Sexual orientation is not a “real fact” about people.

CJ Trowbridge


Feminist Ethics

Final Essay

Sexual orientation is not a “real fact” about people. In “What is Sexual Orientation,” Robin Dembroff argues that neither of the two popular ideas about what sexual orientation is, holds up to scrutiny. The behavioral perspective tries to classify people based on what physical characteristics their partners have. The second framework depends on classifying people based on the conditions under which they experience attraction. She goes on to argue that by combining them into a new third idea, they suddenly work. She calls this middle-road Bidimensional Dispositionalism. Throughout the article, Dembroff also refers to sex as an objective classification of people, while referring to gender as socially constructed.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Rather than trying to reconcile two contradictory and failed ideas, Dembroff should have discarded both ideas and questioned the shared underlying assumption that there is a true foundation of gender and sex as real categories. Instead, Dembroff engages in mental gymnastics to try and fit these apples and oranges together into some twisted new kind of fruit.

Sex is just as made-up as gender. Human chromosomes can combine in at least six ways. There are over forty non-chromosomal ways that sex diverges from the two archaic religious categories. Beyond that, there are countless ways that a child’s diet, exercise, clothing, gender roles, and other factors will change the way their physical body forms to fit the ideals associated with their assigned or chosen sex and gender. Basing arguments on an objective classification of people by sex is transphobic. There is no true essence of the male and female sexes, just like there is no true essence of the man and woman genders. These check-boxes are socially constructed in both cases, and neither system accurately reflects the people being classified into them. It’s deeply problematic to assume that it’s possible to derive insight about individuals based on these deeply flawed underlying assumptions about the differences and similarities between groups that often overlap in complex and unpredictable ways.

The idea that sexual orientation is real is a very recent invention, created and popularized by psychologists like Herschel in order to pathologize deviant behavior and force people to be “more normal” in order to produce a less deviant and more pure society. This not only doesn’t work, but it harms people for no reason. There is no “normal” person, and trying to force everyone to be “normal” can only hurt everyone.

Claudia Card argues that institutions like motherhood are fundamentally misogynistic because they are roles of subjugation and unpaid work. Performing the role of a mother – in Card’s view — means taking care of children because that is the limit of your purpose and function. Card argues that you may do other things outside that role, but when you are being a mother, you are being an object with a purpose. In the same way, institutions like homosexuality are fundamentally homophobic because they assume all the harmful boundaries, internalized pathologies, and social deviance which is the reason they were created. In effect, our ability to explore new behaviors becomes limited, homophobia is necessarily internalized, we become identified as deviant and outside the norm, often subject to violence from people and governments.

Simone De Beauvoir said, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” It is not the case that there is a natural category called woman. Woman is a human story which some people are compelled to perform. When they perform this story, they become this story, and they become evidence for others that the story is true. In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler said,

In effect, the law produces and then conceals the notion of “a subject before the law” in order to invoke that discursive formation as a naturalized foundational premise that subsequently legitimates that law’s own regulatory hegemony… The prevailing assumption of the ontological integrity of the subject before the law might be understood as the contemporary trace of the state of nature hypothesis, that foundationalist fable constitutive of the juridical structures of classical liberalism. The performative invocation of a nonhistorical “before” becomes the foundational premise that guarantees a presocial ontology of persons who freely consent to be governed and, thereby, constitute the legitimacy of the social contract.

Institutions of systemic oppression do not exist outside the context of oppression. To be a man is to be a gender oppressor. To be a woman is to be oppressed on the basis of gender. To be heterosexual is to be a sexual orientation oppressor. To be homosexual is to be oppressed on the basis of sexual orientation. These categories exist as roles which when performed either contribute to or suffer from that system which created them. The great lie of these categories is that they exist and have always existed. The truth is that these categories have existed only since they were created. The lie says that the categories reflect natural facts. In reality, these categories exist to create new social truths which do not reflect the world from before. Therefore performing one of these roles means bringing it into existence. From this perspective, there is no apolitical heterosexual, homosexual, man, or woman. Everyone who participates in these institutions is either choosing to steal power and resources, or vice versa.

Sexual orientation is like a character in a play. If we choose to read the lines and act out the part, then and only then does it become real, but it’s still only a temporary performance as opposed to a true fact about us. When we make the choice to perform, we are choosing to harm ourselves and others. (The same is true for gender as De Beauvoir and Butler point out.) I think this is a much better answer to the question of “What is sexual orientation.” I hope it inspires you to think critically about your identity and whether it’s something true that you learned about yourself, or whether it’s something someone gave you and you accepted in place of yourself.