Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sexual Orientation Purity:

Jennifer Roback Morse's new article struggles with how to properly interpret and understand some of the same-sex survey data. She attempts to "deconstruct" the "sexual orientation" category. She writes:

"[H]omosexuality is not a well-defined phenomenon. It is a complex combination of behavior, attraction and self-identification. For instance, the definitive University of Chicago study by Edward Laumann and colleagues, showed that only a minuscule less than one percent of the population have had exclusively same sex partners since puberty."

She also attempts to hold sexual orientation to an unreasonable "civil rights" standard, arguing that in order to "qualify" as a legitimate "protected category" sexual orientation must make some type of near perfect analogy to race. She writes:

Now what does this have to do with the gay rights legal strategists? Sexual orientation as a fixed trait is central to their argument to have "sexual minorities" designated as "protected classes." The argument builds on an analogy with race. If a person is born gay, then the argument for decriminalizing same-sex behavior, legalizing same-sex marriage and making homosexual persons members of a protected class falls neatly into place by a straightforward analogy with laws protecting racial minorities.

As I've pointed out before, sexual orientation need not make such a near perfect analogy because we don't live in a world where race and only race is a protected category. As Richard Posner put it in Sex and Reason:

[G]iven Title VII and cognate laws, is there any reason to exclude homosexuals from a protected category that already includes not only racial, religious, and ethnic groups but also women, the physically and mentally handicapped, all workers aged 40 and older, and in some cases, even young healthy male WASPS? Is there less, or less harmful, or less irrational discrimination against homosexuals than against the members of any of these other groups? The answer is no.

Sex and Reason, p. 323

In a constitutional sense, "race" and "religion" are bookend protected categories. Race is entirely unchosen and a matter of birth; religion is entirely chosen and mutable. "Sexual Orientation" is somewhere in between.

I think that Morse properly identifies a "gray area" regarding sexual orientation that many folks do not entirely understand (and I will admit, even for folks who have thought about this quite a bit, there is still some mystery).

However, such "gray area" ought not be used to "deconstruct" this category. In fact, using gray areas to "deconstruct" certain "categories," is hallmark of the radical left-wing "social constructionists," who attempt to deconstruct not only "sexual orientation" but also categories like "race" and "gender."

And indeed, many categories which clearly do "exist," -- for instance, race -- are likewise subject to the same gray areas (or the traits exist on a continuum). Does any racial purity exist? Even the whitest of whites and the blackest of blacks probably have some related ancestors along the way. Dinesh D'Souza once wrote "And the presence of intermediate shades does not eliminate the possibility of valid racial classifications any more than the existence of twilight eliminates the division between day and night." The same is applicable to sexual orientation.

Bigots tended to look for racial purity. But ironically doing so increases the numbers of those in the "black or mixed race" box. If we add not just African Americans, but Hispanics with any amount of black blood, all Arabs and Southern Europeans to the "black or mixed race" box, then that box gets much larger than 12%. Similarly if we look for heterosexual purity, we might be surprised to find the "gay or bi" box to be not 3%, but around 1/3 of the population.

If anything I think the survey data vindicate some of Kinsey's findings about sexual orientation existing on a continuum.

Yes, there are many "gays" who have some kind of "incidental" heterosexuality. But there are also many straights who have some kind of incidental homosexuality. Many people would probably be shocked by the high number of self-identified and well-adjusted "straights" who have had homosexual behaviors in their past (and if you are such a straight person reading this post, you are more common than you think). I think Kinsey once estimated that 1/3 of men had a homosexual orgasm. That number is probably right.

Self-indentified gays or bis (3-6 on the Kinsey scale) are probably no more that 3-4% of the population. But if we then add all straights with incidental bisexuality (1-6 on the Kinsey scale, or perhaps .1 -6), we may be dealing with about 1/3 of the population, most of whom identify and understand themselves as "straight" (the exact number is one of those "mysteries" to which I alluded above). That still would leave a strong majority -- 2/3 -- with a more or less "pure" heterosexual orientation.

The best analogy in terms of understanding how sexual orientation clearly exists as an identifiable trait, is to handedness. (See this article by Chandler Burr). Keeping in mind that because every phenomenon is unique, all analogies are imperfect (that's why we call them analogies, not duplicates). For instance, considering all we do with our "other" hand, everyone is ambidextrous to *some* extent. And I don't think that everyone is likewise bisexual to some extent. But we realize that while our behavior is entirely a matter of choice, left-handedness and right-handedness are built in, unchosen, identifiable traits. And indeed, ambidextrousness likewise exists along a continuum. For a variety of reasons, I might choose to write with my left-hand. One thinks of switch hitters in baseball who we don't understand to be "ambidextrous"; nor do we see that the ability to "switch-hit" renders handedness a choice or something that can (or should) be changed.

All of the youthful experimentation to which Morse refers in her article is akin to right handed batters switch-hitting. Or righties experimenting with trying to write with their left hand. And when a righty writes with his left hand, sooner or later he realizes that he doesn't do so very well. The same can be said of heterosexuals experimenting with homosexual behavior and homosexuals experimenting with heterosexual behavior.


george86 said...

Andrew Sullivan links to a Yahoo! news story with a recent finding. Mom's body, at some point during the conception or fetal process, randomly opts for one of 2 X-chromosomes, which seems to effect (in about 25% of the cases)a gay child. The study seems preliminary, but it invites further research which may eventually discredit the whole "It's a choice of behavior" mantra.


Jonathan said...


Yes, I caught the link.