Born This Way: On Gender and Sexuality As Social Construction

Last week at the Christian Scholars Conference I attended a session entitled “Born This Way?: Science, Theology and Public Policy on Human Sexuality.”

As a part of the panel Steve Rouse, my friend and a fellow psychologist from Pepperdine, started off the session with a review of the biological and social scientific data regarding the nature vs. nurture issues regarding LGBTQ attraction, behavior and identity. Steve was followed by a paper from Jeanine Thweatt-Bates (who blogs at rude truth) who offered some theological reflections regarding how theology should handle data from the sciences, in this case data related to gender and sexuality. The final paper of the session was given by Rob McFarland from the Jones School of Law at Faulkner University. Rob's paper focused on the legal issues that have been swirling around gay marriage in recent years.

During the Q&A I asked a question that I wanted to share here as it's something I've been pondering for some time.

Specifically, it has to with what I perceive to be an epistemological disjoint between the sciences and the humanities and how LGBTQ advocates working from within those respective disciplines can, sadly, find themselves in conflict.

The provocative way I framed my question was this.

It seems to me that some advocates working within or informed by feminist and queer studies, specifically those who rely a great deal upon social deconstruction, often find themselves as unwitting supporters of conservative Christians who support things like reparative/conversion therapy for LGBTQ persons.

The issue boils down to if "sexuality/gender is a choice." Many conservative Christians, believing that same-sex attraction, behavior and/or identity is a sin, conclude that all these are "choices." And if these are "choices" then the LGBTQ person could "chose differently." This is the belief at the core of reparative/conversion therapy. In the language of the session title, LGBTQ persons are not "born this way." Biology has nothing to do with it, it's all a matter of choice.

Note how there is a Gnostic vision at work here, a strong dualism where the biological and bodily aspects of human sexuality--for example, they way you might be sexually attracted (or not) to a particular gender--can be easily jettisoned by the soul/mind making a "choice."

Most psychologists would reject this Gnostic vision, this strict distinction between embodiment and "choice." Biology affects psychology. As Steve presented in his paper, the current scientific consensus is that same-sex attraction and orientation have genetic and biological foundations. Thus, as Jeanine pointed out in her paper, the notion of "heteronormativity" is belied by the biological data. Biologically speaking, there is diversity in gender and sexual expressions. As the theologian James Alison says it, same-sex attraction/orientation is a "non-pathological minority variant."

Crucially, this diversity is rooted in the human genome and is not wholly a matter of choice. 

And yet, when you move into various areas of feminist and queer studies, especially those devoted to social deconstruction, appeals to this biological data can often create confusion and conflict.

Specifically, it is often axiomatic in these disciplines that "gender and sexuality are socially constructed." That is to say, the body, gender and sexuality are "texts" that can be "read" in any number of ways. Gender and sexuality are, at root, interpretations. All is hermeneutics. 

It's easy to see how such perspectives originate within humanities departments where hermeneutical analysis is the primary tool of inquiry. And I am very sympathetic to how these views create an emancipatory vision. If "there is no such thing as gender or sexuality" then people should be free to explore--creatively and playfully--with gender and sexual expression. Thus, any attempt to insist on a gender or sexual "norm" is, applying a hermeneutics of suspicion, a power play, an exercise in oppression.

And yet, while I agree with the end goal here I have a problem with the epistemological warrant that supports this position. As noted above, the scientific data suggests that there is such a thing as gender and sexuality. People are, to but it crudely, "born this way." Gender and sexual diversity exist but this diversity is not the result of "choice," social deconstruction or hermeneutics. The diversity is rooted, rather, in a biological account.    

Before going on, let me pause to make a clarification.

In these conversations a distinction often made between "sex" and "gender" and it could be argued that I'm confusing the two. "Sex" refers to the anatomical particulars of a child (e.g., how we designate infants as either "boy" or "girl" on a birth certificate). By contrast, "gender" refers to the social constructions of "masculinity" and "femininity" (among other constructions related to gender and sexual expression), what it means to be a "man" or a "woman."

In light of that distinction, I wholly agree that from the get-go we start imposing gendered constructions of the world upon our children depending upon their respective genitalia. Boys get blue and girls get pink, and on and on. And most crucially, I want to affirm that these gendered constructions have been oppressive toward women.

However, the sex/gender distinction leaves a lot of questions unanswered, especially the degree to which biology is implicated in sexual and gender psychology. For example, things like sexual orientation can't be read off the anatomy of a baby. And yet, as Steve discussed in his paper, sexual orientation has biological origins. Thus, there is no clean separation between sex-as-biology and gender-as-social construction.

This creates some ambiguity and confusion as people try to talk about social construction as it relates to gender and sexuality.

On the one hand, there are those who accept that biology shapes gender and sexual psychology. While biology is not destiny and there is a degree of plasticity, gender and sexual psychology is not a "blank slate." To some extent, we are "born this way." For most of us, we "discover" rather than "chose" our sexual orientation.

