The Social Construction of Sexual Orientation
The Cheese Analogy
Some people like cheese, some people don't. An appreciation for cheese comes from a variety of factors: one's innate patterns of pleasant and unpleasant sensory excitation produced by the relation between one's taste buds and one's pleasure and pain responses in the brain; one's nutritional needs; one's state of hunger or satiety; cultural cuisine and one's exposure to different varieties of cheese; and the value judgments that one's culture holds with regard to the act of eating cheese.
Different people, obviously, are born with different innate predispositions for the taste of different kinds of cheeses. One person will prefer cheddar, another Gouda, a third Limburger. Some people will like most kinds of cheese, others will only like a select few cheeses, and still others will find the smell and taste of any kind of cheese offensive. People for the most part are perfectly willing to accept that different people have different innate cheese preferences and don't feel the need to explore a person's childhood to determine where their particular cheese preferences came from. Nor do they jump to the conclusion that a person who prefers Limburger over cheddar is suffering from some sort of mental illness (though it might be tempting to think so!).
But when it comes to sex, people take a very different approach.
Evolution and Sexual Orientation
It seems unnecessary to mention, but it is obvious that humans (and most other living organisms) have evolved over millions of years to have definite preferences when it comes to choosing mates. The physical traits that a man or woman looks for in a partner (for now we'll ignore psychological, social, and other factors) seem to be controlled to a large extent by hormones -- testosterone or estrogen markers, such as more pronounced musculature, larger hands, and body hair in men, and breasts, smaller feet, and less pronounced body hair in women. Sex hormones are responsible for producing the sexual dimorphism and secondary sexual characteristics that humans use, in part, to determine the attractiveness of a mate. (Health provides its own equally important attraction markers, such as clear skin and a pleasant body odor but these apply to both sexes.)
The patterns of sensory stimulation that these markers create is similar to the patterns created by cheese. Some markers, like some kinds of cheese, will be more or less important than others, and will vary from individual to individual, which is why we have popular classifications for "breast man", "leg man", "butt man", etc. These could be compared to "cheddar man", "Gouda man", and "Limburger man". (Though perhaps a man with a strong preference for women's feet, owing to its rarity, is a better analog for a "Limburger man".) Women, of course, have their own preferences analogous to the preferences of men.
Sexual Attraction Cues
What do I mean by a sexual attraction cue?
A cue is a observable trait, like skin color or height, the shape of the ear or the length of the fingers. Different individuals have different preferences about these cues: some people may like darker skin, rounder ears, or longer fingers than other people: their "sweet spot" is located in different places on the scale of darkness of skin pigmentation or ear roundness. There may be hundreds of such cues (dozens in the face alone) and these different responses to cues account for the wide variety of tastes that people have. These cues may be entirely innate, like one's preferences for different kinds of cheeses (or my preference for wide jaws), but are probably shaped to some degree by the individual's environment and life experiences; ie. they are both innate and learned. There's no reason to assume that two individuals growing up in the same culture, surrounded by the same people, will develop the same preferences.
A sexual attraction cue is a cue that creates sexual excitement. By itself, a single cue (say, the length of the nose) may generate a very small amount of excitement -- not enough to register in consciousness -- but cumulatively, aggregates of attraction cues create enough excitement to let us know whether or not we're attracted to someone. The more of our innate cues another person "triggers", the more attractive we find them. These cues may be anatomical, or behavioral (a certain kind of swagger or a certain kind of laughter, etc.).
If another person activates enough of our cues, and they pass a minimum "threshold", we experience something we call sexual attraction. The more cues they activate, the stronger our attraction. (It may be that "love at first sight" is just a "second order" sexual attraction, where another person activates so many of our cues that we experience a kind of attraction that is as much above normal attraction as normal attraction is above non-attraction.)
The reason why this is important with regard to sexual orientation is that a very feminine man may be triggering enough of another man's sexual attraction cues that the second man, who identifies as "straight", feels an "inexplicable" attraction to the first man. It's not really inexplicable, it's simply that the first man is activating many of the second man's cues simultaneously -- enough to create a feeling of sexual attraction the same way a woman with those same cues would. Because people have so many cues, there is a good deal of ambiguity built into our sexuality. If a straight man finds himself more attracted to a feminine man than a masculine woman, it's a simple matter of one activating more of his cues than the other.
By breaking sexual orientation into patterns of cue activation, it's possible to explain any kind of attraction or orientation whatsoever.
Patterns of Attraction and Sexual Orientation
Because we are a sexually dimorphic and sexually reproducing species, men and women have evolved different sets of sexual attraction markers. Typically, a man is born with markers oriented toward female bodies and women are born with markers oriented toward male bodies. Because nature is conservative, and evolving large differences between male and female brains is evolutionarily expensive, it seems reasonable to assume that both men and women are born with both sets of sexual attraction markers stored away in the brain but that one set or the other is "activated" (or given increased preference or heightened potentiation) by sex hormones during fetal development. (It may work differently, but it's a reasonable assumption.)
