Engineering 'sexual orientation'

Wed 24 Feb 2016 02:59 PM

I just read Robin Dembroff's paper What Is Sexual Orientation?, recently published in Philosopher's Imprint. Dembroff approaches their title question as a matter of engineering. Rather than trying to unpack our folk concept or find the natural kind that is closest to our common conception, they want to craft a concept of sexual orientation that will allow us to do things.[1]

I meant to write a short post, but stage-setting for the small point ended up being more words than I'd at first had in mind. This is the first blog post in a while that has spiralled out of control.

Dembroff formulates and argues for this account:

Bidimensional Dispositionalism [BD]: A person S’s sexual

orientation is grounded in S’s dispositions to engage

in sexual behaviors under the ordinary condition[s] for

these dispositions, and which sexual orientation S has

is grounded in what sex and gender of persons S is

disposed to sexually engage under these conditions. (p. 18)

There's a lot packed into that.

BD characterizes orientation in terms of dispositions to respond (rather than just in terms of actual responses) under ordinary circumstances (rather than narrowly under the circumstances that S actually faces or abstractly under ideal circumstances).

BD also characterizes orientation in terms of both sex and gender.[2] This creates a certain kind of parity. Someone who is attracted to transgender women is on the same footing as someone who is attracted to cisgender women or someone who is attracted to genderqueer females. None gets to be the default, none is set off as the deviant.

This parity is important to Dembroff's account, because they aim to help eliminate "the presumption that cisheterosexuality is the normatively standard sexual orientation." Moreover, they intend to provide a concept that would be "conducive for establishing legal and social protections for persons who have queer sexual orientations" (p. 5).

These are good aims, and I'm impressed by the way that Dembroff applies them to questions about which dispositions and characteristics matter. This could easily become abstruse metaphysics or logic-chopping, but it doesn't.

Note that BD characterizes a person S's sexual orientation entirely in terms of their dispositions to respond to other people. S's own sex and gender don't enter into the picture at all. So a heterosexual cisgender woman can count as having the same sexual orientation as a homosexual cisgender man: Both are disposed to be attracted to men.[3]

Dembroff poses this as an advantage of the account. Equality becomes a straightforward matter of not discriminating on the basis of sex. They quote John Roberts, an unlikely ally, who argues that (without marriage equality) "if Sue loves Joe and Tom loves Joe, Sue can marry him and Tom can't. And the difference is based on their different sex." BD fits nicely with this, because it can characterize both Sue and Tom as having the same sexual orientation. The only difference between them is sex, so it's simply discrimination based on sex to allow marriage for one but not the other.

This has the consequence that "the current concepts of 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' do not pick out sexual orientations under BD" (p. 25).

This would certainly contravene ordinary use, but that's not by itself an objection. Recall that Dembroff is doing conceptual engineering, rather than conceptual analysis. If the the account of 'sexual orientation' that best lets us do what we want contravenes ordinary usage, then we ought to change our usage.

I do wonder, though, whether Dembroff has left out an important function of 'sexual orientation' talk: namely, that it is used by people when they are looking for a sexual or romantic partner. It seems like language of 'gay' and 'straight' has often served this function. Gay bars are places where men seeking relations with other men can presume that other men are doing the same; even if some men at a gay bar are not looking, they can't really take offense at the presumption. Classified personal ads (back when there used to be classified ads) distinguish 'men seeking women' from 'men seeking men'. And so on.

Engaging in sexual behaviors is not just a matter of being aroused by that kind of person, it is also (typically) about that person also being aroused. One feels sexual and becomes more aroused because one is seen as sexy and arousing by the other.[4] We might call this the recursive aspect of sexual response: Dispositions to engage in sexual behavior with someone interact in complicated ways with the dispositions of the other person.

In this way, the sexual dispositions of a heterosexual woman are different from the dispositions of a homosexual man. The heterosexual woman doesn't just want to be with a man, but with a man who is attracted to women; and mutatis mutandis for the homosexual man.

On Dembroff's account, 'gay' (in the sense of man who responds sexually to men but not women) ends up not being a sexual orientation. To put it crudely, the BD account excises the categories 'men seeking men' and 'women seeking men' in favor of just 'seeking men'. This would make personal ads less useful. Insofar as gay bars and gay personals serve a purpose, the term does work.

I suppose this could be accommodated with Dembroff's account by keeping terms like 'gay' but not counting them as a sexual orientations. Sue and Tom would then differ not in their sexual orientation, but in this further additional respect. Maybe this is OK, since the additional respect is just sexual orientation + sex/gender. But one might want a compact term for this additional respect, and 'sexual orientation' seems like the ordinary term that is closest.


[1] This could, on my account, still end up identifying a natural kind. It will depend on the details.

[2] Although given a first-pass formulation with sex and gender as binaries, Dembroff generalizes.

[3] Whether or not they respond to transgender men, they have the same sexual orientation if they have the same response.

[4] Shades of Thomas Nagel here.