Home » Research
Category Archives: Research
I feel heartbroken by the news that George Zimmerman walks a free, “innocent” man after murdering Trayvon Martin. It is difficult to digest that the state of Florida, among other states, has granted license (which mostly benefits whites who kill Blacks) to “stand your ground” (i.e., murder). So, while there is no doubt Zimmerman killed Martin, he was found not guilty within the content of these broad self-defense laws. Indirectly, Florida and these other states have legalized the practice of hunting and killing of Black Americans.
Post-racism my ass!
Parents And Racial Socialization
In addition to the collective outrage and sadness that followed the not-guilty verdict, I noticed other, unexpected responses. One, in particular, caught me by surprise, but probably should have been expected. Because Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when George Zimmerman killed him, many Black parents (especially mothers) have expressed great concern for protecting their children. Some have asked specifically how they can effectively prepare their children to navigate a world where they could be murdered for carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea — that is, if they are Black.
Throughout US history, Black parents, like all parents of color, have socialized their children in a way that is explicitly racialized. This aspect of Black parenting, sometimes referred to as racial socialization, entails practices of preparing one’s children for the current realities of racism and race relations and, for some, instilling a strong sense of racial pride. So, the concerns raised by Black parents following the murder of Trayvon Martin and, again, following the conclusion of George Zimmerman’s trial, are not new.
But, the messages transmitted by Black parents to their children does change over time, reflecting the current racial climate. In their 2006 Social Psychology Quarterly article, “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time,” sociologists Tony Brown and Chase L. Lesane-Brown assessed the content of Black parents’ racialized socialization practices over time: specifically pre-Brown v. Board of Education (before 1957; Blacks born between 1879-1940), Civil Rights protest (1957-1968; those born in 1941-1955), and post-protest (1969-1980; those born 1956-1963). The earliest cohort — those coming of age before Brown — were more likely to hear messages about deference to or fear of whites, or about color-blindness. Those coming of age after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement were more likely to hear messages of racial group pride, individual pride, or no race-specific messages at all.
Racial Socialization, 1980 To Today
What about the racial socialization of those born from 1964 to today (Blacks under the age of 50)? Black Americans who came of age in the 1980s were socialized during the time of conservative President Ronald Reagan, The Cosby Show, and heightened poverty. Those who came of age in the ’90s witnessed the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (following the hearings of his sexual harassment against Anita Hill), the brutal beating of Rodney King by LA police, and the Million Man March. My cohort — those coming of age between 2000-2010 — has seen the election of Barack Obama (and other “Firsts” like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), the ugly (mis)handling of evacuation before and relief after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the end of busing and subsequent resegregation of schools, and the beginnings of successful attempts to undermine and dismantle Affirmative Action policies.
What about the current racial climate — Black youth who are coming of age during the present decade (2010-)? It appears to be an intensification of the racial/racist schizophrenia of the prior decade. While President Barack Obama was reelected, there were heightened efforts to suppress Blacks’ vote. Recently, declaring racism dead or nearly dead, the Supreme Court gutted much of the Voting Rights Act. Affirmative Action programs continue to be challenged and scaled back. Blacks are disproportionately represented in prison and throughout the criminal justice system. While hearing claims that America has reached a post-racial era, the vast majority of Black Americans report facing interpersonal discrimination (Kessler et al. 1999); this is complemented by legal law enforcement practices that unfairly target people of color (including Stand Your Ground laws) and other forms of institutional racism.
Racial Socialization, Discrimination, and Crime
But, is instilling a strong sense of racial pride and preparing one’s children for racial bias effective? Yep. Prior research has suggested that the damaging effects of racial discrimination, particularly to one’s health and well-being, are buffered by a strong, positive racial identity (Paradies 2006; Pascoe and Richman 2009). This is true for racial socialization broadly, but also supportive parenting in general (Simmons et al. 2006).
Interestingly, racial socialization also partially mediates (or explains) the relationship between racial discrimination and criminal or delinquent behavior (Burt et al. 2012; Caldwell et al. 2004; Martin et al. 2010). Unfortunately, as a result of the anger, depression, hostile view of interpersonal relationships, and disengagement from conventional norms that can follow exposure to discrimination, victims of racial discrimination may be more likely to engage in these kinds of violent or illegal activities. But, Black parents’ successful efforts to instill a strong sense of racial pride and prepare their kids for racial bias can interrupt this chain of events.