If that's the case, then it's easy to see how small differences in fetal development (or genetic differences) could lead to different outcomes: one person may be born with the "wrong" set of markers activated (homosexual), or with both sets (bisexual), or with neither set (asexual). There may be different "mixes" of cues activated, perhaps explaining why some men and women are attracted to androgynous or hermaphroditic traits (trans admirers). Some people may be born with both sets of cues, but at slightly different levels of intensity, meaning that they are usually attracted to one sex, but occasionally find themselves attracted to another ("curious" or "experimenting" men and women).
In other words, virtually every sort of sexual orientation may be explained as some variation on exactly how much excitement each male or female sex marker produces in a given individual's brain. Even someone with a "foot fetish" may just have an uncommonly strong attraction to a specific estrogen marker. Like cheese preferences, there is no need to go digging into a person's childhood traumas, parental upbringing, or willful "perversion" to explain what can easily be explained through natural variation.
Let's consider, now, some of the other factors which can influence one's cheese and sexual preferences.
Nutritional Needs, Hunger, and Satiety
If your body is low on certain vitamins or minerals, you may experience cravings for food containing those vitamins or minerals. There isn't an exact analogy between food cravings and sex markers, but like salt and sugar, sexual attraction markers do create pleasant sensations which people like to repeat. (Hence the appeal of pornography. Depending on the strength of various markers, individuals will find different forms of stimulation more or less appealing and seek out pornography which best triggers those cues.)
There is an analogy between the need to eat and the need for human contact: we say that a person is "touch starved" if they don't receive physical attention from other people. When it's for sexual contact specifically, we say that one is "horny", which is only a few letters away from "hungry". Popular culture has another colorful, and related, term that does an excellent job capturing this hunger for sexual contact: "thirst". Memes announce that "the thirst is real". Forums are peppered with comments about how "thirsty" one is.
If appropriate and available persons with the right sexual attraction cues are not available, this thirst may lead an individual to seek out the "next best thing". They will "branch out" and try to satisfy their needs with those people (or objects) in their environment which come closest to their preferred clues. If cheddar is not available, they'll reach for the Gouda; if they're all out of Gouda, they might be tempted to try some Limburger to "scratch that itch", even if it's something that normally doesn't appeal to them. A man who prefers thin women may go for a larger woman, or a woman who prefers tall men may go for a shorter man. The greater the need, the farther one is willing to deviate from their preferred cues which sometimes results, for example, in otherwise "straight" men pursuing an encounter with another man. (This kind of behavior is common, for example, in prisons and same sex boarding schools where members of the opposite sex are not readily available.) Once their urge has been satisfied, these people may then feel disgusted by their "deviation".
Satiety can also play a role in sexual behavior. If one can easily satisfy their primary urges, they may "over indulge" and become "bored". (Known in psychological circles as habituation.) This boredom may lead people to seek out the satisfaction of less fatigued sexual cues, or to further refine and narrow their cues to find the "perfect fix". Satiation, therefore, can lead one either to expand one's sexual behavior or seek out ever more carefully refined behaviors (which may lead to unusual fetishes). A cheese connoisseur may become bored with eating cheese and develop an interest in wine; or they may become obsessed with finding the "perfect" Limburger, hoping to recapture the pleasure they originally felt when eating less "perfect" varieties.
The important thing to remember is that changes in sexual behavior relating to hunger and satiety are not random but tend to evolve naturally from one's innate preferences. A man attracted to women may settle for a feminine man if no women are available; a man with a preference for brunettes may refine their preference to brunettes with straight hair of a certain length. Because these individual hunger and satiety driven variations may perfectly overlap preferences that are innate for other individuals, it's impossible to say without collecting additional information whether or not a particular man's attraction to another, feminine man is innate or based on the limited availability of other, more desirable partners.
Conversion therapy, a now discredited form of psychotherapy dedicated to reinforcing the heteronormative status quo, works on essentially Pavlovian principles: by associating strong moral censure with deviating from the norm, and strong moral approbation with conforming to the norm, therapists hoped to associate an individual's innate preferences with an unpleasant sensation, and to associate an individual's conforming behaviors with a pleasant sensation. This overt act of conditioning is often obscured by the process of exploring a patient's history to determine the "causes" behind one's non-heteronormative inclinations much as one might explore the "causes" of one's preference for Gouda.