However, there are some who adopt a more radical position. This is the position I am criticizing. This is the "blank slate" view that suggests that the biology of the child has no biasing effect whatsoever upon gender or sexual psychology. On the surface, on the outside, at the level of anatomy and genitalia, there are distinctions. But everything "on the inside," every aspect of gender and sexual psychology, is a matter of social construction.

There are two reasons I'm critical of this more radical view.

First, as noted above, I believe this view ignores the scientific data that sexual orientation has biological foundations. And I worry when ideology, of whatever sort, starts ignoring scientific data.

(Incidentally, why do many on the left struggle with accepting the data regarding the biological foundations of sexual orientation? This is my guess. I think the influence of social deconstruction in feminist scholarship, which worked very well in the case of gender, has created epistemological problems when it turned to queer studies. The two--feminist and queer studies--often go hand in hand, but there is some epistemological awkwardness as standard tools like the sex/gender distinction are ill-suited to handle psychological features, like sexual orientation, that are rooted in biology.)

The second reason I'm critical of this view goes to the heart of the question I asked in the session.

Specifically, the radical "blank slate" claim that gender and sexuality are wholly socially constructed is the exact same "it's a choice" Gnostic vision at the heart of reparative/conversion therapy.

When the "blank slate" claim is made that "gender doesn't exit" or "gender is a social construction" we radically reject any biological and psychological givenness. And if all is hermeneutics then all is a matter of choice. And that is the very notion at the heart of reparative/conversion therapy. If you've "constructed" your gender or sexuality in one way then you are free, hermeneutically, to "construct" your gender or sexuality a different way.

But as Steve pointed out in his paper, the empirical data has shown that reparative/conversion therapy is ineffective. And why is that? Because the clients are hermeneutically inept? That can't be the case. Recall, many clients who seek out reparative/conversion therapy are highly motivated. They want to change. And yet, they find that they cannot. And why is that? Because there is a certain biological and psychological givenness that can't be "interpreted" or "constructed" in a radically different way. The hermeneutical realignment being attempted in reparative/conversion therapy is going against the grain. And it's this going against the grain that is the locus of suffering in reparative/conversion therapy, trying to hermeneutically become something that, biologically and psychologically, you are not.

Which means that gender and sexuality are not wholly hermeneutical constructions. To put it crudely once again, we are "born this way." And while biology is never destiny and is interpreted, often oppressively, within cultural contexts, the failures of reparative/conversion therapy suggest that gender and sexuality cannot be wholly reduced to social construction.

To be sure, most people working with social deconstruction limit their focus to gender roles and expressions. They admit certain biological and psychological influences are at work between the sexes and across the spectrum of sexual orientations. And yet, there are many who do make more radical claims regarding gender and sexuality being social constructions. Andrew Sullivan, author of The Dish and one of the most influential voices in LGBTQ advocacy, has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the radical deconstructionism on the political left from those who espouse the view that biology doesn't affect gender and sexual psychology. Sullivan thinks that view is nonsense. And I agree with him. 

Of course, the alarm this causes is that if biology is a factor in shaping "gender" (via psychology) then biology would become morally "normative." And given that the biological majority is comprised of cisgendered heterosexual persons we'll always be tempted to see this gender and sexual arrangement as the social and moral "ideal." Anything different is "deviant."

I agree that this is a problem and a worry. And there are a variety of ways it can and should be dealt with.

But I don't think deconstructing the biology is the best approach as it 1) ignores the science in favor of ideology, 2) supports (unwittingly) the Gnostic and therapeutic tenets of reparative/conversion therapy and 3) ignores the narratives of LGBTQ persons who tell us that, no, this was not a choice, I was born this way.

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42 thoughts on “Born This Way: On Gender and Sexuality As Social Construction”

  1. Thanks Richard, this was an interesting read.

    I haven't read a lot myself but my assumption was that any such distinction between the biological and the social was not so clear cut. We are biological-social, or our sociality is our biology, etc. So if we talk about biological predispositions to gender or sexual-orientation we can't say that people are gendered or sexually orientated as infants or fertilised eggs, etc, but only insofar as they grow into these. We would not know someone's gender expression or sexual desires unless they were old enough to communicate it some way and that old-enough cannot be separated from the social environments in which they have grown up, however strong the "biological" (no, "from-birth") factors are in contributing to these.

    So, reparative therapy. Reparative therapy fails not to reverse something that is ultimately biological and cannot be reversed but something which is biological-social. Social constructions may be just as stubborn in refusing reversal as biological predispositions.

  2. This post will require, I'm guessing, a lot of clarification. You just can't be as nuanced and you'd like to be in a post and keep it all to a readable length.

    You're exactly right that the biological and the social are mixed and conflated in ways that may be impossible to disentangle. But there is a tendency in among some to use the social, linguistic and cultural to ignore the biological and how the biological shapes gender and sexual psychology. So this isn't to deny the complex and interactive social/biological matrix but simply make sure that the biological, beyond mere anatomy, is recognized as being in the mix as something that, in it own right, shapes the social, linguistic and cultural. That recogniziton is often not made, and while it is, for some, quite blandly obvious for others it is wildly controversial and heretical.

