Yet another example of how our sexual orientation categories are inadequate

This morning’s New York Times editorial page contains a piece about HIV/AIDS in prisons. The idea is this: even though many men in prison don’t identify as gay or homosexual, they are still having sex with men and they need appropriate HIV/AIDS prevention education and materials.

The problem, identified by the Times, is that discomfort with the idea that men are having sex with men leads some prison officials to deny that it is happening. I would suggest that this does not describe the problem completely. Another part of the problem is that many people simply can’t believe that straight men have sex with men, too. After all, if you’re a man doesn’t having sex with a man mean that you’re gay? NO! Of course not. Certainly you can be “straight” and have sex with men, just like you can be “gay” and be married and have sex with your wife. Broadly defined identity categories rarely capture the variability of individual experience. This, I submit, is because the categories we use are inadequate.

Clearly men who think of themselves as straight sometimes want sex with men. Also clearly, or at least clearly to me, sexual orientation is much more about identity and self-definition than it is about the behaviors we engage in. This must be true because even celibate people have ideas about their sexual orientations.

What if, instead of thinking about sexual orientation in terms of a small number of categories that are supposed to capture some part of our deepest identity, we think about sexual orientation more literally: that is, how we are oriented to sex. What kinds of sex do we enjoy? What kinds of partners do we enjoy sex with, and not just gender-wise, but more even specifically than that. (After all, neither lesbians nor straight men are attracted to all women, just some women, and so on down the SO categories.) I recognize that this fractures sexual orientation into thousands of possible categories and that doing so wrecks havoc with identity politics, and that wrecking havoc with identity politics has some risks. But we need to take those risks right now. The Times editorial provides one good reason why.

If we could address questions like these openly, honestly and without fear of stigma, we could address public health questions like the one raised in todays Times editorial. After all, these men who think of themselves as straight but who have, temporarily, enjoyed sex with men, will get out of prison one day and go on to resume relationships with women or form new ones. These women, thinking of themselves as being involved with straight men, might well underestimate their risk of HIV, believing that their men were celibate during their prison time.

This is not a new problem. Sex educators have for a long time encouraged people to discuss their sexual histories with new partners. But our categories of sexual orientation get in the way, I think. For a man who really thinks of himself as straight to admit to sexual desires for another man, or to having been assaulted by a man, or even to just using another man for pleasure during a prolonged time away from women, the stigma attached to homosexual sex, and the fear of being labeled “gay” might override his desire to be honest with a new female partner.

Changing the way mainstream US society thinks about sexual orientation is not just an interesting thing to ponder theoretically. It is necessary for safeguarding public health.

(Risks and Complications of Reconceptualizing Sexual Orientation coming soon)

(Meanwhile, for a summary of the different ways that sexual orientation has been and is conceptualized, this wikipedia entry is a pretty good one.)

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One response to “Yet another example of how our sexual orientation categories are inadequate

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