Taste

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

When did you first understand that you liked a particular ice cream flavor? You probably had to taste several flavors and you thought that, perhaps, vanilla was your favorite. And after a while, you could have also probably changed your tastes and nowadays you like mint the most, or chocolate, coffee, watermelon, or who knows better than you? Tastes have a certain stability, but they can lose it with time and regain a new one. They don’t really depend on choice, but they definitely depend on experience and they are embedded in cultural practices. The more you experience, the more it is probable for your tastes to change.

Now, scope of this letter is to show that sexual orientation is fundamentally different from sexual tastes. I feel the need of writing this kind of letter because many people see no difference between the taste of ice cream and the fact that some girls like boys and others do not. Instead, there is a distinction, and this distinction matters if we want to better understand the implications of sexual orientation in our lives.

First of all, I think that sexual tastes do exist. Some of them are known as “fetishisms”, but also the simple attraction to a certain body-type is a taste. As tastes in general, also sexual tastes respond to the criteria I’ve already exposed: they are usually stable even if they can vary with experience; culture and experience are the basis upon which one can explore them and eventually change them. But sexual tastes and sexual orientation are not the same thing.

When a heterosexual man – call him Juan, favors casual sex over sex with the same person, he displays certain tastes and certain habits. It has surely happened to Juan that certain sexual partners were more enjoyable than others and he has sharpened his taste in women as sexual partners. At the same time, these tastes are constrained by his heterosexual orientation. He looked for women and not men to have sex with. Someone may object that he didn’t look for women: he chased only “good-looking women” and he would have found distasteful to have sex with bad-looking women as well as with men.

But there are good-looking men also! And I don’t think that a hedonist such as Juan would have denied that certain men can be extremely attractive, also depending on one’s tastes. He simply is heterosexual rather than bisexual, and his tastes are directed at a certain category of women he finds “good-looking”. To argue for the theoretical distinction between sexual orientation and sexual tastes doesn’t mean that the two things aren’t usually strictly related. We always display sexual tastes depending on our sexual orientation.

But then, what is sexual orientation supposed to be? Why doesn’t it respond to the same criteria of tastes? This is a very hard question that experts of human sexuality are still trying to answer. I am not an expert and my aim is not to define orientation, nor taste. I just want to argue philosophically for their distinction and I think that the best way to do so, is to say that orientation shapes our lives long before we develop sexual tastes. In fact, in the scientific literature on the topic, experts are used to refer to children as “pre-straight” or “pre-gay” depending on what sexual orientation they will develop later. But these terms do not only define children negatively – i.e. in terms of what they are not yet. Indeed, some pre-gay children manifest “deviant behaviors” when they have still long to wait before puberty. The “deviance” happens with respect to cultural heteronormative standards and not to supposed “biological standards”. The only issue with homosexuality is that too often, people don’t see that all mysteries related to it belong also to heterosexuality. That is to say that, if pre-gay children manifest their “pre-sexuality” so early, the same might very probably be the case for pre-straight children, with the difference that the social context they grow up into favors their adaptation unlike for non-straight people.

Experience and culture can’t do much to influence our sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and culture are both fundamental and irreducible features of our sexuality: they ground our sexual tastes and shape them. For the same reason, a catholic priest may avoid sex for his entire life and not develop sexual tastes, but he will always have a certain sexual orientation – surprisingly as it may sound. As a matter of fact, sexual taste is strictly related to sexual practice, whereas sexual orientation is independent of it.

You can’t say that Juan doesn’t know whether he is heterosexual or not because he has not yet tried homosexual intercourse. He knows he is heterosexual the same way most of us know. On the other hand, it is ok to invite Juan to a bdsm party, for he will never know how enjoyable bdsm is if he has never tried it! For the record, I never did. But now I like vanilla ice cream… who knows what I will like tomorrow?