    My point is if there there is a radical rejection of the biological you're starting to tend toward a disembodied, dualistic and Gnostic vision often found among those espousing reparative therapy.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this. I wanted to say more about how the trans, queer, asexual and bisexual experiences fit, or don't fit, into the "born this way" tag.

    When we think of "born this way" we think of people pegged out at either a 1 or a 6 on the Kinsey scale. But there are many who don't fit that mold, and being in a more fluid and intermediate the person will be in a more "hermeneutical" position in regards to their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. That is to say, how the person "comes out" doesn't seemed rooted in a fixed, "born this way" location.

    My response would be to say that the fluid and intermediate nature of gender identity and sexual orientations is also rooted in a biological account. That is to say, we tend to equate "born this way" with strong and fixed gender and sexual biases. But that's not necessarily the case. "Born this way" can also mean being born with indeterminate biases, or the lack of biases. Such situations will, of course, place a heavy interpretive burden upon a person living in a world of gender and sexual binaries, but I'd still hazard the view that the non-binary experience of the person is rooted in biology, something they discover about themselves than something that they choose. Although that discovery means that they will have to face some downstream choices about how to live in an oppressive and hostile binary world.

  4. I wonder if part of the solution is being more agnostic about biology, as a science. That is, so much remains to be understood about sexuality, biological and not. Instead of thinking that in acknowledging the biological nature of sexuality we have somehow explained everything (and thus could somehow use our imperfect understandings as "normative"), we could acknowledge that this science is still only beginning? That science itself is inherently about openness and questioning, not dogma? And even cisgendered people have a lot of sexual desires they may not understand, feel comfortable with, know how to express, etc.

  5. Has reparative therapy *as such* been thoroughly debunked, or have the modes of therapy attempted thus far been debunked? That is, is it now known that reparative therapy CANNOT succeed, or is it simply asserted in a more or less circular, question-begging fashion? We researchers have this nasty habit of generalizing beyond our conclusions, so it's a fair question.

    Second, how is it that the Darwinian overlay on the biology of this has simply been laid aside as if it had nothing to offer? Are we so committed to a certain social outcome that such considerations are now beyond the pale?

    Curiously on two counts,


  6. That was an important point brought out by Jeanine in her theological reflections about the scientific data, that "science" is also a human activity and the "current scientific consensus" has and does change. So a tentative and skeptical stance is required.

    When it comes to human interactions I don't think the science matters much at all. I deal with people with love, grace and compassion however they present themselves to me. In that sense, I can be agnostic about the "origins" of that self presentation. It's irrelevant.

    So the issue only matters when a descriptive account of the world is needed for theological reflection. As Jeanine noted in her paper, good theology will always try to discuss "the world we actually live in." Science is the best human attempt to make that description, and theology ignores it at its peril. We mainly think of this in regards to Genesis and evolution, but theology also makes anthropological assumptions and those assumptions need to be checked against what we actually know about persons from the biological and social sciences. For example, reparative therapy works with an anthropological assumption and doesn't jive with the science. Thus, science is often valuable in checking bad theology.

  7. On question one, all I think we can scientifically say is that the treatment outcomes studies that have examined reparative therapy to date have shown them to be ineffective.

    On question two, I'm a person who tries to be in conversation with evolution, taking the way evolution has shaped the human species (which involves gender and sexuality) as theological data. But data from evolution is very controversial. So if you use it you have to fight battles on two fronts, from the right and from the left.

  8. >"I'd still hazard the view that the non-binary experience of the person is rooted in biology"

    This may be true, but I can neither confirm nor deny it from my own experience. My gender and sexuality *could be* entirely socially driven, which doesn't necessarily mean that I could choose to change them now (though in my case I feel like I probably could).

    I agree with you that excluding biology from the equation is unwarranted based on the evidence (including my own narrative), but I'm equally uncomfortable with your hazarded view that even an experience like mine is "rooted in biology". The truth is we simply don't know.

    I'd also question your fear that excluding biology supports the tenets of conversion therapy. This is no doubt true but I don't see how that can ever be a justification for overriding what should be a scientific question. We shouldn't just say "biology did it" because we're afraid of the religious consequences if it's actually sometimes socially-driven. Both causes are apparently equally immune to conversion therapies anyway.

  9. And here the Texas GOP (The state Richard lives in if you didn't know) just adopted their platform. What amazing timing! ;)

    All jokes aside, two things come to mind here: (Warning, professional mathematician thinking about social / psychological things)

    (1) I wonder how much the fear of death of the institution is at play here. That is, you mentioned in Slavery of Death the idea of gaining some form of immortality by helping to build the structure of society so that it would last. I just wonder if that is forming some of the harsh push back from many evangelical circles as they see "their great society" crumbling down and fear, well, for their lives.

