is a fear that the subject themself might be gay, not that they are afraid of gay people. Let me elaborate. I think that when a person is feeling homophobic, and there is no doubt that this is often triggered by an external source or event, but the true object of the fear is not this external source. Rather, it is the fear that the person who has the fear is himself gay. So, for example, let’s say John sees two guys holding hands, and perhaps kissing, and John feels homophobic, I think that the actual source of John’s fear and anger is a latent, perhaps repressed, thought that John, himself, might be gay. Although John might be thinking “Look at those two faggots, I can’t believe they would do that in public!” His vehemence is actually coming from the thought “I wonder…what would it be like to kiss a guy or fool around with one?”, recognizing that this thought is “inappropriate” for him, quickly repressing it in order to maintain his self-identity, and then reacting with anger and fear to the object that provoked the thought, since reacting to the thought itself would be psychologically untenable for him, since he couldn’t have possibly had that thought. He’s straight, after all, he couldn’t possibly want to do things with men.
The point is that I think the object of the fear is not external to the person, contrary to their beliefs, but rather that the object of the fear in homophobia is a person’s own desires and fears about their desires. In some ways I think this is similar to the reason that some people fear legalizing marijuana or other illicit drugs: the fact that it is illicit is the only reason that the person is not engaging in the activity and they know that they want to, so they need someone else to tell them it’s wrong and prevent them from doing it. If it weren’t prohibited or illicit, then they might just go ahead and partake in the drugs or the homosexuality. They lack the will to control themselves, so they feel like them must be controlled by others.
This is further compounded by the ideas that we “are” a certain sexual orientation, that this identity is a large part of our overall identity, and that our orientation is fixed, inflexible, and unchanging. I am straight, or bi, or gay and I will always be that way because part of who I am is to be gay or straight or bi. That’s how we conceive of ourselves in our culture and that’s just the way it is. Yet, that’s not the way it’s always been and it’s not the way it’s been in all cultures. As I alluded to earlier, some cultures thought of homosexuality and heterosexuality as categories of actions and not categories of people. Thus, I am not gay when I fellate another man, but the fellation is homosexual. The difference is in the object of the homosexuality: is it me as a person or is it the thing I’m doing. It makes no small difference. If I’m a homosexual, then homosexuality is part of who I am. If simply some acts I do are homosexual, then I am not constrained by the category of homosexuality, it is simply a descriptor for some of the things I do. There is a whole world of difference here.
If I am “a homosexual,” that category of identification will act to norm my behavior in some ways. This effect might be pronounced, but it might also be a subtle psychological effect. If I am straight and what it means to be straight is to never have an attraction for another man, then I can’t let myself have an attraction to another man, because that’s not part of what it is to be straight, and I am straight, therefore I don’t have an attraction to another man. If I were to have an attraction to another man, I’d have to work to repress it, as it would violate my sense of identity: I’m not gay, so I can’t have gay thoughts. Actually, it must not actually be me having a gay thought, since I’m straight, it must have been those gays putting gay thoughts in my head, since straight men can’t have attractions to other men. So I don’t have to worry about my own heterosexuality. It’s not me that’s the problem: it’s those damn men kissing in public.
You see what happens here? Our category of identity traps us into its mold and this mold helps to shape our thoughts and behaviors. In this case, it is very much the person’s identification of himself as heterosexual and his belief about what heterosexuality is and isn’t that is causing his fear and anger. If, for example, he were to have thought of heterosexuality and homosexuality as categories of actions and not of people, and thus didn’t rigidly designate his own sexuality and bound his thoughts and behavior by it, then he would not have been afraid of what the possible interest in other men meant and he wouldn’t have reacted with anger.
So, perhaps we should say that homophobia at the end of the day is a fear of being the same as something that you find repugnant. And the more you try to push it away in yourself, the more militant you will be about it in others.
This is all I have to say on this topic for now, but I encourage you to think about how you conceive of sexual orientation and how that impacts your self-identity and action.
I’ve been busy getting the podcast together and getting ready for another interview with Radically Candid today. However, I want everyone to know (like you wouldn’t already know this), that Erosophia fully supports same-sex marriage and will continue to fight the philosophical battles related to same-sex marriage and just gays being treated like real people with real rights.
We’ve come a long way, but there is still a long battle ahead (no matter which way SCOTUS rules).
