All Tigers Have Stripes; All Gay People Are Sexually Attracted to Their Own Sex

I most love blogging for the way it places me just a keystroke away from people I would otherwise never even pass by on the street.  I can communicate with and receive feedback from anyone with an internet connection.  In this way, blogging is a form of communion.  It does not replace (or even come close to) the communion our bodies can make, but I am grateful for it nonetheless.

I received some rather unexpected reactions to my latest post, “Gay and Catholic? A Response to Eve Tushnet.”  I would like to address one of them here.

Both in the comments’ section of my post and in a separate blog post written in response to mine, I was accused of “reducing” gayness to sex.  One commenter contended that for people like Ms. Tushnet, gayness involves “desiring profound emotional intimacy with their own gender, deep spiritual friendship, appreciating the goodness and beauty of themselves and their companions–with part of that being sexual attraction…but not being the primary, overriding or sole determiner of the orientation.”

One blogger accused me of just not understanding what it means to be gay (people who know me in real life will understand how funny that statement is) because I do not realize that “being gay has much to do with how we love. Love, however, can be had without sex, just as sex can be had without love.”

Well, of course it can.

But this is all really beside the point.

In pointing out that sexual attraction to one’s own sex comprises a necessary component of being gay, lesbian, or queer, I do not reduce gay people to a sex act as magisterial teaching does.

For example, in pointing out that all tigers have stripes, I do not “reduce” tigers to their stripes.  But a big cat that lacks stripes just is not a tiger.

In a similar way, if a person is not sexually attracted to one’s own sex, then she or he does not qualify as gay, lesbian, or queer.   This argument* at times seem to suggest that one can be gay or lesbian without being sexually attracted to one’s own sex.  But that is just not how definitions work.

These critics want to shift the definitional locus of sexual orientation.  For them, not sexual desire, but friendship comprises the core of sexual orientation.  But this is strange.  All people desire friendship with people of all sexes.  Does this make the entire human race pan-sexual?  Sometimes, people even desire friendship with their siblings or parents.  Does this make us naturally incestuous?

No, of course not.

But friendship does not distinguish gay from straight for another reason.  Such thinkers identify “deep friendship” or “spiritual friendship” as among the ends or characteristics of gayness.  But this does not make sense.  Desiring deep friendship with someone of the same sex does not make one gay or lesbian.  Do not straight people desire deep friendship with people of the same sex?  US-Americans cannot get enough of same sex friendships: see Sex and the City, Best Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Saving Private Ryan, etc.  Were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gay lovers?

Straight women desire “deep” and “spiritual” friendships with women just as much as lesbians do.  And so lesbians can even desire “deep” and “spiritual” friendships with men.  And just as straight women and men can be “just friends,” so can lesbian women be “just friends” with one another.

Friendship does not have a sexual orientation; only sexual desire does. Sexual desire makes a lesbian woman’s desire for relationship with another woman different from her desire for relationship either with men or with other women to whom she is not sexually attracted. Sex makes sexual desire different from all other desires.  Sex makes sexual love different from all other loves.

So yes, we ought to use our sexual orientations as a way of loving well.  Absolutely.  But there are many forms of love–love between family members and love between friends, for example.  Sexual desire can co-exist within friendship (of course, friendship makes sexual love even better) but sexual love and friendship are not one in the same. Sex sets sexual love apart.

And, inversely, one can possess a certain sexual orientation—whether gay or straight—without ever using it to love.

If one is sexually attracted to one’s own sex, she or he is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer. If a person lacks sexual attraction to one’s own sex, then she or he does not meet the criteria for these categories. So yes, sexual desire is the “primary, sole, and overriding determinant” of sexual orientation. A person who “desires profound emotional intimacy with one’s gender, deep spiritual friendship [with one’s own sex], [and] appreciates the goodness and beauty of themselves and their companions” does not thereby qualify as gay. These characteristics make one gay only if they accompany and are motivated by a fundamental and unavoidably sexual, sexual desire.

