Saturday, January 28, 2012

Is Sexuality A Choice?
And: Two Arguments About Same-Sex Sex

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I actually think the answer is fairly clear, and it's: kinda.

Desires can be modified, tamped down, and cultivated. Anyone who has ever cultivated a taste for anything (e.g. beer, coffee, exercise, discordant music, hard work) can attest to this. There is no reason to think that sexual desire is sui generis. One could undoubtedly simply choose to have sex exclusively with any/a certain kind of person--say, men--so long as sex is broadly characterized. (I've known several "political lesbians" who claimed that their decisions to have sex with only females was a (political) choice. These were not the most sensible people I've ever known...so I'm no sure how heavily to weigh this evidence...but there it is.) Also, cases of people denying their sexuality for awhile are common enough...so there's no reason to think they can't do so for their whole lives.

However, there's also, rather obviously, a very strong component to sexual desire that is non-optional.*

I think that liberals, gay activists etc. tended and tend to emphasize the innate/non-optional aspects of sexuality because this constituted part of a seemingly iron-clad 'ought'-implies-'can' argument: sexual desire cannot be changed, 'ought' implies 'can', therefore it is not the case that one ought to change one's sexual desires. (Note: not 'one ought not,' but 'it is not the case that one ought/must.') As some of the folks Sully cites note, this type of argument is modeled on certain arguments about race, which is not changeable.

However, I've long doubted the first premise (for reasons gestured at above)...and this argument misses the real point. The real point is that there is simply not a damn thing wrong about same-sex sex between consenting adults (adding in all the peripheral caveats about informed consent and so forth).** Running this better, more centrally-important and more substantial argument forces us to directly address the permissibility of same-sex sex...but the fact of the matter is that there is not a single even vaguely plausible argument for the claim that such sex is impermissible. (Arguments about the teloi of the sex organs simply don't work--not, at least, unless we are willing to embrace conclusions to the effect that it's impermissible to e.g. wear glasses because the telos of the nose is not to support them.) The burden of proof in such cases, in which there is no prima facie harm, is clearly on those who argue for impermissibility. And, honestly, the arguments there are laughably, disastrously, head-spinningly bad.

Anyway, I understand the strategic, rhetorical reasons for relying on the first type of argument...but note that that argument does not actually get us to the conclusion that same-sex sex is permissible. Note that parallel 'ought'-implies-'can' arguments can be made about pedophiles who, apparently, don't have any more control over their desires than anyone else. The first type of argument only gets us to same-sex sexual desire/attraction is not impermissible--it doesn't get us any farther. If same-sex sex where impermissible, then, even if sexual desire were completely unchangeable, people with sexual desire for those of the same sex would simply have an obligation to resist their desires. That's the the case with pedophiles, for example, and for people who have sexual desire for people who don't desire them back. The difference between the pedophile case and the case of same-sex sex is obvious, however, and it's the crucial difference here: pedophilia is morally wrong, whereas consensual sex between consenting adults (typically) is not.

So the first argument--the 'ought'-implies-'can' excuse argument--is really irrelevant, since it needs to be supplemented by the second argument anyway. So--rhetorical/tactical considerations to the side--liberals should focus on the second argument, and go directly for the conclusion that same-sex sex is morally permissible.



* A little thought will show that the shift of focus there from "sexuality" (a broader, vaguer notion) to sexual desire is ok here.

** Note also that we shouldn't be wild about the use of the first type of argument in the context of race, either. For the implication is that we're saying something like "Oh...well...I mean...I guess if you can't stop being Asian (or whatever) it's ok then...."

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