What Does “Sexual Orientation” Orient?

The Professor knew, of course, that adolescence grafted a new creature into the original one, and that the complexion of a man’s life was largely determined by how well or ill his original self and his nature as modified by sex rubbed on together.”

— Willa Cather, The Professor’s House

It’s easy to throw around words like gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, same-sex attracted. But what do these words mean? What is sexual orientation? What does it orient?

The most reliable place to start is not in theory but in experience. And, of course, the experience I know best is my own. So I will start there.

I was a bit of a late bloomer, so hormones didn’t hit until my freshman year of high school. And until that time, I had no reason to even consider the possibility that I would turn out to be physically attracted to guys. I assumed that I would marry a woman and have children, and I thought about which of my female acquaintances would make a suitable match.

I think it’s worth recognizing that the desire to marry a particular person is much more complex than just the desire to have sex with that person. It also involves emotional connection, the desire to become a father (or mother) and to raise a family together. So even though I didn’t feel any physical desire for any of the girls I knew, I could still daydream about the possibility of a future together. And I think this is relatively common—most children think about marriage long before they know what sex is or have any desire for it. (Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether children may not understand marriage better than adolescents.)

During my freshman year of high school, however, my hormones began to awaken, and I realized with some shock that I was fantasizing about my male friends. (Prior to recognizing this desire in myself, I don’t think I’d even realized that it was possible for two men to have sex.)

I’d heard insults like “fag” or “homo” tossed around at school, but I never really figured out what they meant. (Unfortunately, they get tossed around certain so-called Catholic publications, as well.)

I thought of them as generic terms of abuse, not words that referred to any specific desires. And, in fact, these words are more often used more to indicate the abuser’s contempt for the victim than to make accurate observations about the victim’s sexual orientation.

Fortunately, I don’t recall them ever being directed at me. I had carved out a very solid niche for myself as a nerd, which was a much more socially acceptable form of outcast. In the late 1980’s, it was relatively easy to comfort yourself about being exiled onto the same island as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

But though I heard words like “fag” and “homo” used as insults, I certainly never thought they had any connection to me.

My dad sometimes warned me about the danger that “queers” posed to young boys; but I don’t think I had any clear idea of what a “queer” was (some kind of wild animal, perhaps?). I heard pastors at church condemn the “homosexual agenda” as an abomination to God and a threat to America, but again, I didn’t connect the “homosexual agenda” specifically with the idea of two men having sex.

One day, right around my fifteenth birthday, I had an epiphany: these fantasies meant I was attracted to men the way most of my peers were attracted to women. These attractions were what words like “fag,” “homo,” “queer,” and “homosexual agenda” were about.

You might think that I would have been horrified to realize that I belonged to a group despised by my peers and my church.

Actually, however, my response was to marvel at how stupid everyone I knew was when it came to homosexuality.

The condemnations I heard growing up simply did not resonate with my own experience of being gay.

For several years, I had an unrequited crush on a friend I met when I was about 11 years old. Looking back, I can recognize what I felt when we met as a kind of love (or at least infatuation) at first sight. But at the time we met, I hadn’t even the slightest inkling that I was sexually attracted to other guys. I thought of the warmth I felt in his presence as a kind of intense friendship. Mostly, we talked about shared interests in science.

If I try to recall those years, I remember my daydreams about him being connected primarily with daydreams of creating a new aerospace company which would build the first American supersonic transport, and eventually take the role of lead contractor in the United States first manned mission to Mars. (I’m embarrassed to say that my sketches for the global headquarters of this future conglomerate were in the International style; my sketches for the SST, on the other hand, actually looked pretty good. If you saw them, you’d probably feel sorry we didn’t achieve our dreams.)

It sounds kind of silly looking back, but it was an intense desire to share life together, a kind of desire that I never felt for any of my female friends. However, it would be more than three years before I recognized any overt sexual attraction to him.

