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.