Why I’m okay with “born this way”

There has been some pushback lately against the concept of “born this way” as a rallying cry for queer people. I’d like to go on the record as a queer person who finds the idea of “born this way” very useful, even empowering. There are a couple of reasons for this; one is highly personal, and the other has to do with the way science is understood and discussed in the public sphere.

First, the personal: I am an aversive asexual, and I have no idea how I got this way. My history doesn’t provide any clues. I have never been the victim of a sexual trauma. I learned the mechanics of reproduction at around age four, whilst watching my mother spay a dog. (What is that you’re removing? What does it do? You mean babies don’t really come out of the mother’s “tummy”?) Despite living in a “red” state, where abstinence-only rules, I received comprehensive sex-ed through our church. My family didn’t talk much about sex, but they weren’t shameful about it, either.

By the time I was in high school, most of my female friends were sexually active. It seems that the summer between junior high and high school was the most popular time, among my circle of friends, to begin experimenting with sex. (This was problematic for the boys, as many of them had not entered puberty yet, so there were vicious rumors about how so-and-so had a tiny dick, even though his voice hadn’t even changed yet and he was still four feet tall.) I didn’t understand my friends’ fascination with sex, other than as an act of rebellion, but managed to convince myself I was merely a “late bloomer” and would find a way to do the deed before the end of high school.

In college, I was a member of the campus prochoice organization, which actively promoted safe sex and sex-ed as part of its overall commitment to reproductive justice. We held safe-sex events on campus with free condoms and free samples of flavored lubricant and genitalia-shaped desserts. I loaded up on condoms and faithfully held on to them until they expired. At this point I was still going through the motions of believing I might someday have sex, but was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea.

The point of these anecdotes is this: there is nothing in the way I was nurtured that should have produced a sexual aversion. No trauma, no background of religious repression, no peer pressure to keep myself “pure”. I’ve played these events, and others, in my head hundreds of times, looking for a catalyst for my sexual aversion, and finding none. The only sexually traumatic event I could point to was a coercive pap smear when I was sixteen – but this was a hoop I had to jump through to obtain birth control pills, and I wanted the pills in order to jump-start my sex drive. The aversion was there, even then – it merely wasn’t as socially disabling as it is now, since I was still able to blame it on late-bloomer syndrome.

So, by default, I must look to nature, rather than nurture, as the cause of my asexuality and my sexual aversion. I say I was born this way because that is the only explanation I can come up with. I’m someone who needs to know the “why” of everything, and this is no exception. I’m comfortable saying “I was born this way” because it adequately explains the situation and doesn’t blame my family, upbringing, friends, education, or (most importantly) my own psyche. “Born this way”, for me, is neutral. It just is. 

The other half of my objection to the objections to “born this way” comes from the way I see science being misrepresented. Part of the reason some queer people have become hesitant to credit biology for their sexual orientations has to do with the fear that, if a “gay gene” exists, it could be isolated and eradicated (not quite a rational fear, in my opinion, because I don’t think the type of person who would screen a fetus for a gay gene would also believe in selective abortion). The problem is that the popular conflation of biological with genetic grossly oversimplifies the process of embryonic, fetal and infant development and ignores the myriad other factors that make us who and what we are. While a single gay gene could theoretically be removed from the breeding population, this model ignores the complex interplay of genetic, environmental and developmental factors that makes each of us an intricate tapestry – from which no single thread can be easily unraveled. Understanding sexual orientation from an evolutionary developmental standpoint, rather than a purely genetic one, could easily make science an ally rather than an enemy – and indeed, given the history of the misuse of science, and exploitation of misunderstandings of science, as tools of oppression, I believe that an increased understanding of science, rather than a rejection of it, is an indispensable weapon against the kyriarchy.

The alternative to “born this way” is something that hasn’t really been fleshed out in popular discourse yet, but so far it seems to hover around ideas of choice and fluidity, which are of course accurate descriptions of some people’s sexual narratives but would be extremely troubling to me as universal benchmarks, for a number of reasons.