    (2) I also wonder if some of this is not also because many evangelicals are trying to stick with a hermeneutic that "can no longer work". So for example, the Church of Christ (C of C) has used Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CENI) for decades, but by and large that has been rejected in most mainstream C of C's. (see Matt Dabbs two posts here: and
    if a reader is not familiar with these ideas and or heritage)
    But what has replaced CENI in C of C's? In my experience, a sort of read the Bible and see if we like it, and explain away the stuff we don't like idea. I just wonder how much this is adding to the evangelical response. It is not really Science, as much as radical change in their world, the world they thought would last for generations, that is causing these problems.

    A little off where you were (I think) going with this, but I do feel they tie together. As always, keep up the good work sir.

  10. "The truth is we simply don't know." I agree that we'll never finally have all the answers in hand. There will always be some degree of uncertainty. But stepping back, the current scientific consensus that every measurable human trait--from political views, to personality, to sexual orientation--has a heritable component. (Much of this is based upon behavioral genetics research with twin studies.) Basically, everything is biological to some degree. As it must be. We have bodies after all.

    And I very much agree with your pushback that just because something is socially-driven that we shouldn't honor it. I'd say "choice" from a moral perspective holds more weight than some vague appeal to genetic origins. So let me be clear about that. Respecting the choices of others is morally crucial.

    So to clarify that bit. The issue of choice in conversation therapy isn't about morality (though that's in the background). The issue goes to the therapeutic assumption in conversation therapy that sexual orientation can be easily changed by "making different choices." That therapeutic assumption has floundered in the face of the data. So my focus is less on the moral judgment than upon on how the biological origins of sexual orientation help explain the failure of that therapeutic assumption.

  11. Anon, can I keep thinking about loud with you here?

    One of the questions your comments brings to surface in my mind regards the origins of individual dissent in the face of gender and sexual social and cultural constructions.

    Specifically, from the get-go children are raised with cisgendered and heterosexual social constructions. And if we adopt a "blank slate" position we end up with social, cultural and linguistic determinism: everyone should end up cisgendered and straight.

    And yet, they do not.

    So where does the dissent and non-conformity come from? If we are blank slates?

    I'd argue that something in our embodied, biological existence is one location of friction. In our embodiment we find we are square pegs being asked to fit into round holes. I want to argue that embodied, biological existence is a source of where this "dissent" comes from. Not the only source or even the most important source. But simply a source.

    So when I say "born this way" I'm not talking about biological determinism. I'm talking about how embodied, biological existence creates "dissent" from the socially constructed cisgendered and heterosexual norms.

  12. The role of CENI in the Churches of Christ has been mainly focused upon church practices. So as CENI falls apart what we are seeing is the loss of a consensus regarding how to adjudicate church practices. Thus we see many Churches of Christ adopt instrumental music. Where this path will take us is anyone's guess. Denominational disintegration most likely. A collection of community churches that share a historical connection.

    We've never really used CENI to ponder moral and social issues, so I don't if the CoC is prepared or able to handle these questions. What happens is that each local CoC tends to default to the political climate of the town and state that it's in.

  13. Just for reference: an essay that might introduce some new perspectives into this conversation is Laurel Schneider's "What if it is a Choice? Some implications of the Homosexuality Debates for Theology," in "Sexuality & the Sacred" (2nd Ed.)

  14. Rob, I have high hopes and the faith that the fear of acknowledging the integrity and spirituality of the LGBTQ community that most conservative Christians have, will gradually dissipate as LGBTQ individuals who desire a church home, many with the denomination in which they grew up, will simply walk in and take their seat. This is what terrifies most conservative church leaders today, because they see it coming and they know there is absolutely nothing they can do to stop it.

  15. Hi Andrew. As I noted elsewhere in the thread, I don't think this matters all that much when we are talking about moral issues and how we treat others. The origins of a person's selfhood (a complex mixture of "choice" and "embodiment") are largely irrelevant, the integrity of the self is what matters most.

    My main concerns here are less about morality then about when theological anthropology (on both the right and left) drifts away from reality and how those anthropological assumptions can create harm, or just nonsense. Thus, there are times when appeals to the biological and social sciences are useful to check against theological anthropology.

    (BTW, I have a post about your soulful resistence essay coming out on Thursday.)

  16. First, thankyou for engaging so seriously with this. I very much respect your approach to discussion.

    I agree that 'everything is biological' in the sense that our biology is clearly the origin of the way we respond to socialisation. I'm not a disembodied free will. But since biology may or may not leave us with the ability and/or desire to choose our gender expression and sexuality, isn't this assertion something of a tautology?

    Surely what we're interested in is the extent to which we feel we are able to choose our own gender and sexual expression (irrespective of society's reaction)? Most of us don't feel we can choose. Whether this is because of biological determinism, predisposition and/or social conditioning we don't know. Or at least, I don't know. I do however know that both my sense of gender and sexuality have changed over my life.

