Reflections on Human Sexuality
Part III
Biologically Determined Responses to Characteristics Supposed to be Related to Gender, Other Biologically Determined Responses, and Learned Responses
By Keith Allen

In Association with

Reflections on Human Sexuality
Part III
Biologically Determined Responses to Characteristics Supposed to be Related to Gender, Other Biologically Determined Responses, and Learned Responses
20 May, 2008

As I said at the beginning of this essay, in claiming that our currently popular system of classifying human sexuality is inadequate, I am not denying that its categories have some basis. Nor am I saying that we do not respond to stimuli that are generally associated with persons of a particular sex. I am, however, claiming the following: 1) Such stimuli are not invariably associated with persons of a particular sex, and 2) responses to such stimuli are not the only factors relevant to human sexual behaviors. This is all that I am claiming in the whole of this essay. The ramifications of such claims are considerable, but my point is nothing more radical than this.

I have no doubt that a great many of the stimuli to which we are biologically programmed to respond are more commonly associated with persons of one or another gender. In fact, I no have any doubt that, generally, a person responds to characteristics most often associated with individuals of one particular sex. This sex can, of course, be either the same or other than an individual's own. Whether this sensitivity to such stimuli is a result of brain structures, exposure to certain hormones while developing in the womb, or occurs because of some other reason, it does seem apparent that we are programmed to respond to particular things while not responding to other things.

Anyone reading this and disagreeing my wider claims might, at this point, ask, "Isn't this enough to accept that certain people are heterosexual, others homosexual, and yet others bisexual?"

No. It is not, for at least two reasons. First, just because some trait is commonly associated with persons of one gender, it does not follow that it is always so associated. Second, admitting that responses to such traits are real does not equal admitting that they are the only stimuli to which a person can respond.

"Surely," an opponent might claim, "some traits can be characterized as being 'female' while other can be characterized as being 'male.' You yourself have just granted that this is gernerally the case.'"

Like I said, there are certain traits that act as stimuli and that are generally associated with persons of a given sex. Some of these are almost invariably so associated. Nonetheless, many traits that are taken as being either 'female' or 'male' can actually be found in persons of both sexes. There are, for example, particular hip to waist ratios that are usually associated with the female body which most men are 'programmed' to find attractive. However, these hip to waist ratios can also be found among persons who are biologically male. Let's imagine that there is a male who takes female hormones, adopts a female persona, and looks essentially like a female, even having the hip to waist ratios most often found attractive by men. Now, a man who finds persons with such proportions attractive sees this individual and is attracted to him. Is he therefore homosexual? He cannot be according to the measure just given, since he is responding to traits associated with females. For the same reason, he cannot even be bisexual. To be so, he would have to be responding to stimuli associated with males, which he is not. Perhaps it could then be averred that this man has simply been deceived. Maybe he has been tricked, but, what if that doesn't matter? What if he learns that this person to whom he is attracted is male and is still attracted to that individual? What if he already knew that? Such a person simply does not fall neatly into any of the three categories we have. I am not, I might add, going to accept any claim that he's 'really' gay even though he doesn't know it. You have to establish that such a category describes something real before you can make this claim. Besides, if someone makes such a claim, he does so only by ignoring the actual stimuli to which the man is responding. The empirical evidence simply does not support the real existence of the popularly accepted categories.

There are, moreover, things to which a person can respond sexually other than traits associated with a particular sex. The failure to adequately describe biologically determined responses to such stimuli is, therefore, hardly the only problem our current system of categories has. In fact, though it fails miserably in this regard, it fails even worse in other ways.

To begin with, there are biological factors other than those associated with sex, such as age and, perhaps, race, that can be important. It is, in fact, extremely likely that a given person will be impelled by biological factors to respond to certain stimuli that have nothing to do with the sex of the other person. If this is the case, then gender related factors are not the only biological factors relevant to a person's sexuality.