So when it hit me that I was sexually attracted to other guys, I had already been in love (in a typically immature, puppy-like fashion) for several years. And when I realized I was gay, those feelings were the best evidence I had about the nature of homosexual desire. When I heard pastors speaking about the “gay lifestyle,” I compared their words with my own experience, and my own experience with that of my straight peers.

Was I tempted by promiscuity, casual sex, and the other things my pastors condemned? The most direct answer to that question is: I was a fifteen-year-old human male. But I knew my straight friends well enough to know that such struggles were hardly unique to me. And many of my straight friends were significantly more sexually adventurous than I was (though the fact that they had more opportunities than I did may have played an important role in this).

Even as a teen, when hormones were at their most intense, casual sex was not my heart’s desire. I wanted to find happiness in a relationship with another man. And while sex played a part in this desire, the most important thing was to be loved and to love. I wanted to know that there was someone in the world who loved me more than anyone else, and I wanted to love him more than anyone else, as well.

I wanted a man who understood the long loneliness I had experienced growing up gay, and who I could talk to when I faced prejudice and misunderstanding. But I hoped the world was getting better, and that our relationship would gain greater acceptance as people came to understand gays and lesbians better.

I wanted to be able to take him home to meet my parents, and introduce him as the one whom I loved more than anyone else in the world, and have him welcomed into the family. I wanted him to introduce me to his parents as the one he loved more than anyone else in the world, and be part of his family. I wanted to exchange vows in front of our friends, family, and church, and celebrate our vows by dancing together at the reception.

I wanted to buy a house and make a home together. I wanted to go to garage sales and second-hand shops together, and pick out furniture and decorations for our home. I wanted him to be there when I came home at the end of the day. I wanted to find a Tiffany lamp to hang over our dining room table, and I wanted to cook romantic Italian meals that we could share by candlelight.

I wanted us to adopt children together—I thought four children would be a good family size—and change diapers and go to little league games and graduation. (I suppose we might have had to argue over which one of us got to escort our daughters down the aisle when they got married, but that seems like a minor obstacle in the larger scheme of things.)

I wanted to worship God together and share with each other the insights we gained into our faith along the way. I wanted a church that would welcome our family the way they welcomed every other family.

I wanted to be able to walk down the street holding his hand and kiss him goodbye at the airport without having to worry about stares and comments.

I even wanted to grow old together, to know that he would still be there to come home to as our hair fell out and our bodies wrinkled and grew fat. I remember wondering what love would be like in old age, and imagining running my hand over his now-bald head. It was strange to imagine as a teen, and yet somehow deeply satisfying to think that as we approached the sunset of life, we would be able to sit in armchairs by the fire, or on rocking chairs on the back porch, and reminisce about the life we had cultivated together, the friends we had shared, the children we had raised, the memories we had created, and the heirlooms we had collected.

I began a few moments ago with the question: what does sexual orientation orient?

Freud thought that the libido, or desire for pleasure, and particularly sexual pleasure, was the very most basic human motivation. Following the sexual revolution, something like this idea became more and more part of the unquestioned background of our cultural understanding of relationships.

My own experience has taught me that that desire is much more complex than the Freudian account. That kind of immediately sexual desire certainly plays a role, and often a very significant role. But I don’t think the kind of desire for shared life which I just described was really just a dressed up way of trying to have sex as often as I possibly could.

But in my teens, I often heard homosexuality condemned as if it was just a kind of life entirely dominated by an unchained Freudian id. But that bore little resemblance to my experience. For several years after I realized I was attracted to other men, most of my emotional energy remained directed toward the friend I mentioned earlier (entirely uncommunicated and unrequited, I might add).

Some (Incomplete) Concluding Thoughts

I believe that gay sex is sinful, and that the desire for gay sex, though not itself sinful, is a temptation that cannot be regarded as morally neutral. But what I have just described is a desire that is much more complex than simply a desire for gay sex. Unless we are dumb enough to accept the Freudian picture of human desire, there is no good reason to think that my feelings for my friend were derived primarily from disordered sexual desires. (Aelred of Rievaulx’s model of friendship seems like a much more promising place to start.)

