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Conservatives are crazy, but never quite as crazy as when they talk about sex, particularly homosexuality.  Consider the conservative theory of human sexuality, which, as best as I can figure, amounts to this:

Sexual orientation is something that is biologically innate, or else it is something that is freely chosen.  Sexual orientation is "natural" or it is "chosen."
When conservatives want to yell at gays and lesbians (i.e., marginalize them and deny them civil rights) they reveal their heterosexist colors by denying that homosexuality is "natural" and insisting that it is a (bad) "choice."

As in my last two diaries, I want to examine the rhetorical strategy used by the Right to build in an advantage for itself and put the Left on the defensive.  The problem here is that the conservative theory of human sexuality is such a ginormous steaming pile of fuck-all that I barely know where to begin.  It is so pernicious it might have been created by Satan, and I'm an atheist so you know I'm serious about that.

Lest the task seem insurmountable, I've decided to take it a shovelful at a time.  In other words, I won't try to say everything in one diary, because no one has that kind of endurance.  Below the squiggle, I begin this Sisyphean task by formulating a question.  I doubt there is a single "right answer" to the question, so, as much as anything, I'm soliciting informed opinions and feedback.  

I'm going to approach my question via a brief detour through two important feminist texts, Marilyn Frye's Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism, 1976-1992 and bell hooks's Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.  

In “A Lesbian’s Perspective on Women’s Studies,” Frye speaks of a “feminist political strategy” that includes “the conversion of women to a woman-identified and woman-directed sexuality and eroticism” (pp. 54).  Some of her "straight" feminist colleagues said: “but I cannot just decide to be a Lesbian…women just don’t turn me on” (pp. 55).  So Frye asked: “Why not?  Why don’t women turn you on?…I do not mean these questions rhetorically.  I am completely serious” (pp. 55).  

Let me highlight the political strategy: If a person is committed to resisting patriarchy and one of the key mechanisms by which patriarchy is perpetuated is heterosexism, then the commitment to resist patriarchy should incline a person (at least) to reflect on the seeming naturalness or, rather, the unavoidability of heterosexuality.  

On my interpretation, Frye was not "recruiting" women to the Symbiotic Lesbianese Army.  Rather, she was urging straight women not to take their heterosexuality as a fait accompli, something biologically determined and fixed, prior to and unaffected by all social experience.  As a feminist philosopher, she was encouraging her straight colleagues to engage in honest self-examination as heterosexuals.  

As Frye notes, heterosexuals can make choices to remold their experience and understanding of sexuality, intimacy, affection, physical and mental excitation, such that

in time, we actually do alter our desires, wishes, needs…It may be that it would not be wise for a heterosexual woman to engage in retraining her erotic desires; it may be that it would be wise.  But the fact those desires have a history and that history includes coercive pressure does not mean she does not have many choices to make with respect to those desires (Frye, Willful Virgin, pp. 57).
That passage merits close study.  But let me move on and share a passage from bell hooks.  In the chapter "Ending Female Sexual Oppression," hooks writes:
A feminist movement that aims to eliminate sexist oppression, and in that context sexual oppression, cannot ignore or dismiss the choice women make to be heterosexual.  Despite heterosexism, many women have acknowledged and accepted that they do not have to be heterosexual...[yet they] have chosen to be exclusively or primarily heterosexual...By choosing they exercise sexual freedom (hooks, Feminist Theory, pp. 156).
These passages suggest that heterosexuality is not a fixed, inalterable biological given.  They suggest that "choice" -- or something like "choice" -- conceivably plays a role in a fuller, truer account of human sexuality.  Of course, when the Right talks about "choosing" one's sexual orientation, they refer only to gays and lesbians, never to straight men and women (which is interesting).  And the Right's notion of "choice" is, in almost any context, shallow and dumb, and has almost nothing in common with the richer understanding evoked by Frye and hooks.


Which brings me to my question.  It's a question I've had for a long time but which I've never asked forthrightly because it's so delicate.

The Right claims, not that sexual orientation is a choice, but that homosexuality is a choice.  And, they insist, it is a bad (i.e., a morally wrong) choice.  The Left responds by saying that all sexual orientation is innate, a biological given.  Thus, no one chooses to be gay or lesbian.

But why such a categorical denial that choice, or something like choice, could play a role in the very complex subject of human sexuality?  By so strenuously denying that homosexuality involves any kind of choosing, the Left seems to concede that there's something...unsavory or questionable about homosexuality.  Otherwise, why would it matter if it were (in some sense of the word) "chosen"?  Why would that even be a problem?

If Frye is right, if heterosexuality involves various choices, acts of coercion, unnoticed rewards and punishments, then progressives stand to learn a great deal by treating sexual orientation, not as some brute biological "fact," but as a political project that shapes institutions and laws, as well as our most intimate relationships and self-understanding.  And if hooks is right, then rather than deny any trace of "choice" in sexual orientation -- as though being gay or lesbian is not something anyone would freely choose -- it might be truer (and better politics) to affirm "choice" as a type of freedom.


Originally posted to Silencio on Tue Jul 15, 2014 at 04:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, Mad Men on Daily Kos, and Community Spotlight.


Do you think that sexual orientation is a given biological fact? Or is the story more complicated?

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