Reflections on Human Sexuality
Part I
Introduction, Sexual Categories as Social Identities, and Behaviors Associated with These Categories
By Keith Allen

In Association with

Reflections on Human Sexuality
Part I
Introduction, Sexual Categories as Social Identities, and Behaviors Associated with These Categories
20 May, 2008

Is it possible to classify the varieties of human sexuality, to say that certain aspects of our sexuality are important and that others are not? No doubt, we try to do so. But are our efforts justified? Instead of grounding our opinions about the nature of our sexuality on evidence, could we be privileging particular aspects of that sexuality based on prejudices, on cultural norms and inherited ideas? Could we then be misguiding ourselves? Could we even be limiting ourselves, and our chances to relish life, by accepting such judgments? Might we actually be letting ourselves drift into making moral judgments based on these possibly artificial norms? All of these are legitimate questions. In fact, they are more than simply legitimate; they are questions that need to be asked. I will, therefore, try, to the best of my limited ability, to provide some kind of answer.

In order to do this, let me begin by looking at the currently popular system used to describe human sexuality. In this, all people are placed within one of three categories based on how that person's sexual proclivities accord with a particular criterion, specifically, the gender of those persons an individual is sexually attracted to relative to that individual's own gender. Every person is then identified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. An individual is said to be homosexual if he prefers individuals of the same gender, heterosexual if he prefers individuals of the opposite gender, and bisexual if he is attracted to both genders.

Now, I do concede that this system of classification did, with its formulation and subsequent popular acceptance, introduce nuances into people's understanding of human sexuality that were absent before, and that it has validated sexual behaviors that were previously understood to be eccentricities at best and abominations at worst. Nonetheless, the system is far from being the prefect description of who we are as sexual beings that it is often taken as being. It is not, in fact, rare for a person's sexuality to fail to match up neatly with the categories of this system. It ignores countless behaviors and preferences that can be every bit as important as are those it does recognize. Despite this, it is very common now to hear people talk about this system of classification as though it were describing really existent entities, as though its categories (heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality) were empirically verifiable and universally applicable entities.

As a consequence of such attitudes, this system is now limiting us more than it is freeing us, and it is doing so in numerous ways. For all the system's former utility, and for all the good that has come from our adopting it, because it does set up arbitrary groupings (which are held to be real, while all other criteria for creating categories are declared to be false), it is woefully inadequate. It is, therefore, perhaps time for us to move past this system, to toss it into the rubbish heap of history, and to leave it behind us. Let's grant that it has served us well as a stepping stone, but let's not chain ourselves to that stone and so hobble ourselves so that we are left unable to dance at the sight of the wonders available to the spirit willing to go to new places.

Let's accept, instead, that human sexuality is infinitely complex, that it often even denies categorization. Let's go so far as to say that categories are generally arbitrary constructions and that applying them can limit us. Whenever we are expected, whether by others or even by our selves, to conform to expectations that are associated with particular categories, pleasures that we might have experienced, that we might desire to experience, are closed off to us simply because we feel that since we belong to some particular category those behaviors are inappropriate.

I am not claiming, I should say, that the current system of classification is entirely erroneous, that it completely fails to describe human sexuality. I am not, and anyone who reads this and says I am has misunderstood me. What I am claiming is that it provides an inadequate description.

I have three reasons for making such a claim. First, this classificatory system is only one possible model of human sexuality; it identifies a particular continuum of sexual behaviors (and I include here both external activities, such as engaging in a sexual act with a particular person, as well as internal behaviors, such as brain activities (thoughts, in particular) and the activities and responses of hormones and bodily organs). Second, an acceptance of this model as an accurate description of what lies at the basis of human sexuality implies a devaluation of all other behaviors, even though these may be of equal or greater relevance to a person than are those behaviors that have been validated. Third, the model does not invariably provide for accurate classifications, that is classifications reflecting actual identities or groupings of persons according to their behaviors, even when only those behaviors recognized as significant in this system are being considered.

What is more, our classification of human sexuality (so it seems to me) actually consists of two distinct layers. One of these is simply the descriptive division of human beings into three categories based on particular sexual behaviors, as has already been discussed. The second layer, which is usually presented as being dependent upon the first, but which, in practice, is the more important of the two, consists of various social roles; that is to say, it provides a framework into which a person can take on a particular identity together with particular behaviors associated with persons who have that identity. Though based on putative innate characteristics, these categories are, primarily, groupings that provide social identities for the individuals belonging to them.

Of course, none of the three popularly accepted categories is homogenous. Most obviously, each is subdivided in two by the biological sexes of the members of that category. There are, thus, heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, homosexual women, bisexual men, and bisexual women. Within each of these, there are further subcategories, although I do not think that I need to go into a detailed discussion of these. I need merely acknowledge that each of these subcategories is itself further divided into multiple sub-subcategories, and each of the latter will be associated with particular behaviors. Among homosexual men, for instance, there are those who adopt deliberately feminine behaviors and those who adopt behaviors associated with heterosexual men. There are also a whole range of identities, each with its own set of behaviors, that can be ranged between these extremes. The same can, in essence, be said of any of the other categories. If I have simplified things in my discussion, it has only been for the sake of convenience. I ask the reader to bear this mind. It would be tiresome, irrelevant, and, in fact, impossible to provide details about every possible identity.

