we’re having the wrong conversation

We’ve all heard about the great debate about homosexuality: It’s a choice! No, gays are born that way! No, it’s a choice! And so forth. Over the last few years, I’ve started to see a similar question come up on kinky discussion groups and lists with regard to other non-normative ways of experiencing sexuality. People seem drawn to the puzzle of whether we’re born kinky, or whether we get that way through our upbringing and society.

Every time it comes up, whether it’s about whether gays are genetically hardwired to be gay or in any other context, I just about want to tear my hair out. In short, I think the question doesn’t deserve nearly as much time and energy as we tend to put into it. It’s rare that I truly think we should stop inquiring about any topic related to sexuality, but this one brings me awfully close to a statement like that.

Someone once reacted to my take on this by telling me that knowledge is a valuable thing for its own sake, and that it’s human nature to inquire about and study things we don’t understand. My response is, fair enough, except that when it comes to questions of sexuality, the inquiry is necessarily loaded. We aren’t talking about a “why is the sky blue?” kind of question. No matter how innocuous the nature/nurture question might be on the surface, we aren’t looking into it because of genuine scientific curiosity – or at least, to give the benefit of the doubt, for all I know individual researchers might be genuinely interested in new scientific knowledge for its own sake, but their funders may enable a project because they have an agenda, and their data will instantly be seized by all kinds of people who very much have an agenda. That data is then used for all sorts of purposes that are most definitely not scientific – government policy, religious decree, various forms of social oppression (and occasionally social progression) and more.

In the realm of research into homosexuality, people are hungry for an answer on the nature/nurture question to feed a range of agendas. Various agendas often conflict because each point can be argued from many sides. If people are born homosexual, some people (queer and straight) think that means we queers should be “forgiven” for our “sins” because we can’t help being this way; others think that means we should be exterminated at birth or during pregnancy through selective abortion, or sent to behaviour modification camps to force behaviour to conform to a heterocentic model even if desires don’t. If people become homosexual through society, some people think that means we live in a sick society and so it can’t be helped; some people think it means we live in a diverse society and that’s a good thing and perfectly acceptable; some think it means queer people have a choice and therefore should make a “better” choice; some think it’s a choice and they’re quite happy with that choice and defy anyone to tell them it’s an illegitimate one. Check out a post I wrote last year, “don’t ask why, or running in scientific circles,” if you want to see how Marjorie Garber tears apart the existing scientific research on the homosexual version of the nature/nurture question.

When it comes to kink, we’ve got another layer of problems to deal with. For starters, “what it is that we do” is completely different from person to person. I really doubt there’s a gene for bondage, or enema play, or shoe fetishism – these activities are all constructed by society and the industrial marketplace, so how could they possibly be genetically wired? Six-inch stilettos simply didn’t exist several hundred years ago, for example, so nobody could fetishize them. Throw in, say, 24/7 servitude, puppy play, looning, forced feminization, play piercing… the draws to these things, and the experiences of engaging in them, are so different that it’s hard to imagine any common genetic source, or even several common ones.

It might make sense that the genetically determined elements of our personalities, in combination with early childhood social stimulus, would create minds and emotional make-ups that are ripe for certain desires – but from there to the specifics of those desires being 100% “nature” is pretty much impossible.

The second big thing that always bugs me about the nature/nurture question is that it’s impossible to accurately determine whether anything is entirely one or the other, whether it’s personality or disease susceptibility or physical body characteristics or sexual desire or anything else. There simply is no scientific tool or equation that can make that distinction – even in the most clear-cut of cases, all they can do is predict the likelihood of something, and never with perfect accuracy.

The third is that we assume that things can be one or the other, as though anything in the world were ever black and white. That’s just not the way the world works – even for those of us (myself included) who’ve experienced their sexuality and desires as kinky since the very beginning, the desire is only one part of things. It may be a crucial part, but the way it develops is shaped by the world around us. The imagery we see in the media, the ways that power is managed by the people in our worlds from early childhood to today, the social context in which we’ve managed to grow up and find kinky community and the language to talk about these things, the ways we’re exposed to different sexual practices and paradigms, the sexual experiences we have, the traumas and joys we encounter – all of these things influence who we are as sexual beings. So it feels like reductive thinking when someone tries to say it’s one or the other. It’s just not that simple.

Last but not least, I think the nature/nurture question is a problematic one in a similar vein to when the question is asked with regard to homosexual desire and behaviour. Why is it important to know where kink comes from? Would it make a difference as to whether or not we consider it to be okay to be kinky? What would we do differently if we knew kink was genetically motivated? or if we knew it was entirely socially constructed? And here’s the kicker – if the honest answer is “nothing,” then why does this question pop up so often, and why do we have such hot debates about it? Why does the issue arouse such passionate argument if we aren’t placing our own emotional investment in the answer?

