I grew up on the theory that sexual orientations existed. We can call all the theory “orientationism”, though, like all the successful theories of its kind, it was taught as though it were not a theory at all but a simple observation of the world. The idea was that all persons discovered within themselves a desire for sexual contact with some gender of person, and by acting on it they found a significant part of personal fulfillment. Logically, this seemed to give us three orientations: toward the same sex, toward the other sex, and to both the same sex and the other. The theory had four elements worth drawing attention to:

1.) Orientation was discoveredI pick the word carefully. We were never sure about the origin of the desire – maybe it was innate/ given from birth or maybe it was based in part on social/cultural/ personal drives, but orientation was still viewed as something discovered in oneself. You had one before you started acting on it, indeed sexual activity could only be authentic when it was an expression of an already existing orientation.

2.) Orientation was to another person. Though I never knew anyone who drew attention to this, orientation theory was essentially interpersonal. One couldn’t have an orientation toward finding sexual fulfillment by oneself, with animals, or with those who were incapable of consent.

3.) Orientation specified a moral good. Orientation was an essentially moral designation. It specified a condition of happiness and came with various obligations to action. One shalt not be ‘closeted’ or inauthentic to their orientation; and one had to be tolerant of all orientations as paths to fulfillment.

4.) Orientation was determined. You got one of them. This could be seen as a corollary to #1. If it could change, then it would open the possibility that some sex act might not come out of an orientation. Given the structure of the theory, this would render sexual desire incoherent.

But the theory cannot last since it is too much at odds with other more fundamental modern commitments. First of all, orientationism is explicitly teleological in a strong sense. Orientation is discovered prior to any action upon it, and it specifies a moral good.

Second, it was restrictive in a context that sees the absence of restrictions as crucial. Who could stand to tell someone that they have a moral obligation not to change their orientation? What if they want to? But a changeable orientation is not really an orientation at all. If it can change, it is not fundamental.

Third, it was too tied to the interpersonal, and so was at odds with an ethic of expression. The difficulty of accounting for the transgendered arises from this – to say nothing of the 50-odd sexualities that we now want to account for.

The logic of orientationism seems to lead to an ethic of pansexuality or sexual indifference. Orientation will ultimately prove too teleological and restrictive and so we’ll want to replace it with an infinity of indifference. Much of ancient sexuality seems to be like this – at once divine and blasé. Or perhaps we can’t have sex except as transgressive, which requires that we somehow prop up a law so as to continually have the thrill of breaking it.


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