Melinda has recently begun to explore the complexities of attraction in her marriage to her husband, and we will have likely have other posts exploring same-sex attraction in marriage in the near future, as well. All of these point to a picture of sexual orientation which is more interesting than the simplistic picture often offered in the clashing slogans of the culture war.

We will continue to explore these complexities in upcoming posts, but for now, I just want to emphasize that the subject is more complex than it seems, and deserves more careful thought than it often receives.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

32 thoughts on “What Does “Sexual Orientation” Orient?

  1. im quite surprised that a doctoral candidate in philosophy accepts the flimsy logic of thomas aquinas. does repeating the mantra help accept the fiction? maybe. i hope you eventually find peace somehow.

  2. I’m not sure whether there’s much point in engaging with a comment like this, because it doesn’t seem like you are trying to start an intelligent discussion about Catholic belief, but simply being dismissive of my beliefs in a way that frankly reminds me of the dismissals of homosexuality I heard from Southern Baptist pastors growing up.

    Are you referring to flimsy logic in a particular argument of Thomas Aquinas? Or are you arguing that the entire philosophy of Thomas Aquinas is based on flimsy logic? How much Thomas Aquinas have you studied? Did you study him with an eye to actually understand? Or did you bring the attitude expressed in your comment to whatever studies you did of Aquinas?

    If you want to have an intelligent discussion of Thomas Aquinas, I am willing to do that. If you want to be rude and dismissive, there are lots of places on the Internet where this kind of comment will be more welcome than it is here.

  3. I completely understand where you are coming from here. I am a young Christian who is bisexual and I have had quite a time of it trying to explain to some of my friends and family that my attraction towards women, though definitely in some part, is not wholly based on sexual desire towards them. More than sex I desire a loving relationship with someone. If struggling with homosexuality was simply a matter of dealing with lust, the journey would be far easier. But instead its a struggle with lust, loneliness, love, emotional attraction, and emotional satisfaction. I do have a question for you however. Does the struggle get easier as you get older or not? I’m only 18. I’ve read nearly every post on this blog and the majority of the authors, including yourself, seem to have a better handle on loneliness and the prospect of never being in a relationship than I do. Is this just something that will get easier with time or not? Thanks.

  4. A few points if I may Ron,

    Firstly a great piece, very helpful indeed. Thanks for your honesty in sharing.

    But it seems to me that you are perhaps projecting homosexuality back on to that childhood friendship. This is part of the problem we have as a society. We define things that are not sexualised or eroticized as sexual.

    I think back to relationships I had with friends of both sexes that were especially close. Of course it may be that some of the dynamics that would later lead to sexual attraction may have been there. But the attraction itself is not necessarily sexual.

    Of course we can understand our sexuality very broadly as everything in us that drives us to life and ultimately to God, in the erotic sense that God loves us as Pope Benedict outlines in his first Encyclical God is Love.

    However in the narrower sense of wanting to have sex with someone (or rather desiring sexual intimacy with them) which arguably is an essential ingredient in marriage. A series of attractions and wanting to be in someone’s company are not per se sexual or ‘gay’.

    I have a very good friend who used to get called the college queer, he is now married with a daughter. He is extremely attractive as a man inspiring and fantastic company, but I don’t want to have sex with him, or have any sexual desires for him. I know that now he values his intimate friendships with men more than ever but these desires are not ‘gay’ even if they reach closer than most of our ‘straight’ male relationships.

    In addition you rather rapidly move to identifying yourself as gay as in ‘I am Gay’. Well this can be seen as at best poor linguistics and at worst blasphemy! How so?

    Well God refers to himself ‘I am that I am’. Christ Jesus is the Great ‘I am’.

    I am not Gay, Straight or Bi. I am Edward a son of God. I am a Son of God. And so are you!