Many will bristle at this and accuse me of reducing sexual orientation to something crass and pornographic.  Maybe we feel uncomfortable with the sexiness of sexual orientation because we are uncomfortable with sex itself.

Or perhaps members of this movement seek to make their sexual orientation about everything other than sex because they are caught in a bind. In order to affirm what they need to be true (that the magisterium never errs) and what they know to be true (that their sexual orientations are God-given and good), they can only claim that sexual orientation is not really about sexual desire. But, in doing so, they obviate what they intend to affirm.

Yes, gay people, like straight people, are more than their sex acts.  So can sexual orientation inspire more than “just sex.”  But when we crave emotional intimacy with people we are sexually attracted to, sacrifice our comfort for their happiness, or get lost in the memory of their beauty, we do these virtuous acts not despite our sexual desire but through it.

If sexual orientation is not about sexual desire, then what is it? (Is it anything at all?)

 

 

*I had originally erroneously lumped these thinkers together under the term “new homophiles.” It has come to my attention that the term “new homophiles” is derogatory and was in fact coined by someone seeking to disparage and stigmatize those who hold this position.   I would also like to apologize for using a term that is hurtful or demeaning.  Although it was not my intention to belittle my interlocutors, I take responsibility for not representing them accurately nonetheless. I should have done more research before deploying this term.  My sincerest apologies.  The error is mine completely.

12 thoughts on “All Tigers Have Stripes; All Gay People Are Sexually Attracted to Their Own Sex

  1. Just a thought.
    Is it possible that the pressure to avoid language of sexual desire as an essential component of homosexuality is an attempt to open up a space for homosexual-asexuals (i.e. people who are romantically attracted to the same sex, but not sexually attracted to them [or anybody, for that matter])?

  2. Katie–
    Once again, I find this very well presented and makes complete sense. So much sense, in fact, that I really am having a hard time understanding why there’s so much confusion about it. In other words, I’m having a really hard time understanding how the New Homophiles can try to hold on to a gay or lesbian identity and claim that sexual attraction isn’t a necessary part of that self-definition–the only move they can make to avoid running into all the things you have pointed out in these two posts–even if, as we all agree, it cannot be reduced to that either. I’m simply trying to understand how they can think their argument is coherent. (One quibble: I would argue, along with one of the commentors on Facebook, that queer is a much broader category that has less to do with sexual orientation and more with an opposition to an ideologically constructed normalcy, and thus I think that Tushnet could claim that term if she wanted–though I have no idea if she does.)
    In that attempt to understand, I wonder if this issue isn’t somehow tied to the other conservative Catholic account of homosexuality (and the one with which I’m more familiar) that agrees with you that sexual attraction is a necessary part of sexual orientation language, and thus refuses to use it all together: those who describe themselves as Same-Sex Attracted, but eschew that this is in anyway a positive identity, but rather a challenge and burden. This account, it seems to me, IS consistent with what the church teaches on homosexuality which, as you point out, does reduces the concept to sexual desire only. I wonder if Tushnet and those who agree with her don’t look at the SSA idea and say, “No, that won’t do. That’s too reductive. That doesn’t fit with what I experience at all.” Therefore, they flip so far in the other direction as to (practically) deny the place of sexual attraction in sexual orientation in response. This places them in a bind of claiming to believe what the magisterium teaches, yet also ignoring the fundamental (and only) aspect that the magisterium cares about: sexual attraction and genital acts.
    In other words, I wonder if some sense can’t be made of this incoherence by wondering if the New Homophiles are responding less to people like you or I who just say the magisterium is wrong on this point, and more to those who claim that SSA is the only way to go. This doesn’t make their thinking work any better, but I can at least see how they got there. But, as I said, I don’t know nearly as much about the New Homophile thing so I might be way off base.