    So I'm unable to reach your conclusion that "the biological origins of sexual orientation help explain the failure of that therapeutic assumption". The piece that's missing I think is an acknowledgement of the power of social conditioning [even alone?] to make irreversible and definitive changes to sexual and gender identity. If you wish, you can compress all that into "everything is biological" and then I'd agree with you! But personally I think it needs to be explicit, because conversion therapy wants us to believe that such conditioning can be undone, and the evidence is wildly against that.

    At some level there's a disagreement about the nature of our being, whether we are some kind of 'pure soul' or true self that gets twisted by biology and/or social conditioning (and our job is to unravel and heal it), or whether we are whom we become. I suspect the conversion therapists strongly go with the former. I think they're wrong and that's why their therapies have failed.

  17. Oh, I wholeheartedly agree. But, I believe that there are many in the churches now, though they may be silent, still yearn for the day when they can walk up to an individual or couple sitting in the back pew, hold out their hand and say "Welcome, come sit with me!" It may be a bit naive, but that's what I'm holding to.

  18. "So where does the dissent and non-conformity come from if we are blank slates?"

    I think I would look to Chaos Theory for an answer to that one! I'd hypothesise that the same biology and an ostensibly very similar cisgendered and heterosexual social environment could result in extraordinarily varied outcomes in gender expression and sexual preference, orientation and (ultimately) identity.

    If I think back to the triggers that made me want to dress as a girl, I can point to two specific quite random events which if either had not happened could have led me to become an entirely different person altogether. I might have skipped through puberty without ever thinking how much I'd prefer to be a girl, and in other circumstances might never have come to hate myself because of it, and all the consequences that come of that. Maybe there was a predisposition in me, but it's also possible there wasn't and it was just a particular set of events that put a thought in my head that took root and eventually became my identity. For myself I suspect the latter but obviously I could be wrong.

  19. Have you read Cordelia Fine's book? It is a fine critique of sex difference research, though its central thesis is ultimately unconvincing.

    1. She relies an awful lot on priming studies to build a case for social constructivism. Problem is we don't have much evidence that priming has long term effect, nor do we have much evidence that it works when there are significant incentives in the opposite direction.

    2. There is a lot of sloppy speculation about the exact mechanism through which mental sex differences come about, but there are still a lot of discrepancies between men and women that are hard to explain in terms of social conditioning. Fine criticizes the former, but you'll notice she'll frequently leave the latter just hanging there. An inexperienced reader might not notice that, but it happens alot.


  20. Hey, bring on the chaos theory! And that's an interesting move, how "sensitive dependence upon initial conditions" (aka, the butterfly effect) points to how very, very small environmental inputs can create large scale effects. And yes, I agree with you, those sorts of narratives and insights greatly chasten any strong "born this way" rhetoric.

    On a different but related note let me also insert this bit of info into the mix for any and all readers.

    Another insight to consider here is canalization. Consider eye color and height. Eye color is highly canalized. That is, regardless of environmental inputs your eye color isn't much affected. Height is less canalized. That is, environmental input (like diet) affects the genetic expression of height. For example, if you're malnourished you'll be shorter.

    Now, both eye color and height are highly heritable, rooted in genetics. But the relative expressions of eye color and height vary depending upon how canalized they are, sensitive to environmental inputs. All that to say, to say that something is "heritable" doesn't mean the trait is "determined." A heritable trait can have a range of expressions dependent upon environmental input. All of which complicates any clean "nature vs. nurture" distinction.

  21. It is interesting how talk of cisgendered and transgendered persons already creates an implicit ideal of allignment between your anatomy and your psychology, which actually affirms a traditional gender bifurcation. I don't think the gender theorists thought that one through. "Cis" is basically just a swear word.


  22. You should also point out that female sexuality actually does seem to be far more malleable than male. It appears much easier for women to "switch" back and forth than men, though some women are likely to have a more fixed orientation.


  23. Richard,

    I'm a little confused about the category of "deconstructing the biology" that you've created here, as well as its relationship to Gnosticism. I share (what I read as) Camo Star's skepticism about grouping even the most radical deconstructionist into the Gnostic, "mind over body" camp. My guess is they would reject that alignment. So would all the pre-1973 psychologists who created the category of homosexuality and understood it as disease based on a scientific, biologically-derived set of assumptions, now discredited.

    I get that in your terminology, reparative therapy "radically rejects the biological" by refusing to accept it on a theoretical level (i.e. "unlike what the scientists say, your same sex attraction is not hard wired and it can be changed, with effort") as well as a practical, behavioral level. I understand that this pairing is what makes reparative therapy your premiere, banner example of "deconstructing the biological", which you hope radical academics will not unwittingly stray into.

    But in our current cultural landscape I tend to read continuing preoccupation with reparative therapy to be a red herring on the part of its critics. Even in christian circles, only the most marginal, strained voices are still arguing that same sex attraction is superficial/soft-wired/open to choice. In my reading, "sexual conservatism" in the church in recent years has made an dramatic exodus from "fighting the science" and has retreated to a consensus that entirely concedes the "givens" of biological sexual determinism and then re-frames the debate on moral/behavioral terms (i.e. "same sex attraction itself is not wrong but acting it out is").