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Pride

Dear princess ‘Ishka,

Yesterday I went to the disco with some friends of mine. We had our pre-drinking at Museumsquartier and had time to chill and relax before the crazy dancing. Being relaxed means to me also to let my “gayness” flow freely and abandon myself to somewhat theatrical manners.

M, a friend of mine, asked why I “try” to be gay. Well, that’s not much of a claim, since I am gay indeed and I don’t have to try. But obviously he meant why I “struggle” to appear gay. I found the question puzzling but interesting at the same time. Indeed, how can I be myself if my behavior is “theatrical”, which sounds dangerously related to “forcefully contrived” if not “fake”?

“I behave like that, because I am like this” was my first thought. But that answer is wrong, for one thing is to be “born this way”; another thing is to give a very strong impression of what one is.

We could make use of the insightful concept of “naturalistic fallacy” to understand better this dilemma: what is natural entails no “normative force”. To put it simply, if you ARE something, it doesn’t follow that you OUGHT to be (or do) anything as a consequence (especially in moral terms). If you hold this principle to be true (as I do), then you can see how inadequate my answer to M was: from my being gay it simply doesn’t follow that I ought to act as a gay person.

M spotted some sort of endeavor in me to appear gay. And I admit that sometimes I am not “gay simpliciter”, but I also feel like I ought to be gay. How to make sense of this in front of the naturalistic fallacy?

At a first glance, I could answer “because that makes me feel alright”. But what if I am self-deceived in believing I feel alright? Why isn’t the normative expression of “gayness” a mark of  insecurity and need of attention, rather than of independence?

We need to do better than that. M himself suggested that, perhaps, it helps to strengthen my personal identity. However appealing this answer may sound, we have not made much progress since the strength of my identity could always be an outcome of self-deception. Think for instance at an overweight person who starts believing that all people thinner than him are sick and therefore he accepts his physical appearance. He is self-deceived, but the outcome would still be an authentic reinforcement of personal identity.

These two answers show that normativity could be nothing more than a psychological trick and that I don’t really “ought to be gay”. Either I am self-deceived in believing that the endeavor in being gay makes me feel better or in believing that my identity depends on showing it off as lively, colorful and stereotypical as possible.

I am not convinced by such conclusions. Instead, I do believe that there is something truly normative entailed by “being gay”. But what is it?

Even if I am too ignorant with respect to the academic literature on the topic and I have not yet thought about it more than a couple of hours this morning as my hangover was slowly fading away, I suspect that we can derive from the natural struggle of existing as a gay person the normative force we need.

If your own existence is endangered by the social environment around you, you may develop resilience as a natural response. That is, you learn how to adapt to an hostile environment while staying true to yourself. However, you don’t “naturally” stay true to yourself. You ought to be yourself against social pressure. You ought to take pride in who you are, because otherwise you succumb.

If my intuition is correct, the very concept of “pride” becomes an essential part of yourself, the part enabling your survival and flourishing. And if this is so, the distinction between what is natural and what is normative in “being gay” becomes a strict connection. The naturalistic fallacy stays unchallenged for most of the cases. It simply doesn’t apply in the special case in which it is not possible to naturally be oneself without normatively being oneself.

It’s not possible for me to distinguish an underlying self from my acting under norms regulating who I take myself to be. The fact that I feel alright and that I am randomly cultivating my personal identity are not enough. In order to be authentic, I ought to be proud and that also means that I ought to behave in a way which conforms to my inclinations. Hence, “being gay” doesn’t mean “fake”, but rather “proud” and “auto-nomous”, in the literal sense of “self-regulating”.

This has been only a brief reflection on one of the many meanings of pride, even if not the easiest one. To thank you for your patience in reading it through, I wish you a joyful, extravagant and (why not) theatrical season of pride!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Gender

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Dualistic gender is a big issue. It poses constraints on our behaviour and on our everyday life, but mostly on the way we think. Dualistic gender means that if you are a man you have to act in the way appropriate to man, and if you are a woman you have to act accordingly to being a woman. This rigidity of roles is both internal, shaping our mental states, and external, determining obligations and permissions as well as prohibitions.

