On Defining Sexual Orientation

Why Should We Care to Define It?

I’m not sure if sexual orientation has ever been adequately defined.  Most sites I’ve seen have been fairly ambiguous about the parameters of sexual orientation, and yet most people are still thoroughly opinionated about what they include and do not include in the definition.  Are fetishes sexual orientations?  Why or why not?  Does it include things like race or age as well as gender?  Why or why not?  How do we determine what a sexual orientation is, let alone what can be defined as one?  These are important questions, and yet in my experience many people in the LGBT community are generally afraid to commit to anything too ‘nailed down’ when it comes to defining sexual orientation, and that isn’t hard to understand given the long history of disenfranchisement of homosexuals, bisexuals, et al by the scientific community, including the so-called soft sciences.  I think there’s a dread of putting too many eggs in that basket only to see the social winds shift in the other direction and the evidence manipulated to the disadvantage of everyone but white bread heterosexuals.  I mean, sexual non-normatives have been burned in the past after all (sometimes quite literally).

And yes, society changes, the zeitgeist swinging back and forth on social and political issues, but it is my observation that the greater motion is inevitably and steadily towards tolerance.  For truth flows freely into understanding, which is to say, that which is known cannot then be a source for fear of the unknown, the likely origin of most intolerance of ‘out groups.’  I say it is the likely origin of most intolerance, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that I am here referring to all extant intolerance.  It may originate in fear of the unknown, but it is maintained largely through social conditioning, which is itself tied into those cognitive biases and the avoidance of cognitive dissonance I have discussed in earlier threads, making it a difficult thing to extract once it has grown roots in the mind.

At any rate, I think that some standardized criteria for the determination of a sexual orientation should be set in place, for a few reasons.  First and perhaps most importantly, it is vital to define sexual orientation in order to gain a better understanding of ourselves, which is advantageous in the formation of self-confidence.  We shall take an intellectual comfort in knowing who we are and why we are who we are.  In the same way that knowledge of our ancestry gives us roots in our time and place within our families, a full understanding of our sexual identity can give us a sense of both our unique place in the beautiful variegated tapestry of humanity and a satisfying familiarity with those like us.  When there are big chunks of our identity that we do not understand, we can feel out of place in our own skins, unable to settle into ourselves, and a rich, well-rounded knowledge of what sexual orientations are would no doubt be useful towards relieving that sort of existential discomfort.  This is especially crucial when we’re young adolescents just learning to navigate the treacherous, brackish waters of adult sexuality.

A second reason for marking out a clearer concept of sexual orientation is that it facilitates the smooth operation of scientific studies and scientific work, which, when done correctly and for the right reasons, are of immense benefit to all.  Still another reason would be for designating which forms of sexuality are to be afforded a certain status of equality and protection under law and which are not, as well as other legal questions that may arise with regard to sexual orientations.

There are other reasons I could lay out, but those should suffice.  And with that said, I will now offer my definition of a sexual orientation.

A Working Definition

In my view, the first and central marker for sexual orientation is an ongoing sexual preference, reaction, or condition towards members of a naturally occurring subset of a viable human population.  Now, let’s examine each part of that definition, with particular attention paid to the ‘naturally occurring subset of a viable human population’ clause in the above definition, because I don’t think it has heretofore been considered a proper facet of sexual orientation, at least not that I have ever seen.

Let’s start with that.  Why should this be a factor?  Well, in order to understand what’s so important about this concept, we must examine first what I mean by a viable human population.  This I define as any human population large and diverse enough to sustain perpetuation of the species.  This would mean that both genders would be required in such a population, and enough genetic diversity for the population not to genetically self-destruct.  But there are other dimensions that are relevant here that are rarely considered.  Perhaps the most important of them is age, since not all ages of human beings are equally capable of bearing and raising children; indeed, age is almost universally a factor in sexual orientation, since humans are generally attracted to a particular age range in addition to their gender preferences.  For the majority of people, whether gay, straight or otherwise, attraction is fairly age-specific: it does not start at age zero nor stretch indefinitely upwards.  In other words, there is a finite age range most of us have for our preferred partners that is biologically determined.  Consider that most people are not attracted to children or to the elderly, and additionally there is an optimum age or age range we find most attractive.