    Do your categories of "deconstructing the biology" and Gnosticism still apply in dealing with this more mainstream stance? To me it seems like there's a distinction needed, because I think it would muddy the waters to say these sectors of Christianity are attempting to "deconstruct" anything about biological fact in the same fundamental way that reparative therapy attempted to. But I'm guessing you would still want to read this stance as "Gnostic" because it does not sufficiently privilege physical/biological experience in the establishment of moral norms? If a sexually conservative church recommends its non-heterosexual members to celibacy, is that still a "hermeneutical realignment"?

    I guess I have a desire to draw the ideas you’re exploring in this post away from the academic fringes and much closer to the current fault lines on sexuality in the first-world church…

  24. 1. You write, Specifically, the radical "blank slate" claim that gender and sexuality are wholly socially constructed is the exact same "it's a choice" Gnostic vision at the heart of reparative/conversion therapy. Eve Segwick wrote something quite similar in her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet (1990), and I got the sense that her attitude was, "All of us here know what I'm talking about." I don't mention this as a sort of "This has been said before" jab; rather, I just think it's worth pointing out that LGTBQ studies have been actively grappling with this question (and a lot of the other ones you bring up--if this is a subject that interests you, I really must recommend the introduction to that book).

    2. As I've come to see it, the construction/biology question is a bit of a false dichotomy. Yes, there are radical social constructivists who say that all sexual attraction is a choice, but that's not representative of either the humanities or of social constructivism. For instance, to say something is a social construct isn't to say that we have total free choice in the matter; we are almost certainly constrained by the social situation in which gender is constructed (and this argument goes right back to Judith Butler, who pioneered the gender/sex distinction). Phrasing social construction of sexuality this way avoids the trap of conversion therapy; it isn't biological determinism, but change has to happen on the level of social groups, not individuals.

    Alternately (and this is the one I back), a person's particular dispositions to experiences of sexual and romantic attraction may certainly be biological, but how they interpret those experiences and how they identify themselves in light of those experiences is a choice--but a choice significantly constrained by the social constructions of which they are aware. Being attracted to a certain demographic of people is not a choice; identifying yourself as gay/pan/omni/whatever is a choice, but that choice is still limited to the options you can imagine. Of course this does allow some moralizing, but... we allow lots of other choices, which might be subject to moralizing, and feel quite comfortable simply saying that people are wrong to moralize about those choices.

  25. 1. I've learned, since I raised this question at the conference, is that there has been a robust conversation about this very issue. And no worries about educating me about that. I'm no expert, I need to be educated.

    2. I agree with everything you are saying. I don't know how representative any particular view is in the humanities and I might be critiquing a fringe rather than a representative view. But I've sure run across it a lot.

    That said, can I explore this further? Like you note, I think most in the humanities would recognize the biological influences (subtle as they may be) on sexual orientation. Would that same group recognize, say, the biological influences upon gender differences? That there are biological influences upon, say, the ways the personalities of men and women may differ? And that recognition with your point fully in force: that, despite said differences, "a person's particular dispositions to experiences of sexual and romantic
    attraction may certainly be biological, but how they interpret those
    experiences and how they identify themselves in light of those
    experiences is a choice--but a choice significantly constrained by the
    social constructions of which they are aware."

    What I'm trying to gauge is how consistent is the recognition of biological influences as we move from sexual orientation (where you're saying it tends to be granted ), to gender differences (where it still seems like a huge controversy). Can you help me gauge that?

  26. Your last statement here describes exactly what is taking place in congregations in the South. Most of these have been wedded to conservative politics for so long now that they feel safe as long as there is support locally and state-wide for the simple rejection of any change of thought on this issue. They mistakenly feel that all they have to do is continue to claim that sexual orientation is a choice made by a responsible adult. Therefore, they can continue to relegate them to hell. Their satisfaction here is just as much political as it is religious. Any discussion of the "science" is therefore unnecessary to them.

  27. Thanks very much for this. It jives with what I had expected. I definitely understand all the related concerns and the need to proceed very, very cautiously in this area. But it generally confirms my sense that there is a sort of disjoint (or at least a different degree of caution) in how biology functions in the humanities in the discussions regarding sexual orientation vs. gender differences.

    Incidentally, if the issue of WEIRD samples is the number one concern, gender differences is one of the few psychological topics that has received a lot of cross-cultural attention. And the consensus is that stable gender differences (at least among the Big 5 traits) are observed across cultures. The counter-intuitive finding is that in WEIRD cultures, where the cultures are more egalitarian, the gender differences are larger.

  28. Addendum: when I was getting my degree, I was not studying gender studies or queer studies. Though both came up in some of my courses, they were never the focus. Only twice did I research in this area, and I was researching masculinity in the first and asexuality in the second. So you will certainly be engaging with people more expert than I am. I'd advise that you listen to them rather than to me if they should say something that contradicts what I've said.