    Permit me to strongly assert that you are not really in any sense gay at all. You are a Man! A man who experiences same-sex sexual attraction, whether exclusively or pre-dominantly. It doesn’t matter. Gay is a word assigned to the reality of homosexual desires for political purposes.

    As it happens it suits the Catholic/Christian Jewish and the gender essentialist view to use the term same-sex attracted because it is more accurate and helpful to unravel what we are attempting to communicate.

    What are we unraveling? I suggest it is a very pervasive gender-identity politics which ultimately falls in under it’s own contradictions.

    I have probably rambled/ranted enough for now.

    • I understand Ron’s simplistic “I am gay” better than your objection, It may be the wrong thing to say but (perhaps) correcting Ron’s linguistics isn’t the best way of engaging with what he has to say.

    • riverflows77,

      If you looked back over the history of the efforts of this blog, you’d see that the “labelling debate” topic has been done to death, and this blog definitely falls on the side of the opinion that it’s ok to say “gay.” You’re not breaking any new ground there, that issue has been beaten to death on the internet in the past year.

      Suffice it to say, most people understand that “gay” (whatever its historical origins) is equivalent in meaning to “same-sex attracted.” In fact, if you asked someone on the street what “being gay” means, they’d tell you it means “being attracted to members of the same sex.”

      Of course, people have the right to self-identify with whatever terms (and corresponding subjective connotations) they wish, but at the end of the day, everyone who isn’t playing evasive word games understands that “gay” is just a sort of slang shorthand for a homosexual or “same-sex attracted person.” For Catholics, at least, this became a non-issue when Pope Francis said “gay” casually and didn’t qualify it.

      No other label (whether racial, ethnic, national, clique-related, etc) is subject to the same sort of bizarre “ontological-semantic policing” as “gay.” No one worries that one is “essentializing ones identity” if I say I am American, White, a Nerd, a Cubs Fan, upper-middle-class, able-bodied, or any other adjective or noun. The descriptive use of “to be” as a linking verb…is not interpreted as any sort of precise metaphysical claim (or as demanding a precise metaphysical interpretation) in any other context, so this double-standard with “gay” is huge.

      I understand the idea behind “SSA,” no doubt; it’s to emphasize homosexual attraction as an experiential reality rather than some sort of quality inhering in a person’s substance…but the truth is that for human subjects, experiential realities are just as much predicable as accidents as anything else (would you get mad at the term “abuse survivor” or something like that?) In fact, any category can be interpreted in constructionist terms rather than essentialist terms if one wants (even ideas like “male and female” or “human person”). Not even all liberal gays are Essentialists anyway. Many are social constructionists. They still use the term “gay” because that’s just the linguistic reality we live with.

      Again: I know of few other cases where this sort of linguistic game is played as if it is essential to reality, and the cases I do know of are not flattering to those who would deny common usage; Greece refusing to recognize the name “Macedonia” for the country to its north, for example, or the insistence of pro-choice people on never calling an unborn baby anything other than a “fetus.”

      Everyone understands what someone means when they say “I’m gay” and the only point of language is to convey that understanding. If the language used achieves the purpose of conveying the intended information, then you cannot accuse the usage of being “inaccurate” because that is just not how language works. It is YOU who are attempting to politicize language by attaching “correct” and “incorrect” categories to labels based on political association or affiliation beyond the question of whether the intended understanding is conveyed.

      This leads to some questions regarding honesty too. If someone asks me “Are you gay?” I would be lying if I said “No.” Anyone who is same-sex attracted would be lying. You can’t pretend like you’re not gay just because it isn’t your preferred label. You could answer by saying, “Yes, but I prefer the term same-sex attracted.” But if “No” to the question “Are you gay?” would be a lie for a same-sex attracted person (and I’m pretty sure almost everyone would think so)…then “gay” means “same-sex attracted” in the straightforward sense, and one can’t escape a reality just by refusing to identify with it.