An article appeared last month on Time dealt with the process of redefinition of gender going on among young people in recent years. The “no-gender generation” tries to get rid of the dualism of gender by spreading a countless amount of new labels for those finding “man” and “woman” too tight fitting, if not completely inappropriate. From pansexual to polyamorous, from non-binary to gender-fluid, there seems to be a label for any identification.

What kind of social significance does this identification present? The answer can be tracked in the following distinction I make: there is a personal and intimate dimension of gender and a public and political dimension.

When you call yourself “gender-fluid” in the sense that you don’t recognize your behaviour as conforming to the dualistic labels, and you feel like swinging between various patterns of behaviour, you are trying to give a name to what you feel on the inside. And this attempt of defining yourself will always be an approximation, since the way we experience gender is particularly complicated and resist precise definitions and labels.

However, when you scream to the world that you exist and you deserve the same recognition as a member of society  the way all other members are recognised, then “gender fluid”, “lesbian”, “gay”, “transsexual”,… assume a completely new meaning. This new meaning is a political one, rather than a personal one. It is also very precise, insofar as it categorises you as “politically different”.

When you have suffered homophobia or transphobia or similar forms of discrimination, you are not “just like the others”. Of course, we are all the same on the inside, for there is almost a gender identity for each human being. But on the outside that changes. It changes as soon as you get confronted with the dualism of gender, which structures society.

If you can’t identify as a man or a woman, you are left alone, as a strange beast unable to cope with its “natural” habitat. And when you grow up and come to know that your identity needn’t conform to the dualism, you also need society to know. The habitat must structurally change to welcome you as an authentic member of society.

Bisexuals exist and asexuals exist too. And they are, along with all the other identities, political realities. The intimate dimension of gender remains so far a mystery,  and self-identification can help get through the trouble of alienation. But the category under which a person suffers the pain of systematic discrimination has no ambiguity.

A gender-revolution must be aware of the two battlefronts. One is intimate and based on empathy, compassion and altruism. The over is a categorical vindication of existence and equality.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

 

Body

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Some time ago, as I was having my usual 60°C shower after training, I got joined by a tall, muscular guy I had noticed swimming in the lane next to mine. We were alone and he was very good looking. I stood still for a while, staring at my bare feet as the pouring water set new standards of silence.

He had deep, lapis lazuli eyes. Arguably they were simply blue, but somehow the association with precious stones illustrates better my imagination at that time. I was almost done, a drop of hair conditioner and adieu. I knew his skin had the colour of the sand wetted by the sea at sunset.

‘I am a spider’ I thought. ‘A skeletal, feeble, pallid spider, with rickety legs, and sharp bones everywhere’. Before my body mechanically drove me out of the showers, I had the fortune to catch a glimpse of him. A Greek deity, indeed.

I take myself to be a pretty self-confident person, at times even to an excess. But it can happen that I doubt about my physical appearance. We all do.

On a daily base, we are under fire from advertisements like:

“How to get the six pack you’ve always dreamed of in just 12 quarters of half a decade”

“Lose weight following these 5 simple steps, backward, with acrobatic flips and overdose of these pills, which will cause you chronic diarrhoea”

“CLICK HERE to discover how John built up 15 pounds of muscles in a single week (see John’s embarassing before/after picture)” … and so on.

No wonder that the number of people going to the gym is greatly increasing. And even more people are quitting any physical activity due to exasperation. Especially the first are reducing themselves to an army of identical blown up dolls.

Isn’t this frustrating? Shouldn’t we be free to cultivate ourselves in our own unique way? To reach the essence of ourselves, whether including steel biceps or not? There are so many sports, so many activities! Impossible not to find one matching our preferences, body shape and capacities.

Not everyone will grow up a Riace Warrior. But even spiders have their perks. Poison, for instance.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha