Judge Amy Coney Barrett got a moralistic finger wagging from Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) last week in her hearings because she used the term “sexual preference” rather than “sexual orientation.” Hirono said Barrett’s word choice “did speak volumes” about her philosophy because, as the senator explained, “sexual preference is an offensive and outdated term.” Hirono scolded Barrett roundly by saying, “sexual orientation is a key part of a person’s identity” and went on to explain “that sexual orientation is both a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable was a key part of the majority’s opinion in Obergefell.”
Obergefell wasn’t the only recent Supreme Court case dealing with sexual orientation. Just this summer, the Court said in Bostock that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, also reaches “sexual orientation.” Similarly, governments around the world have been adding sexual orientation as a protected class.
Thus, one’s sexual orientation and what that means are no longer just a private matter. They have very public consequences. We generally assume the term refers to someone being either homosexual or heterosexual, gay or straight, and that these two lanes are strictly fixed and immutable. This is precisely what the Supreme Court has assumed. But anyone who believes this, Senator Hirono included, is not aware that the ground situating the question of what is and is not a sexual orientation has been shifting tectonically under our feet in the last few years.
According to a fascinating and ever-evolving academic literature, sexual orientation is no longer what most people think it is. And as we shall see, Judge Barrett’s terminology is actually more in line with the latest thinking of leading gender scholars because, as one of them has stated in a paper examined below, “sexual orientation as a term is increasingly seen as regressive” because it “belongs to the bioessentialist project.”
Given the far-reaching, punitive consequences resulting from the slightest perceived prejudice against another’s sexual orientation, we all need to be mindful of this curious shift. Two things are happening simultaneously. Scholars keep adding new sexual orientations to the list, while more than a few experts are questioning whether it exists at all.
Sexual Orientation among Women
First, when it comes to male and female sexual orientation, things are as different as Mac and PC. They appear to have completely different operating systems. In fact, some scholars have wondered if women even have a sexual orientation, in the typical sense. This appreciation started coming to press in earnest in 2000. Two UCLA scholars writing in the Journal of Social Issues asserted that “Major scientific findings . . . provide the basis for a paradigm shift in the conceptualization of women’s sexual orientation.” “Women’s sexuality and sexual orientation are,” they explain, “potentially fluid, changeable over time, and variable across social contexts.” It has to do with how they fall in love. In vast distinction to males, “women tend to have a relational or partner-centered orientation to sexuality,” rather than a sexual or genital-based one.
Roy Baumeister, the groundbreaking scholar who initiated this shift in understanding and on whose work these authors were riffing, discovered that women possess what he called an “erotic plasticity.” He described female sexual orientation as “socially flexible” and relationally responsive. This led two of the biggest names in the field to famously interrogate the subject even more deeply with these two questions: “What Does Sexual Orientation Orient?” (Lisa J. Diamond) and “What Is Sexual Orientation and Do Women Have One?” (J. Michael Bailey). These, along with Baumeister’s, are massively foundational writings in the field.
Lisa Diamond was an emerging scholar when she wrote her paper, a prized protégée of one of the field’s absolute giants, Cornell’s Ritch Savin-Williams. She went on to establish an impressive academic reputation for her work on female sexuality. She asks in this original essay, “Does sexual orientation fundamentally circumscribe the class of individuals with whom one can call in love?” She answered blankly, “I posit that the answer is no.” Diamond explained in an important TEDx Talk, that while she adamantly opposes all forms of change-therapy, “The plain truth is that gender and sexual development show a lot more variability than most people realize, and that variability often leads to change over time in sexual attraction. . . . Sexual attractions show a fair amount of fluidity.” This could be called “preference.”
She holds that “women are . . . more likely than men to say that they become attracted to—or fall in love with—the person and not the gender.” As such, “women typically report that their unusually strong emotional feelings spill over into sexual desire— . . . even desires that contradict their sexual orientations—as a result of falling in love.” Diamond’s most notable publication is her book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, published by Harvard University Press.
Northwestern University’s J. Michael Bailey, a scholar who has faced his share of potentially career-crushing harassment for being academically heterodox, followed Diamond, infamously asking whether women even have a sexual orientation, as we typically think about it. Like Diamond and Baumeister he explains, “There is an emerging consensus that women’s sexual partner choices are sometimes made for different reasons than men’s.” “Men,” Bailey adds, “but not women, have a category-specific sexual arousal pattern, one that is usually directed more strongly to members of one sex than to those of the other.” He concluded that women do not so much have a sexual orientation, as a romantic one. This understanding has gained near-universal consensus. A paper published by Diamond this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior extends this understanding, isolating four distinct types of female sexual fluidity.
This is one of the reasons that women can “find” their so-called lesbian self for a brief time in their early twenties or later in life. They are not discovering a new, or latent sexuality per se, but rather new people in a new phase of life. And it is more possible for that bond to become erotic and sexualized in women, regardless of their partner’s body. And as Diamond explains, this can be surprising, even disturbing to the women themselves, because they have an old paradigm view that sexual orientation is set.
Is Bisexuality an Orientation?
Would it be more accurate to say that such “temporarily lesbian” women are actually bisexual? Is bisexuality an enduring and stable sexual orientation, or just more evidence of the fluidity of sexual desire? Do men exhibit the same patterns of attraction?