It is, for example, quite possible that there is some biological drive within each of us to find persons who have physical characteristics relatively similar to our own attractive. Conversely, it is possible that we will find persons whose physical traits are substantially different from our own unappealing. I hardly need to point out that children are often afraid of persons of different racial backgrounds when not often exposed to such persons. Anyone who has traveled will have encountered such reactions. There would seem to be reasons for this. In primitive societies, being fearful of outsiders could increase one's likelihood of not being killed by outsiders, who could well be enemies. It is not hard to imagine how such an impulse could, if it has a biological basis, affect our sexuality. To support this, let me point out that features found to be attractive in the West are frequently specifically Caucasian features. The 'ideal' Western woman is, after all, a tall, large breasted blonde. How many women of Asian or African descent would fit that ideal? Of course, I am not saying that cultural factors cannot outweigh these biological imperatives (which might not exist - I am hypothesizing here). They can and sometimes do. I'm Caucasian and yet my own wife is a short, black haired Asian woman, and I find her far more attractive than I do any tall blonde.

While there are those who might argue with me that a person's race can be a biologically determined sexual stimulus, I cannot believe that many would deny that another person's age relative to one's own can be, at least for men. The fact is, males, of whatever putative sexual category, are extremely unlikely to be attracted to persons who are not of the same age or a younger age.

Mind you, I realize that learned responses can outweigh biological imperatives, even with regard to age. Nonetheless, though a person can learn to find older persons attractive, we clearly are biologically driven to find youth appealing. We are not slaves to our biology, but if that is granted, then this whole tripartite division will have to be forsaken as its most important basis will have been abandoned.

Even granting that some individuals do find their elders attractive, because of associations made while young or for some other reason, I have no doubt that, for the overwhelming majority of men (and probably for a significant number of women), a person's age is an even more important factor in deciding whether that person is a potential sexual partner or not than is that person's sex. Even people who are usually accepting of others' differing sexual attractions are likely to react with disgust if they hear of someone engaging in sexual activities with an individual who is significantly older. It is quite possible that they will actually decide that this person must be mentally ill. The biological reaction against such behaviors is very strong. In fact, I cannot begin to mention the number of times I have heard men, both 'gay' and 'straight,' who have expressed how sick or disgusting it is that a man would have sex with a person significantly older than he is. For them, the best way to explain such behaviors is to assume that the younger man is, in some way, mentally ill. If he's not ill, then he must be engaging in such 'disgusting' behavior to get something out of it, usually monetary reward. That's how extreme the reaction often is.

Here's an illustration of my point. If two men in their mid-twenties, both of whom identify as heterosexual, and a woman in her nineties were all stranded on a deserted island, I have no doubt that the men would turn to one another for sexual satisfaction before they turned to the woman. In other words, my guess is that age would be more important than gender in deciding who is a potential sexual partner.

It should, at this point, be obvious that not all of the things to which we are programmed to respond sexually are associated with a particular gender. There are other traits, such as age, that can be just as important sources of stimulation, and that are such as a result of what we are as biological organisms. Even this complexity is not, however, enough to explain humanity sexuality. Not everything to which we respond sexually has been determined by by our hormones, brain structures, and the like.

In fact, many of the things that we find attractive are determined by the culture in which we live, and the things to which we respond because of acculturation are even less consistently correlated with physical sex than are biologically determined traits. Although we may associate a given characteristic held to be attractive with a particular sex, another culture may associate it with the opposite sex, or with both sexes. In the past, for example, athleticism was held to be a desirable characteristic in men, but not in women. It was, therefore, expected that women would be attracted to a person who was athletic, but that a man would not be. Today, athleticism is held to be desirable in both genders. There is, consequently, no correlation between the characteristic and a particular gender. If there were a correlation between this characteristic and some intrinsic sexual orientation, then we would be forced to say that all those men who are attracted to healthy, athletic women are actually homosexuals.

The things a person learns to find sexually appealing are not, I might add, limited to traits, behaviors, and the like widely accepted in the culture in which he lives. There are a great many other factors that, though specific to a given individual, can be relevant for that person. Each individual's unique history causes him to form tastes specific to himself, and these tastes are, very often, as important as are any of the others already noted. Let's suppose, for example, that a particular man commonly classified as 'heterosexual' likes black hair, that he likes black hair so much that he is not attracted to anyone who does not have black hair. This characteristic, then, is as important as the other person's sex, insofar as not having black hair and not being female both disqualify another from being a potential sexual partner for him. Why then is hair color not as valid a means of constructing categories of sexual orientation? We could say that there are 'black-hair lovers,' 'blond lovers,' 'brunette lovers,' 'redhead lovers,' and 'multicolor lovers' (the last would be something like bisexuals).

