Since the summer, I've been working on the second book in a series that offers a different approach to sexuality and gender education for young children. The first, What Makes a Baby, is for very young kids, and this second one is geared more or less to kids aged 8 to 10. After many months I have a first draft, but there are still a few topics I can't fully wrap my head around.
One of them is sexual orientation.
At first, I thought I was just struggling to figure out the best way to explain or approach this topic for kids. But I now think my problem is with the construction of sexual orientation itself as its use in sex education and research as well as in our own lives.
I've come to think that the construct of sexual orientation is more trouble than it's worth, that what we gain from the concept is outweighed by what we lose.
Before I explain, let me be clear that I don't think it makes sense to get rid of identities like "gay" or "lesbian," "bisexual" or "straight." For lots of people those identities are central to their experience of who they are and of the world around them. They aren't understood or lived as a choice.
I am also not arguing for some totalizing idea of sexual fluidity or gender fluidity. Some of us do have sexual desires and gender identities that are fluid, to be sure. But some of us also have strong and specific desires and identities that stay relatively fixed throughout our lives. And for others, while desire or identity may not be totally fluid all the time, they may still shift with time, experience, or opportunity.
My problem with the concept of sexual orientation is also not that it creates categories, nor even that those categories become constituted as "natural" through that magical process of forgetting that we do over long periods of time, though, truth be told, this does really bug me.
As a sex educator, I acknowledge that talking about sexual orientation can be really helpful sometimes, specifically because of those manageable categories it entails. When someone is wrapped up in knots, confused about many parts of their experience of sex, and not sure where to begin, talking about the objects of ones sexual desire and interest in terms of sexual orientation can be helpful.
But just because something works doesn't mean what we give up to make it work is worth it.
If you could forget everything you know about sexual orientation and think only of the term itself, it's not bad. I like it because it is a question that demands answers.
"Orientation" refers to one's position in space and in relation to everything around it. To orient oneself in a room is to understand one's position in relation to many other objects and people in the room, and one's relation to the structure of the room itself (the walls, the floor, the ceiling).
In this sense, what is one's orientation to sex? To sexuality?
To orient oneself in the world to sexuality would be to understand where you fit and feel in relation not only to other people and their sexuality but to sexuality as it is enacted and experienced in public: to public conversations about sex; to sex in media and culture; to sexual moments and feelings that may be impossible to put into words.
What is one's orientation to two people kissing on the street? To a sex toy store? To sexual and gender discrimination that takes the form of violence on the streets? To whatever draws our sexual interest or sparks desire?
That would be a concept of sexual orientation worthy of the human experience of sex and sexuality. It opens up a thousand questions, each question a path that will take you on a journey into your thoughts, feelings, and desires about sex.
But this isn't what sexual orientation means in sexuality research or education, or in clinical or everyday settings.
What sexual orientation refers to in practice is the position of one's sexual and romantic interests in a binary system of sex. Embedded in this idea of sexual orientation is the (false) notion that there are two sexes, and two genders, and that gender is the central focus and most important aspect of sexual desire. In other words, sexual orientation is a way of organizing and conceptualizing adult relationships that says that the most salient features of our relationships are the gender of the people we have them with.
In practice, sexual orientation poses only one question, and it is both dull and blunt: What is the gender of the people whom you are sexually attracted to and with whom you want to have intimate relationships?
This is my problem.
I came to this when I was trying to write about orientation for children. When I write, I start by just trying to get the ideas down. I don't worry about comprehension level at first; I just try to describe what I see in the world. In one of those early drafts, I wrote something like this:
Sexual orientation is the way that most adults organize their intimate and romantic relationships. Adults seem to believe that the most important aspect of who they love and who they want to be in close romantic relationships with is the gender of that other person.
So if most of the time someone who calls themselves a woman wants to be in relationships with other women, we say her orientation is homosexual. If most of the time someone who is a woman wants to be with men, we say her orientation is heterosexual. If most of the time she is open to relationships with men or women we say her orientation is bisexual.
And as soon as I wrote that and read it, I knew I had other problems. One is that neither I nor many others fit into the "man" or "woman" boxes easily. An even bigger problem is this:
Why do we need to organize our relationships based on the gender of the people we are most attracted to? Why does gender need to be the most salient aspect of the object of our desire?
If this seems like a ridiculous question to you, you don't spend enough time with kids. It's not a ridiculous question, and it's one that many kids will ask, if they feel safe enough and empowered enough to do so. It's a reasonable question, and the truth is that I don't have a good enough answer.
Instead of a good answer, when I was first asked this question, I was left with an intense feeling of "d'oh!"
Why, in the face of all the amazing ways we might describe and understand our relationships of love and lust, would we use such a narrow frame of reference? More than any other subject, it was with this topic that I felt the weight of adult sexual socialization come down on a child's understanding and experience of sexuality like a cage. Like a trap.
I was also left wondering about what sort of alternative could be offered. The alternative can't be some frameless "everyone just is" answer.
I think the alternative might be found in a more expansive and creative use of the idea of orientation, one that highlights our relationships to people and ideas around us, as well as our relationship to structures of power that limit our options based on things like race, class, gender, our bodies, and whom we love and lust after.
For now my tactic is to stall a bit. As I'm getting deeper into the writing, I am finding myself wanting more and more to postpone the introduction of concepts of adult sexual socialization. The cage has to come down at some point, but part of me wants to let those of us who still can roam free keep roaming just a little while longer.