For, what unfolds is much worse. With racial disparities in (hostile) interaction with the police, in arrest, in the courts, and in sentencing, the risk of imprisonment is multiplied. And, once release from prisons (at least for felonies), one’s livelihood and well-being are further jeopardized by the simultaneous stigmatized statuses of “ex-con” and Black. In certain states, that comes with the loss of key aspects of citizenship, namely the right to vote (another right that is already threatened by racial discrimination).
The sheer vastness of racism’s reach are difficult to comprehend. From birth to death, one’s life is persistently shaped and constrained by racism; even the racist treatment one faces within one institution (e.g., education) can influence such treatment in one’s navigation through other institutions (e.g., criminal justice, politics).
And effective racialized socialization can minimize some of this? That is an unfair, heavy burden to place on the shoulders of parents of color. And the era of supposed post-racism has made the job of Black parents even more complicated. How do you explain to your 12 year old that he could be President, a doctor, a teacher, or an engineer by age 40… or living in poverty, HIV-positive, in jail, or dead by age 25? How do prepare your child for racist violence, like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, alongside the “progress” that has transpired in the past 60 years?
And, what could Trayvon Martin’s parents — Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton — have done to prevent the tragic end of their son’s life at the young age of 17? Told him to lay off of junk food? Don’t walk alone at night? Dress like characters on the uber white show, Friends? Or, stop being Black? Any of these suggestions are victim-blaming; and, unfortunately, parts of Zimmerman’s trial seem to put Martin on trial (for his own murder).
When racial socialization is not enough, and the law actually gives bigots a license to hunt innocent Black teenagers, what protection remains for people of color in America?
It is hard to hope for any answer other than, “nothing.”
Bowleg, Lisa, Gary J. Burkholder, Jenne S. Massie, Rahab Wahome, Michelle Teti, David J. Malebranche, and Jeanne M. Tschann. Forthcoming. “Racial Discrimination, Social Support, and Sexual HIV Risk among Black Heterosexual Men.” AIDS Behavior.
Brown, Tony N., and Chase L. Lesane-Brown. 2006. “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time.” Social Psychology Quarterly 69: 201-13.
Burt, Callie Harbin, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederic X. Gibbons. 2012. “Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-Sociological Model of Risk and Resilience.” American Sociological Review 77: 648-77.
Caldwell, Cleopatra Howard, Laura P. Kohn-Wood, Karen H. Schmeelk-Cone, Tabbye M. Chavous, and Marc A. Zimmerman. (2004). “Racial Discrimination and Racial Identity as Risk or Protective Factors for Violence Behaviors in African American Young Adults.” American Journal of Community Psychology 33: 91-105.
Kessler, Ronald C., Kristin D. Mickelson, and David R. Williams. 1999. “The Prevalence, Distribution, and Mental Health Correlates of Perceived Discrimination in the United States.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 40: 208-30.
Martin, Monica J., Bill McCarthy, Rand D. Conger, Frederick X. Gibbons, Ronald L. Simons, Carolyn E. Cutrona, and Gene H. Brody. 2010. “The Enduring Significance of Racism: Discrimination and Delinquency Among Black American Youth.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 21: 662-76.
Paradies, Yin. 2006. “A Systematic Review of Empirical Research on Self-Reported Racism and Health.” International Journal of Epidemiology 35: 888-901.
Pascoe, Elizabeth A., and Laura Smart Richman. 2009. “Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Psychological Bulletin 135: 531-54.
Roberts, Megan E., Frederick X. Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, Chin-Yuan Weng, Velma M. Murry, Leslie G. Simons, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederick O. Lorenz. 2012. “From Racial Discrimination to Risky Sex: Prospective Relations Involving Peers and Parents.” Developmental Psychology 48: 89-102.
Simons, Ronald L., Leslie Gordon Simons, Callie Harbin Burt, Holli Drummund, Eric Stewart, Gene H. Brody, Frederick X. Gibbons, and Carolyn Cutrona. 2006. “Supportive Parenting Moderates the Effect of Discrimination upon Anger, Hostile View of Relationships, and Violence among African American Boys.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 47: 373-89.
