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Defining Sexual Orientation

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What is sexual orientation? As simple as the question might seem, the answer to it isn’t as straightforward and requires a complex understanding of sex, gender and sexuality. As Dembroff states at the start of her paper, the discourse on the topic “turns up vastly differing, conflicting, and sometimes ethically troubling characterizations of sexual orientation”. The range of definitions provided by scholars and indeed the one’s provided in the paper, all fall short of encompassing the fluid nature of sexual orientation. Furthermore, the ambiguity in defining sex and gender attraction coupled with our heteronormative assumptions of sexuality indicates a poor or mistaken understanding of sexual orientation. In response to this, Dembroff tasks herself with revising the concept of sexual orientation through what she calls ‘Bidimensional Dispositionalism’ (BD); an analytic philosophical approach that aims at clarifying sexual orientation and those concepts that are interwoven with it. In doing so, she believes her revised definition and new categories of sexual orientation “are intended to elucidate and improve our everyday concepts in light of particular theoretical and socio-political purposes”. Therefore, in this essay, I will explain how she answers the question of sexual orientation through BD, why her account satisfies what previous concepts did not, and the implications of this concept on our everyday knowledge and categorization of sexual orientation. In addition, I will highlight how her account fares against possible objections.

Through Dembroff’s Bidimensional Dispositionalism account, sexual orientation is determined by one’s dispositions to engage in sexual behaviours with persons of a certain sex and gender under certain stimulating circumstances and their particular orientation is irrespective of their own sex and gender. However, to fully understand this definition it is important to explain the methodology she uses to arrive at this concept. Dembroff takes an analytic or ‘engineering’ approach to answering the question of sexual orientation, which entails establishing the purposes that are ideally served by a concept X and how we should revise/replace this concept to best fulfil said purposes. Essentially, she revises the concept of sexual orientation with reference to the impact that she would like it to have. This approach can be seen as both revisionary, as it builds upon our everyday understanding of the concept, and a replacement of our current concept because it results in a new taxonomy of sexual orientation. So as the engineering project prescribes, Dembroff develops the four main purposes she believes sexual orientation should fulfil. Firstly, the concept of sexual orientation should clarify the criteria for assigning sexual orientation and how said criteria translates to categorising sexual orientation. This is important because there is disagreement as to whether articulating the criteria should be in terms of sex-attraction or gender-attraction, which then affects the way we categorise sexual orientation. Secondly, the concept should be consistent with relevant research concerning sex and gender. This is because the constant confusion concerning the two affects the way we categorise sexual orientation and creates difficulties for queer, gender-nonconforming and intersex people. Thirdly, it should reduce/eliminate the presumption that cishetorosexuality is ‘normal’ and all queer orientations are unusual because it perpetuates the prejudice that sexual orientations and gender identities that don’t fall on this binary scale are either dysfunctional or non-existent. Lastly, our concept of sexual orientation should be able to legally and socially protect persons of all queer sexual orientations. The importance of this lies in being able to include a range of sexual orientations within our legal and social framework, particularly with regards to non-discrimination laws. It is important to note that she adopts these purposes on both a theoretical and practical base, and recognises that they need to apply constraints in order for the concept of sexual orientation to be feasibly accepted by the public. She constrains herself to simply rebuilding the concept of sexual orientation on pre-existing notions of sex-attraction and gender-attraction rather than starting from scratch because it makes the political and social goals transcribed in the last 2 purposes attainable. It is also important to note the interconnection between them as purposes 3 and 4 aim to reduce/eliminate harm to certain persons by employing the lessons established in purposes 1 & 2.