  3. From what I’ve read many of the new homophiles are sexually abstinent, which is admirable. Maybe that is why they think of their sexuality in terms of the personality traits and trappings that tend to go along with homosexuality, perhaps more like gender identity disorder, rather than about sexual desire, which they acknowledge but are seeking to deemphasize, as part of their larger vision to forge a sort of updated and more acceptable version of being homosexual.
    Bottom line though I think you are correct. In this age of wanting to redefine everything, you can not logically take the sexual attribute out of sexual desire. I think you are providing a sort of “reality check” for the NH folks, and I hope they are able to find a way to accept the very logical point you are making. If they can’t accept this kind of criticism they risk going too far afield of what homosexuality actually is, and adding to our already too-loud chorus of confusion on the subject.

  4. In principle I actually agree with the intellectual criticisms you make here but the tone of this article (and the previous one) reek of personal hostility and it degrades the quality of the argument.

    The “New Homophiles” is not a term these people use to describe themselves. It was a derogatory term applied to them by an extremist right-wing commentator who wrote a series of hatchet jobs on them at Crisis Magazine. The same commentator was later dumped from a conservative radio show after he called for all liberal academics to be taken out and shot. It seems that Grimes’s Modus Operandi is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” WiT’s rules of engagement say that “robust theological reflection is characterized by collaboration and dialogue” and that the authors are “committed to creating a safe space for discussions that are open, challenging and respectful.” Yet it seems that, as usual, when it comes to discussing LGBT issues, everyone sets aside the usual niceties and just gets down to bashing their opponents.

    Similarly, both this article and the previous one mischaracterize what the “new homophile movement” actually believe, and also mischaracterizes them by the fact that the allegedly all believe the same thing (how can they all be subscribing to the idea that the Magisterium never errs when half of them are Protestant? And when the ones who are Catholics have almost all critiqued the Magisterium on at least some points?). You can argue that what they actually do believe is bigoted and harmful, but at least represent it accurately.

    Once again, WiT’s rules of engagement begin with the following:

    “Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save her neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If anyone cannot save it, let her inquire how the other means it; and if the other means it badly, let her correct the other with charity. If that is not enough, let her seek all the suitable means to bring the other to mean it well, and save herself.”

    To this detached observer the last two pieces on this issue don’t even seem to be making an effort at charitable discussion.

    • Hello,
      Thank you for bringing these issues to my attention. I did not know that “New Homophiles” was a derogatory term. I will research this and I will be more than happy to correct myself if I have called them something they do not wish to be called. I very much believe in respecting people enough to call them what they want to be called.

      I am also open to hearing how I have misrepresented them.

      As to the fact that there are Protestant members of this school of thought, I am a Catholic theologian and so my primary audience of address is other Catholics.

      • Thank you for your response and for your willingness to reconsider. And I apologize if you didn’t know where the NH term came from.
        I don’t think we can assume that even the Catholics all agree with the Magisterium, since the unifying factor of their school of thought on the Catholic side seems to be that traditional sexual ethics are basically correct but the Church’s response to homosexuality is at present both doctrinally and pastorally inadequate. In the interview you analyzed the other day, Tushnet doesn’t even mention the Magisterium or her views on gay sex, except to deride the idea that we should be listening to everything the Pope says all the time, and these people usually refer to something like the traditional sexual ethic or the historic teaching of the Church, rather than the Magisterium. Given that many of them are philosophically and/or theologically trained, I doubt those are just distinctions without a difference. One possible flaw of the entire school of thought, I’d say, is that they don’t really outline exactly what they DO think about gay sex. But I guess that’s because their audience is basically people who already agree with the traditional ethics. In that sense, I don’t get the impression they are interested in being evangelists for compulsory celibacy.
        Thomas Aquinas said the more you descend into specifics, exceptions and variations to general principles multiply. Its possible to affirm and argue for the general principle that homosexual sexual desire and acts are evil without accepting the idea that these things are “intrinsically” evil — that the general principle applies to all possible cases. Someone who took this view and decided to be celibate would be saying something much more similar to “I have a call to be celibate as an individual because I think this principle applies in my case,” than to the Magisterium’s claims about all sexually active gay people everywhere.
        I have no idea if anyone believes that. I’m just mentioning possibilities. The idea that either you accept the Magisterium’s claims that homosexuality is “intrinsically evil,” or you simply reject the idea that its evil in any sense, is unnecessarily reductive, and doesn’t reflect the diversity of possible views here.