To my surprise, I came across an article posted on Huffington Post yesterday that mentions “double jeopardy” — here, in the academic sense. The article reviews a study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found that leaders of unsuccessful companies in a fictitious news story were more harshly criticized when they were Black women. That is, Black women faced more penalties (in this case, criticism) than Black men, white women, and white men:
In a study conducted by Rosette and Livingston, 228 participants read fictitious news articles about a company’s performance, including permutations in which the leader was black or white, male or female and successful or unsuccessful. What they found was that black women who failed were viewed more critically than their underperforming white or male counterparts — even those of the same race.
What Is “Double Jeopardy”?
I say, “to my surprise,” because a quick search for “double jeopardy” on Google yields site after site about the movie, Double Jeopardy, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd; a search on Wikipedia also yields a page about the film, as well as a few pages about the legal concept of double jeopardy. Ironically, the legal meaning of double jeopardy, in which a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, somewhat counters the academic meaning of the term. In this sense, double jeopardy refers to the additional barriers and burdens faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses (e.g., Black women) compared to their singly disadvantaged (e.g., white women and Black men) and privileged counterparts (e.g., white men).
As early as the late 1960s, the term double jeopardy came into use to highlight the unique experiences of Black women, particularly their simultaneous exposure to racism and sexism (and classism). As the second wave feminist movement made progress through the 1960s and 1970s for women’s rights, calls from Black, Chicana, and multicultural feminists, lesbian feminists, and other women who faced other forms of oppression other than sexism to attend to the diverse needs and experiences among women grew louder. Various feminist activists and scholars worked intensely to draw attention to the fact that the category of “woman” and all of its associated experiences and obstacles is not universal; many advocated for a perspective that considers the intersections among sexism, racism, and classism.
Double Jeopardy Versus Intersectionality
Over time, awareness of the full array of systems of oppression that operate simultaneously has evolved to include heterosexism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, xenophobia, and so forth. Obviously, one can be disadvantaged in multiple ways or face “multiple jeopardy,” for example, as a lesbian, woman, Latina, and working-class person. In fact, in my own research, I have found just that: among 15-25 year olds, the more disadvantaged statuses an adolescent or young adult holds (among race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class), the more forms of discrimination one faces (e.g., race and gender and sexual orientation discrimination). And, as a result, these multiply disadvantaged individuals face double or multiple jeopardy in mental and physical health; that is, partially because of their disproportionate exposure to discrimination, they face even more depressive symptoms and worse physical health than more privileged youth.
While the notion of multiple jeopardies — almost easily counted based on the number of disadvantaged statuses one holds — is still used in some research, especially in sociological work on health, it has fallen out of favor among scholars who study the intersections among race, gender, and class. This is, in part, because the idea of adding up one’s statuses, essentially adding one’s exposure to sexism to one’s exposure to racism and so on, misses the ways in which these identities and systems of oppression intersect. Or, said another way, racism + sexism + classism misses how one experiences the world as a working-class Black woman, an experience that is not merely the sum of working-class experiences + Black experiences + woman experiences. These systems of oppression intersect and mutually reinforce one another in such a way, for example, that homophobic policies like the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy harm Black women more than any other group.
Should We Do Away With Double Jeopardy?
Well, if we meant the literal experience of multiple systems of oppression — yes, we should do away with it. But, what I mean here is, if it seems the notion of “double jeopardy” misses the ways in which systems of oppression intersect, should we stop using it in the way that we understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals? Having used the concept in past and current research, it might seem I have a vested interest in calling for the continued use of the concept.
Like any good researcher, I would say the appropriateness, relevance, and usefulness of the concept depends on your research question. In health research, documenting whether multiply disadvantaged groups are at elevated risk for illness and disease necessarily calls for a comparison with singly disadvantaged and privileged groups. For example, lesbian and bisexual women’s elevated risk for obesity is identified by comparing them to heterosexual women, gay and bisexual men, and heterosexual men. But, what causes that elevated risk — factors brought on or exacerbated by sexism and heterosexism — can be said to be evidence of double jeopardy (sexism + heterosexism) and intersectionality (the intersection of sexism and heterosexism).
As such, in general, I would recommend that we need both perspectives — multiple jeopardy and intersectionality — to fully understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals and their more privileged counterparts. Even if you use only one of these two perspectives, you are contributing to what little we know about the lives and experiences of, and challenges faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses.
…for me, [homosexuality] is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not… As you can tell, I am very annoyed about this issue. Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.
