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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How I chose to be heterosexual

(Once I even put that title down, it carries a very strong implication: I could only "choose" to be heterosexual if I were not, already, such. Only a gay person could "choose" heterosexuality, then.

So this post is really how my heterosexuality developed, as best as I remember it.) When I was a young boy, four or five, I took comfort in these tiny imaginary female figures who would dance around in my lap before I went to sleep. Their explicit origin, as I far as I can determine, was Tinker Bell, from the Disney movie "Peter Pan." I had some wooden blocks with figures from this movie on them, and also a record album with an illustrated booklet, based on that movie. These figures, at one point, became sexualized. I must have been about 10. At some point, instead of being small, they became life sized, because it was awkward kissing such small fairies. One night, I had a sudden, jerking, "accidental" discharge while fantasizing about them. I had no idea what is was, because that was explained to me in sex education a year after that. A year too late for me to have been helped.

The original fairy-like creatures were subsequently replaced by images of actresses, or other adult women I could visualize. Since I was 10, I didn't fantasize about 10-year old girls. In fact, I had crushes on girls my age but didn't really think about them sexually, because they just didn't coincide with my desires (yet). [I no longer care much for Tinker Bell, and you might think it's a stupid way to become heterosexual, but in my defense I must say that I was a tiny kid when I started to fall for her.]

And that is how I "chose" heterosexuality. I actually didn't know I had a choice, because the objects of my fantasy were already there, present in my lap from the time I was four. When they came to life, suddenly one night, as a different sort of figure, I had no idea that I could have "chosen" an equivalent set of male figures.

This is why every heterosexual man actually knows that gay men do not choose a "lifestyle"* of being attracted to other men. Just ask the question: when did you choose between men and women as the object of your desire? If my story is at all typical (not in details, but in its general drift) then you never really made a choice. The sexual object was already there, probably, before it was even sexualized (in the conscious mind).


Another strong element in resistance to homosexuality is the idea that heterosexuality is this enormously fragile thing, that must be sustained by endless football games, gallons of lipstick, and socially sanctioned bullying. (Every boy who was small and bad at sports, as I was, was called a faggot all the time. You didn't actually have to be gay to get this treatment.) Really, though, it not so delicate a creature. It will do fine, really. Don't worry. People who worry that "if everyone is gay, then how can the species survive" seem rather comical to me, given the size of the world population and the relatively robust nature of heterosexuality.


*By "lifestyle" (stupid word for this) people apparently mean living as a gay person, if you are gay. But I could live a thousand different lifestyle, Bohemian, bourgeois, communal, monastic, military, rural, etc... and I would still have the same sexual desires and preferences.


Thomas said...

I haven't thought very rigorously about this, but my view is that anything other than bisexual polyamory is probably a coerced choice, though I'll grant it is often made barely consciously. Most people understand that certain sexual preferences are "shameful", and more or less consciously decide to fall into line.

There is no "natural" (innate) reason for anyone to derive sexual pleasure from the touch (or image) of any particular gender. Everyone does, of course, develop certain preferences, which properly speaking are probably all "perverse", i.e., turns away from the natural bounty of sources of pleasure. Perhaps some of these preferences are actually refinements of sensitivity: one begins to pursue ever more difficult, ever more precise, pleasures. But both the difficulty and the precision that sex affords are highly contingent on the culture that also conditions the sensibilities of the others. And the moral environment in which the pleasure may or may not be straightforwardly enjoyed.

(Consider the simply analogy of smoking a joint. It's illegality and associated cultural baggage always interferes with the straightforward enjoyment of the experience.)

It's one thing to find a man beautiful. It's another to actually find pleasure in his company. He may think he's straight, or he may be married, and so enjoying him sexually may be difficult, complicated ... even if not impossible.

I don't think your story is typical, or at least I hope it doesn't constitute a norm. I think homosexuals should be free to choose even their own homosexuality. This idea that one is just born that way, though I certainly don't want to dispute the possibility, strikes me as a kind of requirement. You're only "allowed" to be gay if you had no choice, on this view. And so the battle rages on those terms.

The important ethical question was always: what's the harm? And once we realize that there isn't any, we understand that all sexual shaming, including that which pertains to general promiscuity, and even that which condemns infidelity, is merely part of that intricate mechanism Nabokov called "the lever of love" with which the state binds the citizen with "his own twisted heart strings".

During the Anthony Weiner scandal I was reminded of this scence from the rather didactic, but entirely necessary, film The Contender. What a petty world we live in. Why do we submit to it?

Jonathan said...

My thinking is not rigorous either. I was just starting with my own experience as a kind of donée.

I never said anything about being "born" a particular way, did I? While there could have been a stage of polyamorous sexuality, it is beyond my memory. I think sexuality is more "finite" in the sense of being theoretically open to any possibiity, but in the case of any one individual, constrained or oriented by more than coercion or prohibition. For example, I have desires that may be prohibited (desiring women it is not socially appropriate to sleep with for various reasons) but those are still my desires. In fact, prohibition can work to heighten desire. I take your point that it seems odd to say you're only "allowed to be gay if you have no choice." What if you feel those desires and "choose" to act on them, when you are perfectly as much attracted to women? That would be fine too. But you don't choose those desires in the first place. Desires are a "given." I can desire something against my will, after all!

Or the mechanism of addiction studied by Sedgwick.It is odd to want something, and feeling one has no choice in the matter. I need that drink. I choose to act on that desire (or refrain from acting), but I cannot choose not to want it.

Thomas said...