Having established the purposes of the concept of sexual orientation, she then sets about proposing an account that is revised along these purposes. In doing so, she creates a concept of sexual orientation that satisfies four main prerequisites that currently go unsatisfied by our everyday understanding of sexual orientation. First, she separates the concept of sexual orientation from other similar concepts, namely; sexual identity, romantic or emotional attraction and sexual druthers. An individual’s sexual identity is with regard to their sexual orientation, so the two concepts are tied together. However, it comes apart from sexual orientation in cases where the individual could be in denial or self-deceived, unable to recognise their true orientation. Romantic or emotional attraction can be evidence of sexual orientation but orientation is concerned more with someone’s dispositions towards sexual behaviour than sexual attraction. If it were the case that sexual orientation was romantic/emotional attraction, then we would not be able to have the classification “asexual’”. Similarly, there are cases where two people might share a particular sexual orientation but differ in their experiences of emotional/romantic attraction. Sexual druthers refer to someone’s specific preferences of sexual partners within potential partners according to their sexual orientation i.e. someone’s ‘type’. However, this is not considered in the account of sexual orientation, which only deals with sex and gender categories. Dembroff admits at how vague and arbitrary this particular distinction might be, but again recognises the need for constraints. The second prerequisite that her account satisfies is recognising the distinction between sex and gender, and incorporating that in the account. She aims to reject the cisnormative view that someone’s sex begets their gender because while sex is a classification based solely on fixed anatomical features, gender is a more socially constructed notion with varying definitions. Gender can be defined in terms of social situations or self-identification with regards masculinity or femininity or even self-expression, and as such cannot be determined solely by sex. By understanding this distinction, it allows for a non-binary framework of sexual orientation that encompasses gender identity and biological transition, and one that is sensitive to sexual attractions of various combinations in biological and gender identity. Furthermore, it rejects cisnormative presumptions and allows for a concept of sexual orientation that is based on gender-attraction and sex-attraction, and any combination of those, such as someone who is attracted only to transgender women or someone who is attracted to just cisgender women. The third important feature of her account is that it reduces the gap in sexual orientation taxonomy. She notes that there is currently no place in our sexual orientation for persons who are; attracted to persons, not within the gender binary; attracted to trans persons within the gender binary; asexual with respect to gender or sex-attraction or; are intersex or are attracted to intersex persons. So she believes this requires a revision in our concept of sexual orientation because not doing so leaves certain persons either misclassified or unclassified. This isn’t ideal for purposes 3 and 4 that she established would not be met by our concept of sexual orientation and these persons would then be subject to sexual discrimination. Lastly, she does not treat the concepts of behaviourism nor ideal dispositionalism alone as a determinant of one’s sexual orientation, stating that they “fail to provide an acceptable analysis of sexual orientation because both insist on overly rigid conditions for ascribing orientation”. Behaviourism is the position that sexual orientation is determined solely by their observable sexual behaviours, which Dembroff thinks insists on rigid actual conditions. Essentially, she believes that this view places too much weight on the actions people take, which can often be unreliable data and as such misclassifies people’s true sexual orientations. Therefore, the three main problems behaviourism faces are; misclassification of those who repress their sexual orientation such as those who are gay but pursue heterosexual relationships for various social/cultural reasons; misclassification of those who are voluntarily celibate such as many religious figures and; misclassification of those who lack a variety of potential partners such as inmates in prisons. Ideal dispositionalism suggests that a person’s sexual orientation is determined by their dispositions to engage in sexual behaviours with persons of a certain sex/gender in response to being situated in certain stimulating circumstances i.e. ideal conditions where there are no restrictions on pursuing one’s sexual desires, should potential partners be available. However, in a similar light, Dembroff rejects the notion of ideal dispositionalism as a determinant of sexual orientation because it insists on rigid ideal conditions that bring about two main problems. First, it standardises our categories for sexual orientation without much consideration for social, cultural or historical differences. So for example, she believes it would be unfair to hold someone from the modern Western world in the same light as someone from Ancient Greece because they have different ideal conditions in which to realise their sexual desires. Second, these ideal conditions are likely to alter one’s sexual desires and are therefore unreliable in properly determining one’s sexual orientation. It is impossible to judge people’s sexual desires without being using their actual social context, and so imagining a situation where one has a vast amount of sexual partners and no restrictions on pursuing them is unrealistic. Further still, being in the presence of these ideal conditions might increase or decrease sexual desires dependent on satisfaction or adaptation. For example, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where a male attracted to cisgender females being in the presence of multiple cisgender females would dampen his sexual desires because he’s completely satisfied. Therefore, the sexual orientation of a person would be drastically different in these ideal conditions from that they are trying to actually observe. Dembroff then moves away from the rigidity of these two concepts by moving towards “conditions corresponding to the everyday operative concept of sexual orientations”; a middle ground between actual and ideal conditions. This ‘operative concept’ is meant to determine how sexual orientation is ordinary, everyday terms, and from that she proposes Bidimensional Dispositionalism; A person’s sexual orientation is understood in their dispositions to engage in sexual behaviours under ordinary conditions for these conditions, and is understood solely in the genders/sexes they are attracted to, regardless of their own sex/gender. This analysis emphasises bidimensional attraction – that is both sex and gender attraction- but also emphasises that you don’t need to require any of these attractions to have a sexual orientation. Additionally, it rejects the idea that one’s sex/gender is a determinant in categorising attraction to a sex/gender.

So what are the implications of this concept of sexual orientation? The biggest implication comes from its fulfilment of the aforementioned purposes 3 & 4, which reduce the presumption of cishetorosexuality and establish legal/social protection for queer persons. That is the binary categories disappear and members of these categories are reorganised as new categories are formed, allowing for more combinations of sex/gender attraction. The best exemplification of this would be that a cisgender male attracted to cisgender females and a cisgender female also attracted to cisgender females would then have the same sexual orientation as each other. Indeed, what this flexibility would incur is a more continuous rather than a binary system of determining sex/gender-attraction and, ultimately, sexual orientation. This would not only reduce the gap in sexual orientation taxonomy but would also allow for less sex/gender discrimination in regards to legal and social protection, as more combinations of sex/gender-attraction become part of the everyday understanding of sexual orientation. A possible objection to this would be that she doesn’t seem to account so much for the clear binary differences of sex, and as such forgets that sexual behaviour stems from this evolutionary construct of reproduction. Therefore, not including someone’s sex or gender in their sexual orientation would throw this away. However, I think she clearly states that this is not grounded upon evolutionary patterns but instead on socially constructed grounds particularly with regards to gender, and because we have these social classifications it is important as a society (and legally) to encompass as many people into these classifications as possible. Another objection might posit throwing any sort of classification away altogether, suggesting that if she really believed the way we determine sexual orientation is wrong, then we should start to get rid of it altogether and start from scratch. In fact, this is a question that Dembroff faced in the class to which she did agree to an extent that sexual orientations aren’t a perfect science; they should be personally determined, and thus shouldn’t shape much of our everyday social constructs and interactions. However, like she mentioned in the paper, this is an unrealistic theory to suggest just at the moment and she wished to build upon the current understanding of sexual orientation that everyone is familiar with in order to construct an account that could plausibly be accepted by the public.

In conclusion, Dembroff’s use of BD to establish a concept of sexual orientation does, in fact, fulfil the necessary purposes that a concept of sexual orientation should. Furthermore, her account offers more flexibility and, in turn, encompasses a wide range of sexual orientations that were not previously classified due to her inclusion of a combination of sex and gender attractions. Lastly, while it might not be the most optimal solution to the case of determining sexual orientation, it quite clearly grounds itself on notions of sexual orientation that can be both widely accepted theoretically and practically implemented if accepted.

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