Notes on heterosexuality

NoAnodyne in Elizabeth Hungerford’s blog challenged me to deconstruct the definition of heterosexuality. This was in response to a debate on defining lesbians vs. trans, when I showed the definitions could be made equally subjective or objective. I responded to the challenge but as of now the comments are not approved, possibly because they are too long. Copying them here – don’t want the work to go to waste. (Note, “you” refers to Elizabeth as I got confused and thought the challenge, which I did find interesting, came from her).

  1. I’m generally not interested in defining lesbians, I was reverting your (actually NoAnodyne’s) practice of defining trans, and also referring to the attacks on Jan Clausen because she failed to meet someone’s definition. As far as I personally care, any woman who says she is a lesbian, can well be, and if others want to reject her from their particular circle of lesbians, they well can.

    But when a *political* movement (generally “GL”, rather than “lesbian”) wants legislation, this affects the whole society – just like the trans movement. I was showing that the level of social engineering and “legislating fiction” requested by the mainstream GL movement is in no way smaller than that requested by the mainstream trans movement.

    As for deconstructing “heterosexual”, that one is not so hard and indeed might amuse you. That word has a few definitions, often resulting in the same person being AND not being heterosexual for different observers. As I’m doing this in your blog I’ll keep the word “gender” out of it.

    On a social level “heterosexual”, or (perhaps a better fit to this definition) “straight”, is a bucket group applying to anyone who, for whatever reason, is known to be in sexual relations only with those perceived to be of the opposite sex to the person, and also to anyone who is not known to be in any sexual relationship at all, but has not expressed a preference for same-sex relationships. Yes, a default option applied from the outside, much like the one you don’t like, “cis”. Only, while “cis” is mainly applied by trans people or their allies, “straight” (and sometimes “heterosexual”) is applied by the majority.

    On an individual level “heterosexual” is a preference for relationships with people who the person perceives to be of the opposite sex to themselves. Sounds simple – but the exact meaning of “preference” here is a matter of fierce debate.

    Some claim that individual heterosexuality only applies when the preference is deeply felt, while if a person prefers such relationships for reasons of conviction (or convenience) yet has a feeling for same-sex relationships, the person is really bisexual or even in some cases homosexual. Other people dispute the claim. This is the dreaded “ex gay” debate, where both sides routinely resort to all sorts of smears.

    Even apart from that debate, there are loads of cases when external “straight” and individual “heterosexual” do not align. Some examples:

    – Men routinely raped in prisons are described in some prison-related subcultures (and sometimes in wider society, but not sure how that works in the USA) as homosexual, while their own preference is often heterosexual.

    – Some people have feelings for both sexes and sometimes identify as bisexual but, being in a long term relationship with someone perceived to be of the opposite sex, are seen socially as straight. For women this even encompasses the case when she had a relationship with another woman before; men are not as easily “forgiven for their past”, especially when there was no loud “conversion” involved.

    – And then, of course, there are trans people and there are people in relationships with trans people. There definitions can go all sort of crazy because there is what sex a person perceives oneself to be, what sex a person perceives their partner to be, and what sex various parts of society perceive each of them to be.

    To summarize – “heterosexual” is really not that meaningful. The only objective part is who any person is with currently, but even there you can have a BIG can of worms sometimes, even when no rape or violence is involved.

    I really think sexual attraction is a fluid complicated thing (there was a reason I repeatedly mentioned Jan Clausen). Labels, including “heterosexual”, were made up for convenience or in early research (Kinsey, who was great for his day but relied on “snapshots” at a fixed time, for all I know he did not do long term follow up). These labels fail to stand at detailed scrutiny. “Heterosexual”/”straight” is probably the most fickle of them all, because of the tendency to stick it on someone as a default.

    To make it a simple slogan, “stop sticking labels on people”. Applies to all orientation labels and to all sides.

    Bringing it right back to the main subject of discussion, this complicated mess of definitions is why I would prefer to subsume sexual orientation (and gender identity) discrimination law into “behaviour stereotypically associated with sex” (which is how California defines gender expression). I *hate* the idea that someone would have to stand in court and prove their “sexual orientation”. But even if the court simply takes people at their word (which won’t happen as employers have lawyers), there can be cases where one is discriminated for being perceived as gay, but actually identifies as heterosexual.

    For example, take a man discriminated for being in a relationship with a trans woman, whom he perceives as a woman. He can not say under oath “I am gay”, nor is he trans himself, which might prevent him from claiming discrimination for either sexual orientation or gender identity. Only a sex stereotyping / gender expression law is sure to protect him.

    Leave sexual choice (among adults) to themselves, keep labels out of it, keep employers and other people who a person does not let into their private sphere WAY out of it (and build a legal wall keeping them out, too). That’s my “libertarian ethic” applied.

