Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sexual Orientation is Bunk

I hinted at this in the comments on my previous post, and also here. The concept of sexual orientation, as it is usually presented in the British media, is rubbish, and not only so, but unhelpful rubbish. Let me explain:

A good place to start would be the Kinsey Scale. Kinsey's report in 1948 is an important cultural turning point, especially in legitimising homosexual behaviour. But this is what Kinsey actually wrote.

Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories... The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.

While emphasising the continuity of the gradations between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual histories, it has seemed desirable to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of heterosexual and homosexual experience or response in each history... An individual may be assigned a position on this scale, for each period in his life.... A seven-point scale comes nearer to showing the many gradations that actually exist."
(Kinsey, et al. (1948). pp. 639, 656)

Quote from Wikipedia, not coz it's reliable but coz it's easier.

In other words, Kinsey thought that people are not split into homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals, but that there is a continuous scale (if it's continuous, 7 points isn't really enough - you'd need to allow decimal points or just give it as a percentage, as Arthur C Clarke in The Songs of Distant Earth), and people's position on that scale can and does change over time and in response to events. For example, one potential (anecdotal but plausible) response to sexual abuse is to seek sexual fulfilment in different environments. So if a woman is sexually abused by a man, that may in some cases lead to increased sexual preference for women.

In fact, the scale is multidimensional as well. Some men prefer curvier women, some prefer skinnier women, and that preference can change over time (personally, I find that a lot of my preferences change depending on who I meet). Some women prefer butch guys; some women prefer more "effeminate" guys, and that preference can change over time too. Some people have random or not-so-random fetishes, and so on.

My guess is that there are as many sexual "orientations" as there are people, and that for most of us, our sexual "orientation" is constantly changing.

So then, if sexual "orientation" is actually individual, multidimensional and changing, it seems somewhat silly to split it into straight, gay or bisexual. It strikes me as much more like food preferences (except of course with the additional strong bonding element in long-term stable relationships which doesn't really happen with food). It also means that it is silly to label someone's identity by their sexual preferences at any one time. I like Chinese food, but that is not my identity. I also like Indian food, but that isn't my identity either. And food is really important to me, but it doesn't define my identity. If someone did define their identity by their food preferences, you'd worry about them. And I think it's the same with sex.

People should no more define their identity by their sexual preferences than by their food preferences.

Of course, this has a huge effect on how to present the traditional Christian understanding of sex. The usual way that I hear it presented, people draw a distinction between orientation and practice, but that leads to the response that we are calling homosexual people to a level of sacrifice we are not calling heterosexual people to. Not true. There are no homosexual people, and there are no heterosexual people. There are just people. (Maybe I just overargued that bit, but it sounded good.)

It also leads to an implicit devaluing of homosexual people by the church, and it really doesn't help the institutionalised homophobia in the church die out.

Much better, surely, to say that there are just people, and we all have different sexual preferences, and that some sexual actions (like loving sex inside male/female lifelong marriage) are good and that some sexual actions (like sex outside marriage) are bad, but that we don't expect nonChristians to obey Christian standards.

It's like banning spinach or the use of MSG in food for some as-yet-unknown health reasons. Now I like spinach and I think that MSG does often make food taste better, and I'd be upset if they were banned, but you'd be hard pushed to argue that a ban on MSG for health reasons discriminated against particular groups in society, even though Chinese cooking does use more of it than, say, Italian cooking.


Casey said...

Great points! I've always had a problem with people defining themselves by their sexuality. I don't want people walking up to me and saying, "Hi, my name's Joe, and I'm attracted to men," but that's exactly what people are doing when they participate in "gay pride" parades and the like.

PamBG said...

My experience of my gay friends is that they don't push their sexuality in my face any more than I do mine in theirs.

"Hi, I'm Joe and I like men" might be an issue when someone is young or just establishing their sexual identity, but it doesn't appear to figure in the lives of middle-aged gay people any more than "Hi, I'm Pam and I'm married to MAAAAAANNNNN" figures in my life.