      Which gets to your other point about attractions which don’t involve sexual arousal not needing to be interpreted as homosexual or gay. The fact is that all “sexual orientation” is, in one sense, is a hermeneutic lens or framework for interpreting patterns in ones experience. If Ron sees a pattern or connection or affinity between his early infatuations and his later full-fledged post-pubescent sexual attractions…then that is, on its face, a valid construction.

      Might boys who turn out “straight” have “hero-worship” crushes on boys too as children, that wouldn’t be called “gay” and that would instead be associated by them, later, with their adult respect for certain sports stars or action heroes? Sure. Might the two experiences be, at the time, indistinguishable or the same thing? Maybe, though that’s hard to say. But that’s also totally irrelevant, because the fact is that Ron did turn out gay, and they turned out straight, and so the “narrative” context and interpretive lens for the past is necessarily going to be different for them.

      Should we maybe be careful about telling a seven-year-old that “You’re gay!” because they express a little infatuation with a male peer? Of course. (Although, for some people the “pattern” is so overwhelming that it would be hard for them to ever credibly integrate it into any other narrative, and in this sense people do sometimes accurately predict when children will turn out gay, etc). But is seeing such infatuation as part of a continuity that led to adult homosexuality invalid just because such experiences are open to multiple interpretations and could also be integrated into an adult heterosexual narrative? Not at all. Do some people who feel “different” wind up straight? Sure, and I’m sure they integrate that into their self-narrative in a different way than gays. I think all the talk of “Looking back, I knew I was gay at 3 years old” is a miscognition for the very fact of “looking back” and the way interpretation is retrospective. But that doesn’t make such retrospective interpretation invalid, indeed I would argue that it is necessary for having an integrated psyche with sense of continuity in selfhood.

      • Thank you. Thank you for addressing this so clearly.
        Only certain traditional Christians are confused by the word “gay” and it is because they have chosen to be confused.
        Being gay is not a choice. Being “confused” about the meaning of the word “gay” is.

  5. I completely understand where you are coming from here. I am a young Christian who is bisexual and I have had quite a time of it trying to explain to some of my friends and family that my attraction towards women, though definitely in some part, is not wholly based on sexual desire towards them. More than sex I desire a loving relationship with someone. If struggling with homosexuality was simply a matter of dealing with lust, the journey would be far easier. But instead its a struggle with lust, loneliness, love, emotional attraction, and emotional satisfaction. I do have a question for you however. Does the struggle get easier as you get older or not? I’m only 18. I’ve read nearly every post on this blog and the majority of the authors, including yourself, seem to have a better handle on loneliness and the prospect of never being in a relationship than I do. Is this just something that will get easier with time or not? Thanks.

    • My dear boy! If you’re only eighteen you’re far too young to be telling yourself you’re gay. You’re not straight either. You’re eighteen! The bones of your sexuality are still growing. Hopefully when your sexuality has matured you’ll be neither straight nor gay but whole. Give yourself time. And yes, it does get easier, especially for Christians. Why? Because, contrary to what others might tell you, being a Christian is not about what you believe but about who you love. Go placidly…

  6. Ron,
    I have been chewing lately on this same thing, thinking about the word orientation as removed from sexuality. Mulling over “worship” which means to turn toward and kiss (literally, orienting myself to whatever or whoever I am worshipping).
    You have added to these thoughts, and you’re right, it’s not all about sex at all.
    But orientation, I think, may be about worship.
    Food for thought.

    • Cara,

      It’s an interesting comparison, though perhaps of limited help, given some striking disanalogies between orientation and worship. Here are two.

      1. Saying orientation is mainly “about worship” seems to imply that any orientation towards something or someone other than God is idolatrous, since the thing or person you’re “oriented” towards (i.e. inclined to worship) is less than the only proper object of worship (God himself), and hence unbefitting for worship. This clearly misdescribes sexual orientation, since heterosexual orientation is (by itself) not idolatrous.