  5. On the substantive point at issue, it is perfectly possible to be gay and not experience “sexual desire” if by sexual desire you mean the desire to engage in the sexual act. If this were not the case, then gay people would cease being gay when they are sleeping, or thinking about other things than sex. Saying “I’m gay” tells you that if I were to have sexual desires in the narrow sense specified then they would be directed toward same-sex partners (in potency). It doesn’t tell you whether I have, or have had, those desires (in act), although a reasonable person can infer that this is the case.
    Although very few people, if any, are perfectly virtuous, in theory a perfectly virtuous straight person who takes a vow of celibacy would not experience the desire to engage in the sexual act by reason of their perfect virtue. However, they would not, even in theory, stop being straight, because, again, saying “I’m straight” tells you about a potency I have, not about whether the potency is act.
    If you wish to define a sexual orientation as something in act and not in potency then the only people who would even have a “sexual orientation” either gay or straight, would be sex addicts who thought about sex all of the time!
    There are many things one can criticize about the Spiritual Friendship crowd but please lets at least have some philosophical clarity here before we start calling others out for their lack of it.

  6. I think in terms of lesbian experience, it MIGHT be possible to claim a lesbian identity without experiencing sexual attraction to one’s own sex. I’m thinking of, say, Adrienne Rich’s lesbian continuum. Sexual attraction to one’s own sex might be sufficient but not necessary to allow you to claim a lesbian identity. I think that the Magisterium’s arguments against gay sex being lacking in its essential finality or whatever it says exactly are really only applicable to males from the perspective of males anyway. I suspect your argument is very relevant to gay males who claim allegiance to traditional Catholic teaching, although I can’t say since I’m not one. But personally I think that ultimate incoherence with Tushnet is that, in my opinion, traditional teaching on the teleology of the sexual act pretty much serves as a description or exposition of the social roles that the Church believes men and women should adhere to. The deeper logic is about gender. So identifying as anything outside of the Magisterium’s conception of gender, including as a lesbian woman who gives herself permission to prioritize her relationships with other women rather than finding the meaning of her existence solely in relation to men, means you are in violation of the teaching.

  7. I see your point here but i find that contemporary queer communities are beginning to make a distinction between “sexuality” and “romantic attraction,” such that one could be gay or lesbian or queer, but no experience sexual attraction. This is to clear space for asexual people who often get thrown into the very sexualized discourse of queerness, which can be very invalidating and even triggering for some ace people (i.e. asexuals) who do not experience sexual attraction because of traumatic sexual experiences. I think jleavittpearl’s comment is on point here.

    so, no, not all tigers have stripes.

    • even in this comment you are using “queer,” which you say could include asexual people, as a synonym for lesbian and gay.

      if somebody wants to define themselves as asexual but romantically attracted to people of the same sex, more power to them. I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that my comments refer to the community of people who understand themselves to be sexually attracted to the same sex.

    • more specifically, just by wanting to be included in the category of “gay,” which is commonly known to mean those who are sexually attracted to their same sex” those who claim to merely romantically not sexually attracted to their own sex are implicitly admitting that romantic attraction and sexual attraction are sufficiently similar, related, and overlapping to be designated by the same name and enfolded within the same category.

      so, you can’t have it both ways: you can’t claim that the condition of being constitutively romantically attracted to someone is so different from the condition of being constitutively sexually attracted to someone that they ought not be lumped together but then also claim that those two states of being are sufficiently similar that they must be considered the same identity.

      so, if they are different such that what I say about those sexually attracted to their own sex does not apply to those romantically attracted to their same sex, then my argument about gay people holds.

      but if you claim that the condition of being romantically attracted to the same sex is so similar to being sexually attracted to the same sex that it is an injustice to consider them two different identities, then what I say about sexually attracted greatly pertains to romantically attracted people.

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