    Yes, the approach does not lend itself to class analysis, except if you construct a class of all people whose behaviour is not approved by a majority because of sex stereotypes. Call that class “queer”. The problem is that “queer” is probably a majority itself as most people disconnect from sex stereotypes somewhere. So we still get no useful classes.

  2. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    After posting, I did think of a “biologized” definition of heterosexuality, which would be exclusive or predominant attraction to the opposite biological sex irrespective of personal perception. I think such a definition is meaningless because personal perception is a part of the way sexual attraction works. One is attracted after perceiving a person to be of some sex, not before. But I have constructed an experiment to determine orientation of this definition and I would love to be a subject.

    Take photos of faces of a number of people in two makeup sets. One heavy “male”, the other heavy “female”. Have a theatrical professional do the makeup. Have some of the subjects a different ethnicity from the subject’s surroundings, so the hints the subject has learned in life also does not work. (For example, for experiments in Europe or the USA, have the photo sets done in Japan – they have great gender makeup artists there working in Kabuki and Takarazuka, and their faces are not very gendered for European eyes too).

    Present the photo sets to the subject (each subject has two separate runs, with one set and the other). Ask the subject to evaluate the relative sexual attractiveness of people within each set (not comparing between the sets but giving a 1-10 grade to everyone in a set). Ideally use objective measures to evaluate attraction too.

    This experiment would rule out gender presentation and measure sexual attraction to sex only. My hypothesis is an “everyone is bisexual” result.

  3. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    …you got me started on heterosexuality. Knowing more about it just means I can deconstruct more. And the thought trail got me to a clear statement.

    (1) Sexual orientation used as an identity is harmful
    (2) Heterosexuality is the most harmful of them all

    The harm of any sexual-orientation-as-identity is that it is tacked on then the person is expected to conform. A boy has a crush on another boy, is welcomed into the gay community, then can be shamed as “not true” for liking a girl. (There is a lot of “biphobia” in lesbian circles too, I have that from bi female friends).

    The specific harm of heterosexuality-as-identity is in how far some people go to preserve it. Cases like the murder of Gwen Araujo are described by trans authors based on who the victim is (transphobic) and by radfem authors based on who the perpetrators are (male violence). None of these narratives touch upon the likely motive. The perpetrators were sexually attracted to Gwen, perceiving her as a woman, and had oral sexual intercourse with her because of this attraction. Then they found out she was physically male. What was threatened was not their sexual integrity (she did not attempt to use her penis on them), it was their identity as “heterosexual”. And they decided to kill her to “erase” the “violation” of their identity, the fact that they were attracted to a person whom they now, retroactively, perceived as a man.

    And I can, indeed, be described as “heterosexual”. Still I consider heterosexual identity especially harmful. No contradiction, just “libertarian ethics”. I identify with what I choose, not with what I feel. I identify as married to a certain woman, not as heterosexual. You are not cis? Fine, I am not het.

3 thoughts on “Notes on heterosexuality

  1. I did not suggest that you deconstruct heterosexuality, No Anodyne did. She will moderate your responses to her unless I decide to reply to them, in which case I will approve them for the purpose of replying to them. Btw, in response to your suggested study in the 5:00 comment, I don’t think that sexuality can be meaningfully evaluated through visual representations alone.

    Personally, I’d like to know why you are opposed to *gay* marriage as a legal matter.

    • My apologies re confusing you and NoAnodyne; I will correct the text of my post.

      I am on the fence on gay marriage as a legal matter. Marriage is a complicated institution woth lots of layers and I have views on several of them as applied to ay marriage:

      – I definitely, unequivocally support the right of any people who so choose to have a family of two adults of the same sex, conjugal or otherwise, to have the complete set of rights regarding each other (including joint tax assessment or tax breaks where applicable to married couples), and to raise the children, biological or adopted, of any member of the couple together. Ideally I would support similar rights for more than two adults, but in most Western tax systems it just can not happen because joint assessment and/or tax breaks are tailored to couples, one can’t fix that overnight. “Whether to change to a flat tax” is a whole separate debate.

      – I am opposed to *independent* parental rights being granted to two persons of the same (legal) sex; the practicalities of joint care should be resolved through power of attorney arrangements. “Mother” and “father” originate in biology though they grew to have social value; I am not convinced these things should be divorced from biology completely, I’d rather see cases when biological parents fail to perform their duties and other people do it instead as exceptions, not the rule. Redefining parenthood to divorce it from biology opens the door to mandatory collectivization of child rearing – and my post-Societ sensibilities react to it. I do not, however, wish to intrude into the lives of same-sex families. Rather, the principal aim here is to preserve the *primary* right of the biological parent *by default*, when said parent is indeed present in the life of the child; the right usually appies if the family breaks up for whatever reason. My preference for biological parents is not specific to same-sex couples; I am also worried when, in some jurisdictions, in a traditionally defined marriage contracted when one of the parties (usually the woman) has children, the other party (usually the man) acquires some rights to them.

