There is No Such Thing as “Sexual Orientation”

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.

13 Comments

  1. Why not say that “sexual orientation” should be understood in terms of whatever one most frequently finds oneself being sexually attracted to (for whatever underlying reasons, be they biological or social or both)? I.e., a sexual orientation is a sexual attraction predominantly oriented toward something. It seems possible to come up with a descriptive, rather than normative, understanding of “sexual orientation” that either successfully refers to something or not.

  2. That’s not the right question.
    The question is why would we want to understand it apart from the normative context or
    meaning. We don’t speak in similar terms for deafness, mental disturbances and disorders of that sort.

    • Well, speaking of a mental or auditory orientation doesn’t sound bizarre to me. Something’s being an orientation is consistent with its being a disorder.

    • The point is not about consistency. We don’t speak that way about things we understand to be disordered, probably because we can’t understand deafness or schizophrenia well apart from the normative context, nor should we understand them apart from this context.

  3. “Well, within the Christian West, sexuality was understood to be intimately tied to procreation, with some unitive function between me and women, but that’s about it.

    Quite the striking sexual figure you cut there Don Juan Hulkster. Impressive.

  4. What difference at this point does it make if two hot chicks want to pleasure one another sexually? If there is a difference, it would appear to add to the hotness quotient of the world, a net positive for sure. I don’t see the problem.

    From an Aristotelian-eudaimonist-Maslovian-self-actualization angle, what seems to the problem, exactly? Does hot lesbian sex frustrate eudaimonia in some serious way? Can this be determined from the mental masturbator’s armchair? How do we tell when an appeal to “nature,” “order” or “teleology” is being applied correctly, vs. being abused in some fashion?

    Is someone’s autonomy being violated? (I know that critics of liberalism have a certain strained way of speaking about liberalism’s view of autonomy, that may or may not border on strawman territory depending on the liberal in question. But autonomy properly considered is morally of paramount importance nonetheless….) Is someone being harmed? To repeat the earlier question: are eudaimonia values being thwarted in a credible way?

    There’s a temptation toward a strain of biologistic interpretation of human sexual function, applied to considerations of ethics. But say that we apply the biologistic criterion all across the board; what do we get then? Biologically we are built to pass on genes in some evolutionary scheme favoring “inclusive fitness” or kin genes or some such. What does this have to do, exactly, with the rich and complex mental and emotional life of humans that is an emergent feature within this biological framework? Exactly what teleological purpose does, e.g., the creation and enjoyment of music (which would have existed only in simple form at best until recent times) serve within a heavily biologistic interpretation of telos?

    One would think that Christians of all people acknowledge that the ‘spiritual’ dimension of humanity generates a unique set of criteria of evaluation that isn’t reducible to the biological dimension. We are embodied, that is true, and the body requires the satisfaction of basic physiological needs before higher-level needs pertaining to the uniquely human pysche are met. The role of sexual experience in all this is tied up with the psychic complexity humans bring to the matter and it is not at all clear that reproductive values play a central role more than part of the time for a great many people in their sexual pursuits. They have other reasons, namely the psychically-irreducible pleasure of it, or for a sort of psychic bonding with others – things that occur at the level of a complex sentience in which numerous goals or a hierarchy of goals might well be involved.

    (Among the various “perversions” you mention, there’s bestiality. I don’t see bestiality being normalized in the future for one main reason: sexuality between humans involves a sort of psychological visibility or connectedness that doesn’t exist between humans and other species. Precisely *because* of the spiritual dimension for humans do we not treat such sexual relations in a “crudely animalistic” way. (How are “teleological” appeals to the biological-reproductive function of sex not playing right into the “crudely animalistic” framework of understanding sexuality?) Now, if you imagine some sci-fi Star Trek type scenario where two distinct species (not capable of reproduction with one another without technological intervention) have nonetheless similar psychological makeups, I’m not sure how Thomistic-style appeals to teleology are going to help them much there, either. And what exactly would be the problem in that case?)

    In short, we need to be psychologically realistic about human sexuality in all its complexity. There’s a reason so many guys – and many ladies as well, it turns out – find lesbian sex between hot chicks to be hot. And clearly it can’t be reduced to the biological function of reproductive organs and whatnot.

    So if you’re wondering why the Christians’ appeals to teleology fall on so many deaf ears, I think this is an avenue worth investigating.

    • “From an Aristotelian-eudaimonist-Maslovian-self-actualization angle, what seems to the problem, exactly?”
      I have no idea, because i have little idea of what an Aristotelian-eudaimonist-Maslovian-self-actualiziation angle is. But, given the extensive criticism of Maslow’s 1940s psychology, it doesn’t sound like an angle worth preserving, IMO.

  5. Maybe the expression you seek is sexual disorientation. It assumes people are “born that way” or at least with those tendencies (probably as a result of some hormone deficiency during epigenesis). It reject the belief that homosexuality is a mental disorder that responds to treatment. It accepts that for the most part homosexuality cannot be changed. And it retains the rational basis for a heteronormative or biologically normative perspective. It does, however, sacrifice religious notions of sin and guilt.

  6. Urban II asks:
    “Argument from Porn Fetish?”

    I hereby declare failure to appreciate hot girl-girl action to be disordered, and shall hereby go derive a clever-ish argument for this.

    It is neither ordered nor disordered, you might say? But what about the moral order of the cosmos and of society, lest chaos ensue? Also, given our biological makeup, sugar eating and modern industrial lifestyles in general are disordered. Now if a Patrick Roy of Logic (by whom I mean Socrates, the erotically disordered non-eudaimonizer, of course) can beat that swift barrage of shit back, that’d be most un/fortunate. Which side of this dialectic am I on anyway, lol

  7. We can all go along with the sexual orientation category as long as its sees the legitimacy of President Trump’s sexual orientation of being born a pussy grabber.

    Women (the good looking ones) love it.

  8. Hulk, I wasn’t sure what your argument against the existence of sexual orientations was, or was there one? Was it an historical argument? Something like, “No one recognized the existence of sexual orientations until the late 19th and 20th centuries. This was an accurate reflection of the way the world is. Therefore, the category should be dropped.”

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