Choosing one’s own (sexual) identity: Shifting the terms of the ‘gay rights’ debate
By Brian Earp
The question of who a person is chiefly sexually attracted to, across time and circumstance, is less up for debate, and is largely a different question — one much better answered by appeals to the determining pressures of both nature and nurture, as both factors undoubtedly play a role. Genes play a role. Early experiences play a role. One’s psychological relationship to one’s own body plays a role. And for many people, those different roles conspire to push the weight of attraction very heavily to one one side of the gender scale or the other.
For others it’s a bit more ambiguous. Chopping up the gradient complexity of human sexuality into a few nifty labels — “gay,” “straight,” “bisexual” — is the source of much confusion here. The labels are short-hand. If you want to really know about a person’s sexual attractions, you should be prepared to sit and chat for a while.
Here is what’s going on, according to Brian’s Personal Theory of Human Sexuality (backed up by science, but I’m leaving citations out of this post for simplicity). Down at the level of the body, our flesh responds to sexual stimuli in a gender-sensitive way. The pattern of bodily response is a gradient across individuals: some people show no response to opposite-sex vs. same-sex stimuli; some people show a consistent and strong response. Others fall somewhere in the middle.
Now let’s move into the territory of the “mind.” We can start at the lowest level there, the unconscious. Unconscious drives — mating impulses — push us toward other human beings, again in a gender-sensitive way, and again, gradiently across members of the population. Then we have conscious impulses — sexual feelings we’re aware of to varying degrees, and again you have gender-sensitivity and gradience.
Then you have beliefs and values — your own considered views about sex, attraction, how you think you should feel, or how you may want to feel. Then you have social and community pressures, and those are different depending upon where you live and whom you associate with. And then you have historical context to top it all off.
All of these levels interact with each other and play against each other. The body’s stimulus-response does not occur in a vacuum, for example, but is influenced by conscious beliefs and community pressures, and so on. There are many forces at play in the realm of sexual attraction, and whether a person chooses to act upon certain impulses or others — at one or more of the above levels of analysis — can be “up to them” to varying degrees.
For some people, the weight of attraction may be very heavily gender-sensitive, potentially across multiple levels of description; very consistent across time and circumstance, and controlled to a great degree by genetic factors and other determinants “out of the person’s control.”
For others, the weight of attraction may be distributed more widely across the scale, may be different at different levels of description or over time, and may leave room for comparatively greater personal choice in how to act, or in what orientation label to apply to oneself, given the various unconscious and conscious sexual impulses that arise within their social, historical, and psychological context.
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