Born This Way: Black Box Sexuality

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This was originally published in slightly different form at No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz? Republished here with permission.

I was arguing with a friend a while back; we’re both atheists, but he’s one of the ones who feels compelled to be rude about it. He was asking where the notion that one has to respect other people’s religion came from. Why shouldn’t religion be subject to rational inquiry in the public sphere, he wanted to know. Well, I don’t think he actually wanted to know, I think he thought his question was rhetorical. But I answered it anyway.

Agreement to not subject other people’s religions to too strenuous an inquiry became a practice because it’s the only way we can have a civilization. The alternatives, after millennia of testing, are either respect other people’s religions, or endure tons of bloodshed. It’s a conversation that always and only ends in bloodshed, and so we as a civilization have developed the meme of “You have to respect other people’s religion” as a way of mutually agreeing to not talk about it.

This, like everything else, brings me to sex.

We in the sex-positive crowd generally treat a person’s sexual and gender identity and sexual tastes or habits as a black box. For those who haven’t heard the term before, a black box is a term of art referring to an unknowable process. You don’t know how the black box produced this result, and you can’t find out, so just take the result and get on with your work. How did a person come to be a serially monogamous cisgendered lesbian who likes her hair pulled? How did this other fellow end up as a straight male top with a taste for leather? We don’t know. They just came out that way, and you should be polite to them.

We do not treat sexuality as a black box because it actually is intrinsically unknowable, but because it’s the only way we can have a civilization.

Back around…would’ve been 1990 or so, one of the early studies indicating that homosexuality may have a genetic origin came out. The day it came out, one of the boys at my school came up to me and said “Hey, did you hear? They found the part of the brain that makes people gay! Maybe now they can find a way to cut that part out and make those people normal!” That was literally his first reaction. Little punk’s probably a senator by now.

I knew a girl once who swore blind that her fetish for being spanked was an intrinsic genetic component of her DNA. I didn’t buy it for a second, but I understood why she felt the need to say that. “DNA” was her way of trying to say “black box.”

The connection between those two people should be obvious, but in case it’s not: People have a really awful habit of trying to “fix” other people’s sexuality. Corrective rapeClitoridectomyCircumcisionChastity beltsAnti-masturbation devicesChemical castration. I could go on and on, but frankly, those links have made me a little sick to my stomach.

Even today we have moralists like Marcus Bachmann and Gail Dines trying to tell us what it’s “normal” to want, and earnestly assuring us that they’ve figured out what’s wrong with abnormal people, and they can help fix it. Pray away the gay, think away the kink, doesn’t matter. It always comes back to the idea that once they understand what’s “wrong” with you, they can fix it.

It’s not that sexuality is all that knowable at its best. What drives a given person’s identity and tastes is phenomenally complex, as strange and mysterious and beautiful as the factors that give rise to their rich personality, to their curly hair, to their annoying laugh. But some of those factors are, after all, knowable. That hair is influenced by DNA, humidity, and some other things. That personality is a mix of inborn traits and formative experiences. And yeah, maybe that uniform fetish has something to do with spending puberty at a Catholic school next to a naval base.

But it’s not worth it to start the digging. Let’s say, for example, that someone were to prove, definitively prove, that homosexuality is caused by (deliberately silly example here) the mother eating celery during pregnancy. Down to how much celery is required. We have a celery chart that lines up to the Kinsey scale, which measures a person’s place in the homosexual-heterosexual continuum.

Think about how many people around the world would rejoice, cheering and saying to each other “At last! We can prevent it!” and not quite saying out loud “We can eliminate homosexuals from the face of the earth within a generation or two!” Think about how many places would start banning celery. Think what would happen to a visibly pregnant woman who ordered cream of celery soup in public. Think about how many pregnancy manuals would come out, full of recommended healthy diets that just so happen to leave out one ingredient, without ever quite mentioning it.

Silly example? You bet. Totally valid anyway? Oh my, yes.

Let’s say someone comes out with a popular, bestselling book on child psychology. Doesn’t even have to be true, just popular. Let’s say they claim that whatever a kid interacts with on their eleventh birthday, that will become their fetish. Little blonde girl at your party? You have a thing for blondes now. Lot of rubber balloons at your party? Latex fetish! Watched Thundercats or the Disney Robin Hood? Furry fandom welcomes you, brother! Sure, this is completely stupid, but it’s way less stupid than anti-vaccination panic, and some people take that seriously.

Every parent who buys that book, every one, is going to micromanage their kid’s eleventh birthday in the creepiest possible way. Let your imagination run wild: centerfolds on the walls, total isolation, trip to the YMCA…you cannot possibly reach the levels of creepiness people would actually engage in. They’re more motivated, after all: This is their child’s whole future on the line!

So no, we don’t know quite how the mechanisms work that make a person gay or trans or genderqueer or any of the rest. We don’t know what gives rise to the wealth of kinks and fetishes and weird tastes that make sex so dang much fun. We don’t want to know. It would be nice if we could say “This is how it works” without someone immediately saying “Great, now we can fix it,” but we don’t live in that world.

We have fought for recognition and dignity for all forms of sexual minorities because none of us need to be fixed. You may not like how someone else presents, genderwise. You may not like what they do in private. You may think that someone’s kink is offensive. Doesn’t matter. They are not a problem to be fixed, they are a human being with as much dignity and human worth as anyone else, and insofar as their sexuality neither picks your pocket nor breaks your leg, you can spare them your opinion, for it really doesn’t matter.

But somehow, none of the human-dignity arguments work as well in getting people to stop trying to fix other people as simply saying “Well, no one knows, so there’s nothing you can do.” In that respect, “There’s nothing you can do” works the same as “You have to respect the beliefs of others” does for religion. It’s a way to just drop the subject and move on.

We treat sexuality as a black box because it’s the only way we can maintain a polite conversation about it without someone trying to infibulate someone the moment they let their guard down.

Author, editor, raconteur, and man-about-town Noah Brand is not presently wanted by the law, which is probably the most that can be said for him. When not writing screenplays or novels or blog posts or anything else that will hold still long enough, he is known as a small-time grifter and notorious gentleman of easy virtue. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

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