On Valentine’s Day, images of couples are everywhere. They’re buying each other diamond rings, making eyes over expensive restaurant meals and canoodling over chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne. But two-by-two isn’t the only way to go through life. In fact, an estimated 4 to 5 percent of Americans are looking outside their relationship for love and sex — with their partner’s full permission.
Think about that for just a minute. Let’s focus on just this part: “an estimated 4 to 5 percent of Americans [are polysexual].” Four or five percent. The current US population (according to the US Census for July 2012) is 313,914,040people, 313 million people. So, that means there are 12,556,562 to 15,695,702 people who are actively polysexual in the United States! And that number is sure to be dramatically underreported as fears about privacy and shame keep people from honestly reporting. If you put all those polysexual people in one state it would be the 5th most populated state in the US.
You know what’s a shame? That those 5% of the US population, those 1 in 20 people feel ashamed at their desires and feel like they will be rejected by society at large. They feel like they need to hide their real selves and their real desires so as not to be shunned by our society. What’s really a shame is that these 5% of people are the ones acting most naturally according to our human nature. We are a naturally polysexual species and if it weren’t for the judeo-islamic-christian hatred of the body, then more people would feel free to be themselves and act according to their nature.
Consider a contrast case. Most estimates put the homosexual population of the US around 3.5%. Think about that for a minute. What was life like in the US for the gay population in the 50′s? What is it like now? What’s the difference between the gay population now and the polysexual population now? There are more polysexuals, so it’s not that. The difference is that some brave gays stood up and fought to be recognized as real people. They fought against the religious hatred and mysticism and fought to be recognized as a normal and natural sexual orientation (which it is).
Why not the polysexuals? There are more polysexuals than gay people (although, admittedly there is definitely overlap between the populations). Why can’t the polysexual population stand up and say: “We are not ashamed of our sexuality!” All the movement needs is a charismatic leader who is willing to be the face of the movement and who can argue clearly why polysexual is both natural and normal and nothing to be ashamed about.
Frankly, I think it’s time that polysexual people stop hiding in their closets and come out to their friends and families about their lifestyles. If 1 in 20 people came out, there would be no stopping the movement. Even if you don’t think you know someone who is polysexual, if you know more than 20 people, the you definitely do. It’s time that we end this crazy puritanical fear about sex and started living our lives in whatever way works best for us without any fear or shame.
A world where people can sexually be themselves is a world I want to live in.
I think that some of the ideas that people hold about sex are quite interesting. Some people think that monogamy is natural (it isn’t, although it still might be an optimal form of relationship for some people). Some people think that the purpose of sex is reproduction (that’s only one possible end of sex, the number of live births per sex act is about 1 to 1,000). Some people think that only heterosexuality is natural (it’s not, a certain percentage of the population is homosexual in any culture).
Another interesting idea is that sex is private. Some people take this idea so far that they won’t discuss anything related to sex: not things related to reproduction, not things related to sexual health, not things related to relationships, not anything at all. This, however, is completely irrational.
Sex is an important part of a human life. Unfortunately, we’re not born knowing anything about sex. Not about how to do it, not about how to do it safely, and especially not how to do it well. We must learn all this information and we can either do that through trial and error or by learning about sex from others, in the way we learn about everything else. The problem with trial and error is that, while it works adequately for things like technique, it works terribly for things like sexual health and reproduction. Many STI’s are incurable and will harm a person’s life. Getting pregnant when you don’t intend to can be very traumatic and forces a person to choose between options they might not want: carrying a child to term or getting an abortion. Even with sexual technique, trial and error isn’t a great option. Most people know little to nothing about sexual anatomy or technique and their lives would be greatly improved by this knowledge.
Thus, a person’s life would be objectively improved by learning about sex and sexuality. Consequently, to not learn about sex, at least the basics, would be immoral.
Now, admittedly, there is some sense in which sex can, and perhaps should, be private. The things you do sexually with your partner, or partners, is no one’s business except your own. You can choose to share that information with others or not. While I don’t think you should just tell everyone you meet about your sexual exploits, I also think that it’s good to talk to at least some people about it. Many people, especially before the advent of internet forums and chat rooms, thought that their sexual practices were unique to them and abhorrent, because they went beyond the christian idea that sex is only for reproduction and not for pleasure.
