Reflections on Human Sexuality
Part IV
Applying our Categories to Other Cultures, Another Culture's System of Classification, and Conclusion
By Keith Allen

In Association with

Reflections on Human Sexuality
Part IV
Applying our Categories to Other Cultures, Another Culture's System of Classification, and Conclusion
20 May, 2008

There are clearly problems with the claim that human sexuality can be adequately described with a linear model in which there are two poles, heterosexuality and homosexuality, and that every person can be placed somewhere at or between these extremes based on the assumption that each person has an innate sexual orientation. Nonetheless, I should again emphasize that I do not deny that this model can provide a partial explanation of human sexuality. However, it fails to take into account so many other factors that it is woefully inadequate. In fact, it is often misleading and confining. We respond to particular characteristics we find attractive, whether this response is biologically produced or learned. These characteristics do not, as I have already shown, allow for a neat tripartite division of human sexuality.

What is more, thinking that this division is the only one possible devalues other possible divisions.

To put it simply, a person's sex is not the only thing another will find attractive. A man who identifies as 'heterosexual' does not find all women attractive. Obviously, just being female isn't enough for a person to be a desired sexual partner to most 'heterosexual' men. The same is the case with all the other accepted categories.

I suppose that it's possible that my reader is still not convinced, that he's so invested in his sexual identity that he cannot concede that it is anything other than real. He might say that I keep talking about attractions that are learned or that are unusual exceptions. If we look at human society as it actually exists, my opponent might continue, then the categories do apply.

Regrettably, he would be mistaken. Even in our own society, in which the categories are generally accepted as being real, they frequently fail to describe human sexuality adequately. When applied to other societies, they fail even more miserably.

How does he explain the institutionalized same-sex relationships of ancient Greece, pre-modern Japan, and parts of the Islamic world? If the sexual orientations accepted today have a biological basis, then the percentage of persons from one culture belonging to a given category should be approximately the same as the percentage of persons from another culture. Granted, societal taboos can prevent individuals from acting on their inclinations. We can, consequently, in societies rejecting male-male interactions, expect to find lower percentages of persons engaged in such activities than we would find in societies where such activities are accepted. However, it is hard to imagine that any society would actually institutionalize as normative a particular behavior, namely male-male sexual activity, if only a small minority of persons were naturally inclined to such activities. Regrettably, this is precisely what is claimed by those who think that the categories accepted today are true. It would seem, therefore, that the categories we use today are just useless in describing the sexual behaviors of most other cultures.

On top of this, many of these cultures developed system of classification of their own. In ancient India, for example, human sexuality was understood differently than it is in the West today. What is more, I believe that their most commonly accepted description is more accurate than is our own. At the very least, it is more useful as a starting point for describing human sexuality than is our own.

According to this system, there are two poles, male and female, but between these is an infinitely divisible spectrum, much of which is comprised of a 'third gender.' A person's place within this spectrum is determined by two factors: his biological sex and his social/psychological sex. When these two factors coincide, then a person's gender is easy to identify. When, for instance, a person who is biologically male and displays personality traits associated with being male, he will be classified as male. However, a person who is biologically male, but who displays personality traits associated with the female, will fall into the third gender. Others, who are biologically intermediate between male and female, such as hermaphrodites, will automatically fall into the third gender category.

In this scheme, the gender preferred by a person when he is looking for a sexual partner plays little role. The factors that are relevant are: 1) a person's physical sex, 2) a person's mental traits, some of which traits are associated with one particular physical sex, and 3) the relation of the two preceding factors to one another.

The utility of this system is fairly obvious. While not all men are the same, and not all women are the same, it is clear that there are particular mental traits (and consequent behaviors) that are associated more with persons of one sex than with the other. We can, therefore, speak of 'male sexuality' and 'female sexuality,' though we need to recognize that our claims will not be universally applicable, that there is a spectrum of behaviors between these extremes. Frankly, the behaviors and attitudes of 'gay' and 'straight' men are more similar to one another than they (the behaviors of the members of either of these groups) are to the behaviors and attitudes of women. Though a 'gay' man will respond to a sexual stimulus that a 'straight' man will not, and a 'straight' woman will, his attitudes and behaviors are more likely to resemble those of the 'straight' man. For example, I cannot imagine that anyone will deny that most men, whatever their sexual orientation, prefer promiscuity to fidelity while most women, whatever their sexual orientation, prefer the reverse. I am not saying that men are incapable of fidelity, and I'm not saying that no man desires to be monogamous, many, a great many do. I am simply saying that there are observable trends in male sexual behavior. I am not saying that a trend applies to all men. Actually, by using the word 'trend' I am saying that there are some men unaffected by it. Male, female, and third gender are not, then, absolutely differentiated categories.

