Risks and Complications (and necessity) of Reconceptualizing Sexual Orientation

I remember in college becoming a Rita Mae Brown addict. I especially loved Bingo and Six of One, two novels about a small town that straddled the PA/MD border and thus was half in the north and half in the south. Her setting of the town in this way perfectly reflected her characters’ tendencies to defy easy categorization. I was instantly turned on by this because it provided me a sense that my own difficulties in classifying myself were not unheard of. Later, I discovered Carol Queen and other sex-radical sex-positive writers who told their own stories about breaking down boundaries between gender and sexuality categories.

As I wrote yesterday, I think that breaking down our sexual orientation categories would help us to understand the complexity of sexuality more clearly. But doing so has risks. Identity groups can organize for social change in ways that individuals have a hard time doing. The gay rights movement wouldn’t have been possible without a gay/lesbian identity to organize around. That movement has expanded to include people who identify as bisexual, and to include transfolk, and has gone a long way toward fighting discrimination against people who don’t comply with heteronormative dominant culture. Breaking down that sense of sexual orientation as we know it — as fundamental, perhaps biological, based on a limited number of categories — could mean losing an important organizing tool, and that means making it harder, perhaps, to protect people from harm, from discrimination, from violence.

That is especially problematic given that there is another risk in fracturing sexual orientation categories into thousands of pieces and focusing on behavior instead of broadly-defined identities. The religious right, which often also reduces sexual orientation to behavior, might then have ammunition to use in its war against all non-reproductive-marital sex. I don’t want to underestimate this risk. So if we begin to do this, we of course need to be committed to actively building sex-positive spaces and doing that probably requires being much more open about our day-to-day sexual realities so that the real sexual diversity that does exist in our society can be made visible and connected to real human beings.

People who benefit from heterosexual privilege need to ‘come out’ about their own sexual activities. They need to own up to the porn they watch, the BDSM clubs they visit, the polyamorous relationships they work hard to maintain. Doing this will help end discrimination against people who identify as gay or lesbian in a way much more lasting than our current efforts at protecting people based on sexual orientation categories. No longer would we have to fight to have our sexual orientations grudgingly “tolerated.” Instead, we would be developing a culture that accepts sexual diversity broadly, where no consensual sexual relationships and activities are stigmatized.

In other words, we would finally have reached a point in our cultural evolution where ‘sex is good’ is part of the mainstream belief system. Once sex is good, we will have to worry much less about sex being used as way for one group to dominate other groups.

In one of my favorite essays on oppression, Marilyn Frye uses a birdcage as a metaphor for the complex structures of oppression and privilege. Heterosexism is one wire in that cage and it is connected to all the others. It is connected to the wires of race, gender, class, ethnicity, age, political power, etc. While you can’t destroy the cage by removing a single wire, removing one wire weakens the others. Here is just one example: If “sex is good” no matter who is having it or how they’re having it, then interracial sexual relationships are good. If interracial sexual relationships are good it is harder to keep people segregated by race.

I don’t mean to suggest that reconceptualizing sexuality on its own will result in utopia, but it is a necessary part of creating a just, equal, safe, free society.


Filed under Gender, public discourse, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality

2 responses to “Risks and Complications (and necessity) of Reconceptualizing Sexual Orientation

  1. Congrats on the blog! I came here through Candy Poses’ links. I agree with you on the fact that we must broaden our intelectual horizons when it comes to “defining” sexual orientation and sexual behavior. I’ve recently ended a sexual relationship I have with a married woman and her husband (I have the sex with the wife, the husband present and often participating) and I consider myself straight. I’ve downloaded gay and bisexual porn, and never had gay or bisexual sex. So, as you state, it’s not just a black and white issue. The shades of grey say more that we’re willing to admit.

  2. Thanks for joining in, Duffman. It’s always nice to meet another fan of Candy’s. And thank you for the eloquent statement, “The shades of grey say more than we’re willing to admit.” I’d add that our identities and our fantasies and our behaviors are not always consistent.