I wanted my point to be even stronger. Why should you have to refer to your desires at all to explain your sexual behavior? Why are we only allowed to screw if we're somehow driven to do so by forces we can't control? Can't we do it just because it's sorta fun?

I'm suspicious of the idea that our desires are simply "given". They are often given to us by a highly manipulative culture (most obviously by advertising, of course). Maybe I'm saying something vaguely stoical: we should be free to do as we choose rather than be a slave to our desires.

My point remains that in regards to sexuality among consenting adults there's nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to explain or justify. To appeal to one's desires gives the game to those who would control our eyes and hands, minds and hearts.

I think conscious choice of behavior lets us shape our desires. The Buddhists are onto something when they speak of "making few your desires". There are practices that make this possible.

And in this sense, I guess I'm saying, we do choose our sexual orientation. We start out completely open to sexual pleasure, and most of us end up (in compliance with social pressure) settling for heterosexual or homosexual monogamy with a license to masturbate as necessary (and even this can be a source of guilt for some married folks.)

It's a rather narrow view of pleasure, given the possibilities nature provides. The culture's insistence on this narrowing strikes me as, like I say, petty.

Jonathan said...

Sure. But then I have to insist that, in my case, I don't experience it as something I have chosen. Ideally, in the world you describe, it would be a kind of choice. But in the world I live in, I don't experience desire as a choice. In the sense that I can't will myself to want something or not want it.

Put another way, if someone offers me a choice, I can vocalize that as a choice, but that is assuming the structure of desire is already in place for me. I can't even desire to desire differently. Maybe it would be ideal, but I don't feel it that way in the least. I'm not interested in having people justify their sexuality to me at all. That's why I presented this in autobiographical form.

The Buddhist option you mention, though, is an avenue worth exploring. The Christian paradigm is you have those desires, but fight against them, or give in and then repent repeatedly. If you aren't tempted, then you aren't even seriously virtuous.

Thomas said...

But your autobiographical remarks could easily be read as an attempt to justify yourself and therefore an implicit justification for others. Indeed, you are saying (explicitly) that just as you didn't choose your sexual orientation, so too must other heterosexual men grant that homosexuals don't choose their desires.

But here's a serious problem. Do you really know your own biography? If I'm even halfway right then there's a good chance that you're either (a) repressing your own memory of the choice or (2) simply being disingenuous ;-)

In any case, I put it to you that homosexuality, which is still a problematic "choice" for many people, at least in their youth, forces a higher degree of awareness about the contingency of desire.

For you and I, plain old garden-variety heterosexuals with children and everything, sexual orientation seems given. But gays and lesbians are constantly confronted with the otherness of it. So I imagine* their story is characterized by much more of a sense of choice.

And that's of course the weakness that anti-gay activists exploit. They don't themselves have to talk about how they "realized" they were straight. They just are. It's normal. But they can key into that tormented moment, that long dark night of the soul, when their interlocutor made up his mind about what his desires meant.

My response would be: when did you go from being open to pleasure to shutting down fully half of it? And then, like Joan Allen in the Contender, I'd remind us that it really isn't anybody's business. It's a choice we really are free to make.

*Notice that this may be me being disingenuous. It's me stepping into the easy straight pose of "I just happen to be straight and so I imagine gays just happen to be gay".

Jonathan said...

What would your narrative look like? Can you explain without justifying? Not that anyone is asking us to explain why we are straight in the first place, which is kind of the point.

It would be like asking me why I chose to be a native speaker of English. I didn't. But once you start asking yourself that, then you undermine the bedrock on which you think you stand. I think I'll do that post next.

Thomas said...

The language analogy is interesting. It sounds a bit like you telling say, a native Chinese speaker, "English isn't hard to learn. I don't even remember how I did it!"

Well, yes, that's true of your first language (and theirs). But our culture doesn't offer (or at least hasn't so far) a "natural" way to develop a sexual preference for the same sex in adolescence, which is where it would be done. Except in very rare cases, you can't learn homosexuality as your "first language". (And by "learn" here, I don't mean as an either-or, but as in the true sense of learning, i.e., learning how to do it well.)

I guess I'm trying to push back against the idea of using your own heterosexual autobiography (which, like I say, is always a normative -- because "normal" -- one) as a model for thinking about "choice" in sexual orientation.

We agree that gays don't have to justify themselves. I just don't think it's quite for the reasons you suggest. Actually, we only agree that they don't have justify themselves to us. Sadly, they have to justify themselves to all kinds of people who would tell them how to behave. And you and I don't.

Maybe that's why we chose to live such normal lives?

Jonathan said...

I don't know that my story is typical, but I don't know that it's not either. I would have to compare it to a cross section of such stories. Even if it is, it doesn't negate your points about the asymmetry involved. That was supposed to be the ironic thrust of the post, in fact. That nobody asks for justification for the normative choice. You took me to be saying that gays have no choice either. Which I did say, I guess. In my defense, I would say that many people, gay or straight, don't feel they have chosen anything at all. The rhetoric of choice, in the US., comes entirely from the homophobes. "Since you choose to be gay, we can discriminate against you freely. Aha! It's not like being black or anything." So my rhetorical technique backfired on me (at least as far as you're concerned). I don't really mind, because I enjoy this type of dialogue. It is very instructive to me to get a little pushback.

Thomas said...

Yes, likewise.

I think this why I like Joan Allen's character. She's saying "So what if it was a choice? It's still none of your business."

That movie is so powerful because it presents the possibility of winning the argument on the conservative's terms. And refusing to do so. It was always the terms that were objectionable.