I should additionally say that when I refer to particular behavioral trends or tendencies, I am not speaking of any norms specific to a given culture. What I am talking about are those behaviors that are associated with the physical make up of persons of a particular gender. Whether these behaviors result from the structure of a person's brain, the hormones present in his body, or the hormones to which he was exposed in the womb, they are things that are associated with a particular gender. It cannot be denied that the male and female bodies are different, including the male and female brains, and that persons of one gender behave differently because of these biological differences.

The Indian system of classification recognizes this fact. It also recognizes that not all the traits associated with a particular gender will be present in a particular individual. It admits of a scale. Some people will be physically male and have only those traits associated with being male. Others, though physically male, will have only some or even none of those traits. It can, as a consequence, be possible for a person to have the external physical traits of one sex but internal traits (brain structures, hormones, etc.) that are associated with the other.

Now, I am not entirely pleased with the Indian system. It does not provide any comprehensive understanding of human sexuality, and many of its specifics are embedded within a particular culture. Nonetheless, it is a better system than is our own. At least it recognizes a real difference, the division of humanity into sexes, and simultaneously recognizes that there is a range of ambiguous individuals between these poles. By making these recognitions, the Indian system does not, like our system, exclude other possible classifications of human sexuality. It still permits them, while, at the same time, providing some classificatory basis that can be used as a starting point for discussions of human sexuality.

This brings me to the main point of this essay. I grant that it is useful to have categories from which we can elaborate particulars. Simple biological gender can provide this basis. Of course, when I say this, I am including all a person's gender related characteristics, including his or her hormones and brain structures. I am not restricting myself to that individual's primary or secondary sexual characteristics. I am certainly not restricting myself to his or her genitals. We can, then, talk about male sexuality and female sexuality while acknowledging that these are merely poles with a great range of possibilities between them, and perhaps unrelated to them. Having accepted this scale of physical sexuality (that is to say, a sexuality based on gender inclined characteristics, including brain structures (and thus personality and thoughts), hormones, primary sexual characteristics, secondary sexual characteristics, and so on), we can go on to look at the complexity of human sexual preferences.

We can, thus, discuss human sexuality in terms of these two things. First, we can discuss sexuality in terms of a person's physical being (including his brain and its activities), which being is, without a doubt, related to his gender. Second, we can discuss it in terms of the objects to which a person is attracted. Since the number of such objects is theoretically infinite, I propose that it is simply not possible to create an arrangement, a schema of these. We should, in fact, abandon trying to arrange categories according to any preferences, since, these preferences being of infinite variety, any system of classification will be based on an arbitrary determination that one set of criteria is of greater importance than another.

Let's admit, instead, that human sexuality is infinitely variable. For one person to be attracted to another, that other's hair color might be important while his biological gender might be irrelevant. Someone else might only be interested in a wealthy partner, and yet another person might demand a male partner between the ages of twenty and thirty who is Catholic. At most, we can discuss gender based inclinations (i.e., the inclinations of a person who is male or female), but these often have nothing to do with the objects to which an individual is attracted. Actually, even when we talk about a male-female scale of sexuality, we must do so while recognizing that most everyone will fall somewhere between rather than at the two poles. We should not delude ourselves into believing that the infinite varieties of possible sexual objects can be organized into any coherent scheme.

Not only does our current system ignore the fact that there are those who do not feel that their sexuality fits into any of the three categories, but it also fails to describe the diversity of human sexuality. It says certain behaviors are important and others are not. Even with regard to those behaviors it accepts, it imposes a rigid classification that is often at variance with actual behaviors.

At one time, this classification system was useful. By presenting human sexuality as consisting of a range of behaviors, it helped to validate behaviors that had once been thought abnormal. Now, however, it constrains us. Interests and behaviors that are not validated by the system are denigrated as perversions, fetishes, or sublimated yearnings towards some accepted behavior. We've learned from this system, but we've outgrown it. Just as an infant, with the help of training pants, outgrows the need for diapers, so we, with this system, are outgrowing the need for our older understandings of human sexuality. However, now that we're a little more mature, let's not keep on wearing our training pants until we die. Let's become adults instead.

By Keith Allen

Human Sexuality, Part I
Human Sexuality, Part II / Human Sexuality, Part III

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