Esa Diaz-Leon is a Ramon y Cajal Researcher at the University of Barcelona. She received her BA from the University of Murcia (Spain), and her PhD from the University of Sheffield (UK). Before joining the University of Barcelona, she taught at the University of Manitoba (Canada). She specializes in philosophy of mind and language, and philosophy of gender, race and sexuality, and she also has interests in metaphysics and epistemology. Her current work focuses on methodological issues having to do with conceptual ethics, verbal disputes, and metaphysical deflationism; and she is also interested in applying these methodological insights to the study of gender, race and sexual orientation.
Sexual Orientations: The Desire View
Talk about sexual orientations is widespread in our society and our culture: in the media, in political debates, in religion, in the natural and social sciences, and in fiction. But very few analytic philosophers have paid attention to questions about the nature of sexual orientations, such as what sexual orientations are, what ‘sexual orientation’ means, and whether sexual orientations really exist. Some important exceptions include Edward Stein (1999), Cheshire Calhoun (2002), William Wilkerson (2013), and Robin Dembroff (2016).
In this post I aim to propose and discuss a new version of the view that identifies sexual orientations with certain mental states of the subject, namely, sexual desires or sexual preferences.
Before we start, it will be useful to clarify what question is our main focus here. Following Haslanger (2006), we can distinguish between two different projects in philosophy. On the one hand, we have the descriptive project, which seeks to reveal the concept we actually use, that is, the ordinary concept associated with the corresponding term; and on the other hand, we have the ameliorative project, which seeks to reveal the concept that we ought to use given certain purposes (or all things considered), that is, the concept that would best serve certain aims and goals, which may or may not correspond to the operative concept. This is known as the target concept. I believe that the most central question is to reveal the target concept, that is, the concept of sexual orientation that would best serve the aims and goals of sexual orientation talk. But in order to know which concept we should use, it will be useful to know first which concept we are actually using. In this post I will mostly focus on the question of what our ordinary concept of sexual orientation is, as a first step of the project of figuring out what the most politically useful concept would be.
A natural idea that comes to mind when we think about sexual orientations is that they are in part determined by the subject’s sexual behavior. According to behaviorism about sexual orientations, a person’s sexual orientation is determined by the sexual behavior they engage in during their life. But this view seems implausible. As Dembroff (2016) and Stein (1999) have argued, behaviorism does not seem to capture our ordinary notion of sexual orientation. The main problem has to do with the fact that there can be individuals who engage in behaviors that do not express their sexual desires. For example, we can think of individuals who repress their sexual orientations, so that they do not act on their real sexual desires, or do not even realize that they have those desires. On the other hand, we could have individuals who engage in some behaviors because of coercion or societal pressures. Also, we could have cases of individuals who have chosen to be celibate for personal or religious reasons but could be said to have a sexual orientation. Intuitively, these seem to be cases where someone’s behavior does not express their “real” sexual orientation. Therefore, sexual orientation cannot consist just in the behaviors one engages in.
Given the problems facing behaviorism, it seems natural to say that someone’s sexual orientation is not determined by the sexual behaviour they actually engage in, but rather by their dispositions, that is, the sexual activities they are disposed to engage in, or in other words, the behavior they would engage in given certain conditions. This idea corresponds to the dispositional view of sexual orientations, which Stein (1999) characterized as follows:
According to [the dispositional view], a person’s sexual orientation is based on his or her sexual desires and fantasies and the sexual behavior he or she is disposed to engage in under ideal conditions. If a person has sexual desires and fantasies about having sex primarily with people of the same sex-gender and is inclined under ideal circumstances to engage in sexual acts primarily with such people, then that person is homosexual. Conditions are ideal if there are no forces to prevent or discourage a person from acting on his or her desires, that is, when there is sexual freedom and a variety of appealing sexual partners available. (1999: 45)
In my view there are two different ideas in this passage. First, we have the idea that someone’s sexual orientation is determined by the sexual behavior she is disposed to engage in, given certain circumstances. (Dembroff (2016) has developed a very interesting and sophisticated version of this idea.) Second, we have the idea that someone’s sexual orientation is determined by their sexual desires and fantasies (which may or may not be expressed by their sexual behavior in ideal circumstances, depending on how ideal circumstances are characterized). My aim here is to put forward a new view, which combines elements of these two ideas but is different from both, namely, I want to suggest that someone’s sexual orientation is determined by the sexual desires and fantasies they are disposed to have, that is, the sexual desires they would have in certain circumstances, which may or may not be actual.