      Even the suggestion that homosexual orientation is by default idolatrous is itself problematic. There is a common (I would say, prevailing) tendency within certain ex-gay ministries to treat certain manifestations of same-sex attractions–like emotional dependencies towards other men/women–on par with idolatry, on grounds that such addictive-like behavior betrays one’s desire or insistence to meet one’s needs, emotional or otherwise, ultimately through some means other than God himself. In such cases, however, it’s arguably the dependency itself (if anything) that’s idolatrous, and not the underlying orientation. In general, I find any suggestion that the very condition of having homosexual attractions is automatically idolatrous, to be an unfair and inaccurate (not to mention almost always hurtful and damaging) accusation: Christian gay celibates may never be able to rid themselves of their attractions, yet this is in no way reflective of their devotion and faithfulness to God.

      2. Worship, however true or idolatrous, can be general or particular. One can worship animals, statues, wood carvings. One can also worship Zeus, Artemis, even the whole plurality of Gnostic deities, or (hopefully) God the Father. In contrast, sexual orientation applies only to general types or categories. You can be sexually oriented toward men or women. But you can’t be sexually oriented, say, toward your friend Jack (I don’t think).

      (In fact, there’s a 30 Rock episode that pokes fun at that idea:

      Frank: “I’m gay for Jamie.”
      Liz: “No, that’s not a thing. You can’t be gay for just one person, unless you’re a lady, and you meet Ellen.”)

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  8. Your personal experience resonates strongly with my own. The nuances of the first experiences of being ‘gay’ did not really have a lot in common with the presentations and comments of Christians.

  9. Excellent post Ron. This is the post I wish every conservative would not only read but try to actually understand. Its painful for see responses from some people who just can’t wrap their heads around the notion that being gay is anything more than lust. They don’t even try to understand the depth of what you are saying–what it means to live this reality and what it means that you give up. The things they take for granted. Anyway, I am glad you posted this as this as this is something I want to be able to refer other people to. It articulates very well what it means to have this sexual orientation.

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  14. I get it, and at age 57 have lived as a heterosexually married Protestant male in ministry, an LGBT activist, and finally as a celibate same-sex attracted Catholic male. And the one that has been best for me is the latter. No denial of feelings here. I still like men and their unique beauty and energy. That is where my attractions lie. But I love the Lord, Church, and Eucharist even more. And it is working, not perfectly, as I am far from that, but I can truly say I live and love in the light of God’s mercy. Thanks for a wonderful article.

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  18. Does God bless committed, stable homosexual relationships? Not if church teaching defines God’s will – apparently… What then of those who dare to be included on the strength of their own experience of the church as being less about what it teaches than Whom it embraces? It took the Syrophoenician woman to convince Jesus that even he, up to that point, had not imagined the Kingdom of God in a sufficiently inclusive way. If you are gay and you love Jesus you are part of his church regardless of what the holier than thou would have you believe.

  19. Thank you, Ron, for this lovely piece. It really captures so much of what is good and beautiful and human in our experience as believers who have lived with, and had to confront, gay feelings most our entire lives. If only people would pay more attention to these aspects of homosexuality, instead of merely condemning the sexual behavior, the Church could perhaps approach the issue of homosexuality with a more mature, balanced, and thoughtful understanding of the nature of homosexual attraction, and therefore better know how to properly minister to gays.

    Your reflections about the affection you felt for your childhood friend are truly moving. So many of the hopes and dreams you described were things I too desired throughout my childhood and teenage years (well, maybe minus the aerospace aspirations…)–that is, until my conversion to faith complicated matters.

    I think personal stories like yours aptly illustrate the element of humanity–and dare I add, innocence–in homosexual desires that emerge during one’s childhood. (Whereas, no doubt, some will object to there being anything “innocent” about desires which involve–i.e. though maybe not exclusively or predominantly, must arguably *ultimately* involve–forms of sexual behavior or intimacy that go against religious or moral convictions, it will be much harder, I suspect, to deny the common thread of humanity: wanting to build a life and family with your partner, to introduce them to your family, to grow old with them, etc. are desires that both homosexuals and heterosexuals can relate to.)

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