I might add that this system of categorization is not hypothetical. Not only am I aware of many 'blonde lovers,' who are only interested in persons with yellow hair, but, moreover, I personally am not attracted to persons who do not have have black hair. Categorizing me as a 'black hair lover' is entirely accurate (though certainly not adequate). Having this particular characteristic is more important than having many others. It is a characteristic that transcends sex, race, religion, or any other trait a person might have. Moreover, a person's hair color has had relevance to my attraction to that person since the time I was a child. Even when I hadn't even the vaguest notions about our categories of sexual orientation, I knew that black hair was sexy and that piss yellow, shit brown, and pimple red hair weren't. I suppose this affection for black hair was learned (even if I can't say where I learned it), but that doesn't make it less real for me. It's been part of who I am as a sexual person from my childhood. Irrespective of what others may say of this preference, it is integral to what I find attractive. If someone were to urge me to find blondes attractive, it would be like the Christian evangelist urging a 'gay' man to find women attractive. I'll even go so far as to say that I find it a little offensive if a person claims that this is just a 'fetish.' If this individual is a 'straight' man I might say that his infatuation with the vagina is a fetish, or, if he is 'gay,' that his love of the penis is a fetish. What I find attractive is every bit as legitimate an object of desire as is the thing another finds attractive. What is more, the characteristic to which I am attracted is not one that I consciously chose (though it wouldn't matter if it had been). It is, rather, something that I respond to on some basic level. It doesn't matter if this attraction is 'learned' or 'innate.' I fail to see any categorical difference between my demand that a person has black hair and, for example, a 'gay' man's demand that a person be male. If someone distinguishes between these demands, claiming one is valid and the other is not, then I would challenge that person to justify his claim. For a 'gay' man, a person's possession of a penis is necessary for him to be attracted to that person. For me, a person's possession of black hair is necessary for me to be attracted to that person. Why is a persons's hair color not as legitimate a factor in determining his or her desirability as are that individual's genitals? Based on my personal experience, I would have to say that a person's hair color is a far more relevant to finding that person attractive than is the is shape of the meat in his or her underwear. What is more, it has to be admitted that, looking at the world as a whole, I am, with my demands, excluding far fewer persons than is either the 'gay' or the 'straight' man. Either one of these is excluding at least one half of humanity. I am excluding only a relatively small percentage of Caucasians (though I concede that hair color is not the only thing that is relevant to me, any more than a person's having a penis is the only thing relevant to a 'gay' man). At any rate, other learned categories (whatever they may be) could be constructed, and they are. People do exclude potential partners who are not of the correct religion, the right political affiliation, the appropriate economic group, the proper social background, and so on. All of these can be just as important as is the person's physical sex.

Maybe someone will say that my affection for hair color is, by my own admission, learned, and that it is biologically derived attractions that determine sexual orientation. These, my opponent might claim, are what allow us to fix the categories we have.

Unfortunately for this individual, I would point out that he is, apparently, forgetting that we have already discussed how characteristics we are biologically driven to find attractive frequently have nothing to do with a person's sex at all. Even those traits that are associated with a particular gender are not always exclusively found with members of that gender .

Moreover, there is not some rule arrived at by observation of the world that grants greater importance to biologically determined responses to stimuli than to learned responses. On the contrary, we can empirically verify that things we learn to be attractive can be every bit as important as are things we are biologically driven to be attracted to.

"But," an opponent might here say, "when we do learn to find something attractive, we generally learn that it is attractive because we have come to associate it with things we are biologically driven to find attractive."

This could be the case, but it need not be. If a person responds with sexual excitement to a characteristic he has learned to find attractive, then there is a fair chance that this characteristic will be found in persons of both genders (though he might have to look at other cultures to find actual instances).

Perhaps someone might object to my claims here and say that this only proves that all persons are basically bisexual. That's fine with me. I'll concede that. Of course, if we say that everyone is bisexual, then we're not saying anything. Being bisexual being coterminous with being human, we have no classification of human sexuality at all. I have no problem with that. We'll accept the current system, classify everyone as bisexual, and then completely ignore the system.

By Keith Allen

Human Sexuality, Part IV
Human Sexuality, Part I / Human Sexuality, Part II

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