  29. Thank-you for this. I'm upvoting your comment because I think your lived experience should precede my academic discussion in the comments.

  30. I admit that I have only breezed through the comments, so please forgive me if this has already been raised.
    I was watching a program recently about a special rehabilitation service in a prison for peodophiles and there was discussion about findings that it (peodophilia) is in their biological make up. There were peodophile people stating that they accept that they have to be imprisoned because they accept that this is just the way they are (that they are genuinely attracted to children) and for the safety of the community they are ok with being imprisoned. I would just like to know what your thoughts are on this. As for me personally it definitely challenged my thinking and raised questions around morality (right and wrong) if it's biological.

    Don't get me wrong, whether or not peodophilia is biological I see it as very damaging and also to make it perfectly clear I am not comparing peodophilia and homosexuality, same sex attraction. So I really don't want this to get turned into something it's not. I'm wondering what other peoples thoughts are on morality when it comes down to biology when there might be unwilling participants/victims if someone is to simply "live out" their biological make up? I hope I have articulated this ok.

  31. I've got to catch up on the conversation here but I just want to say thanks so much for blogging about the session and for bringing this question into the conversation, on the floor and again here. I think this is really a crucial point, where sensitive, serious attention to embodiment(s) ultimately is the solution for both theologians and social constructivism. The categories of gender are socially constructed, to be sure, and these things get read back into our bodies/selves--and yet close attention to our bodies reveals just how socially constructed our notions of femininity and masculinity are, because no one actually exemplifies those things perfectly (and praise God). It is of course fairly complicated given the way we internalize and then perform (even alter our bodies in pursuit of performance) gender, but we can take material embodiment seriously without relapsing back into biological essentialism (the mistake constructivists are seeking to correct to begin with). I think, anyway. :)

  32. Amen to all above--as a theologian in the field of theology and science I will testify that it is actually really difficult to do interdisciplinary work well. It is much faster and easier to rely on mediating sources like those mentioned above--science writers, etc. But I think it is hugely important as a prereq to good theology/science work to "get the science right" at the front end. And that means taking the time to find your way to the primary sources and then taking the time to become a competent interpreter of these things--and that's just not easy stuff. :)

    My shorthand for negotiating the constructivism/essentialism divide while holding on to embodiment has been "Biology matters, but biology is not Nature." It works for me but even so, I still have to chant it like a mantra sometimes to hold on to it. I have a womb, and that embodied reality makes a difference in the way that I experience life; but having a womb doesn't itself make me a natural Mother.

    There is, as Richard said, a good conversation happening these days between the sciences and gender studies and I happened upon it last year at the Women's Studies Association conference in Cincinnati--I was thrilled, because until then I didn't realize that this was happening. But it is, at least in that context. :)

  33. This is the best thread ever.

    Anon, thanks so much for the incredibly thoughtful input here. I think I'm pretty much with Richard--and it seems like there's a possible consensus emerging on this point--everything has its basis in our embodied reality on some level, but that does not cash out as some sort of predictable determinism.

    I would LOVE to talk more so if you care to, my email addy is available via my blog that Richard linked to above. And thank you for being such a vital piece of the convo here. :)

  34. Hi, Brent,

    This is a completely legitimate question. I agree with what Richard wrote, but just wanted to follow up with some additional thoughts. From my perspective, it wouldn't be true to the basic philosophy of empirical science to conclude that change "cannot" happen. Instead, the basic rules of the scientific method require that if someone is going to claim that change is possible, it is his or her responsibility to provide empirical evidence to support that claim. Furthermore, the evidence will only be compelling if it rules out other possible explanations.
    This is the reason why the American Psychological Association has taken a strong stance-- that there is no compelling evidence of change in sexual orientation. While it is clear that a person can change his or her behavior, the underlying attractions and self-identity have not been shown in a compelling way to be modifiable. Furthermore, there is some evidence (albeit retrospective) that suggests that the reparative therapy process can even lead to greater levels of psychological distress, without effectively bringing about the change that was expected.

    Like the field of medicine, the first general principle in the APA's code of ethics is to "do good and do no harm". In the absence of evidence that reparative therapy works, and in the presence of accounts of people who became more (not less) suicidal as a result of reparative therapy, I think that the APA was right to denounce this movement.


  35. Sorry I'm a few days late to this, but thanks so much for this post, Richard. Having gone to a far-left Theological school I can absolutely affirm the seeming ubiquity of this problematic thinking about sex/gender and social construction. Just last week I was in a discussion about this, mentioning how I don't like how little reference is made to biology within these forms of inquiry. The predictable response was that the discourse (in this case, Judith Butler) is centered around gender, not biology, as if there is no point of overlap between them at all. As far as I see it, when we're talking social worlds and human culpability, everything boils down to where people are trying to draw the lines between nature and nurture. While the debate is far from settled (and probably never will be - the wild card is always metaphysics), anybody who tries to put the onus completely on one side or other is almost certainly wrong. In this sense, I completely agree with the general direction of your argument, I enjoyed the comments above from Anon (Thanks, really. You're swell.).

