Photo by Larry Bob, via Creative Commons.
This is an excerpt from “We Need a New Orientation to Sex” by Cory Silverberg, an essay featured in Best Sex Writing of the Year, an anthology edited by Jon Pressick that comes out this month from Cleis Press.
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 eight to ten. 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 it’s used 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 one’s 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.
Cory Silverberg, M.Ed., is a founding member of Come As You Are, a co-operatively run, education-based sex store in Toronto. He has conducted workshops across North America on sex toys, sexual communication, and sexuality and disability.
From Best Sex Writing of the Year edited by Jon Pressick, copyright © 2015 by Jon Pressick, published by Cleis Press.