Sunday, February 12, 2012

Muddled thinking about sexual orientation

Since the time of the ancient Greeks there has been interest in physiological hermaphroditism, as seen in individuals who are perceived to show some combination of masculine and female physical traits.

As far as I know, there have never been any documented cases of persons with fully functioning male and female organs so that they could both impregnate and give birth. But there are, for example, women with enlarged clitorises that might be confused with penises, “bearded ladies,” and so forth.

Similarly, there are men with variations that distance them from the typical male. A good example is the condition known as Klinefelter’s Syndrome. a condition in which human males have an extra X chromosome. While females have an XX chromosomal makeup, and males an XY, affected individuals have at least two X chromosomes and at least one Y chromosome. Because of the extra chromosome, individuals with the condition are usually referred to as "XXY Males," or "47, XXY Males." Symptoms include hypogonadism (small testes) and reduced fertility. These individuals are not, however, hermaphrodites in the strict sense of the word; they are males.

A hundred years ago, at the time of Magnus Hirschfeld, these sexual intergrades (or sexuelle Zwischenstufen) were commonly conflated with the matter of sexual orientation. Yet there is plenty of evidence that the two are distinct, each requiring a separate metric. One can be a “man’s man” or a “woman’s woman” and still be attracted to one’s own sex. Conversely, men sometimes judged somatically effeminate and “manly women” can be purely heterosexual in their psychic orientation.

This conflation is an instance of what philosophers term a category mistake. Thia is a semantic or ontological error in which things of one kind are assimilated to another; or, alternatively, a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. Here are two amusing examples: “Most bananas are atheists” and “Schizophrenia went shopping last week.”

In recent decades, serious sex researchers have generally been careful to avoid category mistakes, rightly keeping the matter of somatic sexual variation separate from that of sexual orientation. Not so, however, the independent scholar Hanne Blank, author of Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon Press, 2011). The main purpose of the book is to reiterate the unlikely thesis advanced by Jonathan Ned Katz in his Invention of Homosexuality (1995). I have discussed this claim in a previous posting.

Seeking to show that nothing is as straightforward or obvious as we think, Blank begins her book by describing her own long-term partnership with a Kliinefelter individual whose sexual genotype is XXY. That means, she claims, that biologically her partner is both male and female. It means nothing of the sort: her partner is male.

Having unwisely set the stage in this way, she goes on in the main body of the book to perpetrate her category mistake, assuming that her partner’s condition throws light on the issue of sexual orientation. This claim is preposterous; it returns to the the old error of a century ago.

The current appeal of such confused thinking is that it appears to accord with postmodernism, one definition of which is to “scramble the categories.” In this instance, as in many others, such scrambling is not an aid to clear thinking.



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