    Further, your essay sounds much like a piece of Wes Wildman's argument in his book Science and Religious Anthropology. He presents a robust articulation through many modes of scientific inquiry to argue that our biology puts constraints but not determinations. If you've never heard of Wildman, I strongly recommend you check him out. It's technical stuff aimed mostly as specialists, but he is in my opinion one of the most exciting thinkers alive, bar none. Perhaps of most interest to you is that he really sees himself as a theologian, though right now he's getting a lot of funding to do the "science and religion" stuff, and he is aiming at the "big questions" of life, particularly ultimate reality (hence theology).

  36. I know I'm terribly late to the discussion, and I hope this hasn't already been covered...but I wonder about why we feel the need for such a dichotomy between the two positions? I think Anon spoke beautifully to this in her comments, but the actual lived and performed experience of any person, especially a person wanting to express themselves and their gender and/or sexual identity outside of the "norm," is likely some complex mixture of the two (social construction and biology). I'm thinking about race, for example. Scientists pretty much have reached a consensus that many of the racial differences research of the past was completely biased and is pretty much false. And social scientists (at least in my circles) talk about race as being socially constructed. Yet the visual data at least is clear that some traits are biologically determined, such as melanin levels in the skin. But these levels mean nothing in and of themselves; it is the meaning that we've historically ascribed to them and the social relationships that have sprung up because of these meanings that matter. So biology interacts with social construction in important ways. For sexuality, these ways are perhaps just more opaque because it's not something we can easily visually identify at birth, in a moment. And maybe, since we don't know whether sexual orientation is there from the beginning or not, or how much it is there - we can't really know, until language and sexual impulses develop - this is why some find it hard to believe in the biology.

    I guess in addition, as a postscript, I'm interested in untangling gender and sexual orientation. I think the two, while having similar issues and being able to be talked about in similar ways, are pretty distinct, as are the issues faced by the subjugated members within each category. For example, while I am, as a feminist and as a woman, sincerely attuned to the social issues women still face here and internationally, no one is in the business of trying to change my gender in the way that conversion therapists, as you mention above, are aiming to change sexual orientation for LGB people.

  37. Mr. Beck,

    my greetings. I'm far beyond being an instructed person as I notices in various comments I passed through quickly. I think the most honest thing I can do first is to say that I was raised in a christian home and I'm gay, therefore, every detail to this post is touching and relevant.

    Another anotation I want to make is that I'm a born spanish speaker, just 22 years old, and somehow, philosophy enthusiast (not neceseraly on gender but I recognize some of it's terms). And also, forgive my grammar if needed.

    I've taken the freedom to translate your post in spanish while I read through for there is people I'd like to share it. In that, I found something that left me a little bit numb: there is no word for 'cisgender' in spanish. And a second think that stroke was what's the need of it beyond to explain 'who's normal and who's not' to a majority. Just a thought.

    My comment is not just on that (a really ignorant debate that could be open by language. Don't you find terrible that we killed ourself and other because of words? Another thought). Yet, this remind me, as I went through the text and it's translation on the thought of Martin Heiddegger, anouncing that the cause of our fights in these days will be about words and significants (not a quote, is a general idea).

    I think christians (putting all all all all of them in the same bag on porpouse) are part of that, and very deep in this specific. Could it be that we ignore what in the world we are saying when we are saying 'this is it' and 'this is not')? Myself I ignore a lot about my sexuality, gender in a very strict sense in how it was layed here. And I proclaimed to myself a lot I'm a person who concerns to know herself. How about those who just...don't care to know?

    I'm still picking on that visions of gnosticism, dualism (wich is the first time I heard of it applied to this issue). Some other day, maybe.

    As you've seen so far, your text touch to many boxes in my psique. Here's another one: what if a person who is 'out' to their relatives and others is in a non-formal reparative therapy? As to, even though the person is not instituted in one of this sessions, yet, their surrounding becomes that? I think, Mr. Beck, hoping you excusing my boldness for I have no scientific degree on it, that reparative therapy happens also outside those places that claim that.

    Mr. Beck, another box open: I want to be optimistic, but even with all handful of scientific data rubbed at some people, in particular those in wich my institutional life depends (church, confessional college, some teachers, work, you name it), I'll have to be in silence to "make it through" and in a ocasional non-formal session of 'reparative therapy' to my parents, wich they love me to the core of their bones.

    Sciences and humans have never walked at the same pace. Not even humans and God, we always catch up late.

    Thank you for text. I learned too many new things today on the topic.

    Be ready to not be so welcomed always, maybe even, in what's left of length of your days. I rather be honest with you that to praise you with idealist scenarios. This is the way I find to show respect to your work.

    I send my warmth Argentina.

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