If we more freely shared information about our sex lives, then we would see that others have the same desires, thoughts, fantasies, and feelings. Sharing information about our sexualities would help to normalize different kinds of behaviors and desires in our culture, behaviors and desires that are actually already common in practice. Part of what makes certain kinds of sexuality shameful for some people is thinking that their desires are “abnormal” and this troubles them. But, I doubt anyone has a truly unique sexual desire. In fact, the range of what’s (statistically) “normal” would probably surprise most people; like, for example, adultery (more than 50% of people in our culture have experienced infidelity).
So, the question is, what is the line that we should walk regarding sex and privacy? Certainly, we should not tell everything to everyone, but neither should we make the mistake of not even talking about sex with our partners. We should treat sex as a normal part of a healthy human life and as an important part of what it means to live a happy human life. We should always talk to our partner or partners about it and about our likes and dislikes, our desires, and our fantasies. We should seek out information about sexuality to improve our lives and make sure that we have adequate information about sexuality to live well. Ultimately, the exact amount of information that one shares with others, to whom they share it, and in what contexts, is a matter of personal preference and personality and must be decided by each individual. However, we must not let our personal preference lead us to live less well than we could otherwise.
Another question we should address is why people want to keep their entire sex lives private and feel shame whenever sex is discussed openly. This shame comes from accepting ideas that that sexuality is base and low, that it is not natural, and that it is unimportant or even detrimental to living a good life. In our culture, these ideas come from the christian hatred of the body and of this world. In christianity, copying Plato, the body is nothing but a corporeal prison of the soul that taints it with its desires, urges, and drives. These base bodily things cloud the purity of the soul and prevent it from reaching its highest possible state in the realm of the forms (heaven). People who believe these misanthropic things and internalize these beliefs experience shame about their bodies and about natural bodily processes. They also experience irrational expectations about what their bodies should be like and how they should behave.
Now, it can be perfectly rational to not disclose everything about one’s sexual practices and past to just anyone. However, if the reason that one doesn’t share any information is due to shame, then this is illegitimate and needs to be worked at to be overcome. There are lots of reasons why one might not want to disclose information about one’s sexuality, like fear of reprisal, loss of future job prospects, etc. However, it should be pointed out that the situation won’t ever improve for people with alternative sexualities until they start coming out in large numbers so that “normal” people realize that they actually know people who are gay, or who are polyamorous, or who are swingers, or who are into BDSM, etc. There is very clear historical evidence for this in the gay movement, where homosexuality was considered aberrant and unnatural, until gay people started coming out in large numbers and demanding recognition for who they were. Now, although our culture still has some hang-ups about homosexuality, the culture is moving inexorably towards treating gay people as real people who have rights and can participate in societal rituals like marriage. If other alternative sexual groups want to have the same kind of recognition and acceptance, they too must come out and be open about who they are.
Ultimately, there are good reasons to keep sex private, but there are also very good reasons to be open about sexuality and to share information about sexuality. The appropriate path for any particular person must be cut by them, but I hope that this essay will have given some useful things to think about when considering whether to share information about sexuality and how much information to share. I do think that if we are to err in our disclosures, it would be better for all of us to err on the side of too much disclosure rather than too little, because at least with too much disclosure we will see our society change for the better. Additionally, if we don’t discuss this oh so very important part of human life, this leads us to have a sub-optimal life and will impede our long-term happiness.
A friend of mine is an independent film maker and is looking for funding for his next movie. Check out the link and show him some love if it sounds interesting:
Filmmaker Stewart Wade (Margolis), who previously challenged ideas about sexual identity in “Coffee Date” and “Tru Loved” is working on a new independent feature called “Such Good People.” Starring Michael Urie (“Ugly Betty” and the new “Partners” on CBS) and Randy Harrison (“Queer as Folk”), the movie also features Sandra Bernhard, Lance Bass, Jon Polito, Alec Mapa, Bree Turner, and Drew Droege. It’s a fun screwball comedy like they used to make in the 1930′s — but with a twist. The couple at the center of the zany action is two men, rather than a man and a woman.
I think it’s great the the movie will feature a gay couple, but that that won’t be the focus of the movie, that being gay will be treated as just something normal about the couple. To me, that seems like the next step in the progression of making homosexuality something normal and not aberrant.
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.