A Theory of Sexual Attraction: Part 1

Over the years, various theories have been proposed as to how we might classify human sexuality. In popular discourse, a gay – straight spectrum is commonly used, such as this one:

That is, people are “scored” as to how “gay” or how “straight” they are, with bisexuality in the middle. This is a sharp divergence from the belief that people are either “100% gay” or “100% straight.” In 2012, Io Tillet Wright traveled around the country and asked people who didn’t identify as “100% straight” to give a percentage as to “how gay” they are. The majority of people said 3-20% and 70-90%. What this reveals is that most people who don’t identify as “100% straight” don’t identify as “100% gay” either, and that the human experience of sexuality is much more nuanced than many popular theories suggest…

The rest of this post can be found in my book, “I Desired You: An Intellectual Journal on Faith and Sexuality.” You can order a copy here



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11 thoughts on “A Theory of Sexual Attraction: Part 1

  1. Hihi,

    As I have been talking to Timothy about this – and I believe he linked you to the genderbread man v2.0 on my behalf – this is somewhat of an improvement over the standard Conservative Christian (I hope you don’t mind me using that phrase as an umbrella) view of sexuality, sex and gender – but is still awfully incomplete.

    You touch on sexuality as not just “gay or straight”, that sexual orientation is a matter of “patterns of attraction” and not being attracted to everyone of a gender and indeed, even acknowledge the existence of asexuals. For which, kudos. But if I may, I’d like to go into a few issues I have with this:
    – Sexuality is usually defined in terms of gender in LGBT/QUILTBAG circles. It simply makes more sense to do so. There are also more labels than straight, gay and bi.
    – Sex isn’t binary. Even if you just use a chromosomal explanation – which is terribly incomplete – it still isn’t binary. Gender isn’t binary either. Here’s a nice explanation (weirdly, on a Unitarian website) – http://www.uua.org/lgbtq/identity/25348.shtml
    -Sexuality, gender and sex labels are always going to be approximates and are an issue of self-identification. It’s not “wrong” to identify as straight if you’ve have a very small “gay side.” To quote from my own post: http://www.charliehale.net/2013/06/attracted-to-kitchen-implements.html

    “Primarily, labels are tools that allow us to express complicated feelings, thoughts, inclinations and so on in a succinct way. They are, by their nature, a little fuzzy around the edges – is a man who is mostly interested in women, but not exclusively so, straight? Are they bi? At what point do we draw the line between straight and not? Well, we really don’t get to decide that – the person does.

    Labels represent a range of possible feelings and inclinations, and people who use the same label can have different experiences. Admittedly, there’s some need for being sensible here – can a man mostly attracted to women identify as gay? Well, yes – but they should expect people to be confused.”

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  2. Hi Charlie, Thanks for your comment. To be honest, I’m not very versed in understanding gender. I’ll look through those links. Do you have any book recommendations on an overview of gender issues and/or transgender experiences?

    I do agree that labels play a very important part in understanding and articulating ourselves. Although I think that these labels are not fully sufficient, I do think that they can be helpful, and I’m not opposed to people using them. For me, the important thing is to understand actual human experiences and how they can help us better understand what will best help us to aid and encourage others on their unique paths to happiness.

    I’m sure I’ll have more to say after reading through that stuff, but thanks again for your comment!

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  3. I think I may understand a bit better what you’re saying. I’m not sure exactly how to fit in that perspective of sex and gender, but what I’ve written in this post doesn’t necessarily require a binary look at either. Instead, it just looks at how people are attracted to others, broadly speaking.

    On a side note, I’m a bit more inclined to emphasize biology when looking at sex (not gender), while accepting that much (though not all) of our understanding of the expressions of sex are socially constructed. Probably much (possibly most) of our popular understanding of gender is socially constructed, although I don’t think that the fact that a thing is socially constructed means that it is without value or arbitrary. We live and interact and understand ourselves and each other by means of social construction, and it is only through careful reflection and the use of other sciences (not sociology, that is) that we begin to understand where social construction can approximate to more lasting and stable truths.

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  4. Hi,

    I can certainly get you some book/resource recommendations – although I’ll probably have to get back to you on that, given that I’m behind on my writing schedule and I have to watch and get angry at the equal(ish) marriage bill in the UK House of Lords today 😉

    Certainly, labels aren’t the entire story. They’re tools to express a range of different feelings, patterns, behaviours, and so on. I just thought I’d mention the fact that people will use “straight” while still having some degree of attraction to the same gender, and it’s not “wrong”, per se.

    The way the Gingerbread Person does it (which, some might argue is also not a complete explanation. But I’d say it’s certainly pretty good), is to expand sexual orientation to refer to “Men/Males/Masculinity” (Essentially: Gender, Sex and/or Expression.) Regardless, it’s certainly more complete than your idea of “Attraction to the same sex” and “Attraction to the opposite sex”, for a few reasons:
    – Doesn’t necessarily assume a binary definition of Sex.
    – Includes other factors other than just Sex.
    – Gender and Expression are far more likely to be factors in attraction than Sex is.

    I get where you’re coming from with your theory about people being attracted to others, and it’s more complete than a “regular” look at the issues. I just don’t think it’s complete enough to be said to be mostly reflective of the range of human experiences. You’re certainly on the right path, we’ll get you thinking like a queer activist soon enough 😉

    Certainly, sex is about biology – anatomy, chromosomes, hormones and so on. You’re very right that the ideas of sex are socially constructed – as are our ideas of gender. Similarly, I agree that something being socially constructed doesn’t mean it has value.

