Sex is the headline story this summer. What is the sex of Bruce Jenner’s brain, and what should be the sex of the romantic partners in marriage? The underlying theme of these sex stories is one of the most important issues confronting our civilization: the proper role of emotions in human life.
Until June, public opinion on sexual orientation seemed to have settled on the notion that much of the science was settled; that sexual orientation, if the concept is meaningful at all, is not a choice but rather the result of forces outside our control; that these forces include genetics, epigenetics, and the environment, especially the social environment; and that all sexual orientations per se are perfectly healthy and fulfilling. These scientific conclusions point to a moral conclusion: that all sexual orientations should be “affirmed” and celebrated as equal.
But the Jenner case, bringing transgenderism front and center, has given some people pause. Transgender is the T in LGBT. The same ideological movement that persuaded so many to applaud homosexual desire now demands that we applaud a man—or even a boy—wanting to grow female breasts and cut off his penis to become a woman.
This seems a good time to examine this allegedly settled science.
Theories of Sexual Orientation’s Origins
Historically, there have been two main theories of the etiology—the cause or origin—of sexual orientation. The theories are biological determinism and social determinism. Over the past few decades, however, a third mainstream theory has emerged, eclipsing even the two other main theories. This theory is “social constructionism,” which claims “sexual orientation” is merely a notion—with no basis in fact—that has been “constructed” somehow by society as a whole, or by a racist, cisgendered patriarchy.
The biological determinists have conducted many studies to try to correlate homosexuality with a measured biological trait, such as the size of a particular part of the brain, or the length of the torso, or the number of older brothers a man has. None of these studies has produced replicable results. Moreover, opponents of the biological determinists cite evidence that sexual orientation is changeable throughout a person’s lifetime, varies from culture to culture, and varies even among animals when they are placed in different environments.
Biological determinists have challenged social determinists and social constructionists, pointing out there are many similarities as well as differences among diverse and distant cultures regarding sexual orientation. Indeed, each side of this scientific debate is strongest when contradicting the other side. The strongest argument for each side is a process of elimination: the other sides are wrong; therefore, we must be right.
Many researchers now believe the answer must be some combination of nature and nurture. The following quotation is the beginning of an answer to the question, “What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation?” in a brochure—intended for the general public—by the American Psychological Association:
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles…
In other words, researchers—for all their trying—have not been able to discover even a single causal factor or combination of causal factors that is “genetic, hormonal, developmental, social,” or “cultural.” In other words, the notion that either nature or nurture or any combination of nature and nurture causes any particular sexual orientation is really just a hypothesis. Indeed, the notion might aptly be called a mere speculation.
Here’s Another Idea
I do not accept the above speculation as settled science. The contrary theory that I will present below is not settled science either; moreover, many more specifics of this contrary theory are still to be identified. But this contrary theory is, in my judgment, the one theory that the existing scientific evidence actually supports.
According to this contrary theory, the cause of sexual orientation is free will. That is, the sexual orientation of a particular individual is caused by choices made by that individual. Why is free will as the cause of sexual orientation rejected by the scientific community and our popular culture, even in the face of a dearth of evidence for any other cause? The reason is philosophical, not scientific.
The first part of the philosophical reason is expressed in this continuation of the above passage from American Psychological Association: “…most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.” The same idea is often expressed more colloquially as “I don’t remember choosing my sexual orientation,” or “From my earliest awareness of sexual attraction, I was attracted to individuals of one sex.”
But these objections misunderstand the relation of choice to emotions. In my judgment, sexual attraction and arousal are, at least to a significant degree, emotional responses. We do not directly choose any of our emotional responses. But we do make prior, more basic choices that in turn cause our emotional responses.
Consider the case of millions of Americans listening to a speech by our president. Half of the listeners might be moved to pleasurable tears. A few might feel a thrill up their leg. The other half of the audience might feel loathing and contempt. Does any individual choose his particular emotional reaction to our president? No, the emotion erupts automatically. Are these diverse emotional responses caused by differences in genetics? Of course not; such a claim would be racist. Are the diverse responses caused by society? No, emotional reactions to our president cut across all social groups.
Our emotional responses to our president are caused by our prior judgments, our prior evaluation of whether our president is good for us and the things we value dearly, or bad for us and the things we value dearly. Sometime in our past, we made evaluations not only of the president, but also of what things in the world are fundamentally important to us. All of these prior evaluations are choices.
