Monday, October 19, 2015

My Really, Truly, True Sexual Orientation

Nobody will deny that the sentences of science can be classified into long sentences and short sentences, or that its statements can be classified into those which are intuitively obvious and others which are not.  Nobody will deny that such distinctions can be made.  But nobody will put great weight on them.* 
If only this were true!  I think that by "nobody," the philosopher and historian of science Paul Feyerabend meant "no sensible person."  But many people aren't very sensible.

My Facebook friend A posted a link to this item yesterday.  On Facebook it had the header "The Kinsey Scale Is Dead -- Here's What's Taking Its Place"; at least the post itself made no such claim.  That's the best that can said for it, though I must admit at the outset that it's on a site that has no real pretensions to seriousness.  A herself is very serious, however, a very very serious young person, so I expected something less fluffy.

Fluffy doesn't necessarily mean harmless, though.  The article begins:
When reality TV dumpling Honey Boo Boo Child declared that "everybody's a little bit gay" three years ago, she was unknowingly taking a page out of sexologist Alfred Kinsey's book. His famous Kinsey scale, which identifies people's levels of same- or opposite-sex attraction with a number from zero to six (zero being exclusively straight, six being exclusively gay), has been a favorite cultural metric for measuring sexual orientation since it was created in 1948. 
I presume that the author, Nicolas DiDomizio, believes that Kinsey found that "everybody's a little bit gay."  He didn't.  Half of his male sample were exclusively heterosexual in thought, word and deed throughout their lives; even more of the female sample.  The "Kinsey scale" doesn't measure sexual orientation, it's a graphic representation of sexual behavior.  If "gay" and "straight" are identities rather than quantities of sexual behavior, the Kinsey scale has nothing to say about them.  There's no way to measure sexual orientation, though I hear the Tarot is well thought of in some circles.

I was about to add that one's position on the Kinsey scale is not something one assigns oneself, but the result of taking Kinsey's lengthy interview protocol to collect one's sexual history.  That interview is not limited to homo/heterosexuality, by the way: it covers a lot more ground than that.  (Something to bear in mind when someone claims that the scale doesn't describe all aspects of sexuality: it's true, but then it wasn't intended to. It wasn't intended or designed even to represent all the varieties of sexual behavior on which Kinsey collected his data.  It was intended to make it easier to visualize the fact that many people's sexual histories are not either exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual.)  But then I noticed that the link to "Kinsey scale" in the quoted passage went to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research, and I clicked through.  That page includes this information:
How do I take the Kinsey test?
There is no ‘test.’ The scale is purely a method of self-evaluation based on your individual experience, and the rating you choose may change over time.
The scale ranges from 0, for those who would identify themselves as exclusively heterosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with their same sex, to 6, for those who would identify themselves as exclusively homosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with those of the opposite sex, and 1-5 for those who would identify themselves with varying levels of desire or sexual activity with either sex.
There's nothing to stop people from assigning themselves a place on the scale, of course, but that's not what Kinsey invented it for, and it's not how it was used in his big books.  To see the Kinsey Institute endorsing self-evaluation in their official site boggles my mind.  For one thing, according to today's popular folklore, you don't "choose" your position on the Kinsey scale, you're born there.

[P.S.  If you click through the Kinsey Institute's link, you'll find a very different text at the site.  I wrote to them about the questions I've raised here, and they not only replied graciously, they revised the page.  The new version is much better, in my opinion.  I'm leaving the previous version here for comparison.]

My next question, which also follows from DiDomizio's article, is why people would be interested in assigning themselves a place on the Kinsey scale in the first place.  DiDomizio's next sentence suggests one possibility: "But even though asking someone where they fall on the Kinsey scale is now a common dating website opener, the Kinsey scale is far from an all-inclusive system."  If there's one thing the scale was not intended for, it was a dating opener.

Asking someone where they fall on the Kinsey scale might be a bit more informative than asking them their sign or their major or where their grandparents were born, but not much.  Just because I am exclusively homosexual, for example, it doesn't follow that I will be attracted to any given male.  I can describe certain looks that often attract me, but even among those "types" there are many I'm not attracted to at all.  Contrariwise, I'm attracted to many males who don't fit those types.  For sorting through the people on a dating website, the Kinsey scale has no evident use.  The same job could be done by having people specify whether they're interested in dating males, females, or both.  The exact percentage of each -- and remember, a self-assigned Kinsey number provides no exactness at all -- is not going to help.  In my limited experience with dating sites, many men who label themselves "straight" are seeking out other males to have sex with.  I suspect that they call themselves "straight" in case anyone who knows them sees their profiles, to avoid stigma.  "Bisexual" would be more accurate, but (aside from not wanting anyone who knows them to see it on their profiles) many people have weird squickiness about that word; not because it doesn't sufficiently describe them, but because it has some kind of cooties that they can't or won't specify, or that make no sense when they try.  (The same is true of "gay" and "straight.")

All this is just prelude to DiDomizio's touting an epic new classification system, "the Purple-Red Scale of Attraction" (sounds like something you'd see at The Onion, doesn't it?), invented by a "Southern California man [named] Langdon Parks [who] recently realized, the [Kinsey] scale fails to address other aspects of human sexuality, such as whether or not we even care about getting laid in the first place."  (Goodness, all these labels!  Why can't we just, you know, be like, ourselves?)

So Parks designed a grid that "[l]ike the Kinsey scale, ... allows you to assign a number from zero to six to your level of same-sex or heterosexual attraction, but it also lets you label how you experience that attraction on a scale of A to F. A represents asexuality, or a total lack of interest in sex 'besides friendship and/or aesthetic attraction,' while F represents hypersexuality."