This is a hotly contested issue, particularly in the queer community. In a 2016 paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior entitled “Defining Sexual Orientation,” Dr. Steven Moser from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality said, it was “not clear whether bisexuality is its own unique sexual orientation.” That changed this summer, however.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ceremoniously announced the arrival of “robust evidence for bisexual orientation among men” in August. The piece was authored by an impressive array of leading lights in the field of human sexuality, edited by no less than Harvard’s Steven Pinker. Their findings refute “skeptics [who] believe that male sexual orientation can only be homosexual or heterosexual, and that bisexual identification reflects nonsexual concerns, such as a desire to de-emphasize homosexuality.” Thus, they conclude, “Male sexual orientation is expressed on a continuum rather than dichotomously.” This is a paradigm shift from the binary of either this or that, gay or straight among men that most people assume.
Can Men Be “A Little Gay”?
The popular sitcom 30 Rock had a bit where Frank, one of main character Liz Lemon’s writers on an NBC comedy show, suddenly becomes “gay for Jamie,” the hot, young coffee delivery guy. Frank is transfixed. Liz tells him “That’s not a thing! You can’t be gay for just one person. Unless you’re a lady and you meet Ellen.” Well, apparently, it’s very much a thing, and that brings us to the latest work of Ritch Savin-Williams and the increasing complexity of male bisexuality. His newest book, Mostly Straight, from Harvard University Press, expands upon the ground Diamond broke, documenting an emerging sexual fluidity among men.
Savin-Williams holds that “mostly straight” is “a distinct sexual orientation group” of men who are mostly heterosexual in their sexual attraction, but are expressly open to same-sex romantic relationships that turn sexual. And they are not some mere curiosity sideshow. Savin-Williams says the evidence suggests that more young men identify as “mostly straight” than identify as either bisexual or gay combined. Savin-Williams explains that his findings “have implications for conceptualization of sexual orientation as a continuum.” He believes that the popularly held notion of sexual orientation is wholly inadequate to explain what he and his peers have been discovering. The “tri-category system (of gay, straight and bi),” Savin-Williams explains, “has outgrown its usefulness and [it is clear] that more groups are necessary.”
What about Pedophilia?
All this raises an important question: Must a sexuality be socially acceptable to be considered a genuine orientation? We assume that it must be, because the term is usually raised in the realm of what Harvard Law School’s Mary Ann Glendon famously referred to as “rights talk.” Thus, public sympathy for and solidarity with said orientation must be carefully established for larger political purposes. But must this necessarily be so? Are there scientifically bona fide sexual orientations that all good people agree are unacceptable? What about pedophilia?
This is not a silly question. Nor is it a new one: a major paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior took up the question eight years ago. Bluntly titled “Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation?” the paper concludes that pedophilia is indeed a sexual orientation. The journal explains, “By the above definition of sexual orientation—and most common definitions of sexual orientation—pedophilia can be viewed as a sexual age orientation.”
The editors of Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Mental Health Letter saw the question as worthy of attention as well. As far back as 2010, they stated clearly: “Consensus now exists that pedophilia is a distinct sexual orientation, not something that develops in someone who is homosexual or heterosexual.” They conclude: “Pedophilia is a sexual orientation and unlikely to change.”
Scientific American also has addressed the question, referring to pedophilia as an “erotic age orientation” in a 2009 article delineating three distinct forms of sexual attraction to underage children. There’s even a TEDx Talk on the subject. Mirjam Heine from the Medical School at the University of Würzburg in Germany explained in 2018 that, “like every other sexual orientation, pedophilia can have different characteristics.” The purpose of her talk was to distinguish between pedophilia’s legitimacy as an orientation, the dignity of the individual who possesses it, and how we can help him never act upon it.
So no, a pattern of attraction need not be socially acceptable to be considered a sexual orientation. Some are highly detestable and illegal.
Is Sexual Orientation Even a Thing?
Professor Sari van Anders of Queen’s University in Canada is taking it a step further. She calls for retiring the concept of sexual orientation altogether in favor of her more scientifically and experientially accurate “Sexual Configuration Theory.” She holds that “sexual orientation as a term is increasingly seen as regressive,” because it “belongs to the bioessentialist project” that provides no chance for someone to become or experience something “other” sexually with an equal legitimacy. SCT is, she claims, a better “framework for understanding diverse partnered sexualities, separate from solitary sexualities,” adding: “Theories of sexual orientation rooted solely in sex are scientifically problematic because they fail to ‘see’ diverse sexualities that empirically exist.” In short, the construct of sexual orientation fails to account for people’s experiences of sexual fluidity. Her call to move “beyond sexual orientation” has been largely welcomed among her peers.
So, when we speak of protecting people “whatever their sexual orientation,” we must realize the term is not anywhere as simple as most assume. As we have seen, there are age-based orientations, as in pedophilia. There are romance-based orientations. There are multi-partner orientations, such as polyamory. There are practice-based orientations, like BDSM. There is objectum-sexuality, a documented sexual orientation toward inanimate objects. There are even abrosexuals who seem to change their sexual orientation often and effortlessly. Luckily, they have their own flag so you can pick them out at the parades.
We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The high-minded moral movement calling us to respect all sexual orientations has failed to keep pace with its own progress. To ask our interlocutor, “What sexual orientations are you referring to?” will sound like a daft question, but it is precisely the most informed one. It seems as though Judge Barrett was indeed more precise and scientific in her original word choice.