Justice

The "Born Straight" Argument Is Not so Simple

Jane Ward is an associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California Riverside, where she teaches courses in feminist, queer, and heterosexuality studies. Her new book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, is available now through the NYU Press. Recently, Professor Ward spoke with ATTN: about why many straight men engage in sexual activity with each other and their frequently homophobic rationalizations of why. Below, Professor Ward expands on this topic, specifically addressing the argument of whether people are born straight or gay.  

Jane Ward

ATTN: Why, according to your academic research, are people not simply born gay or straight?

JW: For starters, “gay” and “straight” are identities that people use to describe their sexual desires. Because identities are formed through social interaction (having sexual experiences, seeing sexual imagery, accepting or resisting labels given to us by other people, etc.), fetuses and newborn infants do not yet have identities. So from a sociological standpoint, it doesn’t make whole lot of sense to call a two-month old a lesbian, for instance. This is also true of gender. A child may have a vagina so you might think: "it’s a girl!," but you don’t actually know the child’s gender identity until that child has had the opportunity to express it themselves.  Similarly, people are born with bodies that have the capacity to experience pleasure in response to all sorts of stimuli—masturbation, human contact, rubbing against objects—but it’s through socialization that we come to build an identity around whatever subset of our desires feels most salient.

Many people argue that we are born with particular sexual capacities or predispositions that are activated a few years later, in childhood, as we begin to notice and interact with other people’s bodies. That may well be true, but if we are going to argue that we are born with the capacity to be attracted to women or men or both, we have to be willing to acknowledge that “women” and “men” are fuzzy categories themselves. If you are a straight woman or a gay man, let’s say, what exactly does it mean to be attracted to men? You were born attracted to penises? Many straight women report that they find penises themselves unappealing. Penetration?  That’s possible to enact with anyone.  Facial hair and muscles?  Female bodies can have those too, but many women work hard to avoid these features, which have been deemed unattractive on women’s bodies. In other words, the gay/straight/bi system is utterly dependent on a socially constructed gender binary (the idea that there are two types of people, women and men, and that they are inherently different), even though the gender binary itself is something of a fiction. People actually have to do a lot of work (shaving, plucking, makeup, gendered hairstyles, gendered clothing, gendered affect) to maintain the appearance of a natural gender binary. 

We also have to examine critically why we believe that the gender of our sex partners is something so significant that it is worthy of being not only an identity, but the outcome of a genetic or hormonal process. Other sexual interests—like masturbation or oral sex—are not believed to constitute our identities. One doesn’t have to come out as a masturbator, go to masturbator bars and pride parades, or ask for acceptance because one was born a masturbator and simply can’t help themselves. We understand that masturbation is an activity, something people do or don’t do, but it’s not a personage. It’s not an identity.  Are we born with a propensity to masturbate? Not exactly. I’d argue that we are born with genitals that often feel good when touched. How and when and by whom they get touched gets worked out after we are born, in dynamic relation to our opportunities, socialization, and formative experiences. 

Many people assume that if we do not ascribe to the idea that we are born straight, gay, or bi, then we must believe that sexual orientation is a choice. But this is not the case. Many things can happen in our lives, especially in early childhood, that “orient” us toward particular desires and preferences that later become so concretized that they feel beyond our control—and often become so. These formative experiences can be positive (like identifying with a role model who is queer) or traumatic (like being punished for same-sex desire), or something more neutral. Early experiences can expand our sense of what’s possible for us to desire, or they can foreclose many of the options. As children, we can learn to dislike heteronormativity and/or the gender binary, but not exactly know what the alternatives are until we’re older. Countless experiences can produce strong, visceral desires—but this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of our strong desires were already in place at birth.  

ATTN: If people aren't actually born straight or gay, why do we have many gay rights advocates as well as individuals within the scientific community insist that homosexuality is not a choice?