In the midst of a long struggle for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), and queer people, the looping of this story in the media led many LGBT individuals to groan, “why would she say that?” Their fear is that her declaration — her autonomous choice to be gay — can be used in efforts to oppose the advancement of sexual equality. Putting the comment that she is “gay by choice” into context, looking at her full quote, she makes clear that the question of whether sexual identity — namely those non-heterosexual identities — is irrelevant. However, through the wave of sensationalism and abbreviated quotes, the media has promoted the simple fact that Nixon has declared her sexual identity a choice. Despite Nixon’s intentions and the content of the entire interview, the words “gay by choice” rouse up the continued debate over the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality.
Nature? Nurture? Choice? We’re Missing The Point!
More and more research out of biology, genetics, and other life sciences builds a case for the innate — possibly due to genes, hormones, or other biological factors — origins of sexual orientation. And, many major academic organizations have made explicit the acceptance and appreciation of sexual orientation as a natural aspect of every human that should not be changed nor suppressed. Yet, the overall question regarding the “true” origins of sexual orientation, and the oft-cited answer of choice, pervade rhetoric regarding equal rights for LGBT and queer people. This is largely the result of the legal standard used to determine a minority’s group worthiness of being protected from discrimination: the status must be immutable. And, legal standing aside, research suggests that heterosexuals are more likely to support LGBT rights when they believe sexual orientation to be fixed, innate, and/or genetic.
But, Cynthia Nixon has raised an important question. The push to determine the origins of sexual orientation warrants the question, “why does it matter?” As I just noted, civil rights legal tradition rests heavily on the immutability of a minority status to define a minority group as worthy of protection; and, it matters for changing attitudes about homosexuality and bisexuality. But, why must one’s sexual orientation be determined at birth, fixed, or unchangeable to warrant respect, equality, and acceptance? Why don’t we value individual freedom and choice with regard to consensual sexual and romantic relationships?
Complicating The Argument
Beyond asking why we are so fixated in determining the origins of sexual orientation, there are a number of other points that are missed in these debates:
- The one-sidedness of the question — “is it a choice — highlights the heteronormativity that shapes these debates. We ask why people are or become lesbian, gay, or bisexual; we do not, however, ask why people are or become heterosexual. That is, in treating heterosexuality as the norm, we take it for granted rather than question its origins. We presume heterosexuality until proven otherwise (i.e., heterocentrism).
- The media stir about Nixon’s comments illuminate how fragile the understanding of sexual orientation as innate is. It took only one celebrity to dissent from the “gay by birth” position to reopen the debates about the origins of sexual orientation. Nixon does not serve as a spokesperson for LGBT and queer communities. Interestingly, other celebrities who echo the popular position that sexual orientation is innate have not garnered the same media attention. Certainly, the press did not hound Lady GaGa for further explanation for her song, “Born This Way.”
- The debate over the origins of sexual orientation simplifies human development into an either/or construction. That is, either sexual orientation is determined at birth, or it is chosen later in life, or it is the product of one’s upbringing. Simplifying these options makes it easier to place blame: distant fathers, overbearing mothers, single mothers, bad parenting, sexual violence, poor gender socialization, bad decisions, and so on. (As such, the devaluing of homosexuality and bisexuality is obvious, in that we are searching for someone or something to blame.) Although, as a sociologist, my work focuses on uncovering the social factors that shape and constrain our lives, I acknowledge that much of human life is likely a complex combination of human agency, social experiences, and biology/physiology. Sexual orientation is no exception. Though hormones may be the vehicle for sexual desire, our social experiences shape who and what we find desirable; in fact, much of what we find desirable are social constructs (e.g., masculinity, femininity).
- These debates also simplify human sexuality. When we ask whether sexuality is a choice, are we referring to one’s choice to engage in sexual and romantic relationships with an individual of a particular gender? Or, does one choose who one finds sexually attractive? Or, is the choice really in the particular sexual identity one takes on? Sexuality is complex and multidimensional. Though we may choose to identify as bisexual, we may be exclusively attracted to women. We may be mostly attracted to men but choose to equally pursue relationships with women, as well. Also, we attend exclusively to gender in our conceptualization of sexual orientation. In doing so, we are asking about the origins of being attracted to particular genders, but we typically do not think to ask about what causes us to be attracted to particular races and ethnicities, individuals of certain social classes, body shapes and sizes, and so on. If we were to consider these dimensions of sexual desire, how strange it would seem to find evidence for a gene to be attracted to Asian-Americans or choosing to be attracted to tall women.