One of my favorite bloggers, Natalie Reed, wrote an entry on the controversy surrounding actress Cynthia Nixon’s statement that she chose to be gay (well, actually, she is bisexual, and chose a life with a female partner – not exactly the same thing). She says,

And what really stands out for me is the fact that the Born This Way debate really doesn’t matter unless we buy into the concept presented by the religious right that queer identities or acts are somehow immoral, sinful, disgusting, inferior or otherwise undesirable (“But we can’t help it!”). Even if it is a choice, it’s a choice we bloody well have the right to make for ourselves.

Which is something I can respect; however, applying this sentiment toall persons with non-normative sexual orientations erases people like me, for whom there is most decidedly no element of choice. Simply put, I would choose not to be asexual if I could. Part of my reality doesinclude sometimes feeling like my orientation is undesirable, inferior, and burdensome (at least I can leave “sinful” and “immoral” off the list, having had the privilege of growing up secular). Attributing all sexual orientations to choice implies that those of us who are unhappy with the cards we were dealt could simply unchoose to be this way. There are two big problems with this:

  1. It implies that anyone who is queer – or, heck, anybody at all – has to be happy with their sexual orientation, because otherwise, why not just try something else? Why stay queer if it’s causing you pain? Why leave your hand in that bear trap, instead of just removing it? And I feel like this erases a lot of queer experience, because god damn it, being unhappy with how you are sometimes is part of existence for everyone, not just people whose sexual orientation falls outside our society’s narrow constructs of ‘normal’. And even if folks do eventually “get over” these feelings (or “choose” to get over them), it’s something that everyone does at their own pace. (This gets perilously close to the idea of enforced positivity, too, which is another entry for another day.)
  2. Attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation don’t work.I’m not even going to go to the obvious place of discussing the horrors of so-called reparative therapy for LGBT folks here. I’m going to talk about my own experience – the only thing I’m universally qualified to talk about – to demonstrate that, even without the coercive, toxic influence of religion, trying to fix yourself is an expensive and exhausting exercise in futility.

I saw a sex therapist for about three years. I started seeing her so that I could fulfill a promise to my boyfriend at the time. He was about to move out of state and I wanted to see him off with a proverbial bang. Previously, I’d promised to have sex with him on prom night, only to chicken out at the last minute and spend the night vomiting in the bathroom instead. So I felt I owed him, big time.

And while seeing this particular therapist was useful in some ways – she was the first person to diagnose me as being on the autism spectrum, something my childhood psychiatrists and psychologists had missed – three years and many hundreds of dollars did not bring me any closer to being a sexual person. It didn’t even bring me closer to being okay with sex. Therapy wasn’t even the only thing I did to try to jump-start my sex drive, either. I took birth control for over a year, and while the diminished periods were nice, I felt no change in my sexual appetite at all. I also bought a sex toy and forced myself to masturbate every night for a period of about six months. Aside from physical soreness and insomnia, this didn’t change anything either.

So, I have tried to unchoose asexuality. And while I admit the rhetoric of choice as a form of radical opposition to the oppressions of the theo-patriarchy is extremely appealing, it simply does not accurately reflect my struggles as a queer person.

No, I don’t believe people like Cynthia Nixon should be shamed and lambasted for broaching the subject of choice when discussing their sexual identities. I don’t think that talking about choice in sexual identities and relationship structures enables right-wing homophobia as some of Nixon’s critics seem to fear it would. What I do feel is that a wholesale rejection of “born this way” threatens to eclipse the narratives of people who don’t have an element of choice in their sexual identities, and for whom a model of sexual orientation in which we can choose (and unchoose) actually takes away sexual agency rather than granting it, as paradoxical as that may seem.

First published 22 Feb. 2012 at sidneyia.tumblr.com

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