Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

On Elena Kagan and Lesbianism

In sexual matters, simple questions don't always have simple answers.

In terms of lesbianism, yesterday was an interesting day for me. I'd been following the back-and-forth on Andrew Sullivan's blog and elsewhere concerning whether Elena Kagan's sexuality is a legitimate issue in light of her nomination to the Supreme Court. I then read William Saletan's piece at Slate comparing Kagan's sexuality to Robert Bork's religious views (Bork was nominated in the 1980s; Saletan argues that both issues should be off limits). Meanwhile, the White House put their foot in it by claiming that rumor about Kagan's possible lesbianism amounted to "false charges."

Really? Can one be "charged" with lesbianism these days? Is it a felony or a misdemeanor?

In the midst of all this reading, I took a break to watch Betty White's turn on Saturday Night Live, in which several skits revolved around an old lady being completely at ease joking about lesbianism, including the one I've embedded below, which I found particularly funny, being a fan of both NPR and "muffins."

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Sullivan's response to Saletan strikes me as being uncharacteristically muddled. For example, Sullivan argues that the grilling that Clarence Thomas received concerning his alleged sexual harrassment of Anita Hill was "viler" than the questioning of Bork's agnosticism—yet in the same sentence, Sullivan writes that he "remain[s] convinced Anita Hill told the truth."

I don't get it. If Anita Hill was telling the truth about Clarence Thomas (her boss at the time) following her around like a horny hound for months, abusing her personally and professionally, how was it "vile" to bring that to light in deciding whether this clearly undistinguished lawyer was an appropriate nominee? Indeed, as things have turned out, a horny hound probably would have been a more astute Supreme Court Justice than Thomas has been.

But here's the passage from Sullivan's piece that really leapt out at me:

I am not seeking to expose anyone in this way at all, because I know at first hand how brutal it can be. I seek no cruelty at all. I want to know no details or specifics. But I do think a simple answer to a simple question about a core part of someone's identity should be possible.

Sullivan wants a yes/no response to the question: Are you gay? This seems "simple" to him because he's thinking like a man. Actually, he's thinking like a man who has always known he was gay.

Some men and women are born gay. According to the information available, it seems that more men than women experience their sexuality in this deeply defined way. But others are less definitive about their sexual orientation. For many women (and some men), sexual attraction is more about the individual than his or her gender.

Sexologist Lisa Diamond spent over a decade studying the ebb and flow of female desire. In her book Sexual Fluidity, she reports that many women see themselves as attracted to specific people, rather than to their gender. Sex researcher Meredith Chivers agrees: "Women physically don't seem to differentiate between genders in their sex responses, at least heterosexual women don't."

Psychologist Richard Lippa teamed up with the BBC to survey over 200,000 people of all ages from all over the world concerning the strength of their sex drive and how it affects their desires. He found an interesting inversion of male and female sexuality: for men, both gay and straight, higher sex drive increases the specificity of their sexual desire. In other words, a straight guy with a higher sex drive tends to be more focused on women, while higher sex drive in a gay guy makes him more intent on men. But with women—at least nominally straight women—the opposite occurs: the higher her sex drive, the more likely she'll be attracted to men and women. Lesbians showed the same pattern as men: a higher sex drive means more women-only focus. Perhaps this explains why nearly twice as many women as men consider themselves bisexual, while only half as many consider themselves to be exclusively gay.

What if Kagan is one of the millions of women who have had intimate relationships with men and women, but who doesn't consider herself bi-sexual? What if she's in a long-term relationship with a woman, but sees herself as heterosexual? What if she's asexual, or pansexual, or mostly homosexual, but with exceptions? In other words, what if an honest answer to Sullivan's "simple question" requires precisely the "details" and "specifics" he claims he doesn't want to know and which are truly nobody's business?

While I agree with Sullivan and others that it's high time an openly gay person could be nominated to the Supreme Court (or any other job) without his or her sexual orientation being of any more import than religion or ethnicity, it's important to respect the fact that when it comes to sexuality, simple questions don't always imply simple answers.

 

Update: NBC pulled the video from YouTube, so I've deleted the frame. Also it seems Andrew Sullivan has received the message of this post, though he got it from a female reader who wrote,

I'm a woman in a committed relationship with another woman.  If someone were to ask me if I'm gay or straight, I'd say I'm straight.  I suppose technically I should label myself bisexual, but until I fell in love with this woman, I'd never even been attracted to another woman before. And I don't think I'm alone in this experience. Maybe Kagan is in my category.

Still, Sullivan doesn't quite swallow it, writing:

I do think my own experience of sexual orientation is limited in so far as it is about male sexual orientation, which seems to be much more binary and rigid than female sexual orientation. But I think being in a committed long-term relationship with someone of the same sex does not suggest heterosexuality.

http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/05/they...

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Some of this material appears in Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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