Last November, GOP Presidential hopeful (and extremely Google-able) Rick Santorum had an interesting exchange with Kristina Lapinski, a lesbian filmmaker, after she asked if he supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Lapinski: What would you do if I was your daughter?
Santorum: I would love you!
Lapinski: Would you want me to get married and have a family?
Santorum: Only if it were with a man.
Lapinski: But I’m not attracted to men.
Santorum: But it is your choice.
Lapinski: Rick, it is not my choice.
Santorum: Like anything in life, it is a choice. You may feel this is the way that it is supposed to be; you make decisions in life and you choose what is right.
When I first read this transcript, my gut reaction was to chuck my computer at the wall in frustration over Santorum’s offensive, condescending dismissal of a woman’s sexuality. Although that computer-chucking feeling hasn’t quite ebbed, this transcript has helped me realize one of the causes of this intellectual stalemate over “choice”: an oversimplification of sexuality.
I’d argue that sexuality is composed of many different, and sometimes conflicting, components, and when we discuss sexuality, we often conflate these different areas.
For the sake of this discussion, I’ll focus on the Big Three:
- Sexual identity: the way you chose to label (or not label) your own sexuality
- Sexual orientation: the type of people you’re generally attracted to
- Sexual behavior: the types of sexual encounters you engage in
Now when we revisit the Santorum exchange, things become a bit more nuanced. The discussion pivots on the idea of choice, which is a very contentious element to introduce when discussing sexuality. The difficulty of engaging with ‘choice’, I’d argue, is that there are aspects of sexuality we don’t choose and aspects we do. When Lapinski brings up her lack of attraction to men, she frames her sexuality in terms of her orientation—not a choice. But when Santorum presents her with the option of marrying a man and living a heterosexual life, he describes sexuality more in terms of sexual behavior—which is a choice. None of us are complete slaves to our sexual desires, after all; when we engage in consensual sexual encounter, we exercise our choice.
Let me stop and clarify: I am, by no means, justifying Santorum’s ignorant and offense response, or any of his other horrifically, homophobic remarks for that matter. What I am saying, however, is that our general inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the complexities of sexuality often prevents us from gaining any ground during discussions of LGBT rights.
Many pro-LGBT rights arguments are staked on the “born this way” doctrine, which I’d argue is an orientation-heavy way of viewing sexuality. No one chooses to be gay, this train of thought claims. You’re either born gay or you’re not. Much has already been written about why this can be a problematic framework, but here are a few of my reasons:
- It essentializes sexuality and restricts the possibility of sexual fluidity.
- It creates this uncomfortable narrative that LGBT people should only be tolerated because they “can’t help being the way they are”.
- Also, filed under: the well-meaning but offensive, “Well, of course being gay isn’t a choice. Who would choose to be gay?” This idea that, if given the choice, everyone would obviously want to be straight only reinforces heteronormativity.
One of my biggest problems with this orientation-based framework is that it gives people who stake out anti-gay positions an easy way out. It allows someone like Santorum to say, “It’s okay for you to be gay (orientation) as long as you remain celibate or marry someone of the opposite sex (behavior).” In doing so, he can take a “love the sinner, hate the sin” type stance, effectively having it both ways; he can position himself as personally tolerant of “the way the LGBT person is”, while simultaneously condemning any expressions of queer sexuality.
The problem with this is that there is nothing wrong with same-sex or otherwise queer sexual and romantic relationships, even if people actively choose them! This is why I wish we could adopt more of a sexual behavior framework, where it wouldn’t matter whether you were ‘born this way’ or not. As far as I’m concerned, however consenting adults express their sexuality in a way that does not actively harm anyone else should be respected. Even if it’s a choice. But on the same token, I understand that’s not politically expedient. Sadly, we still operate in a world where presenting something as essential and natural is a more convincing argument that advocating for the freedom of choice.
Still, I think this oversimplification of sexuality is something worth discussing. Sexuality is more complicated than most people allow, but I think one way to acknowledge this complexity is to allow for more nuance when we discuss it.