The theoretical justification for conversion conditioning is that such individuals "learned" their "abnormal" behavior during traumatic childhood experiences or through "faulty" parental upbringing or owing to a lack of "positive role models". While it is possible that some children do experience such conditioning to one extent or another, there is no reason to assume that it happens in the case of everyone who "deviates", or that it only happens in one direction -- away from heteronormativity. If there is any truth to this kind of conditioning, in all likelihood, there are far more "heterosexuals" who have been conditioned away from non-heterosexuality to heterosexuality through social conditioning than there are heterosexuals conditioned to non-heterosexuality through social conditioning.
In addition to innate differences between individuals and relative "thirst" and satiety, the culture you grow up in can have an impact on your sexual preferences.
If you grow up in a culture where the only kind of cheese you have available is goat cheese, and you don't like it, you may never discover your innate fondness for cheddar. Another individual growing up in a culture where a wide variety of cheese is available may develop very refined preferences along with specific dislikes. They have been given the opportunity to "explore" their love of cheese. The latter individual may appear "decadent" to the first, who assumes that, because he doesn't like goat cheese, he won't like any others, but the second person hasn't necessarily "corrupted" their tastes through satiety but may have merely "uncovered" the authentic range of their innate preferences.
The most obvious ways that cultures differ is in their attitudes toward sexual preferences that fall outside what is strictly required for the propagation of the species. In a culture that strictly prohibits and severely punishes deviations from that standard (ie. a heteronormative culture), many individuals will never have the freedom to discover or satisfy their genuine innate preferences. They may even become confused about their innate preferences through a form of culture-wide Pavlovian conditioning: if same sex pairings are forbidden by taboo, for example, an individual may develop such a strong negative reaction to the idea of indulging same sex inclinations that they come to associate that kind of stimulation with something unpleasant (shame), much as Pavlov's dogs salivated to the ringing of a bell. This may explain why many homophobes are eventually exposed as homosexuals.
Those same individuals may also come to associate a certain amount of pleasure with satisfying urges which are not innate -- for example, having sex with a woman if they're innately attracted to men. The pleasure doesn't come from the cues the woman's body produces (her face, breasts, genitals, etc.), but from the feeling that one is fulfilling their cultural expectations (pride).
Though strict heterosexual normative standards are the most obvious example of the way culture can influence sexual behavior, it may happen in the other direction as well in sexually liberated cultures: one may feel guilty for not being attracted to members of both sexes and their desire to "be inclusive" may lead them to engage in sexual activity with people they are not innately attracted to.
The fluid nature of sexuality is best understood as the result of these various external factors which subtly alter a person's innate preferences over time. Through repeated exposure to one set of cues, and the corresponding "withering" of another set through neglect, one's sexual orientation my change. Like a person who has only known goat cheese suddenly finding a wide selection of cheeses to choose from, one may "discover" previously unknown (because untriggered) sexual attraction cues and their "orientation" may appear to abruptly and radically "change". Another person, who formerly identified as straight, through long exposure to same sex partners, may develop a "taste" for them and come to prefer them over previous partners.
When we talk about the fluid nature of sexual attraction, we do not mean to imply that it is arbitrary and under the conscious control of the individual: if a person could control their own cues consciously, they would instinctively alter their cues to automatically suit whatever partner happens to be available, or whichever partner happens to be socially acceptable, which clearly doesn't happen.
Socially Constructing Sexual Orientations
What does all of this have to do with the social construction of sexual orientation?
There are two extreme positions that can be taken to the nature of sexual attraction: first, that it is entirely biological and not subject to individual choice or social modification; and second, that individuals are born without innate preferences and that all subsequent preferences are entirely a product of socialization (ie. learned).
As should be evident from the foregoing discussion, the position that I take is somewhere between these two: that every individual is born with innate preferences toward a wide number of cues, and that these preferences may result in different behaviors depending on the availability of partners, "thirst", satiety, exposure, cultural taboos, conditioned associations, and social praise and censure.
My most important claim is that every individual's sexual preferences are unique, like a fingerprint or a face. Because we are human and limited, there are a limited number of innate cues to respond to, but because these cues may be mixed in different ways in different people, and may all have a different degree of sensitivity, it is impossible to clearly define a "standard". There is no "normal" (healthy, ideal) human sexuality just as there is no "normal" face or fingerprint; there are only statistical averages.
Owing to evolutionary forces, there are two general "constellations" of attraction markers which make the process of selecting appropriate mates easier for men and women, but, like hair color and eye color, these constellations of attraction markers are simply more common than other patterns; they are not "hardwired" in any absolute sense, and deviations from these common patterns are perfectly normal and natural variations, like variations in hair and eye color, and do not represent any form of physical degeneracy or mental disorder.