Of course I’m not saying that discussions should be drained of their emotional relevance in order to be valid or worthwhile, but the deep convictions that some people hold are completely unsupported by any kind of reliable data, and they stem from a question that’s based on a reductive and illogical premise. It’s hard to look at those convictions and see them as anything other than emotional arguments that are trying to cloak themselves in science to gain better footing. It’s a classic example of people worshiping Science (as though it were the new God) and, like religious zealots, abandoning any semblance of critical thinking along the way.

Even if the question made sense, which it doesn’t, and even if we could get a 100% accurate answer to it, which we can’t, we’d still end up in the same arguments over what to do about it. So why not just drop the impassioned references to a very limited form of science, and instead engage in the arguments that underpin the nature/nurture debate? Namely: is it okay to be queer? Is it okay to be kinky? If it is okay, what should we do about that? If some people think it’s not okay, what should we do about that? Who holds the authority to make those decisions, and should they hold that authority? If not, who should, and why, and how can we get them there? Do we like what the people in power are doing with regard to queers and kinksters, and our challenges and communities and practices? If not, what would we like to do about it? What will we do differently if and when we are in positions of power ourselves?

For me, the answers to the first two questions are extremely simple: yes, it’s okay to be kinky, just like it’s okay to be queer. As for the rest, those questions can lead to some complex debate indeed, and, one hopes, to some highly relevant action. But as for nature versus nurture itself? I prefer to simply opt out.

14 thoughts on “we’re having the wrong conversation

  1. i agree – there’ll never be an absolute/definitive answer & i think that’s usually the case with most debates.

    i decided i don’t care whether it’s nature, nurture or evolution or what …

  2. While I agree with your post in general, I’m a bit curious about this part:

    The second big thing that always bugs me about the nature/nurture question is that it’s impossible to accurately determine whether anything is entirely one or the other, whether it’s personality or disease susceptibility or physical body characteristics or sexual desire or anything else. There simply is no scientific tool or equation that can make that distinction – even in the most clear-cut of cases, all they can do is predict the likelihood of something, and never with perfect accuracy.

    I’ve heard of studies of identical twins separated at birth — people with identical genetic structure, but entirely different cultural backgrounds. It’s a relevant question for things like chronic depression or obesity: if you can pin down specific elements of a childhood that lead to one of the two and control for genetic predisposition, you might be able to help some people, much in the same way that it’s important to be aware of heart disease in your family.

    As far as “predicting the liklihood of something, and never with perfect accuracy,” that’s all science ever does anyway. The conclusion, “With 98% confidence, our new drug ‘eases symptoms mildly’ or ‘substantially reduces symptoms’ 20-25% more often than the placebo” is a perfectly legitimate result, and important, scientific result, despite its inherent uncertainty.

    I realize, of course, that I’m being overcritical. If you were advising undergrads on how to apply the scientific method, you’d probably just be more careful with what you say.

    There is one thing I’d like to mention about the nature/nurture debate on kink — an issue that I’m not sure applies to homosexuality. Suppose kink was learned, and that it was possible to restructure our society in such a way as to make kink less common. Furthermore, suppose exposure to kink was one of the things that caused people to be more likely to be kinky, and moreso, assume that the presence of kink in our society also reinforced nonconsensual power dynamics in much the same way it reinforces kink.

    It’s a lot of suppositions, and it’s something that never would have occurred to me if I hadn’t heard it from people I (otherwise) respect and read it as well, but it stands as the most credible argument against WIITWD. “Am I somehow, magically, making the world harder for people that are genuinely, sexually oppressed, by doing what I do?”

    I’m fully aware that saying that kink affects people secondhand this way holds about as much water as saying that PC’s cause cancer and Macs can cure blindness (and is even more agenda-leaden), but since it is the most credible argument I know of against WIITWD, it’s something I make a point of thinking about, even if I have to force myself to.

  3. The question of science – you know, you’re absolutely right, that likelihood is all that science can ever predict, and that science does, of course, have its uses, many of them extremely positive and helpful for humanity’s overall well-being. This is obvious to you and likely to many other educated people. But I mentioned here as a point of criticism because to hear some people (tons actually!) debate this issue, you’d think that Science had come down and lit a bush on fire and thundered “the queers were born that way!” (much like the converse image of God lighting the fire and thundering “the queers chose to be that way!”) and a bunch of people nodded dumbly and said “hokay, then let’s go make social policy with that.”

    I remain appalled every time I see media reports and hear discussions in which people seem to have absolutely no clue that science is fallible and inherently about likelihood and not The Total Truth; that an interpretation of data is not the same thing as the raw data itself; that science is created by human beings who have personal and political agendas; that the media has a major hand (and its own agenda) in the way scientific news gets portrayed; and so on.

