Many Christians today, no matter how “conservative” they are, accepts the “concept” of sexual orientation as a matter of course. This is something which I’ve always considered an oddity given our contemporary fumigation against “essentialism” and that idea of innate fixed essences or natures, which mysteriously does not seem to apply to the idea of sexual orientation. Why is it that gender roles can be fluid but sexual orientation a rigid and absolute fact about oneself?
It would be useful to compare the concept of sexual orientation to the idea of witches and spiritual mediums. Now, just as people are convinced that they are “gay” or “straight” or “bisexual” or whatever, there are people who are truly convinced that they are witches or spiritual mediums. Self-identified witches or spiritual mediums insist that they possess such “innate” magical powers in the same way that people who identify themselves as “gay” or “straight” are convinced that they possess such innate “sexual orientation” which supposedly defines their very lives. Witches and spiritual mediums are not only convinced of their innate magical powers, they also behave that way, they gather in covens and temples with other fellow witches and spiritual mediums, they “cast spells” and “put hexes” on their enemies, they brew potions, burn magical talisman and drink them, they go into trances and prophesy about the future and perform exorcisms. Likewise do gay and straight people gather among their own kind and have gay/straight sexual acts, they enter into gay/straight relationships, etc, experience ecstatic romances, etc. Sometimes those hexes and curses and predictions “works”, they “coincidentally” come true, and of course the witches/spiritual mediums are convinced that this is the product of their innate magical/spiritual abilities, likewise do gay/straight couples sometimes do remain together in a committed relationship for a very long time, convinced that this is the product of their “innate sexual orientation” or “love” or “sexual desire”, etc.
But of course we know that there are no such things as witches/spiritual mediums. It doesn’t matter how convinced they are that they possess magical/spiritual powers, it doesn’t matter how many of their hexes or predictions works, or how much they “practice” their craft, or how intensely they experience their trances or how rapturous are their spiritual ecstasies, there is simply no such things as witches or spiritual mediums who possess actual spiritual/magical powers over reality. Likewise, there are no such mythical invisible things like “sexual orientation”. It doesn’t matter how convinced people are they they possess some sort of innate sexual destiny or drive, nor how many times they had gay/straight sex, or how intensely they experience their sexual desires or drives, or how much they practice their love or how committed they are, there is simply no such things as gay or straight people who possess some sort of innate “sexual orientation” which determines the sexual destiny of a person or exhaustively defines one’s personhood or sexuality.
It is important for me to disclaim that I do not deny that there are people who experience homosexual desires, but the subjective intensity in which someone experiences a desire does not, as it were, “go all the way down” to some “essential” “innate” core somewhere “deep down below” oneself. Nor should we think that such desires do determine the meaning of their sexual life. The example I’ve used in another post is the paradoxical category of gay porn which displays heterosexual sex but catered for a gay audience by focusing on the guy. Thus people can be attracted to their own sex, but paradoxically enjoy that body having heterosexual sex. Thus, we need to be wary of claims of subjective intensity, knowing that all experiences must be interpreted, and needless to say, the concept of sexual orientation is not very helpful as an interpretative grid.
We have to remember that even in classical cultures, where homosexuality and pederasty were openly practised, did not box up sexual behaviour and desire or “love” into our convenient and narrow categories of “sexual orientation”. The famous “gay” lovers of classical Greek literature, Achilles and Patroclus, no matter how intense was their bond and love for each other, still sleep with their concubines in the privacy of their own huts. In Plato’s Symposium which contains a praise and explanation of homosexual love, still did not think that such love required expression or fulfilment in marriage, but in fact spoke of how such “gays” would still enter into a customary heterosexual marriage, etc. The idea that sexual behaviour, sexual desire/experience, and social/public union in marriage, is somehow all miraculously tied together and governed by a “sexual orientation” as a whole package, and which determines rigidly one entire sexual and romantic life as a totality, would be pretty much a modern invention. (For a further discussion on the nature of intense “love” between man and how the demise of male frienship leads to our current concepts of homosexuality, you can read this classical scholar’s post. For a discussion on unashamed male physical intimacy and friendships in the past which we today consider to be “gay”, along with photos, you can see here and here).