JW: Because this argument has been very effective at legitimizing lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. If we have no choice, then queerness becomes like a form of disability, something we would presumably change if we could. Many lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have been taught to rehearse this story, emphasizing that no one would ever, ever choose to be gay because doing so presumably means a life of discrimination. But I am uncomfortable with the heteronormative and male-centered premise that it’s always better to be straight and that the benefits of being queer don’t outweigh the costs. Perhaps it’s often better for men to be straight, but if we keep in mind the abuses many women experience in relationships with men—domestic violence, sexual assault, unequal division of labor, etc.—then one could argue that the homophobia women experience as lesbians or bisexuals is no worse than the sexism they experience in heterosexual relationships. 

 

 
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ATTN: Do you believe in the notion of a gay gene?

JW: No.  Even if scientists find some degree of gene variation in people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, I can’t help but wonder if that variation is signaling something else, some other correlated trait.  For instance, maybe there is a genetic marker for rebellion, bravery, or creativity that people who end up being queer are more likely to possess than people who identify as straight.

ATTN: If there is no conclusive evidence of a gay gene, does the argument against gay conversion therapy lose its credibility?

JW: If we are talking about adults, I’m of the view that people have a right to seek out therapy for whatever they want. This includes gay conversion therapy, even though I think it’s horrific. But let me be clear, we should certainly ban all forms of forced or non-consensual conversion therapy, and I think whenever parents subject kids to these practices this counts as non-consensual.  But to answer your question, it is a very sad day when the only reason we can imagine opposing gay conversion therapy is if we believe people are genetically lesbian or gay.  People aren’t genetically Catholic or Buddhist, but forced conversion from one religion to another is a violation of human rights. Similarly, it doesn’t matter why you are queer, being forced to be straight is a violation of the right to self-determination.  Rights do not only apply to immutable differences.

ATTN: Where do trans people stand in this narrative? Are they born this way?

JW: Certainly a lot of trans people, like a lot of gay people, believe they were born this way. I think the argument is compelling for the same reason it is compelling for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. It is legitimizing and politically expedient. It posits being trans as an act of nature, something outside one’s control. And it also effectively medicalizes being trans by characterizing it as a condition that deserves recognition by physicians, health insurance companies, workplaces, etc. But I believe that people deserve to have sex with whomever they want (as long as its consensual), and express their gender however they want, and modify their bodies however they want, and access respectful healthcare—and they should be able to do these things regardless of whether they are trans or queer by choice or by biology. 

 

 
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ATTN: Why, according to your research, does strong homophobia exist within our culture?

JW: Well, homophobia accomplishes a lot! It certainly serves the interests of patriarchy by keeping women attached to men and keeping men tied to masculinity (so that no one thinks they are fags).  Homophobia keeps us believing that good sex is heterosexual and reproductive, so it keeps us having kids and creating more humans who will be good consumers and workers. This serves the interests of capitalism. And homophobia is also a very effective way of keeping people generally fearful of being sinners and perverts. Religious institutions can be all the more effective at controlling people if they instill that kind of fear in them. I think all of these things, and more, keep homophobia in motion.

ATTN: Have there been cultures or eras in time during which homophobia was not as prevalent?

JW: The concept of homosexuality was not given a name or tied to identity until the late 19th century.  Before this, people engaged in homosexual sex of course, but doing so did not mark them as a specific type of person called a “homosexual.” Instead, it was more the way we understand oral sex or anal sex today.  People either do it or they don’t, and some people think it’s immoral or nasty to have oral or anal sex, but either way these sex acts are not perceived to constitute someone’s sexual identity. What this means is that because “being a homosexual” is a relatively new idea, homophobia is new as well. This doesn’t mean that homosexual sex was never judged or criminalized before the advent of the homosexual person; it definitely was. But during these periods of criminalization, homosexual sex was perceived as a bad thing that anyone might do—just as anyone might steal, for instance—not as something that only a small subset of people had the capacity for. So, homophobia, as a fear of gay people, is a pretty new phenomenon. And of course there have been times and places in which homosexual contact has been celebrated, such as in Ancient Greece. Maybe we will return to something more like that system someday, except hopefully with less hierarchy and more feminism!