There are two main reasons for endorsing a view of this sort. First, I believe that it would be very hard to characterize our sexual orientations purely in terms of the sexual behavior one would engage in, given such and such circumstances, since our behavior (sexual or otherwise) would always be influenced by a huge variety of other mental states one might have, so that there is no easy correspondence between our sexual orientation and the behavior one would engage in, given certain circumstances. This is why it is more intuitive, in my view, to characterize sexual orientations in terms of the sexual desires and fantasies one is disposed to have, rather than the behavior one is disposed to have. Second, I believe that there is no easy correspondence either between someone’s sexual orientation and the sexual desires and fantasies they actually experience, since this would also depend on many features of the subject’s mental life and their environment. For this reason, it is more intuitive to characterize someone’s sexual orientation in terms of their dispositions to have certain sexual desires and fantasies, rather than the sexual desires and fantasies they actually have.
Therefore I want to propose the following conjecture: we could understand sexual orientations in terms of sexual preferences, where a sexual preference is understood as a complex mental state. In particular, I understand preferences as dispositions to instantiate certain desires and feelings. That is, we can understand a sexual preference in terms of the dispositions to have sexual desires under the relevant manifesting conditions (as opposed to the dispositions to engage in certain kind of behaviors). Therefore, my suggestion is that we characterize sexual orientation in terms of sexual preference, and sexual preference in terms of a disposition to have sexual desires of certain kinds, given certain manifesting conditions. We can call my proposed view of sexual orientations the desire view (or more strictly, the preference view) of sexual orientations, which we can characterize a bit more precisely in terms of a new version of the dispositional view (drawing on Dembroff (2016)’s formulation):
Dispositionalism*: A person S’s sexual orientation is determined in virtue of the sex[es] and the gender[s] of persons for whom S is disposed to have sexual desires under the relevant manifesting conditions (and S’s own sex[es] and gender[s]).
A remaining question in order to flesh out this account is the following: What is sexual desire? A first take on the notion of sexual desire goes as follows: according to a standard conception of desires, a desire is a propositional attitude of the form “subject S bears the attitude of desiring towards proposition p”. Therefore, a sexual desire could be understood in terms of the desire that certain propositions about sexual activities be the case, such as the proposition that S has sex with a certain man (or woman), or men (or women) in general. But some problems arise: this formulation doesn’t seem to capture our concept of sexual desire. For instance, S might have the desire to have sex with a certain person in order to get paid, or to win a bet, or in order to cheer them up, etc. Therefore, having a propositional attitude of the form “S desires that S has sex with such and such” is not sufficient for instantiating sexual desire in the relevant sense. What is missing is the connection with some specifically sexual experiences, such as sexual arousal and sexual pleasure. Stein provides a formulation along these lines in this passage: “[A] desire is sexual to the extent that it involves (in the appropriate way) the arousal of the person who has the desire… . By arousal, I do not mean the various physiological manifestations of arousal …but the psychological state of being aroused” (1999: 69). This seems very plausible to me: sexual desire is a mental state that is somehow connected with some experiences such as sexual arousal (which is typically correlated with the physiological state of arousal but is not identical to it).
