Sunday, July 7, 2019

You Know You Want It

I've been thinking more about Dan Savage's remarks on sexual attraction, and I realized that I couldn't make any sense out of the final clause of this sentence:
But instead of reconsidering their ideas about attractiveness, a dumb fucking white person—even one from a liberal background—is likelier to say something stupid like “I don’t usually find Asian guys hot, but your Korean friend is attractive,” rather than rethinking their assumptions about their desires. 
As I wrote before, it seems to me that the statement he made up to attack represents someone rethinking their assumptions about their desires.  But then I wondered what "assumptions about their desires" are involved here.  Specifically, I wondered what Dan's assumptions about anyone's desires were, because I don't think he knows anything about the assumptions of the person he's criticizing.

Does he believe that she was already attracted to Asian men but simply, wickedly or fucking dumb whitely, refused to acknowledge it, even to herself?  Because Dan was expressing an assumption, he didn't need to express it clearly, even in his own mind. 

The reason I'm wary of the concept of sexual orientation is that it assumes that human beings contain a mechanism or an organ that responds erotically to a sex, male or female or both.  But as far as I can tell, most people are attracted not to males or females but to some males or some females.  Which ones often changes over time, probably based on experience; not just overt copulatory experience, because for most people the number of people we might want to copulate with is far greater than the number we do copulate with.  But we can still look, fantasize, dream, wish, and we do.  Some people do this more than others, but I doubt that anyone never does it.

People often talk about sexual fluidity, but they don't seem to really mean it.  If your desires aren't genetically, immutably rooted in your being, they don't really count and needn't be respected.  Which I think plays a role in the idea that discovering you're attracted to someone or members of a group you hadn't been attracted to before must be "fetishizing" them - if you weren't aware of it from the age of five, it's not authentic and is probably wicked and exploitative.  So, by Dan's assumptions, what does it mean that I wasn't attracted to fifty-year-old men when I was twenty, but I am now, at sixty-eight?  Was I really, genetically attracted to them already?  Should I have gone to bed with them even though I wasn't attracted to them, because I might be attracted them forty years later? If this case isn't comparable to being attracted to men of a specific "racial" category, how is it different?

There also seems to be a widespread assumption (which may coexist in someone's mind with other, contradictory ones) that our erotic partners are people who rock us to the core.  From what other people have written or said (listening to the stories of other volunteers on the GLB Speakers Bureau has taught me a lot), a significant number of people accepted erotic overtures from people they weren't particularly attracted to, with a "Why not?" attitude, especially but not always when they were younger and less experienced.

One of our volunteers from a rural background recounted how, when he was in high school, he met another gay kid his own age.  They came out to one another and became friends, and discussed whether they should have sex.  Neither had any experience up to this point, and didn't know how long it would be before they had another opportunity.  In the end they decided not to, because they weren't especially attracted to one another.  The instructor of the Psychology class we were addressing became uncomfortable at that point and reassured her students that not all gay men would have sex with just anyone, as if it were unreasonable for two people with few options to get together faute de mieux.  The situation isn't only a gay one; it's the premise of all the man-and-woman-on-a-desert-island cartoons I saw in magazines when I was growing up.  It's also the premise of arranged marriages, where erotic attraction is low on the list of priorities for the matchmakers.  What is important in any erotic situation is that both partners must have the right to say no.

Dan Savage seems to be assuming in this case that they don't have the right to say no, to not be attracted to people for irrational, even petty reasons.  But all erotic desire is irrational: it's not based on a fact-based evaluation of the possibilities.  No one needs a reason to desire another, or to refuse another's overtures.  I'm pretty sure Dan doesn't believe that it's illegitimate for him not to find women "hot."  I know that consent is one of the touchstones of his erotic ethic.  What I don't understand is why he thinks that he's justified in dumping on someone for not being attracted to any other people.  Not being attracted to someone of a given "race" is no worse, and no better, than not being attracted to them on any other basis, and no one should have to justify not being attracted to someone, even someone who wants them very badly.

There's also a difference between not being attracted to a person and choosing not to copulate with them.  One might decline for any number of reasons: being in a monogamous relationship at the moment, not wanting to copulate with anyone at the moment, having religious or other principled reasons for abstention, not being in the mood right now, not wanting to copulate without being in a committed relationship with the other, etc.  Someone I knew years ago, a white Southerner with pretensions to gentility, acknowledged the beauty of a young African-American man we both knew.  But then my acquaintance became uncomfortable: "Oh, Ah couldn't," he said repeatedly, "Ah just couldn't, Ah couldn't."  So, I said, don't.  But he couldn't seem to let it alone.  Maybe he eventually rethought his assumptions about his desires (though his desire in this case was clear enough) and his criteria for an erotic partner; it didn't come up again.  But should he have decided to bed this young man because he had hangups about sex with black men?  What assumptions are we dealing with here?

"Race" is not the only issue.  As I've mentioned, sex/gender is another, and it's not clear why it's privileged -- why Dan Savage shouldn't consider himself a dumb fucking gay man for not wanting to have sex with women.  One reason I object to the bogus claim that we're all basically bisexual is that in practice it's often used to try to nag someone who into having erotic experience they're not interested in having because not being bisexual is so uptight.  Even if I were bisexual -- a "perfect 3 on the Kinsey Scale" as some doofuses have put it -- there would still be plenty of people of both sexes I wouldn't be attracted to.

There has also been some controversy because some lesbians refuse to copulate with transwomen.  Whether that refusal expresses prejudice ought to be irrelevant.  If it is, who would want to get naked with someone prejudiced against them?  I happened on a blog post on this matter a couple of years ago, and some commenters denied that anyone was saying that lesbians must have sex with transwomen - but very quickly some other commenters made it clear that that was exactly what they were saying.  You can argue with the rationalizations that some have given for not copulating with transwomen, they might be prejudiced or bigoted, but none of this overrides the principle of consent: everybody's right to say no and to have that decision respected.

One of the ongoing themes in discourse about human sexuality has been the attempt to justify negating consent: why someone should not be allowed to say no.  Sometimes it's just personal petulance -- I want you, why don't you want me, you have to give me what I want because I want it. But even then, the nagger may try to invoke larger principles.  Almost everybody pays lip service to consent, but in practice, they're not so sure.  I still don't know why Dan Savage thinks that people should be shamed or coerced into acknowledging desires they don't in fact have.  If you're not consciously aware of being attracted to someone, you're not attracted to them.  Maybe that will change, but for now, it's not there.

Am I running on too long about a minor issue?  I don't think so.  Variations on this issue are surprisingly common.  Most attention has been given to defending people's freedom to have the kinds of sex they want; less has been devoted to defending their freedom not to have sex they don't want.  It's interesting how easily asserting the first turns into denying the second.