From my persepective as someone with gay Christian friends who by and large don't dare set foot in any church, it's straight people who are actually defining gay people by their sexuality.

PamBG said...

The whole problem with the Kinsey analysis from a Christian theological perspective, in my mind, Custardy, is the fact that there are long established gay couples who genuinely love each other.

Your Kinsey analysis actually only deals with the sex act as a hollow thing. Implicitly this analysis you are making seems to assum that genuine love doesn't exist between same-sex couples.

If Christian thoelogy is going to demand that long-term loving partnerships dissolve for the sake of Christian discipleship, the church had better figure out a pastoral response to what to do with the people whose lives are torn apart by these demands that the church is making.

The whole 'homosexual acts are a sin' movement always seems to assume that there are no human emotions attached to what it expects people to do. If we are going to demand that people abandon the love of their lives, we'd better have serious pastoral support in place.

I've only ever heard two conservatives articulate any sort of understanding of the enormity of the sacrifice that they are demanding of gay couples.

John said...

I don't think what I wrote presupposes that such relationships don't exist, any more than it presupposes that long term stable loving heterosexual relationships don't exist.

Of course both do.

You're right that there's a different question, which I haven't addressed here, which is why sex is only permitted inside heterosexual marriage.

I agree conservatives should be clearer on the scale of the commitment...

PamBG said...

Custard: I was not aware that Kinsey's studies included the affective side of a relationship. I thought he was talking about biological triggers, for want of a better term.

I realise you're not saying the following, which is why I'm posting it here - because I think that there is a chance of being heard (I've pretty much given up trying to be heard with most conservatives on this issue.)

To put it in very concrete terms, I know middle aged people who are settled and monogomous and who love their partners as much as I love my husband. Much of the conservative argument seems to assume that such gay people don't exist and/or that they want to give up their long-term relationship in the same way that someone who was serially promiscuous might want to give up being serially promiscuous.

The idea of being ripped from my husband takes my breath away - this would be an enormous, enormous thing of someone to ask of me. So I see and feel the same enormity on behalf of my friends being asked to leave their lifetime partners. I hardly ever get the impression that conservatives care about these issues. It all seems very 'objective' and cold and inhuman: 'Of course gay sex is wrong and of course a good Christian would want to give it up' sort of thing.

Gerry Hatrić said...

Well said!

John said...

Pam - true, true. There are some horribly difficult pastoral issues there, as with people from certain types of Muslim background becoming Christians.

I'm pretty certain you're right that conservatives aren't doing enough to support people in those situations, or to appreciate the magnitude of the cost involved.

It's worth remembering sometimes that it's more important for Christians to be loving than to be right.

PamBG said...

It's worth remembering sometimes that it's more important for Christians to be loving than to be right.

I'm sure you've guessed that I don't agree with your position on homosexuality but I really appreciate this statement very much indeed. Thank you for listening.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I think it's good we've all established that what's most important here is that we love each other. That being said, love for God is to obey His commands (1 John 5:3, which also says the commands are not "burdensome").

Now, it seems pretty clear to me that the only biblically permissible sexual relation is that between a married man and a woman. The main problem with this, at least today, is the plight of people (I guess we should start avoiding words like "homosexual" is sexual orientation is bunk) who are in or plan to be in committed same-sex relationships.

Now, for the people who already are in them, I understand just how difficult this must be. I also know that the Bible forbade homosexual acts long before these people chose to enter a long-term same-sex relationship. Now, I highly doubt many of these relationships were conceived of as celibate. So although the church must be cognizant of the tremendous difficulties people in these situations face, people shouldn't change the doctrine when going against it leads to complications.

I've always wondered if it would be moral for two men or women who loved each other to live with each other but practice a celibate lifestyle.

But some important distinctions can and should be made between sexual attraction, romantic attraction, and love.

David and Jonathan loved each other, as did Ruth and Naomi. John was the disciple Jesus loved. None of them, according to the Bible, engaged in sexual acts with each other (although I know many people would dispute this). No one should be forbidding this (for lack of a better word) platonic love, or agape, if you will. But it is very different from sexual love. Although I'm a tad too young to talk about this from personal experience, I can say that the people whom I have loved the most have not (always) been the people to whom I was most attracted.

