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).
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.
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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.
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…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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.