    I don’t dispute that science might have some interesting things to say about queers, and in some sort of ideal, politically progressive world, the question of genetic basis could… but it’s just naive when people think we can approach the discussion as though queerness held the equivalent political weight to the question of whether heart disease has genetic causes, and it’s just as naive to think that the research itself is conducted with the same amount of “neutral” curiosity. (These things are never entirely neutral as someone’s profiting off the pharmaceutical sales, but that’s another post entirely.) Knowing more about heart disease means we can help people stay healthier; knowing more about potential predispositions to queerness means that conservative forces might have one more tool in their bag to oppress people. It also means that backwards gay rights lobbyists can argue for our rights on the basis of how being queer is no more our “fault” than it would be if we were born with a disability. I’m all for disability rights and for reframing the question of how dis/ability is seen (yet another post!), but saying queerness is a disability and using that as a platform for social change does not strike me as the strongest place from which to make convincing arguments – it’s comes down to begging for pity due to our terrible affliction, and not affirming the inherent validity and dignity of sexual attraction and love regardless of gender pairing. So no matter how the information is used, at least so far, those uses just smell bad to me.

    As for the question of kink as a social force that supports non-consensual power dynamics… I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the argument, as it’s definitely one that a lot of 1980s sex-negative feminists used as an excuse to ostracize and abuse SM-oriented women, particularly dykes. And yeah, it holds about as much water as – well, a sieve. Anytime someone brings up the idea, it becomes abundantly clear to me that they don’t actually understand what SM is and are usually very resistant to finding out. I wrote about this quite extensively a couple of years ago here http://sexgeek.blogs.friendster.com/sex_geek/2007/01/taking_a_trip_d.html and then responded to a reader’s challenge to that post here http://sexgeek.blogs.friendster.com/sex_geek/2007/01/some_thoughts_o.html, both in the context of responding to feminist critiques of BDSM that spend a lot of time conflating real-life oppression with consensual power dynamics.

    So yeah, I’ve made a point of thinking about it enough to de-bunk it and write about it, but beyond that I find it’s pretty much a waste of my energy. Perhaps if we were still in the midst of the sex wars people would be actively oppressing me with those arguments and I’d want to invest more energy in working against them, but as it stands for the most part I hear that stuff as leftovers of second-wave feminism and of otherwise woefully backwards thinking that goes way beyond the question of SM and well into deep misunderstandings of social dynamics as a whole.

  4. Gah, once again you’ve touched on a topic that I see reflected in parenting. Which, although related to sex on a species level, parenting is about the un-sexiest field there is. In any case. . .
    I love the way you have clarified why the nature/nurture debate is kind of a dumb question. And I agree. It is not something that is useful, helpful, or something that needs resources put into it in order to *prove* anything.

    The question of what makes us who we are is however, often beautiful. Kind of nifty in an awe-some if not very utilitarian fashion. Like when I hear my own mother’s words come out of my mouth – it doesn’t actually matter if it’s nature or nurture, but it makes me feel connected. Likewise, when I watch nature and nurture influence this amazingly incredible little person I am parenting. I find it fascinating when he does something I know that his lesbian mamas have taught him — and equally wonderful when his eyes light up with rapt interest in the latin names of invertebrates (which he shares with the spuncle but *not* us). As with any kink or particular sexual activity, I know there can’t really be a gene for the love of sea urchins and exoskeletons, but it’s no less amazing to me to watch those parts of him develop. And I don’t have a better explanation than the genetic one for why he curls up with plastic weevils at nighttime.

  5. *sigh* This comes up in discussions of transsexuality ALL THE TIME. I don’t even have the energy to get worked up about it anymore. Humans are both biological and cultural beings. Out biological make-up affects our cultural capacities and our cultural capacities affect our biological make-up. Pretty much everything about us is some complex interaction between a whole bunch of things and someone would have to work damn hard to prove to me that there is one, unique cause for transsexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, kinkiness, taste for Indian food, autism, whatever. People who are so adament about finding that gene or that one “childhood trauma” must be looking for some kind of comfort, some kind of dogmatic axiom that they can bandy around to help explain the world. Well, I know who I am (trans, kinky, queer, geeky, among many other things) and, other than for purposes of personal introspection, I’m not that interested in finding a genetic or cultural cause for how I am. I have a spiritual explanation for why I am the way I am and it works for me. I don’t really care if anyone else buys it.