The Tricky Relationship Between Emotions and Choice
On the recent anniversary of D-Day, I attended a reception for U.S. veterans of World War II and the Korean War. When we sang “God Bless America,” many of the Veterans and guests were moved to tears. Did we choose to weep at that moment? Of course not. But sometime in our past, we made judgments about our country and about the men and women who fight for it, and about the importance of those things to us. Those past judgments are the cause of our present tears when we honor our military heroes.
I do not remember when I made the judgment that America is a great nation, worth fighting for, worth risking death for, and something I could not live without. But I know that I made the judgment, because I still hold it today.
We all can recall many times when we struggled to hold back tears or hold in laughter. We did not choose to have these emotions; indeed, we were trying to choose not to have them. The emotions were there, automatically. But the emotions reflected our own, personal, chosen values. We may not remember when we chose those values. We may have chosen them at a very, very young age. But we chose them.
I am giving several examples in order to illustrate that this phenomenon is ubiquitous. All of our automatic emotional responses are caused by our chosen values. The same pattern—chosen evaluation followed by emotional response—also applies to the emotions related to romantic love and sexual attraction.
A woman does not choose to be aroused by a heroic man and turned off by a scoundrel, or vice versa, but those reactions occur based on prior, chosen evaluations of her own moral worth. Some people are sexually attracted only to one man or woman—their spouse, their highest personal value.
Even sexual responses to physical features are based on chosen values. When I began to study dance and admire the grace of female dancers, I became attracted to women with lithe bodies, down shoulders, and long necks; that is, my attraction to certain physical features developed as my knowledge and values developed. Some women are attracted to a heavily-muscled physique, some to a sleek physique, some to a pudgy body; these various attractions are reflective of the woman’s personality and personal chosen values. These choices are not necessarily moral choices, but they are choices.
Emotions Are Linked to Our Values
A 12-year-old boy could be attracted to beautiful 12-year-old old girls, but not to beautiful 50-year-old women. When the boy becomes a mature man, his responses are the reverse. His sexual responses change as his values change.
A sexual response is not merely the response of one body to another body. The response is not caused merely by some gene or hormone that automatically triggers one body to feel pleasure from the look or feel of another body. A sexual response is the result of one person’s evaluation of the combination of mind and body of the other person and of oneself. These evaluations are choices.
From much earlier than he can remember, a child makes countless choices that, if verbalized, would be of these forms: “This is good for me. This is bad for me.” “When I did this, it was good (or bad) for me.” Then come conceptual generalizations, in which the child chooses to place specific experiences into categories. “When I do this kind of thing, it will be good (or bad) for me.”
Moreover, many of these early evaluations and conceptual classifications are sex-specific. “This man (or woman or boy or girl) is good or bad for me. What this man (or woman) did to this woman (or man) is good (or bad) for the woman (or man) and for me. What this man (or woman) does with women (or men) is good for me to do. What I did is something this man (or woman or boy or girl) liked (or did not like), and that is good (or bad) for me. Men (or women) are good (or bad) for me.”
I am describing how a person processes, through acts of volition, his experiences. Those who claim that “social and cultural influences” determine sexual orientation refer to these same experiences. Social determinists claim that the experiences themselves determine sexual orientation. But we know that our conscious mind is available to witness all our experiences—otherwise they would not be experiences—and along with being the witness, we are also the judge and jury regarding these experiences. It is our own verdicts on each experience that cause our emotions.
In short, every argument against biological determinism by the social determinists or social constructionists is, when revised to correct its philosophical error, an argument in favor of free will.
Biology Matters to Choice, Too
But there are even more choices to consider: choices regarding our biology. There is a way in which biology does play a crucial role in sexual orientation: not in determining sexual orientation, but in being a basic aspect of reality that each mind must consider and evaluate, thereby leading to a sexual orientation.
From this perspective, two important biological factors become evident: first, the complementarity, obvious even to a caveman, of the male and female sex organs; and second, the complementarity, obvious even to a young child, of masculine physical power and feminine beauty—a kind of beauty that, compared to masculine beauty, is less utilitarian and more of an end in itself. These two factors, which I write about elsewhere, provide a factual basis upon which most—though not all—individuals across diverse cultures are likely to make similar evaluations that will lead to heterosexuality.