      – I am very much on the fence on the social engineering side of things, which is definitely present (in fact the court decision of Prop 8 seems to cite it as principal). One of the aims of gay marriage, ad the reason many activists not intending to marry support it, is to “tell society” that same-sex relationships are of equal value to opposite-sex relationships. And the very practice of “telling society” how to think about something by legislation can turn problematic. At its worst, imposition of same-sex marriage on a society not recognizing it will just make society treat the government as an occupying force. This is exactly what would happen if Putin introduced gay marriage in Russia tomorrow.

      The ideal solution for me would be civil unions for everyone and privatizing marriage, thus allowing people to have their own opinions on what “marriage” means; probably not going to happen. The next best thing is to let society define marriage itself by means of a referendum. This is where things are headed here in Ireland, because of how the constitution here works – it can only be amended by referendum, and one on same sex marriage is in the works. If gay marriage is approved in a referendum, then the social engineering issue is less important, and only the parenthood rights one remains. Not the end of the world, on balance. In fact, one could have a system with gay marriage but with stronger bio-parent rights.

      In some countries (Sweden) there is a church-state link that means gay marriage can be imposed on a church; the answer to that is breaking any such link.

      Thing is, my doubts about gay marriage are actually meaningless in the Western context as I don’t fit into alliances on the issue (except the “privatize” bunch). I tend to part ways with mainstream opponents of same-sex marriage on loads of other issues related to sex and gender. Even apart from anything trans, they have a tendency to support “reparative therapy” and to believe in “heterosexuality” as a meaningful and desirable state – which is a part of the philosophy behind “reparative therapy”. I see the aim of training a person to be attracted to one random bunch of people instead of another random bunch of people as total absurdity at best, outright “rapey” at worst; if one is taught that the sex of the partner is the only important thing, one is effectively taught to rape, skip all the parts not related to the partner’s sex like personality and consent.

      Legitimate sexual relationships are formed between PERSONS, not classes; the doctrine of sexual orientation, teaching people that they should expect to be attracted to nearly all people of one sex (this part especially applies to men) and none of the other, should just be ditched.

      Basically, it’s the same division as the one between you and me. The conservatives on this issue are mostly collectivists. I am an individualist. At the end of the day I’d much rather have gay marriage than a collectivist society with Big Brother setting aims for all sexes and ages. The collectivist-individualist axis is, for me, a litmus test for all other issues. And its complicated relationship to gay marriage means I’m on the fence, and not expecting to weigh in.

      As an aside, your “we must have visible classes” sounds really sinister to me because of my Soviet background. In Stalinist times, a person’s “class descent” was a public, state-tracked thing. There was promotion for people with proletariat descent and limitations for people of bourgeois or nobility descent. The explanation was hundreds of years of exploitation. The explanation was mostly true, the exploitation did happen, still I view that story as a disaster.

      I do realize I sound like a libertarian in all this – and also in foreign policy. I clash with libertarians on economics – they don’t believe in safety nets and government regulation in externalities like environment pollution and discrimination, I do. I see why you tend to call me a libertarian – you apparently don’t care much about the economic side of things. But I care about them and the libertarians also do and out conclusions are antagonistic.

      • Just found a very good saying by your fellow trans-critical radical feminist on the issue.

        “”Marriage Equality” is an oxymoron

        Marriage provides institutional (as opposed to intrinsic) benefits that are denied to unmarried couples and single people. For marriage equality to exist, married people would need to be significantly disempowered.”

        I would not agree with her proposal, because certain institutional power in certain cases is undoubtedly necessary (primarily for the purpose of parenting, which is use of private resources for public good and thus justifies public granting of power – compare tax exempt status of charities). But I do agree with her analysis – legal marriage is about granting, by government, of certain institutional power.

        Now, there is a very interesting precedent of government originally granting institutional power for a certain limited purpose and the grant growing into a monster of terrifying proportions, often completely divorced (pun intended) from the original purpose. I mean the few related areas of law united by the misnomer “intellectual property”. Originally limited tools created to promote the arts, now corporate cash cows and tools for censorship. I think one has to be aware of such unchecked growth of public institutions, and track wether in any particular case an institution is necessary and in what ways.

        Ideally one needs to unpack exactly what power marriage grants and work out the purpose of every part, then see whether (1) it is the business of government to grant it at all, and (2) what kind of unions (of two people or more ) the particular purpose works for.

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