I should, at this point, note that although I reject the claim that these identities are somehow innate, I do not mean to diminish the value that many people place upon them. There are countless individuals who place great importance upon such identities, and any decision to do so (even if not consciously made) is completely valid. After all, simply recognizing that there are multiple possible schemes according to which we can classify human behaviors, and that a person's own behaviors may have more to do with societal expectations than with some putative biological necessity, does not diminish the worth of that person's behaviors. I generally do not believe that a person is correct if he understands that his identity, or that of most anyone else, reflects some innate nature. Nor do I believe that he is correct if he thinks that these identities, these roles, are the only roles possible. Nonetheless, I respect the dignity of the role a person chooses. I just hope that other people will do the same, even if the roles they find being played do not fit into their own system of classification.

What is important to remember here is that, although a person's sexual behaviors are relevant in determining the category in which he is placed, and are not generally ignored (though they sometimes are), our application of the terms of our system of classification to a person is usually meant to identify that person as belonging to a certain social grouping. A given category, in fact, often provides a person with a large part of his social identity in the modern West.

A man who identifies as heterosexual, for example, will generally adopt behaviors, here particular traits and mannerisms, that are associated with that category. By possessing these behaviors, such a person displays that he is a member of a given social grouping. The heterosexual man can act 'macho' to let everyone know he's a heterosexual. The homosexual woman can be 'butch' if she wants people to know she's a lesbian. The homosexual man can adopt 'flamboyant' mannerisms if he wants to be identified as a 'gay,' and the heterosexual woman can be dainty and feminine if she wants people to know she's a heterosexual woman. I am obviously grossly simplifying the categories here, but my point should be clear.

Not surprisingly, these behaviors rarely have any biological basis. There seems to be some belief in our society that 'straight' men will display 'male' behaviors, that 'straight' women will display 'female' behaviors, and that homosexual individuals, whether male or female, will display behaviors that mingle those belonging to males and those belonging to females. Unfortunately for the people who believe this, while there are clearly behaviors that are associated with real genders as a result of members of that gender possessing actual physical traits (such as brain structures and levels of particular hormones), there does not seem to be any exclusive association of these particular behaviors with persons of a given category (i.e., homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual) within that gender. These behaviors, aggressiveness among men, to give an example, seem to be possessed as much by members of one category of men as by another. In other words, 'gay' men and 'straight' men are probably equally likely to be aggressive. I, at least, have never noticed any difference.

The behaviors that we actually see being adopted by persons of any given category are, instead, almost invariably determined as being appropriate to persons of that category by our culture. There are, for instance, beliefs that 'straight' men will like particular competitive sports, will be fascinated by cars, will be disdainful of showing emotions, and so on. There are also beliefs that 'gay' men will enjoy Broadway musicals, will be interested in fashion, and will be concerned with their health and appearance. Obviously, the association of every one of these things with being 'straight' or being 'gay' is determined solely by our culture and has no biological basis. 'Straight' men can enjoy music and fashion as much as 'gay' men do. They have in the past and do so today. 'Gay' men can enjoy sports and cars. In fact, most of the associations don't hold true outside of the particular time and place of our current culture, and even in this the association is often tenuous and arbitrarily or inconsistently applied. Broadway musicals didn't exist a hundred years ago, but opera, one of the styles of musical performance of that day, was not, to my knowledge, thought to be unfit entertainment for 'manly,' pudenda-craving men. There were even some risqué types of musical performance that were meant only for men. Eighteenth century French noblemen, lecherous skirt chasers that they were, were, nonetheless, keenly interested in fashion. For that matter, the members of that most heterosexual of modern institutions, the military, are frequently obsessed with grooming, fancy clothes, gold braids, shiny trinkets, polished shoes, pretty medals, and dainty ribbons. What are we to say of body builders and athletes? Are they, being interested in their bodies, 'gay'? Are 'gay' men who love their cars really 'straight'?

Clearly, the behaviors associated with being 'gay' or being 'straight,' or being of some other orientation, are arbitrarily, that is to say, culturally assigned. In fact, as I already noted, those behaviors that do seem to have some biological basis are not exclusively associated with one or another class of individuals. A desire for sexual experimentation, expressed both in a desire for multiple sexual partners and for engaging in a variety of sexual acts, is associated with both 'gay' and 'straight' males. In other words, it is associated with a biological gender rather than with a particular social category into which members of that gender are divided. No such behaviors, so far as I am able to discern, can be clearly associated with one category of persons of a particular sex and not associated with members of another category of that same sex. Although this claim is based only my own experience, I still have to say that 'straight' behaviors like bragging, territoriality, and aggression are just as commonly found among 'gay' men. I've never noticed the least difference in their prevalence.

By Keith Allen

Human Sexuality, Part II
Human Sexuality, Part III / Human Sexuality, Part IV

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