Monday, January 03, 2005

What Is Sexual Orientation?

If you are male, and sexually attracted to females, or if you are female, and sexually attracted to males, then you are heterosexual. If you are female, and attracted to females, or male and attracted to males, then you are homosexual. That's simple enough. But I realized a while ago that I really don't understand what it means to be attracted to males or to females.

Why is that a difficult concept? Well, let me answer with another obvious question: what makes someone male or female? That has a technical answer, which is that the males are the ones with penises and the females are the ones with breasts and vaginas. But that answer is very unsatisfactory to me. For me, the first blossoming of heterosexual attraction took place before I had ever witnessed a vagina (and years later, when I finally did experience one first-hand, so to speak, I didn't find it particularly attractive). Breasts are more obvious, but I would say that when I was a child, I was attracted to girls who did not yet have any noticeable breasts. So what does it means to be male or female? What does it mean emotionally to someone who is just learning to be interested in romantic love? It doesn't make any sense to say that I was attracted to someone because she lacked a penis.

I think that what might be closer to the truth, emotionally, is that I have an idea of the female, and I am attracted to anyone who embodies that idea. But what exactly does that idea consist of? I would say it has something to do with someone who is soft and pretty and small, but that doesn't seem to fit the facts, exactly, either. Females can be tall and tough and muscular and still they count as females in my inner ategorization. On the flip side, "pretty" males don't do anything at all for me.

With nonhuman animals it all seems so simple: Some chemical scent tells you that what you have before you is a male or a female, and that's enough to jump start sexual behavior. But with humans, we can feel attraction towards a voice on the phone, or a photograph in a magazine, so the chemical explanation falls short. I'm still puzzling out exactly what this all means. More later...


Blogger Avedon said...

I realized a long time ago that I'm attracted to men because of what I expect from them rather than because of anything that particularly inheres in maleness. (It's something I almost never encounter in women, so that explains the heterosexual part, but I did have to learn with time that the range of men I could expect those things from is far, far narrower than I had been led to believe.)

I think this probably has a lot to do with why some people suddenly "become" bisexual - they find that whatever it is they thought was specific to only one sex is actually available in at least one member of the other sex.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Daryl McCullough said...

Hi, Avedon! A commenter. So if I can follow up on your comment---can you say more about what you expect from men (without getting into anything that isn't PG-13)?

10:18 AM  
Blogger Amanda said...

To be fair, the jury is still out on whether or not we smell hormones on people. I know that man-smell has a powerful pull on me.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, what is attraction. That is a tough one. I grew up in a Christian church and heard some sermons about how tough it was to resist sexual temptation in the young teen male groups. I didn't get it, but I thought I was just controlling myself well. It turns out that I wasn't attracted to women. Not to get too metaphysical or anything, but I think there are different modes, and perhaps we end up sexually hardwired into being attracted to those modes--which may or may not be fairly linked by sex.

Have you ever noticed that a female boss who is perfectly good to work with if you are man is very difficult for other women to work with? I think it is a similar concept.

I'm sexually attracted to both the physicality of men and the idea of men. But I couldn't prove to you for sure which came first, or even if they are truly separate ideas.

2:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That last post was me

Sebastian Holsclaw

2:22 AM  
Blogger Daryl McCullough said...

Hi, Sebastian! Maybe you could say in a few words what is the idea of men in today's world. As I say, there is the physical fact of penises versus vaginas, but I don't think the exact equipment underneath the clothes comes into it in the case of a church youth group. Older ideas of men as the hunters, the fighters, the protectors don't seem especially relevant today.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Avedon said...

Well, the short answer is, "No." Let's just say that certain stereotypes of what men "are like", combined with some observable features of my father, formed my impression of what I could expect from men.

The slightly longer answer is that I was raised to believe that all men were essentially compatible with all women, that it's just "what comes naturally," that there wasn't anything to know about it. I didn't realize that different people had different tastes, that what turns you on is just what turns you on and you can't remake your sexuality for your partner and if you have to you have the wrong partner.

I was also told that men were smarter than me. That would've been cool, but I eventually figured out that it wasn't true. Fortunately, I found one who is at least as smart and has a much better memory, so that's okay.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Kyle McCullough said...

One factor that we have not discussed much is social pressure. Maybe (most) men find women more attractive than men, for the same reason that most men think men look better in a suit than they do in a dress. It could well be that without the social pressure to 'find a nice girl and settle down' men would have *no* natural inclination to be more attracted to women than to men--and visa versa. I think this is the possibility that conservatives fear most--and I have to admit, that would have some troubling long-term implications, imo.

5:48 PM  

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