More research, both in the natural and social sciences, is needed to develop a more comprehensive understanding of sexuality, including its origins. But, in the mean time, we should ask ourselves why it is so important to find the answer to “is it a choice?” If, one day, we were to discover that sexual orientation is 100 percent one’s choice, do we no longer afford sexual minorities the same rights and protections as heterosexuals? Or, if we isolate the “gay gene,” will we put the debate to rest, ensuring full sexual equality? My pessimism says the debates would still continue, and there would be new eugenics-style initiatives to eliminate that gene. Disdain for LGBT people is the root of the problem, not the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality.
The federal challenge to California’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban has raised a number of questions about the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, same-sex couples and families, among other issues. It seems the trial is not only addressing the constitutional nature of a law that discriminates against a minority group because of their sexual orientation. In fact, it seems as though the entire claim that LGBT people are marginalized in our society is on trial — that, and tests for every stereotype about LGBT people (e.g., the supposed link between pedophilia and homosexuality).
Is Sexual Orientation A Choice?
One testimony seems to be the crux of the trial, but generally, in my opinion, irrelevant to whether discrimination is at play in banning same-sex marriage. Prominent psychology researcher and professor, Professor Gregory Herek, was called to the stand to testify on the etiology of homosexuality and the experiences of LGBT people on Friday, January 22nd:
Plaintiffs lawyers are already done questioning their final witness, UC-Davis psychology Professor Gregory Herek, who earns the distinction of being one of the quicker witnesses thus far (although cross-examination is just beginning, and that has tended to go for hours with the plaintiffs experts). Herek testified that research shows gays and lesbians do not choose their sexual identities, as same-sex marriage opponents suggest. And he also said they are subject to social stigma.
What I find interesting is that this question must be answered. Before the rest of the country can get on board with same-sex marriage, it needs to know that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have run out of all of their options regarding sexual orientation. If they have not given this heterosexuality thing a fair chance, we’re not just going to concede to their demands for support for this gay thing. Research on attitudes toward homosexuality and LGB people has found greater acceptance when heterosexuals believe that homosexuality is not chosen and cannot be changed. Thus, even if it may seem irrelevant to LGBT people whose rights are on trial, it matters to the majority (heterosexuals) that currently have the power to approve or disapprove of those rights.
So What If It’s A Choice?
I know, I know — if evidence ever emerged that sexual orientation was chosen, at least by those who have chosen something other than heterosexuality, we would see a lot of lost support for sexual equality. But, therein lies two problems: 1) if it is chosen, why is choosing homosexuality or bisexuality wrong, and heterosexuality right? 2) why is choice bad? The heteronormativity and homophobia remains; this homosexuality/bisexuality thing better be beyond your own control, or, if not, you’d best be choosing heterosexuality. Yet, supposedly heterosexuals do not choose to be heterosexual. That’s quite the double standard. Secondly, why do we value and celebrate choice in other arenas of the social world, yet deny freedom to choose our romantic and sexual partners? Why should rights only be afforded if it’s a condition you cannot help? So long as one’s sexual and/or romantic relationship is consensual, who are we to determine whether it should be treated as equal to other types of relationships? I am going to take the radical step here and suggest that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should extend to consensual sex and relationships as well. If Katy Perry wants to kiss a girl and like it, whether because she’s naturally bisexual or just because she wants to see what all of the fuss is about, why should our support for her freedom to choose boys or girls be restricted?
Calling Heteronormativity Out
In some way, I suggest our next step is to ask “so what?” If you choose to be with men, with women, both, transpeople, intersexed people, Black people, Latina/o people, Muslim people, tall people, vegans who like Britney Spears, and so forth, why are your choices and freedoms any less valuable than someone who is naturally attracted to other groups? And, why is there so much focus on the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality, though not heterosexuality? Further, why do we care so much about the gender of object choice but we are not out searching for the “cause of interracial desires”, or why some people are attracted to muscular people, or taller, or nerdy people. I cannot imagine that every aspect of our “type” is naturally occurring, but frankly, so long as our actions are consensual, it shouldn’t matter.
I’m a little disappointed that I’m just now seeing this article, but the timing is great – I just found out that I’ll be teaching Sexual Diversity in the fall! The article, a little long and slow to load, is well worth the read. It speaks to the ambivalence I believe many sexuality scholars, advocates, and just everyday people have about our understanding about the origins of sexual orientation. We have moved away from “sexual preference”, dismissing any allusions to choice, toward “sexual orientation”. We’ve all heard the anti-choice argument: “Why would anyone choose to be gay, putting up with all of the homophobia and other nonsense.” It’s a valid point: most of us are simply “oriented” toward certain people romantically and/or sexually.
