I am very happy to welcome my colleague Esa Diaz-Leon as the next featured philosop-her. She is an Assistant (in 2 days, Associate) Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manitoba. She specializes in philosophy of mind and language, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of race, and her main interests include the nature of consciousness and phenomenal concepts, and the nature of gender, race and sexual orientation. She is the Principal Investigator of a research project on the social construction of gender and race, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). She has published her work in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, European Journal of Philosophy, Mind, and Philosophical Studies, among others. She will spend 2014-2016 as a Ramon y Cajal Researcher at the University of Barcelona.
Is Sexual Orientation A Choice? A Response to Wilkerson
Are sexual orientations freely chosen? The idea that someone’s sexual orientation is not a choice is very common in popular culture, and also very influential in the mainstream LGBT political movement. (See Stein (2011) for a very nuanced discussion of the moral and political implications of this debate.) But do we have good reasons to believe it is not a choice? William S. Wilkerson (2009) has recently argued that there are good reasons to believe that sexual orientation is partly constituted by choice. In this post I would like to critically assess his main argument for this controversial claim. I will argue that although the considerations he offers fall short of establishing the conclusion that sexual orientations are in part chosen, this is nonetheless a very interesting view that deserves more attention.
I will follow Wilkerson in assuming the standard distinction between sexual orientation and sexual identity. Our question is whether sexual orientation itself involves an element of choice. Wilkerson’s main argument goes as follows:
Sexual orientation as an enduring desire is partially constituted by interpretation within context.
Interpretation requires choice.
Hence, sexual orientation is partly constituted by choice. (p. 100)
Here I want to focus on Wilkerson’s arguments for premise (1). The main idea behind this premise is that interpreting desires is not just a matter of forming a belief about a pre-existing desire; rather, interpreting a desire requires that we group together some inchoate and ambiguous desires, and by grouping them together we somehow develop them and transform their nature. Therefore, our desires constitutively depend on our interpretations of them.
Wilkerson offers two arguments for this view, an epistemic one and a metaphysical one. The epistemic argument goes as follows: If sexual desire does not require interpretation, then how can we come to know our sexual desires? More in particular, Wilkerson argues that if knowing my desires requires no interpretation, then desires must be self-intimating (i.e. they can be known without having to do any work), and hence self-evident (i.e. we can hardly be mistaken about them). But, Wilkerson argues, desires are neither self-intimating nor self-evident. His main argument here seems to be that desires cannot be self-evident because we can clearly be wrong about them. This point is especially clear when it comes to sexual desires, because many people are or have been mistaken, or self-deceived, about their own sexual desires. And the best way of understanding the possibility of self-deception regarding sexual desires is to claim that sexual desires are not self-evident. And in addition, if being self-intimating entails being self-evident, and sexual desires are not self-evident, then they are not self-intimating either. Therefore, it takes work to come to know them.
In response: I agree that sexual desires, and other desires, do not have to be self-evident. But this does not necessarily entail that they are not self-intimating. That is, a desire (or a mental state in general) could be self-intimating in the sense that it does not take much work to grasp them, but at the same time they might fail to be self-evident if for instance we come to know about them by means of some reliable (and sort of direct and effortless) mechanism that typically produces true beliefs about those desires, but could sometimes produce false beliefs.
This gives rise to an interesting question: how do we come to know our desires, if not by means of interpretation? In my view, we should distinguish between our knowledge of occurrent mental states (that is, conscious mental states that appear in the stream of consciousness), which are arguably self-intimating; and our knowledge of dispositional mental states (which only occasionally enter into the stream of consciousness). It is clear that dispositional mental states are not self-intimating, but in my view, there are alternative ways of explaining how we come to know about them, without having to endorse Wilkerson’s view. In particular, we could appeal to a general “inference to the best explanation” mechanism, which may involve a combination of introspective knowledge, knowledge of our own behaviour, and other forms of inductive knowledge.
This is where Wilkerson’s second argument kicks in: he argues that the way we conceptualize and classify our desires and experiences changes those experiences. For instance, he says: “In the situation under consideration, various sexual feelings lack determinate meaning or structure: they are constituents of a frightening, ambiguous situation awaiting some kind of resolution. Am I gay? Am I straight? Do I just have strong feelings for my same-sex friends? … Placing these experiences under a single label and thinking of them as a single aspect changes their context and hence changes them” (p. 105). In my view, even if these remarks do seem to vividly capture the phenomenology of coming to know one’s sexual orientation, they do not yet establish the metaphysical point that Wilkerson wants to defend, namely, that our desires are not merely “given”, and not fully developed until we choose to group them in one way rather than another (out of several possibilities that are open to us), and only then do they become fully determinate.
However, this view about the nature of desires seems too strong: it is not clear why we should accept that our acts of classifying and labeling our desires and experiences will change and transform their nature in the way Wilkerson describes. Of course, he is right that there are many different and mutually incompatible ways of classifying a certain system of desires, and there might be no unique classification that is clearly superior to the rest. But this does not entail that the nature of those desires is not yet determinate prior to our acts of classifying and labeling them.
Wilkerson argues that our experiences and desires are not intrinsic but rather relational mental states, that is, their nature depends on the context, and in particular on other mental states that the subject is having. For instance, he argues, someone’s sexual desire, say, a desire for someone of the same sex, is not fully given independently of other experiences, such as feelings of fear and shame, or feelings of pride and recognition. His claim is that the desires will be experienced very differently, depending on the context, and therefore the desires themselves will be different, depending on what other mental states the subject is having.
In response, it is not clear to me that the best way of understanding what is going on in this case is in terms of the strong metaphysical claim that Wilkerson is putting forward. In particular, it is not clear that these considerations really show that sexual desires constitutively depend on other mental states such as beliefs and experiences, in the sense that if we change the surrounding beliefs and experiences, the sexual desires themselves will necessarily change too. On the contrary, we could understand this example in terms of mere causal dependence, that is, it might be the case that certain feelings of fear and shame (caused by internalized homophobic worries) do causally affect which sexual desires we are having (and likewise for feelings of pride and recognition). But this does not entail that those sexual desires are constituted in part by the mental states causally affecting them.
To conclude: Wilkerson has provided a very interesting argument for the claim that sexual desires are in part constituted by our choices regarding how to group together and classify our desires. However, even if he has presented a compelling description of the phenomenology of coming to know that one is attracted to people of the same sex (or gender), it is not clear that he has provided a successful argument for the stronger claim that our sexual desires are constituted in part by our (conscious and freely chosen) acts of classifying and labeling them.
Stein, E. (2011) “Sexual Orientations, Rights, and the Body: Immutability, Essentialism, and Nativism”, Social Research: An International Quarterly, 78(2): 633-58;
Wilkerson, W.S. (2009) “Is It a Choice? Sexual Orientation as Interpretation”, Journal of Social Philosophy, 40(1): 97-116.