Now, before I go any further, I want to point out that I’m only speaking of viable populations as an overall marker for understanding the context of sexual orientations; I am NOT arguing that only those subsets of said population which can directly further the human species are to be considered as sexual orientations.  Rather, I am defining sexual orientations with respect to overall viable populations because I believe that sexual orientations could logically only develop genetic markers (and I’m quite convinced those are present) over time within a population where an ongoing attraction to a human subset could be sated, which means that those subsets have to be present long-term in the population somewhere.  To put it plainly, it makes no sense that a sexual orientation would arise in a population if the subset of that population a person was oriented towards did not occur commonly enough to make it worthwhile or advantageous for the orientation to arise.

And here is where we get to the part of my definition ‘naturally occurring.’  I think this is a relevant factor for precisely the reason I stated above.  A subset of a population that would inspire the development of a sexual orientation would have to be a prominent part of a viable human population pretty much by design–hence, naturally occurring.  Therefore, we could automatically rule out, say, an attraction to people with purple hair as a sexual orientation.  Why?  Because purple hair does not occur naturally, or at least not regularly enough to instigate the evolution of a genetic sexual predisposition towards people with purple hair.  But what of those with blond or black hair?  Well, the issue for me hinges on the fact of a population subset’s degree of relevance to the continuance of the overall species, and sorry to say, hair color is not an important factor in whether a population will be viable in the long term.  As such, hair color–whether blond, black, red, brown, purple, or orange with green polka dots–cannot be parlayed into an entire sexual orientation.  Nor could skin color, eye color or even race, even though these are naturally occurring phenomenon in human populations.

What can be included, then?  Well, let’s start with the original: gender.  We must now ask ourselves two questions: One, does it occur naturally?  Yes.  And two, is it intrinsic to the continuation of the species?  Yes.  Since both of these questions  can be answered in the affirmative, we can definitively say that gender is a relevant aspect of sexual orientation.  But the problem most people make is in looking at sexual orientation one-dimensionally, and that is as a matter of gender preference.  But we have already determined that there is at least one other dimension that impacts most people in their sexual identity, and that is age.  Again, we put the two questions to the test, and again the answer is ‘yes’ in both instances because age occurs naturally and because age of sexual maturity is a factor in all viable populations.  Age is thus a factor with respect to sexual orientation, and an important one.  And because of that, age-defined sexual attraction must necessarily be included as sexual orientations.

Age-Based Orientations

There are three broad categories here that everyone fits into: pedophilia (attraction to prepubescent children), teleiophilia (attraction to young to middle-aged adults, the category most people fall into) and gerontophilia (attraction to the elderly).  Please note that the classification of these categories as sexual orientations does not mean the behaviors associated with them should be regarded or treated equally under law; there are good reasons why adults having sex with children especially should not be legally protected.  But a distinction must be made between the orientation as a psycho-physiological state and the sexual activities of certain pedophiles.  It should be noted that there are pedophiles who do not act upon their sexual feelings or inclinations, and others who do not act upon them in any manner harmful to children, meaning they relegate their attractions to their fantasies alone.  However, I submit that such people should otherwise be granted the legal status and protections due all sexual orientations.

Sex with the elderly could also be problematic in certain situations where the elder has become helpless or otherwise beholden to the gerontophile, and those situations must be dealt with accordingly in the realm of law, but again, beyond that gerontophiles should receive the same protections under law as any biologically innate sexual orientation.  Essentially, I believe there is no place in a just society for emotionally-conditioned stigmas and taboos.  The law of course is a different matter, but I do not believe that social judgment and hatred of those who are sexually different from us is helpful to the situation as it is only likely to drive abusive types underground.  Sexual orientation is a deep-seated aspect of our identities and one almost impossible to reverse.  Demanding pedophiles, gerontophiles or indeed, teleiophiles to obey society’s laws is reasonable; asking them to change a fundamental aspect of who they are, or judging them for it, is not.

Species and Sexual Orientation

We have so far determined that there are two major dimensions to sexual orientation, gender and age, but are there any others?  What about species selection?  When subjected to our two vital questions ‘Does it occur naturally?’ and ‘Is it intrinsic to the continuation of the species?’, we can again answer in the affirmative to both: species do occur naturally and species selection is relevant to humanity’s ability to continue in perpetuity.  Ergo, species would seem to be a dimension of sexual orientation.  And as with age, humans are for the most part discriminating in the selection of species when it comes to sexual partners and generally prefer their own species.