PamBG said...

So although the church must be cognizant of the tremendous difficulties people in these situations face, people shouldn't change the doctrine when going against it leads to complications.

First, I need to set aside the fact that I don't agree with you and I have absolutely no expectation of changing your mind, so I'm not going to try.

I'm taking as given that conservative evangelicals are going to try to stop people having homosexual relationships and that they will try to get people in long-term relationships to leave those relationships. I say this out of 40 years personal experience of conservative evangelicalism.

Custardy started this thread in a very positive way - giving some indication that he had some actual, genuine compassion as opposed to the 'I love you so I'm going to try to stop you doing what I think is wrong' 'compassion' that, in my experience, passes for empathy in the conservative church.

I'm not trying to ask you (plural) to do things you don't believe. I'm trying to indicate that Custardy has shown some genuine understanding; understanding that I have found to be highly unusual and I want to encourage him in the call that he's making in this post.

'That's all fine and good, but it's wrong' doesn't cut it if you are talking about taking people who have lived together for decades and demanding from a place of authority that they destroy their life together. Pastorally, you might as well kill their partner. As a rule people don't seem to 'get' this. All the talk seems to be on the level of teenage boys engaging in wanton and meaningless sex.

Yes, certainly, there will be people who are engaging in wanton and meaningless sex. But show some understanding of what is being asked. Gay Christian couples in long-term relationships are not engaging in recreational sex with multiple partners like randy, out-of-control teenage boys and it's about time the church stopped acting as if they did or as if all gay people are paedophiles. IMHO, of course.

Anonymous said...

No idea what IMHO means...

I don't think I would try to force people out of long-term relationships. If someone truly believes that homosexuality is biblically acceptable, and has tried to consider the matter in terms of what God wants instead of what he or she wants, then that is between them and God and I can't stop them. I know that God is just and judges the heart, and I know that homosexuality, if it is a sin, is not one of the main sins in the Bible. I personally don't see a biblical way around my point of view, but if there is one, I would love to hear it (I am saying that sincerely). We cannot have all the exact answers with every question of Christianity, and so we can't just ignore or disregard people who disagree with us. Conservative Christians tend to assume homosexuals won't go to heaven, even though Jesus seemed to let all sorts of sinners into heaven (albeit with repentance). From what I've read, some of the conservative therapy groups for homosexuals have shown moderate success, but that really isn't something I can speak about with any authority.

The point is that what to do with people in long-term same-sex relationships and whether or not same-sex relationships should be sanctioned by Christians are two different (although related) issues.

But I don't think telling people to stop having sex is equivalent to killing their partners.

What I don't want is decisions to be made based on personal opinions instead of the Bible. I say that understanding that many conserivate Christians are making their decisions based on homophobia and bigotry (an attitude I find considerably worse than any sexual sin), and I have tried to avoid that.

John said...

IMHO = "in my humble opinion"

PamBG said...

But I don't think telling people to stop having sex is equivalent to killing their partners.

The assumption behind my comment is that it would be extremely difficult after decades together to simply stop 'having sex' (I don't even like using that phrase because it really seems to cheapen the function of sex in a long term relationship).

My assumption is that if a person were really determined to do such a thing that he or she would have to cut off all contact with their former partner. And that therefore both would be subjected to a process of mourning and to building a new life from nothing. Something that I think becomes more difficult as one gets older.

I'm imagining a couple in their 50s or 60s who have been together for 20 or 30 years. I do think that there are equivilencies to the death of the partner and that any hyperbole isn't all that extreme.

By the way, I'm imaginging the 50 and 60 year old couples because they are the people I know. I'm invoking that image because I think that the image that is usually invoked is that of a young, single person with a primary intention of recreational sex with as many partners as possible.

Speaker for the Dead said...

I guess I can't really speak with any authority about long-term relationships...

Speaker for the Dead said...

Oh, this is j. porter or whatever, by the way.