Reflections on Human Sexuality
Part II
Social Behaviors as Determinants of Inclusion in Sexual Categories and Sexual Categories as Things Innate in a Person's Nature
By Keith Allen

In Association with

Reflections on Human Sexuality
Part II
Social Behaviors as Determinants of Inclusion in Sexual Categories and Sexual Categories as Things Innate in a Person's Nature
20 May, 2008

Since certain behaviors are associated with certain categories, it is hardly surprising that an individual's displaying particular behaviors will lead people to believe that he belongs to a specific category. The way we make such judgments is, moreover, important in grasping how our sexual categories are applied. To do so, we must ascertain just how important behaviors are in determining the category in which a given person belongs.

I do not think that it can be denied that we assume that a person who belongs to a given category will behave in certain ways. People will often identify particular mannerisms as 'gay' or 'manly' (meaning heterosexual), and will go so far as to allow social behaviors to trump sexual behaviors in classifying a person. If a man who has sex exclusively with women has 'homosexual' mannerisms, it is likely that people will say that he is 'really gay,' even if he doesn't know it. His mannerisms are more important than his sexual behavior, and if his sexual behavior does not accord with his mannerisms, then it is because he is denying his inner nature.

Two things underlie such assertions. First, people who make these claims are confusing social identities with the categories determined by sexual behaviors that are putatively behind these identities. The two, the social and descriptive categories, are not, however, necessarily related. Of course, these individuals, whether they would articulate it or not, do seem to believe that the categories are necessarily related. This belief is based on a second assumption, that the categories are real, that they comprehensively describe human sexuality and that they reflect something innate in a person. For such individuals, a person is naturally 'heterosexual,' naturally 'homosexual,' or naturally 'bisexual,' and his behaviors are what they are as a result of his expressing or not expressing this nature.

The strength of our conviction that a person's 'true' sexuality is perceptible through his non-sexual behaviors can be seen over and over again. In fact, when we do concede that a person's sexuality does not match up with his social persona, we often feel the need to come up with a new classification. The term 'metrosexual' seems to have been coined for just this reason. Certain men who clearly prefer women as sexual partners have, nonetheless, adopted behaviors associated in the modern West with homosexual men. Obviously, they aren't straight as we understand the term, so we've invented a new classification for them, one that allows us to preserve the concept of 'heterosexuality' as a social category. I might add that members of this new category are frequently described as being less 'manly' than are 'regular' straight men. They are, somehow, slightly outside the system of classification, fitting only very uncomfortably into the 'heterosexual' grouping, if at all. Actually, it would seem that that, socially, they are more properly 'bisexual,' even if the behaviors of the members of the 'metrosexual' grouping fail to match up with those within the 'bisexual' grouping. The odd, uncomfortably intermediate place these individuals hold, their not being quite bisexuals or quite heterosexuals, says a great deal about how important social identities are in our scheme of classification.

Someone might now object to my claims by noting that although categories determined by social behaviors and categories determined by sexual behaviors are popularly conflated, the two can still be distinguished. He might then concede that, socially, 'metrosexual' men hold an ambiguous place within the popular scheme. Even while admitting this, he can, however, still point out that, in the system of categories determined by sexual behavior, it is these men's sexual behaviors that determine them to be heterosexual. This person might go on to note that even though heterosexuality is a social category, its being so is still clearly subordinate to its being a category of sexual behavior. It is, ultimately, the sexual behaviors of an individual that demands that this person be classified as 'heterosexual,' 'homosexual,' or 'bisexual,' not his social behaviors. The social identities, whatever their importance to those accepting them, are ultimately derived from sexual behaviors and, insofar as these classifications differ from sexual behaviors, they are based on mistakes. The categories of sexual behaviors, when used correctly, do, this objector can at this point claim, accurately describe human sexuality.

To reemphasize a point made earlier, I am not here denying that we are actually talking about two systems, one describing sexual behaviors and one describing social behaviors. The fundamental problems with the claim just made by my hypothetical opponent, that these two can and should be distinguished from one another in a truly clear way, are the facts that the system of describing sexual behaviors that is popular today is taken as accurately representing some external reality and that it is, as a result, easily, perhaps inevitably, conflated with the system of describing social identities.