These statistically common attraction patterns don't have to be divided in any particular way; we don't have to limit ourselves to straight, bi, and gay if we don't want to. If we take a collection of pebbles from a beach, we may organize them in any number of ways: into a "dark" pile and a "light" pile, or into a "rough" pile and a "smooth" pile, or into color piles of "gray", "brown", and "red", etc. This process of organization is exactly what's occurring when we organize people's sexual preferences into groups. Typically, we take all the people who respond strongly to cues belonging to the opposite sex and put them into the "straight" pile, all the people who respond strongly to cues belonging to the same sex and put them into the "gay" pile, etc. But what happens if you come across a stone that is neither exclusively gray nor brown, for example, one with equal amounts of gray and brown? What about one that's mostly gray but with a little bit of brown? What happens if you come across a green stone?
Take, for example, the problem of men who are attracted to pre-op transsexual women. People on the internet love to share their opinions about what such a man's "true" sexual orientation is: is he "straight" because he's attracted to the transwoman's femininity; gay because he's attracted to her genitals; or bi because he's attracted to both? There's no easy way to decide which orientation is "correct", which is why the countless internet debates about this subject have never been satisfactorily resolved. It's much easier just to create a separate pile and give it a separate name; to take the green stone and start a green pile. And this has already happened: in transgender communities, such men and women are typically called "trans admirers".
Whether or not we as a culture honor the label with the distinction of being a separate orientation is purely a formal issue; it's a pattern of attraction like any other and has as much legitimacy as the others. It's chief distinction is merely that it is less common. A man with this preference isn't "abnormal", they aren't suffering from some sort of mental illness or identity confusion, or indulging in some sort of fetish. They simply have a particular set of innate attraction cues that make this kind of body particularly appealing to them, just as some people have a strong preference for blue cheese.
The way we "construct" the sexual orientations (organize different cue patterns into distinct categories) determines whether or not we consider nonstandard cue patterns a product of natural variation, mental illness, perversion, or individual choice. In my opinion, the majority of the confusion people experience about their orientation arises from conflict between an their innate preferences and the currently accepted labels provided by culture. If they can't neatly classify themselves as one of the "approved" categories, confusion ensues.
Conforming to One's Sexual Orientation
These labels not only lead to confusion, they also serve as "seeds" for different types of stereotypes. "Straight" people develop standards for defining their straightness; they have an "ideal" (never being attracted to a member of their own sex) which they try to conform to. If, as occasionally happens to some of them, they find someone of their own sex which triggers enough of their cues to create attraction, they become uncomfortable and begin to "question" their sexuality; they feel bad about their attraction and about their inability to live up to the "ideal" (stereotype) of heterosexuality.
All of this confusion, self-doubt, shame and self-loathing is entirely unnecessary and a product of mistaking the label "straight" with something definite and fixed that exists "outside" in nature. There is no such thing as "straight" in nature, only statistically common patterns of sexual attraction. No two straight people are exactly the same; you'd be hard-pressed to find two straight men with the exact same taste in women.
This desire to conform to an ideal doesn't just affect straight men and women; gay men and women feel similar guilt and confusion if they experience attraction to members of the opposite sex; bisexuals experience guilt and confusion if they experience unequal amounts of attraction to men and women; a "straight" man attracted to transwomen may feel obligated to try to find themselves attracted to other men; etc. Worse than these internalized pressures, other members of their community may punish them for failing to conform to the ideal. A gay man may be accused of "going back in the closet" or a woman who comes out as bi or gay may be accused of "experimenting" if she later "goes back" to men.
All of these problems arise from confusing a label with a thing. Sexual orientations are descriptive, but should never be prescriptive.
Socially Constructing Sexual Orientation
This process of dividing attraction patterns into groups, of labeling the groups, of creating "ideal" standards for representatives of those groups, and of policing members of those groups who "stray" from the standard, is the social construction and enforcement of sexual orientation.
There are no "pure", genetically transmitted "orientations". That's not to say that some collections of sexual attraction cues are not very common -- we wouldn't have gotten very far as a species if males and females didn't have good ways of distinguishing between more and less desirable mates. But the groups are purely a matter of observed trends.
Every "straight" person has slightly different cues, and for some people, some of those cues will overlap in ways that may occasionally create "inexplicable" same sex attractions. A straight person who finds themselves attracted to a same sex partner will become "confused" and either resist the attraction, policing themselves, or find themselves policed by others. But the attraction isn't "wrong"; it isn't a product of mental illness, mid-life crisis, or "latent" homosexuality; it's merely an unusual circumstance where their actual feelings have come into conflict with prescribed feelings; where "is" comes into conflict with "ought".
When observed trends are elevated to the status of "identities", the entire cultural machinery of conformity, oppression, and self-policing becomes activated.
© 2015 j-u-i-c-e