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?