  6. As a parent, my only comment is that I would want to know, if possible, what my child is genetically predispositioned to, including sexuality because I would not to raise him within a structure that does not allow him to fully be who is from birth.
    This is to say, for example, I would like to know that my son is gay/bisexual in his youth, before his sexuality is defined or sabotaged by society, so that I might give him positive reinforcement of his innate sexuality.

  7. Someone, I think it was Robert J Stoller, said that the most common element in kinky people’s life histories was long periods of illness in childhood. That’s plausible enough, but you’re right that the nature/nurture debate is so heavily politicized that it is best avoided. Let people be.

    The physiology of kink is one thing, but the psychology of it depends on historical developments that are specific in time and place, so trying to find a “kink gene” is like trying to find a “rock’n’roll gene”

  8. Lothyn – Plastic weevils? Really? Gawd, I love that kid. And I totally get why it would be fascinating to watch the interplay of nature and nurture in such an evident way as a little one grows up.

    Jacky – I’d be fascinated to hear your spiritual explanation for your trans identity one of these days. Spirituality is a discussion that’s only just beginning to surface with any degree of regularity or depth in kink circles, and I almost never hear it spoken of in trans circles other than the rare reference to a shamanistic path (Raven Kaldera) or reclaimed Native Two-Spirit traditions, and much of those references from a standpoint that treads far too close to cultural appropriation for my comfort. The topic deserves an anthology, really.

    BBW – It’s commendable that you would want to support your son that way. Lucky kid. Unfortunately I think a lot of parents would use similar information as an excuse to abuse or kick their kids out even more than they already do. Now that’s a sick world, if you ask me.

    Peter – Long periods of illness? That’s the first I’ve heard of that one! Was that recent research? (Likely not as he died in 1992…) How did he define “kinky” in his study? What was his sample size and location? I’m so intrigued. I fail the illness test myself (unless you count two weeks of chicken pox as “long”), but it would never even occur to me to ask that of other people. I wonder if Jacques’ data supports that, or if he even asked the question. In what way would childhood illness affect a person’s disposition to kink? What’s the plausibility there?

  9. Hmm. I may be the oddball here. I admit that I am curious about my kink ‘roots.’ I am not obsessed about it, I just enjoy sharing with others to see if there is common ground that may explain why I love to have someone slap me while I am tied to a post. I am not looking to uncover a cause to make a profound scientific statement. Just curious about me.

    I suspect that there are many reasons why we are kinky, or gay, or whatever we may consider ourselves. If someone ever claimed to have the definitive answer to why anyone was kinky, I would have a difficult time accepting one single answer.

    But I still do like the topic.

    I enjoy your blog very much Andrea. Thanks for all your effort in sharing.

  10. I think there’s a big difference between the “nurture” argument and the idea that it’s a personal choice, at least when it comes to debates on BDSM. To me, the nature/nurture dispute seems to be two sides of the same coin: both positions support the idea of “kinky” (or “queer”) as something we *are*, not as something we *do*. Either our kink is something we’re born with (nature) or the result of trauma, the patriarchy, etc. (nurture) but either way it isn’t something we consciously choose. It’s not something we can just discard at any time, depending on changing tastes, beliefs, or interests.

    That idea — that it’s not a conscious choice — is really appealing, and seems to fit with a lot of our personal experiences with being kinky or being queer. (“I’ve felt this way all my life.” “The first time I slept with a woman / the first time I was whipped was the first truly fulfilling and satisfying sex I’d had.”) It helps us defend our “deviant” sexual acts by backing them up with identity and thus community. It explains why we continue to do things that put us at odds with society at large, even as we face ostracization from our friends, estrangement from family, and sometimes even legal repercussions because of whom and how we have sex.

    Personally, I agree that the nature/nurture debate — you can only choose one! — is absurd, but I too usually fall back on the “it’s not a real choice, this is just how I am” position. I’m doubtful that I’m correct in that position, but I feel like it’s a pretty natural one to take when you’ve had to defend your sexual preferences at all.

  11. “Jacky – I’d be fascinated to hear your spiritual explanation for your trans identity one of these days.”

    I’ve been meaning to blog about it forever but I’ve been too absorbed with anthro stuff these days. It’ll come and I’ll let you know when I post about it, or you might know if you use blog surfer.

    Also, I wanted to add that it’s not that I’m not curious at all about where my gender, sexual orientation, kink, etc come from. It’s just that I don’t let ideas about where it comes from rule my behaviour or attitudes toward any of these spheres. Of course, I’m curious and sometimes ponder different possibilities.

  12. I’ve always like the response that arguing nature vs nurture is like arguing whether the length or the width is more important to the rectangle.

  13. i have enjoyed being tied up since i was a small boy – i have wondered how this attraction started. i remember playing tie-up games with my playmates and always tried to work it so i was the one “captured” and tied up. This was way before sex entered the bondage picture.

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