In my view, we should distinguish between standing mental states such as beliefs or desires, which are dispositional and are not always manifested, and occurring mental states, which enter into the stream of consciousness during a certain interval of time and are necessarily conscious and manifested. It seems intuitive to say that sexual desire or sexual attraction is a standing mental state (e.g. someone could be attracted to another person, say her partner or her lover, during a long period of time, and this does not mean that she is experiencing arousal during the whole period), whereas the experience of sexual arousal per se is an occurring mental state, because this is necessarily conscious. On the other hand, a person can be said to have sexual desires for women, or for men, even when she is not conscious like for instance when she is dreamlessly sleeping, or when she is suffering excruciating pain, and so on. Here I want to suggest the following hybrid view of sexual desire:
Hybrid view: A sexual desire (for men and/or women) involves the combination of a propositional attitude (of the form “S bears the relation of desiring towards proposition p”) plus a disposition to be sexually aroused by, or sexually attracted to, men or women.
To sum up: in this post I have provided an account of the ordinary concept of sexual orientation in terms of S’s sexual preference, and I have characterized sexual preference in terms of S’s dispositions to instantiate certain sexual desires in certain manifesting conditions. And furthermore, I have characterized the relevant sexual desires as complex mental states composed of a propositional attitude of the form “S desires that S has sex with such and such people”, plus the disposition to instantiate certain sexual experiences.
Calhoun, Cheshire (2002) Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet: Lesbian and Gay Displacement, Oxford University Press.
Dembroff, Robin (2016) “What is Sexual Orientation?”, Philosophers’ Imprint 16(3): 1-27.
Haslanger, S. (2006) “What Good Are Our Intuitions? Philosophical Analysis and Social Kinds”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Sup. Vol. 80(1), pp. 89-118.
Stein, Edward (1999) The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory and Ethics of Sexual Orientations, Oxford University Press.
Wilkerson, William (2013) “What is ‘Sexual Orientation’?” in Powell, Halwani & Soble (eds.) Philosophy of Sex, 6th edition, Rowman & Littlefield.
 I further develop the ideas in this post in my paper “Sexual Orientations: The Desire View”, forthcoming in Feminist Philosophy of Mind, edited by K. Maitra and J. McWeeny.
Hi Esa–I really like your view. Even though you mention you’re in this post mostly going for a descriptive view it sounds like it is a step towards an ameliorative view. Given that, I’m wondering why you adopt from Dembroff the codification of a sex/gender distinction in your formulation rather than one based on gender alone. While gender seems to me an important social and political category I can’t understand the reason for including orientation directed at a group of loosely related physical features labeled by doctors at birth in our concept. Or, if we were to include it, why we wouldn’t also need to include say brunette+green eyes sexuality as an orientation. While I understand that it is possible to have a less reductive understanding of the category of sex, it is also my understanding that most trans women see the distinction as more politically dangerous than helpful, and I’m inclined to agree. Thanks!
Thanks a lot for your comments! I agree on both counts: the sex/gender distinction is controversial, and also it is not clear that sex in itself is more significant or more salient than other physical features, when it comes to describing our sexual preferences. But in my post I am focusing on the ordinary concept of sexual orientation, and I believe that our ordinary concept focuses on our sexual preferences regarding sex and/or gender, rather than other features. A crucial question, of course, is whether this concept (that I believe is currently widely used) is the most useful concept, in order to describe our sexual preferences.
I agree that the standard sex/gender distinction could be harmful, and that for many people sexual orientation focuses mostly on gender rather than biological sex, but as Jennifer Saul (2006) argues, there are also many competent speakers who do not really distinguish between sex and gender (that is, they think ‘gender’ is a euphemism for ‘sex’), and therefore I believe a characterisation of the ordinary concept of sexual orientation should be sensitive to these dimensions of the folk conception of sex and gender. For these reasons, I favour a characterisation of the ordinary concept of sexual orientation that focuses both on sex and gender (even if these will be conflated for some subjects).
I am sympathetic to the view that a more flexible and inclusive notion of sexual orientation that includes many features in addition to sex and gender could be more useful than our current, narrower conception of sexual orientation. But at the same time, I believe our current concept of sexual orientation could be useful in order to describe homophobic patterns of discrimination. So these are several factors that should be taken into account, concerning the ameliorative project of figuring out the most politically useful concept of sexual orientation.