What Do I Mean “Your Sexuality Isn’t Natural”?

In my post “Working Thoughts on Gender and Sexuality,” I used the words “natural” and “naturally” to describe something I don’t subscribe to. When I was explaining my thoughts included there to a friend at work, he got me thinking how I’m using those words.

Natural can refer to socially constructed things, because no one exists outside of social relations. In that sense, all that humans do is natural. Even the prisoner in solitary confinement has food brought to him or her; social relations do not have to include words. They simply infer what one does not do oneself. So I may cook my own food, but Walmart workers stocked shelves, from materials transported by truck and train, from materials worked on a farm, from seed and antibiotics administered by farmers, bought from corporations, produced from still more materials, etc. While all that involves many steps, it is natural in the sense of humans produce and consume socially.

I do not mean natural in that way, however. What I am reacting against is “essentialism.” This word (essentially, ha!) carries the idea that if an object or concept is called by something, then it must contain all elements of the definition, or else not be that. Take the word “human” or anything having to do with humanity. One-size-fits-all definitions tend to leave out a lot of human phenomena. If humans are featherless bipeds, do persons who are quadriplegic qualify as humans? If humans are meaning-making animals, are people in comas or vegetative states nonhuman? If women are defined functionally by having the ability to bear children, do women who cannot bear children (or just don’t) not qualify as women?

To the person who says we need definitions in place to have a conversation, I will agree. But I think definitions need to be working definitions to deal with living data. If my definition does not capture all that is human, I need to interrogate the usefulness of my definition. Definitions necessarily leave something out, but how much do they leave out (or how far are they inclusive?) before they cease to be useful? I also think definitions need to be brought into discussion rather than just thrown around as if they have innate meaning. African-Americans and white Americans many times mean completely different things with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” until they discuss their situatedness.

Speaking of situatedness, I am aiming in my writing for more concreteness. My same friend asked me what percentage of people are born gay. I don’t think we’re born anything because we haven’t expressed anything yet when we’re born. I think there are predispositions for things at birth—presence of genetic markers for given traits, a certain ratio of sex hormones—but again, these do not determine outcomes. Babies don’t think other babies are hot or want to date people with a different or similar pair of genitals; they want to eat, if even that. Their self-expression is limited to eating, sleeping, pooping, and peeing. I attribute gender and sexuality to personhood, and babies, while starting their journey of personhood, simply don’t have much yet.

My initial bias does not include much interaction with genetic research on gender, I will admit. What I was trying to say is that possessing certain criteria (I provided three—hormones, sex organs, and chromosomes) does not determine existence. So maybe “non-determinism” regarding gender and sexuality is what I was talking about and not “unnaturalness,” or more concretely, “You’re not born with sexual express.” As I will admit throughout my blog, I offer ideas in process. Because of this stance, I invite questions, disputes, clarifications, negations. All I ask is that we bring a stance of at least understanding the other on their own terms before disagreeing with them on our terms. If I fail to do that, call me out. I don’t know it all. I just kind of claim to know where I’m coming from, though that isn’t always the case either.

Working Thoughts on Gender and Sexuality

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I like things having to do with social theory. One of my first musings about society had to do with gender and sexuality. This post won’t so much deal with gender theory as with the biases I bring to research. My thoughts on gender and sexuality developed as I sought to define my own gender role and sexuality. Furthermore, I noticed that some people didn’t fit gender stereotypes and I wanted to know why. If gender were a naturally occurring phenomenon and not socially constructed, how did such a position account for the presence of “gender anomalies”? What of “alternative” sexualities?

Explanations of gender and sexuality aberration that did not satisfy me were childhood trauma or mere force of will. These explanations assume a few things. First, they assume that heterosexuality and traditional gender expression occurs naturally, almost as if parents and other authority figures left children to their own devices from birth, they would come out “naturally”—i.e., heterosexual and traditional in gender expression. Second, it assumes something drastic has to happen to overturn one’s natural makeup. When a given makeup is attributed solely to males and solely to females (and only those two sexes), childhood trauma or choosing not to be normal can make sense of a minority population. However, there are tons of people who don’t fit normal gender and sexual stereotypes who weren’t abused/neglected and who didn’t choose whom they were attracted to. Regarding abuse/neglect, more often people express gender in a male/masculine female/feminine way and are heterosexual; how then would the variable of abuse/neglect produce butch females, effeminate males, or people wishing to transition to another gender, when such account for so little of the general population?

I see gender and sexuality formed, discussed, censored, attacked, reinforced, encouraged, defined, redefined, debated, or denounced from infancy onward. The so-called “natural” heterosexual is such through continued inculcation of the following: constant reinforcement that heterosexuality is natural and “other” sexualities are aberrations from this norm. If it were natural, I don’t think heterosexuality would need constant reinforcement. Statements such as “Boys don’t cry,” or “Son, if you walk like that, it won’t be girls you attract,” or “That’s not ladylike,” or “Boys don’t like girls who speak their mind,” or “Boys who like theater are gay” wouldn’t need to be said. Even more basic than that, though: nurseries are decorated according to a certain color palate based on a baby’s sex. What toys they play with and how their parents interact with them from birth is already playing into a budding personality. And this doesn’t even touch on intersex individuals. I guess in my mind, natural=instinctual (understood this way, how much of what humans do is natural?); if something has to be taught, it ain’t natural. Perhaps that is too narrow of a definition but that is how I understand it currently.

But I also don’t assume that homosexuality is natural either. Sexuality is such a complex thing in my mind, that while it entails natural phenomena—hormones, sex organs, chromosomes—such do not determine how things will flesh out socially. The mere fact that I possess more testosterone than estrogen, working sex organs, and xy chromosomes does not put the stamp on how I will express gender or sexuality. What do those shared traits have to do with radical social differences within genders and even within sexualities?

Regarding definitions, Brian K. Smith (brought to my attention by Russell McCutcheon) helpfully notes that definition is not a finality but a beginning, at least concerning scholarship. It gets a conversation started and can be modified along the way. So with this initial post on gender and sexuality, I attribute their expression primarily to socialization. Biology has its part to play in providing the props; social activity is the actor who employs the props.

In later posts, I want to develop these thoughts in how I play them with “religion” (scare quotes, because in religious studies, this word is notoriously hard to pin down).

I invite and hope for your thoughts.