For me, sexuality is an expression of my power and efficacy. (That’s right, feminists, power.) My power is under the direction of my reasoning mind that knows what to do to command nature and thrive. (That’s right, environmentalists, command nature.) For a romantic partner, I seek someone who is organized physically to receive my power and thrive on it, within the safe environment I have created for her, and who will judge my efficacy. (That’s right, relativists, judge.) I seek a mind equal in stature to my own, who expects me to lead, not merely so that she may follow, but so that she may judge, and so that she may offer her beauty to me alone as the expression of her judgment.
Clearly, I need a woman and not a man as my romantic, sexual partner. The foregoing summary of my sexuality is a summary of my heterosexuality. My sexual orientation is a system of personal, chosen values—not a mindless, biologically or socially determined response.
The biological determinist might argue there must have been some gene or hormone that first caused my brain to feel pleasure from seeing one kind of shape instead of another, even though no one has found such a gene or hormone. But my response to women is much more than a response to some shape; it is a response based on my own ideas of masculinity and femininity, and—perhaps above all—based on my estimation of myself.
The social determinist might argue that I absorbed the values I described from the male-dominant culture I was born into. But even if I learned some of my ideas from the culture, it was I who chose to accept those ideas.
It’s Not the Experience, But What We Decide About It
Now we can draw some conclusions about the existing empirical research on sexual orientation. All of the current research indicates that non-volitional biological factors alone do not determine sexual orientation, if these factors even play a significant role at all. That is, whatever biological factors a person is born with, he might still end up with one sexual orientation or another. According to the social determinists, the pivotal factors are our experiences.
But we know from rational philosophy that the decisive aspect of each experience is what we decide about that experience. Therefore, the empirical evidence, as well as rational philosophy, supports the conclusion that the pivotal factor causing sexual orientation is volition; the pivotal factor is our volitional evaluations of our experiences and of what we think about men, women, and ourselves.
Yet conventional wisdom is that sexual orientation is not based on choice. Again, the reason is philosophical, not scientific. The theories of biological determinism, social determinism, and social constructionism apply not only to sexual orientation, but to all aspects of sexuality and to virtually every character trait and personality trait. The conventional wisdom, based on all these theories, is that nothing is based on choice. The conclusion about sexual orientation is a mere deduction from that wrong premise.
What This All Implies about Sexual Orientation
What are the implications of the idea that sexual orientation is based on choice?
First, we can question whether a choice is good or bad, whether it enhances life or harms it. We can reject the notion that all emotions—of others or in ourselves—are irreducible primaries that we must accept, affirm, and applaud without question. We can question or doubt whether it is a good idea for a man to have sex with another man, or to cut off his penis. If the man seeks or demands our approval, we can first ask to know the man’s reasons—the man’s judgment of what it means fundamentally to be a man or a woman, and his fundamental characterization of himself—that cause his desires.
Second, if it is based on choice, then sexual orientation—which, for all except bisexuals, is a crucial discrimination of one sex over another—is based on our valuing men and women in profoundly different ways. It means that we need concepts that identify and emphasize these differences. We need such concepts as “husband” and “wife,” not merely “spouse.” And we need such a concept as “marriage” to identify the relationship between a husband and wife.
Third, understanding that thoughts and values underly emotions is an essential element in defending civilization from contemporary leftist politics and anti-culture. Everything the Left does enshrines unexplained emotion and denies the efficacy, if not the existence, of individual thought and choice. The same mentality that led to “Sexual orientation is not a choice” also led to the notions that no one is responsible for his productive success or failure, his knowledge or ignorance, his respect for rights or his criminality, his fidelity or betrayals, because we all are products of biological urges, social construction, and inscrutable emotions, not choices.
Finally, knowing that there are choices motivates us to understand our own choices better. The more I understand why I love romantic novels (not “romance novels”), the more I love them. The same principle holds in spades for romantic love.
For me, the one positive outcome of the same-sex marriage campaign is that it challenged me to understand my heterosexuality. I could not go back and uncover the precise choices I made as a young child, but I could ask myself, “What conscious ideas do I now hold about men, women, and myself that are consistent with the fact that I am sexually attracted to women and not men?” With more understanding comes deeper love.
If a person truly believes his own sexual orientation is good for him, then identifying his ideas and values consistent with his orientation can only bring him further good. In “The Romantic Manifesto,” Ayn Rand writes, “When love is a conscious integration of reason and emotion, of mind and values, then—and only then—it is the greatest reward of man’s life.”