Robin Dembroff recently wrote an article entitled “What Is Sexual Orientation?” wherein she takes issue with how sexual orientation is typically understood. She believes that we have “good reason” to resist many of these understandings. Here are some of her reasons:
Inadequate understandings of sexual orientation can reinforce heteronormative assumptions (i.e., assumptions that heterosexuality should be privileged within society) by maintaining a majority/minority divide between heterosexuality and other sexual orientations that historically has been normatively loaded and policed. They also can reinforce cisnormative assumptions (i. e., assumptions that all persons are cisgender —that is, that all persons’ genders are the ones assigned to them at birth on the basis of their anatomy) by failing to provide recognition or clarity within the sexual-orientation taxonomy for persons who are not cisgender or who are attracted to persons who are not cisgender.
Notice that Dembroff does not herein state that those understandings of sexual orientation should be resisted because they’re false or unsubstantiated. Instead, the reason for resistance is just that some of those understandings of sexual orientation can reinforce heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions. But so what? Even if those understandings were to reinforce such assumptions, why should we resist them? Dembroff doesn’t clearly say. From what I call tell, this resistance is part of her “engineering project”, a project aimed to revise or replace the concept of sexual orientation to “better realize the purposes we want this concept to fulfill.” And blah, blah, blah, and blah. And more blah. Read it, if you can. Or not. It doesn’t matter much to me.
Whatever you do, it might surprise you to learn that Dembroff and I have something in common. Our commonality is that we both want to change the concept of sexual orientation. The difference between us is that Dembroff wants to revise or replace the concept, but I want to eliminate it. Why eliminate it? Let me explain.
The concept of sexual orientation is relatively new. Before the 19th century, no one spoke or thought of sexuality that way. Within the 19th century, the words heterosexual and homosexual began to emerge, but only within the medical community. What surprises some people is that both these words were used to refer to morbid sexual desires: One referring to morbid sexual desires toward the different sex while the other referred to morbid sexual desires toward the same sex. Why was that? Well, within the Christian West, sexuality was understood to be intimately tied to procreation, with some unitive function between men and women, but that’s about it. Hence, excessive sexual appetites, masturbation, promiscuity, sodomy, beastiality, and so forth, were all understood in terms of sin and concuspience, and any feeling or inclination toward those acts were understood to be perversions or disorders of sexuality itself. There were no “sexualities”.
Of course, things changed by the 1930s: The word heterosexual was bestowed with a sense of normalcy, though homosexual still took on a meaning of pathology. But even then, it is important to understand that same-sex sexual inclinations were not considered to be a sort of orientation, and certainly not an identity. Instead, homoertoic behaviour and inclination were considered to be deviations from the nature of human sexuality, which was understood to be entirely heteronormative (see here for more).
But, yet again, society changed. Secularization happened. The understanding and appreciation of nature, order and teleology was lost, replaced by the philosophy of nominalism and mechanism. The Sexual Revolution happened. Contraception became widely accessible and utilized. Hence, the background knowledge and philosophical framework to understand sexuality, gentitalia and eros as properly ordered toward a procreative end, by their very nature, was lost. Instead, sexuality was tied to feelings apart from procreation. And with that, we lost the foundation and framework to understand sexuality as, by its nature, heteronormative; and moreover, we also lost the basis to think of sodomy and homoeroticism as a perversion or deviation, seeing it as a variation of human sexuality. Love is love, right? Hence, for many people, the rational basis for seeing homosexual behaviour and inclination as perversions was absent, which left resistance to the gay rights agenda construed as a matter of religious prejudice or cultural taboo. Thus, society changed its mind on homoerotic sex, but not because religious people lost some grand argument. Instead, the philosophical preconditions for thinking that homosexual inclination and behaviour are perverse were lost to the transitions in thought and practice over generations. Society forgot its reasons.
So what does this have to do with sexual orientation? Well, lots. The idea of sexual orientation furthers the normalcy of non-heteronormativity by treating sexuality as if it were variegated and not heteronormative. Consider this: In things we know to be disordered, say, deafness, we do not say deaf people have ears orientated to those decibels much higher than those of speech sounds while other people have ears that are orientated toward speech sounds. Our discourse does not incorporate the idea of auditory orientation, as if human hearing capacity is subject to natural variation. Instead, we understand deafness as a sort of disability or dysfunction of the human capacity to hear. Likewise, for blindness, I’d say. We also do not speak of schizophrenia as a state of mind orientated toward alternate perceptions of reality; instead, we say that the schizophrenic mind, for whatever reason, is not working properly, understanding the world in deluded ways. So, why don’t we speak of sexuality in the same way? Why do we speak of sexual orientation rather than sexual perversion and deviation? The answer is simple: We don’t speak the same way because we don’t see sexuality in those terms, preferring, instead, to use language more suited to convey ideas of natural variation of human sexuality; i.e., orientations.
But I resist. I see rational and persuasive reason to think that human sexuality, by its nature and teleology, is heteronormative (see here and here); and so I want to eliminate the idea of sexual orientation, seeing it as a concept that furthers wrong ideas about human sexuality. I want to remind western society of the tradition it forgot. I encourage my readers to do the same; or, if they cannot, then I encourage my readers to seriously considered whether sexuality has a nature and teleology. Don’t take our current models for granted. Think about them critically.
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