Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Our Precious Sexuality Fluids

In this week's column, Dan Savage answers questions he received in written form at a college appearance.  I thought this one was interesting:
I’ve always considered myself a lesbian, but a few weeks ago, I got really drunk and slept with one of my male best friends. Am I not a lesbian?
Female sexuality is a lot more fluid, as they say, and many lesbian-identified women have slept with men. Your sexuality identity—the label you choose to apply to yourself—should communicate the essential truth about your sexual interests and partner preferences. So you’re free to identify as a lesbian even if you slip and fall on the occasional dick.
His answer is thoroughly inadequate, but that's not entirely his fault, because there are no clear boundaries in this area.  As Savage says, many lesbian-identified women have slept with men, and (he might have mentioned) more than incidentally.  But I think he's wrong that "female sexuality is a lot more fluid" than (presumably) male sexuality.  Many gay-identified men have slept with women, and many straight-identified men have slept with men.  We have no idea how many, of course.  I considered invoking Alfred Kinsey here, but his research is really no help because he didn't study identities.  A lot of people say he found that 10% of the male population was gay, but they're wrong.  Kinsey found that 10% of the (white, incidentally) male population had mostly same-sex outlet to the point of orgasm for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55; he didn't report how they identified themselves.  We don't even know how the 4% of white males who had only same-sex outlet throughout their lives identified themselves.

I'm almost done reading Barbara Deming's A Humming Under My Feet, which I mentioned yesterday, and I'm struck, not just with how many times she records having let men have sex with her (read the book and you'll see why I put it that way) despite her knowledge that she only really desired and fell in love with women, but with how often she seriously considered marrying a man because that's what you're supposed to do: get married to a man, have his children, be a serious mature adult.  From Martin Duberman's account of Deming and her younger contemporary, the gay socialist David McReynolds in A Saving Remnant, it's clear that McReynolds's experience was similar.  Even more depressing, Deming abandoned her lover Nell to the courtship of her brother Ben, with the same rationale: a woman could only offer another woman a second-best kind of love.

But back to Dan Savage.  Just before the question from the lesbian, he answered this one:
I’m a guy who does not find guys physically attractive. Even so, I like to give and receive blowjobs with men. Does this mean anything about my sexual orientation?
The question here, I suppose, is how many times you can have sex with someone who isn't covered by your sexual identity before it means anything about your sexual orientation.  Since part of the definition of "sexual orientation" is that you find people of that sex attractive, or as the American Psychological Association defines it:
Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectional attraction toward others. It is easily distinguished from other components of sexuality including biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and the social gender role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior).
(Except that sexual orientation isn't really "easily distinguished" from those other components: most people, including professionals, tend to confuse them.)  "Sexual identity," as I've noticed before, is a confused and confusing label.  It ought to mean which biological sex (male or female) one identifies as, but it's commonly used to refer to which sexual orientation one answers to.  "Sexual identity" is often confused with "sexual orientation," whose meaning is itself unclear due to the ambiguity of the word "sex."  (It's often used to refer to any erotic preference, which has led to pedophilia being called a sexual orientation even though children are not a sex.)  Even among professional sex researchers and other putative experts, the terminology for human sexuality is a mess.  Among us laypeople, it's totally incoherent.

It's tempting to say that labels are useless, and we should just get rid of them and be people.  Many people give in to that temptation, but I haven't noticed that they really get rid of labels.  Instead they just shift them around a little.  If I choose not to label myself, other people will be happy to take up the slack, so I think I had better be prepared to deal with that.  If I do label myself, they will misunderstand the labels, and sometimes I suspect that misunderstanding is deliberate.  Or maybe it's just the old "Don't stereotype me, but I'll stereotype you all I want" approach.

A disturbing aspect of Deming's experiences with males as she describes them in A Humming Under My Feet is that the men who tried to pressure her into copulation (and too often succeeded) just assumed that if they wanted her, she must want them back, or at any rate be willing and available -- especially since she was a single woman traveling alone; this made her fair game.  They wouldn't take a direct "no" for an answer, and she had to be quite insistent that she wasn't available to them.  One notable swine, a Greek sailor whose roaming hands she had to fend off for hours, finally sneered at her, "So you don't like men?"
I believe in love, I told him.  I added that I was sorry if he'd misunderstood me.  He gave a contemptuous shrug and strode off [218].
Even if her "sexual identity" had been straight or bi, she might simply not have wanted him.  To say so might have been dangerous for her, of course: male pride is touchy, and is often defended with violence.  That too is one of the inequities feminism rejects: that women must always be careful of men's feelings, though men needn't reciprocate. 

This refusal to take "no" for an answer is not limited to straights, of course.  Many people figure that if you're the right sex for them, they're the right sex for you, and if your "sexual identity" confirms that, then you are not allowed to turn them down.  They're allowed to turn others down, of course, because that's different. These issues are really prior to questions of identities and labels.  There's no real need to explain why you're turning down -- or, for that matter accepting -- someone's sexual overtures in terms of orientations or identities; simply saying "No, thanks" or "Yes, thanks" ought to be enough.  People with inadequate erotic manners won't be stopped by a mere identity: they'll be sure that they can be the exception to your orientation.

Identities aren't just individual phenomena, though, they're social, and ideally they help us to interact considerately with one another.    They're also used for solidarity and control, which has a downside too.  If someone asked me the same question that young lesbian asked Dan Savage, I think I'd turn it around: What would you say if another lesbian you knew asked you the same question?  Your answer to her would be my answer to you.