It is hard to imagine how the clear cut and putatively real divisions of the descriptive classification of human sexuality would not be important factors in determining human behaviors if this model is fundamentally accurate. If the categories are real, then these divisions form an important part of who a person is, of what an individual is like. Inevitably, this will express itself socially, if only in a person's sexual interactions with others. More than likely, however, it will express itself in that person's wider identity. After all, the system purportedly describes a person's innate nature. I certainly do not think that it can be denied that there are many people who do believe that we can observe an individual's mannerisms and determine that he belongs to a particular social category, 'gay,' for example.

Such reification of the categories used in our current classificatory system inevitably leads us to think that we can make determinations of who a person 'really' is. Such determinations, in turn, consistently lead us to limit both our own and others' behaviors, to think that a person should act in accordance with his supposed true nature. What is more, and this is an important point for me, when I talk about such limitations, I am talking about things that have arisen as a result of the nature of the system, specifically, its purportedly accurate description of each and every person's innate nature. Noting the way that one group of heterosexual men, 'metrosexuals,' are devalued as members of that group both by other groups and by other subgroups of heterosexuals, in the form of these others refusing to recognize them as being heterosexual, can, consequently, be given as a criticism of the system. Even if a 'metrosexual' male has never had sex with another man, we can use his mannerisms to infer that his 'real' sexual preference must be for other men. I personally have heard individuals express the belief that 'metrosexual' men are 'really' gay. Although sexual behaviors are, generally speaking, conceded as being behind the categories popularly used (because these sexual behaviors supposedly provide the basis for particular social identities), the sexual behaviors are not more important than are social behaviors in determining the category to which a person belongs. On the contrary, the social behaviors are clearly, for some, more important than are any actual sexual behaviors.

I am not, however, claiming that social behaviors automatically trump sexual behaviors in determinations of what category a person should be placed in. There are, for instance, times when a person, having witnessed particular social behaviors in another that do not accord with that individual's sexual behaviors, will feel unsure of the other's 'real' nature. If a person is somehow intrinsically 'heterosexual,' 'homosexual,' or bisexual,' then it does follow that both a person's social behaviors and his sexual behaviors should reflect his innate nature. When these do not match up, this tension must exist as a result of the person's expressing his innate nature with certain behaviors while denying it with others.

There are even occasions when people, for reasons I am not entirely able to fathom, believe that another's innate sexuality has been entirely concealed. Although we do generally think that a person's sexual nature will be expressed though his mannerisms, interests, and the like, we still concede that there are times when a person's inner nature will be denied or suppressed. I suppose the belief that there are such cases is reasonable in the context of the popular classificatory system, but its actual absurdity reveals the absurdity of the system. If the categories 'heterosexual,' 'homosexual,' and 'bisexual' are real, if they do represent something innate within us, it follows that they do not depend on being expressed (however likely it is that they will be). A person can have a particular nature even when this nature is concealed, which it could be for any number of reasons (e.g. prejudice, the expectations of others, a false sense of identity, etc.). In other words, an individual's sexual behaviors do not need to correlate with those of persons of a particular category for him to fall into that category. Thus, a man can be 'intrinsically' homosexual even if he thinks he is heterosexual and has never had sexual relations with another man. His behaviors are then irrelevant. Even his mental or internal physiological behaviors might be irrelevant. This person might never have even had a thought of finding another man attractive, and he might never have felt any physical attraction to a man. Such things are not important, however. His putative innate nature is.

I, for reasons that will, I hope, soon be obvious, do not accept as correct any assertion that a person's innate nature is 'homosexual,' 'heterosexual,' or 'bisexual.' For me, there is not necessarily some 'real' homosexual trying to get out of a man who is sexually attracted to women but who has 'feminine' mannerisms or interests. Nor, for that matter, is there a 'straight' man trying to get out of a man who is sexually attracted to men but who has 'masculine' mannerisms or interests. The belief that there is such an 'innate' nature trying to express itself in these or any of the countless other possible instances I could cite is, more often than not, just untrue.

Homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality are simply three ways to describe human sexual behaviors. At best, these terms provide a convenient scheme by which specific human behaviors can be described. At worst, they reject the great bulk of human sexual interests as irrelevant, misrepresent many interests that are accepted as relevant, and give rise to various identities (together with the expectations that come along with these identities) that so restrict many human beings as to greatly diminish the pleasures such individuals could have found in life.

By Keith Allen

Human Sexuality, Part III
Human Sexuality, Part I / Human Sexuality, Part IV

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