As I've already noted but might as well insist again, the Kinsey scale wasn't designed to allow you to assign a number to yourself.  But leave that aside.  Here's the product:

Complicated enough for you?  Amusingly and predictably, Parks has been criticized for not including more variables.  As with gender, once you start multiplying names for differences, it's hard to know where to stop.  It's easy to make fun of these ramifying categories, and maybe it's a little unfair, but by the time you've gone to the lengths Parks did here, you're already in the realm of the comic.

For example, it's certainly valid to notice that some people are slower than others to be ready to copulate.  (This has been named demisexuality, for no reason I can make out.)  It's important to be considerate of other people's limits if we want to have a relationship with them.  But is that a "sexual orientation," or even a major chunk of one?  Some men I'm ready to have sex with right away, in the institutions of promiscuity that gay men have cultivated.  Even in those zones, I may hesitate over whether a specific man will do for the moment's play; maybe he gives me bad vibes.  Outside of those zones, I may be much more reluctant, because outside of those zones copulation brings with it expectations of commitments of various kinds.  Or I may not be reluctant, depending on the man and the situation.  But again, even if I were much more consistent, would that count as sexual orientation?

Then there are the pitfalls of self-evaluation I've already alluded to.  Often I've met men who said they 'liked to get to know the other person before having sex.'  In practice, this usually meant five to fifteen minutes of conversation before they grabbed my crotch.  Which reminds me of Annick Prieur's wry account of vestidas in Mexico City:**
Some added that they enjoyed being reserved during the initial flirt, letting the man take the initiative. As far as I can judge, however, this is far from true; they are about as coy as starving ravens. Flaca is one of those who claimed to be coy. But when I asked her how she expresses this, it all boiled down to her not actually grabbing the sexual organs of the men she accosts.
I also suspect that some people fend off their prospective partners' advances because for temperamental reasons they want to make the first move. Maybe that wish is also a sexual orientation.

DiDomazio claims that Parks's grid "acknowledges the shades of grey in sexual orientation and sexual interest. Both, he explained, are fluid and largely dependent on context."  Actually, nothing in the article shows how the grid covers either fluidity or context-dependence: the two axes insist on putting yourself into a particular box.  Taking fluidity and context into account would complicate the grid impossibly, though.  "I'm not interested in sex until the fifth -- not the fourth, not the sixth -- date, for purposes of pleasing my partner until I get bored with them, whereupon I start looking for another -- unless my partner decides to break up with me first, in which case I will fasten myself to them like a leech" is one possible case, and I can't see how to fit it into Parks's system.
But Parks believes that having a simple tool like the Purple-Red Attraction Scale can be useful, particularly as a way to improve communication in the dating world. "The scale was designed to provide a quick and easy way of scoring a person's view of relationships on forums and dating sites," he said. Imagine, for instance, if you logged onto OkCupid and entered your sexual orientation as D5, instead of simply self-identifying as "gay," "straight" or "bisexual." 


Parks also noted that the Purple-Red scale is a great way to match partners who have similar or compatible sex drives. "Attraction type is every bit as important as orientation," he told Mic. "We see it all the time: John wants sex, sex, sex, while Jane doesn't have the feeling right away."
The Purple-Red grid isn't really simple, in my opinion.  From what I've seen of dating sites, including OK Cupid, they already try to account for differences in erotic style.  Where "sex drive" is concerned, Parks's system is really no help, though that was something Kinsey studied even if it wasn't a factor in the homosexual/heterosexual continuum.  One of his primary goals in studying human sexual behavior to was to get a sense of its range.  One person might need several orgasms a day, another might feel the urge once a month, or less often.  As for that closing sentence about John and Jane, remember the scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall where his therapist asks him how often he and Annie have sex, and he replies "Hardly ever -- three times a week"; her therapist asks her how often they make love, and she replies, "All the time -- three times a week."  Frequency is subjective, and it often changes over the life of a relationship: at first you can't keep your hands off each other, but after a few months you can.  The quality of the sex changes too.   For some couples it changes differently, but that's one more variation that Parks doesn't map.

I suppose there's something to be said for this parlor game if it encourages people to recognize the variety of sexual tastes and needs, to feel better about their own differences, and to communicate with each other about them.  But it seems to me that these schemes are as likely to have the opposite effect: to encourage people to put themselves in ever-smaller boxes.

Parks's system reminds me of other popular self-classification schemes I've heard about.  In the 90s there was the Bear Code, a maniacally complicated system favored by some men I talked to online.  I mean, isn't your beard or the lack of it a crucial factor in your sexual orientation?  Why didn't Langdon Parks factor it into his scale?  Before that there was the Hanky Code, by which a (usually) gay man signaled his erotic tastes (oral, anal, piss, fisting, dominance) by the color of the handkerchief he carried in his back pocket, and his role (top/bottom) by whether it was in the right or left pocket. (Q: What if you can't distinguish between a purple, a lavender, or a magenta hanky?  A: Then you're not really gay, bitch.)  His key ring also signified something or other, depending on which side he wore it.  Of course reality was more complex, with the signficant sides reversed on the East and West coasts.

When a gay politico couple from New York came to speak at IU in the early 70s, one hopefully sophisticated young queen (not moi, if you're wondering) asked them about the hanky and key codes and which side was which.  One of our visitors gave the standard reply, that they varied depending on which coast you were on; the other then chuckled, "Except in February, which hath twenty-nine," and added, "In general, if you want to know, you ask."  Exactly.  And if you can't give an honest answer, no classification system will help you.

*Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (Verso, 1975), page 168. Quoted in Feyerabend and Scientific Values: Tightrope-Walking Rationality by Robert P. Farrell, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, p. 158-9.
** Annick Prieur, Mema's House (Chicago, 1999), page 174.