Ultimately, subjective experience is, well, simply subjective, a mere phenomena which does not touch upon the noumena. But then again, I am one of those horrible Hegelian who believe in the “lightness” and frivolity of subjectivity, that it isn’t some sort of ultimate reality but a mere illusion, etc, as well as a big fan of Daniel Dennett and his “demystification” of the absoluteness of consciousness as simply an illusion of our cognitive systems, etc.
As Walter Davis once puts it,
No depth exists in subject until it is created. No a priori identity awaits us… Inwardness is a process of becoming, a work, the labour of the negative. The self is not a substance one unearths by peeling away layers until one gets to the core, but an integrity one struggles to bring into existence.
To which Rowan Williams remarks,
For if there is no pre-existent ‘inwardness’, where is the ‘real’ self to be found or made but in the world of exchange- language and interaction. More particularly, this statement… makes it clear that the self is a self-conscious product of time. We tend to conceive interiority in terms of space- outer and inner, husk and kernal; what if our ‘inner life’ were better spoken of in terms of extension in time? the time it takes to understand?
There was a time when we believed that we are what we make of ourselves and that it is our actions which determines who are we, not some mythical innate fixed natures or destines, etc, how did we lapse back into fatalistic destinies force upon us not of our own choosing? And there was also a time when theologians remembered that sexual orientation isn’t an absolute scientific concept.
In the course of discussing topic with others, I realise that I must make an important qualifier. I do not discount “sexual orientation” as a conceptual tool of social science for making predictions or gesturing towards a class of loosely related phenomena. To cite Gerhard Forde’s take on the concept of “sexual orientation”:
At present I find the “constructionist” interpretation of sexual behavior like that of David Halperin in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge 1990) 15-53, most persuasive. The best way to account for the great variations in sexual behavior and preference throughout history and across cultural lines is to postulate that they are the product of social constructs. Categories like “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” are constructs of very recent vintage. To hold that they are social constructs, however, is not to say that the conditions that result from them are unreal or merely illusionary. Social constructs construct social realities. It is precisely this to which we have to attend and about which we have to make critical judgements.
Thus, as I’ve already mentioned, I did not deny that the “conditions” that result in the social construct of sexual orientation exists, e.g. that there are homosexual behaviour and homosexual desires, etc. But what I do object to is the idea that this sexual orientation refers to some concrete reality rather than as being merely an abstract conceptual tool for making predictions and for systematising a fluid range of phenomena.
The closest analogy which I can think of is the difference between the concept of a “center of gravity” and a particle in physics. A center of gravity is a very useful conceptual tool for making predictions about the stability of a body. By systematising all the forces and masses of a body via calculus methods, you can more or less determine the “center of gravity” of a body and make predictions about which way it falls under what conditions. But it would be a category mistake, a confusion, to think that there is something beyond the various forces and masses of a body, some special particle which “creates” the center of gravity or which gives rise to center of gravity. This is absurd, there is no particle or “thing” called a “center of gravity” responsible for the phenomena of a “center of gravity”, the center of gravity is simply a construct of physics, not a discovery or insight into some reality. The center of gravity just is a systematic summation of all the various forces and masses which are already revealed by more fundamental Newtonian physics, but it doesn’t reveal or refer to any new reality in itself.
This is in contrast to the discovery of the photon. Whereas the center of gravity was merely invented to make predictions on conditions and entities already understood within Newtonian physics, the photon was discovered as a result of certain data and experiments which couldn’t be accounted for by the system of physics back then. By postulating a photon and expanding the conceptual system of physics, one can account for the unaccountable data, and make new predictions and experiments, etc. Thus, while the center of gravity merely systematises already well-known and discovered phenomena, the photon is a new phenomena and entity in itself.
Thus, “sexual orientation” is more like the postulation of a “center of gravity” rather than the discovery of the photon. It isn’t a discovery of some new reality which mankind for centuries wasn’t already aware of, e.g. homosexual desires and behaviour, it is merely a conceptual tool for summing up various conditions and vaguely related already known phenomena into a single concept or system, but it doesn’t possess any reality or substance in itself over and above the various phenomena and particular behaviours and experiences of individuals. ]