However, if you’ll recall, my definition included the clause ‘viable human population’ with ‘human’ being the key word there.  But this is perhaps an arbitrary distinction; maybe it would be better to leave out the word human and just focus on viable populations in general, especially since the two-question test can be answered affirmatively.  In that case, zoophilia would also be classified as a sexual orientation (as would vegetophilia, if such a thing exists), but again, recognizing this as a sexual orientation does not then mean that it should be legalized in all its particulars.  But the same issues of dignity and recognition of genetic diversity in human sexual orientations applies here as applies to pedophilia and gerontophilia: it is both humane and scientifically important that we understand that sexual orientations arise naturally and are deeply rooted in our identities and our physiologies, and though thus far unsubstantiated, I am quite certain that gender, age and species are valid and valuable dimensions in the development of sexual orientation.  That there are divergences in the biological and psychosocial default of humanophilic, teleiophilic heterosexuality  on occasion in fact just reinforces that notion.

Species selection is one thing, but can we go further and extend this to inanimate objects?  The answer is no, for it fails our two-question test.  The answer to the first question, does it occur naturally, would depend on the object.  Some inanimate objects occur naturally, such as rocks and water, but other objects are man-made.  However, it is a question that applies to the general state of the thing, and if it cannot be answered in the affirmative in a general sense, then attraction to inanimate objects must be disqualified on the whole.  And the second question is basically irrelevant, since the answer to both questions must be answered with a ‘yes’ for a sexual phenomenon to be considered a sexual orientation by my definition.

The final element of my definition requiring our critique is the first part, ‘an ongoing sexual preference, reaction, or condition towards…’  This is pretty much self-explanatory, I think.  It just means that there must be an ongoing sexual interest in or reaction to a defined subset of a viable population  Thus, any feelings, behaviors or interests that are not of a sexual nature must necessarily be excluded from any definition of a sexual orientation, regardless of whether they were motivated by sex somewhere down the line.  Otherwise, all human feelings, behaviors or interests could be defined as sexual orientations, couldn’t they?

Secondary Aspects of Determining Sexual Orientation

In addition to my core definition, there are other factors that, although not inherent to all sexual orientations, appear often enough that can be used as markers for reinforcing the determination of a sexual orientation.  Please note that these are not universal to all individuals within a particular orientation, nor are they exclusive to said orientations.

1) Engaging in sexual behaviors with the adoriented population subset – This may seem rather obvious, but let’s be very careful here.  Sex with individuals in a particular subset does not automatically equate to an orientation.  For example, it should be remembered that homosexual activities often occur in situations where sexual partners of the preferred gender are not available (e.g. in prisons or on sailing vessels with all-male crews), especially when these conditions persist for long periods of time.  Likewise, child molesters are not necessarily pedophiles by orientation.  In some situations sexual abuse takes place due to the easy availability of children over partners of a preferred age.  This is likely what has occurs in many cases of priests abusing children.  In other situations, particularly in intrafamilial cases, sexual abuse is merely one dimension of a whole range of abusive behaviors heaped upon a child, and it frequently has little or nothing to do with actual sexual preferences.  Other people may simply experiment with sex outside of their general orientation.  But by and large, engaging in sex with the adoriented population subset, especially if it is ongoing, is a probable sign of a sexual orientation.

2) The early development of sexual feelings for an adoriented population subset – You’ve probably heard the stories from gays who have reported recognizing signs of their sexual orientation in early adolescence or even childhood.  I certainly knew my orientation by age 13, but the earliest signs I can recall started at age 11.  There are many similar accounts throughout the LGBT community, and the meager evidence we have gathered on it so far suggests the same exists in pedophiles.  Beyond that I don’t know, but I strongly suspect it is the same with all sexual orientations.  Again, this isn’t universal.  Some people may not recognize their preferences until well into adulthood, or may even switch orientations late in life, but again the evidence suggests that most members of a sexual orientation were aware of their orientation at least by the onset of adolescence if not earlier.

3) Feelings for an adoriented population subset are multidimensional – What I mean by this is that you will generally find that the sexuality of those within an orientation go well beyond simple sexual stimulus and response.  Which is to say, often there is an emotional connection as well as the physical sexual responses in those belonging to a sexual orientation.  Sex is complex.  People tend to fall in love with members of their preferred population subset.

Those are the three biggies for me, but I am quite open to adding others to this list.  And remember, these are secondary signs only and are not universal.  But all in all, when taken together, they’re a pretty good measuring stick, I think.

In Conclusion

That’s pretty much all I have.  If you have any questions, need clarification or have any insights to include, by all means contact me.  I realize this post addresses some highly controversial concepts and behaviors.  You may find some of my ideas challenging, shocking or just flat wrong.  That’s fine, but we are intelligent adults and will address these things rationally and civilly, or we need not bother.  Thank you.

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