    I think the main objective is to create a model of looking at the world that is more representative of human experience. So, I agree with a lot of the ideas you’re raising but disagree that it’s as complete as it could be. I think you’ll find that the more you look into the complexities of human experience, the more and more difficult it becomes to reasonably defend – for example – “…that attraction to the opposite sex is, to use philosophical terms, a potentiality that is meant to be actualized but may or may not be actualized in every man or woman.”

    As a start, I’ll ask a couple of questions as to whether a couple constitutes “the opposite sex”:
    -A male-assigned-at-birth man, who had genital surgery at birth to “normalise” their genital’s appearance and a female-assigned-at-birth man, who’s undertaken HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) and genital reassignment surgery.
    -A female-assigned-at-birth genderqueer person and a male-assigned-at-birth woman who’s undertaking HRT.

    …I could go on, but those work for now.

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    1. I think I may see where you’re coming from. As regards “sex,” I do find a “binary definition” to be helpful. That is, biologically, there is male and female, largely dictated by genitalia and chromosomes, but also affected by things such as hormones, etc. There may be an “in-between” biologically, but this wouldn’t necessarily negate a binary look. In a certain sense, I see this as being objective and rather separate from how individuals may “express” or interpret their sex. So, we have a body, and this dictates what I am conceiving of here as “sex.”

      I see this conception very sharply distinguished from “gender” (masculine/feminine), something that is largely understood through social constructs (which, though constructed, I think can still have a great deal of value). The way people dress, talk, interact, etc in “socially acceptable” and “socially normal” ways largely comes out of particular understandings of gender. So someone who does “gender bending” is blurring or pushing against these lines, and they are lines that can be (and often are) pushed legitimately at times.

      When I’m looking at “opposite sex,” I’m largely looking at biological comlimentarity, because this is where the family can be established by natural biological processes. So, I find no problem with a “masculine woman” marrying a “feminine man,” because a significant part of marriage is that “the parts fit” to create a biological family, and this “biological fitness” is more instrumental in establishing that family, in a certain way, than how the man and the woman may conceive of themselves individually.

      Does that clarify it at all?

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    2. “So, we have a body, and this dictates what I am conceiving of here as “sex.””

      I am, as well. I will discard ideas of gender at the moment and exclusively talking about sex. I will explain a few ways non-binary sexes can arise, and perhaps you could suggest exactly where we draw the line for which a sexual relationship is acceptable or not between a couple.
      – Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) – In Male-to-Female transgender people, it causes breast development, changes to female-typical fat distribution and muscle growth, (eventually) sterility and other changes. In Female-to-Male (FtM) transgender people, it causes male-typical fat distribution and muscle growth, deeper voice, enlargement of the clitoris and other changes.
      – Bottom surgery/Genital reassignment surgery (GRS) – Surgical procedures in which the person’s genitals are altered in such a way to essentially be the genitals of their (current) gender. It’s important to note that huge quantities of the “male” and “female” reproductive systems are homologues – that is, they are initially the same but eventually split part-way through development. Hormonal levels in the womb can greatly impact the development of sexual characteristics (and, indeed, hormones from HRT also change the genitalia.)
      – Birth intersex conditions – 1% of births are of a child with a body that is not easily categorisable as male or female. (http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency) – Some of these conditions involve chromosones that are not XX or XY, involve insensitivity to certain hormones (can lead to non-development of sexual organs, for instance) and so on.

      I note that you brought up marriage (and I would imagine it’s fairly obvious I believe in marriage equality ;)), but that’s not what I was talking about at the time. I was referring to the idea of sexual attraction to and sexual activity with a person of the opposite sex is a potentiality that is “meant” to be actualised, but is not always possible (paraphrasing you.) But I understand marriage and sex are fundamentally linked in your worldview, so I will talk about that.

      If we’re saying that only marriage between opposite sex couples are valid, we have a few issues:
      – Not everyone can be reasonably said to fall in “male” or “female” – are they able to have any sexual relations at all? If so, with who?
      – What if a person undertakes HRT or GRS during their relationship – given that this effectively changes their sex, does the relationship change in acceptability if there are changes to one or both partner’s bodies?
      – To quote: “because a significant part of marriage is that “the parts fit” to create a biological family, and this “biological fitness” is more instrumental in establishing that family, in a certain way, than how the man and the woman may conceive of themselves individually.” – what about infertile people who can be categorised as male or female?

      You (most probably, correct me if I’m wrong) believe that marriage is the only place where sex can be ethically practiced. Similarly, you believe that marriage should be restricted to couples that meet certain criteria. It follows that if there are people can not get married under any circumstance, you are denying what is – and I’m sure you’d agree – something that is an important part of life for most people (sexual activity) from these people for no fault of theirs.

      To clarify, I am not even referring to same-sex/same-gender marriage – or even gender – at the moment. The questions I want answered are:
      – Are there some people who can not get married under any circumstance? If so, would you say this was a bad thing?
      – How do we distinguish whether a couple counts as opposite sex and can therefore get married?

      Thanks,
      Charlie

      P.S. Incidentally, My email address is me[at]charliehale[dot]net if you wish to get hold of me at some future time.

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