However, there are some competing claims that we must reconcile. Sexuality is fluid. Sexuality is innate. Sexuality is socially constructed. Before the creation of the “homosexual” and “heterosexual” categories in the mid-19th century, homo-, bi-, and heterosexuality served as forms of sexual (and romantic, I would argue) behaviors and relationships. It was the creation of these categories that lead to sexual identities – understandings of sexual people, rather than sexual acts. This gives some weight to the social construction argument, but still, we must note the growing scholarship on biological influences on sexual orientation. Yet, we know from some research, including that of Lisa Diamond (a featured instructor at NSRC’s 2009 summer institute: http://nsrc.sfsu.edu/summerinstitute), that sexuality is fluid and contextual. How else do we make sense of lesbian-identified women who have male sexual (and/or romantic) partners and sex between men in prison and other single-sex environments?
I am weary of the biological arguments for three reasons, one in terms of research, another in terms of the practice of science, and the last in terms of politics. In the first, I must ask why we would suspect that a gene exists that would dictate that we are born to be attracted to X. Let’s say X is men, and I am born male. To say that I am born gay is to imply that something innate within me has dictated that I will find attractive what we have defined socially as male and masculine. That is, a great variety of bodies are captured within the supposedly-universal category of male, yet a certain male prototype exists: white, masculine, tall, muscular, penis, young. How could our genes determine attraction toward something that is socially created?
With respect to the practice of science, I find it ironic that prior to the mid-1970s, science was the enemy of LGBT people – yet now, we’re relying on science to make our case for equality. We were mentally ill in 1970, but now “we can’t help it, because we’re born this way.” In the social sciences, biological explanations for social phenomena are typically dismissed or heavily scrutinized. However, we willingly defer to biology to explain the origins of sexuality. Why? Why do we allow scientists to essentialize us with respect to our sexual desires, yet heavily police essentialist claims about gender, sex, race, and ethnicity?
This leads me to my third reason – politics. LGBT activists have relied on the gay-by-birth argument to make their case for equal rights. The underscoring claim is that legal protections are in order because we can’t help it. Do we not value personal freedom enough to argue for equal rights and protections even if sexuality were a choice? The as-biology argument sounds like a defense of our existence, rather than our claim to personal freedom. I note, however, that this is often the starting point in some arenas, and we’re sometimes met with the already formed conclusion that no rights are in order if sexuality is chosen.
I propose that we expand our notion of “sexual orientation”. I see our understanding as resting on the notion that we are innately attracted to a particular sex – female or male. This is problematic in that there are multiple sexes, given that sex itself is socially constructed. Beyond our attractions to particular sexed bodies, we also have attractions along the lines of gender (including identities, expressions, and presentations), race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body size and shape, nationality, language (e.g., accent), education, and occupation. Relying on the two-sex system for a moment, every female or male is not “fair game” if we’re attracted to one, the other, or both. We may find that Latino business men from New England are desirable, while never noticing the white immigrant construction workers in the US South. How do we make sense of our “types” that are raced, gendered, sexed, classed, sexualized, abled, aged, and shaped? Does biology dictate that we only find attractive bisexual Jewish women?
Furthermore, in our new, expanded notion of sexual orientation, we must reconcile the contextual influence. When our options are limited or shift, our desires change (e.g., the example of men in prison, or moving to a racially homogenous area from one that is racially diverse). For many of us, our attractions shift as we age – we don’t remain attracted to 18 year olds into our 80s or, alternatively, we no longer find 50 year olds to be “creepy” (which many aren’t). This leads me to my final thought – that we must think beyond sexual attraction, desire, and behavior. It may be that our attractions age as we age because we’re more emotionally and socially drawn to people closer to our age. This may suggest an interplay between our social, emotional, romantic, and sexual desires – a complex matrix that we miss in only talking about what gets our “juices flowing”.
As research advances and the US climate slowly becomes more LGBT-tolerant (not necessarily friendly), we need to consider the frames we use to advance our understanding of sexuality. This means detaching our reliance on scientific claims of the innateness of sexuality both in terms of research and activism. This is especially imperative given that science tends to slip back and forth between oppressive and liberating impact in society.